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Göktürk Empire

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Göktürk Empire

Turkic Khaganate



The Türk Khaganate (green) in its earliest years.
Capital Ordu Baliq
Languages Old Turkic
Religion Tengrism
Political structure Khaganate
 -  551–553 Bumin Qaghan
 -  553–576 İstemi Yabghu
Legislature Kurultai (Qurultay)
 -  Established 552
 -  Disestablished 744
 -  557 6,000,000 km² (2,316,613 sq mi)

Part of a series on the
History of Mongolia
Ancient period
Xiongnu 209 BC – 155
Xianbei 93–234
Nirun 330–555
Göktürk 552–744
Uyghur 742–848
Kirghiz 539–1219
Khitan 916–1125
Medieval period
Khamag Mongol 1120–1206
Mongolian tribes 900s–1207
Mongol Empire 1206–1271
Yuan Dynasty 1271–1368
Northern Yuan 1368–1691
Zunghar 1635–1758
Qing rule
1636/91/1758– 1911
Modern period
National Revolution 1911
Mongolia (1911–21) 1911–1921
Occupation 1919–1921
People's Revolution 1921
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Democratic Revolution 1990
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The Göktürks or Kök Türks (



They were known in Chinese historical sources as Tujue (Tu-chueh; Chinese: ; pinyin: Tūjué; Wade–Giles: T'u1-chüeh2; Middle Chinese: dʰuət-kĭwɐt). According to Chinese sources, the meaning of the word Tujue was "combat helmet" (Chinese: ; pinyin: Dōumóu; Wade–Giles: Tou1-mou2), reportedly because the shape of the Altai Mountains, where they lived, was similar to a combat helmet.[5][6][7]

The name Göktürk is said to mean "Celestial Turks".[8] This is consistent with "the cult of heavenly ordained rule" which was a recurrent element of Altaic political culture and as such may have been imbibed by the Göktürks from their predecessors in Mongolia.[9] Similarly, the name of the ruling Ashina clan may derive from the Khotanese Sakā term for "deep blue", āššɪna.[10] The name might also derive from a Tungusic tribe related to Aisin.[11]

The word Türk meant "strong" in Old Turkic.[12] Gök means Sky and Kök means Root in modern Turkish.


The Göktürk rulers originated from the Ashina clan, who first come to our attention in 439. The Book of Sui reports that in that year on October 18, the Tuoba ruler Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei overthrew Juqu Mujian of the Northern Liang in eastern Gansu,[13][14][15] whence 500 Ashina families fled northwest to the Rouran Khaganate in the vicinity of Gaochang.[6][16]

According to the Book of Zhou and the History of the Northern Dynasties, the Ashina clan was a component of the Xiongnu confederation,[5][7] but this connection is disputed,[17] and according to the Book of Sui and the Tongdian, they were "mixed barbarians" ( / 杂胡, Pinyin: zá hú, Wade–Giles: tsa hu) from Pingliang.[6][18] Indeed, Chinese sources link many barbarians (hu) on their northern borders to the Xiongnu, just as Graeco-Roman historiographers called Avars, Huns and Magyars "Scythians". Such archaizing was a common literary topos, and implied similar geographic origins and nomadic lifestyle but not direct filiation.[19]

As part of the heterogeneous Rouran Khaganate, the Türks lived for generations north of the Altai Mountains, where they 'engaged in metal working for the Rouran'.[6][20] According to Denis Sinor, the rise to power of the Ashina clan represented an 'internal revolution' in the Rouran confederacy, rather than an external conquest.[21] According to Charles Holcombe, the early Tujue population was rather heterogeneous and many of the names of Türk rulers, including the two founding members, are not even Turkic.[22] This is supported by evidence from the Orkhon inscriptions, where several non-Turkic lexemes, possibly representing Ungric or Samoyed words.[23]

