This article needs attention from an expert in Central Asia.January 2009)(
Khan[b] is a title of unknown origin for a ruler or military leader. It first appears among the Göktürks as a variant of khagan (sovereign, emperor)[c] and implied a subordinate ruler. In the Seljuk Empire it was the highest noble title, ranking above malik (king) and emir. In the Mongol Empire it signified the ruler of a horde (ulus), while the ruler of all the Mongols was the khagan or great khan. The title subsequently declined in importance. In Safavid Persia it was the title of a provincial governor, and in Mughal India it was a high noble rank restricted to courtiers. After the downfall of the Mughals it was used promiscuously and became a surname. Khan and its female forms occur in many personal names, generally without any nobiliary of political relevance, although it remains a common part of noble names as well.
The origin of the term is disputed and unknown, possibly a loanword from the Ruanruan language. According to Vovin (2007, 2010) the term comes from qa?an (meaning emperor or supreme ruler) and was later used in several languages, especially in Turkic and Mongolic.
According to Vovin, the word *qa-qan "great-qan" (*qa- for "great" or "supreme") is of non-Altaic origin, but instead linked to Yeniseian *q?> "big" or "great". The origin of qan itself is harder according to Vovin. He says that the origin for the word qan is not found in any reconstructed proto-language and was used widely by Turkic, Mongolic, Chinese and Korean people with variations from kan, qan, han and hwan. A relation exists possibly to the Yeniseian words *qij or *qaj meaning "ruler".
It may be impossible to prove the ultimate origin of the title, but Vovin says: "Thus, it seems to be quite likely that the ultimate source of both qa?an and qan can be traced back to Xiong-nu and Yeniseian".
"Khan" is first encountered as a title in the Xianbei confederation for their chief between 283 and 289. The Rourans may have been the first people who used the titles khagan and khan for their emperors. However, Russian linguist Alexander Vovin (2007) believes that the term qa?an originated among the Yeniseian-speaking Xiongnu people, and then diffused across language families. Subsequently, the Göktürks adopted the title and brought it to the rest of Asia. In the middle of the sixth century the Iranians knew of a "Kagan - King of the Turks".
Various Mongolic and Turkish peoples from Central Asia gave the title new prominence after period of the Mongol Empire (1206-1368) in the Old World and later brought the title "khan" into Northern Asia, where locals later adopted it. Khagan is rendered[by whom?] as Khan of Khans. It was the title of Chinese Emperor Emperor Taizong of Tang (Heavenly Khagan, reigned 626 to 649) and Genghis Khan's successors selected to rule the Mongol Empire starting from 1229. Genghis Khan himself was referred as qa'an (khagan) only posthumously. For instance Möngke Khan (reigned 1251-1259) and Ogedei Khan (reigned 1229-1241) would be "Khagans" but not Chagatai Khan, who was not proclaimed ruler of the Mongol Empire by the Kurultai.
Originally khans headed only relatively minor tribal entities, generally in or near the vast Mongolian and North Chinese steppe, the scene of an almost endless procession of nomadic people riding out into the history of the neighbouring sedentary regions. Some managed to establish principalities of some importance for a while, as their military might repeatedly proved a serious threat to such empires as China and kingdoms in Central Asia.[tone]
One of the earliest notable examples of such principalities in Europe was Danube Bulgaria (presumably also Old Great Bulgaria), ruled by a khan or a kan at least from the 7th to the 9th century. The title "khan" is not attested directly in inscriptions and texts referring to Bulgar rulers - the only similar title found so far, Kanasubigi, has been found solely in the inscriptions of three consecutive Bulgarian rulers, namely Krum, Omurtag and Malamir (a grandfather, son and grandson). Starting from the compound, non-ruler titles that were attested among Bulgarian noble class such as kavkhan (vicekhan), tarkhan, and boritarkhan, scholars derive the title khan or kan for the early Bulgarian leader - if there was a vicekhan (kavkhan) there was probably a "full" khan, too. Compare also the rendition of the name of early Bulgarian ruler Pagan as ? (Kampaganos), likely resulting from a misinterpretation of "Kan Pagan", in Patriarch Nicephorus's so-called Breviarium In general, however, the inscriptions as well as other sources designate the supreme ruler of Danube Bulgaria with titles that exist in the language in which they are written - archontes, meaning 'commander or magistrate' in Greek, and knyaze, meaning "duke" or "prince" in Slavic. Among the best known Bulgar khans were: Khan Kubrat, founder of Great Bulgaria; Khan Asparukh, founder of Danubian Bulgaria (today's Bulgaria); Khan Tervel, who defeated the Arab invaders in 718 Siege of Constantinople (718), thus stopped the Arab invasion in Southeast Europe; Khan Krum, "the Terrible". "Khan" was the official title of the ruler until 864 AD, when Kniaz Boris (known also as Tsar Boris I) adopted the Eastern Orthodox faith.
The title Khan rose to unprecedented prominence with the Mongol Temüjin's creation of the Mongol empire, the largest contiguous land empire in history, which he ruled as Genghis Khan. Before 1229 the title was used to designate leaders of important tribes as well as tribal confederations (the Mongol Empire considered the largest one), and rulers of non-Mongol countries. Shortly before the death of the Genghis Khan, his sons became khans in different dominions (ulus) and the title apparently became unsuitable for the supreme ruler of the empire, needing a more exalted one. Being under Uighur cultural influence, Mongols adopted ancient Turkish title of khagan starting with Ögedei Khan in 1229.
Ming Dynasty Chinese Emperors also used the term Xan to denote brave warriors and rulers. The title Khan was used to designate the greatest rulers of the Jurchens, who, later when known as the Manchus, founded the Manchu Qing dynasty.
