Horses and Archery - Central Asian warfare
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Central Asian Warfare

A scythian woman on horseback fighting a naked greek soldier
Scythian woman fighting Greeks
(Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, ca. 350 BC)

Central Asian soldiers were famous for fighting on horseback. Because Central Asian people spent a lot of time on horseback, herding their cattle, and because the grasslands where they lived were great places to ride horses, Central Asian people were very good at riding horses and they had a lot of horses. Central Asian soldiers were able to use the horses to give them a big advantage in fighting wars.

horseman shooting backwards
Mongol cavalryman

Because Central Asian soldiers fought from horses using bows and arrows and spears, women were able to fight alongside the men in some battles. Some Scythian women fought with the men; the Greeks called these women "Amazons", from a Persian word meaning "fighting together."

Giovanni Carpini, and Italian traveller who visited the Mongols in 1245 AD, wrote that, "Girls and women ride and gallop as skillfully as men. We even saw them carrying quivers and bows, and the women can ride horses for as long as the men; they have shorter stirrups, handle horses very well, and mind all the property.... They all wear trousers, and some of them shoot just like men." Indeed, Central Asian women were often buried with their arrows, and sometimes with their swords and spears. Some died of combat injuries.

Mongol siege
The Mongols besiege a city in West Asia

During the time of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, in the 1200s and 1300s AD, people also said that the Mongols were very blood-thirsty. People said that the Mongols killed an awful lot of people in their wars, even people who had surrendered and were not fighting back. Certainly the Mongols killed a lot of people in their attacks: it was part of Genghis Khan's strategy to terrify cities into surrendering to him without fighting. But Alexander the Great, the Romans, and the Crusaders had the same approach, so this isn't anything new. Probably our view of the Mongols is shaped by their not writing much about themselves, so most of what we know about their wars was written by the people they attacked.

Bibliography and further reading:

Bows and Arrows
Horses
The Mongols
More about Central Asia


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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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