The Analytical Group of AzVision.az

The blooms of the ‘Back Garden’ of History | Long Read

// The Turkic contributions into the development of civilization remain underestimated

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here is a nation that world historiography has treated very unfairly. They write it off calling its past merely ‘nomadic’ and claiming it has contributed nothing to the development of humanity. They deny the great offerings this nation has made to the development of civilization saying ‘culture cannot be created on horseback’ or ‘science cannot be developed in the steppes’. This injustice has been continuing for many years. The time has come for the situation to change and for the world to recognize the Turks for who they truly are.

If no culture is built on horseback, then no state can be built on the back of a horse as well. You may capture and conquer, but not build. Therefore, a nation that has established 17 great empires and around 200 states, large and small, would not be able to consist of nomads ‘who lived their lives on horses’. There is no other nation on Earth that has built so many great states in history.

A world built on horseback

Let us simply respond to the ‘a life spent on horseback…’ remark. Most scientists believe that the Turks were the first to domesticate the horse. This might not be as important as the invention of the wheel, but still, it was a crucial breakthrough in the development of civilization. The domestication of the horse introduced mankind to the concept of speed. Everything – both movement and thought – was rather slow until then… In other words, humanity must feel obliged to Turks for taming speed.

‘Historians worldwide tend to speak more of Turks’ bellicosity and military prowess. Their intellectuality and scientific contributions are usually side-lined, whereas the Turkic literature, thinking and wisdom have played an exceptional role in universal civilization ’, says Roida Rzayeva, Doctor of Philosophy, head of the department at the Institute of Oriental Studies at Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, in her interview to AzVision.az.

Western historians insist on not wanting to understand that great conquests and empires established cannot be merely attributed to nomadism and brute force. Turks are often portrayed as destructive forces for civilizations. There are plenty of stereotypes of this ilk. Unfortunately, Turkic historians also fall into this trap at times, focusing on the bellicosity, strength, and bravery of their ancestors. All the while, we must not forget that warfare is an exceptionally complicated undertaking to organize.

‘Valour of the warriors is indeed an important component, albeit far from being the only one. A victory on the battlefield and conquering a country with impregnable fortresses require a disciplined and trained army, skillful and talented officers and tackling multiple issues of armament, supply, and communications. Diplomacy should offer support, or neutrality at the very least, of third countries. In other words, only powers with a highly effective public administration can wage wars. Turks have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to build such states across history and other countries have actively dipped into their experience’, Radik Temirgaliyev, Kazakhstani historian and a Board Member of the Scientific and Educational Fund ‘Aspandau’, explains in his talk with AzVision.

The historian says the political might of the Turkic states has always been based on economic prosperity. For example, the heyday of urban culture in Kazakhstan coincided with the reign of Turkic khaganates. The dramatic prominence of Khwarazm and the intensive development of urban civilization happened in the 11 th and 12 th centuries as the Turkic dynasty took the reins in the country.

If there were about 80 thousand people living in Constantinople in the mid-15 th century, the population grew to 700 thousand as the Ottomans conquered the city and renamed it Istanbul. That is, the Turks did not play the role of barbarians and destroyers in the universal historic arena, but that of creators, who gave a new impetus for the economic development of huge regions.

Turks have historically played a unifying role between civilizations. The Silk Road is the glorious witness

The Turkic states have played the role of a link between the East and the West for thousands of years, which is one of their exceptional services to the development of civilization. The trade along the Great Silk Road that stretched through Turkic lands was one of the factors that composed the economic base for Europe’s development until the era of great geographical discoveries.

A deeper layer of nomadism

Understanding Turks truly requires grasping the concept of ‘nomadism’. Nomadism does not imply that if our cattle finishes grazing one pasture, we will collect our goods and chattels and usher our herds elsewhere. As funny as it sounds, this is exactly how nomadism is often portrayed. Meanwhile, the nomadic lifestyle has a deep philosophy, which needs to be understood and felt.

The Turks found their formation in the Great Steppe, the very heart of Eurasia. It was the home to warlords and scientists who changed the course of history. The enormity of the Great Steppe challenges the man and calls him to gallop his horse towards to horizon, to never stop moving forward. There is a proverb that perfectly describes this style of life. ‘The grave of a Turk is on the crupper of his horse.’ 

The Great Steppe is the very heart of Eurasia

The role the Great Steppe played in the lives of Turks is greatly similar to what the Ocean meant for the development of European peoples later. It was the ocean of the Turk. The entire nation was shaped, and their outlook matured as they galloped towards the horizon, the unknown line where the earth met the sky. Horses played the same role for Turks as the ships meant for the Medieval development of European civilization.

