Turkic peoples

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Total population: c. 150 million (2005)
Significant populations in: Azerbaijan   ?

(Northern) Cyprus   ?
Kazakhstan   ?
Kyrgyzstan   ?
Turkmenistan   ?
Turkey   ?
Uzbekistan    ?
Altai    ?
Bashkortostan   ?
Chuvashia   ?
Dagestan    ?
Hakasia   ?
Karachay-Malkar   ?
Tatarstan   ?
Tuva   ?
Yakutia  ?
Xinjiang  ?
Gagauzia  ?
Hungary  ?

Language: Turkic, English, Russian,
Religion: Islam, shaman,Christianity, Other, None
Related ethnic groups: other

For the Turks from Final Fantasy VII, see Turks (Final Fantasy VII).

Turkic peoples are Northern and Central Eurasian peoples who speak languages belonging to the Turkic family, and who, in varying degrees, share certain cultural and historical traits. Many historians consider the term "turkic" to represent a linguistic characterization as opposed to an ethnic characterization. "Turkish," on the other hand, is considered by many historians to represent the denizens of Turkey. Turkic languages are a subdivision of the Altaic language group, and are one of the most geographically widespread in the world, being spoken in a vast region spanning from Europe to Siberia.


Geographical Distribution

The Turkic peoples have many different branches, and their total population is around 150 million. Roughly half of these belong to Turks of Turkey, dwelling predominantly in Turkey proper and formerly Ottoman-dominated areas of Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East; as well as in Western Europe, Australia and the Americas as immigrants. The other half of the Turkic peoples are concentrated in Central Asia, Russia, Southern Caucasus and Northern and Central Iran.

Turkic Languages
Turkic Languages

At present, there are six independent Turkic countries: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. There are also several autonomous Turkic republics and Turkic-governed regions in the Russian federation: Altai, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, Dagestan, Hakasia, Karachay-Malkar, Tatarstan, Tuva and Yakutia. Each autonomous Turkic republic within the Russian federation has its own flag, parliament, laws and official state language.

There are also two other major autonomous Turkic region: The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (also known as East Turkestan) in western China, and the autonomous state of Gagauzia, located within eastern Moldova, and bordering Ukraine to the north. In addition, there are several stateless Turkic regions in Iran, and parts of Iraq, Georgia, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and western Mongolia. The Azerbaijanis of Iran (mostly found in Southern Azerbaijan and major urban centers) are the largest stateless Turkic people in the world. The Turks of Turkey number about seventy-five million, including expatriates and minorities in Europe, while the second largest Turkic people are the Azerbaijanis, who number more than thirty-five million worldwide, with most of these living in northwestern Iran -- a region refered to by some as Southern Azerbaijan.

Turkic Roots

The term "Turk" was first officially used as a political name in the 6th century. Turkic nationalists claim that the expansion of proto-Turkic peoples across Eurasia involved the Scythians (Ishkuz), Xiongnu, Huns, Sarmatians, Khazars, Pechenegs, Alans, Cimmerians, Massagetae and other steppe populations. While some of these peoples may have represented, to some extent, a proto-Turkic or Turkic tribe or confederation, the majority are considered largely non-Turkic. Certainly in later times the Khazars and the Pechenegs were Turkic, but the Cimmerians, Massagetae, Sarmatians and Scythians are thought to have been Indo-European speakers.

Although they have been settled and urbanized, the older tradition of nomadism has created a cultural norm which, at its best, is represented by a combative spirit, a sense of leadership, the habit of mobility, craftsmanship, gallantry, elegant equestrian skill and an unusual dexterity as archers on horseback. Turkic peoples used their own alphabets, like runiform Orkhon script and Uyghur alphabet. The traditional, national and cultural symbols of the Turkic peoples include the star and crescent -- used as a symbol of Turks since pre-Islamic times when they aspired to Shamanism -- wolves, a part of Turkic mythology and tradition; as well as the color blue, iron and fire. In the age of nationalism, Turks were among the first Islamic peoples to take up Western ideas of liberalism and secular ideologies. It first sprang up at the end of 19th century in the Russian Empire and was advanced by leading Tatar intellectuals like Ismail Gaspirali and Yusuf Akçura, as a reaction to Panslavist and Russification policies of the Russian Empire. The first fully democratic and secular republics in the Islamic world were Turkic: the ill-fated Idel-Ural State established in 1917, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918 (both annexed and absorbed by Soviet Union) and in 1923, Republic of Turkey.


