The Mongol Conquest of India

Episode 33: Babur and Mughul India

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture concerns Babur, great grandson of Tamerlane who founded the Mughul Empire in India (1526-1530). Descended from Genghis Khan on his mother’s side, Babur (unlike Tamerlane) had the hereditary credentials to rule as khan in his own right. Born on the steppes in Andijan (in modern day Uzbekistan), he was governor of Fergana until he lost his throne in a civil uprising. As a cultivated man, he spoke Turkish and Persian.

After conquering Kabul (in modern day Afghanistan),* Babur became a vassal of the Shah of Iran and converted to Shi’a Islam. He then used his base in Kabul to recruit the nomadic cavalry that would conquer India. In 1526, he led his warriors into India (with the blessing of the Shah) to claim Tamerlane’s heritage in Lahore (see Prince of Destruction: How Tamerlane Changed the Landscape of the Middle East and Central Asia).

Employing knowledge gained from the Persian Army about field artillery and matchlocks (early hand held firearms), he quickly regained control of all northern India. After defeating the Rajputs in the Indus Valley, he ultimately came to control Delhi, Lahore and the entire upper Ganges.

When Babur died in 1530, his empire included Mughul India and the central steppes region that is now Afghanistan. His son Humayan lost the empire following an invasion by Aghans who had settled in Bengal. However with Persian support, he would regain the throne 15 years later.

Humayan’s son Akbar (1556-1605) transformed the Mughul empire from a nomadic military occupation to a sophisticated modern bureaucracy. Appointing 150,000 high level administrative officers (of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh* and Jak ethnicity), he won support from the majority Hindu population via a major program of public works. In addition to converting large sections of the Ganges into irrigated fields, he also introduced paper*** and block printing, as well as a new system of land measurement (and land tax) and a more regulated system of weights and measures. His tax revenues were very much dependent on the Hindus he relied on as tax collectors and scribes and the Hindus and Jains who were India’s money lenders and bankers.

Harl estimates that an administrative bureaucracy of 1.5 million Muslims were running an empire of 120 million non-Muslims. This contrasts with the Ottoman Empire, where all the initial administrators were slaves.

Over time a characteristic Indo-Muslim architecture developed best characterized by the Taj Mahal built by Akbar’s grandson.

The Mughul Empire (1658-1707) reached its maximum size under the sixth emperor Aurangzeb, covering nearly all of southeast Asia. Harl blames its downfall on Aurangzeb’s conversion to Sunni Islam and his campaign of terror against his Hindu subjects.

Following their occupation of India, the British Raj would inherit the administrative bureaucracy established by the Mughuls.

*Kabul sits at the entry to the Khyber Pass linking Central Asia to India.

**According to Harl, the Sikh religion is a monotheistic form of Hinduism which emerged after India was exposed to monotheistic Islam.

***Previously India had used extremely fragile palm leaf paper, which was totally unsuitable for maintaining good tax records.

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

The Conquests of Genghis Khan


Episode 26: The Conquests of Genghis Khan

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Within a few decades of taking power, Genghis Khan had assembled the largest eastern steppes confederation since the 2nd century BC.

In 1206 he reorganized the Mongol army based mainly on skill, rather than tribal affiliation as prior nomad leaders had done. He was especially skilled at moving troops and supplies long distances. For example, in 1218 he would move 35,000 men from the Mongolian capitol in the caravan city Karakarum to attack the Kara-Khitan Empire.*

In 1209 he invaded Xi Xia and took control of the Silk Road. To save themselves from obliteration, the kingdom signed a treaty agreeing to pay tribute and provide Chinese translators and engineers to develop the Mongols’ siege technology.

In 1211 he invaded the Jin Empire and took control of of their rich millet and wheat  and their manufacture of armaments and tools.

In 1218 he conquered Kara-Khitan, providing his first major challenge to the Muslim Empire. According to Harl, Arabs in Baghdad welcomed the conquest because they were fed up with Turkish rule. After capturing a few fit males captive as slave solders and shipping the prettiest women back to the steppes for his harem, he decimated the rest of the civilian population. Contemporaneous historical accounts refer to landscapes of bleached bones and pyramids of severed heads.