The nomadic Turks radically influenced the formation of power institutions in sedentary agricultural societies. They introduced the convenience of domesticated animals into the economy of all peoples, who contacted them. They fundamentally changed the quality of their diets, increasing the role of proteins.

Russian turkologist Sergey Semenovich Kristioglo demonstrates in his article for AzVision.az that we should look into the Turkic runic inscriptions to truly understand the mysterious spirit of the nomadic civilization. Runes are elements of a special alphabet, but unlike ordinary letters, they not only have a communicative function but also served as carriers of sacred knowledge. Runes are an alphabet of both the mind and the soul. Turkic runes can be read both from left to right and right to left. Boasting ancient history, they undoubtedly laid the foundation and served as the role of first letters for subsequent Turkic writing.

Dinara Zhumabayeva, Vice President of Chingiz Aitmatov Issyk Kul Forum says in her videocast for AzVision.az that these skills of the Proto-Turks were revolutionary for the time.

Dinara Zhumabayeva: ‘Scientific and historical justice demands us to recognize the contribution of the Turks into the development of European civilization’

‘The true civilizational value of the time was not erecting some kind of pyramid or great wall, but the ability to organize large crowds of people into developed nomadic communities with an excellent understanding of the world around them. As a result, they were able to shape a moderately perfect and stable language earlier than other people. Being somewhere in the middle of Europe and Asia, nomads acted as a catalyst of sorts – a bridge, which connected various civilizations, cultures, and peoples’, Ms. Zhumabayeva emphasizes.

A world completely different from the traditional Western civilization is before us. The Turkic world has repeatedly altered the development vector of history with its actions and conquests. The first state symbols and signs, the very first political terms in the world appeared in the Steppe. Turks were the first to forge weapons from metal. Thus, we have every reason to say Turks have decisively influenced the creation and development of modern European and global culture.

Elnur Hasan Mikail, a Turkish historian and Head of the Department of Political Sciences and International Relations at Kars Kafkas University says in his column that Turks most developed and evolved as they settled around the Caspian Sea. The swelling and falling of the Caspian Sea level with a certain periodicity allowed Turks to build large states.

‘Wild’ democracy

The modern Eurocentric world, as a rule, considers democracy the fruit of Western political thought, whereas we clearly see its separate elements in ancient Turkic societies. For example, the Turks had adhered to the rule of law from ancient times, which manifested in the concept of ‘Tora’. While the Khagan’s power was absolute, he could not violate the rules set by the ‘Tora’. The Khagan’s power to ‘Tora – issue orders – was limited to another concept called the ‘toy’ – the ‘gurultay’ (congress). The Ancient Turks’ ‘toy’ can be considered the embryo of modern-day parliamentarism. These were established state relations that followed a strict protocol.

Namig Mammadov, turkologist, History PhD, and lead researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies at ANAS says in his videocast to AzVision.az that humanism was one of the main values of the ancient Turks. ‘If we pay closer attention to the society, they had shaped, one will see that there was no concept of class. People were not divided into classes as was the case during feudalism or capitalism which happened much later. They had no clerical cast. We, in general, do not see a ‘cast’ concept whatsoever. Everybody was equal. One of the functions of the ruler was to protect that concept of ‘equality’.

Namig Mammadov: ‘Turks have followed some principles of modern democracy since ancient times’

Throughout European history before Turks, that is during the Roman Empire, slaves were the foundation of the economic system of the society. These were oppressed rightless people, essentially not treated as human beings. Turks did not have a concept of slavery wherever they went. When they took over a territory, they demanded the local people obey them. However, the Turkic concept of obedience meant building a certain order. In worst-case scenarios, they taxed the local population. Those people carried on their habitual lifestyles. Turks treated the local people humanely. Moreover, the Turks even took it upon themselves to protect their new subordinates.

This political outlook, carried on the backs of Turkic horses, introduced a new economic and political formation in Europe. As the Turks arrived, slavery in Europe was replaced by a new system – feudal social relations – which was a giant leap compared to slavery.’

Guardians of Civilization

The Turks were introduced to Islamic culture in the 7th century. It was pretty natural, as the Islamic values greatly resonated with the cultural values that had been a part of the Turkic mentality. Turks were the main spreaders of Islam after the 8th century. They were the proponents of developing Islam in the Middle Ages and shaping it as a global religion.

We must mention a crucial nuance while talking about this. Europe turned a new page in history with the Renaissance of the 15th-16th centuries. The Middle Ages were replaced with a new era. Renaissance means awakening, resurrection. So, what is it that awoke and resurrected? It was the Pre-Christian European culture. That is the legacy of Ancient Greece and Rome.

