Turkic Empire Research Paper

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The Turks created a vast empire in Eurasia that dominated the nomadic steppe zone and adjoining lands of sedentary civilization, from Manchuria to the Black Sea, during the mid-sixth to mid-eighth centuries. It was the first of the great, trans-Eurasian empires and was surpassed in size only by the Mongol Empire of the thirteenth century, which in many respects was built on Turk traditions of governance.

The name “Turk” was a political designation adopted by other Turkic-speaking peoples during the period of the Turk Empire from the mid-sixth to the mid-eighth centuries. The Turks’ neighbors (who were the geographers and historians of the Muslim world) used it to denote the Turkic-speaking peoples with whom they came into contact from the latter half of the seventh century onward. Most of these peoples had been part of the Turk state. The term “Turk” survives today as the ethnonym of the dominant ethnic grouping of the modern Turkish state and has been used as an ethnic designation for other Turkic peoples.


Turk origins remain obscure. Their language, first recorded in a series of inscriptions in the Orkhon river region, the center of their state in present-day Mongolia, belongs to the Altaic language family, which consists of Turkic, Mongolic, Manchu-Tungus, and possibly Korean and Japanese. There has been much debate over whether these language groupings are related genetically or have converged due to long periods of contact and borrowing. There can be little doubt that the Turks emerged from Mongolia and southern Siberia, the westernmost region of the Altaic peoples, who were largely in Manchuria. The Turks’ immediate neighbors to the west and northwest were Iranians (in western Mongolia) and the Uralic peoples of Siberia.

The Turks, under this name, emerged onto the stage of history only in the mid-sixth century. Various Turkic-speaking peoples had earlier been part of the Xiongnu (Asian Hun) Empire (c. 209 BCE–mid-second century CE), of still undetermined ethnic origins. Some Turkic groupings migrated or were pushed westward to the steppes of present-day Kazakhstan and the Volga– Black Sea region as a result of warfare between the Xiongnu and the Chinese. The migrants were incorporated into the polity of the European Huns, whose relationship with the Xiongnu remains the subject of much debate. These early migrations initiated a movement by Turkic peoples from the Chinese borderlands to the western steppes that continued for more than a millennium. Later empires in Mongolia, such as the Rouran (Asian Avars, early fourth century CE–552 CE), drove other Turkic groupings westward into the Black Sea steppes by around 463. None of these peoples called themselves Turks.

The Orkhon inscriptions tell us nothing of Turk origins. Contemporary Chinese accounts, which state that they derived from “mixed Xiongnu,” record a variety of ethnogonic tales reflecting, in all likelihood, the diverse origins of the core peoples that constituted the tribal union the Chinese called “Tujue.” The name Turk does not appear until the Chinese accounts relate the foundation of their state in the mid-sixth century. The Chinese sources also note their ruling clan (or tribe) as the Ashina and place some of the latter’s early (fifth-century) history in the Gansu-Xinjiang region of northwestern China, areas that were then populated by Tokharian and Iranian peoples. The name “Ashina” appears to derive from an Iranian or Tokharian term and is noted in an inscription written in Sogdian (the principal language of the Silk Roads) dating to 582, the earliest inscription known thus far from the Turk Empire. Here, the Ashinas are paired with the Turks, perhaps indicating that they were still two distinct entities at this time. The Orkhon inscriptions subsequently make note of the Kok Turk (in Turkic, kok means “sky, sky-blue”) which may refer to this earlier distinction. The color blue was associated with the direction east in Inner and East Asia. Hence, Kok Turk may also mean “Eastern Turks” or even “Heavenly Turks” (as it has sometimes been rendered). None of the names of the early Turk qaghans is of Turkic origin (qaghan is the Inner Asian title for “emperor” first noted in the third century CE).

Formation of the Turk Empire

The Turks came to prominence as the older states around them were crumbling. The Tuoba Wei dynasty (386–534 CE), a semi-Sinicized dynasty of Altaic origins that had controlled much of northern China, had divided into two warring rival states: the Eastern Wei (534–550), which was replaced by the Qi (550–557), and the Western Wei (535–557), which was replaced by the Northern Zhou (557–581). In Mongolia, the Rouran (or Avars) were increasingly caught up in internal dynastic strife and periodic revolts of vassal peoples. Among the latter were the Turk-Ashina, peoples who engaged in metalworking for their Rouran overlords. The Rouran qaghan Anagui (520–552) made an alliance with the Eastern Wei. The Western Wei retaliated in 545 by opening communications to Bumin, the Turk-Ashina leader. When Bumin was refused a Rouran royal bride as reward for his role in suppressing a revolt of the eastern Tiele (a large union of Turkic and Mongolic tribes that extended from northern Mongolia to the Pontic steppes in present- day Ukraine) in 551, the Western Wei sent off a princess to him, thereby cementing their ties. Bumin destroyed the Rouran in 552 and took over their empire. A program of conquest immediately followed.

