Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Battle of Talas: A Key Event in the History of Paper

The Battle of Talas

The Battle of Talas (751 AD) fought between the Chinese Tang Dynasty and the Abbasid Caliphate had political ramifications for Central Asia, as well as being an important event in the history of technology. It was the capture of Chinese prisoners at the Battle of Talas that lead to the introduction of paper to the Islamic world.Prisoners in Samarkand were ordered to produce paper, and the Muslim expansion into Central Asia allowed the transmission of paper-making technology to the Islamic world. By the year 794 AD paper manufacturing could be found in Baghdad.

                                    A Spring Outing of the Tang Court , Zhang Xuan (713-755)

By the end of the period of the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) Transoxania ( the ancient name used for the land between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers) was mostly incorporated into the Islamic world. However, it was this expansion that opposed the Chinese and the Abbasids, as China had had presence in these areas of Central Asia since the second century B.C. Furthermore, under the Tang Dynasty's reign, China's  influence in Transoxania itself, had grown. A crisis ensured, when a pro-Tibetan ruler cam to power in the kingdom of Gilgit. (The Tibetans influence in the politics of the region had rapidly increased in the 7th century). In 747 AD the Korean general Kao Hsien-chih campaigned against Gilgit, ending the Tibetans influence over it. Another dispute, this time between the kingdoms of Ferghana and Chach, forced Hsien-chih to respond to Ferghana calling for aid and besiege Chach. He promised to let the King of Chach have safe passage, but then decapitated him. The son of the decapitated King escaped and took word Abu Muslim, the Abbasid governor of Khorasan.

Abu Muslim mustered his forces, added reinforcements from Tukharistan and joined with Ziyadi ibn Salih at Samarkand, where Ziyad tool control of the army. The armies met near the town of Talas, on the Talas River.The number of troops the Arabs had at the battle was not recorded by any side, however it is estimated the Arabs may have had 200,000 men, whereas the Chinese had only  30,000 men, according to the Chinese accounts ( Arab accounts put this at 100,000). The battle lasted for five days, according to Chinese annals, whereas the Arab records are inconclusive relating to its duration. However, all records agree that the battle was a major victory for the Arabs. The Chinese blamed on the Turkish Karluk mercenaries, saying they betrayed them. However, it is argued that it is likely that the Karluks were in fact on the Arabs side from the start.

The importance of this battle is debatable. The battle did weaken the Tang Dynasty and may have contributed to their loss of influence in Central Asia, and therefore the spread of Islam into Asia. However, the decline of the Tang dynasty can not be exclusively blamed on the Battle of Talas. Around this time China was facing trouble from the Tibetans, Uygur Turks in Mongolia and the Khitan people. For example, just  two months before Talas the Khitans defeated the Chinese near Ping-lu in 751. Also, the young kingdom of Nan-chao dealt devastating losses to Chinese force in 754. Therefore, it could be argued the Battle of Talas was not decisive in China's loss of influence in Central Asia, rather it was a cumulation of several threats to the Tang Dynasty that led to this decline.

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