10. The Old World Empires

10.8 Mongolia: the nomad empire

10.8.1 Appearance of the Nomad in the Old World

In Asia and North Africa, the great dividing mountain ranges run in general east to West and sometimes also North-South. These mountains, together with penetrating seas, divide the land into well-defined areas. The climatic conditions create arid and secluded plains and deserts (fig. 10.34) subject to wide variations in temperature and bordered by forested slopes.


Neolithic immigrants were adapted to the forest. The rocky plains remained for the most part empty and the Neolithic farmers endeavored to tame suitable animals to help in the colonization of hitherto empty but arid land. These animal species were the yak, the reindeer, the camel, the dromedary and the horse. Such an endeavor was not possible in America because the mountain ranges of the New World run from North to South and are not an isolation factor that favors differentiation by climate, nor was there – excepting the llama – any animal suitable for transportation and available for taming by the Neolithic inhabitants of that part of the world.

A representation of the two-humped Bactrian camel can be seen on a monument built in 840 BC by Assyria to commemorate the humiliation of the Jewish king Jehu. It may have been domesticated as early as 3000 years BC. This camel, adapted to the biting cold of the Asian Plateaus, carried goods from China to the Near East and India. The one-humped dromedary is mentioned as early as 1100 BC in Babylonian documents and also in Judges (VI, 5; VIII, 21). The dromedary originates probably from South-Arabia. The species, initially raised for its milk, was promoted to higher functions because of the development of the North-Arabian saddle and harness. During Roman and Byzantine times, taxation of wheeled vehicles induced the abandonment of wagon construction as well as of road construction. This favored the use of the camel and was to the benefit of the camel-breeders, i.e. the Arabs, who began to develop an urban civilization (Medina, Mecca). With the camel, the Arabs traded incense, spice and ivory over Arabia while the Berber Touaregs of North-Africa, holding the sedentary arms at bay with spears and dromedaries, established domination over the Sahara as early as 500 BC, carrying gold, ivory, slaves and salt from Black Africa to the Mediterranean.

Paleolithic artists in caves represented two types of wild horses. The Przewalsky horse type roaming the steppes today in small protected herds is the only wild horse subsisting. The small tarpan horse held out as a wild species in Europe until 1876 AD. The Neolithic Celts opposing Caesar had apparently tamed this small tarpan horse. This animal was however no match to the horses of the Roman legions. The origin of this latter horse is not clear: some archeologists accredit the taming and breeding of this horse to the Medes who inhabited the Iranian plateau while others suppose that it was initially evolved by the efforts of people inhabiting the Chinese plains. The first people in antiquity known to have used the horse-drawn chariot were the Hittites and other Indo-European invaders, in 1700 BC.

The Central Asian tradesmen adopted the horse around 700 BC, i.e. 1000 years after its use as a chariot puller. The North-African Berbers also rapidly adopted it. The Cartagenese had no standing army of any significance and relied for their defense on the mercenary Numid (Berber) cavalry. The day the Numid cavalry sided with the Romans, Cartage fell (Zama, 202 BC). The people using the dromedary in Arabia adopted a special breed of horse (the Arabian horse) around 500 AD.

The optimal utilization of the horse as a mounted animal depended on various technological developments. Saddle, stirrups and the horseshoe, indispensable in stone-strewn arid plains, had first to be invented and this presupposes the knowledge of wrought iron metallurgy and of the anatomy of the horse’s hoof. The adaptation of the horse to the needs of life in arid plains turned out to be a calamity for the sedentary civilizations that tamed the horse in the first place and a repetition of the drama was played out in the last centuries when the Paleolithic and some Neolithic inhabitants of North-America (i.e. American hunter and American villager) learned how to handle the swift horses introduced in America by the Spaniards in the 16th century. The growth of maize was then abandoned and a fully nomadic way of life was adopted.

Once the horse was used to hunt wild game or conduct herds of cows, yaks, camels or dromedaries from oasis to oasis or town to town, it modeled the spirit of the people in a regressive way. Whereas a peasant must have a certain ability to plan, to save, to work, to learn, and must develop a sense of property, people always on the move will very soon learn to conserve nothing but what they can carry on their saddles, to protect nothing, to build nothing, to learn nothing but the basic skills needed to remain alive as a hunting animal used to take without scruples what it covets. To produce, to make an artisan’s life, made no sense for a nomad when goods can be obtained from subjugated people. Sedentary people bound to their fields or forests appeared to the nomad as grotesque parodies of human beings. For a nomad, the peasants are pusillanimous, avaricious, stupid, weak, afraid for their possessions, wives and lives while he himself has, on the contrary, an exquisite sense of honor and loyalty, an acute sense of his own valor and no great regard for his own life. He is almost immune to religious feelings and has no sense of continuity, no pity, no compassion but a strong egalitarian spirit. The only specialization he admits to, is the profession of the shaman who should heal the wounded and sick and discard the malevolence of the spirits. Ignorant, lazy and refractory to work, the true nomad values only rich pastures, a good horse and his sexual pleasure.

