Who was Alash Khan?

“The legend of Alash and his three sons may be dismissed as fiction… such stories seem clearly to have been invented to strengthen the legitimacy of the three hordes by the creation of a legendary common ancestor.”1

So argues Martha Brill Olcott in the opening chapter of her monograph The Kazakhs, the most recent edition of which appeared in 1995. Olcott mentions Alash in the usual context: the origins of the Kazakhs and the reason for the existence of a Kazakh “trinity,” three Hordes among one, supposedly united, people. Indeed, the separation into Hordes, tribes, and clans is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Kazakh nation, whether compared with the neighboring populations or with others further afield.Introduction to the groups within the Kazakh Nation

A quick explanation: terms like “tribe” and “clan” are largely arbitrary, insofar as they have been used to allow some degree of familiarity for the English-language reader. Unfortunately, I know nothing about how these terms have became commonplace.

A key would go as follows:

English Kazakh Қазақ
Horde Zhuz Жүз2
Tribe El or Taipa Ел3 or тайпа4
Clan Uru/Ru Уру/Ру5

There are three Hordes, each containing roughly between a half-dozen and ten tribes each, while each tribe might contain a handful to more than a dozen clans. However, many of the names of clans also appear as names of tribes, making the system difficult to navigate and quite easy for foreigners to get lost. An example: while there is a tribe within the Middle Horde labeled “Argyn,” there are clans named “Argyn” in several other tribes. Likewise, many of the names of the tribes are found among most, if not all, of the various Turkic and Mongol peoples of Eurasia – again, Argyn (Argun) is a good representative example. Perhaps less helpful is the following image (one of many similar pictures floating around the Kazakh-language internet).

The Family Tree (Shezhire6) of the Kazakhs

This image is helpful only so far in creating a sense that there is an unmanageable mass of Kazakh clans and tribes. The Soviet field of national studies produced the ‘science’ of ethnogenesis — wherein one attempts to find the genesis of an ethnicity. For the Kazakhs, many believe their “roots” reach back to the steppe peoples described by Herodotus and the other authors of the ancient world. I mean this literally, since the roots of the pictured tree include the Scythians, Huns, Sarmatians, and so on.

Alash and Kazakh Origins

The name Alash appears again and again before those who study the Kazakhs, especially those interested in the last two centuries. According to ethnographers and authors like Tynyshpaev and Divaev, Kazakh oral history recorded that the Hordes were founded by the sons of Alash or Alach Khan. While Olcott and others have been satisfied to classify this as myth and move on, I think there is much potential here in explaining Kazakh history and identity, particular in relation with the neighboring Zünghar people.7

I believe it is possible that Kazakh oral history recalls the name Alash/Alach from the popular historical perception of Ahmad b. Yunus Khan, who roamed what is now southeastern Kazakhstan in the second half of the 1400s. Some of Ahmad’s history comes down to us in the Tarikh-i Rashidi of Mirza Muhammad Haidar Dughlat, most importantly Ahmad’s famous nickname Alach.8 The Tarikh-i-Rashidi is a work from the mid-1500s and, while its author was particularly negative towards the Uzbek conquerors of Central Asia under Shībānī Khān, the work offers a relatively disinterested view of the first century of Kazakh history. The following selection comes from Chapter 64, on the life of Ahmad Khan. In this section, when Haidar Dughlat speaks of the Kalmak, this likely refers to the Oirat population in the area, of which the Zünghar were later a part.

SULTAN AHMAD KHAN was the son of Yunus Khan, who has been mentioned above. When his father used to go and take up quarters in Tashkand, Ahmad, with a number of Moghuls who objected to towns and settlements, parted from his father, and stayed behind in Moghulistán. It would take too long to relate all that he did and [to describe] his administration in Moghulistan; but the substance of the matter is that it required ten years of residence in the country, before he could bring the people fully under his control.
No one in Moghulistan dared to oppose [Ahmad Khan]. He made several successful inroads on the Kalmak, and put a number of them to death. He fought two battles with Isan Taishi, and was victorious in both. The Kalmak stood in great awe of him, and used to call him Alacha Khan; Alacha, in Moghul, means Kushanda [the slayer], that is to say, “the slaying Khan.” This title adhered to him. His own people used to call him Alacha Khan. He is now spoken of by the Moghuls as Sultan Ahmad Khan, but all the neighbouring peoples call him “Alacha.”

After these events, [Ahmad Khan] carried on hostilities with the Uzbeg Kazak [the Kazakhs], for the reason already stated in the story of Sultan Mahmud Khan. For Sultán Mahmud Khan had, on two occasions, gone to war with the Uzbeg Kazák, and had been defeated on both occasions; on which account Sultán Ahmad Khán attacked the Uzbeg Kazák and utterly routed them three times.

It seems plausible to me that such a figure, renowned as a military hero capable of destroying the Kalmak and routing any rebellious Kazakhs, would live on in Kazakh oral history. Perhaps it is a stretch, but it may also be that Ahmad Khan’s routing of some portion of the Kazakhs in turn caused the division into separate units, which in time became the three Hordes. This is certainly only a theory with more speculation than evidence, but I believe there is more here than coincidence. The Kazakh language still uses many names and words of Oirat/Mongolian origin, something which I covered somewhat in my earlier article on “the other Ablai.”

1 Olcott, Martha Brill. The Kazakhs. Second Edition. Stanford University Press, 1995 (First edition 1987): page 11.
2 (Turkic) One hundred. However, there is an obvious similarity with (Arabic) d̲j̲uzʾ, “part of a whole,” a section of a larger thing.
3 (Turkic) confederation of smaller groups/tribes, sometimes written Īl or él. One basic way to politely ask a Kazakh about his or her genealogy is to ask the question, “Қай елсiз?”, “Which el are you?” Over the centuries, this term has meant both a people under a ruler and the territory on which the people lived.
4 (Arabic – Ṭāʾifa) A group of men, a corporation, a sect – its basic meaning, according to the Encyclopedia of Islam, is of a group. The term in Sufi communities fits nicely here, of a branch of a larger community that, in turn, may create new sub-branches.
5 I learned this word as Urug’ (Уруғ) in Uzbek. Just now I cannot find its root, but I assume it is Turkic.
6 (Arabic – Shajareh) Literally, “Tree.”
7Perhaps because these is no modern nation or state claiming relation to this vanished people, it is exceedingly difficult to find a standardized spelling in the literature. Junko Miyawaki has used Dzungar and Jüün Ghar. Christopher Atwood, author of the Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire used Zünghar. It seems any of these are preferable to the Kazakh (Zhongghar) or Russian (Dzhungar), though it is mostly from Kazakh and Russian sources that I work.
8 It is available online in English translation – Mīrzā Muḥammad Ḥaydar Dug̲h̲lāt, A history of the Moghuls of Central Asia, being the Tarikh-i Rashidi of Mirza Muhammad Haidar, Dughlát, ed. N. Elias and tr. E. Denison Ross, London 1895.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.