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Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom

The trefoil of the Bird's Eye View

Lev Gumilev


sik01 1. Tribes of the Great Steppe from Eighth to Tenth Centuries (176 KB)

6. Foreshadowing the Legend's Hero (1100-1143)

Another Approach

As distinct from the preceding 150-year dark and empty period in the history of the Great Steppe, the first half of the twelfth century is full of events, of the names of heroes and cowards, of places and peoples, and even of moral and ethical evaluations. This does not, of course, mean that we have enough material to understand the rhythm of the period; on the contrary, it is clearly inadequate. But even what there is allows us to give something more than the general process of historical development - now we can seize the causal and sequential link between events.

The sources on this period are extremely varied and differ widely. There is the dynastic chronicle Liao shi, dry and canonical, giving facts that are confirmed but inadequate. There are several supplementary Chinese works in which the important and valuable is wondrously intertwined with trivialities and chance associations. There is a selection of Persian and Arab histories and, finally, the legend of John the pontiff-king in Latin and Russian variants.

One lifetime would be insufficient to extract, translate and systematise all the information needed by the historian; fortunately, two men have tackled it: Karl Wittfogel and Feng Chia-Sheng. They have made a selection of the facts and successfully arranged them in tabular form. [+137] These tables and their notes are the foundations of the structure on which we can begin to raise the walls.

By walls we mean an articulated account of events, the middle link of our investigation, after which we can pose the questions: why? and what was the point? - the roof of our building. But we shall be consistent and for the time being limit ourselves to what is before us.


A Prince's Career

Our hero, Ye-lu Dashi, was born in 1087 in the ruling family of the Liao Empire. He was a descendant of the founder of the dynasty, Ye-lu Ambagan, in the eighth generation. Before obtaining a rank and an official post, the young prince had to follow a complete course in Chinese and Khitan language and literature in the Han-lin Academy. Despite the fact that he left there with a fine knowledge of literature, this did not prevent his becoming a wonderful horseman and archer. It is difficult to say which of his specialisms was of most use to him.

In 1115 Ye-lu Dashi obtained a rank and was appointed governor of the regions of Dai and Xiazhou (in present-day Shaanxi). War with the Jurchen, who were rebelling, was in Ml flood, but the front line was still in the north, in the depths of Manchuria, and the twenty-eight-year-old regent took no part in these battles. Only in 1122 did he manage to encounter the new Emperor of the Liao dynasty who arrived in his Southern capital while saving himself from the pursuing Jurchen. [+138] Yet even there the emperor of a once great power found no rest; he soon fled, roamed around the country's borders and in 1125 was captured and he died in exile.

The government of the Chinese Song Empire, once again displaying its political short-sightedness, decided to take advantage of the difficult situation of the Khitan and stab them in the back. The Chinese emissaries negotiated with the Jurchen about a simultaneous attack on the southern regions of the Liao Empire and timed it for 1122. The Chinese commander, Tong Guan, set out at the head of a large army against which Ye-lu Dashi could field only two thousand Khitan and Tatab horsemen. Yet this was enough; the Chinese were completely routed. After the victory, Ye-lu Dashi's army grew to thirty thousand horsemen drawn from his region whose population once more had faith in Khitan prowess.

The Song several more times tried to attack the Khitan and the corpses of Chinese warriors carpeted the earth between the regions of Xuan and Mo (in Northern China). One can believe this since the Chinese brought their forces up to half a million after their first army had been defeated. It is quite clear that these were mobilised {108} peasants whom there was no time to train Naturally, they fell a sacrifice to the veterans of Ye-lu Dashi's troops.

The victories achieved almost saved the Liao Empire The Tangut, drawing close to the Khitan in joint wars against the Zubu (1099) and concluding an alliance with them strengthened by a marriage (1104), considered it worthwhile to stand forth in defence of their friends who had again shown themselves capable of winning victories A thirty thousand strong Tangut army entered Khitan territory and routed the advance detachments of the Jurchen, but in a decisive battle on the river Yishui they suffered defeat and were forced back to the Huang He [+139].

Nevertheless, despite a terrible defeat, the Tangut continued to help the Khitan forces pushed back to the western, i.e. desert, borders of the Liao Empire. They supplied the Khitan with provisions, received and concealed fugitives, affording the Khitan hope of a counter-offensive in as much as Ye-lu Dashi and Xiao Gan were a serious force.

However, as soon as the Jurchen appeared in the south of the Liao Empire the situation changed radically. The regent of the empire and his assistants fled to the western borderlands Ye-lu Dashi's comrade, the commander Xiao Gan, proposed establishing a new system relying on the warlike Tatab, but Ye-lu Dashi preferred to combine with the emperor Yan-xi. In 1123 he led 7,000 Khitan warriors to the west of Suiyuan, while Xiao Gan declared himself emperor of the Great Xi, as the warlike tribe of the Tatab were called in Chinese. The fate of the two comrades in arms had become separated.

The Jurchen were not only bold warriors, but also skilful diplomats. Trying to smash the Tangut-Khitan alliance, they offered the Tangut several Khitan border regions in exchange for neutrality. The Tangut agreed joyfully, but the regions "given" turned out to be occupied by troops of the Song Empire, allies of the Jurchen. The Tangut did not engage in a conflict with China, restricting themselves to complaints to the Jurchen monarch about his unfulfilled promises. Precious time was lost on negotiations about effective help to the Khitan who had still not laid down their arms.

The Emperor Yan-xi attempted to establish order in his camp He {109} executed the deserter-regent and loaded Ye-lu Dashi with reproaches for leaving his post. Dashi was able to justify himself and was again set at the head of the troops sent to the east, to Chakhar, to recover his homeland. There he clashed with a Jurchen advance guard, was defeated and captured.

