• Galina Blankenship

A Brief History of Turks: From the Pre-Ottoman Period to the Republic of Turkey

Updated: Oct 13

Covering the Pre-Ottoman tribes: Huns, Göktürks, Uygurs, Karahans, Ghaznavids, Seljuks, Anatolian Seljuks, Beyliks, and the Ottoman Empire...
Fig. 1. New Mosque and Eminönü bazaar, Constantinople, c. 1895.

The history of the Turks covers a timeframe of over 4,000 years. Turks first lived in Central Asia around 2000 B.C. Later, some of them left Central Asia and spread around, establishing many states and empires independent from each other within a vast area of Asia and Europe.

These empires included the Great Hun Empire (established during the 3rd century B.C.), the Göktürk Empire (552–740), the Uygur Empire (741–840), the Avar Empire (6–9 century A.D.), the Hazar Empire (5–10 century A.D.), the Great Seljuk Empire (1040–1157), and many others. The modern Republic of Turkey was eventually founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal ‘Atatürk’.


The Huns

The first Turkish tribe that is mentioned is the Huns, who made their appearance in the 8th century B.C. Chinese sources refer to the Huns as Hiung-nu, and it is here that the culture of horseback migration first makes its appearance in history. The Huns who migrated to the West in time achieved superiority over the Germans, of the same horseback discipline as themselves, and over the highly cultured Romans, because of their splendid state of readiness and amazing mobile capabilities.

The Göktürks

Founded in 552 A.D. by Bumin Kağan, the Göktürks engaged in widespread diplomatic activity. Although the Göktürks were forced to become subjects of China in the 7th century, they regained their independence in 632, led by a hero named Kutluk. In the year of 716, Kutluk’s son Bilge Kagan became the ruler, leading to prosperity with the aid of his brother Kültegin and his father’s elderly vizier, Tonyukuk. This lasted until the year of 745. The famed Orhun Epitaphs from this period are made up of the tombstone inscriptions of Tonyukuk (d. 720), Kültegin (d. 731), and Bilge Kagan (d. 734).

The Uygurs

The rule of the Göktürks was ended in the year of 745 by the Uygur, who were of the same ethnic stock as themselves. In this manner, all the Turks who had converged under the banner of the Göktürks were dispersed to that of the Uygurs and other tribes. It is because of the Uygurs that the agricultural basin became known as Turkistan. In the year of 1229, the Mongols put an end to Uygur sovereignty; the Uygurs, however, became their cultural and political mentors.

The Turks and Islam

Contacts between the Turks and Muslims commenced in the beginning of the 8th century, and some Turks favored Islam. However, the pro-Arab policies of the Umayyads (661–750 A.D.) somewhat restricted these relations. It is because of this that a major part of the political struggle against the Umayyads at that time, helping the Abbasid dynasty to attain sovereignty, rested on the efforts of Muslim Turks and Iranians of the area (750 A.D.).

Many Muslim Turks took office in the Abbasside government, and because of this, great interest in the Islamic world spread among the Turks beyond the River Ceyhun. The interest became even more pronounced when the Calf of the time Mu’tasim established an elite army formed only of Turks in 835.

Fig. 2. Calligraphic writing on a fritware tile, depicting the names of God, Muhammad and the first caliphs, c. 1727.

Commercial relationships also played a key role in the spread of Islam into the steppes of Central Asia. Turkish Sufi dervishes who joined the caravans were instrumental in converting the Turks to Islam. The Turks had become Muslim by the 10th century, and this resulted in the achievement of political unity. Following these developments, the first Muslim Turkish state was formed by the Karahans.

The Karahans

The Karahans ruled between 990 and 1212 in Turkestan and Mâverâünnehir and put an end to the sovereignty of the Samanoğuls (the Samanids). The founder of the state is Satuq Bughra Khan, and this is inscribed in the legend praising Bughra Khan. The reign of the Karahans is especially significant from the point of view of Turkish culture and art history. Mosques, schools, bridges, and caravanserai were constructed in the cities during this period. Bukhara and Samarkand became centers of learning.

Moreover, during this period, the Turkish language found the means to develop. Among the most important works of the period is Qutadğu Bilig (translated as “The Knowledge That Gives Happiness”) by Yusuf Has Habib, written between the years of 1069 and 1070. It is a political work expressed in verse. This work, in fact, comprises knowledge for the ruler, in which Yusuf personalized his key principles of justice, power (state), comprehension (reason), and belief.

