Uygurs in China I

Sons cover thumbnailThe first of four Uygur-related extracts from my book on the Turks and the Turkic world.

Hugh Pope, SONS OF THE CONQUERORS: The Rise of the Turkic World, pp. 13-19


God Most High caused the Sun of Fortune to rise in the

Zodiac of the Turks; he called them ‘Turk’ and made them

Kings of the Age. Every man of reason must attach himself to

them, or else expose himself to their falling arrows.

—MAHMUT OF KASHGAR, author of the

first Turkish encyclopedia, 11th century


surprises, my teleprinter shuddered into action at the Istanbul bureau of

Reuters news agency. A colleague in Beijing was sending a message:

members of an ethnic group called the Uygurs, of whom I had never

heard, were demonstrating in the streets of Urumqi, capital of the

northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang. The protesters were

denouncing the communist leadership in Beijing and chanting the name

of an exiled leader said to be living in Turkey, a man named “Isa.” My colleague

had a simple and urgent request: Could I track Isa down?

The strangeness of the message took a few moments to sink in: thousands

of miles from Turkey, in a place I believed to be firmly within the

pale of a monolithic China, demonstrators were risking their lives to

honor the name of a Turk. A quick check revealed that the Uygurs are a

people known as Turkic, an adjective also then unfamiliar to me. I lived

in Turkey, and its inhabitants were until then the only Turks or Turkic

people I knew of. It took several phone calls to lesser-known Turkish

journals and exile associations to track down Isa, the Uygur activist, to

an outer suburb of Istanbul by the Marmara Sea. His family name was

Alptekin, and when he opened the door to his modest apartment, I took

my first step into this new world. Then 87, the tall, dignified Alptekin

had, forty years earlier, led an explicitly Turkic nationalist uprising

against Chinese rule in Xinjiang. His Republic of Eastern Turkestan last-

ed just 14 months. The nearly-blind old gentleman impressed me not

only with his elegant bearing and sharpness of mind, but also by the oldfashioned

language he spoke. Certain turns of phrase hinted at a religious

education in Arabic. Others sounded strangely familiar, a living

echo of the Central Asian ancestors of the Turks of Turkey among whom

I lived.

It was 1989. The Soviet Union was showing its age, protests were

gathering pace in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall would

soon fall. Cold War-era Turkey was an isolated, lonely place, despite its

loyal membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It was

shunned by co-religionists in the Islamic world for its alliance with the

Christian West, at daggers drawn with its neighbors Greece and Cyprus

and cut off to the north by a whole third of the iron curtain between

NATO and the Warsaw Pact. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991,

all the political boundaries would be redrawn from Albania to the China

Sea. What I did not realize, like many at the time, was that this broad

buffer zone where Europe meets Asia was mostly straddled by Turkic

populations. As a century of restrictions fell away, Turkey suddenly felt

at the center of something, a more exciting and international place to be.

I was hooked, fascinated by this new dimension of the country where I

had chosen to live.

My conversation lasted all afternoon with Alptekin. But it was not

until ten years later that I found my way to his birthplace in Yengisar, on

the edge of the Taklamakan desert in northwestern China, nearly 2500

miles away from where we had talked. By then much had changed. For

one thing, Alptekin himself was dead. But he would not be forgotten; in

the intervening years, the Turks of Turkey became conscious of a new,

wider national identity, shared with more than a dozen Turkic peoples.

They rediscovered Alptekin and his history. A park was named after him

in the historic heart of Istanbul, next to the old Byzantine hippodrome.

When China officiously objected to this honor to a “separatist,” municipalities

all over the country named streets, bridges and monuments in

his honor.

By the time I reached Alptekin’s Uygurs in China I had spent a

decade criss-crossing the Turkic states and communities that emerged

from the break-up of the Soviet Union. It was my good fortune to experience

at first hand the breaking down of the frontiers that had divided

the Turkic peoples among the West, Russia, China and the Middle East.

Numerous journeys to the booming new capitals and remoter deserts of

Central Asia convinced me that from such roots a wider new Turkic consciousness

is putting up shoots. I listened as Turkic dialects once relegated

to second-class status became state languages, now confidently

dominant on the streets of Baku, Ashgabat and Tashkent.

