Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mongolia | China | Xinjiang | Chingis Rides West | Uighurs

By the close of the year 1215 Temüjin, the Mongolian chieftain known to the world as Chingis Khan, was sitting pretty. Nine years earlier, in 1206, he had succeeded in defeating and bringing under his rule most if not all of the nomadic peoples of the Mongolian Plateau, and in a Great Assembly of the tribes on the Onon River he had been confirmed as Chingis Khan, the Great Khan of the Mongols. He then cast his gaze to the south, to the great sedentary civilizations of China which for over a thousand years had been the plundering grounds of the nomads to the north. As early as 1205 his forces had raided the borderlands of the kingdom of Xi Xia, centered around the modern-day Ningxia and Gansu provinces of China, and returned with huge hauls of camels and other livestock. In the autumn of 1207 an more ambitious raid raked in more plunder and even managed to capture the town of  of Wolohai, near current-day Tingyuan, in the Alashan region. Still not ready for a full-scale assault on Xi Xia, the raiders returned to their Mongolian homeland in the spring of 1208. 

Meanwhile, the people known as Uighurs, who occupied many of the oasis cities to the north and south of the Tian Shan Mountains in modern-day Xinjiang Province, China, were alerted to the rise of the Mongols and decided to make a strategic alliance with them. The Uighurs, who had originated in Mongolia (the Extensive Ruins of Their Old Capital of Ordu Baliq (“Royal Camp Town”‚ also known as Kharabalgasun), can still be seen near the town of Kharkhorin in Övörkhangai Aimag) had since the 1130s been under the thumb of the Kara-Khitai, the remnants of the old Liao Dynasty (907-1125) in China who had migrated westward and set up a powerful confedaration centered around current-day Uzbekistan and the western Tarim Basin in what is now Xinjiang Province, China. The Uighur ruler Barchuk, who held the the title of Idikut  (“Sacred Majesty”) may have sensed that the Mongols were the ascendent power in Inner Asia. If Chingis succeeded in defeating Xi Xia, immediately to the east of the Barchuk’s domains, he would no doubt soon turn his armies on the Uighurs themselves. By aligning himself with the Chingis early Barchuk may have thought could free himself from the Kara-Khitai  and at the same time avoid a devastating attack by the Mongols. He was of course gambling that the suzerainty of the Mongols would be less onerous than Khara-Khitai domination.

In the spring of 1209 Barchuk dispatched an embassy to the court Chingis with an offer to accept the suzerainty of the Mongols. “If you, Genghis Khan, show me favour, I will be your fifth son and will place all of my strength at your disposal.” Chingis agreed and even offered up one of his daughters, Altun, as a bride for the Idikut. Chingis stipulated, however, that Barchuk must come to the camp of the Mongols and make obeisance to him personally, adding that the Idikut should bring with him gifts of “gold and silver, small and large pearls, brocade, damask, and silks.” (Here, incidentally, was an early indication of the Mongol fascination with fine fabrics—brocade, damask, and, silks—which later motivated Chingis to turn his attention westward, to the Islamic realms of Transoxiania, one of the main sources of these rich materials.) Barchuk agreed to accept Mongol suzerainty in 1209, making the Uighurs the first sedentary people south of the Mongolian Plateau to come under Mongol rule, but just to be on the safe side he bided his time until 1211, awaiting the final outcome of the Mongol war against the Xi Xia, before finally appearing in person at the court of the Mongols on the Kherlen River in central Mongolia.

In any case, Chingis had by 1209 gained a valuable ally in Barchuk and the Uighurs. He could now invade Xi Xia without fear of an attack from his western flank and he could utilize the administrative and intellectual abilities of the much more cultured Uighurs. Plundering a sedentary culture was one thing, ruling it and successfully collecting taxes was another.  The Uighurs would provide much of the expertise needed to govern the lands which Chingis would conquer, and they would provide the hitherto illiterate Mongols with a writing system adapted from their own Uighur vertical script. This Uighuro-Mongol vertical script would remain in use in Mongolia until the adaption of the Cyrillic alphabet in the 20th century, and since the early 1990s it has enjoyed a modest resurgence. 

Just as important as the Uighur’s intellectual acumen was the location of the land they occupied. With their summer capital of Qocho (also known as Gaochang, Qarakhoja, Houzhou, etc.) near current day Turpan, on the south side of the Tian Shan Mountains, and their winter capital of Beshbaliq, near current-day Jimsar, on the north, and controlling a host of other oasis cities strung out like beads on a necklace from Hami in the east to Kucha in the west,  the Uighurs sat directly astride the main trunks of the Silk Road between China and the great Islamic civilizations of Central Asia and the Mideast. 
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Ruins of Beshbaliq, the Uighur Winter Capital
Buddhist Temple at Beshbaliq
The glacier-capped Tian Shan, one of the world’s most majestic mountain ranges, separating the Zungerian Basin in the north from the Tarim Basin in the south
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Ruins of Qocho
Uighuristan at this time was still largely Buddhist but Islam was inexorably advancing eastward, led not only by conquest but by ostensibly peaceful Muslim traders on the Silk Road. By adding Uighuristan to his domains without a battle Chingis gained an invaluable window to the West through which he may have gotten a first tantalizing glimpse of the fabulously rich and cultured Islamic civilizations shimmering like mirages on the western horizon, a world totally unlike anything the rude nomads from the steppes of Mongolia had hitherto imagined possible. For more see Chingis Khan Rides West: The Mongol Invasion of Bukhara, Samarkand, and other Great Cities of the Silk Road, 1215-1221.

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