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The Karluks (obs. Qarluqs, Qarluks, Karluqs, Arab/Persian Halluh, , customary phonetic Gelolu, Gelu, Khololo, Khorlo, Harluut) were a prominent nomadic Turkic tribe residing in the regions of Kara-Irtysh (Black Irtyshmarker) and Tarbagatai west of the Altay Mountainsmarker in Central Asia. They were closely related to the Uygurs. Karluks gave their name to the distinct Karluk group of the Turkic languages, which also includes the Uygur, Uzbek and Ili Turki languages. Karluk is widely known as Chagatai language. Karluks were known as a coherent ethnic group with autonomous status within the Turkic Kaganates, and the independent states of the Karluk Yabgu and Karakhanids, before being absorbed in the Chagatai Ulus of the Mongol empire.


Historical background

Asia in 600 AD, showing the location of the Karluk tribes.
The first Chinese reference to the Karluks (644 AD) labels them with a Manichaean attribute: Lion Karluks (Shi-Gelolu, shi stands for Sogd. "lion"). The "lion" (Tr. "arslan") Karluks persisted up to the time of the Mongols . In the Early Middle Age, organized as the Uch-Karluks (Three Karluks) union, composed of Karluks, Chigils, and Yagma tribes, they were members of the Turkic Kaganate. After the split of the Kaganate around 600 into the Western and Eastern Kaganates, the Uch-Karluks remained in the Western Turkic Kaganate under a non-autonomous home rule, as the members of the five Tele (Dingling) tribes that did not receive autonomy: the Karluks; the Yagma (Yan Nyan); the Kipchaks; the Basmyls; and the Hun (Dulu) tribes Chue, Chumi, and Shato. After the breakup of the Western Turkic Kaganate around 630, the Karluk union became independent, and by the year 665 it was led by a former Uch-Karluk bey with the title Kül-Erkin, now titled "Yabgu" (prince), who had a powerful army. The Karluk vanguard left the Altai regionmarker, and at the beginning of the 8th century reached the banks of the Amu Daryamarker.W. Barthold, "Four Studies In History Of Central Asia", Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1962, pp.87-92

The Karluks were a branch of the Turkic Türgesh, or aboriginal Altaians. In 650 AD, at the time of their submission to the Chinesemarker, the Karluks had 3 tribes: Meulo, Chjisy (Popou), and Tashili. On paper, the Karluk divisions received Chinese names as Chinese provinces, and their leaders received Chinese state titles. Later, the Karluks spread from the valley of the river Kerlyk along the Irtysh Rivermarker in the western part of the Altay to beyond the Black Irtyshmarker, Tarbagatai, and towards the Tien Shanmarker. .

In 630 AD the Aru-Kagan (Chinese, Helu) of the Eastern Turkic Kaganate was captured by the Chinese, and his heir apparent, the "lesser Khan" Khubo, with a major part of the people and 30,000 members of the army, escaped to Altai, conquered the Karluks in the west, the Kyrgyz in the north, and took the title Ichju Chebi Khan. The Karluks allied with the Dingling and their leaders the Uygurs against the Turkic Kaganate, and participated in enthroning the victorious head of the Uygurs (Tokuz Oguzes). After that, a smaller part of the Karluks joined the Uygurs, and settled in the Bogdo-Ola mountains in Mongoliamarker, and the larger part settled in the area between Altai and the eastern Tien Shan.

The Karluk rose in rebellion in against the Türküt, then the dominant tribal confederation in the region, in about 745, and established a new tribal confederation with the Turkic Uygur and Basmyl tribes.

In 766, after they overran the Turgesh in Jeti-sumarker, the Karluk tribes formed a Khanate under the rule of a Yabgu (prince). Famed for their woven carpets in the pre-Muslim era, they were considered a vassal state by the Tang Dynasty after the final conquest of the Transoxania regions by the Chinese around 744. They remained in the Chinese sphere of influence and an active participant in fighting the Muslim expansion into the area, up until their split from the Tang at the Battle of Talasmarker in 751.

Chinese intervention in the affairs of Western Turkestan ceased after their defeat in 751 by the Arab general Ziyad ibn Salih. The Arabs dislodged the Karluks from Ferganamarker. In 766, the Karluks occupied Suyab, and transferred their capital there. By that time the bulk of the tribe had left the Altaimarker, and the supremacy in the Jeti-sumarker passed to the Karluks. Their ruler bore the title Yabgu, and is often mentioned in the Orkhon inscriptions. In Pehlevi texts one of the Karluk rulers of Tocharistan was called Yabbu-Hakan (Yabgu-Kagan) . The fall of the Western Turkic Kaganate left the Jeti-su in the possession of the Turkic peoples, unconquered by either the Arabs or Chinese.

