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The Battle of Talas

By Adam Ali

In the summer of 751 two imperial armies clashed in Central Asia near the town of Talas, somewhere along the border of the modern nation states of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Neither of the belligerent forces was native to the region. In fact, both were trying to expand into Central Asia in order to incorporate it into their growing empires and to gain control over the fertile and wealthy Syr Darya region, which also occupied a section of the economically important Silk Road. The two armies that met in the Talas River valley were those of the eastward expanding Abbasid Empire and the Westward expanding Tang Empire of China. The Battle of Talas was the first and only military clash between China and the caliphate. The outcome of the battle, an Abbasid victory, had major short and long term impacts on regional and global history. 

Despite the importance of this battle and the far reaching effects it had, it is one of the less well-known military encounters of the medieval period, especially casual historians. One reason is that it falls outside the traditional boundaries of the interests of enthusiasts of medieval history. More importantly, the sources on this battle are rather scarce. Despite it being a Muslim victory, the Arabic sources say very little about it; most of the detailed information that we have regarding the Battle of Talas comes from Chinese sources.

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So how did the armies of Caliphate and the Tang, two empires that were worlds apart, meet in Central Asia? A concise review of the expansion of the Caliphate and the Tang Empire is required to contextualize the circumstances that led to the battle. Shortly after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, the Arabs, now united under the rule of the caliphs in Medina, carried out a series of spectacular conquests. Within two decades they had conquered a vast empire that deprived the Eastern Roman Empire of its Middle Eastern provinces and completely conquered the Sassanian Empire. By 654, the caliphate controlled the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and had expanded as far as northern Afghanistan. These expansions slowed down significantly in Central Asia. The region comprised a number of kingdoms, principalities, and city states inhabited by sedentary Iranian peoples. A large number of Turkic tribes also occupied the steppes and the spaces between these urban centers.

This region proved a much tougher challenge for the Arabs to conquer because they were not fighting one army representing one empire or ruler. Furthermore, they had to reduce each of the petty states and tribes individually.  Caliphal armies first crossed the Oxus River (also known as the Amu Darya) into Transoxania ( also spelled as Transoxiana and referred to as ma wara al-nahr in Arabic, meaning “the land beyond the [Oxus] river”) in 654, after having pacified the region that is modern day Iran. They faced stiff resistance and even when they did conquer an area they had to contend with frequent revolts and often had to reconquer certain regions multiple times.

Central Asia in the 8th century

It took five decades for the Caliphate to see some positive results in Transoxania. By this time caliphal rule had transferred to the Umayyad dynasty (661-750), which had its capital in Damascus. It was during the tenure of the Umayyad governor Qutayba ibn Muslim (705-715) that Transoxania came more firmly under caliphal control. He was both an able administrator and military commander and is credited with making the greatest progress in region. He was able to consolidate Muslim rule in Transoxania conquering or reconquering the principalities of Tokharistan, Bukhara, Khwarezm, and Sogdia. Qutayba’s policy of recruiting local Iranians into his army and incorporating some of the petty rulers of the various principalities into the power structure greatly aided in the pacification of the region. This eastward expansion brought the caliphate into conflict with China, which also had ambitions in Central Asia.

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China had long held interests in Central Asia. The Chinese had been involved in the region as far back as the second century BCE. At times they had even brought some of the petty kingdoms and principalities into their sphere of influence or exerted their hegemony over them directly. This was especially the case in Turkestan, which makes up much of the modern province of Sinkiang and over the towns and cities of the oases along the Silk Road. China exerted its influence even farther west during the rule of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Chinese had established themselves as the masters of Transoxania and the Silk Road trade. The links between China and Transoxania were commercial and diplomatic, and Chinese armies rarely marched that far to the west. However, these links were quiet strong and the rulers of the Iranian city states of Transoxania often sent embassies to China and received honorific Chinese titles from the Tang emperors. These links continued even after Qutayba’s conquests. Therefore, with the Caliphate ever expanding to the east and the Chinese trying to strengthen and tighten their control over the lands to their west, the clash between the two great empires was bound to happen.

