alt   Welcome   alt   Travelogues   alt




Great Steppe Empires of Asia


These notes aim to provide a quick historical background on the great nomadic tribes whose presence over 20 centuries contributed to shaping the countries I visited on this trip. I personally find these tribes fascinating because, having been collectively grouped as "the barbarians", their history is little known in the western world in spite of the fact that they have had a major impact on all the sedentary peoples that settled on the periphery of their grassland empires.

The steppes and deserts covering most of Asia between the northern forests and the fertile southern basins have been inhabited since the bronze age (2000 - 1500 BC) by organized societies whose history is not well known because, being nomadic, these people did not leave the physical traces (cities, forts, castles, temples, monuments, etc.) that landmark the passage of those who chose agriculture and a sedentary life. They did however leave bronze, silver and gold artwork of astonishing sophistication and antiquity (bronze axes 1500 BC in Siberia, Cimerian bronze and gold 1200 BC in the steppe north of the Black sea, Scythian gold 800 BC north of the Caspian, Hsiong-Nu bronze art 600 BC from Baikal & Chita, etc).

Nomadic tribes who move herds from pasturage to pasturage over vast steppes are the natural enemies of fixed communities who lead sedentary lives based on agriculture. Nomads own only what they can carry while agriculturalists accumulate surpluses which become tempting booty for nomad raiders. This basic truism has been the most important factor in the history of China, of Russia and of the Central Asian Countries until cannons and muskets destroyed the natural advantage mounted archers have over foot soldiers.

The history of the steppe tribes is very complex. They were always moving, sometimes over long distances and their allegiances were short lived because they were not tied down to any particular piece of land. For the purpose of this travelogue, these notes have therefore to be limited to the most important events that have marked the countries I have just visited. They also have to simplify and cut corners to provide a common thread between China and the ex soviet countries which are the subject of this paper. A good start is to classify the steppe people into three main linguistic families, Indo-European, Turkic and Mongol. It is also useful to trace the evolution of their religious identity between Shamanist, Manicheist, Nestorian, Buddhist and Muslim in order to understand their movements.

The Cimerian, Scythian, (or Saka) and Sarmatian barbarians mentioned in greek and roman history spoke indo-European languages. The Saka, who had stopped Alexander's eastward expansion, controlled north central asia and related tribes, the Yue-Tsi were occupying the Tarim basin oases when the Han began their westward expansion in 200 BC. Pushed out of Gansu by the Han and out of the Tarim by the Hsiong-nu, the Yue-Tsi moved west into Saka lands and both overran greek Bactriana around 150 BC giving rise to the indo-European Buddhist Kushan Dynasty which controlled northern India, Afghanistan and Sogdiana until the 3rd century AD. Today's  Tajiks  are descendants of these tribes who converted to Islam. Their indo-European language is similar to Persian but they are now surrounded by turkic speaking Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Uighur people.

The Turkic culture and languages are believed to have originated in the 5th century BC around the upper Ienissei river in today's Siberia. Turkic speaking tribes migrated from that area westward to the steppes north of the Aral and Balkash lakes where they gave rise to the  Huns  who later gained control of the plains between the Ural and the Carpathian mountains from the resident indo-European tribes in the 4th century AD. A century later these fierce mounted archers terrorized Europe under the leadership of  Attila . During the same time frame, other turkic speaking tribes migrated eastward to the area north of China where they became known as  Hsiung-nu  by the Chinese as early as the 4th century BC. The Great Wall was built by the Qin and Han Dynasties to defend China from the raids of their indomitable cavalry. The fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD left China weak and divided and a century later the Topa Turks had conquered northern China, had adopted Buddhism and Chinese ways and had founded the  Northern Wei Dynasty .

During this time, Mongol speaking tribes led by "Khans" from eastern Mongolia and Manchuria started their expansion in the northern steppes previously occupied by the turkic speaking Hsiung-nu led by "Chan-yu". By the 5th century their mongol Juan-Juan Empire controlled territories from Manchuria to lake Balkash including a number of turkic tribes such as the  Kyrgyz from the Ienissei.

