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date: 22 April 2019

The Kök Türk Empires

Summary and Keywords

The people who called themselves Türk (Chinese Tujue突厥) appear in historical records only a few years before they overthrow their political masters in the middle of the 6th century CE and create a powerful steppe empire that stretched at its height from Manchuria to the Black Sea. These early Türks are sometimes called “Kök” (Old Turkic “Blue,” referring particularly to the color of the sky but also indicating the East) Türks to distinguish them from other peoples who spoke Turkic languages and called themselves by various names, some of which included the term Türk. The Kök Türks dominated much of Inner Asia for most of the period from the mid-6th to the mid-8th centuries; during that era their polity waxed and waned in strength and did not always enjoy political unity. Nevertheless, they exercised authority throughout much of Eurasia for some two centuries; Türk military, diplomatic, and economic interactions with their neighbors, including the Chinese, Persians, and Byzantines, are an important component of their historical significance. They created Inner Asia’s first native script and first known examples of historiography, and promoted the international exchange of goods and ideas on an unprecedented scale. The expansion of Türk power and culture helped shape the Inner Asian world in which the Mongols later established their empire.

Keywords: Türks, Mongolia, Inner Asia, nomads, Northern Wei dynasty, Sui dynasty, Tang dynasty, Sogdians, Sasanian Empire, Byzantine Empire, Uyghurs

The Türks’ Rise to Power

Prior to the emergence of the Kök Türks (hereafter, simply “Türks”)1 as a political power in 552 ce, the eastern Eurasian steppe was dominated by a people known only by Chinese versions of their name: Rouran 柔然‎, Ruanruan 蠕蠕‎, Ruru 茹茹‎, etc. These people, who may be connected to the Avars, had emerged as a great power in Mongolia at the beginning of the 5th century ce. This was an era of political disunity in China. To the south of the Rouran was the north Chinese state of Wei (usually referred to as Northern Wei or Tuoba Wei), which was ruled by another people of Inner Asian heritage, the Tuoba (Old Turkic Tabghach), who had migrated southward and eventually stablished a dynasty in north China. The southern part of China was at that time ruled by a succession of native Chinese dynasties. Before the 6th century there is only one significant mention of the Türks, some five hundred families of whom are said to have become subjects of the Rouran in 439.

The Türks’ rise to power was linked to opportunities created by problems not only within the Rouran Empire but also within the Tuoba Wei state. The Rouran were experiencing instability caused by succession disputes and restive subject peoples, both relatively common problems in Inner Asian steppe empires. At about the same time, internecine strife in north China had led to the division, in 534, of the Wei into two competing polities that called themselves Western Wei and Eastern Wei (later Northern Zhou and Northern Qi, respectively). This destabilization of the status quo in both Inner Asia and north China offered openings for the Türks, who signaled their desire for a more prominent role in the region first through raids into north China, beginning some time before 542, and then by an unnamed Türk leader’s efforts to negotiate a trade agreement with the Western Wei. This led to diplomatic exchanges between the Türk chieftain Bumïn (Chinese Tumen 土門‎)2 and the Western Wei beginning in 545. Such a connection was desirable for both the Türks and the Western Wei; the former were eager to improve their economic and political situation, and the latter sought an ally against their rivals, the Eastern Wei, who were at that time allied with the Rouran.

This success emboldened Bumïn. After helping the Rouran ruler Anagui quell the revolt of another subject people, the Tiele 鐵勒‎, Bumïn asked for the hand of a Rouran princess as a reward. Such political marriages were an important component of Inner Asian elites’ power and prestige. Anagui’s rebuff was blistering: “You are my blacksmith slave. How dare you speak in this way?” Bumïn quickly arranged a marriage alliance with the Western Wei emperor in 551 and the next year launched a revolt against Anagui. The Rouran state collapsed under this pressure. Historians date the founding the of the Türk Empire to 552. Bumïn, who had taken the Rouran supreme title of qaghan (Chinese kehan 可汗‎) for himself, died soon after his victory and was succeeded by his son Qara (Chinese Keluo 科羅‎), whose reign was also brief.3 Although the sources are not explicit, it seems likely that the first two qaghans died as the result of wounds received in battle. The ascension of Qara’s their brother as Mugan 木杆‎Qaghan (also Chinese Muhan 木汗or木扞‎, Sogdian Mwx’n, r. 553–572) finally brought internal political stability in terms of a lengthy rule of two decades. This was not the only stabilizing factor, however; Bumïn had from the very beginning relied heavily on his longer-lived brother Ishtemi (Chinese ShidianmI 室點密‎, Greek Στεμβισχαγάν‎), who was charged with overseeing the empire’s expansion to the west. Working in tandem, Mugan and Ishtemi were able to continue what Bumïn had begun, so that the impact of his early death was minimized.

The First Türk Empire (552–630)

Türk expansion was rapid. In the east, Mugan finalized the downfall of the Rouran and then fought successfully to subdue neighboring peoples, such as the Khitans (Chinese Qidan 契丹‎), Tatabï (Chinese Xi 奚‎), Kirghiz (Chinese Jiankun 堅昆‎, etc.), and Tuyuhun 吐谷渾‎. In the west, the Türks allied with the Sasanian ruler Xusrō I Anōšarvān around 554 to destroy the Hephthalite Empire by 565.4 Hephthalite territory was divided, and the Türk realm absorbed the lands and peoples north of the Oxus River, including Sogdiana. Xusrō was married to a Türk princess, who later gave birth to his successor, Hormīzd IV.5 Further west, the Türks sent their first envoy to the Byzantine Empire in 563. Within a decade of Bumïn’s untimely demise, the Türks had established an impressive and wide-ranging empire, larger than any created by a steppe people up to that point in history.

The Türk qaghan could not control such a large polity without support. At any given time throughout Türk history there could be a small number of “subordinate qaghans” (often referred to in Chinese sources as “little qaghans,” xiao kehan 小可汗‎). The changing number of subordinate qaghans, who were close relatives of the supreme qaghan, indicates that this was a flexible system that was undoubtedly shaped by circumstances—not only the political needs of the empire but also to appease men of the ruling Ashina 阿史那‎ (Sogdian ʼ[ʼ]šy-n’s?)6 family who were not elevated to the supreme position. These subordinate qaghans appear to have had a great deal of autonomy; the supreme qaghan relied on them to pursue his interests and maintain the empire’s integrity. However, this system could work against imperial unity, and it ultimately led not only to internal conflicts but also the division of the empire into two rival empires. Thus the Türks employed a type of decentralized corporate rule that contained within it the potential for its own unraveling. Other men of the royal family were given prestigious titles such as shad, chor, and yabghu (Chinese sha 殺‎, cho 啜‎, and yehu 葉護‎), empowering them to govern various peoples and regions within the empire.

