The Diaspora

In the year 751 AD an epic battle was fought between two mighty powers. We don’t know for certain if it happened in Taraz, modern day Kazakhstan; or Talas in Kyrgyzstan – around 180 kilometres away. Either way it became known as the Battle of Talas, as both cities are on the Talas River. 

On one side, the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate. Only a year earlier this Iraqi kingdom had wrested power from the Umayyads, and were now rapidly consolidating their territory. They were joined by a large contingent from the Tibetan Empire, then more a bona fide empire than a country – with land stretching as far west as the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan. 

On the other side, the Chinese Tang Dynasty. The Tang were one of the world’s great powers at the time. Recently they’d taken advantage of localised conflicts between the Turkic tribes who inhabited the Central Asian Steppe, and pushed westwards into their territory. Like the Abbasids, and Umayyads before them – they found the seizure of Oasis cities along the Silk Roads an extremely profitable thing to do. 

In 750 the Chinese, led by General Gao Xianzhi, captured the Uzbek city of Tashkent – a city nominally under Arab control. An Abbasid general staying in Tashkent, Ziyad ibn Salih, barely escaped with his life. Once safely in the city of Samarkand, he called upon the Abbasids to send a large army in to stop the Tang invasion. In response, Gao Xianzhi bolstered his own forces with several thousand Karluk mercenaries (a Steppe tribe from whom the modern day Uzbeks and Uyghurs are believed to descend.)

Both sides faced off with massive armies in tow – writers claim both sides showed up with around  100,000 troops apiece. The two sides were well matched, and the battle raged for months. Tens of thousands of lives were lost on both sides – and the battle ground to a stalemate. The months’ long impasse was finally broken when the Karluk, clearly sick of the Tang, changed sides. This gave the Abbasids the victory. 

Geopolitically, the Battle of Talas was a massive deal – for one China paused their Western expansion following their loss. Chinese technologies then unknown to the Caliphate – like paper making, types of jewellery making and fabric weaving were also brought to the Caliphate. This was largely done so by the capture and transport of Chinese soldiers with specific skills. Many of these captives were sent to the far reaches of the Abbasid empire.

The following is an extremely fragmentary story of one of those men. 

Our captive was an officer named Du Huan. Somehow Du escaped the clutches of the Caliphate, and was back in Guangzhou, China by 762 to write a book of his adventures. Infuriatingly that book, which I can’t imagine being anything other than a mind-blowing adventure story – was subsequently lost to history. A very few excerpts survived down to us in a Chinese encyclopaedia, written soon after Du Huan’s time. Those excerpts suggest some captives were sent much further than anyone first thought. 

We’re told Du was taken to a land he called ‘Molin’ at the edge of their empire. The people of Molin were extremely dark-skinned. The land had next to no vegetation – certainly no rice or cereals. One strange observation was those people fed their horses dried fish in lieu of grain. The people ate dates as their staple food. There was no grass or trees in the land of Molin. Inland was extremely rocky and mountainous. Similarly, the mountains were denuded of vegetation. One strange detail, these people, Du claimed, cured diarrhoea through cutting into a patient’s head – I couldn’t work out if he meant scarification or a full-on trepanation. 

From Molin, Du was moved to the land of Laobosa. In Laobosa, dark-skinned Christian and Muslim communities coexisted peacefully together. They mixed, and traded free of the kind of conflict that had brought him there in the first place. People worked six days a week, and took their own religious observances on the seventh. 

Some people believe Laobosa was a mispronunciation of al-Habasha, the Arabic name for Abyssinia – modern day Ethiopia. This is hardly settled fact – as Abbasid generals pushed into Umayyad Central Asia, others were doing the same in Umayyad North Africa, until they reached the Atlantic Ocean. Christian communities lived throughout North Africa among the Berbers and Muslim invaders at the time. If Molin was Sudan, and Laobosa Ethiopia – or alternately he was describing two North African outposts – Du Huan’s writings likely provide the earliest known description of Africa by a Chinese writer. 

Earlier in the year we looked at a woman known as Roxelana – a rare case of a person who went from being enslaved in a faraway land, who then climbed to the highest rungs in their new land. None of the following cases were as successful, but they have all fascinated me for years. Today we discuss ‘The Diaspora’ tales of people who found themselves a long way from home. 

