By: Barry Hoberman
The eminent Sinologist L. Carrington Goodrich called it" one of the decisive battles of history," and the great Russian Orientalist and historian extraordinaire of Muslim Central Asia, Barthold, "declared that "this battle . . . determined the question which of the two civilizations, the Chinese or the Muslim, should predominate in the land (of Turkestan)." Yet few people have heard of the Battle of Talas (A.D. 751), in which Arab and Chinese armies clashed for the first and only time in recorded history, the Arabs scoring a spectacular triumph.
Nor is the engagement simply a landmark in political and military history. It had dramatic repercussions for the history of technology as well, because Chinese prisoners, captured at Talas and subsequently taken to Samarkand, taught the Arabs there how to manufacture paper, thus introducing that revolutionary technique into the Islamic world.
What led to this military encounter deep in the heart of Asia? How did the armies of a Muslim empire centered in Damascus come to contend with soldiers from as far east as the Pacific? The answer lies in the prior history of Arab and Chinese involvement in Central Asia.
As is well known, the swiftness of the early Arab conquests was nothing short of astonishing; scarcely two decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632, the entire Middle East as far as what is today northern Afghanistan had fallen to the Arabs. But Central Asia, then inhabited by such sedentary peoples as the Sogdians and Khwarizmians, along with a dizzying array of nomadic Turkic tribes, proved militarily a much tougher nut to crack.
Arab soldiers initially crossed the Oxus River (now Amu Darya) into Transoxania (in today's present-day Uzbekistan) in 654, but it was not until 705, when Qutaiba ibn Muslim became Umayyad governor of Khorasan, that the Arabs achieved real success in Central Asia. And though, in the following decade, Qutaiba subjugated such affluent mercantile cities as Bukhara and Samarkand, as well as the Oxus delta district of Khwarizm, south of the Aral Sea, Asian resistance in Transoxania erupted again after Qutaiba's death in 715. Nevertheless, by the end of the Umayyad period (750), most of Transoxania-one of the wealthiest lands of the medieval world, thanks to its extensive trade with China, largely in silk, and Eastern Europe, in such goods as furs, amber, honey, and walrus ivory - had been incorporated into the Islamic realm.
This conquest, however, put the Muslims on a collision course with China, which had made its presence felt in these areas as early as the second century B.C. and which at times exerted hegemony over small kingdoms in Turkestan - modern Sinkiang - and over such Silk Road oases as Karashahr, Kucha, Aksu, Kashgar, Yarkand, and Kfiotan - names that conjure up storybook images of slow caravans of Bactrian camels, carrying cargoes of silk and jade and plodding silently across shifting sands and eerie, lifeless wastes.
During the T'ang dynasty (A.D. 618-907), however, the Chinese influence began to reach even further westward, resulting in a tradition of Chinese overlord-ship crystallizing in such regions as Transoxania. T'ang troops rarely ventured beyond Tokmak, but commercial and diplomatic links between China and Transoxania were, nonetheless, quite strong. Even after the conquests of Qutaiba ibn Muslim, the petty kings and princes of the Central Asia city-states continued to send embassies to China, and to receive in return grandiloquent, if hollow, Chinese titles from the reigning emperor, Hsuan-tsung.
Early in the eighth century, then, we see the Arabs pushing deeper and deeper into Iranian and Turkic lands within China's sphere of influence - two titans, each in the midst of a vigorous period of expansion, on a definite collision course.
Neither of these medieval colossi really wanted war with the other. For one thing, there would have been tremendous logistical problems. Neither army was adequately familiar with the topography of the regions and the job of moving troops, equipment, and provisions over such vast distances presented a formidable challenge. Moreover, what if the Arabs were suddenly faced with a native insurrection in Transox-ania, or the Chinese confronted with a similar situation in the Tarim Basin, their area? To restore order, combat units might have to be withdrawn from the front on short notice, and a military disaster could ensue.
War, moreover, would at least disrupt the phenomenally lucrative transcontinental silk trade and conceivably choke it off altogether - to the detriment of both titans. For that reason, perhaps, various Arab and Iranian embassies were sent, during the Umayyad era, to Ch'ang-an, Tang China's western capital. And though the historical records of these embassies are often confused and open to divergent interpretations, one Chinese source reveals that "Persia" sent 10 embassies between 713 and 755 - without saying that Persia was then a part of the Umayyad (and after 750, the Abbasid) empire; some of the embassies, therefore, may have actually been sent by Arab governors of Khorasan.
In any case, neither the Arabs nor the Chinese were really preparing for all-out war - and no war would have occurred had the unexpected not happened, as, in history, it so often does. This time it involved a third Asian empire whose fortunes were on the rise towards the middle of the eighth century: Tibet.
Originally, the Tibetans had burst into the arena of international politics under the first king of Tibet, the celebrated Srong-btsan Sgam-po, who died in A.D. 649 or 650. By about 670 they had stunned China by seizing the strategically vital regions in the Tarim Basin - which they held for over 20 years. This enmity continued during the first half of the eighth century as China won a series of hard-fought engagements, and, in an effort to put a permanent damper on the imperial aspirations of the plucky Tibetans, established alliances with tiny kingdoms on Tibet's rear flank: in Kashmir and the Pamir and Hindu Kush mountains.