By 1220-21 all the lands of eastern Islam (Transoxiana, Persia and parts of Afghanistan and southern Russia) were under Mongol control.

Genghis Khan died in 1227, appointing his third son Ogidai as his successor.

*Consisting of Persia and Transoxiana (civilization located in lower Central Asia roughly corresponding to modern-day eastern Uzbekistan, western Tajikistan, parts of southern Kazakhstan, parts of Turkmenistan and southern Kyrgyzstan).

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

The First Bulgarian Empire (680 – 1018 AD)

Episode 16: Avars, Bulgars and Constantinople

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

The main focus of this lecture is the shifting alliances between the steppes nomads and the Byzantine Empire between the 6th and 10th century AD. During the reign of the emperor Justinian (527-565 AD), the Avar Khan formed an alliance with Constantinople against the western Gökturk Khanate. The latter sought to annex them as a colony. However by 575 AD, the Avars, having migrated to the Hungarian plains, had abandoned this alliance and were conducting periodic raids on the Balkan provinces of the Byzantine empire.

In a constant state of war, Byzantine forces simultaneously fought to reclaim provinces of the former eastern Roman empire (in Italy, North Africa, Armenia, Syria and the Middle East) and to repel repeated attacks by the Sassanid Khanate (Persia). In 591 AD, there was a temporary halt to the Persian-Byzantines war after the Sassanid shah was deposed and Emperor Maurice lent him troops to help him regain his throne.

Between 602-626 AD, Persia and the Avars formed an alliance and came close to conquering the Byzantine Empire. However this time the Byzantines formed an alliance with the Göturks, whose rout of the Sassanid Khanate enabled the Byzantine empire to assimilate Asia Minor, the Balkans and Italy.

The Lombards* eventually allied with the Avars to reclaim the Balkans, opening the territory to Slav settlement.**

In 790 AD, the Franks reunited western Europe under Charlemagne, who conquered the Avars in 796 and ended their presence as an organized political entity.

In the 9th and 10 century, a Turkic tribe called the Bulgars combined a Slavic infantry and a nomad cavalry to repeatedly sack the western Byzantine province and became a major power in the Balkans.

In 864 AD, the Bulgar ruler Khan Boris converted to Christianity after two monks created the Cyrillic script and translated the scriptures into the Bulgar language. He became known as Czar Boris following his conversion.

His son Vladimir raided Constantinople to pressure the emperor to offer him a royal princess in marriage. In the ensuring war, the Balkans were re-taken by the Byzantine Empire.

*The Lombands were a Germanic people originating near the Elbe River who ruled most of the Italian peninsula from 568-774 AD.

**At which point the Balkan provinces ceased to be Latin and Greek speaking.

The Parthian Empire: Rome’s Greatest Rival

Parthian Empire, Han dynasty ...

Episode 5 The Parthians

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture concerns the Parthians (Iranian-speaking offshoot of the Scythians*, Sacae (Iranian speakers from the northern steppes) and Kushans (Tocharian* speakers). All three groups began migrating into the western and central steppes after 300 BC owing to pressure the Shiongnu*** were experiencing from the Han dynasty.

The Parthian Empire, extending from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan, ruled the heartland of the former Persian empire from 247-129 BC. Most of their territory consisted of former Persian kingdoms the Parthians wrested from successors of Alexander the Great. This included the former Greek colony of Bactrim, which controlled all the important caravan cities on the trade route (via the Tarim Basin) to China.

Fighting (and winning) their battles as mounted archers, the Parthians eventually took control of Mesopotamia and Babylon. Running their empire via a sophisticated democracy, they issued a large number of silver coins, at a time China was still using copper and bronze coinage. Although the Parthians spoke Iranian, the coins are printed in Greek and carry portraits of Parthian kings, Greek goddesses and pre-Zororastrian gods.

In 100 AD, Eurasia heralded four great empires, (from west to east) the Roman, Parthian, Kushan and Han empires. Between 140-130 BC, the Kushan (along with the Sacae and the Tocharians) migrated from the northern steppes to Central Asia and India.

