Episode 1 Steppes and Peoples
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)
Dr Kenneth Harl
I love this lecturer. He’s a classic nerdy professor with a great deal of passion about this topic.
Harl starts by describing the 1258 AD sack of Baghdad (capitol of the Abbasid Caliphate) by Lagu, grandson of Genghis Kahn. At the time, Baghdad had been an intellectual center for centuries, collecting Indian, Persian and Greek source documents in algebra, medicine, geography and other important areas of study. Lagu totally destroyed the city of one million, leveling mosques, palaces, libraries, residents and freely massacring its inhabitants.
According to Harl, except for The Secret History of the Mongols (written Mongolian in 1227 AD), there are few surviving texts written by nomads themselves.
He credits Proto-Indo-European Speakers (who first domesticated horses between the Black and Caspian Seas around 6000 BC) for perfecting the nomadic way of life. Eventually adopted by Mongolian and Turkish speakers, this initially this consisted of seasonal migrations in search of pastures and water. It eventually included longer term migrations as population pressure caused them to seek out new lands. Their horses were a vital source of milk and “kumis”, fermented mare’s milk that they traded for vegetables, grain, alcohol and luxuries.
The PIE themselves perfected the use of “gers” (mobile tents mounted on ox carts). The Greek historian Herodotus was the first European to write about them in the 5th century BC. The nomadic way of life continues on the Eurasion steppes to the present day.
Harl divides the history of Eurasian nomads into three distinct periods, based on the military threat they posed to settled civilizations:
- 900-600 BC (the Early Iron Age) – when early nomads invented the composite bow* and trained all their “free” adult males as mounted archers
- 670 – 1258 AD – after Turkish nomads invented fixed stirrups, greatly improving the mobility and accuracy of mounted archers.
- 1258 AD (sacking of Baghdad) to present – modern nomad life
*The composite bow wasn’t surpassed (in its effectiveness in battle) until the development of small firearm. Chinese and Indian rulers eventually recognized that the only way to defeat hostile nomads was to train their own mounted warriors.
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