The vast steppes of central Asia – those endless grasslands across which nomadic groups herded their flocks and herds – possess an enigmatic place in world history.
When one studies the great centres of civilization in Eurasia, in the Middle East, India, China and Europe, central Asia plays a marginal role. It is off-stage most of the time, but in its wastes lurks an ever-present threat, which now and again is manifested in violent and destructive assaults on the settled populations of those regions.
Take a step back and look at the history of Eurasia as a whole, however, and a different picture emerges. One sees that the steppes play a central part. Moreover, one can see that their influence is not merely destructive, but contains much that is constructive as well.
So what, actually, was going on in these great spaces? And how, exactly, did they influence the development of civilization in Eurasia?
Central Asian background
Except in a few favoured locations, the grasslands of central Asia are unsuitable for intensive farming, and are unable to support a dense population. Historically, the thinly scattered population lived in small nomadic groups, herding cattle and sheep across the vast steppes. Their settlements were tented encampments, which they moved from time to time as their herds moved on. Their men spent much of their time on their sturdy steppe ponies, accompanying their animals across the plains. They were superb horsemen, able to keep the saddle for long periods and travel huge distances.
The climatic conditions of the steppes are harsh, with searingly hot summers and freezing winters. These conditions bred a tough people. The men were skilled warriors, fighting with bow and arrow from their fast-moving ponies; their warfare was highly mobile, and when they raided agricultural populations bordering the steppe usually found it almost impossible to stand against them.
Struggles for territory and status
Each tribe had its own territory within which to herd its animals. The boundaries of these territories could be fluid, and disputes over grazing grounds were common. Vendettas between tribes and clans were also a regular feature of steppe life, and quarrels over status. Violent struggles between different groups were endemic, with each tribe and clan feeling a keen sense of its own identity.
From time to time, this situation was modified by the emergence of a stronger tribe. Through the personal qualities of a certain tribal leader, other tribes were brought into an alliance with his tribe. These formed a kind of tribal federation, which was given some cohesion by a development in which the leading clans of the different tribes were brought into personal relationship with the leader’s clan through a network of marriage alliances. An elite group thus came into being, which provided the leader with advisors and councillors.
The rise and fall of tribal federations
Such tribal federations (or confederations, as they are also called) were able to bring to bear much greater military force than individual tribes could, so surrounding tribes were soon pressured or forced to join it, or voluntarily chose to do so. Such newly-joined tribes formed an “outer group”, as distinct from the “inner group” of earlier tribes. These outer tribes were always greater in number than the inner tribes, and had lower status within the federation.
The dynamic within such a federation was always to acquire new territory, to satisfy the hunger for pasturage for its members flocks and herds. More and more tribes were coerced into joining it, with the newer tribes have ever less status within the federation and often treated as unfree or semi-free members.
But the process of expansion brought its own problems. The leader (possibly by now the original leader’s son or grandson) found himself with less direct control over his growing following. To attempt to counter this, he could place members of his own family in positions of leadership within the federation, especially as military commanders. But of course such family members thereby also became potential rivals. Another solution was therefore to place authority in the hands of his personal bondsmen, who could come to yield considerable power over the other tribes. But this was usually much resented, and led to simmering dissent which could boil over into outright rebellion at a moment of weakness for the leader or his family. With both the above scenarios, the transfer of the federation leadership from one generation to the next was a moment of danger for the existence of the entire federation.
A maelstrom of conflict
Some federations, such as those of the Göktürks and the Khazaks, endured for many generations, but all eventually fragmented. Both the rise and the fall of federations could result in the steppe regions of Eurasia becoming engulfed in a maelstrom of conflict. This was especially true when powerful federations were on the move, looking for new lands to occupy; or expanding their homelands outwards into new areas. Episodes such as the migrations of the Yuezhi and the Huns, and the rise of steppe “empires” such as the Xiongnu, the Göktürks and the Khazaks, caused turmoil over vast area as less powerful peoples were caught up in these developments (for all these examples, see below, historical overview).
Many for these were absorbed into the larger federations; others were able to lay low and survive in their homelands, perhaps paying tribute to more powerful neighbours as the price for being left comparatively undisturbed; still others migrated from one region of the steppes to another, perhaps thousands of miles away – and even out of the steppes altogether. Corridors of steppe grasslands run deep into China (the Gansu corridor), at one end of central Asia, and into Europe (the Hungarian Plain) at the other. Along these came successive peoples, such as the Tanguts who established the Western Xia state in China, and the Bulgars and Magyars, who founded two European nations, Bulgaria and Hungary respectively.
