Altishahr, Beshbalik, and Yettishar

In a text to accompany an exhibition of visual works by the artist Mikray Pida, Edward Luttwak wrote:

Mikray Pida’s art is her own transcendental creation, yet it is not irrelevant that she is an Uighur, that being a rather modern name for an ancient nation that headed a steppe empire more than a thousand years ago, but whose essence is urban – which is the key to everything. In fact, while the current name of the land where Mikray Pida was born is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – a Chinese translation of deceptive Soviet terminology (no autonomy whatsoever is allowed) – its historical names were Altishahr, which means six cities, and later Beshbalik, five cities.

Uighur history is a minefield: tread lightly, reader. But it’s also irresistible because of its complexity and antiquity. For now, let’s simply look at the two names Luttwak drops – Altishahr and Beshbalik – with the help of the Soviet Dictionary of Old Turkic (1969). Altï and beš are old Turkic numerals for six and five; they made it into modern Turkish as altı and beş, almost unchanged. Shahr is simply Persian for “city.” It’s balik, the remaining root, that sounds confusing.

That’s because balık is “fish” in modern Turkish. Xinjiang – I’m using the name in a strictly geographical sense here – is not exactly known for numerous rivers and lakes: it’s one of the driest parts of the Eurasian continent. However it does have a few lakes and rivers, most notably the Tarim river, so “Five Fish” could work as a toponym. This said, the Old Turkic dictionary gives another meaning for balïq, that is, “city” or “town.” Radloff‘s magisterial dictionary includes a runic spelling next to this meaning, indicating the word is found in ancient Turkic inscriptions (pdf, p. 1495-6).

When Yakub Beg became the ruler of Kashgaria for about ten years (1867-77), the region got promoted to Seven Cities, Yettishahr or Yettishar. Yetti or yeti is “seven” in Old Turkic, corresponding to yedi in modern Turkish. That sounded rather nice, similar to Siebenbürgen (Transylvania), but the Chinese army put an end to Yakub Beg’s state in 1877.


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