The Gök Türk Empire

Author: Ihsan
Origins of the Türük People

 Armored riders, detail from petraglyphs in Char-Chad, Altai Mountains, Mongolia
The Gök Türks (aka Türük, Kök Türük, Tourkh, Turk, Tujue, Tr'wk) were one of the many nomadic Turkic peoples that lived in Mongolia in the early Middle Ages. Their origins are not clear because 6th-7th century Chinese sources describe different myths. They might have been a part of the Xiongnu, they might have been Turkified Xianbei who fled massacre from the Tuoba Wei or they might have Turkified Indo-Europeans. Whoever their origins were, they were the first Turkic group to use the name Turk. The ruling family of Türük came from the Ashina tribe which was believed to have descended from a child and the Kök Böri (Blue Wolf). Until 552, the Türük people lived in the Southern Altais but in 552 they moved into the Orkhon Valley in Central Mongolia.

Establishment of the Gök Türk Empire

The Gök Türks were one of the many nomadic Turkic peoples that lived in Mongolia in the early Middle Ages. Their origins are not clear because 6th-7th century Chinese sources describe different myths. They might have been a part of the Xiongnu, they might have been Turkified Xianbei who fled massacre from the Tuoba Wei or they might have Turkified Indo-Europeans. Whoever their origins were, they were the first Turkic group to use the name Turk. The ruling family of Türük came from the Ashina tribe which was believed to have descended from a child and the Kök Böri (Blue Wolf). Until 552, the Türük people lived in the Southern Altais but in 552 they moved into the Orkhon Valley in Central Mongolia.

The Türüks were living under Rouran (aka Ruanruan) rule during the early-6th century. They were employed as blacksmiths for the Rouran ruler, because Turkic peoples were well known from their iron working. Under the leadership of their leader Bumïn (Tumen), they overthrew the Rouran yoke in 552, with the help of their allies, the Western Tuoba Wei Dynasty. Bumïn declared his independence in Ötüken (the sacred forest-mountain which later became the center of the Eastern Gök Türük Qaghanate), and earned the title Il-Qaghan. He appointed Istemi (Shedianmi), his brother, as the Yabghu of the Western territories of the newly-founded Gök Türk Qaghanate, but died within a year.

Golden Age of the Eastern Qaghanate
Bumïn Il-Qaghan was succeded by Qara Qaghan, but he also died soon and was replaced with Buqan (Mugan) Qaghan. During his reign, the Gök Türk Empire lived it's Golden Age, when the Rouran were finally defeated and with the help of Western Tuoba, totally massacred in 555. He then marched on the Khitans and the Qïrghïz and eventually brought them under Gök Türk rule. He also forced the Chinese Zhou and Qi Dynasties to pay tribute to him, while expanded the empire in a short time. With his brother Istemi Yabghu, he organized a campaign against the Hephtalites (White Huns) and destroyed them with the help of the Sâssânid Empire of Irân. He was also the first Turkic ruler to enter Transoxiana (after Zhizhi Chanyu of Western Xiongnu), and soon, Turkic rulers settled on the Soghdian-inhabited towns of Transoxiana, like Samarkand and Bukhara. When he died in 572, the Gök Türk borders had reached Manchuria to the East and Irân to the West.
A Balbal, small statue symbolising the foes killed by a hero during his life
Istemi Yabghu became a semi-independent ruler in the Western territories of the Gök Türk Empire, and stayed as the Yabgu until his death in 576. He had some famous campaigns like his Hephtalite Campaign, which resulted in the partition of the White Hunnic Empire between the Western Gök Türks and the Sâssânids. He later allied with the Roman Emperor Iustinus II, and fought against his former ally, the Sâssânids fort he control of the Silk Road. He was victorious, and captured many Transoxianian towns like Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkend. When the campaign had ended, his armies were marching in Azerbaijan. In 571, the Western Türküt armies crossed the Caucasian Mountains and entered Roman territories, because the Romans had supported the Avars in their struggle with the Gök Türks (Avars were chased westwards by Istemi Yabghu). Istemi also invaded Crimea with the help of Oghur Turks. But, this did not result in a major Gök Türk-Roman war, and Istemi Yabghu died in 576, five years after Buqan Qaghan's death.