The third important political and military entity in the region was the Turks. The Second Turkish Khaganate/Empire (682-744) dominated much of steppe regions of Inner Eurasia and also influenced and controlled sections of the Silk Road and the towns and cities along its route. By the early 8th century it was going through a series of internal crises including succession struggles and infighting. The last effective Khagan of the Second Turkish Empire was Bilge Khagan (717-734). He reunited the empire and fought a war with Tang China and defeated its armies pushing into Gansu. However, a peace treaty was negotiated and the Chinese paid the Turks a large tribute. Bilge was poisoned in 734, his most trusted and able advisors had also predeceased him. After his death the various tribal groups that made up his empire fought among one another and the Second Turkish empire collapsed and was succeeded by the Uighur Empire.

Horse and rider, from early 8th century China – photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thirst and Defile

The Turgesh, a tribal confederation led by Suluk, had seceded from the Second Turkish Empire during the succession crisis before the rise of Bilge Khagan to the throne. They were one of the groups that Bilge was unable to bring back into the fold and they set up a Khaganate in the west that lasted from 699-766. The Turgesh played an important role in the history of Transoxania during the first half of the 8th century. The recently conquered principalities sent messages to China and the Turgesh in 719 asking for aid against the Arabs. The Turgesh responded and invaded Transoxania while the local princes rebelled. From 720-737 Suluk waged a war against the Umayyads in Transoxania. Allied with the several of the local principalities, including Shash (Tashkent) and Ferghana, he reversed many of Qutayba’s conquests and defeated the Umayyad armies on more than one occasion.

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Two notable battles in this conflict were the Day of Thirst in 724 and the Battle of the Defile in 731. The Day of Thirst was the culmination of a Muslim campaign that had been dispatched to reconquer the Ferghana valley. The Umayyads besieged Ferghana, but lifted the siege and withdrew when they learned that Suluk was leading a large Turgesh army to the relief of the city. The Turgesh defeated a section of the Umayyad forces in battle and pursued the main army west for eight days all the way to the Jaxartes River harassing it as it marched. Upon reaching the river, the Muslims found that their path was blocked by armies from Shash and Ferghana. The Arabs, thirsty and exhausted, burned their baggage and prepared for battle.

On the Day of Thirst, they were able to win through and cross the river to safety. However, they suffered heavy losses and only a fraction of the army returned to Samarqand. At the Battle of the Defile in 731, the Umayyads were again defeated by the Turgesh and their Transoxanian allies. The Muslim army marched to relieve Samarqand, which had been besieged by the Turgesh. They took the quickest route, which went through a defile. While the army was in the defile, the Turgesh attacked them from all sides. The battle lasted for two days and the Umayyads were only able to break out of the defile because the defenders of Samarqand sallied out and distracted the Turgesh. In the battle, the Umayyyads lost an estimated 20,000-40,000 men.

The Umayyads finally broke the Turgesh at the Battle of Kharistan in 737. Suluk’s camp and all his flocks of sheep were taken by the victorious Muslims. Due to this defeat and his loss of prestige, Suluk was murdered by a relative and the Turgesh confederacy fell into a state of infighting and all but collapsed and was no longer a threat to the Umayyads. They were finally destroyed in 766 by another Turkic group, the Qarluqs, who were replacing them as the most powerful tribal group in the region. It is important to note that the Qarluqs would play an important role in the outcome of the Battle of Talas. Although the Umayyads emerged as the victors in this struggle, it had taken a toll on them. Tens of thousands of experienced Syrian troops, the backbone of their military, had perished in the struggle to reassert caliphal control over Transoxania and elsewhere. They were left much weakened and were overthrown in 750 in a revolution that saw the Abbasid dynasty rise to power. It was an Abbasid army, only one year after the revolution that defeated the Tang force at Talas.