The reigns of Mugan and his immediate successor, his younger brother Tatpar (Chinese Tabuo 他鉢‎, Sogdian T’tp’r, r. 572–581),7 represent a high mark of the first empire’s power. In the east, the Türks benefited from the political division of north China. The Tuoba Wei had split into two competing dynasties in 534, well before the Türk revolt against the Rouran, and the Türks were able to use the hostility between these rival states to their advantage. Mugan and Tatpar continued Bumïn’s strategy of marital alliances with dynasties in north China; in 568 Mugan’s daughter became the empress of the Northern Zhou emperor.8 When Tatpar came to the throne, both Northern Zhou and Northern Qi sent him extravagant gifts to win his favor. Türk power and influence progressed to such a point that Tatpar is reported to have said, “So long as my two ‘sons’ to the south remain filial, which should I worry that I may lack anything?”

Tatpar had initially given his support to the Northern Qi. It may have been this influence that led him to promote Buddhism in his realm by building a Buddhist stupa and sponsoring the translation of sacred Buddhist texts. With the fall of Northern Qi to the forces of Northern Zhou in 577, Tatpar, seeking to support his old ally, granted asylum to a Northern Qi leader and sent raids into Northern Zhou territory. Tatpar eventually realized that it was a hopeless cause; he abandoned the Northern Qi leader and then married a Northern Zhou princess in 580. After his death, in 581, she followed steppe custom by becoming the bride of his successor, Qara’s son Ïshbara (Chinese Shabolue 沙鉢略‎, r. 581–587).9

Tatpar had intended to be succeeded by his son Anluo 菴邏‎ (Sogdian Wmn’?), but this was challenged by Mugan’s son Daluobian 大邏便‎. Ultimately, with the support of the important notables of the empire, Qara’s son Ïshbara became the new qaghan. Anluo was given the title “second qaghan” to mollify him; he then acted as a type of viceroy for Ïshbara. Daluobian (who was rejected by the Türk people because his mother was not of noble birth) complained about the situation; Ïshbara then gave him the title Apa (Chinese Abo 阿波‎) Qaghan. Both Anluo and Daluobian thus were made subordinate qaghans, ranking below their cousin the supreme qaghan but (presumably) above the empire’s other royal men.

In the west the Türks exploited Byzantine-Sasanian enmity to further their own position. The Türks were interested in trade with both empires and sent envoys to promote this. The Sogdians regularly played an important role in these interactions; for example, a Sogdian named Maniakh led a trade mission to the Sasanians. Although the Türks had enjoyed military cooperation with the Sasanians in the destruction of the Hephthalites, relations between the joint victors soon soured. The Persians purchased and then publicly burned silk that the Türks had brought to trade. A second mission resulted in the deaths of the Türk envoys—most likely from murder, and not from a fatal reaction to the Persian climate as the Sasanians claimed. The Türks then turned to the Byzantines and sent an embassy in 568, again led by Maniakh, to seek political and economic ties. The response of Emperor Justin II was more positive; he was particularly interested in gaining access to silk that would not have to go through Sasanian middlemen. In 569 he sent an envoy named Zemarchus to return to Türk territory with Maniakh. The Türk leader with whom Zemarchus met is called Silzibul (Greek Σιλζίβουλος‎, with variants); some scholars believe that this is the same person as Ishtemi.10 When Zemarchus returned to Byzantium, he was accompanied by a Türk envoy. The ensuing years saw frequent contact between the two powers: there were five Byzantine envoys between 569 and 576. These could be significant in size; in 576, the Byzantine envoy Valentinus, sent by the Emperor Tiberius II, was accompanied by 106 Türks who were returning home.

Türk efforts succeeded in maintaining good relations with the Byzantines for some years and in encouraging a loose alliance against the Sasanians. However, Türk-Byzantine relations began to deteriorate soon after this, apparently because the Byzantines had allowed the Avars, whom the Türks considered their subjects, to enter Byzantine territory. Valentinus’s 576 mission did not go well; the Türks vehemently expressed their dissatisfaction with Byzantine policies. Türk troops invaded the Crimea that same year. Despite this, the Türks continued to maintain an unfriendly stance toward the Sasanians.

Ishtemi died at about the time of Valentinus’s visit and was succeeded by his son Tardu (Chinese Datou 達頭‎, Greek Τάρδου‎). After this, the Türks in the empire’s western regions became increasingly independent from the supreme qaghans in the east. Trade remained an important activity throughout both parts of the empire. It included various forms of tribute and gifts from subordinated and allied peoples; sources indicate that a variety of goods were traded, including animals, cloth, metal wares, foodstuffs, and other items. Sogdians, who played important roles in Türk diplomacy and politics, were heavily involved in the trade networks that crisscrossed the First Türk Empire. Through trade and taxation (including tribute) the Türks were able to acquire resources from their sedentary and nomadic subjects. Trade opportunities brought Türks into many other polities; for example, there were significant Türk (and Sogdian) populations living in the Tang Empire, particularly in the capital of Chang’an.

Relations with the Sui Dynasty in China

In the east, Ïshbara Qaghan experienced a rapidly changing situation in north China. In 581, a Chinese general overthrew the Northern Zhou dynasty and declared the establishment of a new dynasty called Sui (581–618). The new emperor’s primary concern was the expansion of his realm to the south, and in 589 he defeated the southern dynasty of Chen, reuniting China after several centuries of division. Ïshbara attacked Sui territory in both 581 (in alliance with an official of the now defunct Northern Qi dynasty) and 582. The Sui sought to weaken the Türks by various means, including efforts to divide the Türk ruling family by offering support to Ïshbara’s relatives and by promoting rebellions of subordinate tribes, such as the Khitans and Tatabï. This meddling inflamed Ïshbara’s hostility to the Sui, but it also owed in part to the influence of his wife, a princess from the Northern Zhou dynasty, who regularly counseled him to take up arms against the Sui. According to the sources, Tardu and Apa both participated in the massive 582 campaign, but Tardu later withdrew, signaling his increasing autonomy.

Although Ïshbara’s campaign was initially successful, Sui efforts to sow division among the Türk elites eventually turned the tide. Apa Qaghan turned against Ïshbara and made peace with Sui; he then fled westward for protection under Tardu. Other Türk notables also rebelled against Ïshbara, and some groups surrendered to the Sui government. After suffering a defeat at the hands of Sui troops, Ïshbara was, in 584, forced to accept a subordinate position and become a Sui client. His troubles did not end there, and the following year he moved southward into Sui territory to avoid attacks from his enemies. Sui now helped Ïshbara to fend off his enemies, but he remained dependent on Sui protection. He was now in such dramatically reduced circumstances that other Türk leaders, such as Tardu and Apa, could behave independently and deny him their allegiance. In 587 Ïshbara was on a hunting excursion in Sui territory (revealing his close dependence on Sui power) when his camp caught fire and he was seriously injured; he died some months later. His successor Chuluohou 處羅侯‎ Qaghan (r. 587–588), who was his brother, also maintained a position of subordination to the Sui court. But Chuluohou was not content to allow his rivals their autonomy and set out to rein them in. He died in battle in a westerly campaign that led to the capture of Apa Qaghan. Chuluohou was succeeded by his nephew, Ïshbara’s son Dulan 都藍‎ Qaghan (r. 588–599). Despite moments of friction, Dulan was unable to break free from Sui domination, neither was his rival and eventual successor, Qimin 啓民‎ Qaghan (r. 599–608), who was Chuluohou’s son. Qimin provided troops for Sui military ventures.

