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The Turks Emerge

Kazakhstan's early medieval history is far from easy to piece together. Turkic regional groups competed for dominance. Religious rivalry further confused this pattern of events.

Turkic tribes entered Kazakh territory in the sixth century, subsequent to the Huns' great sweep across the Steppe, transforming nomadic pastoralism into feudalsociety. These tribes too came from the east - from beyond the Altai range.

This early society, the Turkic Kaganate (a term meaning both a people and territory, governed by a leader known as the 'Kagan'), lived under permanent hostility from the eastern tribes immediately beyond the mountains, competing for control of the Eurasian Steppes and the trade route - the Great Silk Road - bringing Chinese silk to the Mediterranean, and a host of other goods (semi-precious stones, furs, metalcraft, and horses) along the way, a route which amid varying fortunes had already operated for one millenium and would continue for another.

In 552, the Turkic Altaic tribe ruled a confederation which included the Mongols. Extending their empire by their mastery of the horse, they eventually dominated the Steppe as far as the Aral Sea and ultimately to the Black Sea. Under the Ashina clan, the tribe maintained a military and political grip on this vast territory by keeping their headquarters on the Steppe: a nomadic headquarters. They ruled by guaranteeing the regional freedom of their subjects.

They lived a life governed by spiritual convictions, honouring in structured yet probably varying forms of worship the infinite space of the sky and its heavenly bodies at sacred, open-air sites and roofless temples, and an implicitly illimitable ancestry represented on earth by stelae as formalised human figures sculptured in rock, large numbers of which survive to the present day. While there were surely universally pantheistic elements, the idea of an over-arching One-ness, not to be visualised, appears to have prevailed.

The stability of the Jeti-Su's twin Turkic cities of Tarim and Sogdia, attracted trade by the northern branch of the Silk Road, and helped to ensure the safety of caravans crossing the Tien Shan Mountains in the east by a route which avoided Persia. Meanwhile, it seems that the second half of the sixth century saw Istemi, founder of the Western Turkic Kaganate, ruling the area around the Volga south of the Urals. His campaigns against the Bulgar Turkic people and others led in due course to the Turks becoming overall masters of the northern branch of the Silk Road, much of it through the Steppe and passing north of the Caspian.

From 630 to 682 AD the Eastern Turkic Kaganate - whose territory still included Mongolia - became subject to China. However, by 687, it had reasserted independence. Soon thereafter, the Western Turkic Kaganate occupied part of Eastern Kaganate and the territory from the slopes of the Karatau to Jungaria (east of the Altai). Under the Kagans' benign rule, various religious wisdoms spread and mingled their visions and dogmas in a spirit of mutual tolerance. Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manicheism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam, together with shamanic beliefs and practices, were all present and most likely enlightened one another, if at the expense of cohesive discipline among the common people.

Gradually, as the people of the Steppe became more literate, the Sogdian a Runic scripts came to be developed and put to use. At the same time the creation of petroglyphs, which had diminished during the Hunnic era was revived. Horsemen costume and paraphernalia were depicted in rock etchings and this practice continued up to the time of the Mongol invasion, when such artistry ceased definitively. For the security of its trade routes the Chinese Empire was trying to exert a measure of control over the lands of the Jeti-Su (seven rivers or Semirechie, the southern region of modern Kazakhstan), through which the most active Silk Road now ran. Additionally, political division within the Kaganate, together with poor harvests and a succession of famines, were contributing to the weakening of the kaganates authority. Rule was reluctantly yielded to the Turgesh, headquartered at Shash, near today's Tashkent, who were able to sustain the independence of the Jeti-Su and its community of landowning nobles, traders, peasant farmers, nomadic herdsmen, and a professional warrior class.

This fresh consolidation was viewed as a threat to the Persian dynasty of the Samanids, whose rule was established in Samarkand and Balksh, northern Afghanistan. The Samanids sought good relations with China, and gave battle to the various Turkic Kaganates ruling the southern regions of present-day Kazakhstan, spreading Jihad (Holy War) northwards. They captured Isfijab (near Taraz) which became a centre for the conversion of several of the nomadic tribes of the Kaganate. Across the Steppes further north had emerged the Karluk confederation, built by the latest wave of Altai Turks, which in due course subdued the Tushes, Chigils, Azkizhes, Halajes, Charukes and Barskhans. Under the Karluks, the fortified cities of Taraz, Isfijab (renamed Sairam) and Otrar bloomed.

