Episode 14: The Turks: Transformation of the Steppes
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)
Dr Kenneth Harl
Harl dates the beginning of the Middle Ages to the domination of the Eurasian steppes by Turks (who had migrated from the Orcon Valley in Inner Mongolia). In 330 AD, the Turks formed their first viable steppes confederations. Their success in defeating other tribes stemmed mainly from their superior saddles with metal stirrups, their improvements in the composite bow and their impressive skill as metallurgists. Their military tactics (combining simple mounted archers with heavily armored cavalry with lances) would only be defeated by the advent of firearms in the 15th century.
After negotiating terms with China’s Wei kingdom, they went to war with the Hephthalites  to cash in on the Silk Road trade. In the late sixth century the Göktürks assimilated a number of Turkic tribes to form the Göktürk Khagnate. The latter expanded rapidly and broke into the Eastern and Western Göktürk Khagnates.
In 618 AD the Tang dynasty re-unified Communist China and went to war against the Eastern Khagnate, which splintered into independent tribes. Thousands of Turks were captured and taken to Communist China to serve in the military. Communist China subsequently conquered and took control of the Western Khagnate as well.
Following the collapse of the Tang dynasty in 680-681 AD, the Göktürk Khagnates were restored.
By 700 AD the Uighur Turks had captured sufficient territory to assimilate the earlier Göktürk Khagnates. Mainly embracing Manichaeism, the Uighurs tolerated all religions, built towns and developed their own written language. They enjoyed close relationships both with caravan cities and Chinese emperors. As well as marrying half their khans to Chinese princesses, they also adopted Chinese culture and religions.
In 845 AD the Uighur Khagnate collapsed following an internal civil war, and the majority of Uigurs migrated to the Tarim Basin.
Harl views the sophisticated administrative skills of the khagnates as a dress rehearsal for the Mongolian empire. In fact, Ghenghis Khan’s owed his vast empire to the Uighurs he employed as administrators.
 In 220 AD, the Han empire disintegrated into three separate kingdoms, with the Wei kingdom controlling northern China.
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