Unlike their fellow Muslims, the Arabs, the Turkic peoples are lucky

that their interests have largely coincided with the policies of the United

States. Washington made its opening move quickly in February 1992,

when U.S. military flights were allowed for the first time over the airspace

of the former Soviet Union. I was one of a few journalists invited

to join for an inaugural American aid flight from Ankara, over the

Caucasus, the Caspian Sea and then to Tajikistan in the heart of Central

Asia. The U.S. had deliberately routed the flights of this “Operation

Provide Hope” through the Turkish capital in order to underline its wish

that the new states follow the Turkish model of secular government, pro-

Americanism and a market economy. Our plane bore a 26-ton gift of

medicine from Japan, raisins, sugar and cigarettes from Turkey and supplies

of cookies, pasta and vanilla puddings from the U.S. This token

offering was hardly likely to save the ailing and wary Central Asian

republic of Tajikistan where we landed. But aboard the plane’s flight

deck we all knew we were entering a new era, as the enthusiastic,

Russian-accented voices of air-traffic controllers crackled over the radio

to welcome our plane to long-forbidden airspace over Baku, Bokhara and


These enlightened U.S. moves were mostly about preventing post-

Cold War chaos. But the U.S. also single-mindedly led Western nations

in pushing for access to the oil and gas of the Caspian basin—estimates

of proven reserves start at the equivalent of the Gulf of Mexico or the

North Sea—and to develop a strategic Turkic buffer zone between

Russia, China and Iran through which that oil and gas could flow to

Western markets. The European Union, with its own vision of opening

up new markets, offered a program of loans to replace the old Moscowcentric

lines of communication with east-west transit routes. Governments,

companies and international organizations began to treat parts or

all of the Turkic-speaking world as a coherent region of operations, if not

yet a strategically important bloc. And the need to export energy resources

to markets in the West may soon force more cooperation among the

often rival Turkic regimes themselves.

The longer I studied the Turkic peoples, the harder it was to account

for the fact that they had been overlooked for so long. Together, they

constitute one of the world’s ten largest linguistic families, numbering

more than 140 million people scattered through more than 20 modern

states in a great crescent across the Eurasian continents, starting at the

Great Wall of China, through Central Asia, the Caucasus, Iran, Turkey,

the Balkans, Europe and even a fledgling community in the United

States. The Turkish spoken by its biggest and most developed member,

Turkey, is widely spoken by significant ethnic minorities in European

states like France, Britain, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Russia

and Romania. They are most prominent in Europe’s most powerful state,

Germany, where Turkish can be heard on every other street corner of the

capital, Berlin. Having brushed against the language in my undergraduate

days at Oxford and having spoken it for nearly two decades, I found

that whether buying a carpet in a bazaar in Iraqi Kurdistan, interviewing

Kosovar refugees high in the mountains of Albania, or discovering a

common language at a conference in Tashkent, fluency in Turkish

offered an invaluable introduction to an exclusive and unusual club. As

a major in the British Army wrote to a fellow officer in 1835, while he

traveled near Merv in modern-day Turkmenistan: “A knowledge of

Persian will aid a traveler in these countries; but the Toorkey [Turkish]

is of infinitely greater consequence.”

The 19th century rise of the West now obscures the historic

prowess of Turkish dynasties, which dominated the Balkans, Middle

East and Central Asia for most of the past millennium. The extraordinary

scope of their success in history inspired me to name this book

evlad-ı fatihan, or sons of the conquerors, an honorific the Turks use for

the colonizer descendants of the Turkic nomad armies who forged one

of the greatest Turkic states, the Ottoman Empire. Turkish historians

trace this tradition back to the ancient armies of the Huns. Arab caliphs

hired tough Turk fighters as mercenaries for the armies of Islam from

the 7th century onwards, and soon afterwards Turkic warriors became

the military backbone of the Muslim world. From the tenth through the

fourteenth centuries, Turco-Mongolian horseback fighters and their

families spread westwards across the Middle East under conquerors

such as the Seljuks, Mamluks, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Then

came the Ottoman dynasty, Turkic raiders who captured Constantinople

in 1453 and who, within a century, had completed their conquest

of the Balkans and marched on to seize the holy cities of Mecca

and Medina, Egypt and most of Arabia. The Ottomans proclaimed

themselves caliphs of the Sunni Muslim world and spread Turkic settlers

far and wide. They ruled over this vast empire for five centuries.

