dimanche 6 mai 2007


The Uighurs
-By Erkin Alptekin (*)

The Uighurs are the native people of Eastern Turkestan, also known as Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The latest Chinese census gives the present population of the Uighurs as slightly over 6 million(l) There are also 500,OOO Uighurs in Western Turkestan, known as Uzbekistan, Kazakistan, Kirgizistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan(2). Almost 150,000 Uighurs have thier homes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Western Europe and the United States(3).

Chinese sources indicate that the Uighurs are the direct descendents of the Huns(4). The Huns are the forefathers of the Turkic people.

The name "Uighur" is mentioned in the chronicles of the Chinese Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), Wei dynasty (265-289 A.D.), Tang dynasty (618-906 A.D.), and Sung dynasty (906-960 A.D) (5).

Although they were known under different names such as Wei-ho, Gaoche or Yuan-ho in different periods of history, there is no doubt that these people were Uighurs(6) Gaoche means "High Cart" tribes(7) To this day the big wheeled nepe or high cart is a characteristic sight in some cities in southern Eastern Turkestan. Even today the Chinese call the Uighurs Wei Wu Er.
Ancient Greek, Iranian and Chinese sources placed the Uighurs with their tribes and sub-tribes in the vast area between the west banks of the Yellow River in the east, Eastern Turkestan in the west, and in the Mongolian steppe in the northeseast as early as 300 B.C.(8)

After 210 B.C. the Uighurs played important roles in Hun (220 B.C.-386 A.D.),Tabgach (386-534 A.D.) and Kok Turk (552-744 A.D.) Turkic empires which were established in Central Asia.(9)
In 670, 688, 692 A.D. the Uighurs, the Kok Turks and the Shato joined the Tibetan armies in their military expeditions in capturing the Chinese strongholds in north and northeast Central Asia.(1O)

Political History
After the fall of the Kok Turk Empire in Central Asia, the Uighurs established their first state in Mongolia in 744, with the city Karabalgasun, on the banks of the Orkhun River, as its capital.
The founder of this Uighur state was Kutluk Bilge Kul Khan. In 747 he was succeeded by his son Moyunchur, a powerful leader who subdued other Turkic clans, consolidated the monarchy, and extended hls rule in the north to Lake Baykal, in the east to Kansu and in the southwest to Eastern Turkestan.(11)

It so happened that just as the Uighurs became united and strong, the Chinese Tang dynasty under Hsuan-tsung (712-756 A.D.) was undergoing a sharp decline.In 751 a Chinese army was disastrously defeated in the battle of Talas River by the Arabs and their allies. In the same year, a Chinese invasion of the Nan-chao to the southwest was thwarted with appalling losses to the Chinese; and a Chinese force under An Lu Shan was defeated by the Khitan in the northeast. These disasters were but the prelude to a much more fearful catastrophe - the rebellion of the former trusted minister An Lu Shan which broke out in 755.

It was under these circumstances that the Uighurs were invited by Su-tsung, the Hsuan-tsungs successor, to send armies to help the Chinese. In this event the Uighur forces played a key role in the recapture of both Changan and Lu-yang in 757. The Uighurs did not hesitate to exploit the Tang dynastic debt owed them, by acts of appalling pillage. The chinese emperor agreed to pay 200,000 rolls of silk as tribute annually to the Uighurs and granted the Uighur Khan one of his daughters in marriage(l2). She was the first of the three princesses of Chinese imperial family to become an Uighur khatun in the period 744-840 A.D.(13)

Moyunchur Khan died in 759 and was succeeded by his son Bugu Khan. During his reign, the Uighurs reached the apex of their power. They began with China, which engaged in forced trade of Uighur horses for Chinese silk - an exchange which was noted frequently in Chinese sources before 829.

In 762 Bugu Khan went to the Middle Kingdom where he helped the Tang dynasty in the final battles against the rebellion which had racked it for so long.

In 779, Bugu Khan was killed by his first cousin and chief minister Baga Tarkan. Bugu Khan's Sogdian allies and advisers had wanted him to take advantage of the death in 779 of Emperor Tai-tsung and the state mourning involved in it, to undertake an invasion of China. Bugu Khan agreed to do this. His first cousin Baga Tarkan opposed the plan; and when he saw the tide turning against him, murdered Bugu Khan and set himself on the throne. Baga Tarkan, believed that at this stage China could have been conquered by the Uighurs. But he did not believe that the Uighurs would be able to preserve their national identity if they once conquered China, a vast and populous country even then.

