First Turkic Khaganate

The First Turkic Khaganate (Old Turkic: 𐰃𐰓𐰃𐰆𐰴𐰽𐰔:𐰰𐰇𐰚:𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰰, romanized: Ïdï Oqsuz Kök Türük, lit. 'United Celestial Turks';[11] Chinese: 突厥汗國; pinyin: Tūjué hánguó, also referred to as the First Turkic Empire,[12] the Turkic Khaganate or the Göktürk Khaganate) was a khaganate established by the Ashina clan of the Göktürks in medieval Inner Asia. Under the leadership of Bumin Qaghan (d. 552) and his brother Istämi. The First Turkic Khaganate succeeded Rouran Khaganate as the hegemonic power of the Mongolian Plateau and rapidly expanded their territories in Central Asia, and became the first Central Asian transcontinental empire from Manchuria to the Black Sea.[13]

First Turkic Khaganate

Old Turkic: 𐰃𐰓𐰃𐰆𐰴𐰽𐰔:𐰰𐰇𐰚:𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰰, romanized: Ïdï Oqsuz Kök Türük
552 – 603
The Turkic Khaganate at its greatest extent, in 576.
StatusKhaganate (Nomadic empire)
Common languages
Bumïn Qaγan
Muqan Qaγan
Taspar Qaγan
Umna Qaγan
Ishbara Qaγan
Apa Qaγan
Bagha Qaγan
Tulan Qaγan
Tardu Qaγan
Historical eraPost-classical
 Bumin Qaghan revolts against Rouran Khaganate
 Death of Tatpar Qaγan initiates the Göktürk civil war
 Brief re-unification
 Division of Western and Eastern Turkic Khaganates
557[9][10]6,000,000 km2 (2,300,000 sq mi)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Rouran Khaganate
Hephthalite Empire
Eastern Turkic Khaganate
Western Turkic Khaganate

Initially the Khaganate would use Sogdian in official and numismatic functions. Although the Göktürks spoke Old Turkic, the Khaganate's early official texts and coins were written in Sogdian.[3][14] It was the first Turkic state to use the name Türk politically.[15] Old Turkic script was invented at the first half of the 6th century.[16][17]

It collapsed in 603, after a series of conflicts and civil wars which separated the polity into the Eastern Turkic Khaganate and Western Turkic Khaganate. The Tang Empire conquered the Eastern Turkic Khaganate in 630 and the Western Turkic Khaganate in 657 in a series of military campaigns. The Second Turkic Khaganate emerged in 682 and lasted until 744 when it was overthrown by the Uyghur Khaganate.

First Khaganate

The origins of the Turkic Khanate trace back to 546, when Bumin Qaghan made a preemptive strike against the Uyghur and Tiele groups planning a revolt against their overlords, the Rouran Khanate. For this service he expected to be rewarded with a Rouran princess, thus marrying into the royal family. However, the Rouran khagan, Yujiulü Anagui, sent an emissary to Bumin to rebuke him, saying, "You are my blacksmith slave. How dare you utter these words?" As Anagui's "blacksmith slave" (Chinese: ; pinyin: duànnú) comment was recorded in Chinese chronicles, some claim that the Göktürks were indeed blacksmith servants for the Rouran elite,[18][19][20][21] and that "blacksmith slavery" may have indicated a form of vassalage within Rouran society.[22] According to Denis Sinor, this reference indicates that the Türks specialized in metallurgy, although it is unclear if they were miners or, indeed, blacksmiths.[23][24] Whatever the case, that the Turks were "slaves" need not be taken literally, but probably represented a form of vassalage, or even unequal alliance.[25]

A disappointed Bumin allied with the Western Wei against the Rouran, their common enemy. In 552, Bumin defeated Anagui and his forces north of Huaihuang (modern Zhangjiakou, Hebei).[26]

Having excelled both in battle and diplomacy, Bumin declared himself Illig Khagan of the new khanate at Otukan, but died a year later. His son, Muqan Qaghan, defeated the Hephthalite Empire,[27] Khitan and Kyrgyz.[28] Bumin's brother Istämi (d. 576) bore the title "Yabgu of the West" and collaborated with the Sassanid Empire of Iran to defeat and destroy the Hephthalites, who were allies of the Rouran. This war tightened the Ashina clan's grip on the Silk Road.

