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date: 26 May 2019

Post-Nomadic Empires

Abstract and Keywords

This article is about nomadic conquerors of settled societies and the “post-nomadic empires” they brought into being throughout history. The historical understanding has generally been that the military qualities of nomads made their conquests of settled societies a regular and likely occurrence but that the latter had no lasting impact and were usually followed by the assimilation of the nomads, concomitant with the rapid decline of their empires. By contrast, it is here argued that such an environmentally deterministic understanding reflects ancient and medieval conditions but cannot explain the development of a different type of post-nomadic empire in early modern times. The early modern Ottoman, Mughal, and Ching empires provide evidence of a new capacity for imperial consolidation and a new commitment to dynastic continuity as well as the creation of more effective and durable means of resource mobilization that constitute a departure from the earlier pattern.

Keywords: nomads, empires, post-nomadic empires, Herodotus, Ibn Khaldun, Ottomans, Mughals, Manchus

Geographers have long identified the great arid zone continuum of Africa and Asia as a distinctive ecological macro-region. For millennia, the world’s largest continuous arid zone has extended—with many interruptions and irregularly—from the Atlantic and the Sahara across Suez to Arabia, the Levant, and Iran, and thence northward to Central Asia, Mongolia and parts of China and southeastward into the Indian subcontinent. Everywhere, this arid and semi-arid zone is characterized by low and erratic rainfall of no more than 700 mm [27.5 in.] per annum, rarely up to 1,000 mm [39.4 in.], periodic droughts, and varying combinations of vegetative cover and soils. Predominantly deserts, mountains, and steppes, it includes areas that were suitable for agriculture and sedentary life—watered by rivers—but which fall into the same category as the rest of the arid zone in terms of climate and rainfall.

Much of this great arid zone has historically been the habitat of pastoral nomads—itinerant and almost always illiterate populations dedicated to the raising of livestock (sheep, goats, cattle, camels, or horses) that inhabited its barren landscapes but did not intensively cultivate them. The “barbarian” nomads were often poor and small in numbers, but they were warlike. In spite of their poverty and relatively small numbers, these nomads, being mobile and warlike, played a major role as conquerors of settled civilizations. In the words of René Grousset, the author of a classic book on the subject, the nomadic conquest of settled lands was “the paramount fact of human history,” and “amounted almost to a physical law.”1 Equally inevitable, even fateful, was the “absorption of the nomad invaders by ancient civilized lands.”

Grousset affirms:

These periodic descents by the hordes of the steppe, whose khans ascended the thrones of Changan, Loyang, Kaifeng or Peking, Samarkand, Ispahan or Tabris (Tauris), Konya or Constantinople, became one of the geographic laws of history. But there was another, opposing law, which brought about the slow absorption of the nomad invaders by ancient civilized lands. This phenomenon was twofold in character. First, there was the demographic aspect. Established as a widely dispersed aristocracy, the barbarian horsemen became submerged in these dense populations, these immemorial anthills. Second, there was the cultural aspect. The civilizations of China and Persia, though conquered, in turn vanquished their wild and savage victors, intoxicating them, lulling them to sleep, and annihilating them. Often, only fifty years after a conquest, life went on as if nothing had happened.2

More or less identical observations have often been made by other contemporary historians. In this vein, for instance, the leading military historian of the late twentieth century, John Keegan, has written that nomad leaders such as Chingiz Khan (d. 1227) and Timur (d. 1405) were among the greatest of conquerors but “showed virtually no capacity to consolidate the fruits of their victories.”3

It is a startling conclusion—the nomadic conquest of settled civilizations is the paramount fact of human history but leads to virtually nothing. Barbarian rulers settle down and abandon their traditional nomadism, assimilate to civilization, and then preside over their own post-nomadic decline until vanquished, in their turn, by a new horde of nomadic invaders.

This article seeks to show that a very different and more positive interpretation of the role of nomads in world history can be advanced. The argument is divided into five sections. The first two sections deal with the ancient and medieval historiography of nomadic conquests and post-nomadic empire formation in the settled world and demonstrate that the idea that nomadic conquests had no lasting impact is a longstanding one, usually conceived in cyclical terms, inspired by a geographical determinism that has deep roots in Greek ethnographic and historical thinking. In all likelihood, it broadly reflected a pattern of nomadic conquest and assimilation that, in fact, did perpetuate itself in most parts of the world up to about the fifteenth century CE. However, the subsequent three sections, dealing with the Ottoman, Mughal, and Ching Empires, respectively, demonstrate that post-nomadic empires underwent significant change in the early modern centuries, so that they longer conformed to the ancient and medieval deterministic paradigm of assimilation and cyclical repetition. The conclusion reached is that prior to the Western imperialism of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, post-nomadic empires—empires created by former nomads—were the most successful, powerful, well-populated, and longest-lived empires in the world at large.

1. Herodotus

It is Herodotus (484–439 BCE) who provides us with the earliest account of the nomads and their arid zone habitat.4 The Greek historian divides the great arid zone into two parts of unequal size. The first—Lybia—is the smallest. It comprises essentially the Sahara and North Africa, which he describes, in few words, as a low and sandy desert “inhabited by wandering tribes, whose drink is milk and whose food is the flesh of animals.” The other—Asia, “the East”—is a much larger one and gets almost all the attention. It comprises Egypt; Assyria (also called Syria or Cappadocia); Babylonia; Lydia (now western Turkey) together with Greek cities, such as Halicarnassus (where Herodotus himself was born); Arabia; the countries of the Persians, and, to the north of them, the Medes and Parthians; Bactria (in today’s Afghanistan); Gedrosia (the Makran coast); Sogdiana (Central Asia); the steppe lands of the Scythians, or “Scythia”; and “India,” that is, the Indus Valley and the Panjab.