The Jurchen army's task was to seize the Khitan emperor, but the troops encountered a marshy area and were so tied down that they were unable to continue the campaign. Then the Jurchen prince, Cong-wang, ordered Dashi, who was bound, to lead the force to the Emperor of Liao's camp. He did, and although the Emperor himself was able to escape, his harem, sons, daughters, uncles and officials were seized by the enemy. The Jurchen emperor Aguda honoured Ye-lu Dashi for this betrayal and rewarded him with a wife. But here too fate protected the resourceful prince who was none too fastidious in choosing the means for his self-preservation.

In the military camp by the Western capital of the former empire, Ye-lu Dashi beat a Jurchen commander in a game of chance. The commander was very offended and they quarrelled. Dashi knew the character of his new friends too well and, losing no time, he took five of his sons and fled, leaving his wife behind. In the morning, when Dashi's disappearance was discovered, the unfortunate woman was given to some soldier. When she refused she was shot.

One might think that the Khitan emperor would lament the loss of all his near ones as a result of Dashi's betrayal, but he received the fugitive prince with delight, because just at this time the Khitan had planned a new campaign to recover the Western and Southern capitals from the Jurchen. Every man knowing the situation in the enemy camp was precious then. Dashi, understanding matters better, subjected the plan of campaign to severe criticism. He pointed out that the eastern regions of the country were inundated with enemy, the defiles in the mountain passes had been ceded without a fight, and the emperor, heading the army, had failed to prepare in good time for defence, so that, naturally, the whole empire had fallen into enemy hands. Instead, he proposed his own plan: to train the soldiers and await a suitable opportunity. Of course, they did not listen to him. The emperor Yan-xi threw himself into the attack which completely failed, despite 50,000 Tatar horsemen coming to support the Khitan. Dashi who, under the excuse of illness, had refused to take part in the campaign made one more attempt to make the monarch see reason, but was equally {110} unsuccessful Judging by the fact that in the following year, 1125, the self-confident emperor was captured by the Jurchen and the Liao Empire ceased to exist, one has to think that Ye-lu Dashi had judged the circumstances correctly and this justifies his subsequent actions, both historically and ethically.

Without waiting for the inevitable catastrophe, in the autumn of 1124 Ye-lu Dashi killed two dignitaries who had pursued the ruinous policy of unprepared and unprovided for counter-attacks, declared himself khan and in the night fled to the west with only 200 faithful warriors in attendance Three days later he crossed the "Black River" [+140] and arrived among the Ongut who presented him with 400 horses, 20 camels and a thousand sheep. This was the minimum required to cross the desert Each horseman, apart from his war-horse, received one pack-horse and a remount. Military equipment and fuel could be loaded on the camels, while in the steppe sheep were a mobile stock of food Thanks to the Ongut help, Ye-lu Dashi crossed the Gobi in three days of uninterrupted march and reached the fortress of Hotun on the Orkhon, the extreme western point of the Khitan empire In view of its particular importance, this fortress had a garrison of 20,000 unquestionably obedient to Ye-lu Dashi And what were they to do? Ye-lu Dashi was the only Khitan prince with a plan and programme to save, not the power which it was impossible to save, but the life and freedom of the surviving Khitan None of them wished to perish .With the fortress and the garrison, Ye-lu Dashi obtained the state herds and, thanks to this, "carried the war into open space", this saved him.

What was the content of the new programme? First of all, a change of title Ambagan, the founder of the empire, began as khan of the Khitan, then, from 916 to 947, he and his son Deguang were emperors of the Khitan and from 947 Wuyun became the Emperor of Liao [+141]. This meant that the country was converted from a nomad power into a Chinese state and as such perished in 1125, as had all its predecessors Ye-lu Dashi took the title "gurkhan", i.e. he broke with the Sinophile past [+142]. His subjects became his comrades, his vassals became allies, his guard became a retmue. And immediately there appeared the forces for war and victory, although the situation seemed hopeless


The Fate of the Khan

In the twelfth century the word "khan" among the nomads and hunters had quite a different sound than it now does to our ears deafened by civilisation. In those days they distinguished splendidly between the nuances in terminology relating to the nature of power. For example, the title huang-di, which we translate very inexactly as "emperor", was associated for the nomads with foreign influence, Chinese in the east and Arab in the west where the mediator between "Heaven" and man was the caliph (deputy of the Prophet). The Mongols and Turks preferred to deal with "Heaven" without such authorities.

The term "king" (in Chinese wang, in Persian Shah) was linked with the principle of hereditary authority from father to son, i.e. was a direct challenge to the steppe principle in which uncle was considered superior to nephew. The king's authority, though lay, was regarded as a form of violence to his subjects and thus did not find acceptance in the steppe. On the other hand, the troops proclaimed a khan. This was not an election in the sense of twentieth-century democracy; parliaments and corruption would have found no place in the military headquarters and the surrounding localities. Usually a descendant of khans became a khan, but he only took power when the warriors raised him on the felt and expressed in cries their willingness to obey him in war. In peacetime custom reigned; to this the khan himself submitted, as did any herdsman wanting to keep his head on his shoulders. So, in declaring himself khan, but not king or emperor, Ye-lu Dashi straightaway lost a fair amount of power and acquired a large number of true friends. But, then, the word "khan" means "tribal leader", and there were many tribes in the steppe.

Tribal fragmentation was the curse of the nomad world. Quarrels over possession, cattle stealing, snatching women, blood vengeance, all these continual troubles faded before a still more terrible consequence of separatism: the inability of fragmented tribes to organise resistance to the attacks of others. The so called alliances of tribes were an unstable and ineffective form, particularly in war. Therefore, the demand for a strong military authority became urgent as soon as a strong enemy appeared; such in the twelfth century were the Jurchen.

