The original name of the city is unknown. The form Turfan (while it is older than Turpan), was not used until the middle of the 2nd millennium CE and its use became widespread only in the post-Mongol period.
Historically, many settlements in the Tarim Basin have been given a number of different names. Some of these names have also referred to more than one place: Turpan/Turfan/Tulufan is one such example. Others include Jushi/Gushi, Gaochang/Qocho/Karakhoja and Jiaohe/Yarkhoto.
The center of the region has shifted a number of times, from Yar-Khoto (Jiaohe, 10 km to the west of modern Turpan) to Qocho (Gaochang, 30 km to the southeast of Turpan), and to Turpan itself.
Turpan has long been the centre of a fertile oasis (with water provided by the karez canal system) and an important trade centre. It was historically located along the Silk Road, at that time other kingdoms of the region included Korla and Yanqi.
Along with city-states such as Krorän (Loulan) and Kucha, Turfan appears to have been inhabited by people speaking the Indo-European Tocharian languages in prehistory.
The Jushi Kingdom ruled the area in the 1st millennium BC, until it was conquered by the Chinese Han dynasty in 107 BC. It was subdivided into two kingdoms in 60 BC, between the Han and its enemy the Xiongnu Empire. The city changed hands several times between the Xiongnu and the Han, interspersed with short periods of independence. Nearer Jushi has been linked to the Turpan Oasis, while Further Jushi to the north of the mountains near modern Jimsar.
After the fall of the Han dynasty in 220, the region was virtually independent but tributary to various dynasties. Until the 5th century AD, the capital of this kingdom was Jiaohe (modern Yarghul 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) west of Turpan).
Many Han Chinese along with Sogdians settled in Turfan during the post Han dynasty era. The Chinese character dominated Turfan in the eyes of the Sogdians. Kuchean-speakers made up the original inhabitants before the Chinese and Sogdian influx. The oldest evidence of Chinese characters were found in Turfan from a document dated to 273 AD.
From 487 to 541 AD, Turpan was an independent Kingdom ruled by a Turkic tribe known to the Chinese as the Tiele. The Rouran Khaganate defeated the Tiele and subjugated Turpan, but soon afterwards the Rouran were destroyed by the Göktürks.
The Tang dynasty had reconquered the Tarim Basin by the 7th century AD and for the next three centuries the Tibetan Empire, the Tang dynasty, and the Turks fought over dominion of the Tarim Basin. Sogdians and Chinese engaged in extensive commercial activities with each other under Tang rule. The Sogdians were mostly Mazdaist at this time. The Turpan region was renamed Xi Prefecture (西州) when the Tang conquered it in 640 AD, had a history of commerce and trade along the Silk Road already centuries old; it had many inns catering to merchants and other travelers, while numerous brothels are recorded in Kucha and Khotan. As a result of the Tang conquest, policies forcing minority group relocation and encouraging Han settlement led to Turpan's name in the Sogdian language becoming known as “Chinatown” or "Town of the Chinese".
In Astana, a contract written in Sogdian detailing the sale of a Sogdian girl to a Chinese man was discovered dated to 639 AD. Individual slaves were common among silk route houses; early documents recorded an increase in the selling of slaves in Turpan. Twenty-one 7th-century marriage contracts were found that showed, where one Sogdian spouse was present, for 18 of them their partner was a Sogdian. The only Sogdian men who married Chinese women were highly eminent officials. Several commercial interactions were recorded, for example a camel was sold priced at 14 silk bolts in 673, and a Chang'an native bought a girl age 11 for 40 silk bolts in 731 from a Sogdian merchant. Five men swore that the girl was never free before enslavement, since the Tang Code forbade commoners to be sold as slaves.
The Tang dynasty became weakened considerably due to the An Lushan Rebellion, and the Tibetans took the opportunity to expand into Gansu and the Western Regions. The Tibetans took control of Turfan in 792.
Clothing for corpses was made out of discarded, used paper in Turfan which is why the Astana graveyard is a source of a plethora of texts.
7th or 8th century old dumplings and wontons were found in Turfan.