The Ghaznavids

The Ghaznavi state was formed in the year of 963 by the Turkish ruler Bevuktekin and is one of the first Muslim Turkish states. This is the time, under the rule of Bevuktekin’s son Mahmut, when the state lived its brightest period (977–1030). Mahmut realized 17 sorties and missions into India; he worked relentlessly for the expansion of Islam in the area and expanded the borders of the state from Tokharistan and Mâverâünnehir to Punjab, Multan, and some districts of the Sindh province (currently, Pakistan).

During the time of Mahmut’s son Mes’ud, the Ghaznavids lost a large part of their lands, following the battle of Dardanakan (1040) against the founder of the Great Seljuk Empire Tuğrul Bey. The Ghaznavids finally collapsed in 1186 and were assimilated by the Oğuzs.

The Turkish scholar Abū Rayḥān Al-Bīrūnī, or Al-Biruni, brought to Gazne by Sultan Mahmut from Harzem, helped make this period an important one within Islamic cultural history. Biruni, who wrote his works in Arabic, also wrote the famed Kitab al-Hind (the Book of India), which discussed the language, literature, religion, and philosophy of India, inspired by Mahmud’s campaigns. The famed work by the poet Firdevsî, the Sehname, was also presented (in 1009) to Sultan Mahmut.

The Seljuks

The Oğuzs, who destroyed the Ghaznavid state, succeeded in putting Anatolia, Iraq, the southern part of the Caucasus, Azerbaijan, and the north of Iran under Turkish rule. The Oğuzs had first formed the Göktürk Empire in the 6th century; after the expansion of Islam among the Turks, the Oğuzs came to be called the Turkmens among the other Turks.

Fig. 3. Malik-Shah I, ruler of the Seljuks, seated on his throne.

Seljuk, whose name was adopted by the Seljuk dynasty, was the son of Dukak of the line of Kiniks, which was a branch of the Ujoks of Oğuz. Tuğrul Bey and Çağrı (Çakır) Bey were the grandsons of Seljuk, in whose time they, and the Oğuzs, known as the Seljuks in history, subjected Horasan, defeated the Ghaznavid ruler Mesud, and established the Great Seljuk Empire in 1040.

In 1071, the nephew of Tuğrul Bey, Alp Arslan (1063–1072), fought the battle of Malazgirt and, having defeated the Byzantine Emperor’s forces in this battle, opened the doors of Anatolia to the Muslim Turks.

The Anatolian Seljuks

The year of 1071 is considered to be the beginning of the Turks and that of Islam in Anatolia. The Turks would soon conquer the whole of Anatolia and establish the Anatolian Seljuk state as a part of the Great Seljuks Empire.

Although the first ruler and founder of the Anatolian Seljuks Suleyman Shah (d. 1086) first established the capital in Iznik, in Bursa, he was later compelled to move the capital well into the interior of Anatolia, to Konya, during the time of the First Crusade.

The first schooling institutions, the Moslem theological medreses, were formed in Anatolia during the time of Kılıç Arslan (1153–1192). Following the establishment of two medreses by Kılıç Arslan, one in Konya and the other in Aksaray, the medreses of Sırçalı in Konya (1242–1243), Karatay (1251), İnce Minareli (1252–1253), Atabekkiye (1251–1268), Gök Medrese in Sivas (1271), Buruciye (1271–1272), Çifte Minareli (1271), and the Cacoğlu in Kırşehir (1272) were established.

The Seljuks also attributed much importance to the medical sciences, and, in almost all of their cities, treatment institutions called Darush Shifa, Dar’ül Afiye, and Darus-Sihna were set up. The main medical treatment centers were the Gevher Nesibe in Kayseri (1205), the Izzeddin I Keykavus in Sivas (1217), the Torumtay in Amasya (1266), the Muinuddin Pervâne in Tokat (1275), and the Pervaneoğlu Ali in Kastamonu (1272).

Because of the influence of Persian aspects, coming from Iran, among the administrators, men of arts, and traders, the Anatolian Seljuk state became increasingly impacted by Iranian culture and language.

The Beyliks: The Period of Principalities

Political unity in Anatolia was disrupted between the time of the collapse of the Anatolian Seljuk state at the beginning of the 14th century (1308) and the beginning of the 16th century, when each of the region in the country fell under the domination of Beyliks (Principalities).

