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The Turkic Expansion

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This is a very brief overview of the Turkic expansion. Since the nature of the expansion was widespread and over many centuries, it is difficult to include every event in one writing.

Kaiseri Silk Rug

The original ancestral Turkic population is thought to have been the empire of the Xiong Nu, which was a coalition of nomadic tribes on the steppe in and near modern day west and northwestern China, beginning circa 200 BC (Holster, 1993). These tribes were made up of both Turk and Mongolian ancestral peoples. This coalition was probably formed to unite the individual, isolated nomadic tribes against the invading Chinese (Findley, 2005). The Xiong Nu enjoyed a fairly peaceful, and even dominant position over the Han Chinese empires, with the Han Chinese paying tribute to the Xiong Nu to maintain peace. However, around 50 B.C. this relationship became inverted. This allowed the Han Chinese to gain dominance and begin the process of expelling the Xiong Nu from China (Findley, 2005). Eventually the Chinese armies overpowered the Xiong Nu, and the empire was broken up into smaller kingdoms, or khanates, some of which moved west into Persia and Byzantium, and others who moved north to Mongolia, starting with the defeat of the Xiong Nu and continuing migration for hundreds of years. These invading (or migrating, depending on the perspective) tribes became known as “Huns” to the Iranians, Byzantines, and Europeans (Findley, 2005). However, it is important to note that they were not one cohesive group, but rather small tribes individually migrating west over hundreds of years. Attila the Hun (450 AD) represents perhaps the most famous of these tribes, and his tribe expanded as far west as modern day Hungary, moving proto Turkic cultures from isolation in the east to new lands from China through the Caucus to Europe. (Findley, 2005).

            The first specific reference to actual “Turks” in literature is thought to be a reference to a people called the “Tu Kiu” in Chinese literature around 550 AD. These people were most likely a sub-tribe from a branch of one of the kingdoms that formed after the fall of the Xiong Nu empire (Findley, 2005). The “Tu Kiu”, or Turks, by that time were apparently smaller empires of nomadic peoples that stretched from northern China to the Black Sea (Holster 7). By the AD 700’s there is evidence of a well-developed writing system that was uniquely Turkish. This points to Turkish being a distinct language by at least this time, if not sooner. The Orkhon runes in Mongolia contain an inscription of the deeds of the ruler of the second Turk Empire, and are written in a unique Turkic runic script (Findley, 2005).

              One of these Turkic Empires was made up of the Oghuz people, which itself was a tribal federation located in Siberia and Mongolia. When the Uighur, another federation, came to power in AD 745, the Oghuz were pushed to the west and south into modern day Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Anatolia. Then the Uighurs were expelled by yet another Turkic Empire, the Kirghiz in AD 840. Finally, in AD 924, Mongols, who at that point were separate and distinct peoples from the Turkic peoples, drove the Kirghiz out of Mongolia. The areas of modern Turkic peoples such as the Kirghiz of Kirghizstan and the Uighurs of China can be traced back to these clashings of Empires (Holster, 1993). Meanwhile, in Anatolia, Iraq and Syria, a Turkic tribe called the Seljuks was pushing the Byzantines back into Asia Minor in AD 1071. Later, the Ottomans, another Turkic tribe, took over the lands that the Seljuks had conquered in AD 1326 and formed the Ottoman Empire, which dissolved the Byzantine Empire and continued into the 20th century. At its height in the 1500’s, the Ottoman Empire extended to Algeria, Yemen, Crimea, Moldavia and Hungary (Holster, 1993).

            Many times “the Turkish invasion” is visualized as one event when a huge army of Turkish soldiers all of a sudden decided to rise up out of the east and push west, conquering everyone in their path. However, the true story is that proto Turkic and Turkic peoples were migrating out from their original lands in western China for hundreds of years, from the defeat of the Xiong Nu in the first century AD. This view of continuous admixture of populations in the areas where Turkic people are present today is supported by genetic evidence.


Works Cited

Findley, Carter Vaughn. 2005. The Turks in World History. Oxford University Press:   



Holster, Charles Warren. 1993. The Turks of Central Asia. Praeger: Westport, CT.