Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Don't Mess with the Missus—Central Asia's Women Warriors

By Kelly Raftery

I know what I should do when asked to write about a famous warrior. I should tell you about Manas, who united forty tribes to throw off an oppressive regime and create the Kyrgyz nation. Or, if I wanted to stay in the neighborhood, I could tell you about Uzbekistan’s Tamerlane, who conquered much of Central Asia, the Middle East and Russia. I could write about the Grandaddy of them all-Genghis Khan, who began life homeless and hungry and ultimately ruled an empire that stretched from the Caspian to the Sea of Japan.  

Central Asia does not lack for warriors. And, given that the ones I have listed above are little known in the Western world, I really should pick a warrior and give a good overview. Instead, I would like to introduce you to Central Asia’s women warriors. 

Amazon on horseback. Red-figure neck-amphora, ca. 420 BC.  From the State Collections of Antiques, Munich.
Ancient Greek tales introduced the world to the idea of a race of barbaric women warriors that came thundering out of the Steppes on horseback. Mythic hero Hercules was sent on a mission to steal the Amazon Queen's golden girdle, but instead he fell in love with her. Hercules returned from his mission golden girdle in hand, though not obtained by force. These tribes of women were said to be a savage, matriarchal society in which a girl could not take a husband before she had made her first kill in battle. Greek artists were fascinated by the idea of a race of women warriors and their representation can be found in their art and writings. 

Statue of female warrior
from ancient Rome
Until very recently, the idea of a Bronze-age female dominated culture was considered a myth that simply grew more fanciful in its retelling. Only in the last century have archaeologists begun to excavate kurgans-or burial mounds-in Russia and Kazakhstan that suggest there is more than a bit of truth in these myth. Among recent discoveries are graves of women that contain weapons along with jewelry. A bronze arrowhead nestles alongside ornate gold earrings in one grave. The bones of one thirteen- or fourteen- year-old girl showed a bowing of the legs, an indicator that she had spent much of her young life on horseback. Both Russian and American researchers continue to excavate and find tantalizing clues to this ancient civilization. More information can be found here and here.
Moving forward in history, it should be noted that Genghis Khan’s daughters played an integral role in administering his empire. While his sons were sent forth to acquire new territory, it was his daughters who were sent to rule over conquered peoples and establish the communication and financial networks that were key to the Mongols’ success. Khutulun, one of Kublai Khan’s nieces was a prominent warrior in her own right, supporting her father’s rule of Central Asia. Stories say that she would ride directly into an opposing army to kidnap a warrior before anyone could prevent her from taking a captive. Khutulun even set forth a challenge that she would only marry the man who could beat her in a wrestling match. Eventually she did marry, though as a result of political necessity, not due to a loss. 
To bring our topic full circle, I would now like to introduce you to Kyrgyzstan’s woman warrior, Kurmanjan Datka.  A teenaged Kurmanjan was sent to the head of a neighboring tribe as a bride. On her wedding day, having met her groom for the first time, she fled, breaking with tradition. Kurmanjan first fled to China and then later returned to her father’s camp, where she met and fell in love with a powerful military leader and politician who had taken the title of datka-which means general or lord. 

After thirty years of marriage, Kurmanjan’s husband was killed during political infighting. Kurmanjan assumed her husband’s role both politically and militarily. She was given the title of datka and recognized as the legitimate leader of the Kyrgyz people by the neighboring khanates. Kurmanjan Datka withdrew from public life after the Russian annexation of her territory and the subsequent execution of her favorite son. 

Kurmanjan Datka with one of her sons, early 1900s.

To me, the most notable warriors of Central Asia are the ones who are often lost to history, the ones who bore children and did battle in equal measures.


  1. Fascinating post, Kelly! I can't help thinking what wonderful material these histories would make for a novel. :)

  2. Hi Kelly. How fabulous to learn of the power held by Genghis Khan's daughters! I've read a lot about this era and never heard this. Great job!

  3. It wasn't my scholarship, I would recommend - The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford. While Genghis Khan used his sons and sons in law as strike forces, he called his daughters his Empire's "shields."

  4. I noticed a comment that this material would make a good novel...you might like to check out a novel that I wrote a few years ago titled The Horse Road, published by Bloomsbury and available on Amazon. Set in Central Asia in 104 BC, my novel features a girl warrior, her horses, and the defense of her city when under siege from the entire Chinese army...this is a true event, and the Chinese wanted the Turkmen horses.