In 803, the Uyghurs of the Uyghur Khaganate seized Turfan from the Tibetans. The Uyghur Khaganate however was destroyed by the Kirghiz and its capital Ordu-Baliq in Mongolia sacked in 840. The defeat resulted in the mass movement of the Uyghurs out of Mongolia and their dispersal into Gansu and Central Asia, and many joined other Uyghurs already present in Turfan. In the early twentieth century, a collection of some 900 Christian manuscripts dating to the ninth to the twelfth centuries was found at a monastery site at Turfan.
The Uyghurs established a Kingdom in the Turpan region with its capital in Gaochang or Kara-Khoja. The kingdom was known as the Uyghuria Idikut state or Kara-Khoja Kingdom that lasted from 856 to 1389 AD. The Uyghurs were Manichaean but later converted to Buddhism and funded the construction the cave temples in the Bezeklik Caves. The Uyghurs formed an alliance with the rulers of Dunhuang. The Uyghur state later became a vassal state of the Kara-Khitans, and then as a vassal of the Mongol Empire. This Kingdom was led by the Idikuts, or Saint Spiritual Rulers. The last Idikut left Turpan area in 1284 for Kumul, and then Gansu to seek protection of Yuan Dynasty, but local Uyghur Buddhist rulers still held power until the invasion by the Moghul Hizir Khoja in 1389. The conversion of the local Buddhist population to Islam was completed nevertheless only in the second half of the 15th century.
Artifacts of Manichaean and Buddhist provenance are found in Turfan. Uyghur, New Persian, Sogdian and Syriac documents have been found in Turfan. Turfan also has documents with Middle Persian.
After being converted to Islam, the descendants of the previously Buddhist Uyghurs in Turfan failed to retain memory of their ancestral legacy and falsely believed that the "infidel Kalmuks" (Dzungars) were the ones who built Buddhist monuments in their area.
Buddhist images and temples in Turfan were described in 1414 by the Ming diplomat Chen Cheng.
As late as 1420, the Timurid envoy Ghiyāth al-dīn Naqqāsh, who passed through Turpan on the way from Herat to Beijing, reported that many of the city's residents were "infidels". He visited a "very large and beautiful" temple with a statue of Shakyamuni; in one of the versions of his account it was also claimed that many Turpanians "worshipped the cross".
The Moghul ruler of Turpan Yunus Khan, also known as Ḥājjī `Ali, (ruled 1462–1478) unified Moghulistan (roughly corresponding to today's Eastern Xinjiang) under his authority in 1472. Around that time, a conflict with the Ming China started over the issues of tribute trade: Turpanians benefited from sending "tribute missions" to China, which allowed them to receive valuable gifts from the Ming emperors and to do plenty of trading on the side; the Chinese, however, felt that receiving and entertaining these missions was just too expensive. (Muslim envoys to the early Ming China were impressed by the lavish reception offered to them along their route through China, from Suzhou to Beijing, such as described by Ghiyāth al-dīn Naqqāsh in 1420–1421.)
Yunus Khan was irritated by the restrictions on the frequency and size of Turpanian missions (no more than one mission in 5 years, with no more than 10 members) imposed by the Ming government in 1465, and by the Ming's refusal to bestow sufficiently luxurious gifts on his envoys (1469). Accordingly, in 1473 he went to war against China, and succeeded in capturing Hami in 1473 from the Oirat Mongol Henshen and holding it for a while, until Ali was repulsed by the Ming Dynasty into Turfan. He reoccupied Hami after Ming left. Henshen's Mongols recaptured Hami twice in 1482 and 1483, but the son of Ali, Ahmad Alaq, reconquered it in 1493 and captured the Hami leader and the resident of China in Hami (Hami was a vassal state to Ming). In response, the Ming Dynasty imposed an economic blockade on Turfan and kicked out all the Uyghurs from Gansu. It became so harsh for Turfan that Ahmed left. Ahmed's son Mansur succeeded him and took over Hami in 1517. These conflicts were called the Ming Turpan Border Wars.
