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Turkic migration

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Turkic migration

Map from Mahmud al-Kashgari's Divanu Lughat at-Turk, showing the 11th century distribution of Turkic tribes.
The Pontic steppe, c. 650, showing the early territories of the Khazars, Bulgars, and Avars.
Europe, showing the area of main Pecheneg settlement, c.1015.
The Great Seljuq Empire in 1092, upon the death of Malik Shah I
Cumania in Eurasia circa 1200.

The Turkic migration as defined in this article was the expansion of the Turkic peoples across most of Central Asia into Europe and the Middle East between the 6th and 11th centuries AD (the Early Middle Ages). Their prehistoric point of origin was the hypothetical proto-Turkic region that includes North China and Inner Mongolia.

Certainly identified Turkic tribes were known by the 6th century and by the 10th century most of Central Asia was settled by Turkic tribes. The Seljuq dynasty invaded Anatolia starting in the 11th century, ultimately resulting in permanent Turkic settlement there. Meanwhile, other Turkic tribes either ultimately formed independent nations, such as Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan or formed enclaves within other nations, such as Chuvashia. Turkic peoples also survived in their original range, such as the Uyghurs in China and the Sakha Republic of Siberia, as well as in other scattered places of the Far East and Central Asia.

Ancestral populations

The earliest documented Turkic peoples appear as nomadic tribes on the plains of the Far East north of the Great Wall of China, which was constructed as a fortified border essentially between Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) China (though started earlier) and the Xiongnu.

Records of the Grand Historian

The population ancestral to the Turks is thought to have included the Xiongnu of Mongolia or along the upper Yenisei in Siberia (the area of the contemporary Tuvan language), known from historical sources. The Han chronicle of the Xiongnu, included in the Records of the Grand Historian of the second century BCE, traces a legendary history of them back a thousand years before the Han to a legendary ancestor, Chunwei, a supposed descendant of the Chinese rulers of the Xia dynasty[1] (c. 2070 – c. 1600 BCE). Chunwei lived among the "Mountain Barbarians" Xianyun or Hunzhu. Xianyun and Hunzhu's names may connect them to the Turkic people, who later were said to have been iron-workers and to have kept a national shrine in a mountain cave in Mongolia.

Apparently the Xiong-nu comprised a number of tribes and geographic groups, not all of which were probably Turkic (considering the later mixed ethnicity). The Records of the Grand Historian mention the Mianshu, Hunrong and Diyuan west of Long; the Yiqu, Dali, Wiezhi and Quyan north of the Qi and Liang mountains and Jing and Qi Rivers; the Forest Barbarians and Loufan north of Jin and the Eastern Barbarians and Mountain Barbarians north of Yan. Later the treatise mentions others.

There were apparently many of the latter. At the end of the Xia, about 1569 BCE by the reckoning of the Records of the Grand Historian, the Chinese founded a city, Bin, among the Rong tribe of barbarians. In 1269 the Rong and the Di forced the relocation of Bin. About 1169 BCE the Quanyishi tribe was attacked by the Zhou Dynasty, which in 1159 forced all the barbarians into "the submissive wastes" north of the Jing and Luo Rivers. In 969 BCE "King Mu attacked the Quanrong and brought back with him four white wolves and four white deer ...." The early Turkic peoples believed that shamans could shape-shift into wolves.

In 769 Marquis Shen of the Zhou enlisted the assistance of the Quanrong in rebelling against the emperor You. The barbarians did not then withdraw but took Jiaohuo between the Jing and Wei Rivers and from there went marauding into central China, but were driven out. In 704 the Mountain Barbarians marauded through Yan, and in 660 BC attacked the Zhou emperor Xiang in Luo. He had discarded a barbarian queen. The barbarians put another on the throne. They went on plundering until driven out in 656 BC.

Subsequently the Chinese drove out the Di and subordinated all the Xiong-nu (temporarily at least). Around 456 BC the Chinese took Dai from them. The Yiqu tribe tried building fortifications but lost them to the Chinese in this period of their expansion. Here the detail of the narrative increases as it deals with the rise of the Qin Dynasty of 221-206 BCE, which is no doubt mainly historical rather than legendary. The Qin kept the Xiong-nu at bay.

