Nomadic Invasion and the Integration of Eurasia

Nomadic peoples became increasingly prominent in the history of Eurasia between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries. During this time, Turkish people migrated into Anatolia, India, and Persia, and the Mongols established the largest empire the world has ever known. Nomadic invasions were often bloody and destructive in which entire populations were slaughtered and crops destroyed. At the same time, cross-cultural links were established which integrated the societies of Europe and Asia in a manner which had not previously existed.

Turkish Migration and Expansion: The steppes of central Asia are largely grass and shrub lands with few rivers and sparse rainfall which make large scale agriculture feasible. Only on oases was intensive agriculture possible. The people of Central Asia were accordingly nomadic tribesmen who herded grazing animals such as sheep, goats, camels, cattle and horses. They followed systematic patterns of migration throughout the steppes based on the seasons and climactic conditions. They subsisted primarily on animal products: they ate the meat of the animals; used bones for tools and dung for fuel; and made shoes and clothes from the wool of sheep and skins of other animals. They lived in felt tents made from wool which were called yurts, and drank an alcoholic beverage made from fermented mare’s milk known as kumiss. There was some small scale agricultural production of millet or vegetables near Oases; but this was only enough to supplement the animal protein which constituted the majority of their diet. They also produced some pottery, leather goods, and iron weapons and tools; but this too was small scale. The nomadic people of central Asia did engage in trade to supply their immediate needs, and often organized and led caravans from China to the Mediterranean because of their familiarity with the terrain.

Nomadic society was divided between nobles and commoners. Noblemen were leaders who organized clans and tribes into alliances, but did little governing, as most clans and tribes took care of themselves, and bitterly resented outside interference. Their greatest power was in time of war, when they exercised absolute authority over those under their command. Failure to follow orders was dealt with swiftly and summarily. Although nobility was an inherited class, one could devolve to the ranks of a commoner and follow new leaders if one did not provide appropriate leadership. Conversely, commoners who exhibited courageous behavior in battle could be elevated to the nobility.

Traditional Turkish (nomadic) people worshiped a pantheon of gods and nature spirits with whom they communicated by means of shamans (religious specialists with supernatural powers.) They were, however, attracted to the religions of the various peoples with whom they came into contact. As a result, by the sixth century, many had become Buddhist, Nestorian Christian, or Manichaeistic. They developed a written alphabet largely because of their adaptation of other religions and also because of their importance in cross continental trade. By the tenth century, many Turkish people converted to Islam, particularly those living near the Abbasid Empire. Their migrations into Anatolia and India helped spread Islam into those areas.

The increased migration and expansion of Turkish culture took place when leaders organized vast confederations of tribes who were nominally subject to a leader known as the khan (ruler.) Khans normally coordinated rule with various allied tribes rather than ruling directly; however they were able to organize the tribes into a formidable military machine which was virtually impossible to stop. Warriors learned to ride horses as small children and became expert horsemen. They were excellent marksmen with bows and arrows even when fired backward from horseback. Units of warriors were often coordinated to outmaneuver and overwhelm opponents; however on the rare occasion when they were outnumbered or at a disadvantage, they were able to retreat hastily on horseback, and thus escape capture or defeat. Their military prowess and bravery allowed Turkish nomads to move into various settled societies in Asia, seize their wealth, and build their own imperial states.

Turkish people approached the Islamic Abbasid Empire of Persia much as the Barbarian tribes had approached the Roman Empire. They lived on its borders and traded with the Empire; and Seljuk Turks served in Abbasid armies within the realm. Over time, the Turks overwhelmed the Abbasid Empire; such that in 1055 the Abbasid caliph recognized the Seljuk leader Tughril as sultan. Tughril extended his control of the empire into Syria and Palestine and other parts of the old Empire. Although the Abbasid rulers were the nominal authority; actual control lay with the Turkish sultans.