The Fountain of Karakorum. 

In September 1253 – eighteen years before Marco Polo’s journey to China – the Flemish missionary William of Rubruck rode into Karakorum, Mongolia. An envoy for King Louis IX, Rubruck was on a mission to ask the Great Khan for his military assistance. As a Franciscan missionary, he had a side mission – he wanted nothing more than to convert the entirety of ‘Tartary’ to Christianity as he travelled. This is not really his story, so we won’t dwell on William for too long. 

William arrived in Palestine in 1248 as one of King of France Louis IX’s entourage. The king was determined to lead the 7th Holy Crusade against Islam. Jerusalem had been lost back to the Muslims in 1244. Louis planned to invade Egypt, to hit Islam in their bread basket. This was going to be an uphill battle. 

Back home, the Pope was in a fiery dispute with the Holy Roman Emperor – which in turn led to fewer people going on crusade. All the same, the monarch was hopeful they could take out Egypt – and from there the Holy Land. The crusade played out terribly for Louis – for one the Egyptians trounced the invaders. They took many captives – the king included – and imprisoned them for years. Louis was eventually released – and sadly for him – didn’t know when to quit. He tried his luck at an 8th Crusade, but died of dysentery in Tunisia in 1270.  

In the beginning Louis did have quite the plan. He would win over the most powerful man on Earth. He hoped this man, the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, would lend him the added muscle needed to crush the Muslims. Optimistically, Louis also hoped the Mongols would only ask for Syria in return. The first delegate he sent was a missionary and adventurer named Andrew of Longjumeau.

Longjumeau already knew something of the Near East. In 1238 he returned from Constantinople with some old junk he claimed was the crown of thorns placed on Jesus Christ’s head at his crucifixion. Louis IX was so impressed with the find, he built a chapel to house the relic. This time Longjumeau was sent to Armenia, on the border of the Mongol empire. The Khan, a man named Güyük, was open to a coalition against the Egyptians – so in 1249 the missionary trekked to, then across the Caspian Sea before following trade routes to Karakorum. When he arrived, the Emperor’s widow, Ogul-Gaimish, bluntly broke it to Longjumeau the Emperor had passed and they were far too busy holding a Kurultai of Tribal leaders to deal with his nonsense. He was sent packing.   

The king hoped if he tried again, the new Emperor would be as receptive as Güyük. In May 1253 William of Rubruck arrived, having travelled 9,000 kilometres through what must’ve seemed an epically strange land. He sent notice of his wish to meet the new Khan – Genghis’ grandson Mongke. Mongke Khan kept him waiting till January 4th 1254 for his sit down – which gave William plenty of time to take in the Mongol capital. While there he discovered an enclave of French citizens who had been stuck in Karakorum for years – and a rather remarkable drinking fountain.

As I mentioned in 2022’s Assassins episode ‘The Old Man of the Mountain,’ one of the first instances to bring the Mongols into Europe was the pursuit of another Steppe tribe named the Kipchaks (or sometimes the Cuman.) Fearing for their lives, these steppe people fled to Eastern Europe – where Hungary and what is now Bulgaria offered them sanctuary. This protection meant little to the Mongols, who invaded, rounded up many Kipchak, and sold them into slavery. One such slave we’ve mentioned before was a giant who, at around the time of William of Rubruck’s stay in Mongolia, was involved in a rebellion in Egypt. Baybars would later be crowned Sultan of the Mamluks. While rampaging through Belgrade, modern day Serbia, the Mongols kidnapped a French master goldsmith named Guillaume Boucher. Unfortunately for him – fortunately perhaps if you consider the alternative to crossing paths with a Mongol horde was often death – he was one of a number of local artisans taken back to the capital on account of their great skill. 

The Mongols soon found an impressive project for Mr Boucher. 

As the Mongols grew in stature from Steppe tribe to one of the most powerful empires in history, they absorbed much knowledge and culture from the people they subjugated. This led to, in some respects, gentrification. This especially was the case with alcohol. Besides their traditional fermented mare’s milk, the Mongols had really broadened their palette. 

In Karakorum did Mongke Khan a giant fountain decree – and it was the eminently talented Boucher who was ordered to build it. In 1253 Boucher was provided with a team of 50 artisans from across the empire to assist him. 

