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Turkic peoples

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The Turkic people are any of various peoples whose members speak languages in the Turkic family of languages. These people, possibly numbering 150 million in population, are probably the diverse descendants of large groups of tribespeople who originated in Central Asia.



The first mention of the term "Turk" which remains to this day, was by the Gokturks in the 6th century. A letter by the Chinese Emperor written to the Göktürk khan named Isbara in 585 describes him as "the Great Turk khan". The Orhun inscriptions from the same time use the term "Turuk".

Previous use of similar terms, like those in a tablet from 2000 BCE found in the ancient city of Mari near Tell Hariri in northern Iraq (which mentions that a people named "Turukku" are coming to the lands of Tiguranim and Hirbazanim), the Chinese in 1328 BCE (referring to a neighbouring people as "Tu-Kiu"), or that in the Zend-Avesta one of the grandsons of Noah is named "Turk", are of unknown significance, although some feel strongly that this is early evidence of the historical continuency of the term and the people as an ethnic (and possibly linguistic) unit.

The most common popular explanation in present-day Turkey regarding the root of the word "Turk" is that it means "strong" or "powerful". Also in the 16. century the Ottoman Turks believed that "Turk" also meant: "He who has reached the most mature stage/stage of perfection" ('kemâle ermiş')

The English term "Turkic" is nowadays mainly used to describe the languages and peoples of the whole area while the term "Turkish" is commonly seen as referring to the peoples and language of modern Turkey and some of the ethnically and culturally particularly close peoples and ethnic minorities in surrounding countries. Some feel that this is an artificial distinction and claim that the Turkic languages do not make themselves this distinction. However, in modern Turkish, the term Türk refers to Turkish people and culture, while the term Türki refers to Turkic people and cultures. They also claim that much of the separation is the product of Stalinism, and that prior to the founding of the Soviet Union the term Turkish was used to describe all Turkic people which by similarity in language and culture are seen as united and part of a greater family of peoples. Others are worried that much of this debate is used as a support to the racial theories of Pan-Turkism, pointing out that the cultural, religious, historical, political, and even racial differences are too big for speaking of a unity.


It is believed that the Turkic people are natives of Central Asia. Some historians claim that the Turks originated in Western Asia, and migrated in prehistoric times to Central Asia, while others believe that migration to Western Asia and interactions in various parts of the world by Turkic peoples in ancient times (before the advent of the Huns) occurred via Central Asia.

Comparisons to the ancient Sumerian language (which they label as Ural-Altaic) to modern Turkic languages show common vocabulary. Based on these comparisons it is claimed that the Sumerians were the most ancient documented Turkic people, that they originated from east of the Caspian Sea but established a civilization in Mesopotamia. Others dismiss this as an expression of pan-Turkist ideology, pointing out that most linguists consider Sumerian a language isolate, while a few others connect it to the Dravidian languages. Further, the classification of languages into an Ural-Altaic group is often criticised, due to perceived lack of evidence and perceived lack of obvious similarties between languages classified as such.

Some scholars will also consider the Huns, whose origins go back to 1200 BCE, as one of the earlier Turkic tribes.

Leaving these controversies aside, the precise date of the initial expansion from the early homeland remains unknown. The first state known as "Turk" giving its name to the many states and people afterwards, was that of the Gokturks (gog = 'blue' or 'celestial') in the 6th century AD.

Later Turkic peoples include the Karluks (mainly 8th century), Uyghurs, Kirghiz, Oghuz (or Ğuz) Turks, and Turkmens. As these peoples were founding states in the area between Mongolia and Transoxiana, they came into contact with the Muslim people and gradually adopted Islam. However, there were also (and still are) Turkic people belonging to different religions, including Christians, Jews (see Khazars), Buddhists, and Zoroastrians.

Turkic soldiers in the army of the Abbasid caliphs emerged as de facto rulers of most of the Muslim Middle East (except Syria and Egypt), particularly after the 10th century. Oghuz and other tribes captured and dominated various countries under the leadership of the Seljuk dynasty and eventually captured the territories of the Abbasid dynasty and the Byzantine Empire.

Meanwhile, Kirghiz and Uyghurs were struggling with each other and with the mighty Chinese Empire. Kirghiz people finally settled in the region that is now referred to as Kyrgyzstan. Tatar peoples conquered Volga Bulgars in what is today Tatarstan following the westward sweep of the Mongols under Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Bulgars was named tatars by Russians mistakenly. Native Tatars lives only in Asia, European tatars are in fact Bulgars. (Bulgars came to Europe in 7-8th century). Everywhere, Turkic groups mixed to some extent with other local populations.

