The label, as a culture and a people, first appears in the tradition of the West in 6th c. A. D. and is derived from the Chinese, Tu – Kiu, which referred to a nomadic peoples which stretched over the Eurasian steppe from Mongolia to the Black Sea. These traveling nations formed a loosely confederated dominion bound together by an agglutinative language borne of the Ural-Altaic group. Linguistic markers tie this group’s prehistoric origins to the Ural Mountains of Eastern Russia and the Altai Range of Western Mongolia. These Asian Turks were as despised and feared by the Qin & Han Chinese (in the 3rd c. B.C.) in just the way their Mongol and Hungarian cousins would be by the Romans four centuries later. Qin Shihuangdi’s Great Wall was built for the express purpose of keeping the Central Asia Turks out of the realm of the Chinese dynastic provinces.

      Over the following centuries, varied tribes of the Turkish peoples migrated to more hospitable regions, where the previous populations they encountered bestowed them with names like the Uighurs (OO-gurs), Khazars or Oghuz (OO-gah). This last tribe, in particular, gained early notoriety in the 1st C. A.D. for their marauding capabilities : “On the black earth he pitched his white pavilion, his many – colored tents reared up to face the sky and in a thousand places his silken rugs were spread,” reads the Book of Dede Korkut, an early chronicle of the Oghuz Turk. Not quite the savage, vampiric brutes of early Greek descriptions, they displayed rather an early version of the chivalric, or cavalier culture which would emerge much later in medieval Europe. They prized horsemanship, archery and prowess in wrestling, but allowed all men and women to be trained in the manner best suited to them. They prized tents, carpets and riversides over settled hamlets and farming. 1

      Only when these Turkish tribes withdrew their attention from the borders of China and the Silk Road, and turned towards medieval Russian villages, did some conflation between the warrior tribes of that era begin. The Russians invented the word, Tatar or Tartar (notice the similarity to the Greek root , bar-bar) which lumped the Mongols of Genghis Khan and the Ural-Altaic Turks all in together – one big happy Golden Horde. In the end, it was the Mongol Dynasty which dominated Russia through the 13-14th c., which largely prevented an Russian equivalent of a Renaissance. 2 After the rise of Ivan the Terrible, northern Pan-Slavic Russia has tended to harbor deep antipathy towards both the southern Turkish and Eastern Mongolian peoples.

      By the late 10th century, one of the truly bleak spells of the Dark Ages, the entire mass began to move across Central Asia, and seemed to split and diverge around the Black Sea. The Finns and Magyars (Ural-Altaic cousins of the Turks) arrived in central and Northern Europe, but immediately integrated into the customs and manners of their new settlements. The cold climate, however, didn’t take with many, and masses of Turks broke off and moved south in the early 11th c., the Seljuks peoples moved into Anatolia. In 1071, they had their first confrontation with the Byzantine Greeks at the Battle of Manzikert – and the wholesale defeat of the Byzantines from Constantinople & the new perceived threat from the East triggered much of the European enthusiasm for the Crusades.

      The cultural and military rivalry of the Anatolian region lasted for the next four centuries, until another wave of Turkish peoples arrived out of Central Asia. The Seljuks gave little ground to Christendom, but the arrival of the Ottomans seems to have tipped the battle in their favor. By 1400, all of the Balkans was under Turkish control, none of the Christian military orders could stave off the tide. Constantinople fell in 1453, and its empire soon stretched from Vienna to Yemen, and from Morocco to Mesopotamia. Ottoman rule continued throughout most of the Eastern Mediterranean for another 450 years. Such was the European terror in the face of the Turkish threat that the likes of even Martin Luther (who’d made no bones about sticking it to the entire Catholic Church) prayed nightly for salvation from ‘the world, the flesh, the Turk and the Devil’. 3 There is some evidence that the push for European exploration in the 15th c. may have been partly in hopes of establishing an ‘escape route’ from Europe in the event the Turks engulfed the continent. With Istanbul as the new capital, the Ottoman military machine pushed onward, building a powerful navy 4 which began to pick of the islands of the Mediterranean one by one (Crete, Lesbos, Rhodes & Cyprus) while the Turkish armies moved through Central Europe, capturing Bucharest, Belgrade, Budapest and finally arriving at the gates of Vienna in 1529 (only Vienna stood, but the Turks returned again as late as 1683, only to be held off again). 5 For a time, the Ottomans controlled a vast empire, and it is said Suleiman the Magnificent (1520 – 66) had more than double the annual revenues of all Christendom, such as it was at that point. 6 However, by 1621, the feared janissaries were in revolt against the corruption of the sublime Porte (as the Ottoman sultanate was called) and the failure to capture Vienna had overstretched the Turkish armies.
1 The Oghuz seemed to have hit Transoxiana around 960 A.D. and threw northern Iran into chaos. In the early 11th c., the Seljuk Turks crossed the Oxus and settled. By 1243, they held most of Anatolia, calling their new territory the Sultanate of Rum. See J.M. Roberts, History of the World (London: Pelican, 1985), pp.360 – 362.
2 The fall of the ‘New Rome’, as Constantinople was called, hit Europeans pretty hard. Gibbon used it as the end point for his writings, Petrach blamed the lousy, schismatic Greeks, and the Venetians went into apoplectic grief, given how much economic interest they’d sunk into the city by that point. Ironically, it had been the Fourth Crusade, headed up by those wily Italians, which had sealed the fate of Byzantium and left them badly weakened before the Ottoman onslaught. See H.J. Muller’s The Uses of the Past (NY: Oxford, 1969) pp. 8 – 11, and John New The Renaissance & Reformation, 2nd. ed. (NY: Wiley & Sons, 1976), pp. 53 – 56
3 Robert D. Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth (NY : Random, 1996), pp. 137 – 141.
4 Apparently, it was precisely the captured dockyards and armories of the Italian merchants in Constantinople which enabled the Ottomans, in the space of a few decades, to dominate Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean trade – making the Genoese and Venetians some of the biggest backers of naval exploration anywhere in the world but the East. See The Muslim World on the Eve of Europe’s Expansion (Spectrum, 1966) , pp. 96 –98.
5 C. Northcote Parkinson, East and West (NY: Mentor, 1965), pp. 166 – 168.
6 R.N. Stromberg, History of Western Civilization (Dorsey, 1969), pp. 394 – 397.

Turk (?), n. [Per. Turk; probably of Tartar origin: cf. F. Turc.]


A member of any of numerous Tartar tribes of Central Asia, etc.; esp., one of the dominant race in Turkey.


A native or inhabitant of Turkey.


A Mohammedan; esp., one living in Turkey.

It is no good reason for a man's religion that he was born and brought up in it; for then a Turk would have as much reason to be a Turk as a Christian to be a Christian. Chillingworth.

4. Zool.

The plum weevil. See Curculio, and Plum weevil, under Plum.

Turk's cap. Bot. (a) Turk's-cap lily. See under Lily. (b) A tulip. (c) A plant of the genus Melocactus; Turk's head. See Melon cactus, under Melon. -- Turk's head. (a) Naut. A knot of turbanlike form worked on a rope with a piece of small line. R. H. Dana, Jr. (b) Bot. See Turk's cap (c) above. -- Turk's turban Bot., a plant of the genus Ranunculus; crowfoot.


© Webster 1913.

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