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.

9th Century AD: Mass Migration of Uighur Turks to China Leads to Rise of Seljuk Turks on the Steppes

Episode 21: The Rise of the Seljuk Turks

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

Harl asserts the real beneficiaries of the Battle of Talas (see How the 751 Muslim War with China Left Steppes Under Turkish Control) were the Turks. In 840 AD, a civil uprising in the Uighur Khanate led Uighurs to migrate en masse to China and the caravan cities of the Tarim Basin. The Abbassid Caliphate welcomed the emergence of new Turkish tribes on the steppes and the greater availability of Turkish slaves.

For two centuries prior to their conversion to Islam, Turks entered the Islamic world as imperial bodyguards, as well as slave and mercenary soldiers.

The first mass conversion of Turks (entire tribes) occurred in the 10th century. Kashgar would be the first caravan city to adopt Islamic culture, using a Persian version of Arabic script in the first Turkish literature.

After a long period of inter-tribal warfare, the Seljuk Turks became the predominant tribe on the steppes. In 1071 AD (as agents of the Abassid Caliphate), they invaded and captured both Persia and Baghdad. From then on, the Abassid Caliphate would be ruled by Seljuk sultans.*

*Sultan is defined as a king or sovereign of a Muslim state

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

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.