Moldavia, Tatars and Cossacks I

When Bartolomeo Bruti travelled from Istanbul to Moldavia in the spring of 1580 he was not moving outside the Ottoman Empire, but he was entering a territory very different in kind from that empire’s directly governed heartland. Many histories of the Ottomans concentrate heavily on the heartland, because it was the central territories of Anatolia and the Balkans that were ruled in accordance with the classic ‘Ottoman system’, with the military-feudal estates of the spahis, the local kadis administering justice, the sancakbeyis governing their large districts, and the beylerbeyis governing groups of sancaks. Yet at the same time the Ottoman system of imperial rule, in its broadest sense, involved incorporating many other kinds of polity without directly administering them at all. The case of Dubrovnik has already been discussed; the three Romanian principalities of Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia were also self-governed; the Khanate of the Crimean Tatars, while in some ways acknowledging Ottoman suzerainty, was ruled by its own Khans; the corsair states of North Africa were essentially self-administering territories with rulers appointed from Istanbul; a dynasty of sharifs of Mecca continued to govern the Hijaz; in the Yemen the application of Ottoman rule was often little more than nominal; in parts of eastern Anatolia populated by Türkmen and Kurdish tribes there were hereditary sancaks held by traditional ruling families; and when the Ottomans acquired much of Georgia in the sixteenth century they mostly left local princes in place as tribute-paying vassals. Altogether, the Ottoman Empire was not a monolithic structure at all; the secret of its huge and rapid expansion, indeed, is to be found not only in its military strength but also in its adaptability to local conditions and traditions in the territories where it took power. As one modern historian has emphasized, some of the commonest normative phrases in the Ottoman official documents of the centuries of conquest are ‘customary practice’ and ‘the way things were done during the rule of the kings’.

In the case of Moldavia – a territory encompassing much of the modern country of Moldova, together with the north-eastern part of Romania that bears the same name – the process of absorption into the Ottoman Empire had been a very lengthy one. Its ‘voivods’ or princely rulers had paid tribute to the Sultan since 1455–6, and its two most valuable ports on the Black Sea coast, Kiliya (Rom.: Chilia; Trk.: Kili) and Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi (Rom.: Cetatea Alba; Trk.: Akkerman) had been seized by the Ottomans in 1484. The Ottoman conquest of much of Hungary, after the crushing defeat of the Hungarian army in 1526 at the Battle of Mohács, shifted the entire strategic balance in the region, strengthening the dominance of the Sultan over the Romanian principalities. In 1538 an ambitious maverick voivod of Moldavia, Petru Rareş, who defied Süleyman the Magnificent, was forced to flee by an invading Ottoman army. This was a turning-point in Moldavian history: a new voivod was brought in by the Sultan and installed with an Ottoman ceremony, and in the same campaign Süleyman seized the town of Bender (Rom.: Tighina; an important customs post on the river Dniester) and turned the entire coastal strip of Moldavia, including the two previously captured ports, into a directly ruled sancak. Ottoman attitudes had hardened since Mohács: whereas the tribute paid by Moldavia had originally been a kind of ransom payment for a temporary peace, it was now viewed as implying submission, like the poll-tax paid by non-Muslim subjects within the central territories of the empire. But although the military invasion of 1538 was sometimes used to imply that this was just another conquered territory, the legal-political status of Moldavia remained ambiguous for quite a long time. The whole issue is necessarily a murky one, as there is a three-way mismatch between the concepts available to the Moldavians themselves (who talked in Byzantine style about ‘bowing’, or ‘prostrating’ themselves, to an emperor), the Islamic legal theory of the Ottomans (which, in the tradition they followed, distinguished starkly between countries in the enemy ‘house of war’ and those within the ‘house of Islam’ – a territory such as Moldavia being rather obviously in neither), and Western European concepts, whether feudal (‘vassalage’) or modern (acknowledging ‘sovereignty’). What can be said is that from the mid-1560s onwards there was a definite shift in Istanbul towards seeing Moldavia and Wallachia as integral parts of the empire, within what were officially called its ‘well-protected domains’. Significantly, in 1572 Sultan Selim ordered the voivods of Moldavia to mint Ottoman coins for internal circulation. In 1574 there was a further tightening of the screw, after an anti-Ottoman revolt by the Voivod, Ioan cel Cumplit (‘John the Terrible’), was punitively suppressed by Ottoman forces. Uncertainty about the future of Poland, after its newly crowned French king absconded in that year, also made Istanbul anxious to strengthen its hold over Moldavia, Poland’s neighbour. Up until this time, the voivods had been drawn from those who belonged to, or at least claimed descent from, Moldavia’s own noble and princely families. Now the Ottomans imposed a member of the Wallachian ruling dynasty, Petru Şchiopul (‘Peter the Lame’), who had spent much of his time in Istanbul; he experienced instant unpopularity in Moldavia because he had no essential connection with that country at all.

By this stage, the degree of autonomy enjoyed by Moldavia and Wallachia was as follows. They had their own administration, their own Church and their own army. The voivod was appointed by the Sultan and could be dismissed by him, but would normally be chosen on the basis that he was of suitable lineage. He dispensed justice, and governed with his own divan or governing council – in Moldavia, an eight-member group which included leading noblemen and the Metropolitan, who was the head of the Orthodox Church in that country. There were no mosques in Moldavia, and no significant Muslim presence, beyond a few ‘scribes’ or officials seconded from Istanbul, a small guard of janissaries sent very exceptionally to assist Petru Şchiopul during his first, unpopular, period of rule, and at any given time a small number of Muslim merchants. (A sultanic decree in 1577 said that Muslims should not settle in Moldavia or Wallachia; they were forbidden to marry infidels there, and should leave when they had finished their business.) Moldavian merchants, on the other hand, were permitted to trade freely within the Ottoman Empire. Among the major duties of the voivod of Moldavia, the first was to pay the annual tribute: by the 1570s this was the equivalent of 35,000 ducats, but it underwent some fluctuations thereafter, with higher payments being promised by, or extorted from, incoming voivods, and unintended reductions following from debasements of the Ottoman coinage. Another duty was to supply troops when called upon to do so – reports in this period refer to 10,000 cavalry – though only for campaigns in the region; and at all times the voivod was naturally expected to repel any hostile forces entering his territory. He was also required to provide Istanbul with intelligence, both political and military. (A sultanic order to the Voivod in January 1566 said: ‘We have received a letter from you concerning what the spies in Germany have communicated about the gathering of the German army; in this situation do not cease to be vigilant, and make the necessary preparations against the enemy’s attack.’) The voivod was forbidden to conduct his own foreign policy – though most did keep up direct relations with their important non-Ottoman neighbours – and was not allowed to marry a foreigner without permission.

The duty to supply Istanbul with goods and provisions was less clearly defined, but it grew in importance during the sixteenth century. In wartime, Moldavia and Wallachia could simply be ordered to provide foodstuffs for the Ottoman army; for the Hungarian campaign in 1552, for instance, the Moldavian voivod was told to send 30,000 sheep, and the Wallachian one 3,000 oxen. But as the population of Istanbul grew during this century, rising from half a million in the 1550s to perhaps 700,000 by 1580, the demand for food from these fertile territories constantly increased. In 1566 the Sultan decreed that the Voivod of Moldavia must send 1,000 sheep and 1,000 head of cattle every month to the imperial capital. Official orders also went out for large quantities of grain, and for timber. Generally these products were paid for; the Ottoman system of celeps, state-appointed contractors who bought sheep locally and sent them to Istanbul, extended as far as Moldavia, where in 1591 they bought 24,500 from just one part of the country. (In the late 1580s an observer estimated that 100,000 Moldavian sheep went to Istanbul every year.) An attempt by the Sultan to impose the normal Ottoman tariff of fixed maximum prices was made, but then quickly abandoned, in the late 1570s. But the Ottomans did, in a sense, try to rig the market, by prohibiting the export of sheep, cattle and various other commodities – on the sometimes spurious basis that they were of military value – to non-Ottoman lands. No sooner had the newly appointed Voivod, Iancu Sasul (Bartolomeo Bruti’s candidate), arrived in the Moldavian capital of Iaşi, than he received a stiff decree from the Sultan complaining that the Moldavians were still engaging in the forbidden practice of selling sheep and cattle to Hungary and Poland – and, for good measure, that Iancu himself had just sent to Austria 24,000 head of cattle that he owed to creditors in Istanbul. Huge numbers of cattle were in fact sold via Poland; they were taken, on the hoof, as far as Venice, where their meat was prized more than any other. All the ‘boyars’ (nobles) of Moldavia traded livestock from their own estates, and the voivod was both the greatest landowner and the greatest trader of them all.

The wealth of these principalities came, in the first place, from their own tremendous fertility. Stefan Gerlach recorded a comment made by his ambassador in Istanbul in 1575: ‘today my gracious lord said that nowadays Moldavia and Wallachia are nothing other than the dairies of the sultans and pashas; and their princes, as they call themselves, are their dairy-farmers.’ Moldavia exported not only the ‘dairy’ products of meat, cheese and tallow, but also grain, honey, wax, fur, wine, beer, and huge quantities of fish: a Jesuit traveller in the 1580s was amazed to discover that you could buy a quantity of dried fish as big as a man, and the equivalent of a barrel of caviar, for just one scudo. The other source of Moldavia’s prosperity was the fact that it lay on an important trade route from Anatolia and Istanbul to Poland. Goods passed from Istanbul either overland to Galaţi or by boat to Kiliya, and were then taken via Iaşi to the important Polish border town of Kamyanets-Podilskyi (Pol.: Kamieniec Podolski). From there they went to Lviv (Pol.: Lwów; now in the Ukraine, like Kamyanets-Podilskyi, but then a Polish-Lithuanian city), and on either to Kraków, for further transit to southern Poland, Austria and the Czech lands, or to Poznań, for Germany, or to Gdańsk (Germ.: Danzig), for the Baltic region, or northwards to Brest, and thence either to Vilnius or even to Moscow. Spices formed an important part of this trade for much of the sixteenth century, coming from south-east Asia via Persia. Other high-value commodities from the east included pearls and jewels, and luxury textiles such as silk, mohair and camlet.

Muslim merchants brought many of these goods to Poland. They would then travel as far as Muscovy to spend the proceeds on furs, which were greatly prized by the Ottomans. Poland was the only Christian country to be quite thoroughly penetrated by Muslim traders; mostly their presence was accepted, though sometimes they were suspected of espionage. But there were other nationalities and religions taking part in this east–west trade: Armenians, Jews, Ragusans and Greeks. In Iaşi, the Moldavian capital, there was a significant Armenian colony. Jews and Armenians were prominent traders in Lviv, where, from the second half of the sixteenth century, there were resident Spanish Jews with close links to Jewish merchant families in Istanbul. In the 1580s the Polish Chancellor arranged for a number of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to move from Istanbul to the town of Zamość, which he had recently founded, to boost its trade. The omnipresent Ragusans were involved in this commerce, especially in Iaşi and on the Black Sea coast. And Greeks, not only from Galata, Chios (Ottoman territory from 1566) and Cyprus (Ottoman from 1570–1), but also from Venetian Crete, dominated the trade in strong and sweet red wines from the Mediterranean; these commodities, much valued during the cold Central European winters, came mostly via Moldavia. There were also a few Albanian traders; and some of the ‘Greeks’, from Pogon, may have been from the territory of present-day Albania, with Vlach – a language usefully similar to Romanian – as their mother tongue.

Much has been written about the so-called ‘closing’ of the Black Sea during this period. The phrase refers only to the discouragement or prohibition of non-Ottoman traders – who, in an earlier period when important Crimean ports had been run by the Genoese, had been frequent visitors. This process seems to have been a gradual one, beginning in the 1550s or 1560s and becoming formalized only at the end of the century. Istanbul’s growing hunger for the products of the Romanian lands – and of the Tatar Khanate – was the main cause; that meant that there was less and less for foreign traders to buy. And while the Moldavians were formally forbidden to sell various commodities to non-Ottomans on their north-western borders, it would have been illogical to allow non-Ottoman merchants to come and buy them on their eastern ones. Nevertheless, some foreign traders were active. Cretans who brought wine took back cargoes of hides and caviar; in the latter part of the century French ships sometimes penetrated the Black Sea; some Venetian merchants traded there using Ottoman ships or business partners; and the Ragusans, who had an important outpost on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, were often taking the goods they acquired to Ancona and other Italian ports. If foreign traders shied away from the area in the 1590s, that was as much to do with security concerns (thanks to a new Ottoman–Habsburg war, from 1593, and the growth of piracy by Ukrainian Cossacks) as with any prohibition. What must be emphasized, at all events, is that the ‘closing’ of the Black Sea did not mean stagnation. On the contrary, the decades up to the 1590s seem to have witnessed a positive boom in the trade that passed through Moldavia.

Thanks to taxes, customs dues and his own revenues as both producer and trader, the voivod had a large income, estimated in the 1580s at between half a million and a million thalers (333,000 to 666,000 ducats). Military and other state expenditure had to come out of this, in addition to the tribute to Istanbul, but the rulers of both Moldavia and Wallachia were still rich men; it is not surprising that Venetian jewel-sellers gathered around them like wasps round a jam-jar. The high revenues, together with the increasing appetite for cash at the Ottoman court, also explain the development of the practice – in which Bartolomeo Bruti took part so successfully – of merchants and other investors paying for the deposition of one voivod and the installation of another: so long as the new one remained in power for a few years, the investors could be confident of recouping their money handsomely. But this does raise the question of why these territories, which were of such economic and strategic importance to the Sultan, were not taken over and ruled directly. The threat of turning them into beylerbeyliks was deployed from time to time, and at a moment of crisis in wartime, in 1595, it was briefly carried out; but general Ottoman policy was firmly in favour of indirect rule. One important reason must have been the cost of garrisoning such a territory with janissaries; in Ottoman-ruled Hungary in the mid-century, for example, there were at least 20,000 occupation troops, who all had to be paid for. An interesting comment was made by the Imperial Ambassador in Istanbul, David Ungnad, in January 1578: noting a rumour that the former pasha of Timişoara would be declared beylerbeyi of Moldavia, he wrote that ‘in that case Poland would be well on the way to becoming an Ottoman possession; but it seems to me virtually unbelievable, because Moldavia is the main supplier to this city of meat, lard and other foodstuffs, and the population here would be partly or mostly deprived of them, if Moldavia were possessed by Ottomans’ – meaning that the Ottoman administration would consume more of the local production, and perhaps also that agricultural efficiency would go down. His remark about the implications for the Poles is perhaps even more important. Poland’s objections to the full Ottomanization of that principality were very strong: militarily, it required Moldavia to act as a buffer state, and in political terms the Poles wanted a neighbour that they could continue to influence and manipulate on its own separate basis.

