Al-Marwazi described migration of mobile societies in ancient Eurasia

Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan created vast Eurasian empires about 2300 and 800 years ago, respectively.  The creation of those empires surely wasn’t a typical re-arrangement of Eurasian societies.  Writing about 1120, Sharaf al-Zaman al-Marwazi, a native of the major central-Asian city Merv, described a more typical re-arrangement:

To them {Turks} also belong the Qun; these came from the land of Qitay, fearing the Qita-khan.  They were Nestorian Christians, and had migrated from their habitat, being pressed for pastures.  Of their numbers {is? or was?} Akinji b. Qochqar {?} the Khwarazmshah.  The Qun were followed {or pursued} by a people called the Qay, who being more numerous and stronger than they drove them out of these {new?} pasture-lands.  They then moved on to the territory of the Shari, and the Shari migrated to the land of the Turkmans, who in their turn shifted to the eastern parts of the Ghuzz country.  The Ghuzz Turks then moved to the territory of the Bajanak, near the shores of the Armenian {?} sea. [1]

Al-Marwazi’s reference to the Qun, Turks who were Christians, is not well-understood.  The Qun may have been the Tuyuhun.  In the late eighth century they lived in Shaanxi and neighboring provinces.  They plausibly had contact with Xi’an, an early center of Christianity in China.   In the ninth and tenth centuries the Tuyuhun moved just north of the great bend of the Yellow River (the Ordos Loop).[2]  That movement may have been related to the suppression of Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Zoroastrianism in China in the mid-ninth century.[3]  The Kereit, a Turkish people living southeast of Lake Baikal, converted to Christianity in 1009.[4]  Contact with the nearby Christian Qun may have fostered that conversion.  In any case, the Qun were positioned to connect the sedentary people of China to the mobile societies of central Asia.

More generally, al-Marwazi reported an immense migration of peoples.  The movement began in Manchuria in far-east Eurasia and ultimately had effects on peoples near the Black Sea in western Eurasia.  This migration is thought to have taken place primarily from 1030 to 1050.[5]  Roughly a half millennium earlier, the Avars apparently migrated from eastern-central Eurasia to western Eurasia.  Many other re-arrangements and migrations among the relatively mobile Eurasian societies could have occurred in the long span of Eurasian history.

Economic change seems to be shifting societies toward mobile assets.  Physical assets require physical space and non-scalable maintenance services. Virtual assets such as software and data can realize great economies of scale and be quickly adapted to new applications.  Cloud technologies and mobile devices allow persons and groups to be much more nomadic.  Leading societal forms of the twenty-first century are likely to be more like ancient Central Asia than like Roman or Chinese empires.

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[1] Al-Marwazi, Kitāb Ṭabāʾiʿ al-Ḥayawān (Nature of Animals), Ch. 9, Sec. 3, trans. Minorsky (1942) pp. 29-30. The editorial interpolations in {} are Minorsky’s.

[2] Minorsky (1942) commentary on al-Marwazi, p. 99, apparently quoting Pelliot (1921), Note sur les T’ou-yu-houen in T’oung-Pao.

[3] The religious suppression in mid-ninth century China did not eliminate Manichaeism in China:

Manichaeism was flourishing in China as late as the Sung dynasty. In the Sung hui-yao kao we find many imperial edicts persecuting the followers of this religion throughout the Northern and Southern Sung dynasties. In 1120 A. D., the year of Marvazi’s death, it is said that in Wen-chou alone there existed more than forty Manichaean temples.

Chou (1945) p. 14. For a detailed analysis of a Manichaean’s relationship with a Confucian official under the southern Sung Dynasty, see Lieu (1977).  Christianity in China seems also to have survived the mid-ninth-century religious suppression.

[4] Mingana (1925) pp. 308-311.

[5] Minorsky (1942) commentary on al-Marwazi, p. 104.


Chou Yi-liang. 1945.  “Notes on Marvazi’s account on China.”  Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies.  Vol. 9, n. 1 (Sept.) pp. 13-23.

Lieu, Samuel N. C. 1977.  “A lapsed Chinese Manichaean’s correspondence with a Confucian official in the late Sung Dynasty (1265): a study of the Ch’ung-shou-kung chi by Huang Chen.”  Bulletin of the John Rylands Library (Manchester), v. 59, pp. 397-425.

Mingana, Alphonse. 1925. The early spread of Christianity in central Asia and the Far East: a new document. Manchester: University Press.

Minorsky, Vladimir F. 1942. Sharaf Al-Zamān Ṭāhir Marvazī on China, the Turks and India: Arabic text (circa A. D. 1120) with an English translation and commentary. London: Royal Asiatic Society.

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