Decline of the Gök Türk Empire
In 572, Buqan Qaghan died and Taspar Qaghan became the next ruler of the vast Gök Türk Empire. Even tough the Gök Türk Empire was still strong enough to compete with the rival Zhou and Qi Dynasties of China, the empire began to decline during his reign. One of the main reasons of this decline was Taspar's close ties with the Chinese Imperial Families and Buddhist monks. Taspar was inspired from the riches of China, and soon he began living in Chinese lifestyle. Chinese spies, disguised as Buddhist monks and envoys, soon began spreading propaganda between the other tribes that were ruled by the Gök Türks. This later resulted in the partition of the Gök Türk Empire (the Western half was already semi-independent).

After Istemi's death, his son Tardu tried to overthrow Taspar but he was not succesful. He tried it again, during Ïshbara Qaghan's, Taspar's son, reign, and eventually declared his independence in 582. While these events were happening, the Sui Dynasty had already taken control of China. The Sui eventually provoked the two Gök Türk qaghanates to fight each other. Meanwhile, the Western Gök Türks invaded Khorâsân (ruled by Sâssânids) but they were defeated at Herat in 583.

Partition of the Empire

Shibi Qaghan sat on the Gök Türk throne in 609, and recovered the past strenght of the Gök Türks. He advanced as far as Tibet (conquering the Tarim Basin and Turfan), cut the yearly tributes the Gök Türks were paying to the Sui, defeated the Imperial forces of the Sui Emperor, and eventually forced him to pay tribute. He died in 619, one year after the Tang Dynasty took control of China, and was succeded by Tuli Qaghan. Tuli Qaghan continued to raid China, but was poisoned by his Chinese wife in 621. Illig Qaghan was the last Eastern Gök Türk ruler; he also continued the raids into China, but he was taken prisoner in his last raiding campaign in 630. In the same year, Tang Taizong invaded Mongolia and destroyed the Eastern Gök Türk Qaghanate, whose territories were divided into Tang military provinces. Almost all the peoples under Gök Türk rule, like the Qïrghïz, Qarluqs, Toquz Oghuz (established by the Tiele against the Gök Türks) and many other Tiele tribes became independent.

In the year 582, the Gök Türk Empire had splited into two qaghanates, as we mentioned before. The first Western Gök Türk ruler, Tardu, expanded his empire as far as Crimea and organized a campaign into China. The Sui raiding groups poisened all the water wells, and Tardu's army was defeated. After this defeat, many tribes revolted against the Gök Türk rule, and eventually, the Turkic group of peoples, known as Tiele (inaccurately called as Tölis by some people), killed Tardu in 603.

There are a few Western Gök Türk rulers, but I'll just write about Tong Yabgu, who ruled between 618 and 630. During Tong Yabghu's rule, the Western Gök Türks re-gained their strenght, formed a new army, put down the revolts of the Tiele and defeated the Sâssânids. But, a new revolt broke up, this time by the Qarluqs and the On Oq (Ten Tribes of Western Gök Türks, including the Türgish), and this weakened the Western Gök Türk Qaghanate. Tong Yabgu was murdered by his uncle Sibi, and the Gök Türk princes began struggling with each other for the Gök Türk throne. The Tang intervened and ended the Gök Türk rule. Yet, it was not until 659 that the Gök Türks were totally brought under Tang rule. However, the Tang emperors continued to appoint puppet qaghans for the terriotories of the Western Gök Türk Qaghanate. In the late 7th century, the Türgish Qaghanate replaced the Western Gök Türk Qaghanate.

Establishment of the Second Eastern Qaghanate

The Gök Türk Empire was split into two parts in 582 and both qaghanates were subjugated into the Tang Dynasty in 630. The Gök Türks revolted many times but all the revolts were put down by Tang armies. The last of these revolts, started by Qutlugh and Tonyuquq in 680, finally overthrew the Tang yoke and declared a new Gök Türk Empire at Ötüken in 682 after defeating the Toquz Oghuz Qaghanate. He was declared as Iltirish Qaghan, meaning the ruler who re-created the empire, and appointed his brothers Bögü Chor (Mochuo) and Tuoxifu as the governors of Eastern and Western territories. Tonyuquq was appointed as "Ayghuchï", which was a title equivalent of Prime Minister.

