From New World Encyclopedia
Göktürk Empire
551 – 747 Blank.png

Flag of Göktürk Empire


Location of Göktürk Empire
Capital Ötüken
Religion Tengrism
Political structure Khaganate
Göktürk Khans
 - 551-553 Tumen Il-Qağan
 - 621-630 Bagatur-Shad Khieli-Qağan
Legislature Kurultai
 - Established 551
 - Disestablished 747

The Göktürkler(s) or Köktürkler(s) were a Turkic people of ancient Central Asia. Known in medieval Chinese sources as Tujue (突厥 Tūjué), the Göktürks under the leadership of Bumin Khan (d. 552) and his sons succeeded the Xiongnu (Turkish: Doğu Hun; Chinese: 匈奴; pinyin: Xiōngnú; Wade-Giles: Hsiung-nu) as the main Turkic power in the region and took hold of the lucrative Silk Road trade during the sixth century. The Göktürk rulers originated from the Ashina tribe, an Altaic people who lived in the northern corner of the area presently called Xinjiang. (:新疆|新疆). Under their leadership, the Göktürks rapidly expanded to rule huge territories in north-western China, North Asia and Eastern Europe (as far west as the Crimea). They were the first Turkic tribe known to use the name "Turk" as a political name. At their height, the Gokturks controlled a vast area stretching from Eastern Europe all the way across northern China. Their empire made contact with many cultures including Persia, and facilitated the movement of cultural concepts from one area to another. Their religion, Tengriism, a form of shamanism centered on a celestial deity, Tengrii, includes elements which resemble concepts of Confucian and Hindu thought.

The state's most famous personalities other than its founder Bumin were princes Kül Tigin and Bilge and the general Tonyukuk, whose life stories were recorded in the Orkhon inscriptions discovered in 1889 in the Orkhon Valley in Mongolia. From 552 to 745, Göktürk leadership bound the nomadic Turkic tribes together into an empire, which eventually collapsed due to a series of dynastic conflicts. The Khanate received missionaries from the Buddhists, Manicheans, and Nestorian Christians, but retained their original shamanistic religion, Tengriism. From the eighth century, the Göktürks used “Old Turkic script” (also “Göktürk script,” “Orkhon script,” “Orkhon-Yenisey script;” Turkish: Orhun Yazıtları, 鄂爾渾文字) to record the Old Turkic language.


Göktürk petroglyphs from Mongolia.

The name Tujue (突厥), like the name “Ashina,” first appeared in Chinese sources relatively late, with the connotation "strong" or "powerful" in a record dated 542.[1] “Kök-Türks” is said to mean "Celestial Turks," but this is contested. Alternate meanings are "Blue Turks," and "Numerous Turks;" kök meant both "sky" and "blue" in the Köktürk language, and a similar sounding word stands for "root." This is consistent with "the cult of heavenly ordained rule," a pivotal concept of the Altaic political culture before being imported to China.[2] Similarly, the name of the ruling Ashina dynasty probably derives from the Khotanese Saka term for "deep blue," āšše(i)na.[3] The name might also derive from a Tungusic tribe related to Aisin.[4]

According to the ancient East Asian cosmology outlined in the theory of the Five Elements (五行 Wǔ-xíng), to which the Turks have also ascribed since ancient times, the color blue symbolizes the eastern direction, and is associated with good omens. The Guardian Deity of the Eastern Direction is the Azure Dragon. It is possible that the Göktürks called themselves "Blue Turks" in the primary sense of "East Turks," with all the associated connotations of "first," "rising," "dawning," and "auspicious." Göktürk is pronounced IPA: [ɡʲøkʲˈtʏɾk].


The Göktürk rulers originated from the Ashina tribe, an Altaic people who lived in the northern corner of the area presently called Xinjiang شىنجاڭ, Shinjang; Chinese: 新疆; pinyin: Xīnjiāng; Wade-Giles: Hsin1-chiang1; Postal map spelling: "Sinkiang"). The Gokturks were the first Turkic tribe to use the name "Turk" as a political name.

