Inner Asian Religions

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INNER ASIAN RELIGIONS . Inner Asia, essentially a historical concept, was that great land mass surrounded by the civilized worlds of Rome, Greece, Arabia, Persia, India, and China. Central Eurasia, the more scholarly term for the region, should not be confused with Central Asia, which, in the strict sense, comprises the modern-day Uzbek, Turkmen, Kirghiz, Kazakh, and Tajik republics; or, in a broader sense, adds Chinese Turkistan (Sinkiang). Until modern times, the boundaries that separated Inner Asia from the rest of the Eurasian land mass were in constant flux, expanding or contracting according to the relations of the peoples within Inner Asia toward the surrounding sedentary states.

Inner Asia is a vast area with a multitude of peoples, speaking a variety of languages, possessing distinct religious practices, yet culturally united in a unique civilization. The languages spoken in Inner Asia belong to a number of linguistic families, the largest of which is Altaic (comprising the Turkic, Mongol, and Tunguz languages), followed by Uralic (the Finno-Ugric and Samoyed languages), Paleosiberian or Paleo-Asiatic, Indo-Iranian, and the isolated languages of the Caucasus. The noninstitutionalized forms of religion in Inner Asia, as reported by early travelers and recorded by historians, were most evident in their myths of origin, in the ceremonial activities present in daily life, such as rituals performed before hunting or connected with funerals, and in art. Tolerance of outside religions was the norm, rather than the exception, and Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity all exerted great influence on the region.

Ecologically, Inner Asia is divided into four great longitudinal belts: the tundra in the far north, the forest (taiga), the steppe, and finally the desert in the south. The existence of these four separate zones has led to the inaccurate stereotyping of the economic activity practiced in the north by the Finno-Ugric, Samoyed, and Tunguz peoples as hunting, fishing, and gathering, and that practiced in the south by the Turkic and Mongol peoples as exclusively nomadic herding. However, just as hunting and limited agriculture were a part of Turkic and Mongol economies, so was animal husbandry a part of the economy of the more northern peoples. The prevailing climatic conditions severely limited agricultural potential without manmade changes in the environment, giving rise to one of the most important unifying features of Inner Asia: the relationship between horse and pasture. As the mainstay of Inner Asian economy, the horse, dependent only on pasture, was either traded for basic necessities, particularly armaments that could only be manufactured by the surrounding sedentary civilizations, or used for military conquest. It thus became the key to the rise of the great nomadic civilizations.

Major problems arise in dealing with the history of Inner Asia. Indigenous written material is extremely scant, existing only from the eighth century ce. Much of the Inner Asian tradition was preserved only orally, transmitted by storytellers, singers, shamans, and priests. Most often the early history of Inner Asia was recorded by the surrounding civilizations, eager to protect their own ways of life and highly critical of different customs and manners. Because the written records are in a variety of nonindigenous languages, the correct identification of names in Inner Asia presents problems. Ethnonyms and toponyms, not to mention personal names and titles, that appear, for example, in Chinese sources are extremely difficult to equate with names or terms given in Greek or Arabic sources. When a name such as Scythian or Hun or Turk first appeared, it meant a specific people; later, the name would often become a generic term applied to any barbarian people. Imprecise geographical knowledge only added to the problems; distances were exaggerated, and few people from the surrounding sedentary civilizations had actually visited Inner Asia. The history of the region therefore must be filtered from ideas and ways hostile to its peculiar civilization and drawn from the precious scraps of indigenous materialwritten fragments, archaeological data, artoften literally scraped out of the desert sands or the frozen soil of the tundra.

To most peoples from other parts of the world, Inner Asia was seen as one vast zone. The world, from the time of Homer (c. tenth century bce) until the beginning of the Russian expansion into Asia in the late sixteenth century, saw Inner Asia as a land shrouded in mystery and myth, defined only by its barbarousness. It was the inhospitable land of the north, unfit for man or beast.

Ancient Views of Inner Asia

Early Chinese and Classical Greek sources spoke of Inner Asia, but many of the peoples mentioned were imaginary and showed the civilized world's lack of real knowledge about the region. To the Greeks these were the peoples who inhabited such places as the City of Perpetual Mist or the Rhipaean Mountains. These regions and the peoples who lived there were removed, beyond the pale of Greek civilization, their barbarous nature, according to Hippocrates (460?377? or 359? bce), directly determined by the environment in which they lived. The Greek geographer and historian Strabo (c. 63 bce24 ce) reminded his readers that before the Black Sea was navigable the barbarous tribes surrounding it as well as the fierce storms on it caused it to be called Axine ("inhospitable"); not until the Ionians established cities on its shores did it become known as Euxine ("hospitable"). This case is an example of one of the myths perpetuated about Inner Asia by external historians: the lack of cities was equated with a lack of civilization. On the other side of Inner Asia, the Chinese held similar views. The Inner Asian lived in the "submissive wastes," the "great wilderness," the region of the "floating sands," in the barren lands "where frost came early." The "five grains" would not grow there. Chinese emperors were often challenged by their ministers on the wisdom of trying to expand Chinese territory into these wastelands. This attitude perpetuated another myth: the lack of agriculture meant the people were uncivilized.