In an analogous situation the seventh- to eighth-century Turks {112} were able "to make their heads incline and their knees bend' [+143] for the common good. This system was called el (il)[+144]. But the harshness of the system deprived it of popular appeal and condemned it to perish, then it was replaced by a combination of tribal union, self-governing in peacetime, with a strong authority intended to wage war. A gathering of clansmen - a kuriltai - proclaimed the leader, called gurkhan, i.e. khan of a confederation of tribes. Thanks to its legalised mutual restrictions, such a situation suited both sides, the authorities and the subjects Ye-lu Dashi was intelligent and educated enough to understand that he could retain the hope of saving his land only by throwing the unexpended forces of the steppe dwellers against the Jurchen bogged down in China It is true he also kept the title of emperor just in case, but he did not have to use it since the Jurchen went from victory to victory in his lifetime.

The Jurchen commander reporting to his emperor on Ye-lu Dashi determined his forces at 10,000 horsemen The emperor ordered the attack to be delayed, evidently because the main Jurchen forces were finishing off the Khitan emperor Yan-xi in Northern China Thanks to this delay Ye-lu Dashi managed to agree a joint counterattack with the Tangut on the Jurchen, intending to support the Khitan emperor But the allies were too late the emperor Yan-xi was captured and there was no one and nothing to save.

In 1126 Dashi's forces were increased, evidently from Khitan fugitives who joined him in order not to become subject to the enemy. The Chinese determined the number of his troops as already 100,000, in conventional terms, taking account of the battle-worthiness of the Khitan veterans. In fact, they were much fewer and, even given the alliance with the Tangut, were insufficient to continue the war with the Jurchen Therefore, Dashi tried to enter into negotiations with the Song Empire, promising he would forget Chinese bad faith, if they would attack the Jurchen from the south. Then he undertook to head an attack from the north-west.

But the Jurchen were not dozing In the winter of 1125-6 they themselves undertook an offensive against the south Sixty thousand Jurchen besieged the capital of China, Kaifeng, which more than 200,000 of the best Chinese troops were flung into battle to save. Two parties formed in China partisans of the war and {113} "fighters for peace". The latter prevailed and achieved the withdrawal of the Jurchen by the payment of tribute and territorial concessions North China had been terribly devastated, but this gave Ye-lu Dashi a breathing space, he succeeded in making contact with the Tatars and inducing them not to sell horses to the Jurchen Annoyed, the Jurchen arrested the heir of the Tatar leader, who had come for negotiations, in order to put pressure on the Tatars. This action did not increase Jurchen popularity in the steppe, but, in order to save their clan, the Tatars agreed to act as guides for the Jurchen army sent against Ye-lu Dashi in 1128. This army was composed of Khitan subject to the conqueror and a prince of the Ye-lu family was appointed to command it Ye-lu Dashi's isolation was complete.

What could he do? He knew too well the staunchness and courage of the Jurchen forces, the lack of principle and adventurism of his Sinicized fellow-tribesmen, the unreliability of the Tangut and the egoism of the Tatars. There were no hopes for success in battle or in the defence of the fortress, and Dashi took the only correct solution he again marched west. The Jurchen were unable to reach him and did not try. For them he had become safe and uninteresting. It was much more advantageous to conquer China where the demoralised ruling clique willingly sacrificed their people to ensure themselves a joyful and placid life in the palaces and parks.

In January 1127 Kaifeng fell and the Chinese emperor was taken prisoner, his brother transferred the capital to the south, leaving the people of North China to be plundered by the enemy. The war party, who stood for resistance to the conquerors, were isolated from both rulers and people. Their leader, the famous commander, Yo Fei, had started his career with a crushing defeat of a popular rising near Lake Dongtinghu (1130-5), [+145] but then fell a victim to palace intrigues. The easiness of their victories and the scent of wealth seduced the Jurchen, but brought with them the same results as they had for the Khitan the Chinese culture of the intellect remained foreign to them, but the culture of vice was completely assimilated This only benefited the Mongols a hundred years later But let us return to our hero, since we have now approached our subject in earnest.

{114} In 1129 Ye-lu Dashi led those Khitan warriors who remained faithful to him out of the Ho tun fortress. He was accompanied by about 40,000 horsemen, while in the previous year his troops had numbered 100,000 - of course, both figures are conventional. Evidently, not all the Khitan had agreed to leave their homeland and many preferred submission to the enemy, rather than freedom in exile.

When he reached Bishbahk (in Southern Dzungaria), Dashi counted his forces. The heads of seven sedentary regions of the Tianshan area had joined him, evidently Uighur, and eighteen tribal leaders. The composition of the latter is very noteworthy. Here were named: the great Yellow Shivei and T'ele [+146] who dwelt along the Amur, as well as their neighbours: the Ugi [+147] and Bigude;[+148] then the Mongol tribes: Onggirat, Jajirat, Ilsut,[+149] Nirun, [+150] Targutai, [+151] Tamgalik, [+152] Merkit, Khushin; [+153] then the Zubu, already known to us "probably a fragment of the horde which had broken down thirty years before this", and Tangut, because Dashi had not broken his alliance with the Xia kingdom. And, finally, four tribes about which neither Wittfogel nor I can give any information: Pusuvyn`, Humus, Si-di and Guy-er-bi.

Here is another example of our helplessness in the face of the sources. It is extremely important to determine the tribal composition of the Khitan king's allies, but the information which has lain in the scroll for 800 years is a puzzle not to be solved without the help of a special historical analysis.

However vexing it may be, let us leave the four undisclosed ethnonyms and see what those that have been identified give us.

The Tangut are clear; they were an auxiliary detachment of the allied state of Xi-xia; the Zubu were Tatars who had surrendered {115} and been included in the Khitan forces, but we note that the Tatars voluntarily went over to the enemy side, i.e. the Jurchen.

