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Uyghur Empire

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Title: Uyghur Empire  
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Subject: Gnosticism, History of Kyrgyzstan, Manichaeism, Old Turkic alphabet, Turkic peoples, Gansu, History of the Khitans, Kyrgyzstan, Aksu, Xinjiang, List of state leaders in 747
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Uyghur Empire

Uyghur Khaganate


Capital Ordu Baliq
Religion Manicheism
Government Monarchy
Uyghur Khagans
 -  744–747 Qutlugh Bilge Köl
 -  841–847 Öge Khan
 -  Established 744
 -  Disestablished 848
 -  800[1] 3,100,000 km² (1,196,917 sq mi)

Part of a series on the
History of Mongolia
Ancient period
Xiongnu 209 BC – 155
Xianbei 93–234
Nirun 330–555
Göktürk 552–744
Uyghur 742–848
Kirghiz 539–1219
Khitan 916–1125
Medieval period
Khamag Mongol 1120–1206
Mongolian tribes 900s–1207
Mongol Empire 1206–1271
Yuan Dynasty 1271–1368
Northern Yuan 1368–1691
Zunghar 1635–1758
Qing rule
1636/91/1758– 1911
Modern period
National Revolution 1911
Mongolia (1911–21) 1911–1921
Occupation 1919–1921
People's Revolution 1921
People's Republic 1924–1992
Democratic Revolution 1990
Democratic Mongolia
Mongolia portal

The Uyghur Khaganate, or, Uyghur Empire or Uighur Khaganate or Toquz Oghuz Country (Mongolian: Уйгурын хаант улс, Tang era names, with modern Hanyu Pinyin: traditional Chinese: 回鶻; simplified Chinese: 回鹘; pinyin: Huíhú or traditional Chinese: 回紇; simplified Chinese: 回纥; pinyin: Huíhé) was a Turkic empire[2] that existed for about a century between the mid 8th and 9th centuries. They were a tribal confederation under the Orkhon Uyghur (回鶻) nobility, referred to by the Chinese as the Jiu Xing ("Nine Clans"), a calque of the name Toquz Oghuz.

The rise of Uyghurs in Mongolia

In 742, the Uyghur, Karluk, and Basmyl tribes rebelled against the ruling Göktürk Khaganate.[3] The Basmyls captured the Göktürk capital Ötügen and the Göktürk king Özmish Khan in 744, effectively taking charge of the region. However a Uyghur-Karluk alliance against the Basmyls was formed later the same year. The coalition defeated the Basmyls and beheaded their king. The Basmyl tribes were effectively destroyed; their people sold to the Chinese or distributed amongst the victors. The Uyghur leader became the khagan in Mongolia, and the Karluk leader the yabghu. This arrangement, however, lasted less than a year, as hostilities between the Uyghurs and Karluks forced the Karluks to migrate westward into the western Türk-Türgesh lands.[4]

The Uyghur leader was from the Yaghlakar clan (

In 747, the Qutlugh Bilge Köl Kaghan died, leaving his youngest son, Bayanchur Khan to reign as Khagan El etmish bilge ("State settled, wise"). After building a number of trading outposts with the Chinese, Bayanchur Khan used the profits to build the capital, Ordu Baliq ("City of Court"), and another city, Bai Baliq ("Rich City"), further up the Selenge River. The new khagan then embarked on a series of campaigns to bring all the steppe peoples under his banner. During this time the Empire vastly expanded, with Sekiz Oghuz, Qïrghïz, Qarluqs, Türgish, Toquz Tatars, Chiks and the remnants of the Basmïls coming under Uyghur rule.

The rebellion of An Lushan in the Tang empire in 755 forced the Chinese emperor Suzong to turn to Bayanchur Khan for assistance in 756. The khagan agreed, ordered his eldest son to provide military service to the Tang emperor, and helped to quell several rebellions, as well as to defeat an invading Tibetan army from the south and to take from rebels together with Tang forces both capitals, western Chang'An and eastern Luoyang. As a result, in 757 the Uyghurs received 20,000 rolls of silk as tribute from the Chinese. Bayanchur Khan was given the daughter of the Chinese Emperor to marry (princess Ninguo), while Emperor Suzong was given a Uyghur princess.

