Orkhon Inscriptions

When I was in middle school, I was very enthusiastic about history but quickly became bored with the standard canon of Western history, namely American history. At the time history class basically ran through Sumer, Egypt(often old testament based), Greece, Rome, Middle Ages, Discovery of American, American Revolution.  I became interested in history that didn’t make it to history class, which was anything East of the Middle East and transitions between the different civilizations above. As a person drawn to patterns, I was particularly interested in the interactions between various Central Asian nomads and everyone else. They were extremely important but never well understood. The only individuals who received attention were conquerers, Chinggis Khaan, Tamerlane, or Attila, or groups that became sedentary, such as the Turks.

This interest stayed with me till high school, though the history classes improved, till I did an independent study on nomadism my senior year. There I encountered my favorite monument in the world. In about 735 A.D. two Turkic princes made monuments that looked a bit like this.

The monument was made by captive Chinese artisans and mostly expounds the virtues and exaggerates the accomplishments of the two princes. However it also includes this:

“When some among you, Turkish folk, said : ” I will settle in the South, but not in the forest of Mount Chugay, but in the plain,” then the wicked men encouraged this party among you, Turkish folk, in this way : ” When they are far away they give bad gifts ; when they are near they give good gifts.” Thus did they urge them on. The foolish persons were taken by these words, and went down to their neighbourhood, whereby many among you have come to destruction. If thou then go forth to that land, 0 Turkish nation, thou wilt come to destruction ; but if thou stay in the land of Otukan, and send out caravans, thou wilt never suffer any need. If thou stay on in the mountain forest of Qtiikan, thou shalt ever hold an everlasting kingdom, 0 Turkish nation, and thou shalt be full-fed. When thou art hungry, thou dost not remember what fullness is ; but once thou art full-fed, thou hast no thought of what hunger is.”

It’s a monument over a thousand years old that argues for the nomadic lifestyle, saying that the sedentary lifestyle will bring only misery. For an individual and a society that is usually imagined to simply follow socio-evolutionary trends, the statement is extremely conscious of the larger pictures. Now of course the situation has changed, we’ve been studying the difference in lifestyle for a couple centuries and we have dozens of people such as Jared Diamond and Daniel Quinn who also extoll the virtues of the nomadic lifestyle, though much more absurdly than the Turkic prince.

Anyway, this monument was one of the reasons I went into Anthropology. I had forgotten about it until I realized we were in the Orkhon Valley, about 40 km from the monument. We didn’t get to see it, but it was still cool.


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