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Türük Bodun
Gökturk petroglyphs from modern Mongolia (6th to 8th century).[1]
Total population
Ancestral to some Turkic populations
Regions with significant populations
Central and Eastern Asia
Orkhon Turkic[2]
Tengrism, Buddhism
Related ethnic groups
Türgesh, Toquz Oghuz, Yenisei Kyrgyz, Xueyantuo, Shatuo[3]

The Göktürks, Celestial Turks or Blue Turks (Old Turkic: 𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰜:𐰉𐰆𐰑𐰣, romanized: Türük Bodun; Chinese: 突厥; pinyin: Tūjué; Wade–Giles: T'u-chüeh) were a Turkic people in medieval Inner Asia. The Göktürks, under the leadership of Bumin Qaghan (d. 552) and his sons, succeeded the Rouran Khaganate as the main power in the region and established the First Turkic Khaganate, one of several nomadic dynasties that would shape the future geolocation, culture, and dominant beliefs of Turkic peoples.



A funerary depiction of long haired Türks in the Kazakh steppe. Miho funerary couch, circa 570.[4]

The common name "Göktürk" emerged from the misreading of the word "Kök" meaning Ashina, the endonym of the ruling clan of the historical ethnic group which was attested as Old Turkic: 𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰜, romanized: Türük[5][6] Old Turkic: 𐰚𐰇𐰜:𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰜, romanized: Kök Türük,[5][6] or Old Turkic: 𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰚, romanized: Türk.[7] It is generally accepted that the name Türk is ultimately derived from the Old-Turkic migration-term[8] 𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰜 Türük/Törük, which means 'created, born'.[9]

They were known in Middle Chinese historical sources as the Tūjué (Chinese: ; reconstructed in Middle Chinese as romanized: *dwət-kuɑt > tɦut-kyat).[10]

The ethnonym was also recorded in various other Middle Asian languages, such as Sogdian *Türkit ~ Türküt, tr'wkt, trwkt, turkt > trwkc, trukč; Khotanese Saka Ttūrka/Ttrūka, Rouran to̤ro̤x/türǖg and Old Tibetan Drugu.[10][11]


According to Chinese sources, Tūjué meant "combat helmet" (Chinese: ; pinyin: Dōumóu; Wade–Giles: Tou1-mou2), reportedly because the shape of the Altai Mountains, where they lived, was similar to a combat helmet.[12][13][14] Róna-Tas (1991) pointed to a Khotanese-Saka word, tturakä "lid", semantically stretchable to "helmet", as a possible source for this folk etymology, yet Golden thinks this connection requires more data.[15]

Göktürk is sometimes interpreted as either "Celestial Turk" or "Blue Turk" (i.e. because sky blue is associated with celestial realms).[16] This is consistent with "the cult of heavenly ordained rule" which was a recurrent element of Altaic political culture and as such may have been imbibed by the Göktürks from their predecessors in Mongolia.[17] "Blue" is traditionally associated with the East as it used in the cardinal system of central Asia, thus meaning "Turks of the East".[18] The name of the ruling Ashina clan may derive from the Khotanese Saka term for "deep blue", āššɪna.[19]

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word Türk meant "strong" in Old Turkic;[20] though Gerhard Doerfer supports this theory, Gerard Clauson points out that "the word Türk is never used in the generalized sense of 'strong'" and that the noun Türk originally meant "'the culminating point of maturity' (of a fruit, human being, etc.), but more often used as an [adjective] meaning (of a fruit) 'just fully ripe'; (of a human being) 'in the prime of life, young, and vigorous'".[21] Hakan Aydemir (2022) also contends that Türk originally did not mean "strong, powerful" but "gathered; united, allied, confederated" and was derived from Pre-Proto-Turkic verb *türü "heap up, collect, gather, assemble".[22]

The name as used by the Göktürks only applied to themselves, the Göktürk khanates, and their subjects. The Göktürks did not consider other Turkic speaking groups such as the Uyghurs, Tiele, and Kyrgyz to be Türks. In the Orkhon inscriptions, the Toquz Oghuz and the Yenisei Kyrgyz are not referred to as Türks. Similarly, the Uyghurs called themselves Uyghurs and used Türk exclusively for the Göktürks, whom they portrayed as enemy aliens in their royal inscriptions. The Khazars may have kept the Göktürk tradition alive by claiming descent from the Ashina. When tribal leaders built their khanates, ruling over assorted tribes and tribal unions, the collected people identified themselves politically with the leadership. Turk became the designation for all subjects of the Turk empires. Nonetheless, subordinate tribes and tribal unions retained their original names, identities, and social structures. Memory of the Göktürks and the Ashina had faded by the turn of the millennium. The Karakhanids, Qocho Uyghurs, and Seljuks did not claim descent from the Göktürks.[23][24][25]