First khaganate

The origins of the First Türk Empire trace back to 546, when Bumin Qaghan made a pre-emptive strike against the Uyghur and Tiele groups who were planning a revolt against their overlords, the Rouran. For this service he expected to be rewarded with a Rouran princess, i.e. marry into the royal family. However Rouran khaghan 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" ( / 锻奴, Pinyin: duànnú, Wade–Giles: tuan-nu) comment was recorded in Chinese chronicles, some claim that the Göktürks were indeed blacksmith servants for the Rouran elite,[24][25][26][27] and that "blacksmith slavery" may indicate a form of vassalage within Rouran society.[28] According to Denis Sinor, this reference indicates that the Türks specialized in metallurgy, although it is unclear if they were miners or, indeed, blacksmiths.[29][30] Whatever the case, that the Turks were "slaves" need not be taken literally, but probably represented a form of vassalage, or even unequal alliance.[31]

A disappointed Bumin allied with the Wei state against the Rouran, their common enemy. In 552 (February 11 – March 10, 552), Bumin defeated the Rouran Khan Anagui north of Huaihuang (in the region administered by present-day Zhangjiakou, Hebei).[5]

Having excelled both in battle and diplomacy Bumin declared himself Illig Qaghan of the new khaganate at Ötüken but died a year later. His son Muqan Qaghan defeated the Hephthalite (厭噠),[32] Khitan (契丹) and Kyrgyz (契骨).[33] Bumin's brother Istämi (d. 576) bore the title yabghu of the west and collaborated with the Persian Sassanids to defeat and destroy the Hephthalite, who were allies of the Rouran. This war tightened the Ashina clan's grip on the Silk Road. The appearance of "Avars" in the west has often been seen as a nomadic faction fleeing the westward expansion of the GokTurks, although the specifics are a matter of irreconcilable debate, given the lack of clear sources and chronology. E.g., Rene Grousset links the Avars with the downfall of the Hephthalites rather than the Juan-Juan,[34] whilst 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"[35]

Istämi's policy of western expansion brought the Göktürks into Europe.[36] In 576 the Göktürks crossed the Cimmerian Bosporus into the Crimea. Five years later they laid siege to Chersonesos Taurica; their cavalry kept roaming the steppes of Crimea until 590.[37] As for the southern borders, they were drawn south of the Amu Darya (Oxus), bringing the Ashina into conflict with their former allies, the Sassanids of Persia. Much of Bactria (including Balkh) remained a dependency of the Ashina until the end of the century.[37]

Civil war

Main article: Göktürk civil war

This first Turkic Khaganate split in two after the death of the fourth Qaghan, Taspar Qaghan (ca. 584). He had willed the title Qaghan to Muqan's son Ahina Daluobian, but the high council appointed Ishbara Qaghan in his stead. Factions formed around both leaders. Before long four rival qaghans claimed the title of Qaghan. They were successfully played off against each other by the Sui and Tang dynasties of China.

The most serious contender was the Western qaghan, 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 titled himself as Qaghan, and led an army to the east to claim the seat of imperial power, Ötüken.

In order to buttress his position, Ishbara of the Eastern Khaganate applied to the Chinese Emperor Yangdi for protection. Tardu attacked Chang'an, the Sui capital, around 600, demanding from Emperor Yangdi to 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 Uyghur and Syr-Tardush.

Eastern Turkic Khaganate

The civil war left the empire divided into eastern and western parts. The eastern part, still ruled from Ötüken, remained in the orbit of the Sui Empire and retained the name Göktürk. The qaghans Shibi (609-19) and Illig (620-30) of the East attacked China at its weakest moment during the transition between the Sui and Tang dynasties. On September 11, 615[38] Shibi Qaghan's army surrounded Emperor Yang of Sui at Yanmen (in present day Dai County, Xinzhou, Shanxi).[39]

In 626, Illig Qaghan took advantage of the Incident at Xuanwu Gate and drove on Chang'an. On September 23, 626[40] Illig Qaghan and his iron cavalries reached the bank of the Wei River at the north of Bian Bridge (in present day Xianyang, Shaanxi). On September 25, 626[41] Li Shimin (Emperor Taizong) and Illig Qaghan formed an alliance with slaying a white horse on Bian Bridge. Tang paid compensation and promise further tributes, Illig Qaghan ordered to withdraw their iron cavalries (Alliance of Wei River, 渭水之盟 or Alliance of Bian Qiao 便橋會盟 / 便桥会盟).[42] All in all, 67 incursions on Chinese territories were recorded.[37]

Before mid-October 627 heavy snows on the Mongolian steppe covered the ground to a depth of several feet, preventing the nomads' livestock from grazing and causing a massive dying-off among the animals.[43] 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)."[44]

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).