After the death of Baga Tarkan in 789 and especially after that of his successor, Kulug Bilge Khan in 790, Uighur power and prestige declined.
In 795, the rule of the Uighur state passed to another Uighur clan. Under this new clan the Uighurs became more and more steeped in religion, which softened them and planted seeds of advanced culture which characterized the Uighurs of later ages. The most important ruler of this clan was Kutluk Bilge Khan, whose successful military exploits, both before and during his reign, are reported in the Karabalgasun inscriptions(14.) He did not succeed, however, in restoring the Uighur empire to its former power.

With Kutluk Bilge Khan's death in 805, the forces of disintegration of the Uighur state gathered momentum. War broke out abroad with the powerful Kirgiz neighbours to the north; while at home, court intrigue eroded the power of the royal family; rebellions broke out, and, to add to everything, a bad season and severe winter in 839 killed much of the livestock upon which the Uighur economy was so dependent. In 840, the Kirgiz, invited by a rebel chief, attacked the tottering state, killed the khan, and took the capital.

This first part of Uighur political history shows the Uighurs as the protectors of the Chinese empire for almost a century. On the other hand, the relationship was not really a friendly one. There was abiding resentment on the Chinese side. The reason was that the Middle Kingdom was obliged to be protected by a "barbarian" people.

Although the Uighurs lost over the centuries so many of the features of their entirely nomadic past, the Chinese continued to regard them as uncivilized barbarians as they did other peoples. The Uighurs, for their part, never gave the Chinese the respect which the latter would have liked (15).

After the fall of the first Uighur empire, a group of Uighurs emigrated to the west banks of the Yellow River in Kansu; a second group emigrated via Yetti Su to the southern part of Khan Tengri or Tian Shan in Eastern Turkestan; the third and the largest group of Uighurs emigrated to the northern part of Khan Tengri where their ancestors were still living(16).

The Kan-Chou Uighur Kingdom
The Uighurs who emigrated to the west banks of the Yellow river in Kansu established a kingdom in 850 known as the Kan-chou Uighur Kingdom.
This kingdom never became a major power, but the Chinese had great respect for it as seen from the Chinese court praise of the Kan-chou Uighur King when an Uighur and a Tibetan ambassadors visited the Chinese capital in 911(17).
Nevertheless, this kingdom was absorbed in 1228 by the Tankuts who established a state in the area known as Western Hsia.
Several thousands of these Uighurs still live in the Kansu area under the name Sarik Uighurs or Yellow Uighurs, preserving their old Uighur tongue.

The Karakhoja Uighur Kingdom
The Uighurs who emigrated to the northern part of Khan Tengri in Eastern Turkestan established the second Uighur Kingdom in 846 known as Karakhoja Uighur Kingdom near the present day city of Turfan(18). The Chinese recognized this kingdom and sent Wang Yen de in 981 to Karakhoja as their ambassador(19). Wang Yen De stayed in Karakhoja for three years.

The Karakhanid Uighur Kingdom
The Uighurs who settled in the southern part of Khan Tengri, established the Karakhanid Kingdom in 840 with the support of other Turkic clans like the Karluks, the Turgish and the Basmil, with Kashgar as their capital(20).
In 934, during the rule of Satuk Bughra Khan, the Karakhanids embraced the Islamic religion(21). Thus, in the territory of Eastern Turkestan two Uighur kingdoms were set up: the Karakhanids, who were Muslims, and the Karakhoja Uighurs who were Buddhists.
The Islamic kingdom was overrun by the Karakhitays in 1124. The Karakhitays are also known as the Western Liao. They were a mixture of Mongol, Turkic and Tunguz people. Thus the Buddhist Uighur Kingdom became vassals of the Karakhitays.

In 1218 the Buddhist Uighur Kingdom was voluntarily confederated with Chengiz Khan against their common enemy, the Karakhitays whom they defeated(22). The Uighur King Barchuk was accepted "graciously" by Chengiz Khan as his "fifth son The Buddhist Uighurs maintained their sovereignty in the north and Mahmud Yalvach, a Muslim Uighur was appointed to the administration in the south(24).

Chengiz Khan died in 1227, and his empire was divided among his four sons.Chagatay inherited Western and Eastern Turkestan. Like his father; he did not interfere with the internal affairs of Eastern Turkestan. After his death Turkestan was divided into two parts again by rival khans in a power struggle to succeed Chagatay. After a bloody struggle Timur succeeded to the Chagatay's throne in Western Turkestan in 1368.

