Indian History Part 79 Babur-First of the Great Mughals Section I Background: The Central Asian Nomads

Canberra, 22 March 2020

For millennia the nomadic tribes of North-Central Asia have sustained themselves by herding their animals and exercising their unique ability to hunt en masse. Their pasturages were in the more habitable areas of the bleak desert that was their home, they moved along the minor watercourses and when needed, found refuge in the wooded mountains. These nomadic tribes and clans were continually on the move with their herds, and their collapsible, felt-covered tents called yurts, constantly seeking better pastures for their animals.

When led by inspiring leaders, these nomads converted themselves into a formidable army of able-bodied, hardy and ferocious horsemen, mounted on their durable ponies of the steppe, armed with the traditional double curved saddle bows, wearing either chain mail or leather and quilted jackets for protection. In this mode, these nomads were almost unbeatable in battle, courageous to a fault and stopping at nothing to achieve battlefield victory. The nomads of the steppe attacked for two major reasons—one, to find pasture when they had been driven out of their own holdings by stronger clans or tribes and two, to satisfy the pure lust for wealth, especially of the outlying urban civilisations. Their emergence from the desert on these plundering raids was considered to be as regular and certain as the changing of the seasons. These itinerant migrants from the core of Central Asia had managed to retain their nomadic culture and traditions even while continuing their unceasing struggle to eke out a livelihood in inhospitable lands and in the face extreme climates. At times it seemed as if nature itself had conspired against these hardy people.

The generational struggle for mere survival, against heavy odds most of the time, developed in these nomads three notable characteristics. One, an inborne hardiness and a sense of equanimity overlaid with a large dose of initiative to face even extreme danger; two, the acknowledgement, as a group, of the need to protect the weak and the young of the tribe; and three, the need to look after the animal herd, which was the lifeline for the clan/tribe, which in turn made these nomads instinctively good organisers from a young age. These characteristics of the Asian nomads have been under-valued in most analysis of these people, analysis that normally brand them as hard brutal people with no finesse about them. The fact is that their mastery in battle actually came from generations of sharpened intelligence and the ability to adapt swiftly to rapidly changing circumstances—a trait that has not been appreciated by generations of historical analysts. It is no wonder that a missionary of Rome reporting on the Mongol invasion of Europe commented that the ‘Tartars’, a common term applied to all Central Asian nomads at that time, were far less barbaric than the Christian men-at-arms who opposed them.

Another example of their ingenuity in battle was on display, just a generation before Babur’s reign: the Othmanli Turks (anglicised to ‘Ottoman Turks’) had captured Constantinople, considered impregnable at that time, not by storming it with brute force, but by employing superior military strategy and tactics. The had bridged the waters of the Bosporus Sea, fortified their own bridgeheads and employed their siege artillery in a superior fashion to capture the city and establish an Empire that ruled the region for more than six centuries. The Khans of Central Asia also demonstrated their organisational skills when the grandsons of Genghis Khan (1162-1227) started to rebuild and stabilise the empire, just two generations after the great Khan’s world conquest. For example, in China, Kublai Khan stabilised the country and reopened the trade routes, as reliably testified by Marco Polo, the intrepid traveller and merchant. In hindsight it seems that the sons and grandsons of Genghis Khan, great Khans in their own right, had a sense of world responsibility.

At the time of Genghis Khan’s conquests, the Turko-Mongols could have been classified as pagans and were supremely indifferent to the religions of the outer world that they were conquering with impunity. Gradually the Yuan emperors of China adopted Buddhism as their religion and the Ilkhans of Persia became followers of Islam. The descendants of the great Khan thus started to move apart and become isolated from each other. However, the steppe aristocracy of the Mongols and the more urbanised Turkish nobles, both descended from the same root, came to be settled land owners. Even so, the core of the Turko-Mongol homeland remained nomadic and the endemic struggle between tribes and clans for better pastures, and their sporadic ventures into the outer world to destroy settlements, continued unabated.

After Genghis Khan’s death, the Empire came to be divided as a result of a succession struggle between his four principle sons. One of the fundamental points of dispute was over the question of whether the Empire should evolve into a settled cosmopolitan entity or whether it should stay true to the old Mongol steppe-based nomadic lifestyle. When the Empire was partitioned, Genghis Khan’s eldest son, Juchi, was given the desolate steppes stretching between the Rivers Ural and Irtish. Under Juchi’s son, Batu, this remote region came to be called the Golden Horde by the Europeans, presumably because of the splendour of Batu’s pavilions in his encampment on the banks of the River Volga. The House of Juchi remained aloof from the rest. However, breakaway tribes from the Golden Horde went east from the River Volga and came to be known as Kipchak, or ‘desert people’. A hard core formed within the Kipchak, who came to be called Uzbek, an old Turkish word meaning ‘self-chieftains’. The Uzbeks gradually came to put pressure on the Chagatai lands to the south.

