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Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom

The trefoil of the writing desk

Lev Gumilev


2. An Excursion into Geography

Land and People

Bounded on the north and north-east by the Siberian taiga, on the south by the Great Wall of China and the mountain ranges of Alashan, Beishan, Kunlun and Pamirs, the broad steppe has had a constant population from of old. Yet the states on this territory started to arise relatively late, not earlier than the fourth-third centuries B.C. The impenetrable stony waste of the Gobi separated the northern from the southern part of the steppe; relations between them were inconceivable until the complete acquisition of the horse had turned sedentary hunters and herdsmen into nomadic herdsmen and warriors.

Before nomadic herding, cultures arose around the steppe where a combination of differing landscapes offered an opening to man's economic activity. Forest-steppe predominates throughout the Sayan-Altai plateau; sometimes the forest cuts deeply into the steppe, as, for example, does the famous Utken forest on the slopes of the Hangai; sometimes the steppe penetrates northward, as do the Khakass steppes in the upper reaches of the Enisei or the broad Trans-Baikal steppe. An abundance of animals along the forest margins, of fish in the broad rivers, and of copper and iron deposits in the mountains enabled the ancient inhabitants of Southern Siberia to obtain the surplus essential for the growth of culture. The development of herding, mainly horses, drew man onto the steppe; here extensive practice in the battue compensated him for the loss of some of the skills of trapping and for the struggle against mosquitoes. The northern herdsman was drawn south.

The situation was somewhat different in the south-east. The Chinese grew particularly strong from among a large number of varied tribal groups occupying the Huang He basin (Zhun, Di and Hu). They gradually subordinated, and partly exterminated, the {19} tribes surrounding them, except for those which succeeded in taking to nomadic herding and thus retreating to the steppe. Such were the ancestors of the Mongols, the Dunhu, the Turkic Hun and the "Western Qiang", ancestors of the Tibetans. [+10]

In bitter struggle with emergent China, the Mongols, Turks and Tibetans were able to defend their freedom and create a culture adapted to their way of life, while the "southern barbarians" - the forest and mountain tribes of Sichuan and Yunnan and Eastern China were almost completely exterminated or Sinicized. The same fate threatened the Turks and Mongols, but, having acquired the technique of mounted warfare and of long nomad treks, they found a means of avoiding the destructive Chinese incursions, hiding behind the Gobi and resting in the grassy steppes of Khalkha or Barga before throwing themselves with new forces into mortal battle with the Chinese for possession of their homeland, the Ordos and the foothills of the Alashan or the Xing`an.

Century-long struggles toughened the herdsmen and enabled them to become a leading force throughout Inner Asia in the period with which we are concerned. Therefore, the states they founded and their system of life, uniquely peculiar to them, will be a main subject of our investigation.

On the slopes of the Tianshan in the south-west we see a different situation from either of the preceding ones. The Taklamakan desert, occupying an enormous area, is completely unsuitable for life. The central part of Dzungaria is covered by quicksands. The regression of Lake Balkhash resulted in the gradual desiccation of the nearby steppes and a reduction in pastures. Life in this area is concentrated mainly in oases stretching in several chains from the ancient town of Shash (Tashkent) to the oasis of Hami. The nomads, however, still disposed of quite a lot of land, since they always had the mountain and foothill pastures of the Tianshan, the river valley of the Ili, Chu, Black Irtysh, Tarim and the hilly high ground of Tarbagatai.

Here conditions were much more favourable to the herdsmen than in the east. The scattered oases did not form a single state and became easy prey to the nomads. Moreover, the oasis rulers sought their help against the encroaching Chinese and Arabs. Thus, conditions in the west favoured nomad attacks, but not {20} nomad development on the spot. In fact, the tribes diverted here from the east, or arising locally, as a result of ethnogenesis, strove to develop a broad advance on the south, India and Persia became in turn the object of their attacks. This gave rise to the Sakas, Kushans, Turkmen-Seljuks, Karluk and Kipchak. But the states founded by these conquerors have closer links with the countries of South Asia which fell under their sway than with the steppe from which they came.