Early Medieval Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Views

In the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, the peoples of Inner Asia had been driven into the barren, desolate lands of the north, to the hidden, dark regions of the worldto the land of Gog and Magog. When Jeremiah was asked by the Lord what he saw, he answered, "I see a seething pot; and the face thereof is toward the north" (Jer. 1:13). Within this "seething pot" were the unknown kingdoms of the north, which, at the end of time, would rise and the contents spill upon the land, bringing death and destruction. Classical Arab and Persian geographers (ninth to eleventh century) located Gog and Magog in the fifth and sixth climes and warned of their cold, bestial nature, but others recognized their brave, warriorlike qualities. To al-Kāshgharī (fl. eleventh century) they were an army, the army of the prophet Muammad, to be sent out when he was angry with a people. This army, called Turk, would come at the end of time. The fear that medieval man had regarding the peoples of the north was also manifest in the Roman d'Alexandre, in which the hordes of Gog and Magog are sealed off behind an iron gate.

The armies of Inner Asia did not exist in myth alone; the fears of medieval man had been justified by repeated invasions from the steppe lands. Wallssuch as the Roman limes or the Great Wall of Chinawere monuments of the civilized world's futile attempt to contain the encroaching and often unknown peoples from Inner Asia. When the hordes of Inner Asia broke through, they did bring death and destruction with a terrible swiftness. It was because of such invasions that the peoples of Inner Asia first entered recorded history in some detail and accuracy.

The History of Inner Asia

The peoples of Inner Asia who lived in the tundra and taiga were widely dispersed in small communities and posed no threat to their neighbors. It was the peoples of the steppes, formed in large tribes with vast herds of sheep, goats, camels, cattle, and horses, who were highly mobile and had the organizational ability to lead military excursions against their sedentary neighbors. When these peoples first appear in historical sources, they come from two great steppe regions: the south Russian (or Pontic) steppe and the Mongolian steppe.


The first important Inner Asian people, the Indo-Iranian Scythians, appeared on the south Russian steppe in the eighth century bce and began to fade out of the historical scene around 175 bce, although some remnants survived until the third century ce. While little is known about their origin, a detailed description of their mode of life and some remarks on their history are given by Herodotos (c. 480420 bce) in book 4 of his Histories. The Scythians were the first historically known people to use iron, and having defeated the Cimmerians, they assumed full command of the south Russian steppe. Their greatness as steppe warriors was recognized when Darius I (r. 521486 bce), king of Persia, led a campaign against the Scythians north of the Black Sea from 516 to 513. These Scythian mounted archers soon frustrated Darius by seemingly fleeing before him, attacking when and where he least expected, all the while drawing him farther and farther into their land. In the end, Darius was forced to retreat to Persia. This type of warfare and the ability of the skilled horseman to turn and shoot behind himthe Parthian shotbecame a trademark of the Inner Asian warrior.

In Persian sources these people were called Saka, and three kinds were enumerated: the Saka beyond the sea, the pointed-hat Saka, and the Saka who revered Hauma. The Scythians of Herodotos lived north of the Black Sea, while the Saka of Persian sources lived beyond the Oxus River (the modern Amu Dar'ya) and south of this area in Iran. The social structure of the Scythians was tripartite: agriculturists, warriors, and priests. They had cities, centers of metallurgy, and a highly developed, stylized animal art.

Animals, particularly horses and cattle, as well as humans were sacrificed as offerings to the gods. Herodotos listed the Scythian gods with what he thought were their Greek equivalents, the supreme deity being Tabiti (Vesta). Images, altars, and temples were used. Scythian soothsayers were called into service when the king was ill; Enarees, womenlike men among the Scythians, practiced divination; elaborate funeral and burial rites, a strong will to protect the tombs of their ancestors, and prescribed ceremonies for oath taking existed. By the late second century bce, the ethnically and linguistically related nomadic tribes of the Sarmatians began to replace the Scythians, who had reached a degree of civilization perhaps unparalleled by any other Inner Asian empire.