The Reassertion of Türk Power

After Qimin’s death, his son was elevated as Shibi 始畢‎ Qaghan (r. 608–619). It was under him that the Eastern Türks began to reassert their power vis-à-vis China. This was greatly helped by the weakening of the Sui dynasty, largely as the result of the second Sui emperor’s disastrous campaigns in Korea. Sui attempts at the timeworn policy of dividing the Türk leadership foundered, and Shibi grew increasingly hostile toward the Sui state because of its political maneuvering. He launched an attack in 615 and had the Sui emperor Yangdi surrounded in a place called Yanmen, but the latter managed to escape by means of a ruse. Nevertheless, the Sui dynasty was headed for collapse. Shibi was at the height of his power, reputed to be lord of a million archers. He had married a Chinese princess of the Sui imperial household, the Yicheng Princess, who had been married to his predecessor Qimin Qaghan, in 599. With the collapse of Sui, Shibi received two important imperial fugitives, the Sui Empress Xiao and her grandson Yang Zhengdao who, along with their retinue, constituted a Sui rump court in Türk territory.

With China plunged into turmoil, Shibi Qaghan saw an opportunity to return to the days of Tatpar, and he supported multiple contenders for the Chinese throne. In the end, Türk military assistance (in the form of horses and troops) proved important to the victory of Li Yuan, who founded the Tang dynasty (618–907). To secure that support, Li Yuan had used subordinate language in his communications with Shibi. After his accession to the throne in 618, Li Yuan continued to send gifts to the Türks. He was not merely expressing gratitude; there were still men seeking to unseat him. Indeed, the Türks continued to assist those men, apparently in the desire to keep the Tang from firmly consolidating its power.

For a time, it seemed that the Türks could maintain a dominant position toward China. After Shibi’s death, his brother Chuluo 處羅‎ Qaghan (r. 619–620) married the Sui Yicheng Princess and continued to maintain the rump Sui court, not far from the frontier with China, as a thorn in the side of the Tang. Yang Zhengdao was named Prince of Sui, and the Sui calendar and Sui titles were employed. According to Chinese sources, more than 10,000 Chinese were part of this unusual arrangement. Chuluo also continued to support other rivals of the Tang. Chuluo died in 621 and was succeeded by his brother, who was enthroned as Ellig Qaghan (Chinese Xieli 頡利‎, r. 620–630), the last supreme qaghan of the First Türk Empire. According to Chinese sources, the Yicheng Princess played a prominent role in the succession. She had an antipathy for Chuluo’s son and so engineered the elevation of her brother-in-law, whom she promptly married. She remained an outspoken anti-Tang force at the Türk court.

Ellig Qaghan threatened the Tang dynasty from the very beginning of his reign. For its part, the Tang dynasty still feared the Türks’ support of its rivals and attempted, through bribes and other means, to improve relations with the Türks. Ellig gladly accepted Tang “gifts” but continued to play both sides by aiding anti-Tang forces in China. The Türks wished to manipulate China and its wealth to their own ends; this strategy had worked before, and now Ellig Qaghan was employing it to his own advantage. Chinese sources explain that the Tang founder felt the need to continue sending bribes to the Türks because the dynasty was just beginning to settle matters in China. The gifts sent to Ellig were “beyond number,” and in the eyes of the Chinese, he became increasingly arrogant and demanding.

The Downfall of the First Türk Empire

Ellig Qaghan ultimately could not prevent the consolidation of Tang power, despite an astonishing number of Türk raids into China during his reign.11 In these he was sometimes assisted by his nephew, Tuli 突利‎ Qaghan, whom Ellig had raised to the rank of subordinate qaghan and established as a sort of viceroy over the eastern portion of his empire. Tuli was the son of Shibi Qaghan, and had earlier been passed over for the throne because of his youth. As Ellig and Tuli raided China, the Tang prince Li Shimin (the future emperor Tang Taizong, r. 626–649) took advantage of this and of his previous good relations with Tuli to attempt to create a rift between the two Türk leaders.12 The stratagem worked, and Ellig and Tuli became alienated from one another.

For several years, Ellig carried out an erratic policy of seeking peace with China, then raiding. Just a few weeks after Li Shimin’s usurpation of his father’s throne in 626, the Türks invaded again. The new emperor agreed to a peace treaty in a military showdown at the Wei River, not far from the Chinese capital. He later stated that though he had noted dissension among the Türks (presumably with respect to the relations between Ellig and Tuli), he had agreed to a treaty because he had so recently come to the throne. The new emperor feared engagement in a major campaign at this time. Although some sources indicate that Taizong avoided war for the sake of prudence, there is evidence that he was shamed by the concessions he was forced to make to Ellig in their negotiations at the Wei River.

It was at about this time that internal problems within the Türk Empire worsened. In 627 more than ten subordinate tribes rebelled against Ellig Qaghan and drove off his agents. He ordered his nephew Tuli to bring them into submission, but those efforts failed. Ellig then had Tuli detained and beaten, thereby increasing the antipathy between the two that had begun earlier through Li Shimin’s machinations. The following year, Tuli began secret negotiations with the Tang court. In 629, the leader of one formerly subordinate tribe, the Xueyantuo 薛延陀‎, felt sufficiently strong to style himself a qaghan. Ellig now sought better relations with China, going so far as to refer to himself as a Tang vassal.

Chinese sources note several causes for the internal unraveling of the Türk Empire. First, the qaghan had come to rely heavily on Sogdians within his empire and appointed many to important posts at his court. Their advice to him is characterized as “inconstant,” and Chinese sources suggest that Ellig’s policies became erratic under their influence; they are blamed in particular for encouraging military ventures that wearied Ellig’s subjects and caused them to become disaffected. Also, several consecutive years of harsh winters with heavy snowfalls caused the deaths of large numbers of domesticated animals and subsequent famine in the Türk Empire. The Türks’ various subject peoples could not meet Ellig’s continuous demands for taxes—presumably to finance his military exploits—and ultimately resorted to rebellion. His treatment of Tuli did nothing to help his cause.

These internal problems, political and economic, led to the downfall of the First Türk Empire. When Ellig Qaghan found himself in dire straits, he requested military assistance from Tuli Qaghan, but the latter refused and later submitted to China. Tang Taizong’s generals then seized the Sui “court” and obtained the submission of a leader of the Sogdians, as well. The last remnants of Sui legitimacy were gone. Ellig desperately sought an accommodation with China, sending an envoy to the Tang court to “acknowledge his faults” and offer his nation—which had already ceased to exist—to Tang Taizong. Not long after that, Ellig was captured by Tang forces and taken in captivity to the Tang capital of Chang’an.