Modern histories of the Ottoman Empire in this period, written mostly by West Europeans, tend to pay very little attention to Poland. There are various reasons for this: the dominance of West European sources and secondary literature is one, and the fact that Poland was at peace with the Ottomans from 1533 onwards is another. But Poland mattered very greatly to the Ottoman Sultans; that they maintained peaceful relations with it is itself testimony to that fact. After the Union of Lublin in 1569, which united the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania into a single ‘commonwealth’, the Polish state covered a huge stretch of Europe from the Baltic coast to the borders of the Crimean Khanate, embracing most of present-day Poland, all of modern Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus, and the western half of what is now the Ukraine. Thanks to its constitution, with an elective monarchy and a fractious, veto-ridden parliament of nobles, it could not and did not undergo all the processes of centralization of power that were beginning to take place in several West European states; but with the help of its powerful regional lords it could raise large military forces, which in this period were mostly directed against its eastern rival, Russia. Poland mattered to Ottoman geopolitical strategy not only because of its size, but also because it was situated between two potentially or actually anti-Ottoman powers, Russia and the Holy Roman Empire. If it conquered Russia, or was taken over by the Habsburgs, or underwent any other kind of merging or close alliance with either of those, it would pose a huge threat to the security of the Ottoman Empire. As Giovanni Barelli commented in his intelligence report from Istanbul in 1575, the Ottomans thought that Poland, being ‘rather divided’, could be defeated by them in war. But they feared that this would force the Poles to choose the Russian Tsar as their king, which would ‘give excessive power to one of their [sc. the Ottomans’] chief foes’.

Hence the concern felt in Istanbul each time an election to the Polish crown was impending. The Sultan was happy to support Henri de Valois in 1573, in view of the long-standing Franco-Ottoman alliance and French hostility to the Habsburgs. However, when Henri decamped so abruptly soon after entering his kingdom in the following year, there were real fears that the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II, might obtain the Polish crown. The upper house of the Polish parliament did vote for him, but the lower one chose Stephen Báthory, the Catholic Hungarian Voivod of Transylvania, who cemented the deal by promising to marry the late king’s 52-year-old sister. Stephen became King of Poland in early 1576; one of the reasons why many nobles had voted for him was that they wished to avoid a war with the Ottoman Empire (a strategy which, so long as Russia remained the primary enemy, was logically required). The Sultan was very content with this election. Stephen had been a reliable vassal ruler in Transylvania; he was a known quantity, and the fact that his accession to the Polish crown created a personal union between Transylvania and Poland – even though he passed the administration of the former to his brother Christopher – gave Istanbul a pretext for demanding more influence over Poland. His election also had negative consequences for the onward march of the Counter-Reformation in Central Europe; although he was a sincere Catholic, Stephen Báthory did promise at his coronation to respect the Warsaw Confederation, a recent pledge of mutual toleration by all the major Christian confessions, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, in the Polish–Lithuanian commonwealth. The Papacy was seriously wrong-footed by Stephen’s accession to the throne, not least because it had openly backed his Habsburg rival. With some grinding of gears, it now began to concentrate on promoting peace between Poland and Russia, in order to create the conditions for an anti-Ottoman alliance. Gradually, too, it began to insinuate the idea that if Poland did join a war against the Sultan, it could take Moldavia as its prize.

Moldavia, Tatars and Cossacks II

What nearly brought Poland and the Ottoman Empire into armed conflict in this period was not the deliberate policy of the King, the Sultan or the Pope, but the unpredictable actions of two mutually hostile powers: the Tatars and the Cossacks. The Crimean Tatars were at least nominally subject to the Sultan. Although the Tatar Khans collected their own taxes and minted their own coins, they did acknowledge a higher power in Istanbul; a new Khan would be elected in the Crimea from the ruling Giray dynasty, but the election would then be submitted to the Sultan for approval, and the Ottomans did sometimes depose an uncooperative Khan in order to put a more compliant one in his place. Because of their military and marauding activities, the Tatars acquired a grim reputation in Russia and Central Europe as savage Asiatic nomads. The English Ambassador in Istanbul in the 1580s solemnly reported that ‘theie are borne blynde, openinge theire eyes the thirde daye after; a thinge peculier to them onlye, a brutishe people, open vnder the ayer lyvinge in cartes covered wth oxe hides’; all the adult men, he said, were ‘theeves and Robbers’. While it is true that Tatar herdsmen did travel in carts with their flocks during the summer months, at the core of the Tatars’ territory was a settled society, with agricultural estates (worked mostly by slaves they had captured). Their ruling family and nobility contained educated men: Gazi Giray II, who was installed by the Sultan in 1588, was a poet with a good knowledge of Arabic and Persian, and the Khans’ palace contained a well-stocked library. But Tatar light cavalry (typically, a force of 20–30,000 men when led by the Khan) was a much feared auxiliary element in the Ottomans’ European campaigns, and at other times large bands of Tatars would go raiding in Polish and Russian territory for slaves and other booty.

Opposing them in the south-eastern part of the Polish state was an official defence force of roughly 3,000 men, stretched out over an area more than 600 miles across. Its efforts, very inadequate in themselves, were supplemented by those of a much more informal fighting population, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who were based in the marshy territory of the lower Dnieper river, south-east of Kiev (‘Zaporozhian’ is from a word meaning ‘below the rapids’). Like their equivalents on the southern Russian steppes, the Don Cossacks, these people developed enough of a socio-political system to form at least a loose military organization, but not enough to become a state-like entity. They enjoyed the protection and sponsorship of some powerful landowners in the region, and in normal circumstances were willing to cooperate in a broad defensive strategy with the official forces of the Crown. But their ‘pursuits’ of Tatar raiders could often turn into raiding expeditions of their own, openly supported by local lords and administrators who took their share of the booty. Twentieth-century attempts to portray them as fighting either against feudalism or for national liberation are unconvincing; raiding was primarily an economic activity, and all classes could have an interest in it. The Tatar bands not only paid a tax on their booty to the Khan, but also, in some cases, had merchant investors who would give them horses on credit in return for half of the spoils. On the Polish side, Crown soldiers would sometimes provoke raids by the Tatars and then take care to intercept them only on their way home, when they were laden with goods (which could then be appropriated, or returned to the original owners for a fee). But the larger Cossack expeditions could also have a political dimension, whether by design, as their local protectors flexed their muscles vis-à-vis the Polish government, or by unintended consequence.

To the modern eye, such raiding, even on a large scale, seems like a regrettable and peripheral phenomenon, something to be understood as a transgression of the normal system, not a component of it. Yet if one looks at all the frontier zones between Christendom and the Ottoman world in this period, from the Dnieper marshes in the north to the maritime quasi-frontier of the Mediterranean in the south, one begins to see that it was very much part of the system. On both sides of the lengthy Ottoman–Habsburg border, local auxiliary forces grew up for which raiding was a constant feature of military and economic life. In the north-eastern corner of the Adriatic a small but highly active population of ‘Uskoks’, Slavic refugees and adventurers who theoretically acted as frontier troops for the Habsburgs, caused real harm to Ottoman trading interests – and much damage to Venetian–Ottoman relations – by their corsairing and piracy. The corsairs of the Albanian coast, based first in Vlorë and Durrës and later also in Ulcinj, preyed on much Christian shipping. And in the Mediterranean, the corsairs of North Africa were pitted against another group for which raiding was a central activity, the Knights of Malta. In all these cases, booty was either essential to the economy or (in the case of Malta) a vital motive for offensive action; this in itself implied that these societies were enmeshed in a larger pattern of economic interests, as they often depended on merchants coming from elsewhere to buy the goods they had seized. Of course, organized predation of this kind was not just a border phenomenon. Communities based at least partly on raiding, or on raiding combined with a sort of protection racket, could operate against domestic targets as well as foreign ones; in the northern Albanian mountains, a group of clans led by the warlike Kelmendi developed such a practice, and other bellicose populations such as the Himariots and the Maniots may at times have been fairly indiscriminate in their choice of prey. But the advantage of a frontier was that it provided a ready-made legitimation for all activities of this kind, so long as they were conducted against the other side; and even more legitimation was available when that frontier lay between two religions.

A whole range of these raiding societies thus existed, from states and state-like entities (Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Malta, the Crimean Tatar Khanate) to broad regional forces (the Cossacks, the ‘Grenzer’ communities of the Habsburg borders and their Ottoman counterparts) and small corsairing groups such as the Uskoks of Senj and their Albanian rough equivalents. Contemporaries sensed some of the similarities between them; for instance, the German writer on Ottoman affairs Johannes Leunclavius remarked that the Cossacks resembled both the Uskoks and the Morlachs (the Vlach and Slav fighters used on both sides of the Habsburg–Ottoman frontier), and Ottomans described the Tatars and the North African corsairs as the Sultan’s two ‘wings’. Modern historians seldom consider all these raiding entities together, perhaps because they do not fit the standard model of international history, based on the direct interactions of unit states, which the present naturally projects onto the past. Nevertheless, they should be regarded as an important element in the picture; one might think of them as the ‘irregular powers’, conjoined in a complex system of inter-power relations with the regular ones. Often they caused serious trouble not only to their enemies but also to their sponsors. Why did the latter tolerate them? Some parts of the answer are clear: they provided a relatively cheap form of permanent frontier defence; they became valuable auxiliaries in wartime; in peacetime their raiding activities honed the martial skills of large numbers of men; their constant probing of the enemy (or potential enemy) revealed points of weakness, while being covered by a degree of ‘deniability’; and up to a certain point, the harm they caused by their offensive actions could be useful, as the other side might offer concessions of various kinds in order to have them called off. All these points are valid, but to list them like this risks giving the impression that the irregular powers functioned as mere instruments, the tools of their sponsors’ regular power-politics. And that would be to ignore the fact that they often had interests and policies of their own, to which their protector-powers were sometimes forced, with great reluctance, to adapt.

The activities of the Tatars and Cossacks bedevilled relations between Poland and the Ottoman Empire, and sometimes carried war and rebellion into the heart of the Moldavian state. In 1575 and again in 1577, Polish territory underwent large Tatar raids, in retaliation for Cossack attacks. The Voivod of Moldavia at this time was Petru Şchiopul, the Wallachian prince who had been imposed by the Sultan in 1574 in place of the rebellious Ioan cel Cumplit. A man claiming to be Ioan’s brother, known as Ioan Potcoavă (‘John Horseshoe’ – he broke them with his bare hands), raised a Cossack army and invaded Moldavia, seizing the capital, Iaşi, in late 1577; he then withdrew to Polish territory, where the authorities arrested and executed him, but in the following year two more Cossack invasions took place under other leaders. During 1578 the Sultan warned Stephen Báthory that if the Cossacks were not restrained, he would invade Poland. Stephen’s attempt to meet this challenge by setting up a small official Cossack army and giving it strict instructions not to attack Moldavia or any Ottoman territory was largely symbolic; it staved off the threatened invasion, but it did not give him real control of these warriors. In late 1579 a local Polish grandee organized a Cossack attack on the Ottoman fortress of Akkerman (Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi). This formed the immediate context of the Sultan’s decision to replace Petru Şchiopul; for Petru was regarded as pro-Polish, and therefore not the right person to develop a more hard-line policy against the Poles. Also, because he was a foreigner from Wallachia, Moldavian boyars had petitioned at Istanbul for him to be replaced by Iancu Sasul; those boyars represented, in effect, an anti-Polish party, and granting their wishes would strengthen their position. So it was that political circumstances, as well as the large payments organized by Bartolomeo Bruti, brought Iancu to the throne.

Iancu was generally believed to be an illegitimate son of Petru Rareş, the voivod who had been driven out by Süleyman the Magnificent in 1538 (but later reinstated); and he was called ‘Sasul’, ‘the German’, because his mother was the wife of a German leather-worker in the city of Braşov. Since the administrative records of the Moldavian government have not survived from this period, it is impossible to give any detailed and objective account of his rule. Instead, the picture is dominated by the later narrative of the Moldavian chronicler Grigore Ureche, who, writing in the 1640s, had nothing good to say about Iancu Sasul. According to Ureche, he introduced an unheard-of tithe of all cattle in the country, and this provoked a major revolt in the eastern province of Lăpuşna, which was crushed by the Moldavian army. Iancu was an evil man who ‘did not love the Christian religion’; he raped the wives of boyars, and several leading nobles consequently fled into exile. This account seems rather simplistic. We know that Iancu performed some routine acts of religious piety, donating numbers of Gypsy labourers, for example, to Orthodox monasteries – though the fact (if it is one) that he converted to Catholicism before his death may have tainted him in Moldavian eyes. It is indeed true that some leading nobles and ecclesiastics fled to Poland, but their reasons may have been primarily political, as they represented a pro-Polish lobby to which Iancu was opposed. He had a different policy which would, however, have pleased the Ottomans even less, had they known about it: from the start he was secretly in touch with the Habsburgs through their military commander in Upper Hungary. Towards the end of his rather brief rule in Moldavia he was apparently trying to acquire an estate in Habsburg territory, seeing it as a bolthole in which to evade another round of internal exile in the Ottoman Empire; but there may have been a larger strategic aspect to his cultivating these connections. When the Poles found out about them, in 1582, they were quick to inform Istanbul.