On the eastern edge of Inner Asia, the Xiong-nu were the first clearly identifiable and important steppe people to appear on the borders of China, constantly menacing the frontier with raids that sometimes penetrated deep into Chinese territory. Their center of power was the Mongolian steppe. Appearing in Chinese sources around 230 bce, an account of the Xiong-nu was provided by the grand historian of China, Ssu-ma Qian (c. 14586 bce). By about 56 bce internal revolts had begun to rack the Xiong-nu empire and some tribes moved to the west; in 48 ce the Xiong-nu finally split into two major groups: the Southern Xiong-nu and the Northern Xiong-nu. The former continued to be a serious threat to China and finally faded from the historical scene around 400 ce, while the Northern Xiong-nu remained on the original homeland of the Mongolian steppe. The Northern Xiong-nu never regained their former power, however, and about 155 ce they were destroyed by another steppe people, the Xianbei.

The language of the Xiong-nu is unknown. Long thought to be Mongol or Turkic, more recent studies seem to indicate that it comprised some elements of the Yenisei branch of the Paleosiberian languages. Since the eighteenth century, it has been popular to equate the Xiong-nu of the east with the Huns of the west: at best the theory is controversial.

The military power of the Xiong-nu, like that of the Scythians, lay in their remarkable skill as highly disciplined mounted archers. In fact, Ssu-ma Qian considered warfare their main occupation. Made up of numerous tribes, the Xiong-nu confederation was most highly organized in its relations with foreign states, depending upon the horse for both military superiority and for economic gain. The Chinese set up border markets in an attempt to weaken the Xiong-nu by supplying them with luxuries and fostering a dependence on Chinese goods. Even though there was a hereditary aristocracy within the Xiong-nu confederation, internal organization was loose, each tribe having its own pastures. A son would marry his stepmother when his father died; a brother would marry a deceased brother's widowboth practices aimed at preventing the extinction of the clan.

At set times of the year, sacrifices were offered to ancestors, gods, heaven and earth, while auspicious days were chosen for major events, and the stars and moon were consulted for military maneuvers. Burials were elaborate, particularly for the ruler, with many of his concubines and loyal ministers following him in death. Although condemned by the Chinese for lacking in morals, not understanding court ritual, and not showing respect for the aged, the Xiong-nu had laws, customs, and manners of their own that contradicted the ethnocentric views of the Chinese.

Yuezhi, Wusun, and Kushans

The Xiong-nu greatly affected the history of Inner Asia to the west and south of their domains where, in 160 bce, they inflicted a terrible defeat on the Yuezhi, an Indo-European people located on the Chinese border of modern Gansu province. This caused the Yuezhi to divide; the Lesser Yuezhi moved to the south while the Greater Yuezhi began moving west. As the latter migrated through the Ili River valley, they abandoned the Mongolian steppe to the complete control of the Xiong-nu, while they themselves displaced the Sai (or Saka) tribes. The majority of the Yuezhi continued to move west into the Greek state of Bactria. At about the same time, the Chinese emperor Wudi (r. 14087 bce) sent Chang Qian to the Greater Yuezhi to form an alliance against the Xiong-nu. Leaving in 139, Chang Qian had to pass through Xiong-nu territory, where he was detained and held prisoner for more than ten years. Chang Qian's account, made to the Chinese emperor on his return, brought the first real knowledge of the western regions to China, information that would allow China to expand westward and become actively involved in Central Asia. Although his mission to the Yuezhi failed, he was sent again in 115 to try to form a different alliance against the Xiong-nu, this time with the Wusun, another people probably of Iranian origin, who accepted the gifts that Chang Qian brought as well as an imperial princess to become the wife of their ruler, but who also refused to cooperate. It was not until the Xiong-nu empire was disintegrating that the Wusun inflicted serious defeats on them.

The Yuezhi tribes that settled in Bactria were later united under one tribe, the Kushans, probably in the first century bce. Besides Bactria, their kingdom included extensive domains in Central Asia and large portions of Northwest India, where centers of Greco-Buddhist art were established at Gandhāra and Mathurā. The Kushan period is extremely controversial, and the dates and order of kings are widely disputed. But it was during the reign of Kanika, a patron of Buddhism, that this Indian religion began to spread into Central Asia and China, heralding a new era for the region. Chinese monks began to travel to India and Sri Lanka to obtain the Buddhist sūtras, passing through Dunhuang, Khotan, and Turfan on the edge of the Tarim Basin, as well as Ferghana and Sogdiana. Most notable are the accounts left by the monks Faxian (traveling from 399 to 413 ce) and Xuanzang (traveling from 629 to 645). Buddhist texts had to be translated into Turkic languages; the routes used by pilgrims were destined to become active trade routes, linking east and west.


