In the waning years of the Umayyad dynasty, a caliphal army suffered a major defeat in an area that is now part of Afghanistan, to a Turkish people called the Turgesh. The defeat was serious enough to disrupt caliphal control of the region called Transoxiana (literally “across the Oxus River,” which is today known as the Amu Darya) and allowed the Turgesh to advance into the eastern Iranian region of Khurasan. The setback for the caliphate was temporary; the Arabs laid a whupping on the Turgesh later that year that led to their almost total disappearance as a threat. The setback for the Umayyad dynasty, however, was considerably more significant, because the loss of direct control over Khurasan helped set the conditions that allowed the Abbasid revolution to incubate there.
The Turgesh aren’t on the world stage very long, but we can’t very well talk about their victory without at least mentioning who they were. They’re a product of the Turkic Khanate, or Göktürk Khanate if you prefer, that controlled the Central Asian steppes from the mid-6th century through the mid-8th century after a lull in the middle of the 7th century. In the 580s a civil war split the khanate into eastern and western halves, and both then were toppled by the Tang, in 630 and 659, respectively, before the whole Turkic Khanate was revived in 682. The Turgesh are a product of the collapse of the western khanate in 659–they established their own khanate in 699 in a part of modern Kyrgyzstan and by the 710s they were strong enough that their khan, Suluk (d. 738), decided they were the ones who could drive these Umayyad invaders out of the parts of Transoxiana they’d only just conquered.
Beginning around 720 the Turgesh began to attack the Umayyads, and though the caliphate was obviously the larger empire and could in theory bring more forces to bear than the Turgesh, the caliphal armies were operating a long way from home in a place where they weren’t welcome. The local peoples of the region, primarily Sogdians, began revolting to coincide with stepped up Turgesh assaults; the largest of these, led by an Arab named al-Harith b. Surayj (d. 746), also tapped into simmering resentments about the treatment of non-Arabs living in the empire. Things got bad enough that in the mid-730s, the caliph, Hisham b. Abd al-Malik (d. 743) sent a former governor of Khurasan, the experienced Asad b. Abdullah al-Qasri (d. 738) back east to put a lid on it. Asad quickly was able to tamp down Harith’s revolt, then turned his attention to the Turgesh.Continue reading