An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Qaraqan Empires 黑汗 (Karakhans)

Oct 7, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

The empires of the Qaraqans (Karakhans, Qaraḫān, literally "Black Khans", Chinese transliteration Halahan 哈喇汗 or 哈拉汗, translation Heihan 黑汗), were founded by Türkic-speaking peoples and covered the western parts of the modern Autonomous Region of Xinjiang and the eastern parts of the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan. The Qaraqan empires flourished from the 10th century to 1211, when they were conquered by the Mongols 蒙古.

The dynasty is called the Qaraqanids (Karakhanids), while the own designation was simply "the Qaγans" (al-Khaġaniyya, or al-Khaniyya), as can be seen in the dictionary Dīwānu 'l-luġat at-Turk written by the contemporarian scholar Maḥmūd al-Kāšġarī from Kašgar (pre-Türkic name Shule 疏勒). While qara "black" was an epitheton of the supreme khan, the word ilik was used as a cognomen for sub-khans. This word was later used for the Mongolian Chingisid rulers of Persia, the Il-Khans.

There are unfortunately not a lot of historiographical sources about the history of the Qaraqans. The historian Jamal Qarshī, for instance, quotes from a History of Kašgar, and some information can be found in the book Tazkirat al-bughra, but these stories are often embellished with events belonging to the realm of fiction or are influenced by religious motifs. Coins from the Qaraqan empires also serve as historical sources, but the names of the rulers and their reign dates are often not clear.

It is commonly believed that the Qaraqans had their origin in the Türkic-speaking federation of the Qarluqs 葛邏祿, especially the Chigil 熾俟 and Yaγma 樣磨. Yet there were also some of the nine tribes of the Uyghurs 回鶻 living in the territory of the Qarluq, so that the ethnic origin of the Qaraqans is less than clear. On the other side, the terms bugra 卜格拉汗 and gongtuo 公駝汗, which were common designations of all khans, originated from the terminology used by the Yaγma. The Dīwānu 'l-luġat at-Turk, which is the first Uyghurian dictionary, only says that the Uyghurs lived in the region of Gaochang 高昌 and that they believed in Buddhism, but does not explain their relation to the Qaraqan dynasty.

According to legend, the founder of the Qaraqan empire was Külbilgä Qadir Khan 闕毗伽‧卡迪爾汗 who had converted to Islam. His federation was lead by a khan, a vice-khan and several sub-khans who commanded the chieftains of the various tribes. This federation soon disintegrated and was divided into an eastern empire ruled by the Great Khan himself from the city of Balashagun 八剌沙袞 (modern Tokmak, Kirgizstan), while the vice-khan reigned in Daluosi 怛邏斯 (Talas; modern Jiangbur, Kazakhstan). Sutuq Bughra Qara Khan 'Abd al-Karim (r. 920-956) was the first to systematically convert his people to Islam. At the same time the Arab or Persian script was introduced and replaced the Soghdian script.

Under Sutuq Bughra's son and successor Musa Bughra Khan (r. 956-958) the Qaraqan empire was the largest Muslim country China had direct contact with. The Qaraqans expanded their empire to the west, occupied the plain of the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya and in 992 attacked the empire of the Samanids in Bokhara. In 999 an alliance between the Qaraqans and the Ghaznavid empire in northern Afghanistan brought and end to the Samanid empire.

In 1041 the Khanate split into a western and an eastern part. The western part was reigned by the descendants of 'Ali al-Hasan Tegin and occupied the territory between the River Amu Darya in modern Uzbekistan eastwards to the Ferghana Basin, with the capital at Bukhara. The eastern part was reigned by Bugra Han el-Hasan ben Suleyman (1075-?) and his descendants from Balashagun, but with Kašgar as important religious and cultural center. There was a lot of commercial and cultural exchange between the two Qaraqanid states, and sometimes also territorial changes.

