Cradle of the Turkic World

History and geography formed a special model of continuity of the Turkic states, the great steppe empires. For centuries, they have successively replaced each other, leaving their significant mark in the economic, political and cultural landscape of medieval Kazakhstan.
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Turkic Kaganate (552-756) In the 6th century, the tribes of Kazakhstan were united under the powerful Turkic Kaganate, which became one of the largest in the history of Asia. In the time of greatest expansion (end of the 6th century) the Kaganate spread from the Korean Peninsula in the east to the Crimean peninsula in the west; from the headwaters of the Yenisei River in the north to the headwaters of the Amu Darya in the south.

The state became dominant in Central Asia at the time of Kagan Mugan (553-572), having good relations with major states such as Iran, Byzantium, China and others. Benefitting from the combination of a large number of warlike steppe tribes and new metal-smelting technology, the Turkic Kaganate was one of the leading geopolitical powers of the time. Alongside military skills, the Kaganate had a highly developed culture – with their own runic writing system – and advanced statesmanship with a complex state apparatus and an active foreign policy. However, external pressures, internal feuding and social contradictions weakened the Kaganate, and in 603 AD it was divided into two independent states – the Eastern and Western Kaganates.

The West-Turkic Kaganate (603-704) Occupying the territory from the Sea of Azov and the River Don to the eastern spurs of the Tien Shan Mountains and north-eastern India, the nucleus of the Western Kaganate consisted of ten tribes that roamed from the mountains of Karatau to Dzhungaria. To the east of the Chu River were the five Dulu tribes, and to the west, five tribes of Nushibi. The capital city was Suyab (near modern-day Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan). The Kaganate had a nomadic and semi-nomadic way of life – the city and the steppe were complementary parts of the socio-political organism. People engaged in trade, crafts, agronomy and cattle-breeding. The outbreak of a sixteen year long tribal war and dynastic conflict (640-657) weakened the state and led to its defeat by the Turgesh tribe which came to power in the Seven Rivers region in 704.

The Turgesh Kaganate (704-756) The Turgesh Kaganate continued the public-administrative, military and socio-cultural traditions of the West-Turkic Kaganate and in fact was the last period in its history.

Karluk State (756-940) In the 8th-10th centuries the Karluks settled between the Dzhungar Alatau and the middle reaches of the Syr Darya, between Lake Balkhash and Issyk-Kul, in the valleys of the rivers Ili, Chu, and Talas, in the spurs of the Tien Shan, in Isfidzhab region to the medieval town of Otrar (South Kazakhstan). According to the tenth century Arab geographer Ibn Haukal, “30 days of travel were required to cross the land of the Karluks west to east.” There were 25 Karluk towns and settlements, including Taraz, Kulan, Merki, Atlalig, Tuzun, Baliga, Barskhan, Sicula, Talgar, Tong, and Penchul; many were on the Great Silk Road. But again, the Karluk Kaganate was torn apart by strife, and struggles for power and land. The real threat came from outside, and in 940 Balasagun, the capital of the Kaganate, was taken by Kashgarians.

The Oguz State (9th – early 11th century) As a result of the 8th century Turgesh-Karluk war, most of the resident Oguz tribal confederation left Zhetysu for the hills and valleys of the Chu. At the beginning of the 9th century Oguz leaders in alliance with Karluks and Kimaks defeated the Kangar and Pechenegs and captured the lower reaches of the Syr Darya and the steppes of the Aral Sea region; by the end of the century, allied with the Khazars, they defeated the Pechenegs and captured land between the Urals and the Volga.

The Kimak Kaganate (9th – early 11th century) The stormy events of the 9th century, when Kimak tribes entrenched themselves from the Middle Irtysh to the Dzhungar Gates and got as far west as the Southern Urals and the Syr Darya basin, gave rise to the Kimak Kaganate. The Kimaks had their own alphabet, and wrote with cane quills. Their religious belief was centred on Tengri and the ancestor cult. Individual groups worshiped fire, the sun, the stars, the river and the mountains, and a common form of religion was shamanism, but some groups of Kimaks practiced Manichaeism (Christianity). Early in the 11th century the Kimak Kaganate collapsed, its failure caused by two factors: the aggression of the Kipchak khans striving for self-determination, and the internecine strife within the kaganate; and the migration of the nomadic tribes of Central Asia.

The state of Karakhanids (942-1212) The state of Karakhanids saw the adoption of Islam as the state religion, which brought the standards of science and literature from the Arab world, and allowed Islamic literature to appear in the Turkic language. But the penetration of the Muslim religion into the nomadic aristocratic environment, especially in the south of Kazakhstan, led to the ousting of the ancient Turkic runic writing, replaced by Arabic script. The Karakhanid era represented a new level of quality, but the military defeat of the Karakhanids led to the fall of the dynasty in 1212.

The State of Karakitais (1128-1213) The head of the Karakitai state held the title of gurkhan who based himself in the city of Balasagun. Under the direct control of the Karakitais were the southern part of Zhetysu, north-eastern region of Isfidzhab and Kuldja region. The Karakitai state was distinguished by a system of homestead taxation – every house was charged one dinar – and strong military discipline. But the Karakitai reign came in the midst of geopolitical transformation, and was soon at an end.

Kypchak Khanate (early 11th century - 1219) After the fall of Kimak Kaganate in early 11th century, it was the Kypchak khans who took over the territories of the Kimak, Kypchak and Kuman tribes. The Kypchak dynasty began to make moves to the south and west, which led to Central Asia and South-East Europe. The change was linked to the appearance of the name of Desht-i Kypchak (Kypchak steppe) in place of the earlier name of Oguz steppe (Mafazat al-guz). In the middle of the 11th century Kypchak tribes began to move westward from the Itil (Volga) River, and the Kuman tribes came into direct contact with the people of Eastern Europe, in particular Rus, Byzantium and Hungary. Kypchaks maintained close relations with the Russian principalities, where they became known as the Kumans. Russian chronicles are very informative about trade, armed conflicts, foreign relations and economic structure of the Kypchak tribes. The Kypchak Khanate left a significant number of cultural monuments, notably balbals (stone statues). As the era of the Mongol conquests began, the tribes of the Kypchak Khanate became the basis of the Jochi Ulus, better known as the Golden Horde.

Baiterek – the name means ‘tall poplar tree’ – was inspired by the ancient Turkic myth of the Tree of Life. Topped by the nest of the mythical bird Samruk, the tree grows on the bank of the World River, its roots reaching down into the earth, its trunk reaching to the sky. Laid in the nest, held by the branches of the tree, is the egg of the Samruk, the mythical bird of happiness; but lurking among the roots is the dragon Aidakhar who wants to eat the Samruk’s egg.