The appearance of the Pannonian Avars in the West has been interpreted as a nomadic faction fleeing the westward expansion of the Göktürks, although the specifics are a matter of irreconcilable debate given the lack of clear sources and chronology. Rene Grousset links the Avars with the downfall of the Hephthalites rather than the Rouran,[29] while Denis Sinor argues that Rouran-Avar identification is "repeated from article to article, from book to book with no shred of evidence to support it".[30]

Istämi's policy of western expansion brought the Göktürks into Europe.[31] In 576 the Göktürks crossed the Kerch Strait into the Crimea. Five years later they laid siege to Chersonesus; their cavalry kept roaming the steppes of Crimea until 590.[32] As for the southern borders, they were drawn south of the Amu Darya, bringing the Ashina into conflict with their former allies, the Sasanian Empire. Much of Bactria (including Balkh) remained a dependency of the Ashina until the end of the century.[32]

Relation with the Byzantine Empire

Knights in Kucha, Tarim Basin, following the events of 552 CE and the subsequent Turk expansion. Kizil Caves, 2nd half of the 6th century CE.[35]

The first Türk delegation arrived in Constantinople was in 563. It had been sent by Askel, head of the first tribe of the Nushibi tribal federation of the Western Türks. It was followed five years later by a more substantial trade delegation headed by a Sogdian called Maniakh. He was received by Emperor Justin II, who was more interested in securing an ally to the rear of the Sasanians than in the importation of silk. According to the Byzantine historian Menander, the Türk ruler on whose behalf Maniakh negotiated was Silziboulos. Silziboulos and his son Turxath were minor rulers in the westernmost parts of the Türk Empire, perhaps on the same level of authority as the previously mentioned Askel. Menander clearly states that Turxath was but one of the eight chiefs among whom rule over the Türks was divided. On his return journey, Maniakh was accompanied by a Byzantine counter embassy led by the strategos Zemarkhos, who was, in his turn, very well received by Silziboulos. Other diplomatic exchanges followed until 572 when, on his second mission to the Türks, the Byzantine envoy Valentine was received by Turxath, son of the just deceased Silziboulos. In sign of mourning, members of the Byzantine delegation were not only requested to lacerate their faces, but were given a bitterly hostile reception by Turxath, who accused the Byzantine emperor of treason for having given asylum to the Avars, whom they considered to be fugitive subjects of the Türks. At that time the principal ruler of the Western Frontier Region of the Türk Empire was Tardu, son of Istemi.[36]

Civil war

The khaganate in 552 after its division into Western Turkic Khaganate and Eastern Turkic Khaganate
Gokturk khaganates at their height, c. 600 AD:
  Western Gokturk: Lighter area is direct rule, darker areas show sphere of influence.
  Eastern Gokturk: Lighter area is direct rule, darker areas show sphere of influence.

The Turkic Khanate split in two after the death of the fourth ruler, Taspar Qaghan, c. 584. He had willed the title of khagan to Muqan's son Apa Qaghan, but the high council appointed Ishbara Qaghan instead. Factions formed around both leaders. Before long, four rivals claimed the title. They were successfully played off against each other by Sui and Tang China.

The most serious contender was the western one, Istämi's son Tardu, a violent and ambitious man who had already declared himself independent from the Qaghan after his father's death. He now seized the title and led an army east to claim the seat of imperial power, Otukan.

In order to buttress his position, Ishbara of the Eastern Khaganate applied to Emperor Yang of Sui for protection. Tardu attacked Chang'an, the Sui capital, around 600, demanding Emperor Yangdi end his interference in the civil war. In retaliation, Chinese diplomacy successfully incited a revolt of Tardu's Tiele vassals, which led to the end of Tardu's reign in 603. Among the dissident tribes were the Uyghurs and Xueyantuo.

Eastern Turkic Khaganate

Shoroon Bumbagar tomb mural, Göktürk, 7th century CE, Mongolia.[37][38][39][40]
Shoroon Bumbagar tomb mural, Göktürk, 7th century CE, Mongolia.[41][42][43][44]

The civil war left the empire divided into eastern and western parts. The eastern part, still ruled from Otukan, remained in the orbit of the Sui and retained the name Göktürk. The Shibi Khan (609–619) and Illig Qaghan (620–630) attacked China at its weakest moment during the transition between the Sui and Tang. Shibi Khan's surprise attack against Yanmen Commandery during an imperial tour of the northern frontier almost captured Emperor Yang, but his Chinese wife Princess Yicheng—who had been well treated by Empress Xiao during an earlier visit—sent a warning ahead, allowing the emperor and empress time to flee to the commandery seat at present-day Daixian in Shanxi.[45] This was besieged by the Turkic army on September 11, 615,[46][47] but Chinese reinforcements and a false report from Princess Yicheng to her husband about a northern attack on the khaganate caused him to lift the siege before its completion.[45]

In 626, Illig Qaghan took advantage of the Xuanwu Gate Incident and drove on to Chang'an. On September 23, 626,[48] Illig Qaghan and his iron cavalry reached the bank of the Wei River north of Bian Bridge (in present-day Xianyang, Shaanxi). On September 25, 626,[49] Li Shimin (later Emperor Taizong of Tang) and Illig Qaghan formed an alliance by sacrificing a white horse on Bian Bridge. The Tang paid compensation and promised further tribute, so Illig Qaghan ordered his iron cavalry to withdraw. This is known as the Alliance of the Wei River (渭水之盟), or the Alliance of Bian Qiao (便橋會盟 / 便桥会盟).[50] All in all, 67 incursions on Chinese territories were recorded.[32]