In modern Turkey a distinction is made between Turks and the Turkic peoples: the term Türk corresponds to Turkish people and culture, while the term Türki refers to modern Turkic peoples and cultures.

Some claim that this distinction is an artificial one, and one not made by the speakers of Turkic languages themselves. It is sometimes claimed further that much of the separation is the result of Stalinism, and that prior to the founding of the Soviet Union, the term "Turkish" had been used to describe all Turkic peoples as part of a greater family. Others counter that this argument is without basis, and only used to support the racial theories of Pan-Turkism -- pointing out that the differences among the separate governmental administrations, as well as cultural, religious, historical, and even racial differences, are too great to speak of any political unity.

The first mention of the term "Turk" applied to a known Turkic group, was in reference to the Gokturks in the 6th century. A letter by the Chinese Emperor written to a Göktürk Khan named Isbara in 585 described him as "the Great Turk Khan". The Orhun inscriptions (735 AD) use the term "Turuk".

Previous use of similar terms are of unknown significance, although some strongly feel that they are evidence of the historical continuity of the term and the people, as a linguistic unit since early times. These include: a tablet from 2000 BC found in the ancient city of Mari situated at Tell Hariri in Syria, mentioning that a people named "Turukku" are coming to the lands of Tiguranim and Hirbazanim; and a Chinese record of 1328 BC referring to a neighbouring people as "Tu-Kiu".

In the ancient Zoroastrian text, the Zend-Avesta, one of the grandsons of Yima (comparable to Noah as the sole survivor of a catastrophe that depopulated the Earth) is named "Tur" or "Tura" -- the supposed ancestor of so-called "Turanian" peoples, including Turks. Furthermore, this traditional Persian geneaology has been confused by some with the late 16th century Mughal (Indian) work Akbarnama by Abul-Fazel, where he recounts certain Islamic traditions making "Turk" the oldest son of Japheth and grandson of Noah; also, in the 19th century, it was common in Christian circles to equate the ancestor of the Turks with Togarmah, grandson of Japheth in Genesis 10.

According to Mahmud of Kashgar, an 11th century Turkic scholar and various other traditional Islamic scholars and historians, the name "Turk" stems from "Tur" who can be identified with the Biblical "Tiras" one of the sons of Japhet, who also comes from the same lineage of Gomer (Cimmerians) and Ashkenaz (Scythians, Ishkuz) who were some of the earliest Turks. Japhet was the son of the Biblical Noah, whos descendants settled in the land corresponding to Central Asia and Euroasia, the region between the Ural and Altai mountains, a land described as Turkistan or Turan. In the Zend Avesta (Yasna 46.12) the "Tur" people are mentioned.

In the earliest Turkic dictionary extant, the eponymous hero of the Turks, Alp Er Tunga, is identified with the character Afrasiyab in Persian literature. Alp Er Tunga dates from the time of the Scythians (Ishkuz) and is a symbolic figure in Turkic tradition; the Gokturks of the sixth century carried on the tradition of Alp Er Tunga and they too believed to be descendants of a wolf, just as Alp Er Tunga had. He appears with the name "Frangasyan" in the Zend Avesta, and according to the "Book of Kings" written by the Persian author Ferdowsi, Afrasiyab was hunted down and killed in Azerbaijan. The name "Turk" was initially pronounced "Turuk, Tur-uk" is a plural of "Tur." Thus one meaning of the word Turk is "The Turs." The second meaning of Turk is "strong" or "powerful." Some have stated that the name Turk is a name of a helmet-shaped hill in present-day Xinjiang yet the lineage of Turks to Japhet and the early Tur people and the designation of strong/powerful are the definition and root of the word.


It is generally believed that the first Turkic people were native to Central Asia. Some historians claim that the Turks originated in Western Asia, and migrated to Central Asia in prehistoric times; while others believe that migration to Western Asia occurred via Central Asia before the advent of the Huns. Some scholars consider the Huns, whose origins may go back to 1200 BC, as one of the earlier Turkic-Mongol tribes.

The precise date of the initial expansion from the early homeland remains unknown. The first state known as "Turk", giving its name to the many states and peoples afterwards, was that of the Gokturks (gog = "blue" or "celestial") in the 6th century AD. The head of the Asena clan led his people from Li-jien (modern ZhelaiZhai) to the Juan Juan seeking inclusion in their confederacy and protection from China. His tribe were famed metal smiths and were granted land near a mountain quarry which looked like a helmet from which they got their name 突厥. A century later their power had increased such that they conquered the Juan Juan ad set about establishing their Gok Empire.

