The most vital part of living and basis of human life is the ability to survive and adapt. This is evident through the years as humans have migrated across the globe spreading to all corners of the world. For centuries upon centuries, these people did not build their capitals or cities in one place. Instead they were migratory for the duration of their lives. They flowed with the seasons and followed resources from place to place instead of staying in one place and attempted to gain new lands from attacking and conquering any new areas they came across. There came a point when this migratory lifestyle was going out of style. There were so many people on the planet that it made more sense to concentrate their resources, minds and forces in one specific area. This pivotal point became the the time of states building. The perfection of an intricate capital surrounded by fortress walls and buildings stretching across the land. A new phenomena was on the horizon. Considering the fact that this time period was the start of state building, sedentary societies had an advantage over those who continued to be nomadic. Some reasons for this succession include developments in technology that led to more efficient movement, trade and diffusion on a biological and cultural level.
By now it hopefully is clear that this period was the time of origin for the concept of state building and there are many instances of this new idea throughout the world. In the Middle East, there were the Mamluks. The Song Dynasty covered present day China, while the Mali spanned across Africa. Lastly, the Khmer people covered the rest of southeast Asia.
The Mamluks (1250-1382)
The Mamluks gained power when the Kurdish general general Saladin, who achieved control of Egypt in 1169, installed a slave corps in his army which made it much more powerful. Saladin died in 1269 and a period of struggle over the throne began, during which the Mamlūk generals murdered his heir and eventually succeeded in establishing one of their own number as sultan. For more than 250 years, Egypt and Syria were ruled by Mamlūks.
There were two periods during which this society ruled. The Turkish and Circassian periods which are named to call attention to the in ethnic origin of the majority of Mamlūks. The portion of their rule that is tremendously important to this discussion was a portion of success in politics and warfare along with studies and development. It is the primary opinion that the Mamlūk state reached its height under the Turkish sultans and then fell into a prolonged phase of decline under the Circassians. The principal achievement of the Turkish Mamlūks was the decisive defeat of the Mongols in Palestine and Syria.
The Mamlūks revived the caliphate, which the Mongols had destroyed in 1258, and established one in Cairo. They saw success in war and diplomacy as well as economically by the support of industries and crafts as well as by their restoration of Egypt as the principal trade and a transit route.
Culturally, the Mamlūk period is known mainly for its achievements in historical writing and in architecture. As builders of religious monuments—mosques, schools, monasteries and, above all, tombs – littered Cairo with impressive monuments.
Song Dynasty (960-1279)
The Song recovered from rough beginnings on a political front by bolstering their economy with tons of development. Kaifeng, the reestablished capital became one of the great metropolises of the world under the Song. The city had a population of near 1 million and therefore could benefit from industrialisation coupled with coal and iron. In addition, Kaifeng was a major trade center. It was especially famous for its printing, paper, textile, and porcelain industries. These goods were exported along the Silk Road and across the Indian Ocean. The Song dynasty also saw innovations in machinery, agriculture, and manufacturing processes. Some of the more influential inventions include paddle-wheel ships, gunpowder, paper money, the fixed compass, the sternpost rudder, lock gates in canals, and the moveable-type printing press. The time period allowed for Chinese culture, and way of life to flourish but the Song government was plagued with political factions to the point where, when the Mongols invaded the state could not respond with enough force. The Song collapsed in 1279, making way for the Yuan.
Mali Empire (1240-1465)
The Mali Empire was founded by Sundiata Keita following his victory over the kingdom of Sosso. Sundiata established a central government, and a disciplined army. This fostered massive military expansion which would pave the way for a flourishing of the Mali Empire. When Mansa Musa rose to power, the empire rose to new heights in terms of territory controlled and cultural fluorescence. Mansa Musa also brought an other worldly level of wealth to region by acting as the ‘middleman’ in trade between North Africa through the Sahara and Niger River regions. Muslim merchants were attracted to all this commercial activity, which led to the spread of Islam through conversion and teachings in centers like Timbuktu. The Mali Empire collapsed in the 1460s CE following civil wars, the opening up of trade routes elsewhere, and the rise of the neighboring Songhai Empire.