Eventually, though, a crisis developed when a pro-Tibetan ruler came to power in the kingdom of Gilgit, located in the neighborhood of the modern city of the same name, now in Pakistan. The Chinese, after a number of unsuccessful attempts to rectify this unacceptable situation, finally sent a large army westward in 747 under the command of the famed Korean general Kao Hsien-chih who, in a dramatic campaign, remembered long after in both China and Korea, crossed the Pamirs and swooped down on an unsuspecting Gilgit. Demolishing the bridge across which Tibetan reinforcements would have had to arrive, Kao beheaded selected pro-Tibetan officials, and took the king and his Tibetan wife prisoner -thereby ending Gilgit's flirtation with China's enemy, but failing nonetheless to head off the impending collision with the Arabs at Talas.
On the Arab side, our key informants on the Battle of Talas are the renowned historian Ibn al-Athir (1160-1233) and the comparatively unheralded al-Dhahabi (1274-1348). (Curiously, the most outstanding early Muslim historian, al-Tabari [839-923], has nothing to say about the Battle of Talas - indicating, perhaps, that from the medieval Islamic perspective, the battle seemed a rather peripheral encounter.) And they, along with Chinese sources, suggest that the clash of empires at Talas had its roots in a purely local quarrel, in the year 750, between the rulers of two petty kingdoms - Ferghana and Chach - that caused Ferghana to seek the military assistance of the Chinese. Kao Hsien-chih, now governor of Kucha, responded by besieging Chach, promising its king safe passage and then treacherously decapitating him. The son of the executed ruler, however, escaped and got word to Abu Muslim, the Abbasid governor of Khorasan. Sensing a golden opportunity to diminish China's political role in Central Asia, Abu Muslim quickly mustered his army at Merv — in today's Turkmenistan - added reinforcements from Tukharistan, a province in the north of today's Afghanistan, and crossed the Oxus to march to Samarkand. There, he rejoined the army of Transoxania under Ziyad ibn Salih, formerly the Umayyad governor of Kufa in Iraq, and Ziyad took command.
The Chinese had mobilized - in concert with the troops of Ferghana - 30,000 men, according to Chinese accounts, 100,000 according to the Arabs and in July, 751, met the armies of Islam near the town of Talas or Taraz on the Talas River. A modern city of Talas can be found in the Kirghizistan, but medieval Talas probably lay nearer to present-day Dzhambul.
Chinese annals say the fighting lasted for five days, while Arabic records are inconclusive as to the duration. The end result of this epic encounter, however, is unanimously attested by our sources. The Arabs, aided by the Qarluq Turks, utterly destroyed the Chinese army. In the words of al-Dhahabi, "God cast terror into the hearts of the Chinese. Victory descended, and the unbelievers were put to flight"
To al-Dhahabi, the battle was won by the strategic acumen of Ziyad ibn Salih whose name will forever be remembered in connection with this thunderous Arab triumph beyond the Jaxartes. But the Chinese pin the blame on the Qarluq Turks, who, one account says, were "revolting" or "rebelling" against Kao Hsien-chih. In other words the Qarluqs deserted the Chinese coalition and changed sides in the midst of the action. In fact, the Qarluqs, far from mutinying during the engagement, were allied with the Arabs from the beginning and probably attacked the Chinese from the rear as part of a carefully prearranged battle plan - formulated, we may suppose, by Ziyad ibn Salih
Medievalists, military historians, Arabists, and Sinologists have debated the long-term political ramifications of the Battle of Talas. Never again, it is true, were the Chinese to play a significant role in Central Asia west of the Tarim Basin. Furthermore, this area, in which Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Manichaean, and Nestorian Christian influences had been strong, eventually became almost entirely Muslim. Thus we sometimes read statements to the effect that "those historic days determined the fate of Central Asia," to quote one modern authority.
Nevertheless, it would be an exaggeration to regard the overwhelming Arab victory at Talas as the sole cause of China's withdrawal from the western half of Central Asia, since, about the same time that Kao Hsienchih's troops were vanquished by those of Ziyad ibn Salih, China was experiencing trouble elsewhere on her borders - with the bothersome Tibetans, the Uygur Turks in Mongolia, and in Manchuria the Khitan people, later to conquer much of North China. Khitan's troops, for example, thrashed a Chinese army near Ping-lu in 751 and in 754 Chinese forces suffered terrible defeats at the hands of the young kingdom of Nan-chao - today's Yunnan province - whose rulers were of Thai origin. The first of these two setbacks was sustained less than two months before the July debacle at Talas.
Simultaneously, China was being rocked by dissension within. Simmering opposition to the policies of Emperor Hsuan-tsung culminated in the revolt of 755, and the combination of external pressures and internal convulsions left China enervated and in a woeful state of decline. The defeat at Talas, therefore, did not by itself drive China permanently out of West Turkestan; it was a weakened China's manifest inability to bounce back after Talas that proved decisive in the end. In addition, to say that the battle was directly responsible for Central Asia's "turning Muslim" is to ignore the very real spiritual dimension in the region's gradual conversion to Islam -to wit, the strong inherent appeal of the Islamic faith, profoundly demonstrated over 13 centuries of world history.
Barry Hoberman, a free-lance writer, has an M.A. in Central Asian history from the University of Indiana.