Göktürks (Turkish: 'Gök Türkler ) were a Turkic people of ancient Central Asia. Known in medieval Chinese sources as T'u küe (突厥 Tūjué), the Gök türkler under the leadership of Bumin Khan (d. 552) and his sons succeeded the Xiongnu as the main Turkic power in the region and took hold of the lucrative Silk Road trade.
The Gök türk rulers originated from the Ashina tribe, an Altaic people who lived in the northern corner of the area presently called Xinjiang. Under their leadership, the Göktürkler rapidly expanded to rule huge territories in north-western China, North Asia and Eastern Europe (as far west as the Crimea). They were the first Turkic tribe known to use the name "Turk" as a political name.
The name Tujue (like that of Ashina) appeared in Chinese sources relatively late, the first record being dated 542 meaning "strong" or "powerful". Kök-Türks is said to mean "Celestial Turks", but this is contested. Alternate meanings are "Blue Turks", and "Numerous Turks"; as kök meant both "sky" and "blue" in the Köktürk language, and a similar sounding word stands for "root". This is also consistent with "the cult of heavenly ordained rule" which was a pivotal element of the Altaic political culture before being imported to China. Similarly, the name of the ruling Ashina dynasty probably derives from the Khotanese Saka term for "deep blue", āšše(i)na. The name might also derive from a Tungusic tribe related to Aisin.
According to the ancient East Asian cosmology outlined in the theory of the Five Elements (五行 Wǔ-xíng), to which the Turks have also ascribed since ancient times, the color blue is a symbol representing the eastern direction, and it is associated with good omens. The Guardian Deity of the Eastern Direction is the Azure Dragon. Thus, it would not be surprising if the Göktürks had chosen to call themselves "Blue Turks" in the primary sense of "East Turks", with all the associated connotations of "first," "rising," "dawning," "auspicious," and so forth. Göktürk is pronounced ɡʲøkʲˈtʏɾk.
Having excelled both in battle and diplomacy Bumin declared himself Il-Qaghan ("great king of kings") of the new Göktürk empire at Otukan, the old Xiongnu capital, but died a year later. It was his son Mukhan who consolidated his conquests into an empire of global reach. Bumin's brother Istämi (d. 576) was titled yabghu of the west and collaborated with the Persian Sassanids to defeat and destroy the White Huns, who were allies of the Rouran. This war tightened the Ashina's grip of the Silk Road and drove the Avars into Europe.
Istämi's policy of western expansion brought the Turks into Eastern Europe. In 576 the Göktürks crossed the Cimmerian Bosporus into the Crimea. Five years later they laid siege to Tauric Chersonesus; their cavalry kept roaming the steppes of Crimea until 590. As for the southern borders, they were drawn south of the Oxus River, bringing the Ashina into conflict with their former allies, the Sassanids of Persia. Much of Bactria (including Balkh) remained a dependency of the Ashina until the end of the century.. In 588 they were under the walls of Herat but Bahram Chobin ably countered the invasion during the First Perso-Turkic War.
In the eastern part of their extensive dominions, the Göktürk Empire maintained close political ties with the Goguryeo Empire of Korea which controlled southern Manchuria and the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Giving gifts, providing military support, and free trade were some of the benefits of this close mutual alliance. Both rival states in north China paid large tributes to the Göktürks from 581.
The most serious contender was the Western Khan, Istämi's son Tardu, a violent and ambitious man who had already declared himself independent from the Qaghan after his father's death. He now titled himself as Qaghan, and led an army to the east to claim the seat of imperial power, Otukan.
In order to buttress his position, Ishbara of the Eastern Khanate applied to the Chinese Emperor Yangdi for protection. Tardu attacked Changan, the Sui capital, around 600, demanding from Emperor Yangdi to end his interference in the civil war. In retaliation, Chinese diplomacy successfully incited a revolt of Tardu's Tiele vassal tribes, which led to the end of Tardu's reign in 603. Among the dissident tribes were the Uyghur and Syr-Tardush.
