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date: 08 May 2021

The Qara Khitailocked

  • Michal Biran

Summary

The Qara Khitai or Western Liao dynasty (1124–1218) ruled in Central Asia in the period that preceded the rise of Chinggis Khan. Founded by Khitan refugees who escaped from north China when the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1115–1234) vanquished their Khitan Liao dynasty (907–1125), they soon carved out for themselves a multicultural empire in Central Asia that combined Chinese, nomadic, and Muslim elements. Vanquishing the Qarakhanids and the Seljuks and making the Khwārazm Shāhs, the Gaochang Uighurs, and various Mongolian tribes their vassals, at its height the Qara Khitai Empire stretched from the Oxus to the Altai Mountains (namely, from Uzbekistan to western Mongolia including most of Xinjiang, China). Their biggest victory in 1141 against the Seljuks even became the basis for the legend of Prester John. Practicing religious tolerance and mostly indirect rule—leaving local rulers largely intact apart from in their capital Balāsāghūn (Burana, Kyrgyzstan)—and, using their Chinese and nomadic cultural capital, the Sinicized Buddhist nomads ruled over their heterogeneous but mostly Muslim sedentary population in rare harmony. The aging dynasty, however, could not survive the repercussions of Chinggis Khan’s rise, which coincided with the bolstering of the Khwārazm Shāh’s power. In the early 13th century, after a Naiman prince who had escaped from Chinggis Khan usurped the Qara Khitai throne, the Mongols vanquished the Qara Khitai, incorporating most of their troops into the Mongol army and channeling their skilled subject population for imperial needs. A scion of the Qara Khitai established the Muslim Qutlughkhanid dynasty of Kirman (south Persia, 1222–1306) that ruled under Mongol and later Ilkhanid aegis.

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