Several times, after occupying Hami, Mansur tried to attack China in 1524 with 20,000 men, but was beaten by Chinese forces. The Turpan kingdom under Mansur, in alliance with Oirat Mongols, tried to raid Suzhou in Gansu in 1528, but were severely defeated by Ming Chinese forces and suffered heavy casualties. The Chinese refused to lift the economic blockade and restrictions that had led to the battles, and continued restricting Turpan's tribute and trade with China. Turfan also annexed Hami.
Francis Younghusband visited Turpan in 1887 on his overland journey from Beijing to India. He said it consisted of two walled towns, a Chinese one with a population of no more than 5,000 and, about a mile (1.6 km) to the west, a Turk town of "probably" 12,000 to 15,000 inhabitants. The town (presumably the "Turk town") had four gateways, one for each of the cardinal directions, of solid brickwork and massive wooden doors plated with iron and covered by a semicircular bastion. The well-kept walls were of mud and about 35 ft (10.7 m) tall and 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 m) thick, with loopholes at the top. There was a level space about 15 yards (14 m) wide outside the main walls surrounded by a musketry wall about 8 ft (2.4 m) high, with a ditch around it some 12 ft (3.7 m) deep and 20 ft (6 m) wide). There were drumtowers over the gateways, small square towers at the corners and two small square bastions between the corners and the gateways, "two to each front." Wheat, cotton, poppies, melons and grapes were grown in the surrounding fields.
Turpan grapes impressed other travelers to the region as well. The 19th-century Russian explorer Grigory Grumm-Grzhimaylo, thought the local raisins may be "the best in the world", and noted the buildings of a "perfectly peculiar design" used for drying them called chunche.
Mongols, Chinese, and Chantos all lived in Turfan during this period.
Turpan directly controls 1 district and 2 counties.
Turpan is located about 150 km (93 mi) southeast of Ürümqi, Xinjiang's capital, in a mountain basin, on the northern side of the Turpan Depression, at an elevation of 30 m (98 ft) above sea level. Outside of Turpan is a small volcanic cone, the Turfan volcano, that is said to have erupted in 1120 as described in the Song Dynasty.
Turpan has a harsh, drastic, cold desert climate (Köppen BWk), with very hot and long summers, and very cold and long winters, and brief spring and autumn in between. Between the month of March and October, the climate closely resembles a hot desert climate (BWh). Annual precipitation is very low, amounting to only 15.7 millimetres (0.62 in). The monthly 24-hour average temperature ranges from −7.6 °C (18.3 °F) in January to 32.2 °C (90.0 °F) in July, or a very large seasonal variation of 39.8 °C (71.6 °F); the annual mean is 14.4 °C (57.9 °F). With monthly percent possible sunshine ranging from 48% in December to 75% in September, sunshine is abundant and the city receives 2,912 hours of bright sunshine annually.
Extremes have ranged from −28.9 °C (−20 °F) to 48.1 °C (119 °F), although a reading of 49.6 °C (121 °F) in July 1975 is regarded as dubious.
However, the very heat and dryness of the summer, when combined with the area's ancient system of irrigation, allows the countryside around Turpan to produce great quantities of high-quality fruit.
According to the 2000 census, the city of Turpan had a population of 251,652 (population density 15.99 inh./km²). The breakdown by nationality was as follows:
There is Chinese influence in the vocabulary of Uyghur dialect in Turfan.
Turpan Uyghurs has more Han Chinese features and looks than Uyghurs elsewhere, and this is suggested to be due to intermarriage between Han Chinese and Uyghur in the past according to the locals. Due to physical features found in Uyghurs in Turpan it was claimed that Uyghurs married slaves sent to Turpan's Lukchun area by the Qing accordging to the Manchu Ji Dachun.
Turpan is an agricultural economy growing vegetables, cotton, and especially grapes being China's largest raisin producing area. There is a steady increase in farming acreage devoted to grapes backed by strong local government support for increased production. The local government has coordinated improvements in raisin distribution, offered preferential loans for grape cultivation, and free management training to growers.
Turpan is served by the Lanzhou–Xinjiang High-Speed Railway through the Turpan North Railway Station. Turpan is the junction for two conventional lines, the Lanzhou-Xinjiang and the Southern Xinjiang Railways.
China National Highway 312 passes through Turpan.
The Turpan Jiaohe Airport is close to Turpan North Railway Station.