Within Asia, he continues, the river valleys and plains of Egypt, Babylonia, and “India” are densely packed areas of peasant habitation. But these agricultural and settled spaces are rather limited in extent amidst the immensity of deserts, mountains, and steppes that are, if not entirely desolate, the rugged and forbidding domain of thinly scattered nomadic populations involved primarily in livestock raising, where horse warriors, “wearing trousers made of leather,” are found. The extent of Scythia is “very great,” writes Herodotus, and almost all of it is “quite bare of trees.” He notes that here we come upon “the wandering Scythians, who neither plough nor sow … having neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wherever they go; accustomed, moreover, one and all of them, to shoot from horseback.” Apart from the Scythians, many other nomadic populations inhabit Asia. We also encounter the Callipedae and the Alazonians, who resemble the Scythians in their usages “but sow and eat corn, also onions, garlic, lentils, and millet.” The Massagetae, regarded as a Scythian population by some of Herodotus’s contemporaries, are yet another great and warlike nomadic nation who “sow no grain, but live on their herds, and on fish,” offering the horse in sacrifice to the sun, “under the notion of giving to the swiftest of the gods the swiftest of all mortal creatures.” The Androphagi are cannibals with “manners more savage than any other race” and “Scythian dress.” The Melanchlaeni, the Budin, and the Amazons are also powerful nations of nomads with “Scythian customs” and “not having anything but their arms and horses, so that they are forced to support themselves by hunting and pillage.” The Phrygians inhabit the high table land of Phrygia, which is especially well adapted for pasturage, and have “more flocks and herds than any race … and more plentiful harvests.” The neighboring Cappadocians, Cilicians, and Armenians have “numerous flocks and herds” in addition to cultivated fields. In short, according to Herodotus, even as early as the fifth century BCE Asia was teeming with an almost infinite variety of nomadic tribes. Herodotus’s list is, moreover, by no means complete. It does not cover the eastern steppe—the vastness of Inner Asia, Mongolia, and Manchuria, where still other nomadic populations could be found of whom he had no knowledge or even awareness.

We also learn from Herodotus that “the lords paramount of Asia” typically emerged from this pastoral-nomadic matrix rather than from the settled river plains. Within living memory of Herodotus’s generation major Asian empires had been created by the Assyrians, who conquered Nineveh from the northwest; by the Medes, who first organized the nomadic hordes into military formations; briefly by the Scythians; and by the warlike Lydians, who, with their war horses, brought the Greek cities of Asia under their sway. Most recently, it had been the Persians who, under Cyrus, had made Asia “their own.” Unquestionably, they too had a nomadic and semi-nomadic background. Herodotus tells us the Persians made their conquests when they were still “a poor people with a proud spirit,” and “men who wore leather trousers, and had all their other garments of leather, and who fed not on what they liked, but on what they could get from a soil that is sterile and unkindly and who did not indulge in wine, but drank water, who possessed no figs nor anything else that is good to eat.” He also explicitly identifies the majority of the Persian tribes assembled by Cyrus as nomads (1.125), while Cyrus’s own clan of the Achaemenids is described by him as being in the possession of numerous “flocks, both sheep and goats, and oxen.” As nomads, and coming from outside the civilizations of the river valleys with their intense attachments to local gods, the Persians had no images of gods, no temples nor altars, but they offered sacrifice to Zeus on the loftiest mountains, and to the sun and moon, to the earth, to fire, to water, and to the winds. They instructed their sons in three things alone—“to ride horses, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth.”

Against this background, the basic structure of The Histories is a dynastic one: Herodotus organizes the whole narrative around a sequence of events shaped by the reigns of one Lydian king, Croesus (560–547 BCE), and four Persian kings, Cyrus (559–529 BCE), Cambyses (529–522 BCE), Darius (522–486 BCE), and Xerxes (486–465 BCE).5 As received in its present form, the work concludes with a digression (9.122) in which Cyrus is asked to move the Persians from their poor and rugged homelands to a better country, so that they may enjoy a life of ease and comfort. Cyrus replies that they might do so if they wish, but that in that case they should not expect to continue as rulers but prepare to be ruled by others, for “from soft lands are born soft men” (ἐκ τών μαλακών χώρων μαλακοὺς [ἄνδρας] γίνεσθαι) and there was no country that produced both fine fruits and at the same time a warlike spirit. This reply convinced the Persians that Cyrus was the wisest among them, and “they chose to dwell in a rugged land, and exercise lordship, rather than cultivate plains, and be the slaves of others.” The much-debated paradox of this closure is that Herodotus has just spent 800 pages narrating how the Persians did not stay in their rugged homelands and chose to live in the conquered soft lands, became wealthy and decadent, while losing their warlike spirit, and were then defeated by the Hellenes under Spartan leadership.6 Thus, it appears, rulers of empires must renounce the fruits of their labors to survive as rulers.

2. Ibn Khaldun

Such environmental determinism as is here encountered in Herodotus, it is well known, is inherent in ancient ethnographic and historical thinking generally.7 The essentialism of the nineteenth-century ideas of race, with their emphasis on biology and heredity, is still lacking in these earlier notions of human difference. Instead, it has its roots in analogical reasoning. While individual bodies differ to a degree, the constitutions of peoples are thought to resemble the dominant characteristics of the climate and environment in which they live. Thus wild, untamed environments are equated with barbarian peoples. It is a mode of thinking, often vague, that is inherited from the Greeks by the Romans, Byzantines, medieval Europeans, and medieval Muslim geographers and historians alike. It should, for this reason, be no great surprise that Herodotus’s deterministic vision of the history of nomads was closely replicated by an author who wrote almost two thousand years later—the medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406).8 Here the same environmental determinism is found in its most elaborated form.