Chagatai, Genghis Khan’s second son, was given the heart of Central Asia as his inheritance—the lands to the north and west of the Tibetan plateau. This region contained the spine of Asia, where the Th’ian Chan and Hindu Kush mountain ranges met at the Pamir knot. The Chagatai khans continued to be nomadic in their lifestyle, while also creating town centres where the trade routes met, to facilitate people’s movement and commerce. Their chief city, so developed, was Kasghar. Even while pursuing their nomadic lifestyle, the Chagatai khans formed a crude nobility, which had no claim to fineness or ‘culture’. Their region, to the east of the mountain spine, came to be called Moghulistan, ‘the country of the Mongols’, by the Chinese to the further east. The khans to the west of the mountain chain, claimed and believed themselves to be the true descendants of Chagatai Khan. Their citadel was the walled, stone city of Tashkent. Their lands bordered the unruly north and these Chagatais were under constant attack from the pagan Kirghiz and the nomadic Kazaks. Perhaps more importantly, these lands were in the path of the southward movement of the fiery Uzbeks.

By the end of the 13th century, the Mongol Empire had fractured into four distinctly separate Khanates, each with its own philosophy and ingrained objectives. The Greater Mongol Empire now had four Khanates—the Golder Horde in the north-west; the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia; the Ilkhanate in the south-west; and the Yuan dynasty in the east, centred on modern day Beijing.

The south-western corner of the Chagatai lands was different to the rest of the region. Its fertile valley led to the great plains between the two rivers—Amu Darya and Syr Darya—that emptied into the Aral Sea. By late 13th century, Islam had taken strong root in this glorious valley. The fertile lands also boasted of two ancient cities, which were the centre of civilisation and culture—Bokhara, renowned as an Islamic centre of study and shrines; and Samarkand, a trade centre of palatial splendour.

It is here in Samarkand that Timur-i-lang the brilliant Turk, came to power in the 14th century, making the city his capital. He enriched an already splendid city with the wealth and spoils from his various conquests.

Samarkand – The Timurid Capital

‘Let he who doubt Our power and munificence look upon Our buildings’

—Amir Timur, 1379.

Samarkand is one the oldest continually inhabited cities of Central Asia. Although there is evidence of human activity around where the city stands today from the Palaeolithic era, it is presumed to have been founded only around the 8th or 7th century BC. Since it straddled the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean, the city prospered. For a brief period after it was conquered by the Greek armies of Alexander, the town was known as Marakanda.

Although the Tang dynasty took control of the city after the initial Turkic conquest, by 710 AD Samarkand was under the control of the Umayyad Caliphate. Legend has it that after the Battle of Talas in 751 AD when China was expelled from Samarkand, two Chinese prisoners passed the secret of paper making to their captors. This facilitated the establishment of the first paper mill outside China in Samarkand after which the invention spread to the rest of the Islamic world and then to Europe.

Samarkand continued to change hands—from the Abbasids to the Samanids (860-1000 AD), who were overthrown by the Karakhanids. For the next two centuries the city was controlled by various Turkic tribes till it was conquered, and sacked, by Genghis Khan and his Mongol army in 1220 AD. It remained part of the Chagatai Khanate till 1370, when Timur-i-lang made it his capital.

In the next 35 years Timur rebuilt the entire city, importing artisans and craftsmen from Persia. This long-period of building activity gave rise to the concept of a ‘Timurid Renaissance’. Samarkand remained the capital of the Timurid Empire till the empire splintered around 1465 after the death of Sultan Abu Sayyid.

During his conquering spree, Timur defeated the forces of Batu and scattered the Golden Horde, while also pushing back the eastern Chagatai khans. In his fading years he carried out a lightening raid of North India, crushed the Ottoman Sultans of Constantinople, and made the name ‘Tamerlane’ a dreaded title in far-away Europe. Timur based his kingdom on Persian culture, which was thriving to the far west of Samarkand. To entrench the Persian culture he imported Persian artisans for the construction of palaces and monuments and encouraged Persian writers and poets to take up residence in Samarkand. Timur who had personally led his forces as far afield as Moscow and Delhi and is estimated to have been responsible for the death of over 15 million people, made no attempt to consolidate his conquests. He preferred to mount devastating raids on his neighbours and then returning to his native Transoxiana with the plunder, to lavish it upon his capital Samarkand. For this reason, the dynasty that he founded was short-lived.

