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Turan – A United Turkic Nation?

Turkic Languages

Turkic Languages

When talking about “Turks” one normally refers to the inhabitants of Turkey. A reference which seems quite natural for a country called Turkey. But the modern state of Turkey is not very old. It was established only in 1923 as the successor state of the Ottoman Empire. During the period of the Ottoman Sultanate, the inhabitants of this political unit were not automatically ethnical Turks. The Ottoman Empire was not nationalistic in its form but multiethnic. Arabs, Slavs, Kurds, Greeks, Armenians and others were living together with the Turks under the same rule of the Ottoman Emperors.

At the end of the 19th century European nationalism grew steadily and the big european Empires began to shake. The dissolution of the big empires started with the Austrian Empire and from there it lit fire to the nationalism in the Ottoman Sultanate. Mainly the Greeks and the Arabs got a lot of support from Great Britain, one of the world powers at the time. Who does not know the story of Lawrence of Arabia or Lord Byron who was a romantic zealot for the Greek independence? The Ottomans got under huge pressure and lost a lot of their territories. Would it not be for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who won the strategic battle of the Dardanelles, the Ottoman Empire would have been totally dissolved without leaving a major successor state. Let us try to cut a long story short, the Ottomans came under great pressure through nationalism and in the course of little time the once fierce Empire shrunk into different national states and Turkey as the main successor of the old empire. Let us look at the name Turkey itself. The name shows that this rump state has a nationalistic background. Nothing is left of the multiethnic state of the Ottomans. This is interesting, because Turkey still is a multiethnic country. After the collapse of the Empire many non Turkish Muslims fled from the newly created national states with a Christian majority (e.g. Greece or Serbia) where they were considered Turks mainly because of their religion. These people were not Turks, but Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians, Bosnians, Georgians or other and settled over to what is now Turkey. And last but not least one has to take into account that the population of the rump state Turkey was not homogenous by ethnicity. At the beginning of the last century there were vast minorities such as Kurds, Arabs or Greeks. But the name Turkey implies that it was now the land of the Turks.  This of course bears in itself a lot of explosive power, because as we showed before Turkey is not a purely Turkic country but a multiethnic nation.

Turkey as a Turkic nation
The reason why Turkey is considered a Turkic country is because the founder of Turkey wanted it to be a Turkic country, similar to the new nationalistic countries in the West. If we look at the nationalism of Germany we might understand what kind of nationalism was the goal of the new forces in the newly formed Turkey. The Germans wanted to build a nation with purely germanic culture. Which led them to focus only on germanic traditions. All other cultural influence which Germany definitively was build on were suppressed (e.g. Celtic, Roman, Jewish or Slavonian). The Germans were longing to be purely “Aryan” and were in due course worshipping this aryan cult.  In the forming of the new Turkey similar considerations were made in the direction of pan-turkism (also called turanism) although it never reached the dimension of Germany. One should of course take into consideration, that the emerging nationalism was not the intention of all political forces. But in those difficult times it was accepted by a majority of those persons with influence in the stately affairs.
Now paired with this recent nationalism was a new awareness of the presence of other Turkic peoples, which lived outside the traditional borders of the Ottoman Empire.

Distribution of Turkic peoples and language -Turan

Distribution of Turkic peoples and language

Pan-Turkism – Turanism
If one looks at the above map, one can easily spot that the Turkic peoples settle over a vast region deep into  the far corners of Siberia. With the weakening of the Ottoman influence and the gradual dissolving of the empire the idea of a new nationalistic empire which encomapasses mainly Turkic peoples was a very attractive perspective and the so called pan-turkism was born, with “Turan” as the motherland of all Turkic peoples, from where the term “turanism” is derived as a synonym to pan-turkism.

Turkic speaking regions - Turan

Turkic speaking regions – Turan

However, as attracting pan-turkism was political realism forced the nationalistic forces to step back in their ambitions. As the newly born Turkey just escaped the cancellation as an independent state there was no room left to start a new tension with Russia. Most of the Turkic peoples outside Turkey lived in Russia and later in the USSR and every Turkic nationalist movement in these regions would most naturally have evoked irritations with the Russians and later with the Soviets.

Turkic peoples under the Russian expansionism

Turkic peoples under the Russian expansionism

After the fall of the iron curtain and the dissolution of the USSR the situation changed and is still changing. Countries like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan still have to find their position in the world and get rid of their soviet heritage. Sooner or later they might remember that they are part of a big Turkic family, which sums up to more than 170 million persons and are as such a major ethnic and linguistic group in the world. A group which in the future will certainly remember that they have a lot in common and therefore will perhaps have the wish to stand together as one in a political union similiar to the Europeans with their European Union.

