The Impact of the Steppe Peoples


From the Cimmerians to the Manchus, the nomadic horse riders from the Asian Steppes have swooped down on the sedentary peoples of Europe and China.

Waves of horse-riding nomads have spread from the Steppes of Central Asia to terrorise the sedentary peoples of Europe and China throughout history. The first were the semi-mythical Cimmerians, followed by Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Avars, Magyars, Turks and Mongols. The nomads used devastating forms of warfare involving rapid movement and the technologically superior recurved composite bows to wreak havoc wherever they went. Great conquerors like Genghis Khan and Timur the Lame (Tamberlaine) used terror tactics to encourage towns and cities to surrender – pyramids of human skulls, lakes of human fat, cities in which every individual was killed, even cats and dogs, and then were completely leveled to the ground. More than Byzantine Emperor ended his days with his skull gilded and used as a goblet by victorious Scythian and Bulgar tribal leaders. Much of eastern Iraq has never recovered from the devastation wrought by the Mongolian invasion.

These negative effects are well-known. Are there positive effects to set against these? In military terms, the changes brought about were astonishing. The Sarmatian use of fully-armoured men and horses led to the adoption of the knight as the dominant figure on the European battlegrounds for centuries. The raids of the Magyars on Germanic lands in particular encouraged German princes to build the castles that now cover and dominate the landscapes of eastern-central Europe. The success of the Mongols in communications over long distances helped to create pre-modern understanding of the postal service and promoted trade along the Silk Routes above and beyond anything that had been previously witnessed. The rapid transfer of people, commodities and ideas from east to west and vice versa gave the world a prototype of globalization that promoted ideas of modernism and change. The threat of the dangerous ‘other’ also offered (although not always) an opportunity for the settled peoples to identify commonalities with their neighbours rather than divisions and hence provided opportunities for alliance.

The early nomadic peoples were animists by and large and allowed Shamans to guide their thinking. Gods were found in the form of the sky or of swords representing victory in battle. Genghis Khan was famously indifferent to the religious beliefs of those who followed him or of his enemies. Others were less unconcerned. The Khazars, famously, adopted Judaism largely to separate themselves from their neighbours. However, it was more common for Steppe tribes to adopt the Islamic beliefs they encountered in many of the countries they conquered. The military success of the nomads helps explain the presence of so many Muslim peoples across Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and also in China.