Few people today realize that many other conquerors who seized the

thrones of Iran and India—Mahmud of Gazna, the Safavids, Nadir

Shah, the Qajars, the Moguls—were also of Turkic stock.

Turkic-populated lands have not drawn intense Western interest

since the time they were a chessboard for the rivalries of 19th century

empires. Turkic dominance had turned to weakness and defeat.

Diplomats and monarchs debated the “Eastern Question,” which

focused on whether the Ottoman Empire should be kept on life support

as “the sick man of Europe” or carved up. Moscow and London played a

“Great Game” for power and control over the Caucasus and Central

Asia. In today’s new Great Game, however, the major players and forces

have changed. The U.S., a newcomer, is at the height of its power, and

long-distracted China is now pushing forward. Formerly dominant

Russia is still influential, and Great Britain, once so strong, is marginal.

But another big change is that the Turkic actors, although still weak, are

back in the game, and have to be taken into account. As the U.S. discovered

in the Iraq war in 2003, the Turks cannot be taken for granted.

And the Turkic world stretches like a long bow over what the Pentagon

now describes as “arcs of instability,” its new strategic worry in the post-

Sept 11 world. “We will have to be out acting in the world in places that

are very unfamiliar to us,” a senior Pentagon planner told a colleague at

my newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, in 2003. “We will have to make

them familiar.”

This book is the fruit of more than a decade of travel through the

lands of the Turkic-speaking peoples, including extended expeditions

along the ancient tracks that became known in the 19th century as the

Silk Road. I visited communities in a belt of Turkic speakers which, if

one accepts evidence of a Turkic link to the native Indians of America,

literally girdles the globe. They took me from the edge of the Taklamakan

desert in China’s “Wild West” province of Xinjiang to mosques alongside

Dutch canals leading to the North Sea and onward to the Appalachian

Mountains in the western United States. I took many flights, of course,

but I also crossed all their borders in Eurasia overland. I returned to several

places repeatedly and was able to observe dramatic changes. I have

steamed across the Caspian Sea both ways by ship and paid no less than

four visits to the isolated Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan. I have

criss-crossed the Caucasus a dozen times by train, by bus and by car.

It was tempting to start my story in the east, following the great westward

movement of the Turks that started more than a millennium ago

and continues to this day. But having distilled my experiences from more

than 20 countries, of which a dozen merit extended treatment here, I

feared that a travelogue might prove confusing. Instead I have divided

my impressions into six sections that I believe reflect the collective qualities

of the Turkic peoples: their military vocation; their strong, quarrelling

leaders; their shared history and neighbors; their pragmatic experience

of the Muslim religion; their love-hate relationship with the West

over issues like oil, corruption and human rights; and their conviction

that the coming decades must bring better fortunes than the devastating

experiences of the 19th and 20th centuries.

My argument is that Turkic peoples can no longer be treated as marginal

players on the edge of Europe and the Middle East, or crushed

subjects of remote parts of the Russian and Chinese domains, or distant

allies taken for granted by the Europe Union and the United States.

They are becoming noteworthy peoples and prosperous states in their

own right, and are developing numerous new connections between each

other. I hope this book will give a broader context to those who know

Turkic peoples only in one guise: perhaps as minority immigrants in

Europe and America, as go-getting businessmen in Istanbul, as displaced

refugees in the Caucaus, as oil negotiators in Central Asia, or as dissident

rebels in China. I know of few other attempts to put the Turkic peoples

in the center of a narrative frame, and certainly none of this scope.

I believe it reflects the Turkic peoples’ attempts since the end of the

Cold War to set a course to a better future—sometimes breathtaking and

daring, often clumsy and controversial, but always with a passionate

determination to regain control of their fate.

  1. Hugh
    April 16, 2014 at 7:47 am

    Reblogged this on From the archive.

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