European Steppe Nomads in the Military History of the Near East

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2-Anatoly4By: Anatoly Khazanov, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Seymour Gitin Distinguished Professor

During my residence at the Albright Institute as a Seymour Gitin Distinguished Professor (January 2-April 8, 2014), I worked on my research project, “Eurasian Steppe Nomads in the Military History of the Near East.” The project was aimed at studying the influence of these steppe nomads on the military organization, warfare, and weaponry of Iran, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt, and some adjacent regions from the 8th century BCE until the middle of the second millennium CE. While at the AIAR, I have focused my research on inquiring how, and to what extent the steppe nomads influenced mounted warfare of the various countries in the region. In this regard, I have written the preliminary drafts of two articles with the intention of submitting them for publication no later than the end of this year.

The goal of the first article was to single out the main historical periods in which the steppe nomads exerted influence on warfare in the Near East, to define the main characteristic features of those periods, and to explain their peculiarities. Tentatively, the discrete periods in question are the Assyrian-Neo-Babylonian (7th-6th centuries BCE), the Achaemenid (6th-4th centuries BCE), the Parthian-Sassanian (3rd century BCE-7th century CE), the Early Arab (7th-8th centuries CE), the Abbasid (8th-11th centuries CE), the Seljuk (the 11th- 13th centuries CE), and the Mongol periods (the 13th-14th centuries CE). I argue that the introduction, development, and changes in mounted warfare in the region may serve as the main criteria for this periodization. I further argue that changes in mounted warfare in the Near East, in addition to military factors, were also connected with both external and internal socio-political factors and should be perceived in specific cultural contexts.

The second article deals with the emergence and further development of a specific kind of heavy cavalry which, following ancient Greek tradition, are usually called cataphracts. In my opinion, the main goal of cataphracts was to fight Greek and Roman heavy infantries. The cataphracts emerged in western parts of the Eurasian steppes in the last centuries BCE, and were then brought to the Near East by the Parni, a nomadic people of Central Asian origin, undergoing further developments in Parthian and Sassanian Iran. Although the cataphract cavalry were adopted by a number of other countries, only in Iran did they become the main military force in the Parthian and Sassanian periods. Later, that cavalry ceased to exist mainly for three reasons. First, they were very expensive; second, eventually they became overspecialized; and third, in medieval times, there was no strong heavy infantry in any Near Eastern country and therefore, no need for it. In addition, the invention of new types of bows and arrowheads made distance shooting and fighting more efficient. Correspondingly, the division of cavalries of steppe nomads, as well as of Near Eastern countries into light and heavy types became much less rigid. Medieval cavalries in both regions were less heavily armored and more multifunctional than cataphracts. The Crusaders were an exception but their cavalry did not and could not have a long-lasting effect on the military art of Near Eastern countries.

I also participated in several very stimulating workshops by other scholars at the Albright Institute and gave a paper myself on “Eurasian Steppe Nomads in the Military History of the Near East (before the Arab conquests). In addition, my residence at the AIAR provided me with an opportunity to participate in a seminar on migrations in medieval Eurasia given at the Hebrew University. I also had very fruitful discussions and consultations with several scholars, especially with Amihai Mazar, Gideon Shelah, Reuven Amitai, Ronnie Ellenblum, and Michal Biran. Mazar and Shelah kindly provided me with an opportunity to study some unpublished archaeological materials relevant to my research.

I am most grateful for this excellent opportunity to pursue my research in Jerusalem and to the entire staff of the Albright Institute for making my stay comfortable and fruitful.

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1 Comments for : European Steppe Nomads in the Military History of the Near East
  1. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #4 | Doug's Archaeology

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