Roman and Parthian armies engaged in periodic skirmishes for control of Mesopotamia with neither side claiming decisive victory. In 53 BC the Roman generals Brutus and Crassus experienced crushing defeat at the hands of the Parthians. This would establish the Euphrates as the Parthian western border. After assuming power, the emperor Augustus (27BC -14 AD) negotiated a settlement allowing the Parthian elite to intermarry with the emperor’s extended family.

By 227 AD, a renewal of Roman attacks had weaken the Parthians sufficiently they were overthrown by Persia (one of their vassal states).

*See How Scythin Nomads Influenced Early Greek and Persian Civilization

**Tocharian is an extinct language spoken by inhabitants of the Tarim Basin, currently part of northern China.

***See How Steppes Nomads Influenced Early Chinese Civilization

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

How Scythian Nomads Influenced Early Greek and Persian Civilization

Episode 4 Scythians, Greeks and Persians

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture concerns the Iranian speaking nomads of the western and central Eurasian steppes. The Scythians controlled the latter from Early Iron Age (800 BC) to 300BC. The fifth century BC Greek historian Herotodus, who encountered them in the Greek colony Olbia*, was the first to write about them.

He described the Scythian federation as consisting of Inner (Royal) Scythians and Outer Dependent Tribes. According to Harl, this method of governance dates back to the Bronze Age Yamnaya Proto-Indo-European (steppe) culture (2000-1800 BC). The Royal Scythians summoned the Dependent Tribes when they went to war and also controlled the trade flowing down their rivers.

Some of the Dependent Tribes grew grain along the shore of the Black Sea, which the Royal Scythians sold it to the Greeks. Slaves and flax, timber and amber (all pilfered from from Baltic forest peoples) also featured in nomad trade with the Greeks. Greek elites were also really fond of with intricately worked Scythian jewelry and leather and woodwork. Scythian warriors also served as mercenaries to early Greek kings and successors to Alexander the Great.

These trade routes, later taken over by Turkic speaking Khazars and eventually the Mongolian Golden Horde, persisted until Russia conquered this region in the 16th century.

Herodotus describes in detail (later confirmed by archeological findings) the horse sacrifices that accompanied royal Scythian burials. Fifty horses (and riders) would be sacrificed and stuffed to accompany royal personages to the afterlife. He also describes warrior princesses (the source of the Amazon myth) who interacted freely with male warriors and princes.

The Scythians also interacted with Asia Minor and Mesopotamia from the Bronze Age on. After the Persian** king Cyrus conquered the entire Middle East in the the 6th century (see Prehistory: The Persian Empire Conquers Mesopotamia, Egypt, Libya, Kushan, the Indus Valley, and the Early Greek City States), he mounted a disastrous military expedition against them.

Alexander the Great also engaged in military skirmishes with them following his conquest of Persia. He eventually gave up trying to conquer them and set up Greek-style cities along his northern frontier to regulate their trade and collect taxes.

The Scythian federation collapsed in the third century BC, overrun by the Sarmatians. They had been pushed west by the Xiongu as they were driven west by Han Chinese armies.***

*Olbia was on the northern shore of the Russian Black Sea.

**According to Harl, the Persians were descended from Iranian-speaking nomads who moved south with their horses and their composite bows to assimilated into the settled Mesopotamian population.

***See How Steppes Nomads Influenced Eartly Chinese Civilization

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

Persian Conquest and the End of the Neo-Babylonian Empire

Episode 24: The End of the Neo-Babylonian Empire

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Dr Amanda H Podany

Film Review

This final lecture concerns the collapse of the Babylonian empire, following conquest by King Cyrus of Persia in 593 BC. The clay tablets Cyrus  left behind claim the people of Babylonia welcomed him. This may be true. The last Babylonian king Nabonidus was quite unpopular, both for the mass imposition of forced labor and for his mandate requiring all local gods be relocated to the capitol (Babylon).