Later Turkic peoples include the Karluks (mainly 8th century), Uyghurs, Kirghiz, Oghuz (or Ğuz) Turks, and Turkmens. As these peoples were founding states in the area between Mongolia and Transoxiana, they came into contact with Muslims, and most gradually adopted Islam. However, there were also (and still are) Turkic people belonging to other religions, including Christians, Jews (see Khazars), Buddhists, and Zoroastrians.

Turkic soldiers in the army of the Abbasid caliphs emerged as the de facto rulers of most of the Muslim Middle East (apart from Syria and Egypt), particularly after the 10th century. The Oghuz and other tribes captured and dominated various countries under the leadership of the Seljuk dynasty, and eventually captured the territories of the Abbasid dynasty and the Byzantine Empire.

Meanwhile, the Kirghiz and Uyghurs were struggling with one another and with the Chinese Empire. The Kirghiz people ultimately settled in the region now referred to as Kyrgyzstan. The Tatar peoples conquered the Volga Bulgars in what is today Tatarstan, following the westward sweep of the Mongols under Genghis Khan in the 13th century. The Bulgars were thus mistakenly called Tatars by the Russians. Native Tatars live only in Asia; European "Tatars" are in fact Bulgars. Other Bulgars settled in Europe in the 7-8th centuries, exchanging their original Turkic tongue for what eventually became the Slavic Bulgarian language. Everywhere, Turkic groups mixed with the local populations to varying degrees.

As the Seljuk Empire declined following the Mongol invasion, the Ottoman Empire emerged as the new important Turkic state, that came to dominate not only the Middle East, but even southeastern Europe, parts of southwestern Russia, and northern Africa.

The Ottoman Empire gradually grew weaker in the face of maladministration, repeated wars with Russia and Austria, and the emergence of nationalist movements in the Balkans, and it finally gave way after World War I to the present-day republic of Turkey.


Main article: Turkic languages

The Turkic language branch belong to Altaic language groups. The various Turkic languages are usually considered in geographical groupings, since high mobility and intermixing of Turkic peoples in history makes an exact classification extremely difficult: Oghuz (or Southwestern) languages, Kypchak (or Northwestern) languages, Eastern languages (like Uygur) and Northern languages (like Altay and Yakut) and divergent languages like Chuvash.


Various pre-Islamic civilizations prior to the 6th century were Shamanist and Tengriist. The Shamanist religion is based on spiritual and natural elements of earth. Tenghriism in turn involved belief in the god Tenghri as the god who ruled over the skies.They were also bearers of the Zoroastrian religion, especially in Azerbaijan, Buddhism, Judaism and above all Islam.

Today, most Turks are Sunni Muslims. They include the majority of Balkan Turks, Bashkorts, Crimean Tatars, Karachay, Kazaks, Kumuk, Kyrgyz, Malkar, Nogay, Tatars (Kazan Tatars) Turkmens, Turks of Turkey, Uygurs, Yellow (Sari) Uygurs and Uzbeks. The Azerbaijanis of the Republic of Azerbaijan and South Azerbaijan (northwestern Iran) are the only major Turkic people that adhere to the Shia sect of Islam, while there have been many conversions to Sunni Islam as of late. The Qashqay nomads and Khorasani Turks as well as various Turkic tribes spread across Iran are also Shia Muslims. The Alevis of Turkey are the largest religious minority in the country. Even though it´s claimed that they believe in a doctrine of Islam that is closely related to that of the Shia school of thought, Shia's, however, regard Alevis as heretics. A small number of Turks follow other minor Islamic sects such as Sufism.

The major Christian-Turkic peoples are the Chuvash of Chuvashia and the Gauguz (Gokoguz) of Moldova. The Karaim Turks of eastern Europe are Jewish, and there are many Turks of Jewish backgrounds who live in major cities such as Istanbul, Ankara and Baku. In the Siberian region, the Altai, Tivan and Hakas are Shamanists, having kept the original relgion of Turkic peoples. The Yakuts of Yakutia in northeastern Siberia are tradtionally Shamanists, yet many have been converted to Christianity. The Sari Uygurs (Yellow Uygurs) of western China are the only remaining Buddhist Turkic group. In addition, there are small scattered populations of Turks belonging to other religions such as the Bahá'í Faith and Zoroastianism.

