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black and white photo of a coin with a man's head on it

The Gokturks: A Gokturk coin, about 576-600 AD (Kyrgyzstan museum) (compare to Sassanian and Byzantine coins of the same time)

Bumin Qaghan beats the Rouran

About 550 AD, Bumin Qaghan and his sons, with the help of the Chinese Wei kingdom, conquered the Rouran and took over as the main rulers of Central Asia (modern Mongolia, southern Russia, western China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgystan, and parts of Iran). Today, historians call Bumin Qaghan’s people the Gokturks.

Who were the Rouran?
Three Kingdoms China
Medieval Central Asia
All our Central Asia articles

Who were the Gokturks?

Gokturk people, as they drew themselves.

As their name suggests, they were Turkish people, and they spoke a Turkic language, not Indo-European. But their empire included both Turkic people like the Uighurs and people of other ethnicities. Even some Gokturk rulers were not Turkic.

Indo-European languages
Central Asian languages

The Gokturks and the Silk Road

They used their empire and their friendly alliance with China to get control of the Silk Road and the trade between the Sassanians and Wei China. The trade made them rich.

Silk Road trade
Sassanians in the 500s AD
Sassanians and the Silk Road

Muqan Qaghan and the Avars

Under Bumin Qaghan’s son Muqan Qaghan, the Gokturks formed an alliance with the Sassanians to their south. They used that alliance to make their empire bigger and bigger. This forced the Avars to move west into Europe.

Who were the Avars?
And the Sogdians?
Early medieval Russia
Kingdom of Tibet

stone carving of a central asian man's head with a fancy hat on

The Gokturk general Kul Tigin (700s AD)

The Gokturks followed the Avars west, and did a lot of raiding in Russia in the 500s AD. They also raided to the south, taking over Sogdian land from their Sassanian allies, and invading Sassanian land too. And by the 600s AD, with new people ruling China, the Gokturks made an alliance with the new kingdom of Tibet. The two allied states started coordinated raiding to the east, into China.

Gokturks and Sui Dynasty China

The Sui Dynasty Chinese emperors didn’t like the Gokturk and Tibetan raids. When the Gokturks got into a civil war, the Chinese emperors took first one side, then the other. The Chinese got them to keep fighting each other and make themselves weaker. Often some of the Gokturks invaded China.

The Sui Dynasty in China
T’ang Dynasty China

A later Gokturk carving of a monster.

Who are the Uighurs?

End of the Gokturks

By the 700s AD, these long civil wars were making the Gokturks weaker and weaker. By 742 AD, they were so weak that the Uighurs, with the support of the T’ang Dynasty emperors, were able to overthrow them (and push back the Tibetans). The Uighurs started their own independent Uighur kingdom.

Also check out this blog post about them

Bibliography and further reading about Gokturk history:

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