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Volume 15, Number 2March/April 1964

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Samarkand, 751 A. D.

When the five-day battle was done and the defeated Chinese turned eastward, they left behind a skill of incalculable value.

Spear-straight, the Caliphate's governor Abu Muslim watched those battered war-prisoners streaming through the gates of golden Samarkand. Suddenly he put a hand on the shoulder of the leathery man standing beside him: the Arab general Ziyad ibn Salih, home in triumph after his decisive fight on the banks of the Talas.

"Well done, Ziyad ibn Salih. This is the end of our Korean enemy and his Chinese army. Now will the law of the Prophet prevail over this vast land, from Arabia to the wall of China itself."

A light breeze fluttered the flags of the victorious Arab legions, and Abu Muslim smiled tightly. On this day in the summer of 751 A.D.—thirty-nine years after the Arabs had taken Samarkand—China was finished in central Asia; Arab dominion and the faith of Islam were established in Persia and in western Turkestan. And—though Abu Muslim didn't know it yet—the Chinese tiger, scurrying home across the mountains, had left a prize more valuable than any plunder.


Fitting that the prize should go to Samarkand, wealthy station on the long, hazardous trade route between China and the West. Here, in the richly fertile valley of the Zarafshan River, there had been a city since the second millenium before Jesus. Here the silks of China met the fabrics of Persia, and to the T'ang court Samarkand had sent ambassadors with gifts—a lion, fancy yellow peaches, and gems, and ostrich egg cups. Other cities had done likewise, for T'ang China had swung a lot of weight in central Asia.

But now T'ang was on the run, because its general Kao Hsien-chih ("that Korean enemy") had cut off the wrong head at the wrong time for the wrong reason.

Four years earlier, Kao Hsien-chih was riding high. Emperor Hsuan-tsung had sent him to clean out the Tibetans who were blocking the Pamir Mountain passes on the East-West trade route, and, by a fine combination of tactics and treachery, clean them out he did.

But in 750 his cupidity got the better of him, and his eyes turned toward Tashkent. This was a prosperous city 175 miles northeast of Samarkand—a maker of swords and saddles, bows and quivers, metal products, and fine white cloth. To the court of Tashkent General Kao marched, with show of arms and imperial pomp—and with an overpowering hunger for personal loot. He summoned the king, a Turk who was an acknowledged subject of China.

"You have been found remiss in your duties to the Emperor," said Kao, "and I have come to punish you."

The king was astonished. "I remiss? It is the Emperor who is remiss. For years we have been asking our Chinese protector for help. Now, instead of bringing help, you come with threats of punishment."

Kao scowled. "Your arrogant tone does you a disservice."

"Not arrogant, General. I am still loyal to the Emperor and to you as his representative."

"Very well," said Kao. "You are my prisoner. You shall return with me as an offering to the Emperor."

But when the king left his palace, he went in two pieces. And General Kao Hsien-chih, having seen to his decapitation, proceeded to sack Tashkent.

But Kao Hsien-chih had made a serious mistake in neglecting to take the head of the king's son as well as that of the king. The prince of Tashkent escaped and told the story to his neighbors, and the Turkish tribes in Central Asia, at least nominally subject to the conquering Chinese, were furious. So much for the ambassadors and the elaborate presents to the Emperor; so much for the gaudy robes and resounding titles he had sent back.

The Turks appealed to Samarkand:

"The Chinese have done a monstrous thing. Will the Arabs help us?"

Abu Muslim, governor of Transoxiana, received the message with grim satisfaction. He called in Ziyad ibn Salih, a general who had already proved himself an able trouble-shooter. "Now," said Abu Muslim, "hunt out that Korean-Chinese and destroy him. The people will be with you."

And at dawn on a July day in 751, Ziyad ibn Salih woke in his camp near the banks of the Talas River, close by the city of the same name. It was a pleasant valley, some 150 miles northeast of Tashkent as the crow flies, but a tough march through the mountains. Here Ziyad ibn Salih's seasoned army of Arabs, Persians, and Turks faced 30,000 Chinese and Turks—the Karluk—under Kao Hsien-chih.

Ziyad made his ablutions, holding out his hands for the water a servant poured from a basin of hand-tooled brass. After performing the ritual of morning prayer, he called in his staff for final instructions.

At first sunlight, with a great waving of the general's flag and of all the corps flags and with trumpets blaring, the army of Islam attacked. Armored bowmen on armored horses; cavalry with spears and javelins; footmen with crossbows and swords. And Kao's men were ready for them.

For five days they met on the banks of the Talas—tearing at each other, retreating, re-forming, and attacking again. Fine Arab horses crumpled in the hail of Chinese arrows and javelins; their riders, springing to their feet, abandoned bows for swords. Infantry on both sides, too close for crossbow work, fell to with swords, daggers, and clubs. Into the sea of battle came Arab camels with soldiers beating cymbals, frightening the horses of the Chinese out of control.

Kao's army was as ferocious as Kao himself. He was a man not used to defeat, but he had already defeated himself. His Turkish forces—the Karluk—inflamed at his treachery in Tashkent, turned on him. The Turks had the fastest bowmen on the most resourceful horses in Asia.

The army of T'ang found itself beset front and rear. Chinese soldiers died by the thousands; other thousands were taken prisoner; the rest fled toward the eastern mountains. With them was Kao Hsien-chih. The road, rough and narrow, was crowded with refugees.

That was the end of China in a corner of the world that is now a part of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.

But not the end of the story. For among the prisoners whom Zayid led back to Samarkand were men skilled in a craft that China had practiced for six centuries: the manufacture of paper. Samarkand was blessed with plenty of good water, flax, and hemp, and it wasn't long before the Chinese craftsmen were put to work in the first paper mills west of the Great Wall. From Samarkand their products and their craft spread gradually westward, displacing papyrus and vellum, and in 1389—perhaps 50 years before Gutenberg developed movable type—the first paper mill in Germany was established in Nuremberg.

As for Samarkand, that phoenix among cities:

After the Arabs in the course of centuries came the Mongols under Genghis Khan, who destroyed her; and Tamerlane, who made her great again; and the Russians, who took her in 1868. Under the Soviets she was for a time the capital of the Uzbek S. S. Republic.

Today a city of 200,000, Samarkand still deals in silk, cotton, rice, silver and gold, pottery and wines, as she did long ago in the days of Chinese bowmen and the triumph of Ziyad ibn Salih.

This article appeared on pages 16-17 of the March/April 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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