As the Dark times dawned on Europe as Rome fell (officially called the Dark Ages in Western historiography), there was not a trace left of that scientific and cultural wealth. The number of manuscripts produced in Europe during the Dark Ages speaks volumes of this. Western Europe had virtually ceased producing and disseminating knowledge for some 600-700 years

As Europe was swallowed by darkness, the Turkic scholar had developed their classical heritage

But luckily for Europe, a new civilization emerged, greatly interested in the Greek and Roman heritage. As the young Arab caliphate rapidly expanded, it required developing sciences such as geometry, mathematics, astronomy, and geography to manage new territories. Meanwhile, developing Islam as a philosophical teaching and creating its own theological schools could not be based on the Bedouin culture. Therefore, they translated, researched, and studied the works of ancient Greek philosophers and built a new Islamic philosophy upon them. Thus, Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, and others started new lives in the Muslim East.

What followed next is more interesting. The Turks took over the Caliphate as of the 12th century, growing into a decisive power that stretched from China to Near East. They, too, continued developing the classical European heritage. When Europe finally woke up and started the Renaissance, it would relearn the ancient Greek and Roman heritage from the Muslim scholars. And most of them were Turks

It’s impossible to draw a line between the concepts of ‘Turkic Science’ and ‘Muslim Science’

Rather, the dividing line is not very clear, because at the time people identified themselves through religious affiliation, rather than the national one. There was the concept of a ‘Muslim Scientist’, not a Turkic one. Arabic was the language of science, Persian of literature, Turkic of everyday communication. This is exactly why, for instance, Iranian scholars still debate about which ethnicity Nizami belongs to. Although Mawlana, who had turned into a symbol of humanism through his knowledge and wisdom, openly said Aslen Türkest eğerçi Hindu guyem’ (Although I speak Persian, my origin is Turkic). It did not matter which language they chose to write.

If we abstracted away from these arguments and employed a broader approach, we could say that the Islamic civilization developed under the Turkic banner as of the 11th-12th centuries, which is impossible to deny. Therefore, the scientific and cultural development of the Islamic world since that period should also be considered the contribution of the Turks to global civilization.

The Turkic Galaxy of Science

Ravshan Nazarov, a senior research fellow at the Institute of State and Law under the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan confirms in an interview with AzVision.az that the list of eminent scientific and cultural Turkic personas is too extensive to cite. Therefore, he limits the scope by listing the outstanding personalities of his own region – Central Asia (see the full list in this article).

The 9th through 14th centuries were the ‘Islamic Renaissance’ (Golden Age) actively fuelled by the Turks. If we were to list specific names, we would need to fill several volumes. At the same time, we cannot but point out several key points.  

 The ancient Greek thinkers started mentioning the existence of the atom. It is true that the atom they were referring to (the tiniest particles that make up the world) does not coincide with the modern concept of the atom in today’s quantum mechanics. Nevertheless, the 8th-century Turkic thinker Jabir Ibn Hayyan (721-805, Anatolia) joined the discourse and pondered upon what would happen if the ‘smallest particle’ were to disintegrate. That was quite a bold and outstanding idea for the time!

He also disputed the division of nature into four elements of ‘fire, water, air and earth’ by the antic philosophy and proposed dividing it into ‘volatile substances’, ‘non-volatile substances’, ‘non-combustible substances’, and ‘minerals’. Of course, this classification would produce nothing but a smile from the modern chemistry standpoint but note that Jabir had understood at the time that gases were separate substances. This means Lavoisier had not arrived at this idea on his own but walked towards it ‘carried on the shoulders of the greats’ before him.

 It was typical of Turkic thinkers to debate ancient philosophers in absentia. Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973-1051) opposed Aristotle and Ptolemy’s ideas about the Earth, having understood that the world was spherical. He had even measured the surface of the Earth. His contributions to science are tremendous. 

Lunar eclipse explained in Al-Biruni’s works

Al-Biruni wrote in 973 that ‘scientific ideas must be proven through experiments.’ The term ‘proof’ until then referred to quoting classical works. European scholars would quote Aristotle on how many teeth a horse had but would not go out to count the teeth of horses in their own yards, as it was considered an unscientific method. We think al-Biruni’s greatest service was introducing pragmatism to science. Europe would learn these 5 - 6 centuries later.

 While trying to answer the question of ‘How do we see?’ Euclid and Ptolemy would say that hidden rays come out of human eyes, and return as they ricochet off objects. Abu Al-Wafa’ explained why this idea was wrong and clarified that light reflected from objects and reached our eyes and from there our brains. He was also the one who introduced the concepts of sine, cosine, tangent and cotangent into trigonometry. While we are on the topic, Galileo later benefited from the works of the ‘father of modern optics’ Ibn al-Haytham (Latinized as Alhazen) when he made the telescope.