Four tribes, the Yellow Shivei, T'ele, Bigude and Uriangqai, were not nomads. Evidently, living side by side with the Jurchen, they had struggled with them and were now compelled to save themselves from persecution, since there was blood between the tribes. Much more important is that seven of the tribal leaders were pure Mongols. We have to suppose that the traditional enmity between them and the Tatars made them allies of the Khitan, but now, when military success smiled on their enemies, those most compromised considered it wise to leave their native steppes. But why did a Merkit detachment appear among the Mongols? - that I cannot explain Probably, anyway, it is simply impossible to explain everything, given the paucity of information. Yet we should note, all the same, that it was not entire tribes, but some parts of them which followed the indomitable leader, because the same tribes, at least in Mongolia, remained in their places in the thirteenth century Hence, we may conclude that Ye-lu Dashi did not have a levy of tribes, but a volunteer army and this explains its high degree of military efficiency.

After occupying the fortress and town of Bishbalik, Dashi gathered his commanders together and delivered a speech to them 1 le recognised his people's defeat, the catastrophic disintegration of the Liao Empire, and spoke of the last emperor's flight But such information did not correspond to reality, since the emperor had I ought until he was captured Dashi, evidently, preferred to keep these details from the leaders of the tribes that had been collected. Then he declared his intention to move west and to rally the nomad tribes of the Great Steppe to win back his native land In answer to his appeal he obtained 10,000 warriors, well trained, armed and equipped [+154].

But here, too, enemies were found as well as friends. A clash with (he Kirghiz in the north showed that the way into Siberia was closed. An attempt to attack Kashgar led to complete defeat and exacerbated relations with the Muslim population of the Central Asian oases. The Khitan held on only in the valley of the Imil and in the Seven Streams area where they took part in a quarrel of the Kangyui and Karluk with the khan of the town of Balasagun Ye-lu Dashi {116} deprived him of his authority as khan, but left him in the post of "ruling the Turks".

This success gave Ye-lu Dashi the firm point he needed. He was not, of course, the first Khitan to arrive in Central Asia. The long and unsuccessful war had thrown out of the Far East many people despairing of victory and seeking a refuge with the Muslim princes of Mavarannahr. For example, in 1128 the ruler of Samarkand had had about 16,000 Khitan tents and used the emigrants as a defence for his eastern frontier. But as soon as Ye-lu Dashi appeared in Balasagun, these and other Khitan flocked to him, thanks to which his force doubled. The rich pastures of the Seven Streams area allowed the Khitan to feed up their horses, and military success began to incline to their side. At the end of 1129 Ye-lu Dashi conquered the Kangyui tribe and again attacked Kashgar and Khotan. Both fortresses were taken.

The Jurchen army sent to follow the last unconquered Khitan prince was powerless on entering the steppe. There, horses and guides were needed, and the leaders of the nomad tribes refused obedience to the Jurchen. In addition, the Mongols, then united by Qabul-khan, declared war on the Jurchen and compelled them to return to Manchuria, and the Tangut replied to the Jurchen Emperor that they did not know where Ye-lu Dashi was. The campaign of 1130 was broken off.

In 1131 the Jurchen renewed their advance on Khotan, but lack of provisions and the cold made them turn back. There was nothing for them to do there anyway, since the commander they were pursuing was by then far to the west, beyond the reach of the Jurchen Emperor. Those Khitan who had remained on the Orkhon were, of course, captured. Apart from that, the Uighur from Hezhou seized several Khitan and handed them directly to the Jurchen, thus depriving the renegade commanding the punitive army of his last trophies. [+155] After so many failures, he fell under suspicion of having dealings with the enemy. The unfortunate man had no choice but to rise in revolt and to pay for this with his life (1132).

{117} It seemed to Ye-lu Dashi that this was the moment to realise his cherished dream: to free his homeland and its people.

In 1134 he sent 70,000 horsemen east through the desert to restore the former glory of Liao. But the desert is a barrier for any army. The Khitan troops lost so many horses and cattle on the road that they had to turn back half-way. Ye-lu Dashi exclaimed: "Heaven does not favour me! It is its will." [+156] This ended the war in the east, only for it to burst forth with fresh force on the western border of the Great Steppe.

The Appearance of a Priest-King

Before continuing with the further exposition of the course of events, it is convenient to halt and pose several puzzling questions. As we observed above, Ye-lu Dashi brought about 10,000 horsemen to Dzungaria and doubled this number from Khitan who had fled to the west before him. So, he had about 20,000, perhaps even 30,000, warriors. By the conquest of Kashgar and Khotan he immediately raised the whole Muslim world against him; and by the subordination of the Kangyui, the Great Kipchak steppe as well. In other words, the situation on the western border of the Kara-Kitai (as it now came to be called) khanate was extremely tense, the more so as, behind the petty Muslim princes, stood the Seljuk Sanjar commanding the strongest army of those operating in the Near East. The question arises, from where could the gurkhan allocate 70,000 warriors for the eastern campaign? This was three times greater than his total forces, even if he completely denuded the western borderland of his domain! Evidently, from 1130 to 1135 Ye-lu Dashi's forces grew to some enormous figure, but from what and from whom?

Let us turn to the sources.21 The Chinese are simply silent. Ibn al-Asir informs us that in 1130 the Karluk and Guz hirelings quarrelled with the ruler of Samarkand, Arslan-khan, and, as the sultan Sanjar supported the latter, they fled to the gurkhan. But this refers to a lew thousand, not hundreds of thousands. Juvaini tells us that in 1131 the gurkhan made raids on Ferghana and Mavarannahr and conquered both regions. This is not confirmed as regards {118} Mavarannahr, for Samarkand was not taken, and even Hodjent remained in Muslim hands. Evidently, these were simply raids, not changing the disposition of forces, but exacerbating the situation.

There is then a six year silence. No events! It is understandable why the Muslim behaved so passively. They simply paid no attention to a very small principality of "faithless Turks" which had newly arisen. But during this period Ye-lu Dashi was able to prepare so that at Hodjent in 1137 he completely smashes the forces of Rukn ad-din Mahmud-khan who had replaced the luckless intriguer, Arslan-khan, exiled by sultan Sanjar in 1130, as ruler of Samarkand.

