The steppes were groups like the Huns, Avars, Magyars, Turks, Tartars and Mongols originated and evolved were harsh places that were very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer, providing little more than grazing land for milk and meat producing cattle and sheep. The steppe created a strong people. Winters were often colder than those in Alaska, and many people went hungry because there was no stored grain. Clashes between tribes erupted over the scarce resources. The famous steppe of Central Asia is 3000-mile-long, flat or gently rolling grassland, averaging 500 miles in width. It is mostly treeless except for areas along riverbanks. It's name is derived from “stepi”, "meaning plain. Describing the steppes, Polish Nobel laureate Henry Sienkiewicz wrote in “With Fire and Sword”, "The steppes are wholly desolate and unpeopled yet filled living menace. Silent and still yet seething with hidden violence, peaceful in their immensity yet infinitely dangerous, these boundless spaces were a masterless, untamed country created foe ruthless men who acknowledge no one as their overlord." Steppe horsemen usually traveled with strings of horses. This was necessary because the horse that carried the rider did much more work than the other horses. When it tired the rider could change to fresh horse. A single rider Marco Polo noted might have 18 mounts, which meant that the horseman had to camp in places with a large amount of grazing land. Steppe horsemen rode in all seasons, seemingly impervious to extreme weather. When the Russians retired for the winter, the Mongols kept on riding and recruited peasants for their hordes. They often waited to winter, when the rivers froze and they could go almost anywhere, to stage their attacks, which in turn surprised their enemies. Horsemen sometimes sang love songs to their mounts. Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe: “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation ; Scythians ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire ; The Mongols in World History ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Mongol Archives

Mongol troops

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Horses offered mobility to the Steppe horsemen, permitting them to roam the steppes in search of pasture for their flocks, as well as to round up other horses that have been allowed to graze freely faraway from an encampment. Riders gathering the horses together were equipped with a pole at the end of which was a special lasso. Children, who became skilled riders at an early age, assumed this responsibility on occasion. In traditional times horses gave the Steppe horsemen the decided tactical advantage of mobility in conflicts against sedentary civilizations. They could, for example, initiate a hit-and-run raid on a Chinese village, fleeing to the steppelands and thus evading the less mobile Chinese forces. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

Warriors of the Steppe

The pastures are divided according to season---summer, spring/fall, and winter--- based on the amount of grass and when the grass is sufficient to eat, which is often determined by geography, climate conditions and season. The summer pastures are usually located in the north in the steppe areas or in the mountains. These areas have abundant, lush grass but heavy snows make it impossible for the animals to graze. In the winter the animals are taken to the south or to the desert and semidesert zones, where autumn rains are imperative for producing grass for animals to eat.

Kazakhs that lived near mountains migrate between the high pastures in the summer and the river valleys in the winter. The distance between pastures and the river valleys is often less than 80 kilometers. During the summer they often set up their yurts in the open pastures and gather for circumcision ceremonies, weddings, funerals, festivals and family reunions that often feature young girl dancers in beaded costumes and horse races.

Between the main summer and winter migrations nomads stay briefly at fall and spring pastures. Nomads that move overland between the northern steppes and the southern semideserts are known as “meridanal” nomads while those that migrate up and own the mountains are called “vertical” nomads. The nature of the migration, the type of grass available and the market price for animals and family and clan needs determine which animals are raised.

In a review of Erik Hildinger’s “Warriors of the Steppe”, Christopher Berg wrote: “The steppe warriors were nomads, who moved from one settlement to the next to accommodate their pastoral means of subsistence. The steppe warrior’s natural proclivity for war springs from their peregrination: “War is therefore a natural consequence of successful nomadism and like any skill needed for survival it will be practiced to proficiency.” The steppe nomads were successful conquerors for many reasons including their unpredictability, large number of male recruits, the ability to illicit fear, and drill-like organization. [Sources: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997); Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University /^]

“The warriors of the steppe were an unstoppable force. Their dominance ended from a lack of centralized governance and their inability to settle down. This can be attributed in large part to their shared experiences rooted in a heritage of pastoralism and nomadism. They were expert on the horse and could handle a bow, riding at full gallop, with ease. Mobility and steppe tactics ensured that they would exhaust their opponents before they would engage, preferring to pick them off from afar with a shower of arrows. From the Scythians and Sarmatians to the Crimean Tatars and Manchus, the steppe warrior modus operandi experienced little change. This was their great strength. They possessed unmatched mobility covering vast distances quickly. They were natural horsemen who cultivated the art of war from atop their mounts. They were a tough, resilient people who, like the Western knight, faded from history with the arrival of new technology that made the steppe warrior obsolete.