In 758, the Uyghurs turned their attentions to a rival steppe tribe to the north, the Kyrgyz. Bayanchur Khan destroyed several of their trading outposts before slaughtering a Kyrgyz army and executing their Khan. In 759, Bayanchur Khan died after drinking heavily at a celebration. His son Tengri Bögü succeeded him as Khagan Qutlugh Tarkhan sengün.

Golden Age

During the reign of Tengri Bögü the Uyghur Khaganate reached the height of its power.[3] In 762, with the help of Tengri Bögü, the Tang Emperor Daizong finally quelled the An Lushan rebellion (then under the leadership of Shi Chaoyi), and the eastern capital Luoyang was recaptured. A Treaty of Peace and Alliance was concluded with the Tang, which had the obligation to pay 40 rolls of silk to the Uyghur Empire in exchange for every horse brought by the Uyghurs; also, Uyghurs living in Tang China were all considered as "guests" and freed from payment of any taxes and accommodation costs.

Khagan Tengri Bögü met with Manichaean priests from Iran while on campaign and was converted to Manicheism, adopting it as the official religion of the Uyghur Empire in 763. One effect of this conversion was the increased influence of the Sogdians in the Uyghur court. In 779 Tengri Bögü, incited by his Sogdian advisers, planned an invasion of China to take advantage of the accession of a new Emperor, Dezong. However, Tengri Bögü's uncle, Tun Bagha Tarkhan, opposed this plan: "Tun Bagha became annoyed and attacked and killed him and, at the same time, massacred nearly two thousand people from among the kaghan's family, his clique and the Sogdians.[6] The rebellion was supposedly sponsored by the Tang Ambassador to the Uyghur Empire. Tun Bagha Tarkhan ascended the throne with the title Alp Qutlugh Bilge ("Victorious, glorious, wise") and enforced a new set of laws, which he designed to secure the unity of the khaganate. He also moved against the Kyrgyz once more, finally bringing them under the control of the Uyghur Khaganate.

Relationship with the Sogdians

In order to control trade along the Silk Road, the Uyghurs established a trading relationship with the Sogdian merchants who controlled the oases of Turkestan. As described above, the Uyghur adoption of Manichaeism was one aspect of this relationship—choosing Manichaeism over Buddhism may have been motivated by a desire to show independence from Tang influence.[7] It must be noted that not all Uyghurs supported conversion—an inscription at Karabalghasun states that Manichaens tried to divert people from their ancient shamanistic beliefs.[8] A rather partisan account from a Uyghur-Manichaen text of that period demonstrates the unbridled enthusiasm of the khaghan for Manichaeism:

At that time when the divine Bogu Khan had thus spoken, we the Elects of all the people living within the land rejoiced. It is impossible to describe this ourjoy. The people told the story to one another and rejoiced. At that time, groups of thousands and tens of thousands assembled and with pastimes of all sorts they entertained themselves even unto dawn. And at the break of the day they made a short fast. The divine ruler Bogu Khan and all the elects of his retinue mounted on horses, and all the princes and the princesses led by those of high repute, the big and the small, the whole people, amidst great rejoicing proceeded to the gate of the city. And when the divine ruler had entered the city, he put the crown on his head... and sat upon the golden throne[8]..
— Uyghur-Manichaen text.

As conversion was based on political and economic concerns regarding trade with the Sogdians, it was driven by the rulers and often encountered resistance in lower societal strata. Furthermore, as the khaghan's political power depended on his ability to provide economically for his subjects, "alliance with the Sogdians through adopting their religion was an important way of securing this objective."[7] Both the Sogdians and the Uyghurs benefited enormously from this alliance. The Sogdians enabled the Uyghurs to trade in the Western Regions and exchange silk from China for other goods. For the Sogdians it provided their Chinese trading communities with Uyghur protection. The 5th and 6th centuries saw a large emigration of Sogdians to China. The Sogdians were main traders along the Silk Roads, and China was always their biggest market. Among the paper clothing found in the Astana cemetery near Turfan is a list of taxes paid on caravan trade in the Gaochang kingdom in the 620s. The text is incomplete, but out of the 35 commercial operations it lists, 29 involve a Sogdian trader.[9] Ultimately both rulers of nomadic origin and sedentary states recognized the importance of merchants like the Sogdians and made alliances to further their own agendas in controlling the Silk Roads.