Stephen Báthory lobbied hard to get Iancu deposed; in the summer of 1582, when he despatched an envoy to a grand festivity in Istanbul celebrating the circumcision of the Sultan’s son, he sent with him, as a present to the Sultan, two captive Tatar princes. This magnanimous gesture, plus a large under-the-counter payment to Sinan Pasha, had the desired effect. Later that summer, when news reached Iancu that he was about to be recalled, the Voivod gathered all the cash reserves of the Moldavian treasury and headed for his Habsburg refuge. Unfortunately his route had to pass first through Poland. He was arrested there, and, after a brief detention, executed on the King’s orders in late September, before the Ottoman çavuş could arrive to take him back to Istanbul. Stephen Báthory offered various justifications for this: Iancu had opened his letters to the Sultan when Polish couriers had passed through Moldavia, and had added spurious passages to them; he had burnt down villages in Polish territory; and Poles who had sought justice from him had been beaten and imprisoned. (The papal nuncio in Poland also wrote, perhaps just repeating a standard line, that Iancu had made himself ‘utterly hateful’ to his people by violating their women.) Stephen did not mention the huge quantity of cash – between 400,000 and a million ducats, as rumour had it – which he expropriated. Nor did the Sultan make much fuss about that; a resetting of Ottoman–Polish relations had just taken place, and it was a sign of the Ottoman willingness to be conciliatory that the new Voivod of Moldavia was, once again, Petru Şchiopul.

Not much is known about Bartolomeo Bruti’s life in Moldavia during these years. As we have seen, a French ambassadorial despatch stated in 1580 that he was granted a boyar’s estate and an income of 3,000 ducats from the customs dues of a port – which was presumably Galaţi, the only significant port left to Moldavia, on the northern bank of the Danube. That despatch’s statement that he was also made general of the army might seem implausible, in view of Bartolomeo’s total lack of military experience; yet in January 1582 he was indeed joint commander of the Moldavian army, with the boyar Condrea Bucium, when it fought a major battle to crush the rebels of Lăpuşna. Bartolomeo had the official position of ‘postelnic’, meaning seneschal or court chamberlain, while Bucium was the grand ‘vornic’ or count palatine of Lower Moldavia; neither was ‘hatman’ (general of the armed forces), but it seems that Bartolomeo was in effect the senior minister for external affairs, and Bucium for internal ones. As the Postelnic, Bartolomeo also held the prefecture of Iaşi, the capital city, and judged its citizens. These honours – which depended above all on the fact that he was Iancu’s personal link to Sinan Pasha – represented an extraordinary transformation in his fortunes, from the ill-paid trainee dragoman and neglected underground agent of the previous years.

Bartolomeo must have found his new conditions strange as well as exhilarating. He was now in an overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox country, and its language, Romanian, would have taken some time to learn, even though his knowledge of Italian gave him a good head-start. This was a very traditional society, a far cry from the Venetianized city communities of the Adriatic that were familiar to him, with their statutes and municipal rights; the Moldavian towns and their surrounding villages were regarded as the personal property of the voivod, and the laws were customary and unwritten. Whilst the dress of the voivod and his courtiers was partly Ottoman in style, with richly decorated cloaks like caftans, the hierarchy and ceremonies derived from the Byzantine tradition. In 1574 a French traveller, commenting on court life in Iaşi, wrote that ‘they honour their voivods like God, and drink excessively’ – though a few years later Stefan Gerlach assured a friend that the Moldavians were at least more civilized than the Wallachians. In the late 1580s a Jesuit would write about Moldavia that ‘literary writing is not held in esteem there, nor is it taught’; but he added that ‘the people are excellent and talented, and shrewd rather than simple.’ The population was quite mixed, especially in the towns; the merchant community included, as we have seen, both Armenians and Greeks (some of whom, especially those from Chios, were Roman Catholic), and Ragusans were active as tax- and customs-farmers. There were Protestant Germans, Hungarians and Hussites; and although the Jews had been expelled in 1579 at the insistence of Christian merchants, some seem to have returned under Iancu Sasul. There were also Albanians – villagers, traders and others. In 1584 the Jesuit Antonio Possevino would report from Poland that ‘the Voivod of Moldavia’s guard consists of 400 Trabants [a Central European word for bodyguard], who are Hungarian, and 50 Albanian and Greek halbardiers, who live like Muslims.’ So Bartolomeo Bruti would have found some people to talk to in his native tongue. But in any case he was not leading a solitary life. In these early years, at least, his wife Maria was with him. They had a son, probably within less than a year of their arrival in Moldavia, and had him baptized in Kamyanets-Podilskyi, the nearest town with a Catholic bishop. The boy was christened Antonio Stanislao – the first name honouring Bartolomeo’s father, and the second presumably paying respect to an influential Polish godfather.

In 1582 Bartolomeo Bruti went to Istanbul as the Voivod’s envoy to attend the festivities for the circumcision of the future Mehmed III. Public celebrations of such events, and of the accessions of new sultans, were not uncommon, but this was the most elaborate and extravagant that had ever been seen, lasting more than 50 days from early June to late July; half a million akçes (more than 8,000 ducats) had been set aside for staging it, invitations were sent to rulers in such distant places as Morocco and Uzbekistan, and the preparations took several months. It is not hard to guess the underlying reason for a jamboree which entertained much of the population of Istanbul. The Persian war, begun in 1578, was proving intractable, costly and increasingly unpopular; a large and distracting boost to morale, including displays of deference by foreign powers, was greatly to be desired. Certainly, nothing larger or more distracting could have been imagined. In the early stages of the festivities, senior pashas and the ambassadors of Muslim and Christian rulers presented lavish gifts. For the viziers and beylerbeyis, this was the most demanding instance of the whole Ottoman cult of gift-giving. Sinan Pasha presented the Sultan with fine horses, large quantities of luxury cloth, a gold-illuminated Koran and a golden bowl encrusted with rubies and turquoises, while giving the Sultan’s son a bejewelled golden sword, six male slaves, three horses and four illuminated books. The gifts of some foreign states were barely as lavish as that. The King of Poland sent quantities of highly prized Russian sable fur; the Venetian envoy, Giacomo Soranzo, brought 8,000 ducats’ worth of gold, silver and silk; and Iancu Sasul’s presents consisted of a silver fountain and other pieces of silverwork, to the value of 3,000 ducats.

The celebrations were held in the Hippodrome, which had been specially fitted up for the occasion, with a three-storey wooden stand for distinguished guests. Christians, such as the Ragusan envoys and Bartolomeo, were placed in the bottom storey. For the first few weeks the formal present-givings were interspersed with entertainments, involving athletes, fighting animals (the fight between a boar and three lions was almost won by the boar), rope-dancers, musicians and others; one jaded French observer, Jean Palerne, found the music ‘tuneful enough to make donkeys dance’. Sugar animals were paraded, including life-sized elephants and camels, and in the evenings the crowds were given free food and lavish firework displays. Then there were military performances (put on, Palerne noted, by Sinan, who wanted ‘to be recognized as a great warlord’), with realistic-seeming battles involving mock-castles; the Christian castles, which were triumphantly overrun, had squealing pigs inside them. In the second week of June the processions of the Istanbul guilds began, with elaborate displays, sometimes on large carriages or floats, demonstrating or symbolizing their work. More than 200 guilds took part, including nailsmiths, bucket-sellers, javelin-makers, pickle-sellers, caftan-makers, silk-spinners, tart-bakers and snake-charmers. On the helva-makers’ carriage a man made helva in a huge cauldron; on the barbers’, a barber shaved customers while standing on his head; the Jewish gunpowder-makers’ float had a powder-mill, and a man constantly igniting little explosions of powder against his bare skin. (The helva-makers also amused the crowd by trying to blow up a live rabbit with fireworks.) The mirror-makers dressed in clothes made out of pieces of mirror, while the manufacturers of coloured paper had 130 apprentices dressed in coloured paper. When they reached the Sultan the guildsmen gave him their own presents, both symbolic (giant shoes, paper tulips as tall as trees) and real: the guild of bird-catching pedlars solemnly presented two vultures, ten partridges and 100 sparrows. In return the Sultan conferred significant cash presents on the major guilds, and threw handfuls of coins at their apprentices. After that there were more military entertainments, with Albanian horsemen jousting at each other with lances; this was not mere play-acting, as several horses were killed in the process. Morale was boosted both by processions of genuine Christian captives from the Habsburg frontier, and by mass episodes of Christian Ottoman subjects, especially Greeks and Albanians, volunteering – to the dismay of Western observers – to convert to Islam. Everything went well from the Ottoman point of view, until the very last days of the festival, when serious fighting broke out between some of the Sultan’s soldiers. It started with some young spahis (cavalrymen) who were found in a brothel by a janissary patrol led by the subaşı of Istanbul. Violence began when they resisted the round-up of prostitutes, and quickly turned into public fighting between much larger numbers of spahis and janissaries. Two of the spahis were killed. Sinan Pasha blamed the ağa (commander) of the janissaries, Ferhad Pasha, and dismissed him; Ferhad would become a redoubtable rival to Sinan thereafter.

Bartolomeo presumably enjoyed the festivities, and the experience of rubbing shoulders with West European dignitaries who would have paid scant regard to him a few years earlier. But the most important element in this visit would have been his meetings with his relative Sinan Pasha, at which the future of the Voivod of Moldavia must have been discussed. Seven years later the papal nuncio in Poland would write, on the basis of what Bartolomeo had told him, that ‘because Iancu did not observe the conditions he had promised, and did not pay the tribute he had promised to Sinan Pasha, by whose means he had been appointed voivod, Bruti in Istanbul arranged for Iancu to be deposed, and for this prince Petru, the current ruler, to be appointed.’ That a failure to make the special personal payments to Sinan was a factor is easily imagined, but the claim that Bartolomeo ‘arranged’ the deposition sounds like self-aggrandizement; and it is difficult to believe that Bartolomeo, of all people, would have promoted the reinstatement of Petru Şchiopul, who could reasonably have been expected to bear a deep grudge against him for his previous dismissal. The decision was surely taken by Sinan, who obliged Petru to retain Bartolomeo’s services. Petru Şchiopul’s investiture took place in Istanbul on 28 August 1582, and he travelled to Moldavia with Bartolomeo a couple of weeks later. The Venetian bailo reported that Petru made a grand exit from Istanbul with an escort of more than 1,000 cavalry. He also wrote – again, surely on the basis of what Bartolomeo had said – that Petru was reinstated thanks to Bartolomeo’s intercession; he added, significantly, that Bartolomeo went with him ‘and will have the most important and most valuable position, having been warmly recommended by the Grand Vizier, who told him that whether he stays a long time in office will depend on the good treatment he gives to Bruti’.

Sparta I

Spartan Hoplites. Illustration by Richard Hook.

There are two rather curious impediments to writing an account of early Spartan history—in addition, that is, to the paucity and unreliability of our sources for Archaic history in general. The first arises from the fact that Sparta was, by the Classical period, a somewhat xenophobic society, not an attractive place for foreigners to stay. In fact, from time to time the Spartans expelled foreigners from their territory. As usual, rumor filled the void created by lack of solid information, leaving us with as many exaggerations as hard facts, and rarely any way of telling which is exaggeration and which is fact. For instance, the Spartans were said to weed out unfit and deformed infants and put them to death.1 But we know that one of the Spartan kings, Agesilaus II, was lame from birth, and he was not put to death as an infant. So probably the Spartans did not practice infanticide—or at least no more than other Greek states—and this was just a rumor.

The second impediment is that the Spartans themselves constantly reinvented aspects of their early history. Most of the literary evidence is tainted by the ideas that, instead of the piecemeal legislation that we have found typical of early Greek states, the Spartan constitution was drafted in its entirety by a single individual, a man called Lycurgus, way back in the mists of time, and had remained in force, unchanging, ever since.

This entire picture, including the person of Lycurgus, might be an invention; at least some of it is demonstrably false. For instance, Lycurgus was said to have banned coined money, but there was no coined money anywhere in the world at the time he is supposed to have lived. Furthermore, even though the Spartans did not mint their own money until early in the third century, other forms of currency were recognized (especially weighed ingots of iron), and of course they must have made use of coined money for international trade and so on. An inscription exists, for instance, from the end of the fifth century, detailing the receipt of money from Sparta’s allies. Full Spartan citizens did not sully their hands with moneymaking activities, but that did not mean there was no money circulating in the state.

The idea that the traditional Spartan way included a ban on coined money was most likely invented early in the fourth century, when the state was having to cope for the first time with great wealth, and avarice had become a real social problem. A great debate raged about the issue, and some conservative group in Sparta must have tried to invoke Lycurgus (who was worshipped as a god) for the idea that Sparta should remain austere. It worked: the private possession of coined money (but not its public use) was officially banned for a few decades in the early 300s. But other aspects of the “Lycurgan system” were probably invented even later, during the revolutionary reigns of Agis IV and Cleomenes III in the third century; they too, as we shall see, attributed their reforms to Lycurgus as a way of validating them.

All other evidence suggests that early Sparta was, apart from its exceptional size, a normal Greek polis. It was a center for the manufacture of luxury goods for the internal elite market and for export; it was particularly famous for its ivory carving (the ivory was imported), lead figurines, fine black-figure pottery, and bronzes. More poetry was being crafted in seventh-century Sparta, by both native-born and foreign poets, than anywhere else in Greece at the time. The competitive Spartan elite were importing luxuries from the Near East, making conspicuously valuable dedications in their sanctuaries, forging links with their peers abroad, and entering all the equestrian events at Olympia. But, early in the sixth century, their priorities changed. There was a sharp decline in artistic production, and no literary production at all. The Spartans had set their collective face against such things. Even laws were rarely written up and archived; justice was administered on principle, and the chief guiding principle was the preservation of Spartan society.