Even though many Turkic peoples became Muslims under the influence of Sufis, often of Shi'a persuasion, most Turkic people today are Sunni Muslims -- although a significant number in Turkey are Alevis. Alevi Turks, who were once primarily dwelling in eastern Anatolia, are today concentrated in major urban centers in western Turkey with the increased urbanism.

The Chuvash of Russia, in their traditional religion, manifest a unique amalgam, that derives in part from ancient Turkic concepts, and in part from other aspects that may be compared to Zoroastrianism, Khazar Judaism, and Islam. The Chuvash religious calendar cycle was based on an agrarian cult, closely combining the cults of earth, water and vegetation, with that of ancestor worship. The conversion of the Chuvash to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, mostly effected in later 19th century, had a noticeable effect on their festivals and rites, that were adapted to coincide with Orthodox feasts -- with Christian rites substituted for their traditional counterparts. Though contemporary Chuvash are counted among Orthodox believers, a minority continue to profess their traditional faith [1].

The Gagauz people of Moldova are largely Christians.

Some Turkic peoples (particularly in the Russian autonomous regions and republics of Altai, Khakassia, and Tuva) are largely shamanists. Shamanism was the predominant religion of the different Turkic branches prior to the 8th century, when the majority accepted Islam.

There are also a few Buddhist (eg. Kalmuks), Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Bahá'í Turkic peoples today.

Remark: Tenghri has long changed to "Tanri" in current Turkish (of Republic of Turkey [R.O.T] at least), which literally means "God" in English. However, traditionally, god is referred to as "Allah" in most daily usage, where "Allah" is one of many names of "God" as mentioned in Quoran. Therefore the word thengri=tanrı is still in use by citizens of R.O.T., where Islam is the dominant religion at the moment.

Geographical distribution and ethnic division

The distribution of peoples of Turkic cultural background ranges from Siberia where the Yakut reside, across Central Asia, to Eastern Europe. Presently, the largest groups of Turkic people live throughout Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, in addition to Turkey. Additionally, Turkic peoples are found within Crimea, the Xinjiang region of western China, northern Iraq, Iran, Israel, Russia, Afghanistan, Cyprus, the Balkans Moldova, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and former Yugoslavia. A small number of Turkic people also live in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

An exact line between the different Turkic peoples cannot easily be drawn. The following is a non-comprehensive list of the major groups:

Some divide the above into six branches: the Oghuz, Kipchak, Karluk, Siberian, Chuvash, and Sakha/Yakut branches. The Oghuz have been termed Western Turks, while the remaining five, in such a classificatory scheme, are called Eastern Turks.

One of the major difficulties perceived by many who try to classify the various Turkic languages and dialects, is the impact Soviet, and particularly Stalinist nationality policies -- the creation of new national demarcations, suppression of languages and writing scripts, and mass deportations -- had on the ethnic mix in previously multicultural regions like Khiva/Khwarezmia, the Fergana valley and Caucasia. Many of the above-mentioned classifications are therefore by no means universally accepted, either in detail or in general. Another aspect often debated is the influence of Pan-Turkism, and the emerging nationalism in the newly independent Central Asian republics, on the perception of ethnic divisions.

Physical appearance

Some historians consider "Turkic" as a linguistic categorization rather than a strict ethnic characterization. This is unsurprising since Turkic peoples often differ greatly from one another in physical appearance, reflecting the abundant migrations, conquests and settlements across Eurasia. Therefore the already considerable problems involved in any racial classification are made much more difficult in the case of the Turks.

The majority of Turkic peoples, from former Ottoman lands to western China and from the Siberian plains to central Iran, seem to possess physical features ranging from caucasoid to Eastern Asian/mongoloid, in varying degrees. Some have very light features, including blue eyes and blondish or reddish hair, others are distinctly asiatic.

In western Turkic lands, such as Turkey and Azerbaijan a great many people look "Mediterranean", having caucasoid features, dark hair and eyes, and olive skin. This is mostly attributable to the residual legacy of the Greco-Romans in Asia Minor, and also the Circassians, Jews, Assyrians, Arabs, Kurds etc. whom the Ottomans subjugated and were happy to intermarry. It may seem odd from a western perspective, to think of the Turks as a mongoloid or part-mongoloid people, however the artistic record does depict the early Ottomans being of asiatic countenance, with dark hair, and Mongoloid features. The type remains a prominent minority in modern Turkey. Another example of admixture of Turkic peoples with others would be in hungary. Hungarians are very much assimilated into Europe. However, current DNA evidence shows conclusively that modern Hungarians are related to the Magyars and that the Magyars were Turkic in origin. Even so modern Hungarians have a large ammount of Slavic and German DNA admixture since they arrived(See external links for citations).