The Karluks were hunters, nomadic herdsmen, and agriculturists. They settled in the countryside and in the cities, which were centered around trading posts along the caravan roads. The Karluks inherited a vast multi-ethnic region, whose diverse population was not much different from its rulers. The Jeti-su was populated by the Turkic Türgesh, who were divided into two tribes, the Tukhshi and the Azes (Ases) mentioned in the Orkhon inscriptions, the remnants of the Turkic Oguzes whose main body had moved to the west, becoming the Shato Turks (i.e. "Steppe Turks"), and interspersed with the Sogdian colonies. The southern part of the Jeti-su was occupied by the Yagma people, a branch of the Tokuz-Oguzes, the later Uygurs, who also held Kashgarmarker. In the north and west lived Kangars (Kangly, Kangüy, Kangju). A separate significant division of the Karluks were the Chigils, a tribe that had detached from the Karluk. They resided around Issyk Kulmarker.

The diverse population adhered to a spectrum of religious beliefs. The Karluks and the majority of the Turkic population professed Tengrianism, called by the proselytizing religions shamanism and heathen. Chigils were Christians of the Nestorian denomination. The majority of the Tokuz-Oguz, with their khan, were Manicheans, but there were also Christians, Buddhists and Muslims among them. The peaceful penetration of Muslim culture through commercial relations played a far more important role in the conversion of the Türks than the Muslim arms. The merchants were followed by missionaries of various creeds, including Nestorian Christians. Many Turkestan towns had Christian churches. The Türks held sacred the Qastek pass mountains, believing to be an abode of the deity. Each creed carried its script, resulting in a variety of used scripts, including Türkic runiform, Sogdian, Syriac, and later Uygur. Karluks had adopted and developed the Turkic literary language of Khoresm, established in the Bukhara and Samarkand, which after Mongol conquest became known as Chagatai Turki.

Of all Turkic peoples, Karluk were the most open to the influence of the Muslim culture. Yaqubi reported the conversion of the Karluk-yabgu to Islam under Caliph Mahdi (775-785), and by the tenth century several towns to the east of Talas had cathedral mosques. Muslim culture had affected the general way of life of the Karluks .

In the following three centuries the Karluk Yabgu state occupied a key position on the choice international trade route, fighting off mostly Türkic competing encroachers to retain their prime position. Their biggest adversaries were Kangars in the north-west and Tokuz-Oguzes in the south-east, with a period of Samanid raids to Jeti-su in the 840-894. But even in the heyday of the Karluk Yabgu state, parts of its domains was in the hands of the Tokuz-Oguzes, and later under Kyrgyz and Khitan control, increasing the ethnical, religious, and political diversity.W. Barthold, "Four Studies In History Of Central Asia", Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1962, pp.92-102

Kyrgyz period

Also see Kyrgyz for details.

Prior to the Kyrgyz-Uygur war of 829-840, the Kyrgyz lived in the upper basin of the Yenisey Rivermarker. Linguistically their language, together with the Altai language, belongs to a separate Kyrgyz group of the Türkic linguistic family. At that time they had an estimated population of 250,000 and an army of 50,000. Kyrgyz victory in the war brought them to the Karluk door. They captured Tuvamarker, Altai, a part of Dzungaria, and reached Kashgarmarker. Allied with the Karluks against the Tokuz-Oguz Uygurs, in the 840s the Kyrgyz started the occupation of that part of the Jeti-sumarker which is their present home. Karluk independence ended around 840. They fell from dominating the tribal association to a subordinate position. The Kyrgyz remained a power in the Jeti-su until their destruction by the Kidanes in 924, when most of them evacuated from their center in Tuva back to the Minusinsk depression, leaving the Karluks to predominate again in the Jeti-su.

The position of the Karluk state, based on rich Jeti-su cities, remained strong, despite the failures in wars in the beginning of the 9th century. Yabgu was enriched by profitable trade in Turkic slaves on Syr-Darya slave markets, selling guards for the Abbasid Caliphs, and control over the transit road to China in the sector from Tarazmarker to Issyk Kulmarker. The Karluk position in Ferganamarker, despite Arab attempts to expel them, became stronger .