Before mid-October 627, heavy snows on the Mongolian-Manchurian grassland covered the ground to a depth of several feet, preventing the nomads' livestock from grazing and causing a massive die-off among the animals.[51] According to the New Book of Tang, in 628, Taizong mentioned that "There has been a frost in midsummer. The sun had risen from same place for five days. The moon had had the same light level for three days. The field was filled with red atmosphere (dust storm)."[52]

Illig Qaghan was brought down by a revolt of his Tiele vassal tribes (626–630), allied with Emperor Taizong of Tang. This tribal alliance figures in Chinese records as the Huihe (Uyghur).[53]

On March 27, 630,[54] a Tang army under the command of Li Jing defeated the Eastern Turkic Khaganate under the command of Illig Qaghan at the Battle of Yinshan (陰山之戰 / 阴山之战).[55][56][57] Illig Qaghan fled to Ishbara Shad, but on May 2, 630[58] Zhang Baoxiang's army advanced to Ishbara Shad's headquarters. Illig Qaghan was taken prisoner and sent to Chang'an.[57] The Eastern Turkic Khaganate collapsed and was incorporated into the Jimi system of Tang. Emperor Taizong said, "It's enough for me to compensate my dishonor at Wei River."[56]

Western Turkic Khaganate

The Western Turkic Khaganate
Western Turkic officers during an audience with king Varkhuman of Samarkand. 648-651 CE, Afrasiyab murals, Samarkand.[59][60]

The Western khagan Sheguy and Tong Yabghu Qaghan constructed an alliance with the Byzantine Empire against the Sasanian Empire and succeeded in restoring the southern borders along the Tarim and Amu Darya rivers. Their capital was Suyab in the Chu River valley, about 6 km south east of modern Tokmok. In 627 Tung Yabghu, assisted by the Khazars and Emperor Heraclius, launched a massive invasion of Transcaucasia which culminated in the taking of Derbent and Tbilisi (see the Third Perso-Turkic War for details). In April 630 Tung's deputy Böri Shad sent the Göktürk cavalry to invade Armenia, where his general Chorpan Tarkhan succeeded in routing a large Persian force. Tung Yabghu's murder in 630 forced the Göktürks to evacuate Transcaucasia.

Western Turkic Khaganate was modernized through an administrative reform of Ashina clan (reigned 634–639) and came to be known as the Onoq.[61] The name refers to the "ten arrows" that were granted by the khagan to ten leaders (shads) of its two constituent tribal confederations, the Duolu (five churs) and Nushibi (five irkins), whose lands were divided by the Chui River.[61] The division fostered the growth of separatist tendencies. Soon, chieftain Kubrat of the Dulo clan, whose relation ship with the Duolu is possible but not proven, seceded from the Khaganate. The Tang dynasty campaigned against the khaganate and its vassals, the oasis states of the Tarim Basin. The Tang campaign against Karakhoja in 640 led to the retreat of the Western Turks, who were defeated during the Tang campaigns against Karasahr in 644 and the Tang campaign against Kucha in 648, [62][63] leading to the 657 conquest of the Western Turks by the Tang general Su Dingfang.[64] Emperor Taizong of Tang was proclaimed Khagan of the Göktürks.

In 657, the emperor of China could impose indirect rule along the Silk Road as far as Iran. He installed two khagans to rule the ten arrows (tribes) of Göktürks. Five arrows of Tulu (咄陆) were ruled by khagans bearing the title of Xingxiwang (興昔亡可汗) while five arrows of Nushipi (弩失畢可汗) were ruled by Jiwangjue (繼往絕可汗). Five Tulu corresponded to the area east of Lake Balkash while five arrows of Nushipi corresponded to the land east of the Aral Sea. Göktürks now carried Chinese titles and fought by their side in their wars. The era spanning from 657–699 in the steppes was characterized by numerous rulers – weak, divided, and engaged in constant petty wars under the Anxi Protectorate until the rise of Turgesh.

Customs and culture

Political system

The "Bugut" inscription of Mongolia, written shortly after 581 CE in the Sogdian alphabet,[65] and commissioned by the First Turkic Khaganate to relate the history of their ruling Gokturk khans.

The Göktürks were governed by Kurultai, a political and military council of khans and other high ranking leaders, such as aqsaqals.[66]


The Göktürks and other ancient Turkic peoples were mainly adherents of Tengrism, worshipping the sky god Tengri. The Khaganate received missionaries from the Buddhist religion, which was incorporated into Tengrism. After the fall of the khaganate, many refugees settled in Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, and adopted the Islamic faith.


According to Nevin Halıcı, ayran is a traditional Turkic drink that was consumed by nomadic Turks prior to 1000 CE.[67] According to Celalettin Koçak and Yahya Kemal Avşar (Professor of Food Engineering at Mustafa Kemal University), ayran was first developed thousands of years ago by the Göktürks, who would dilute bitter yogurt with water in an attempt to improve its flavor.[68]

See also


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