Lecture 21: Central Asia: Tribal Nomadism and Settled Life

This week we will consider the history of Central Asia. Until now, we have pursued mostly the history of settled civilizations and have concentrated on the many ways that agriculture, trade, and conquest shaped the lives of ancient peoples. Central Asia, however, is not particularly fertile, and for that reason the societies it produced took markedly different forms from the civilizations we have already studied. Thus, today we will consider another type of social organization, tribal nomadism, which is a highly specialized way of life that made survival in Central Asia’s harsh environment possible.
I will explain the nature of tribal nomadism in a moment. First, however, I want to consider Central Asian geography as a backdrop against which to understand this very specialized way of life. Central Asia is basically a big flat, dry, desolate plain. Historically, its geography has worked to separate cultures. If you look at a map of Central Asia, you will notice that the great civilizations we have covered—China, India, Persia, the Mediterranean world—exist on Central Asia’s margins. This does not mean, however, that the world’s great civilizations were truly isolated from each other, since a thin web of human activity stretch across this region in the form of trade and migration. On of the major themes that will run through this lecture and the next is the way that the peoples who had been marginalized by living in Central Asia became central to world history.
Central Asia’s main geographic characteristic is lack of water. Located far from the world’s oceans, and possessing only a few rivers, there are only limited opportunities to make use of the kinds of irrigation techniques we have already discussed extensively in earlier lectures. In addition, although bounded by great mountain ranges, the region lacks mountains of its own that could encourage rainfall. There is, therefore, little annual precipitation within Central Asia, since it all falls on the other side of the regions southern mountain range. Central Asia comprises mountains, desert, or steppe.
Let us now consider this region’s extent. Central Asia extends north until it reaches the Siberian forests. It runs south into the ring of mountains that runs from southern China, across India, to the Persian Gulf and the Black Sea. The highest of these mountain peaks reaches 7,000 meters, truly making this area the top of the earth. Only a few of these mountains are, however, so difficult to pass that they have completely separated peoples. India is, perhaps, the most difficult place to get to from Central Asia, though not impossible. It has, therefore, had a largely separate history, though not without nomadic interference. Other mountainous regions, however, are more accessible, which has meant that places such as Tibet and eastern Iran have been strongly linked to Central Asia’s sphere. In the east, Central Asia ends with China’s forests, and especially the Great Wall. In the west, it runs into Romania and the Ukraine, where the land becomes more fertile and conducive to agriculture.
In order to understand this region more clearly, we need to divide it into two parts. In the north, Central Asia is dry, but has much grassland. It is no good for farming, but offers much pastureland, which is fundamental to the nomadic way of life. In the south the land becomes more arid, though there are oases that provide good farmland. These oases are important in two ways. First, they were important to the nomads both as trading partners and targets for despoliation. Second, these oases became nodes in a trading network that connected the great civilizations that existed on Central Asia’s margins to each other. Goods moved back and forth across the desert slowly, but continually. (In this sense, the camel was as important to the history of this region as it was to the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.)
Having discussed the geographic backdrop, we must now consider what nomads were and meant in world history. Nomadism is one of the most highly specialized ways of living ever developed by human beings. Nomads shepherd various animals, including cows, sheep, goats, and horses, and rely completely on them for most of their daily sustenance, as the animals provided the nomads with milk, meat, and blood. It was, for example, a common practice among nomads to open an animal’s vein, mix the blood with milk, and then drink it. The animal’s wound would then be closed, so that it could give blood another day. The nomads used every part of their animals to survive. Animal skins were made into clothing. Animal bones were turned into tools. Animal dung was used for fuel. Animal hair was turned into a felt that the nomads used to make tents.
The word nomad in English has a connotation of randomness, so that one might think nomads simply wandered from place to place. This was not the case. Nomads migrated; they did not wander. Their movements were planned, based on the weather and geography, and repeated, with people and animals returning to the same places year after year. Some nomads might travel great distances with their herds to find good pastureland in the flat areas of Central Asia. Some might only change altitudes, moving a mountain to flee the heat or down again to flee the cold.
Nomads based their societies on a form of tribal organization that we have already seen in Arabia: Families, clans, tribe, and tribal confederations. A nomad was, therefore, born into a complicated social and political world that required not only knowledge of how to raise and protect animals but also political smarts, since forging alliances and manipulating traditions to one’s advantage were inherently part of living a successful nomadic life.
