The whole world knows about the runes used by the ancient Germanic tribes. This system of writing originated in Europe in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD and existed until the 15th century in Scandinavia. The term "rune" comes from the Old German word run. It is also related to the Gothic word runa, which means "secret". Originally, the word run meant something secret, hidden, passed in a whisper. The original meaning of this word tells us about the function of the Germanic system of writing. Initially, it was an esoteric system used only by the initiated ones.
The word "runes" is also applied to various similar though unrelated writing systems. Most often this word is used in relation to the Old Turkic writings. This system was used as an official writing system from the 7th to the 12th centuries AD in such medieval states as the Eastern Turkic Khaganate, the Uyghur Khaganate, and in the state of the Yenissei Kyrgyz.
The ancient Turkic runic writings were discovered in 1721 by a German scholar D.H. Messerschmidt. He was sent by Peter the Great to research Siberia. In Khakassia, he found a stele with an unfamiliar inscription which resembled Germanic runes. Up until 1891 nobody knew what tribes wrote this inscription. The Turkic runic alphabet was deciphered by the Danish scholar Thomsen, and Russian scholar Radloff thanks to a discovery of bilingual inscriptions in the Orkhon valley in Mongolia. Thomsen was the first scholar to decipher the signs of the Old Turkic runic alphabet. He sent his data to Radloff. The first word Thomsen was able to read was (Täŋri), a Turkic word for God or Heaven. After that Thomsen was able to decipher a few more words, and soon he was translating the entire sentences. Radloff was the first scholar who translated an entire text, the inscription devoted to Kül Tegin. This is how the world found out that the ancient Turks had their own developed alphabet. Later on, Old Turkic inscriptions were found on rocks, on burial monuments, on statutes, coins, dishes, and weapons.
The Orkhon Turkic alphabet had 37 characters. All in all, there are more than 50 runic signs used for writing Old Turkic, depending on different regions and different times. The characters were written from bottom to top, or from right to left. Every sign was carved separately, without being connected to the next one. This alphabet had vowels, but they were not always written. The vowels "a" and "ӓ" were never written in the beginning of a word, though other vowels were written in this position. Sometimes vowels in the middle of a word were omitted.
The Turkic runic writings of the 7th to 12th centuries have a very important linguistic and historical value for the cultural heritage of the Turkic world. Hundreds of inscriptions were discovered in Mongolia, throughout all of Southern Siberia, in China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, near the Aral Sea, and in Eastern Europe. The world famous Orkhon inscriptions in Mongolia have been studied the best, as well as the Yenissei runic writing in Tuva and Khakassia (in Southern Siberia). The Orkhon inscriptions were devoted to great ancient Turkic rulers of the Eastern Turkic Khaganate, Bilge Khagan, Kül Tegin, and Tonyukuk. Farther to the west, in the steppes of Eurasia all the way to Hungary, hundreds further inscriptions were found. These inscriptions were made in a similar style, but they are still to be deciphered. There is a huge interest toward so-called Khazar and Bulgar runic inscriptions which were written on city walls and on coins of the Khazar Empire. Similar inscriptions were discovered on the ruins of the town of Khumara, in the upper reaches of the Kuban River in the mountains of Karachay, and on the ruins of Mayatsk on the Don. These inscriptions represent another runic tradition called the Western, or the Don-Kuban system.
The runic inscriptions of the Altay Mountains are some of the hardest to decipher. The runic characters were carved on the rocks with tiny strokes. The inscriptions themselves are situated in the hard-to-reach remote areas. Apparently, many of these inscriptions were not meant to be read by everybody. They had either deeply personal or secret sacral meaning. The remoteness and the hard visibility of these inscriptions were the main factors for their gradual disappearance. Other factors were natural disasters, and manmade causes such as infrastructural development, tourism, and the insufficient protection of these treasures by the government.
The scholars have a very important task ahead of them - to preserve this precious cultural and historical heritage of the Turkic peoples. This task includes research, monitoring, and deciphering the runes of the Altay Mountains. Many inscriptions had already been destroyed by our contemporaries, or forever lost due to explosions performed by the road construction crews, or because of mudslides, rockslides, and earthquakes.