Although Timur’s death in 1405 was followed by four decades of uneasy peace within which the so-called Timurid Renaissance continued to flourish, it was also the beginning of the decline of the Timurid dynasty. However, even as late as 1465, the Timurid ruler Abu Sayyid claimed sovereignty over the region that spread from the foothills of the Caucus Mountains to Kasghar, far beyond the Hindu Kush mountain ranges to the east.

The Timurid Renaissance

‘Timurid Renaissance’ is the name given to a historical phenomenon that saw the rise of art, architecture and science in the Timurid Empire, especially in its capital Samarkand, between late 14th and early 16th century. The term Renaissance normally means the revival of art and literature under the influence of classical models in 14th – 16th century, with particular reference to Europe. In this instance, the term renaissance being applied to the Timurid Empire is something of a misnomer and perhaps resorted to only because of the coincidence of the time frame with the European Renaissance. In Central Asia, the movement was a ‘one-time’ effort and something of a swan song of an Empire created by the industry of one brilliant conqueror.

The movement started with Timur rebuilding Samarkand and reached its peak late in the 15th century, during the relative peace of a few decades that existed immediately after Timur’s death. The so-called Renaissance period in Samarkand was marked by the completion of large-scale building projects, liberal award of patronage for the study of mathematics and astronomy, and the provision of great support for poets and artists. The Timurid Renaissance was not a purely classical revival, but also encompassed the movement to make the colloquial style of Persian language, and the more prevalent Turkic language, achieve literary acceptability.

The death of Aby Sayyid in 1465, signalled the beginning of internecine succession struggles for inheritance, which disintegrated the power of Timurid rule. The prince holding Samarkand the capital was not strong enough to maintain a truce with his brothers and to keep the kingdom united, which splintered into four parts. In the south-west a brother ruled from Herat; in the south-east, another brother held the highlands of the Hindu Kush; a third brother seized Kabul in the south; and the furthest valley, Fergana, was held by the feckless fourth brother, Omar Shaikh Mirza, Babur’s father.

The Valley of Fergana

Fergana is a remote valley, at the foothills of great mountain ranges, an intermountain depression in Central Asia between the mountain ranges of Th’ian Chan in the north and Gissar-Alai in the south. Two minor rivers join in the valley to form the Syr Darya, to which the valley owes its fertile lands. The Fergana valley covers an area of approximately 22,000 square kilometres, is 300 kilometres long and 70 kilometres wide at its broadest. The region has a long history and as early as 500 BC is reported to have been part of the Sogdiana region of the Achaemenid Empire under Darius I. It formed the buffer between the Achaemenid Empire and the nomadic Scythians to the north and north-east.

Around 329 BC, Alexander the Macedonian conquered the valley and surrounding areas, establishing Alexandria Eschate (meaning the Furthest) and encompassing the region as part of the Bactrian Satrapy. It remained part of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom till the time of Demetrius I, when in 120 BC, the Yuezhi moved into the valley from the east, being pushed out of their homeland by external invaders.

The Chinese called the valley Dayun (Ta-Yuan) and captured it a few decades later. Thus Fergana became the first region to witness a major interaction between the Chinese civilisation and an urbanised culture speaking an Indo-European language. It also now fell on the path of the famed Silk Road. Subsequently, the Kushans easily annexed the region during their drive to the east and Fergana remained part of the larger Kushan Empire till the 3rd century AD, when the Persian Sassanid dynasty took control.

In 659 AD, the Tang dynasty overran the valley and surroundings and ruled the region for more than a century. Fergana then became the battleground for fierce fighting between the Tang dynasty and the Islamic forces intent on rapid expansion and territorial conquest. Finally in 751, the Chinese were defeated in the Battle of Talas and subsequently disengaged completely from Central Asia. For the next two centuries a series of Arab, Persian and later Turkic Muslim rulers reigned over Fergana.

In 1219, or thereabouts, Genghis Khan overran the valley and in 1227, before his death, assigned Fergana to his son Chagatai Khan. The valley now became an integral part of the broader Turko-Mongol Empire. On coming to power, Timur-i-lang annexed the valley to the Timurid kingdom.

Although snowed in for most of the year, Fergana was easily approached from Tashkent from where the Chagatai Mongols ruled. It had only one life-line, a caravan track that went from the glorious city of Samarkand to a guarded outpost on the Chinese border. Fergana was the frontier between the migrating nomads and Samarkand—between the fully nomadic and barbaric hunters and the settled, urbanised, cultured and scholarly city dweller. Fergana, remaining remote and unheeded for millennia, was destined to remain lost.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2020]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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