Central Asia in the Early Middle Ages,
Introduction to the history of the regions

9. Semirech'e

(pp. 151-152, 156 of Chapter 9, "Semirech'e", K. Bajpakov, V. Gorjacheva)

During the V c. a large territory of Central Asia witnessed the process of consolidation of tribes into a state formation of the early medieval type – the Turkic Kaganate. Towards the 60’s the Turkic Kaganate entered in political and economical relations with the greatest states of that time – Byzantium, Sassanid Iran, China. The centre of the Western Turkic Kaganate was in Sujabe on the river Chu [Clauson, 1961. pp. 1-13; Kljashtornii, 1964. pp. 21-22]. After spreading their control over vast tracts of Central Asia and over the silk trade routes, the Turkic kagans established solid contacts with the Sogdians. The political and economical links with Sogd not only stimulated but to a certain degree also determined the specific character of the towns and settlements in Semirech’e.

The written sources attest the Sogdian colonisation along the Great Silver Road and the founding of a number of towns [Pulleyblank, 1952. pp. 317-356]. The first data about Sogdian presence between the rivers of Chu and Talas are found in the message of Menander about the embassy of Zemakhr to the Western Turkic Kagan Istemi (568 AD). Contemporary to it is also the message of Nershakhi about a group of Sogdian dekhkans and merchants who founded the town of Khamukat (Dzhamukat) in the Talas valley [Volin, 1960. p. 178; Nershakhi, 1891, pp. 12-13]. The towns of Taraz, Sujab, Navekat with their Sogdian communities became widely known in the VII c.


(Images from the web-site of Falling Rain Genomics, Inc.)

After the division of the Turkic Khaganate into a western and an eastern part, the southern and south-eastern regions of Kazakhstan were included in the Western Khaganate. The lands of Semirech’e became its centre [Kljashtornii, 1964. pp. 21-22]. It was the starting point in the Turkic conquest of Central Asia. Gradually the Tjurks became masters of the Central Asian possessions. Under kagan Tunshekhu the local Central Asian ruler were transformed into kagan’s deputies and received the corresponding titles [Bichurin, 1950. v. I. p. 238].

Soon afterward, however, a number of internal and external events led to the disintegration of the Western Turkic kaganate, and to the appearance on its place of the Khaganate of the Tjurgesh at the end of the VII c. [Kljashtornij, 1964. p. 139-140].

Map 9. Semirech'e

a - large towns; b - caravansarajs; c - middle-sized towns; d - small towns; e - modern settlements

1. Burana, 2. Akbeshim, 3. Krasnorechenskoe, 4. Kismichi, 5. Pokrovka, 6. Chumishskoe, 7. Groznenskoe, 8. Kljuchevskoe, 9. Sokuluk, 10. Belovodskoe, 11. Ishimtobe, 12. Poltavskoe, 13. Kaindinskoe, 14. Aspara, 15. Merke, 16. Sretenskoe

17. Tolekskoe, 18. Aktobe Stepninskoe, 19. Tashkul', 20. Lugovoe, 21. Moldibaj, 22. Akhirtobekul', 23. Kasribas, 24. Aktobe Talasskoe, 24. Chaldavar, 26. Aktobe Orlovskoe, 27. Sadir Kurgan, 28. Majtobe, 29. Sardir Beshagash, 30. Dzhuvantobe, 31. Dzhalpaktobe, 32. Tortkul', 33. Tatraz, 34. Bektobe, 35. Tamdi, 36. Tajmakent, 37. Okhkum, 38. Sharva

At the beginning of the VIII c. the Arabs, after consolidating their power in Khorasan, embarked on the conquest of Maverannakhr. The external danger forced the Tjurgesh and the Sogdians to unite and they inflicted a defeat on the Arabs, but by deceit the Arabs succeeded in taking, first, Bukhara, and after that – Samarkand.

In the 712-713 AD the Tjurks, Sogdians, Shashis [i.e. from Chach/Shash, V.K.] and Ferghanis formed a coalition against the Arabs. This coalition became the major Arab enemy. Thanks to it neither the middle course of Sir Darja not Semirech’e were conquered by the Arabs [Kljashtornii, 1964. pp. 152-155].

The struggle of the Tjurgesh against the Arabs led to internecine conflicts in the kaganate and the Chinese availed themselves of the opportunity by taking Sujab. However, in the Talas battle the Chinese army was defeated by the Arabs and the Qarluqs [Volin, 1960. p. 80; Bol’shakov. 1980. pp. 132-136]. In 766 AD the Qarluqs took the power in Semirech’e. They actively supported the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim uprisings in Central Asia, which led to counter-expeditions of the Arabs. Thus, there are historically attested Arab campaigns in the region of the middle course of Sir Darja. Under the leadership of Fadl ben Sakhl the Arabs invaded the Otrar region, killed the commander of the border garrison and took the sons of the Qarluq Dzhabgu into captivity [Mikhajlova, 1951. pp. 11-12]. The Samanids were more successful. In 839-840 AD Nukh ibn Asad campaigned against the ruler of Ispidzhab, took the town and built a wall around the vines and the fields of the local people [Volin, 1960. p. 75; Bartol’d, 1968. p. 46].

In the beginning of the IX c. the town of Shavgar was taken by Basr I Akhmed [Bartol’d, 1968. v. I. p. 268]. It was as late as the second half of the IX c. when the Samanids spread their influence to Talas in the north [Volin, 1960. p. 76; Bartol’d, 1968. v. I, p. 46]. Thus, the south of Kazakhstan and Semirech’e kept their autonomy at least until the first half of the IX c. That is why they were the latest to be affected by the Islamisation process, keeping their early medieval, "pre-Muslim" traditions and culture. On this background, under the general feudal type of relations, an urban culture had been developing in the valleys of Talas and Chu, and it facilitated the inclusion of the developed sedentary regions of Sogd and Tokharistan into the Turkic khaganate. … The spread of the Sogdian cultural complex in the excavations in the region could indicate not only a direct settlement from Sogd, but a process of cultural integration as well. The Sogdian culture was the standard followed both in Chach, in Southern Kazakhstan, and in Semirech’e.

Religious buildings

Buddhist temples and monasteries, Christian (Nestorian) churches, Zoroastrian-Mazdakite tombs and temples have been discovered in the towns of Semirech'e. Their presence was also mentioned in the literary sources. The Persian-language Hudud al Alam (Regions of the World) reported that in the settlements of Semirech'e lived Christians, Zoroastrians, and "sabbi" (Buddhists?) [Bartol'd, 1964. T. II, Ch. 2, p. 465-466]. After the Samanids captured Taraz in 893-894 AD they converted the local Christian church into a mosque. The main mosque in the town of Mirka was also previously a church [Bartol'd, 1964. T. II, Ch. 2, p. 228]. The Manichean manuscript "The holy book of two foundations" from Khodzho (the oasis of Turfan) listed the towns in the Chuj and Talas valleys which had Manichean communities in the VIII-IX cc. These were: Taraz, Jakakend, Ordukend, Chigil'balyk [Kljashtornyj, 1964. p. 131].

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