Ellig Qaghan and the Türk Empire had been undone by multiple factors. Internal dissension and revolts, caused by the qaghan’s poor judgment and the catastrophic consequences of several severe winters, were as important as the growing power of Tang China and the machinations of Tang Taizong to Ellig’s downfall. There can be no question that the Tang government wished to weaken or eliminate the Türk threat, which was not simply military but also political, since the Türks had continued to support various rebels and Sui loyalists until the very year of Ellig’s capture. Indeed, Sogdians who had surrendered to China informed the Tang court that some Chinese within China had been in secret contact with Empress Xiao to discuss a Sui restoration. The Türks thus provided protection for those who threatened Tang legitimacy and stability. Once he had seized the throne, Tang Taizong moved to neutralize the Türk menace and benefited from the weakness of Ellig’s position. The last qaghan of the First Türk Empire lived as a royal captive in the Tang capital city of Chang’an until his death in 634.

The Western Türks

The Türks’ practice of sharing the rule of their empire among various men of the royal Ashina family ultimately led to the division of the empire into two competing parts, the Eastern (or Northern) Türks and the Western Türks. The precise date of this division is uncertain, in large part because the Western Türks under Bumïn’s brother Ishtemi had enjoyed relative autonomy from the very beginning. Unlike Bumïn, Ishtemi enjoyed a relatively long time in his position; upon his death, in 576, his authority was transferred to his son Tardu. Most scholars agree that it was during Tardu’s reign (576–603) that the political split between the Eastern and the Western Türks occurred.13

Under Tardu the Western Türks’ relations with Sasanian Iran became more hostile. Western Türk troops, bolstered by their Hephthalite subjects, invaded Sasanian territory but were defeated by the Persians under Bahrām Čōbīn in 588 or 589. This seems to have been the same campaign that resulted in the death of the supreme qaghan Chuluohou. The weakened Western Türks were forced into a subordinate position vis-à-vis the Sasanian Empire, but matters shifted again when the victorious general Bahrām Čōbīn attempted to seize the empire for himself. After his defeat, in 591, he fled to the protection of the Western Türks but was assassinated within a year. The Western Türks worked to establish dominance over important trade routes in and around the Tarim Basin, through both the conquest and formation of alliances with various small states in the region.

The politics of the Western Türks are complex and difficult to reconstruct. Tardu was a dominant figure for decades, but there are indications that he was not always in full control of the empire’s western region. Apa Qaghan, who had fled to Tardu for support in 583, enjoyed some authority there until he was captured by Chuluohuo Qaghan in 587. In fact, it appears that Tardu had been forced eastward by Apa’s growing power and established a power base east of the Tarim Basin in the Hexi region (modern Gansu) and adjoining territories.14 Tardu then became involved in the politics of the eastern steppe; he engaged in a conflict with Dulan Qaghan in 594, but the two men formed an alliance in 599 to defeat another rival. Tardu’s subsequent activities place him at the north China frontier. His power there was broken within a few years by the revolt of several subject tribes; he then fled to the Tuyuhun for refuge around 603, after which no more is heard of him. The lineage of the next two Western Türk rulers, Niri Qaghan (Chinese Nili 泥利‎, Sogdian Nry, r. 587–599) and Chuluo 處羅‎ Qaghan (r. 599–611)15 is unclear, but it has been argued that they were of the family of Apa Qaghan.16 Chuluo proved to be a weak ruler and became a Sui client. The situation with his successor, Shegui 射匱‎ Qaghan (r. 611–618), is clearer; he was a grandson of Tardu. Shegui began his political career as a rival of Chuluo and, after ousting the latter, worked to expand his realm both east and west—a task made easier by the fact that the Sui dynasty was now in decline. The advent of Shegui Qaghan meant that the lineage of Tardu (and hence Ishtemi) now ruled over the Western Türks. As for the ousted ruler Chuluo, he fled to China for support and participated in the 612 Sui campaign in Korea.

A bit more is known about the next Western Türk ruler, Ton Yabghu (Chinese Tong Yehu 統葉護‎) Qaghan (r. 618–630), thanks to the account and biography of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang and other sources. Ton Yabghu was Shigui’s younger brother. Xuanzang met with him at his opulent headquarters west of Lake Issyk Kul in 630. Some years earlier (626), Ton Yabghu had allied with the Byzantine emperor Heraclius against the Persians. The subject Qarluqs (Chinese Geluolu 葛邏祿‎) rebelled against him the following year. Not long after Xuanzang’s visit, Ton Yabghu Qaghan, his position weakened, was killed by his own paternal uncle, setting off an internal struggle within the ruling family of the Western Türks and weakening Türk control over subject peoples. Ton Yabghu Qaghan’s death marked the beginning of the unravelling of the Western Türk polity.

Tang Taizong took advantage of the situation to extend Chinese power into the Tarim Basin. Eager to gain control over important trade routes that the Western Türks had dominated, the Tang dynasty came into open conflict with them. Further to the west, some Türks provided aid to the last Sasanian ruler, Yazdgard III, in 643, when Arab forces were in the process of conquering Persia; this support did not prove particularly helpful, and there are indications that the Türks soon abandoned the effort and eventually turned against him.17

After the death of Tang Taizong, in 649, the Western Türks hoped to regain their strength, but the new Tang emperor Gaozong (r. 649–683) proved equally determined to prevent them from doing so. After years of competition with China and internecine conflict, the last Western Türk qaghan (who had for a time been a Tang client) was captured by Tang forces in 657. Two years later, another Tang campaign, led by a Türk general who had submitted to the Tang under Taizong’s reign, brought about a final Chinese victory over the last resisting Western Türk forces. The Western Türks then ceased to exist as an independent polity. But the long arms of the Tang Empire, which managed to exert its influence in Mongolia, could not sustain activities far to the west beyond the Tarim Basin. The Turkic peoples there, who had been part of the Western Türk realm, were able to create new polities. The Türgesh (Chinese Tuqishi 突騎施‎) gained power in Central Asia at the end of the 7th century, controlling a large region northwest of the Tarim Basin. Although it was briefly dominated by the Second Türk Empire, the Türgesh realm was ultimately restored around 714, after which time it was in frequent conflict with the expanding power of the Arabs. Later (c. 766), the Qarluqs became the dominant political group in that same region.18 The downfall of the Western Türks also permitted the Khazars to emerge in the middle of the 7th century as a significant regional power north of the Caspian Sea.