When Cyrus assumed control Babylonia he wrote (in Akkadian) that Marduk wanted him to take power because Nabonidus had abandoned the Babylonian god. Cyrus also released Babylonian slaves from forced labor and allowed captured Jews to return to Jerusalem.

For the first decade or so Babylonian life continued unchanged under Persian rule. Like former Assyrian kings, Persian kings returned to Babylon every year to renew their authority (under Marduk) at the New Year’s festival.

By 539 BC the Persian empire was the largest in history, extending from the Indus Valley to the Aegean Sea.

The Axial Age (700 – 200 BC) seems to have influenced Mesopotamia as much as other areas of the world. This period saw the rise of all the world’s great religions and many of its great philosophies, including Hinduism and Jainism in India and Confucianism and Taoism in China. In Persian and Mesopotamia, it  saw the rise of the prophet Zarathustra* and a growing trend towards monotheism. During this period, Babylonians came view some gods as as having greater wisdom and power than others. It was also during this period that Jewish monotheism became much more prevalent throughout the region.

By the year 1 AD, all Mesopotamian culture seems to have vanished. Yet the legacy of the Mesopotamian civilizations lives on to the current day, thanks to their many important innovations:

  • Invention of writing
  • World’s first cities
  • World’s first laws and judicial systems
  • Invention of international diplomacy
  • Mapping of constellations, planetary movements and ability to calculate future dates of eclipses
  • Mathematical calculations necessary to construct right angle triangles
  • Base 60 number system, still used in telling time and spherical geometry.

*Zarathustra had a revelation that all existence is a battle between good and evil gods, that it’s up to human beings to choose good and that good will eventually win out. He taught that all good gods are incarnations of Ahura Mazda.

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

Legacy of the Mongols

Episode 24: The Legacy of the Mongols

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin explores how the Mongols swept out of the Central Asian steppes in the 13th century to conquer most of the known world, creating the largest empire the world has ever known (before or since). After bringing China, Korea, Central Asia, most of the Middle East and much of Eastern Europe under their control, in 1241 they attacked the outskirts of Vienna. They were repelled, thwarting attempts to conquer western Europe.

The Mongols were  ruled via networks of clan chiefs, under the leadership of a primary clan chief known as the “Khan.” Traditionally they were less patriarchal than agrarian civilizations, allowing women considerable freedom, respect and influence. Many became political and military leaders.

Benjamin attributes the Mongols’ military success in part to their skill has hunters (which made lengthy supply lines unnecessary), their use of horse in battle the composite bow.* They killed millions of people and destroyed many ancient cities, along with the agricultural infrastructure that supported them.They also destroyed the Islamic empire.

Chingges (Genghis) Khan is credited with the major military victories leading up to Pax Mongolica, a Mongol-controlled cultural zone stretching from China to Eastern Europe. . Following his death in 1227, his sons and grandsons split the Mongol territories into four Khanates. Although infighting between Khanates led to a steady loss of territory, the Mongols controlled Russia until the mid-15th century and ruled Crimea until the late 18th century.

In 1234, China’s Jin dynasty fell to the Mongols. In 1260, Kubla Khan became emperor in northern China, establishing the Yuan dynasty. In 1276, he conquered the Song Dynasty in Southern China and brought all of China under his control. Between 1274 and 1291 he employed Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo as his advisor.

In 1335, Mongolian rule collapsed in Persia. The latter enjoyed self-rule until invaded by Turks in the 14th century. In China, civil war between competing warring factions, aggravated by severe monetary inflation, led the Yuan dynasty to collapse in 1368.

Benjamin believes the main contribution of the Mongols was the security they provided for overland trade. This facilitated the spread to Europe of numerous Eastern inventions, such as paper, printing, the compass and gunpowder. These inventions, in turn, would allow Europe to conquer the globe in the 16th century.

*A composite bow is a traditional bow made from horn, wood, and sinew laminated together, a form of laminated bow.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.

How Alexander’s Conquests Perpetuated Global Greek Influence

Pyrrho of Elis Founds Dogmatic Skepticism - Global Firsts ...