Iltirish Qaghan subjugated nearly all the tribes in Central Asia, except the On Oq and Qïrghïz. During his lifetime, he organized 46 campaigns and raiding mission into China and captured many resources. Iltirish Qaghan re-strengthened his empire and died in 692; at his death, the qaghanate's borders reached Tannu-Ola in the north, Altais in the west and the valleys of Onon-Kerülen in the east. He was succeded by Bögü Chor as Qapghan Qaghan, who ruled between 692 and 716

Rise of the Eastern Gök Türk Khaghanate

Since Qutlugh's two sons, Mojilian Tigin and Köl Tigin, were only 8 and 7 years old when he died, Qutlugh's brother Bögü Chor accended to the Gök Türk throne. He re-organized the army, appointed Mojilian as the Shad (meaning Western governor), and declared his son Inel as his succesor.

After re-organizing those things, he sent Tonyuquq to defeat an Anti-Gök Türk alliance of the Qïrghïz and On Oq. He crushed the alliance forces at two battles and advanced as far as the River Syr-Daryâ. In the same year, several raiding campaigns were organized against China and the Basmïls were brought under Gök Türk rule. In the year 710, the Qïrghïz revolted again but this revolt was put down quickly. In the following year, the Gök Türk army marched westwards, crushed the forces of Türgish, conquered Semirechie and Soghdiana and returned back in 712.

Even tough Qapghan Qaghan expanded the empire in a very short time, he was a harsh ruler, and treated his subjects bitterly. This later caused many tribes to revolt against his rule, and the Türgish and Qarluq revolts were put down after a long struggle between 712 and 714. Qapghan Qaghan's last campaigns were against the rebel Toquz Oghuz tribes, but he was ambushed by a Bayïrqu warrior and he was killed in 716. The Toquz Oghuz rebellion was put down by Mojilian Tigin and Köl Tigin. However, the areas west of the Altais were lost, never to be recovered again.

The Golden Age of the Eastern Qaghanate

Head of Köl Tigin's Statue
After Qapghan Qaghan's death, his son Inel became the next Gök Türk ruler, but he was not a capable ruler and he was overthrown by the brothers Mojilian and Köl Tigin in the same year. In a council, Mojilian was selected as the new ruler with the title Bilge Qaghan, his brother became the commander of all the Gök Türk armies, and Tonyuquq became the Ayghuchï again. Since Tonyuquq was born and raised in China, he had broad knowledge about this empire, and advised the Gök Türk rulers not to become too close with the Chinese.

The rebellions in Mongolia were finally put down and Bilge Qaghan launched a campaign against the Tang China in 720 (the Tang had refused a peace proposal before and had declared war to the Gök Türks). The Tang were defeated and signed a final peace treaty with Bilge Qaghan. In 725, Tonyuquq died, and two monuments was erected to his honor. After Köl Tigin's death in 731, another monument was erected for Köl Tigin, and these later formed the basis of the Orkhon Inscriptions. These inscriptions were written by Bilge Qaghan's nephew Yollïg (or Yollugh) Tigin, and were the most important written records concerning the Gök Türk history (apart from the detailed Chinese sources).

After Tonyuquq's and Köl Tigin's deaths, Bilge Qaghan didn't launch any other major campaigns, except his campaign against the rebellious Khitans and Tatabïs in 734. He was victorious, but he was poisoned by his minister-envoy Buyruq Chor in the same year. However, before his death, Bilge Qaghan was able to kill Buyruq Chor and his followers. Another monument was erected for him near Köl Tigin's monument

Fall of the Qaghanate
After Bilge Qaghan's death, the empire began to decline. He was succeded by seven qaghans, but these were not very capable rulers. During Teñri Qaghan's reign, the empire was actually ruled by his mother (Pofu Qatun, daughter of Tonyuquq), but the Qatun couldn't keep the empire as a single piece. Soon, the Gök Türk princes began struggling with each other, and the Rebellious Alliance, composed of Basmïls, Qarluqs and Uyghurs, captured Ötüken and deposed Özmish/Ozmïsh Qaghan, one of the last Gök Türk rulers, in 743. The last qaghan Baimei was killed in 744. Thus the Eastern Gök Türk Qaghanate ended. The Alliance soon broke up, the Uyghurs overthrew the Basmïl qaghan and expelled the Qarluqs in 745. With this event, the Uyghur Empire (also known as On Uyghur-Toquz Oghuz Qaghanate) was founded..