The Fifty-Year “Babylonian Captivity” of the Türks (630–682)

After the Eastern Türks had been defeated in 630, Tang government officials engaged in a lively debate regarding their fate. Some argued that the Türks should be settled within Tang territory; others asserted that they were too dangerous to settle in the Tang heartland and so should remain beyond the northern frontier, possibly to serve as defense troops for the Tang empire. Tang Taizong initially accepted the idea of bringing the Türks into Tang territory. Although some Türks, apparently numbering in the thousands, moved to the Tang capital of Chang’an, most of them were settled in the Tang northern frontier zone. Many Türk elites were given Tang titles and incomes, particularly as military officers. They served in Tang armies and participated in several important Tang campaigns. Some of them married Chinese women. In fact, Taizong arranged marriages between two of his sisters and Türk leaders. In 639, however, the Tang government decided that the situation presented too many perils, as evidenced in a failed attempt on Taizong’s life by Tuli Qaghan’s brother, who had been made a member of the emperor’s personal guard. As a result, many Türks were relocated further north. Some years later, Taizong relented and brought large numbers of Türks southward into the Ordos region to protect them from the raids of neighboring peoples.19

The defeat of the Türks represents a high point of Tang power, during which Taizong trumpeted his victory—and the extension of his authority into the steppe—by taking the title “Heavenly Qaghan” (Chinese Tian Kehan 天可汗‎). The Türks themselves described this period as a time of ruin and degradation, which they blamed on not only the “wily and deceitful” Chinese but also bad Türk rulers and officials.20 In Mongolia, other groups—all former subjects of the Türks—vied for power. Political prominence was eventually achieved by the Turkic Uyghurs (Chinese Huihe 迴紇‎, Huihu 回鶻‎), whose position was confirmed by official Tang approval.

The Second (or Restored) Türk Empire (682–742)

The Kök Türks are unique in Inner Asian history in that they were able, after more than a half-century of subordination to China, to re-establish their empire. Revolts against Tang rule began in 679, led by men from the prominent Ashina and Ashide 阿史德‎ families. Although the first efforts were unsuccessful, Qutlugh (Chinese Guduoluo 骨咄禄‎) Elterish, a descendant of Ellig Qaghan, was able to lead some Türks northward and ultimately to establish a polity that is now known as the Second Türk Empire. Elterish Qaghan (r. 682–691) spent his life rebuilding Türk power. With the aid of family members and advisers, particularly a man known as Tonyuquq (Chinese Tunyugu 暾欲谷‎), Elterish fought numerous battles against other Inner Asian nomadic peoples, as well as Tang China.

Elterish was succeeded by his brother Qapghan Qaghan (r. 691–716), called Mochuo 默啜‎ in Chinese sources, who built on his predecessor’s achievements. Qapghan carried out an aggressive, expansionist policy that meant nearly constant warfare during his reign. There were major raids into China21 and campaigns against other peoples to the north, east, and west. Many important Inner Asian peoples were brought under his dominion, including the Basmïl (Chinese Baximi 拔悉密‎), Bayïrqu (Chinese Bayegu 拔野古‎), Türgesh, and Qarluqs. The foreign policy Qapghan carried out was also characterized by some flexibility. Relations with China could shift from hostility to cooperation. When a group of Khitans rebelled against Tang rule in 696, Qapghan offered to help Empress Wu (whose Zhou dynasty had temporarily replaced the Tang dynasty in China) defeat them if the empress would meet his demands. The Khitan uprising was put down in 697 with Qapghan’s assistance, but when the Chinese concessions did not meet Qapghan’s expectations, he turned the tables and raided China. Türk-Chinese relations remained largely hostile throughout the remainder of his reign.

As had his predecessors of the First Türk Empire, Qapghan created a system in which important men of the Ashina lineage were given high titles and charged with helping in the governance of the realm; this included subordinate qaghans. Qapghan’s wars continued to bring more territory and peoples under his control. He expanded his power eastward to dominate the Khitans and their neighbors, northward into Kirghiz territory, and westward into Sogdiana, and to the south, he continued to pressure China. Late in his reign, Qapghan’s military efforts met with some failures. After defeating the Türgesh and their Kirghiz allies in 711, Qapghan’s forces traveled farther west to aid the Sogdians against Arab incursions but were defeated by forces under Qutaybah b. Muslim near Samarkand. In the winter of 713–714, the Türks failed to take the northern Tarim city of Beshbalïq (Chinese Beiting 北庭‎) from Tang forces. The losses signaled the Türk realm’s growing weakness and were followed by important defections, including the rebellion of the tribal group known as Toquz Oghuz. Although the Toquz Oghuz were defeated, they remained restive. In 716 Qapghan was ambushed and killed by a leader of the Bayïrqu (part of the Toquz Oghuz group), who sent the qaghan’s head to China, where the Tang dynasty had been restored after the deposing of Empress Wu in 705.

In an apparent coup against Qapghan’s son, the sons of Elterish seized the throne. The elder was enthroned as Bilge (Chinese Pijia 毗伽‎) Qaghan (r. 716–734) with the energetic support of his younger brother Kül (or Köl) Tegin (Chinese Jue Teqin 闕特勤‎).22 Most of Qapghan’s advisers were purged, with the exception of the venerable Tonyuquq. During Qapghan’s reign, both brothers had been involved in almost yearly campaigns to expand their uncle’s power, beginning in 700. Bilge’s early years on the throne were spent attempting to restore order to the empire. Successful campaigns were carried out against the Uyghurs, Qarluqs, Khitans, Tatabï, and others. These activities absorbed most of the qaghan’s attention and strength, making peace with China highly desirable. It seems likely that an additional impetus for Bilge’s interest in peace with China was related to the fact that after the deposing of Empress Wu in 705 and some years of weak rule by her sons, a new and dynamic emperor had come to the Tang throne in 713. The emperor, known as Xuanzong (r. 713–756), presided over a court of exceptional brilliance and an empire of great military strength. Bilge’s reign saw far fewer clashes with China than had occurred under his predecessors. After a victory over Chinese forces at Liangzhou in 720, he began working to improve relations with the Tang empire, which he soon achieved. In the winter of 725–726, Türk representatives participated in the grandiose and awe-inspiring feng and shan ritual performed by Xuanzong at Mount Tai, Tang China’s most sacred mountain. In response to the Türks’ refusal to ally with Tibet against the Tang, a formal agreement was made in 727 that allowed the Türks to trade their horses for Chinese products, particularly silk, which served as currency for the purchase other goods. Regular envoys (some of them Sogdians in Türk service) were sent and received by both empires. Despite establishing a better relationship than had existed under Elterish and Qapghan, however, the Tang court repeatedly resisted Bilge’s request for a marriage alliance.

Good relations with China lasted until the end of Bilge’s reign, save for a clash in 733, when he led a campaign (which included Khitan troops) against the Tang and their Tatabï allies. Bilge’s reign came to an unexpected end the following year when he was poisoned by one of his advisers. The man’s motives are unknown. Because Bilge did not die immediately, he was able to uncover the assassin and have him and his family put to death. The Tang court, which had sent craftsmen to help establish a stone inscription and memorial site for Bilge’s brother Kül Tegin after the latter had died in 731, now did the same for Bilge Qaghan.