With the appearance of the Huns toward the end of the fourth century ce, a new movement began on the south Russian steppe. Rumors of invasions spreading fear and panic reached Jerome (c. 347420) in Palestine, where he wrote that these "wolves of the north"the Hunsspared neither religion nor rank nor age." It was with this turmoil on the steppe north of the Sea of Azov that the Völkerwanderung, or migration of the peoples, began. The name Hun first appears in the writings of Ptolemy (fl. second century ce), but later historians of the Huns such as Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 322400), Priscus (fl. fifth century), and the less reliable Jordanes (fl. sixth century) portray a culture typical of Inner Asian society and very different from Roman civilization. Aided by civil wars in Italy that occupied the Roman army, some Hun tribes had established themselves by 409 on the Roman limes and in the Roman province of Pannonia (on the right bank of the Danube). When, in 434, a Hun king named Rua died, he was succeeded by his nephews, Bleda and Attila.

Hun penetration into Europe and the displacing of existing tribes were instrumental in the formation of modern Europe. Aetius, the great fifth-century general and power broker of the Western Roman Empire, provoked some Hun tribes to attack the Burgundians in 437 in order to shatter Germanic power and to strengthen Roman rule in Gaul. The Visigoths, who had been pushed from the east into the Toulouse area, forced the Vandals into Spain and North Africa, an event that caused great consternation to the entire Roman Empire. However, Aetius's attempt to use the Huns to defeat the Visigoths failed in 439. Turmoil continued, this time in the Eastern Roman Empire with the Persian decision to attack Byzantium; at the same time, Attila attacked the Byzantines from the north, gaining new treaty concessions. Then in 445 Attila murdered Bleda, thus becoming the sole ruler of the Hun tribes of Pannonia. In the end, a nervous Aetius allied himself with the Visigoths to meet Attila in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plain (451) near Troyes, France, where the Visigoth king Theodoric II lost his life and the Romans withdrew in a battle that left neither Hun nor Roman the victor. With Attila's death in 453, Hun influence on Europe rapidly crumbled.

Where the Huns had originated is unknown, but written sources leave no doubt on their physical appearance, which was clearly mongoloid. No text in the Hun language has been found; archaeological finds from Hun areas remain controversial. What is certain is that despite their impact on the formation of Europe, the Huns never attained the power of the great Inner Asian states such as those of the Türks or the Mongols.

Xianbei and Ruanruan

As already mentioned, the Northern Xiong-nu state was replaced around 155 ce by that of the Xianbei, who probably spoke a Mongol language. Through this victory, the Xianbei became the dominant tribal confederacy on the Mongolian steppe. With other nomadic peoples, including the Southern Xiong-nu and the Wuhuan, they continued attacks on China but were repulsed, particularly by the famous Chinese general Cao Cao. When the Xianbei first appeared, during the Wang Mang interregnum (923 ce), they had no supreme ruler; unified leadership is not ascribed to them until just before their defeat of the Xiong-nu. Oral tradition embellished this first leader, Tanshihuai (d. between 178 and 183), with a "miraculous birth," heroic qualities, and the wisdom to be a chief, yet the Xianbei failed to create a lasting empire in this fragmented period of steppe history.

From approximately 400 to 550 a new power emerged on the Mongolian steppe: the Ruanruan (or Jou-jan). Their origins are uncertain but future research may clarify their relation to the Hua and to the Avars who appeared in Europe in the fifth century. According to a widely accepted but yet unproven theory, the Ruanruan in the east are identified with the Avars in the west. Personal names, as given in Chinese, do not appear to be either Turkic or Mongol, but it is with the Ruanruan that the title kaghan is first used for the ruler. In 546 the last ruler, A-na-kui, was approached by a man named Bumin (Tumen), whom he called a blacksmith slave, and who had the audacity to request the hand of one of A-na-kui's daughters. He was rudely refusedso the story goeswhereupon Bumin and his followers revolted, overthrew the Ruanruan, and established their own Türk empire.


The appearance of the Türkthe first Inner Asian people whose language is known and the first also to use with certainty a Turkic idiommarks a turning point in the history of the steppe. According to Chinese sources they were metallurgists employed by the Ruanruan, but it is not clear whether the revolt led by Bumin (d. 552) was social in character or a minority uprising. After Bumin's death the empire split, one group, led by his son, establishing itself on the Mongolian steppe, while the other group, under the leadership of his brother Ishtemi, ruled over the more western part of the empire. They encountered the Ephthalites (or White Huns) on the borders of Persia. The Türk made an alliance with Sasanid Persia (226655), encircled and destroyed the Ephthalites, establishing thereby a common border with Persia, but also obtaining control of the lucrative silk trade. Because of its commercial interestsrepresented mainly by Sogdian merchantsthe Western Türk empire then found itself embroiled in the conflict between Persia and Byzantium. Persian attempts to stop silk from reaching Byzantium forced the Türk to go directly to Byzantium by a northern route. It was for this reason that embassies were first exchanged between Türk and Byzantium, opening up entire new horizons for Romans as well as for the Chinese. The first Türk embassy, headed by a Sogdian named Maniakh, reached the court of Justin II (r. 565578) in 567. The Türk embassy remained in Constantinople, then part returned to the Türk with the Byzantine ambassador Zemarkhos. A later Greek ambassador arrived at a Türk camp at the death of the ruler and witnessed the funeral rites, which included laceration of the faces of the mourners and the sacrifice of horses and servants. The Western Türk empire disintegrated around 659.