The fall of the last Kagan of the Turkic Kaganate with its capital in Ötüken, which dominated for three centuries, created a completely new geopolitical situation in all Turkic Central Asia. For the first time in three hundred years, the powerful center of authority that created opportunities for expansion or even existence of any state in Turkestan had finally disappeared. Henceforth, the Turkic tribes recognized only the high status of the clan that inherited the Kagan title, but never again his unifying authority. Several Muslim historians state that after the loss by Uygurs of their power (840), the supreme authority among the Turkic tribes passed to the Karluk leaders. Connection with the clan Ashina, the ruling clan of the Turkic Kaganate, allowed the Karluk dynasty to dress their authority with legitimate attire, and, abandoning the old title Yabgu, to take on the new title of Kagan.

Karakhanid period

Also see Karakhanids for details.

Towards 940 the "heathen” Yagma from the southern border seized the Chu valley and the Karluk capital Balasagunmarker. The Yagma ruler bore the title Bogra-khan (Camel Khan), very common among Karakhanids. The Yagma quickly proceeded to take control of all Karluk lands. In the tenth and twelfth centuries, the lands on both sides of the principal chain of the Tian Shanmarker were united under the rule of the Karakhanid Ilek-khans (Khans of the Land) or simply Karakhanids (Great Khans). The Karakhanid state was divided into fiefs which soon became independent. .

The Kara-Khanid Khanate was founded in the 10th century by Satuk, a Turkic convert to Islam. His son Musa made Islam a state religion in 960. The empire occupied modern northern Iranmarker and parts of Central Asia. This region remained under Karakhanid (and for varying periods Seljuk and Kara-Khitan) control until 1206, when it became a Mongol vassal state. It remained an independent vassal until the Mongol invasion of 1221.

Control of Turkestan

This is a stub

Khitan period

Also see Khitan for details.

In the beginning of the tenth century AD a Mongolic tribe Khitay, also spelled variously Kidan], Kitan, Qidan, etc., with admixture of Mongols, founded a vast empire, stretching from the Pacificmarker to Lake Baikalmarker and the Tian Shanmarker, displacing the Türkic population and replacing it with Mongol population. The language of Khitay is taken nowadays to be a strongly palatalized Mongolian dialect. Reportedly, the first Gurkhan professed the Manichaean religion. Owing to its long sway over Chinamarker, the ruling dynasty, which Chinese dynastic histories call Liao (916-1125), was strongly influenced by the Chinese culture. In the 1125 another Tunguz people, the Jurchen, allied with Southern Chinese dynasty Sung, ended the domination of the Khitay. The Khitay exiles, headed by Ye-lü Ta-shih, a member of the Khitay royal family, migrated to the West . Khitay settled in Tarbagatai area east of the Jeti-su, their number grew to 40,000 tents. Around 1130es the local Karakhanid ruler of Balasagun asked for their aid against the hostile Turkic tribes Kangly and Karluks. The Khitay occupied Balasaghun, expelled the weak Karakhanid ruler, and founded their own state which stretched from the Eniseymarker to Talas. Then they conquered Kangly, subdued Eastern Turkestan, in the 1137 near Khojandmarker defeated the Transoxanian Turkestan ruler Mahmud-khan, and in the 1141 defeated the army of the Seljuk Sultan Sanjar. The western Khitay state became known under its Türkic name Kara-Khitay (Black, Western, or Great Khitay), and their ruler bore the Türkic title of Gurkhan (Khan’s son-in law) . The original Uch- Karluk confederation became split between the Karakhanid state in the west and the Karakhitay state in the east, which lasted until the Mongolian time. Both in the west and east, Karluk principalities retained their autonomous status and indigenous rulers, though in the Karakhitay the Karluk khan, like the ruler of Samarqand, was forced to follow the Karakhitay Chinese denigrative protocol to acquiesce in the presence of a permanent representative of the Gurkhan .

Directly, the Gurkhans administered limited territories, populated in the 1170es by 84,500 families under direct rule, the Gurkhan's headquarters was called Khosun-ordu (lit. "Strong Ordu"), or Khoto ("House"). The Karluk capital was Kayalik. The Karakhanids continued to rule over Transoxania and Eastern Turkestan. Juvayni stresses the oppression of the Karakhitay in comparison with the Karluk times. Islam was forced out of its dominant position to equal the other cults, which took advantage of the new freedom to increase the number of their adherents. The Nestorian Patriarch Elias III (1176-1190) founded a metropoly in Kashghar. The Karakhitay metropolitan bore the title of "Metropolitan of Kashghar and Navakat", showing that the see of Kashghar also controlled the southern part of the Jeti-su. The oldest Nestorian tombs in the Tokmak and Pishpek cemeteries go back to the epoch of Karakhitay domination. The Karakhitay Muslim vassals raised in rebellion, initially successfully quashed by the government. The situation changed when the most powerful Western-Mongolian Naymanmarker tribe, headed by Küchlük (lit. “Little”), a son of the last Nayman khan east of the Karakhitay empire, were ousted (towards 1209) from Mongoliamarker by Chingiz-khan. The Nayman Nestorian Christian Küchlük seized the power in the name of Gurkhan, but soon, in the 1211, a Mongol detachment under the command of Khubilai noyon, one of Chingiz-khan's generals, appeared in the northern part of the Jeti-su. Arslan-khan Karluk killed the Karakhitay governor of Kayalik and proclaimed his loyalty to Chingiz-khan. The Jeti-su, together with Eastern Turkestan, voluntarily surrendered to the Mongols..

