Kenyon College  

William McCulloh Symposium
March 27, 1999

Primary Sources for the History of Central Eurasia in the Early Mediaeval Period: Turkic Runiform Inscriptions of Central Asia
by William H. King

In the year 732, the Khagan of the Eastern Turks dictated a text for a memorial stone to his brother, Kol Tegin. In order to put the events of Kol Tegin's life into a context, he spoke of the days of their ancestors, of Bumin and Ishtemi Khagans, who ruled in the 6th century. When they had passed away, he said:

Mourners and lamenters came. Starting from the East, where the sun rises, came people from the Bokli plain, from Tabgach, Tibet, the Apar, Purum, the Kirkiz, Uch Kurikan, Otuz Tatar, Kitan and Tatbi: from so many peoples did they come and lament and mourn. So famous were these Khagans.(1)

It should be noted that the deaths of Bumin and Ishtemi were separated by many years. The use of the many ethnonyms here is a conflation of historical fact and epic tradition. These names may not seem familiar, but they represent a who's who of major powers in Eurasia during the Early Mediaeval period. Tabgach, for instance, is the common name for China among Central Eurasian peoples in this period. Of interest to this gathering is Purum, which is Rome, meaning the Byzantine empire.(2)

The first embassy from the Turks arrived in Constantinople in 564, twelve years after the founding of the Turk empire.(3) To the court of Justinian came a Sogdian named Maniakh and several retainers, bearing a letter in "Skythian writing." This event began a series of embassies between the Turks and Byzantines, which are only partially recorded in the surviving Byzantine literature. Ishtemi, the Khagan of the Western Turks, is recorded in Byzantine literature as Silziboulos.(4) We do not have the account of the Byzantine envoy who was present at the funeral of Ishtemi (Bumin having died long before direct relations with the Byzantines), but it is extremely likely that one was there: one hundred and fifty years later, in what is today Mongolia, a great leader of the Turks emphasized the greatness and continuity of his people by recalling such a presence.

Historiography on the peoples of Central Eurasia is filled with many notions deriving from the prejudices of the ancient and mediaeval literatures upon which history is based. It is common to read that the Türks and later the Mongols were uncivilized barbarians who coveted the goods of society that they could not produce, barbarians who faced a continuous existence of poverty and need without the goods of the "civilized" world beyond the steppe.(5) To judge by the writings of the Chinese, Greeks or Persians who were the enemies of these peoples, this was the case.(6) But a century of archaeology has persistently raised serious objections to these notions, objections which in most cases have not been granted full consideration by scholars discussing the subjects. For example, Mongol, and also Russian, archaeologists have examined dozens of urban centers in Mongolia dating from antiquity on.(7) Even if these cities were built by the foreigners under the command of "barbaric" nomads, the cities were built and not only were tolerated, but arrayed in a strategic pattern throughout the steppelands and filled with craftsmen and the paraphernalia of agriculture. In other words, the empires of the steppes reflected a considerable internal complexity of economy and society, one that certainly involved some level of literacy.

Since the first inscriptions in ancient Turkic were discovered during the last century, it has been difficult for scholars to ignore the problem of literacy in the Eurasian steppelands. As early as 1889 photographs of extensive inscriptions were published in Europe.(8) They were in a script which looked, for all the world, like European runes, and so generated considerable interest in Scandinavia. Very considerable interest, at that, for the longest inscriptions were longer than any European Runic inscription, and had something resembling punctuation. Within a few years systematic work led to their decipherment by the Danish scholar Vilhelm Thomsen, and they were published as the most ancient monuments of the Turkic languages.(9) The Kol Tegin inscription, mentioned above, is a vast inscription containing perhaps 2000 words and running to about 8 pages in English translation.

The inscriptions immediately caught the attention of the few historians who were actively engaged in the study of ancient Turkic history, and material from them was soon incorporated into important studies at the turn of the century. But then something curious happened: the study of the inscriptions, once read, passed into the hands of the philologists, and historians paid less and less attention to these monuments. The result of this neglect is that our understanding of the Turk empires has advanced slowly in this century, and the models which are used to explain the growth and economy of the Turkic empires are essentially that of a century ago, of course more closely systematized, but essentially the same. The Turks were predatory nomads who coveted the goods of sedentary societies which they could not produce.