The Eastern Türk empire, in a semipermanent state of war with China and plagued by internal dissension, was finally defeated in 630. Chinese rule then lasted until 682 when the Türk revolted and again seized power, forming a second Türk empire that was overthrown in 743 by the revolt of three Turkic tribes: the Basmil, the Karluk, and the Uighur. It was from the period of the second Türk empire that the first indigenous texts from Inner Asiaas stated above, written in a Turkic languagehave been found. The most famous of these are funeral-stela inscriptions written in a runiclike alphabet found in the area of the Orkhon River and dedicated to the Türk ruler, Bilge Kaghan (r. 716734), his brother Kül Tegin, and the prime minister Tonyuquq. These texts give not only a history of the Türk people but also provide valuable insight into Türk society and customs, including their belief in tengri ("heaven, sky"), in the sacred mountain of Ötükän, and in the erection of balbal (stone pillars) on the tomb of a warrior inscribed with the name of an enemy he had killed. Chinese sources recorded three Türk legends of origin quite different from one another: the child raised by a wolf, the child born of the spirit of wind and rain, the child born of the spirit of the lake. Such a multiplicity of ancestral traditions would suggest that the Türk empire was most likely a confederation of tribes of diverse origin.

Avars, Khazars, and Bulgars

The Greek historian Priscus wrote of a migration of peoples taking place from 461 to 465 on the south Russian steppe. An embassy from the Oghur, Onoghur, and Saroghur had arrived in Byzantium, reporting that they had been pushed by the Sabir, who in turn were being displaced by a people in Central Asia called Avar. For almost a century there was no news of them, but in 558 the Avars, now in the Caucasus, sent an embassy to the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (r. 527565) requesting land in exchange for military protection. Fleeing from the Western Türk, the Avars were given asylum in the Byzantine Empire by Justin II, an act that infuriated the Türk, who considered the Avars their own, fugitive subjects. It is a well-documented Inner Asian concept that ruling tribes owned the peoples whom they had conquered. Settled in the Carpathian Basin, the Avars remained there for some two and a half centuries, becoming an effective wedge between the northern and southern Slavs. When they had arrived in the Carpathian Basin, the Avars found two Germanic tribes, the Gepids, whom they destroyed, and the Lombards, who fled and settled in northern Italy. The Avars also menaced the Byzantines and the Franks. In 626 the Avars and the Persians jointly attacked Constantinople and were defeated only when the Byzantine forces destroyed the Persian fleet as it attempted to cross the Bosphorus.

Meanwhile, the south Russian steppe continued to be a place of turmoil. The Turkic-speaking Khazars became increasingly powerful with the weakening of the western Türk, and by the mid-seventh century achieved independence. Christian and Islamic missionaries had already had some influence among the Khazars, but in 740 the Khazar ruler and his entourage adopted Judaism. Not an empire bent on conquest, but practicing a settled, mixed economy based on cattle breeding, agriculture, and trade, the Khazars nevertheless caused some movement on the steppe and prevented Arab and Islamic penetration into eastern Europe. Pushed by the Khazars, the Bulgars (a Turkic-speaking people who had lived on the Pontic steppe from the late fifth century) split around 680. One group, moving north to the Volga-Kama region, was, in 921, visited by an Arab embassy described by one of its members, Ibn Falān, who left an invaluable account of both the Khazars and the Volga Bulgars. A Christian Bulgar prince, Kovrat, and his son Asparukh led other Bulgar tribes, mostly Turkic, to the lower Danube region where Asparukh created a Bulgar state between 679 and 681. Some of the Bulgars settled with the Avars in the Carpathian Basin, but the formation of this Bulgar buffer state between the Avars and Byzantium effectively ended Avar-Byzantine relations by 678. As a result, the Avars led a reasonably quiet life for over a century until they were attacked and greatly weakened (although not defeated) in 791, 795796, and 803 by Charlemagne. The Avars slowly disappeared over the next eighty years until Hungarian (Magyar) tribes filled the vacuum and maintained the non-Slavic wedge in central Europe.


