Karakitai Empire Established

Establishment of the Karakitai Empire, founded by a former dynasty of China, marked the rise of a non-Islamic empire in Central Asia. Although its existence was brief, it played a critical role in creating an atmosphere of religious tolerance and influencing administrative practices in a region of mixed nomadic and sedentary populations.

Summary of Event

A refugee from the Liao Dynasty Liao Dynasty (907-1125) of northern China established the Karakitai Empire (1130-1210) in Central Asia after the Manchurian Jurchen tribes defeated the Liao in 1125. The Jurchen Jurchens tribes established the Jin Dynasty Jin Dynasty (1125-1234) of China. Although they ruled northern China (and much of Mongolia), the Liao Dynasty was not native to China but a Mongolian group known as the Khitans Khitans . Once they were driven from their empire, Yelü Dashi Yelü Dashi , a prince of the Liao royal family, continued resistance against the Jurchen from Kedun, located along the Orkhon River in Mongolia. [kw]Karakitai Empire Established (1130)
Central Asia;1130: Karakitai Empire Established[1860]
China;1130: Karakitai Empire Established[1860]
Expansion and land acquisition;1130: Karakitai Empire Established[1860]
Government and politics;1130: Karakitai Empire Established[1860]
Yelü Dashi
Muḥammad II
Genghis Khan

Although Yelü Dashi’s efforts against the Jin were at times effective, the Jin Dynasty continued to grow in strength. Without allies, Yelü Dashi had little choice but to move farther west to elude the Jin. Thus, in 1130, Yelü Dashi moved along with his followers to the region between the Irtysh and Emil Rivers and established a base.

Yelü Dashi’s following increased because of the recruitment of various Turkic tribes, and he was elected gurkhan, or universal khan. Despite his title, Yelü Dashi controlled very little territory, although he began to expand it slowly but steadily over the areas of Qayaliq and Almaliq (now in Kazakhstan). His greatest opportunity arrived when the Qarakhanid Qarakhanids rulers of the city of Balasaghun (now in Kyrgyzstan), requested Yelü Dashi’s assistance against the restless nomadic tribes that threatened his realm.

Yelü Dashi accepted the offer but first took over Balasaghun and usurped the throne there. Then he defeated the nomadic Qarluq and Qangli tribes that had intimidated the Qarakhanids. Thus, by 1134, the Karakitai Empire had increased substantially. After his victories, more nomadic tribes joined his ranks, seeking booty from plundering the cities of Central Asia. By 1137, the Karakitai realm contained the cities of Khotan, Kashgar, and Besh-Baliq, all in the Xinjiang (Sinkiang) region. In addition, the gurkhan marched into the Fergana valley (now divided between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan). There he defeated the western Qarakhanids in May, 1137, at the Battle of Khujand Khujand, Battle of (1137) along the Oxus River.

Although the gurkhan won a resounding victory there, he did not follow his victory with the complete subjugation of Mawarannahr (the land between the Oxus River and the Jaxartes River, also known as Transoxiana in antiquity and in the west). Instead, he consolidated his recent conquests.

Soon, however, the attention of the gurkhan once again was drawn to Mawarannahr. One chronicler attributed it to the growing need to provide territory and plunder for the gurkhan’s tribal followers. However, most sources indicated that the Karakitai were invited into the territory by Atsiz Atsiz , ruler of Khwārizm Khwārizmian Empire[Khwarizmian Empire] (east of the Caspian Sea and south of the Aral Sea in modern Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). His invitation to the gurkhan came because of the increasing tension between him and his overlord, Sultan Sanjar Sanjar , the ruler of the Seljuk Empire. Atsiz had attempted to gain his independence from the Seljuks in 1138, but Sanjar defeated him and ousted Atsiz from his governorship. Although Atsiz eventually regained his position in Khwārizm through a coup, he submitted to Sultan Sanjar again in return for clemency. In addition to the proposition offered to the gurkhan by Atsiz, Sultan Sanjar had other reasons for entering the region. Although Atsiz had proven to be a recalcitrant subject, the Karakitai were infidels in the eyes of the Muslim Seljuk ruler. Indeed, while the overall religiosity of the Khitans may be called into question, they tended toward Buddhism, shamanism, or Nestorian Christianity. In any case, this offered Sanjar an excellent opportunity to raise his status by defeating the infidel hordes.