The Uyghurs created a highly civilised empire with clear Iranian influences, particularly in areas of government.[10] Soon after the empire was founded, they emulated sedentary states by establishing a permanent, settled capital, Karabalghasun (Ordu-Baliq), built on the site of the former Göktürk imperial capital, northeast of the later Mongol capital, Karakorum. The city was a fully fortified commercial center, typical along the Silk Road, with concentric walls and lookout towers, stables, military and commercial stores, and administrative buildings. Certain areas of the town were allotted for trade and handcrafts, while in the center of the town were palaces and temples, including a monastery. The palace had fortified walls and two main gates, as well as moats filled with water and watchtowers.

The khaghan maintained his court there and decided the policies of the empire. With no fixed settlement, the Xiongnu had been limited in their acquisition of Chinese goods to what they could carry. As stated by Thomas Barfield, "the more goods a nomadic society acquired the less mobility it had, hence, at some point, one was more vulnerable trying to protect a rich treasure house by moving it than by fortifying it."[10] By building a fixed city, the Uyghurs created a protected storage space for trade goods from China. They could hold a stable, fixed court, receive traders, and effectively cement their central role in Silk Road exchange.[10] However, the vulnerability that came with having a fixed city was to be the downfall of the Uyghurs.[7]

Decline and collapse

After the death of Tun Bagha Tarkhan death in 789, the power of the Uyghur Empire declined, and the empire started to fragment. The Tibetans took the area of Beshbalik, and the Karluks captured Fu-tu valley, which brought considerable fear to the Uyghur people.[11] In 795, the khagan bearing the title Qutlugh Bilge died, and the Yaghlakar dynasty came to an end. A general named Qutlugh declared himself the new khagan, under the title Tängridä ülüg bulmïsh alp kutlugh ulugh bilgä kaghan ("Greatly born in moon heaven, victorious, glorious, great and wise Kaghan"),[3] founding a new dynasty, the Ediz (Chinese: A-tieh). With solid leadership once more, the Khaganate averted collapse. Qutlugh became renowned for his leadership and management of the empire. Although he consolidated the empire, he failed to restore its previous power. On his death in 808, the empire began to fragment once again. He was succeeded by his son, who went on to improve trade in inner Asia. The name of the last great khagan of the Empire is unknown, though he bore the title Kün tengride ülüg bulmïsh alp küchlüg bilge ("Greatly born in sun heaven, victorious, strong and wise"). His achievements included improved trade up with the region of Sogdiana, and on the battlefield he repulsed a force of invading Tibetans in 821. This khagan died in 824 and was succeeded by a brother, Qasar, who was murdered in 832, inaugurating a period of anarchy. In 839 the legitimate khagan was forced to commit suicide, and a usurping minister named Kürebir seized the throne with the help of 20,000 invited horsemen of Shato from Ordos. In the same year there was a famine and an epidemic, with a particularly severe winter that killed much of the livestock the Uyghur economy was based on.[12]

The following spring, in 840, one of nine Uyghur ministers, Kulug Bagha, rival of Kurebir, fled to the Kyrgyz tribe and invited them to invade from the north. With a force of around 80,000 horsemen, they sacked the Uyghur capital at Ordu Baliq, razing it to the ground. The Kyrgyz captured the Uyghur Khagan, Kürebir (Hesa), and promptly beheaded him. They went on to destroy other cities throughout the Uyghur empire, burning them to the ground. The last legitimate khagan, Öge, was assassinated in 847, having spent his six-year reign fighting the Kyrgyz, the supporters of his rival Ormïzt, a brother of Kürebir, and Tang China boundary troops in Ordos and Shaanxi, which he invaded in 841. The Kyrgyz invasion destroyed the Uyghur Empire, causing a diaspora of Uyghur people across Central Asia.