The rule of the Muslim part of Eastern Turkestan passed into the hands of Khizir Khoja, who staged an invasion of the Buddhist Uighur Kingdom in the north in 1397 and brought them under his rule. After that the lslamic religion also spread among the Buddhist Uighurs(26.) This Islamic Uighur Kingdom of Eastern Turkestan maintained its independence until 1759(27).

The Manchus who set up a huge empire in China, invaded the Uighur Kingdom in 1759 and dominated it until 1862. During this period the Uighurs revolted 42 times against the Manchu rule with the purpose of regaining their independence(28) In the last revolt of 1863, the Uighurs were successful in expelling the Manchus from their motherland, and founded an independent kingdom under the leaderhsip of Yakub Bey. This kingdom was recognized by the Ottoman Empire, Tsarist Russia and Great Britain(29). But for fear of Tsarist expansion into Eastern Turkestan, Great Britain persuaded the Manchu court to conquer Eastern Turkestan. The money for the Manchu invasion forces was granted by British banks(30).

Large forces under the overall command of General Zho Zhung Tang attacked Eastern Turkestan in 1876. After this invasion, Eastern Turkestan was given the name Xinjiang or Sinkiang which means "New Dominion" or "New Territory" and it was annexed into the territory of the Manchu empire on 18 November 1884(31).

In 1911, the Nationalist Chinese, under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, overthrew Manchu rule and established a republic.
The Uighurs, who also wanted to free themselves from foreign domination, staged several uprisings against the Nationalist Chinese rule during this period. Twice, in 1933 and 1944, the Uighurs were successful in setting up an independent Islamic Eastern Turkestan republic(32). But these independent Islamic Republics were overthrown by the military intervention and political intrigues of the Soviet Union. It was in fact the Soviet Union that proved a deterrent to the Uighur independence movement throughout this period.

In 1949 the Nationalist Chinese were defeated by the Chinese communists. After that, Eastern Turkestan fell under Chinese communist rule. Uighur language, culture and civilization
The Uighurs were far more advanced than the other Turkic peoples because they lived along the Silk Route which served as a route of commercial, cultural and religious exchanges throughout history.

At the end of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century, scientific and archaeological expeditions to the region along the Silk Route in Eastern Turkestan led to the discovery of numerous Uighur cave temples, monastery ruins, wall paintings, miniatures, statues, frescoes, valuable manuscripts, documents and books. Members of the expedition from Great Britain, Sweden, Russia, Germany, France and Japan were amazed by the art treasure they found there, and soon detailed reports captured the attention of interested public around the world.

The relics of these rich Uighur cultural remnants brought back by Sven Kidin of Sweden, Aurel Stein of Great Britain, Albert von Lecoq of Germany, Paul Pelliot of France, Langdon Warner of United States and Count Ottani of Japan can be seen today in the museums of Berlin, London, Paris, Tokyo, Leningrad and even in the Museum of Central Asian Antiquities in New Delhi (33). The manuscripts, documents and the books discovered in Eastern Turkestan proved that the Uighurs had a very high degree of civilization compared to the Europeans of the Middle Ages (34).

Uighur Language
The main language spoken in Eastern Turkestan is Uighur. Uighur represents one of the dialects of the widely diffused Turkic language family. Among Western linguists, the term "Eastern Turkish" is also widely in use for Uighur. There is, of course, a great difference between the old Uighur and the present one. Closely related to the Uighur is Uzbek. But the Turkic inhabitants of Kazakhistan, Kirgizistan, Turkmenistan, Tataristan, Azerbaijan and even Turkey have almost no difficulty communicating with each other.

Uighur Script
Throughout the centuries, the Uighurs used three kinds of scripts. When they were confederated wilh the Kok Turks in the 6th and 71h centuries, they used the Orkhum script, which was actually a Kok Turk invention(35). Later, the Uighurs dropped this script (36) and and adopted their own script which became to be known as the Uighur Script. This script was used for almost 800 years not only by the Uighurs, but also by other Turkic peoples, the Mongols, and by the Manchus in the early stage of their rule in China(37). As the Mongols did not have their own written language, the Uighur script was adopted by Chengiz Khan's empire for all sorts of correspondence(38). Guyuk Khan's (1246-1248) letter to the Pope of that time was also written in the Uighur script(39). The Uighurs were also instrumental in shaping Mongol administration, which was formidable by any standards. They manned Mongol chanceries and, probably because of their knowledge of languages, were often charged with visiting foreigners. Both Plano Carpini and Rubruck mention them. The Uighurs also emerged as teachers of the royal family, governers in China, ambassadors in Rome, today's Istanbul, and Baghdad, scholars in Tebriz and officers in the army (40) . After embracing Islam, the Uighurs adopted the Arabic alphabet, but common usage of the Arabic script came only in the llth century.

