N is for Nomad

Why did the Nomad cross the road?
It’s what he lives for…

Roads are created by people who walk them–a lot. The Silk Road was named for what was sent on it, but it was carried by those who traveled, not those who sent. All well and good to be the silk weaver or the wealthy owner of all the looms, but who did the actual taking? “Merchants.” Many of those merchants were also nomads or were at least escorted by the nomads.

Not to mention that standard notion of the “Barbarian of the Steppes.” I may have mentioned the 36-episode Great Course by Kenneth Harl that covers that topic in detail. The title is what Prof. Ken Harl chose, and yet what becomes eminently clear is that barbarians is what everybody else called them to make them seem primitive and less dominating.

In fact, there were dozens of tribes who ruled the steppes, many of whom migrated from the harsh, impregnable deserts and fickle grasslands to the lusher lands in the fertile basin. Thus, they came sweeping down off the steppes repeatedly, always somehow surprising though the Xiong Nu, Hittites, Pecheneges, Scythians, Parthians, Huns, Bactrians, Gok Turks, Seljuk Turks, and Mongols did this for nearly two thousand years.

They were the Powerful of the Steppes.

Modern nomadic family, with Bactrian camel. Photo from The Culture Trip.

The Warrior Archers

The Han dynasty had a strong emperor, army, culture, and leaders in philosophy. But the Xiong Nu kept coming through the Jade Gate. Han historian Sima Qian, one of the earliest historians whose records still exist, said that the Chinese people and Xiong Nu had once come from the same people. But the Han (Chinese) people had developed while the barbarians did not (Hua-Yi divide), according to Sima. The area around the Taklamakan and the area near Mongolia and Manchuria sported this ongoing set of tribes which coagulated and then separated, like amoebas. For several decades in the late BCE years, the head of the Xiong Nu got them marching in the same direction.

The Han responded by sending out one Chinese “princess” after another–all allegedly not related to the royal family, as if that really made a difference. They sent bribes, they sent women, and finally they sent troops. For about 70 years, the Han sent money and women, so that the treaties were renewed.

Finally, Emperor Wu Di — the terra cotta warrior emperor — sent out successful armies. They won the battle of the “Heavenly Horse” (remember letter H?) and ended up with Ferghana horses in the exchange, although losses were heavy on both sides.

Xiong Nu, the original Asian nomads, belt buckle from 200 BCE

The Han and Xiong Nu continued to battle over centuries, until the Han dynasty collapsed and the Xiong Nu suffered enough hardship and loss of its own charismatic leadership that they both dissolved. But by then a Great Wall–granted rammed earth and wood–but a Great Wall with a great gate, manned by border guards had been erected. That became one “end” of the Silk Road.

They Came in Waves

If you look at some of those groups who came, like Oklahoma wind sweeping down the plains, you see the same kind of colored pictures. Circles in the northwest or northeast parts of Asia which drop into Persia or northern India repeatedly. The Huns lived in the north of the Caucusus, but climate change drove them south. They did not simply show up on Rome’s doorstep, demanding plunder. They pushed out the Goths and the Ostrigoths who were in the way. Those groups showed up on Rome’s doorstep, wherein Rome took them in, made them soldiers and bodyguards, then refused to pay them. So Rome was first blasted from within. THEN, the Huns asked for everything left. They were living in the Balkans then, but Rome had nicer weather.

Pechenegs testing Russians before they were Russians. Wikipedia.

The Magyars and Pechenegs came from even further north, the latter what was known as Finno-Ugric people. Those are my people! They have their own division of language distinct from the romance grouping. The Magyars eventually became the Hungarians, once one of their kings took the waters… er… read the Bible.

The Pechenegs came down, way down from those northern reindeer places, and according to Constantine Porphyrogenitus –now THAT’s a name–they ended up also stretching across the lands which became Turkey and the Balkans. They wore reindeer furs but like their colleagues, they rode horses very well.

Why Is Turkey Called Turkey When They All Came from Near Mongolia?

Now, it is funny that it’s called Turkey today. Constantinople was run by the Greek Holy Roman Empire for centuries under the Byzantines, and then it was overrun by Venetians, Genoese, and Ottomans. But–and this is the crazy part–lots of people all around those parts spoke Turkish.

Seljuk Turks

The Turks, originally the Gok Turks and the Seljuk Turks, all came from Mongolia-ish; they were called Turks by others because they called themselves the Köks. They swept west, repeatedly. They always ended up in Persia, the middle East, that Tigris-Euphrates intersection where everyone seemed to end up, eventually. (Except if they went to Transoxania, but that’s tomorrow, with O is for the Oxus. Spoiler alert!)

The Silk Road was kind of the nomads idea. The Turks, who came from the east, were some of the Original Peddlers, the original nomads. I’ll take that for you.

How a yurt was constructed

Many of these nomads lived in tents, very sophisticated tents. Those of us who grew up in prior decades in the U.S. learned all about the tepees that the indigenous North Americans carried with them. The yurts of Central Asia were bigger. The tents were circular and combined from wood and canvas. Large, comfortable, with a central fire and hole in the ceiling to release smoke. Those of the lowest status sat close to the door, furthest from the fire, of course.

Horde is just the Turkish word for army, by the way. So if you call some marauding army from the steppes a “horde,” it isn’t particularly an insult because that’s what horde means.

Oh, and guess where the Aryans came from? Not from Northern Europe! Take a look in the far lower right-hand corner. Indo-Aryans!

Indo-European gif from Wikipedia.

Kind of ironic that barbarian means non-Aryan, if you think about it.

2 Replies to “N is for Nomad”

  1. I learn lots of new things every day from reading these. My most memorable takeaway from today has to be hoard/army. I’ve never used ‘hoard’ to mean a large group in a derogatory way, but I’ve heard it used that way often. I guess somewhere in the back of my head I knew it wasn’t an insulting word.

    Thank you for doing all the research you do to make these daily posts so entertaining and informative.

  2. That’s a nice thing to say! (Although “horde” as in the ravening hordes was the word I used, where it means army. And “hoard” that spelling is Norse because the Vikings would hide their treasure.) Whereas I get very huffy about “barbarian” used to mean primitive because the nomads weren’t primitive or uncivilized. Anyway, just wait for T is for Temujin! heh heh Thanks for the post!

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