The final blow to the Türk empire was delivered by the Uighurs who, as we have seen, had been a part of the Türk confederacy. Their language was basically the same as that of the Türk, with some of their texts written in runic script and some in a script borrowed from the Sogdians, one that would become a major script used in Inner Asia. Unlike the Türk, whom they overthrew in 743, the Uighurs often allied themselves with China; thus, during the reign of Mouyu the Uighurs helped China to quell the An Lushan rebellion (755757). When Mouyu visited Luoyang in 762763, he was converted to Manichaeism, which had been propagated in China by the Sogdians. A description of his conversion appears on the trilingual inscription (in Uighur, Sogdian, and Chinese) of Karabalghasun, the Uighur capital city. When Mouyu returned home he took Manichaean priests with him and made Manichaeism the state religion. Thus, the Uighurs became the first Inner Asian people to adopt an institutionalized, major religion. Many Uighurs disliked the influence gained by Sogdians in Uighur affairs and an anti-Sogdian faction, led by the uncle of Mouyu, revolted and killed the kaghan and his family. There followed a succession of rulers embroiled in family intrigues, plagued by assassinations and suicide. Even so, Sogdian and Manichaean influence remained in a kingdom dominated by Buddhism. An Arab traveler, Tamīm ibn Bar, visited Karabalghasun in 821 and left an account of what he saw. Of particular interest are his remarks about the flourishing town of Karabalghasun and other small settlements, located in richly cultivated areas. The picture he draws contradicts the stereotyped image of the incompatibility of Inner Asian civilization and urban development. In 840 the Uighurs were attacked by a new Turkic power, the Kirghiz, who lived north and west of the great Mongolian steppe.

Not absorbed into the new ruling Kirghiz confederacy, the Uighurs moved. Some went to China, settling in today's Gansu province, where some of their descendants can still be found; the majority moved to the Tarim Basin and created a new state centered on the city of Kocho (8501250), where a sophisticated, multilingual, and multiethnic civilization developed. A cultured leisure class in the refined society supported Buddhism, Manichaeism, the arts and letters, and lavish entertainments. Here, the Uighurs adopted a completely sedentarized life based on agriculture supported by extensive irrigation works. As Kocho was a main stop on the east-west trade route, economic prosperity played a major role in the growth of Uighur civilization. When the Kitans, a Mongol people who overthrew the Kirghiz in 924, offered to let the Uighurs return to their former steppe lands, the Uighurs declined to move, preferring their life in Kocho. In 1250, the kingdom of Kocho voluntarily submitted to the Mongols. Uighur script was adopted by the Mongols and many Uighur scribes became skilled administrators for the Mongols. The famous German Turfan expeditions of 19021903, 19041905, and 19051907, led by A. Grünwedel and Albert von Le Coq, unearthed from the dry sands of the Tarim Basin the glories of the kingdom of Kocho: unparalleled art treasures including Manichaean and Buddhist frescoes and manuscripts in many languages, illuminating the splendor of Uighur civilization.


The rise of Mongol power and the domination of the Chinggisid states brought unification to Inner Asia in a way that had not existed since prehistoric times.

Central Asia before the Mongol conquest

Arab penetration into Central Asia began in 652 and culminated in the Battle of Talas (751), thus permitting the spread of Islam into Central Asia. Wars with the Uighurs had forced the Karluk west and in 999 they seized Bukhara, an act that brought strong Turkic influence to the region. Farther to the west on the steppe north of the Black and Caspian seas lived the Turkic tribes of the Kipchaks (known also as Cumans or Polovtsy), whose move to these regions is shrouded in mystery. To the south of them, the Oghuz tribesmentioned in the Orkhon inscriptionswere steadily moving westward, into Anatolia, where they were to form the basis of the Ottoman state.

The rise of Inner Asian powers in Manchuria

A mixture of forests rich in game, agricultural land made fertile by abundant rainfall, and pastures suitable for horse and cattle breeding determined the basic economy of Manchuria. The settled way of life also made pig raising an important feature of all Manchurian civilizations. In the fourth century, the Mongol-speaking Kitan began to gain dominance in the region, entering into relations with China in 468, but by the sixth century, they came under Türk domination. A new Kitan rise to power was signaled by their attack and defeat of the Kirghiz ruling over the Mongolian steppe in 924; they then expanded their rule over North China, adopting the Chinese dynastic title of Liao (9271125). In 1125 Kitan domination was replaced by that of the Jurchen, a Tunguz-speaking Manchurian people who had been Kitan subjects. The Jurchen assumed the Chinese dynastic title of Chin (11251234) and maintained their rule over northern China until the Mongol conquest. When the Jurchen moved into North China, some Kitan tribes, with the permission of the Uighurs, moved west across the Tarim Basin through the kingdom of Kocho to Central Asia, where a third Kitan state was founded (after those of Manchuria and China), that of the Karakitai (Black Kitan or Kitai) centered at Bala-sagun in the Chu River valley.