Four hundred years after the collapse of northern Xiongnu power in Inner Asia, leadership of the Turks was taken over by the Göktürks following a rebellion against the Rouran' (Chinese: 柔然; pinyin: Róurán; literally "soft-like"; Wade-Giles: Jou-jan), Ruanruan/Ruru (Chinese: 蠕蠕/茹茹; pinyin: Ruǎnruǎn/Rúrú; literally "wriggling insects/fodder") also known as “Tan Tan,” a confederation of nomadic tribes that existed on the northern borders of China Proper from the late fourth century until the late sixth century. Formerly part of the Xiongnu nomadic confederation, the Göktürks inherited their traditions and administrative experience. From 552 to 745, Göktürk leadership bound the nomadic Turkic tribes together into an empire, which eventually collapsed due to a series of dynastic conflicts.

The great difference between the Göktürk Khanate and its Xiongnu predecessor was that the Göktürks' temporary khans from the Ashina clan were subordinate to a sovereign authority wielded by a council of tribal chiefs. The Khanate received missionaries from the Buddhists, Manicheans, and Nestorian Christians, but retained their original shamanistic religion, Tengriism.

From the eighth century, the Göktürks used “Old Turkic script” (also “Göktürk script,” “Orkhon script,” “Orkhon-Yenisey script;” Turkish: Orhun Yazıtları, 鄂爾渾文字) to record the Old Turkic language.

First Unified Empire

Göktürk khaganates at their height, c. 600 C.E.: ██ Western Göktürk: Lighter area is direct rule, darker areas show sphere of influence. ██ Eastern Göktürk: Lighter area is direct rule, darker areas show sphere of influence.

The Turks' rise to power began in 546 when Bumin Khan (d. 552) made a pre-emptive strike against the Uyghur and Tiele tribes who were planning a revolt against their overlords, the Rouran. He expected to be rewarded with marriage to a Rouran princess, and when his hopes were disappointed Bumin allied with the Wei state against Rouran, their common enemy. In 552, Bumin defeated the last Rouran Khan, Yujiulü Anagui (Chinese: 郁久閭阿那瓌; pinyin: Yùjiǔlǘ Ānàgūi). He also subdued the Yenisei Kyrgyz and the Khitans of Western Manchuria, was formally recognized by China, and married the Wei princess Changle.

Having excelled both in battle and diplomacy, Bumin declared himself Il-Qaghan ("great king of kings") of the new Göktürk empire at Otukan, the old Xiongnu capital, but he died a year later. His son Mukhan consolidated his conquests into an empire of global reach. Bumin's brother Istämi (d. 576) was titled yabghu of the west and collaborated with the Persian Sassanids to defeat and destroy the White Huns, who were allies of the Rouran. This war tightened the Ashina's grip on the Silk Road and drove the Avars into Europe.

Istämi's policy of western expansion brought the Turks into Eastern Europe. In 576 the Göktürks crossed the Cimmerian Bosporus into the Crimea. Five years later they laid siege to Tauric Chersonesus; their cavalry kept roaming the steppes of Crimea until 590.[5] The southern borders were drawn south of the Oxus River, 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.[6] In 588 the Ashina were under the walls of Herat, but Bahram Chobin ably countered the invasion during the First Perso-Turkic War.

In the eastern part of their extensive dominions, the Göktürk Empire maintained close political ties with the Goguryeo Empire of Korea which controlled southern Manchuria and the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Exchanges of gifts, military alliances, and free trade agreements took place between them. Both rival states in north China paid large tributes to the Göktürks from 581.

Civil War

This first Göktürk Empire split in two after the death of the fourth Qaghan, Taspar Khan (Tabo, Tuobo, Tapo Khan, 佗鉢) (ca. 584), the third son of Bumin Khan and Wei Changle (長樂公主). Unlike his father and older brothers he embraced Chinese culture, and was converted to Buddhism[7] by the Qi monk Huilin, for whom he built a pagoda. Taspar's death created a dynastic crisis in the Khaganate. Taspar had bequeathed the title Qaghan to Talopien, the son of his elder brother Muhan Khan. His bequest ran contrary to the traditional system of inheritance which demanded the throne to be passed to the son of the eldest brother, Ishbara. The high council rejected the legality of Taspar's will and appointed Ishbara as the next khagan. Before long four rival khans claimed the title of Qaghan. They were successfully played off against each other by the Sui and Tang dynasties of China.

