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Forgotten Civilizations

Forgotten Civilizations: The Tibetans

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Egypt. Greece. Rome.

Everyone knows about the great civilizations of antiquity. Everyone knows a little about mummies, philosophers and gladiators. Most people can recognize the Pyramids, the Parthenon and the Colosseum.

These civilizations and other major cultures like them are depicted time and time again on cable television, in motion pictures and popular history literature, and even in history-themed strategy games like the Civilization series.

But what about the rest of the world… the civilizations that everyone forgets? Our history is filled with dozens of fascinating cultures that are overlooked despite their great monuments, advanced technologies and the truly colossal impact they’ve had on the rest of the world.

This blog will highlight some of these forgotten civilizations. They’ve never been featured in a Civilization game or a major Hollywood picture, but we can still learn a great deal from them.

Each post will feature a Civilopedia-style entry describing an overlooked culture’s history and achievements, and perhaps a few of these civilizations won’t be quite so forgotten in the future.

Who would you like to see featured on Forgotten Civilizations? Leave your suggestions in the comments section below.


Alternate Names and/or Subgroups: Bodpa, Amdowa, Khampa

Location and Climate: Bounded on the north by the Kunlun Mountains and the infamous Taklamakan Desert, and on the south by the daunting Himalayas, the Tibetan plateau is truly “the roof of the world.” Perhaps the highest habitable region on earth, the Tibetan plateau was traditionally divided into three provinces. The first and foremost, Ü-Tsang, comprises most of Tibet proper, with much of its habitable terrain consisting of tundra and grasslands. The forbidding Chang Tang plateau is located in the northwest of this region, while the relatively fertile Yarlung River Valley, the cradle of Tibetan civilization, is found in the south. The eastern borderlands of Amdo (modern Qinghai province) and Kham constitute the other two traditional Tibetan provinces. In antiquity, these regions were home to semi-nomadic peoples that fell under the sway of the Tibetan state for most of their history. The People’s Republic of China has since assimilated much of these regions, with Ü-Tsang and western Kham constituting what the Chinese now refer to as the “Tibet Autonomous Region.”

Tibet’s three traditional regions: Ü-Tsang, Amdo and Kham.

Timeline: c. 600 BC - present

600 BC – The Zhang Zhung civilization begins to flourish on the Chang Tang plateau.
AD 600 – Namri Songtsän unites the eastern tribes and becomes the first King of Tibet.
AD 640 – Songtsän Gampo marries Princess Wenchang of China’s Tang Dynasty.
AD 763 – The Tibetan Empire captures Chang’an, the imperial capital of Tang China.
AD 842 – The Era of Fragmentation begins after the empire dissolves in the wake of an assassination.
AD 1253 – Tibet capitulates to Mongol invaders and becomes a vassal state.
AD 1354 – The Phagmodrupa Dynasty regains Tibetan independence.
AD 1578 – The title of “Dalai Lama” is first established.
AD 1645 – The Potala Palace is constructed at the order of the Dalai Lama.
AD 1720 – China’s Qing Dynasty captures Tibet.
AD 1913 – The 13th Dalai Lama proclaims Tibet an independent nation once again.
AD 1950 – The People’s Republic of China invades Tibet without provocation.
AD 1959 – The Dalai Lama is compelled to flee into exile.

The traditional Sho Dun Festival, an annual religious celebration in Lhasa.

History: Tibetan legends tell of the lost kingdom of Shambhala, which was supposed to have existed somewhere in Inner Asia. It was said to be a place of great tranquility and peace, high in the mountains. These ancient traditions later gave rise to the legend of the mystical Himalayan paradise of Shangri-la that has been perpetuated in the west. Of course, the tale of Shambhala may be a myth, but in the telling of it, we learn something of both the dreams and the beliefs of the Tibetan people.

The legend of Shambhala may in actuality have had its original inspiration in the ancient people known as the Zhang Zhung, who inhabited the Chang Tang plateau centuries before the dawn of the Tibetan civilization. As the cold, dry climate, high altitude, and sheer remoteness of the region make archaeological research difficult, much of what we know of these people is based on the stuff of legends. In distant antiquity, the climate of the region appears to have been much less formidable, encouraging the Neolithic ancestors of the Zhang Zhung to settle there. The local environment may have first begun to change for the worse as early as 1500 BC, with subsistence gradually becoming more difficult for the descendants of those who had first settled there in ages past.

