The words “Turkish Empire” provoke a definite association in people’s minds. They think of the Ottoman Empire, the destroyers of Byzantium who lasted through the centuries to become the “sick man of Europe” in the days before World War 2. But the Turkish people are not just confined to the area we know call Turkey. And the first Turkish empire dwarfed its Ottoman descendant, being fully three times the greatest size that the latter ever achieved. Twice the size of India, the Turkic Khaganate would be the 7th largest country in the world today – and not much shy of most of those larger. In the end, though, it tore itself in half, only to fall to the great Taizong. But I get ahead of myself.
The Khaganate began, as some dynasties do, with an unbearable insult. Bumin, of the Ashina clan, was a general in the armies of the Rouran Khaganate. The Rouran were an amalgamation of tribes, on the borders of China, and the name we know them by is a typical Chinese pun. While Rouran would be similar to the actual name of the kingdom, the Chinese characters used to write it down translate as “wriggling insects”, hardly the name they gave themselves. However, they had ruled the area of modern Mongolia for about two hundred years when some of the tribes revolted. Bumin put down the rebellion and, emboldened by his success, asked for a daughter of the ruling family in marriage as a reward. The Khagan, a man named Anagui, denied the request with the message “You are my blacksmith slave. How dare you utter these words?” The precise meaning behind the insult is lost to us, but it was not lost on Bumin. Enraged, he slaughtered the messengers and went from putting down rebellion to leading one – a rebellion successful enough that when he made the same request for a princess’s hand to the Wei kingdom to the east, they granted it, along with their military support. Bumin united the other Turkic tribes within the Khaganate and eventually defeated Anagui, declaring himself Khagan.
Bumin died shortly after defeating Anagui, and was succeeded by his son Issik. Little is known of Issik, though it is certain that he only ruled a part of his empire directly, with other parts (including the western part ruled by his uncle Istemi, who had been Bumin’s right hand man) functioning as independent kingdoms that paid him tribute. When he died, in accordance with the inheritance law of the Gokturks, his brother Muqan succeeded him, and when he died his brother Taspar succeeded him. Taspar’s reign was a good one – refugees from nearby kingdoms, Manicheans from Persia and Buddhists from Qi and Zhou, brought a great deal of new knowledge and power to the kingdom. It was in this period that the Gokturks began to record their history in writing, developing the alphabet known as the Gokturk Runes. The official religion of the kingdom was Tengrism, a shamanastic religion that worshipped one supreme god and many lesser gods that would also be the religion of the Mongols.
Taspar’s death, however, was to prove to be pivotal for the barely thirty-years old Empire. In defiance of the laws of succession, which would have seen his of-age son Anlou succeed him, Taspar bequeathed the throne to his nephew Talopien. Anlou was a weak man, and so Taspar’s action is understandable, but by the laws of the Gokturks, it was not legal. The court split between the two claimants, although Anlou was swiftly forced to cede his claim to another of Taspar’s nephews, Shetu, who took the regal name of Ishbara. Talopien, meanwhile, also declared himself khagan and took the regal name of Apa. In the meantime, Istemi’s son Tardu, who controlled the western half of the khaganate, first sent an army to support Apa and then declared his independence, sundering the kingdom. Predictably, this weakening would eventually lead to the khaganate’s end.
At first, Ishbara seemed the strongest, but this strength sent Apa into alliance with Tardu, and Ishbara was unable to stand against them both. This forced him to accept submission to the Chinese Empire, at that time ruled by the Sui dynasty. With their support he was able to defeat Apa, who fled into exile in Tardu’s lands. Their alliance sundered, and Apa died, the same year as his great rival Ishbara. Ishbara had managed to hold Tardu’s armies off by poisoning the wells, and though this defeat meant the end of Tardu politically, it was the end of any hope of reuniting the two halves of the kingdom.
The Western Khaganate remained an independent state, notable for having diplomatic relations with the Byzantine Empire and military conflicts with the Persians. The Eastern Khaganate, meanwhile, remained a vassal of the Chinese, and often became a tool of court politics. One son of Ishbara, for example, conspired with his father’s Chinese wife (who had since married his brother, the new Khagan) to throw off the Chinese yoke, only to then kill her in exchange for an imperial Chinese princess in marriage. When his wife was assassinated he fled to China, only to return when his brother died to rule as a puppet of the Chinese. His successors were not so meek, and took advantage of internal strife in China (as the Sui were replaced by the Tang) to assert themselves, and Ilig Khagan forced a reversal of the traditional relationship when he made the Tang pay tribute to him. He invaded China an marched on the capital, forcing the young Emperor, who had only just gained the throne nineteen days before, to meet him and pay him tribute personally. Unfortunately for Ilig, the man he shamed with this gesture was Li Shimin, better known to history as Emperor Taizong, the greatest emperor of the greatest empire the world has ever seen. At Wei River, then, Ilig signed the Khaganate’s death warrant.
Taizong was willing to wait for his revenge, however. Three years later, when internal corruption had weakened the Khaganate, he sent his army against them, while also making a chief of the subordinate Tiele tribes a Khan subordinate to him to turn the people against the Gokturks. In the end, the Gokturks were defeated, and the Emperor exiled them from their homeland. He was tempted to break the people up and settle them throughout the Empire, forcing them to follow the Chinese systems, but eventually he relented and let them stay in their tribal forms in a new homeland. There, they would attempt rebellion once or twice, but overall remained subservient.
Thirty years later, the Tang army would finish the work and conquer the Western Turkic Khaganate as well. The western Turks would assert their independence again twenty years later, and begin to re-establish their old kingdom – but the world had moved on, and a new people, the Uyghurs, seized the kingdom the Gokturks had built. The head of the last Turkic Khagan was sent to the Tang imperial court as a gift, and so ended the first Empire of the Turks. The people themselves endured, however, and would rise again. The Seljuqs, the Ottomans…there would be many more Turkic Empires to come, and in their wake the first became forgotten.