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Volume 45, Number 2March/April 1994

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The Cradle of the Turks

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

For three days we had driven across the stark landscape of southwest Mongolia, where the Gobi Desert and the Altay Mountains intersect. Now our four-wheel-drive convoy was beginning its climb through the Alp-like Altay range that divides Asia’s eastern and western steppes. Suddenly, on the edge of a grassy plateau—their backs to the valley below, their faces to the mountains above—appeared five weathered stone statues.

Three were eroded beyond recognition by centuries of wind and rain, but the features of the other two were clearly visible: the almond-shaped eyes and curled moustaches of ancient Turks.

Although only five per cent of Mongolia's present population is turkic, the ancient Altay Turks once ruled not only not only Mongolia but the entire Eurasian steppe. Stone statues, such as these at Jargalant, were erected as memorials to Turkic noblemen all over Mongolia, in southern Siberia and Kazakstan. Most were cut to portray a man's head and trunk. They wear earrings, carry a sword or dagger in their belt, and clasp a chalice.

Despite the statues' static pose, the Turks they portrayed were fierce, martial nomads who won a series of decisive victories over their powerful neighbors in 552 and created an enormous steppe empire that lasted almost 200 years. Despite their relative obscurity today, the historical role of the Altey Turks was considerable. They gave their name to all the Turkic-speaking peoples of Eurasia, and forged a solidarity among them that persists to this day.

To most people, the term "Turk" denotes simply an inhabitant of Turkey. Few realize that as many as 60 percent of the world's 90 million Turks—defined as anyone who speaks a Turkic language as a native tongue-live outside the Republic of Turkey. In Central Asia, for example, where they recently re-emerged as independent nations from a century of repression, Turkic Azeris, Kazaks, Kirgiz, Turkomans and Uzbeks roughly equal the number of Turks in Turkey itself. There are sizable Turkic minorities too in Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Iran, Mongolia, Russia and Ukraine. In northwest China, Uighur Turks outnumber Han Chinese, and give the country's largest administrative unit its name.

Turkic peoples, in fact, are one of the most widespread ethnic groups in the world, inhabiting a vast region from the Great Wall of China in the east to the Balkans in the West, and from Siberia in the north to Afghanistan in the south. Although Ottoman Turkey, at the beginning of this century, was dubbed the "Sick Man of Europe", the Turks have for 1500 years lived up to their name, which, in Turkic, means "forceful" or "strong".

In the sixth century of our era, the Turks swept across Central Asia to found an empire extending as far west as the Black Sea. In the 11th century-under the banner of Islam—they conquered most of India and the Middle East (See Aramco World, November-December 1991). Advancing into Europe and Africa in the 15th century, they built one of the largest empires the world has known.

It was from Istanbul, once capital of this great Ottoman empire, that I set off to investigate one of the unresolved conundrums of Central Asia: the origin of the Turks. I had been getting closer geographically—if not factually—for more than a decade, following the Turks' lines of march and paths of migration across Central Asia, India and the Middle East, even visiting in 1984 their ancient cities in northwest China, close too the Mongolian border (See Aramco World, July-August 1985). Now, with the collapse of communism in the collapse of communism in the former Soviet satellite, it is possible to travel to Mongolia itself, homeland—according to Chinese records—of the ancient Turks.

The origin of the Turks, like that of nearly all Central Asian peoples, in shrouded in mystery and legend. The story preserved in Chinese annals—the only early written history of the steppe—is that they are the offspring of wolves.

The ancient Turks clearly subscribed to this legend, for five days' drive from Jargalant, over rough mountain tracks and steppe trails, we saw atop a large ninth-century Turkic stela at Tsetserleg a stone carving of a wolf suckling a boy. Throughout history, the wolf has remained an evocative symbol of renewal for the Turks. In the 13th century, when Süleyman Shah led the drought-stricken Osmanh Turks out of Central Asia to found an empire which ultimately included the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East, he carried a banner displaying a wolf's head. Seven centuries later, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who created modern Turkey from the ashes of World War I, was known as the legendary "Boz Kurt," or Gray Wolf.

Factual evidence of the origin of the Turks is, however limited, and opinions of contemporary researchers about their possible ancestry differ. Professor Necat Diyarbekirli, a specialist in early Turkic culture at Istanbul's Mimar Sinan University, states categorically that "the oldest Turkic people were those the Chinese knew as Hsiung-nu, whom Westerners call Huns." But Sev'yan Vainsthein, a Russian who has written over 200 works on the peoples of Central Asia, maintains that although "Chinese historians have posited that the origin of the Turks was connected with the late Huns, there is no real evidence... of [this]."

