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Who are the Turks?

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Today’s Turks are descended from nomadic pastoralist Turkic tribal groups that originated in Siberia, China and Central Asia, went on to conquer the Anatolian landmass, and have subsequently intermarried on a large scale with the region’s already extremely heterogeneous population. Although historical records can trace them as a readily identifiable people as far back as the sixth century BC, only during the sixth century AD were they first recorded (by the Chinese) as “Tu-keh” or, to the west, Turks.

From around 1000 AD onwards, the Turks gradually migrated southwards and westwards. By the time they reached Anatolia, which would eventually become the heartland of the mighty Ottoman Turkish empire, most had converted to Islam. Turks still maintain ethnic, linguistic and cultural links with Turkic peoples in Central Asia, the Caucasus, northwest Iran, northern Iraq, southern Russia, and Xinjiang in western China.

Turkish, the official language of the modern Republic of Turkey, is neither Indo-European nor Semitic in origin, but Altaic, a language group that includes Japanese, Korean and Mongolian as well as the Turkic languages. Turkish Turks can still communicate with their ethnic and linguistic cousins in places like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, even if centuries of isolation from them, and the language reforms instituted by Atatürk in the early years of the Turkish Republic, make the task difficult. Nonetheless, Turks today still feel an affinity with their Turkic kin, and the Turkish government is the first to kick up a fuss at, for example, Chinese mistreatment of its Uigur Turkish minority.

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