Other Turkish people entered Anatolia in large numbers as early as the eleventh century. In 1071, Seljuk forces defeated a Byzantine army at Manzikert, and captured the Byzantine Emperor. Following this victory, Turks entered Anatolia practically at will. The peasants of Anatolia largely resented their Byzantine overlords, and welcomed the Turks as liberators. The Turks set up their own political and social institutions, confiscated Byzantine Church property, and levied taxes on the church. They also welcomed converts to Islam and made social, political and economic opportunities open to converts. Anatolia was gradually transformed into an Islamic land long before the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.

At the same time, Mahmud of Ghazni led Turks on raids into northern India. Their original purpose was plunder; but they became interested in permanent rule, and eventually exercised control over all of northern India by the thirteenth century. They hoped to extend their Empire into Southern India, but were constantly challenged by Hindu princes in the South and new Turkish and Mongol forces in the north. They had large armies which included elephant corps; but were unable to do much more than hold on to their property without expanding it.

Mahmud was a bitter and zealous foe of Buddhism and Hinduism. He frequently attacked and raided temples, monasteries and shrines. He stripped their establishments of wealth, destroyed buildings, and often slaughtered those who were there. At the same time, he encouraged conversion to Islam and thereby enabled that religion to establish a strong foothold in Northern India.

In every instance, the Turkish people were able to overwhelm the areas they invaded with formidable military prowess. By the thirteenth century, the influence of the formerly nomadic Turks was greater than ever before in Eurasian history.

The Mongol Empires: The Mongols were nomadic peoples living on the steppes of Eastern Asia who traditionally held deep loyalty to kinship groups, and were accordingly organized into families, clans, and tribes. Their strong allegiance to kin and tribe made it difficult for them to establish a stable large scale society. They did become unified later into a powerful force which ruled the largest Empire in the history of the World.

Unification was the result of one Timüjin, born c. 1167 into a noble Mongol family. His father, a prominent warrior, forged alliances between several clans and would have become a powerful ruler; but he was poisoned when Timüjin was ten years old. The boy was abandoned by his father’s allies and saw his father’s animals seized by rivals, leaving him to live in poverty. Several attempts to eliminate him failed; on one occasion he was captured and kept in a wooden cage, but managed to escape. He later made an alliance with a clan leader, and mastered Mongol diplomacy which called for, among other things, personal courage in battle, intense loyalty to allies, although one should betray allies or superiors if it would improve one’s own position. He managed to link several tribes together, sometimes by alliance, sometimes by conquering contenders for power, and other times by suddenly turning on allies. In 1206 he managed to bring all the Mongol tribes together into a single confederation and an assembly of Mongol leaders proclaimed him Genghis Khan (sometimes spelled "Chinggis Khan) meaning "universal leader."

Genghis Khan did not trust Mongol tribal organization and accordingly forced men to fight in intertribal units. He chose military and political officials on the basis of loyalty to him or talent rather than kinship or tribal status. Although he spent most of his life on horseback, he established a capital and built a luxurious palace at Karakorum in present day Outer Mongolia.

The Mongol army was the most powerful and significant of its institutions. Although relatively small in number (100,000 to 125,000), they conquered the better part of Eurasia. They did this by a variety of means, including outstanding horsemanship. They grew up riding horses and often hunted or played competitive games on horseback. They used bows which were short enough for archers to pull while riding and used stiff arrows that had a range of over 650 feet. They were able to travel as much as 60 miles in one day on horseback to surprise an enemy. They were also masters at psychological warfare; they usually spared the lives of those who surrendered without resistance and offered generous treatment to artisans, craftsmen etc; but if they met resistance, they often slaughtered whole populations, or sparing only a few whom they drove before them as human shields during future battles. They were known on occasion to place pyramids of decapitated heads outside city gates as a warning that the city should surrender, or face a similar fate. They were equal opportunity in their invasions, attacking Muslim and Christian alike; in fact during the Second Crusade, Richard Lionheart struck a deal with the Mongols to attack Baghdad, which they destroyed.