For me, however, tracing the origins of the Turks was more of a personal pilgrimage than an academic exercise: My wife of 25 years is a Turk, and I have spent much of my life in Turkey. And when I was invited to join a month-long journey across Mongolia sponsored by the United Nations Educational, scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), I readily accepted. For—although it meant many uncomfortable days in the back of a Jeep, many cold nights under canvas, and monotonous diet of mutton stew—the expedition's destination was the Mongolian steppe, traditional cradle of many nomad nations, including the Turks.

The Turks are first mentioned in Chinese annals of the third century BC, but it was not until the sixth century of our era that they became a force to be reckoned with. Their home, according to the Chinese, was in the Altay mountain range in western Mongolia, where at Jargalant, appropriately, we had first come face to face with stone statues of the ancient Turks. In these mountains, the Turks mined iron and served as black smiths to their overlords, a people called the Juan-juan.

The founder of Turkic power was a wily politician named Bumin, who bore the title of khagan, or ruler. How he became leader of the Altay Turks is not known. But having forged an alliance with the Western Wei dynasty of China, Bumin deliberately provoked the Juan-juan into a war by demanding one of their princesses in marriage. Aided by Chinese forces, the Turks routed the Juan-juan in 552 and then subjugated neighboring nomadic tribes to become uncontested master of the Mongolian steppe.

Mounted bowmen were the formidable and very mobile force of the Turkic armies. The middle of the first millennium saw the first widespread use of the rigid saddle with stirrups. Accurate shooting on the run became possible for the first time when a rider could stand in his stirrups, absorbing with his bent knees the jounce of this galloping steed. All later types of saddle can be traced to the ancient Turkic type, while archery—of which we witnessed several impressive displays in Mongolia—remains after riding and wrestling, one of the most popular sports of the steppe.

Bumin dies soon after his victory and his domains were split into two parts. The eastern part, which had the primacy if not the supremacy of the two halves, was ruled by his son Mu han (553-572) and the western part by Bumin's brother Ishtemi (553-573)—both aggressive expansionists. Mu-han conquered the Khitans in the east and seized the north Chinese kingdoms. In the West, Isthemi expanded his territory as far as the rivers Ili and Chu and brought Turkic rule to the frontiers of the Hephtalite empire of Central Asia.

In alliance with the Sassanids of Persia, the Turks attacked and destroyed the Hephtalities in 560, and partitioned their country, which stretched as far west as the River Volga. The addition of Hephtalite lands meant far more to the Turks than just the extension of territory and a corresponding increase in power: It also meant direct contact with Byzantium, and control of the lucrative silk trade between China and the West.

The Turks were the first steppe people to realize the importance of trade. They offered security to caravans and concluded treaties with the Sassanids and Byzantines, protecting commerce along the Silk Roads—the network of caravan trails which linked East and West across Central Asia (See Aramco World, July-August 1988).

Though the origins of the Turks themselves remains unresolved, the history of their earliest empire is well-documented, for the Turks left written records—a development without precedent in the history of the Central Asia. Although these records are not numerous, enough have survived to permit a more accurate examination of the harsh and turbulent life of the harsh turbulent life of the medieval steppe lands than in any preceding period.

Their script, known as "runic Turkic" because of its resemblance to the script of the Germanic tribes, came into use during the later years of the Turkic empire. The most significant texts to survive are early eighth-century inscriptions on stone stelae in family necropolises of the Altay Turks in the Orhon region of Central Mongolia.

It took two hard days' driving from Tsetserleg to reach this seat of Turkic imperial power. But it was well worthwhile. Although now standing alone on featureless grasslands, these stone slabs are primary sources for the origins of the Turks. Written in honor of the last of the great Turkic khagans, Bilge (pronounced to rhyme with "still day") and his brother and military commander Kul Tegin, they summarize the history of the Turkic empire from its foundation in 552 until shortly before its collapse some 200 years later.