The Conquest of Messenia

In the middle of the eighth century, a cluster of four villages in the Eurotas River valley of the district of Laconia annexed the territory of a fifth, a short way south. The newly formed statelet of Sparta then followed the pattern typical of prosperous early Greek states by expanding into its hinterland, Laconia, and establishing borders. But Laconia was apparently not enough for them. The First Messenian War (probably more like a series of raids) was over by about 690, though the dates are uncertain, and gained the Spartans southeastern Messenia, the exceptionally rich Pamisus River valley—and even more subjects. Next they tried to challenge Argos for Cynouria, the southeastern coastline of the Peloponnese, especially for the fertile plain at its northern end called Thyreatis. The attempt was sustained for several decades, but Sparta was finally and decisively defeated at the battle of Hysiae in 669, not far southwest of Argos, creating a permanent enmity between them and the Argives. But the Spartans had completed the annexation of Messenia by about 610, as a result of the lengthy Second Messenian War. In territorial terms, Sparta had become by far the largest state in Greece.

With the conquest of Messenia, the Spartans were hugely outnumbered by subjects who had reason to hate them. At the same time, they seemed incapable of getting the better of Argos. Their response presumably took some years to implement, but by the end they had turned themselves into a landowning elite of full-time servants of the community, who underwent a special form of training and adopted a particular lifestyle designed to make them supreme battlefield warriors, capable of keeping their subjects quiescent and enemies at bay. That is why the leisurely habits of earlier times had to be abandoned.

Perioeci and Helots

Spartan subjects fell into two categories. Closest to independence were the inhabitants of the eighty or so outlying towns and villages of Laconia and Messenia, known as the perioikoi, “those who live around us.” They retained self-government and were personally free, but had no say in policy-making, even though they were required to serve in the army. A Perioecic community was little different from any other Greek town, with the same ranges of wealth and occupations, from hoplites to slaves. Full Spartan citizens, known as Spartiates, did not engage in farming, crafts, or trade. They had serfs for agriculture, but most of the rest of Spartan economic activity was in Perioecic hands.

The rest of the population of Laconia and Messenia was reduced to serfdom. It is not clear why Perioeci remained free while others did not. Perhaps they occupied a higher social rung at the time of the Spartan conquest and were allowed to remain free while their tenants and dependents were not. These serfs were called “helots,” which means “captives” or “the conquered,” so it seems that they were reduced en masse as a result of conquest.

Gangs of helots worked the farms of their Spartiate masters and were obliged, on pain of death, to hand over 50 percent of the produce to sustain their masters and their families, who lived in Sparta itself, and to allow them to dedicate themselves full time to service to the state. Helots were publicly owned, because only the state could emancipate them, but otherwise were entirely subject to their particular masters. This was not slavery, because they were not bought and sold, and they lived apart from their masters and were allowed a family life and their own culture. There were slaves in Laconia, owned by both Spartiates and Perioeci, but otherwise the Spartans were little involved in the international slave trade, since the helot population was self-perpetuating. Sparta was always closer to self-sufficiency than other states, thanks to its huge territory.

Although Laconian helots generally lived on their masters’ estates, their counterparts in Messenia were more likely to be found in nucleated villages. In terms of security, both systems had advantages: dispersed helots would find it hard to organize; nucleated helots were easier to watch. But compliance was won chiefly because, besides having family lives, helots could even make money, since they were obliged to hand only half of their produce over to their masters. In the third century, when there were far fewer masters, and therefore far more well-off helots, Cleomenes III of Sparta raised five hundred talents by offering freedom at five minas a head—so six thousand helots, at least, had considerable wealth to spare. But the same factors that made for compliance also made for rebellion, because they meant that, over time, helots could develop a sense of identity, the prerequisite for rebellion. Nevertheless, helots were not infrequently armed and incorporated into the army, with the state providing their weaponry.

The arming of helots implies that the Spartans thought they had the situation under control, and even that they could expect loyalty. There may have been an implicit threat: their families at home could have been considered hostages for the helots’ good behavior while out on campaign. Anyway, it is remarkable that the majority of the helots, those in Messenia, lived on the other side of the Taygetus mountain range from Sparta, where all Spartiates lived; since the Taygetus is one of the more formidable barriers in Greece, the helots were unsupervised except by Perioeci or trustees from their own number. Helots fought alongside their masters because they too were defending their homes, ancestral shrines, and families.

The two major helot rebellions of which we know (one in the mid-460s and the other, the decisive one, in 369) were both prompted by extraordinary circumstances. There probably were more uprisings, but they were small enough to be successfully quelled and successfully kept from the knowledge of outsiders. But the precariousness of Spartan society was underlined by the attempted coup in 399 of a former Spartiate called Cinadon, now demoted to Inferior status, who claimed (before being flogged to death by the authorities) that all non-Spartiates would happily eat the Spartiates, even uncooked.

Helots were kept in fear of their masters. As part of their training, a few twenty-year-old Spartiates (perhaps ten or fifteen in any year), selected from their year-group, were sent out into the Messenian wilderness for a week or two. They were lightly clad and armed only with daggers. They were under orders to stay hidden in the daytime, and after dark to come down from the hills where they were hiding to hunt down helots. The selected young men had been earmarked for greater things, and were to prove their manhood and their absolute loyalty to the state by means of this challenging and brutal ritual. It was a form of initiation; the number of helots killed in this way was not enough to keep the population down—but it was enough to keep them terrified. At the start of every year, war was formally declared by the Spartiates on their helots, so that the killing of a helot would be legitimate and would not pollute the state with wrongly spilled blood.

The Agōgē

Absolutely central to Spartan society was its educational system, the agōgē or “raising.” Uniquely for the Greek world, this was compulsory education: the sons of rich and poor alike were educated—as long as they were Spartiates. The evolution of the agōgē is impossible to recover. It is never certainly mentioned in our sources until the third quarter of the fifth century, but it or some elements of it must have been in place earlier, since it fits so well with other Spartan practices.

Up until the age of seven, a Spartiate boy lived at home. Then there were two phases of school education, from seven to twelve and from thirteen to eighteen. There were similarities between the two stages—bonding activities such as dancing, singing, and sports continued throughout, and evening meals were eaten in year-groups—but the second phase was far tougher than the first. Softer aspects such as reading and writing were de-emphasized in favor of more exercise, now including weapons training, tactical exercises, drilling, hunting, and mock battles in which real violence was encouraged and failure was punished. The emphasis now was not just on lessons but on austerity: cold baths, food that was plain at best and came in small portions, reed beds, thin clothing.

The boys lived away from home. Their rations were occasionally made so short that they were encouraged to steal food (but nothing else); they were punished only if they were caught. They were being trained to act as foxes. Their success at this was constantly monitored by their elders, and talented boys, those who conformed exceptionally well to Sparta’s values, would find themselves on graduation rewarded with privileges. Rivalry was encouraged, competitiveness was the dominant dynamic, and honor the constant goal. The point of the agōgē was not just military training; it also allowed elders to judge who was likely to serve the state well in any capacity.

In order to graduate, fledgling Spartiates had to undergo, or survive, certain rites of passage, which could be extreme. The most famous was a development of the Spartan virtue of stealing: in the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, the boys had to try to steal as many cheeses as possible from the altar while avoiding whip-wielding adults. Marcus Tullius Cicero, writing in the first century BCE, and Plutarch, 150 or so years later, assure us that in their day boys died during this ritual;5 but Sparta had by then become a tourist destination, a museum of customs attributed to Lycurgus, and the rite had become a spectator sport, with banked seats from which the audience could watch blood fly. Endurance of the flogging had become the perverted point, and we hear nothing about cheeses.

Another institutionalized practice was pederasty: at age thirteen, a Spartiate boy received an older man, aged twenty or so, as a lover. This man was his “inspirer” (the word also connotes “inseminator,” the idea being that the older man injected valor into his lover along with his semen), and his job was to teach the boy Spartan virtues. Socially regulated, compulsory pederasty is known from other societies, such as Crete, as an initiatory procedure: the boys are thought to be tamed by their older lover and initiated into adulthood. The boy and his inspirer remained a couple throughout the final phase of the boy’s education, and the older man retained some responsibility for his younger charge for the rest of their lives, but it is not clear whether he remained a lover past the boy’s graduation. If comparative anthropological data are anything to go by, he did not.

In short, the agōgē discouraged affection for anyone or anything except the state itself and a man’s fellow Spartiates, with whom he messed, participated in religious rituals, competed, danced, played sports, and suffered. This was where his loyalty lay. A Spartan man got married in his twenties, but did not spend time with his wife until he was discharged from sleeping over at the mess (but not from military call-up) at the age of thirty; even then, the center of his life remained the mess. In any case, being in his twenties, he was involved at the time in a homosexual relationship as an “inspirer” of a teenager. From the middle of the fifth century, faced with declining Spartiate numbers, the Spartans introduced a form of eugenics: an elderly husband could get a younger man to sleep with his wife if he felt that a good soldier would be the result, and brothers might share wives. In the developed system of Classical Sparta, loyalty might not be given in the first instance even to the family.

Having fully absorbed his social conditioning and undergone the same education as his peers, a Spartiate was now one of the homoioi, the “Similars.” This was reflected in a certain uniformity of appearance and lifestyle, which was reinforced by state-instituted restrictions on the use of wealth. In reality, things were not quite so uniform: men who were considered exceptional were rewarded with higher ranks in the army, as I have already mentioned, and with occasional posts such as ambassadorships. Some messes were more prestigious than others. Three hundred soldiers who had proved their valor formed the kings’ lifeguard on the battlefield and policed the city at home; their name, the Knights, reveals their origin as mounted warriors, but by the time we hear about them they were hoplite foot soldiers. There were plenty of inequalities among the homoioi, but everyone equally served the state to the best of his abilities.

Sparta II


From the age of twenty onward, a Spartiate took his evening meal with his messmates. Each mess consisted of only about fifteen men (symposium-size), so there were a lot of them, but the small numbers made for tight bonding, critical for Spartan military success. Graduation from the agōgē was the precondition for membership in a mess, which in turn was the criterion of citizenship. In order to retain his membership, a man had to supply his own daily rations from his farm, plus some extra (for the mess servants; for those, like the kings, who were maintained by the state; for guests), and a modest, but not negligible state tax.

At the age of thirty, he was allowed to leave the barracks and spend time at home with his wife, but until he stopped soldiering at the age of sixty he continued to take his evening meals in his mess, and to exercise and dance with his mates. A Spartiate was eligible to attend the assembly at the age of twenty; ten years later, as at Athens, he also became eligible for political office. He was expected to keep fit in case of military need and to play a part in the chastisement of the young that he came across: every senior Spartiate was a surrogate father in this way, tasked with the constant scrutiny to which juniors were subjected.

If a man failed to keep up his contribution to his mess, he was expelled from it and lost his citizenship, to his everlasting shame. He was classified as an “Inferior,” along with those who failed to graduate from the agōgē, and treated with disdain. A fundamental dynamic of Spartiate society was the struggle to avoid becoming an Inferior. Citizens would always be Similars, because anyone dissimilar was denied citizenship. But it was possible for the son of an Inferior to regain his lost status if a wealthy family agreed to sponsor him through the agōgē as their own son’s suntrophos (“brother by upbringing”).

It is curious that, without the cooperation of his helots, a man would not be able to retain membership of a mess and would be demoted. This dependency had to be denied, and Spartiate boys were taught to identify themselves as the very opposites of helots. To this end, helots were sometimes brought into the messes and ritually abused or humiliated. They might be forced to get drunk, for instance, to remind the Spartiates present of the importance of self-discipline, the fundamental Spartan virtue; or they might be made to perform degrading dances, to contrast with the sober dances of the agōgē. This too the helots tolerated—until they reached breaking point.

The Great Rhetra

Plutarch of Chaeronea was an essayist and a biographer—very good in both fields—who died around 120 CE. Despite the distance in time and the possibly dilettantish nature of both genres in which he worked, he was a good researcher and often preserves precious information. Thanks to him, we have the authentic wording of a fundamental Spartan constitutional document, which was known as the Great Rhetra (“covenant”). The Spartans themselves, of course, attributed this Rhetra to Lycurgus, and it has commonly been dated to the early seventh century in the belief that their national poet, Tyrtaeus, displayed knowledge of it. But Tyrtaeus’ words are not that precise, and the document was probably formulated a few decades later, when the state was beginning to cohere in its enduring form.

The Great Rhetra reads as follows:

Having founded a sanctuary for Zeus Syllanios and Athena Syllania, having divided the people into tribes and obes, and having established a Council of thirty Elders including the Leaders, perform Apellai season in and season out between Babyka and Knakion and in this way introduce and set aside proposals. To the people belongs the right to give decisive verdicts, but if the people make a crooked decision, the Elders and the Leaders are to be dismissers.

There is much that is obscure about this—perhaps deliberately so, to give it an aura of ancient authority, as though the divine Lycurgus were making a covenant with his people. But basically, in the manner of early legislation from other states, the Rhetra establishes procedure: assemblies are to be held at regular intervals (every Apella, the seventh day in the month, sacred to Apollo) and at a determined place. Proposals are introduced to the assembly by the Council, made up of twenty-eight Elders and the two kings (called here “Leaders”).

The assembled Spartiates had the authority to approve decisions, but the Elders could ignore or veto their preferences if they felt they were “crooked.” Clearly, the assembly’s decision-making power was more or less a formality, and this is corroborated by the fact that voting was by shouting, which is a crude and fallible method. They were more like troops being addressed by their officers than political participants. The assembly existed to confer legitimacy on decisions taken elsewhere, by the leading men, and many decisions were taken without its slightest involvement. There were no written laws; as already mentioned, the memory and judgment of the ruling class were considered sufficient.