Steppe horsemen mounts were not the same as those found in Western Europe. They were ponies that were small in stature but “tough, often stockier than horses, and surprisingly strong.” Stallions were used only for mating; geldings and mares were used explicitly for war because of their ease in handling. /^\

Book: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997).

Steppe Horsemen Warfare Versus Medieval European Warfare

Mongol catapult

In a review of Erik Hildinger’s “Warriors of the Steppe”, Christopher Berg wrote: “The greatest cavalry force in the medieval period was not the knight, but the steppe warrior. Their environment and way of life was the key to their success against settled civilizations. The predominant method of war in the West was shock combat. This style of war proved futile because steppe warriors avoided direct confrontations. Rather, they employed feigned retreats with great effect and were able to shoot arrows with pinpoint accuracy from horseback. The steppe warriors picked off their enemies from afar and neutralized the knight without having to face the fury of a charge. Furthermore, steppe cultures, like the Mongols, assimilated and recruited conquered nations with ease. Genghis Khan and Timur Lenk perfected the multi-faceted strategy of “calculated terror” with astonishing results. However, the steppe warriors, like any other military group, were not invincible. The lack of a stable centralized state or governing body would prove their greatest weakness. [Source: Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University ]

In a section on the Battle of Hattin, “ Hildinger calls attention to the Crusaders inability to regroup after the initial charge into the enemy. The steppe warriors, notes Hildinger, were conditioned to automatically regroup after a charge. This gave them an edge in battle. Hildinger concludes, “Knights were not true cavalry in spite of superficial resemblances.”

Polo was a sport conceived to “help cavalrymen hone their horsemanship and it requires useful skills.” Royal hunts also played a part in developing cavalry skills of the Mongols. In contrast, varying styles of tilting, or lance techniques, was used for training western knights.

Steppe Horseman Technology and Weapons


Steppe horsemen developed cavalry tactics, composite bows and other military advancements that shaped the nature of warfare and affected the history of the world.

A rider usually carried a composite bow, arrows tipped with sharpened bones, a sealed quiver case (protecting the arrows from temperature and humidity which decreased their accuracy), and a thumb ring which protected his arm from the flaying string. Steppe horsemen rarely wore armor.

Mounted archers timed the release of their arrows to take place between the footfalls of their horses so they shoot accurately even while their horses were at a canter, acting in much the same way that stabilizers allow tank guns to fire accurately while a tank is moving. Steppe horsemen generally could not shoot accurately at targets some distance away while riding at a full gallop. For that the either dismounted or shot from a stationary horse.

Composite Bow

The steppe bow was a recurved composite bow made up of “a thick central stave of wood laminated with sinew on the back and horn on the belly.” The sinew used was not taken from the neck, as has been suggested, but from the legs of cattle and deer. The recurved bow was not widely used in Western Europe because of the widespread use of crossbows. They required little training and were effective with one shot. Princess Anna Comnena referred to the crossbow as “a truly diabolical machine.” [Source: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997); Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University ]

composite bow

Steppe archers used composite bows not compound bows. Compound bows are a recent invention. Composite means it is comprised of more than one material ( wood, sinew, bone, horn etc.) The compound bow was first developed in 1966 by Holless Wilbur Allen in Missouri, and a US patent was granted in 1969.

The composite bow has been a formidable weapon for over 4,000 years. Described by the Sumerians in the third millennia B.C. and favored by steppe horsemen, the early versions of these weapons were made of slender strips of wood with elastic animal tendons glued to the outside and compressible animal horn glued on the inside.

Tendons are strongest when they are stretched, and bone and horn are strongest when compressed. Early glues were made from boiled cattle tendons and fish skin and were applied in very precise and controlled manner; and sometimes they took a year to dry properly.

Advanced bows that appeared centuries after the first composite bows appeared were made of pieces of wood laminated together and steamed into a curve, then bent into a circle opposite the direction it was going to be strung. Steamed animal horn was glued onto the "back," to make it hold its position. When the bow had "cured" a great amount of strength was required to bend it back to be strung. The finished product was nearly a hundred times stronger than a bow made from a sapling. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Steppe Horsemen Warfare and Battle Tactics

The toughness of steppe horsemen and their environment helped shape them into superb fighters. On the steppe they "developed first rate fighting skills," wrote Keegan, "by warring among themselves, and endurance and strength by surviving in a harsh climate...They were able to take advantage of people in western Europe and elsewhere because were logistically mobile, culturally accustomed to shedding blood, ethically untroubled by religious prohibitions against taking the lives or limiting the freedoms of those outside the tribe." [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Steppe horseman approached their enemy, writes Keegan, "in a loose crescent formation, which threatened less mobile opponents with encirclement around the flanks. If strongly resisted at any point, they would stage a withdrawal, the object of which was to draw the enemy into an ill judged pursuit that would break his ranks. They closed to hand strokes only when the battle was going in their favor, and when they did so they inflicted wounds with superlative edged weapons which often decapitated or dismembered." [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Fear also served the steppe horsemen well. "In battle, wrote a Roman observer of the Huns, they would "swoop upon the enemy uttering frightful yells" and "disperse only to return with the same speed, smashing and overturning everything in their path."