After Bilge Qaghan’s murder the empire was challenged by the brief reigns of his successors; these are somewhat confused in the sources, and the rulers’ identities are not always clear.23 In the end, the empire did not outlive Bilge by more than a decade. Nevertheless, it had sufficient strength to maintain a trading relationship with the Tang state in which Türk horses were traded for Chinese silk at a rate that was highly advantageous to the Türks. The Tang official Zhang Jiuling wrote letters in 736 complaining about the quality of the horses and the fact that the Türks were sending more horses than the agreement of 727 had stipulated, but the trade continued. In its final years, the Türk Empire was rent by divisions within the ruling Ashina house, and one of the qaghans (Tengri, Chinese Dengli 登利‎) was murdered by his uncle in 741. After Tengri’s death, an alliance of three of the Türks’ subject peoples, the Uyghurs, Basmïl, and Qarluqs, brought about the final collapse of the empire with the murder of the qaghan known as Ozmïsh (Chinese Wusumishi 烏蘇米施‎) in 744 and then his younger brother Baimei 白眉‎ Qaghan the next year. Even before this, Türk and Sogdian elites had fled from the carnage in Mongolia to seek refuge in Tang China. In the steppe, the leader of the Basmïl proclaimed himself qaghan, but he was soon overthrown by his erstwhile allies. Ultimately, it was the Uyghurs who successfully established a new empire that dominated eastern Inner Asia for nearly a century, from 744 to 840.

The Legacy of the Türks and Their Culture

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Türk empires was the further spread of the Turkic peoples and their languages throughout much of Inner Asia. This “Turkicization” was made possible by the Türks’ creation of a massive empire that laid the groundwork for subsequent polities founded by various Turkic peoples and also created the basis from which much of the Mongol Empire’s power was derived in the 13th and 14th centuries. In the 21st century, much of Inner Asia remains the domain of Turkic peoples; many of them have established independent states there, and others live as significant minority groups in Mongolia, China, Russia, and Iran.

The spread of Türk hegemony throughout such a vast territory brought unprecedented opportunities for the exchange of goods, people, and ideas. Türk-Sogdian collaboration was particularly important to the empire’s economic activities, as well as its political life. Unlike their successors the Uyghurs, however, the Türks did not construct cities in the steppe region to promote trade or political cohesion. According to Chinese sources, Bilge Qaghan considered doing so but was dissuaded by Tonyuquq, who also spoke against state support for Buddhism or Taoism—religions the Türks certainly must have encountered during their half-century as Tang subjects. He argued that such things would weaken the Türks rather than strengthen them.

The most significant cultural achievement of the Türks was the creation of a literary language that could be used to record their thoughts and deeds in their own words. For that reason, the Türks can also be credited with the first examples of history writing among pastoral nomadic peoples of Inner Asia. What prompted this is unknown, but it is clear that Türk elites—not only the rulers but other aristocratic Türks as well—employed this new written language, which they inscribed on “eternal stones” (Old Turkic benggü tash), to set forth their achievements in a way that was clearly intended to have a propagandistic thrust. Because of this, not only is the language of the Türks known (unlike the languages of their predecessors, such as the Rourans, which are known only by isolated words and phrases in Chinese transliteration), but these inscriptions offer the first accounts available from an Inner Asian point of view.

The Türks’ first written records, however, were not in their language. The oldest of these, the Bugut inscription, was written soon after Tatpar’s death (581); its creation may have been prompted by ancient “deer stones” found throughout the Mongolian steppe and beyond. These bronze-age stelae contain no words, but they are rich in symbolic images and so can be regarded as conveying some sort of message (the meaning of which is no longer entirely clear) to their viewers. More likely, the Türks were influenced by Chinese and Sogdian persons, who would have been aware of commemorative stone inscriptions in China and other parts of the world. The Bugut monument’s morphology is essentially Chinese, shaped very much like important stone inscriptions in China, complete with a turtle base and addorsed dragons at the top of the monument,24 but the stone’s two inscriptions are not in Chinese language. The longer of them (which makes up the bulk of the inscription) is in Sogdian language and script; a much shorter (and much more badly damaged) inscription is in Brahmī script and (apparently) Sanskrit language. Reading the Sogdian inscription has proved difficult, but it is clear that its purpose was to glorify past rulers of the empire, particularly Mugan and Tatpar.25 The only other known inscription from the First Türk Empire is a much shorter one found in western Xinjiang province in China; it, too, is in Sogdian language and script. It has further interest in that the stone does not follow Chinese models but was made in the shape of a man—apparently the Türk leader being commemorated in the inscription.26

It was under the Second Türk Empire that a writing system for the Türks’ own language, commonly called “Old Turkic,” was developed. The precise circumstances of its development remain uncertain. The script, which ultimately derives from Aramaic,27 is often called “runic” or, more properly, “runiform” because of its superficial resemblance to Germanic runes. The most important sources from the restored empire are the funerary inscriptions of Kül Tegin and of Bilge Qaghan and a privately commissioned inscription erected by the counselor Tonyuquq. The first two, which were state undertakings, maintain the Chinese morphology of the Bugut inscription (but in a much more sophisticated articulation) and also have Chinese-language inscriptions provided by the Tang ruler. But the most important element of each of these two memorial inscriptions is the long text in Old Turkic that each contains. The Tonyuquq inscription, in contrast, is carved on two unadorned stelae that suggest it was a private project. All three inscriptions tout the accomplishments of their dedicatees and tell us much about Türk beliefs, practices, and deeds. This was a major cultural advancement in Inner Asia. After the stone inscriptions erected by the Türks and Uyghurs, the next important native Inner Asian source only appears in the 13th century: The Secret History of the Mongols.

Although evidence is somewhat limited, it seems that the Türks’ religion was primarily one that contained elements of what is commonly termed “shamanism,” as well as a cult of Heaven (Old Turkic Tengri)—a great power that was seen to play an important role in human affairs and politics. The Kül Tegin and Bilge Qaghan inscriptions make frequent use of formulae such as “Because Heaven ordered it (to happen) . . .” Thus there seems to have been, at least in the Second Türk Empire, a state-sponsored religion that promoted the worship of Tengri, as well as a goddess called Umay. There were apparently other, more localized, spiritual powers as well: the “sacred earth and waters” (Old Turkic ïduq yer sub). As for Buddhism, though it attracted the attention of some Türk rulers, there is little evidence that many Türks practiced it. Efforts to link the Türks to Zoroastrianism, for which the evidence is far from clear, remain controversial.

The Türks had myths of origin that not only link them to myths found farther to the west, but also reflect shamanic practices. They also established a sacred ancestral cave at which their rulers carried out annual rituals. The Old Turkic inscriptions (also known as the Orkhon inscriptions) indicate that the Türks—at least in the second empire—promoted the idea of a sacred mountain known as Ötüken (thought to be the modern Khangai Mountains in Mongolia), which was regarded as the political heart of the empire, a close connection to which was vital to the Türks’ very survival.28

Discussion of the Literature

Much of the scholarship on the Türk empires relies heavily on Chinese sources. Early studies by scholars such as N.Ia. Bichurin (“Iakinf”), Stanislas Julien, and E. J. Parker focused on providing translations of relevant Chinese texts; these have been largely superseded by the translations of Édouard Chavannes and Liu Mau-tsai which retain their utility for scholars. Chinese researchers such as Cen Zhongmian and Wu Yugui have provided useful compendia of (untranslated) Chinese texts on the Türks, bringing together materials from both well-known and obscure sources.