Ibn Khaldun observes that civilization can take two forms. One is the desert civilization of the Bedouin, which he calls badāwah, and the other the sedentary, cosmopolitan civilization of city dwellers, which he calls `umrān. Both the Bedouin and the urban-sedentary people are “natural groups,” which, in Ibn Khaldun’s view, “exist by necessity.” The two different forms of civilization represented by these “natural groups” exist because differences with regard to the abundance and scarcity of food in the various inhabited parts of the world—the different environments—affect the human body and character in different ways. Wherever the land is strewn with rocks, no seeds and herbs will grow and the inhabitants have a hard life and eat little—their nourishment and food consists of milk and meat, either little prepared or not prepared at all, save that it may have been touched by fire, and they may get some grain and seasonings from the hills, but this is not much, and whatever they obtain is usually no more than the bare necessities, sometimes less, and never enough for a comfortable or abundant life. Yet the Bedouin, who lack abundance and grain and seasonings, are healthier in body and better in character, have keener minds, while they are also more perceptive, and, above all, more courageous than sedentary people, and tougher. This is because the Bedouin enjoy a natural way of life and fresh air. The Bedouin are nomads, or inhabitants of villages and hamlets in outlying regions and mountains or near pastures on the fringes of sandy deserts where they undertake some crop cultivation in combination with animal husbandry. Although they can satisfy their needs with a minimum of labor—because they are so little used to luxury—they get a great deal of physical exercise because they move around a lot, when they ride their horses, or go hunting, or go in search of the things they need. Just as hunger may greatly improve the physique and shape of the animals of the waste regions, it has a favorable influence on the health and well-being of the body and the intellect of humans as well. Hence, in the desert there is little need for medicine, and physicians are nowhere to be found. Furthermore, the toughness of the desert life of the Bedouin is manifest not only in their nutritional deprivation, but also in their clothing and mode of dwelling. Here, again, there are no conveniences and luxuries. The Bedouin use tents of hair and wool, or dwellings of clay and stone that are not furnished elaborately, and they also live in caverns and caves. The purpose is to have shelter against animals and the weather, and nothing more. The Bedouin have no walls or gates to protect themselves, and they have to provide their own defense, always carrying weapons. They can take only hurried naps when they are in the company of each other or when they are in the saddle. In all these various ways, the desert is a place of hardship and starvation, and if the Bedouin are as concerned with worldly affairs as sedentary people, such concern only touches the necessities of life and not luxuries. To get the full picture of desert life, we also have to keep in mind that the Bedouin live far away from the laws of government, and they have no education—almost all of them are illiterate. Their tribes are held together by sheer “group cohesion” (`asabīya), and are restrained by their elders and leaders only, while their hamlets are defended against outside enemies by a tribal militia composed of the noble youths of the tribe who are known for their courage. Group cohesion results from blood relationship only, or something closely corresponding to it, such as clientage or alliance, and for this reason desert people attach great importance to the purity of lineage of their “house,” and they believe that only they who have a “house” have true nobility.

Such, then, are the nomadic Bedouin of the almost city-less Maghrib and Ifriqiya, who live in tents, camel litters, and mountain fastnesses; the large mass of stationary Berbers of the same regions who are inhabitants of small communities, villages, and mountain regions, and make their living through agriculture; the “true” Arabs—Arabs who roam the waste regions. They include all other peoples who make their living from animals requiring pasturage, such as sheep and cattle, and who usually travel around in search of pasture and water for their animals, and who are called “sheepmen,” that is men who live on sheep and cattle, and do not go deep into the desert because they would not find good pastures there—Berbers again, but also the Turks, Turkmans and Slavs; and they include, finally, all those who make their living by raising camels and move around even more than the “sheepmen” by wandering deeper into the desert, and who are the most savage human beings that exist, on a level with wild, untamable animals and beasts of prey—the Bedouin who make deep incursions into the desert and are most rooted in desert life because they live exclusively on camels, certain groups of the nomadic Berbers and the Zanatah in the West, and many of the Kurds, Turkmans, and Turks in the East, even though these latter groups live off sheep and cattle and horses as well as camels.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, there is the second form of civilization—the civilization of the city dwellers and all those who practice agriculture and live in villages and small towns which fall within the orbit of cities. For beyond the deserts are the plains, where the soil is well balanced and favorable to plants and where grain, seasonings, wheat, and fruits are found in abundance. It is “natural” that here—in what Herodotus calls the “soft lands”—a different way of life emerged. Settled in their comfortable homes, sedentary people enjoy all kinds of pleasures while, at the same time, they acquire blameworthy and evil qualities. The great amount of food they consume and the moisture it contains generates pernicious and superfluous matter in the body, which, in turn, produces a disproportionate widening of it, as well as putrid humors. Because of their life of plenty, because the air in cities is foul and polluted, and because they lack exercise, illness is common among the inhabitants of sedentary areas and cities. Inevitably, sedentary people become lazy and get used to a life of ease; hence, they sink into well-being and luxury. This is what happened, over the course of centuries and millennia—in Egypt, Iraq, Mesopotamia, Syria, Spain, and, especially, India and China—where people from ancient times were much concerned with agriculture and where the profound influence of sedentary culture is also manifest in crafts and scientific knowledge.