This time the Muslim were disturbed. "Great terror and grief came upon them." However, no events took place for four whole years. For some reason, Ye-lu Dashi made no use of the fruits of his victory. Mahmud of Samarkand was distracted by his struggle with his own troops from the Karluk tribe who appealed to the gurkhan for support. Only in 1141 did a new conflict arise, and this time on an immense scale. The sultan Sanjar appeared for a struggle with the infidel and was accompanied by auxiliary detachments from Khorasan, Sejestan and the mountain regions of Gur, Gazna, Mazanderan. Here were the best troops of the Muslim world, hardened in battles with the Greeks and the crusaders, equipped to the limit with the technology then available. Sanjar's force numbered approximately 100,000 horsemen. The Muslim had not fielded such forces even against the crusaders.

Despite the fragmentary data of the sources, it is clear that the sultan and his suite regarded the operation that had been initiated extremely seriously, and not simply as repelling the next of the nomad raids continually being made for plunder. What could so put them on their guard?

And what of Ye-lu Dashi himself? According to the words of Ibn al-Asir he allegedly fielded 300,000 warriors "from the Khitan, Turks and Chinese". [+157] What can this phrase mean? There were less than 30,000 Khitan horsemen. The greater part of the Turks lived to the north and west of Balkhash, i.e. beyond the limits of the Kara-Kitai power. There could not be any Chinese. The eastern nomadic Mongols at this time were engaged in active war with the Jurchen, as were the Tangut. Briefly, there was nowhere for support to come {119} from for the war with the Muslim, and there was no reason for the eastern steppe dwellers to support a khan who had fled from them.

Yet, despite all this, in 1141 in the Katwan valley, between Hodjent and Samarkand, Ye-lu Dashi, after dividing his force into three parts, pressed the Muslims back into the valley of the Dirgam (a tributary of the Zeravshan) and routed them as neither Charles Martel, nor Leo the Isaurian, nor Gottfried of Bouillon had been able to do. Sultan Sanjar managed to flee, but his wife and companions were captured, and 30,000 of the best Seljuk warriors suffered the death of the brave. That is a fact! What he did is undoubted, but why this could happen is incomprehensible and no one has explained it. So, we have to seek an explanation. And, what is more, after such a brilliant victory, Ye-lu Dashi limited himself to occupying Samarkand and Bukhara, and some Khitan detachment plundered the Khwarizm oasis. The Khwarizmshah, incidentally, quickly came to an agreement with the gurkhan, undertaking to pay certain dues in kind and 30,000 gold dinars a year. The local rulers were kept in all the Central Asian towns seized by the Khitan; they were merely obliged to pay the gurkhan a small due. How are we to explain such strange moderation? The gurkhan should surely at least have rewarded his troops, but he had no means of his own. Here, too, the sources are silent.

What if we pose the question another way, based on our knowledge of the situation and from a commonsense point of view? Let us start with what is known: money and men are needed for war. Ye-lu Dashi had no money, since all the wealth of the Liao Empire fell into the hands of the conqueror. But there were many people in the twelfth-century steppe, and far from all of them were closely linked with their tribes. Two factors played a key part here: (1) the increased moisture [+158] of the steppe which stimulated not only the extension of pastures and an increase in the herds, but also a population increase since there was something with which to feed the children, and they grew up into warriors; (2) the nomad life in which each tribe has a strictly determined region for its movements and thus enters into its biocenosis. Each family had a section with a specific quantity of grass and water and, consequently, of cattle and horses. S.I. Rudenko has shown that, to ensure minimum needs for {120} the average herding family of five persons, twenty-five horses were essential. This is based on the following data: one adult horse is the equivalent of five to six cattle, six sheep or goats; a two-year old is equated with half a horse, a yearling with a quarter. To this we need to add transport animals: four to six pack-horses per tent, and ten to twelve horses for a rich yurt and its contents. [+159] Consequently, for a nomad economy to grow rich on its plot it was essential not only to increase the amount of fodder, but to stabilise the population; its growth would swallow all the benefits nature might give the nomad. In drought conditions, when infant mortality was high, there were few excess people in the steppe; now they had appeared and the elders of the herding tribes were glad to rid themselves of them. If the gurkhan accepts people, let them go to him and not return.

Thus, if tribes could not be mobilised, it was possible to collect people who were too energetic, too troublesome in their native nomadic grounds and trained enough for war service. There was one complication: it was difficult to rely on these semi-hirelings. Their leaders might be particularly dangerous. Therefore, Ye-lu Dashi introduced a system in which no single commander could have more than 100 horsemen and all the officers in charge of a 100 were directly subordinate to the gurkhan.

The volunteers who had been gathered together had to be fed, armed, trained, and that meant that someone had to give the money which the gurkhan did not have. Let us see, who could this be? He who had it and needed the gurkhan to fight the Muslim. Only the merchants taking caravans from China to Europe and back had ready money in the thirteenth century. Muslim merchants, naturally, are excluded; Jewish trade had been interrupted in 965 with the destruction of Itil`, the important trans-shipment point. There remain the Uighurs, one part of whom were Buddhists, the other Nestorians.

