Face Music - History of the Turkish people in Altai

more information - available in German

Population in the Altai

- Turk speaking, ethnically mixed people from the 6th century on - extract from the "Acta Slavica" by Andrei Znamenski

Between the 6th and the 8th century A.D., peoples settling in the Altai area were under Turkic influence. They had trade relations reaching from the Pacific Ocean up to the river Danube. They believe to be descendants of an original tribe of the Ashine with the totem of the wolf. There are told stories of a legendary ancestor, whose mother had been a shewolf and who was married to an Indo-Germanic woman from the Turfan, living with his family in Tien Shan. Such beliefs were typical for the clan names of the Turk tribes, for their descent and their totem (clan banner).
The population has become non-existent in their origin due to the mixture of nomadic and settling tribes and groups, they have ceased to be a unit in the sense of an integral tribe; but rather formed loose unities with various ethnic groups, fighting under the guidance of a collectively elected leader against invading tribes. Up to the beginning of Mongolian rule, this unique alliance of all Turk and Mongol tribes into a huge realm in the 13th century, several such tribal confederations had been formed.
  • First Turk Kaghanate from 530 to 551
  • Western Turk Kaghanate from 619 to 630
  • Second Turk Kaghanate from 682 to 742
  • Uiguric Kaghanate from 742 to 840
  • Kipchak Federation - lasted until 1207

  • Kipchak / Cuman – designation for Eastern Slavic population, designated in the "Tale of Igor's Campaign" as Polovtsy and known among West European and Byzantine people as Cumans or Comans. The name has the meaning of "light-skinned steppe inhabitant", probably deriving from the Turkic or Central Iranian language.

  • - area of settlement, influence and power of the Kipchak around 1200 A.D. - see map

The Turkic tribes represented one population group: the modern Altai with the neighbouring tribes of the Soyots (Tuvans), Sacha (Jakuts) and the Tadars (Khakas). They may be traced back to the period of the Turk Kaghanates. Clan unities had existed up to the 18th century, before the conquest by Russia and China. In the 19th century, the population in the Altai (southern Siberia) was newly structured. Those living in the northern forests were called, in Russian words, "the Black Forest Tartars", who mainly lived on hunting and gathering. Those in the south were called "Mountain Altai people" (Altaikizhi – mountain people): they lived on animal breeding with summer and winter pastures, continuing to retain their nomadic or semi-nomadic life-style.
The 19th century represented the beginning of Islamization. Descendants of the Western Empire of Genghis Khan finally converted to Islam in the 14th century under Timur Lenk of the "Tschagatai Khanate".

- More information on “
History of the Equestrian Nomads

The history of these Turk and Mongol tribes is full of wars between these groups, with ambitious leaders "elected by God", the "chiefs of the tribes (Beks, Zaisans, Kagans or Khans), in the quest of power; this lead to uprisings, the formation of federations or empires (alliances), which, however, were never realized on the basis of the principle of the formation of a nation. "Dynasties" - with a permanent core from these alliances - were not established, with exceptions, however, being possible, which lasted only for a short period of time, in general over one or two generations. These dynasties were short-lived but rather strong and powerful in their existence. Associations or such alliances of clans (söks), united under a chief elected by the supreme powers, have been established due to external threats and dangers in order to reinforce defence. The reasons for such mass migrations were conflicts in the course of expansion or migration of tribes, which needed larger areas for their animals to feed, or tribes which were forced into migration because of climatic changes. Federations or empire formations comprised clan alliances of various ethnical origins. The history of the clans and tribes goes back rather far, such as those of the Xiognu tribes, described in the Chinese Chronicles for the very first time. These had already formed unions in the last century before Christ and were in a permanent conflict with China. The Xiongnu, Rourans, Huns and other unities of tribes never became a uniform ethnic people or a nation. They formed big, multi-ethnical confederations under a leader, wherein also Indo-Europeans and Old-Turkic people were included.

- more information on the Xiognu, Rourans and Red Huns (Xionites)

At the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century, the western "branch" of Mongolian leadership was assumed by Genghis Khan's son Jochi. His descendants gradually lost their independence and fused with the "White Horde" and the "Golden Horde". The Golden Horde was already in a process of Islamization, with their members becoming Muslims. The White Horde and Dzungar-Oirot Alliance as well as other alliances also became separated. The Dzungars have found a development towards Buddhism.
Dzungar" is a hereditary name of a military-political unity in a clan alliance among the tribes of the "Oirats" or "Oirots", meaning "allied party".

