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The Mongol Peoples: Window In History

We are generally familiar with the word ‘Mongoloid’ and who the Mongoloid peoples are who are living in East Asia, Northeast Asia, Central Asia and elsewhere. We also know that the ethnic groups in Manipur- Meiteis, the tribes- are Mongoloids by origin and race, and also the Manipuri Muslims are Indo-Mongoloids. I am concentrating here on the historical aspects of the Mongols, their origin, their racial peoples and by implication the neo-Mongols by virtue of mix-heritage.

Well to start with, the Mongols were once the greatest Empire Builder in the annals of history with their empire once extending from the Korean peninsula to the border of Germany in Europe, and at the same time, historians also attribute these Mongols as the least contributor to human civilization. Rather they destroyed populations, civilizations and prized architectural achievements wherever they rampaged and conquered. Russian Moscow perished and Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad was raged to the ground in 1258.

These Mongols came from the present country Mongolia lying between China and Russia with Ulan Bator as the capital, and by racial origin they are Mongolian and South Siberian tribes whose empire once included Central Asia, China, Korea, Russia and Persia. United under Chingiz (Genghis) Khan in 1206, they conquered China under his grandson Kublai Khan, who ruled as first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). They were not Muslims but when they came in contact with the Muslims in China and Central Asia, their Mongoloid peoples in those regions embraced Islam and the name ‘Khan’ also came down to the Muslims from them.

Now Mongols are known as Asian people, numbering about 6 million and distributed mainly in the Republic of Mongolia, the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China, and Kalmykia and the Buryat Republic of Russia. Traditionally the Mongols were a predominantly pastoral people, following their herds of horses, cattle, camels, and sheep on a seasonal round of pasturage, and, when encamped, living in felt-covered yurts. Shamanism was the traditional religion of the Mongols, but Buddhism was introduced in the 16th century; competition between the two produced Lamaism, a combination of both. The Mongols have a written language; the earliest extant work written in Mongolian dates from 1240. The origin of the Mongols is obscure other than the above mentioned, but it is believed that many of the Huns, who invaded Europe, as well as the Khitan, who founded a dynasty (916’“1125) in Northern China, may have been Mongols.

However, it was not until the early 13th century and the creation of the Mongol empire by Chingiz Khan that the numerous Mongol tribes, hitherto loosely confederated and constantly feuding, emerged in world history as a powerful and unified nation. The Yasa (Jasagh), or imperial code, was promulgated. It laid down the organizational lines of the Mongol nation, the administration of the army, and criminal, commercial, and civil codes of law. As administrators the Mongols employed many Uigurs, whose script they adopted. From their capital at Karakorum the Mongol hordes swept west into Europe and East into China, and by circa 1260 the sons of Chingiz Khan ruled a far-flung Eurasian empire that was divided into four khanates. They were the Great Khanate, which comprised all of China and most of East Asia (including Korea) and which under Kublai Khan came to be known as the Ya¼an dynasty; the Chaghtai (Jagatai) khanate in Turkistan; the Kipchack khanate, or the Empire of the Golden Horde, founded by Batu Khan in Russia; and a khanate in Persia.

Actually, the Mongol hordes (particularly those who conquered Russia and penetrated as far as Hungary and Germany) included large elements of Turkic peoples; they came to be known collectively as Tatars who are today the Turkic speaking Muslim peoples residing mostly in Russia and Central Asia. Timur, who conquered most of the Chaghtai khanate in the 14th century and founded a new empire, had descent from Chingiz Khan, as did Babur, who in the 16th century founded the Mughal (i.e., Mongol) empire in India. The Mongols completely lost China by 1382 and soon thereafter lapsed into relative obscurity.

Mongol Tatars

Tatars are Turkic-speaking peoples living primarily in Russia. They number about 5.5 million and are largely Sunni Muslims. The name is derived from Tata or Dada, a Mongolian tribe that inhabited present NE Mongolia in the 5th century. First used to describe the peoples that overran parts of Asia and Europe under Mongol leadership in the 13th century, it was later extended to include almost any Asian nomadic invader. Before the 1920s Russians had the name Tatar to know and designate the Azerbaijani Turks and several tribes of the Caucasus.

The Tatar Empire

The original Tatars probably came from East Central Asia or Central Siberia; unlike the Mongols, they spoke a Turkic language and were possibly akin to the Cumans or Kipchaks and the Pechenegs. They were nomads, moving across the vast Asian and Russian steppes with their families and their herds of cattle and sheep. After the conquests of the Mongol Chingiz Khan, the Mongol and Turkic elements merged, and the invaders became known in Europe as Tatars. The Mongol invasion led by Batu Khan into Hungary and Germany in 1241 is also known as the Tatar invasion.