While Bumin (who died shortly after this) and his sons Golo (d. 553) and Muqan (or Mughan; reigned 553–572) consolidated their control in Mongolia, his brother Ishtemi (reigned 552–c. 576) extended Turk power to the western steppes and the Crimea, laying the foundations of the western Turk Empire. Following old steppe principles of governance, the Turk Empire was divided in two for administrative purposes. The supreme qaghan resided in the East; his counterpart in the West had slightly less power. Their subjects now included the Sogdians who were the principal merchants of the Silk Roads, various other Iranian sedentary and nomadic peoples of Central Asia, and a number of Turkic tribes that had earlier migrated westward.

Allied with the Sasanid Empire of Iran, Ishtemi crushed the Hephthalite state (in modern Afghanistan), which derived from a mix of Asian Avar and Hunnic elements, around 557. At about this same time, a people calling themselves Avars, who had fled the Turk conquest, made their appearance in the Pontic steppes and opened diplomatic relations with Byzantium. The Turks under Ishtemi soon appeared, and the Avars, accompanied by some subject tribes, retreated to Pannonia (modern Hungary). Turk power now extended from Manchuria to the Crimea. The Avars remained safely ensconced in Pannonia until their state was destroyed by the Franks of Charlemagne at the end of the eighth century. They frequently raided Byzantine holdings in the Balkans, often in conjunction with the Slavs, substantial groupings of which began to settle in the region, giving rise to the Southern Slavic peoples of today.

The Turks, having conflicting trade and political goals with Iran, broke with the Sasanids and established relations with Constantinople in 568. Byzantium, having recently established its own silk industry and no longer as dependent on the Silk Roads and Iran for this luxury good, was nonetheless anxious to have allies against Iran. The Turks were seeking an outlet for the silk that they were getting from China. The resulting Byzantine-Turk alliance did not work smoothly, the Turks often berating Constantinople for having dealings with their “runaway slaves,” the Avars.

The First Qaghanate: East (552–630 CE) and West (557–659 CE)

The Turks were able to exploit the political fragmentation of northern China, whose competing dynasties were only too willing to buy the Turks off with silk and trading privileges. The zenith of Turk power was reached during the reign of Taspar (or Tatpar, reigned 572–581), Muqan’s younger brother. Thereafter, China, reunited under the Sui dynasty (581–618), regained the military upper hand. This coincided with increasing strife among the ruling Ashina. The Sui skillfully exploited these internecine disputes and encouraged revolts by subject peoples of the Turks. In the west, Tardu (d. c. 603), Ishtemi’s son, trying to exploit the rivalries of his eastern cousins, made a bid for supreme power. Although his army was badly defeated around Herat by the Sasanid general Bahram Chobin of Iran in 589, Tardu recovered and by the late 590s was on the verge of realizing his ambitions. The Sui, however, instigated a massive revolt of the subject tribes, in particular the Tiele union, and Tardu disappeared from view. When the Sui overextended themselves with military ventures against Koguryo (in Korea), the Turks briefly revived. The Sui were swept from power by the Tang dynasty (618– 907), themselves of probable Altaic origin and long familiar with the northern frontier zone. The Tang, like the Sui, capitalized on Ashina internal bickering and in 630 brought the eastern Turks, exhausted also by natural disasters, under their control. They were settled within China’s borders and the Ashina and clan nobles were taken into the ranks of the Chinese military service.

Tardu’s successors in the west fared better for a time. In the 620s the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (reigned 610–641) used Turk forces under the western quaghan, Tong Yabghu Qaghan (618–630), to defeat the Sasanids in 628. Tong Yabghu, however, was assassinated by an uncle, and the western Turks divided into two rival factions, the Dulu and Nushibi, together termed the On Oq (“Ten Arrows”). They succumbed in 659 to Tang armies that ventured deep into Central Asia. The more westerly groupings of the Turks formed the Khazar state (c. 650–c. 965), which encompassed the Volga-Ukrainian steppes, the North Caucasus, and elements of the Eastern Slavs and Finno-Ugric peoples. The Khazars were the main obstacle to Arab advance beyond the North Caucasus.