Like Herodotus, Ibn Khaldun goes on to show how desert nomads, because of their superior bravery and energy, conquer cities and create royal dynasties and empires in the sedentary world, but then they fall prey to their own success—their superiority is undermined by the softness and luxuries of sedentary life, they become weak and decadent, and they are then replaced by another horde of invaders from the desert, who defeat them and deprive them of their lordship, after which they live out a merely apathetic existence.

History, for Ibn Khaldun, unfolds like a natural law of endless repetition of the same cycle. At the beginning of the cycle, when a nation is savage and lives in the desert, it is better able to achieve royal authority than others, since savage nations are braver than others. While a nation is savage, its members have the strength to fight other nations; indeed, they are among human beings what beasts of prey are among dumb animals. Such savage peoples also have no homelands that they might use as pasture and no fixed place to which they might repair. Since all regions and places are the same to them, they do not stop at borders and swarm across distant lands and achieve superiority over faraway nations. The superiority through which royal authority is achieved is the result of an explosive combination of great energy, rapacious habits, group cohesion (`asabīya)—qualities that, as a rule, are found only in the desert—and some form of religious propaganda based on prophethood or sainthood that temporarily restrains the fissiparous tendencies of tribal politics. The first stage of a royal dynasty, therefore, is always that of desert life.

Nomads may thus acquire royal authority and create empires, but they cannot hold on to them forever. Time gets the upper hand. As Ibn Khaldun puts it, “time feasts on them, as their energy is exhausted by well-being and their vigor drained by the nature of luxury.” The greatness of a dynasty, the extent of its territory, and the length of its duration depend on the numerical strength of its supporters. If the group cohesion is strong, the dynasty is also strong, and its life of long duration. But, inevitably, when royal authority is acquired in settled lands, it is accompanied by a life of ease and increased opportunities. “Whenever people settle in fertile plains and amass luxuries and become accustomed to a life of abundance and refinement,” Ibn Khaldun writes, “their bravery decreases to the degree that their wildness and desert habits decrease.” Safe behind their city walls, without the need to carry weapons, successive generations grow into a way of life that makes them like women and children who depend upon the master of the house. The inevitable reliance of sedentary people upon laws destroys their fortitude and power of resistance. As a result of the sedentary life, group cohesion disappears—the isolated inhabitants of cities have a “house” only in a metaphorical sense.

The entire process occurs in stages that are associated with successive generations. At first, when the sedentary way of life has just been adopted, the people of a given dynasty always follow the traditions of the preceding dynasty. The first generation, which is that of the “builder,” accomplishes the successful overthrow of all opposition and the appropriation of royal authority from the preceding dynasty. The ruler does not yet claim anything exclusively for himself, group cohesion continues as before, as do the desert qualities of toughness and savagery that accompany it, and people submit to the new dynasty out of fear. Sedentary culture is transferred from the preceding dynasty to the later one, and, at this stage, luxury will give additional strength to a dynasty. But subsequently, when the trait of savagery undergoes transformation and the natural tendencies of royal authority to claim all glory for itself and embrace luxury, tranquility, and peace have been firmly established, the dynasty will begin to approach senility, and luxury corrupts its character. Its people continue to adopt ever more new habits of luxury and sedentary culture and the soft life, and they sink ever deeper into them. The vigor of group cohesion is broken to a greater or lesser degree. The ruler gains complete control over his people, then makes himself independent of them, and pushes them aside to make room for new followers. Yet, many old virtues remain because he has had direct personal contact with the first generation of the dynasty and its conditions of life. Eventually the dynasty comes to depend upon some form of militia or on clients and partisans from groups not related to the ruling dynasty. But this is only a temporary cure. For the third generation is the one that merely adopts the tradition of its predecessor. It has completely forgotten the period of desert life and toughness, luxury reaches a peak and leads to a life of prosperity, tranquility, contentment, and ease, in which the fruits of royal authority are enjoyed and all energy goes into collecting taxes, regulating income and expenses, bookkeeping, erecting large buildings and spacious cities, presenting gifts to embassies, and so on. This is the generation that becomes cowardly, like women and children who need to be defended, worn out, and senile. This is the last generation of which the ruler is in complete authority. It is followed by the fourth generation, which is that of the “destroyer.” It is in that generation during which ancestral prestige is destroyed by waste and squandering, pleasure, and amusement, and when the dynasty is seized by senility and the chronic diseases that lead to its downfall. Royal dynasties thus have a natural life span—like individuals. They last at most for four generations. As a rule, dynasties do not last longer than 120 years. Most commonly the life span of a dynasty is one hundred years. It is this fact, according to Ibn Khaldun, that generates the cyclical pattern of history.

3. The Ottoman Empire

Not until the sixteenth century do we encounter the first historical thinker to break away from this vision of environmental determinism and cyclical inevitability. The individual who does so is the Ottoman historian and bureaucrat Mustafa Ali (1541–1600).9 He appears not to have known the work or even the name of Ibn Khaldun, but he was the first of a number of Ottoman historians whose thinking is often strikingly similar to that of Ibn Khaldun. Both are preoccupied with the sedentary, dynastic state founded by nomadic or semi-nomadic tribal conquerors and its post-nomadic development. Both embrace notions of dynastic cyclism, but Mustafa Ali thinks that dynastic decline might be checked and, like later Ottoman historians, he is concerned with the regeneration of the empire. Writing against the background of the social and political troubles of the Ottoman Empire in the late sixteenth century, history is for him a key not just to understanding the past, but also to the possibility of restructuring the present. He introduces a uniquely Ottoman genre of pragmatic political commentary known as the “Counsel for Sultans,” which became popular in the seventeenth century and which, instead of drawing on the didactic tales of ancient kings, draws on his own administrative experience. He thus became the founder of an Ottoman literature of reform.10