In this whole process, former tribes lost their identities, and new tribal groupings appeared. Over the centuries, it was not just tribal federations that appeared and vanished, but the individual tribes as well.
The conditions of nomadic life on the steppes meant that the peoples of central Asia were much more geared to warfare than more settled farming societies. This made their regular forays onto the agrarian civilizations all the more devastating for the latter, and as easy pickings for the former. It is hardly surprising that the agrarian civilizations bordering the steppes – in China, India, the Middle East and Europe – were attacked over and over again through history.
This was of course especially true when powerful tribal federations formed, such as the Xiongnu and the Mongols: these posed an existential threat to even large and well-organised agrarian states.
Intensively farmed land, however, is not suitable for horse grazing. Armies of horse-borne steppe warriors were unable to remain too long away from their central Asian pastures before running short of animal fodder, and indeed of the animals themselves. Quick and destructive raids were easy, but to hold agricultural regions as conquered territory represented a major challenge. To do so, the nomads had three options.
The first (and most common) option was to remain living within their steppe homelands and control farming regions by the threat of punitive raids if tribute and other forms of subservience were not forthcoming. This was the approach taken by the “barbarian” neighbours of the Chinese on repeated occasions, by the Huns in their dealings with the Roman Empire, by the White Huns with the Sasanian Empire and in India, and initially by such invaders of Europe as the Bulgars and Magyars. Later the Golden Horde Mongols used this strategy to good effect in Russia.
A second, more ambitious option, was to conquer agricultural regions adjacent to the steppes, and establish states which straddled areas of settled farming populations along with grassland areas. Nomadic forces – and their horses – could be replenished from the latter to hold down the former. Several kingdoms in north-west China, for example the Xi-Xia (Western Xia), a state which lasted from the 11th to the 13th century, were of this kind. Grander examples were the Kushan Empire, and of course the early Mongol Empire.
A third option, thankfully hardly ever used and then only partially, was for nomads to turn farmland over to grazing. This of course would result in a drastic fall in the agrarian population levels in these areas, as open pasturage is not compatible with densely populated farmland. The only example of this approach is probably the Mongol conquest of northern China, which, even though never fully carried through, dealt a devastating blow to that region, from which it took centuries to recover.
A final option was for nomadic horsemen to abandon their ancestral ways and settle down as a ruling class within an agrarian state. This was in fact the only option if an enduring state was to be established in agricultural regions, as was found by successive conquerors of China (for example the states which emerged in northern China after the fall of the Han empire). This was the course also taken by various Turkish conquerors in the Middle East, most notably the Ottomans.
Apart from raids, invasions and conquests, the peoples of the steppe had plenty of trade contacts with surrounding civilizations, going back thousands of years.
The steppes are not one vast expanse of uniform grassland; they are dotted with fertile farming areas, often on the banks of large rivers, the shores of lakes, or in oases in desert regions. Here, villages, towns and even famous cities (such as the fabled Samarkand) could grow up, which functioned as nodes in long-distance trade networks. Nomadic peoples were able to gain control of such areas whilst not abandoning their traditional way of life, and profit from taxes on the trade. This encouraged them to foster and protect these trade routes, by providing caravanseries where traders could rest, and troops to protect trade caravans against brigands.
By the second millennia BCE a series of small trading communities had appeared, strung out across a long, narrow east-west corridor of central Asia. A long-range trade route thus came into being. Along this, many local exchanges were carried out involving small, high-value goods from the Middle East, Europe and India to East Asia, and vice versa.
Ideas and technologies travelled along this route too, from ancient times. Skills in metalwork and chariot-making crossed from the Middle East to East Asia in ancient times.
It was with the rise of great empires at both ends of the route (the Han Empire in the east and the Roman Empire in the west), and of powerful and stable states in between – the Parthian and Sasanian empires in the Middle East, and the Kushan Empire in India, Afghanistan and the Transoxus region of central Asia – that enabled a well-organised trading system to develop along this corridor. Thus did the fabled Silk Road come into existence – initiated by a deliberate policy by the Han government. Trade along this central Asian route intensified, with Chinese-produced silks, highly valued in the west, as the mainstay. These were exchanged for precious metals from the Roman world (causing some Roman statesmen to worry about the drain of silver from their empire).
Later, Buddhist missionaries travelled along this route to great effect; and it is likely that later still, advances in military technology (stirrups, the crossbow, gunpowder) and in paper-making, and perhaps printing, travelled from China to Europe, helping lay the foundations for the age of Western dominance.
