You’re so Turk and you don’t even know it
A 1,500-year empire hidden in plain sight
Previous steppe pieces: Going Nomad, Steppe 1.0, Steppe 1.1a: A nowhere man's world, Steppe 1.1b: culture vultures descend, Hungarians as the ghost of the Magyar confederacy, Steppe 2.0: would you swipe right on a steppe brother?, Dark Horse out of the Steppe Fishing the Sintashta, Scythians and Sarmatians out of obscurity, The wolf at history’s door, Casting out the wolf in our midst and A Hun by any other name – On the genetic trail of Europe’s enduring bête noire
There are many ways to conquer the known world. History is littered with extraordinary individuals’ and exceptional empires’ dazzlingly far-ranging strings of conquests. Most of those freshly drawn borders are destined to contract again as quickly as a shallow lake in a drought. But one people’s exploits have run counter to this trend. For over a millennium and a half, they expanded inexorably. The secret to their success, if there was one, was to be, not like the much more legendary Imperial Romans, but like the proverbial well-advised visitor to Rome itself. Whomever they conquered, the Turks seemed guided by the dictate: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Rather than tearing down all that came before them or forcing their ways on their subjects, for centuries militarily triumphant Turks assumed the cultural, linguistic and religious practices of those they subjugated, to the point that we hardly recognize their protean ubiquity across centuries of the civilized world’s history.
Over 1,500 years have passed since the Roman Empire’s fall. One historical epoch has given way to the next and the next, from Europe’s Middle Ages to the golden century of the Spanish Imperium. Spain’s hegemony barely outlasted a single human lifetime, while the long centuries of what we call the Middle Ages were geographically restricted to the European peninsula’s western half. But sometimes, in hindsight, an untold story proves more enduringly impactful than those named ages every cultured person can recall. The little-referenced impact of the Turkic peoples stands as an exception to both time and geography’s typical constraints, ranging as it did across many centuries and Afro-Eurasia’s vast width and breadth. Turkic influence extended over 1,500 years, beginning with the fall of Rome and ending with the crumbling of the old European civilization heralded by World War I, from the Straits of Gibraltar in the west to China’s far western plains in the east. Given the vast distances and utterly disparate ways of life, it is easy to overlook the connection between on the one hand, sybaritic revelry in an Ottoman sultan’s opulent palace, and on the other, a Siberian forager eking out a meager living where the taiga meets the tundra.
Even today, you can be forgiven for missing what the Kazakh herder has to do with the Turkish Cypriot fisherman. And yet, they share a lineage stretching back thousands of years to the last great cultural-demographic explosion out of the Eurasian steppe, that of the Turks. Like the Indo-Europeans millennia before them, the Turks were restless nations of wagons and warriors who saw in the civilized world an abundant and astonishingly unguarded smorgasbord, ripe for the pillaging. But while the rapacious Indo-Europeans’ arrival hastened the end of Neolithic and Bronze Age civilizations in turn, leaving only their imposing megaliths and shattered pottery as testaments to wholly erased peoples, the Turks transformed themselves and merged with those they conquered, from the deserts of Egypt to the frigid forests of Muscovy. They sank roots deep into the soil of their conquered lands and consistently accelerated a fertile cultural synthesis, rather than overseeing the erasure of what came before.
When the Huns arrived like a wild card of terror dealt into the Imperial Roman geopolitics around 400 AD, first aiding the imperial forces against the Goths, before turning against them and ravaging the Balkans, Europe finally truly experienced the potent ferocity of a Turkic people. Thus was an enduring precedent set. Within a century of the European Hunnic Empire’s collapse, in the mid-400’s, the Göktürk Khaganate ruled a vast territory from the Volga River all the way to Manchuria. After the Göktürk collapse in the early 7th century, Turks in western Eurasia became slaves to the Muslim caliphs, and in the 10th century, these Turkic slave soldiers rose to become masters of the Islamic world. Meanwhile, in China, Uyghur and Shatuo Turks played kingmakers during the Tang dynasty in the 700’s. After the Tang’s fall, the Shatuo founded their own dynasties while their cousins to the west were setting themselves up as rulers of the Islamic world, in fact, if not name. But all this would prove mere prologue to a dominion of the sword lasting over a millennium. In War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, Ian Morris argues that the millennium between 500 and 1500 AD saw the definitive rise of mounted warriors as the decisive force in human conflicts, and their subsequent domination of the Eurasian supercontinent, from horse-archer samurai in Japan to lance-bearing medieval knights in Western Europe. Every great Eurasian agricultural civilization, European, Islamic, Indian or Chinese, would face a reckoning with the hordes of Turkic nomads. While the Chinese and Russians adopted the Turks’ own way of war to turn the tide against them, Muslims and Indians were conquered by the steppe warriors, who became their ruling class.
The legacy of these Eurasian nomads extended down to the modern era, right into the 19th and 20th centuries. When the British deposed the last Mughal Emperor in 1857, a descendant of Timur, the Turkic Ottomans and Qajar continued to rule in Istanbul and Iran. These three dynasties, the Mughals, Ottomans and Qajar, had been the preeminent social, political and military forces in the Islamic world since 1500, but the Turkic imprint was also felt far beyond their ambit. Peter the Great, the Tsar famous for dragging Russia into European modernity, had a Turkic Christian mother, a scion of one of the many Tatar clans who were absorbed into the Russian aristocracy. To the south, the Mamluk military caste that ruled Egypt were mostly Turks descended from slaves from Black Sea domains. In the 16th century, Turkic influence in the Mediterranean was felt as far west as Algeria, where the Ottoman Turk Barbarossa took to privateering, pioneering a practice that, in the West, would spawn legends of the fearsome Barbary pirates. While the Ottomans were stretching their influence out toward the edges of the Atlantic, in the east, the Manchus were integrating the Turkic oases of the Tarim Basin into the Chinese Empire, a legacy that continues down to the present with Uyghurstan’s absorption into the People’s Republic of China.
These instances of Turkic presence across epochs and civilizations reflect their seminal role in Eurasian culture’s evolution after antiquity. Before Europe’s expansion overseas, Islam was arguably the most cosmopolitan of the supercontinent’s civilizations, and the Turks were instrumental in both spreading and defending the faith. Turks and Islam were indeed so synonymous that Muslims were routinely called “Turks” no matter their ethnicity, and in the 16th-century Mediterranean, converting to Islam was referred to as “turning Turk.” And this was not solely a cultural empire. While the Latin-descended family of Romance languages expanded purely via conquest and hegemony, Turkic tongues spread with both the migration of their speakers’ genes and the diffusion of their memes.
When Turks arrived in the civilized world, they took power by force, but they did not, decisively, usher in an age of barbarism or decline, razing their predecessors’ monuments or gutting their institutions. Justinian the Great’s Hagia Sophia became a mosque and Ottoman Istanbul remained as culturally refined as the Byzantine Constantinople it succeeded. In Central Asia, descendants of the bloodthirsty Turkic warlord Timur were known for their generous patronage of literature and astronomy, while in the Indian subcontinent, these Timurids fostered Islamicate Persian poetry’s flowering. The Turks came from the barren north, and rose from the slave soldiers’ barracks, but their millennium of dominion over Eurasia did not end civilization. It reinforced and extended it, an astute approach that bought the Turks unrivaled, if little recognized, longevity.