In Uighuria Buddhism flourished in accordance with canons forbidding monks to touch gold, silver and women. Consequently, true Buddhists had no connection with trade, though their monasteries were fairly rich. On the contrary, the Nestorians traded everywhere and hated the Muslim with all the passion they were capable of. And {121} here we shall return from ideas to facts. It was the Uighurs who accepted the fleeing gurkhan in their capital Bishbalik, supplied him with provisions, gave him the chance to reorganise his army and, afterwards, to replenish it with lively fellows from the steppes. For this they obtained what any businessman needs: their protege smashed their competitors in Samarkand, Ferghana, Kashgar, and Khotan and ensured them the monopoly of the caravan trade. The flowering of the Uighur merchant towns began from the battle of Katwan, and where power fell into the hands of the Christians the Muslim merchants were liable to tax. [+160]

But we would be committing the grossest "modernisation" were we to forget the confessional factor. Although Christianity was permitted in the Seljuk sultanate, the Muslim, of course, had every possible advantage. Next, the Nestorians themselves were noted for their intolerance but, though not sparing the means for war against those of another faith, they lacked a suitable military leader. Ye-lu Dashi met all their demands: he was sufficiently cultivated to avoid suspicion of paganism, sufficiently worldly not to become a Buddhist monk and, as an enemy of sultan Sanjar, he could not even dream of accepting Islam. He was, evidently, not baptised, since even in 1130 he made the traditional Khitan sacrifice to Heaven, Earth and his ancestors - a grey bull and a white horse. But he did this rather for his warriors, although the Confucian education he had received in his youth was no obstacle to retaining such survivals in his consciousness. The basic point was that, as an experienced politician, he understood that if he wanted to remain in the new land he should ensure himself of the support of at least a part of the local population, though they were Nestorians. Therefore, despite his letter to the ruler of Bukhara which starts with the formula acceptable to the Muslim: "In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful", [+161] his heir received the Christian name of Elijah (I-lieh), and the crusaders in Palestine and Syria sincerely believed in the existence of a Christian kingdom east of Persia.

In fact, it did not exist, but the idea of its existence, of its necessity and even of the possibility of its being realised arose and played a part in the political and military history of Asia. The Christian kingdom headed by a priest-king is merely a dream of the eastern {122} Christians, but this dream was so effective that by the time of Ye-lu Dashi's death it had begun to seem a reality to many and, for the sake of this dream, former enemies, the Nestorians and the Jacobites (monophysites), were reconciled The unification of these two churches, with complete disregard for dogma, took place in 1142, when Ye-lu Dashi was still alive [+162]

John's Kingdom

Ye-lu Dashi died in 1143. His son Elijah was still a minor and power passed into the hands of his mother, the khansha, whom the gurkhan had appointed regent before his death. Yet even after his death the nomads of Mongolia, as well as both. Far Eastern empires, the Jurchen Kin and the Chinese Song, regarded his successors as Dashi himself and ascribed the actions of the Kara-Khitan rulers to him.

Over the previous ten years the Km (Jurchen Jin) Empire had come to terms with its conquest by the Khitan and decided to establish relations with those who had fled to the west. However, as soon as, in 1144, the Jurchen emissary appeared before the gurkhan, who was engaged in hunting, and demanded that he should descend from his horse and hear the Imperial Rescript, he was dragged from his saddle and killed.

In 1151 Elijah ascended the throne and ruled peacefully until 1161 In this period there took place only one conflict between the Khitan and Khwarizm, even that ended without bloodshed because the Khitan did not engage in battle with the overwhelming forces of Khwarizm (1158). On Elijah's death, his younger sister ascended the throne and ruled until 1177 She perished as a result of a romantic story her lover persuaded the khansha to kill her husband. The father of the murdered man raised the troops and the khansha and her lover were seized and killed In 1178. Elijah's son, Julkhu (Jurka, i.e. Yurka, Yurn, George) came to the throne and ruled till 1213. In the first part of his reign he was engaged in retaining the position won by his grandfather in Central Asia, to achieve this he helped the Patriarch Elijah III found a Nestorian metropolitan see of Kashgar and Nevaket (Seven Streams) [+163] In the {123} second part, he was obliged to become engaged in politics linked with the wars of Chinggiskhan, but that will be dealt with in a separate chapter devoted not to the creation, but to the destruction of the Kara-Khitan power.

The territory seized and acquired by the founder of the Kara-Khitan power embraced, at the time of his death, three large areas. Western Dzungaria from the river Imil in the north and the Seven Streams area as far as the Chu in the south [+164] was under the direct control of the gurkhan. This territory was extremely convenient for nomads and semi-nomads; thanks to the variety of mountain and steppe pastures, it fed 84,500 tents (family units), including the local Turkish population. The army was correspondingly small: 10,000 at the direct disposal of the gurkhan and 30,000-50,000 with a full mobilisation. [+165]

The capital, or rather the headquarters, Balasagun, lay in the upper reaches of the Chu, not far from Issyk-Kul. Another town, Imil was not far from the eastern extremity of Balkhash. This small, picturesque, poor region was the celebrated "Kingdom of Prester John". [+166]

South of the Chu and the Central Tianshan lay a much larger territory subject to the gurkhan through conquest. In the south it was bounded by the waves of the Amudarya, on the west by the Aral Sea, since the Khwarizmshahs recognised the superior authority of the gurkhan, on the east by the rich oasis of Khotan. Kashgar, Samarkand, Bukhara and Termez, having their own rulers like Khwarizm and Khotan, saw fit, after the battle of Katwan, to pay the gurkhan a tribute that was not burdensome and guaranteed them peace and freed them from the need to organise a costly defence of their northern frontier. The Uighur Idykut was also numbered among the gurkhan's vassals, but this, evidently, was more like symbiosis than a real subordination. The Uighurs behaved very independently in relation to the Khitan.

Now we have outlined the true frontiers of the Kingdom of Pope John it will be very useful to glance at the Russian text of the "Tale of the Indian Kingdom" which we have not so far used. Unlike the {124} Latin description quoted above, here we have some interesting details on which we shall focus our attention.

To start with, the text is a sort of medieval "science fiction" Here are three-legged people, three-fathom giants and half-bird-half-horses, crocodiles and the phoenix, but what is interesting is that there is geographic information.