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Battle of Talas – map by SY / Wikimedia Commons

The roads to Talas

Tang China was also making advances into Central Asia around the same time. Talas was preceded by almost a century of Tang westward expansion. By the mid-7th century they had conquered Xianjing and established contacts with several Central Asian principalities. Initially, the major Tang military thrust westward was not against the Arabs, but rather against the Tibetan Empire, which had risen in the region during the mid-7th century to rival Chinese hegemony. By 670 the Tibetans dealt a stunning blow to China by occupying the Tarim Basin, a region that was both strategically and economically important. The rise of Tibet and its challenge to Tang China resulted in decades of warfare. During this time, the Chinese established alliances and relationships with the small kingdoms and principalities on the southwestern flank of Tibet in the mountainous region of the Pamir and Hindukush.

Things became even more complicated when the king of Gilgit (in modern day Pakistan), allied himself with Tibet and took a Tibetan wife. A large imperial force was dispatched under the command of Gao (also sometimes referred to as Kao) Xianzhi, an ethnic Korean general in Tang service. Gao conducted a spectacular campaign and crossed the Pamir mountains along the dangerous Karakorum highway and took Gilgit in a surprise attack. He executed the pro-Tibetan officials in the royal court and took the king and his Tibetan queen prisoner. The way to Transoxania was also cleared for the Chinese to reassert some of their control over the region with the demise of Suluk and the Turgesh confederation. It was the Tang who incited one of Suluk’s generals to assassinate him after his defeat at Kharistan. The subsequent rivalries within the Turgesh were fanned by China and the collapse of Turgesh power in the region allowed for continued Chinese westward expansion. In fact, Gao’s successful campaign ended Tibetan power in the Pamir mountains and resulted in 72 local principalities and kingdoms becoming Chinese vassals. With these developments on the eastern frontier of the Abbasid Caliphate and the Western frontier of the Tang Empire, the forces of these two imperial giants were now poised for a showdown, the prize being Central Asia.

It was a local dispute between the kingdoms of Ferghana and Shash that led to the clash between the two empires. In 750 the king of Ferghana asked for Chinese assistance against his rival in Shash. Goa besieged Shash. He took the city in a surprise attack after treacherously breaching a treaty he had previously made with its inhabitants. He also captured and executed the king of Shash. The city was also subjected to a dreadful sacking, which resulted in thousands of its inhabitants being put to the sword. Gao also gained a large amount of wealth from looting Shash including diamonds, gold, horses and other valuables. The prince of Shash, now its king, fled to the Abbasids to seek help against the Chinese. Abu Muslim, the Abbasid governor of Khurasan, dispatched Ziyad ibn Salih, one of his lieutenants who was also the governor of Bukhara, at the head of a large army to fight Gao. The two forces met at Talas in 751 in what is modern day Kazakhstan.

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Two versions of the battle

It is difficult to ascertain the size of the armies that fought at Talas. Some sources state that both sides fielded 100,000 men or more. Most scholars agree that these numbers are exaggerated. The Abbasid army was composed of troops from Khurasan, Tukharistan, and Transoxania. According to the Chinese sources the Tang army under Gao’s command was a combined force of Chinese soldiers and allied troops from Ferghana, numbered 30,000 men. In addition to these forces, the Chinese also had a contingent of Qarluq Turks on their side. The Arab sources state that the Tang army was 100,000 strong. On the other hand, the Chinese accounts state that the Abbasid army was composed of 200,000 soldiers. Both of these assessments of the enemy are most certainly exaggerations and both armies most likely numbered anywhere between 30,000-50,000 soldiers. The flow of the battle and its duration both indicate that there was parity between the two sides.