Chinggis Khan and the Mongol conquest

Between Central Asia and Manchuria, two major mongolized Turkic tribes, the Naiman and the Kereit, were vying for power in the eleventh century. Both tribes had been strongly influenced by Nestorianism; the conversion of the Kereit around 1000 was related by the Syriac chronicler Bar Hebraeus (fl. thirteenth century). The first united Mongol kingdom ended in the late eleventh century, followed by a period of internecine warfare between Mongol tribes and against the neighboring Tatar tribes. It was not until Chinggis (known as Temüjin before he was elected khan) had defeated all of his rivals that a new and powerful Mongol state emerged. These events, chronicled in The Secret History of the Mongols (mid-thirteenth century), were only the first shadows of what was to come as the Mongol empire spread over the Eurasian continent.

Chinggis, angered by the Naiman leader Küchlüg, who had defeated the Karakitai in Central Asia, began the great push west, defeating the Naiman in 1218, and then led a punitive campaign against Khorezm aimed at avenging the murder of Mongol envoys. Before Chinggis's death in 1227, Central Asia had been devastated, and the campaigns of the famous Mongol generals Jebe and Sübetei had spilled into Georgia, across the Caucasus, and into Russian territory, where the Russian forces and their Cuman allies were defeated in the Battle of Kalka in the late spring of 1223. The Mongols advanced as far as the city of Bulgar where they were turned back at the very end of the year 1223. With the death of Chinggis, the Mongol empire was to be divided among his four sons. But the eldest son, Jochi, predeceased Chinggis and his appanage of the westernmost Mongols, the so-called Golden Horde, went to his son, Chinggis's grandson, Batu. Of the remaining sons, Čagadai's domains were in Central Asia, Tolui remained on the homeland, and Ögedei was elected great khan in 1229.

The Mongols in Europe

Defeating Bulgar in the winter of 12371238, the Mongols then swept into eastern and central Europe with a great offensive begun in the winter of 12391240: Kiev fell on December 6, 1240, German forces were defeated at the Battle of Liegnitz on April 9, 1241, and the Hungarian army fell two days later. Suddenly, in 1242, the Mongols withdrew from Europe and returned to the rich pastures of the south Russian steppe. All of Europe now accepted the Mongol threat as real, however, an attitude that opened a period of rapprochement in Mongol-Western relations, begun by Pope Innocent IV (r. 12341254) at the Council of Lyons (June 1245). Three groups of papal emissaries were sent to the Mongols: the Dominican Ascelinus, the Dominican Andrew of Longjumeau, and the Franciscan Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, who brought back the first extensive accounts of the Mongols, as did the later Franciscan missionary William of Rubrouck, who journeyed to the Mongols from 1253 to 1255.

The Golden Horde and the Il-khanids

With Batu's death in 1256, his brother Berke (r. 12571267) became ruler of the Golden Horde. He converted to Islam, thus placing the Golden Horde at odds with the Il-khanids of Persia. The Il-khanids came to power under Hülegü, who sacked Baghdad in 1258 and ended the Abbasid caliphate. The Mamluk sultan Baybars (r. 12591277), powerful foe of the Crusaders but also of the Mongols, defeated the Il-khanid forces in the Battle of Ain Jalut (1259), thereby stopping the Mongol conquest of the Arab world. During the reign of the Il-khan Arghun (r. 12841291), Buddhism was declared the state religion and close contact was maintained with Europe, particularly with the Vatican and the kings of France and England. Under severe economic pressure, Il-khanid Persia declined and religious tension forced Gazan (r. 12951304) to proclaim Islam the official religion. With the death of Abu Saʿīd in 1335, Il-khanid Persia fragmented. Meanwhile, the power of the Golden Horde reached its apogee under Özbeg (r. 13131341), but attempts to expand its territory brought it into military conflict with ambitious Muscovite princes and the great military leader Timur (Tamarlane; 13361405) in Central Asia. Finally, the Golden Horde split into three successor states: the khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and the Crimea.

The Mongols in China

It was Khubilai (r. 12601294), the last great Mongol khan, who brought China under Mongol rule (the Yuan dynasty, 12641368). With the extended visit of Marco Polo to Khubilai's court (12711292) the first reliable information about China came to the West. After the death of Khubilai, Mongol rule in China began to weaken until they were overthrown in 1368 by the Chinese. What remained of Mongol power returned to the steppe where the western Mongols (Oirats, Dzungars, Kalmuks) became a factor in Central Asia, with two successive Oirat states menacing the territory between the western Mongolian steppe and the Caspian Sea from the mid-fifteenth century until their final defeat in 1758 at the hands of the Chinese.