This alliance of the "Oirots" and "Dzungars" was more a political rather than an ethnical unity under an Altai Zaisan (leader) with representatives from aristocracy of other groups, which then formed such an "alliance" under the leadership of Eke Jyrga - this alliance was at the same time supreme legislative as well as executive power.

Golden Horde – The Khanate, which was established about 1236 by Mongolian equestrian nomads, was designated by the Mongolian Prince Batu (ruled 1236-1255), one of Genghis Khan's grandsons, as Ulus Jochi ("Jochi's people"). According to old traditions, this Khanate comprised a right and a left wing. These "wings" were formed by the two Hordes. The right wing was the White Horde, whereas the left wing was formed by the Blue Horde. These united Hordes were then given the name "Golden Horde" (Solotaja Orda) by the Russian speaking population. It may also be presumed that this designation is derived from the colour of the tent of the dynasty founder. He is supposed to have lived in a gold coloured ger ("Golden Palace"). The Mongolian leaders and the Volga-Ural Tartars finally also assumed this name. Before that, they had used the name "Khanate Kipchak" for their territory, also in regard to their Turk speaking people, the Kipchak

- see map "Golden Horde"
- more information on Oirats and Dzungars

The 17th century was the time of the last great traditional alliances of Turk-Mongolian tribes in eastern Mongolia under the
Khalkha princes. They later on became vassals of China (1), as later on also this Oirat-Dzungar alliance.

  • (1) The Qing-Dynasty was, after the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (under Kubilai Khan), the second Chinese dynasty, which was not founded by Han Chinese. It was based on the rise of the Jurchen people, who ruled as the Jin Dynasty (1125-1234) in northern China. In 1635 the Jurchen people changed their name to Manchu. From 1636 on, the dynasty itself was called Qing Dynasty.
    – see map Qing Dynasty

The Dzungars twice ruled over huge territories in Central Asia and retained their supremacy, for the first time around 1638 (after the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty, a sovereignty under Kubilai Khan - which is called Mongolian China) up to the death of Kagan Esen (1456). During his reign, their sovereignty extended southwards to Tibet and Beijing. The second rise started in the beginning of the 17th century, when Kagan Khara Khula (prince of the Oirats - 1600-1634) assumed rule. During the reign of his successors, Galdan (1653-1697) and Tsewan-Rabtan (1697-1750), they had power over a major part of Central Asia, Eastern Turkestan (today's Xingjjang – Uiguric realm), Tibet, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Altai, Khakassia (Yenisei Kirghiz, Kirghiz and Tuva). The Tele tribes were already vassals under the alliance of the Dzungar-Oirat Alliance during the foundation thereof. At the end of their reign, a part of the Tele and Kirghiz tribes migrated towards Tien Shan to the Turfan, there founding together modern Kirghizstan. Other tribes migrated back to the Altai, their original homelands.

In 1756 the Qing Dynasty started the destruction of the Dzungar Realm under the Manchu army, thereby reducing the population thereof in terms of numbers. The Oirot leaders attempted to counter-act this destruction, with the most famous one among them being Amyr-Sana; they did not succeed, however. Tele tribes, together with other Oirot tribes, fled to their old home in the mountain valleys of the Altai. These impassable mountain valleys presented a natural protection against their pursuers. Fleeing emigrants with other Turk tribes met Tele tribes, which were still settling in these valleys and had gained protection thereof. Tele tribes that had fled and had practised agriculture in these valleys for hundreds of years, now became "migrants" in their own homeland. They were not assimilated, but there were rather established new groups, so-called Altaikizhi (mountain people), tribes of the Telengits, Teleuts and Teles. A part of the Oirots, which were also called Kalmyk people, wandered farther into the Volga region. During the next hundred years, the people in the Altai area were confronted with permanent situations of crisis. Three fourths were killed in attacks by the Qing Manchu army, with the remaining losing their integrity on the clan level (söks) - a problem that lasted until the middle of the 19th century. They did not have Zaisans (leaders or council of elders) on their own. Tribes, which originally did not belong to the Dzungars, were called Uriankhai (meaning in Mongolian "People who are not speaking our language"). They settle in today's western Mongolia and north-western China. The tribes settling on the high Altai Mountains, in today's southern Siberia, later on were integrated into Russia.

