100 Generations of Horsemen


Grass Steppe in Khövsgöl Province by Arabsalam

by Ethan Edwards

The Horsemen faced a choice. They could defeat their settled neighbours – sack, plunder, repeat – or they could become them.

God’s chosen leader, standing atop six hundred years of progress won by God’s armies and God’s message, watched as everything burned around him. The Caliph of Islam had failed to submit to the pagan Hulagu Khan and for that the Khan would end the destined victory of Muhammad’s descendants. Wave upon wave of horse archers, aided by their conquered slaves, had turned the forces of the Caliph to ash. Baghdad, centuries of learning stored in its library, would remain a waste for ages.

Darius, King of Kings, who had summoned the largest army ever known, was out of position in enemy territory, surrounded by the barren plains of the unconquered Scythians. Darius realised that his enemy could outmanoeuvre and trap his army. He turned and raced back to the Hellespont. If the Scythians reached the strait first, the Persians would be unable to escape and Darius’s empire would go no further.

The once invincible Roman Empire was slowly shrinking, cracking under the weight of Barbarian hordes. These were not invaders, these were refugees fleeing the great Scourge of God. Attila and his united Huns rode around the Mediterranean sacking cities and extracting tribute from frightened farmers who had forgotten the needs of war. The dark ages were soon to follow.

Via The Bibliothèque nationale de France

For 2,000 years, much of human civilisation came under assault from the Horsemen. They passed down their riding skills, their bowmanship and their God. Little else lasted on the plains. The Horsemen, related through snaking accidents of intermarriage, had almost no recorded history.  To commit to farming and writing, would be to permanently surrender the way of the Steppes.

The horse was domesticated around 3,500 BC and the recurved bow first appears with the Biblical Psalms written in 700 BC. Once these two were combined in the vast grasslands of Central Asia, a way of life which perfected a way of war was born. Horse archers were the superior military force and from them came the Steppe Peoples: The Avars, The Bulgars, The Gokturks, The Hephtalites, The Huns, The Jurchen, The Khazars, The Khitan, The Kyrghyz, The Magyars, The Manchu, The Mongols, The Parthians, The Pechenegs, The Oghuz, The Ruoran, The Scythians, The Sejulks, The Tartars, The Uighurs, The Xianbei, The Xiongnu. They spoke many languages, but the Turkic title of Khan, and its elevated form Khagan, would be used by nearly all their leaders.

With perfect command of their mounts and weapons, these warriors were near invincible. The horsemen rarely had superior numbers and never needed them. When battling large groups, they would incite smaller bands into a chase before turning abruptly to slaughter them. The Chinese, Persians, Romans and Indians struggled against such a strategy.

The only proven strategy for defeating horse archers was other horse archers. One had to be born riding, raised with bow in hand, to live one’s life as a Steppe warrior.

The Horsemen were universally derided in the histories penned by the settled agricultural civilisations which they raided. They are described as forces from Hell, a bloodthirsty plague, the destroyers of life. Every Khan is described as a sadistic conqueror atop a mountain of corpses. The Buddhist concept of a final age – an extinction of the Dharma and the victory of immorality for millions of generations – was bolstered by refugees fleeing to monasteries from the vicious raids of the Hephtalites.

In 6th century Constantinople, some young men notorious in the demes as chariot-racing hooligans, were known to wear Hunnic hairstyles and dress, flaunting their radicality. Li Chengqian, crown prince of Tang, along with his entire entourage, adopted Gokturk clothing and spoke the barbarian tongue.

There were fierce women who rode, fought and engaged in political decision making. They could marry and divorce with a level of freedom little known in the settled world. Sorghaghtani Beki wielded great power after marrying Genghis Khan’s son, Tolui. Independent of her short-lived husband, Sorghaghtani managed estates, advised her family, forged ties within her domains and made her sons the leaders of the Horde amid great factional conflict. She was a Christian, as her father had been, and she was buried in a church in Gansu where she was honoured for many generations.

Landscape Near Amarbayasgalant Monastery by Arabsalam

The Steppe was too flat to allow for much hierarchy. Everyone rode, everyone raided. Each family band had the political force of their arms.

The Khitan held elections for their Khagan every three years and rebelled when Abaoji made the system hereditary in emulation of the Chinese.

When the Horsemen succeeded in conquering civilisation, they brought their notions with them. Gender equality and meritocracy scandalised the elites who witnessed their new courts. However, these customs would be purged within several generations. They adopted the culture of their new farming subjects – their language, their customs, their writing, their wealth – and they stopped riding. Now, they too had to fight Horsemen and the cycle continued.

Succession often meant destruction. Dynasties soon collapsed amid family in-fighting, allowing the subordinated clans to escape and reassert their independence. Within a generation or so of a Steppe King’s death, his descendants returned to stirring around in the dusty plains until the next great Khagan arrived to lead them.

The Khagan of the Gokturks helped bring the Sui dynasty to its collapse in 618 and the upstart Tang emperor pledged himself as a vassal. Another Khagan campaigned with the Emperor of Constantinople against the Persians in 626, persuaded by a marriage alliance to Heraclius’s only daughter Eudoxia, saving the Roman Empire which would last another 800 years. By 630, the already fractured Gokturk rule had been ended by the Tang, the Khagan’s line had been broken, and his people were reduced to vassals.

A century later, Bilge Khagan, outmatched by the organisation of the Tang Dynasty, his people reduced to bands fighting for small corners of barren territory, contemplated taking his people to cities and farms. But he refused: his horsemen would not lose their culture. Their mobility and warrior spirit would live even if the people would die. He erected a great stone in the Orkhon valley, engraved with the oldest known Turkic runes. He recorded the accomplishments of his people and he lamented their subjugation: “I have been a people that had its own Khagan; where is my Khagan?”

Via The Bibliothèque nationale de France

All life came from Gok Tengri, the open blue sky of the plains.

The Horsemen are gone now. The plains of central Asia are home to farmers, miners and merchants. The successful conquests of the Turks and Mongols have matured into the civilisations of India, Eastern Europe, China, Iran and Anatolia. Archery is now a sport.

The Horsemen rarely knew the names of their ancestors. We will never be sure where the Huns, Xiongnu and Mongols first defined themselves. Their language, culture and customs are preserved in fragments kept by the very civilisations so deathly afraid of them.

Genghis Khan created the largest land empire ever known. His bloodline persists widely throughout humanity. His body lies in a secret hill deep in the Mongol lands, carefully hidden from the searching eyes of history. 2,000 servants buried the body before his army came and killed them all to prevent the location from getting out. His escort came next and killed the whole army. Even today, researchers are still to find this site.

The Steppe sky remains.

Landscape in Khövsgöl Province by Arabsalam

About the Author:

Ethan Edwards is a writer, artist, and programmer. He works as a Researcher in Experiments in Art and Technology at Nokia Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey.


Comments are closed.