Yet the worsening climate only bred greater resilience in the people, and the Zhang Zhung culture continued to thrive well into mid-antiquity, reaching its apex in the Iron Age, sometime after 600 BC. In their day, the Zhang Zhung people constructed hilltop citadels, vast burial complexes and mountain sanctuaries for the practice of their shamanistic religion, likely an early form of the indigenous Bön faith. According to tradition, the Zhang Zhung civilization later became imperialistic, stretching out from their mountainous homeland to dominate the less advanced tribes in neighboring regions.

By 100 BC, rival tribes centered in the Yarlung River Valley had arisen to challenge the Zhang Zhung. The Yarlung Valley was much better-suited for agriculture than the Chang Tang plateau and was well-forested in antiquity. During this period, most of the Tibetan Plateau was occupied by a patchwork of tribes of mountain herdsmen that engaged in perpetual internecine warfare. One Yarlung tribal leader of this period is said to have banished the Zhang Zhung’s Bön priests from his lands in an effort to diminish their influence, only to be assassinated by them shortly thereafter.

The Yumbulagang, the legendary mountain fortress of Namri Songtsän, overlooking the verdant Yarlung Valley.

Around AD 600, a man named Namri Songtsän became the chieftain of one of the Yarlung tribes. Utilizing swift shepherd-warriors, Namri Songtsän began to subjugate each of the neighboring semi-nomadic tribes. He eventually unified all of the tribes of the central Tibetan plateau and organized them into a centralized monarchy with himself as its first king. During his reign, the newly-founded Kingdom of Tibet established formal diplomatic relations with the Chinese, from whom they gained their earliest knowledge of medicine, astronomy and other sciences.

Sometime later, Namri Songtsän was succeeded in the kingship by his son, Songtsän Gampo, who became renowned as a great Tibetan cultural hero and lawgiver. According to tradition, Songtsän Gampo was the first monarch to introduce Buddhism to Tibet, ordering the construction of many shrines and monasteries. He also commissioned the translation of many Buddhist scriptures and Chinese classics into the Tibetan language. In fact, Songtsän Gampo is even said to have ordered the creation of Tibet’s own written language itself. His reign is considered to be the beginning of Tibet’s Golden Age.

During this time, a dispute over a marriage alliance between Songtsän Gampo and the Zhang Zhung ruler led to open war, which culminated in the Tibetans’ total annexation of the Zhang Zhung kingdom. Sometime after the Tibetan conquest, the rugged homeland of the Zhang Zhung was mostly abandoned. When exactly this transpired is uncertain, though today the climate is so severe that the region is only inhabited by a small population of hardy nomads, the Changpa.

Sculptures depicting Emperor Songtsän Gampo and his Chinese bride Wenchang.

Meanwhile, around AD 640, Songtsän Gampo reached the height of his prestige by marrying the Tang Princess Wenchang and entering into a marriage alliance with Imperial China. Having thus secured a friendship with his most powerful eastern neighbor, Songtsän Gampo was able to extend his rule to the regions of Amdo and Kham and beyond, establishing a grand Tibetan Empire with its capital at Lhasa. Some of the most influential citizens of this new empire were the lamas, venerable spiritual teachers in the newly coalescing schools of Tibetan Buddhism. As Tibet’s power grew, many rival schools of Buddhism began to arise, securing dominance over different portions of the empire and engaging in competition with each other. Soon Tibet was an unmatched sanctuary of Buddhist piety and prestige.

Though subsequent Tibetan emperors maintained their alliance with the Tang Dynasty by entering into new political marriages, relations with the Chinese grew strained as the Tibetan Empire continued to expand. In the late 750s, the power of the Tang Emperors was greatly weakened by a long rebellion, which allowed the Tibetans to strike. In AD 763, they overran the western holdings of the Tang and even sacked their capital city of Chang’an (modern Xi’an), though they only held the great city for a few days. The power of Tibet was now at its zenith.

After two centuries of imperial power, however, the Tibetan empire collapsed into civil war when their last emperor was assassinated in AD 842. In the resulting succession crisis, no one party could press their advantage enough to seize power. This weakened the empire further, until the Tibetan peasants revolted, dissatisfied with the years of turmoil they’d been forced to endure. Eventually, local warlords broke the Tibetan Empire apart into petty tribes and kingdoms. This period of disunity, which became known as the Era of Fragmentation, would last for the next four hundred years.

The Tibetan Empire at the height of its power in the 790s.

