The Battle of Talas 751 AD

First of all sorry if on occasions I make mistakes whether it is spelling or of a grammatical nature but English isn’t my first language. And I even get to have a double excuse considering that I’m French and we do have quite a reputation regarding our English learning capacity. So please consider that I’m merely honoring my cultural heritage.

The battle of Talas took place near Taraz on the modern border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 751 AD. The exact location is yet to be confirmed but the accounts of the events place it on the banks of the Talas River. It took place after a series of smaller engagements between the Umayyad (soon to be Abbassid) empire and the Tang empire, as the two major powers intervened in the local conflicts to gain or maintain control over the Silk Roads. The latest struggle being between the local kings of Tashkent and Ferghana, two local Silk Road towns. The latter won the siege of Tashkent with the support of Gao Xianzhi – a general of Gogureyo descent (a recently defeated Korean kingdom) serving the Tang dynasty – and his troops. The Tang general supposedly had the king beheaded for refusing to pay the tribute he owed the Chinese empire, which in turn caused the son of the king to call for the help of the Abbasid. There is another version where an abbasid general named Ziyad ibn Salih who was already present to help the Tashkent king in his war escaped the city when the besieging army broke in and went to Samarkand to gather an army and confront the Tang army. Meanwhile Gao Xianzhi recruited Karluk Turks in Fergana to bolster the ranks of his army.

The sources are fuzzy to say the least and it only gets worse when it comes to the actual battle itself but whichever story we choose to follow we end up with two armies facing each other near the Talas River.

When it comes to the numbers involved you end up with radically different versions ranging from 40 000 Arab soldiers supported by 20 000 Turks and contingents from the allied Tibetan empire according to the Arab records, to 200 000 soldiers in total forming the ranks of the Abbasid army according to some Chinese estimates. As for the Tang army, once again we are faced with wildly diverging numbers from 10 000 Tang soldiers flanked by 20 000 Karluk mercenaries for the Chinese sources, to a 100 000 to 150 000 soldiers strong Tang army according to the Arab sources.

The Chinese records also insists on the fact that the Tang forces marched a long distance to reach Tashkent and were exhausted when the two armies came to face each other. As you might suspect, the battle itself is subject to very different accounts. One version speaks of three days of battle during which the Chinese had the upper hand on their foe but not significantly enough to rout or crush them. On the fourth day, the Karluks flanking the Tang forces turned on them and engaged the army in a close quarter fight while the Caliphate army charged them on the front. The second version differs in the chain of event yet present a similar ending: the two armies faced each other but feared to engage the fight for four days. On the fifth, a small force of Karluks that had positioned itself on the other bank of the Talas River and seemed neutral up to this point charged the Tang flank prompting the Abbasid to attack the front of the Chinese lines. In both cases we end up with a crushing defeat for the Chinese although the first version seems a bit more likely to have happened given that sources tend to tell us that despite the very heavy losses on the Tang side (according to Chinese sources that estimate the number of Tang soldiers to 10 000, Gao Xianzhi only retreats with 2 000 of his men), the Chinese also inflicted significant damage on the Abbasid forces. Whichever version we read, we end up with the same situation. The Chinese are heavily defeated due to the defection of the Karluk mercenaries in favour of the Abbasid. Whether their shift in allegiance comes from some form of transaction or from the fact that they were convinced by the Abbasid and their Turkish allies that they were closer in culture and religion and therefore in interest to them than the Chinese is hard to determine but the end result remains the same. The Abbasid routed their enemies and the Chinese are in such disarray that they leave behind their camp and all their civilian followers which the Arabs take prisoners.

And here we touch the most important part of this story as among these civilians were engineers and artisans which supported the army in all its needs – be it administrative, with paper, or of a more strategic nature, with black powder. From this point onward, the Abbasid Empire had access to the secret of paper making. And the first paper maker workshop was created in Samarkand only a few years later and in the following half century paper would spread across the entire empire – starting in the imperial capital of Bagdad with the creation of its first paper mill in 794-795 – as the valuable support for one of the Islamic golden age of intellectual creation. Arabic sources tend to support this version in which the prisoners of war are the mean of this technological transfer between the Far and the Middle East but no usual Chinese source comes to confirm this. Yet, we have on that matter a record from one of those prisoners of war in the person of Du Huan who writes on his time in the Abbasid Empire once he returns to China. In his story, he describes how some of his fellow prisoners make use of their crafts such as silk weaving while living in the Abbasid territory. Therefore, despite the absence of other Chinese sources confirming that the technological transfer happened through these prisoners, this first hand record plus the timing on the creation of those paper mills first in the neighbouring town of Samarkand, and then in the capital of Bagdad doesn’t leave much room to think of a simple coincidence. It seems almost certain that the Battle of Talas is indeed the sole reason for this sudden breach in the so far well-kept crafting secrets of those Chinese high-end export goods that were paper and silk.

