The mysterious wolf always appealed to the imagination of humans. From the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm to the steppes of Central Asia and the woods of the Native Americans, the wolf played a major and recurring role in the interaction between humans and nature. While the Europeans hated and feared the animal, hunting it down and driving it to near-extinction, other peoples had a much different relationship with the predator. The Turkic peoples, for example, actually believed to be descendants of a legendary she-wolf, Asena. To be both wolf and man, human with the wolf’s blood flowing inside the veins, so they believed, was the true meaning of being a Turk. This unique synergy between man and wolf was an essential trait across the early Turkic nomads.
In a previous read, I wrote about the Pan-Turanist symbolism. Although the wolf plays a significant role in Turanist iconography, I decided to write two separate posts to avoid confusion between the modern post-Ottoman ethno-nationalist movement and the ancient and Medieval Turkic shamanism-inspired depiction of wolfs. Although writing already on Asena, I’ll expand on her story for the sake of completeness. According to Turkish mythology, Asena was a female wolf who found an injured young man. She adopted him and nurtured him back to health. When the young man regained his strength, he and his rescuer had sexual intercourse. Asena fell pregnant and, while bearing the difficulties that come with pregnancy, she had to flee her enemy pursuers. She evaded them by fleeing to the region of the Tarim Basin in the modern-day Chinese province of Xinjiang or Turkestan. There, Asena gave birth to ten half-human, half-wolf boys, the ancestors of the Turks. One of them, called Ashina, grew up to become their leader and the founder of the Ashina-clan, which ruled over the historical Göktürk khaganates.
The wolf subsequently grew into a symbol of security, guidance and identity. The wolf as mother of all mothers, the legendary essential starting point from which all Turkic peoples spread across the known world. The grey wolf was once one of the world’s most widely distributed predators, roaming the steppes and wilderness of Central Asia, the original home region of the Turks. But even long before the historical presence of the Turkic peoples did the wolf play a role in the art and iconography of the Eurasian steppe nomads. Several Scythian artifacts in the form of a wolf were found in the southern Ural Mountains and the North Caucasus. Respectively 4th and 5th century BC, these wolf figures were mostly part of the so-called Maikop Treasure, a collection of artifacts from various Scythian tombs in the region of Koban.
Some of the earliest Turkic depictions of the grey wolf were discovered in Niya, a historical town on the southern edge of the earlier mentioned Tarim Basin. A beautifully decorated wooden door was part of the architectural finds revealed in the expedition of Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-born British archaeologist. The door featured two winged wolfs. The wings on those four-legged wolfs were no mere coincidence, but a first attempt at combining the wolf with another important mythic creature, the dragon. Later Turkic imagery is characterized by the extensive depiction of the so-called wolf-dragon, a unique mix of a dragon’s snake-like body and a wolf’s head. A textile found in Niya from roughly the same period as the wooden door features a dragon’s body with the head and paws of a predatory mammal, possibly a wolf. Valerie Hansen claims in her The Silk Road: A New History (2012) that the dragon motif is of clear Chinese origin.
This could be very true indeed, as the dragon in the ancient Turkic religion resembled the snake-like body of his Chinese counterpart rather than the bird-like or lizard-like body of the western dragons. The dragon (evren) was a benevolent symbol of infinity, abundance and prosperity and signified the connection between Earth and the limitless expanse of the skies. Because it was believed that the dragons lived in the sky and the clouds, the dragon was associated with Tengri, the main god of the early Turkic religion, Tengrism. As Tengri literally meant “sky”, the Turks believed that the supreme god came from the sky, functioning as the ruler and creator. By combining the mother of all Turks with the Heavenly-Father, the wolf-dragon became an important cosmic and spiritual image.
When the Turkic peoples migrated westward and gradually converted to Islam from the 10th century onward, many had a hard time abandoning the pagan legacy of their ancient religion. Just like the Yāsiq Law among the Mongols, some elements of the pre-Islamic beliefs survived into the art and imagery of the Muslim Turkish dynasties. Although respecting the local customs (ʿurf), Islam never allowed the adoption of any pagan symbols as its own. That doesn’t mean however, that it didn’t happen among Muslims, albeit so gradually and subtle that the original meaning was probably lost to later generations. At the time of the Turks’ arrival, the Islamic realm had grown so large that it was hard for Muslim scholars to keep track of all external influences seeking a way into the collective Muslim society, allowing for local oddities and unique images to continue, as did the wolf and the wolf-dragon.
A gateway of the Ayyubid and Mamluk era Aleppo citadel is beautifully decorated with intertwined wolf-dragons. The citadel was first fortified by Nūr ad-Dīn al-Zengī (1147 – 1174), after which it was enhanced and expanded by Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn’s son al-Ẓāhir al-Ghāzī (1193 – 1216). It was then rebuild in 1415 by the Mamluk governor of Aleppo. It’s worth noting that the Ayyubid dynasty was of mixed Arab and Kurdish origin with close ties to the Zengid dynasty, who were of Oghuz Turkic descent. The Baḥrī Mamluks were mostly of Cuman-Kipchak Turkic origin. Similar to the Aleppo gateway was a gateway of the 13th century Seljuk Karatay Han, a unique caravanserai on the road from Kayseri to Malatya in modern-day Turkey. Work on this building probably begun under sultan Alā’ al-Dīn Kayqubād I (r. 1220-37), the beautifully intertwined wolf-dragons bearing witnes of great skill and craftsmanship. The wolf-dragon was a popular subject of Anatolian Seljuk art, appearing on stone reliefs and as bronze figures. The door handle from the Ulu Jami, the main mosque of the southeastern Turkish town of Cizre, is a 13th century cast bronze door handle. While Tengrism was long gone, the wolf’s head and the scaly dragon’s body continued to inspire.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.