History of International Relations Textbook

The Muslim caliphates

Battle of Talas, 751

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The Battle of Talas in 751 CE was a military engagement which took place in the Talas river valley, in Transoxiania, close to today’s border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  In the battle the forces of the Abbasid caliphate, together with its Tibetan allies, met the forces of the Chinese Tang dynasty.  The battle ended with the defeat of the Chinese, and thus marked the end of China’s territorial expansion westward.

Ever since the Han dynasty, 206 BCE – 9 CE, Chinese emperors had dispatched missions to the lands to the far west of their empire.  One important aim was to try to capture the wild horses — the horses of of the rich Ferhana valley, in today’s Uzbekistan — which were considered to be the best horses in the world.  In addition, this part of Central Asia was an important hub where trade-routes — the “Silk Road” — connected the various parts of the Asian continent.  The Sogdians were people in charge of much of this trade [read more: Sogdian letters].

According to legend, rather than recorded history, Chinese prisoners of war captured by the Arab armies brought paper-making techniques with them to the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. Even if the technology was not a direct consequence of this particular battle, it was nevertheless the case that paper-mills began to be established all over the Arab world at this time. The ability to make cheap, good-quality, paper is in some ways more important for the dissemination of knowledge than the printing techniques.