This first mongol empire was however short lived. Boumin, a turkic vassal, rebelled and crushed the Mongols completely in 552 with the help of the Northern Wei who remembered their turkic origins. Boumin took the title of Khan of the Blue Turks (or K'ou-kiue)whose Western and Eastern Khanates controlled the northern steppes from Manchuria to the Aral sea. The Western Khanate lasted for more than a century before its tribes were dispersed by the Tang's westward expansion in 651. The Eastern Khanate fared better as it expanded under its Khan Motcho who subjugated many independent turkic tribes such as the Kyrgyz around the Ienissei and the Qarluk around the Ili before his death in 716. It fell however in 744 following the rebellion of the Basmil, Qarluk and Uighur tribes.

The Uighur picked up the pieces and founded their own Uighur Dynasty which lasted a century (744 - 840). The Uighur (from around the Selenga river), developed one of the first turkic alphabets by adapting the ancient sogdian alphabet to convey turkic phonemes. Following the defeat of the Tang on the Talas river in 751, China was expelled from Central Asia and suffered eight years of civil war led by the mongol mercenary Nan Luchan. The Tang Emperor appealed for help to the Uighur Khan offering him the hand of one of his daughters in exchange. The Uighur Khan Mo-yen-cho accepted and helped the Tang regain Luoyang in 757. In 762 his son Teng-li Meou-yu again regained Luoyang from the rebels for the Tang. There he met Manichaean missionaries and he brought them back to Mongolia to convert his people. The Uighur writing, the Manichaean religion and frequent friendly exchanges between their capital Kara-Balgasun and China civilized but also weakened the Uighur. They were overrun in 840 by the still savage Kyrgyz who replaced them in the heart of Mongolia. The defeated  Uighur  tribes migrated to the Tarim basin oases where they still are today.

Back in 686, the mongol Khitan tribes, established in the Liao river region of Manchuria, raided northern China. The declining Tang obtained (for a price) the assistance of the Western Turk Khan Motcho to crush them severely in 697. The Khitan's expansion was thus retarded 3 centuries but it came anyway in 929 when they chased the Kyrgyz tribes (who had replaced the Uighur), back to the Ienissei and even further to the far western steppes near the Caspian sea. The Khitan established their hegemony over northern China from Datong west of Beijing to Manchuria and put the wild Jurchen tribes of the Ussuri under their vassalage. It took only a little more than a century for the Khitan to loose their nomad warrior abilities and to fall before the rebellion of their still vigorous eastern vassals. The  Jurchen overran the Khitan territories in 1114, founded the "Chinese" Kin Dynasty and continued on to chase the Song from Kaifeng to Hangzhou on the southern coast in 1132.

In the west, the iranian Samanid Empire had been divided up in 999 between Muslim turkic Ghaznavid Sultans from Afghanistan who controlled Khorassan south of the Amu-Darya and Muslim turkic Qarakhanid Khans from Issik Kul and Kashgaria who took Transoxiana and the steppes beyond the Syr-Darya. Taking advantage of conflicts between these two, a third turkic tribe from north of the Aral Sea, the  Seljuk , undertook their expansion which covered Khorassan, Persia, Iraq and Turkey around 1040.

At the end of the 12th century, China was divided between the south ruled by the Chinese Song Dynasty from its capital Hangzhou and the north, controlled by the mongol Jurchen, calling themselves the Kin Dynasty, from their capital Beijing. The Gansu corridor was held by the Tangut-Tibetan Si-Hia kingdom and the territories west as far as the Syr-Darya were in the hands of the Kara-Khitan whose vassals the Karakhanids occupied Kashgaria while the Tarim oases was home to the Uighur who had converted, some to Buddhism, some to the Nestorian variety of Christianity. Transoxiana and most of Persia were in the hands of the turkic Muslim Khorezm Shahs. That was sedentary Asia. The steppes, homeland of nomads, was shared between various independent tribes, some turkic (Kyrgyz, Kerait, Uighur), some mongol (Oirat, Tatar, ) and some turco-mongol (Naiman, Markit).