Lack of time prevents me from discussing the history of the period of the inscriptions in any detail. I have given a brief historical timeline on the handout. The early Mediaeval period of Central Eurasian history is best known for the empires of the Turks and Uyghurs, both of which left numerous inscriptions. These were complicated and fractious political structures, so precise delimitations of their history is difficult.(10) The Turk Empire began in 551/2. Soon the Turks had conquered a substantial part of Central Eurasia, and were conducting diplomatic relations with the dynasties in China (which was not unified at that time), with Sasanian Persia, and with the Byzantine empire. The degree of stability and unification the Turks brought to Central Eurasia was unprecedented, even if the direct authority of a single Khagan was recognized only for a brief period before the empire evolved into eastern and western halves. During the seventh century the eastern half of the Türk empire fell under the hegemony of China. Large numbers of Turks settled within China. Then, in the 680's, a leader appeared among those Turks settled in China. He became known as Elterish Khagan, the realm-gatherer, for he led the Turks out of China and back to the Mongolian plateau. The earliest inscriptions in Turkic date to the empire which Elterish founded. This "Second Turk Empire" continued until 740, when it was overthrown by a coalition of peoples under the Türks, including the Uyghurs (who are not directly connected with the modern Uyªurs). The Uyghurs eventually formed a new empire which endured for nearly a century. Once the Uyghur empire had fallen in 840 the history of these regions becomes especially obscure. Until the rise of the Mongols three hundred and fifty years later no major empire existed in the Mongolian plateau. The Kirghiz who toppled the Uyghur empire (not necessarily the Kirghiz of today, of course) did not occupy the Uyghur cities and leave inscriptions in Mongolia, unless some of the miscellaneous inscriptions without internal evidence should be dated to that time. The great age of inscriptional production had come to an end in Mongolia, but not in the Yenissey valley, where numerous inscriptions were carved during the ninth and tenth centuries. Paradoxically much more is known about the Yenissey valley during this period than the Mongolian plateau because of this wealth of inscriptional material.

It is difficult to say exactly what the extent of the corpus of ancient Turkic inscriptions is. While a perhaps complete corpus of photographs of inscriptions from the Yenessei region has been published,(11) no comparable work exists for the many inscriptions of Mongolia. Compiling a list of them is a difficult task because the many inscriptions that have been discovered during the last decades are poorly known outside of Mongolia. Photographs are seldom available, and when they are published, they are often of very poor quality and have been subsequently retouched in ways that make the readings very questionable.

There are perhaps two hundred runiform inscriptions in Old Turkic known at present and published in some form. They range from small funerary inscriptions of a line or two to the large steles in Mongolia consisting of hundreds or even thousands of words. They date from the beginning of the 8th century to perhaps the 11th century or later. Those that have been dated are dated largely on the basis of internal evidence, since few have ever been excavated under controlled circumstances in an archaological site. This reflects the scarcity of archaeological research on Turk-Uyghur period sites in Central Eurasia more than the lack of inscriptions, since the few digs that have been carried out on sites of this period have generally yielded inscriptions.

Most of the inscriptions are incised in stone on steles or other standing stones. Some are carved on sarcophaguses from Turk burial sites, while one group dating to the Uyghur period is actually painted on rocks. There is a single inscription on a seal stone, and miscellaneous other objects with inscriptions are also known.

Let me begin with some of the short inscriptions. A large number of those from the Yenissey valley area are epitaphs dating to the ninth and tenth centuries. One of the best preserved is from Uyuk Tarlak:

1) You, oh my realm, oh my princess, oh my sons, oh my people, oh you of mine! [I was parted] at the age of sixty.
2) My name is El Togan Tutuk. I was ambassador for my sacred realm. I was chief of the Six Confederations.(12)

These numerous epitaphs provide a considerable quantity of information about the prosopography of the area during this time. They are far more brief and personal than the large funerary inscriptions from Mongolia, like the Kol Tegin inscription.

The Kol Tegin inscription is a major source for our understanding of the beliefs that motivated the leaders of the Second Turk Empire. It is also one of the longest and best preserved of the major steles.(13) Kol Tegin was the son of Elterish Khagan, who led the exodus of Turks who had been settled in China in the last decades of the seventh century. Later, Kol Tegin secured the throne for his brother, who became Bilga Khagan. Bilga was very devoted to his younger brother, and he records this devotion is moving terms in his inscription for Kol Tegin's monument, carved in 732:

