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19 December 2010

Buryatia: In the depths of Siberian Runes

Inform polis online. Translated by Heda Jindrak

Buryatia: In the depths of Siberian RunesBuryatia is located on the Russian border, next to Mongolia. The history of  our region is for that reason densely interwoven with that of other nations, cultures, and languages.

Buryats and Mongols used to have the same Old Mongolian script. Its old cursive can be seen to this day on various souvenirs as an ornament.

Just like the other languages of other peoples of the USSR which did not have their own writing system, the Buryat language was systematized in 1931 into Latin alphabet, and in 1937 into the basis of Russian alphabet. But the Buryat nation was not illiterate. Old Mongolian script was not used only for religious purposes, but in secular activities of the Buryats in the steppe Dumas as well. These organs of Buryat self-rule were established according to “Constitution about ruling other nations” in 1822. The Taishi  ruled the Buryats under the control of East Siberian administration. The Czarist authorities liquidated the Steppe Dumas even before the revolution. The documents from the Dumas are kept in the National Archive of Buryatia. They are written in beautiful Mongolian cursive.

The Buryats’ literacy, in pre-revolutionary Russia, was limited, according to the official soviet pint of view. It was thought that the old Mongolian script was mostly the province of the datsans (temples and monasteries). Buddhist books, according to evidence from that period, could be found in the households of well-to-do Buryats. Persecution and repressions of religion thus became reflected in the fate of the written documents.

The name Old Mongolian is explained by the ancient origins of the writing system. Its peculiarity was the fact that is was supra-dialectal, meaning that the writing was comprehensible to different nations speaking various dialects of Mongolian language, even though in spoken form these languages could be mutually almost incomprehensible. The Sartul dialect of Buryat language, for example, is similar to Khalkha Mongol language of  Mongolia. Dialect of the Khongodors (Tunkin and Alar) is closer to Oirat language of Western Mongolia (Dzungaria), which gave birth to the Kalmyk language.


The family tree of Old Mongolian script


In the Mongol Empire, which in 13th Century stretched from China to Eastern Europe, the Uighur language was the language of commerce and culture. Turkic-speaking Uighurs had important official ranks, and Mongols of Genghis Khan’s times adopted the Uighur script. Chinese ideographs proved to be inconvenient for writing Turkic and Mongolian languages, which are highly inflected, in contrast to non-inflected Chinese grammar. That is how Old Mongolian writing was born.

The Uighurs, in turn, adopted their writing from the Sogdians of Central Asia. This East Iranian people of Sogdiana took their script from Aramaic syllabic writing system, which, in turn, was an adaptation of Phoenician. Phoenician was a precursor also to the Greek alphabet,  as well as Hebrew and Arabian. The Sogdian writing comes from either from Aramaic or from the Greek alphabet. The Sogdians preserved Hellenistic traditions from the time of the conquests of Alexander of Macedon (  4th Century before our era ) almost to Arab invasions in 8th Century of our era.

Large amounts of emigrants from Sogdiana streamed into Mongolia and Trans-Baikal. The Sogdians built a town on the north bank of Selenga river. Its name was Bai-Balyk, and it was built in 758 for the Uighur khan, according to the Finnish philologist Gustaf Ramstedt. In 19th Century, the Buddhist monastery Biy-Bulugiyn-Khure stood on the ruins of this town.

There are numerous excavations of Uighur burials around the Baikal area. A Sogdian settlement was excavated near Balagansk of Irkutsk region, where Unga flows into Ankara. Merited archeologist A. P. Okladnikov wrote: “ Sogdian colonists led settled lives at the mouth of Unga.” that was during the epoch of Orkhon Turks and Uighur Khanate, which was located around the Baikal.

The Uighur Khanate was destroyed by light-haired Yenisei Kyrgyz in 840. Afterwards, the Uighurs left our northern lands forever. The Sogdians, possibly, left with them. Eastern Turkestan became their new homeland (now Xinjiang in China.)


Turkic Runes around the Baikal

The history of writing in the Baikal area started long before  Old Mongolian script showed up. In Buryatia, ancient Turks left Orkhon-Yenisei runes (Orkhon is a tributary of Selenga in Mongolia). They were given the descriptive name “runes” because of similarity to German runes. Orkhon-Yenisei runes are seen from the Baikal area all the way to Eastern Europe. There are seven groups of Turkic runes:  Lena-Baikal type, Yenisei, Mongolian, Altai, East-Turkestan, Central-Asian, and Eastern-European type. In Hungary, a group of Hungarians (Sekei) wrote with Turkic runes until 16th Century. They lived in the mountains and led a semi-nomadic existence.

Turkic runes can be seen as a heritage of Mongol-language world as well. Turkic and Mongol languages are related, and both belong to the Altaic family of languages. The relationship of Turks and Mongols consists of 50% concurrence of  the grammar and 25% of the lexicon. Knowing a Mongol language, for example Buryat, it is possible to understand various Turkic words. The author of these paragraphs could discern several words of Khakass language of a play at the Theatre of Small forms visiting from Abakan, touring in Ulan-Ude with theatre “Ulger”.  The differences between Turkic languages are not large: the Bashkirs confirmed to the author that they understand Turks from Turkey if they speak slowly.

It is usual to think that the history of nomadic peoples north of China is known only from old Chinese chronicles. But that is not so. The history of the second Eastern-Turkic and Uighur Khanates is written in stone in Mongolia. And in Eastern Turkestan, judicial, religious and magic texts are documented in runic writing on paper.


Did the ancestors of Turks and Mongols live in the Altai and the Sayans?


Aside from the Far East, the ancient homeland of the Mongols is believed to lie in the mountainous country between the ridges of the Altai, Sayans, and Mongolian Khingan. The climate of the Sayans and Altai could have been warmer in the past than it is now, because of volcanic activity. In Eastern Sayans in Okinsk district in Buryatia, there is a valley of dormant volcanoes, as well as Kropotkin’s and Peretolchin’s volcanoes. Dormant volcanoes are known in the Altai range as well. The Turks have left the Altai and the Trans-Baikal steppes many times to go on their wide-ranging conquests. The Yakuts, Kazakhs, Kyrgyses, Uzbeks, Turks, Turkmen, Azerbaijanis, Tatars, Bashkirs…all of them now speak Turkic languages.

Turkic names of settled areas have been preserved in Buryatia, for example, there is a village called Tarbagatai.  In Irkutsk region, there is a village Bayandai. Similar names show up in the Xinjiang - Uighur Autonomous  region in Western China. Another Tarbagatai is located in Eastern Kazakhstan, and yet another in Western Siberia.  A Turan village is located in Tunkin district. The Turkic state in Central Asia was called Turan.

The Europeoid appearance of the Turks is suggested by the interesting fact that when the Xianbei came to the Altai from the Amur and intermarried with the Turks, their mongoloid appearance was “softened”. They were called Tyurkyut (“-ut”, “-ud” is the plural ending in Mongolian languages: “buryaadud” are Buryats). The Tyurkyuts moved towards the south, to Sogdiana, where they started to rule the Sogdian kingdoms.

The Turks and Mongols were neighbors and mixed and intermarried several times in history. For example, in the 8th - 12th Centuries, the northern Mongolian  tribes intermixed with the Turks around the Baikal region. After Genghis Khan, Central Asia, Eastern Turkestan and other countries were ruled by Mongols who adopted Turkic languages. The Mongolian conquests of  13th Century, started by Genghis Khan represented a relatively late stage of  conquests of nomadic peoples. But the Old Mongolian script originated thanks to Genghis Khan.

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