Urban Centres and the Emergence of Empires in Eastern Inner Asia

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The history of eastern Inner Asia, centred on modern-day Mongolia and the surrounding regions of China, Siberia and eastern Kazakhstan, provides important comparative perspectives on the rise of large-scale expansionistic states (Figure 1). The Mongols created the most famous of these, led by Chinggis Khan and his successors. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries they established the largest contiguous empire ever known. The expansion of this empire was exceptionally dramatic, leaving the lasting impression that it had little in the way of antecedents. There is, however, a long history of state and empire development in eastern Inner Asia beginning with the Xiongnu (200 BC to AD 155) followed by other polities that involved a complex array of ethnic, religious and political forces (Honeychurch & Amartuvshin 2005). A strong tradition of historical research based on Chinese documentary sources has developed an impressive picture of how these empires operated (Barfield 1989; Di Cosmo 2002; Jagchid & Symons 1989). While many studies of early states and empires throughout the world have focused on disjuncture and replacement of political order through warfare, forms of crisis and imperial successions, there is also abundant evidence for continuity of economic and social practices over long stretches of time (Van Buren & Richards 2000: 9; Sinopoli 2001). To understand patterns of change it is also necessary to understand those aspects of a culture that are resistant to change. In this way, both continuities and discontinuities in the material record are critical components to interpretation of long-term patterns of growth, decline and other forms of social interaction.


Among the most significant archaeological evidence for empire development in Inner Asia are the settlements that served key administrative, mercantile and military functions. Compared with contemporary states in China, for instance, the settlements discussed here were usually much smaller and less complex. Even so, they fit the definition of urban centres typically applied to early civilisations. Although definitions of urbanism are highly variable (Adams 1966; Bairoch 1988), the key factor is the role of providing specialised functions to a broader region. In the present case, the urban centres were population concentrations that fulfilled many roles, but were especially associated with administrative activities, craft specialisation and maintenance of elite retinues. In this regard, the settlements of the steppe polities clearly fall within the range of urban centres established by early states and empires (e.g. Trigger 2003: 120).

In a region of the world dominated by a steppe environment of bitter winters and short summers and where pastoral nomadism was practiced as early as 3000-2500 BC (Tsybiktarov 2003: 86), the presence of towns and cities is often overlooked in explanations of regional political developments. The seeming contradiction of nomads who built complex permanent settlements raises the question of whether we have understood the fundamental dynamics of the economy. For instance, much of the literature emphasises the extractive nature of the steppe polities, in the sense of what Barfield (2001) terms 'shadow empires'. This interpretation presents the states formed by the steppe pastoralists as a reflection of events in China. By contrast, Di Cosmo (1994) emphasises a dynamic relationship and questions whether China is the only significant source for agricultural and luxury goods valued by the steppe polities. The urban centres of eastern Inner Asia integrated cultural ideals that valued mobility with the practical requirements of statecraft, but also engaged in diverse economic activities including extensive agriculture and specialised craft production. Presented here is some of the archaeological evidence for a long sequence of complex settlements supported by a dynamic range of economic and administrative functions. …