Khmer People (802-1431)
The Khmer empire was a dominant state in southeast Asia, which covered Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam at its height. However, there were several kingdoms at constant war against each other, with art and culture heavily influenced by India due to long established sea trade routes with that subcontinent. The Khmer people worshipped under Hinduism and Buddhism umbrellas, along with animist and traditional cults.
The Khmer expanded to the north and the west, to the Chao Phraya basin and beyond, while using Angkor as their capital. To the east the Khmer fought with two powerful societies, the Cham and the Vietnamese. The empire enjoyed some victories, including the taking of Cham’s capital, but they never annexed the taken land. Oppositely, Chams and Vietnamese were victors against the Khmer when they looted Angkor which pushed the empire almost to collapse. Too, throughout history, the Khmer government had concerns regarding stopping rebellions initiated by ambitious nobles trying to achieve independence.
The Khmer were elite builders, covering the land with temples, reservoirs and canals, and laying an extensive road network with all sorts of bridges. The most stunning temple, Angkor Wat, is the world’s largest religious complex and almost defies the imagination and assumption that a civilization from so long ago could come up with such a thing this grand.
The Khmer enjoyed celebrations to which perpetuated throughout the year. Wrestling, horse races, cock fights, fireworks, music and dances were an integral part of their culture. The king and the elite were transported on palanquins, and used umbrellas to cover from the sun. The state was divided into approximately 23 provinces, with a sophisticated administration and extensive personnel going down even to the village level.
The empire’s decline and final collapse is largely connected with the migration of the Thai civilization between the 12th and 14th centuries. The Thai inhabited an area to the north of the Khmer, where China ends and Southeast Asia begins. It is a mountainous, harsh land, where a Thai kingdom. For unknown reasons, Thai populations started migrating south, at a relatively slow rate initially. The migration increased exponentially when the Mongols shook China, driving the Song out of power. Then the Mongols took the Yunnan region, and an additional pressure to migrate ensued. The Thai created their own kingdoms and as these kingdoms grew in power, they started to attack and annex Khmer territories. The Khmer empire’s economy by this time may also have deteriorated because of increased silting of the water sources that the Khmer depended on. Then the Thai took Angkor in 1431 CE, which constitutes the end of the Khmer empire.
Summary of the Unity Between These People
This time period fostered the growth of states and large trading cities while in unison expanding the trading routes and deepening the connection between all of these societies, even inter-regional trade. In addition, this routes were built and maintained on the back of new developments in science and technology such as the caravanserai, forms of credit, and the development of money economies as well as the use of the compass, the astrolabe and larger ship designs. The premier examples of this include the Silk Road, trans-Saharan trade network, and Indian Ocean. As well, there were increased cross-cultural interaction which resulted in the diffusion of literary, artistic, and cultural traditions. In China, their cultural conditions continued and they influenced regions surrounding the empire. Buddhism grew and continued to captivate much of Asia. It also created a variety of schools and branches. Islam, Judaism and Christianity spread to Africa and Asia and Hinduism was adopted by much of south to southeast Asia.
Along with trade, culture and science there was a continued diffusion of diffusion of crops and pathogens, including Bubonic plague. Since strong, sedentary states were primarily based on one crop agriculture, and lived closely together, disease became a tremendous issue. Particularly in 1347, when 12 ships pulled into port at Messina, Italy. Upon arrival, the greeters found that most of the sailors were in fact dead and those that were not were terribly ill. What we now understand is that this disease is one that is bacterial, and spread from person to person pneumatically, or through the air, as well as through the bite of infected fleas and rats. Both of these pests were almost everywhere in medieval Europe, but they were particularly at home aboard ships of all kinds – which is how the deadly plague made its way through one European port city after another. In the end this disease forced somewhat of a reboot in Europe after it killed off 20 million people, or a third of the population. However it did reappear every few centuries, just not on that scale. In fact as I am writing this, two people contracted it in China after eating a raw kidney of a marmot. The societies across the globe were interconnected during this time period in ways they had never been before, all because of the blossoming states.