My younger brother Kol Tegin passed away. I thought to myself, my seeing eyes will no longer see, my understanding will no longer comprehend. I thought to myself, when Heaven (Tengri) ordains the time, the sons of men are created in order to die. So I thought. When tears came from my eyes, and lamentation came from my heart, turning it inward I contemplated. I thought deeply. I considered: the eyes and brows of the two Shads(14) and of my younger brothers and sons and the tribal chiefs(15) of the people would be ruined (by so much weeping).(16)

Kol Tegin's burial complex was quite elaborate, consisting of an avenue of statues of warriors defeated by him, the stele, and a mausoleum with wall paintings executed by Chinese court painters sent by the emperor himself.(17) A Chinese source states that Bilga became sorrowful again every time he saw the paintings of his younger brother.(18)

Bilga Qaghan used the occasion to express his inner thoughts on the entire sweep of the history of the Türk empire. He describes the collapse of the original state, formed by Bumin and Ishtemi, and explains how it was rebuilt by his father, Elterish. The repeated emphasis of the text is on the organization of the realm (el) and the law. Law (toru) signifies the customary (and probably unwritten) law of the Türk people. It was later distinguished from religious law (nom, from Greek nomos, through Syriac) by Manichaean and Buddhist missionaries as the secular law. Both realm and law required the administrative power of the Khagan to maintain them. As the inscription says:

They (Bumin and Ishtemi) were wise Khagans. Moreover, their officials seem to have been wise, and they seem to have been brave. Their tribal chiefs and people were orderly. For these reasons they were able to hold the realm and organize the laws.(19)

The Khagan maintaining the realm and the laws was a boon to his people. Speaking of Kapgan Khagan, Bilga said:

Having succeeded, my uncle, the Khagan, again organized and nourished the Turk people. He made the poor rich and the few numerous.(20)

The inscriptions also inform the reader about the ancient center of the Mongolian plateau, the Orkhon river valley at the Otukan Mountains.(21)

This was a sacred center for empires in the Mongolian plateau since at least the time of the Hsiung-nu (third or second century BCE) through the time of the Mongols themselves. The Uyghur Khagan El Etmish Bilga in the Shine-usu inscription said, "I had the throne of the realm established at the junction of the Orkhon and Baliklig (rivers). (It was) the dwelling place of the realm." (22) Speaking of the Otukan mountains, Bilga says:

When the Turk Khagan reigns in the Otukan mountains, there is no trouble in the realm. ...There is no land superior to the Otukan mountains. Reigning in this land I am on equal terms with the Chinese people.(23)

That the Turks were desirous of peaceful relations with China is clear from the inscriptions. The Turks were subjugated to the Chinese for several decades during the seventh century. Bilga reflected on this time in eloquent terms:

... Unwise khagans succeeded to the throne, and bad khagans ruled. Moreover, their officials were unwise, and they were bad. Thus the tribal chiefs and people were disorderly, and because the Chinese people were wily and deceitful, because of their trickery, and because rifts appeared between elder and younger brothers, and because the chiefs and peoples slandered each other, the Turk people let the realm they had created slip away and they lost the khagan they had enthroned. Their sons who were worthy to be lords became slaves, and their daughters who were worthy to be ladies became servants to the Chinese. The Turk leaders abandoned their Turk titles and the leaders in China adopted Chinese titles and submitted to the Emperor of China. For fifty years they gave their strength and labors. They campaigned as far as the khagan of the Bokli plain in the east where the sun rises, and they campaigned in the west as far as the Iron Gates. They seized realms and laws for the Chinese Emperor. Then the ordinary Turks apparently said: "We were once a people with a realm. Where is our realm now? For whom are we conquering these lands?" And again they said, "we were a people with a khagan. Where is our khagan now? What khagan are we serving now?"

Later in the inscription Bilga outlined the conditions necessary to run the realm and law in a state of prosperity. He singles out the relations with China for special emphasis:

They give gold and silver and silk brocades and cloths without care as to how much. The words of the Chinese people are sweet, and their stuffs are soft. Deceiving with their sweet words and soft stuffs, they brought you distant peoples close. Once settled close, then they thought evil thoughts. They would not let the good, wise people and the good, brave people move around. If one man made a mistake, they did not spare his family and clan down to infants in the cradle. Because you were deceived by their sweet words and soft stuffs, many Türk people died. Türk people, apparently you wanted to die! "Let us settle in the south at the Yinshan (Cogay) mountains and in the Karakum (Togultun) plain," when you said this, apparently you wanted to die, Turk people. There evil people instructed you this way: "when a people is distant, they give bad silks, when they are near they give soft silks." So they instructed you. Ignorant people accepted these words and went nearer, and many men died. If you go towards that land, Turk people, you will die. If you dwell in the Otukan mountains and send envoys you will not have any trouble at all. If you live in the Otukan mountains you will live holding the realm forever.(24)