Although the Silk Road was initiated by the Chinese, and made possible by the great demand for luxuries within the great civilisations bordering the steppes, this trade route certainly did not rely only on these for its continued existence. As noted above, it was in the nomads’ interests to protect the trade, and successive steppe peoples played a vital part in keeping it going.
The European traveller Marco Polo described the steps that the Mongols took to ensure that trade caravans reached their destinations safely, and before them such steppe confederations the Göktürks and the Khazaks did likewise (see below).
Also, the traders who were active on this route came predominantly from central Asia itself. Chinese merchants tended to take their goods to cities near the borders, exchanging them for luxuries from distant lands; and western merchants (Byzantines, Venetians, Genoese) did likewise at Mediterranean and Black Sea ports. The transit across central Asia was mostly undertaken by Sogdian and Uygur merchants, who came from the steppe and knew its ways.
The Mongol military was composed of cavalrymen
who were able to cover large distances quickly
The history of the central Asia steppes is characterised by a dizzying and often little understood struggle between a host of different peoples. The rise of fall of many different confederacies can be confusing, so here we will focus on the highlights of steppe history, up to the rise of the Mongol Empire.
Horses seem first to have been domesticated by groups on the western steppes – north of the Black and Caspian Seas – sometime in the 4th millennium BCE. At this time, the horses were in fact small steppe ponies, unable to carry humans on their backs for any length of time, if at all. They were domesticated for their meat and milk. In the following millennia, however, they began to be used for transport as well, probably first dragging sleighs behind them, and later, when wheel technology came up from the Middle East, pulling carts.
These groups almost certainly spoke a language ancestral to the Indo-European languages of today, including English, French, German, Spanish, Persian and several South Asian tongues. In the 4th and 3rd millennia BCE their descendants fanned out across the grasslands of eastern Europe and central Asia, and then moved into the more farming regions bordering the steppes. Here they settled amongst agricultural peoples, and may well have established themselves as a ruling class, allowing them to spread their language more easily. Some of them migrated westward into Europe, where their language became eventually evolved into a whole family of language including German, Slav, Greek, Italian and Celtic.
Some time toward the end of the 3rd millennium BCE they developed the chariot, and this will have given them a decisive military advantage over other peoples. It allowed them to conquer territory in the Middle East, where they formed powerful 2nd millennium states such as the Mitanni, the Hittite, and the Kassite kingdoms. Further east they moved into Iran, where they later gave rise to the Medes and Persians, and other Iranian peoples; and into Afghanistan and northwestern India, where they were known as the Aryans, and established themselves as the ruling class over tribal societies there. The mingling of their culture with those of the indigenous cultures of the subcontinent gave rise to ancient Indian civilization.
Back on the steppes, as the Indo-Europeans moved eastward as far as the Tarim basin, in what is now northern China, they spread their way of life to other peoples. Some of these were perhaps hunter-gatherers already living on the steppes, such as (probably) the ancestors of the Turks, who may have been indigenous to the Altai mountain region. Others may have been groups of agriculturalists who moved onto the steppes from more settled regions, perhaps like the ancestors of the Xiongnu and other eastern steppe peoples, who were related to the Chinese.
The rise of the horse nomads
By the late second millennium, centuries of selective breeding had produced larger, stronger horses, which could be ridden on. This gave the rise to the truly nomadic lifestyle for which the steppe peoples are famous. Horse-riding gave them much greater mobility than before, and a major step-up in terms of military advantage. Over time the techniques used by horse-nomads gradually evolved: improved horse breeding led to stronger and stronger horses, with greater stamina. Better skills in horsemanship improved military capabilities. From now on, however, the broad outlines of steppe life remained unchanged for millennia.
During the first millennium BCE, horse-nomads became a much-feared scourge on settled agriculturalists in both eastern and western Asia. Already by the early centuries of the first millennium BCE they were having a significant impact on the history of ancient China. They harried the early Zhou kingdom of northern China, defeated attempts by the Zhou kings to subdue them, and one group, the Quanrong, played a key role in breaking the power of the Western Zhou in 770 BCE. Thousands of miles to the west, nomads of Iranian stock, the Scythians and Cimmerians, took an important part on the fall of the Assyrian Empire (611 BCE), and in destroying the important kingdom of Phrygia, in Asia Minor at around the same time.
Responses by agricultural empires
It took centuries for agricultural states to develop even partially effective defences against the nomads. Several late Zhou Chinese states erected walls, made out of beaten earth, against raids from the steppes, and the rise of a unified Chinese state in the late 3rd century BCE, under the Qin and Han dynasties, allowed these walls to be joined into a unified defence system – the precursor to the present Great Wall of China, which continues to stagger tourists who visit it. The erection and maintenance of these defences seems to have been an effective response to the “barbarian” problem the Chinese faced; and later, in the first century BCE, the Chinese turned the table on the eastern steppe peoples when the Han empire brought a large chunk of central Asia under their rule. It was this development which allowed the famous trade bridge across Asia, the Silk Road, to become established.