After the fall of the empire, two kingdoms, Yugor (848–1036) in Gansu, and the Kingdom of Qocho (856–1369) near Turpan, were formed by the Uyghurs who fled (southwest and west respectively) from the Yenisei Kyrgyz. The Uyghurs in Qocho (Kara-Khoja) converted to Buddhism, and according to Dīwānu l-Luġat al-Turk (Dictionary of Languages of the Turks) by Mahmud al-Kashgari, were "the strongest of the infidels". In 1209, The Kara-Khoja ruler Idiqut Barchuq declared his allegiance to Genghis Khan, and the Uyghurs became important civil servants in the later Mongol Empire, which adapted the Uyghur script as its official script.

According to Xin Tangshu, a third group went to seek refuge amongst the Karluks.[13] The Karluks, together with other tribes such as the Chigils and Yagmas, later founded the Kara-Khanid Khanate (940-1212). Some historians associate the Karakhanids with the Uyghurs as the Yaghmas were linked to the Toquz Oghuz. Sultan Satuq Bughra Khan, believed to be a Yagma from Artush, converted to Islam and seized control of Kashgar.[14]

List of Uyghur Khagans

The following list is based on Denis Sinor, "The Uighur Empire of Mongolia," Studies in Medieval Inner Asia, Variorum, 1997, V: 1-25. Because of the complex and inconsistent Uyghur and Chinese titulatures, references to the rulers now typically include their number in the sequence, something further complicated by the non-inclusion of an unnamed ephemeral son of 4 between 5 and 6 in 790, and the inclusion of a spurious reign between 7 and 9.

  1. 744–747 Qutlugh bilge köl (K'u-li p'ei-lo)
  2. 747–759 El-etmish bilge (Bayan Chur, Mo yen ch'o), son of 1
  3. 759–779 Qutlugh tarqan sengün (Tengri Bögü, Teng-li Mou-yü), son of 2
  4. 779–789 Alp qutlugh bilge (Tun bagha tarkhan), son of 1
  5. 789–790 Ai tengride bulmïsh külüg bilge (To-lo-ssu), son of 4
  6. 790–795 Qutlugh bilge (A-ch'o), son of 5
  7. 795–808 Ai tengride ülüg bulmïsh alp qutlugh ulugh bilge (Qutlugh, Ku-tu-lu)
  8. 805–808 Ai tengride qut bulmïsh külüg bilge (spurious reign: tenure belongs to 7, name to 9)
  9. 808–821 Ai tengride qut bulmïsh külüg bilge (Pao-i), son of 7
  10. 821–824 Kün tengride ülüg bulmïsh alp küchlüg bilge (Ch'ung-te), son of 9
  11. 824–832 Ai tengride qut bulmïsh alp bilge (Qasar, Ko-sa), son of 9
  12. 832–839 Ai tengride qut bulmïsh alp külüg bilge (Hu), son of 10
  13. 839–840 Kürebir (Ho-sa), usurper
  14. 841–847 Öge, son of 9
  1. 744–747 Kutlug Bilge Köl Kagan
  2. 747–759 Bayan Çor
  3. 759–779 Bögü Kagan
  4. 779–789 Tun Baga Tarkan
  5. 789–790 Ay Tengride Kut Bulmış Külük Bilge Kagan
  6. 790–795 Kutluk Bilge Kagan
  7. 795–808 Ay Tengride Ülüg Bulmış Alp Ulug Kutlug Bilge Kagan
  8. 805–808 Ay Tengride Kut Bulmış Alp Külük Bilge Kagan
  9. 808–821 Ay Tengride Kut Bulmış Alp Bilge Kagan
  10. 821–824 Kün Tengride Ülüg Bulmış Alp Küçlüg Bilge Kagan
  11. 824–832 Alp Bilge Hasar Tigin Tengri Kagan
  12. 832–839 Alp Külüg Bilge Kagan
  13. 841–847 Üge Kagan

See also


Further reading

  • Mackerras, Colin, The Uighur Empire: According to the T'ang Dynastic Histories, A Study in Sino-Uighur Relations, 744-840. Publisher: Australian National University Press, 1972. 226 pages, ISBN 0-7081-0457-6
  • Jiu Tangshu (舊唐書) Chapter 195 (in Chinese)
  • Xin Tangshu (新唐書) here (most of part 1 and beginning of part 2).
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