The eventual reunification of Tibet would come at last from an external source. The Mongol hordes invaded Tibet in the 1240s, having previously captured the borderlands of Amdo and Kham. Under the threat of overwhelming force, the Tibetan leaders quickly capitulated, and in return, the Mongols refrained from plundering certain monasteries. For the first time in history, Tibet and China were formally united under a single ruler, the Great Khan. Due to its relative remoteness, Tibet retained a certain degree of autonomy under the new Mongol Yuan dynasty, with the Khans often appointing Buddhist lamas to be their viceroys. Kublai Khan even took a Tibetan lama to be one of his personal spiritual teachers.

Tibet prospered under the Mongols for a century until the Yuan dynasty began to weaken, allowing the Tibetans to oust the Buddhist faction that supported the Mongols, reasserting their independence in 1354. The new native Tibetan dynasty, known as the Phagmodrupa, was originally led by a powerful lineage of Buddhist lamas, who abolished many Mongolian customs and restored traditional Tibetan laws. However, by the mid-fifteenth-century, the Phagmodrupa rulers had claimed the throne of Tibet as its kings. During this period, a great Buddhist teacher named Tsonghkhapa established a new school of Buddhism known as Gelugpa (or the Yellow Hats), which would later become the most influential sect in all of Tibet. This new school was centered at three great monasteries in the former capital city of Lhasa.

During the late sixteenth-century, a scholar of the Gelugpa order would forever change the path of the Tibetan nation. At that time, the Mongol usurper Altan Khan was attempting to legitimize his reign over the Mongolian homeland. He perceived that Tibetan Buddhism could garner him the legitimacy he sought, so in 1578, he invited the prominent Gelugpa abbot Sonam Gyatso to visit him and spread Buddhism among the Mongols. Sonam Gyatso demanded that the Mongols put an end to their blood sacrifices and other pagan practices as part of their conversion. In return, Altan Khan granted Sonam Gyatso the new title of “Dalai Lama.” Together they determined that Sonam Gyatso should in fact be the third individual to bear the title, posthumously declaring two renowned Buddhist clerics of the past to be the previous incarnations of the Dalai Lama. Thus the first Dalai Lama was actually the third (depending on your perspective). Having received this most prestigious ecclesiastical lineage from the Khan, Sonam Gyatso apparently had no compunctions against confirming that his illustrious benefactor was in fact the reincarnation of the great Kublai Khan himself (and thus the legitimate ruler of the Mongols).

Unsurprisingly, when Sonam Gyatso died, Altan Khan’s great-grandson was chosen to succeed him as the fourth Dalai Lama. However, the new position of Dalai Lama had not yet attained the preeminence that it holds in the modern era. That would largely be the undertaking of the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso. By this time, the once powerful Phagmodrupa Dynasty had weakened, and Tibet was once again enmeshed in civil war. A rival dynasty, the Tsangpa, had claimed the Tibetan throne and was fighting to overthrow the Phagmodrupas. Seeking to put an end to the fighting, the fifth Dalai Lama sought the aid of the Mongol Khan, who was still considered to be a patron of the Dalai Lamas.

With the support of the Mongols, the Dalai Lama was able to defeat the Tsangpa prince and those Buddhist schools who supported him, closing their monasteries and driving the survivors into hiding. He then returned Tibet’s capital to Songtsän Gampo’s ancient city of Lhasa, which was already serving as the seat of the Gelugpa school, and in 1645, ordered the construction of the magnificent Potala Palace to serve as the city’s administrative center. He also reestablished positive diplomatic relations with the Chinese Empire and met with some of the first European explorers to arrive in the region. Tibet was once again reunified after years of conflict, and the Dalai Lama now became its temporal ruler as well as its preeminent spiritual guide. From this position of great influence, he was able to routinely mediate disputes between the Mongols and the Chinese, maintaining a lasting peace throughout his reign.

The magnificent Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.

Unfortunately, the fifth Dalai Lama’s successor was not of the same caliber as his predecessor. The sixth Dalai Lama refused to take monastic vows at all, preferring a life of wine, women and song. Fearful for the future, the fifth Dalai Lama’s old prime minister concealed his master’s demise for years and continued to act in his name. When the secret was finally revealed, the prestige and influence of the Dalai Lama’s office were tarnished. The Mongols used this as an excuse to invade and seize control of Tibet. Soon various Mongol factions were fighting for control of the nation and were looting and pillaging the capital city of Lhasa.