The discovery of sources left by the Türks themselves—inscriptions in Sogdian language from the First Empire and in Old Turkic from the Second Empire—provided important new insights into the study of Türk history. These inscriptions have remained largely the domain of philologists. Most historians who consider them must rely on translations (which can be tentative, since many of these texts are badly damaged); the study of Old Turkic by historians remains a rare phenomenon. Although new inscriptions continue to be found, these are often brief and cannot always contribute significantly to the study of Türk history. Another body of sources includes recently-discovered Chinese-language funerary inscriptions that touch upon various aspects of Türk history; some of these have been mined by Chinese scholars in particular for data they can provide on historical problems. Finally, archaeological finds have also contributed to our understanding of the Türk empires.

The study of Türk history presents a number of challenges, and this situation has contributed to the fact that there is, as yet, no satisfactory comprehensive history of the Türk empires in any language. Researchers have tended to focus instead on specific problems of Türk history. In doing so they have often provided highly insightful analyses of various aspects of Türk history. Recent decades have seen an increase in important publications on Türk history and culture from researchers in China, Japan, Europe, and North America. Studies in related fields, such as Sogdian history, have further expanded our knowledge.

Primary Sources

The most voluminous records for the history of the Türks are those found in Chinese texts, particularly the accounts of the Türks found in the official dynastic histories Bei shi, Zhou shu, Sui shu, Jiu Tang shu, and Xin Tang shu, as well as compilations such as Tang huiyao, Tongdian, and Cefu yuangui. Liu Mau-tsai has translated into German not only the chapters on the Türks from Zhou shu, Sui Shu, Jiu Tang shu, and Xin Tang shu but also a wide range of other relevant passages from those and other Chinese works; as for the Western Türks, the accounts from Sui shu, Jiu Tang shu, andXin Tang shu have been translated into French by Édouard Chavannes along with many other pertinent materials, including extracts from Cefu yuangui. There is also a great deal of important information to be found in the annalistic Zizhi tonghian compiled by Sima Guang in the 11th century. Other valuable sources include Chinese-language tomb epitaphs and documents preserved in collectanea such as (Qinding) Quan Tangwen.

As the first native sources composed by nomadic peoples of the Inner Asian steppe, the Old Turkic inscriptions, though not nearly as voluminous as the Chinese records, are of unparalleled importance. There are several translations of these inscriptions in a number of languages; the major inscriptions are translated into English in Talât Tekin’s A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic. Byzantine sources are also important and include the accounts of Menander the Guardsman (Menander Protector) and Theophylact Simocatta. The history of al-Ṭabarī entitled Taʼrīkh al-rusul wa’l-mulūk contains some information about the Türks in their relations with the Byzantines, Persians, and the Arabs. There are some additional sources in other languages as well, but the information they contain is generally more limited.

Further Reading

Beckwith, Christopher I. The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Cannata, Patrizia. Profilo storico del Iº impero turco (metà VI—metà VII secolo). Rome: Il Bagatto Università di Roma, 1981.Find this resource:

Chavannes, Édouard. Documents sur les Tou-kiue (Turcs) occidentaux, recueillis et commentés suivi de notes additionelles. Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, n.d.Find this resource:

Drompp, Michael R. “Imperial State Formation in Inner Asia: The Early Turkic Empires (6th to 9th Centuries).” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 58, no. 1 (2005): 101–111.Find this resource:

Drompp, Michael R. “Supernumerary Sovereigns: Superfluity and Mutability in the Elite Power Structure of the Early Türks.” In Rulers from the Steppe: State Formation on the Eurasian Periphery. Edited by Gary Seaman and Daniel Marks, 92–115 and 349–352. Los Angeles: Ethnographics Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Golden, Peter B. An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples: Ethnogenesis and State- Formation in Medieval and Early Modern Eurasia and the Middle East. Turcologica 9. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1992.Find this resource:

Hayashi, Toshio. “The Development of a Nomadic Empire: The Case of Ancient Turks (Tuque).” Bulletin of the Ancient Orient Museum 11 (1990): 135–184.Find this resource:

La Vaissière, Étienne de. Sogdian Traders: A History. Uralic Studies and Central Asia 10. Translated by James Ward. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.Find this resource:

Liu Mau-tsai. Die chinesischen Nachrichten zur Geschichte der Ost-Türken (T’u-küe). 2 vols. Göttinger Asiatische Forschungen 10. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1958.Find this resource:

Menander Protector. The History of Menander the Guardsman. Translated by R. C. Blockley. ARCA Classical and Medieval Texts, Papers and Monographs 17. Liverpool, UK: Francis Cairns, 1985.Find this resource:

Mori Masao. Kodai Toruko minzoku shi kenkyū. Tokyo: Yamakawa Shuppansha, 1967.Find this resource:

Naito Midori. Nishi Tokketsu shi no kenkyū. Tokyo: Waseda Daigaku Shuppanbu, 1968.Find this resource:

Pan Yihong. Son of Heaven and Heavenly Qaghan: Sui-Tang China and Its Neighbors. Bellingham: Western Washington University, 1997.Find this resource:

Roux, Jean-Paul. “La religion des Turcs d l’Orkhon des VIIe et VIIIe siècles.” Revue de l’Histoire des Religions 161, no. 1 (1962): 1–24 and 161, no. 2 (1962): 199–231.Find this resource:

Scharlipp, Wolfgang-Ekkehard. Die frühen Türken in Zentralasien: Ein Einführung in ihre Geschichte und Kultur. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1992.Find this resource:

Sinor, Denis. “The Establishment and Dissolution of the Türk Empire.” In The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. Edited by Denis Sinor, 285–316. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Skaff, Jonathan K. Sui-Tang China and Its Turko-Mongol Neighbors: Culture, Power, and Connections, 580–800. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Stark, Sören. Die Alttürkenzeit in Mittel- und Zentralasien: Archäologische und historische Studien. Nomaden und Sesshafte, Band 6. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2008.Find this resource:

Tekin, Talât. A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic. Uralic and Altaic Series 69. Bloomington: Indiana University Publications, 1968.Find this resource:

Theophylact Simocatta. The History of Theophylact Simocatta: An English Translation with Introduction and Notes. Translated by Michael Whitby and Mary Whitby. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Twitchett, Denis, ed. The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 3, Sui and T’ang China, 589–906, Part I. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979.Find this resource:

Wu Yugui. Tujue hanguo yu Sui-Tang guanxi shi yanjiu. Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe, 1998.Find this resource:

Wu Yugui. Tujue dier hanguo Hanwen shiliao biannian jikao. 3 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 2009.Find this resource:


(1.) The Türks themselves rarely made use of the term “Kök Türk,” and typically referred to themselves simply as “Türk.”