The Turks and Mongols were the masters of the Inner Asia steppe. Both these groups - at first ethnic, later linguistic - incorporated many independent peoples so adapted to the steppes that their economic activities fused with the processes of nature and they became in some sense, as it were, part of the landscape they had acquired, or the uppermost, final link in the biocenosis of the steppes. Their herds displaced the wild ungulates, depriving them of pasture and of water from the few springs Steppe dogs and trained eagles exterminated the wolves, so that sheep, the main livestock of the herdsmen of the Eurasian steppe, greatly increased in numbers. Thus, man replaced the large predators that usually, in natural conditions, controlled the growth of the herbivorous animals.

The nomad, though, not only failed to lose his tendency to collective forms of society, to perceive the culture of others and create his own and of complex forms of organisation - clan, military, democratic and state - but developed these tendencies so far that, in the course of two thousand years, he successfully carried on a struggle with his sedentary neighbours. The balance of forces changed more than once. The nomads sometimes weakened and fell under the power of their sedentary neighbours, they sometimes gained strength and, in their turn, conquered the neighbouring states and peoples. There was a political equilibrium between the nomadic and sedentary peoples.

The cause here, as indeed everywhere, lies in economics. Yet an extensive nomad economy depends solely on natural conditions which in the course of two millennia by no means remained unchanged.


Air and Water

The question of the desiccation of the steppes of Central Asia has evoked sharp polemics G.E. Grumm-Grzhvmailo, N.V. Pavlov, {21} V. A. Smirnov, V.M. Sinitsyn, and A.V. Shnitnikov have argued for it, L.S. Berg, K.N. Markov and others against. [+11]

The arguments of the protagonists of the theory were not contraverted by L.S. Berg sufficiently convincingly, but E.M. Murzaev has adduced some most interesting points which enable us to pose and answer this question in a different fashion. He noted: "Zhu K`ezhen's recent investigations, based on meteorological observations from the Chinese chronicles over the last 2000 years, have shown that we may only speak of pulsations in China's climate, and by no means of a tendency towards an arid type. [+12] L.A. Efremov, who has studied the paleontology of the Gobi, writes: "We need to note the signs of a more complex process of desiccation in the Gobi region than has been hitherto supposed. The onset of an arid climate seems to us to have been completed recently. This process should be considered as taking place in two stages with a comparatively moist interval between them. [+13]

We must note that all the researchers cited, in talking about the desiccation of the steppes, have failed to notice the discrepancy between the increase in moistness of the arid and the humid zones and so failed to reach a final conclusion. Introducing the principle of heterochronic increases in moistness, and an additional corrective for possible displacement of the track of cyclones into the arctic, has allowed the climatic variations to be followed with much greater precision, based on the historical and archaeological evidence.

Two columns of air are the chief influence on the climate of the northern hemisphere, in particular of the Old World. One of them is stationed over the North Pole; this is the polar baric maximum. The second, the transtropic maximum, hangs over the Sahara and Arabia. It is formed purely mechanically as a result of the earth's rotation and its base is continually dissipated from the heating up of the desert surface. While the polar maximum remains on the whole immobile, the transtropical maximum continually moves, now north, now south, and this changes the region of low pressure which acts as a sort of gully through which moist Atlantic air flows into Eurasia in the form of cyclones. These cyclones are what causes precipitation in this territory.

The direction of the cyclones depends on how active the {22} transtropical maximum is; and this is directly proportional to variations in the activity of the sun, since it is in the tropical zone that its rays strike with full force. On the other hand, variations in solar activity have almost no influence on the polar maximum, since the sun's rays only skate over the surface of the polar regions.

In years of a quiet sun, i.e. when there is little solar activity, the path of the cyclones passes through the Mediterranean and Black Seas, the North Caucasus and Kazakhstan right up to the mountain ranges of the Altai and the Tianshan. Here they are held up and the moisture they bring from the wastes of the Atlantic falls as rain. There is then an increase in steppe moisture. Grass covers the desert. The steppe rivers flowing from the slopes of the Altai, Tarbagatai, Tianshan and the Pamirs are full. Balkhash and the Aral Sea fill with water and increase in size. On the other hand, the Caspian Sea, which receives 81% of its water from the Volga with its basin in the central zone of European Russia, dries up and is reduced in size. Precipitation in the Volga basin, and throughout the central zone, is greatly reduced. Here rivers grow shallow and disappear, lakes become marshes and peat bogs, there are severe winters with little snow cover which alternate with dry, hot summers. Further north, in the polar region, the White and the Barents Seas are covered by ice, the permafrost moves south, raising the level of lakes in the tundra.