Equestrian pastorals of the northeast

The physical characteristics of populations of speakers of Turkic language stretch across a range as wide as the land they inhabit. The Turkic peoples in Europe look European - with the exception of some Crimean Tatars and Turkics in the Caucasus (Kumyks, Nogays, etc.) who look European+Northeast Asian, while Turkics in the Middle East resemble the peoples of the Middle East, those in Central Asia mostly look mixed but have mostly northeast Asian features. Turkics in northeast Asia resemble populations in that region. In trying to answer such questions as what "race" were the Proto-Turkic speakers, neither anthropometric nor genetic studies have been of much assistance to date. What few DNA analyses have been done arrive at the problem as an answer: affinity to primarily western populations in the west, eastern in the east, and a mixture on a gradient from east to west or vice versa in between.[2] These biological circumstances suggest that racial evolution over the region is earlier than can be considered in the time of the distribution of languages; i.e., the languages may have evolved among populations that were already mixed.

Grassland in Inner Mongolia

Concerning the cultural genesis of the Huns, the Cambridge Ancient History of China asserts: "Beginning in about the eighth century BC, throughout inner Asia horse-riding pastoral communities appeared, giving origin to warrior societies." These were part of a larger belt of "equestrian pastoral peoples" stretching from the Black Sea to Mongolia, and known to the Greeks as the Scythians.[3] The Scythians in the west were Iranian, speaking one among very many languages ultimately descended from Proto-Indo-European, whose speakers themselves are also hypothesised to have occupied the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, according to the leading theory of Indo-European origins, the Kurgan model. The communities of the northern belt north of China were the Proto-Xiongnu. Their mode of life was indistinguishable from that of the other Scyths: nomadic wandering on horseback, temporary camps in portable yurts furnished with rugs and tapestries richly decorated with the ornate animal style. The period is dated 650–350 BCE and runs contemporaneously from the middle of the Spring and Autumn Period through the Warring States period of Chinese history.

The Warring States Period represents the start of the Iron Age in China,[4] some centuries after it began in the west. A previous transitional period, 1000–650 BCE, was entirely within the Bronze Age, contemporaneously with the western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE) and early Spring and Autumn China (ca 771 to 476 BCE). China was expanding then but the Chinese of the northern frontier must have been encountering "aristocratic warrior elites" who were not equestrian nomads but were "increasingly more specialized pastoralists". Their metallurgy was the best of the region and was comparable to that in the west. The Bronze Age did not begin in this region until about 1500 BCE, again trailing the west by several centuries, which suggests that Xiong-nu society was being transformed from an earlier non-equestrian pastoral phase by an impulse from the Scythians, who were reaching maximum eastward expansion along the Silk Route.

From about 1500 BC to 1000 BCE, contemporaneously with the Shang Dynasty, a mix of pastoralism and agriculture prevailed in Central Asia, south Siberia and the northern zone on the north of China. The population were shepherds and farmers who supplemented their diet by hunting. They were beginning to use bronze weapons. The Bronze Age began about 1500 BC. Before then the northern region was sedentary, agricultural and divided into a number of Neolithic cultures deriving from the Ordos culture, which stretched back into the Palaeolithic. Racial developments are perhaps to be considered in the Ordos and language developments no later than the sedentary Neolithic. By 1500 BC both Turkic and Mongolian languages in some form of diversity or lack of it must have been in place.

An archaeological culture that can be specifically labeled Xiong-nu is found over the northern range in the 650–350 period. Typical of it is the complex of élite burial structures 45 km west of Noyon Uul in Mongolia. This high-altitude cemetery of wealthy Xiong-nu leaders contained 212 burials at 8 locations in 3 valleys connected by passes. Very likely the Xiong-nu frequented the place only to lay their chieftains to rest.

A single tomb is a burial chamber within a mound accessed by a ramp down. Over the chamber are layers of stone, soil and logs or planks. The chamber is constructed of Larix sibericus. The deceased was interred with a rich endowment of grave goods: felt or woven carpets, silk, jade, semiprecious stones from Central Asia, fine Chinese lacquered ware and gold jewelry. The weaves are those of Bactria and animal remains include those of the Bactrian camel.

Other complexes like this are scattered over the entire range from the Altai to northern China. The culture represents perhaps the empire of the Huns on the verge of westward expansion. It contradicts the myth of a few obscure tribes about to be uprooted by Chinese expansion. Here in fact is the first Turkic empire.


