Thursday, 16 October 2014

When the Arabs fought the Chinese...

Arabs fighting the Chinese? Who’d have guessed that anything like that would ever happen? But it has happened, and on more than one occasion.

At the time of the Muslim conquests, Islamic armies – initially primarily Arab, later Persian as well – swept out over present day Iran and well into Central Asia, Afghanistan and Northern India.

But under the Tang dynasty, China also underwent a period of rapid expansion, reaching westward, partly in pursuit of the larger horses Chinese armies and merchants had met in foreign lands but didn’t have at home. There was also the matter of controlling and protecting the lucrative Silk Road, linking China with the Mediterranean, along which huge volumes of trade – far more than just silk – moved for many centuries.

Eastward driving Arabs more than once encountered westward bound Chinese, and fought a series of battles. Those conflicts culminated in 751, at the battle of the Talas river. Believe the accounts of the time and 200,000 Arabs and their allies met 100,000 Chinese with theirs, but you’d need to be particularly gullible to believe those accounts.

The Battle of the Talas in 751:
where the Chinese came off second best
But then their allies turned out – not to be allies
Whatever the true number, what definitely is certain is that both sides had allies. If only because the Chinese army only contained a small minority of ethnic Chinese, and the allies who made up its bulk switched sides at a crucial juncture. That meant that the Chinese found themselves caught between Arabs in front of them, and erstwhile allies attacking them from the rear. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese were crushed, losing 8000 out of the original force of 10,000.

They never came back. Within four years, a major uprising back in China brought all armies rushing to the homeland to protect the Emperor.

But why didn’t the Arabs press on?

Between the easternmost possessions of the Abbasid Caliphate and China lay the least prepossessing territories of the Silk Road. Thinly populated, poor land producing little of any particular value. The Silk Road itself made them important, but growing volumes of goods were already taking the seaways instead of the land route, through Indochina and India to the Arabian Sea.

It’s true that beyond the wilderness lay the riches of China, but that meant a massive expedition, difficult fighting and a dangerously extended supply line. I imagine the Caliphate decided that the game just wasn’t worth the candle.

Sensible. And a theme that marks our times still today. The words of the prophet are important, of course, but none is so important as the one word “profit”. Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jew, people of any religion or none, tend to back down when effort becomes unprofitable.

Not terribly honourable, but eminently sensible. 

Sadly, it’s good sense I suspect ISIS, self-declared heirs of the Caliphate, aren’t likely ever to show.

Let’s hope we can stop them ever reaching far enough to engage with Chinese forces, at the Talas River or anywhere else. If Arab forces meet the Chinese battle ever again, then God help us all. Any God. Anywhere.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for opening up my eyes.


(Back from holiday)

David Beeson said...

I have to confess it was Melvyn Bragg who opened mine, on 'In Our Time'