Protests on the first anniversary of the first violence between Uighurs and Han on July 5, 2009 (Reuters)

One of the oldest Turkic-speaking peoples, and one of the most civilized and influential in the history of the Turks, Central Asia is their native country, and the vast majority of them profess Islam. There are an estimated 20 million people around the world, of whom about 12 million live in East Turkestan (Xinjiang Autonomous Region), accounting for about 46% of the total population.

Chinese authorities are pursuing measures that opponents say would wipe out the cultural identity of Uighurs in Xinjiang, severely restrict the practice of religion, traditions and language, demolish mosques and holy sites, as well as arrests and enforced disappearances.

Their origins

The Uyghurs are one of the oldest Turkish peoples who lived a nomadic life and nomadism in the plains and deserts in large areas of northern and western China since the third century BC, and their origins go back to the "Tulis" and "Tayli" Turkestan tribes, and they were called in the period between the fourth and fifth centuries AD as "Tulis".

Some historians attribute the origins of the Uyghurs to the tribes of "Tora" or "Turan", which are closely linked in lineage, language, culture, customs and traditions with the tribes of the "Huns", and these historians believe that the name Tora was known in the period between the third century BC and the sixth century AD, and the appearance of the name "Uyghur" (i.e. union or alliance) was late in the seventh century AD.

Muslims in the ancient city of Kashgar in Xinjiang province head to Friday prayers under surveillance by Chinese police (Getty Images)

Sources indicate that the Uyghurs have been able to establish a group of emirates since the first century BC, the largest of which are: the Emirate of Ormji in the north, and the Emirate of Torkhan in the south, which lasted until the sixth century AD, in addition to 4 other small emirates.

These emirates had political and administrative ties with the countries that ruled the neighboring lands, such as the Huns, the Tuba and the Turkish state "Gök Turk", and they were forced to submit to these countries sometimes and pay taxes to them, which prompted them to form federations with other Turkish tribes to face conflicts and political challenges.

Political independence

The first actual political independence of the Uyghurs was in the eighth century AD, when they established a kingdom along the Orkhon River north-central Mongolia, where the weakness of the state of "Gök-Turk" gave them the opportunity to rebel against it in 717 AD, and defeat its armies after a long debate, and after the demise of the state of "Gök Turk" permanently, the Uyghurs declared the establishment of their state in 740 AD on its ruins, and established strong rule in the region.

The Uyghurs formed a union with other Turkish tribes, called the "Nine Oghuz - the Ten Uyghurs" and consisted of 9 Oghuz tribes and 10 Uyghur tribes, and the state expanded and became an empire, and the ruling dynasty was called the union itself.

The Uyghurs turned from the life of nomads and nomads to stability, and they established a prosperous civilization, built cities and built roads, canals and canals, and in their reign agriculture and industry developed, trade flourished, architecture emerged, science, literature, philosophy and arts spread, and the letters of the Uyghur language became famous, one of the languages belonging to the Altaian Turkish family, and their language began to be used by other nations.

The empire began to decline in the twenties of the ninth century, due to continuous Chinese interventions, and the Manichaean religion contributed to reducing the fighting spirit of the Uighurs, and the invasion of Kyrgyz in 840 led to the end of the empire, and the union between them and other Turkish tribes collapsed.

The Uyghurs were forced to migrate to other areas, some of them went west to the Qarlouq areas, the "yellow Uyghurs" traveled to northern China, and they established a Uyghur state in the city of Gansu, and some went to the southern border of China.

Other tribes that were considered one of the largest Uyghur communities migrated to East Turkestan and settled in the cities of Turfan, Kocha, Karachar and its environs, establishing a small kingdom, integrating with the local population, and being influenced by widespread religions.

The Uyghur state of Turfan was located on the main trade routes, its economy flourished, art and literature flourished, and a rich and abundant heritage. It also maintained a friendly relationship with the Chinese, so they recognized it, and did not interfere much in its expansion.

In the middle of the tenth century, Turkish sovereignty passed to the Muslim Qarakhanids, who expanded the borders of their state and established a great empire, and the role of the Uyghurs declined politically and militarily to a large extent, as their rule was limited to small states they established in the cities of East Turkestan.

Mongol control

Around the middle of the thirteenth century, Uyghur rule in East Turkestan ended, they were overthrown by Genghis Khan, and the Uyghurs came under Mongol rule, which controlled the region for about 3 centuries.

In 1514, the Mongol state of Saidia "Kingdom of Yarkand" took over the rule of the country, and its rule lasted for more than a century and a half, during which the state was keen to adopt the values of Islamic civilization and its cultural traditions.

Washington protester at 2019 protest against China's human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims (Getty Images)

Islam began to spread among the Uyghurs at the beginning of the ninth century, and before that they had various faiths, including Buddhism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and before that shamanism. In the tenth century, with the establishment of the Qarakhanid state, Islam spread further, and the Mongols' conversion to Islam in the fourteenth century was the point at which Buddhism and other religions fell apart in front of Uyghur Islam.

In 1679, the Khanate of Zongar (the Mongol Qalamuk State) took control of North East Turkestan, but internal power struggles in the state gave way to Chinese interventions.

Chinese control

After some Qalmuk appealed to the Chinese during their internal conflicts, in 1758 the Chinese Manchu dynasty invaded the country and undermined the Zhongar state, and the Manchus continued their wars until they were able to seize the southern parts of the country in 1760.

The Uyghurs and the peoples of the region did not surrender to Chinese control, and revolted many times, and within years Yakub Bey rebelled against the Chinese and established in 1865 an independent state in East Turkestan, and his rule did not last long, as he was assassinated in 1877, and the Uyghurs again came under the rule of the Manchus, and after a conflict that lasted for years, the Manchu Empire annexed East Turkestan to its territory in 1884 and turned it into a territory under the name "Xinjiang" meaning "New Region".

In 1911, Chinese nationalists took power after the overthrow of the Manchu state, and the Uyghurs revolted to get rid of Chinese rule and succeeded in 1933 in establishing the "Islamic Republic of East Turkestan", which could not exist for long, as it was invaded by the Chinese and alongside the Russian army, and all members of the government were executed along with 10,<> Muslims, and the Russians obtained in exchange for their support the right to explore for mineral wealth, and access to livestock.

In 1944, a revolution broke out in northern East Turkestan, and the leaders of the revolution declared an independent republic, but Soviet pressure forced the newly independent state to enter into negotiations with the government of China, which resulted in a compromise solution, which provided for the formation of a coalition government that included representatives of the Republic of Turkestan and representatives of the Government of China, and granting Turkestan autonomy, not full independence.

After the Chinese Communist Party seized the country's reins of power, the People's Liberation Army attacked East Turkestan in 1949, imposing political dependency on it again. People's struggle was renewed in East Turkestan, and the region gained autonomy in 1955 and became the "Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region."

The importance of East Turkestan (Xinjiang)

The region is located in the far northwest of the People's Republic of China, on the historic Silk Road, which is considered one of the most important trade and military corridors since ancient times, and also represents China's gateway to Eurasia and the Middle East.

The region occupies nearly one-sixth of China's total area, is rich in minerals, especially uranium and gold, has the largest reserves of coal and natural gas in China, one-fifth of its oil reserves, and produces more than 80% of its cotton, according to the Congressional Research Service for 2023.

Xinjiang is also a key hub for China's Belt and Road Initiative, which includes Chinese-backed infrastructure projects and energy development in neighboring Central and South Asia.

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