Today in Central Asian history: the Battle of the Baggage (737)

A relatively minor military setback helps lay the groundwork for the fall of the Umayyad dynasty, Islam's first ruling house.

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In the waning years of the Umayyad dynasty, a caliphal army suffered a major defeat in an area that is now part of Afghanistan, to a Turkish people called the Türgesh. The defeat was serious enough to disrupt caliphal control of the region called Transoxiana (literally “across the Oxus River,” which is today known as the Amu Darya) and allowed the Türgesh to advance into the eastern Iranian region of Khurasan. The setback for the caliphate was temporary—the Arabs retaliated against the Türgesh later that year so thoroughly that they almost totally disappeared as a threat. The setback for the Umayyad dynasty, however, was considerably more significant, because the loss of control over Khurasan helped set the conditions that allowed the Abbasid Revolution to emerge there.

The Türgesh weren’t on the world stage very long, but we can’t very well talk about their victory without at least mentioning who they were. They’re a product of the Turkic Khaganate, or Göktürk Khaganate, which controlled much of the Central Asian steppe from the mid-6th century through the mid-8th century, albeit with a little interlude in the mid-7th century. In the 580s a civil war split the khaganate into eastern and western halves, and both then were subjugated by China’s Tang dynasty, in 630 and 659. A second Turkic Khaganate emerged free from the Tang in 682, but it occupied a somewhat smaller territory that was centered a bit further north and east than the original khaganate at its height. The Türgesh are a product of the collapse of the western khaganate in 659, and they established their own kingdom in 699. Initially the Türgesh were allied with the Umayyads against the Tang. But after the Tang and their Karluk allies defeated an Umayyad-Türgesh army in 715 the Türgesh, under a khan named Suluk (d. 738), switched sides.

Beginning around 720, the Türgesh began to attack the Umayyads, and though the caliphate was a large empire and could in theory bring more forces to bear than the Türgesh, caliphal armies were operating a long way from home in a place where they weren’t very welcome. The local peoples of the region, primarily Sogdians, began rebelling, seemingly coordinating their actions with the Türgesh. The largest of these revolts, led by an Arab named al-Harith b. Surayj (d. 746), tapped into simmering resentments about the treatment of non-Arabs living in the empire. Things got bad enough that in the mid-730s, the caliph, Hisham b. Abd al-Malik (d. 743) sent a former governor of Khurasan, the experienced Asad b. Abdullah al-Qasri (d. 738), back east to put a lid on the uprising. Asad quickly was able to tamp down Harith’s revolt, then turned his attention to the Türgesh.

In late September 737, Asad attacked Khuttal, a local Iranian statelet in the vicinity of modern Tajikistan that had supported Harith and the Türgesh. Though he was too late to prevent the Umayyad raid, Suluk came to his ally’s aid after the fact. Asad sent his baggage train, loaded with goodies looted from Khuttal, back toward the Oxus, but when Suluk’s army showed up it appears that Asad’s forces pretty much turned and ran. Suluk’s army defeated the Arab rearguard and then pursued the main body of the army across the river. After failing to take the Arab encampment, he turned his attention to the nearby baggage train (hence the name of the battle), and his forces were able to take it after slaughtering most of the defenders.

Now that I think about it, this “Battle of the Baggage” isn’t really much of a battle, but what can you do? We’re really here to talk about the aftermath, not the battle itself.

Suluk’s victory seems to have made him a little cocky, and he wound up paying for it pretty quickly. Asad, having survived the battle, ensconced himself in his regional capital, Balkh (which is a small town in northern Afghanistan today but used to be one of the largest cities in the world before successive Mongolian sackings in the 13th-14th centuries left it in ruins). There he planned to ride out the winter, as was typical Arab military practice. But Suluk, along with Harith, decided to invade Khurasan, which proved to be a mistake when Asad defeated them at the Battle of Kharistan in December. Suluk was subsequently assassinated by his men, and the Türgesh khanate plunged into civil war. Harith dropped off the map for a couple of years but resurfaced in the 740s, first as a supporter of the then-governor of Khurasan, Nasr b. Sayyar (d. 748), and then at the head of another rebellion—this time, he was defeated and killed.

Though Asad was successful in defeating the Türgesh at Kharistan, and Umayyad control over Khurasan was never really threatened, the losses he suffered in the process crippled the Umayyads’ ability to exert authority over Khurasan. Grievances that were already obviously high—between Arabs and non-Arabs, between Arabs of different tribes, between Syrians and everybody else—continued to build up in the province, and without a standing army capable of maintaining control by force, it was inevitable that another revolt would eventually break out. In fact, several revolts wound up breaking out, but they eventually coalesced, or were forced to coalesce, around the rebellion that overthrew the Umayyads and brought the Abbasids to power in 750.