Face Music - History of the Turkish people in Altai

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

more information about History of the Turkish people in Altai - available in German
Altai means: "Golden Mountains"

The Republic of Altai is located in Central Asia and borders on Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. It is comparable in size with Portugal. The region is dominated by mountains with eternal snow and glaciers, similar to the European Alps. The highest peak, Ak-Sümer, is 4,506 metres (nearly 15,000 feet) high. Altai has a population of about 200,000 souls of various nationalities: Altais, Russians and Germans.

The Turkish peoples in Altai were hunters and nomadic shepherds tending sheep, horses and sometimes camels. The bequeathed an extremely interesting culture to their descendants, the basic features of which have been handed down from the early beginnings all the way to the present day.

One of the most important forms of Altai art, apart from painting and poetry, is the narration of epics in the falsetto voice to the accompaniment of the topshur, a lute-like string instrument. Texts are usually enunciated in the low bass register.
These narratives enjoyed great popularity amongst the people of the steppes. One of the legendary narrators, Deley, knew 77 of them by heart and the longest took seven days and nights. Altai has produced a number of masters of this art, such as N. Ulagashev and P. Kutshiyak and today the tradition is still kept alive by such people as Aleksey Kalkin, S. Aetenov, Shunu Yalatov, Tovar Tchetsiyakov and Tanishpai Shinshin.

They preserve a traditional heritage of popular literature and sing of their secret dreams and expectations. These epics contain the aesthetic ideas of this nation in its truest form of expression and tell of the everyday world and the world of spirits and myths. Most of them are pentatonic and melismatics play an important role in the development of the melodies. There are songs of congratulations, for each of the seasons, lullabies, songs for all sorts of animals and even insects, songs of travel, modern philosophical songs, ballads, and improvisations. Many are a kind of oral philosophy and, at the same time, textbooks designed to guide mankind to a higher level of consciousness.

With "Üch Sümer", a first album is now appearing with two folk-singers from Altai. Bolot Bayrishev and Nohon Shumarov sing of the beauty of their homeland Altai, of the "golden lakes", the Katun River, the Ak-Sümer (the highest peak in the Altai mountains), and the old "Pazyryk" - these are the hill graves where the defenders of the Altai are buried. Then they sing of their people, small though it is in number, and of mankind, Nature, the cosmos, and the entity they all form. They open the hidden depths of their souls and combine poetry with music.

One of the oldest legends of these inhabitants of the Altai tells of the origin of the Turkish tribe of Rükü, which is even chronicled in China. The Rükü lived in the southern Altai in the 5th century and mined iron ore. They consisted of 70 brothers, the oldest of whom had been born by a wolf and ruled over the winds and granted blessings. He even had power over summer and winter.


The Altai region was inhabited even in pre-historic times and a settlement on the banks of the river Ulelushka even dates from before the first Ice Age.

In the days of the Old Orient, the first civilisation in Egypt and Mesopotamia and the first mass migrations, the Aryans, who belonged to the primitive Indo-Germanic language group, migrated eastwards and mingled with the nomads who lived there. This was the start of the metal-working age in the Altai: bronze and copper at first, later also iron.

The Turkish branch of the Oirates, which includes the Teleuts and the Telengetes, also settled in the Altai and their culture was very similar to that of their neighbouring tribes and of the steppe peoples of central Asia.

This group of steppe peoples, which stretched right across central Asia and south-eastern Europe to the eastern Mediterranean, was conquered in the centuries before Christ by war-like nomadic tribes of horsemen. They are represented in the eastern steppes by the Mongolians, who are usually referred to under the general heading of Huns, and lived in the area which nowadays forms Mongolia and all the way across to the Korean Bay. The central part, modern Turkestan, was settled by a mixed range of Indo-Europeans and Mongols and included Scythians, Sarmates, Parthans and others who had initially stayed in the Iranian uplands but had then been driven out by invading waves of Medes and Persians.

The high cultures bordering the steppes to the south, in China, India and the Old Orient, were linked with the steppe peoples by the age-old trading route along the southern edge of the steppes, the "Silk Road".

In about the middle of the 6th century we hear for the first time of the Turks, the ancestors of the present-day Altais. The first Turkish empire arose and covered northern Mongolia to the upper reaches of the river Yenisey, into the Dsungarey and eastern Turkestan to the kingdom of Chwärizm, but soon broke apart into an eastern and a western part.
The core of this Turkish union was the Turkish people all around the Altai, which formed its first alliance in 552 AD; this created the "Turkkhanat" centred on the river Orchon in the Altai. At its highest flowering, this loose grouping of nations stretched from the Korean Bay to the Caspian Sea and the northern Caucasus, and its northern borders almost reached the Baikal Sea. Its southern rim touched the Great Wall of China and present-day Tibet.

The greatest cultural achievements of the Turkkhanat was the development of its own writing, or Turkish runes, passed down to the present day in the inscriptions in the Orchon region of northern Mongolia and the upper Yenisey. Like all these early central Asian states, this Turkish empire was based on a loose alliance of various nomadic tribes and was from the start in danger of internal collapse. The Turks soon came under the influence of the ancient Chinese culture in the south-eastern part of their empire, whilst the western tribes mingled with the local Iranian population and very largely gave up their nomadic way of life.

The eastern Turkish empire was conquered in 745 AD by the Uigurs, likewise a Turkish race, whilst in the western part the Turkish people of the Karlukes inherited that part of the empire a few decades later. Excavations in Turfan have testified to the high flowering of the Turkish culture before and during the reign of the Uigurs. Their religion was Manichaeic and they had a particularly fine tradition of painting. The Uigurs were driven out in 840 AD by the Kirgisks, but at about this time a new force was spreading into central Asia: Islam, the religion which still today dominates the western part of this region and which even reached India in the 8th century, carried by invading Arabs.

The empire of Genghis Khan overwhelmed the Altai in the 13th century. After the Mongol horde had stormed in and out again, in the second half of the 13th century the Turks made their first appearance in the western part of Asia Minor and created the Osman Empire. Another Mongolian military ruler, Timur-lenk, led his tribe of horsemen, now converted to Islam, westwards and south-westwards from Samarkand and spread out his rule northwards all the way to Moscow. To the south he pushed on towards India and through Persia and Mesopotamia towards Europe; Baghdad was conquered in 1401. The Altai regained their independence once his empire had crumbled away at the end of the 14th century.

Tsar Ivan III raised armed resistance against the Mongol as they advanced up the Volga and the Russian Empire took the place of the Arch-Duchies which had been more or less dependent on the Mongol khan. The Altai has been an autonomous republic within Russia since May 1992.

- map sketch Gorno-Altaisk
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