The Homeland of the Old Turks
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The Homeland of the Old Turks

Dr. Hamit Zübeyir Koşay

After the Turks came and settled in Central Asia during the Neolithic Era, they chose the steppe between the Ural and Altay Mountains as their homeland. The horse nomad culture was born and developed here. With herds of horses and sheep, the Turks migrated to the broad high meadows in the spring, and in the autumn descended into the dry valleys and especially to the river banks.  As they lived in tents and made their beds, covers and clothes themselves, they did not have difficulty in migrating. Their food consisted of wheat flour and oily baked goods, milk and milk products, horse meat and mutton, and kumiss, made from fermented mare’s milk. As there were few varieties of fruits and vegetables in the areas in which they lived, their foods may be thought simple, but as will be seen in the sections following, it was not at all thus. The names of several foods they made survive today in our language, in the Urals, Central Asia and Anatolia.

Before the Turkic Identity: The Huns

The first Turkic tribe to leave their name in history is the Huns. Their first known homeland was modern Mongolia; their name appears in Chinese historical documents as Hiung-nu.

The Hiung-Nus lived in the 8th century B.C. along the Yellow River (Hoang Ho), and posed a continually increasing threat to the Chinese. Around 300 B.C., the Chinese kings tried to stop their incursions by building great walls. It was the Chinese Emperor Si-Huang, who had the Great Wall of China built, as well as the first of the military routes. When he died in 210 B.C., the Huns had become very powerful, and the golden age of their Asian state had begun. One source mentions that in 209 B.C., the Hun chieftan Mao-Tun’s troops had whistling arrows. According to other sources, the Chinese Emperor Vu-Ling adopted the “Hun tribal dress” in 328-298 B.C. Riding trousers, boots and the fur cap entered China from the Huns. The highly civilized Chinese, in order to defend their homeland, built one of the seven wonders of the world, the Great Wall of China, stretching 12,000 kilometers from the Yellow Sea. The western end of this wall was located by Aurel Stein during his second voyage to Central Asia. The cross bow and arrow technique, invented around 500 B.C. by the Hun tribes living as hunters in the area of Lake Baikal, would be used centuries later by the Romans.

In the introduction of his book, which mentions the Huns as the forerunners of the Turks, Rasonyi emphasizes: “It has been suggested that the tribes of doubtful origin of the ancient era included the forefathers of the Turks. If these assumptions are accepted, then Turkish history is vast and glorious. Turks have no need to create an ancestry for themselves.”

In the 2nd century B.C., during the reign of Mao-Tun, the Hiung-Nus defeated a once powerful tribe, the Yüejis, and forced them toward the west. The Yüejı migration was the beginning of confusion in Central Asia. When the Yüejı king was killed in a second attack, his subjects fled to Zungaria in the Ili Valley in 160 B.C. When they were attacked by the Wu-Sun, allies of the Hiung-Nu, they headed to the southwest, toward Sung Diana, and in 100 B.C., to Baktua. In the 1st century A.D., the Hiung-Nu divided into two subtribes, one in the north and one in the south, and came under Chinese rule. Of course the Chinese took certain things from Turkish culture; and the Turks were influenced by the Chinese as well. There is no doubt that the White Huns, or Eftalites, who migrated from Central Asia to Europe spoke Turkish.

The migration of the great tribes began in 375, when the Western Huns crossed the Idil-Volga and proceeded westward. The fall of the Roman Empire meant the beginning of the Middle ages. The Hun emperor Atilla came to the gates of Rome. Rome could be destroyed at any moment. At the pleadings of Pope Leo and his consuls to spare the city, Atilla the “Barbarian Hun” showed respect for their cultural works, as opposed to Acarih of the Goths, who sacked Rome in 410, and Geiserik of the Vandals, who burned and demolished Rome in 453.

After the Great Hun Empire, the second Turkic Empire, the Gök Türk Hakanate, used the word “Turk” for the first time as an official state name, and united all of the Turkich cultures under its administration.

Classification of Turkic Languages

Before searching for the old Turkish food names in various Turkic languages, it would be helpful to provide a simple classification of these languages/dialects.

1. Oğuz Dialects. These dialects dominate the southernmost part of the Turkic homeland. The art works of the western Turks in the Orkon, Ongun and Talas river valleys, with their well-developed cuneiform inscriptions, belong to the Uygurs of the Tarım valley. Of comparable value with modern European works, these works have entered the ancient scripts of Buddhism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity, and history books around the world.

The Uygurs, the Turks to the west of the Caspian Sea, the Karluks, Turkmens, Azerbaijanis and the Turks of Turkey speak Oğuz Turkic dialects.

2. Kıpçak Dialects: The Kıpçaks, Kazakhs, Kırgız, Uzbeks, Başkırts, Kazan and other Tatars, the Medieval Peçeneks and the Kuns (Kumans) represent the Kıpçak dialects.

3. The area to the north of the Kıpçak Turks was domınated by the Ogur (Bulgars). The modern descendants of the On-Ogurs are the Çuvaş people, who live among the Ural Mountains.

The Yakut language, spoken in East Siberia, has developed in isolation from the other Turkic dialects.

Although the Oğuz and Kıpçak languages are spoken thousands of kilometers distant from one another, their structural similarities are striking. (On the other hand, the differences among the Prussian, Bavarian and Saxon languages within the narrow region of Germany cannot be compared with the closeness of the Turkic languages. The conclusion to be drawn from this: The Turkish nation and Turkish language comprises a single whole.)

The Divan-ı Lüğat-i Türk, written in Baghdad from 1069–1073 during the time of Kaşgarlı Mahmud’s Karahanlıs, gives the following food names: 

Aş, aşlık Kaşık, Yem,
Ayran Katık Yoğurt,
Arzuk Kımız, Yuvka(Yufka),
Bekmez Kuyma(Kuymak), Bulgama(bulama)
Kavurma, Çörek Kömeç,
Etmek (Ekmek) Şiş (Söğüş) Tutmaç,
Süzme (Bir çeşit peynir), Et, Epmek(Ekmek),
İçkü, Ugurt, Kagut(Kavut),
Yağ, Kakuk (Kak), Yarma.

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