This inscription does have an admonitory purpose that Bilga intended to be of lasting value to his people. He said:

Turk lords and people, hear this. Turk people, I have had inscribed here how you maintained a realm, once you had formed it. Also how you perished, having gone astray, I also had inscribed here. What words there were, I inscribed them on this immortal stone. Seeing them, understand. ... If there is still a realm (in the future) and if it is still in the place where it is now, then I have had this stone erected in that very same place and inscribed. Seeing it, understand.(25)

From a reading of this inscription it is difficult to see how scholars have maintained that the Turks were envious of the culture of the sedentary Chinese and coveted their goods. The idea that steppe empires were formed to more successfully exploit China is inconsistent with this inscription, because the Turks are warned not to covet the goods of China to begin with. These admonitions of Bilga Khagan have perhaps been given less credence than they deserve by scholars because of the absence of other evidence that the "nomads" of Mongolia were capable of fending for themselves. That evidence is steadily coming from the archaeological record. Any generalizations about life in the mediaeval Mongolian plateau must consider the growing archaeological evidence of urban life and of agricultural production. After all, it is logical that any people who were dependent on others for certain goods would strive to produce them on their own. The notion that Central Eurasian pastoral nomads would not learn to produce their own goods, or at least cultivate others under their control to do it for them, is rooted in the idea that Central Eurasian nomads lived in a sort of timeless barbarism. While Chinese goods may have been more appealing, they were not necessary to life, and there were at least some, including Bilga Khagan, who considered it very dangerous to be dependent on China.

The ancient Turk inscriptions contain a wealth of material that should be of interest to far wider circles than the specialists in Turk philology who have traditionaly studied them. Careful reading of them calls into question the way the history of Central Eurasian peoples has been presented over the years. Eventually the disparity between the archaeological record, including the inscriptions, which are primary sources, and the notions contained in scholarly literature will become so glaring that no one will be able to ignore it.

In order to facilitate the use of this material it must be made accessible. All material pertaining to them must be published: photographs, preferably new ones, and rubbings of all the inscriptions should be made available, and clear indication of chalkings and reconstructions must be made. A critical edition of the inscriptions of Mongolia, one that would include photographs, readings, and the alternate readings proposed by the many scholars who have worked on these inscriptions, is needed. Only when such works are made available with historical notes and commentary will the inscriptions receive the attention they deserve. At present, the only edition including the major inscriptions with English translation includes no historical commentary. Of course the book was written as a grammar of the language, so one cannot blame the author for including material which would have expanded his book considerably. But in the 30 years since its publication no work has appeared to fill the gap so that the material might be more useful to historians in general. The commentary which does exist is scattered in dozens of articles located in places where only specialists would know to find them. A synoptic edition with commentary would no doubt improve the reception of these inscriptions.

Material on the Kol Tegin Inscription

KT = Kol Tegin. Photographs in Inscriptions de l'Orkhon, Helsingfors, 1890, pls. 2-12 and in W. Radloff, Atlas der Altertümer der Mongolei, Sanktpetersburg, 1892-99, pls. xvi-xx. Editions consulted: V. Thomsen, Inscriptions de l'Orkhon dechiffrees, Helsinki, 1896, 97-121; H. N. Orkun, Eski Türk Yazitlari, Ankara, 1936-41; repr. 1986, I. 22-54; T. Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic, Bloomington, 1968, 231-8; ibid., Orhon Yazitlari, Ankara, 1988.



1. Kol Tegin inscription (henceforth KT) l. All translations of the Turkic inscriptions are my own, with various debts to G. Clauson's Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth Century Turkish, Oxford, 1972 and to Dr. Larry Clark.

2. "Rome" is "Hrom" in Pahlavi (cf. H. S. Nyberg, A Manual of Pahlavi, v. 2, WIesbaden, 1974, 101 and "From" in Baktrian (cf. H. Humbach, "Phrom Gesar and the Bactrian Rome," in P. Snoy, ed., Ethnologie und Geschichte. Festschrift für Karl Jettmar, Wiesbaden, 1983, 303-9, 305. On the curious history of the name of Rome in Eurasia, cf. P. Aalto, "Nomen Romanum," UAJ 47 (1975), 1-9.