With increased solar activity the transtropical maximum begins to move north, moving the track of the Atlantic cyclones in the same direction. The cyclones travel over the central belt of Europe and Siberia. Precipitation in the steppe declines considerably. Steppe desiccation begins. Balkhash and the Aral Sea become shallow and reduced in size. On the other hand, the Volga becomes broad and full, the Caspian Sea becomes full of water and grows in size.

In the forest zone, the winter is snowy and mild with frequent rises in temperature, but summer is cool and rainy.

When there is very high solar activity the cyclones move still further north. They track over Scotland and Scandinavia to the White and Kara Seas. The steppe becomes desert and semi-desert, its frontier with the forest moves north. The Volga grows shallow, the Caspian is reduced in size.

The polar climate becomes more warm and moist.

Such are the three basic variants in the tracking of the Atlantic cyclones on which, directly and indirectly, the history of the Great {23} Steppe depends. Changes in the direction of the cyclones take place continually, and we now have the possibility to date periods of increased moisture and of desiccation in the Eurasian steppes.

Let us leave aside deep antiquity and see how the climate changed in the steppe zone throughout our period. The fourth-third centuries B.C., to which the oldest more or less detailed written information on the peoples of Central Asia go back, were a period of increasing moisture on the steppe, linked with the southward variant of the cyclonic tracks. At that time the level of the Caspian was 8 m below the level it is today, although the Uzboi then supplied it with surplus water from the Amu Darya since it did not empty itself into the Aral Sea. Then, gradually the precipitation in the steppes started to fall: the cyclones started to move into the forest zone. A period of steppe desiccation occurs in the first-third centuries A.D. Balkhash and the Aral Sea were sharply reduced and the levels of the Caspian rose 4 m.

In the fourth century the cyclones again shifted south and the steppe again flourished. This continued up to the thirteenth century with a brief period of desiccation in the ninth century. From the mid-thirteenth century the track of the cyclones moved into the central zone. By the start of the fourteenth century the Caspian Sea had risen to 8 m above its present level. The Great Steppe entered a period of dry climate.

In the course of the following centuries the cyclones shifted to the polar zone, then, in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries returned to the central zone, and in the twentieth, literally before our eyes, have again moved north. [+14]

It is easy to understand what an enormous part such changes in steppe climate played in the history of the nomads of Eurasia. Livestock cannot live without grass, grass grow without water, or nomads exist without livestock. Consequently, all these form a single system in which the key link is water. Given a lengthy drought, the Gobi creeps onto the steppes, expands and becomes a {24} barrier difficult to overcome between the valley of the Ordos and those of the Orkhon, Onon and Selenga. With increased moisture, the vegetation proceeds to advance. It moves against the desert from both south and north, and behind the grass come the wild ungulates, then sheep, cows and horses bearing their riders. The last create military hordes and the mighty powers of the nomads.

The Road to Truth

Century-long droughts took place in the third and the tenth centuries. The last is of particular importance for our theme and we shall deal with it below. But now we are concerned with the problem of historical method: has the period between the ninth and thirteenth centuries not remained a "dark age" because natural phenomena passed unobserved and ignored, the authors of our medieval sources were unable to observe and describe them, and also because those sources contained no information on the nomads of the Great Steppe in this period?

Of course, it could not be otherwise. Periodic variations in increased moisture and desiccation in the steppe take place in the course of centuries and cannot be observed in the life of one or three generations. So ancient authors wrote about natural phenomena either incidentally, or based on the conceptions of the knowledge of their day. In both cases, the information they communicate is not to be accepted without historical criticism which can rarely be adequate since the information is fragmentary and the sources isolated from one another.

