How the Arrival of the Turks Transformed the Steppes

Episode 14: The Turks: Transformation of the Steppes

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Harl dates the beginning of the Middle Ages to the domination of the Eurasian steppes by Turks (who had migrated from the Orcon Valley in Inner Mongolia). In 330 AD, the Turks formed their first viable steppes confederations. Their success in defeating other tribes stemmed mainly from their superior saddles with metal stirrups, their improvements in the composite bow and their impressive skill as metallurgists. Their military tactics (combining simple mounted archers with heavily armored cavalry with lances) would only be defeated by the advent of firearms in the 15th century.

After negotiating terms with China’s Wei kingdom,[1] they went to war with the Hephthalites [2] to cash in on the Silk Road trade. In the late sixth century the Göktürks assimilated a number of Turkic tribes to form the Göktürk Khagnate. The latter expanded rapidly and broke into the Eastern and Western Göktürk Khagnates.

In 618 AD the Tang dynasty re-unified China and went to war against the Eastern Khagnate, which splintered into independent tribes. Thousands of Turks were captured and taken to China to serve in the military. China subsequently conquered and took control of the Western Khagnate as well.

Following the collapse of the Tang dynasty in 680-681 AD, the Göktürk Khagnates were restored.

By 700 AD the Uighur Turks had captured sufficient territory to assimilate the earlier Göktürk Khagnates. Mainly embracing Manichaeism,[3] the Uighurs tolerated all religions, built towns and developed their own written language. They enjoyed close relationships both with caravan cities and Chinese emperors. As well as marrying half their khans to Chinese princesses, they also adopted Chinese culture and religions.

In 845 AD the Uighur Khagnate collapsed following an internal civil war, and the majority of Uigurs migrated to the Tarim Basin.

Harl views the sophisticated administrative skills of the khagnates as a dress rehearsal for the Mongolian empire. In fact, Ghenghis Khan’s owed  his vast empire to the Uighurs he employed as administrators.

[1] In 220 AD, the Han empire disintegrated into three separate kingdoms, with the Wei kingdom controlling northern China.

[2] SeeThe Political Forces Controlling the Steppes When Rome Fell

[3] How the Silk Road Propagated Buddhism and Other Major Religions, as Well as Written Language

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

1 thought on “How the Arrival of the Turks Transformed the Steppes

  1. Pingback: The Turkmen Role in the Rise of China’s Tang Dynasty | The Most Revolutionary Act

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.