3. Menander Protector, 10,1 in R. C. Blockley, The History of Menander the Guardsman, Liverpool, 1985, 115.

4. G. Morav_sik, Byzantinoturcica, v. 2, Berlin, 21958, 275.

5. See, for example, D. Sinor, "Introduction: The concept of Inner Asia," in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, Cambridge, 1990, 1-18, esp. 13,18.

6. On the notions about Central Eurasia in both European and Chinese literature, cf. R. Meserve, "The Inhospitable Land of the Barbarian," Journal of Asian History 16 (1982), 51-89

7. Unfortunately, little of this material has been published, even in the former Soviet Union and Mongolia. Some of the more important works are by Kh. Perlee, esp. "The History of Cities and Settlements in Mongolia," in Soviet Archeology 10:3 (1956), 43-52. Cf. also D. Maidar, Monuments of the History and Culture of Mongolia, Moscow, 1981 (in Russian and Mongol). Unpublished English translations of many Mongol and Russian works have been prepared by Prof. Larry Moses. I wish to thank him for making this material available to me.

8. These inscriptions had been noted earlier, but it was only during the late 1880's that a Finnish expedition travelled to the Yenissey valley to study the inscriptions. The photographs are published in Inscriptions de l'Iénisséi, Helsingfors, 1889, with text by J. R. Aspelin. Subsequent expeditions to Mongolia brought photographs of the Orkhon inscriptions, published in Inscriptions de l'Orkhon, Helsingfors, 1890 and in W. Radloff, Atlas der Altertümer der Mongolei, Sanktpetersburg, 1892-99.

9. V. Thomsen, Inscriptions de l'Orkhon déchiffrées, Helsinki, 1896.

10. In general, the following works are reliable presentations of the history covered in this paragraph: D. Sinor, "The Establishment and Dissolution of the Turk Empire," in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, Cambridge, 1990, 285-316; J. Hamilton, Les Ouïghours: à l'époque des cinq dynasties, d'après les documents chinois, Paris, 1955, esp. 1-18; C. Mackerras, "The Uighurs," in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, Cambridge, 1990, 317-42; P. B. Golden, An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples, Wiesbaden, 1992 (= Turcologica 9), esp. pp. 115-154 ("The Türk Empires of Eurasia") and 155-188 ("Successors of the Türks in Inner Asia"). A definitive monograph on the history of either the Türks or the Uyghurs, one incorporating archaeological evidence as well as a synoptic treatment of the source material, has not been written.

11. D. D. Vasilev, Korpus T\rkskix Puniceskix Pam[tnikov Basseyna Enise[, Leningrad, 1983. This work gives photographs and line drawings, as well as transcriptions and translations. Some of the inscriptions in Vasil'ev's book are treated in greater detail in I. B. Kormuwin, T\rkskie Eniseyskie ?pitafii. Teksty i issledovani[, Moskva, 1997.

12. V. Supplying "adriltim" in line 1.

13. It is important to note that portions of the text of the Kol Tegin inscription were copied into the text for the funeral stele for Bilga Khagan himself. These are sometimes of use in establishing a text where KT is damaged, and likewise, KT has aided the reading of the Bilga Khagan inscription, which is more poorly preserved. However, the texts are not identical and often show significant grammatical variations. This aspect has been somewhat neglected, unfortunately. An important exception is E. Hovdhaugen's paper "The Relationship Between the Two Orkhon Inscriptions," Acta Orientalia 36 (1974), 55-82.

14. A high title of Iranian origin.

15. Turkic beg, often meaning simply "lord." Cf. Turkish bey.

16. KT N 10-11.

17. All described in the inscription, KT S 11-12. On the site iself, cf. E. Nowgorodowa, Alte Kunst der Mongolei, Leipzig, 1980, 238-41.

18. Cf. Liu Mau-tsai, Die chinesischen Nachrichten zur Geschichte der Ost-Türken (T'u-küe), 2 v., Wiesbaden, 1958 (paged continuously), 229.

19. KT E 3.

20. KT E 16.

21. On the topography, cf. J. Schubert, "Zum Begriff und zur Lage des "OTUKAN"," Ural-Altaische Jahrbucher 35 (1963), 213-8 & 3 pls.

22. ShU S 10 in G. Ramstedt, "Zwei uigurische Runeninschriften in der Nord-Mongolei," Journal de la société finno-ougrienne 30:3 (1913).

23. KT S 3-4.

24. KT S. 5-8.

25. KT S 10-12.

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