Hunting scene from the Göktürk period, from Chaganka, Altai region, 5th-6th century AD[26]
Turkic horseman (Tomb of An Jia, 579 CE).[27][28]

The Göktürk rulers originated from the Ashina clan, who were first attested to in 439. The Book of Sui reports that in that year, on 18 October, the Tuoba ruler Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei overthrew Juqu Mujian of the Northern Liang in eastern Gansu,[29][30][31] whence 500 Ashina families fled northwest to the Rouran Khaganate in the vicinity of Gaochang.[13][32]

According to the Book of Zhou and History of the Northern Dynasties, the Ashina clan was a component of the Xiongnu confederation,[12][14] specifically, the Northern Xiongnu tribes[33][34] or southern Xiongnu "who settled along the northern Chinese frontier", according to Edwin G. Pulleyblank.[35] However, this view is contested.[32] Göktürks were also posited as having originated from an obscure Suo state (索國) (MC: *sâk) which was situated north of the Xiongnu and had been founded by the Sakas[36] or Xianbei.[37][12][14][38] According to the Book of Sui and the Tongdian, they were "mixed Hu (barbarians)" (雜胡) from Pingliang (平涼), now in Gansu, Northwest China.[13][39] Pointing to the Ashina's association with the Northern tribes of the Xiongnu, some researchers (e.g. Duan, Lung, etc.) proposed that Göktürks belonged in particular to the Tiele confederation, likewise Xiongnu-associated,[13] by ancestral lineage.[40][41] However, Lee and Kuang (2017) state that Chinese sources do not describe the Ashina-led Göktürks s descending from the Dingling or belonging to the Tiele confederation.[42]

Chinese sources linked the Hu on their northern borders to the Xiongnu just as Graeco-Roman historiographers called the Pannonian Avars, Huns and HungariansScythians". Such archaizing was a common literary topos, implying similar geographic origins and nomadic lifestyle but not direct filiation.[43][page needed]

As part of the heterogeneous Rouran Khaganate, the Turks lived for generations north of the Altai Mountains, where they 'engaged in metal working for the Rouran'.[13][44] According to Denis Sinor, the rise to power of the Ashina clan represented an 'internal revolution' in the Rouran Khaganate rather than an external conquest.[45]

According to Charles Holcombe, the early Turk population was rather heterogeneous and many of the names of Turk rulers, including the two founding members, are not even Turkic.[46] This is supported by evidence from the Orkhon inscriptions, which include several non-Turkic lexemes, possibly representing Uralic or Yeniseian words.[47][48] Peter Benjamin Golden points out that the khaghans of the Turkic Khaganate, the Ashina, who were of an undetermined ethnic origin, adopted Iranian and Tokharian (or non-Altaic) titles.[49] German Turkologist W.-E. Scharlipp points out that many common terms in Turkic are Iranian in origin.[50] Whatever language the Ashina may have spoken originally, they and those they ruled would all speak Turkic, in a variety of dialects, and create, in a broadly defined sense, a common culture.[49][51]


The Göktürks reached their peak in the late 6th century and began to invade the Sui dynasty of China. However, the war ended due to the division of Turkic nobles and their civil war for the throne of Khagan. With the support of Emperor Wen of Sui, Yami Qaghan won the competition. However, the Göktürk empire was divided to Eastern and Western empires. Weakened by the civil war, Yami Qaghan declared allegiance to the Sui dynasty.[52] When Sui began to decline, Shibi Khagan began to assault its territory and even surrounded Emperor Yang of Sui in Siege of Yanmen (615 AD) with 100,000 cavalry troops. After the collapse of the Sui dynasty, the Göktürks intervened in the ensuing Chinese civil wars, providing support to the northeastern rebel Liu Heita against the rising Tang in 622 and 623. Liu enjoyed a long string of success but was finally routed by Li Shimin and other Tang generals and executed. The Tang dynasty was then established.[citation needed]

Conquest by the Tang[edit]

Although the Göktürk Khaganate once provided support to the Tang dynasty in the early period of the civil war during the collapse of the Sui dynasty, the conflicts between the Göktürks and Tang finally broke out when Tang was gradually reunifying China proper. The Göktürks began to attack and raid the northern border of the Tang Empire and once marched their main force of 100,000 soldiers to Chang'an, the capital of Tang. The emperor Taizong of the Tang, in spite of the limited resources at his disposal, managed to turn them back. Later, Taizong sent his troops to Mongolia and defeated the main force of Göktürk army in Battle of Yinshan four years later and captured Illig Qaghan in 630 AD.[53] With the submission of the Turkic tribes, the Tang conquered the Mongolian Plateau. From then on, the Eastern Turks were subjugated to China.[53]

