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Battle of Talas 751 CE – Clash Between the Arab Abbasid and Chinese Empire

The battle on the Talas River was a very important historical battle that occurred in July, 751 on the Talas River (presumably in the border of modern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in central Asia) near the city of Atlaha between the troops of the Abbasid Caliphate and Turgesh Kaganate on the one hand, and the army of Tang China, for control of Central Asia and for access to the very lucrative Silk Road. The result of the battle was a great victory for the Abbasid caliphate with their ally Turgesh Kaganate. The result of the battle was very consequential, and was the start of the spread of Islam in Maverannahr and Central Asia, as well as Arab influence on the Great Silk Road in the region. Cultural exchange was initiated because after the battle, there were great achievements in the east, like paper accessible to the middle east and later Europe, sparking a great change of intellectual learning and influenced great advances in science and the  arts.

History

By 751, the Arabs very quickly conquered Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine from the Byzantine and Persian Empires that had fallen to the new enemy they did not have the foresight to understand and act accordingly (in the time of the conquest, both empires were weakened by the strangers among them and did not have strength to repel the new invader). Despite the resistance of the West Turkic Kaganate in central Asia, they managed to seize its southern part and annex it into the caliphate. With the penetration of the Arabs in the Central Asian region, Islam gradually began to spread among the people that inhabited those lands for centuries.

New War in Central Asia

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In 749, the Chinese commander Gao Xianzhi took the very important city of Tashkent, and executed its Turkic ruler, Mohad. On the complaint of his son and to protect the Arab garrison in the besieged Taraz, the governor of Caliph Abu Muslim sent the Chinese a detachment of Yemeni cavalry under the command of Ziyad ibn Salih, joined by the militia of the Turkic tribes who had previously fought with the Arabs.

By the time of the battle, 100,000 warriors gathered on both sides, who lined up in the battlefield, by historical sources (this is probably a far greater number then deemed possible for both sides by modern estimates).

The battle lasted for five days. On the fifth day in the rear, the Chinese were suddenly struck by the forces of the Karluks. In the midst of the battle, the Karluks, forgetting about internal conflicts with the Türges and other clans, entered into battle against the ancient enemy of the steppe and bravely ran through the Chinese battle lines. The Chinese army faltered and fled in disarray. The convoy of the Chinese Emperor Gao Xianzhi, with difficulty, escaped among panic-stricken warriors and managed to run for his life to safety.

The battle put an end to the westward advance of the boundaries of the Tang Empire that wanted greater control of the Silk Road and access to the markets of the west. At the same time, the Chinese commanders managed to inflict considerable damage on the Arab forces, which halted their advance to the east, in the Semirechye, the lands of the Turgesh Khaganate. The An Lushan revolt, that broke out a few years after the battle, undermined the power of Tang China and forced the emperor to withdraw his border garrisons to the east. Thus, China left Cental Asia for good. The Arabs with the weakening of their state, too, could not hold out in the Talas valley and retreated to Shash.

Value of the Battle

Descriptions of the battle are dry with no information for a clear conclusion. Both sides considered it their victory, and historians differ in their assessments of its significance. Following Basil Barthold, Soviet and Central Asian scholars insisted on the world-historical significance of the Talas battle as a grandiose clash of civilizations, but Chinese and some Western scholars see the battle as nothing more than an ordinary frontier skirmish.

Among the consequences of the battle are the following: a limit to the advance of the Arabs to the east, and the spread of Islam was finally stopped in the steppes of central Asia. Islam began to spread among the Turkic peoples and became the predominant religion for that part of the world, and that determined the most influential culture in those parts. The people of Karluks created an independent and powerful state. Among the consequences of the battle, we mark that the Uighurs people managed to rebuild their state in East Turkestan.

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Maybe the greatest influence of this battle was the introduction of of paper production through Chinese prisoners of war and its penetration to the West. This innovation enabled great information exchanges and an explosion of learning in the west that brought about a new era for the western world, marked by great cultural achievements.

The Tang empire soon after the battle began to decline, and the Chinese spread to the west was stopped for almost 1000 years. Regardless of the value of the Talas battle, geopolitical changes in the west of Central Asia were caused by the decline of the Tang dynasty, which was the result of a number of domestic economic and social causes, including the grandiose revolt of An Lushan.

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