If nomads lived in a complicated environment with respect to each other, they also engaged in complicated interactions with settled, agricultural peoples. Nomads were never fully self-sufficient, as they needed products that were only made in towns. Nomads traded valuable items to towners, such as horses, cows, fur, fleece, wool, hair, slaves, and birds of prey, such as eagles and falcons, receiving in return grain, weapons, kitchen ware, animal harnesses, and luxury items, such as silk, precious metals, jewels, and tea. Of course, nomads also stole things, engaging in extensive raiding against settled peoples, when the opportunity arose. This arrangement suggests the ambivalent relationship that nomads had to the towns. They needed the products that farms and local industries produced, but they lived separate and different lives. I have already mentioned in the lecture on Persia that nomadic peoples tended to look down on towners, seeing them as weak and unworthy of respect.
The ambivalence that nomads felt toward settled people was rooted in the difficult life that they lived. Nomads spent most of their lives in the saddle, herding their animals and defending them against other nomads. There was little comfort in this life. Each night tents had to be set up and then broken down. If they were far away from trading posts, nomads might have to go long periods without eating solid food. The games nomads played were reflective of this difficult life. Horse races, shooting contests, herding contests, sword fights, all these things honed skills that towners lacked. This is important, since these skills were readily transferable to war, giving nomadic life a martial culture that exacerbated the sense of difference the nomads felt between them and the towns. Nomads, for instance, were deadly archers, able to hit stationary targets reliably at 200 yards. In addition, they could shoot their arrows from horseback, which was a deadly combination that allowed them to strike quickly and severely. Nomads were, therefore, difficult to defeat militarily, since they did not have to stand and fight, but could come and go, inflicting great losses, while suffering few of their own. They could even defeat an enemy while seemingly in retreat. Nomads practiced on battle technique in which they would ride away from the enemy and the turn back to fire at their enemies over the shoulder.
The completely separate life that nomads led is important historically, since their particular skills allowed them to take over a good part of the world. In a moment, I will discuss one nomadic people of great historic importance, the Turks. In the next lecture, I will consider the most successful of the nomads, the Mongols. Before I get into the specifics, however, I want to speak generally about what a nomadic empire meant. Nomads had two crucial characteristics that influenced the way they managed their empires. First, they were traders, which meant that they supported the movement of goods through their empires. Second, they were not religiously doctrinaire. Why are these two things important? Well, if you consider Central Asia again, you can see that it was the necessary crossing point for all trade between the large empires in the margin. Nomads were, as we will see next time, often a destructive force. But once in control, they made trade and cultural exchange possible.
Second, although many nomads became Muslims, their religious attitudes were much like those we will see in sub-Saharan Africa, in that traditional social relationships and practices persisted in spite of Islamic doctrine. For example, since nomadic women led the same difficult lives as the men, the nomadic view of women was quite different. Sexual mores were hardly as stringent as there was no emphasis on maintaining the woman’s virginity until marriage, nor was there any real expectation of fidelity. In contrast to practices in the Middle East, in Central Asia women worked and fought alongside the men, mixing freely with them. Of course, this was no utopia for women, since they were not free individuals, being subject to a bridal price and up for sale at any moment. So we do not want to say that one form of life was better for women than another.
What it I want to note, however, is the importance of property and inheritance to gender relations. In a settled region, such as the Middle East, women were more constricted, because knowing who the father of a child was determined the inheritance rights. Among nomads, however, no one owned land and the key pieces of property, the animals, were owned collectively by the tribe. Everything else was dedicated to keeping these animals alive and well. Moreover, since nomads were mobile, they could move to new food sources in the event of famine. For settled people, the fear of having too many mouths to feed was a constant concern. This suggests another characteristic of nomadic society that was not common in the towns, social fluidity. Nomads were usually divided into two groups, nobles and commoners. Nobles gained their status by fighting battles or providing sound leadership in times of crisis. Leadership status was not, however, permanent, as families rose and fell over time. Particularly brave commoners could rise to noble status over the lives, while less gifted nobles could lose that status. Nomadic tribes were, thus, constantly in a state of social flux, which is usually not the case in settled life.
This leads me to another point that directs our attention to future imperial policies. Nomads were much less dogmatic on religious issues than were, say, their counterparts in southern Central Asia’s oases. There, isolation led to narrow-mindedness and religious bigotry. When nomads ruled, however, they generally tolerated all religions, as long they were no threat to their political power. Of course, nomads’ rise to power was often gruesome. Nomadic military campaigns were bloody affairs, with warriors often slaughtering every living thing in a city and laying waste to huge swaths of agricultural territory. Nomads may have brought larger markets and religious tolerance, but they also often brought death and destruction. History is, as always, full of ambiguities.