This lasted until the intervention of the Manchus in 1720. Having previously established the Qing Dynasty in China, the Manchus drove out the Mongols, subjugated Tibet, and appointed a ruling council of three ministers to govern while the Dalai Lama served as a mere figurehead. At first, the Qing rule of Tibet was mild and flexible, but over the years it grew gradually more repressive. The Qing soon annexed the Tibetan borderlands of Amdo and Kham as provinces in their own empire. Their reign was marred by both internal Tibetan rebellions and devastating foreign invasions, from the Mongol factions to the north and the Nepalese Gurkhas to the south. The Dalai Lamas became helpless pawns of the Qing imperial officials -- during the nineteenth-century, five Dalai Lamas in a row died under mysterious circumstances, just a few years after their respective enthronements. Most, if not all, of them were probably murdered.

In the early twentieth-century, as the power of Imperial China waned, Tibet became a part of the machinations of the burgeoning Russian Empire to the north and their British rivals in neighboring India. The British acted first, sending military expeditions to prevent Tibet from allying with Russia and to try to force a trade agreement on them. Now little more than a paper tiger, the Qing Dynasty bristled at this intrusion and in response announced that Tibet was their own sovereign territory. This was the first time they had ever made such a claim. This declaration was a mostly futile gesture, however, as by 1912 the Qing Empire had completely collapsed.

The following year, the thirteenth Dalai Lama proclaimed that Tibet was a “small, independent nation,” and that the Qing had been their patrons, not their overlords. The city of Lhasa was then closed to foreigners, and Tibet became an introspective nation, severely limiting its contact with the outside world for decades. The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, succeeded to the office in 1937 as a small child. He inherited an imperiled nation. In the early 1950s, the newly communist People’s Republic of China invaded without provocation and seized power over Tibet, barely after the young Dalai Lama had come of age. At first, traditional Tibetan society was allowed to persist relatively unchanged. However, Tibetan resistance to the repressive communist rule led to rebellions in the borderlands of Amdo and Kham, with tens of thousands killed.

The situation deteriorated rapidly. In 1959, the Dalai Lama received an odd invitation to attend a theater performance in a Chinese military camp without his bodyguards. Fearing the worst, three hundred thousand Tibetans flocked to the Potala Palace the next day to defend their leader from abduction, and Tenzin Gyatso was compelled to flee into exile. A revolt against the Chinese then erupted in Lhasa itself. The Chinese crackdown was immediate, with thousands of Tibetans killed in the space of three short days. Two days after the Dalai Lama’s final escape from the country, the Chinese crushed all remaining Tibetan resistance.

The many human rights violations that have occurred in the region since that date speak for themselves.

Language: The earliest recorded Tibetan language is Old Tibetan, dating back to when Songtsän Gampo first commissioned a Tibetan writing system in the seventh-century. This evolved into Classical Tibetan, the language of most of the Buddhist manuscripts composed there during the Middle Ages. The most widely-spoken Tibetan dialect today is Standard Tibetan, based on the dialect spoken in the capital city of Lhasa. The Amdowa and Khampa speak their own dialects of Tibetan as well. The Tibetan script is Indian in origin, borrowing somewhat from the traditional Sanskrit of the early Buddhist texts.

An example of Classical Tibetan script, from a legal document bearing the fifth Dalai Lama’s own seal.

Religion: The earliest documented faith in Tibet is the shamanistic Bön religion, which was a blend of animistic beliefs, folk religion and magic. After Songtsän Gampo introduced Buddhism to Tibet, that faith also became an integral part of the nation’s culture and worldview. The predominant form of the faith that took root in the country was Tantric Vajrayana Buddhism, which emphasizes the roles of meditation and ritual in the pursuit of enlightenment. Over a dozen different Buddhist schools soon arose with conflicting belief systems, including the Yellow Hats, Black Hats, and several factions of Red Hats. These factions were invested with a great deal of power and influence and Tibet’s varying political factions perpetually sought their favor. As Buddhism’s power increased, even the traditional Bön religion syncretized into a quasi-Buddhist sect. After the rise of the Dalai Lamas, the Gelugpa (or Yellow Hat) sect rose to preeminence, although the others continued to persist in Tibet as well.

Trade: The domesticated yak continues to remain a central part of the Tibetan economy. These long-haired cattle served as portable material wealth for the ancient Tibetans and provided the local population with milk, meat and raiment, in addition to serving as draft animals and beasts of burden. Once the unified Tibetan Empire brought more sophisticated commerce to the region, the Tibetans were able to dominate the important trade routes that passed over the Himalayas between India and China, dealing in key trade goods such as tea, silk and spices. The Tibetans also produced their own unique incense blends, which are a very desirable trade good, highly sought-after even to this day.