Genghis Khan attacked the Turkish people in Tibet, northern China, and Persia. He extended Mongol rule to Northern China when he conquered that area and established a new city named Khanbaliq (city of the Khan.) The Mongols effectively controlled Northern China by 1234. Genghis Khan personally led another force into Afghanistan and Persia, which was ruled by a successor to the Seljuks. In 1218 he sought to establish trade relations with the Shah there; but the Shah despised the Mongols and had the Khan’s envoys murdered. Genghis took revenge the following year and chased the shah to an island in the Caspian Sea where he died. In the meantime, he destroyed the Shah’s army and seized control. The Mongols made sure that the Shah’s state did not survive. They destroyed cities and massacred thousands of people. Many cities disappeared from the map. They destroyed the qanat irrigations systems and thereby destroyed the area’s agriculture. Persian chroniclers cursed the Mongols for centuries thereafter.

Genghis was a conqueror, not an administrator. He ruled the Mongols through his control of the military, but did not establish a central government to control the lands he had conquered. Instead, he assigned Mongol overlords to supervise administration and extract a generous tribute from conquered lands. By his death in 1227, he had laid the foundations for a mighty empire which was continued by his heirs and successors.

A struggle for control between Genghis’ sons and grandsons developed after his death that was eventually settled when the realm was divided into four regional empires:

  • The Great khans ruled China, the wealthiest of Mongol lands.
  • The Descendants of Chaghatai, Genghis son, ruled Central Asia.
  • The Ilkhans ruled Persia
  • The Khans of the Golden Horde ruled much of Siberia and Russia.
  • Constant conflict and tension always existed between the four regions; none was able to dominate the others.

    Mongol Rule in China came reached its zenith under Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan who ruled from 1264 until 1294. He attacked the Song dynasty of Southern China which fell in 1276, and by 1279 proclaimed himself ruler of all China. He established the Yuan dynasty, which ruled China until 1378. Although ruthless with enemies, he was an efficient administrator who promoted Buddhism and supported Daoists, Muslims and Christians within his Empire. He was praised my Marco Polo (who presumably lived at his court for over twenty years) for generosity to the poor and efforts at building roads.

    Kublai attempted to extend his empire into Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia, but failed. Mongol horses did not fare well in the jungle climate of the areas where there were few pastures available; and his fighters did not adapt well to the guerilla tactics used by defenders. The Mongols were more acclimated to fighting in open warfare in the steppes. In 1274 and 1281, he attempted invasions of Japan by sea; but both failed because of tremendous typhoons which swept the fleets off course and destroyed most of the ships. The most famous expedition was that of 1281 in which over 5000 Mongol Vessels carrying 100,000 men were launched against Japan, the largest sea invasion before World War II; however a huge typhoon destroyed over 4,500 of the ships with much loss of life. The typhoon thereby saved Japan from invasion. The Japanese referred to the typhoon which saved them as kamikaze; "divine wind." The name was later adapted by Japanese suicide pilots in World War II who flew their planes loaded with explosives into enemy ships.

    Meantime, Kublai’s cousins and brothers led the Golden Horde overran much of Russia, Hungary, Poland, and eastern Germany. They were led by the Grandson of Genghis Khan, Batu, and were considered such a threat to Western Europe that the Pope in Rome led prayers throughout Europe for divine intervention to stop them. In 1240, they defeated knights from Christian Europe in several battles and appeared unstoppable; however in 1241, Genghis’ successor, Ogodei Khan, died, and the Mongols withdrew to elect a new Khan. Were it not for his death, the Mongols may have been unstoppable.

    The Mongols, whom the Russians called Tatars, preferred life on the steppes, and for that reason had little interest in Russia, which was primarily a heavily forested woodland. They did keep a large army on the steppes, and raided Russia from time to time; and also exacted heavy tribute from Russian cities. This continued until the fifteenth century when the Russian Czar Ivan IV refused to pay further tribute and the Mongols were too weak to enforce their demands.

    The Abbasid Caliphate of Persia was not so fortunate. In 1258, Mongol forces under Kublai’s brother Hǖligu 1258 toppled the regime and captured Baghdad. There his troops looted the town, executed the Caliph and slaughtered over 200,000 people. From there, his armies attacked Syria, but were expelled by Muslim armies from Egypt, which thereby limited their further expansion.