On March 27, 630[45] 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).[46][47][48] Illig Qaghan fled to Ishbara Shad. But on May 2, 630[49] Zhang Baoxiang's army got advance to Ishbara Shad's headquarter. Illig Qaghan was taken prisoner and sent to Chang'an.[48] The Eastern Turkic Khaganate collapsed and was incorporated into the Jimi system of Tang. Emperor Taizong said that "It's enough for me to compensate my dishonor at Wei River."[47]

Western Turkic Khaganate

Further information: Third Perso-Turkic War, Tang campaigns against the Western Turks and Conquest of the Western Turks

The Western qaghan Shekuei and Tung Yabghu constructed an alliance with the Byzantine Empire against the Persian Sassanids and succeeded in restoring the southern borders along the Tarim and Oxus rivers. Their capital was Suyab in the Chui 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.

The Western Turkic Khaganate was modernized through an administrative reform of Ishbara Qaghan (reigned 634–639) and came to be known as the Onoq.[50] The name refers to the "ten arrows" that were granted by the khagan to five leaders (shads) of its two constituent tribal confederations, Dulo and Nushibi, whose lands were divided by the Chui River.[50] The division fostered the growth of separatist tendencies, and soon the Bulgarian tribes under the Dulo chieftain Kubrat seceded from the khaganate. The Tang Dynasty fought a series of wars against the khaganate and their vassals, the oasis states of the Tarim Basin. The Western Turks retreated from Karakhoja in 640 and were defeated by the Tang at Karasahr in 644 and at Kucha in 648.[51][52] In 657, the khaganate was overrun by the Tang general Su Dingfang.[53]

Emperor Taizong of Tang was proclaimed Khagan of the Göktürks.

In 659 the Tang Emperor of China could claim to rule the entire Silk Road as far as Po-sse (Chinese: 波斯; pinyin: bōsī, Persia). The Göktürks now carried Chinese titles and fought by their side in their wars. The era spanning from 659-681 was characterized by numerous independent rulers - weak, divided, and engaged in constant petty wars. In the east, the Uyghurs defeated their one-time allies the Syr-Tardush, while in the west the Turgesh emerged as successors to the Onoq.

Eastern Turks under the Jimi system

On May 19, 639[54] Ashina Jiesheshuai and his tribesmen assaulted Tai zong at Jiucheng Palace (九成宮, in present day Linyou County, Baoji, Shaanxi). However, they didn't succeed and fled to the north, but were caught by pursuers near the Wei River and were killed. Ashina Hexiangu was exiled to Lingbiao.[55] After the unsuccessful raid of Ashina Jiesheshuai, on August 13, 639[56] Taizong instated Ashina Simo as the Yiminishuqilibi Khan and ordered the settled Turkic people to follow Ashina Simo north of the Yellow River to settle between the Great Wall and the Gobi Desert.[57]

In 679, Ashide Wenfu and Ashide Fengzhi, who were Turkic leaders of Shanyu Protectorate (單于大都護府), declared Ashina Nishufu as qaghan and revolted against the Tang dynasty.[58] In 680, Pei Xingjian defeated Ashina Nishufu and his army. Ashina Nishufu was killed by his men.[58] Ashide Wenfu made Ashina Funian a qaghan and again revolted against the Tang dynasty.[58] Ashide Wenfu and Ashina Funian surrendered to Pei Xingjian. On December 5, 681[59] 54 Göktürks including Ashide Wenfu and Ashina Funian were publicly executed in the Eastern Market of Chang'an.[58] In 682, Ashina Kutlug and Ashide Yuanzhen revolted and occupied Heisha Castle (northwest of present day Hohhot, Inner Mongolia) with the remnants of Ashina Funian's men.[60]

Second Turkic Khaganate

Despite all the setbacks, Ashina Kutluk (Ilterish Qaghan) and his brother Qapaghan Qaghan succeeded in reestablishing the Khanate. In 681 they revolted against the Tang Dynasty Chinese domination and, over the following decades, steadily gained control of the steppes beyond the Great Wall of China. By 705, they had expanded as far south as Samarkand and threatened the Arab control of Transoxiana. The Göktürks clashed with the Umayyad Califate in a series of battles (712–713) but the Arabs emerged as victors.