Mustafa Ali is primarily preoccupied with the history of the Ottoman dynasty, but he fits it into the wider context of the history of the “Turks and Tatars” that follows upon the Mongol destruction of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258. As he sees it, the new synthesis of steppe and Irano-Islamic traditions that took place between 1258 and 1600 produced four regional Muslim empires—those of the Ottoman, Safavid, Mughal, and Uzbek dynasties. Each of these was grounded in a different political tradition but all four had a nomadic Turko-Mongol origin in common. They were four regional and post-nomadic empires, all of which recognized that the ideal of the universal caliphate was a thing of the past and accepted the dynastic legitimacy and more or less equal status as regional Muslim rulers of the others, despite the Shi`a allegiance of the Safavids. They were based on specific dynastic traditions, not religious principles, and they sought to reconcile the political reality of nomad domination with Islamic ideals only to the extent they could do so without the latter getting in the way of expediency.

Of the four regional post-nomadic Muslim dynasties of the late sixteenth century, the Ottomans alone possessed neither a valid genealogical claim to legitimacy as descendants of one of the two nomadic world conquerors Chingiz Khan or Timur, as did the Chingisid Uzbeks and Timurid Mughals, nor an effective religious ideology based (in part) on descent from the Prophet, as did the Safavids. For Mustafa Ali, the justification of Ottoman regional rule was its practical and not its hereditary or religious qualification. The Ottomans promulgated a concept of universal justice specifically associated with their own dynastic tradition. This was Kanun—a secular and accretive phenomenon based on custom as well as decree. Theoretically subordinate to the religious law of the Sharia, Kanun was, in practice, more important in the structuring of Ottoman government and society. Mustafa Ali goes so far as to assert that an Ottoman monarch should not be too moral and unworldly but, rather, practical. For him, the prime task of government is to maintain social stability, security, and justice, and this is achieved above all by adherence to a dynastic law ensuring universal justice and fair administration—by commitment to the Ottoman dynastic Kanun and the maintenance of strong central authority. Together, these constituted the primary legitimating principle of the Ottoman state. He justifies the Ottoman stress on Kanun by an appeal to history. For he specifically equates the Ottoman Kanun with the Mongol Yasa—in both cases, such secular promulgations of law, rooted in nomadic political traditions, are evidence of a dynastic mandate to rule.

By contrast, the neglect of these principles signals the dynasty’s abandonment of its mandate to rule. In Mustafa Ali’s view, the Ottoman state, like all states, was subject to cyclical processes of rise and decline and would fall unless the sovereign could learn from history to avoid the errors that had brought about the demise of earlier dynasties. He writes that the longer a dynasty has been governing the subject population of a sedentary state, the more its scions take their hereditary authority for granted and neglect to preserve the loyalty of their supporters. Elsewhere his complaints about the Ottoman state’s corruption and venality in the late sixteenth century read like Ibn Khaldun’s fourth stage of dynastic development, that of decline. He considers Sultan Selim II (1566–74) responsible for weakening Ottoman royal authority and group cohesion, and he regards the latter’s less than active role in government as one of the causes of this decline. Coming in the wake of Mehmed II (1451–81), the conqueror of Constantinople, and Selim I (1512–20), Sulayman the Lawgiver (1520–66) developed Ottoman institutions in their definitive form and implemented the Ottoman dual legal system of Islamic Sharia and Kanun, while the empire reached its largest geographical limits from Hungary to Arab Iraq and from the Crimea to Yemen. But then Selim II’s reign was marked by the cessation of conquest, inflation and economic disruption, official corruption and abuse of authority, the spread of injustice, the domination of government by the unworthy and dishonest, institutional breakdown, protracted but unprofitable warfare, the debauchery of the monarch, and the increasing political influence of women in the harem. Instead of accepting this decline as inevitable and irreversible, Mustafa Ali advocates reform and a return to the methods that brought initial success to the dynasty, to restore the standards and dynastic institutions of the early to middle sixteenth century, and to adjust to the new circumstances of the later sixteenth century. Just as the Ottoman ruling class and the devshirme (military slavery) and palace household training system were a conscious creation of the Ottoman sultans, meritocracy would have to be restored and diligent service would have to be linked to regular promotion. Above all, the Ottoman dynasty should break the cyclical process of rise and decline by returning to its mandate, that is, its dynastic commitment to justice and order as embodied in the Kanun. The Kanun was at once an expression of royal authority and a mechanism whereby the natural dynastic tendency to decline after the age of consolidation in the settled world might be checked.

Later Ottoman historians and commentators of the middle of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were well acquainted with Ibn Khaldun and adopted his ideas about the rise and fall of nomadic dynasties—but with similar reservations. Katib Celebi and Na`ima, the first Ottoman interpreters of Ibn Khaldun, also subscribe to Mustafa Ali’s view that the Ottoman Empire had entered the penultimate phase of its life cycle, but they seek not only to describe, but also to solve the financial, political, and social problems that had plagued the empire since the later sixteenth century. Acknowledging that Ibn Khaldun’s cycle is deterministic, they likewise suggest that decline could be halted or reversed by restoring institutions and effective administrative practices that had characterized the age of stability and strength and by a return to the Ottoman concept of universal justice, which was separate from the Islamic Sharia (although technically assimilated to it on the principle of `urf, customary usage) and embodied in the Kanun, the dynastic law of the Ottomans. Thus, in the wake of Mustafa Ali, reform-minded Ottomans constantly cited the restoration of the Kanun as the surest way to return the empire to greatness.