This crisis ultimately resulted in the civil war of 581-603, which marked the beginning of a long decline and subjugation of the Göktürks by China. The most serious contender was the Western Khan, Istämi's son Tardu, a violent and ambitious man who had already declared himself independent from the Qaghan after his father's death. He now titled himself Qaghan, led an army to the east to claim the seat of imperial power, Otukan, and almost succeeded in reuniting the Gokturk Empire.[8] To strengthen his position, Ishbara of the Eastern Khanate applied to the Chinese Emperor Yang of Sui (隋煬帝, 569 - March 11, 618), for protection. Tardu attacked Changan ( 長安), the Sui capital, around 600, demanding that Emperor Yang end his interference in the civil war. In retaliation, Chinese diplomacy successfully incited a revolt of Tardu's Tiele vassal tribes, which led to Tardu’s death and the end of his reign in 603. Among the dissident tribes were the Uyghur and Syr-Tardush.

Dual Empires

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 khans Shipi (609-619) and Khieli (620-630) of the East attacked China at its weakest moment during the transition between the Sui and Tang dynasties. All in all, 67 incursions on Chinese territories were recorded.[9] Khieli (Khan Hsien) was brought down by a revolt of his Tiele vassal tribes (626-630), allied with Emperor Taizong of Tang (唐太宗). This tribal alliance is referred to in Chinese historical records as the Huihe (Uyghur). After the Khan was taken prisoner, the Tang dynasty divided his empire into protectorates.

The Western khans Shekuei and Tung Yabğu (d. 628[10]) (also known as “T'ung Yabghu,” “Ton Yabghu,” “Tong Yabghu Khagan,” “'Tun Yabghu,” and “Tong Yabğu,” Traditional Chinese 統葉護可汗) 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 60 km east of modern Tokmok. In 627 Tung Yabğu, 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 Buri-sad sent the Göktürk cavalry to invade Armenia, where his general Chorpan Tarkhan succeeded in routing a large Persian force. Tung Yabğu's murder in 630 forced the Göktürks to evacuate Transcaucasia.

The Western Turkic Khaganate was modernized through an administrative reform of Ishbara-Qağan (reigned 634-639) and came to be known as the Onoq.[11] The name refers to "ten arrows" that were granted by the khagan to five leaders (shads) of its two constituent tribal confederations, Tulu and Nushipi, whose lands were divided by the Chui River.[12] The division fostered the growth of separatist tendencies, and soon the Bulgarian tribes under the Dulo chieftain Kubrat seceded from the khaganate. In 657, the eastern part of the khaganate was overrun by the Tang general Su Ding Fang, while the central part emerged as the independent khaganate of Khazaria, led by a branch of the Ashina dynasty.

In 659 the Tang Emperor of China could claim to rule the entire Silk Road as far as Po-sse (Persia). The Turks now carried Chinese titles and fought side-by-side with the Chinese in their wars. The era spanning 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.

Second Empire

Asia in 700 C.E., showing the Eastern or 2nd Göktürk Empire.

In 681 Ilteriş Şad (Idat) and his brother Bäkçor Qapağan Khan (Mo-ch'o) revolted against Chinese domination and gradually re-established the Khanate. Over the following decades, they steadily gained control of the steppes beyond the Great Wall of China. By 705, they had expanded as far south as Samarkand and threatened Arab control of Transoxiana. The Göktürks clashed with the Umayyad Califate in a series of battles (712-713) in which the Arabs again emerged as victors.

Following the Ashina tradition, the power of the Second Empire was centered on Ötükän (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".[13]The eighth century “Orkhon inscriptions” discovered in 1889 in the Orkhon Valley in Mongolia, area historical record of the accomplishments of several Gokturk leaders including Tonyukuk, Bilge Khan, and Kül Tigin. Tonyukuk (暾欲谷, died c. 724 C.E.), was the yabgu and commander-in-chief of four Göktürk khagans, the best known of whom is Bilge Khan. The son of Ilteriş, Bilge, or Piqie Khan (also “Arslan Bilgä Khağan.” Chinese: 毗伽可汗, personal name “Ashina Mojilian” (阿史那默棘連); 683 or 684 - 734), was a strong leader like his father. Kül Tigin 闕特勒 (685 - 731 or 732 C.E.) was a famous general.

After Bilge’s death in 734 the empire declined. The Göktürks ultimately fell victim to a series of internal crises and renewed Chinese campaigns. When Kutluk Khan of the Uyghurs allied himself with the Karluks and Basmyls, the power of the Göktürks was waning. In 744 Kutluk seized Ötükän and beheaded the last Göktürk khagan Özmish Khan, whose head was sent to the Chinese court.[14] In a space of few years, the Uyghurs gained mastery of Inner Asia and established the Uyghur Khaganate (Chinese: 回纥 / 回鶻).