The Orhon inscriptions, deciphered in 1892 by Danish professor Vilhelm Thomsen, also establish beyond doubt that the Turks had a fully developed consciousness of their own history:

Above the sons of men stood our ancestors, the khagans Bumin and Ishtemi.
Having become masters of the Turkic people they established and ruled its empire and fixed the law of country.
Many were their enemies in the four corners of the world, but, leading campaigns against them, they subjugated and pacified many nations.
These were wise khagans, these were valiant khagans; all their officers were wise and valiant, the nobles, all of them, the entire people, were just.
This was the reason why they were able to rule an empire so great, why, governing the empire, they could uphold the law.

Apart from indigenous material, there is also an abundance of Chinese material on the Turks and very rich documentation in Greek. Zemarkhos, the first Byzantine ambassador to the western Turkic court, described in detail the state kept by Ishtemi who received him sitting on a golden throne, equipped with wheels, that could be drawn by horses, and who had a golden bed and whole cartloads of silver dishes.

During the reign of Khagan T'ung Shih-hu (618-630) too, the fortunes of the Western Turks stood high. The eyewitness account of the Buddhist pilgrim Hsüan-tsang describes the khagan as dressed in a green satin robe, surrounded by 200 officers all clad in costly brocade. But Chinese sources reveal that, "trusting his power and prosperity, he was not good to his people, and the tribes hated him." Indeed, he was murdered shortly after Hsüan-tsang's visit.

Meanwhile the Eastern Turkic khaganate, weakened by a long period of decadence and internecine wars, came under the dominance of the Chinese Sui Dynasty and from 630 to 682 lost its independence.

Writing more than a century after the evens, the unknown author of the Orhon inscriptions gave a moving and perceptive account of the times of decadence and servitude:

Weeping and lamenting came from where the sun rises; the strong people of the desert came, lamenting and weeping, for these had really been valiant khagans.

After that their younger brothers became khagans, their sons became khagans. But the younger brothers were unlike their elder brothers, the sons were unlike their fathers. Unwise khagans, weak khagans ascended the throne, and their officers were also unwise and weak.

And because of the iniquity of the nobility and of the people, because of Chinese guile, because the elder brothers and the younger brothers were plotting against each other, because of the quarrel of those who favored the nobles and those who favored the people, the Turkic people brought about the dissolution of the empire that had been its empire, and ruined the khagan who had been its khagan.

The sons of the nobles became the slaves of the Chinese people, their pure daughters became its servants. The noble Turks abandoned their Turkic titles and, assuming Chinese titles, they submitted to the Chinese khagan.

But the small people, in its entirety, thus said, "We were a people that had its own empire. Where is now our empire? We were a people that had its own khagan. Where is now our khagan?

And thus speaking they became the enemy of the Chinese.

No longer menaced by the Eastern Turks, the Tang emperor T'ai-tsung (627-649) and his successor Kao-tsung(650-683) now moved in strength against the Western Turks, who were greatly weakened by internal strife, following the death of T'ing Shih-hu. By 659 the Western Turkic khaganate too had ceased to exist, and Chinese forces occupied what used to be Turkic territory as far west as Bukhara and Samarkand.

The Turks, however, did not acquiesce to the inevitability of Chinese rule. The death of Kao-tsung weakened the Chinese grip on Mongolia, and under the leadership of Elterish the Turks revolted in 683. Four years and many battles later, they were free of Chinese domination and the Eastern Turkic khaganate was restored.

The tasks facing Elterish were complex. He was confronted not only with Chinese forces attempting to maintain control, but also with Turkic tribes, such the Tolos and the Turgash, who were hostile to him. Furthermore, the restored Turkic empire was challenged by a new force: the Arabs, advancing into Central Asia under the banner of Islam. Nevertheless, by the time of Elterish's death in 691, Turkic rule was solidly reestablished on the eastern steppe.

In the Orhon inscriptions, Elterish's son speaks glowingly of his father's great deeds:

My father the khagan set out with 27 men, and as the word spread that he was advancing, those who were in the towns and those who were in the mountains gathered, and there were 77 men.

...The army of my father resembled wolves and his enemies resembled sheep. Leading campaigns to the east as to the west, he gathered the people and made them rise. And all together they numbered 700.

He led 47 campaigns of their empire battles. And ... he deprived of their empire those who had an empire, he deprived of their khagan those who had a khagan: He pacified his enemies and made them bend their knees and bow their heads.

