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The Wusuns to the Khorezmshahs

Much of the history of the lands of present-day Kazakhstan involves a complex series of migrations and conquests by nomadic tribes, often of Turkic peoples from the east, establishing large but often loose-knit empires, which eventually decline, a process frequently hastened by in-fighting, making way for new arrivals.

Among the successors to the Scythians were the Wusuns, whose home originally lay to the northwest of China. Fleeing to the lands of the Ile River in the 2nd century BC after defeat in their homeland by the Xiongnu (the 'push' factor of tribal movements precipitated by a powerful rival in the original homeland area is another common theme), they established control over their new territory. According to contemporary Chinese accounts, the Wusun were nomads who lived in felt tents and drank mare's milk, suggesting that they had much in common culturally with the Kazakhs of modern times. Evidence for the suggestion that they may have been a Turkic people includes the fact that they evidently shared a similar ancestor myth (an abandoned infant son rescued and suckled by a she-wolf) as the later Ashina clan of the Gokturks.

According to Chinese sources, by the first century they numbered over 600,000, and had divided into two sections: the former composed primarily of sedentary farmers, who settled in the Karatau region and also along the middle stretches of the Syr Darya; the latter made up principally of nomads, who migrated across the regions north of the Caspian and Aral Sea. Recent excavations at Aktobe near the Ilek River have uncovered archaeological remnants of this time, including two-storey dwellings with courtyards for use by tribal leaders as winter residences.

The Wusun's rivals included the Kangju, another nomadic state-like entity, and the Xiongnu, a feared tribal group originating in Mongolia. The Great Wall was originally constructed by the Chinese at least in part to keep the latter out. They too constructed a large steppe empire into the lands of present-day Kazakhstan from the 3rd century BC. One tribe which possibly descended from the Xiongnu was a group whose name evoked terror in 5th-century Europe: the Huns. This group of equestrian nomads was able to carve out a great empire, stretching west from the Ural River into the heart of western Europe, thanks in part to superior weaponry, notably the composite bow. But with Attila's death in AD453 the empire of the Huns commenced its decline.

The Huns were pushed out of the region in the 6th century by an alliance between the Sassanids of Persia and the Gokturks ('Blue Turks'), a Turkic group which would become the next major nomadic power of the steppe, securing control of the lucrative Silk Road trade. The leaders of the Gokturk confederation were the Ashina clan, with its centre of power in the Orkhon Valley of present-day Mongolia. This was the first Turkic tribe to use the name 'Turk', a name meaning 'solid' or 'strong', which was later applied more widely to all the groups of the Turkic Kaganate.

The place of the Usun Empire was taken by the Western Turkish Khaganate (Empire), and later, in the 7th-8th centuries, by the Turgesh Khaganate. One scholar says of these empires that they were "complex and stratified societies consisting of aristocrats, urban traders, oasis farmers, pastoral nomads, and a professional warrior class..." Of the former Khaganate, we have various glimpses in both Western and Chinese literature. The Byzantine Empire exchanged embassies with the Western Turkish Khaganate in the second half of the sixth century, hoping to engage their military support against their enemies, the Sasanian Persians. The Western Turks, for their part, wished to find a way of selling silk and iron to the Byzantines without using the Persians as intermediaries.

On one occasion, members of a Byzantine delegation were compelled, for the sake of diplomacy, to join in a mourning ceremony for one of the noblemen, slashing their faces and participating in human sacrifice. Later, in 630, a Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, visited the Khagan (ruler) at the capital Tokmak (now in modern-day Kyrgyzstan), and describes discussions with him about his religion, and mentions that he slept in a bed made of iron. At this time, the empire was at its height, stretching from the Hindu Kush to the Zhungar Mountains, and from the upper Yenisei to the Crimea.

The early Turks left totemlike carved stones known as balbals, bearing the images of honoured chiefs, at sites used for burials, worship and sacrifices. These can be seen in many museums in Kazakhstan today.