After the wave of invasion receded eastward, the Tatars continued to dominate nearly all of Russia, the Ukraine, and Siberia. Because of the gorgeous tents of Batu Khan, his followers were known as the Golden Horde. The empire of the Golden Horde’”also known as the Kipchak Khanate’”controlled most of Russia either directly or through exacting tribute from the Russian princes. The Golden Horde adopted Islam as its religion in the 14th cent.

Disintegration of the Empire

Internal divisions, the expansion of Moscow, the invasion by Timur, and the appearance of the Ottoman Turks contributed to the disintegration of the Tatar Empire in the late 15th century. The independent Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, Sibir, and Crimea emerged. In the 16th century Russia conquered the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Sibir (Siberia); the Khans of Crimea became (1478) vassals of the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless Siberia long continued to be known as Tatary (Tartary) and the Crimean domains as Little Tartary. The Crimean Tatars continued to harass the Ukraine and Poland and to exact tribute from the czars of Russia; they raided Moscow in 1572.

The majority of the Tatars in Russia as Muslims had by that time reached a high degree of civilization. They were settled, skillful in agriculture and crafts, and had great centers of Muslim learning. Only minorities, such as the Nogais, who were subject to the Crimean Khans, remained nomadic. Tatar political leaders, administrators, and traders had a great influence on Russian history. Many Russian noble families were of partly Tatar origin. The social and military organization of the Muscovite state was influenced by the institutions of the Tatars, and many Russian customs are traceable to them.

Recent History

In 1783 the last Tatar state, Crimea, was annexed to Russia. The Nogais were gradually pushed eastward into the Caucasus by the Russian settlers. The Crimean Tatars themselves’”except for the large numbers that emigrated to Turkey at the time of the Russian conquest of Crimea and after the Crimean War’”remained in the Crimea until World War II and formed the basis of the Crimean Autonomous SSR, founded in 1921. It was dissolved in 1945, and all Crimean Tatars (about 200,000 in 1939) were exiled to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for alleged collaboration with the Germans. In 1956 they regained civil rights and since the late 1980s many have returned to Crimea. Following the disintegration of the USSR, leaders of Tatarstan began to press the Russian government for increased powers. In a 1992 referendum, over 61% of the voters supported a ‘sovereign’ Tatarstan.

Turkic Peoples

The world’s Turkic peoples, numbering perhaps 130 million people in all, are the diverse descendants of large groups of tribes people thought to have originated in Central Asia. The precise date of their initial expansion from their early homeland is unknown, but the first known Turkic state, that of the Gokturks (or Kokturks) is dated to the 6th century AD. Huns are also considered as one of the first Turkic tribes by some scholars.

Later Turkic peoples include the Karluks (mainly 8th century), Uighurs, Kirghiz, Oghuz (or Ghuz) Turks, and Turkmens. As these peoples were founding states in the area between Mongolia and Transoxiania, they came into contact with Muslim peoples and gradually adopted Islam. However, there were also (and still are) Turkic people belonging to different religions (Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Zoroastrians).

Turkic soldiers in the army of the Abbasid Caliphs emerged as de facto rulers of most of the Muslim Middle East (except Syria and Egypt), particularly after the 10th century. Oghuz and other tribes captured and dominated various countries under the leadership of the Seljuk dynasty and eventually captured the territories of the Abbasid dynasty and the Byzantine Empire.

Meanwhile, Kirghiz and Uighurs were struggling with each other and with the mighty Chinese Empire. Kirghiz people finally settled in the region that is now referred to as Kyrgyzstan. Tatar peoples settled in what is today southern Russia following the westward sweep of the Mongols under Chingiz Khan in the 13th century. Everywhere Turkic groups mixed to some extent with other local populations.

As the Seljuks declined after the Mongol invasion, the Ottoman Empire, which was dominated by Oghuz groups, emerged as a new important Turkic state which came to dominate not only the Middle East, but also southeastern Europe and parts of Southwestern Russia and Northern Africa. Meanwhile, other Turkic groups founded dynasties in Iran (Safavids) and northern India (the Mughal Empire).

The Ottoman Empire grew weaker in the face of repeated wars with Russia and Austria and the emergence of nationalist movements in the Balkans, and finally gave way after World War I to the present-day republic of Turkey.

Presently, the largest group of Turkic people is living in Turkey. Other major Turkic groups are living in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. Additionally, other Turkic people live in the Xinjiang region of China (Uighurs), Iran, Afghanistan (Uzbeks, Turkmens), Russia (Tatars, Yakuts), and Moldova (Gagauz). Turks also live in Cyprus and the Balkans.

*The article was written by Farooque Ahmed

*The author is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and hails from Manipur State, India

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