The Officers of the State

Despite the deliberate archaizing, the Rhetra does not reflect a primitive stage of Spartan politics. Judging by their title, the kings must have wielded greater power in the past, but in the Rhetra they are simply two special members of the Council of Elders (Gerousia). The two kings were members of aristocratic families that claimed descent from Heracles via a different twin son, the Agiads from Agis and the Eurypontids from Eurypon. In theory, the latter was the junior branch, but in practice the king who had ruled longest often wielded more authority than the other, whichever house he was from.

As the titular heads of state, the kings were sacred. No one was allowed to touch their persons, and on dying they received ten days of extravagant mourning. All ancient kings based their legitimacy ultimately on their alleged relationship with the gods, and the Spartan kings constantly reinforced their aura of sacredness by their conspicuous role in public ceremonies and sacrifices. Their families were among the wealthiest in Sparta, with landholdings all over Laconia, but their mess was maintained at public expense. They were excused the agōgē: in so far as that was a way to test the fitness of a man to be a Spartiate, it was assumed that the kings already had what it took. They were a cut above all the Similars. As figureheads, they tended to become the focus of political factions in Sparta, so that, not uncommonly, the Agiad king and the Eurypontid king might have different political agendas.

By the time we first meet them, the kings were embedded within the collegiate leadership of Sparta. By the Classical period, they were further humbled by having to declare on oath, once a month, that they would obey the laws or risk impeachment and deposition, and their judicial powers had been greatly restricted: they judged only cases concerning heiresses, adoptions, and public roads. Kings came closest to being absolute monarchs at times of war, and they also had the important right to address the assembly first on any issue. With the help of these ceremonial and military powers, along with his wealth, a determined king could accumulate sufficient personal capital and followers to gain authority. Besides, kings were lifelong members of the Council of Elders, and a young king could spend years, even decades, learning how to bend it to his will, while Elders came and went. Some kings—we have already met Cleomenes I, and Agesilaus II will prove to be another—gained and retained sufficient dominance to develop long-term policies.

The Council of Elders consisted of twenty-eight senior men aged over sixty (that is, past military age) and the two kings. Members other than the kings were elected by assembly acclamation when a place fell vacant; membership was for life, and a councilor never had to submit to an audit of his time in office. Only the most powerful and rich seem to have been represented on the council, so membership might have been restricted by some criterion to a select few families. The Council of Elders was an enormously prestigious institution, with real power, based on its preparation of business for the assembly. As the Rhetra shows, it even had the right to override the assembly. It also sat as a court for all the most important cases, including political trials and homicide suits, since it was the only body that had the right to impose severe penalties, such as exile, execution, and demotion to Inferior status.

The Rhetra makes no mention of another office that came to wield great power in Sparta, that of the Ephorate. The failure of the Rhetra to mention the Ephorate was, curiously, the occasion for the original publication of the document early in the fourth century: the exiled Spartan king Pausanias included the Rhetra in a pamphlet in order to prove that the Ephorate postdated the Lycurgan reforms and was therefore un-Spartan—and that therefore he should not have been exiled by a court that included them among the judges. The Spartans responded by claiming that the office began in the eighth century, but that was a fiction. Be that as it may, by the time we first hear about them, in the sixth century, five Ephors (“overseers”) were appointed by assembly acclamation for one-year terms from the entire male citizen body. The short list of five candidates, however, was probably drawn up by the Council of Elders, so that the acclamation was a mere formality. A man could be an Ephor only once in his lifetime, so many Spartiates gained political experience in this way. When the five voted, a simple majority won.

The office was created to “oversee” the kings, and gained its powers by taking them mainly from the kings. The Ephors’ ability to check the kings was symbolized by the fact that they alone were not required to rise to their feet when a king entered the room. By the Classical period, Ephors had wide-ranging powers. Two of them accompanied a king on campaign. At home, they were responsible for internal security, for which they were awarded the power of summary arrest, and could suspend any officer, even a king—and indeed we hear of seven cases of kings being put on trial just between the 490s and 370s. Kings were tried before a jury made up of the Ephors and the Elders, including the other king, and a majority vote won.

The Ephors also had broad judicial responsibilities in civil cases. They were responsible for the agōgē and for public finance. They received and negotiated with foreign embassies (and hence were fed at state expense, like the kings), and introduced business arising from these meetings to both the Council of Elders and the assembly, so that they effectively controlled much foreign policy. They convened meetings of the Elders and emergency meetings of the assembly, chaired all assemblies, and issued the orders that executed assembly decisions. In the event of war, they decided which and how many age-groups to call up. But the powers of the Ephorate were limited by the fact that every year it was made up of five different men, so that at times of uncertainty policies could rapidly change, even year by year.

Even if there was a degree of “similarity” among the Spartiates themselves, Sparta was a layered oligarchy. At the top, at least in a titular sense, were the two kings; they were supported by twenty-eight Elders and checked by five Ephors, who kept everyone on the Spartan straight and narrow path. Then there were the thousands of Spartiates who made up the assembly—eight thousand at the start of the fifth century. This was the ruling class, and their subjects were the mass of the disenfranchised or relatively disenfranchised populations of Laconia and Messenia.

The Peloponnesian League

Strengthened by the final acquisition of Messenia and by the new social system, the Spartans went on the warpath. Brimming with confidence, in about 560 they set off north to Tegea, with the intention of turning the Arcadians into helots as well and curbing Argive influence in Arcadia. They were defeated by the Tegeans, however, and this prompted a change of policy, from annexation to subordination by alliance. The change was marked by bringing the bones of Orestes, the legendary Peloponnesian hero (the son of Agamemnon and nephew of the Spartan king Menelaus), from Tegea to Sparta, and the bones of Orestes’ son Tisamenus from Achaea to Sparta. The idea was that leadership of the Peloponnese had passed from the others to the Spartans by hereditary right.

By about 550, Sparta had prevailed against the Tegeans and entered into an alliance with them. This seems to have triggered an avalanche, and before long others had agreed to treaties of alliance—above all, Corinth, Elis, Sicyon, Megara, and Epidaurus. The smaller states needed protection, the larger ones the knowledge that their oligarchies would have Spartan support. As the strongest state, Sparta would be the leader of the alliance. The deal was that, in return for Spartan backing for their regimes, they would supply troops for use against external enemies or helots. From 382, however, by which time the hiring of mercenaries was common, they were allowed to supply money in lieu of men, at a rate of three obols for one hoplite or two light-armed soldiers.

The Peloponnesian League, as we call it today, started as a fairly loose arrangement, but this became unsatisfactory from the Spartan point of view, since their so-called friends were not above disobeying Spartan orders or fighting one another. So, seizing opportunities as they arose, they gradually tightened things up until the oath sworn by members of the league obliged them to follow the lead of the Spartans, but the Spartans did not have the same obligation. Each of the member states had an alliance with Sparta, but not with other member states. This left all the league’s foreign policy in Spartan hands, although the allies were otherwise self-governing. Only the Spartans could call meetings of the League Congress, but the fact that each member state had a single vote in Congress meant that the vote could go against them.

The league came close enough to uniting the Peloponnese that members felt themselves to be part not just of a distinct geographical entity, but also of a distinct political entity, with its own interests and identity. The chief holdouts from the league, preventing the Spartans from turning the Peloponnese into a federal state, were Argos, the old enemy, and the Achaeans. In 546, the Spartans had another go at taking Cynouria from the Argives; this time they won, and gained much of the southeast coast of the Peloponnese and the island of Cythera. This was a severe defeat for Argos, which had long been an aggressive and expansive state, and the once-great city took a back seat in Peloponnesian affairs for quite a while afterwards. Its decline was hastened by a further defeat at Spartan hands in 494, in the battle of Sepeia, near Tiryns. Argive losses this time were so devastating that afterwards they had to enfranchise members of their subject populations, just to remain viable as a state.

Cleomenes I, ascending to the Agiad throne of Sparta in 520 or thereabouts, was committed to this policy of Spartan expansion. From early in his reign, he began to target Athens. In 519 the Boeotian town of Plataea approached Sparta for an alliance, since they did not want to get sucked into the orbit of Thebes, which was forming its Boeotian neighbors into a confederacy under its leadership. Cleomenes cunningly refused the alliance and told the Plataeans to ally themselves with Athens instead—which was, of course, far closer. An alliance was duly concluded between the Plataeans and the Athenians—and forever afterwards, unless really drastic circumstances overrode it, the fundamental attitude of the Thebans toward Athens (and vice versa) was one of hostility. Cleomenes had cleverly set two of the most powerful Greek states against each other.

By the time of the Persian invasion in 480, then, the Spartans, with their Peloponnesian allies, were by far the most powerful state in Greece; they had a good battlefield record and were known as professional and disciplined soldiers. They were the natural choice to lead the resistance against the invader.

The Kalmyk Migration


A traditional Kalmyk encampment. The Kalmyk yurt, called a gher, is a round, portable, self-supporting structure composed of lattice walls, rafters, roof ring, felt covering and tension bands

Modern scholars know more about these events three hundred years ago than almost any foreign observer of that time. Yet there is much to be learned from studying commentaries of that time—they teach us what contemporaries knew, suggest why decisions were made, and provide us an understanding of the intellectual climate in which decisions about frontier peoples were made.

Thomas Penson De Quincey (1785-1859) is recognised today for his 1822 Confessions of an Opium-Eater, but in his lifetime he was better known as a writer and journalist. A polymath who had demonstrated early in life extraordinary talents, he was prevented by poor health from doing more than commenting on society, politics and history. Still, his Collected Works amounted to twenty-two volumes.

His long article on ‘the Revolt of the Tartars’, appeared in a prominent magazine, Blackwood, in July 1837, and was almost instantly recognized as an adventure classic. He took the basic facts from a German article by Bergman, Versuch zur Geschichte der Kalmüken Flucht von der Wolga, whose narrative had been based on the recollections of a Russian prisoner, Weseloff. ‘The Revolt of the Tartars’ was, therefore, a third-hand narrative that reflected an obscure incident in the vast borderland between two advancing civilisations—China and Russia. The steppe tribes that roamed what is today Kazakhstan were caught in the middle. Hence De Quincey’s subtitle: Flight of the Kalmuck Khan and his People from the Russian Territories to the Frontiers of China. This event, according to De Quincey, was perhaps the most romantic of any story in history, involving the mightiest of Christian thrones and the mightiest of pagan ones, a myriad of wills, the wild barbaric character of the migrants upon whom the national catastrophe fell, and the many open and hidden motives of those involved. There was first a conspiracy, then a great military expedition, and lastly a religious exodus. Against such a magnificent background, one equal in colour to the skies and mountains that framed the limitless prairie, what did mere facts matter?

The story began 21 January 1761, when Ubashi Khan (Prince Oubacha, 1724-75) succeeded his father as ruler of the Kalmyk people living on both sides of the Volga River. He had been only eighteen years of age when he first had a role in tribal leadership, not old enough to command the allegiance of the clan leaders of his widespread tribe and certainly unlikely to impress the officials of the distant tsarina of Russia who allowed the nomads free use of the Kuban plain in return for military service; and even when mature he lacked the domineering personality that impresses nomads. It was no surprise, therefore, that a rival was able to persuade the Empress Elizabeth (1709-62) to give him her blessing to assist Ubashi in ruling his scattered people. This started the series of events that led the Kalmyks to decide to leave Russia. Doing that, however, would not be easy.

First, the Kalmyks had been in the service of tsars and tsarina so long that memory of their having fled the attacks of the Zungars was distant folklore. Elizabeth and Catherine II (1729-96), their most recent Russian overlords, had plenty of infantry—conscripts from the peasantry—but those sturdy fighters were only familiar with draft animals; for cavalry they had their noble boyars, but those aristocrats insisted on returning to their estates quickly after each campaign was over. This meant that for a more permanent cavalry force the generals had to rely on Cossacks. These wild horsemen were, alas, undependable; they resisted every governor’s efforts to control them and periodically revolted over issues involving pride and traditional independence.

As a result, military leaders had advised trying to replace them, or at least restrict their expansion, by asking more of the Kalmyks. As governors insisted that the tribesmen remain longer on campaigns, mass desertions resulted. This made generals determined to bring the Kalmyks to heel as well as the Cossacks.

Second, the Quin dynasty was not known for treating steppe peoples leniently. In 1756-7, only a few years before, the emperor had ordered his generals to kill all the Lamas of the ‘Yellow Teaching.’ This could only be done after destroying the Zungar leadership, which, as we have seen, they did by a combination of surprise, betrayal, and force. Such a policy of extermination was rare for the Quin emperor, but the Zungars had refused assimilation point blank; his response was to make their steppe into a human desert. Where once 600,000 nomads had lived, now not a tent could be seen anywhere.

For the Kalmyks this meant that a new homeland was available—actually their old homeland—if they could secure Catherine II’s blessing to return there. They knew little about the lands in between, but one steppe and one mountain range were much like any other. Their ancestors, losers in the complicated wars of rapidly changing Central Asia, had come to Russia with only two usable skills—herding animals and making war. They had not seen any reason to learn how to farm or live in villages. This had meant that, since Russian generals always wanted more cavalry, they had enlisted for wars both in Europe and on the eastern steppe, where tsars were extending control beyond the horizon to the east. Now, however, they could see that this arrangement was coming to an end.

Once Catherine II began to settle wheat farmers in the Kuban in 1763, it was obvious that the wide plain was becoming too small to support the herds of the nomads. The immigrants known as ‘Volga Germans’—Roman Catholics from the Holy Roman Empire—were introducing modern agricultural methods that increased production more than the traditional villages of serfs could do. While the empress seemed to be carrying out a traditional policy—encouraging enterprises that would produce more taxes—she was also reducing the danger of revolution by diversifying the population. Although Catherine II was angering Orthodox Cossacks and Buddhist Kalmyks by bringing in Roman Catholics who weren’t even good Russians, she knew that ancient rivalries with the Muslims of the Caucasus Mountains and the Turks would make it impossible for them to acquire allies there.