After a vigorous court debate, Emperor Taizong decided to pardon the Göktürk nobles and offered them positions as imperial guards.[54] However, the proposition was ended by a plan for the assassination of the emperor. On 19 May 639[55] Ashina Jiesheshuai and his tribesmen directly assaulted Emperor Taizong of Tang at Jiucheng Palace (, in present-day Linyou County, Baoji, Shaanxi). However, they did not succeed and fled to the north, but were caught by pursuers near the Wei River and were killed. Ashina Hexiangu was exiled to Lingbiao.[56] After the unsuccessful raid of Ashina Jiesheshuai, on 13 August 639[57] Taizong installed Qilibi Khan and ordered the settled Turkic people to follow him north of the Yellow River to settle between the Great Wall of China and the Gobi Desert.[58] However, many Göktürk generals still remained loyal in service to the Tang Empire.

Bust of Kul Tigin (684–731) found in Khashaat, Arkhangai Province, Orkhon River valley. Located in the National Museum of Mongolia.


In 679, Ashide Wenfu and Ashide Fengzhi, who were Turkic leaders of the Chanyu Protectorate (單于大都護府), declared Ashina Nishufu as qaghan and revolted against the Tang dynasty.[59] In 680, Pei Xingjian defeated Ashina Nishufu and his army. Ashina Nishufu was killed by his men.[59] Ashide Wenfu made Ashina Funian a qaghan and again revolted against the Tang dynasty.[59] Ashide Wenfu and Ashina Funian surrendered to Pei Xingjian. On 5 December 681,[60] 54 Göktürks, including Ashide Wenfu and Ashina Funian, were publicly executed in the Eastern Market of Chang'an.[59] In 682, Ilterish Qaghan and Tonyukuk revolted and occupied Heisha Castle (northwest of present-day Hohhot, Inner Mongolia) with the remnants of Ashina Funian's men.[61] The restored Göktürk Khaganate intervened in the war between Tang and Khitan tribes.[62] However, after the death of Bilge Qaghan, the Göktürks could no longer subjugate other Turk tribes in the grasslands. In 744, allied with the Tang dynasty, the Uyghur Khaganate defeated the last Göktürk Khaganate and controlled the Mongolian Plateau.[63]


The Ashina tribe of the Göktürks ruled the First Turkic Khaganate, which then split into the Eastern Turkic Khaganate and the Western Turkic Khaganate, and later the Second Turkic Khaganate, controlling much of Central Asia and the Mongolian Plateau between 552 and 745. The rulers were named "Khagan" (Qaghan).


Their religion was polytheistic. The great god was the sky god, Tengri, who dispensed the viaticum for the journey of life (qut) and fortune (ulug) and watched over the cosmic order and the political and social order. People prayed to him and sacrificed to him a white horse as the offering. The khagan, who came from him and derived his authority from him, was raised on a felt saddle to meet him. Tengri issued decrees, brought pressure to bear on human beings, and enforced capital punishment, often by striking the offender with lightning. The many secondary powers – sometimes named deities, sometimes spirits or simply said to be sacred, and almost always associated with Tengri – were the Earth, the Mountain, Water, the Springs, and the Rivers; the possessors of all objects, particularly of the land and the waters of the nation; trees, cosmic axes, and sources of life; fire, the symbol of the family and alterego of the shaman; the stars, particularly the sun and the moon, the Pleiades, and Venus, whose image changes over time; Umay, the great goddess who is none other than the goddess of the earth and placenta; the threshold and the doorjamb; personifications of Time, the Road, Desire, etc.; heroes and ancestors embodied in the banner, in tablets with inscriptions, and in idols; and spirits wandering or fixed in Penates or in all kinds of holy objects. These and other powers have an uneven force which increases as objects accumulate, as trees form a forest, stones form a cairn, arrows form a quiver, and drops of water form a lake.[64]


A Turk (center) mourning the Buddha, surrounded by Tocharians. Kizil Caves, Mingoi, Maya cave, 550–600 CE.[65][66]