With the decline of the Mongol empire, the patterns of Inner Asian civilization were well established. The development of firearms eliminated the advantages of the Inner Asian warrior: the economic structure of Inner Asia could not technologically advance. The change from land routes to sea routes considerably diminished Inner Asia's role as an intermediary between east and west. Even though the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing (16441911) was Manchu, founded by Tunguz-speaking peoples from Manchuria, it rapidly became sinicized, losing much of its Inner Asian character at a very early date. The simultaneous penetration by Russia and China had profoundly changed the structure of Inner Asian civilization. The history of these later periods, not typically Inner Asian, does not shed light on what made the civilization of Central Eurasia unique.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Central Asia; Chinggis Khan; Hun Religion; Hungarian Religion; Islam, article on Islam in Central Asia; Manichaeism, overview article; Missions, article on Buddhist Missions; Mongol Religions; Nestorian Church; Prehistoric Religions, article on The Eurasian Steppes and Inner Asia; Sarmatian Religion; Scythian Religion; Tengri; Turkic Religions.


The classic definition of Inner Asia can be found in Denis Sinor's "Central Eurasia," in Orientalism and History, 2d rev. ed., edited by Denis Sinor (Bloomington, Ind., 1970), pp. 93119, and expanded in textbook form in his Inner Asia: History, Civilization, Languages; A Syllabus (Bloomington, Ind., 1969). Sinor's Introduction à l'étude de l'Eurasie Centrale (Wiesbaden, 1963) is the basic bibliographic work for the study of Inner Asia and is invaluable for the author's opinion on research in a field dominated by French, German, Russian, and Hungarian scholarship. Other histories of Inner Asia that can be consulted with profit include René Grousset's The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, translated by Naomi Walford (New Brunswick, N.J., 1970); Wilhelm Barthold's Turkestan down to the Mongol Invasion, 3d ed. (London, 1968); and the collection of essays in the Handbuch der Orientalistik, vol. 5.5, Geschichte Mittelasiens, under the general editorship of Bertold Spuler (Leiden, 1966).

For the art of Inner Asia, Karl Jettmar's The Art of the Steppes, translated by Ann E. Keep (New York, 1967), provides an excellent introduction plus ample illustrations both in black and white and in color. The best book on the epic in Inner Asia is Nora K. Chadwick and Victor Zhirmunsky's Oral Epics of Central Asia (Cambridge, U.K. 1969), but it concerns only the Turkic-speaking peoples.

For a discussion of the early Arab penetration into Inner Asia, which opened the region to Islam, H. A. R. Gibb's The Arab Conquests in Central Asia (London, 1923) remains a useful account. In a similar vein, Owen Lattimore's The Inner Asian Frontiers of China (New York, 1940) and Studies in Frontier History: Collected Papers 19281958 (Oxford, 1962) are unique in that much of Lattimore's life has been spent in the region.

The most extensive portrayal of the life of the Scythians can be found in Ellis H. Minn's Scythians and Greeks: A Survey of Ancient History and Archeology on the North Coast of the Euxine from the Danube to the Caucasus (Cambridge, U.K. 1913). The most detailed account of the Huns is J. Otto Maenchen-Helfen's The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture, edited by Max Knight (Berkeley, 1973). Annemarie von Gabain's work on the Uighur kingdom of Kocho, Das Leben im uigurischen Königreich von Qočo: 8501250, in "Veröffentlichungen der Societas Uralo-Altaica," vol. 6 (Wiesbaden, 1973), is unparalleled.

For the Mongols there is an abundance of material. René Grousset's Conqueror of the World, translated by Denis Sinor in collaboration with Marian MacKellar (Edinburgh, 1967), is the best book on the life of Chinggis. For the Mongol Il-khans and the Golden Horde, Bertold Spuler's The Muslim World: A Historical Survey, vol. 2, The Mongol Period (Leiden, 1960); Die Goldene Horde: Die Mongolen in Russland, 12231502, 2d ed. (Wiesbaden, 1965); and Die Mongolen in Iran (Leipzig, 1939) are by far the most useful in this complex period of Mongol history.

New Sources

Dani, Ahmad Hasan, V. M. Masson, J. Harmatta, B. A. Litvinovskii, and Clifford Bosworth. History of Civilizations of Central Asia. 4 vols. Paris, 19922000.

Elverskog, Johan. Uygur Buddhist Literature. Turnhout, Belgium, 1997.

Foltz, Richard. Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century. New York, 1990.

Frank, Andre. The Centrality of Central Asia. Amsterdam, 1992.

Heissig, Walther. The Religions of Mongolia. Translated by Geoffrey Samuel. London, 1980.

Klimkeit, Hans-Joachim. Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Parables, Hymns & Prayers from Central Asia. San Francisco, 1999.

Lieu, Samuel. Manichaeism in Central Asia and China. Leiden, 1998.

Sinor, Denis, ed. The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. New York, 1990.

Ruth I. Meserve (1987)

Revised Bibliography