The period from 1756 until the last decade of the 19th century was dominated by permanent situations of crisis. Following the migration wave initiated by mass killings by the Qing army, the lower valleys having the best pastures and fields were already owned by Russian settlers, who demanded high prices for the land and clearly dominated trade with food and tools. Their administration started to levy taxes - with the compulsion to settlement. In this way, their traditional nomadic lifestyle and their social structures were suppressed. In 1820 there was started compulsory proselytization by the Orthodox Church. The refugees were suddenly bound by new social and economic forms, including settlement. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the Altai people lived independently under the last Zaisan (leader) and traded far beyond their area of living as far as the European markets. They still played an independent and active role within the cultural and economic community. This catastrophe, this is their flight during the Qing invasion and later on during the Russian colonization, gradually destroyed a well-functioning network of a clan and tribal identity. The population, which had farmed on the Altai High Mountains as well as the Mongolian Altai for centuries, was not longer united as a unity within a confederation. It was split into various tribes with clan leaders having their own languages and traditions. The tribes of the Khakas people (Yenisei Kirghiz), Nenets (
1), Ket people (2), Uriankhai (3), Tuva, Soyot people (4), Dzungars (Ölots or Olots, respectively) and Oirots (Kalmyk people) shared the same area of settlement. They remained true to an "alliance", which organized such Kurultai (meetings of delegates), in Kosh-Agach in the Tschuja steppe. This collapsing federation still was the ideal of a Turk-Mongolian consolidation, closely connected with their faith, the ideology of Ak Jang - "White Faith". This was the basis for today's Republic of Altai within the Russian Federation.

  • (1) The Nenets have their origins in the Altai-Sayan Mountain range and assimilated, following their migration downwards along the river Ob, with the fishermen and hunters settling there. They still live as hunters along the Arctic Coast in the east and west of the Ural Mountains. The Nenets are greatly endangered by the exploitation of the vast oil and gas recovery, being the major force in destroying huge grassing lands of reindeers. They belong to the Samoyeds, a Finno-Ugric language group.
  • (2) The Ket people – ("human being") or Deng ("people"); Yenisei Ostjaks, nomadic people in Siberia, related with the Deng ("people"); related with the Khanty, settled between the rivers Ob, Upper Irtysch and Yenisei; they lived on hunting, fishing and reindeer breeding. Their language belongs to the Finno-Ugric language family.
  • (3) Altai Uriankhai – Until the beginning of the 17th century, the term Uriankhai was used for all those living in the north-western area in today's Mongolia, although their origin lies with Samoyeds, Turks or Mongols. In 1757 the Manchu under the Qing Dynasty expanded their northern frontier far into the settlement areas of the Uriankhai, suppressing those living there. The Altai Uriankhai fled together with the Oirats, also living under suppression, into the Altai valleys.
  • (4) The Soyots spoke the Turk language, which has become extinguished until now and was similar to the Tuvin language. They lived, however, in the Oka region in today's Buryatia.

- More information on Dzungars (Ölöts and Olöts), Oirats, Altai people, Khakas people and Kirghiz people.
- More information on "The Southern Peoples"
- More information on Ak Jang and Burchanism