 Al-Jazari, inventor from Diyarbakir, was the great mechanic and engineer of his time. In early 13th century, he not only made clocks, ciphered keys, even primitive mechanical robots, but also wrote books about it. His works show off early traces of cybernetics, long before Descartes and Leibniz.

 The genius son of Central Asia Khwarizmi (780-850) carried out an important reform to roar the science machine to life in his ‘House of Wisdom’ (approximate prototype of a modern academy) in Baghdad. Note that natural sciences developed within a confined space due to underdeveloped mathematics in ancient Greece and Rome, because after a certain point, growth in any branch of science requires mathematical apparatus. Mathematics needs a convenient counting system and numbers to evolve. It was impossible to build mathematics with Roman numerals. Who knows, the European renaissance might have been delayed for several more centuries, if Khwarizmi hadn’t solved this problem… He created the decimal number system by adding zero to Indian numbers, thus removing the obstacles in developing mathematics. One of the breakthroughs in the history of science is the translation of Khwarizmi’s Al-Jabr into Latin Al Gebra in the 12th century and its distribution in Europe.

Science owes its current evolution to Khwarizmi’s developments in algebra

 Head of the Samarkand Observatory Ali Qushji was sent to Istanbul for peace talks as a delegate from Aq Qoyunlu state. Fateh Sultan Mehmet was highly impressed by him and appointed him the head of Hagia Sophia Madrasa. His reforms introduced in the Ottoman education system brought up many names, later engraved in the history of science.

This fact demonstrates that Turkic civilization, science, and culture should be considered and talked about as one. If a scientist from modern-day Uzbekistan goes to today’s Turkey to represent modern-day Azerbaijan, it is impossible to draw a clear dividing line.

While working in Istanbul, Ali Qushji calculated the distance of several heavenly bodies from the Earth and the Earth’s axial tilt. He also drew a map of the Moon. One of the objects on the surface of the Moon is named after him.

Incidentally, the modern map of the surface of the Moon is an excellent exhibit, showcasing how much Turkic science flourished in its Golden Age. The map of the Moon contains the names of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Ulugh Beg, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Biruni, al-Farghani, al-Battani, ibn Qurra and many others.

 The Samarkand Observatory has overall had tremendous contributions to Turkic, Islamic, and global science. The Zij-I Ulugh Beg (Astronomical Tables of Ulugh Beg) by the grandson of Amir Timur, Ulugh Beg, comprised the most perfect astronomical measurements and observations of the time, becoming a great impetus for the development of celestial science in Europe.

 Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037) is one of the most celebrated Turkic-Muslim scientists in the West. His Al-Qanun Fi at-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine) was taught in European universities until the 19th century and called the ‘Bible of Medicine’.

We can fill thousands of pages by listing names and services as such. Therefore, it would be more prudent of us to stop here and return to the matter at hand.

The Injustice of Eurocentrism

The reality is such that the contributions of the Turkic civilization, conceived in the vast steppes of Eurasia, to world history have been as great as that of Chinese, Indian, European, and other civilizations. However, ‘the glorious history of the Turkic people has been side-lined into the backyards of world civilization due to Eurocentric approaches,’ says Yerkin Baydarov, Kazakhstani political scientist, and leading researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies under the Ministry of Education and Sciences of the Republic of Kazakhstan in his interview to AzVision.az. He adds that we now need to analyze history objectively and determine the true place and role of the Turkic people in global history, and we have all the means for that.

The main task for the scholars of Turkic states now should be consolidating efforts in changing the traditional patterns and unfair ideas about the place and role the Turks have played in global historiography. One of the traits of the Great Steppe spirit passed on to Turks is to never look back, focusing forward only, which is why we need to stop, study our past and promote it in order to move forward.

Portraying Turks as great warriors is only a tiny part of the reality. They have not only been combatants but have also created a superb military culture, which is a much bigger concept than merely being a soldier. Studying the military history and the army systems of the world requires looking deep into the history of Turks.

Turks are the protectors of culture and civilizations. They have historically not destroyed the local cultures of the lands they ruled, but preserved, appropriated, and distributed them. Turks have always played a central role in integrating civilizations. Just as the Silk Road connected China to Europe, the Turks will play the main role in connecting modern-day Europe to the East.

We must now promote and speak of these truths always and everywhere to understand and remember our history and gradually right the historical wrongs and misconceptions, caused by Eurocentrism. This is important for both the Turks and the world. Time has ripened to understand that human civilization is based not solely on the achievements of the West, but on the entire world, including Eurasia and the nation that arose at its very heart – the Turks. 

  17 January 2023    Read: 1425    Can be read: 5 min.

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