As the Seljuks declined after the Mongol invasion, the Ottoman Empire emerged as a new important Turkic state which came to dominate not only the Middle East, but also southeastern Europe and parts of southwestern Russia and northern Africa. Meanwhile, other Turkic groups founded dynasties in Iran (like the Safavids) and northern India (the Mughal Empire).

The Ottoman Empire grew weaker in the face of repeated wars with Russia and Austria and the emergence of nationalist movements in the Balkans, and finally gave way after World War I to the present-day republic of Turkey.

Geographical Distribution and ethnic division

Presently, the largest group of Turkic people live in Turkey. Other major Turkic peoples live in Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Additionally, Turkic people live in Crimea, the Xinjiang region of western China, northern Iraq, Afghanistan, Moldova, and the Balkans (particularly in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and former Yugoslavia). A small number of Turkic people also live in Vilnius (capital of Lithuania).

An exact line between the different Turkic people cannot be drawn easily. The following is a non-comprehensive list of the major groups:

Some people divide the above into six branches: the Oghuz, Kipchak, Kurluk , Siberian, Chuvash, and Saha/Yakut branches.

One of the major difficulties perceived by many who try to classify the various Turkic languages, dialects, peoples and ethnic groups is the impact Soviet and particularly Stalin's nationality policies, creation of new national demarcations and mass deportations had on the ethnic mix in previously largely multicultural regions like Khiva/Khwarezmia, Fergana valley and Caucasia. Many of the above mentioned classifications are therefore by no means generally accepted, neither in detail nor in general. Another aspect often debated is the influence of Pan-Turkism and the emerging nationalism in the newly independent Central Asian republics on the perception of ethnic divisions.

Physical Appearance

Turkic peoples often differ in physical appearance. The majority of Turkic people from western China to eastern Europe seem to possess certain Caucasian characteristics. Some have very light features including blue eyes and blondish/reddish hair although most Turkic people look Mediterranean, having brown or black hair and eyes, and olive to dark skin features. In some Turkic areas, the existence of peoples who have light skin features as well as light hair and eyes with a Mongolian facial structure is common (like some Uzbeks and Tatars). The majority of Turkic people seem to have high cheek bones, round heads, and straight hair.

There has been much debate about the racial origin of Turkic people, with some assuming a Ural-Altaic race comprising of Hungarians, Finns, Estonians, Turkic peoples, Mongolians and Tungus, others assuming a separate Turkic race, partially mixed with Mongols. Some even belief that Chinese, Korean, and Japanese are Turkic people of the Tungusic group. Others again point out that many languages have commonly been adopted either by choice or by force by racially diverse people. The current common understanding is to assume at least a partial separation of linguistic and racial heritage, based on the multitude of invasions, wars, empires, population movements in the region and the general disrepute all racial origin theories have fallen in recent times.


Most Turkic people are Sunni Muslims. But many people in Eastern Turkey are Alevis and most of the Turkic people of Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan are Shia Muslims. The distribution of Alevis turks are balanced throughtout the east and west ends of Turkey.

The Chuvash of Russia and the Gagauz of Moldova are largely Christians.

Some Turkic people (particularly in the Russian autonomic regions and republics of Altai, Khakasia , and Tuva) are largely shamanists. Shamanism was the predominant religion of the different Turkic branches prior to the 8th century, when the majority accepted Islam.

There are also a few Buddhist, Jewish, Zoroastian, and Baha'i Turkic people.

"Turkish World" and "Pan-Turkism"

Some refer to the Turkic countries, regions and peoples as part of the "Turkish World". Others are worried that this is a result and example of Pan-Turkism, designed to encourage hegemonial or even imperialistic aims of modern day Turkey.

Proponents of the term point out that in a similar fashion many Arabs also feel to be part of a greater "Arab World". It is also said that encouragement of this cultural and linguistic affinity can be used as a vehicle to regional development and increased regional security.

Opponents point to the nationalism and the imperial past of modern Turkey, the role of the pan-Turkic movements in the revolutionary wars in Russia, and the cultural, religious, and political diversity of the many Turkic peoples and ethnic groups and feel that a movement to greater pan-Turkic unity might be a negative influence on the region.

See also

External links

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04