(2.) The incompatibility between the Old Turkic form Bumïn, attested in the Old Turkic inscriptions, and the Chinese form Tumen has not been adequately explained despite many efforts. This article employs the Turkic form of names belonging to Türks whenever that name is known or can be reconstructed with reasonable certainty. Unfortunately, many Chinese transliterations of Türk names have not been resolved, so that Chinese forms must continue in use for some Turkic persons and peoples.

(3.) The sources are not always in agreement regarding dates. For example, Zhou shu dates Bumïn’s death to 552, whereas Zizhi tongjian dates it to 553. Both sources place Qara’s death in 553.

(4.) On these events and the challenges of precise dating, see Aydogdy Kurbanov, The Archaeology and History of the Hephthalites (Bonn, Germany: Verlag Dr. Rudolf Habelf, 2013), 183–188.

(5.) This is recorded by the Persian historian Abū Jaʽfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī, who wrote his famous history in Arabic language. See C. E. Bosworth, trans., The History of al-Ṭabarī, vol. 5: The Sāsānids, the Byzantines, the Lakmids, and Yemen (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 160 and 265.

(6.) The origin and Turkic form of this name, for which there is no known Turkic etymology, remains uncertain.

(7.) Some scholars have used the forms “Taghpar” and “Taspar” for this man’s name. All forms derive from readings of the Sogdian-language Bugut inscription, which is badly damaged.

(8.) Yihong Pan, “Marriage Alliances and Chinese Princesses in International Politics from Han through T’ang,” Asia Major, 3rd ser., 10, nos. 1–2 (1997): 108–109.

(9.) Most Türk rulers are known by a variety of names and titles, even within a single source. Ïshbara, for example, is known in Chinese sources not only by a transcription of that name/title (which ultimately derives from Sanskrit īśvara, “lord”) but also by the names/titles Shetu 攝圖‎and Erfu 爾伏‎ (Sogdian Nw’’r?). In many cases the Old Turkic forms of these names have not been established. This article employs the most commonly used forms.

(10.) This name appears in Bosworth, History of al-Ṭabarī, 5:152–153, as Sinjibū.

(11.) For a list of these raids, see Jonathan Karam Skaff, Sui-Tang China and Its Turko-Mongol Neighbors: Culture, Power, and Connections, 580–800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 303–306. A fuller list, including not only raids but other interactions, such as the sending of diplomatic envoys, see Toshio Hayashi, “The Development of a Nomadic Empire: The Case of the Ancient Turks (Tuque),” Bulletin of the Ancient Orient Museum 11 (1990): 163–184.

(12.) The relationship between Li Shimin and Tuli Qaghan is not explained in any real detail in the Chinese sources, but it is stated that they had become “sworn brothers” in the earliest years of the Tang dynasty, before Taizong came to the throne; this serves to remind us of the frequency and relative ease of contact between Türks and Chinese during the Sui-Tang transition, and of the strong Inner Asian component present among the political elites of north China at that time.

(13.) For an analysis of this complex question, see Wang Huan, “Apa Qaghan, Founder of the Western Turkish Khanate, the Splitting Up of the Turkish Khanate and the Formation of the Western Turkish Khanate,” Social Sciences in China 3, no. 4 (1982): 124–154.

(14.) Wang, “Apa Qaghan,” 148.

(15.) This Chuluo Qaghan should not be confused with the Eastern Türk qaghan of the same name.

(16.) Takashi Ôsawa, “Aspect of the Relationship between the Ancient Turks and the Sogdians—based on a Stone Statue with Sogdian Inscription in Xinjiang,” in Ērān ud Anērān: Studies Presented to Boris Il’ič Maršak on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday, eds. Matteo Compareti, Paola Reffetta, and Gianroberto Scarcia (Venice: Libreria Editrice Cafoscarina, 2006), 471–505.

(17.) G. Rex Smith, trans., The History of al-Ṭabarī, vol. 14: The Conquest of Iran (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 56–60; and R. Stephen Humphreys, trans., The History of al-Ṭabarī, vol. 15: The Crisis of the Early Caliphate (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 78–80.

(18.) See the maps in Yuri Bregel, An Historical Atlas of Central Asia (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003), 17, 19, and 21.

(19.) For an analysis of these events, see Yihong Pan, “Integration of the Northern Ethnic Frontiers in Tang China,” Chinese Historical Review 19, no. 1 (2012): 3–26; and Pan, Son of Heaven and Heavenly Qaghan: Sui-Tang China and Its Neighbors (Bellingham: Western Washington University Press, 1997), 176–189.

(20.) See Talât Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic (Bloomington: Indiana University Publications, 1968), 264.

(21.) See Skaff, Sui-Tang China, 309–311, for a list of those raids.

(22.) Tegin, typically translated as “prince,” was a title employed by many men (primarily the qaghan’s brothers and sons) of the royal Ashina house.

(23.) See Mihály Dobrovits, “A Triptychon of Old Turkic Miscellanea, Parts II, III,” Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi 22 (2016): 52.

(24.) Scholars have long thought that the creatures at the top of the monument were wolves, but Sören Stark has made a strong argument for considering them to be dragons. See Sören Stark, “Luxurious Necessities: Some Observations on Foreign Commodities and Nomadic Polities in Central Asia in the Sixth to Ninth Centuries,” in Complexity of Interaction along the Eurasian Steppe Zone in the First Millennium CE, ed. Jan Bemmann and Michael Schmauder (Bonn, Germany: Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, 2015), 477–481.

(25.) On the Bugut inscription, see Sergej G. Klyaštornyj and Vladimir A. Livšic, “The Sogdian Inscription of Bugut Revised,” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 26, no. 1 (1972): 69–102; and Mongorokoku genson iseki, hibun chōsa kenkyū hōkoku, ed. Takao Moriyasu and Ayudai Ochir (Osaka: Society of Central Eurasian Studies, 1999), 122–125. The translation of the Sogdian inscription (in both Japanese and English) presented by Yutaka Yoshida and Takao Moriyasu differs significantly from that presented by Klyaštornyj and Livšic.

(26.) On the Xiao Hongnahai inscription (also known as the Mongolküre inscription) of Xinjiang, see Ôsawa, “Aspect of the Relationship.” Of the inscription’s twenty lines, only the first eight are translated in Ôsawa’s article, although some of the contents of other lines are considered.

(27.) András Róna-Tas, “On the Development and Origin of the East Turkic ‘Runic’ Script,” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 41 (1987): 7–14.

(28.) See Mihály Dobrovits, “The Sacred Ötükän Forest: Natural, Commercial, and Sacral Features of a Holy Place,” in Man and Nature in the Altaic World: Proceedings of the 49th Permanent International Altaistic Conference, Berlin, July 30–August 4, 2006, eds. Barbara Kellner-Heinkele, Elena V. Boykova, and Brigitte Heuer (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 2012), 91–98.