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According to the Chinese accounts, the battle lasted for five days. The fighting was hard and bloody. There are two accounts of the battle. The first account states that during the first three days the battle was a contest between the archers and infantrymen of both armies in the center and the cavalry units vying for control of the flanks. The Chinese army had a larger number of infantrymen and archers, while the Abbasid force was comprised of 50% infantry and 50% cavalry. In the first account of the battle, the Chinese forces were attacked by their Qarluq allies in the rear on the fourth day of the battle while the Abbasids launched an all-out frontal attack. The Chinese army collapsed and was routed with heavy losses.

In the second account of the battle the two armies faced off against one another for four days. Neither side was willing to fully commit to battle. Then on the fifth day a third army, a force of Qarluqs, attacked the Chinese in the rear at the same time as the Abbasids launched a direct assault against the Tang army resulting in its utter destruction. In this second account, the Qarluqs had been the Abbasids’ allies from the start and Ziyad ibn Salih had probably planned the simultaneous assault with them that took place on the morning of the fifth day. Either way, the battle was a decisive Abbasid victory. The Abbasids lost 10,000 based on the first account after four days of fighting and much fewer if we take the second account. In both versions, the Chinese army was destroyed with casualties numbering up to 30,000 men.

The consequences of the Battle of Talas were far reaching. The caliphate was now the master of Central Asia centered on the wealthy city-states of Transoxania. In addition to its military successes, the caliphate was also able to draw in the population of the region through accommodating the princes and kings and incorporating them into the power structure of the empire. This policy of accommodation and coexistence put an end to concerted efforts by these kingdoms and principalities to rebel and break away from the caliphate. Chinese expansion and influence in the region was halted after this encounter. Talas also marked the farthest eastern expansion of the Caliphate. Neither the Abbasids nor the Tang wanted a prolonged conflict in this region, which would have been a logistical nightmare for both empires with their centers hundreds of miles away from this frontier zone. Furthermore, Talas was not the sole reason for China’s withdrawal from the west. Tang armies operating in and near Central Asia were recalled in 755 to deal with the An Lushan rebellion, which would occupy them for the next seven years. The Tang also had to deal with other rivals including the Uighur Empire, the Tibetan Empire, and the Khitan in Manchuria who would conquer much of Northern China.

Talas also resulted in cultural, religious, and technological consequences. Over the next few centuries there was a decline in the influence of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Manichaeism in Central Asia. Furthermore, a unique form of Buddhism developed in China and Japan, now that the direct link to India had been severed. Central Asia would very gradually become predominantly a Muslim region over the next several centuries. Additionally, among the Chinese prisoners taken at Talas there were papermakers among other craftsmen (including fine silk weavers, gold and silversmiths, and painters). These prisoners set up the first paper mills in the caliphate, a technology that would eventually get transferred to Europe and forever change history. Paper was easier and cheaper to make than parchment and more durable to papyrus making the recording of information, its transfer, and the maintaining of records much more feasible. According to Hugh Kennedy, this development had “a major impact on the literacy and culture of the Muslim and later European world.”

Although some scholars contend that paper was known to a degree in Sogdia, it was as a consequence of Talas that it spread far and wide. One of the Chinese prisoners captured by the Muslims at Talas was Du Huan. He would spend a decade in Iraq before being released and returning to China. He was related to the author of the Chinese Encyclopedic History, Du You. Du Huan provided the details, from his experiences, for the encyclopedic entry on the history of the Arabs and Islam. He took the sea route home (rather than overland along the Silk Road), which was becoming an alternative trade route between the Far East and the Caliphate, transforming the relationship between the two powers into a peaceful commercial one. He also provides one of the detailed accounts of the Battle of Talas, a battle which was, according to Professor Hyunhee Park: “one of the most dramatic political encounters in world history, the one between the Tang and the ʿ Abbasid empire, the consequences of which would transform the political, economic, and religious landscape of Central Asia and the Indian Ocean trade networks.”

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.

Top Image: Late Tang Dynasty mural from the Dunhuang Mogao Caves

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