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The Turk khaganate: ethnopolitical history, sources and culture

The Göktürks rise to power began in 546 when Bumin Qaghan made a preemptive strike against the Uighur and Tiele tribes who were planning a revolt against their overlords, the Rouran (Mongolia name Jujan). For this service he expected to be rewarded with a Rouran princess, i.e. marry into the royal family. However Rouran kaghan sent an emissary to Bumin to rebuke him, saying, "You are my blacksmith slave. How dare you utter these words?".

As "blacksmith slave" comment was recorded in Chinese chronicles, some claim that the Türks were blacksmith servants for the Rouran elite, and that "blacksmith slavery" may indicate a kind of vassalage system prevailed in Rouran society. According to, Denis Sinor ( prof. Indiana univ.) this reference indicates that the Türks were specialized in metallurgy, though it is unclear if they were miners or, indeed, blacksmiths.

Disappointed in his hopes, Bumin allied with the Wei state against Rouran, their common enemy. In 552 (February 11 - March 10, 552), Bumin defeated the Rouran Khan Anagui in north of Huaihuang (north China).

Having excelled both in battle and diplomacy Bumin declared himself Illig Qaghan of the new khaganate at Turk but died a year later.

The Turks' temporary Qaghan from the Ashina clan were subordinate to a sovereign authority that was left in the hands of a council of tribal chiefs.

Peter B. Golden points out that there is the possibility that the leaders of the Turk Empire, the Ashina, were themselves originally an Indo-European-speaking clan who later adopted Turkic, but inherited their original Indo-European titles. German Turkologist W.-E. Scharlipp writes that early Turkic titles are "in fact borrowings from Iranian”, including "almost all of their titles”

From 552 to 745, Göktürk leadership bound the nomadic Turkic tribes together into an empire, which eventually collapsed due to a series of dynastic conflicts.

The state's most famous personalities other than its founder Bumin were princes Kül Tigin and Bilge and the general Tonyukuk, whose life stories were recorded in the Orkhon inscriptions discovered in 1889 in the Orkhon Valley in Mongolia.

This first Türk Empire split in two after the death of the fourth Qaghan, Taspar Khan, the third son of Bumin Khan. Unlike his father and older brothers he embraced Chinese culture, and was converted to Buddhism. Taspar's death created a dynastic crisis in the Khaganate. This crisis ultimately resulted in the civil war of 581-603, which marked the beginning of a long decline and subjugation of the Göktürks by China. The most serious contender was the Western Khan, Istämi's son Tardu, a violent and ambitious man who had already declared himself independent from the Qaghan after his father's death. He titled himself Qaghan, led an army to the east to claim the seat of imperial power, Otukan, and almost succeeded in reuniting the Turk Empire.



The Türks used their empire and their friendly alliance with China to get control of the Silk Road and the trade between the Sassanians and Wei China, which made them rich.

Under their leadership, the Türks rapidly expanded to rule huge territories in north-western China, North Asia and Eastern Europe (as far west as the Crimea). They were the first Turkic tribe known to use the name "Turk" as a political name. At their height, the Turks controlled a vast area stretching from Eastern Europe all the way across northern China. Their empire made contact with many cultures including Persia, and facilitated the movement of cultural concepts from one area to another.


Date: 2015-01-29; view: 1076


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