From about AD 550 to 750 the southern half of Kazakhstan was the western extremity of the Manchuriabased (Blue) Turk empire. The far south of Kazakhstan was within the sphere of the Bukhara-based Samanid dynasty from the mid-9th century, and here cities such as Otrar and Yasy (Turkistan) developed on the back of agriculture and Silk Road trade. The Karakhanid Turks from the southern Kazakh steppe ousted the Samanids in the late 10th century, taking up the Samanids' settled ways (as well as Islam) and constructing some of Kazakhstan's earliest surviving buildings (in and around Taraz).

The first Gokturk Empire split into the Eastern and Western Turkic Kaganates, but was reunited in the late 7th century. The Gokturk Empire was thought to fade following the death in AD734 of a leader bearing the unfortunate, to an English reader, name of Bilge. The leadership of Bilge and his younger brother Kul Tegin are however immortalised in stelae found at the Orkhon River, whose inscriptions are the first known texts in Old Turkic, the earliest attested Turkic landscape. In the atrium of the main building of the Eurasian National University in Astana stands a full-sized replica of the stelae in memory of Kul Tegin. More striking still is a modern canvas on the rear wall of the atrium, depicting Kul Tegin flying on a snow leopard. Below him are depicted figures from Kazakhstan's history, with both Ablai Khan and President Nazarbaev riding splendid white chargers. The inference clearly intended is a direct lineage from Gokturks to Kazakhs.

The religion of the Gokturks was Tengriism, focused around the thesis that life is about maintaining a harmony with the world in respect of both the sky deity Tengri and his female counterpart the Earth. Tengriism embodies elements of ancestor worship, animism and shamanism; shamans, for example, have a key role in tackling imbalances caused by the interference of malevolent spirits. The powers of the rulers of the Gokturks were considered to come as a mandate from Tengri. But the Gokturks were also tolerant of other religions, and Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam were all practised within their empire.

As the Gokturk Empire waned, other nomadic groups took centre stage, including the Karluks, a Turkic tribe originating from lands west of the Altai Mountains, who gave their name to the Karluk group of Turkic languages, and the Turgesh, whose centre of power lay near modern-day Tashkent. An increasingly important new force was that of the Arabs, pressing northwards into central Asia to propagate the religion of Islam. One engagement which in retrospect was highly significant was the Battle of Talas in AD751, fought out on the Talas River between the external powers of the Chinese of the Tang Dynasty, attempting to extend their influence westwards, and the Arabs moving east, together with various local allies. The defeat of the Chinese kept central Asia out of the orbit of that power, and paved the way for the Islamisation of the region. One side effect of the battle was in the capture by the Arab forces of some Chinese experts in the making of paper, resulting in the acquisition of papermaking skills by the Islamic world, from where they spread to Europe. The propagation of Islam in the region was continued by the Persian Samanids, Sunni Muslims powerful in the 9th and 10th centuries, who converted many Turkic groups in the southern parts of present-day Kazakhstan.

Another Turkic dynasty, the Karakhanids, whose origins lay around Kashgar, expanded westwards in the 10th century at the expense of the Samanids and Karluks. The Karakhanids were converts to Islam, and the process of Islamisation continued under their rule. The Karakhanids in turn made way for the Khitans, a Buddhist people of Mongolian origin, whose westwards move was forced by their defeats in their homeland at the hands of the Jurchens. They established the Kara-Khitay Dynasty in the 12th century, the name 'Khitay' being at the root of the Russian word for China, Kitay, as well as the old English word Cathay. The Kara-Khitay were in turn defeated around 1212 by the Khorezmshahs, whose control of lands in the southern part of Kazakhstan was to be decidedly short-lived in the face of a new arrival from the east, the Mongols of Genghis Khan. Another important grouping was the Kipchaks, Turkic pastoralists from the Irtysh Region, who had moved into western Siberia by the 9th century, and then migrated further into the Volga Region, their sprawling steppe territories extending even as far as Moldavia and Wallachia. Kipchaks formed an influential group within the empire of the Khorezmshahs: the mother of the Khorezmshah ruler Mohammed II was a Kipchak, and it was the actions of the Kipchak governor of Otrar, in arresting and then executing merchants of Genghis Khan on spying charges, which unleashed the forces of the Mongols onto the region.