Today (?) in Central Asian history: the Battle of Talas (751)

After the early Arab conquests in the seventh century drove the Byzantine Empire out of the Levant and Egypt and drove the massive Sasanian Empire out of existence altogether, the Arabs under the Rashidun and then Umayyad caliphs continued to expand their frontiers. By the early eighth century they’d added vast new territories to their empire. To the west, as we know, the Arabs eventually reached as far as modern Spain before finally stopping at the Pyrenees Mountains. To the southeast, they conquered the region of Sindh (in modern Pakistan) before losing steam as they attempted to continue further east. By the time the Abbasid Revolution ousted the Umayyad dynasty in 750, their empire looked something like this:

Map of the "major battles in the expansion of Islam"

To the northeast, in Central Asia, you may notice a marker for “Talas 751” on that map up there, and that’s the battle we’re here to discuss today. It represents the last of three contacts between the expanding Arabs and another expansionist Asian power, Tang Dynasty China. Although Chinese history is not my area, we should say a little something about the Tang here. People for whom Chinese history is their area often describe the Tang period (618-907, with a short break from 690 to 705 when Empress Wu Zetian proclaimed the very short lived second Zhou Dynasty) as a high point—the first half, when combined with the later Song dynasty (10th-13th centuries) of a Chinese “golden age” if you’re into that sort of terminology. The Tang succeeded and built upon the short-lived (581-618) Sui Dynasty, which had reunified China after the division of the “Northern and Southern dynasties” period from the end of the fourth century through the end of the sixth century.

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