IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No.17 | Institutes


2-3 July 1998

Nomads in the Sedentary World

An international colloquium was held in Leiden, July 1998, on the role which nomads have played in the history of the sedentary world. The idea for this colloquium emerged from the observation that the influence of sedentary societies on the nomads has been extensively studied but that the reverse, the impact of nomads on the sedentary world, has to a large extent been the subject of speculation. The intention of this colloquium therefore was to study this issue in a systematic and comparative framework and raise questions at a general level. A book on the subject, containing most of the contributions and a few additional articles, is in preparation.

By Anatoly M. Khazanov & André Wink

The keynote of the colloquium was set by Anatoly Khazanov in his general reflections on 'Nomads in the History of the Sedentary World'. The main conclusion which he advanced was that although in some periods the nomads played a very important role in political, ethno-linguistic and, to a lesser extent, in socio-economic and cultural developments in many parts of the sedentary world, nowhere or almost nowhere was the nomadic factor on its own the determining one among many factors that defined regional historical developments of long duration. This means that the impact of nomads cannot be isolated from the general internal dynamics of sedentary societies. Correspondingly, we see that even the short- and middle-term effects of nomadic involvement vary a great deal in different parts of the sedentary world.

Nine papers were presented which dealt with various regions from Hungary to West Asia, Iran, India and China, in periods that ranged from the first millennium BC to the early modem period. Excepting the paper by André Wink on long-term developments in India, all papers addressed issues relating to the short-term and middle-term impact of nomads. The conclusions of most authors were remarkably similar but showed the different ways in which the nomadic impact varied according to factors at work in the sedentary societies under review. Those nomadic institutions, such as the 'sharing system' of the Mongols which was analysed by Thomas Allsen or the notions of charisma and divine mandate to rule bestowed upon a chosen clan as analysed by Peter Golden, that were at odds with sedentary ones and were simply imposed on sedentary societies, did not last long. On the contrary, even the victorious nomads had to a significant degree to adjust to or adopt the socio-political institutions of the conquered, sedentary population. It was also demonstrated by the participants of the colloquium that the people of the nomadic world of the Eurasian steppes sometimes played an important role in the armies and ruling elites of the Middle East or India, but not as nomads. In this context, a distinction was drawn between genuinely nomadic and 'post-nomadic' traditions and institutions.
Anatoly M. Khazanov was an IIAS research fellow in July and August 1998 and is the Ernest Gellner Professor of Anthropology. André Wink is a Professor of History and is attached to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA.

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