Elterish was followed by his brother Qapaghan (692-716), who gained even greater glory: Around 710 he was able to force the Western Turks—as well as his own Eastern Turks—to recognize him as khagan. Thus the original Turkic empire was restored. Qapaghan, however, made numerous enemies in the process, and in 716 he was lured into a trap by a minor Turkic group and decapitated. His sudden and brutal death created a serious succession crisis that nearly wrecked the renascent Turkic empire. It was saved by the sons of Elterish, in particular by Kul Tegin, who staged a coup and appointed his elder brother Bilge as the new khagan.

Bilge's reign (716-734) was, according to the Orhon inscriptions, beset by economic problems:

I (Bilge) did not reign over a people that was rich; I reigned over a people weak and frightened, a people that had no food in their bellies and no clothes on their backs.

To preserve the reputation achieved by our father, for the sake of the Turkic people, I spent the nights without sleep and the days without rest.

When I became khagan, the people who had dispersed in different countries returned, at the point of death, on foot and naked.

To re-establish the nation I led 22 campaigns. And because of good fortune and propitious circumstance, I brought back to life the dying people the naked people I clothed and the few I made numerous.

Thus, in simple but poetic language, do the inscriptions at Orhon give a telling insight into the internal stresses and external threats plaguing the Turkic empire, and the eternal economic problems that beset its population.

After Kul Tegin died in 731, his brother erected a memorial complex in the Orhon Valley, in the present-day province of Arhangay. When Bilge died three years later, a similar complex was erected 500 meters (1640 feet) south. Little is left of Bilge's complex save a large inscribed stela. The Kul Tegin complex, however, contains, in addition to a stela, the remains of a sacrificial altar. The stela stands on a plinth in the form of a tortoise and is covered on three sides by runic inscriptions, and on fourth by Chinese.

The complex measures 67 by 28 meters (220 by 92 feet); its entrance is flanked by two headless stone statues of roe deer. A ceremonial path, once lined by life-sized statues of Turkic noblemen, leads to the remains of a small tomb temple. Excavations have revealed the foundations of meter-thick walls which once surrounded the complex, and a 13-meter-square (43-foot-square) elevated earthen platform, believed to be a sacrificial altar. Blue floor tiles, red wall bricks and roof tiles carved with floral designs and with human and animal figures were also found during the excavation, as were pottery, iron artifacts and more stone sculptures.

Bilge Khagan's control of the western region appears to have been more nominal than real. Dissension among the Turks had not ceased, and latent resentment against the khagan, and opposition to his hostility toward China, precipitated a final crisis.

Three years after Kul Tegin's death, Bilge Khagan was poisoned by one of his won officials. Although the poison eventually killed him, Bilge survived long enough to execute the official and his entire family and to appoint his own son as his successor. In reality, however, his death marked the end of the Turkic empire.

Three Turkic tribes—the Basmil, the Karluk and the Uighu—now vied with one another and with the Altay Turks for supremacy of the steppe. In 745 the Uighurs emerged victorious from the power struggle, overthrew the existing leadership and established a state of their own.

At its zenith, the Uighur khaganate stretched from the Altay Mountains to Lake Baykal, and was governed from the city of karabaghaun in the Orhon Valley. Tamim ibn Bahr, a Muslim traveler who visited the city around 821, speaks in admiring terms of this fortified town in cultivated country. Today, although the surrounding land has reverted to pasture, the ruins of the massive mud walls of Karabalghaun still dominate the landscape—a lasting tribute to the first walled city of Mongolia.

The Uighur Turks left their mark too at Harhorin, formerly known as Karakorum, the 13-centrury capital of the Mongol Empire, 400 kilometers (almost 250 miles) southwest of Ulaanbaatar, capital of modern Mongolia. Here, on a hillock overlooking the immense walled compound of the Erdene Zuu Buddhist monastery, we were shown a large stone tortoise, which archeologists said was left by Uighurs. Although the tortoise symbolizes long life, the Uighur's Mongolian state lasted less than 100 years. In 840, another Turkic people, the Kirgiz, put an abrupt end to Uighur rule in Mongolia, and fleeing Uighurs settled in what is now northwest China, where they still live today (See Aramco World, July-August 1985).

The Uighur rising marked the end of unity among the Turkic tribes of Central Asia. From that point on, the larger tribal coalitions either created kingdoms of their own in Central Asia or migrated to the Russian steppe and the Middle East.