A genetic study published in Nature in May 2018 examined the remains of four elite Türk soldiers buried between ca. 300 AD and 700 AD.[67] 50% of the samples of Y-DNA belonged to the West Eurasian haplogroup R1, while the other 50% belonged to East Eurasian haplogroups Q and O.[68] The extracted samples of mtDNA belonged mainly to East Eurasian haplogroups C4b1, A14 and A15c, while one specimen carried the West Eurasian haplogroup H2a.[69] The authors suggested that central Asian nomadic populations may have been Turkicized by an East Asian minority elite, resulting in a small but detectable increase in East Asian ancestry. However, these authors also found that Türkic period individuals were extremely genetically diverse, with some individuals being of complete West Eurasian descent. To explain this diversity of ancestry, they propose that there were also incoming West Eurasians moving eastward on the Eurasian steppe during the Türkic period, resulting in admixture.[70][71]

A 2020 study analyzed genetic data from 7 early medieval Türk skeletal remains from Turkic Khaganate burial sites in Mongolia.[72][73] The authors described the Türk samples as highly diverse, carrying on average 40% West Eurasian, and 60% East Eurasian ancestry. West Eurasian ancestry in the Türks combined Sarmatian-related and BMAC ancestry, while the East Eurasian ancestry was related to Ancient Northeast Asians. The authors also observed that the Western Steppe Herder ancestry in the Türks was largely inherited from male ancestors, which also corresponds with the marked increase of paternal haplogroups such as R and J during the Türkic period in Mongolia.[74] Admixture between East and West Eurasian ancestors of the Türkic samples was dated to 500 AD, which is 8 generations prior.[75] Three of the Türkic-affiliated males carried the paternal haplogroups J2a and J1a, two carried haplogroup C-F3830, and one carried R1a-Z93. The analyzed maternal haplogroups were identified as D4, D2, B4, C4, H1 and U7.[76]

Empress Ashina (551–582), a royal Göktürk and immediate descendant of the Göktürk khagans, belonged genetically to the Ancient Northeast Asians (ANA, yellow area), supporting the Northeast Asian origin of the Ashina tribe and the Gökturks.[77][78]

A 2023 study published in the Journal of Systematics and Evolution analyzed the DNA of Empress Ashina (551–582), a royal Göktürk and immediate descendant of the first Khagans, whose remains were recovered from a mausoleum in Xianyang, China.[79] The authors determined that Empress Ashina belonged to the North-East Asian mtDNA haplogroup F1d. Approximately 96-98% of her autosomal ancestry was of Ancient Northeast Asian origin, while roughly 2-4% was of West Eurasian origin, indicating ancient admixture, and no Chinese ("Yellow River") admixture.[77] The results are consistent with a North-East Asian origin of the royal Ashina family and the Göktürk Khaganate.[79] However, the Ashina did not show close genetic affinity with central-steppe Türks and early medieval Türks, who exhibit a high (but variable) degree of West Eurasian ancestry, which indicates that there was genetic sub-structure within the Türkic empire. For example, the ancestry of early medieval Turks was derived from Ancient Northeast Asians for about 62% of their genome, while the remaining 38% was derived from West Eurasians (BMAC and Afanasievo), with the admixture occurring around the year 500 CE.[80][81]

The Ashina was found to share genetic affinities to post-Iron Age Tungusic and Mongolic pastoralists, and was genetically closer to East Asians, while having heterogeneous relationships towards various Turkic-speaking groups in central Asia, suggesting genetic heterogeneity and multiple sources of origin for the population of the Turkic empire. This shows that the Ashina lineage had a dominating contribution on Mongolic and Tungusic speakers but limited contribution on Turkic-speaking populations. According to the authors, these findings "once again validates a cultural diffusion model over a demic diffusion model for the spread of Turkic languages" and refutes "the western Eurasian origin and multiple origin hypotheses" in favor of an East Asian origin for the royal Ashina family.[82]

Two Türk remains (GD1-1 and GD2-4) analysed in a 2024 paper, were found to display only little to no West Eurasian ancestry. One of the Türk remains (GD1-1) was derived entirely from an Ancient Northeast Asian source (represented by SlabGrave1 or Khovsgol_LBA and Xianbei_Mogushan_IA), while the other Türk remain (GD2-4) displayed an "admixed profile" deriving c. 48−50% ancestry from Ancient Northeast Asians, c. 47% ancestry from an ancestry maximised in Han Chinese (represented by Han_2000BP), and 3−5% ancestry from a West Eurasian source (represented by Sarmatians). The GD2-4 belonged to the paternal haplogroup D-M174. The authors argue that these findings are "providing a new piece of information on this understudied period".[83]


See also[edit]

In popular culture[edit]


