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108 | 2008
Annuaire du Collège de France 2007-2008
Résumé des cours et travaux 108e année
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The Question of Türk Origins

Résumé des conférences du Collège de France (2007-2008)
Peter Golden
p. 912-914

Texte intégral

Lecture I: The Question of Türk Origins

1The question of the ancient homeland of the Turkic peoples and the origins of the distinct grouping that bore the ethnonym Türk remain a topic of debate. The earliest references to peoples that are presumed to be Turkic date to the era of the Xiongnu (2nd century BC), well before the appearance of the Türks proper (mid-6th century AD). The breakup of the Xiongnu (whose ethno-linguistic affiliations remain a matter of conjecture) produced the migrations of Oghuric-Turkic speaking peoples to the Kazakhstanian and then western Eurasian (Ponto-Caspian) steppes (4th and 5th centuries AD). The rise of the Ashina, the ruling clan of the Türks, its origins in the polyethnic borderlands of China and connections with the East Iranian world, were also ultimately a by-product of the migrations touched off by the collapse of the Xiongnu. Interestingly, none of the early Türk Qaghans bear Turkic names. The fall of the First Türk Qaghanate in 630 in the east brought about by the Tang led to the close interaction of key elements of the Eastern Türks with China. The Tang emperor Taizong, calling himself “Heavenly Qaghan” in the Türk style and his successor, preserved the Türks for a time from steppe foes while attempting to use them as border forces. The Türks broke free and founded the Second Türk Qaghanate (682-742). The ethnonym Türk spread as a generic term for Turkic (and some non-Turkic) steppe peoples among their neighbors and was used as a cultural marker by some Turkic peoples that had been part of the Türk Qaghanate.

Lecture II: Successors of the Türks in the Western Eurasian Steppes- The Khazars and their Conversion to Judaism

2The Khazars (ca. mid-7th century to 965-969), centered in the lower Volga with their capital at Atïl, created one of the largest polities of medieval Eurasia, extending from the Middle Volga in the north to the North Caucasus and Crimea in the south and from the western Eurasian steppes to western Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the east. It was a polyethnic state with a population of Turkic, Iranian, Finno-Ugric, Slavic and Palaeo-Caucasian elements. Khazaria had an ongoing entente with Byzantium, serving as its partner in wars (during the latter part of the 7th to mid-8th century) with the Arabian Caliphate and as Constantinople’s first line of defense in the steppes. During the 9th and 10th centuries, it was one of the major arteries of commerce between Northern Europe and the Middle East as well as a connection to the Silk Road. The question of Khazar origins, a successor state of the Western Türks, and linguistic affiliations within Turkic remain problematic. Various Turkic groupings speaking Oghuric and Common Turkic composed the Khazar union. The belief system of the Khazars before their conversion to Judaism, as can be reconstructed from archaeological finds, descriptions of kindred subject peoples  (e.g. the North Caucasian “Huns”) brief mentions in the Islamic geographers and other sources indicates Tengri (the celestial supreme deity of the Turkic and Mongolic peoples) worship and shamanism. The lecture concludes with a discussion of the much debated dating of the conversion (most probably early 9th century), the conversion narratives and the spread of Judaism among the population of Khazaria.

Lecture III: Sacral Kingship in the Turkic World: The Khazar Model

3Various forms of sacral kingship were widespread across Eurasia. It was known among the Türks and elements of it are reported among the Uyghurs (744-840) their successors in the east. Among the Khazars, the sacral kingship took on a somewhat different character leading to the transformation of the Khazar Qaghan into a ritually isolated, tabuized figure that reigned, but did not rule. The actual governance of the state was given to the Qaghan Beg/Ishâd, although the Qaghan retained great authority as the bearer of qut (heaven-sent good fortune). Even in death, he continued to be venerated. This transformation occurred in the 9th century, as the Qaghan is noted in the sources as an active, governing figure before then. It was not connected with Judaization as older Türk traditions of sacral kingship (e.g. the ritual strangulation of the Qaghan at investiture) of shamanic origin continued. One of the possible sources for this transformation may have been the Ors guard force of the Qaghans. The Ors were Khwârazmian in origin and a number of the practices associated with the later Khazar Qaghans are similar to Iranian (cf. Sasanid) traditions.

Lecture IV: The Shaping of the Cuman-Qïpchaqs and their World

4The Cuman-Qïpchaqs constituted an acephalous, loosely held tribal union that dominated an area extending from the Pontic Steppes to Western Siberia and Uzbekistan, a region termed the Qïpchaq Steppe (cf. Pers. Dasht-i Qipchâq). The Cuman-Qïpchaqs integrated themselves into the regional political systems, serving as difficult, occasionally predatory neighbors and sometimes allies (cemented by marital ties) of the Rus’, Byzantium, Georgia, Khwârazm and Hungary. Cuman-Qïpchaq origins remain an ongoing question of Turkic Studies. They are known by a variety of names in a wide range of Turkic, Mongol, European, Transcaucasian, Islamic and Chinese sources. The Cuman-Qïpchaqs derived from elements of the Kimek confederation in Western Siberia (which contained Turkic and Mongolic elements) that was broken up (first half of the 11th century) by a series of migrations that began in the steppe borderlands of China. The contours of these events are preserved in the 12th century authors, al-Marwazî (repeated by Aufî –early 13th century) and Matthew of Edessa. This lecture suggests some new identifications of the peoples mentioned in these accounts. It concludes with a brief overview of the Cuman-Qïpchaq religious system.

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Référence papier

Cours et travaux du Collège de France. Annuaire 108e année, Collège de France, Paris, décembre 2008, p. 912-914. ISBN 978-2-7226-0082-9

Référence électronique

Peter Golden, « The Question of Türk Origins », L’annuaire du Collège de France [En ligne], 108 | 2008, mis en ligne le 24 juin 2010, consulté le 22 février 2018. URL :

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Peter Golden

Professeur à l’université de Rutgers, New Jersey (États-Unis)

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Collège de France

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