The eastern empire had contact with Song China 宋 (960-1279) along the southern route of the Silkroad. It also advanded towards the east and in 1004 conquered the Buddhist city state of Khotan (pre-Türkic name Yutian 于闐). Five years later the Eastern Qaraqan sent an official envoy to the court of the Northern Song empire 北宋 (960-1126), yet the members of the mission were Uyghurs that were more accustomed to the tributary system of the Chinese empire. Another diplomatic mission was sent in 1063, and the Song emperor was asked to bestow an official title to the Qaraqan, among others the title of "King of Qin 秦", which had been an ancient regional state in the west of China. At the same time the Eastern Qaraqan empire had contact to the empire of the proto-Mongolian Khitan 契丹 that had founded the Liao dynasty 遼 (907-1125) in northern China. In the eyes of Persianhistorians China consisted of three empires, namely the Song dynasty, the Liao dynasty and the Qaraqan empire. Interestingly enough, the Tangut 黨項 Western Xia empire 西夏 (1038-1227) was not seen as an autonomous state.

From 1132 on the eastern as well as the western Qaraqan empire stood under the domination of the Western Liao empire 西遼 (1124-1211) that was founded by Yelü Dashi 耶律大石 (r. 1124-1143), a descendant of the Liao dynasty. The eastern empire of the Qaraqans was in 1211 conquered by Kücülüg Khan 屈出律可汗 (r. 1211-1218), a Naiman 乃蠻 chieftain who had usurped the throne of the Western Liao empire. Yet a few years later the military machine of the Mongol federation put made the region part of the Mongol empire.

