Turfan (Tulufan 土魯番, today written 吐魯番) or Turpan is an important city in the Western Territories 西域 (modern Autonomous Region of Xinjiang) and played a decisive role in the history of this region, as an intermittent station between the dynasties of the Chinese empire and the city-states of the Tarim Basin as well as the nomad federations in the Mongolian steppe.
During the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) Turfan was the place of the kingdoms of Gushi 姑師 and Cheshi 車師 and was part of the Protectorate of the Western Territories (Xiyu duhufu 西域都護府). The Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) transformed it into the commandery (jun 郡) of Gaochang 高昌.
During the Sui period 隋 (581-618) it corresponded to the state of Gaochang 高昌. The armies of the Tang empire destroyed Gaochang and established the prefecture (zhou 州) of Xizhou 西州 and the district (xian 縣) of Jiaohe 交河. Xizhou was one of the three westernmost prefectures, together with Yizhou 伊州 and Tingzhou 庭州.
During the Song period 宋 (960-1279) the region was controlled by the Uyghurs 回鶻. The Mongols, founders of the Chinese Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368), established the pacification commission (xuanweisi 宣慰司) of Hezhou 和州 or Huozhou 火州 (also called Halahuo 哈剌火, modern Kalahezhuo 喀拉和卓 Karakočo) and later appointed a brigade overseer (wanhu daluhuachi 萬戶達魯花赤, from Mongolian daruγači).
The name Turfan or Turpan was first used by the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644), when the place was officially made a directly administered 2nd-class prefecture (zhiliting 直隸廳). At the beginning of the 15th century the rulers of Turfan started delivering tributes to the Ming court. A first envoy called Chen Cheng 陳誠 arrived in Turfan in 1414. The Ming court did not fix a schedule for tributes, but the excellent horses of Turfan were always welcome, like the skins, knives and dyestuffs from Turfan. The envoys of Turfan were richly rewarded for their tributes and bestowed honorary titles of high offices. Turfan swallowed the neighbouring cities of Halahuo and Liucheng 柳城 and began dominating the whole region in the mid-15th century. The Ming therefore in 1465 fixed the period of tributes for all three or five years and cut the size of envoys to 10 people. In the 1470s the ruler of Turfan even contended with Ming troops for the guard post (wei 衛) of Hami 哈密 and his army even advanced as far as Suzhou 肅州 (modern Jiuquan 酒泉, Gansu). From then on the relationship between Turfan and the Ming became tensed, and tributary mission were sent less regularly.
The population of Turfan was about 200,000 people, mostly of Uyghur (at that time called Weiwur 畏兀兒) stock, but also mixed with Mongols. Far the largest part of them were Muslims, but at the beginning of the 15th century there were still a few Buddhists among the inhabitants of Turfan. The ruler of Turfan was accordingly called Sultan. The population lived in 15 or 16 fortified towns with an own administration. They lived of agriculture, and only a few of them were still pastoral nomads or hunters. The presents granted by the Ming court during the occasion of tribute deliveries played an imporant role for the trade because the Turfanese often sold objects presented by the Chinese (mainly silk, tea, iron tools and medicine) to Central Asian merchants.
In Turfan, several spots of historical and touristic interest can be found, like the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Gaochang, those of Jiaohe, those of Astana, the Sugong Pagoda 蘇公塔, the Taicang Pagoda 臺藏塔, the Buddhist caves of Bezeklik 柏孜克里克千佛洞, the caves of Shengjinkou 勝金口千佛洞, the caves of Yarhu 雅爾湖千佛洞, the tombs of Karakočo, the "Grape Valley" (Putaogou 葡萄溝), the "Flaming Mountains" (Huoyanshan 火焰山), and Lake Aiding 艾丁湖.
The tomb fields of Astana and Karakočo have been excavated for several decades, and the findings of more than 400 tombs have been collected, among them writings, documents, textiles, tomb inscriptions, money, wooden carved figurines, pottery, paintings, agricultural implements and food. The tomb fields, used for many hundreds of years, thus serve as an underground museum for the history of the region of Turfan. More than 3,000 written documents have been discovered in the tomb fields, most of them written in Chinese. The dates of origin go back as far as 273 CE (wooden slips, mujian 木簡, from the Western Jin period 西晉, 265-316) and reach down to 773 CE. A large part of the documents were used as waste-paper transformed into funeral clothes, shoe-soles or even paper coffins. The documents were published as Tulufan chutu wenshu 吐魯番出土文書 by Tang Changru 唐長孺 (ed. 1992-1996), Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, in a 10 volumes edition.
The caves of Bezeklik belong to the most famous Buddhist grottes in China, probably only the second to the Mogao caves 莫高窟 of Dunhuang 敦煌. The caves are dug out on the western slope of the valley. They include 77 rooms, in which about 40 mural paintings have survived that cover an area of more than 1,200 square metres. The earliest painting dates from the 6th century CE and was created when the kingdom of Gaochang still existed. The youngest paintings date from the 13th century. Most of the paintings were created during the period of the Xizhou Uyghurs 西州回鶻 in the 8th and 9th centuries. During that time the caves served as a praying spot for the royal family and the Uyghur nobles. Paintings from that period of time often show scenes of the life of the Buddha, while the later paintings preferred scenes from the so-called Pure Land of the West, the Buddhist Heaven.
The Turfan Depression with Lake Aiding is the deepest point of China. It is located 154 metres below sea level. It is furthermore the hottest spot of China, where the annual average (!) temperature of 30°C is far surpassed by occasional maximum temperatures of 70°C.