Central Asia in the Early Middle Ages

General information about Central Asia during the early Middle Ages

(pp. 11-15 from the Introductory Chapter, "Obshchie svedenija o Srednej Azii v epokhu rannego srednevekov'ja", G. Brykina, G. Shishkina)

The start of the early Middle Ages (IV-V cc.) is the least known period in the history of Central Asia. Processes connected with changes in the social and economical relations led to the collapse of the large states and the break up of established links. This weakened the economy and caused a crisis in all parts of the region.

The previously powerful Kushan empire shrunk significantly towards the beginning of the IV c. and lost much of its influence because of internal and external reasons. The expansionistic politics of the Sassanian dynasty contributed to a great extend for the economical weakening of the Kushan state, which finally disintegrated into numerous big and small independent possessions.
(The digital elevation map of Central Asia produced by NOAA National Data Center;  The map to the right produced by XEROX Map Viewer)

The archaeological studies confirm the almost complete end of many large towns of Central Asia, the complete depopulation of oases, the shrinkage of the irrigated lands [Tolstov, 1962; Mandel’shtam, 1964. p. 53; Masson M., 1949. pp. 52-53]. The decrease of the town’s territory is observed in Sogd (Afrasiab [Shishkina, 1973. p. 99]), in the oasis of Tashkent. Life ended in the largest town in Ferghana - the ruins of Markhmatskoe, identified by A.N. Bernshtam as the capital of the region of the river Ersha [Bernshtam, 1951. p. 10; 1952, p. 252].

Many forms of the material culture: the types of distribution of the settlements and of the buildings, the topography of the town and oases, the technologies in pottery production, etc., changed during the IV-V cc. in the whole of Central Asia.

… The wave of nomadic migrations that engulfed Central Asia played important part. The nomads (Kidarites, Chionites, Hephthalites) who appeared in Central Asia during the IV-V c. were part of that wave which reached Eastern Europe and is known as the Great migrations.

The Kidarites were a tribal union named after their leader Kidara (Cidolo in the Chinese sources), who proclaimed himself as a "King of Kushan", and according to some source – "King of Ind". There tribes lived near the Caspian sea and the written evidence about them is meagre.

More is known about the Chionites. Their campaigns are linked to a number of events of the political history of Central Asia during the second half of the IV c. – the mid-V c. They fought against the Sassanians, and in the V c. moved to the east and reached Bactria. Coins of the Chionites, imitating the Sassanian drachmas of the early V c. are known.

The victories of the Chionites during their campaigns in the Eastern Caspian lands are described by Ammianus Marcellinus: "Their new king Grumbat was already famous for "many victories". But notwithstanding the victories, the Chionites could not create a state union of some stability" [Ammian Marcellin, p. 20].

The "White Huns", or the Hephthalites are mentioned in the Byzantine, Indian, Chinese, Arabo-Persian, Armenian and other written sources. Regardless of the abundance of sources, there is a number of problems of their history the scholars cannot agree on. The well informed Chinese chroniclers name Eastern Turkestan (Turfan) as the homeland of the Hephthalites. According to them the Hephthalites were forced out of there by the neighbouring tribes of Zhuan-Zhuan.

The date of the creation of the Hephthalite state on the territory of Central Asia is assigned to the 50’s of the V c. Hephthalites successfully repelled the attacks upon their territory of the Sassanian Shakh Peroz (454-484 AD), who himself fell into their hands during the final campaign. His successors were obligated to pay tribute to the king of the Hephthalites. Around the mid-VI c., at the time of Khosroe I (530-579 AD) Iran, having restored its economical and military power, again moved against the Hephthalites, whose power towards the end of the V c. spread to most regions of Eastern Turkestan. Towards the beginning of the VI c. they created an enormous empire which included not only Eastern Turkestan but also significant parts of Central Asia (Tokharistan, Chaganian, Samarkand, Bukhara, Kesh, Ferghana, Chach).

B.A. Litvinskij proposed that the area of Ferghana was connected with one part of the Hephthalites – the so called "Red Hephthalites". He thought that the Chionites, apparently, lived in the mountain regions of Central Asia, namely in the fore-mountains of Ferghana [Litvinskij, 1976. p. 55].

The most interesting remark about the Hephthalites was written by the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea. He wrote: "The Hephthalites are people from the Unn tribe, but they do not mix with them… they are not nomads like the other Unn tribes, but live since ancient times in a fruitful country… Among all other Unns they are the only ones with white bodies and not repulsive faces" [Prokopij Kessarijskij, 1880].

According to the Chinese sources the "ruling house of Ieda" (the Chinese name of the Hephthalites) was of the same clan as the Big Yuekh-dzhi, although the same chronicle also says that "… other people say that Ieda is a offshoot of the tribe of Gaogjuj" [Bichurin, 1950. v. II, p. 268].

Regardless of the decades’ long study of the question about the Hephthalite origin by the scholars, it still remain unsettled.