During the eleventh century, the Oguz migrated westward into Iran and Afghanistan.


First Göktürk Empire

  • Ashina Tuwu
    • Yili Qaghan / Ashina Tumen (552 - 553) elder son of Tuwu
      • Yixiji Qaghan / Ashina Keluo (553 - 554) son of Tumen
        • Shabolue Qaghan / Ashina Shetu (581 - 587) son of Kelou
          • Xiegashiduona Dulan / Ashina Chuluohou (588 - 599) son of Shetu
            • Tuli Qaghan or Qimin Qaghan / Ashina Rangan (599 - 609) son of Chuluohou
              • Shibi Qaghan / Ashina Duoji (609 - 619) son of Rangan
              • Chuluo Qaghan / Ashina Qilifu (619 - 621) younger brother of Duoji
              • Jiali Qaghan / Ashina Duobi (621 - 630) third son of Rangan
        • Yehu Qaghan or Mohe Qaghan / Ashina Yongyulu (587 - 588) brother of Shetu
      • Mugan Qaghan / Ashina Qijin (554 - 572) younger brother of Kelou
      • Tuobo Qaghan / Unknown name (572 - 581) younger brother of Qijin
        • Unknown title / Ashina Anluo (581) son of Tuobo Qaghan

Rival Qağans of Ishbara

  • Rudan Buli Khan 580s
  • Talopien Apa Khan 580s
  • Tardu Datou Khan (also known as Bujia Khan) (599 - 603)

Western Qaghans

  • Ashina Tuwu
    • Istämi Yabghu (553 - 573) (defacto qağan in west) second son of Tuwu
    • Tardu Datou Khan (599 - 603)
    • Nili Khan 603 and Chulo Khan (603 - 611)
    • Shekuei (611 - 618)
    • Tung Yabğu (618 - 630)
    • Yiwu Khan (630)

Interim claimants of Eastern Tujue throne

  • Qilibi Khan (639 - 644) (Tang vassal)
  • Chebi Khan (~646 - 649)
  • Ashina Nishoufu (679-680)
  • Ashina Funian (681)

Second Göktürk Empire

  • Ilteris Sad (Idat) (682-694)
  • Qapagan Khaghan (Mo-ch'o) (694 - 716)
  • Inäl Khan 716
  • Bilgä Khan (716 - 734) (murdered)
  • Kul Tigin Khan (716 - 731) (co-ruler with Bilge)
  • Yollug Khan (735 - )
  • Icen Khan - (744)
  • Etimis Khan 9744-747) (in exile)

See also

  • Turkic peoples
  • Orkhon script
  • Khazars
  • Kangju


  1. Zongzheng Xue. A History of Turks. (Beijing: Chinese Social Sciences Press, 1992. ISBN 7500404328), 39-85
  2. André Wink. Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. (Brill Academic Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0391041738), 64.
  3. Carter Vaughin Findley. The Turks in World History. (Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0195177266), 39.
  4. Xueyuan Zhu. The Origins of Northern China's Ethnicities. (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 2004. ISBN 7101033369), 68-91.
  5. René Grousset. The Empire of the Steppes. (Rutgers University Press, 1970. ISBN 0813513049), 81.
  6. Grousset
  7. Carter V. Findley. The Turks in World History. (Oxford University Press US, 2005, ISBN 0195177266), 48 [1].books.google.
  8. Gokturk Indopedia.org. Retrieved September 12, 2008.
  9. Grousset, 81
  10. Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 193
  11. Lev Gumilev. The Gokturks. (Древние тюрки). (Moscow: AST, 2007. ISBN 5170247931), 238.
  12. Gumilev
  13. Wink, 66.
  14. Grousset, 114.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Findley, Carter V. The Turks in World History. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0195177268.
  • Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, 3rd ed. Article "Turkic Khaganate"
  • Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes. Rutgers University Press, 1970. ISBN 0813513049.
  • Gumilev, Lev. The Gokturks (Древние тюрки). Moscow: AST, 2007. ISBN 5170247931.
  • Wink, André. Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. Brill Academic Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0391041738.
  • Xue, Zongzheng. A History of Turks. Beijing: Chinese Social Sciences Press, 1992. ISBN 7500404328.
  • Zhu, Xueyuan. The Origins of Northern China's Ethnicities. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 2004. ISBN 7101033369.


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