In practice, the decline was checked, at least to the extent that it threatened the survival of the dynasty, and we know with hindsight that the Ottoman dynasty became the longest lasting dynasty in the history of the Muslim world. It survived for six hundred years, half a millennium longer than Ibn Khaldun’s average dynastic life span of one hundred years. We should, of course, not assume that this was the result of Mustafa Ali’s reformist recommendations or those of later Ottoman intellectuals. But, as the following two sections seek to show, it seems justified to regard the emerging new vision as part of an early modern pattern in which post-nomadic empires consciously sought to shape their own destiny to a much greater degree than previously. Such a supposition is not only plausible, it is strengthened by the fact that the other two great imperial dynasties of early modern Asia represent post-nomadic success stories of a different but comparable kind—the Mughal dynasty of India (1526–1857) and the Ching dynasty of China (1644–1912).

4. The Mughal Empire

The Mughal dynasty of India traces its origins to Timur in the male line and to Chingiz Khan in the female line. But neither of the two great nomadic ancestors of the Mughals had shown much appetite for the conquest of India. More than any other part of the sedentary world, the subcontinent of India, or “Hind,” with its hot and humid climate, appears to have inspired a special fear of its degenerative impact among these and other nomads. Chingiz Khan in 1221 came as far as the Indus, but then he turned back, reportedly because he spotted a rhinoceros on the other side—a bad omen. Timur sacked the capital of Delhi in 1398 and then also turned back, his advisers telling him, according to one source, that “although we may subdue Hind, yet if we tarry in that land, our posterity will be lost; and our children, and grandchildren, will degenerate from the vigor of their forefathers, and become speakers of the languages of Hind.”11

In effect, ancient nomads, such as the Shakas, Kushanas, and Hephthalites, had all assimilated in India, and the medieval centuries, up to Timur’s time, witnessed the typically rapid Khaldunian-style turnover of post-nomadic Turko-Mongol dynasties in the subcontinent—the Ghaznavids, the Ghurids and their Turkish military slaves, the Khalajis, Tughluqs, and Sayyids all lasted a mere hundred years or even less. Between 1451 and 1556, repeated attempts at empire building by the Afghan nomads ran aground on tribal divisions. Small in scale, the political system of the Afghans remained open and fluid and prejudiced against all ranks, titles, hierarchy, and, above all, dynastic kingship.

But historians have noted an abrupt change of tone in the Timurid historical chronicles—the beginning, from the late fifteenth century onward, of a new inter-generational conversation about empire, identity, and what came to be called, somewhat incongruously, the Mughal (i.e., “Mongol”) dynasty.12 Once in India, the Timurids/Mughals became intensely preoccupied with the continuity of their dynasty and the need to safeguard it in perpetuity by making adjustments to the old Turko-Mongol customary practice of tanistry—essentially an elaboration of the open system of hereditary succession to the throne that they brought from the nomadic steppes but adapted to the different and evolving circumstances they found in India.13 Under the first two Mughal emperors, in the period between Babur’s conquest of Kabul in 1504 and the end of Humayun’s reign in 1556, the early Central Asian–inspired corporate-style clan dynasty still invested power across the entire Mughal family. This system allowed any male from the extended Mughal family to compete for political power, and it entitled each adult male family member of a ruler to some share of the Mughal patrimony as well as to possess relative political independence. Thus, following Chaghatay-Turkish and Timurid political traditions, Babur granted his sons semi-independent and semi-permanent princely appanages, or territorial holdings, while at the same time initiating efforts to limit the number of individuals within the Timurid extended family who might succeed him. Humayun still accommodated himself to the same customary sharing arrangements of the steppe nomads, but he began to craft a new imperial dispensation by gradually transforming court life and ceremonial. Subsequently, Akbar (1556–1604) effected a clear shift away from the idea of an extended ruling family co-sharing imperial power by conclusively excluding all but those in his direct line from competing for the throne. From then on, succession struggles involved only the emperor’s sons. But the reverse side of this new dispensation was that the lives of the Mughal princes became almost entirely oriented toward the eventual and inevitable war of succession and for them it was “either the throne or the coffin.” Instead of being invested with a single, delimited, fixed, and semi-permanent territorial appanage, they were now challenged to build up a support network of allies on an imperial stage that spanned the empire. This new system of open-ended succession and alliance building, instituted by Akbar, constituted a crucial mechanism for augmenting the reach of the empire. Through such intensely competitive and relentless contests, which could never lose momentum and are elaborately detailed in the historical chronicles, the political, social, and monetary resources of the empire were kept in constant circulation, ultimately resulting in powerful and widespread investment in the dynasty as a whole and enhancing its potential for survival, while making its religious and ideological underpinnings more pluralistic. Rather than weakening the dynasty, princely feuding guaranteed an incorporative dynamism that characterized the success of the empire as a whole. It allowed the Mughal nobility infusions of fresh blood every few decades. As princes pursued alliances and built up their own political networks, they drew groups already subject to Mughal power into deeper relations with the dynasty. Competition between members of the royal family also fostered ties to powerful individuals and groups who were on the political margin or even opposed to the dynasty. Such efforts only gained further momentum in the course of princely rebellions. It was precisely the capacity of princes to co-opt non-imperial sources of sedition and conflict (fitna) that enabled the Mughals to parry many threats to their rule. It played a crucial role in deepening the hold of the Mughal Empire across its territories. Most important, the system of open competition and rivalry among great households that Mughal India inherited from the steppe nomads successfully captured the momentum of Indian economic growth and expansion in the early modern centuries (associated with the influx of New World silver) and allowed the mobilization and absorption of upwardly mobile elites that sustained rather than undermined the dynastic continuity of the empire. It was a path the Ottomans—presiding over a much less expansionary economy—chose not to take and in the seventeenth century entirely closed off. The Ottomans, by contrast, severely curtailed princely competition as early as 1600, and they even abandoned the whole concept of father-to-son succession and made a system of agnatic seniority the foundation of their Kanun.