The Han Dynasty and the Xiongnu

Qin's campaign against the Xiongnu of 215 BCE kept the Xiongnu at bay,[5] driving them out of and seizing the Ordos region.[6] Problems re-emerged after the Qin Dynasty. The Xiong-nu attacked Shanxi of the Han in 201 BCE. Emperor Gaozu of Han bought them off with jade, silk and a Chinese wife for the Shanyu, or leader.[7] Relations with the Xiongnu continued to be troubled and in 133 BC Emperor Wu of Han proceeded against them with 300,000 men.[8] Eighty-one years and fourteen expeditions later in 52 BC the southern Xiongnu surrendered and the northern desisted from raiding. The Han Dynasty military expeditions continued near the frontier of China, in the Han–Xiongnu War, and in 89 AD the Xiongnu state was defeated and soon ended.[9][10]

One especially severe round of nomadic rebellion in the early 4th century has led to the certain identification of the Xiongnu with the Huns. A letter (Letter II) written in the ancient Sogdian language excavated from a Han Dynasty watchtower in 1911 identified the perpetrators of these events as the xwn, "Huns", supporting de Guignes' 1758 identification. The equivalence was not without its critics, notably Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen, who argued that xwn was a general name and could refer to anyone. More recently other evidence was noticed: Zhu Fahu, a monk, translated Sanskrit Hūṇa in the Tathāgataguhya Sūtra and in the Lalitavistara Sūtra as "Xiongnu". Vaissière reconstructs the pronunciation as *Xiwong nuo. Moreover the Book of Wei states that the king of the Xiongnu killed the king of Sogdia and took the country, an event is datable to the time of the Huns, who did exactly that; in short, "... the name of the Huns is a precise referent and not generic."[11]


The Hunnic Empire of about AD 450 as seen by European authors. The east is somewhat of a mystery. Originally the Huns extended all the way close to China and it is possible that Attila's domain reached that far. More likely ethnic elements of the east were already recombining into a Tujue, or Turkic, state. The star marks where the nomadic Huns chose to encamp, the Hungarian plain, a sort of enclave of steppe country in a mountainous region.

Myths of the Huns

This evidence invalidates certain academic myths concerning the Huns who for a time ruled vast areas of Europe and were stopped from moving further west by the Battle of Châlons. Orosius has the Huns riding down upon the Ostrogoths in the year AD 377 totally by surprise, "long shut off by inaccessible mountains"[12] and apparently of hitherto unsuspected existence. Whatever may have been his reasons for making such a statement, he and Goths might have found ample reference to the Huns in the classical geographers, such as Pliny and Ptolemy; in fact, some were already in Europe.[13] The mountains were mythical as the Ostrogoths were located on the Pontic steppe, an easy target for Hunnic cavalry.

The previous two errors together invite a third aetiology: if the Huns had disappeared they must have been en route from China to Europe and therefore require a reason for migration. They were perhaps driven from their homeland by the Chinese; most likely the Han Dynasty after they had defeated and ended the Xiongnu state in the Han–Xiongnu War. That dynasty, however, was militarily unable to attack the Xiong-nu at the time the Huns would have departed. The Xiong-nu were never uprooted from Mongolia and the north of China; if they had been, they could not have recombined as the five Hu or the Rouran. However, this conjecture fails to take into account the possibility of a branch of the Xiong-nu being displaced and traveling west to become the Huns of Europe.

Identity of the Huns

While in Europe they incorporated others who fought for them at the Battle of Châlons, such as Goths, Slavs, and Alans.

The Huns were not literate (according to Procopius[14]) and left nothing linguistic with which to identify them except their names,[14] which derive from Germanic, Iranian, Turkic, unknown and a mixture.[15] Some, such as Ultinčur and Alpilčur, are like Turkish names ending in -čor, Pecheneg names in -tzour and Kirghiz names in -čoro. Names ending in -gur, such as Utigur and Onogur, and -gir, such as Ultingir, are like Turkish names of the same endings.

The Huns called themselves the Acatir (Greek Akatiroi, Latin Acatiri), which Wilhelm Tomaschek derived from Agac-ari, "forest men",[16] reminiscent of the "Forest Barbarians" of the Shi-Ji. The Agaj-eri are mentioned in an AD 1245 Turko-Arabian Dictionary. The name Agac-eri occurred in later history in Anatolia and Khuzistan(e.g. city of Aghajari). Maenchen-Helfen rejects this etymology on the grounds that g is not k and there appears to be no linguistic rule to make the connection.[17] Herodotus, however, mentions the Agathyrsi, whom Latham connects with some early Acatiri in Dacia.[18]

Jordanes places the "most mighty race of the Acatziri, ignorant of agriculture, which lives upon its herds and upon hunting" south of the Aesti (in part Prussians). A number of sources identify the Bulgars with the Huns.[19] Another branch were the Saviri, or Sabir people. The strongest candidate for a remnant of the speakers of the Hunnic language are the Chuvash, who are on or near the location of the Volga Bulgars.