In the west, a different solution was found. Here, in the mid-3rd century BCE, an Iranian nomadic group called the Parthians took over a settled agricultural region in northern Iran. This allowed them to develop a mixed farming economy, which in turn led them to breed larger and stronger war-horses. These were able to bear the weight of soldiers wearing suits of metal armour. The Parthians were able to evolve a more heavily-armed cavalry than had ever been achieved before, which was effective at keeping the nomadic tribes of the steppes at bay for centuries to come, under both the Parthians and their successors, Sasanians.
Turmoil on the steppes
Meanwhile, the creation of a barrier to the eastward aggression of the steppe peoples seems to have resulted in a build-up of pressure for grazing land on the central Asian grasslands. Sometime in the mid-2nd century BCE the resulting competition led to a clash between two leading peoples, the Yuezhi and the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu got the better of the struggle, and most of the Yuezhi cut their losses and migrated westward, into the region near the River Oxus, east of the Caspian Sea. Here they pressured a group of Scythians who were living there into moving into Afghanistan and northwestern India, where they established a large kingdom which took over the Hellenistic states of that region.
The Yuezhi eventually followed their example, also establishing a kingdom in Afghanistan before conquering a huge empire stretching far into India. This is known to history as the Kushan Empire, named after the leading clan of the Yuezhi. The Kushan Empire remained in control of much of central Asia, and therefore of a crucial stretch of the Silk Road. The Kushan rulers, being Buddhists, were in a strategic position to spread their faith, and Kushan missionaries were played a crucial part in spreading this religion to China.
Meanwhile the Xiongnu themselves, or at least a branch of them, seem to have been following this route west as well. Many scholars think that the Huns who terrorised the Roman Empire in the 5th century under their famous leader Attila, and the White Huns who terrorized Sasanian Persia and Gupta India at the same time, were descended from these westward-moving Xiongnu.
Back in China, the unity which the Han dynasty had brought to China was now a thing of the past, and this fatally compromised the defences which the Chinese could put up against the steppe “barbarians”. In the 4th century, different groups of central Asian peoples invaded northern China, and were able to establish several kingdoms in the region. The mingling of native and nomadic traditions formed an important stage in the development of Chinese civilization.
The Göktürks and the Khazaks
On the steppes themselves, meanwhile, a Turkish confederacy, led by the Göktürks, rose to dominate a vast tract of central Asia, from the mid-6th century. They allied with the Sasanians to destroy the power of the White Huns in 560 CE, and their power soon came to stretch from the borders of China to the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Although the confederacy divided into western and eastern halves, these seem to have continued on friendly terms and to have co-operated with one another. Between them, the Göktürks controlled almost the entire length of the Silk Road.
The western Göktürks were replaced by the Khazaks in the 7th century, while the eastern Göktürks endured into the 8th. The histories of both the Khazaks and the Göktürks were disrupted by a major challenge from the two major agricultural-based powers of the day, the Tang empire of China and the Islamic Caliphate of the Arabs. Between them, they briefly dominated central Asia. For a time the Göktürks were absorbed into the Tang empire, and to the west the Kazakhs were forced northward by the Muslim armies of the Caliphate. However, both steppe confederacies recovered in the late 8th century, and the Khazaks reached the peak of their power in the late 8th century by bringing a region stretching from the Caspian Sea to the River Danube under their dominance.
The Khazaks had a more sedentary way of life than other steppe peoples, with an economy to some extent based on farming. They controlled the western sector of the Silk Road, and under their protection towns developed in favoured locations. The Khazak rulers achieved a unique distinction by adopting Judaism as their official religion, in the mid-8th century.
Meanwhile, the eastern Göktürk confederacy had disintegrated in the 8th century. As Tang power subsided, they were succeeded by the Uyghur confederacy. This covered an area only slightly smaller than the Göktürk confederacy had, from northeast China to the Black Sea. Then in the mid-9th century an invasion of the Uyghur Mongolian homeland by another group, the Kyrgyz, prompted many of the Uyghurs to relocate to the Ordos region, in what is now northwest China. There they established a stable and prosperous kingdom which lasted from the 9th until the mid-13th century, and where a sophisticated culture which drew on elements from Iranians, Turks and Chinese sources emerged.