    The Mongols were horsemen and fighters, not administrators; however having conquered many areas of Eurasia, they were forced to find some way to govern them. They were not effective even then as administrators; and as a result, most lands under their control were freed within a century.

    In Persia, the Mongols occupied the highest administrative positions but allowed Persians to serve at all lower levels, including as governors and state officials. Originally, they tolerated all faiths, including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Jainism; however in 1295, the ruler Ilkhan Ghazan publicly converted to Islam. Most of the Mongols of Persia converted with him, and the result was the wholesale massacre of Christians and Jews, and the return to Islam as the privileged religion of Persia.

    In China, the Mongols scorned Chinese culture and tradition as that of "mere cultivators." Marriage between Mongols and Chinese were outlawed, and Chinese were forbidden to learn the Mongol language. At one point, there was even discussion of exterminating the native Chinese and converting the entire country into pastureland; however this idea was abandoned, and the decision was made to extract as much as possible from the Chinese. Still, foreign administrators from Arabia, Persia, and possibly even Europe, were used rather than native Chinese. Those who support the existence of Marco Polo suggest that he may have been hired as a governor of the city of Yangzhou by Kublai Khan.

    The Mongols of China were tolerant of other religious practices, including Buddhism, Daoism, and Christianity. The favorite of Kublai Khan’s four wives, Chabi, was a Nestorian Christian. They allowed churches, temples and shrines to be erected in order to stay on good terms with the locals. However, they resisted assimilation into Chinese cultural tradition. They ended the privileges enjoyed by Confucian scholars and dismantled the Confucian educational and examination system. They did not persecute the Confucians, but allowed the tradition to wither; although it never completely disappeared.

    Although most Mongols preserved their Shaman beliefs, many adopted a form of Buddhism known as Lamaist. The Lamaist Buddhists worship featured magic and supernatural powers, similar to the Mongols; native religion; and the Lamaists also recognized the Mongols as legitimate rulers. They spoke of the Mongols as universal rulers, and some even as incarnations of Buddha himself. With this type of support, it is not surprising that the Mongols embraced their religion.

    Mongols and Eurasian Integration: Although they often wreaked havoc in their raids, the Mongols often encouraged regular communication throughout their empire. They established a network of roads and relay stations for the transmission of messages; but which also allowed diplomats, missionaries, and merchants to travel throughout the empire. Although the Mongols often fought among themselves, they were dependent on agricultural areas for goods which they could only obtain by trade, and for that reason, encouraged trade throughout the Empire. As a result, merchants could travel more safely, and the volume of trade increased dramatically. China and Western Europe became linked by trade for the first time because individuals could travel unhindered across the Empire.

    The Mongols also maintained diplomatic communication with various areas, including Korea, India, and Western Europe. Some Christian rulers of Europe sent ambassadors to the Khans asking for assistance in fighting the Muslims, and the Mongols also sent emissaries, including a Nestorian Monk, to Italy and France as their representative. The importance they placed on diplomatic relations is illustrated by the fact that Genghis Khan had the Shah of Persia murdered because he murdered the Mongol envoys Genghis had sent there to open relations.

    Mongol trade routes served as highways for missionaries, merchants, and diplomats. Through this system, Sufi missionaries carried Islam to the Turkish people of central Asia; Lamaist Buddhists from Tibet carried that religion to the Mongols, and Nestorian Christians and Roman Catholic Christians found converts in China.

    The Mongols had no administrative structure of their own, and often relocated subject peoples who had the skills they needed to other areas. A prime example were the Uighur Turks, who lived mostly in Oasis cities on the silk roads; and who were highly literate and educated. Mongols sent them to other areas to serve as secretaries, clerks, and administrators and also as soldiers to bolster Mongol garrisons. Arab and Persian Muslims were often used also as administrators. Jewelers, goldsmiths, and others with unique talents were often transported to areas where the Mongols needed them, primarily to their capital at Karakorum. The policy of resettling conquered peoples in this manner promoted integration of cultures and exchange of peoples within Eurasia, and thereby encouraged its integration.

