--from the archives (why the battle of talas is my favorite battle)
The almond groves of Samarqand,
Bokhara, where red lilies blow.
And Oxus, by whose yellow sand
The grave white-turbaned merchants go --Oscar Wilde
1000 years before the infamous "Great Game," which was the name given to the intense rivalry that existed at the turn of the century between Czarist Russia and Victorian England for supremacy in Central Asia, there was another "Great Game." This older rivalry occurred between the Chinese, the Arabs, the Tibetans, and Turkish peoples.
And the region they were fighting for, you ask? Well, it was the same old stretch of land-- a stretch of land that has somehow remained right smack in the middle of everything for 1000 years.
To the East was China, and such was China's greatness under the Tang dynasty that none save the Arabs to the West were said to rival her. Rome had long been overrun, and for all intents and purposes Byzantium was in a state of great decline. The Arabs-- in what was a stunning rise to power-- after toppling the Persian Sassanian dynasty in 637, had next turned their attention to those lands to the East.
Despite the astonishing speed at which the countries of the Middle East came under the power of the Arabs and Islam, the nations of Central Asia, which had long been part of the Persian sphere of influence, proved to be a much tougher nut to crack. As the Arabs made increasing encroachments into areas long considered by the Chinese as being part of their sphere of influence (particularly that of Transoxiana) the Chinese and Arabs saw increased fighting occur along China's Western borders.
The Chinese, however, also had the Tibetan Empire (which had reached its zenith during Tang times) to the southwest and various nomadic peoples (such as the Turkish Uighurs and Mongols) with their shifting alliances and shifting moods to the north to contend with as well. Perhaps what is most surprising, as Susan Whitfield points our in her fascinating book, Life Along the Silk Road, is that these empires and super-powers clashed in places that were not only thousands of miles from their home bases, but were in some of the most remote spots on earth. The battles almost exclusively occurred on frozen mountain terrain or in desolate and burning deserts.
Of course, skirmishes like this continue down to today. I mean, we still see India, China, and Pakistan (among others) wrestling for control of a Himalayan peak 17,000 feet above sea level or some stretch of highway in the desert. You cannot help but think to yourself, if they really want that glacier that badly, why not give it to them? But, regiments of Indian, Chinese and Pakistani soldiers remain stationed high up in the mountains year-round. It is for strategic reasons, they are told, in strategic foreign policy that is as old as the silk road.
It is the terrain that perhaps more than anything defines Central Asia. In addition to being dominated by some of the highest mountain ranges on earth, the area is also home to some of the most deadly deserts and lifeless basin areas as well. Completely landlocked, it is a land of great extremes. Through this rough terrain, two great rivers flow north-- down from the mountains into the Aral Sea. These rivers are the lifeblood of the people.
To the West, forming a natural border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; and then between Tajikistan and Afghanistan is the Amu Darya. The river is known locally as the Jayhoun, which is thought to be derived from Gihon-- one of the four rivers of the Garden of Eden of the Bible. We in the West know the river by its Classical Greek name, the Oxus. The other river, the Syr Darya flows the great length of Central Asia from the Krgyz Republic; briefly into Uzbekistan and then through Kazakhstan. This river is also commonly referred to by its ancient Greek name, the Jaxartes-- being perhaps most famous as the northernmost point of Alexander the Great's conquests in the East.
From ancient Greek times, the land between the rivers was known as Transoxiana-- or Oxiana.
It was not far from the Syr Darya River that the decisive Battle of Talas took place. Occurring in 751, the five day battle is one of the most important battles of the East (and yet few in the West have even heard of it!). The Arabs in their push Eastward (into lands previously held by the Persians) were seriously encroaching on China's strategic Silk Road Garrisons. Something had to be done, so the Emperor sent out his best forces under the leadership of the famed Korean commander Gao Xianshi. Known as Lord of the Mountains, Commander Gao had made a career out of inflicting defeat on China's enemies to the West. Inflicting defeat on Turks, Tibetans and Arabs, the battles were fought almost exclusively in the dazzlingly high Pamir Mountains.
Neither side wanted war-- as war would interrupt what had for centuries been the incredibly lucrative trade of luxury items that passed through Transoxiana. Silk was the most famous item traded, but passing from the West through Oxiana on its way East was the lucrative trade in furs, amber, honey and walrus ivory from Eastern Europe. Plus they each had other enemies to contend with as well. Sending emissaries to visit each other's capitals to negotiate, there is little doubt that neither side wanted war--- and yet they were on an inevitable collision course.