The end of the Huns as a Eurasian political unity is not known. A token end point for the Huns of the west, perhaps all the Huns, is the fixation of the head of Dengizich, a son of Attila, on a pole at Constantinople in 469. He had been defeated in Thrace in that year by Anagastes, a Gothic general in the service of the Roman Empire.[20]

Various peoples continued to call themselves Huns even though acting autonomously, such as the Sabir people. According to the Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, the last state to call itself Hunnic was the Caucasian Kingdom of the Huns, visited in 682 by an Albanian bishop.[21] Many of these peoples were Turkic but meanwhile other coalitions leading to explicitly named Turkic empires had been forming on the original range of the Xiong-nu. Their expansion has been conventionally called the "Turkic migration" but in fact the Turkics had already been "migrating" for some centuries.

Five Hu

The early-fourth-century rebellion, while sacking of northern Chinese cities, by the Xiong-nu was mentioned above in connection with the Huns. This was primarily caused by the Chinese enslaving and moving millions of Turkic people into China. However, most of the Xiongnu were later wiped out by the Chinese Ran Wei state (350–352) after Ran Min's cull order following the end of the Wei–Jie war, which annihilated three of the "Five Hu" tribes. In that century some of the Xiong-nu broke away and joined with the Di as the Five Hu, or "Five Barbarian Peoples" (Wu Hu 五胡), as the Chinese called them, for purposes of ruling the north of China.[22] The Five Hu were the Xiong-nu, Jie, Zhi, Chiang people and Xianbei,[23] although different groups of historians and historiographers have their own definitions.

Rouran and Tie-le

However, the Chinese name "tie-le", corresponding to "Türük", was used much earlier, around the period when the Mongolic tribes Tuoba and Rouran vied for hegemony over the Mongolian steppes around the 5th and 6th centuries.

Tu-jue (Turks)

The term Türk or Türküt, corresponding to the Chinese name tu-jue, was first used as an endonym in the Orkhon inscriptions of the Göktürks (English: 'Celestial Turks') of Central Asia. The first reference to "Turks" (Tujue) appears in Chinese sources of the 6th century. The earliest evidence of Turkic languages as a separate group comes from the Orkhon inscriptions of the early 8th century.

The precise date of the initial expansion from the early homeland remains unknown. The first state known as "Turk", giving its name to the many states and peoples afterwards, was that of the Göktürks (gök = 'blue' or 'celestial', however in this context "gok" refers to the direction "east". Therefore Gokturks are the Eastern Turks) in the 6th century. The head of the Ashina clan led his people from Li-jien (modern Zhelaizhai) to the Rouran seeking inclusion in their confederacy and protection from China. His tribe comprised famed metal smiths and was granted land near a mountain quarry that looked like a helmet, from which they got their name 突厥. A century later their power had increased such that they conquered the Rouruan and set about establishing a Göktürk Empire.

The Turkic family of languages were spoken by Bulgars, Pechenegs, Cumans, Dingling, Gaoche peoples long before the Göktürk Khanate came into prominence. Many groups speaking 'Turkic' languages never adopted the name "Turk" for their own identity. Among the peoples that came under Göktürk dominance and adopted its political culture and lingua-franca, the name "Turk" wasn't always the preferred identity. In other words, there wasn't a unified movement westward by a culture under one unified ethnic identity, such as that of the Mongol conquest of Eurasia under the Chinggisid political leadership. Rather, Turkic languages – both peripheral ones like the Bulgar branch and central ones like the Oghuz and Karluk-Chagatay branches – drifted westward by autonomous movements of diverse tribes and migrating traders, soldiers and townspeople, outnumbering and assimilating non-Turkic indigenous peoples along the way, and being partly replaced by other language families that have become prominent in the east, such as Mongolic languages on the Mongolian steppes, Indic languages in India, and Persian in post-Timurid Iran.


Later Turkic peoples include the Karluks (mainly 8th century), Uyghurs, Kyrgyz, Oghuz (or Guz, Uz, Ghuzz, etc.) Turks, and Turkmens. As these peoples were founding states in the area between Mongolia and Transoxiana, they came into contact with Muslims, and most gradually adopted Islam. However, there were also some other groups of Turkic people who belonged to other religions, including Christians, Jews (see Khazars), Buddhists, and Zoroastrians.


Settlements and regions affected during the first wave of Turkish invasions in Asia Minor (1050-1204).

