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State And Empire Building

The most significant and lasting influence of nomadic peoples historically has come as a result of supratribal cooperation that led to the conquest of and rule over sedentary states. The two great examples of this are the Arabs from the seventh century and the Inner Asian Turco-Mongolian tribes from the tenth century. In the famous analysis of Ibn Khaldun, the Arabs were able to put aside their differences and unite due to the influence of the non-tribal principle of Islam. Once accomplished, this unified Arab force successfully spread its power from Spain to the Indus.

For the Turco-Mongolian tribes of Inner Asia, who more readily accepted the notion of hierarchical distinctions in their societies, leadership arose from charismatic tribal chiefs and their families, who were then able to form tribal confederations, sometimes numbering in the millions, and spread their power over vast regions. The quintessential example of this type of leadership was the thirteenth century Mongol chieftain Genghis (Chinggis) Khan (who ruled from 1206–1227), under whose leadership the Mongols and their Turkish confederates established the largest land empire the world has ever seen.

For both nomadic Arabs and Mongols, the irony of their success in conquering sedentary regions is that, once they began to rule, the nomads invariably became sedentary themselves, thus leading to the weakening of the state's initial military power base. Thus began the frequently discussed cycle of powerful nomadic conquerors, growing weaker in successive generations, until finally overthrown by more nomadic elements of their own people or by newly arrived nomads from outside.

Nomadism as a way of life has survived into the twenty-first century, though in much limited scope, due to the fact that nomads are still able to utilize parts of the earth's environment that are of no use to anyone else. Still, with the vastly improved technology of sedentary cultures, nomads are not likely to ever again play the central role in history that they once did.


Barfield, Thomas J. The Nomadic Alternative. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Khaldun, Ibn. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Translated by Franz Rosenthal, edited and abridged by N. J. Dawood. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Khazanov, Anatoly M. Nomads and the Outside World. 2nd ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. Very rich bibliography.

Lindner, Rudi Paul. Nomads and Ottomans in Medieval Anatolia. Bloomington: Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, Indiana University, 1983.

William A. Wood

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP) to Ockham's razorNomadism - Nomadic Society And Culture, Relations With Sedentarists, State And Empire Building, Bibliography