    Mongol domination ended shortly after the death of Kublai Khan. Excessive spending and overexploitation of the peasants in Persia seriously reduced revenues. In 1290, the Ilkhan of Persia attempted to introduce paper money in payment of debts so that precious metals would end up in the government treasury; however rather than accept paper money, merchants simply closed their shops and the economy collapsed until the order was rescinded. The last Mongol ruler died without an heir in 1335, and the ilkhanite collapsed. Persian government devolved to local levels until Turkish people reestablished centralized rule almost 100 years later.

    In China, paper money was widely used; however the Mongol government did not maintain sufficient bullion of gold and silver to back the money, and the populace lost confidence in it, resulting in higher prices. A series of power struggles and assassinations beginning in the 1320’s severely weakened the Mongols in China. Additional problems came from epidemic disease. By promoting trade, the Mongols also unwittingly expedited the spread of Bubonic Plague throughout China. In the 1330’s it spread throughout China, and ten years later had reached Southwest Asia and Europe It often killed more than half the exposed population, and seriously disrupted societies and economies.

    The Mongols (or anyone else for that matter) did not understand how Plague was spread. Often they catapulted the bodies of those who had died from the disease into the camps/fortresses of their enemies in an attempt to spread the disease among their enemies.

    Aside from economic disaster and disease, the Mongols encountered resentment from their Chinese subjects, who held them in contempt. A series of peasant rebellions and bandit attacks developed in the 1340’s, which they Mongols could not control. In 1368, rebel forces captured the Mongol capital of Khanbaliq, and the Mongols departed en masse to return to the steppes. In other areas, particularly Russia and the Crimea, they remained a viable threat until well in the nineteenth century. Mongols in the Crimea retained their identity until they were forcibly relocated by Josef Stalin in the early twentieth century.

    After the Mongols: The vacuum left by the departing Muslims was soon filled primarily by Turkish peoples. Notable among them was Tamerlane, a Turkish conqueror who invaded Persia.

    Tamerlane was born c. 1336 near Samarkand, and took Genghis Khan as his role model. He came from a family of minor nobility, but clawed his way to the top. As a boy, he attempted to steal a sheep and suffered an arrow wound to his leg as a result, which left him with a permanent limp. Although his given name was Tamer, he became known as Tamer-I lang, "Tamur the Lame." It was translated into English as Tamerlane.

    Tamerlane came to power in 1370 by eliminating his rivals or persuading them to join him. He spent the rest of his life on campaigns of conquest. He attacked Persia and Afghanistan, and forced the cities there to pay taxes on their trade and agricultural production. He attacked the Golden Horde in the Caucasus and severely weakened it. He also invaded India and sacked Delhi ferociously, but never attempted to incorporate India into his Empire. He was preparing a campaign against China when he became ill and died in 1405.

    Tamerlane was a conqueror, not a governor, much like Genghis Khan. Most of his adult life was spent fighting and planning campaigns. In fact, during his final illness, he was carried around in a litter preparing for the invasion of China. He never created an imperial administration; but rather ruled through tribal leaders who were his allies, and relied on existing bureaucratic structure to collect taxes and tribute. His loose administrative structure doomed his empire shortly after his death. His sons and grandsons engaged in bitter conflicts that caused the empire to contract, and its divisions into four regions. His successors were the Mughal, Safavid, and Ottoman Empires. All reflected his legacy.

    Foundations of the Ottoman Empire: Large numbers of nomadic Turks migrated into Anatolia, often following charismatic leaders. One such leader was Osman, who created a small state in the fourteenth century in Anatolia. He declared independence from the Saljek Sultan in 1299; and built a state at the expense of the Byzantine Empire. His followers became known as Osmanlis, or Ottomans.

    The Ottomans established a stronghold in the Balkans and the Gallipoli Peninsula and by 1380 were the most powerful people in the Balkan peninsula. They were soon in a position to challenge Constantinople itself.