While the Karakhanid state remained in this territory until its conquest by Genghis Khan, the Turkmen group of tribes was formed around the core of westward Oghuz. The name "Turkmen" originally simply meant "I am Turk" in the language of the diverse tribes living between the Karakhanid and Samanid states. Thus, the ethnic consciousness among some, but not all Turkic tribes as "Turkmens" in the Islamic era came long after the fall of the non-Muslim Gokturk (and Eastern and Western) Khanates. The name "Turk" in the Islamic era became an identity that grouped Islamized Turkic tribes in contradistinction to Turkic tribes that were not Muslim (that mostly have been referred to as "Tatar"), such as the Nestorian Naiman (which became a major founding stock for the Muslim Kazakh nation) and Buddhist Tuvans. Thus the ethnonym "Turk" for the diverse Islamized Turkic tribes somehow served the same function as the name "Tajik" did for the diverse Iranian peoples who converted to Islam and adopted Persian as their lingua-franca. Both names first and foremost labeled Muslimness, and to a lesser extent, common language and ethnic culture. Long after the departure of the Turkmens from Transoxonia towards the Karakum and Caucasus, consciousness associated with the name "Turk" still remained, as Chagatay and Timurid period Central Asia was called "Turkestan" and the Chagatay language called "Turki", even though the people only referred to themselves as "Mughals", "Sarts", "Taranchis" and "Tajiks". This name "Turk", was not commonly used by most groups of the Kypchak branch, such as the Kazakhs, although they are closely related to the Oghuz (Turkmens) and Karluks (Karakhanids, Sarts, Uyghurs). Neither did Bulgars (Kazan Tatars, Chuvash) and non-Muslim Turkic groups (Tuvans, Yakuts, Yugurs) come close to adopting the ethnonym "Turk" in its Islamic Era sense. Among the Karakhanid period Turkmen tribes rose the Atabeg Seljuq of the Kinik tribe, whose dynasty grew into a great Islamic empire stretching from India to Anatolia.

Turkic soldiers in the army of the Abbasid caliphs emerged as the de facto rulers of much of the Muslim Middle East (apart from Syria and North Africa) from the 13th century. The Oghuz and other tribes captured and dominated various countries under the leadership of the Seljuk dynasty, and eventually captured the territories of the Abbasid dynasty and the Byzantine Empire.

Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz and Uyghurs were struggling with one another and with the Chinese Empire. The Kyrgyz people ultimately settled in the region now referred to as Kyrgyzstan. The Batu hordes conquered the Volga Bulgars in what is today Tatarstan and Kypchaks in what is now Southern Russia, following the westward sweep of the Mongols in the 13th century. Other Bulgars settled in Europe in the 7-8th centuries, but were assimilated by the Slavs, giving the name to the Bulgarians and the Slavic Bulgarian language.

It was under Seljuq suzerainty that numerous Turkmen tribes, especially those that came through the Caucasus via Azerbaijan, acquired fiefdoms (beyliks) in newly conquered areas of Anatolia, Iraq and even Levent. Thus, the ancestors of the founding stock of the modern Turkish nation were most closely related to the Oghuz Turkmen groups that settled in the Caucasus and later became the Azerbaijani nation.

By early modern times, the name "Turkestan" has several definitions:

  1. land of sedentary Turkic-speaking townspeople that have been subjects of the Central Asian Chagatayids, i.e. Sarts, Central Asian Mughals, Central Asian Timurids, Uyghurs of Chinese Turkestan and the later invading Tatars that came to be known as Uzbeks; This area roughly coincides with "Khorasan" in the widest sense, plus Tarim Basin which was known as Chinese Turkestan. It is ethnically diverse, and includes homelands of non-Turkic peoples like the Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Dungans, Dzungars. Turkic peoples of the Kypchak branch, i.e. Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, are not normally considered "Turkestanis" but are also populous (as pastoralists) in many parts of Turkestan.
  2. a specific district governed by a 17th-century Kazakh Khan, in modern day Kazakhstan, which were more sedentary than other Kazakh areas, and were populated by towns-dwelling Sarts

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Di Cosmo (1999), page 888.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Morton (2004), page 55.
  9. ^ Book of Later Han, vols. 04, 19, 23, 88, 89, 90.
  10. ^ Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 47.
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ a b Maenchen-Helfen (1973) page 376.
  15. ^ Maenchen-Helfen (1973) pages 441–442.
  16. ^ Maenchen-Helfen (1973) pages 427–428.
  17. ^ Maenchen-Helfen (1973) page 437.
  18. ^
  19. ^ Maenchen-Helfen (1973) page 432.
  20. ^ Maenchen-Helfen (1973), Page 168.
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^


  • Findley, Carter Vaughnm, The Turks in World History, Oxford University Press: Oxford (2005).
  • Holster, Charles Warren, The Turks of Central Asia Praeger: Westport, Connecticut (1993).

External links

  • The Turkic Expansion
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