By the time William of Rubruck had his sit down with the Great Khan, he would have been ushered through the courtyard where a giant mechanical tree stretched high. Expansive, ornate, constructed from glistening silver – detailed with silver fruit, golden serpents, and at it’s apex, an angel with a trumpet – Boucher crafted a true marvel of his age. 

More than a mere statue, the piece was an automaton – a giant fountain. 

Below the four golden serpents sat four large silver bowls. When the Great Khan gave the order, a subterranean pump was activated, and alcohol flowed from the mouths of the snakes.  The angel atop the tree raised its trumpet to its lips and sound a note to signify now we eat, drink and be merry. 

A sign perhaps that Mongke Khan wished to be a good host to his many peoples, the four drinks chosen were from the four corners of the Mongol empire: wine, mead, rice wine, and Airag – the fermented mare’s milk so beloved among the Steppe people. Of course some may wonder if the true purpose of the tree was to flex to guests such as Rubruck – ‘not only do we have everything you could want – but we have it in excess.’ This may have been cooked into the design. Far less cynically I wonder if the tree contains another, deeper meaning. 

Mongke’s grandfather the mighty Genghis Khan had a mentor as a young man. When he was a young, lowly but resourceful warrior from an obscure tribe, the powerful warlord the Ong Khan took him under his wing. Seeing something special in the kid, the warlord gave the young Temujin his start in world conquest. The Ong Khan, sick and tired of being played against one another by the Chinese, wanted to unite all the tribes into a vast superpower. He even had an ancestor who had tried to unite all steppe tribes – legend has it the Ong Khan’s ancestor tried to bring the tribes together under a tree much like the one Boucher fashioned. 

Was Mongke Khan invoking the memory of the Ong Khan in the commission of his wonderful fountain? Letting his fellow tribes know he was committed to unification?


Sadly, somewhere along the timeline, the Fountain of Karakorum disappeared without a trace. 

Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, this chapter too can only ever be a fragment. Some brief traces of Boucher’s work survive – like iron work at a Buddhist temple at a place called Erdini Tso, though none of his work for the Mongols appears to have survived the ages. Nor do we know, ultimately what became of him.

One hopes that in, to quote Coleridge…  

“A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!”

… Mr Boucher found himself a semblance of a regular life, and a sense of contentment in his situation? 

Cai the Roman. 

OK, one final Tale on this subject today. This one begins near a town named Carrhae – near modern day Harran, Turkey. The year, 53BC. Again, two armies prepared to face off in battle – though in this case the two forces were strikingly different from one another. On one side, the Parthians – the latest group to rule over Persia. Commanded by Surena, one of the most gifted military commanders Persia ever produced – the Parthians numbered around 10,000. The army were mostly horse bound archers, joined by 1,000 cataphracts – effectively the closest thing the Ancient world had to a medieval knight (horse mounted, ‘scale armour’ wearing, lance wielding heavy cavalry.) On the other side, the Romans – 40,000 strong, and mostly made up of legionaries – with a couple of thousand cavalry and light infantry thrown in for good measure. The Romans were led by one Marcus Licinius Crassus. 

Crassus was a prominent Roman citizen. A leading soldier who fought alongside Sulla (the dictator who ruled Rome from 82 – 79 BC, we’ve mentioned him before in Mithridates) – Crassus benefitted greatly from the civil war which swept Sulla into power. A number of leading Romans were stripped of their land, which was sold off cheaply. Marcus Crassus bought a lot of that land. As Rome’s leading real estate investor, he was also it’s wealthiest citizen. The man also had an alliance with two powerful Romans, the famed general Pompey the Great, and his protege – a young man named Julius Caesar. In recent years he felt increasingly overshadowed by his partners in the ‘First Triumvirate.’ When he was appointed governor of Roman Syria in 56BC, Crassus started to look into who he could conquer, to match his friends in martial prowess. The wealthy, powerful Parthian Empire was just across the border. 

It is an understatement the battle did not go the Romans’ way. Already weary from marching through arid plains for days, as a local ruler they mistook for an ally advised them to steer clear of the Euphrates river – they were also 40,000 men who effectively brought a knife to a gunfight. In a pitched battle Crassus’ seven legions would likely have mown through the Parthians, but the horse bound archers repeatedly galloped towards the Romans at speed, fired a rain of arrows – then veered back. Extremely capable horsemen, the Parthians fired a rain of parting shots at the Romans as they retreated.  

