Prince of Destruction: How Tamerlane Changed the Landscape of the Middle East and Central Asia

Episode 32: Tamerlane: Prince of Destruction

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Tamerlane (aka Timur the Lame) limped due to a battle wound received around 1360.  Born outside Samarkand (in modern day Uzbekistan) in the Chagataid Empire, he was a Turk raised in the high Persian culture of Transoxiana. Unrelated to Genghis Khan, he could never be a khan himself. Instead he served as emir to a number of khan figureheads and ran their armies for them. He eventually came to control a 100,000-man army from the central and western steppes.

Between 1381-1405, he embarked on seven military campaigns, characterized by shocking barbarity and mainly directly at other Muslims.

In 1381, he secured control of Samarkand after 11 years of brutal battle.

Between 1391-92, he launched a campaign to destroy the Golden Horde after they thwarted several of his military campaigns in the Ilkhanate and Changataid Empire. Invading from the South, he first had to defeat Armenia, Georgia and the Egyptian Mamaluks. When he put one of his vassals on the Golden Horde throne in 1391, the Mamaluks and Ottoman Empire allied to regain the throne for the Golden Horde.

Tamerlane won a significant victory against the Ottoman Empire at Angora in 1402, capturing the Ottoman sultan (who dies in captivity). With no administrative background, he proved unprepared to hold power and eventually surrendered the Ottoman throne.

After capturing the Silk Road cities of Iran, he marched his his troops southeast, sacking the Muslim cities of Delhi and Lahore. After launching a second campaign against India in 1403, he became ill and died.

Tamerlane’s military assaults leveled Baghdad, which changed hands four times, twice. This effectively transferred authority over Sunni Islam (which they retained until 1924) from the Abbasid Caliphate to the caliphs of the Ottoman Empire

Babur, Tamerlane’s son (and a direct descendant of Genghis Khan on his mother’s side) would continue his father’s campaign in India, ultimately creating the Moghul Empire.

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

Revival of the Silk Road Under Kublai Khan

Episode 30: Pax Mongolica and Cultural Exchange

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Following Kublai Khan’s conquest of China, the Mongols imposed a Pax Mongolica* across the steppes, which ended centuries-long warring between nomad tribes. The resulting peace led to a revival of the Silk Road and renewed prosperity of both states and nomads involved in the Silk Road trade. It also resulted in unprecedented cultural exchange. Exchanges between Persia and China about geography and map-making enabled both kingdoms to produce maps that were far better than those Columbus used to explore the New World. The Persians also shared their knowledge of medicine (from Hindu sources) with China, as well as citrus and grape cultivation. While the Chinese shared their knowledge of tea, black pepper and cinnamon with the Muslim world.

Under Kublai Khan, the Mongols built great cities and set up lavish courts in many of the regions they conquered. He used captive Muslims and Christians to administer cities in northern China and captive Chinese to administer the Ilkhanate Empire (comprising modern-day Iran and parts of Azerbaijan and Turkey).

Most of the Golden Horde (northwestern sector of Mongol Empire – see Mongol Invasion of China) converted to Islam in the 13th century. Although the Ilkhanate abandoned Sunni Islam for Shi’a Sufism, Buddhism was also an important religion there until the empire collapsed in 1335.

Kublai Khan’s conversion to Buddhism (although he was equally tolerant of Daoism and Islam) resulted in its spread across the eastern steppes. The Uighurs, however, abandoned Buddhism for Islam. Most of Transoxiana also became Muslim.

Thanks to improvements in Silk Road security, it now became possible for European Christians to send envoys to Muslim courts for the first time, while Chinese porcelain became widely traded across the Muslim world. There was a simultaneous expansion in sea routes connecting Europe.

China shared their knowledge of block printing (invented under the Song Dynasty) with the Ilkhans, who used it to produce paper money. Under Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty, gunpowder technology (discovered under the Han Dynasty) also spread across the steppes and into Europe.

This would be the first major eastern technology to take hold in Europe, leading the English to invent the cannon in the mid-14th century and hand held small arms in the 17th century. It was thanks to these technologies that they conquered the world over the next two centuries.

*Russian historians refer to the Pax Mongolica as the Mongol Yoke, owing to the massive slaughter of civilians during their conquest of the Russian principalities. 500,000 total were either killed or died of exposure and starvation (after the Mongols destroyed their homes and crops).