The collapse of the Turkic empire marked the beginning of a long period of instability on the steppe that did not end until the rise of the Mongol Empire in the 12th century. The principal Turkic states created in Central Asia during this period were those of the Qarakhanids, the Khwarizm-Shahs and the Seljuqs. All abandoned the nomadic life and adopted Islam.

Even today, the Turks' most important cultural link, along with history and language, is Islam. With the exception of the Yakut of eastern Siberia and the Chuvash of the Volga region of the Russia, the Turks are all Muslim.

Not only did the Turks of Central Asia embrace Islam they became its new cutting edge. By the end of the first millennium, the military manpower and fighting skills of the steppe nomads played much the same role as those of the desert Bedouin during Islam's first extraordinary period of expansion throughout the Middle East.

Turkic raids into India, beginning in the year 1000, led within two centuries to the establishment of Muslim control over the northern plains. Expansion continued off and on until, by the end of the 17th century, the whole of India was ruled by Muslims.

Meanwhile, on the western flank of Islam, the Seljuq Turks scored a landmark victory over the Byzantines at Malazgirt in 1071, confirming their occupation of the grasslands of Anatolia. Thus, modern Turkey became Turkish for the first time.

Which brings us geographically full-circle, and to the conclusion that the similarities that exist among the various Turkic peoples today go back to the Altay Turks-whose weathered stone statues still stand vigil over the land of their origin in the Mongolian mountains and steppes.

John Lawton is a contributing editor to Aramco World.

Life Among the Ancient Turks
Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Nik Wheeler

The Turks' physical appearance combined Caucasoid and Mongoloid traits. Both men and women braided their hair. Chinese sources and archeological finds indicate they wore long garments made from skins of wild and domestic animals, including sheepskin, from felt and coarse wool cloth, and from silk they obtained from China.

Warriors wore mail armor and helmets, and some khagans even had gold mail. The aristocracy wore belts with lavishly ornamented gold plaques; common warriors' belts were decorated with more modes bronze plaques.

The Turks were skilled at many crafts, particularly Metalworking. Magnificent artifacts made from iron—swords and sabers, lance tips and arrowhead, piece of harness—have been preserved in Turkic graves. The Turks manufactured decorated metal dishes, including some from silver, and various leather utensils; they were adept at woodwork and made saddles, frames for yurts, carts and other artifacts out of wood. Felt-making and weaving were also practices. The collapsible felt yurt, widespread in the ancient Turkic environment and possibly even invented there, was the usual dwelling; many nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes adopted it.

Turkic society was not purely nomadic, and included farmers, miners and blacksmith. Greek and Chinese travel accounts stress the importance of the metal industry among the Turks, and the abundance of iron among them. The first Turks encountered by Byzantine envoy Zemarkhos in 568 offered him iron for sale, and the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hsuan-tsang noted that among the Turks he had an iron bed instead of the usual wooden one. The "Iron Gates" that marked the frontiers of the Turkic empire were not one of the many Central Asian mountain passes bearing that name, but-according to some travelers-were real structures decorated with iron bells.

There is evidence the Turks also practiced agriculture, with millet as their chief crop; archeologists have found millet seeds and stone grinders in Turkic graves. Nomadic animal herding was, however, the basis of the Turkic economy. A Chinese annalist notes: "The fate of the Turk depends utterly and completely on sheep and horses."Hunting, in particular the technique of the drive, also played an important role in the Turkic economy. Their main prey were mountain goats and roe deer.

The Altays Turks began to establish an urban base, the first in steppe history, and functioned around these settlements. There are even indications in the Orhon inscriptions that Bilge Khagan's plans for his people included the gradual abandonment of nomadism and construction of a walled city.

What little is known about the pre-Islamic religious beliefs of the ancient Turks comes from early Turkic inscriptions and Chinese annals. One of the inscriptions at Orhon touches on a Turkic creation myth:

When the sky above was blue and the earth below was dark, the son of man appeared between them.

Other inscriptions indicate a concept of three worlds: upper, middle and lower. The highest deity of the Upper World was Tengri, who governed the fate of all living things. The fertility goddess, Umai, and deities of earth and water, inhabited the Middle World, while the deity of hell, Erlik-khan, ruled the Lower World.

The Turks honored the spirits of their ancestors, and the bond between man and horse was reflected in the Turkic burial cult: Among many of the ancient Turkic tribes, a man could be buried together with his fully harnessed steed.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the March/April 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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