Tolstov regarded them as natives of the lands near the Aral sea. He thought that the deltas of Amu Darja and Sir Darja were the region where "the state of the Chionites-Hephthalites was created on the basis of the ancient Saka-Massagetae substrate with a strong admixture of the eastern Hunnic-Turkic elements" [Tolstov, 1953 (1958?). p. 159; 1962. p. 244].

A.N. Bernshtam localised two centres of Hephthalite ethnogenesis and state formation – the middle and low course of the Sir Darja, and the upper course of Amu Darja (Badakhshan). He thought that the Central Asian elements played a central role in the Hephthalite ethnogenesis: "… the coupling of the Central Asian elements with the local Sakas in the region near Pamir gave rise to the Hephthalites" [Bernshtam, 1952. p. 192].

Later Arab authors report about the wide spread of Hephthalites in Maverannakhr ("Ma Wara al-Nahr" – Arabic for "this which is beyond the river", the region between the two great rivers of Central Asia - Amu Darja and Sir Darja.), calling this people Khajtals, and the region they dwelled in – Khajtal country. The author Jakut was more explicit: "Khajtal is the name of the region of Maverannakhr, that is of Bukhara, Samarkand, Khodzhent and (that) which is situated between them" [Mandel’shtam, 1964. P, 58]. It follows that the Hephthalites were widely spread in the agricultural regions of Central Asia and had stable positions there. It is known that the ruler of Chaganian was a Hephthalite. It seems, a Hephthalite dynasty replaced the local one during the conquest of this region. Many Hephthalites lived in Bukhara and in other regions of the Zeravshan valley. It is known that one of the sections of Samarkand and a castle there bore a name similar to that of the last king of the Hephthalites – Gatifar.

The Hephthalites were divided into two groups – the White Chions and the Red Chions. The latter had their name after the red headdress, red armour and red banners. For now we cannot say whether these groups represented different tribes forming a confederation, or whether they were of different ethnical variety but forming a single tribal union.

The Hephthalites were an Iranian-speaking people. Their language belonged to the Eastern Iranian group, but it was somewhat different from the language of the other Iranian groups. The legends on the Hephthalite coins bear Bactrian titles. The Hephthalite writing developed on the basis of the Kushan one. Few examples of Hephthalites writing have survived. There is an inscription on a pottery shard from Zangtepe, graffiti from Karadepe, inscriptions from Afrasiab and Kafirkala near Kolkhozabad.

We have no evidence for any sharp disputes between the settled population and the Hephthalites. It is possible that the leaders of the Hephthalite tribes assumed the authority with the support of the aristocracy of the agricultural oases. It is known that local dynasties continued to rule in many possessions in Ferghana and Bukhara under the Hephthalites. The Hephthalite state lasted for a little bit longer than fifty years. Still it played an important role in the history of the peoples of Central Asia. It was the state that secured the independent development of Central Asia during the I millennium AD. The unification of the separate possession under the roof of one state led to the restoration of the previously existing economical and cultural links. …

A new state was formed around the mid-VI c. in the lands of Northern Mongolia by the Altaj Tjurks (V.K.: the Russian term "Tjurki" for the Asian Turks in general as opposed to the term "Turki" for the Turks of modern Turkey) – the Turkic Khaganate (551-744 AD). This was the second steppe empire, after that of the Huns, to spread its authority over a vast territory from the borders of China to the southern Russian steppes.

As a result of the combined actions of Sassanian Khosroe and the Turkic Khagan between 563 and 565 AD the Hephthalite state was destroyed and its territory divided between Iran and the Khaganate. The border between them ran to the west of Balkh and the east of Murgab.

In the beginning of the VII c. (in 600-603 AD) as a result of internecine wars the Khaganate broke into two pieces – Eastern Turkic, and Western Turkic. The agricultural societies of Central Asia fell under the authority of the Western Turkic khaganate, which played enormous role in their history. Notwithstanding that the possessions had to pay tribute to the Tjurks, some possessions restored their political independence and freedom in the foreign relations. The Tjurks themselves, after routing the Hephthalites, migrated in north-west direction, in the steppe regions. A significant part of the Tjurks settled in Northern and Eastern Ferghana, in the regions around the oasis of Tashkent, and in Semirech’e. The Tjurk influence in the southern and central regions – Sogd and Tokharistan was insignificant. After their move to agricultural areas some of the Tjurks settled down. By changing their life style and type of economy they adopted some forms of the material culture, building techniques, methods of conservation of the food in "khumas" (V.K.: i.e. burying the food in pits in the ground, which was OK in the arid climate there), methods of pottery production, etc. from the settled population.

The penetration of the Tjurks in the agricultural regions during the VII c., in first place in Chach and Ferghana, led to a gradual Turkification of the local tribes which were mixing with the Tjurks. At the time of the Western Turkic Khaganate the Tjurks became allies of the Byzantium and this led to intensification of the trade between Byzantium and the Far East. The main article of trade was the silk. According to Paj Czjuj, a senior Chinese bureaucrat, one of the caravan roads lay through Kashgar – Pamir – Ferghana – Ustrushana to Zeravshan and further west to Persia. During that time the trade activities of the Sogdians (dated to the V c.) intensified and they started to spread to Semirech’e. The merchants were followed by free people from the communes who founded settlements, which became centres of crafts and trade and gradually turned into towns.

