Episode 34: Legacy of the Steppes
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)
Dr Kenneth Harl
By 1500, the steppes nomads had ceased to play the strong historical role (as a military power and means to wealth creation and cultural exchange) they had played for 6,000 years.
In this final lecture, Harl credits their loss of power to the military revolution in Europe leading to hand held weapons and naval vessels fitted with heavy artillery. Ironically both these developments were made possibly by the Mongol Peace allowing the spread of Chinese black gunpowder to Europe.* Nomad horse archers were virtually powerless against firearms.
By 1500. the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Iran, Russia and the Mughal Empire were encroaching on the steppes, restricting nomad movement and exacting tribute along the Silk Road.
The Silk Road also declined in importance (as did the caravan cities) during the 16th century as European explorers discovered faster and safer sea routes to Europe and the Middle East. Harl explores in detail the Portuguese occupation of both coasts of Africa and India as they dominated the India Ocean. In the 17th century, they would be joined by the Dutch, English and French in their colonization of Africa and Asia.
In summing up the legacy of the steppes nomads, Harl points to the domestication of the horse and the invention of the wheel. Both, he feels, were as important as the agricultural revolution. Not only did the two inventions open up the steppes grasslands to human habitation, but they linked the steppes nomads to the prehistoric sedentary civilizations arising along major Middle East and Asian rivers.
*Ironically this was one of the few Eastern cultural innovations to make it as far as Europe.
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Fascinating. How many of these civilizations had “cities”?
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As I understand, Trace, the Ottoman, Safavid, Russian and Mughal Empire were all longstanding agricultural empires with numerous cities dating back 3,000 years and more.
I’m enjoying this series of historical vignettes about Asia. Since my local library does not subscribe to Kanopy, I rely on your summaries.
Also, I have heard that, although the Chinese invented gunpowder, they only used it for fireworks and celebrations. It took the barbaric West to adapt it for warfare.
Too true, Katherine. The barbaric West has lots to answer for.