Meanwhile, another dominion was growing east of the Samanid and Karluk spheres. The Karakhanid Turks expanded their territory from Kashgar and Cherchen (Qiemo), north of Tibet, as far as the Amu-darya (Oxus) river in the west, and as far north as Taraz. After 922, the Karakhanids took city after city, gradually wiping the Samanids from the central Asian map and subduing the Karluks.

Karakhanids were the most successful so far at establishing fiscal order in the Central Asian region. Administrative and military authority were kept separate. Some nomads in groups took to settled cultivation. Settlements had grown up across the Jeti-Su; Otrar developed further on its well-defended land, as did Yassy (present day Turkestan). New cities, towns and villages facilitated the establishment of a more effective political system.

The very first Khanate of the Karakhanids developed Islamic literature in the prevailing Turkic tongue. These masterpieces have survived, among them are the works of Yusuf of Balasagun and Mahmud of Kashgar. They paint for us the transformations in economic and cultural life that were occurring at the time across southern Kazakhstan and across the central Asian Steppe.

Islam became the Steppe religion; Arabic script replaced Turkic. In the 930s, the Karakhanid state separated in two: the Western Khanate, based in Bukhara; and the Eastern Khanate, which had its capital city in Balasagun and encompassed Taraz, Fergana, Samarkand and Kashgar. A new era of statehood had dawned in Central Asia: Islamic, and was productive of a school of Sufic spirituality of profound and lasting significance, exemplified by the figure of Ahmed Yassavi, whose life spanned a century across the latter half of the eleventh and the first half of the twelfth centuries. It is no chance, also, that one of the great philosophers of mediaeval Islam, Al-Farabi, was born on Kazakhstani territory - at Farab.

Meanwhile the Khitans, a people of Mongolian origin, were establishing power between the Tien Shan and the China Sea. They were broken in 1125 by the armies of the Chinese empire. A formidable force of Khitans, however, migrated west towards the Jeti-Su. By remaining obeisant to the Khan at Balasagun at first, the Khitans were later able to capture Balasagun, de-throne the Khan and establish their own state. As for the western Khanate, it was subdued by the ruler of Khorezm, Sheikh Mohammed. By 1212, Karakhanid rule was at an end.

The Khitans' Gurkhan - the title meaning 'Khan of Khans' - established tough military discipline, upheld law and order, and introduced standard taxes. Breaking with tradition, the Gurkhan - at least in principle - refrained from sharing power with his blood relatives, fearful of family rivalries.

The Khitans had come to align their Buddhist allegiance with Nestorian Christianity. Whereas the earlier Khitan Gurkhans had pursued a policy of tolerance towards Islam, the later rulers - after 1169 -persecuted Muslims. Consequently, in areas subservient to the Gurkhan, including the Jeti-Su, Muslim rebellions broke out. At around the same time Genghis Khan would impose his undeterred strength on the central Asian region.

We need here to underline the importance of the Kipchaks (otherwise known as Nogai). It is this element of the broader Turkic brotherhood to whom, throughout the rise and fall of other empires of the east, we owe the first written descriptions of the battlefields and of urban life. Their first home territory lay in the region of the Irtysh river and to the east of it - as far as the upper Yenisey. The Kipchak play a seminal part in the development of the Kazakh language and culture. Early runes from the Kipchaks tell of the Turkic Kaganate. Evidently prosperous and resourceful, the Kipchaks established extensive contacts in Europe. Their masterwork, the Codex Kumanicus, contains (among much else) a three-way dictionary, between Latin, Persian and Kipchak, a Turkic grammar, and fragments of the New Testament in Kipchak. It also entertains unrivalled accounts of Byzantine, Georgian, Hungarian and Russian life in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A line of Kipchaks later came to provide Egypt with its Mameluke dynasty which would continue to the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Kipchaks had risen to establish aristocracy within the Khorezm state.