The Principalities were formed in the following regions: the Eshref Moğuls in Beyşehir (1328), the Karesioğuls in Balıkesir Bergama (1336), the Inancoğuls in Denizli (1368), the Hamidoğuls in Beyşehir (1328), Hamidoğuls in the Isparta–Antalya area (1391), the Aydınoğlus in the Aydın–Izmir area (1405), the Saruhanoğuls in Manisa (1410), the Menteşoğlus in Muğla area (1425), the Candaroğuls in Kastamonu (1461), the Dulkadiroğlus in the Maras area (1521), and the Ramazanoğlus in the Çukurova area (1608). The Osmanoğlus, who were to eventually destroy these Principalities and establish political unity in Anatolia, lived in the Eskişehir, Bilecik, and Bursa areas.

On the other hand, the area in central Anatolia east of the Ankara–Aksaray line as far as the area of Erzurum remained under the administration of the Ilhani General Governor until 1336. The infighting, which resulted upon the death of the Ilhan ruler Abu Sa’id Bahadur Khan in 1338, led to the complete independence of the principalities in Anatolia.

In addition to this, new Turkish principalities were formed in the locations previously under the Ilhan occupation. One of these was the Eretna Principality formed by the Uygur Turks at Eretna in the Kayseri–Sivas region. In the same area, another principality, the Turkmen Kadi Burhanettin State, was formed in the second part of the century. In this period, the Karakoyuns and the Akkoyuns started political activities in Eastern Anatolia.

Fig. 4. The Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 (painting from 1523).

During the 14th century, the Turkmens, who made up the western Turks, reestablished their previous political sovereignty in the Islamic world.

Rapid developments in the Turkish language and culture took place during the time of the Anatolian Principalities. In this period, the Turkish language started being used in sciences and literature and became the official language of the Principalities. New medreses were established and progress was made in the medical area during this period. Gülşehri, Nesimi (d. 1404), and Ahmedi (1335–1412) were the prominent Turkish language poets of the 15th century.

In the cities, the Turkish communities composed of villagers and Turkmen migrants started to form guilds among the more populous craftsmen, calling themselves “Ahi.” These guilds pioneered the urban development.


The Ottoman Principality was founded by a Turkmen tribe living on the Turkish–Byzantine border. The geographic location of the principality and the weak state of Byzantines converged to make the Ottoman principality the strongest state within the Islamic world by the 14th century.

When, in the year of 1402, Tamerlane defeated the forces of Yıldırım Beyazıt, the principalities, which had come under Ottoman sovereignty, all became independent. A unity between them was achieved again in the middle of the 15th century.

When Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquered the Byzantine capital in 1453, the Ottoman state became the strongest of the time. The tolerant approach taken by Fatih Sultan Mehmet towards other religions and towards the adherents thereof became a tradition adopted by his successors. Following the capture of Istanbul, the Orthodox Church was freed from obedience to the Catholic Church and granted its independence.

On the other hand, the technical superiority of the Ottoman army began to be evident; Selim the first (1512–1520) conquered the Safavid ruler Shah Ismail I (d. 1514) with such an army and thereby obliterated the Mameluke state in 1517. At the end of these battles, the Ottomans had added, in addition to the major part of east Anatolia, the lands considered holy in the Islamic world—Mecca and Medina—to their territories.

Fig. 5. Sipahis of the Ottoman Empire during the Battle of Vienna.

The brightest period of the Ottoman State was during the reign of Sultan Suleyman (1520–1566) when the boundaries of the Empire spread from the outskirts of Vienna to the Bay of Basra and from Crimea to an expanded northern part of Africa, as far as Ethiopia. The Ottoman Empire continued to acquire territory until the middle of the 17th century. In 1683, it suffered its first major loss with defeat in the siege of Vienna.

Fig. 6. Map of the Ottoman Empire dated 1654.

When the losses of land and defeats continued, the Ottoman Empire sought salvation in a series of reforming movements, copying the western institutions which had shown great improvements after the Renaissance. As a result, Mühendishâne-i Bahrî-i Hümâyun (the Imperial Naval Engineering School) was founded in 1773 and Mühendishâne-i Berrî-i Hümâyun (the Imperial School of Military Engineering) in 1795.

The declaration of the Tanzimat Reform movement in 1839 is considered a major link in the chain of the modernization events, which went on unabated staring in the beginning of the 17th century. The Tanzimat Reform period started with the reading on November 3, 1839, of the royal Tanzimat Decree by Mustafa Reşid Pasha in Gülhane Park in Istanbul. The Tanzimat Decree is considered to be a kind of constitution, giving Turkey the means for modernization.