Legacy of the Gök Türks

A small part of the Orkhon Inscriptions written in Turkic Runic
The most famous and important legacy of the Gök Türks were their inscriptions, which covered a general history of the Gök Türk Empire, starting from the time of Bumïn Qaghan in the mid-6th century. These inscriptions also contained quotes from the famous Gök Türk rulers and statesmen like Tonyuquq, Bilge Qaghan and Köl Tigin. The Gök Türks had their own alphabet, known as Turkic Runic, which was made to be carved on stone. Yet, the Gök Türks had earlierly used the Soghdian script. The other important thing the Gök Türks did was the conquest and Turkificiation of Transoxiana, which was inhabited by the Soghdians and Khwarazmians before the Turkic conquest.

The name of the Gök Türks, Türük or Türk , was later given to all the Turkish-speaking tribes of Euroasia. The Türük themselves disappeared from history after the 920s, and unlike the common thought, they didn't form the basis of the Seljûqid and Ottoman Empires, which were founded by the Oghuz.

Eastern Rulers:
Bumïn Il-Qaghan: 551-552
Qara Qaghan: 552-553
Buqan Qaghan: 553-572
Tapar/Taspar Qaghan: 572-581
Anluo: 581
(Civil War, Qaghanate divided between several rulers, Shetu unifies the state)
Ïshbara Qaghan: 582-587
Bagha/Yabghu Qaghan: 587-588
Dulan/Doulan Qaghan: 588-600
Qimin Qaghan: 600-609
Shibi Qaghan: 609-619
Tuli Qaghan: 619-621
Il/Illig Qaghan: 621-630
(in 630, Tang Dynasty destroys the Eastern Qaghanate)
Dabu Qaghan (rebellious): 630-638
Yugu Shad: 638-639
Chebi Qaghan (rebellious): 639-648/650
Ashïna Nishufu Qaghan (rebellious): 679-680
Ashïna Funian Qaghan (rebellious): 681
Iltirish Qaghan: 682-691
Qapghan Qaghan: 691-716
Inel Qaghan: 716
Bilge Qaghan: 716-734
Yiran Kehan: 734-740
Te ñ ri Qaghan: 740-741
(name/title unknown; one of Bilge Qaghan's sons)
(name/title unknown; one of Bilge Qaghan's sons)
Qutlugh Yabghu: 741-742
Özmish/Ozmïsh Qaghan: 742-744
Baimei Qaghan: 744-745

Western Rulers:
Istemi Yabghu (not independent): 552-576
Tardu Yabghu/Qaghan (mostly accepted as independent, some say it's his succesor who made the Western Qaghanate
independent): 576-603
Chuluo Qaghan: 603-611
Shegui Qaghan: 611-618
Tong Yabghu Qaghan: 618-630
(Rulers after these are vassals of Tang)
Moheduo Siqulisipi Dulu
Yipi Boluosi Yabghu
Duolu Qaghan
Shaboluo Dielishi
Yipi Duoluo
Baghatur Yipi Yabghu
Yipi Ïshbara Yabghu
Yipi Shegui
Ïshbara Qaghan
Xingxiwang Qaghan and Jiwangjue Qaghan
Ashina Yuanqing and Jiezhong Shizhu Qaghan
Onoq Qaghan
Ashina Huaidao
Ashina Xian
Ashina Xin

( For details, check here:
...1100782779 )

552: Bumïn and Istemi overthrew the Rouran yoke
555: Final defeat of the Rouran
571: Istemi's campaigns in Transoxiana and Azerbaijan
582: Division of the Gök Türük Empire into Eastern and Western Qaghanates
585: Eastern Qaghanate accept Tang protectorate
600: Tardu's Chinese Campaign
603: Tiele tribes kill Tardu
610: Rise of the Eastern Qaghanate
618: Rise of the Western Qaghanate
630: Illig Qaghan captured by the Tang in his last raiding campaign, Tong Yabgu killed by his uncle, both Gök Türk qaghanates collapse
659: Last remnants of the Western Gök Türks subjugated by the Tang
682: Qutlugh founded the II. Eastern Gök Türk Qaghanate after defeating the Toquz Oghuz 693: Qapgan Qaghan's campaign against the On Oq and Qïrghïz
701: The Transoxanian Campaign
710-712: Campaigns on Qïrghïz, On Oq and Soghdiana
716: Qapgan Qaghan murdered by the Bayïrqu, his son is overthrown
720: Bilge Qaghan's Chinese Campaign
734: Bilge Kaghan's campaign against the rebellious Khitan and Tatabï, Bilge Qaghan poisoned
742-744: The Rebel Alliance capture Ötüken and depose the last Gök Türk ruler
Article Written by: Ihsan
Updated: September 2005