Parallel but different patterns of diversity occur in central Asia, in the lands once host to the Silk Road; for many centuries the main route of trade between the West and China. The inhabitants of these regions can exhibit extremes of racial phenotype from caucasoid to mongoloid, with probable admixtures of Persian, Jewish, Arab, Indian and Chinese, yet remaining culturally homogenous. Light skin, hair and eyes, along with a mongoloid facial structure, is prevalent among some Northern Central Asian Turkic groups, such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyzs, although dark hair and light to light brown skin tends to be the norm. In areas of significant Russian influence, a Slavic admixture is also common.

There has been much debate about the racial nature of the original Turkic speaking ancestors, with some presuming a "Ural-Altaic race" that shares predominantly caucasoid features at one end of the spectrum, and predominantly mongoloid features at the other. It is however widely accepted that Turkic roots are Altaic, i.e. originating in the Altay mountain region which spans present day Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan and it may be that they have less relation to the Uralic peoples than previously thought.

In recent times linguists have tended to separate the old Ural-Altaic language group in two. Turkic langages now sit alongside Korean and Mongolian, but distinct from Finnish and Hungarian. The tribes inhabiting the Altay region today, with least incursion from Russians and Chinese are of predominantly asiatic/mongoloid appearance and of light, though not white skin tone and this is perhaps the best clue available as to the appearance of the original Turkic ancestors. In stature they are stocky and do not tend to be as tall as Europeans.

Currently, large-scale detailed DNA research to establish genetic genealogies of Turkic peoples are scant. Evidently today a great number of Turks do not share this genetic phenotype. Genetic studies performed in four towns across modern Turkey have demonstrated the dilution of the Turkic strain. Only around 30% of those studied possessed a gene marker relating them to a central Asian (i.e. Turkic) ancestor, yet all those studied were Turkish citizens. All together the story of Turkic peoples is a story of admixture and two way cultural assimilation.

Turkic identity, therefore, exists on two levels. On one it is a race of (mainly mongoloid) people from central Asia. On another it is like an ocean current, spreading and mingling with far-flung waters and giving rise to a shared history, language and cultural values transcending genes and racial categorisation.

Turkish world and Pan-Turkism

Some refer to the Turkic countries, regions and peoples as part of the Turkish World. Others are worried that this is a result and example of Pan-Turkism, claimed to encourage hegemonial or even imperialistic aims of modern day Turkey. However, this is merely not the case as Pan-Turkism is supported widely outside Turkey. Also, official Turkey has not supported Pan-Turkism.

Proponents of the concept point out that in similar fashion, many Arabs also feel to be part of a greater "Arab World". It is also held that encouragement of this cultural and linguistic affinity can be used as a vehicle to increased regional development and security.

Opponents point to the nationalism, the role of pan-Turkic movements in the revolutionary wars in Russia, and the cultural, religious, and political diversity among the many Turkic peoples and ethnic groups, and feel that a movement to greater pan-Turkic unity might be a negative influence on the region.

Translations for "Turk"

Afrikaans Turk.

Albanian turk.

Arabic ‏التركي.

Assyrian Turk.

Bulgarian турчин.

Chinese 土耳其人.

Czech turek.

Danish tyrk.

Dutch Turk.

Esperanto turko.

Farsi, ترک

Finnish turkkilainen.

French Turc, Turque.

German Türke, Türkin.

Greek Τούρκος (Turkish), τούρκος.

Hungarian török.

Icelandic Tyrki.

Indonesian negeri turki.

Italian turco, turca.

Korean 터키 사람.

Manx Turkagh.

Papiamen turko.

Polish Turek.

Portuguese turco, turca.

Romanian turc.

Russian турок, тюрк.

Serbo-Croatian turčin.

Spanish turco, turca.

Swedish turk.

Turkish, Anatolian türk.

Turkish, Azeri türk.

Turkish, Tatar törek.

Turkish, Turkmen türk.

Ukrainian турок.

Vietnamese người Thổ nhĩ kỳ gười hung ác.

Welsh Twrc.

See also

External links

New DNA Results

Further reading

  • Charles Warren Hostler, The Turks of Central Asia, (Greenwood Press, November 1993), ISBN: 0275939316
  • Carter V. Findley, The Turks in World History, (Oxford University Press, October 2004) ISBN: 0195177266

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