Temudjin who was to become Genghis Khan was born in 1155 on the Onon, a tributary of the Amur which forms the northeast border of China with Russia today. Made an orphan at 12, his formative years were spent in extreme poverty and hardship which he overcame with the help of his brother Qassar. At 20 he married a clan chief's daughter, Borte, and became the vassal of the Kerait king, Togrul who later helped him rescue his wife from the Markit tribe that had kidnapped her. In 1196 he is elected Khan of the mongol tribes and adopts the name Genghis. Two years later he and Togrul defeat the Tatar who had murdered his father. In 1203 he defeats Togrul and the Kerait submit to his authority. The following year, it's the Naiman's turn to be beaten and to submit. In 1206 a great kuriltai (assembly) of all mongol and turkic tribes, held on the shores of the Onon river, proclaim Genghis "Supreme Khan" of "All Those Who Live in Felt Tents".

Now he began building his empire by forcing the Xi Hia kingdom who held Gansu into vassalage in 1209 and by taking Beijing from the Kin and forcing them to retreat to Kaifeng in 1215. He accepted the voluntary submission of the Kara-Khitan (Ili, Talas, Issik Kul and Kashgaria) in 1218 and overran the Khorezm empire taking Samarkand in 1220 and Urgench in 1221. His generals Djebe and Subotai raided Persia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, passed north of the Caucasus to defeat the turkic Qipchak tribes and their Russian allies, taking Kiev in 1222. He died in 1227 while scourging the rebellious Xi Hia in Gansu.

On Genghis Khan's death, his second son Chaghatai, inherited the territories between the Amu-Darya and Kublai Khan's China (which did not include today's Xinjiang.) In the 14th century, the Chaghatai Khanate split into a sedentary branch that converted to Islam, adopted agriculture and settled in Transoxania, south of the Syr-Darya and a nomad branch that preserved the mongol ways and were the masters of Mogholistan between the Syr-Darya and China.

Timur, a Turkic vassal of the Chaghatai Mongols in Transoxiana overcame his masters and became the scourge of Central Asia known in the west as  Tamerlane . His empire extended from the Ferghana valley to the Black Sea when he died in 1407. His son Chah Rokh could not prevent it from disintegrating into rival splinters. After decades of fighting, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Persia fell under the solid control of the  Turcomans  around 1460 in the west and the Chaghatai reaffirmed their hold on Mogholistan under Khan Younous around 1480 in the east.

After the break up of Tamerlane's empire the Sheybanid horde (from Genghis Khan's grandson Sheyban), who occupied lands southeast of the Ural mountains and who included some Kyrgyz tribes, took the name of Uzbek around 1350 in honour of the Qipchak Khan Ozbeg who had converted most of his horde to Islam a century earlier. Continued discord between the weakened descendants of Timur had left Transoxania open to invasion. The Uzbek invaded the Khorezm (south of the Aral Sea), and Transoxiana (today's Uzbekistan) where they took Samarkand in 1500. When they began to adapt to sedentary life, (history repeats itself), the Kyrgyz and other dissident tribes (who became known as Kazak or "revolted adventurers") split off from the Uzbek and established an independent horde in northern Mogholistan with the blessing of the Chaghatai Khanate.

At about that time the Oirat mongol tribes began their expansion out of their traditional lands west of lake Baikal, displacing the remaining Kyrgyz from the Ienissei area and applying pressure on the Kyrgyz-Kazak who moved westward and separated into three hordes with the Great Horde locating between the Tian Shan and lake Balkash, the Small Horde between the Ural river and the Aral sea and the Middle Horde, north of the other two. They became today's  Kazaks. 

Around 1560, Kyrgyz-Kazak tribes moved into the Issik Kul region and became known as Kara-Kyrgyz, the forbears of today's  Kyrgyz . The last of the Djaghatai Khans were left with only Kashgaria which soon broke up into several minor Khoja kingdoms.

Meanwhile, the expanding Oirat formed the  Djungar  Empire in 1680 subjugating western Mongolia, eastern Kazakstan, the Tian Shan, and Kashgaria. Hard pressed by the Oirat, the three Kazak hordes accepted the protection of the Russians who built a series of forts but did little else until the Manchu decimated the Oirat population, liquidated the Djungar empire and annexed Kashgaria in 1760. Then, the Russians moved in, annexed the Kazak territories and brought in Cossack settlers to farm the land.

Mounted archers could not cope with cannons and muskets and the era of Steppe Empires was over...


Please use your browser's back button to return to the previous page.