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Updated on February 6, 2012

A Turkic-speaking people from Mongolia, the Tatars (or Tartars) invaded western Asia and parts of Europe in the thirteenth century under the leadership of Genghis Khan. They were called Tartars by European writers of the time who compared them to fiends from hell, the Latin word for hell being Tartarus. In fact the Tatars were only one element of Genghis Khan's invading forces. The leaders of the horde were Mongols and there were other Turkic-speaking peoples among them, yet the word Tatar came to be used as a generic name for them all.

Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, established a Tatar empire in the thirteenth century which ruled over much of western Russia. Sometimes called the Golden Horde, this Tatar empire survived until the end of the fourteenth century when internal dynastic struggles and the advances of the Turkic conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) led to its collapse. Four independent Tatar khanates were set up, the first three existing until the sixteenth century when they were conquered by Czar Ivan IV (the Terrible). The fourth, the Crimean khanate, lasted until 1783 when it was annexed to Russia.

The Tatars, formerly animists, were converted to Islam in the fourteenth century and were renowned throughout their history as traders. The Tatar state had a complex social order with highly stratified classes and distinct levels of civil and military leadership. Their leader, or khan, was accepted as part of the Russian nobility from the sixteenth century.

The Tatars today number over six million and live mainly in the Republic of Tatarstan, with its capital at Kazan. They are primarily agriculturalists with an economy based on mixed farming and herding. A strong tradition of craftsmanship in wood, leather, cloth, ceramics and metal continues among the Tatars today.


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