5. The Ching Empire

The other post-nomadic success story was China under the Ching dynasty.14 The Ching dynasty was founded by the Manchus, an originally nomadic and semi-nomadic people from Manchuria called Jurchens until their political unification in the 1630s and in all likelihood descendants of the people who founded the Jin dynasty in the twelfth century. Europeans who encountered the Manchus in China most often described them as “natives of Tartary” [sic] or “of Tartar extraction,” or called them “Tartars” outright. Chinese texts leave open to interpretation the nature of the differences between the Jurchens and the Mongols, but it is undeniable that the two nations were alike in their way of life and Altaic nomadic background. Among the Mongols and the early-seventeenth-century Manchus (then called Jurchens) alike the army was society, and archery and horsemanship were the central elements in warfare.

Even before they conquered China in 1644, Manchu leaders were acutely aware of the fate of earlier Inner Asian nomadic dynasties in China and read translations of the dynastic histories of the Liao, Jin, and Yuan periods. Manchu rulers were anxious, in particular, to avoid the fate of their Jurchen ancestors, who, five centuries earlier, as the Manchus saw it, had fallen from power because they had wavered in their commitment to maintaining Jurchen customs and practices. Thus, in a famous speech of 1636, the Manchu Khan Hong Taiji warned his advisers in words reminiscent of those spoken by Timur’s advisers in 1398, when entering India: “What I fear is this: that the children and grandchildren of later generations will abandon the Old Way, neglect shooting and riding, and enter into the Chinese Way!” The Old Way was the Manchu Way—an expression as old as the Manchu fear of acculturation and softening.

In effect, as early as the 1720s and 1730s, about eighty years after the conquest of China, Manchu identity appears to have been in jeopardy, and it began to look like Hong Taiji’s fears were being realized. The Ching emperors began to pass edict after edict in which the importance of maintaining Manchu language ability, martial skills, and a Spartan lifestyle was emphasized.

How, then, did the Ching dynasty hold on to power for 278 years, defying their seemingly inevitable lapse into the Chinese Way? As reflected in Manchu historiography, Manchu identity and ethnic sovereignty were preserved thanks to their imbrication in a specifically Manchu institution, that of the Eight Banners, a highly militarized form of social organization of Inner Asian origin, to which every Manchu man, woman, and child belonged, and which constituted a virtual state within the state. In spite of the onset of Manchu acculturation, the Ching court, through its implementation and timely reforms of the banner system between the 1720s and 1770s, nevertheless managed to safeguard and gradually strengthen the institutional bulwark upon which Manchu identity had come to depend. Thus, even though the cultural distance between Manchus and Han Chinese was progressively reduced, the ethnic boundaries between Manchus and Han Chinese remained or were even strengthened.

Manchu identity was asserted through the banner system in two ways. First, because the banner system was dispersed throughout China it was seen as the embodiment of the Manchu identity of the dynasty as a whole. To prevent the “naturalization” of bannermen and maintain the integrity of the Manchus as a conquest group, during the first eighty years or so of Ching rule, the court relied on the tribal loyalty of bannermen to assert and maintain Manchu control in China by taking possession of the entire city of Beijing and establishing “Manchu cities,” everywhere enforcing the principle of segregated residence for bannermen and their entire households behind walls that separated them from the local Han Chinese. The bannermen, at the same time, were not allowed to own property anywhere but in Beijing, and until the mid-eighteenth century they continued to be buried in the capital after their deaths, thus maintaining the fiction that garrison duty was temporary and that the Ching occupation of the country was provisional, while Beijing was still the real home of the Manchus and all banner people. It was a system that worked well and provided a high degree of security for the dynasty. It did so at very high economic and political costs, as there were tight restrictions on legal occupations for the bannermen and this often led to their impoverishment, and the system created a profound mistrust that set the Manchus and Han Chinese apart and made Manchu-Han interaction quite strained.

The banner system not only separated people physically in Manchu cities with their military layout and architectural distinctiveness, behind walls, but it also imposed a way of life and set of daily practices that profoundly shaped the development of the Manchu nation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and effectively set the banner people apart from the Han Chinese in yet another way. Occupationally the bannermen were restricted to only a few professions (soldier, clerk, and official) and were granted special privileges when entering government service, while they also enjoyed a separate legal status and immunity from normal civil prosecution and lighter penalties. As the “root” of the Ching dynasty, the bannermen effectively became a minority hereditary military caste with fixed membership that was extraordinarily closely inventoried, supervised and controlled from generation to generation, and a Manchu imperial ethnos with various defining cultural practices, a shared way of life and institutions, and a belief in a shared past. When threatened by the acculturation of bannermen, the disappearance of Manchu traditions and language, and unchecked demographic expansion and potentially catastrophic financial overburdening, the Ching court and Manchu elite were able to undertake and successfully implement a rescue mission through far-reaching reforms. These reforms were based on a comprehensive review of the genealogies of everyone in the Eight Banners and the sharpening of the institutional and status divisions between Inner Asians and Han Chinese in the banner system, and the elimination of all Han Chinese bannermen from all Manchu cities save Beijing and Guangzhou. The reforms successfully strengthened the institutional and economic ties of the banner system and it is this that allowed the Ching dynasty and the Manchus to survive into the twentieth century. In effect, the originally nomadic Inner Asian Ching dynasty and Manchu elite closed ranks and was able to preserve its power and the superior position of banner people at large through impressive solidarity and a fearful conservatism. Through its own version of an open but elective succession system (a largely nonviolent mutation of the Altaic tanistry) it produced a proportionately greater share of capable monarchs than most other dynasties in Chinese history. As a result, the Ching was able to maintain the most powerful military force in the world throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Ching also left a remarkable geographical legacy by incorporating, during the long eighteenth century, much of Inner Asia—Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet, eastern Turkestan, and part of the Altai region—into the territory of their empire. They made it more than twice as large as the empire of the preceding Han Chinese dynasty of the Ming, and it was second in size only to Romanov Russia. Modern China is thus the product of Ching rule. And the vast Ching realm outstripped every other country on earth in total wealth. The Ching dynasty, finally, presided over a demographic expansion unprecedented in world history—the population of China grew from roughly 130 million in 1650 to 320 million by 1800, and then to 420 million by 1850 (becoming perhaps twice as large as all states of contemporary Europe combined), and it was accompanied by a substantial increase in cultivated land and a steady growth in the Chinese economy under a remarkably stable administrative order.