The underlying cause of the Battle actually had nothing whatsoever to do with Chinese-Arab relations, but rather was caused by tensions with Tibet and a local feud between two small Central Asian Kingdoms. The Tibetans at the time not only had a highly sophisticated culture but they also had a strong military-- a military which was on the move. They had caused China no end of troubles with their incursions further and further North (into areas long considered under Chinese suzerainty). To stave off any further ambitions, China established alliances with the Kingdoms to their rear in Kashmir and in the Pamirs. But, things came to a head when the King of the Kingdom of Gilgit announced himself as being pro-Tibetan. The Chinese had had enough and sent in their Commander of the Mountains, Gao Xianshi.
Swooping down on the enemy in a surprise attack, he destroyed the bridges into the Kingdom thereby cutting off help expected from the Tibetans, and before any allies could arrive to fight alongside them, Gao had cut off the heads of the King and his advisers. And that was that. Commander Gao became the Military Governor of the region, including Kucha and Kashmir and from that base, China kept a hand in all that went on in the area. (This battle forms the backdrop of Susan Whitfield's second Tale in her book, Life Along the Silk Road).
It seemed that an uneasy alliance between the Tibetans and Chinese, as well as the Chinese and Arabs had been formed, until a petty feud between two Kings further North in Transoxiana brought things to a head again. This time, it wasn't just the Tibetans either, but the Arabs who were also said to have played a role, when the King of Ferghana was deposed with the alleged help of both the Tibetans and Arabs. The deposed King escaped to Kucha were he requested help from his old ally Commander Gao who was still there as Military Governor. In the process of re-installing the King, Gao led massacres in three towns in Sogdiana, which were increasingly closer to the Arab-controlled regions.
Sensing the time had come to put the Chinese in their place, the Abbassid Governor in Khorasan mobilized his army. Marching from Merv, they crossed the Oxus, heading straight for Kashgar. The two Titans finally crossed paths on the banks of the Talas River, in Kyrgystan. During the encounter, the Arabs achieved a stunning victory which they credit to superior strategy. The Chinese, for their part, blame defection of their allies part way through the battle.
While it was neither excessively long or bloody, the Battle of Talas remains the battle people talk about. Arab sites give it an almost jihad-ish flavor as the battle which caused the "infidels to take flight." And both sides seem to agree that if the Battle had gone the other way, it would have been China , not Islam which would have been the great influence Central Asia. For with this battle, the lines were finally drawn in the sand: Turkestan belonged to the Arabs, and China thereafter withdrew to its garrisons in the Tarim Basin.
Nobody, of course, thinks that this one battle was the sole reason for the Chinese withdraw East of the Pamirs, but it became what was the last nail in the coffin of the Tang dynasty as the event that heralded on the infamous An Lushan Rebellion (755-763)-- see my post here for more on the man who would rock the empire.
It is said to have been the only time in history that the Arabs and Chinese fought, but the Battle of Talas was to have a profound impact on world history. As mentioned above, Chinese expansion West was firmly stopped at the Pamirs, and Central Asia would forever after be influenced by Arab and Islamic (Persian) culture. In addition, at the battle's end, Chinese paper-making artisans were kidnapped and brought back to the new Abbasid capital at Baghdad. At last, the mysteries of paper-making were unlocked. It was thanks to this technical know-how that the Arab empire embarked on what was a huge cultural enterprise to translate and propagate Greek philosophy, mathematics, and medicine.
Without this Arab effort, the great riches of Classical Greek culture would have been lost forever as Medieval Europe had turned its back on its classical past. The work of Aristotle was most famously preserved under the Arabs, but so too was Euclidean geometry and Alexandrian astronomy. Knowledge was not only preserved, but was also refined and re-worked into the great body of knowledge and culture which was propagated during the Arab golden age. For example. classical mathematical theory formed the basis of algebra, which was pioneered during the Golden Age of the Abbasinian dynasty.
Whether intentional or not, French philosophers (and your occasional Japanese academic) again and again urge us not to forget the pivotal role the Abbasids in Baghdad (with great Persian influence)-- as well as the Muslim philosophers and scholars of al-Andalus-- had on the Renaissance that occurred in Europe not long after. From the East, the Arabs received the technical achievements of the Chinese and Indians, and from the West, they took the body of Western Classical culture. They then dedicated themselves to preserving and expanding this body of knowledge. It was philosophers like Averroes and Avicenna who kept the light of philosophy and mathematics, physics and medicine burning brightly in what was a great cauldron of intellectual activity centered around Baghdad.
It seems at times-- whether one is interested in the achievements of the East or of the West-- that all roads truly lead to Oxiana; as Oxiana, perhaps more than anywhere on earth, has been a land that has stood at the crossroads of civilizations.