Several efforts to engage the Parthians failed. The Roman cavalry were no match for the Parthians, and their infantry couldn’t even get near them. The Romans adopted Testudo formations – effectively taking cover under their shields – the front row propping their shields up as a makeshift ‘wall.’ Subsequent rows made the ‘roof.’ The Parthian archers – who had brought a large supply of arrows on a caravan of camels parked just off the field – and the summer sun beating down on the Roman testudo – wore the Romans down. 

Further attempts by the Romans to mount an offence failed. Crassus’ own son, Publius was routed, captured and beheaded. His head was sent back to the Romans, leaving Crassus bereft. The Parthians now encircled Crassus’ army and charged from all angles. As night fell, with thousands of Roman soldiers dead or dying – the remainder completely outclassed – Surena ordered the Parthians off the battlefield. What was left of the Roman army, as quietly as they could, retreated to the town of Carrhae itself. One could imagine this was not terribly quietly done, as dying comrades yelled out to the living to take them too. The injured were left to die on the battlefield. 

The next morning, the Parthians returned, killing anyone still on the battlefield – then finishing off the rest of Crassus’ army. Losses were negligible for the Parthians. The Romans, however, lost 20,000 men, Crassus included. A further 10,000 were taken captive, and transported to Alexandra Margiana – a city now called Merv. Alexandra Margiana was another powerful Oasis city on the Silk Route, situated in modern day Turkmenistan. In 1940, the subsequent whereabouts of those captured men became cause for speculation, when a Sinologist named Homer Dubs claimed their forebears lived in a sleepy Chinese village called Liquan. 

His reasoning was based around another ancient battle in a place we’ve already discussed.

In 36 BC, a battle was fought out near Taraz on the Talas River, Kazakhstan. On one side 40,000 Han Chinese warriors. On the other, a coalition of around 3,000 Xiongnu tribesmen from the North of China, around 10,000 Sogdian horsemen – a steppe civilisation who played an oversized role in the movement of goods along the silk route in ancient times – and an alleged contingent of European mercenaries. 

This battle went China’s way. A number of Sogdian nobles changed sides beforehand. The Xiongnu were defeated and their leader, a man named Zhizhi Chanyu, was forced back into his fort – which the Han stormed soon after. 

The tactics of the allegedly European mercenaries caught Dubs’ attention. When the Han ramped up their attack, the mercenaries fell back into a testudo formation. These mercenaries were among a small number of Xiongnu forces who were captured, and sent off to the far reaches of the Han empire by the victors. 

Homer Dubs was convinced these men were remnants of Crassus’ missing legions. If so, we know nothing of their lives in the seventeen years between their defeat at Carrhae and their defeat in the Battle of Zhizhi. Alexandra Margiana, then a large, extremely wealthy polyglot city was likely to have been a massive culture shock for these legionaries. One presumes somehow these men either worked their way out of slavery, or escaped out onto the steppe – to find a new home among the Xiongnu? 

More recently, theories have been put forward these men were not Roman, but Seleucids – Eastern remnants of Alexander the Great’s empire – which splintered into many smaller kingdoms following his death in 323 BC. The city of Alexandra Margiana itself was a Seleucid enclave as late as 63 BC. That Greek, or Hellenised warriors had moved on from Greek Hoplite formations to Roman tactics over a few hundred years is plausible. Others, from Arabs, to Franks, to Vikings borrowed the testudo in later years. If so, they most likely hailed from Fergana – another Seleucid kingdom in modern day Uzbekistan. 

What caught Mr Dubs’ attention was the western appearance of the people living in Liquan in 1940. A remote village with little contact with the outside world, Dubs was surprised at the European facial features, light skin and green eyes of many villagers. 

The question of their ethnicity reached the European mainstream in 2007, as several news outlets ran with the story. One light-skinned, green eyed villager Cai Junnian, nicknamed ‘Cai the Roman’ became the public face of ‘Crassus lost Legions.’ An early DNA test suggested they had ‘other European’ DNA in their profiles. A subsequent, more accurate test suggested they had no significant levels of European DNA and were primarily Han Chinese.


1 thought on “The Diaspora

  1. Pingback: Living in Sin… | Moonlight Disquisitions

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