By the eighteenth century, more than half a billion people lived in the Ottoman, Mughal, and Ching Empires combined—slightly more than in the British Empire at its peak after the First World War. All three empires were founded by rulers of nomadic origins. All three successfully expanded over at least several centuries, and, in effect, lasted at least as long as the British Empire. These nomadic conquerors of settled civilizations thus appear to have been quite different from the “wild and savage victors” that René Grousset made them out to be and quite able “to consolidate the fruits of their victories,” in contradiction to John Keegan’s assessment. Contemporary authors such as these writers appear to have remained under the spell of a deterministic mode of thinking we first encountered in the Greek texts. In an attempt to overcome this cyclical view of world history, this article has argued that in the early modern world the allegedly barbarian nomads of old did play a major role in the progress of settled civilization, pointing at significant changes in the mutual relationship between nomadism and settled life. Indeed, it can plausibly be argued that nomads were instrumental in the invention of modernity itself.


the author thanks Nancy Kollmann, Ali Yaycioglu, and the other participants of the Gabelle Research Workshop on “Eurasian Empires” held at Stanford University on October 6, 2014, for useful comments on this article.


(1) René Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutger’s University Press, 1970); or René Grousset, L’empire des steppes (Paris: Payot, 1939), xxv.

(2) Ibid., xxix.

(3) John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 74–75.

(4) George Rawlinson, trans., Herodotus: The Histories (London: J. M. Dent, 1992). For the Greek text, see the Loeb Classical Library edition of Herodotus in four volumes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1925); also Michael A. Flower and John Marincola, eds., Herodotus: Histories Book IX (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002). The quotes from Herodotus are either the author’s translations of the Greek text in the Loeb Classical Library edition or slightly amended versions of the Rawlinson translation, and they reflect the commentary by Flower and Marincola.

(5) Carolyn Dewald, “Wanton Kings, Pickled Heroes, and Gnomic Founding Fathers: Strategies of Meaning at the End of Herodotus’s Histories,” in Classical Closure: Reading the End in Greek and Latin Literature, edited by Deborah H. Roberts, Francis M. Dunn, and Don Fowler, 62–82 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).

(6) Ibid., p. 77; and see, inter alia: Henry R. Immerwahr, Form and Thought in Herodotus (Cleveland: Western Reserve University Press, 1966); Heinrich Bischoff, “Sinn des letzten Kapitels,” in Herodot: Eine Auswahl aus der neueren Forschung, edited by Walter Marg, 670–676 (Munich: Beck, 1962).

(7) Mark Harrison, Climates and Constitutions: Health, Race, Environment and British Imperialism in India, 1600–1850 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), 13–14.

(8) This section relies on, but does not always follow literally, Franz Rosenthal, trans., Ibn Khaldūn: The Muqaddimah; an Introduction to History, 3 vols. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1958), and the Arabic text of A. Wafi, ed., Muqaddimat Ibn Khaldun, 4 vols. (Cairo: Dar al-Shʿb, 1960–62).

(9) The best accounts of Mustafa Ali’s work, which is broadly followed here, are Cornell H. Fleischer, “Royal Authority, Dynastic Cyclism, and ‘Ibn Khaldunism’ in Sixteenth-Century Ottoman Letters,” in Ibn Khaldun and Islamic Ideology, edited by Bruce B. Lawrence, 51–64 (Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1984), and Cornell H. Fleischer, Bureaucrat and Intellectual in the Ottoman Empire: The Historian Mustafa Ali, 1541–1560 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986).

(10) For a survey of this literature, see the works by Fleischer mentioned in note 9.

(11) William Davy, trans., Political and Military Institutes of Tamerlane (Delhi: Idarah-i Adabiyat-i, 1972), 48.

(12) Lisa Balabanlilar, Imperial Identity in Mughal India: Memory and Dynastic Politics in Early Modern Central Asia (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2012).

(13) See especially Munis D. Faruqui, The Princes of the Mughal Empire, 1504–1719 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012), which is here summarized. For the broader implications of Mughal succession politics, see also André Wink, Land and Sovereignty in India: Agrarian Society and Politics under the Eighteenth-Century Maratha Svarājya (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986); and André Wink, Akbar (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009).

(14) Cf. Mark C. Elliott, The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001); Lawrence D. Kessler, Kang-hsi and the Consolidation of Ch’ing Rule, 1661–1684 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976); John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire since 1405 (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 126–132.