The Göktürks, Celestial Turks or Blue Turks (Old Turkic: 𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰰:𐰉𐰆𐰑𐰣‎, romanized: Türük Bodun; Chinese: 突厥 Tūjué; Wade-Giles: T'u-chüeh) were a nomadic confederation of Turkic peoples 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 Turkic Khaganate, one of several nomadic dynasties that would shape the future geolocation, culture, and dominant beliefs of Turkic peoples.

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


Tegin Shah's coin

Strictly speaking, the common name Göktürk is the Anatolian Turkish form of the historical ethnic group's endonym: which was attested as Old Turkic: 𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰰‎, romanized: Türük[4][5] Old Turkic: 𐰛𐰇𐰜⁚𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰰‎, romanized: Kök Türük,[4][5] or Old Turkic: 𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰚‎, romanized: Türk.[6] They were known in Middle Chinese historical sources as the Tūjué (Chinese: ; reconstructed in Middle Chinese as romanized: *dwət-kuɑt > tɦut-kyat).[7] 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.[8][9][10] 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.[11]

It is generally accepted that the name Türk is ultimately derived from the Old-Turkic migration-term[12] 𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰰 Türük/Törük, which means 'created, born'.[13]

Göktürk means "Celestial Turk",[14] or sometimes "Blue Turk" (i.e. because sky blue is associated with celestial realms). 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.[15] The name of the ruling Ashina clan may derive from the Khotanese Saka term for "deep blue", āššɪna.[16]

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, Ruanruan to̤ro̤x/türǖg and Old Tibetan Drugu.[7][17]

According to the American Heritage Dictionary the word Türk meant "strong" in Old Turkic;[18] 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'".[19]


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 October 18, the Tuoba ruler Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei overthrew Juqu Mujian of the Northern Liang in eastern Gansu,[20][21][22] whence 500 Ashina families fled northwest to the Rouran Khaganate in the vicinity of Gaochang.[9][23]

According to the Book of Zhou and History of the Northern Dynasties, the Ashina clan was a component of the Xiongnu confederation,[8][10] specifically, the Northern Xiongnu tribes[24][25] or southern Xiongnu "who settled along the northern Chinese frontier", according to Edwin G. Pulleyblank.[26] However, this view is contested.[27] 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 either by Sakas or Xianbei.[8][10][28] 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.[9][29] 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,[9] by ancestral lineage.[30][31]

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.[32][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'.[9][33] 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.[34]

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.[35] This is supported by evidence from the Orkhon inscriptions, which include several non-Turkic lexemes, possibly representing Uralic or Yeniseian words.[36][37] 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, he also adds that this hypothesis assumes that they were not themselves lranian or Tokharian in speech.[38] German Turkologist W.-E. Scharlipp points out that many common terms in Turkic are Iranian in origin.[39] 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.[38][40]


The Göktürks reached their peak in 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 Sui Dynasty.[41] 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 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.

Conquest by the TangEdit

Shoroon Bumbagar tomb mural, Göktürk, 7th century CE, Mongolia.[1][42][43][44]
Göktürk cavalry mural, Shoroon Bumbagar tomb, 7th century CE.[1]

Although the Göktürk Khaganate once provided support to the Tang Dynasty in the early period of Chinese civil war, the conflicts between the Göktürks and Tang finally broke out when Tang was gradually reuniting China. The Göktürks began to attack and raid the northern border of the Tang Empire and once marched their main force to Chang'an, the capital of Tang. Having not recovered from the civil war, the Tang briefly had to pay tribute to Göktürk nobles.[45] Allied with tribes opposing the Göktürk Khaganate, the Tang defeated the main force of Göktürk army in Battle of Yinshan four years later and captured Illig Qaghan in 630 AD.[46] With the submission of the Turkic tribes, the Tang conquered the Mongolian Plateau.

After a vigorous court debate, Emperor Taizong decided to pardon the Göktürk nobles and offered them positions as imperial guards.[45] However, the proposition was ended by a plan for the assassination of the emperor. On May 19, 639[47] 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.[48] After the unsuccessful raid of Ashina Jiesheshuai, on August 13, 639[49] 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.[50] However, many Göktürk generals still remained loyal in service to the Tang Empire.

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.[51] In 680, Pei Xingjian defeated Ashina Nishufu and his army. Ashina Nishufu was killed by his men.[51] Ashide Wenfu made Ashina Funian a qaghan and again revolted against the Tang dynasty.[51] Ashide Wenfu and Ashina Funian surrendered to Pei Xingjian. On December 5, 681[52] 54 Göktürks, including Ashide Wenfu and Ashina Funian, were publicly executed in the Eastern Market of Chang'an.[51] 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.[53] The restored Göktürk Khaganate intervened in the war between Tang and Khitan tribes.[54] However, after the death of Bilge Qaghan, the Göktürks could no longer subjugate other Turk tribes in the grasslands. In 744, allied with Tang Dynasty, the Uyghur Khaganate defeated the last Göktürk Khaganate and controlled the Mongolian Plateau.[55]


Gold Mask Inlaid with Rubies, probably belonging to the Turkic Empire of Central Asia. 5th - 6th century CE. Excavated at Boma Tomb in Zhaosu County, Xinjiang. Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture Museum collection.[56]


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.[57] The extracted samples of Y-DNA belonged to haplogroup Q (sample DA86),[58] haplogroup R1 (samples DA89,[58] DA224) and Haplogroup O (sample DA228[59]).[60] The extracted samples of mtDNA belonged to C41b (sample DA86), A14(samples DA89), H2a (samples DA224) and A15c (sample DA228).[61] The examined Türks were found to have more East Asian ancestry than the preceding Tian Shan Huns. Evidence of European ancestry was also detected, suggesting ongoing contacts with Europe. Succeeding Turkic states of Central Asia displayed even higher levels of East Asian ancestry, indicating that the Turkification of Central Asia was carried out by dominant minorities of East Asian origin.[62][63]

See alsoEdit

In popular cultureEdit


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  62. ^ Damgaard et al. 2018, pp. 4–5. "We find evidence that elite soldiers associated with the Turkic Khaganate are genetically closer to East Asians... These results suggest that Turkic cultural customs were imposed by an East Asian minority elite onto central steppe nomad populations... The wide distribution of the Turkic languages from Northwest China, Mongolia and Siberia in the east to Turkey and Bulgaria in the west implies large-scale migrations out of the homeland in Mongolia... [T]he genomic history of the Eurasian steppes is the story of a gradual transition from Bronze Age pastoralists of West Eurasian ancestry towards mounted warriors of increased East Asian ancestry..."
  63. ^ Damgaard et al. 2018, Supplementary Information, p. 12.