Uighur Literature
The first Uighur literary works were mostly translations of Buddhist and Manichaeist religious books. Besides, during the expeditions some narrative, poetic and epic works were also discovered. Some of these works have been translated into German, English, Russian and Turkish(41). After embracing Islam Uighurs continued to preserve their cultural dominance in Central Asia.

In this period hundreds of Uighur scholars, well known in the world, emerged. Hundreds of valuable books were written. One hundred and thirty of these important works were discovered later. Some of these books are in the Leningrad National Museum (42). Among these works, Uighur scholar Yusuf Has Hacip's book, Kutaku Bilik, Mahmud Kashgari's Divan-i Lugat-it Turk, Ahmet Yukneki's, Atabetul Hakayik, Bakshi Herevis, Uighur Mihrajname, Abdulfazil Muhammed Omer's, Esserruh Minelshah, Mavlana Hashim Yarkendi's, Keshf-ul Israr, Mavlana Muhammed Sadreddin Karakashi's, Mujmet-ul Ahkam are very famous. All these works were written in Ihe 10th, llth and 12th centuries.Yusuf Has Hajip's Kutatku Bilik was written in 1069-1070.

It is a unique example of a work that explains social, cultural and political lives of the Uighurs during this period. Mahmud Kashgari's Divan-i Lugat-it Turk, which was also written in this age, bears knowledge as to the dialects of various Turkic peoples living at that time. It also gives information about the dialectical differences, their social upbringings, their customs as well as the regions they inhabited. The author of this encyclopedic dictionary wandered amidst all of Turkic peoples before he compiled his work, studied all the data and thus provided a sound academic basis. Mahmud Kashgari's Divan-i Lugat-it Turk is one of the main source for Turkic studies in the world today.

Iman Hussein Halef of Kashgar was the first Turkic Muslim scholar in Eastern Turkestan who translated the meaning of the Holy Koran into the Uighur language in the 12th century(43). The Islamic civilization that evolved among the Uighurs also gave birth to great Turkic Muslim scholars and writers, such as Iman Bukhari, Tirmizi, Samerqandi, Biruni, Farabi, Ibn-i Sina, Abu Mashhari, Zimahshari, Ulugbek and Alishir Nevai.

Prior to Islam, like most of the Turkic peoples in Central Asia, the Uighurs believed in religions like Shamanism, Buddhism and Manicheism. Buddhism entered Eastern Turkestan at the beginning of our era(44).. It quickly spread among the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, but it was the uygurs who founded Buddhism in Central Asia.

The ruins of the famous monasteries known as the Ming Oy or the Thousand Buddhas built by the Uighurs can still be seen in the cities of Kucha, Turfan and Tunhuang, where the Kan-Chao Uighurs lived.
The Uighur Kin Kul Bilge Khan (685-712) ordered a Buddhist monastery to be built in the city of Bay in Eastern Turkestan(45).
In the city of Kucha, there were more than 50 Buddhist temples, libraries and welfare programs for the support of the poor(46). In the city of Hoten there were 14 large monasteries without counting the smaller ones(47)

When Uighur king Bugu Khan travelled to China in 762, he met some Manichean priests. They succeeded in converting him to their religion and four of these priests returned with him to Karabalgasun. Shortly after, Bugu Khan imposed Manicheism as the state religion(48). This was a political step rather than a religious one. He hoped, by adopting this characteristically Sogdan religion, to direct the future of his people away from the cultural influence of the Chinese who were also Buddhists(49)

The Uighurs embraced Islam in 934, during the reign of Satuk Bughra Khan. He was the first Turkic ruler who embraced Islam in Central Asia. At this time instead of temples, mosques were built. Almost 300 mosques were built only in the city of Kashgar. Among them, most famous are Ihe Azna Mosque, built in 12th century, Idgah Mosque built in 15th century and Appak Khoja Mosque, built in the 18th century. The Idgah mosque can accomodate 5000 Muslims. In the city of Kashgar alone their were 6 big Madrasahs. The Mesudi Library, built in the 15th century, had a collection of almost 200,000 books(51).
Hundreds of MusIim students from various parts of the Islamic World came to Kashgar to study.