The runes are mostly situated in the central districts of the Republic of Altay. Most of the inscriptions are located in the Ogunday disctrict. In the ancient times, it was an intersection of all important roads of this area. As it is known, Altay is situated in south-western Siberia. It is a geographical center of the Eurasian continent, equally distanced from all the four world's oceans. The Ongunday district is the heart of Altay. Many petroglyphs are located in the Ursul river valley, along with the archeological traces of the Afanasevo culture (4th to 3rd millennium BC), and the Andronovo culture (2nd millennium BC). Many monuments dating from the Scythian-Sarmatian, Hun, and ancient Turkic eras are also located there. The cultural layers were not washed out here by the waves of migrating peoples, as they were down on the plains. Instead, they accumulated in the mountain valleys and canyons. The ancient wisdom was passed through and accumulated in the traditions and rituals of the Altay people.
The inscriptions in the Altay Mountains can be found upon rocks and steles, as well as on various artifacts. Their content is diverse, and is related to all spheres of life. Obituaries and philosophical and religious inscriptions go side by side with those devoted to mundane house affairs.
The religious inscriptions testify to the fact that Altay was the place of pilgrimage for people of different religions. Different religions coexisted peacefully and competed with each other here. Tengrism (native Turkic religion) existed alongside Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism, etc. Throughout the centuries, this situation did not change. Turkic-speaking ancestors of the Altay people recorded such names as Yel Yegen, Kench, Yurung in their ritual inscriptions. Many times the inscriptions were completed by the phrase bitidim "I have written", which is a sign of extreme importance of the carved words for these people. As a proof of the fact that many different religions were practiced here, we see inscriptions characteristic, for instance, of Manichean religious vocabulary. This is especially true for the inscriptions on the Kalbak-Tash rock. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Manichean religion reached Southern Siberia, and we see traces of this infiltration on the rock of Kalbak Tash.
Three silver festive vessels and two decorated belts with carved runic inscriptions were found in the Altay Mountains. These objects come from early medieval gravesites of a Turkic people called Tügü. Festive cups made of silver were as much a part of noblemen's property as warrior belts with metal or silver buckles, unto which a dagger or a sword was hung. The status of a noble warrior required that these men should participate in men's feasts. The inscriptions on the silver vessels testify that the silver cups were given as tributes or gifts. These cups could travel huge distances, changing their owners. One inscription was found on the bottom of a silver pitcher with the words 't(e)r(i)lmä küm(ü)š (a)g(ï)r' (the silver gathered (as a tribute) is heavy).
Ancient Turkic epitaphs of the Altay Mountains are devoted to famous local heroes of noble origin. Unlike Yenissei epitaphs, they hardly mention any specific titles or ranks. Neither do they have any mention of these heroes' particular feats for the khan and the people. Nevertheless, the pain caused by the loss of a beloved person does not seem to be any less, judging by the inscriptions.
All of this means that even among common people who were not part of the local aristocracy, there were many literate people. Warriors and philosophers, teachers and wandering scribes recorded their thoughts and dreams on the "eternal rocks" of Altay.
For the first time ever, the inscription monuments of the Republic of Altay were documented with the help of the modern technology in the framework of a joint Russian-German project aiming at documenting the Altaic runic inscriptions. Ninety runic inscriptions have been registered as a result of this work by now. The most notable inscriptions were found recently, during the work on this project. An electronic database of the runic inscriptions of Altay was created. Now all Turkologists in Russia and in other countries can access it on the website www.altay.uni-frankfurt.de. A monograph A Catalogue of the Old Turkic Runic Monuments of the Mountainous Altay was published by Russian and German Turkologists, participants of this project, in 2012. Its authors are Larisa Tybykova, Irina Nevskaya, and Marcel Erdal. Thanks to this research, the Altay Mountains occupy their proper place among the most well-known centers of Old Turkic writings.
By Larisa Tybykova (State University of the Republic of Altay, Gorno-Altaysk, Russia),
and Irina Nevskaya (Goethe University, Frankfurt and Free Berlin University, Germany).