While most Afghan principalities were styled emirate, there was a khanate of ethnic Uzbeks in Badakhshan since 1697.
Khan was also the title of the rulers of various break-away states and principalities later in Persia, e.g. 1747-1808 Khanate of Ardabil (in northwestern Iran east of Sarab and west of the southwest corner of the Caspian Sea), 1747-1813 Khanate of Khoy (northwestern Iran, north of Lake Urmia, between Tabriz and Lake Van), 1747-1829 Khanate of Maku (in extreme northwestern Iran, northwest of Khoy, and 60 miles south of Yerevan, Armenia), 1747-1790s Khanate of Sarab (northwestern Iran east of Tabriz), 1747 - c.1800 Khanate of Tabriz (capital of Iranian Azerbaijan).
There were various small khanates in and near Transcaucasia and Ciscaucasia established by the Safavids, or their successive Afsharid and Qajar dynasties outside their territories of Persia proper. For example, in present Armenia and nearby territories to the left and right, there was the khanate of Erivan (sole incumbent 1807-1827 Hosein Quli Khan Qajar). Diverse khanates existed in Dagestan (now part of Russia), Azerbaijan, including Baku (present capital), Ganja, Jawad, Quba (Kuba), Salyan, Shakki (Sheki, ruler style Bashchi since 1743) and Shirvan=Shamakha (1748-1786 temporarily split into Khoja Shamakha and Yeni Shamakha), Talysh (1747-1814); Nakhichevan and (Nagorno) Karabakh.
As hinted above, the title Khan was also common in some of the polities of the various - generally Islamic - peoples in the territories of the Mongol Golden Horde and its successor states, which, like the Mongols in general, were commonly called Ta(r)tars[d] by Europeans and Russians, and were all eventually subdued by Muscovia which became the Russian Empire. The most important of these states were:
Further east, in Xinjiang (East Turkestan) flank:
The higher, rather imperial title Khaqan ("Khan of Khans") applies to probably the most famous rulers known as Khan: the Mongol imperial dynasty of Genghis Khan (his name was Temüjin, Genghis Khan a never fully understood unique title), and his successors, especially grandson Kublai Khan: the former founded the Mongol Empire and the latter founded the Yuan Dynasty in China. The ruling descendants of the main branch of Genghis Khan's dynasty are referred to as the Great Khans.
The title Khan of Khans was among numerous titles used by the Sultans of the Ottoman empire as well as the rulers of the Golden Horde and its descendant states. The title Khan was also used in the Seljuk Turk dynasties of the near-east to designate a head of multiple tribes, clans or nations, who was below an Atabeg in rank. Jurchen and Manchu rulers also used the title Khan (Han in Manchu); for example, Nurhaci was called Genggiyen Han. Rulers of the Göktürks, Avars and Khazars used the higher title Kaghan, as rulers of distinct nations.
In imperial Persia, Khan (female form Khanum in Persia) was the title of a nobleman, higher than Beg (or bey) and usually used after the given name. At the Qajar court, precedence for those not belonging to the dynasty was mainly structured in eight classes, each being granted an honorary rank title, the fourth of which was Khan, or in this context synonymously Amir, granted to commanders of armed forces, provincial tribal leaders; in descending order. In neighboring Ottoman Turkey and subsequently the Republic of Turkey, the term Khanum was and is still written as Han?m in Turkish/Ottoman Turkish language. The Ottoman title of Han?mefendi (lit translated; lady of the master), is also a derivative of this.
The titles Khan and Khan Bahadur (from the Altaic root baghatur), related to the Turkic batyr or batur and Mongolian baatar ("brave, hero"); were also bestowed in feudal India by the Mughals, who although Muslims were of Turkic origin upon Muslims and sometimes Hindus, and later by the British Raj, as an honor akin to the ranks of nobility, often for loyalty to the crown. Khan Sahib was another title of honour.
In the major South Asian Muslim state of Hyderabad, Khan was the lowest of the aristocratic titles bestowed by the ruling Nizam upon Muslim retainers, ranking under Khan Bahadur, Nawab (homonymous with a high Muslim ruler's title), Jang, Daula, Mulk, Umara, Jah. The equivalent for the courts Hindu retainers was Rai. In Swat, a Pakistani Frontier State, it was the title of the secular elite, who together with the Mullahs (Muslim clerics), proceeded to elect a new Amir-i-Shariyat in 1914. It seems unclear whether the series of titles known from the Bengal sultanate are merely honorific or perhaps relate to a military hierarchy.
Khan and its female forms occur in many personal names, generally without any nobiliary of political relevance, although it remains a common part of noble names as well. Notably in South Asia it has become a part of many South Asian Muslim names, especially when Pashtun (also known as Pathan) descent is claimed; it is now the most common Muslim family name in South Asia. It is also used by many Muslim Rajputs of India and Pakistan who were awarded this surname by Turkic Mughals for their bravery. Similarly it was awarded to Pashtuns by Turkic and Mongol kings. Also the name is claimed to be related to the Hebrew name Cohen or Kohen.
During the Russian Civil War following the Bolshevik takeover of 1917, White general Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, who, admittedly was trying to reconstitute the empire of Genghis Khan, was often styled as "Ungern Khan" between 1919 and his death in 1921.
In popular culture, Khan (Khan Noonien Singh) is a villain in the Star Trek universe, typically used as a plot counterweight to Captain James Tiberius Kirk. While not a ruler or nobleman, 'Khan' does have several followers who are, like himself, genetically engineered super soldiers.