Kazak Empire Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Kazak clan leaders broke away from the Uzbek khanate and established a rival state of nomadic cattle herders in what is now Kazakhstan. Immigration and further defections swelled the new Kazak khanate, which continued to expand, dividing into three hordes in the sixteenth century.

Summary of Event

Between 1428 and 1456, Khan Abū՚l-Khayr established the Turko-Mongol Shaybānīd Uzbek khanate as the major power in the region between the Ural and Irtyah Rivers, directly north of the thriving Timurid domain. He further spread Uzbek hegemony into the Syr Darya River Basin and Khwārizm. Perhaps alarmed at this expansion, eastern Mongols, either Oyrats or Kalmyks or some combination, took over the region of the Middle Syr Darya, forcing out the Uzbeks. Kazak Empire Girei Janibeg Abū՚l-Khayr Kasim Girei Janibeg Maḥmūd Khan (Jagataite khan) Muḥammad Shaybānī Muryndyk Khan Mimash Tahir Khan Boydas Togim Uziaq Ahmad Aq Nazak Khan Tawekel Khan

Girei and Janibeg, two of Abū՚l-Khayr’s most important vassals and the sons of his predecessor, had long resented Abū՚l-Khayr’s leadership and took advantage of these dislocations. They abandoned the Uzbek Uzbeks horde and migrated out of Shaybānīd territory. It was not a peaceful or amicable secession, and much blood was spilled in its wake.

Girei and Janibeg and their tribes moved eastward into Chagatai territory, eventually being settled by a Chagatai lord along the frontiers of Moghulistan in southeastern Kazakhstan sometime before 1462. As Abū՚l-Khayr’s Uzbek empire continued to crumble, more and more Uzbeks joined the nascent nomadic state, further weakening Shaybānīd power and swelling the new horde. Finally, in 1468, Abū՚l-Khayr attacked Girei, but Girei’s warriors soundly defeated and killed him. Bad blood continued into the next generation, though Uzbek weakness prevented anything greater than skirmishing, and the Kazaks preferred hit-and-run plunder and destruction.

The attraction of the new khanate was its traditionally nomadic lifestyle. Sources and scholars differ on the origin and meaning of the name “Kazak” (also Qazak and Kazakh) and when the Uzbeks first applied it to themselves. It seems to denote “free warrior” or “steppe roamer,” though some translate it as “those who left the horde.” It was thus an indication of the group’s independent and nomadic or seminomadic condition rather than an ethnic label.

Ethnically, the early Kazaks were Turkic or Turko-Mongol, and certainly were the heirs of the steppe traditions. One modern theory shows the Kazaks as descendants from the ulus (independent territory) of Orda-Ejen, the eldest son of Jöchi, heir of Mongol conqueror and ruler Genghis Khan (r. 1206-1227). The Kok-Orda provided the core of the original Kazaks. These tribes were at first consigned to the horde of Shaybān, from which they later seceded.

The Kazaks, whose name and perhaps ethnicity is related to the Russian term “cossack,” valued their mobility in an age when their cousins, the Uzbeks, were making ever more successful attempts to control urban areas and achieve a settled existence. Little is known or agreed on about this early period because the travelers and chroniclers of the time who recorded events and impressions concentrated on the cities and not the camps of the nomads.

The Kazaks herded cattle, moved with their herds, and recognized no central authority. The khan was elected in Mongol fashion by the quriltay, or assembly of clan elders and military leaders. With little in the way of urban life or administrative bureaucracy and a populace that was always on the move, there was little room for despotism. The khan stepped forward with an iron fist, however, during periods of armed struggle; then the steppe horsemen appreciated the coordination that well directed cooperation brought.

The Uzbeks gained an upper hand around 1490 when Maḥmūd Khan of Moghulistan granted Turkistan to the Uzbeks under Abū՚l-Khayr’s grandson, Muḥammad Shaybānī. Muḥammad and Muryndyk Khan (r. 1474-1511), son of Girei, fought for hegemony over the cities of the Syr Darya (Oxus) basin, and Muryndyk gained the city of Yasī as a sort of capital for his people. In 1500, Muḥammad and Muryndyk agreed on a peace settlement that established a loose confederation between the Uzbeks and Kazaks.

In the early sixteenth century, however, the charismatic Kazak khan Kasim abrogated this agreement and reestablished their independence, an act often considered the start of an independent Kazak state. He and Mimash (1518-1523) made life miserable for the Uzbeks in Transoxiana. Their steppe-style raids never were considerable military threats, but they did present the Uzbeks with a second front as they sought to establish a new empire and manage the aggressive Ṣafavids in Iran.

Under Kasim, the Kazak state expanded into the lower Syr Darya and Chu River valleys, gaining control of important trade routes and centers. Mimash’s successor, Tahir Khan (r. 1523-1526), tried to weld the Kazak horsemen into a formidable force that could effectively challenge their neighbors, but the fiercely independent tribes balked at his authoritarian methods and many broke away.

Leadership of the Kazaks was soon divided among three men—Boydas (r. 1526-1534) in the east, Togim (r. 1526-1538) in the south, and Uziaq Ahmad (r. 1526-1535) in the north. Aq Nazak Khan (r. 1538-1580) managed to pull the three segments together, and they weathered brutal invasions by the Mongolian Kalmyks and Oyrats from the Kobdo region between 1552 and 1555. Nonetheless, the tribal divisions remained and were recognized in the establishment of the three zhuzes of the Great (Elder), Middle, and Lesser Hordes. Tawekel Khan (r. 1586-1598) achieved an effective confederation of the hordes that prevented further disintegration. The dissolution of the Siberian and Nogai hordes under Russian pressure in the later sixteenth century further fed the Kazak population, estimated by some to have been as high as one million around the turn of the century.


Discussion of the origins of the Kazaks is hindered by a lack of written records. The outlines, however, are clear. The Kazaks constituted a new community of desert-steppe nomads in Central Asia. They clearly had a self-generated sense of group consciousness and self-reliance through which they identified themselves and their sedentary neighbors. In many ways it was a step backward, away from the kind of city-centered life that the Uzbeks and other early modern remnants of the Turko-Mongol hordes were adopting.

Yet they did not develop into a predatory people that victimized the settled as had the Turks and Mongols before them. They rather coexisted with those they often despised as slaves. Despite a lack of clear common ethnic identity or claims of shared ancestry, Kazaks retained their fierce sense of self-reliance and identity as “steppe roamers” into the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. Translated by Naomi Walford. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1970. Deals with the “Kirghiz-Kazaks” largely in terms of their relations with other, usually sedentary peoples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haidar, Mirza Muḥammad. A History of the Moghuls of Central Asia: The Tarikh-i-Rashidi of Mirza Muhammad Haidar, Dughlat. 2 vols. Translated by E. Denison Ross. Edited by N. Elias. New Delhi, India: ABI, 1998. A contemporary history of the nomadic Mongol clans, the only history of its kind.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olcott, Martha Brill. The Kazakhs. 2d ed. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institute, 1995. Though focused on contemporary political situations and implications, Olcott provides a fine introduction to the early emergence of the Kazak people and state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paksoy, H. B. Central Asia Reader: The Rediscovery of History. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1994. A chapter on the Kazaks provides brief coverage dealing largely with questions of ethnicity.

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Categories: History