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The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History

The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History: Between China and the Islamic World

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 The Empire Of The Qara Khitai In Eurasian History
  • Book Author:
Michal Biran
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The early twelfth century was a time of turmoil in both China and Central Asia.1 In north China the Khitan Lİao dynasty that had ruled Manchuria, Mongolia and parts of north China for more than 200 years (907-1125) was overthrown by a new wave of Manchurian invaders, the Jurchens, who established the Jin dynasty ( 1115–1234). Undcr these circumstances, one Khitan prince, Yelü Dashi (1087- 1 143), chose not to submit to the Jurchen conquerors. Instead, he led his few

adherents westward, hoping to return subsequently to restore the Liao dynasty İn ils former domains. After six years İn western Mongolia, Dashi recognized his inability to challenge the Jurchen Jin dynasty, and, becoming aware of the relative weakness of the Central Asian kingdoms, he decided to seek a political future further to the west. In a little more than a decade he successfully fashioned a new empire in Central Asia that was known to the Muslims as the Qara Khitai (the Black Khitans) and to China as the Xi Liao (Western Liao). 2

After completing their conquests in 1141, the Qara Khitai empire ruled the area roughly between the Oxus river in the west and the Altai mountains in the cast, i.e., a territory equivalent to the larger part of modern Xinjiang, Qyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistarı and south Qazaqstan. Dashi and his suecessors bore the Inner Asian title Gürkhan (Geerhan, univcrsal khan), but were also clesignated as Chinese emperors. The empire existed for nearly ninety years, and was finally vanquished by the Mongols in 1218.

The Qara Khitai period is onc of the least known in the history of Central Asia, yet it is also one of the most fascinating pcriods: Thc Qara Khitai clynasty is the only Central Asian dynasty to have been consiclerecl a legitimate Chinese dynasty by Chinese official historiography. As they ruled over a rnostly Muslim population, the history of the Qara Khitai provides a unique window on the extensive cross­ cultural contacts helween China, Inner Asian nomacls ancl the Muslim worlcl, ancl perrnits an assessment of the relative appeal of Chinese ancl Muslirn cultures for the Inner Asian nomads. Moreover, since the Qara Khitai nılccl ovcr Ccntral Asia in the periocl that immediately preceded Lhe rise ofChinggi:e, Khan, a bcttcr undcrslanding ofthe Qara Khitai period can provide further insights into thc naturc ofthe Mongol empire. It can also rccxamine the claim, raised first in the nineteenth century but never fully developeıJ that the Qara Khitai crnpirc was thc prototypc of thc cmpirc establishecl by Chinggis Khan.3

This study is divicled into two parts, each consisting of three chapters. The firsl part providcs a fuller narrative history for the Qara Khitai, firmly locating them in their complex historical conlext between the worlds of Islam and China on thc eve of the Mongol invasion. The chronological framework choseıı for this purposc is wicle: it hegins in 1 124, when Yelü Dashi left for Mongolia, enthroning hirnselr merely as a king, not yet as an cınperor (which he clid in 1131/2), and encling in 1218, when the Mongols eliınirıated the Naiman prince Güchi.ilüg, who seized the Qara Khitai throrıe, rather than in 12 l 1 when Gi.ichülüg deposed the !ast Gi.irkhan, Zhilugu, or in 1213 at Zhilugu’s cleath. Güchülüg’s reign is a peculiar period in Qara Khitai history: his ethnic origin ancl policics were so different froın those of the forıner Gürkhans that, despite his attempts to rcvivc thc fortunes of the em pire, his contemporaries in China and in the Muslim world never regarded hiın as a lcgitirnate Qara Khitai rule r.4 Yet the polity over which he nıled was stili called the Wcstcrrı Liao, and I therefore cleciclecl to clocument its history down to its final dissolution in 12 l 8.

The second part examines the main components of the mullicultural ınilieu founcl within the Qara Khitai realnı: the Chirıese; the noınadic or lnner Asian; and the Islaınic. This is organized around thrcc qucstions, not hitherto addressed in the literature: Why did the Qara Khitai retain their Chirıese characteristics in thc new Central Asian erıvironment? How did these “inlidel” noınadic rulers acquirc lcgitimization among their mostly Muslim sedentary population·ı And why, unlike their preclecessors and successors in Ccntral Asia, dicl they not embrace Islam? Irı trying to find answers to these questions

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