The Second Qaghanate: East (682–742 CE) and West (c. 700–c.766 CE)

Although the Tang preserved the eastern Turks, planning to use them as part of their border defense system against other nomads, the Turks proved to be recalcitrant subjects. The eastern Ashina Qutlugh (682–691), with a small band, rallied the Turks and reestablished the qaghanate in 682, taking the throne name Ilterish. He and his brother and successor, Qapaghan Qaghan (reigned 691–716), ably assisted by their chief counselor, the Chinese-educated Tonyuquq, reestablished their hold over the Inner Asian nomadic and forest peoples. In the words of the Orkhon inscriptions, they “made the poor rich and the few many” (Tekin 1988, 12). This was achieved through continual warfare, memorialized in the Orkhon inscriptions, against their frequently rebellious subject tribes, a policy that his successor, Bilge Qaghan (reigned 716–734), aided by his brother Kol Tegin (d. 731), was forced to continue due to ongoing resistance to Turk rule. Bilge Qaghan was poisoned, most probably by someone within his entourage. There-after, the familiar pattern of dynastic bickering led to the destruction of the eastern Turk Qaghanate in 742 by a coalition of subject tribes who were overthrown in turn by the Uygurs, another Turkicspeaking Central Asian people.

Meanwhile, the western Turks (under eastern Turk domination by 699) faced a growing threat from the Arabs. What had begun as Muslim raids in the late seventh century became a more systematic program of conquest under Qutaybah ibn Muslim (d. 714), a general in the service of the Arab Umayyad dynasty (661–750). Moreover, China and Tibet (now a major player in Central Asian affairs) were active in the region. Internecine Arab strife allowed the western Turks to maneuver between China, Tibet, and the Arabs. The On Oq union, however, continued to face problems of political instability. The Turkic Qarluqs, a vassal subconfederation of the eastern Ashina, fled to the western Turk lands around 745. When the Arabs and the Chinese clashed on the Talas River (751, in Kazakhstan), the Qarluq defection to the Arabs proved decisive. But China’s Tang dynasty soon was caught up with domestic rebellions (the An Lushan Rebellion in 755) and the Arabs, who were seeking to consolidate their hold over Sogdia and Khwarazm, withdrew from the steppe. By 766 the Qarluqs had made themselves masters of the western Turk steppes.

Governance, Religion, and Society in the Turkic Empire

The Turkic Empire followed the steppe imperial traditions first clearly articulated by the Xiongnu. The Rouran were probably the immediate source for many of the titles associated with high office. Most of these titles were of foreign origin (Iranian, Tokharian, Indian, Chinese). Typical of the steppe tradition, the Turks adhered to the notion of the collective sovereignty of the ruling clan over the whole of the empire. Any member of the Ashina could claim rule. An attempt to work out an orderly system of lateral succession (from brother to brother and thence to their sons) proved unworkable. Conflict often preceded, accompanied, and followed the elevation of a new qaghan. Qaghanal investiture involved elaborate rites, including the ritual strangulation with a silk cord of the new qaghan, who in a shaman-like trance, then stated the length of his reign. The qaghan was often described as heaven-like or God-like, indicating an ideology that stressed his sacral as well as temporal power. Upon his death, the qaghan “returned to the gods” (Moriyasu and Ochir 1999, 124). Nonetheless, the failure to work out an orderly and conflict-free system of succession proved fatal to the empire.

The Turks worshipped Tengri, a supreme celestial deity also worshipped by the Mongols, and they were also practitioners of shamanism. There are scattered references to Umay, a goddess of fertility, as well as to holy mountains, forests, and other refuges. Earth, water, and fire were also worshipped, and ancestor worship was practiced. Some of the early qaghans were also attracted to Buddhism. This and other religions came to the Turks through the Sogdians, who also brought them writing systems based on the Aramaic-Syriac alphabets. One or more of these alphabets were probably the source of the runic scripts that spread across Turkic Eurasia. The Orkhon inscriptions, carved by Chinese artisans, were written in one of the variants of this runic script.

The Turks brought under their rule a wide range of Turkic and other Altaic peoples, Iranians, and Uralic and Paleo-Siberian peoples. The steppe peoples practiced pastoral nomadism, and the Turks continued to live in felt tents and consume a diet that was high in dairy products (including fermented mare’s milk) and meat. For other goods they relied on trade or raiding the neighboring sedentary states, especially China. They were vitally interested in trade, and with their Sogdian vassals they played a major role in the unification of the Silk Roads, one of the major arteries of East–West commerce in the medieval world. Their empire also set the pattern for subsequent steppe empires.


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