Following the Ashina tradition, the power of the Second Khaganate[61][62][63] was centered on Ötüken (the upper reaches of the Orkhon River). This polity was described by historians as "the joint enterprise of the Ashina clan and the Soghdians, with large numbers of Chinese bureaucrats being involved as well".[64] The son of Ilterish, Bilge, was also a strong leader whose deeds were recorded in the Orkhon inscriptions. After his death in 734 the Second Turkic Khaganate declined. The Göktürks ultimately fell victim to a series of internal crises and renewed Chinese campaigns.

When Kul Bilge Qaghan of the Uyghurs allied himself with the Karluks and Basmyls, the power of the Göktürks was very much on the wane. In 744 Kutluk seized Ötükän and beheaded the last Göktürk khagan Ozmysh Qaghan, whose head was sent to the Tang Dynasty Chinese court.[65] In a space of few years, the Uyghurs gained mastery of Inner Asia and established the Uyghur Khaganate.

Customs and culture

Origin of Achinas or Ashinas

In 439 in Central Asia a distinctive clan called “Achina” or “Ashina” lived in the territory now located in north-west China, Xinjiang province or Eastern Turkistan. They spoke either a Turkic or Mongolic language and they were the remnants of the aristocracy of the steppes’ former Xiongnu Empire which had been destroyed by the China Han dynasty in circa 100. Their name, according to the prominent historian “Lev Gumilev” is derived from the Mongolian word for wolf “chono”, “china” or “shina” with a Chinese prefix of “A” which means the respectful, elder, important. In combination it means Noble Wolf or simply “The” Wolf.

Political system

Peter B. Golden points out that there is the possibility that the leaders of the Göktürk Empire, the Ashina, were themselves originally an Indo-European-speaking (possibly Iranian) clan who later adopted Turkic, but inherited their original Indo-European titles.[66] German Turkologist W.-E. Scharlipp writes that many central terms are Iranian in origin.[67]

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

Language and character

The Göktürks were the first Turkic people known to write their language in the Old Turkic script. Life stories of Kul Tigin and Bilge Qaghan, as well as the chancellor Tonyukuk were recorded in the Orkhon inscriptions.


The Khaganate received missionaries from the Buddhists religion, which were incorporated into Tengriism. Later most of the Turks settled in Central Asia, Middle East and Europe adopted the Islamic faith.

See also


  • Christian, David. A history of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia, Vol. 1: Inner Eurasia from prehistory to the Mongol Empire. Blackwell, 1998.
  • Findley, Carter Vaughin. The Turks in World History. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-517726-6.
  • online).
  • Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes. Rutgers University Press, 1970. ISBN 0-8135-1304-9.
  • Gumilev, Lev (2007) (Russian) The Gokturks (Древние тюрки ;Drevnie ti︠u︡rki). Moscow: AST, 2007. ISBN 5-17-024793-1.
  • Yu. Zuev (I︠U︡. A. Zuev) (2002) (Russian), "Early Türks: Essays on history and ideology" (ISBN 9985-4-4152-9
  • Wink, André. Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. Brill Academic Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0-391-04173-8.
  • Zhu, Xueyuan (朱学渊) (2004) (Chinese) The Origins of the Ethnic Groups of Northern China (中国北方诸族的源流). Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju (中华书局) ISBN 7-101-03336-9
  • Xue, Zongzheng (薛宗正) (1992) (Chinese) A History of the Turks (突厥史). Beijing: Chinese Social Sciences Press (中国社会科学出版社) ISBN 7-5004-0432-8

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