In the midst of the kingdom lies "a lake of sand and it stays nowhere in one place, the mound goes whence the wind drags it, and mounds arise on the shore for 200 miles." This is a quite exact description of sandy desert with dunes, the only point not clear is which desert the author had in mind, the Takla-Makan or that of Central Dzungaria. So let us look further at the text "To the side of that sea 3 days [journey - LG] are high hills and from them a stony river flows, it bears great and small stones along for 3 days. That stone comes into our land, into that sandy sea, and the mounds cover that sea, and near that river, one day's journey away, are deserted high hills, a man cannot see their summits, and from that point the river, now small, flows underground."

This is a description of the southern slopes of the Tianshan where there are constant falls of stone and scree which cover the river beds and where the streams surface only on the edge of the sandy desert It was here that was located a string of rich oases in Uighuria Kucha, Kurlya, Aksu etc. Later there are mentions of the precious stones found in the bed of these rivers, here it is worth recalling that Khotan is a source of jade and jasper, and in the neighbouring mountains are sources of rubies, sapphires and laips lazuli. Finally, the mention that the streams fall into a large river where there are many fish and that these are eaten raw is important. The large river is the Tarim. Thus, amidst fantastic inventions an exceedingly valuable detail is found - the pontiff's kingdom is located in Uighuria.

At first glance this also contradicts historical reality, since the gurkhan's headquarters and his warriors" grazing grounds were north of the Tianshan, but literalism, as we mentioned above, most often leads to confusion. The author of the "Tale of the Indian Kingdom" was least of all interested in reality. The image and the sense was important to him. Therefore, he painted a picture of a country which was the heart of eastern Nestorianism, a picture which inspired the take-off of an east Christian culture opposed to both Buddhism and to Islam In this sense he confirms our guess that it was the Uighur who were the initiators of the Crusade of the Yellow {125} Cross, the blow from which the Seljuk sultanate was unable to recover.

From this point of view the author of our source was correct and probably his contemporaries understood him, but we, accustomed to business language and statistical exacitude, are simply unable to understand the system of images and associations and to find behind the metaphors the true content which was evident to the medieval reader. It means that the problem in translation does not lie in a simple substitution of words and phrases, but to a greater extent in explaining the sense and the manner of exposition.

Yes, but that is not all! Historical reality was displaced by vividness of purport, but not entirely. We shall be convinced of this if we look at the question of the northern border of the Kara-Khitan khanate.

Unlike the southern and western borders, the northern limits of the Kara-Khitan kingdom cannot be determined with sufficient certainty. It is generally considered that this frontier passed along the river Imil, but to the north, in the Irtysh basin, the powerful tribe of the Naiman lived; their origin and ethnic allegiance still remains an open question.[+167]  The history of the Naiman is authentically known only from the period of Chinggiskhan, i.e. from the second half of the twelfth century.[+168] That is where the solution lies. While the majority of nomad tribes in steppe Asia are known to historians from the end of the tenth or start of the eleventh centuries, information on the Naiman, a very large, strong and cultivated people, in fact appears at the end of the twelfth century.

There is no people or culture without history; consequently, the ancestors of the Naiman were members of some other ethnic group, and we may even definitely assert that they were simply Khitan.

In Middle Asia each people had, apart from its ethnic name, a synonym, the number of tribes constituting it. Thus, the Uighurs were called Tokuz-Oguz, i.e. nine tribes; the Karluk, Uc-Oguz or three tribes; the Basmil, forty tribes; the Tangut, seven tribes. The Khitan were an eight-tribe people, and the word naima means eight in Mongolian. Only proper names and "cultural words" have {126} survived of the Naiman language. Both of these are usually borrowings from their neighbours. Yet we know that, in clashing with the Kerait and the Mongols, the Naiman explained themselves splendidly to them, and this tells us they were Mongol-speaking. But from where could Mongol-speaking nomads arrive in the Altai in the second half of the twelfth century? Only along with the Khitan, or rather as part of the Khitan, comrades of Ye-lu Dashi. Such is the probability, but the time has come to turn again to the sources.

Rashid ad-Din tells us: "Before the period of Chinggiskhan Narkysh-Tayang and Eniat-kaan were lords of the Naiman... they routed the tribe of the Kirghiz... Buyiruq and Tayang [contemporaries of Chinggiskhan - LG] were the sons of Eniat-kaan [later he is called Inancha-bilge-qan - LG]... the tribes of the Naiman were nomads, some dwelt in mountainous places, others in valleys... they had a large and effective army; their customs and habits were similar to those of the Mongols". [+169]

Let us add the words of the Minorite friar, William of Rubruck, to the Muslim author's information: "It was at this time, when the Franks took Antioch [in June 1098], that rule in the northern lands belonged to a single person named Kon-kham [two words have been confused: khan and kam, i.e. soothsayer - LG]. This Kon was a Karakatai. [In 1098 there was not yet a division into Katai or Khitan and Kara-Kitai. The thirteenth-century author is "modernising".] These Katai [Kara-Khitan] lived in certain hills through which I passed [he went by one of three passes between the western and internal parts of Middle Asia, between the Altai and the Tian-shan], [+170] and in a valley between these mountains lived a certain Nestorian pastor, a powerful man, holding sway over the people called Naiman and belonging to the Nestorian Christians [Western Dzungaria, the region of the Kara-Khitan gurkhan Ye-lu Dashi is described - LG]. On the death of Kon-kham [the Emperor of the Liao dynasty - LG] this Nestorian proclaimed himself a king and the Nestorians called him King John, saying ten times more about him than was consonant with the truth. That is how the Nestorians behave who arrive from those countries: they create'great speeches from nothing." [+171]

{127} The chronology here is considerably confused, and deliberately so. The date of the capture of Antioch coincides with the rout and conquest of the Zubu by the Khitan and the unification of the eastern part of the Great Steppe by the Liao Empire. This event could not but remain in the minds of the nomads from whom Rubruck had the information a century and a half later.