Episode 23: Alexander’s Conquests and Hellensim

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin explores how Alexander’s father, Phillip II transformed Macedonia from a rustic outpost to a cosmopolitan kingdom that captured military control of the entire Greek peninsula.

At 21, Alexander assumed the throne following his father’s assassination. A brilliant military strategist, in 334 BC Alexander marched east to conquer Persia and south to conquer Egypt (332 BC). After receiving a rapturous reception for ending Persian occupation, he appointed his boyhood friend Ptolemy to the Egyptian throne and marched into Mesopotamia, the economic heart of the Persian empire.

After conquering Samarkand (modern day Afghanistan) in 329 BC, he crossed the Hindu Kush mountains via the Kyber Pass into the Indus Valley. Although his troops rebelled against a further military push into India (327 BC), the limited excursion successfully opened India to Greek cultural and economic influence.

He withdrew from India to take up residence in Nebuchadnessar II’s palace in Babylon. He died at age 33 from excessive feasting and drinking.

Over the next 50 years, his generals divided up the massive Hellenistic empire he had created. Benjamin believes most modern day Greek influence stems from the half dozen or so Greek cities Alexander established and the generals who succeeded him. Alexandria in Egypt is an excellent example, with its large ethnically diverse population, its major sea trade and its stellar intelligentsia centered around the Alexandrian library.*

Major inventions stemming from this period include gears, screws, rotary mills, the water clock, the water organ, the torsion catapult, a chart to find prime numbers and pneumatics (the use of steam to operate machines and toys). The latter technology would vanish from human culture for 2,000 years until 1763 when James Watts invented the modern steam engine.

Benjamin identifies three major Greek philosophies arising during this period: epicureanism, stoicism and skepticism. The epicureans believed the greatest good was to seek modest, sustainable pleasure by understanding how the world works and limiting desires. The stoics believed that because so aspects of life are beyond human control, happiness is best achieved by aiming for moderation in all things. The skeptics taught that absolute knowledge is impossible.

Over time most Greek-controlled regions gained independence, including Bactria (Afghanistan), Persia and Egypt. Around 250 BC, the Greek city-states regained independence briefly prior to Roman conquest 100 years later. In Egypt, the Ptolemy dynasty ruled until 33 BC, when Egypt fell to Roman rule following Cleopatra’s suicide.

*The Alexandrian library was destroyed by fire either by Julius Caesar (accidentally) in 48 BC, by the Roman emperor Aurelian in 275 AD, or the emperor Theodosius in 391 AD during his campaign to destroy all the empire’s pagan sites.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.

The Middle Ages: More Hidden History

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages

By Frances and Joseph Gies

Harper Collins (1994)

Book Review

This book debunks the prevailing misconception that the Middle Ages was a Dark Ages and that all knowledge and technology was lost when “barbarian tribes” caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. The authors do this very convincingly by identifying a number of key medieval technologies (most from the Far East) without which the 15th century Renaissance would have been impossible.

These include

  • the heavy plow
  • open field agriculture, water powered machinery
  • Hindu-Arab numerals
  • double entry bookkeeping
  • the compass and navigational charts
  • clockwork
  • firearms
  • moveable type
  • stirrups
  • the horse collar harness
  • paper
  • canal locks
  • underground mining

The barbarians themselves (ie Germanic tribes) also provided European civilization with several key inventions:

  • soap (the Greeks and Romans never used it)
  • socks
  • laced boots
  • clothing made from multiple pieces of cloth sewn together
  • wooden barrels (replacing fragile clay jars and animal skins previously used for food storage).

The book maintains that China was far more important than Rome as a source of medieval technologies. In most cases, technological innovations filtered into Europe along Arab trade routes. It devotes specific attention to the horizontal loom (the Romans used a vertical loom), moveable type (adopted by Gutenberg for his printing press), the water wheel, the wheelbarrow, the odometer, mechanical clocks, gunpowder and the crossbow.

Europeans gained access to Hindu-Arab numbers, the cotton gin and the windmill via India and Persia.

Given the extremely Eurocentric education I received in school, I was extremely surprised to learn about all the inventions Europeans take credit for which originated elsewhere.