Scholars speculate that ancient shepherds may have first developed battle tactics such as cutting of a line of retreat and encircling a flank from techniques used to manage their flocks of sheep. Other techniques are believed to have been perfected during large hunting expeditions.

Steppe Horseman Conquest, Terror and Violence

The flat treeless steppe itself was a conqueror’s dream. It provided a kind of open highway across eastern Europe and Asia with corridors to western Europe, the Middle East, China and India that the horsemen you could utilize to pillage and plunder.

Keegan said that the horseman made war for the first time "as a thing in itself" by committing "deliberate acts of atrocity." Mongols and Tartars were accused of killing the whole male population of towns and villages then drank their blood and ate their flesh and made pyramids of their skulls. They had their limits, however, the Mongols and Tamerlane refused to plunder convents and monasteries, something the Vikings were not afraid of doing.

In a review of Erik Hildinger’s “Warriors of the Steppe”, Christopher Berg wrote: “Most steppe warrior cultures were experts in the calculated use of terror. This term is used frequently by Hildinger to describe the psychological impact associated with these warrior cultures. “The Mongols knew the value of calculated terror; as a campaign progressed, more and more cities and towns would surrender to them without a fight.” This tactic was used consistently for two reasons: it provided a domino effect of capitulation throughout a region and it preserved the army’s men and mounts for more obstinate foes. The Mongols were the foremost practitioners of this style of war. “Terror had become an effective tool—purposeful terror could be just as useful as siegecraft, and caused fewer Mongol losses.” [Sources: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997); Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University /^]

Another powerful figure who utilized terror to conduct military conquests was Timur Lenk. He first used this tactic against the King of Khwarezim at Urgench. Twice Timur offered terms and twice he was refused. After he had taken the city, he massacred most of the populace and enslaved the rest. Syria felt the unrestrained fury of Timur’s terror.

Mongols besieging a Middle East city in the 13th century

The eyewitness accounts of a Spanish ambassador portray the region in vivid detail with much of the countryside littered with towers composed of men’s heads. “These grisly structures were built from the remains of thousands of Aya Qunlu Turkmen whom Timur had conquered and resettled in Syria…. Clearly Timur’s efforts at terror had worked successfully in this area.” (p. 184) A modern comparison can be made with Stalin’s reign of Terror in the 1930s and 1940s. Terror was a proven method that ensured an opponent’s defeat without ever having to face them in battle. It was a cheap and effective tool to stamp out opposition and consolidate power. Though Hildinger is fond of using military maxims of some notable military personalities including Napoleon and von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu would have been most impressed with the idea of calculated terror.

Steppe Horseman Rule

Steppe horsemen were not interested as much in political power as conquering. Columbia university anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote: "Low-density pastoral peoples---Turks, Mongols, Huns, Manchus, and Arabs---have repeatedly developed states but only by preying upon the pre-existing Chinese, Hindu, Roman and Byzantine empires.

In a review of Erik Hildinger’s “Warriors of the Steppe”, Christopher Berg wrote: “Toghrul, a Mongol chief, “was a vassal of the Chinese and therefore commonly received gifts from them which, as khan, he was expected to divide among his noyans.” (p. 113) The Turks, under Timur Lenk, practiced a form of feudal tenure called iqta. “The land was to support them while they in turn were to provide military service. Their system resembled the feudal arrangements of a knight, and the sipahis were obliged to supply a number of cavalry commensurate with the value of the land they held (p. 188-89).” On the surface there are some similarities between iqta, timar, and feudalism but there are more substantial differences that the author chooses to ignore. It is reasonable to suggest, however, that feudal principles, such as vassalage and tenure, were adopted and implemented as a system in the East from the West courtesy of the Crusaders, but there are historians who vehemently oppose such a view. Mark Bartusis persuasively argues that there was no feudal connection between West and East. Bartusis shatters Ostrogorsky’s feudal thesis in the East and demonstrates that the Byzantine pronoia shared a closer affinity to the Ottoman iqta and timar than to the Western construct of feudalism. [Sources: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997); Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University /^]

Mongols attacking Baghdad in 1258

Source: Timothy May, “The Training of an Inner Asian Nomad Army in the Pre-Modern World,” The Journal of Military History 70.3 (2006): 617-635.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Comptom’s Encyclopedia, Lonely Planet Guides, Silk Road Foundation, “The Discoverers “ by Daniel Boorstin; “ History of Arab People “ by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Islam, a Short History “ by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000); and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2016

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