The constitutions of the 19th century mostly contained provisions that limited the rights and powers of monarchs. The major point in the Tazminat Reform Decree, that of equality under the law, brought about the political unity in the Ottoman state based on equality under the law. Thanks to this policy, the salient point in the Islahat (Improvement) Decree of 1856 was egality before the law.

Later, the 1876 constitution contained the following provision: “All individuals who are citizens of the Ottoman State are considered Ottoman regardless of Religion or Sect.” The principle of equality before the law and its application in the Ottoman state resulted in the different ethnic groups within the Empire becoming equal with Muslims in every sense, and it is in this regard that the first steps toward the separation of religion and state affairs were taken. The statues of the increasingly public bodies started to shift away from the provisions of Islamic jurisprudence to that of civil codes. The principles inherent in the Tanzimat Reform Decree thereby laid the basis for the constitutional regime of modern Turkey and the realization of laicism.

Despite many internal problems and disturbances during the reign of Abdulaziz (1861–1876), who ascended to the throne after Abdülmecid, the effects of westernization in society became even more evident. This influence was apparent in the field of literature. Such words as Constitution, Parliament, etc., began to be used. The group known in history as the “Young Turks” was mainly responsible for this development. Namik Kemal, Ziya Pasha, Mustafa Fazil Pasha and his friends published the newspaper Hurriyet (Freedom) in London in 1864. The literary beginnings of the newspaper later gave way to political issues.

Although the first constitution was promulgated under the leadership of Midhat Pasha in 1876, Sultan Abdül Hamid II (1876–1909) used the Ottoman–Russian war (1877–78) as an excuse to dissolve the Parliament and effectively ended this constitutional period. This action of Abdül Hamid II paved the way for an organized opposition movement.

One of these organizations, the Ittihat ve Terakki (Union and Progress) Society compelled Sultan Abdül Hamid II to accede to a second constitutional government system. The Ittihat ve Terakki Society won the majority and entered Parliament in 1908 as a party. The subsequent wars of Tripoli (1911–12) and the Balkans (1912–13) were lost, and the Ottoman State entered the First World War in 1914 on the side of the allied powers.

Fig. 7. Coat of arms (1882–1923) of Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman State emerged defeated from the war, together with its allies, and was compelled to sign the Armistice of Mudros on October 30, 1918. According to the terms of the armistice, the states were to be occupied by the victors and opened to shipping; the Ottoman army was to be disbanded and any communication and transport handed over to the victors’ control. Moreover, among the terms of the armistice was a provision that the entente power might occupy areas deemed to be of strategic importance. According to these terms, the powers began occupying Anatolia on November 1, 1918.

The occupation spread out, and, on May 15, 1919, the Greeks occupied Izmir. A national resistance movement commenced. In many areas of the country, the Society for Defense of Rights (Müdâfaa-i Hukuk) sprang up, and the civic military arm, the National Forces Society (Kuva-yi Milliye), took action.

The resistance movement was, until Mustafa Kemal landed at Samsun, sporadic and disorganized; under his leadership, the resistance became cohesive. With its forces progressively turning into an organized army, the movement shifted into a full-scale war of independence. Upon its foundation on April 23, 1920, the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, a second parliament to conduct the war of independence outside the occupied Istanbul, came into existence.

When the decisive Battle of Dumlupınar on August 26, 1922, known in Turkey as the Field Battle of the Commander-in-Chief (Başkomutanlık Meydan Savaşı), ended with victory for the Turkish forces. Following the liberation of Izmir on September 9, 1922, the War of Independence finally ended in victory.

Fig. 8. Mustafa Kemal Pasha at Kocatepe Hill during the Battle of Dumlupınar on 26–30 August 1922.

On November 1, 1922, the Sultanate was abolished. The last Ottoman Sultan Vahdettin left Istanbul onboard a British warship on November 17, 1922. Abdül Mecid II was appointed the Caliph in his place.


On July 24, 1923, the Lausanne Peace Agreement was signed, and the Turkish Grand National Assembly announced on October 13, 1923, that Ankara was the new capital. On October 29, 1923, the Republic was proclaimed. On March 3, 1924, the Caliphate was abolished.

Following the foundation of the Republic, a series of reforms took place one after the other: through amendments to the civil code, women were given social rights and privileges, the Latin alphabet was adopted, and a secular state was formed.


  1. Turkey: An Official Handbook / The General Directorate of Press and Information. Ankara, 1990.





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