**Harl briefly discusses the Venetian explorer Marco Polo who traveled to China via the Silk Road in 1271 and served 23 years in Kublai Khan’s court. Because there are no references to the explorer in Chinese sources, Harl believes he likely served as a minor civil servant and exaggerated his role in his writings. His book The Travels of Marco Polo inspired Columbus’s voyage to the new world.

The film can be viewed 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.

9th Century Islam: Cultural Synthesis and Gradual Islamification of the Steppes

Samanid Renaissance & Establishment of ...

Episode 21: Muslim Merchants and Mystics in Central Asia

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

After their failure to conquer China (see How 751 Muslim War with China Left Steppes Under Turkish Control), the Abbassid Caliphate ceased its military expansion efforts for 300 years. Instead its leaders focused mainly on cultural synthesis of the new territories they had conquered. They hired mainly Persian administrators, and their new capitol Baghdad (and Islamic cities modeled after Baghdad) modeled itself on Persian culture and civilization, speaking and writing in Aramaic,* Persian and Greek, rather than Arabic.

In the 9th century, Arab scholars began to study Christianity, Judaism, Zororastrianism, as well as Aristotelian and Hindu medical and mathematical texts. Following a 811-13 civil war (over succession), the Baghdad court adopted the Persian custom of keeping harems and eunuchs.

In the early 9th century, political power was decentralized through the appointment of emirs to rule provincial cities and regions. The Samanid emirs, who ruled a border area encompassing eastern Persia and Uzbekistan, became particularly prominent They poured the fortunes they earned from the slave** trade into massive monument building (mainly mosques, madrassa*** and mausoleums). In many cases the latter were erected on top of former Buddhist and Christian monasteries. Under this process, the steppes of Transoxiana gradually took on an Arab/Muslim appearance.

Under Samanid influence, large numbers of Silk Road merchants began converting to Islam for three main reasons.

  1. Arabic had become the new commercial language, as both Persian and Turkic speakers adopted Arabic script for written communication.
  2. As Muslims, merchants were protected as members of the Ummah (Muslim community), even beyond the frontiers of the Caliphate.
  3. The Sufi mystics who traveled the Silk Road were very influential with Turks owing to their similarity to traditional nomadic shamans.

The success of Islam in winning over Turkic nomads would inspire Catherine the Great to establish Islam as an official Russian religion – in the hope of winning the allegiance of steppes nomads living within Russian borders.

*A Semitic language, Aramaic originated in ancient Mesopotamia and for 3,000 years was the language of public life and administration of ancient kingdoms and empires. The Old and New Testament were initially written in Aramaic. Jesus spoke a Galilean dialect of Aramaic.

**Increasingly, Arab regiments were replaced with Turkish mercenaries or slaves. This dramatically increased the need for Turkish slave solders.

***Early Madrassa carried out charitable work in addition to educating male students about the Koran and Islam.

Film can be viewed free with library card on Kanopy.

How the 751 Muslim War with China Left Steppes under Turkish Control

Episode 20: Clash Between the Turks and the Caliphate

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

In this lecture, Harl focuses on the long military campaign to bring the Turks on the central steppes under Muslim control.

In 671 AD the Abbasid Caliphate (see The Multiethnic Origins of the Muslim Conquest) builds a permanent military camp at Merv.* Throughout the 7th and early 8th century, they use this base to launch periodic raids into Transoxiana.** Their primary objective is to seize booty (mainly silver to melt down into coins) to pay their regiments (both Arab and tribal). This is the first use of coins featuring Arabic text, as previously the Caliphate printed their coins in Persian.

In 709 AD, Merv’s new governor launches a campaign to bring Tranoxiana under Arab rule. Owing to fierce resistance by the caravan cities, who summon Turkish allies to their defense, it will be 750 AD before Transoxiana comes under Muslim control. Despite being taxed and restricted, the majority of nomads resist conversion to Islam and continue to practice their Christian, Jewish and Zorarastrian religions.

In 751 AD, Abbassid and and Chinese armies clash on the border of the Tong Empire. In the Battle of Talas, both sides recruit Turkish steppes nomads as mercenaries. The Caliphate wins a technical victory after China’s Turkish mercenaries defect to fight with their brother Turks for the Caliphate.

Although both sides accept the outcome as a draw, Chinese influence on the steppes lapses when the emperor withdraws troops from Transoxiana to fight an attempted coup. This leaves the Turks in de facto control of the central steppes.

*Merv (aka the Merve Oasis or Marv) was a major Persian city in Central Asia, on the historical Silk Road.