The solution here lies not in the history of peoples, but in historiography. Only a few of the most outstanding books on history have been copied in great numbers, yet not all of those have come down to us. The sixth-eighth centuries was a period when chronicle writing flourished in China. Brilliant compositions which were frequently copied and carefully preserved were also devoted to the struggle against the Mongol yoke.

In the intervening period, however, after the bloody spasm of the "Five Dynasties", when Chinese art and letters flourished under the Song dynasty, the energy of gifted writers was entirely devoted to subjects remote from history and geography. Those active in the trend which N.I. Konrad has called "the Chinese Renaissance" devoted themselves to the classical works of Confucius and of his {25} contemporaries. In a beautiful hand they wrote numerous commentaries and accounts, including some of the chronicles of past dynasties, sat their examinations for office seriously, and no less assiduously took their colleagues to court or condemned them to disgrace. It did not enter the head of a single one of them that political geography and history with an ethnographic bias was the basis for understanding the actual situation of a state surrounded by neighbours with another way of life and culture.

Therefore, however badly the Tang Empire had coped with the tasks stern reality had set it, it remained firm within the Chinese frontiers using troops recruited from among friendly nomads. For this the Chinese intellectuals of the tenth-thirteenth centuries reproached the Tang emperors as being barbarians, organising a superstitious worship of the Buddha's bones as if they were participants in his thought, though at the same time they also rejoiced at their victories over the Turks. Under the Song, the diplomats and military commanders who had studied the commentaries on Confucius and the treatises on Mencius found themselves at a loss when they clashed with the barbarians beyond the Wall: Tibetans, Turks, Mongol-speaking Khitan and Tungus Jurchen.

They cheerfully made mistake after mistake, got away with it on account of high-level connections and left the country and people to pay for everything in tears and blood. They contrived to lose the war although they had a huge numerical advantage, to advise the government to hand over land and population to a weak enemy, all in order to save time and energy for the harem; and if they wrote history, it was only the history of their rule with a view to gaining a solid reward from it.

I.N. Boltin was triply right when he wrote, in the eighteenth century: "At every step the historian without geography in his hands encounters obstacles". [+15] Historical treatises of this period are not of great value. Incidentally, these faults in method are characteristic of many historical schools which disdain to look at nature and the characteristic features of peoples inhabiting particular countries and adapting themselves to the landscape and climate. One always has to pay dearly for ignorance in the natural sciences.

But a knowledge of geography does not signify the geographic determinism, formulated by C. Montesquieu and certain other {26} authors. [+16] The thesis at the base of our geographical analysis is quite different, it is: the historical fate of a people (ethnos), being the result of their economic activity, is not determined by, but is linked with, the dynamic condition of the landscape they occupy. [+17] This is not geographic determinism, but the historical geography essential not for our philosophical constructs, but, on the one hand, to fill the gaps in the authentic sources and, on the other, to disclose their falsity, that same falsity from which we hope to squeeze the truth.



[+10] Cp. L.N. Gumilev, Khunnu.

[+11] Cp. E.M. Murzaev, Narodnaya Respublika Mongoliya, 184.

[+12] Ibid ,188.

[+13] Ibid ,189.

[+14] V.N. Abrosov, "Geterokhronnost` periodov ...", Izvestiya Vsesoyuznogo geograficheskogo obshchestva, 1962, No 4, L.N. Gumilev, "Khazariya i Terek", Vestnik Leningradskogo universiteta, 1964, No 24, L.N. Gumilev, Otkrytie Khazarii, L.N. Gumilev, "Rol` klimaticheskikh kolebanii`", L.N. Gumilev, "Les fluctuations ...", Cahiers du monde russe et sovietique, VI, 1965, 3, L.N. Gumilev, "New Data", Acta Archeologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 19, 1967.

[+15] Cited in V.K. Yatsunsku, Istoricheskaya geografiya, 274-5.

[+16] L.N. Gumilev, Otkrytie Khazaru, 146-8.

[+17] L.N. Gumilev, "Khazariya i Terek", Vestnik Leningradskogo universiteta, 1964, No. 24, 78.


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