A part of the population settling in the Altai, which is now called "Altai people", earlier on was called White Kalmyks, Forest Kalmyks, Altai Tartars, Oirots and Telengits, forming about 30 to 40 clans (söks). Teleuts and Teles, who had migrated back, were then also Altai people, so-called "Altaikizhi“. They had the same clan names as the Tuva people and the Urianchai, nowadays settling in western Mongolia, and they once were one unity within a confederation. Nevertheless, clan members of the Altaikizhi never married Tuvan people having the same clan name. Clans (söks) are a patrilinear and exogam unit; they are very conservative with stabile structures within such Turk and Mongol communities. The clan names may be traced back to the Early Middle Ages. Differences in their characteristics reflect a polymorphous nature, which is deeply rooted, and in the case of a multi-cultural community even more fundamental. These indigenous demographic units in the Altai were formed at the end of the 18th century, following the collapse of the Dzungar Khanate (1756). At this time, numerous ethical groups invaded from the Dzungar realm into the upper Altai valleys. Refugees settled around the Altai and formed new groups with settlers already living there. Members of these former emigrants were tribes of the Telengits, the Teles and the Teleuts, which had never left these valleys. For centuries, they had settled in this Gorny Altai (meaning: Altai Highlands or Mountains of the Altai), this mountainous region with nearly impassable valleys and rivers, which were not easy to conquer by their enemies, thus constituting a relative safe area of living. In the east, there were living their close relatives, the Tuvin people and the Khakas people (Yenisei-Kirghiz), in the west and south the Muslim Mountain-Kazakhs (Kara-Kirghiz). They have never seen themselves as a nation but rather formed loose tribal unities. The history of the Turks and Mongols is full of different formations of realms/empires and tribal alliances, which, however, never were based on the principle of a national state. These alliances were usually rather short-lived, but nevertheless great and powerful during their existence. They were alliances of clans, tribes, brought together and united under the supremacy of a Kagan (khan = leader) - a leader "elected by God". The reasons for such consolidations were external dangers, a huge growth of population and/or climatic conditions, which demanded migration. Such alliances or empires comprised clans of different origin, and these usually lasted only as long as it was necessary to solve a certain task such as the search for new shores or the defence of invading enemies. After tribes had been fought back, thus securing their nomadic lifestyle, the clans re-introduced autonomy. This is called "ruling dynasties" - never establishing the core in the form of a national state - they were alliances, associations of clans, which elected a common leader for this period of time. In this way, the history of the "Altai people" may only be seen in the context of such a Turk speaking Mongolian world. Clans, which remained among the population of the Altai Highlands as a basic unit of self-identification, lasted for a longer period of time and over a wide territory - on their climax under Turkic influence. They expanded in the 6th to 8th centuries from the Pacific Ocean as far as the river Danube. Over the centuries, there remained a homogenous "clan pool", which formed such nomadic confederations but remained essentially the same, whereas in some regions, especially towards the western border areas, a Turk speaking Mongolian domain became extinguished. From a culture with a nomadic way of life and migrating herds dominated by Alpine agriculture, there gradually was developed a settled community, clearly under Turk dominance. In this way, a general pattern of a Turk-Mongolian self-identity has remained the same up to modern times. Some 200 years ago, or even earlier, this homogenous or nearly homogenous regional, cultural and ethnical continuity was strongly altered by way of external influences; such as by new supremacies like Russia or China. There were founded a number of national states, wherein colonialism with "national regions" and/or republics within Russia and China were established.

- More information on “
History of the Equestrian Nomads

Until 1860, Turk speaking nomads, which settled in higher mountain valleys in the Altai (in southern Siberia) were in contact with the Russian Empire and the settlers. The majority of these, however, lived in a rather isolated way. For a long time, they served as a buffer zone between the Russian Empire and western Mongolia, which then was under Chinese rule. Up to the middle of the 18th century, the Altai people were united under the Dzungar-Oirat alliance in an organized tribal association with Mongol tribes. In 1750 this alliance disintegrated, apart from earlier internal conflicts, due to the attacks of the Manchu army under the Qing dynasty. This resulted in a genocide among the conquered population in order to punish the disloyalty (infringements of sovereignty) of some of their chiefs (leaders), who had steadily changed allegiance. In the course of this war, troops killed about 90 per cent of the Oirot and Dzungar population. These fought to survive and found refuge in higher Altai valleys, near the Russian border fortresses. They sought help and shelter with the then Tsarina Elizabeth (whom they called "Virgin Tsarina"), hoping to be accepted as future subjects. A still popular saying is rather well-known in the Altai area: "I do not know if I come back to this country, dead or alive".

Among these refugees and the groups already settling there, there was not established any form of togetherness. A group of nomads, known as representatives of these original Altai people, was once de-populated by way of emigrations, and its tribes were split, which is why supratribal unities were established, which shielded from the wars led by their neighbours and sought refuge in impassable river valleys. It is understandable that there was not built any feeling of geographic unity in the mountainous Altai region, but there was merely established a new homeland for refugees, although these groups spoke different languages and belonged to different tribes, which are assigned to a Turkic, Mongolian language family, or such as the Nenets, Samoyed or the Ket people, which are classified as a Finno-Ugric language family. The Turk speaking among the population were clearly dominating, finally absorbing a community with the groups here assimilated. At the beginning of the 19th century, there was developed an ethnic and linguistic "cocktail", developing into two large and geographically independent groups in the region. This comprised in the north the Tubular people, the Kumandin, the Chalkan and the Shor people, and in the south the Altaikizhi with the Telengits. The Teleut tribes settling in the northern Altai were called "Black Tartars" by the Russian population. They were hunters and gatherers and lived in dense "black" forests at the border to the Oirot confederation. The southern tribes were called "Mountain Kalmyks" by the Russians, and mainly lived on cattle breeding and alpine agriculture as nomads. They lived in the upper Altai valleys and continued to belong to this confederation until the middle of the 18th century. There were also some neighbouring Turk speaking groups, which were related to the Altai tribes, the Tuvans and the Khakas people. These, however, did not develop a supratribal identity as neighbours to these Altai people. It is to be noted that the population of the northern Altai are called Altaikizhi (= mountain Altai people, mountain people), and those settling farther south are frequently called Oirots (Oirotkizhi).