**Transoxiana is the Roman name for the central steppes region roughly corresponding to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and southern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Multiethnic Origins of the Muslim Conquest

Episode 19: Islam and the Caliphates

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

In this lecture, Harl focuses mainly on the battle for control of the Muslim caliphate following the birth of Islam in the 7th century AD.

The key dates he cites are

622 AD – the prophet Muhammad migrates to Medina from Mecca owing to conflict with Mecca elites.

632 AD – Muhammad dies after returning to Mecca with his followers.

633 AD – Muslim armies conquer the Sassanid Empire (Persia).

634-634 AD – Muslim armies conquer the Middle East Byzantine provinces and the Levant. [1]

641 AD – Muslim armies conquer Egypt (where they are welcomed after seven centuries of oppressive Roman rule).

642 AD – Muslim armies march east across North Africa and west into lower Indus Valley (modern day Pakistan).

656 AD – Arab army mutinies in Egypt (over lack of pay), marches back to Medina and kills the reigning caliph Uthman, who they replace with Ali, a Shia [2] cousin of Muhammad. A civil war ensures, with the Sunni Ummayad caliphate eventually assuming power  and establishing Damascus as their capitol.

700 AD The Sunni Ummayad faces serious military (suffering defeat in their efforts to conquer Constantinople, the Khazars and the Turks in Transoxiana [3], political and fiscal challenges. Muslim soldiers (many of whom are nomad mercenaries) garrisoned in the steppes cities become increasingly independent and “rapacious.”

711 AD – Muslim armies cross into Iberian peninsular, smash the Visigoth kingdom and overrun most of Spain.

749 AD – Umayyad caliphate overthrown by a mixed army (many of whom identify as Shia) of Arab tribal regiments and Persian converts. Replaced by Abbasid caliphate (descended from Muhammad’s uncle), who move capitol to Baghdad. [4]

809 AD – New civil war results from the conflict between the brothers al-Amin and al-Ma’mun over the Abbasid Caliphate succession.

909 AD – organized Berbers sweep across North Africa to occupy Egypt where they set up a Fatima (Shia) caliphate which, in alliance with the Byzantine Empire, takes over Baghdad and much of the Levant, as well as the holy cities on the Arabian peninsula.

945 AD – Seljiud Turks who have converted to Islam invade from the East and restore power in Baghdad to the Abbassid caliphs.

[1] The Levant refers to a large ancient historical area on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

[2] Shia Islam, the second largest branch of the religion, holds that Muhammad designated his cousin Ali as his successor.

[3] Transoxiana is the Roman name for the central steppes region roughly corresponding to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and southern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

[4] According to Harl, this move cements the caliphate in the Persian (Sassanid) cultural world and turns the empire from an Arab empire to a multi-ethnic Muslim empire. Ultimately 34 of the 37 Abbassid caliphs were sons of non-Arab Persian slaves.

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

The Political Forces Controlling the Steppes When Rome Fell

Episode 13: The Sassanid Shahs and the Hephthalites*

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

The Sassanid (aka neo-Persian) Empire, which overthrew the Parthian empire in 224 AD, was a contemporary of the Western Roman Empire (which would fall in 476 AD). The former was an extremely effective bureaucratic state practicing monotheistic Zororastorianism.**

Unlike their Parthian predecessors, the Sassanids had the ability to capture and rule cities, which made them a much greater threat to Rome. Romans and Sassanids engaged in increasingly destructive wars for control of Meosopotamia and Armenia (a vassal state of both the Parthian and Sassanid empires).

Despite Rome’s eventual victory, in 364 and 379 AD the Romans ceded parts of Mesopotamia and Armenia to the Sassanids. This left the neo-Persians with the hassle of dealing with the Hephthalites  and other nomads entering the steppes via the Caucasus mountains.

Initially allied with the Hephthalites, the Sassanids also seized control of Transoxiana (the former heartland of the Kushan empire – see The Parthian Empire: Rome’s Greatest Rival), seeking to control the Silk Road’s wealthy caravan cities.

The Hephthalites eventually reclaimed most of Transoxiana, establishing the Oxus River as the boundary between the Sassanid and Hepththalite empires. With the capitol in Bactrium, they issued coins imprinted with Greek text.

