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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

ONE SPRING DAY TOWARDS THE END OF THE COLD WAR, A TIME OF
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 old-fashioned
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
Samarkand.

 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.