Meanwhile, the Kalmyks were finding themselves ever more unwelcome in Russia. They had taken, in part, the Cossacks’ main reason for existing—military service for the tsar. But more fundamentally, all herdsmen—Cossacks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs and Kalmyks alike—hated manual labour, working at lowly jobs in the towns and being treated as an inferior form of life. The Cossacks arguably suffered less—they at least spoke Russian and understood what was going on. But they all resisted as best they could.

No cattlemen anywhere have ever been known to be unduly sensitive to farmers’ complaints about their herds trampling the grain. While the Cossacks giving up some of their horses and becoming farmers was nothing unusual—the Cossacks had always been men of the soil—for the Kalmyks this was a serious challenge to their entire way of life. A nomad was a man only as long as he was on horseback, and paying taxes to some Russian official would undermine the whole clan structure. Moreover, for a Kalmyk to become a farmer implied abandoning Buddhism. In the Russian language the word for peasant was крестьян (Christian).

The religious situation in the Kuban was as easily ignited as a prairie fire, and as quick to spread. Everyone was aware of the wars that the Cossacks had fought against the Circassians and Chechens, and they anticipated the yet more fierce wars to come. But Catherine II, like most Enlightenment rulers, believed that she had the knowledge and the power to shape society as she wished, and that everyone would be better off for it.

This had resulted in a considerable reduction in Ubashi’s authority. The Kalmyk clan leaders were already accustomed to considerable autonomy; after all, with the herds scattered over a very wide area, it had been impractical to refer all minor issues to the khan. When Ubashi was required to submit all his decisions to review by a council of tribal elders, it became possible for a rival, Zebek-Dorchi, to challenge him. (We do not actually know this rival’s name, since Zebek-Dorchi means ‘a legitimate claimant’ to tribal leadership.) Soon the young upstart was the dominant figure among the clan leaders, a role that the tsarist governor seems to have recognised—and welcomed as weakening tribal unity. However, the government seems to have had an exaggerated view of what it could expect its new puppet to do. Clearly, there was no point in any Kalmyk leader asking permission to return to China.

When tsarist officials explained to Zebek-Dorchi what they expected him to do, he agreed to cooperate. But that was a lie. He saw what the settlement of German and Russian farmers in the most favourable areas between the Volga and Don Rivers meant—that more farmers would be coming soon. Already herders were being forced to take up lowly trades in the cities and forts; this would inevitably lead to conversions to Orthodox Christianity. But he could not defy the government, because the governor would give his new authority back to the old khan. Nor could he simply murder his rival—Catherine II was not a person to forgive such actions. But he could prepare the way to lead the Kalmyks back to their original homeland east of the Caspian Sea or even back to the Great Wall of China. To this end he began a correspondence with the emperor of China, who gave his approval to the proposal, then wrote a prominent lama of the Yellow sect, probably a Mongol (but often identified, probably incorrectly, as the Dalai Lama), who, presumably after consulting the stars and signs, set the date for the start of the migration in January 1771. All this had to be conducted in greatest secrecy, first to avoid tsarist officials taking hostages from among the families and then to make excuses for crossing the ring of forts that marked the frontier. If his intention was discovered, the garrisons could prevent their passing safely with their herds and wagons.

When Ubashi Khan learned what the tribal leaders had decided, he originally bent to their will, but over the months to come he made as much trouble for Zebek-Dorchi as he dared. He knew that he could not flee to the Russians because Catherine would not forgive him for failing to control his people, and the Kalmyks in the Kuban would probably assassinate him. Therefore, he accompanied the exodus, but did not cooperate fully with the Kalmyks’ new leader.

The garrisons on the frontier were mostly Cossacks, Orthodox fanatics ready to kill Catholics, Jews, or Muslims, or even Buddhists like the Kalmyks. They were fierce warriors, completely at home on the limitless plains, and among the best horsemen in the world. There were also Poles, Germans, and representatives of all the oppressed people in the empire—the Russians had mastered the techniques of divide and rule, letting the subject peoples terrorize each other into submission.

Catherine II thus had good reasons to keep the Kalmyks in her service. If they were allowed to leave, why not others? Moreover, in 1770 Ubashi had led 40,000 cavalry to support the Russian army in its war against the Turkish sultan and had contributed greatly to the ultimate victory. However, the Russian court and army made no secret of their disdain for him and any of their other barbarian subjects. Insolence, contempt, and mistreatment—common features of imperial regimes—were typical of Russian officers and administrators. Since Western Europeans looked down on the Russians, the example may have been contagious; alternatively, it may have reflected the folk memory among Russians of the long and bloody oppression by horse-born raiders and conquerors from the south and east. It might have come simply from the difficulty of finding competent and humane men to spend their lives on a distant and backward frontier, but more likely it was hatred for the way that hundreds of thousands of their people had been carried away into Muslim slavery, and treasure uncountable had been handed over as tribute. It was pay-back time, even if the Kalmyks had not been guilty of those crimes and were not even Muslims.

If De Quincey alternated between ‘Kalmuck’ and ‘Tartar’, it is of no importance. No horde in that era was ethnically pure. Relationships were often symbolic; what was uniform was the lifestyle. Languages varied, but communication was not a problem—this was not the first time there had been a mass migration. A similar one had brought the Kalmyks west, just has earlier hordes—Goths, Huns, Avars, Pechenegs, Mongols and Tatars—had come through Russia into Central Europe. Many had followed the route back east when climate and politics permitted or required, and the route was strewn with the remnants of Turkic, Mongol and Caucasian peoples who had stopped along their migrations. Some of these peoples undoubtedly disliked the Kalmyk plans because they did not want anyone crossing their grazing lands, consuming the grass and spreading diseases.

Since Zebek-Dorchi had to consult with the tribes along his proposed route, it is no surprise that rumours of the exodus reached the governor, who first dismissed the idea, then became panicked. Zebek-Dorchi’s plan had been for the Kalmyks to burn all their own dwellings—to discourage the faint-hearted from turning back—then to fall on all the Christian settlements in the Kuban. However, the ice on the Volga was too thin that January for Kalmyks in the Kuban to cross. Knowing that they would be massacred in retaliation if they attacked Russian towns and farms, they quietly returned to their homes. Thus, the exodus consisted only of the 200,000 Kalmyks living east of the Volga River.

The Russian army was soon on the trail of the fugitives—and a wide trail it must have been, beaten out by wagons, horses, cattle, sheep and camels. However, the Cossacks, regular army units and other nomadic peoples could not move swiftly, either, as they were burdened by a supply train and artillery; on the other hand, they had few civilians to slow them down, and no herds needing water and forage.

The Kalmyks had a considerable head start thanks to having made the first three hundred miles in a week. Exhausted, they paused at a river before moving on at an average of forty miles a day, a pace which was greater than the animals could stand for long. Soon sheep and cattle began to perish. Even earlier their milk had given out, making it impossible to feed the infants and younger children. As a result, it was the camels which saved the tribesmen, though they, too, were becoming gaunt. It was, after all, deepest winter in one of the coldest regions on earth.

The first confrontation was won by the heavily armed garrison of a fort at a river crossing. Fortunately for the Kalmyks, many of the Cossacks had gone to the Caspian Sea to fish, and the rest retreated under the renewed pressure of Kalmyk numbers. Nevertheless, the tribesmen could not take the fort, and since they could not pass by beyond cannon range, they and their herds were under constant shelling the five days it took to reach the opposite shore. At the very end news arrived that the rear guard, 900 men from one of the most powerful clans, had been defeated by a Cossack force and utterly annihilated.

The Kalmyks immediately increased the pace, fearing that the Cossacks would occupy the only pass through the mountains ahead. They gained time to cover that 150 miles thanks to a ten-day snow storm, during which they slaughtered many of their animals and feasted, regaining strength for the race to come; meanwhile each day some of the tribesmen made progress toward their goal. In early February they could see the mountains.

Their scouts, alas, reported that they had arrived too late—Cossacks were already in place—and soon other reports came in that hostile forces were approaching from every point of the compass. This new enemy—Kyrgyzs, Kazakhs and Bashkirs, all former allies well-known to them—deserved their formidable reputation both for valour and endurance. That made it all the more necessary to force the pass at once. But it was only when the Kalmyks attacked that they saw how small the blocking unit was; Zebek-Dorchi then led dismounted warriors around the defenders and came in from the rear at the same moment that the main body of horsemen struck from the front.

The battle quickly became a slaughter. The Cossacks had exhausted their horses and camels to get into position, and so the mounts lacked the strength to carry the surviving heavy riders through the snow to safety. For generations thereafter Kalmyks related the story of the battle as one of the most glorious moments in their national history.

There was still a formidable army plodding on behind them. Michael Johann von Traubenberg (1719-72) was a German-Balt with a reputation for moving as slowly as he thought. Governor of Orenburg, a Cossack outpost just north of the Kazakh lands, he was responsible for the huge region to the south. To maintain his family’s status at the court, he needed a success in this expedition (or at least the appearance of one); on the other hand, he did not want to repeat the failure of the 1718 expedition to Khiva in the Uzbek khanate—the loss of the entire army of perhaps 4,000 men. The extremes of weather were formidable—brutal cold in winter, terrible heat in summer—so he was cautious about wearing out his men and their mounts.

Traubenberg followed slowly with his artillery as far as Orsk, counting on 10,000 Kazakhs and an equal number of Kyrgyzs to join him as soon as the spring grass was up. Both Turkic peoples were Sunni Muslims, but while their Hanfi legal tradition emphasised religious flexibility based on logical analysis of problems, they had each suffered Kalmyk attack when they had resisted tsarist expansion. Now the sides had changed—these warriors could earn pay and the tsarina’s favour while dispatching ancient enemies. But spring was months away. So the best Traubenberg could do was send scouts to keep track of the fugitives, then follow along slowly with the main army. His scouts reported finding many frozen bodies of women and children who had vainly huddled around the campfires in hope of surviving another night.

By May the Kalmyk had covered 2,000 miles. Thinking themselves safe, they scattered throughout the rolling prairie so that their surviving animals could graze and they could relax. When envoys from Traubenberg caught up with them, their hopes of being able to negotiate a new relationship with the tsarina’s government vanished—the only terms Traubenberg would accept were unconditional surrender. This was hardly rejected before Bashkirs struck, wiping out one isolated clan after another.

Once again the Kalmyks set off in wild flight, with their enemies trying to get ahead and hold them in place until the Cossack army could catch up. But the prairie was too broad to trap them long; and the Kalmyks, despite the desert heat and lack of forage, pushed on. In the summer both fugitives and pursuers reached settled territories. Both faced difficult choices—to proceed straight ahead meant encountering forces trying to prevent them from plundering, to go around meant starvation for men and beasts.

Our information about this summer crisis is sparse because our main informant about the winter march, a prominent Russian prisoner, had escaped and made his way back to Orenburg. De Quincey reports that when he rushed into his home, his mother was so overwhelmed by seeing her only son still alive that she fell dead on the spot.

As the two hordes approached the Chinese border in the early autumn, the fighting became ever more frenzied. As De Quincey put it: ‘The spectacle became too atrocious; it was that of a host of lunatics pursued by a host of fiends.’

As it happened, that very day, September 8, the Chinese emperor, Qianlong, was visiting Xinjiang, hunting in a vast area made almost devoid of human population by earlier operations of the Chinese army. According to a Jesuit reporter, he was standing at the entrance to his pavilion when he observed a cloud in the distance, a cloud that became ever larger, rolling forward in immense billows. Quickly he summoned his military escort and huntsmen, who watched in consternation as they espied distant men thundering toward them, with faint cries of desperation and combat discernible. There were so few Chinese that they could be easily overwhelmed, but nobody dared move without an imperial command.

The emperor realised that the foremost party was the Kalmyk host, but he had not expected them to arrive for another three months and not in such furious haste. While the emperor debated with himself whether or not to retire towards his main army, he saw that the mass of horsemen began moving away at a slight angle toward a body of water, Lake Balkhash (Tengis). He was too far away to see well, but he was quickly informed that the Kalmyks, Kyrgyzs and Bashkirs had been ten days in the desert and were now perishing from thirst. With no thought for further fighting, the Kalmyks threw themselves into the lake. There they were slaughtered by their pursuers until the Bashkirs and Kyrgyzs also succumbed to the desire to drink. Then a desperate struggle began, with all sides trying to lap up the bloody water, to push enemies beneath the surface, and to gather in protective clumps of friends and relatives. Then the Chinese cavalry arrived and the commander of a nearby fort began lobbing cannon balls among those Bashkirs and Kyrgyzs who remained mounted at a distance. The Kalmyks then took their revenge on those dismounted enemies who had been abandoned by their fleeing kinsmen.

The emperor assigned the Kalmyks territories superior to those they had abandoned in Russia, but the losses in human and animal wealth could not be made good quickly. Moreover, Zebek-Dorchi was now thoroughly disgusted with the khan, an enmity that came to the attention of the emperor, who soon discovered that Zebek-Dorchi had been conspiring with various tribal leaders to throw off Chinese rule. The emperor apparently ordered the khan to deal with it, which he did at a banquet during the great assembly of the ‘Tatar peoples’—an annual tradition dating back to the time of the Mongols—slaughtering Zebek-Dorchi and his fellow conspirators. Ubashi Khan was henceforth the undisputed ruler of the Kalmyks, but, with his people scattered to the five districts assigned by the emperor, he ceased to be important.

Ubashi Khan did have his revenge on his rivals—his partisans wrote the tribal history.

Liberia I


In 1989, Charles Taylor and a ragtag group of a hundred men armed mainly with AKs stormed the presidential palace in Liberia and controlled the country for the next six years. By issuing AKs to anyone who swore allegiance to him, Taylor stayed in power with bands of thug soldiers who were allowed to pillage their defeated enemies as payment for their loyalty.