Mongol era

In the 1211 a Mongol detachment under command of Khubilay noyan, one of Chingiz-khan's generals, appeared in the northern part of the Jeti-su. Arslan (Tr. "lion") Khan Karluk (probably the son of Arslan-khan and brother of Mamdu-khan) killed the Khitan governor of Kayalik and proclaimed his loyalty to Chingiz-khan . The "Collection of Annals" records that Chingiz Khan removed from the Karluk Arslan Khan his title, "Let your name be Sartaktai", i.e. Sart, said the sovereign . After the absorption of the Karakhanid state by the Chagatai Khanate, the ethnonym Karluk became rarely used, although a certain Muslim group during the Yuan Dynastymarker in Turpanmarker was labeled Kara-Hui. The Karluk Turkic language was the primary basis for the later lingua-franca of the Chagatai Khanate and Central Asia under the Timurid Khanate. It is therefore designated by linguists and historians as the Chagatai Turkic language. But its contemporaries such as Timur-Lenk or Babur, simply called it Turki.

See also: Karlugh Turks of Pakistan.


In the 20th century, the geopolitical Great Game among great powers demanded the creation of modern nationalities among Central Asian Türks. The ethnonym Karluk was not revived. Instead, Uzbek and Uygur became the two major divisions among speakers of modern variants of the Chagatai Turkic language. Of course, under these two modern nationalities are subgroups like the Uygur Dolan, Aynur and several regional populations of the Uzbeks, some of which share more similarities with Kipchak groups like the Karakalpaks and Kazakhs or with Iranic Tajiks than with fellow Uzbeks who speak a descendant of the Karluk Turkic language.

Social organization

The state of Karluk Yabgu was an association of semi-independent districts and cities, each equipped with its own militia. The biggest was the capital Suyab which could turn out 20,000 warriors, among other districts the town of Begliligh had 10,000 warriors, Panjikat could turn out 8,000 warriors, town of Barskhan 6,000 warriors, town of Yar 3,000 warriors. The titles of the petty rulers were Qutegin of the Karluk Laban clan in the Karminkat city, Taksin in the city Jil, Tabin-Barskhan in the city Barskhan, Turkic Yindl-Tegin and Sogdian Badan-Sangu in the Beglilig town. The prince of the capital Suyab, situated north of the Chu river in the Türgesh land, was a brother of one of the (Gok)Turkic khans, but bore a Persian title Yalan-shah, i.e. "King of Heroes".

Muslim authors describe in detail the trade route from Western Asia to China across the Jeti-su, and mention many cities, a few of them bore double names, Turkic and Sogdian. In addition to the capital cities of Balasagun, Suyab, and Kayalik, in which Rubruquis for the first time saw in the Muslim town the Buddhists who had three temples, the geographers mention towns Taraz (Talas, Auliya-ata), Navakat (now Kara-bulak), Atbash (now Koshoy-Kurgan ruins), Issyk-kul, Barskhan, Panjikat, Akhsikat, Beglilig, Almalik, Jul, Yar, Ton, Panchul, and others .

Dynastic relations


The most ancient reference to the etymology of the Karluk name is recorded in the Chinese dynastic history Tang-shu, which names Karluks as Ko-lo-lu and traces the name to the word Karlik (Turkic "snow piles"). Kar is "snow", as in the name of the Kar Sea. N. Aristov noted the river Kerlyk, a tributary of the river Charysh, proposing the tribal name originating from the toponym with a Turkic meaning "wild millet" . A reverse is equally possible, the toponyms named after an ethnonym of the native people. Another version cites the homonym of the Karluk valley in Altai. The derivation of Karluk from Kara (Turkic "Great", "Western", "black") is considered to be philologically impossible, and incompatible with the well documented Arabic form of the ethnonym "Halluh".

Notes and references

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