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  71. ^ Damgaard & Marchi 2018, p. 372: "These results suggest that Turk cultural customs were imposed by an East Asian minority elite onto central steppe nomad populations, resulting in a small detectable increase in East Asian ancestry. However, we also find that steppe nomad ancestry in this period was extremely heterogeneous with several individuals being genetically distributed at the extremes of the first principal component (Figure 2) separating Eastern and Western descent. Based on this notable heterogeneity, we interpret that during Medieval times, the steppe populations were exposed to gradual admixture from the East, while interacting with incoming west Eurasians. The strong variation is a direct window into ongoing admixture processes and to the multi-ethnic cultural organization of this period."
  72. ^ Jeong, Choongwon (12 November 2020). "A Dynamic 6,000-Year Genetic History of Eurasia's Eastern Steppe". Cell. 183 (4): 890–904.e29. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2020.10.015. hdl:21.11116/0000-0007-77BF-D. ISSN 0092-8674. PMC 7664836. PMID 33157037.
  73. ^ Jeong 2020: "Türk (550-750 CE). Göktürkic tribes of the Altai Mountains established a political structure across Eurasia beginning in 552 CE, with an empire that ruled over Mongolia from 581-742 CE (Golden, 1992). A brief period of disunion occurred between 659-682 CE, during which the Chinese Tang dynasty laid claim over Mongolia...We analyzed individuals from 5 Türk sites in this study: Nomgonii Khundii (NOM), Shoroon Bumbagar (Türkic mausoleum; TUM), Zaan-Khoshuu (ZAA), Uliastai River Lower Terrace (ULI), and Umuumur uul (UGU)."
  74. ^ Jeong 2020: "We observe a clear signal of male-biased WSH admixture among the EIA Sagly/Uyuk and during the Türkic period (i.e., more positive Z scores; Figure 5B), which also corresponds to the decline in the Y chromosome lineage Q1a and the concomitant rise of the western Eurasian lineages such as R and J (Figure S2A)."
  75. ^ Jeong 2020: "The admixture dates estimated for the ancient Türkic and Uyghur individuals in this study correspond to ca. 500 CE: 8 ± 2 generations before the Türkic individuals and 12 ± 2 generations before the Uyghur individuals (represented by ZAA001 and Olon Dov individuals)."
  76. ^ Jeong 2020: "Table S2, S2C_SexHaplogroups, Supplementary Materials GUID: E914F9CE-9ED4-4E0F-9172-5A54A08E9F6B
  77. ^ a b Yang, Meng & Zhang 2023, pp. 3–4
  78. ^ Jeong 2020, Figure S4A.
  79. ^ a b Yang, Xiao-Min; Meng, Hai-Liang; Zhang, Jian-Lin (17 January 2023). "Ancient genome of Empress Ashina reveals the Northeast Asian origin of Göktürk Khanate". Journal of Systematics and Evolution. 61 (6): 1056–1064. doi:10.1111/jse.12938. ISSN 1674-4918. S2CID 255690237.
  80. ^ Jeong 2020, p. 897: See figure 4, B for admixture proportions in earlyMed_Turk. "...it is clear that these individuals have genetic profiles that differ from the preceding Xiongnu period, suggesting new sources of gene flow into Mongolia at this time that displace them along PC3 (Figure 2)...The admixture dates estimated for the ancient Türkic and Uyghur individuals in this study correspond to ca. 500 CE: 8 ± 2 generations before the Türkic individuals and 12 ± 2 generations before the Uyghur individuals (represented by ZAA001 and Olon Dov individuals)."
  81. ^ Yang, Meng & Zhang 2023, p. 4: "The early Medieval Türk (earlyMed_Turk) derived the major ancestry from ANA at a proportion of 62.2%, the remainder from BMAC (10.7%) and Western Steppe Afanasievo nomad (27.1%) (Figs. 1C, 1D; Table S2E)."
  82. ^ Meng, Hailiang. "Ancient Genome of Empress Ashina reveals the Northeast Asian origin of Göktürk Khanate". Journal of Systematics and Evolution. Ashina individual clustered with ancient populations from Northeast Asia and eastern Mongolia Plateau, and especially with the Northeast Asian hunter‐gatherers.
  83. ^ Lee, Juhyeon; Sato, Takehiro; Tajima, Atsushi; Amgalantugs, Tsend; Tsogtbaatar, Batmunkh; Nakagome, Shigeki; Miyake, Toshihiko; Shiraishi, Noriyuki; Jeong, Choongwon; Gakuhari, Takashi (1 March 2024). "Medieval genomes from eastern Mongolia share a stable genetic profile over a millennium". Human Population Genetics and Genomics. 4 (1): 1–11. doi:10.47248/hpgg2404010004. ISSN 2770-5005.
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