Repeatedly in the course of History, the hungry nomad living on meager pastures multiplied beyond the means of the land, spilled over his surrounding mountains or deserts into sedentary lands and, armed not only with his contempt for the peasant but also with the weapons devised by sedentary civilizations, destroyed whatever he encountered and anything of value he was unaware of, i.e. everything but priests, young women, horses and trees. A horse equipped with horseshoes, saddle and stirrups, a sword at his side, a bow on his arm, a pack of scalps on his saddle which carries also alcohol and cheese made of filly’s milk, meat under the saddle where it will tenderize; these are enough to bring the Nomad to the ends of the world, killing without hatred peasants whose attachment to the land seemed to him silly and incompatible with nomadism. And the killing was easy because the diet of the peasant and his activities had no beneficial effects on his corporeal development, strength and endurance, or on his aggressiveness. While the attacked sedentary states needed money and taxes to raise armies, the nomad was willing to fight just for fun. Contrary to the invasions of Neolithic barbarians, those of the Nomad are worse than a disaster for the Sedentary, they are his condemnation.

In the West, the Nomad Scythes roamed over Southern Russia. The Sarmats and the Parths were also nomads. The protection of sedentary lands was the concern of the Achemenid Emperors and of the Greeks who had colonized the shores of the Black Sea. Alexander, upon arriving in the regions called Bactriane and Transoxiane (later called Sogdiane and thereafter Turkestan), built a defense city – Alexandria Eschaton now called Khodjend – to keep the Nomad at bay. To the East, the Chinese kingdoms never were efficaciously protected from the incursions of nomadic tribes. In the course of time, these kingdoms edified a great wall destined to contain the barbarians, just like the Roman emperors edified two walls across Scotland and a guarded frontier running from the Rhine to the Danube. In 214 BC, Che-Houang-Ti, the first and also last successful Chinese Tyrant united all the pieces of the wall in one gigantic defense system, 2,400 kilometers long.

10.8.2 The Huns

The Hiong-Nou, known to the Chinese as Jong and in the West as Huns, originate from Transbaikalia. They dislocated the Italo-Celt Tokhares from Mongolia and slowly began to expand. The Hunnish king Mo-Tou devised the Nomad war tactic of giving command to career officers and instituting a strict discipline among the troops, which were no longer solely Hunnish, i.e. Turko-Toungouse, but also Mongolic and Tartaric. He built a 300,000-man strong cavalry unit, which utterly destroyed North China, burning harvests, uprooting fruit trees and filling the irrigation ditches. No looting was authorized: everything had to be burned or killed. This conduct was not different from that of the Chinese warlords themselves, until the Han dynasty (206 BC-221 AD) introduced humanness in the administration of the Empire. The feud between the Chinese and the Huns lasted for many centuries, other nomadic tribes intervening to be either annihilated by the Huns or else taking the Imperial throne (the Sien-p’ei, in the 2nd century AD) and beating back the perennial Hunnish enemy.

The predatory raids of the Huns were not limited to China. In 370 AD, they reached the river Don and dislocated the Ostrogoths, whom the emperor Theodose forced temporarily to retreat to the Danube in 386. Ten years later, Antioch saw the Huns. In 425, they lay waste to the Bactriane province of the Persian Empire. This Empire, like Byzantium after a raid of ostrogothic cavalry, had modernized its army and produced an elite corps of heavy cavalry able to beat back the Nomad. In 453, with the death of Attila, the Empire of the Steppes crumbled. In Sogdiane, Turkish armies had helped the Persians to defeat the Huns and they stayed in the land they had occupied, to which they gave the name Turkestan. They became the main power of Central Asia.

10.8.3 The Mongols

The Kyrgyz, savage Turkish mountaineers, annihilated the Christian Manichean Ouighur power in 840. On that occasion, many Nestorian Turks reverted back to nomadism. Mongols filled the power vacuum in Central Asia. (I discuss the Manichean and Nestorian offshoots of Christianity in the following chapter).

Genghis Khan spent the major part of his life uniting the Mongol and Turkish nomadic tribes. Once this was achieved, in 1206, he set out to build a Nomad Empire. In this Empire, unfortunately strengthened by Moslem Turks who could write and administer, everyone was the slave of the Nomad clans and all Nomad clans were subject to the rule of the Khan: “There is only one master on earth, Genghis”. He had this sentence written on stones along roads and he meant it. Pyramids of cut heads attested to the power of the Khan. For Genghis, “happiness lies in driving one’s enemies in front of oneself, in savoring their despair, in outraging their wives and daughters”.

In 1214, Genghis invaded China with 150,000 horsemen. He destroyed everything, including cats and dogs that might serve as food to the escaped survivors. Ditches were filled in, fruit trees were uprooted, harvests were burned, and towns and villages were leveled. Peking fell in 1215. The town burned during 8 days and the ground became slippery due to molten human grease.

In 1218, it was Iran’s turn to be taken by 200,000 horsemen. This time, annihilation was deliberate in order to destroy a political power that dared challenge the supremacy of the Nomad. It took 7 years to achieve the goal: Persia, Transoxiane, Sogdiane, which were until then the richest gardens of the world, beautifully irrigated and well tended, were destroyed. They were further ravaged by Timberline in 1404 AD, and will never rise again.

In 1240, well after Genghis’ death, the Golden Horde planted its tents on the banks of the Volga and remained there for 300 years. Kiev and Novgorod disappeared in the process and the Dukes of Moscovy became the preferred tax collectors of the Nomads. The Nomad Empire extended from China through Siberia to Russia, down to Persia but Japan, India and Southeast Asia were not controlled. This Nomad Empire was the greatest empire ever to have come into existence.

However, in the meantime, the sweetness and security of sedentary life had an irresistible appeal to the Nomad. The Mongolic rulers of China sank into Epicureanism. Karakorum itself, the Nomad capital, became a town of stone houses instead of tents. Even Genghis Khan, at the end of his life, became beset by philosophical questions and ordered his shamans to prepare for him an elixir of long life. He could conceive this elixir only as of liquid gold.

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