This suppression, destruction and conflicts, which the Altai people had to experience up to the middle of the 19th century by the Qing Dynasty, are orally transmitted in stories and narrations using throat singing and a two-stringed lute accompaniment. The songs are about conflicts, sorrows and harms, persecution of shamans, war heroes and Oirot chiefs. There is told of times long past, a "golden period", in which all people lived in peace, freedom and affluence. Epic narrations tell of leaders like Amyr-Sana, Shunu and Galdan-Tseren. They were excellent leaders and have become legends because of their heroic deeds. The tales are based on historic events and facts. Heroic actions and suffering experienced by the tribes are thus conserved and preserved in this way. The Western Mongols also know heroic tales, which have become myths like with the Altai people. Historic events are thus kept alive with the peoples doomed, thus forming their identities. Tales describing such epic changes tell of social fall and ruin of a former power, one still dearly remembers. When Russia integrated the southern Altai tribes as subjects, it became prohibited to perform such heroic songs, shamanistic practices, and also their administrative system was abolished. In this way, their tradition based on clan building with leaders has been destroyed, such as their mythological tales about their ancestors. In the 19th century, this system had finally collapsed under Russian rule. Nowadays, a community that is based on a nomadic system is clearly missing the principles based on different clans; these have also got lost. Some of their ideological characteristics, however, survived suppression over the years, as well as their shamanism. The influence of Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism) has clearly gained power among the Altai population since 1616, with original rituals being newly interpreted.

For a long time, epic tales and stories served as a spiritual power for their identity. Especially this "golden past" was praised. Folkloristic performances and myths with this longing for a "past" of this super-powerful ancestors, who were enabled with special skills and spiritual powers, have again be re-established. Tales of once powerful tribe leaders, who had brought peace and freedom to their people, have gradually become extinguished in modern times. Nowadays they not only complain about their "sufferings before the integration into the Russian realm" but rather also their new loss of freedom and their suppression, their semi-autonomous status within the Russian Federation. At the beginning of the 20th century, their nearly forgotten mythologized world started to bloom anew, their past with heroic leaders in a Russian hegemony (suppression) is being reactivated.

Contrary to shamanism, which is based on the spiritual support with the help of spirits, in the Altai folklore there is told of deities or semi-mythological heroes, who are independent of a tribe. Furthermore, apart from few exceptions, epic concepts were not included in the shamanistic pantheon. Epic tales and songs from the Altai tell of deeds and actions of heroes, which were given powerful, supernatural powers (for example, Oirot-Khan, Amyr-Sana or Shunu), of deities (Uch-Kurbustan, Tengers, Erlik or Burkhans), but also war heroes, who have various names. These stories are also characterized by allusions to their home. They tell of a wonderful "golden Altai" with its permanent white sümer (sümer = mountain tops).

Epic narrations lasted for several days, having breaks, which were performed in bright summer nights, when people met in the evening to spend their leisure time, or on the occasion of rituals or during long rides on horses, or before a hunt. Story tellers (kaichi = bards) recited epic stories using throat singing and accompanied by the lute. They were on the same level as the shaman, although they did not have such ritual, ideological or medicinal knowledge. They had an important position within the culture then practised, and they belonged to a number of renown and highly appraised people. Some of them were very close to the world of spirits, by which they were supported and inspired during their performances. Up to the beginning of the 20th century, shamanism had had its meaning as an ideological power, such as the tradition of story-telling with their performers, the Kaichi (bards). Publications of earlier research before the Soviet period indicate that, apart from "shamanism", the narration of stories represented an important "phenomenon" for the conservation and preservation of their identity - apart from curing, evocation of spiritual worlds, magic sessions and religious practises, which were only celebrated by experts, as well as priests.

December 2014 – © Albi - translated by Hermelinde Steiner - April 2015

back to Index Central Asia