With that, I will now turn to the first of the great nomadic tribes, the Turks. The Turks were never a single group, but were organized into many tribes. As a group they probably emerged around the first century AD in what is today western China and spread throughout central Asia. These tribes were organized around shamans, religiously inspired people who communicated with the gods and informed their people of God’s will. The Turks, however, came into contact with many different peoples in their nomadic travels, and they accepted other religious beliefs, integrating them into their own. By the sixth century, various Turkish groups had accepted Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, and Manichaeism. In the tenth century, Turkish tribes that had come into contact with the Abbasid Caliphate began to accept Islam. This was an enormously important historical moment. As Turkish tribes migrated eastward into the Byzantine Empire and south into India, they took Islam with them. As Turkish political and military power became greater, so too did Islam’s geographical expanse.
As nomads, Turks were great warriors, striking swiftly and overcoming native defenders with both surprise and innovative battle tactics. During the tenth century, Turkish armies attacked and absorbed settled civilizations that bordered on Central Asia. They entered Persia, Anatolia, and India, defeating local defenders at every turn. They also burrowed deeply into the Islamic world. From the eighth to the tenth centuries, the Seljuk Turks slowly moved into Abbasid territory, taking up positions within the military hierarchy. By the mid-eleventh century, the Seljuks had become so powerful that the Caliphs were reduced to mere figureheads. In 1055, the Seljuk Turk Tughril Beg was named sultan, or chieftain, which put the daily workings of government in Turkish hands. The Seljuks then concentrated on expanding their influence, particularly in Syria and Palestine.
While some Turks became powerful in the Middle East, others moved into Anatolia, with great consequences for the future. After Byzantium lost Egypt to the Umayyad Caliphs, Anatolia became its main source for food. In 1071, the Seljuk Turks led a group of Turkish tribes against Byzantine armies and handed the Byzantines a great defeat at Manzikert. Once the Byzantine army was smashed, Turkish tribes moved into Anatolia easily and were often welcomed by the locals, since they had grown tired of the Empire’s high taxes and religious interference. The Turkish immigrants effected a complete social and political change in the region. The local governments taxed the Byzantine church heavily and restricted its public activities, while encouraging people to convert to Islam through the promise of economic and social advancement. By 1453, when Turkish armies finally took Constantinople, Anatolia was no longer Christian and Greek-speaking, but had become Muslim and Turkish-speaking.
The Seljuks overcame Persia and Byzantium, but another group, called the Ghaznavids acquired what is today Afghanistan. Led by Mahmud of Ghazni, these Turks began their empire in the eleventh century with no other goal than to plunder. We have already discussed these people in the section on India. The Ghaznavids moved into he Punjab and then along the Ganges into Bengal. By the thirteenth century, the new Sultanate of Delhi controlled most of northern India, though Islam was never able to replace Hinduism in most of the area under Ghaznavid control.
The Turks also had a great impact on what would become Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The Ghaznavids were zealous Muslims, to say the least, and fought both Buddhism and Hinduism in their area of control. It was they, in fact, who broke Buddhism’s power in India, pushing it into China. Ghaznavid forces reduced Hindu cities, stole their wealth, and slaughtered the locals, and are the main reason that Afghanistan and Pakistan are Muslim today.
As I have already noted, we will discuss the Mongols next time and in a future lecture we will pick up the Turks again in our discussion of the Ottoman Empire. Before I conclude, however, I want to put the nomadic peoples into a broader historical context, because they represent an important change in the nature of empire. Until now, we have associated empire with population and taxing power. A state that is rich in people, agricultural resources, and trade can grow and then attack its neighbors. The nomads are, however, different. There are usually relatively few of them; their lifestyle and the world they come from do not allow for large or dense populations. Paradoxically, however, their power—and, by extension, their historical importance—stem from their lifestyle. Expert horseman and marksman, they had a distinct military advantage over settled societies, in spite of their small numbers. This military advantage persisted in Central Asia until the coming of guns and artillery in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. When people could defend themselves at greater distances and fire with accuracy, nomadic battle tactics were doomed. So with the rise of both the Turks and then the Mongols, we are witnessing an important moment in history. One that would last for three centuries, but one that would also come to an end. The nomads would play their part and then exit the world stage.