As the Hephthalites gradually gained control of most of the eastern steppes, the Sassinids formed an alliance with the Eastern Roman Empire against them. In the 5th century, the Sassanids built the Great Wall of Gorgan (manned by 15,000 – 30,000 troops) to block Hepththalite movement via the Caucasus passes. They also formed anti-Hepthalite alliances with the Göktürks (a Turkic-speaking people originating from the region which became Xinjiang in modern-day China).

*The latter taught that Ahura Mazda was the sole god in perpetual battle with Ahareem, the evil one.

**Also known  as the White Huns, the Persian-speaking Hephthalites represented several ethnic and linguistic groups and were most likely driven onto the Central Steppes by the Northern Wei kingdom, which ruled northern China in the third century. The Sassanids hired them as mercenaries.

***At present Uzbekistan, Tajkistan, Afghanistan and northern India make up the region formerly known as Transoxiana.

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

The Role of the Silk Road in Creating the First Global Economy

Episode 8 Trade Across the Tarim Basin*

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD, the Silk Road enabled the development of the first “global economy.” The West’s desire for Chinese silk was the primary driver of the Silk Road trade.

Harl traces the five main routes Silk Road traders took from China:

  • The most northern route ran through the Ganzu Corridor directly north of the wall separating China from the steppes. The Chinese posted a garrison at the Jade Gate** to tax all imports entering the country.
  • Traveling west, the Ganzu Corridor route split into a northern branch and a southern branch skirting the Taklamakan Desert
  • At Kashgar the route crossed the formidable Pamirs Mountains.
  • From there, a northern branch led north of the Aral and Caspian seas through Fergana (which traded horses along the Silk Road) to the Black Sea and a southern branch traversed Transoxiana*** south of the Caspian Sea to various Black Sea ports and (via Bactria****) to the Mediterranean.

He also discussed the complementary sea routes established by Mediterranean civilizations following the discovery of the monsoon trade winds in 116 BC. Egypt (run by the Ptolemys, a Greek dynasty) controlled the shipping around the Arabian peninsula to import silk from India.

In 31 BC, Rome secured the Mediterranean under the emperor Augustus. The Romans had an enormous appetite for Chinese silks and spices and gems from India.

*A desert area between the east Asian steppes and China, the Tarim Basin first came under Chinese control in the 1st century AD.

**The Jade Gate was a strategic Great Wall fort adjacent at the entry to the Ganzu corridor.

***Tranoxiana is the Roman’s name for a lower Central Asian region d in lower Central Asia roughly corresponding to modern-day eastern Uzbekistan

****Bactria was also a jumping off point for routes to India.

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

How the Kushan Empire Spread Buddhism Via the Silk Road

Episode 6: Kushans, Sacae and the Silk Road

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

In this lecture Harl describes how the Tocharians, under pressure from the Xiongnu (who were under pressure from China) pushed the Sacae to migrate west and south.

Harl believes the Sacae were present on the central steppes from the beginning of the Iron Age (900-600 BC) and likely domesticated the Bactrian camel used on the Silk Road. The Sacae had a close trading relationship with both Sogdiana**  and Bactria (with its dense settled cities) in Transoxiana. The latter was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC. Alexander’s successors set up a Greek kingdom in Bactria that issued Greek coins and relied on trade with Sacae nomads for its prosperity.

In 145 BC the Sacae began migrating from the central steppes into Transoxiana, sacking cities and torching fields as far east as the Greek cities Alexander the Great founded in India.

The Tocharian-speaking Kushans are discussed at length in India’s ancient Buddhist texts. We know a little about their emperors from the coins they issued and the Rabatak Inscription erected by the Kushan emperor Kanishka (127-147 AD). In addition to likenesses of their emperors, Kushan coins feature a variety of Greek, Hindu and ancient Persian gods.

The Kushan, largely responsible for extending the Silk Road into India, eventually conquered and controlled the Indus Valley and the western part of the Tarim Basin. Their construction of Indus Valley cities and Buddhist monasteries led to the translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into vernacular languages. This, in turn, led to the spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road into Central Asia.

The Kushan are also well known for their art, which is a composite of Greek and Indian styles. Although they were tolerant of all religions, the Kushan were great patrons of Buddhism and the first to produce images of Buddha in human form.

*The Yeuctzi, a nomad tribe just north of China, maintained a cavalry of 100,000 – 200,000 mounted archers. It was this tribe the Han dynasty sought to ally with in their battles with the Xiongu.

**Sogdiana was an ancient Iranian civilization in present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan known for both cultivated farmlands and Silk Road caravan cities.

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