With the older Seljuk Empire (1040-1194) to the south and the nascent Karakitai Empire to the north, the lands between the two attempted to determine which empire would benefit them the most. Thus, in 1141, at the Battle of Qatwan Qatwan, Battle of (1141) near Samarqand (now in Uzbekistan), the armies of the two empires met. The sources tend to exaggerate the number of troops that the gurkhan led into battle, but in any case the gurkhan decisively defeated Sanjar.

With the defeat of the Seljuks, Yelü Daishi had secured Mawarannahr for the Karakitai Empire. Furthermore, Atsiz now became the vassal of the gurkhan. Finally, the empire of Karakitai firmly established itself as a considerable power in Central Asia. Although Yelü Daishi died two years later in 1143, he established a strong and flexible empire that ruled over nomadic tribes as well as sedentary mercantile and agricultural regions, including the great cities of Samarqand and Bukhara, Khotan, and Kashgar. Additionally, his empire was not only multiethnic but also a mixture of religions Religion;Karakitai including Islam, Buddhism, and Nestorian Christianity. His empire demonstrated considerable tolerance of all creeds until the early thirteenth century, when the throne was usurped by an interloper from Mongolia.


The creation of the Karakitai Empire had a tremendous influence on Central Asia. As Karakitai was the nexus point for the Islamic world, East Asia, and the steppe regions, a great number of influences came to the fore under the empire. Among the most important was religious tolerance. Although the gurkhans of the Karakitai tended to be Buddhist, they did not attempt to convert their subjects, who were predominantly Muslim. Many Muslims preferred the rule of the Karakitai over that of previous Muslim rulers, as the gurkhans tended to be more just in their rule or at least less oppressive. Furthermore, the Karakitai were able to maintain control over the unruly tribes of Qarluqs and Qanglis, both Turkic groups. Thus, agricultural and mercantile interests prospered within the empire. The Karakitai also realized the needs of the nomads and attempted to balance their interests, creating a fairly stable and secure empire among a potentially volatile mixture of groups.

Not until forces beyond its peripheries came into play did the empire of Karakitai begin to rupture. The primary cause was the rise of the Mongol Empire under the leadership of Genghis Khan. As some tribes fled before him, they entered the Karakitai Empire and sowed the seeds of discord, ultimately undermining the empire and causing it to fall in 1210 when the Khwārizm shāh, Muḥammad II Muḥammad II (Khwārizm ruler) , and Küchlüg Küchlüg , the leader of the Naiman tribe of Mongolia and an opponent of Genghis Khan, carved the empire of Karakitai between them.

Further Reading

  • Bartold, V. V. Four Studies on Central Asia. Vol. 1. Translated by V. Minorsky and T. Minorsky. Leiden: Brill, 1956. A collection of extended studies on particular regions of Central Asia that includes a brief summary of the empire of Karakitai.
  • Bartold, V. V. Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press and E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Trust, 1977. The section on Karakitai is relatively brief; however, it provides a complete and detailed history of Central Asia before and after the empire.
  • Biran, Michal. “’Like a Mighty Wall’: The Armies of the Qara Khitai, 1124-1218.” Jerusalem Studies on Arabic and Islam 25 (2001): 44-91. The definitive study on the Karakitai military.
  • Bosworth, C. E. “The Eastern Seljuq Sultanate, 1118-1157, and the Rise and Florescence of the Khwarizm Shahs of Anushtegin’s Line up to the Appearance of the Mongols, 1097-1219.” In The Age of Achievement: A.D. 750 to the End of the Fifteenth Century, edited by M. S. Asimov and C. E. Bosworth. Vol. 4 in History of Civilizations of Central Asia. Paris: UNESCO, 1998. Addresses the flourishing of the eastern Seljuk sultanate and the appearance of the Mongols. Discusses their alliance with the Karakitai.
  • Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. Translated by Naomi Walford. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1970. A classic work on Central Asian history. The section on Karakitai is only a summary, but the entire work is highly readable and offers a solid introduction to the study of the Karakitai.
  • Sinor, Denis. “The Kitan and the Kara Khitay.” In The Age of Achievement: A.D. 750 to the End of the Fifteenth Century, edited by M. S. Asimov and C. E. Bosworth. Vol. 4 in History of Civilizations of Central Asia. Paris: UNESCO, 1998. Covers the rise of the Khitan people in China over two centuries. Addresses military and political issues.
  • Wittfogel, Karl A., and Fěng Chia-Shěng. History of Chinese Society: Liao (907-1125). Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1949. Although the focus is on the Liao Dynasty of northern China, the authors also have included a chapter on the Karakitai, including translations of primary sources.