Fear of Turkic nationalism
One implication of such a Turkic nationalism are fears of the two super powers Russia and China. Russia has lost a lot of influence in its former Soviet Republics and will certainly not be happy if there should be an new nationalistic movement in Central Asia and Siberia. Let’s not forget that it is not only about political influence in itself but also about who is controlling an area with huge reserves of natural resources. Especially the indigenous Siberian peoples get only a little share out of their natural resources such as oil or gas.

In China the situation is similar but somehow worse. Being itself a multiethnic nation the People’s Republic of China is and was always fighting separatist tendencies first of all the Tibetan Independence Movement. But the same is true for one other important minority of China the Turkic Uyghur in their ancestral lands of Xinjiang (also Sinkiang).

Xinjiang (Hsin Tiang) and Tibet as independent states

Xinjiang (Hsin Tiang) and Tibet as independent states

The Uyghur are more and more oppressed from the central government and they seem to meet the same fate as the Tibetans. It is quite possible that the potential Turkic Nationalism carry the Chinese authorities to the extremes such as to nip an Uyghur Independence Movement in the bud.

Tibet and Uyghur Minorities in China

Tibet and Uyghur Minorities in China

Turkic nationalism got a start when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the rump state of Turkey came into its being. Turkey itself is a multiethnic country and had a strong rival in Russia. Both elements hindered the diffusion of a Turkic nationalism. With the fall of the iron curtain though the situation changed and many Soviet Republics with a Turkic majority became independent. These nations still have to struggle for the place in the world and one scenario lies in a going together with some other Turkic country. But one must also take into considerations that such movements will not stay unobserved. And states such as China might not stop at only observing these movements but might interfere militarily as they do in Xinjiang (Sinkiang).


About David X. Meier

David X. Meier has a Master's degree in Social Anthropology at University of Zurich. One of his special interest are ethnopolitical occurrences and issues and the hope that the awareness of ethnical issues will help to establish peace and understanding.


  1. Peter Vollenweider

    Interesting “turk language” map, including Siberia.

  2. The Timurid Empire were an Turkic Uzbek-based empire founded in the late 14th century by Timurlane , a descendant of Genghis Khan. Timur, although a self-proclaimed devout Muslim, brought great slaughter in his conquest of fellow Muslims in neighboring Islamic territory and contributed to the ultimate demise of many Muslim states, including the Golden Horde.

  3. The first recorded use of “Turk” as a political name is a sixth-century reference to the word now pronounced in Modern Chinese as Tujue . It is believed that some Turkic tribes, such as Khazars and Pechenegs , probably lived as nomads for many years before establishing a political state ( Göktürk empire). Turkic peoples originally used their own alphabets, like Orkhon and Yenisey runiform, and later the Uyghur alphabet . The oldest inscription was found near the Issyk river in Kyrgyzstan and has been dated to 500 BC. The traditional national and cultural symbols of the Turkic peoples include wolves, a part of Turkic mythology and tradition; as well as the color blue, iron, and fire. The turquoise blue, from the French of Turkish, is the colour of the stone turquoise still used as jewelry and a protection against evil eye. Four hundred years after the collapse of northern Xiongnu power in Inner Asia , leadership of the Turkic peoples was taken over by the Göktürks. Formerly an element of the Xiongnu nomadic confederation, the Göktürks inherited their traditions and administrative experience. From 552 to 745, Göktürk leadership bound together the nomadic Turkic tribes into an empire, which eventually collapsed due to a series of dynastic conflicts. The great difference between the Göktürk Khanate and its Xiongnu predecessor was that the Göktürks’ temporary khans from the Ashina clan were subordinate to a sovereign authority that was left in the hands of a council of tribal chiefs. The Khanate received missionaries from the Buddhists , Manicheans , and Nestorian Christians , but retained their original shamanistic religion, Tengriism . The Göktürks were the first Turkic people to write their language in a runic script . The Turkic peoples and the related groups migrated west towards Eastern Europe , Iranian plateau and Anatolia .

  4. There has been much debate about the racial origin of Turkic people, with some assuming a Ural-Altaic race comprising of Hungarians , Finns , Estonians , Turkic peoples, Mongolians and Tungus , others assuming a separate Turkic race, partially mixed with Mongols. Others again point out that many languages have commonly been adopted either by choice or by force by racially diverse people. The current common understanding is to assume at least a partial separation of linguistic and racial heritage, based on the multitude of invasions, wars, empires, population movements in the region and the general disrepute all racial origin theories have fallen in recent times.

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