Now, you may ask: “why is it such a big deal to know how to make paper?”. Because, at first glance, the Abbasid Empire had papyrus produced in Egypt and it was a good enough writing support to serve all the successive masters of Egypt during the Antiquity and among them the Roman Empire and the Greeks. To which you have to add parchment in some regions among which Kufa and Edessa which were famous for the quality of their production. So what could make the acquisition of paper such a revolution? Well, it all comes down to the fact that paper is easier to use because the fibers aren’t as pronounced as they can be in a papyrus and therefore leave much more liberty to trace your letters, especially when your calligraphy tends to include complex shapes such as those in Arab. It is also quite easy and cheap to produce once the craft is mastered and the technique becomes wide-spread, and on this point it is a very welcome feature seeing that for parchment, it could take a full year to prepare the skins that would compose a single somewhat hefty book and it would cost an enormous amount. And finally, it is way more flexible and yet sturdy. You can practically bend and twist the paper however you want with very little chance of tearing it whereas papyrus is much more demanding in its handling and makes for a less time resistant support in the day to day life (although, it is worth to note that, in proper conditions, papyrus may very well be more adapted to face the trial of time as long as it is kept in a very dry environment, hence the thousands of them uncovered each year in Egypt) and parchment on the other hand is much more sturdy than the two others but being of animal origin, it’s much more vulnerable to degradation due to its age. In addition to all those qualities, we can add that paper is relatively light (much more so than parchment and a bit more than papyrus) and you can also dye it which gives you much more freedom to embellish your writings. All in all, paper wins almost on all fronts compared to its predecessors and its wide-spread availability makes for the perfect condition for the intensification of written production and its long distance exchange. Finally the scientists, philosophers and thinkers of all the corners of the empire can write, exchange and receive new ideas from far away at a reasonable cost and in a timely and easy manner. It also makes room for a private market for books that allows somewhat ordinary citizens to buy and own books and access knowledge more readily. In the same spirit, it makes the creation and growth of public libraries a much easier task. In these conditions the Abbasid Empire knows one of its most brilliant era of intellectual dynamism as knowledge can flow much more rapidly, to more distant lands and reach many more readers.

In this regard, I think that paper very well might be one if not the most revolutionary invention and its spread across the world, one of the most important events in History. And if you want to prolong this thought, I invite you to think about the impact of the paper when it came back form the Levant to Europe, most likely from the Crusades. Because, in opposition to the Middle East, Europe lost access to the papyrus production from Egypt. A loss of access that began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the trade across the Mediterranean Sea that severely decreased (but never ceased) and that became complete with the Islamic conquest of the region. Given this, Europe relied almost exclusively on parchment, and as we saw, it is a really costly material – both in time and money. The relative decrease in intellectual production during the Middle Ages compared to the very productive Antiquity can partly be attributed to this scarcity of writing support. With less opportunity to exchange and access new ideas, the “collective” knowledge pool grows slower and with much more difficulty. And sometimes even can go back a little as ideas die before they can reach others. It is even very difficult to imagine such a thing as the Renaissance without paper being the support of this new cultural and intellectual exchange. What would have happen of the great minds of the time if they had only access to the very slow knowledge flow allowed by the parchment? And the press would clearly not exist if paper had not found its way to Gutenberg. And with that the 17th and 18th centuries almost certainly wouldn’t have seen such intellectual pursuits and intense creation and dynamism. Or at the very least all this would have happened on a longer time period and a smaller scale. In short the whole Western and Mediterranean culture would have a really different aspect if not for this rather unknown battle in the far distant east, and I know that we have left the realm of the strict historical domain to enter the realm of hypothetical history, but I feel like it still makes sense to raise those questions as they are, to me at least, one of the major arguments in favour of studying history. Learning about bits of history like this helps realize that sometimes the destiny of entire cultures and civilisations can be indirectly influenced by seemingly very little and distant events that are far beyond the reach of those that are impacted. And personally I find it very satisfying when you can pin point those events, when you can very much see the tipping point between two wildly different futures.

This battle has many more ramifications and consequences, among which are the Islamisation of the Turks, the rupture of communication between the Chinese and Indian Buddhism leading to the development of a separate Chinese Buddhist canon. But this text is already rather lengthy and I couldn’t have done justice to these other subjects without adding even more.

Thank you for reading all this if you reached this point and once again, please excuse any errors or misspellings and please feel free to correct me on anything as it would help me a great deal.

I recommend checking these out if you want to learn more on the subject of paper and its impact on civilization:

– Bloom, Jonathan (2001). *Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World* (English source)

– Sington, David (2020). *L’Odyssée de l’écriture*. A three part documentary on the evolution of writing throughout History. It’s in French and I don’t know if there is a translated version out there but if you do understand it I highly recommend checking it out.

#Battle #Talas

What do you think?

12 Points
Upvote Downvote

Leave a Reply