The Turkic Khaganate disintegrated in the VIII c. but this did not decreased the influence of the Tjurks in Central Asia. Large political unions of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes sprung out immediately and they spread over large territories. The Semirech’e, Tien Shan, and the delta of Sir Darja were the main regions they spread into. At the beginning of the VIII c. the valley of the river Chu was occupied by the Tjurgesh people, who until then lived in the mountain parts of Tien Shan. This was the time of even closer relations with the agricultural peoples of Central Asia. When the Tjurgesh reached Semirech’e, the Sogdian producing centres there had already become towns, centres of crafts and trade.

The Sogdian colonisation which started in the V c. and intensified particularly in the VII-VIII c. defined for half a millennium the history of Semirech’e and played an important role in the life of the Turkic population in the eastern parts of Central Asia. The Tjurgesh were one of the most cultured Turkic tribes. They were subjected in a high degree to the influence of the developed Sogdian culture. A significant part of the Tjurgesh lived in towns and were occupied in the crafts industry. The Tjurgesh rulers minted their own coins, Chinese and Sogdian types being the prototypes. The coins were round and had a square hole in the centre [Kyzlasov L., Smirnova, Shcherbak, 1958].

In 760 AD the authority in Semirech’e fell into the hand of the Qarluqs, who came from Altaj. It was one of the numerous Turkic tribes. They lived in towns and settlements, similarly to the Tjurgesh, practised crafts and agriculture, nomadic cattle breeding and hunt. A significant part of the Qarluqs lived in Ferghana and in the southern regions of Sogd.

The Turkic tribes of Chigil and Jagma were the eastern neighbours of the Qarluqs. The former lived to the south of the lake of Issik-Kul’, in the mountains. They had towns and possessed enormous herds of cattle. This was a warlike tribe, least cultured in comparison to the Qarluqs and the Tjurgesh. Still, this did not obstruct them later to lay the foundations of the Kara-khanid state.

The Oghuses and the Pechenegs were the westernmost Turkic tribes. They were neighbours of Khorezm to the north and north-east and were under its constant cultural influence. The Oghuses started to appear in the historical sources during the II c. Their ethnic composition was quite complicated. Tolstov thought that the Oghuses formed as a people in the lower course of Sir Darja. They played big role in the ethnogenesis of the Turkmens, Kazakhs, and Karakalpaks.

… Among the Tjurks there were, apparently, many literate people as seen by the inscriptions on household vessels. They married local people (marriages of Tjurks to high-ranking locals are documented). For example, a Tjurk called Tarkhun was a ruler of Sogd. Coins were issued with his name.

The history of the Arab conquest of Central Asia has been well studied. The chronology of the events is known with an accuracy impossible for the earlier periods.

During the VII c. the Arabs started their advance in Central Asia. In 651 AD they captured Merv, where the last Sassanian Shakh Yasdigerd III died from the hand of a local miller. The local peoples struggled fiercely against the Arabs, whose campaigns were becoming extremely brutal, especially when the Arab armies came under the command of the Khorasan deputy Kutejba ibn Muslim.

Because of the serious resistance, the Arabs could take Khorezm and the central parts of Sogd only as late as during the first decades of the VIII c. The Tjurks, the people of Ferghana and Chach united against the Arabs, but their combined army was defeated and in 712 AD Kutejba ibn Muslim occupied Samarkand. After that he organised punishment expeditions against Chach and Ferghana, and died during one of them. The Arabs needed another century in order to stabilise their rule and to put down the frequent uprisings. The unrest in Ferghana continued in the IX c.

The Arab conquest brought Central Asia into the circle of the highly developed countries from the Mediterranean to the western limits of China. It changed very much the life style, especially after the adoption of a new religion – the Islam.

The most important economical factor during the VI-VII cc. was the blossoming of world-wide trade, actively supported by the Turkic Khagans. The Sogdians had the greatest share in the trade along the Great Silk Road. A belt of Sogdian towns-trading outposts sprang from the northern limits of Central Asia through Semirech’e, Eastern Turkestan and Mongolia to the Great Chinese Wall. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of these towns for the Eastern Turkestan.

Central Asia did not have a single official, state religion. This fact must be stressed, as exactly at that time Zoroastrism became the official religion in the neighbouring Iran, which was hostile to any deviations from the official doctrine and to other religions. Similar was the process in the Christian Byzantium. The situation in Central Asia was variegated. Although the written sources attest that Zoroastrism (the religion of the Magi) was quite widely spread, nonetheless some regions followed Buddhism. Christian communities existed as well. Besides, Central Asia became the refuge for the heretical to the official Zoroastrianism sect of the Manichees, and later – of the Mazdakites (both of them - extreme dualistic doctrines having, especially the second one, large support among the folk). This general situation facilitated the development of various syncretic cults, as it happened in reality.

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