On Christmas Eve 1989, forty-one-year-old Charles Taylor, a former security guard, gas station mechanic, and truck driver, invaded the African nation of Liberia with a ragtag group of about one hundred rebels primarily armed with cheap AKs. Crossing the border from Ivory Coast, Taylor and his men first waged guerrilla warfare in the heavily forested Nimba County, securing town after town as they added soldiers to their force.

With the Soviet bloc countries selling AKs for quick cash, Taylor, with reported support from Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gadhafi, was able to arm his poorly trained and outfitted rebels for little money. At the same time, Western nations paid almost no attention to small-arms trade in Africa. They were still focused on weapons of mass destruction and believed light weapons, those that could be carried by soldiers, were of little consequence.

Throughout Africa, the disappearance of superpower support in the late 1980s led to the collapse of traditional government militaries. Countries fragmented into tribal groups that harbored long-standing ethnic resentments. The demand for small arms grew and prices dropped dramatically because of the deluge of available arms from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Eastern Europe. Although cheap AKs were not responsible for the beginning of brutal, decades-long conflicts in Africa, they were a principal factor in prolonging them. The weapons brought devastating changes to a frail continent fraught with disease, hunger, and few economic opportunities.

Adding to the problem was the lack of desire among Western nations to track arms. Even if they were interested, tracking became impossible due to the sheer volume of weapons flooding world markets. United Nations officials were unable to garner support for programs to monitor small arms or limit their sale. In fact, it was never illegal to sell arms to Africa except in later instances of UN-IMPOSED arms sanctions, which were largely ineffective anyway.

“A few planeloads of arms going to an African country just didn’t make the cut, in terms of an issue governments would want to pay attention to,” Tom Ofcansky, an African affairs analyst with the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, told PBS’s Frontline in 2002. “But the impact of a few planeloads of arms, as we’ve seen repeatedly in Africa, had a devastating impact on fragile African societies.”

Charles Taylor didn’t know it at the time, but he was on the cutting edge of a trend that would result by 2000 in the deaths of seven to eight million Africans as well as the displacement of millions of people seeking refuge from prolonged, low-level conflicts fueled by cheap and indestructible AKs.

Like the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, Taylor employed his small-arms firepower to ambush government forces. Systematically, he and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), isolated unprotected towns instead of fighting government forces head-on as he pushed south toward the capital, Monrovia, over the weeks and months following his Christmas Eve invasion. His group also took over key industrial facilities such as the country’s second largest rubber plantation in the southern port of Buchanan.

Taylor garnered troops by exploiting their tribal allegiances and anger at the current government for poor economic conditions. This tribal anger stemmed from the modern beginnings of Liberia, when freed American slaves established a colony there in 1822. By 1847, these Americo-Liberians, as they were called, declared independent the Republic of Liberia, and named its capital Monrovia for President James Monroe. The second largest city, Buchanan, was named for President James Buchanan’s brother Thomas, who later became vice president of Liberia. Buchanan was honored for hand-delivering the new Liberian constitution to the United States after it was written by Harvard University professor Simon Greenleaf. It was this document that sowed the seeds for Liberia’s ensuing conflicts, because it denied rights to those other than the freed American slaves, the Americo-Liberians. The natives, the overwhelming majority, were considered second-class citizens, and the Americo-Liberians controlled the country’s government and financial and industrial infrastructure.

Efforts over the years by various presidents to bring tribal Africans into the economic and political fold failed, and the majority of the population considered the government as corrupt. This was exacerbated by generous concessions to U.S.-owned firms like the Firestone Plantation Company, which exerted great influence on the country’s internal politics, to the resentment of many Liberians.

Descended from Americo-Liberians on his father’s side and the indigenous Gola tribe on his mother’s, Liberian-born Taylor was fascinated by the history of his country and its relationship with the United States. In 1972, he emigrated to the United States, where he graduated in 1977 with a bachelor of arts degree in economics from Bentley College near Boston. While in college, he became the national chairman of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas, a group founded in 1974 “to advance the just causes of Liberians and Liberia at home and abroad.” While he chaired the group, Taylor politically matured, even forming a protest demonstration against then Liberian president William Tolbert in 1979 when the leader visited the United States.

Instead of ignoring Taylor, Tolbert debated him, and by some accounts he lost the verbal joust. Taylor was arrested when he declared that he would take over the Liberian mission, but was later released when Tolbert refused to press charges. In fact, Tolbert invited Taylor to return home to Liberia, and in 1980 he did.

On April 12, 1980, army sergeant Samuel K. Doe killed Tolbert during a military coup. Doe, the first indigenous Liberian to became president, and a member of the Krahn tribe, ruled the country with an iron fist. He tortured and killed Americo-Liberians in a reign of revenge.

From here, Taylor’s story took some weird turns. Despite his connection with the previous government, Doe hired him as the government’s head purchasing agent, but he was thrown out in 1983, accused of embezzling more than $900,000. Taylor fled to the United States and was arrested in Boston at the request of Doe and held for extradition. After languishing for almost a year in the Plymouth County House of Corrections, Taylor in 1985 escaped by sawing through bars and climbing down a bedsheet rope. He made his way back to Africa. American officials suspected that he spent the next four years in Libya with Gadhafi before invading Liberia with his AK-armed insurgents.

While Taylor’s ultimate goal was the destructive overthrow of the corrupt Doe government, he accomplished more than that. He created a watershed event in warfare history, revealing that the accepted model for modern warfare had changed. In the past, war had been conducted as a series of armed conflicts between armies of established countries. The goal was to gain territory or force an ideology. With Taylor, the world saw a different kind of warfare emerge. It consisted of paramilitary combatants, armed with light, cheap weapons, whose long-term goal was not only to topple a government but to attack civilians en masse along the way. These soldiers were permitted, even encouraged, to engage in any atrocity, including rape and ethnic slaughter, to terrorize the population and gain control. Civilians were fair game, including children, which was a major change from previous contemporary wars in which combatants had tried to limit “collateral” damage. Even in the case of the German bombing of London or the U.S. dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, the goal was capitulation; once an enemy surrendered the conflict was considered over.

Not so with Taylor. He wanted money and power in addition to political command. He cleverly recruited fighters by encouraging their tribal hatred and giving them cheap automatic weapons. In return they could plunder from those they killed. They could loot, pillage, and arrest anyone they wanted and murder them if they chose. In this way, Taylor could build an army, and his only expense was an AK for each recruit at a cost of less than fifty dollars each, in some cases as low as ten dollars.

Taylor went further by putting large numbers of weapons in the hands of youngsters, many of them war orphans, who had few alternatives for sustenance and shelter in a country already ravaged by strife. Seeing gangs of boys with AKs slung over their shoulders, sporting baseball caps and ripped T-shirts, terrorizing jungle villages, Western observers likened it to the book Lord of the Flies, the classic William Golding novel of brutal boys running wild, lawless gangs playing out their sadistic fantasies.

Taylor’s Small Boy Units, as he dubbed them, often were put in charge of makeshift checkpoints where they stood menacingly, AKs at the ready, demanding bribes for passage. Other times they were let loose in villages that stood in the way of Taylor’s march toward the capital, Monrovia. These naive youngsters were promised cars, toys, even computers for their service. Outsiders found the contradictions unsettling, as one minute these boys would act tough as combat veterans and in the next they would play with their toys and games. “I met and spoke with young child soldiers in Danane, Ivory Coast. They had crossed the border from fighting in Liberia and acted as a ‘protector’ force for Taylor,” wrote Jamie Menutis, an officer for the U.S. Resettlement Office of the Department of State who took testimony from refugees of human rights abuses in asylum cases. “During their free moments, they put down their AK-47s and played with small matchbox cars in the dirt. This is an image I will never forget.”

In a perverted context, child soldiers fit Taylor’s needs perfectly. They were easy to recruit, naive enough to stay within the fold, and armed with an AK they were just as lethal as an adult. Even the youngest boys, barely able to hold the rifle, could spray bullets and hit a human target. Psychologically, child soldiers held other advantages. Youth made them feel invulnerable. Coupled with natural teen bravado and an undeveloped conscience, children offered a deadly combination in a guerrilla fighter. As one Liberian militia commander put it, “Don’t overlook them. They can fight more than we big people. . . . It is hard for them to just retreat.”

For opposing forces, seeing a child holding a weapon was unnerving, and there were several instances in other African countries such as Sierra Leone, in which Western soldiers sent as peacekeepers did not have the heart to fire at children even though they were deadly combatants.

The Small Boy Units were often looked upon with favor by their adult rebel comrades. Not only did they add numbers to the ranks, but their very existence seemed to be spiritually mandated. As one adult soldier put it, “God must think that [President] Doe is oppressive, too, because he sent us all these small boys to fight.”

Nobody knows how Taylor got the idea for the Small Boy Units, but it was indeed inspired. “Taylor had unleashed the most deadly combat system of the current epoch, the adolescent human male equipped with a Kalashnikov—an AK-47 assault rifle,” noted Michael Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Liberia II


Because AKs are inexpensive, easy to fire, require almost no training, need few repairs or maintenance, they are ideally suited for child soldiers. As many as 80 percent of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone, shown here, were boys and girls between seven and fourteen.

Within seven months of his invasion, barely noticed by the outside world, Taylor and an estimated five thousand guerillas reached the outskirts of Monrovia with their sights set on the presidential mansion where Doe had hunkered down. Despite his oppressive regime, Doe’s government had received more than half a billion dollars from the United States since the 1980s. In exchange, Doe pushed out the Soviets and permitted U.S. access to ports and land.

During the capital’s siege, U.S. Marines offered Doe safe passage out of Liberia in August along with U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals, but he refused. Doe’s rule ended during a shootout with a breakaway faction of Taylor’s NPFL group led by Prince Yormie Johnson even though the president was under the protection of a four-thousand-man peacekeeping force sent by the six-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Johnson seized the opportunity to capture Doe when Taylor’s soldiers temporarily faltered in their forward progress just outside the city. A wounded Doe was carried away to Johnson’s camp, where he later died either from his gunshot wounds or from torture and execution, depending upon who told the story. His mutilated body was put on public display.

The rift between Taylor and Johnson led to six more years of bloodshed as seven rival factions, separated mainly along tribal lines, joined the conflict and fought for control of the country’s natural resources, including iron, timber, and rubber. The brutal warfare continued as more light weapons reached the combatants. One of the last and darkest moments was the April 6, 1996, siege of Monrovia, during which an estimated three thousand people were killed as five factions converged on the capital. After several unsuccessful cease-fires brokered by ECOWAS and others, major hostilities finally ended. In 1997, elections were held.

Some international observers, including former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, deemed the elections fair, and Taylor received 75 percent of the votes. Others believed that citizens were afraid to vote for anyone else. Moreover, many Liberians feared that Taylor would resume the war if he was not elected.

With the elections drawing world attention, those outside Liberia began to understand the staggering effects of the war. More than 200,000 people were killed, most of them civilians, and another 1.25 million became refugees. Through the use of his AK-BASED system of warfare and intimidation, Taylor became one of the richest warlords in Africa, pulling in $300 to $400 million in personal income through looting and illegal trading of commodities and arms.

The impact on a generation of children was devastating. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), fifteen thousand to twenty thousand children participated in the Liberian civil war between 1989 and 1997; perhaps as many as 60 percent of the combatants in some factions were under eighteen, with some as young as nine years old.

Unfortunately, Liberia’s violence did not end with Taylor’s election. With the country’s infrastructure in shambles, heavily armed gangs continued to roam the countryside, stealing food and other necessities. People were afraid to give up their AKs, which now represented a way to make a living, albeit a ruthless one, in a country with little opportunity for legitimate work.

Despite a UN embargo imposed on Liberia in 1992, small arms continued to enter the country. Indeed, the United Nations charged that Taylor was a major arms conduit in Africa, operating with impunity and giving shelter to well-known arms dealers such as Gus Kouen-Hoven, a Dutch national who ran the Hotel Africa outside Monrovia. Also prospering under Taylor’s largesse was the notorious Russian trafficker Victor Bout, one of the world’s most active and notorious arms dealers. Bout’s specialty was handling small arms from the Soviet Union and former Soviet states. Another Taylor-connected trafficker was the Ukrainian Leonid Minin, who, UN officials said, supplied arms to Taylor for money but also to win timber export contracts for his company, Exotic Tropical Timber Enterprise. These men made repeated appearances throughout Africa, selling small arms, mainly AKs and RPGs, to insurgents, rebels, and even legitimate armies.

In 1999, Taylor’s regime faced opposition from a group better organized and more effective than the others he had encountered. Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, commonly known as LURD, reportedly backed by U.S. ally Guinea, was consolidating control in the northern part of Liberia using many of the same tactics and engaging in similar atrocities as Taylor. Several other anti-Taylor groups emerged, including the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), allegedly backed by neighboring Ivory Coast, which maintained a stronghold in the southern part of the country. Slowly and amid continued bloodshed, Taylor’s grip on the nation was slipping away. In desperation, Taylor launched Operation No Living Thing, a campaign of atrocities designed to deter civilians from supporting and aiding LURD, whose ranks had swelled with Sierra Leonean militia wanting to destroy Taylor’s regime. Taylor’s terror program failed, and by the end of 2003 he controlled less than a third of Liberia.

A UN tribunal issued a warrant in June 2003 for Taylor, charging that he had exported his brand of AK-based carnage to neighboring Sierra Leone. His instrument there was the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a group that he surreptitiously funded through the sale of weapons and timber. Again, unlike traditional conflicts, neither territory nor ideology were goals. Taylor’s interest in Sierra Leone was its diamond mines, one of the largest deposits in the world. In March 1991, the RUF, under the command of former army corporal Foday Sankoh, gained control of mines in the Kone district. A small band of men, mainly armed with AKs, pushed the government army back toward the capital city of Freetown. Widespread civil war ensued, but this time it was more brutal than anyone had envisioned, even eclipsing Liberia in its depravity.