Table 1. Rulers of the (Early) Qaraqanid Empire 840-1041
Kül Bilgä Kul Qadir Qan (r. 840-880?)
Bazir Arslan Qan (r. ?-910?)
Oɣ​ulčak Khan (r. 893?–940?)
Sutuq Buɣ​ra Qara Qan ʕAbd al-Karīm
932 adoption of Islamic creed, 940 adopts rule over the Qarluq
(r. 920/34-955/56)
Baytaš Musa Buɣra Qan (r. 956-958/71)
Suleyman (I) Arslan Qan (r. 958-970?)
ʕAli Arslan Musa Qan (r. 970/71-998)
Hārūm (r. 991-993)
Ahmad I Arslan Toɣ​an Qan
1005 overthrows Samanid dynasty in Khwarezm, Bukhara and Samarkand
(r. 998-1015/17)
Mansur Arslan Qan (r. 1015/17-1024)
Ahmad II (Muhammad?) Toɣ​an Qan (r. 1024-1026)
Yusuf Qadir Qan (r. 1004/26-1032)
Suleyman (II) Arslan Qan
d. 1056; ruler in the eastern part of the khanate 1040-1056
(r. 1032-1040/41)
Table 2. Rulers of Kašɣar, Kokand and Ferghana 1013-1213
Nasr Tegin (r. 1013)
Mansur Abu'l-Muzaffar Arslan Qan (r. 1013-1024)
Muhammad ʕ​Ain ad-Dawla (r. c.1041-c.1052)
Ibrahim Abu Isḥāq Tamɣ​ač Qan (r. c.1059)
ʕAbd al-Muʕmin (r. ?-?)
ʕAli al-Hasan Tegin (r. ?-?)
Husain Djalal ad-Dunya wa'd-Din (r. 1132-1156)
Maḥmūd Toɣan Qan (r. 1156-1164)
Ibrahim Arslan Qan (d. 1203; ruler in Bokhara 1178-1203) (r. 1164-1178)
Nasr (r. 1178-?)
Muhammad (r. ?-c.1182)
Qadir Qan Djalal al-Dunya wa'd-Din (r. ?-1209)
Maḥmūd (r. ?-1213)
Table 3. Eastern Karakhans 1056-1212
Šaraf ad-Dawla abu-Suja Suleyman ben Yusuf (r. 1032-1056)
Muhammed I (r. 1056-1057)
Husein (r. 1057-1058)
Ibrahim I bin Muhammad (r. 1057-1059)
Maḥmūd ben Yusuf Toɣrul Qara Qan (r. 1059-?)
Omar Toɣrul Tegin Qan (r. ?-?)
Buɣra Qan al-Hasan ben Suleyman (Zarun Abu Ali Han, Abu Ali Hasan) (r. 1075-1102)
Ahmed Nur ad-Dawla Qan (r. 1102-1128)
Ibrahim II Ilig-i Turkmen (r. 1128-1158)
Muhammad II bin Ibrahim (r. 1158-?)
Abu'l-Muzaffar Yusuf bin Muhammad (r. ?-1205)
Abul Fatḥ Muhammad III
Conquered by Qara Qitan empire.
(r. 1205-1210)
Table 4. Khans of Bokhara 1020-1068
ʕAli Tegin (r. c.1020-1034)
Yusuf (r. 1034-c.1060)
Arslan Tegin (r. 1034-c.1060)
Muhammad I (r. 1042-c.1052)
Ibrahim I Abu Isḥāq Bori Tegin Tamɣač (r. c.1052-1068)
Table 5. Western Karakhans 1041-1212
Arslan Ilik Nasr Bin Ali Han 999-1013
He-zhong Yusuf Ali Tegin 1020-1034
Ilik Yusuf 1034
Ibn Muhammad ben Nasr Arslan Qara Qan (r. 1040/41-1052)
Abu Isḥāq ibn Ibrahim Tamɣ​ač Bu​​ɣra Qan (r. 1041/52-1068?)
Šems al-Malik Ibn Nasr (r. 1068-1080)
Abu Hoja al-Qadīr (r. 1080-1081)
Ahmed I (r. 1081-1089)
Yakub Qadīr Qan (r. 1089/95)
Ibn Mas'ud ben Muhammad (r. 1095-1097)
Suleyman Qadīr Tamɣ​ač (r. 1097)
Ibn Maḥmūd I (r. 1097-1099)
Qadīr Qan Jibrail Ben Omar (Harun) Arslan Qan (r. 1099-1102)
Arslan Qan II. Maḥmūd ben Suleyman (r. 1102-1129)
Ahmet Nur ad-Dawla Qan (r. 1102—1132)
Nasr (r. 1129-?)
Ahmed II Qadīr Qan (r. 1129-1130/1132)
Hasan Jalal ad-Dunya (r. 1130-1132?)
Ibrahim II Raqun ad-Dunya (r. 1130?-1132)
Il-Maḥmūd ben Muhammad
Defeated by the Seljuks, occupied by Qara Qitan.
(r. 1132-1141)
Ibrahim III Tamɣ​ač Qan (r. 1141-1156)
Ali ben Hasan Čaɣ​ari Han (r. 1156-1161)
Abu'l Muzaffar Mesut II Tamɣ​ač Qan (r. 1161-1170/78)
Muhammad III Tamɣ​ač Qan (r. 1171-1179)
Ibrahim IV Arslan Qan ben Hussain (r. 1178/79-1203/4)
Uluɣ Sultan Osman
1212 conquered by Khwarezmia.
(r. 1204-1212)
Gao Wende 高文德, ed. (1995). Zhongguo shaoshu minzu shi da cidian 中國少數民族史大辭典 (Changchun: Jilin jiaoyu chubanshe), 2208.
Xinjiang baike quanshu bianzuan weiyuanhui 《新疆百科全書書》編纂委員會, ed. (2002). Xinjiang baike quanshu 新疆百科全書 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 46.
Zhang Guangda 張廣達 (1992), "Heihan wangchao 黑汗王朝", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, pp. 364-365.
Zhou Weizhou 周偉洲, Ding Jingtai 丁景泰, ed. (2006). Sichou zhi lu da cidian 絲綢之路大辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 145.

Further reading:
Golden, Peter B. (1994). "The Karakhanids and Early Islam", in Denis Sinor, ed. The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 343-370.