Now let us compare the texts. Despite apparent contradictions they supplement one another. Rubruck certainly describes Ye-lu Dashi and the territory of his khanate, calling it Naiman. Rashid ad-Din notes that, prior to the end of the thirteenth century, the Naiman had only one lord, Eniat or Inancha [Johann, Ivan], a name either easily recast as John, or simply the name John converted into Eniat.

Then the date, the war with the Kirghiz. As we already know, the Khitan clashed with the Kirghiz in 1129. The Kirghiz were able to repulse them, but the steppes of Western Mongolia lying south of the Sayan range, naturally, fell to the Khitan. Only from here, using the reserves of people from these bountiful steppes, was Ye-lu Dashi able to gather warriors to rout the Seljuk sultan in 1141, after which he was known as the king-presbyter. But after his death in 1143 the borderlands began to fall away and Eniat, with the Turkish name of Inancha, Bilge Buku-qan (wise and strong man),  [+172] at the head of his detachment on the territory protected by the Mongolian Altai, became independent and transferred power to his two sons whose names have remained unknown. Their titles are enough for us, though: the elder was called Tayang-qan, and the younger Buyiruq-qan. By using Turkish titles the Naiman preserved Mongol speech. [+173]

Thus, at first the northern boundary of the khanate which in Europe was called the Kingdom of Prester John reached the Sayan range, but weak, feminine hands lost control of the northern lands, most likely during the disturbed times of 1177, and the frontiers of the state contracted so much that they ceased to be viable. It turns out that the inventions of the European scandalmongers were far from the truth, but let us await the conclusion. In the most fantastic tale there is sometimes a grain of truth.

{128} Now we come to events which we can no longer deal with in summary fashion. Let us descend from the clouds to the top of a barrow burial in the steppes and examine the horizon and the nearby steppe with greater concentration and in more detail. We can now allow ourselves this luxury because we know where and what to look for.


[+137] K.A Wittfogel and Feng Chia-Sheng, History, 573-657

[+138] Bretschneider considers this was in 1120, but see Wittfogel's amendment (ibid., 627).

[+139] E.I. Kychanov, Ocherk istorii, 228-9.

[+140] Today the Qara-Muren See K.A. Wittfogel and Feng Chia-Sheng, History 631, n. 13.

[+141] R. Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes, 128.

[+142] See K.A. Wittfogel and Feng Chia Sheng, History, 621, n 3.

[+143] S.E. Malov, Pamyatniki drevnetyurkskoi pis`mennosti, 36.

[+144] L.N. Gumilev, Drevnie tyurki, 101-2.

[+145] G.Y. Smolin, Krest`yanskoe vosstsnie v provintsiyakh Khunan` i Kubei v 1130-1135 gg.

[+146] The text has ti-la, but this is the same as tie-lieh See K.A. Wittfogel and Feng Chia-Sheng, History, 50.

[+147] We-gu-li, these are the Uriangqai, hunters and fishers, who were called Ugi until the eleventh century See N.Ya. Bichurin, Sobranie svedenii o narodakh, II, 69-72.

[+148] K.A. Wittfogel and Feng Chia-Sheng, History, 98.

[+149] Rashid ad-Din, Sbornik letopisei, I, 1, 193.

[+150] Ni la is Nirat. I take these to be the Nirun, the most aristocratic group of the, Mongol tribes.

[+151] Da-la kuai See Rashid ad-Din, Sbornik letopisei, I, 1, 118.

[+152] Ibid., 77.

[+153] Ibid., 171.

[+154] K.A. Wittfogel and Feng Chia-Sheng, History 635.

[+155] This shows that the Uighur Idykut did not become the faithful ally of the Khitan Gurkhan. Rather, pursuing his own trade and religious interests, he wanted to use the Khitan as a strike-force against the Muslims and so tried to make their return to the east of the steppe impossible.

[+156] K.A. Wittfogel and Feng Chia-Sheng, History, 638. Ibid.

[+157] G.E. Grumm-Grzhimailo, Zapadnaya Mongoliya, 398.

[+158] L.N. Gumilev, "Istoki ritma kochevoi kul'tury Sredinnoi Azii", Narody Azii i Afriki, 1966, No. 4, 91-2.

[+159] S.I. Rudenko, "K voprosu o formakh skotovodcheskogo khozyaistva i o kochevnikakh", Materialy po etnografii Vsesoyuznogo Geograficheskogo obshchestva, fasc I, 5.

[+160] V.V. Bartol'd, O khristianstve v Turkestane, 21.

[+161] K.A. Wittfogel and Feng Chia-Sheng, History, 642.

[+162] V.V. Bartol`d O khristianstve v Turkestane, 11.

[+163] Ibid., 26.

[+164] G.E. Grumm-Grzhimailo, Zapadnaya Mongoliya, 399.

[+165] K.A. Wittfogel and Feng Chia-Sheng, History, 659.

[+166] On the most recent archaeological finds of Christian antiquities from this region, see T.N. Semgova, "Voprosy ideologii i kul'tov Semirech'ya", Novoe v arkheologii Kazakhstana, 62-7.

[+167] L.L. Viktorova, "K voprosu o naimanskoi teori proiskhozhdeniya mongol'skogo literaturnogo yazyka i pis'mennosti (XII-XIII vv.)", Uchenye zapiski LGU, No 305, ser. vostokoved. nauk, fasc. 12, 138-40.

[+168] K.A. Wittfogel and Feng Chia-Sheng, History, 50

[+169] Rashid ad-Din, Sbornik letopisei, I, 1, 135-40.

[+170] V. A Obruchev, Izbrannye raboty po geografii Azii, 386.

[+171] Puteshestvie v vostochnye strany. Piano Karpino i Rubruka, 115-16.

[+172] L.N. Gumilev, Drevnie tyurki, 198.

[+173] "In the language of the Naiman and certain Mongols bukaula is called kishat, but the Mongols say kichat" (Rashid ad-Din, Sbornik letopisei, I, 2, 124).


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