Uighur Economy
The Uighurs adopted a sedentary life style earlier than the other Turkic peoples. Thus, the Uighurs knew how to cultivate land as early as 2nd century A.D. The Uighurs were engaged in a much more advanced agriculture by the 7th century. They raised wheat, maize, vegetables and fruits. Water melons that the Uighurs raised in Turfan weighed some 30 pounds(52). The fields were irrigated with water brought from far distances by the "kariz" or "water canals" built by the Uighurs. These "kariz" are still in use in Eastern Turkestan today.

Cotton was one of the principle local products of commercial value. It was the Uighurs who familiarized the Mongols with its use. The Mongol word for cotton is Uighur(53) Cotton and products manufactured from cotton contributed to the prosperity of the region(54).
Another product of commercial value was carpets. The cities of Hoten, Kashgar and Turfan were carpet manufacturing centers. These three cities are still famous for their carpet products.

Uighur medicine
The Uighurs had an extensive knowledge of medicine and medical practice. Sung dynasty (906-960) sources indicate that an Uighur physician, namely, Nanto, travelled to China, and brought with him many kinds of medicines not known to the Chinese(55). The Tatar scholar Rashid Rahmeti Arat has written two valuable books in German entitled Zur Heilkunder der Uighuren or Medical Practices of the Uighurs in 1930 and 1932, relying on Uighur documents discovered in Eastern Turkestan.

In his book Arat gives important information on Uighur medicine and medical treatment. Among the documents he studied he found a very important sketch of a man with an explanation of acupuncture. Relying on this document, some Western scholars claims that acupunture was not a Chinese, but a Turkic invention and that the Uighurs perfected the method(56).

In other fields such as architecture, art, music and printing the Uighurs were also far more advanced. Western scholars who have studied Uighur history, culture and civilization have often expressed a high estimation of the cultural level of the Uighurs. For instance, Ferdinand de Sassure has written: "Those who preserved the language and written culture of Central Asia were the Uighurs(57)". Albert von Lecoq, "The Uighur language and script contributed to the enrichment of civilizations of the other peoples in Central Asia. Compared to the Europen as of that time the Uighurs were far more advanced.

Documents discovered in Eastern Turkestan prove that an Uighur farmer could write down a contract, using legal terminology. How many European farmers could have done that at the same period? This shows the extent of Uighur civilization of that time(58). Laszlo Rasonyi: "The Uighurs knew how to print books centuries before Gutenberg invented his press(59)", Wolfram Eberhard: "In the Middle Ages, the Chinese poetry, literature, theatre, music and painting were greatly influenced by the Uighurs(60)". Chinese envoys such as Hsuan Chang, Wang Yen De and Chang Chun who travelled through Eastern Turkestan between the 7th and 13th centuries reported that they were impressed by the high degree of Uighur power, prestige and culture found in the Uighur kingdom(61).

This Uighur power, prestige and culture which dominated Central Asia for more than a thousand years went into a steep decline after the Manchu invasion of Eastern Turkestan and during the rule of Communist Chinese.

For Notes see : http://www.uygur.org/enorg/history/the_uighurs.htm
- Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs: Vol. 8:2, July 1987

(*) Erkin Alpetkin

Erkin Alptekin was born in Eastern Turkestan in 1939. After Chinese take over of Eastern Turkestan in 1949, he fled to India, with his parents. He graduated from Convent College in Srinagar, and the Institute of Journalism, in Istanbul, Turkey. He worked at Radio Free Europe/Liberty, in Munich, Germany where his last position was Senior Policy Advisor to the Director of Radio Liberty. He asked for his early retirement when Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty decided to move to Prague, the Czech Republic, in 1995.
Erkin Alptekin has been effectively lobbying not only his own peoples cause but also that of many other nations, peoples, minorities and the indigenous peoples in the Western countries since 1971. Thus, he became one of three founders and current president of the Allied Committee of the Peoples of Eastern Turkestan, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, in 1985, in Zürich, Switzerland. In 1991, with the support of some of his countrymen he founded the Eastern Turkestan Union in Europe (ETUE), in Munich, Germany. He is one of the founders of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), which is established in 1991 and is located in The Hague, The Netherlands. Between 1991 and 2003, Mr. Erkin Alptekin served as the Vice Chairman, Chairman and the General Secretary of the UNPO. He is the President of the World Uighur Congress, an umbrella organization established in 2004, that unites all the Uighur organizations worldwide.

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