The civil war left the empire divided into the eastern and western parts. The eastern part, still ruled from Ötüken, remained in the orbit of the Sui Empire and retained the name Göktürk. The khans Shipi (609-19) and Khieli (620-30) of the East attacked China at its weakest moment during the transition between the Sui and Tang dynasties. All in all, 67 incursions on Chinese territories were recorded. Khieli was brought down by a revolt of his Tiele vassal tribes (626-630), allied with Emperor Taizong of Tang. This tribal alliance figures in Chinese records as the Huihe (Uyghur). After the Khan was taken prisoner, the Tang dynasty had his empire divided into protectorates.
The Western khans Shekuei and Tung Yabğu constructed an alliance with the Byzantine Empire against the Persian Sassanids and succeeded in restoring the southern borders along the Tarim and Oxus rivers. Their capital was Suyab in the Chui River valley, about 60 km east of modern Tokmok. In 627 Tung Yabğu, assisted by the Khazars and Emperor Heraclius, launched a massive invasion of Transcaucasia which culminated in the taking of Derbent and Tbilisi (see the Third Perso-Turkic War for details). In April 630 Tung's deputy Buri-sad sent the Göktürk cavalry to invade Armenia, where his general Chorpan Tarkhan succeeded in routing a large Persian force. Tung Yabğu's murder in 630 forced the Göktürks to evacuate Transcaucasia.
The Western Turkic Khaganate was modernized through an administrative reform of Ishbara-Qağan (reigned 634-639) and came to be known as the Onoq. The name refers to "ten arrows" that were granted by the khagan to five leaders (shads) of its two constituent tribal confederations, Tulu and Nushipi, whose lands were divided by the Chui River. The division fostered the growth of separatist tendencies, and soon the Bulgarian tribes under the Dulo chieftain Kubrat seceded from the khaganate. In 657, the eastern part of the khaganate was overrun by the Tang general Su Ding Fang, while the central part had emerged as the independent khaganate of Khazaria, led by a branch of the Ashina dynasty.
In 659 the Tang Emperor of China could claim to rule the entire Silk Road as far as Po-sse (Persia). The Turks now carried Chinese titles and fought by their side in their wars. The era spanning from 659-681 was characterized by numerous independent rulers - weak, divided, and engaged in constant petty wars. In the east, the Uyghurs defeated their one-time allies the Syr-Tardush, while in the west the Turgesh emerged as successors to the Onoq.
Despite all the setbacks, Ilteriş Şad (Idat) and his brother Bäkçor Qapağan Khan (Mo-ch'o) succeeded in reestablishing the Khanate. In 681 they revolted against Tang Dynasty Chinese domination and, over the following decades, steadily gained control of the steppes beyond the Great Wall of China. By 705, they had expanded as far south as Samarkand and threatened the Arab control of Transoxiana. The Göktürks clashed with the Umayyad Califate in a series of battles (712-713) but, again, the Arabs emerged as victors.
Following the Ashina tradition, the power of the Second Empire was centered on Ötükän (the upper reaches of the Orkhon River). This polity was described by historians as "the joint enterprise of the Ashina clan and the Soghdians, with large numbers of Chinese bureaucrats being involved as well". The son of Ilteriş, Bilge, was also a strong leader, the one whose deeds were recorded in the Orkhon inscriptions. After his death in 734 the empire declined. The Göktürks ultimately fell victim to a series of internal crises and renewed Chinese campaigns.
When Kutluk Khan of the Uyghurs allied himself with the Karluks and Basmyls, the power of the Göktürks was very much on the wane. In 744 Kutluk seized Ötükän and beheaded the last Göktürk khagan Özmish Khan, whose head was sent to the Tang Dynasty Chinese court. In a space of few years, the Uyghurs gained mastery of Inner Asia and established the Uyghur Khaganate.