Nomadic migration was the first major external influence that would be integrated into the culture of the region. Beginning with the Xiongnu (209 BCE – 93 CE), a long-term exodus of steppe peoples spread out of Mongolia and into Central Asia. For millennia prior to the rise of Genghis Khan, the winners of the tribal battles for predominance on the Orkhon Steppe, prime pastureland located in western Mongolia, forced the defeated off to the west. These periodic mass departures of Turkic tribes continued a southwestern flow.
The new arrivals forever altered the ethnic makeup of Central Asia. Previously, the region had been predominantly Persian and Indo-European. When the waves of Turkic tribes penetrated into the area, they pushed the Persian groups to the fringes. Over time, they slowly Turkified the area, endowing it with a more nomadic character.
Turkic tribesmen divided their society into five strata. Members of the royal tribal clan presided over the social order. This dominant group bestowed its name on the tribal confederation, a collection of tribes. Positioned below them were their allies and associated tribes. Next were the common herders who did not participate in struggles for power. Lower still were the artisans, such as blacksmiths and leather workers. And finally, we find slaves at the bottom of the hierarchy. They usually acquired this position by being captured during a war.
Members of an unstable confederation of clans and tribes roamed the steppe, loosely bound under a khagan, a charismatic monarch who laid claim to some sort of divine providence. Khagan made use of their personal charisma, as well as their political and military smarts, in order to maintain group cohesion and ward off challenges to their authority. Under strong khagans, tribal confederations were capable of wielding incredible power. More often than not, they were notoriously volatile and often imploded upon the death of their leader. The winners in the post-death struggle forced the losers out of the area. While many went to the north or south, most to the west. Victorious tribes remained in Mongolia on the highly-prized Orkhon Steppe, located near Lake Baikal.
The khaganate was a diarchy, or system of dual rule, with the oldest son controlling half of the land. However, it lacked a clear transition of power, like hereditary succession. Because the khagan theoretically ruled over a series of tribal confederations, any member of the tribal confederation could ascend to the position of monarch by demonstrating their personal charisma and martial skills on the battlefield. This fight to prove oneself could erupt into broader inter-tribal strife.
Periodic Turkic migrations into Central Asia transformed the sedentary culture of the region. These steppe peoples lived by practicing pastoral nomadism, a way of life centered around herding. Their culture was utilitarian in nature and provided all the necessities for life on the great plains of Central Asia, including food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. In order to maintain their pastures, these horsemen followed a fixed, seasonal pattern of migration because they did not want their flocks to overgraze. During the winter, for instance, they camped in foothills and mountain valleys, where it was warmer at lower altitudes. There they built fixed shelters with one main objective: survival. The oral tradition, which included songs, epic narratives, and parables, flourished during the inhospitable winter months.
In the spring, the nomads made a ten-day trip to the prairieland to graze their herds on fresh grass that just emerged from mountain runoff. There the women and children erected a central camp, usually comprising four yurts. Ten satellite camps were established around the central camp, with each herd positioned about ten to twenty miles from the center. This separation of camps minimized the potential threat that their enemies posed to their herds.
During the summer, they traveled to mid-mountain fields, where it was cooler and offered access to water. Covering about ten miles per day, it took them approximately fifty days to reach this campground. Finally, in the fall, they returned to the steppe in order to make provisions for the harsh winter. These preparations included drying and preserving their meat, and taking milk from their animals.
Enhanced mobility was the key to the survival of pastoral nomads. They actually spent a good portion of their lives on horseback and were accustomed to moving over long distances, taking all of life’s necessities with them. This action allowed them to retreat quickly from rival attacks or areas afflicted by natural disaster. It also enhanced the ability of the horsemen to expand rapidly and conquer neighboring groups.
The horsemen carried portable, three-foot-long recurve bows capable of piercing enemy armor from over 450 meters. Metal thumb rings enabled a rapid rate of fire without damaging the archer’s fingers. Raised hunting and herding from horseback, nomads even learned how to sleep in the saddle of the Mongol Horse, their indigenous horse. Though not tall in stature, these sturdy mounts displayed impressive endurance and allowed groups to traverse great distances, often up to 160 kilometers per day.
Native to the region, these horses were able to forage for themselves and survive on their own. Nomads did not require supply lines and could remain on campaign for an average of three years. The combination of the skills acquired from herding, the double-compound bow, and the Mongol Horse helped in the political domination of Central Asia, at least until the arrival of Genghis Khan and the Mongols.
The strategies of steppe warfare proved devastating to infantry-based armies. The nomad battle strategy consisted of
- a feigned retreat, in which a group of their cavalry engaged the adversary, retreated, and encouraged their opponents to follow them
- outflanking the enemy and pinning the opponent in one place
- charging the opponent’s lines, so as to break the enemy group into pieces
- poisoning water walls, scorching the earth, and retreating. Usually reserved for those times when the nomads did not believe the enemy could be defeated.
The Mongols would later employ similar battle tactics.