Nomadic Societies Of the Period
The primary example of a nomadic society of the time period was the Mongol civilization which at its height controlled the largest amount of land in the world. They were nomadic pastoralists who were superb horsemen and traveled with their flocks of sheep, goats, cattle, and horses over the immense grasslands of the steppes of Central Asia.
The Mongolian pastoral nomads relied on their animals for survival and moved their habitat several times a year in search of water and grass for their herds. Their lifestyle was precarious, as their constant migrations prevented them from transporting reserves of food or other necessities. Rarely having the luxury of surpluses to tide them through difficult times, they were extremely vulnerable to the elements. Heavy snow, ice, and droughts jeopardized their flocks and herds and heightened their sense of fragility. The spread of disease among the livestock could also spell disaster. Herders hunted and farmed to a limited extent but were dependent on trade with China in times of crisis.
The Mongols are an interesting case in terms of whether they are nomadic or sedentary because even though they were constantly on the move, attacking new lands, they did establish capitals. Those capitals however were never where their army stayed and the army constituted a large part of the population. In addition, the different khanates had capitals that were left for the indigenous people to lead just under the influence of the Mongol umbrella. So it makes more sense to say they are both. But for the argument’s sake, let’s call them nomadic.
The downfall of the Mongols stemmed from the aforementioned practice of leaving the conquered lands for the people who had been conquered to lead. Over time, power shifted from the Mongols to their bureaucrats. This added to the feuds among the fractured khanates. In 1368 the Mongols lost China to the native Ming dynasty. In the same period, the Il-Khanid dynasty of Persia disintegrated, and the western Golden Horde was defeated in 1380. Soon the empire was reduced to the Mongol homeland and scattered khanates. Eventually Ming incursions into Mongolia effectively ended Mongol unity.
The Burburs were a nomadic pastoral society that lived in scattered communities across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania. Berber merchants and nomads of the Sahara had initiated a trans-Saharan trade in gold and slaves that incorporated the lands of the Sudan into the Islamic world. However the Berbers were in retreat due to conquests of north Africa and subjected to Arabization of two very different kinds. Dominance of Arabic had ended the writing of Amazigh (Berber) which reduced the Berber languages to folk ones. At the same time, the Berbers were being driven to the plains by east warriors. Those factors turned the population from Berber speakers into Arabic speakers, with a consequent loss of original identities.
The Bedouin are Arabic-speaking nomadic people of the Middle Eastern deserts, especially of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Most Bedouins are animal herders who migrate into the desert during the rainy winter season and move back toward the cultivated land in the dry summer months. Camel, sheep, goat and cattle nomads were separate and organized in tribes. Historically many Bedouin groups also raided trade caravans and villages at the margins of settled areas or extracted payments from settled areas in return for protection. The Bedouins have plenty of wandering areas and are split up their population so when the countries that they called home sprang up as dominant states, they had to submit to new ways of life. They simply were not strong enough to maintain themselves as an independent entity.
Importance of Nomadic Societies
Nomads have been a distinct element within and have carried civilizations for thousands of years. They have sort of served as a buffer in between these sprouting societies, living in the cracks. Today they are looked at, not as separate phenomena but instead as intertwined mediators. Their ability to conquer helped keep the growing states from becoming too powerful and they even contributed some cultural practices to sedentary states. Otherwise, their mobility has created cultural and spatial distance so that the world could become as diverse as it has.
Even though nomads made a lot of important contributions to the world over the entirety of history, such as the taming of horses, their practices are now simply insufficient. They too were a vital part of the inter-regional trade at points, but in not establishing capitals and concentrating their resources in one area, they fell behind the curve as it pertains to knowledge and overall advancements of society. They do not have updated technology, weapons, and overall ways of life and therefore they are in a position to thrive. Today, societies that were once nomadic are trying to turn themselves into world powers (considered developing). But they are struggling to do so. China and most of Europe grew because they built sprawling capitals within which they learned, protected themselves and traded.
During the time period of 1200-1450ce, societies that built capitals and cultural centers were more effective than ones who were nomadic. Though it is undeniable that nomadic people once had a role, that role does not exist anymore because of just how different nomadic people have become from sedentary societies.