To maintain control of these diamond mines, the Taylor-backed RUF fighters engaged in atrocities against workers and others never before witnessed in Africa. Using AKs and wholesale rape, torture, mutilations, and amputations of arms and legs of those who opposed them, the RUF terrorized Sierra Leone. Within several years, the group controlled 90 percent of the country’s diamond-producing areas.

Taylor repeatedly denied any involvement, but the statistics on diamond exports belied his claims. Liberia’s annual mining capacity had been 100,000 to 150,000 carats annually from 1995 through 2000, but the Diamond High Council in Antwerp, Belgium, recorded imports into that country from Liberia of more than 31 million carats. According to U.S. ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s testimony before the UN Security Council on July 31, 2000, the RUF gained $30 to $50 million annually, maybe as much as $125 million, from the illicit sale of diamonds. At the same time, exports from Sierra Leone slowed to a trickle, from $30.2 million in 1994 to $1.2 million in 1999.

The originating point of diamonds is pegged to their country of export, not the country of origin, so tracing is virtually impossible; however, Liberia’s diamonds could only have come from Sierra Leone. Taylor sold these “blood diamonds,” or “conflict diamonds,” as they became known, or traded them for small arms directly or through countries like Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Togo, whose exports of diamonds on the world scene also showed unexplainable increases. Arms dealer Leonid Minin also involved himself in the illegal diamond trade as a way to finance arms purchases for Taylor and others in West Africa.

As the years progressed, Taylor found many ways to escape detection for his arms transfers. In 2002, however, the United Nations officially documented a shipment of five thousand AKs from Serbia to Liberia in violation of an arms embargo. Although UN officials had been trying to obtain documented proof of illegal arms shipments to Taylor, hard evidence had always been difficult. In this one case, however, UN weapons inspector Alex Vines painstakingly traced the small arms, starting on the battlefield. He began his investigation in a no-man’s-land in the middle of the Mano River Union bridge between Sierra Leone and Liberia. “A rebel child soldier showed me his AK-47 assault rifle which was stamped with M-70 2002 and a serial number. I knew immediately that this weapon had been made in Serbia,” Vines said. The M-70 is the Yugoslav version of the AK. The child relayed that the weapon had recently been captured from a Liberian government soldier he killed. Discussions with officials in Belgrade showed a certificate on file for a sale to Nigeria, but close inspection revealed the document as a forgery. Further investigation showed that about five thousand AKs had traveled by plane to Libya where the plane was supposed to refuel en route to Nigeria. But instead of terminating in Nigeria as intended, the plane had continued on to Liberia.


Elephantine is the border between Egypt proper and the land of Nubia; the boundary is marked by a particularly nasty cataract region filled with granite rocks. To get to Nubia we go overland for a few miles and join our boat, which has been towed over the rocks, below the cataract. We get on board opposite a big island which will one day be called Philae.

The next part of the trip is not as interesting; the land is poor and not so green with growing crops. Insofar as the monuments go, however, we might still be in Egypt. We pass temples built in the traditional style at half a dozen places, and at least half of them were built by Ramses, a not immodest pharaoh. His most impressive enterprise is at Abu Simbel, which we reach on the eighth day after leaving Aswan. The temple itself is cut into the rock; on the facade are four enormous statues of Ramses, sixty-six feet high.

One of the passengers on our boat is a scribe, who will leave us at Abu Simbel. He carries a bag of scrolls with the texts which he is going to copy onto the walls of the temple, and he tells us that the king wants to revise—once again—the inscriptions that describe his great victories over the Hittites, that presumptuous group of people far away in the north. The scribe is a middle-aged man, run to fat a trifle around the waistline, as scribes usually are; his face has the blank amiability of the trained bureaucrat of any age. But we think we see a twitch at the corner of his mouth as he refers, respectfully, to the king’s famous victory. We too know a few things about the battle of Kadesh, but we are just as tactful as the scribe.

To purists the statues at Abu Simbel seem too big, and rather stumpy. The facade of the temple looks overloaded, with the four colossi, a complicated sculptured group over the doorway, and a row of carved apes on top of the whole thing. It is impressive, though, in keeping with the ambitions of the king. The smaller, adjoining temple is dedicated to the king’s wife, Nefertari, but hers is not the only image to appear there. You can guess who predominates. Beautiful or not, it is certainly solid. As the captain says, it will surely endure as long as the pyramids of Giza.

A further two days’ travel brings us to the Second Cataract, where the river descends in a series of rapids and a chaos of glistening black boulders, wet with foam. Above the gorge is our destination, and it is quite a sight: a massive fort, with battlements and ramparts. Our messages are for the commander of Buhen, where we are welcomed by a crowd which consists of most of the inhabitants of the fort. It is a dull life, and they are always glad to see someone from home.

Buhen is a good place to stop on this trip, for it marks the end of the area which has been under Egyptian control for so long that it is Egyptian in manners and customs—Lower Nubia, or Wawat, as it was known in those days. Anyhow, the rapids of the Second Cataract are dangerous; few vessels attempt to pass them. There are forty miles of rapids, with more forts along the way. The region to the south, Upper Nubia, or Cush, was invaded by several warrior pharaohs, but it refused to stay conquered. We decide not to go on; we are five hundred years too early for the pyramids of Napata and Meroe, which will be built by the descendants of the wretched Cushites whom the commander of Buhen has just mentioned with such sneering condescension. He seems like a pleasant fellow; we need not tell him that within a few centuries the wretched Cushites will be on their way north to take over the throne of Egypt.

We have seen most of the Black Land now, and without so much as leaving the deck of the ship. Boat travel is pleasant; but as we turn from the Black Land to a quick survey of the Red, we can be thankful that our journey is only an imaginary one. We are going into the desert, and that requires fortitude.

The deserts—the Libyan on the west and the Arabian on the east—are high above the valley. In prehistoric times the river cut its way through a plateau which is composed of limestone in the north and sandstone in the south, so that by the pharaonic period, as today, the valley lay at the bottom of a trench whose cliffs are several hundred feet high.

If we were going into the eastern desert with the ancient Egyptians, we would probably backtrack down the Nile to Coptos, which lies on the eastward bend where the river comes closest to the Red Sea. Here we would fit out a caravan of donkeys—the camel will not be known for a long time yet—and start out along the Wadi Hammamat, heading due east.

The eastern plateau is full of these wadis, which are like small canyons or arroyos, and we follow them when we can. There are wells along this particular wadi, which has been a traveled route for millennia. Even so, it is a dreadful trip. The landscape is as barren and dead as a scene on the moon; high mountains parallel the coast, and at one point in our route we have to climb over a pass that rises to 2,500 feet above sea level. The sun is baking hot, and the short-lived spring flowers, products of the winter rains, have long since died. Remembering the cool gardens around the prince’s palace in Coptos, we wipe our streaming brows and wonder why anyone but a madman would venture into these purgatorial rocks. The clue lies, in part, in the ancient name of Coptos. It was called Nebet, and “Nebet” means “the Golden Place.”

Some of the gold that made Egypt great among the nations came from Nubia, but a goodly share of it was found in the desert east of Egypt proper. Some of the gold is still there. Corporations to rework the ancient mines were formed in the last century of our era, but the effort had to be abandoned after a few years because the ores were not worth the expense of extraction. This problem would not have worried the Egyptians; if they wanted something they were willing to put forth a degree of energy which we would consider prohibitive—as witness the pyramids. Perhaps, too, they got all the richer ores and left the rest.

In the Museum at Turin there is a particularly fascinating papyrus, perhaps the oldest treasure map in the world. It may have been drawn at about the time of this imaginary journey to ancient Egypt, and it shows the location of some of the gold mines of the eastern desert. Archaeologists are not sure which mines were meant, but they may have been the very mines that lie along the Hammamat route. These mines, those of Fawakir, are almost on Egypt’s front doorstep compared with some of the others. At some of the desolate, isolated sites there are ruins of ancient camps—stalls for cattle and for the miserable human cattle who worked the mines, barracks for the troops who kept them at a job none of them would have endured unless they had been forced to do it. Perhaps only criminals and prisoners of war were sent to these godforsaken spots; it would have been punishment to suit any crime.

There are jewels in this desert as well as gold—garnets, agate, chalcedony, jasper, rock crystal, carnelian—all prized by the Egyptians for ornaments. Apparently the ancients never discovered the beryls and emeralds, which were found later.

Hard stone was quarried in this barren landscape. True, all stones are hard, but some, I am told, are a lot harder than others. The limestone and sandstone of the valley cliffs, from which most temples were constructed, are soft stones. The Egyptians wanted finer material for special objects, such as the sarcophagus that held a king’s body and the statue that depicted his divine form. At Aswan they quarried red and black granite, from a quarry northeast of Cairo they obtained quartzite, and from the Wadi Hammamat they got the “beautiful bekhen stone,” a gray-blue graywacke prized for the mirrorlike polish it could take. Flint also came from the desert; the ancient mines have been located.

Under its forbidding surface, the desert was a treasure house. But the Egyptians had still another motive for venturing into it. Through the Wadi Hammamat, ancient caravans made their way to the Red Sea, and from ports on the coast they set sail on trading expeditions south to Africa. The products of the mysterious country the Egyptians called “God’s Land” are as poetic as the name itself—apes and ivory, gold and ebony, panther skins, ostrich feathers, frankincense and myrrh. The strange little dancing dwarfs, who made such popular royal “pets,” also came from God’s Land. We don’t know precisely where this exotic country was located, but we think it was somewhere near modern Somaliland.

Having made one jump from Elephantine to Coptos, let us make another one northward, to where the Delta spreads out green arms to east and west. The desert east of the Delta merges into the peninsula of Sinai, also a source of wealth and a high road to distant lands.

The discovery of how to mine and work copper was one of the great advances of early Egyptian culture. The pyramids were built with copper tools. There are a number of ancient mines in Sinai, most of them in the south of the peninsula. Some of the copper which was so essential to Egypt must have come from the eastern desert, although inscriptional evidence is scarce. It is also scarce with regard to the copper mines of Sinai, but it is a safe assumption that the Egyptians got a good deal of this essential mineral there. The miners who worked at Magharah and Serabit el Khadim in the Sinai left numerous inscriptions scratched on the rocks nearby, but these workmen were after turquoise. This semiprecious stone, popular in jewelry from the earliest times, was sacred to the goddess Hathor, one of whose epithets was Lady of Turquoise.

The rocky, sandy roads of northern Sinai led into Asia. The Egyptians got tin and silver, amber and lapis lazuli from the East, not to mention the famous cedar of Lebanon. Under the empire, when they conquered—and were conquered—they also acquired slaves, mercenary soldiers, cattle, and miscellaneous booty. Unfortunately, roads go two ways—if the Egyptians could get out, the Asiatics could get in. They could not get in so easily, since the Egyptians guarded the paths; by garrisoning the few wells they could pretty well control the goings and comings of the “wretched Asiatics.” Still, the Asiatics came, and at certain periods they came in a flood instead of a trickle. The hated Hyksos were Asiatics who brought to Egypt a national humiliation which was not wiped out until the warrior kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty drove the invaders back out into the deserts from which they had come. Even from the invaders the Egyptians got new and useful ideas, and at all periods contacts with the other civilized powers of the Near East—Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Mitanni, Hatti—led to important developments in Egyptian history and culture. The other great civilized powers with whom Egypt had trade relations were off in the middle of the “Great Green”—Crete, Cyprus, and, later, the Mycenean civilization.

The desert on the west of Egypt, the one we call the Libyan, was not so exciting as the eastern desert. It had some valuable minerals, notably diorite and amethyst, but its most distinguishing characteristic was the string of oases that ran in a line roughly paralleling the Nile. There are six oases, five of which were controlled by the ancient Egyptians. Kharga, the “southern oasis,” was one of the most important; it was famous for wine, as was Bahriyah, the “northern oasis.” Perhaps the most useful was the Wadi Natrun, the source of natron, the salt used by the Egyptians in embalming. Far to the northwest of the Wadi Natrun lay Siwa, the only one of the group which was probably not under Egyptian control until late. This was where Alexander the Great went to be recognized as king of Egypt by the great god Amon.

The water which makes the oases possible comes up in pools or springs, some of them thermal in nature. There is so much water that, ironically, the oases used to be quite unhealthy because of malarial fevers. Perhaps the ancient Egyptians were more skillful at handling their water supply than were the Arabs of the nineteenth century A.D., but it is interesting to note that the oases were dumping grounds for undesirables in pharaonic times—political enemies and criminals were exiled to them. The isolation of the oases did make them good prisons without bars; once you were there, there you stayed unless you could bribe the soldiers of the desert patrol to look the other way while you loaded a donkey caravan with food and water. But if the places were as unhealthy in ancient times as they were a century ago, they might also have been a slow sentence of death for anyone the king wanted to get rid of.

The original inhabitants of the oases may have been the wandering tribes the Egyptians called the Tjemehu and Tjehenu. These people had to live somewhere, and there is no place else to live in that area; a few days away from the oases the great sand sea of the Sahara begins. Other nomads lived up north, near the western side of the Delta. They were relatively primitive peoples compared with the Egyptians, who were constantly having to go out and “chastise” them. Living where and as they did, we can hardly blame the Libyan tribes for occasionally raiding one of the oases or a western Delta village. Eventually some of them migrated into Egypt itself and became “Egyptianized.”

In our armchair sail up the Nile, we have seen more of Egypt than most ancient Egyptians did. Even if they were adventurous travelers who had gone all the way from Coptos to Memphis, or Amarna to Elephantine, they still saw the same eternally unchanging landscape—the river and the valley, the high cliffs, the desert and the sown. In the heyday of the empire a commoner might see exotic foreign lands, but usually as a soldier. And even if he did not leave his bones in the unconsecrated soil of Asia or Cush, the Egyptian hated every minute away from home. For him the world was small and serene, and blessedly predictable; and that was just the way he wanted it to be.