Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World
It is a historiographic cliché that history is written by the victors but is equally true that it is predominantly written by settled people, that is, not by the nomadic. Anthony Sattin’s new book is an attempt to rectify this omission by tracing the history of the nomadic peoples. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote that ‘nomads have no history; they only have a geography’ but it would be more accurate to say that their history is missing from more conventional accounts of the past. It is, as Sattin puts it, ‘the shadow side of our story’, one which is difficult to tell as nomads by their very nature ‘left scarce evidence of their passage through the world’. Nomads tread lightly, leaving few records or ruins.
The book opens in Turkey at the site of Gobekli Tepe (‘Potbelly Hill’ in English) where in the tenth millennium BC nomads built a complex of religious monuments, 7,000 years before the Pyramids and Stonehenge. Cutting, transporting, and erecting the immense blocks of stone was an operation which would have required a large, willing workforce and a huge amount of organisation. It is significant that the people who built Gobekli Tepe were ‘hunters and gatherers, wanderers, unsettled’ as it demonstrates that the agents of change could include people who lived on the move. In Sattin’s view, this is important as it shows that nomad history is as crucial to our understanding of our past as the history of settled people.
It was the development of farming which opened the divide between settled and nomadic peoples. The biblical myth of Cain and Abel is a dramatisation of the conflict between settled farmers and nomadic pastoralists: Cain was the farmer but God preferred Abel the pastoralist’s offerings of ‘the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.’ It may be this choice riled Cain to the extent that he killed his brother.
The first cities were built in Mesopotamia, the fertile land between Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The earliest-known city site is at Uruk on the banks of the Euphrates to the south of Baghdad which began to take shape in the fifth millennium BC. Henceforward, the divide between settled peoples and nomads would be a permanent feature of human society but not an impenetrable barrier. It is a central contention of Sattin’s book that ‘nomads have always been at least half of the human story and have made essential contributions to the march of what many historians have traditionally called civilization.’ In the second century BC when the Romans had defeated Carthage and become masters of the Mediterranean, and the Han emperor Wu dominated China, the nomads controlled an area larger and more powerful than either of the two settled empires.
Many centuries earlier the nomads of the Eurasian steppes had learned to ride the horse, something Sattin characterises as ‘the equine revolution’. In time, the wagon came into being and then the chariot, which changed the nature of warfare. These revolutionary developments are wholly attributable to the nomadic peoples of the steppes.
At the heart of Nomads are the sections dealing with the great nomadic empires, starting with the Medes and their successors, the Persians, five hundred years before Christ. The Persians built Persepolis, one of the wonders of the ancient world, despite their not being a settled, city-dwelling people; it was a place of ritual, ‘a tent in stone’ and ‘as such a fitting monument to nomad power.' It was the nomadic Huns who hastened the end of the Roman Empire while the rise of Arab Muslim power in the seventh century AD ‘transformed the existing world order’. Within a century of Mohammed’s death in 632, the Roman Empire had been reduced to a rump consisting of Constantinople and its Balkan hinterland while the Arab hegemony extended from the Indus Valley to the Atlantic Ocean. As Sattin observes, the most striking thing about the new empire was not its size, but that it had been won by desert people, by nomads, whose habit of movement led to speedy conquests. These conquests brought their own problems, principally the conundrum of how to balance the nomadic traditions with the need for a capital city for a widespread empire. Ultimately, the problem was never resolved: as the Arabs shed their nomadic traditions the vital energy - the <i>asabiyya<i> - which had made them such a force gradually dissipated in the ease of city life.
Probably the most famous nomad ruler of all was Genghis Khan, a ruler generally portrayed in Western history as a bloodthirsty warlord. Settled historians, writes Sattin, ‘have tended to focus on the number of people the Mongol <i>khans<i> killed, not the advances and advantages that came from the <i>pax Mongolia.’<i> Tamburlaine the Great’s empire was, despite its great cities of Samarkand and others, essentially nomadic. Babur who established Mughal power in northern India in the early sixteenth century was rooted in the nomadic tradition. The Ottoman empire which dominated the Near East from early modern times until the end of the First World War was nomadic in its origins.
By the seventeenth century nomad power was in eclipse, overcome by the rise of European maritime power and the new intellectual ideas spreading across Europe. But this should not blind us to the historical importance of the nomadic peoples and their empires, as this book makes clear. In their time, the nomadic, Mongol empires did change the world.