Architecture: Tibetan architecture includes a fusion of Chinese and Indian styles and has been adapted to last in the region’s cold, arid climate. Much of Tibet’s traditional architecture is devoted to the pursuit of the Buddhist faith, including stupas, temples, and a style of fortified monasteries known as gompas. The most famous example of Tibetan architecture is the Potala Palace, constructed by order of the Dalai Lama in the mid-seventeenth-century. Containing over 1,000 rooms and 200,000 statues, the Potala Palace sits atop a natural acropolis and soars 1,000 feet over the city of Lhasa. Another famous example is the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred site of Tibetan Buddhism, also located in Lhasa. The temple is a vast monastic complex encompassing around 270,000 square feet. Although much of the complex has been rebuilt over the centuries, portions of the original structure from the time of Songtsän Gampo still survive. Unfortunately, the monastery was desecrated by the Chinese in the 1960s, and thousands of irreplaceable Buddhist manuscripts were burned. Thousands more remain in storage there, along with a priceless collection of ancient statues, all closed to the public for their own protection.

An illustration from the Bardo Thodol, the “Tibetan Book of the Dead.”

Art: Tibetan illustrated manuscripts are legendary for their fine craftsmanship and artistic detail. The most famous of these in the west is the Bardo Thodol, the so-called “Tibetan Book of the Dead.” This text is said to provide guidance to deceased persons seeking their next rebirth. The Tibetans are also renowned for their traditionally-woven rugs, elegantly painted furniture, elaborate murals and fine statuary. As with everything else in Tibet, much of their art is devoted to Buddhist religious themes. Their unique style is characterized by an abundance of bright colors accompanied by sacred iconography.

Warfare: The hardy herders and farmers of the Tibetan plateau made excellent light infantry. The earliest Tibetan warriors would have been clad in furs and armed with spears, bows and woven rattan or wicker shields. Soldiers in later times would have worn lamellar armor and chain or scale mail, with the elites wielding iron blades. The nomads of Amdo and Kham fought as cavalry, serving as traditional horse archers or throwing bamboo javelins. Tibet’s fortified gompa monasteries were often as large as their cities and fielded cadres of fierce warrior monks. Tibet’s modern army was organized in 1913, after the thirteenth Dalai Lama reasserted their national independence. The Tibetans purchased modern weapons and military equipment from the British, although they were never particularly adept at their use, aside from participating in some Chinese border skirmishes during the upheaval of the mid-twentieth-century.

The empty throne of the Dalai Lama at the Potala Palace. It has lain empty for over five decades awaiting his return.


Updated 13-02-13 at 00:22 by Alexander

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  1. Cartimandua's Avatar
    Very informational, as usual. I really enjoy reading these excepts on forgotten civilizations. It is a shame that China has been allowed to continue the repression of Tibet for so many decades. Closing with a picture of the empty throne is both poignant and appropriate.
  2. Lancer's Avatar
    Had no idea the Dalai Lama was began by a Mongol in a power trade off. 'You legitimize me and I'll legitimize you' kind of swap. Also new to me is the amount of war fighting that went on among these supposedly peaceful people of the mountains. I had thought of them as living in their high valleys raising yaks and worshiping the Dalai Lama who I considered was just some kid dressed up by the ladies and set on a pedestal for all to admire. Nope, human beings conniving for personal advantage, of course. Thanks Alexander for enlightening me once again!

    So, who is next?
  3. Alexander's Avatar
    @Cartimandua: That was very well-said. Thank you very much for reading, I always love hearing your input.

    @Lancer: Thanks once again for reading. The point you raised is interesting -- I think as a culture we prefer our history to always be clearly broken into black-and-white, good-and-evil dichotomies, but history is seldom ever that simple. There is always another side to the story. And of course that is just as true of Tibet as it is for everywhere else. As for who's next... who do you want to see? I've started some preliminary work on the Minoans and the Mississippians, so those two will come sooner or later, but I'd be very interested in hearing some additional suggestions.
  4. Lancer's Avatar
    Atlanteans? Actually the Moors of Spain and Portugal might be interesting when you're done with current projects. Also, I don't know about Catalan autonomy, how long it lasted or what they did but I know for the longest time they wanted to be free from Spain. Would Catalonia fit the bill?
  5. Alexander's Avatar
    Good ideas. Yeah, the Minoans are the most probable candidate for the long-lost Atlanteans. They'll be a fun one to do. The Moors are definitely on the list as well.

    The Catalans... maybe not. I know they're a unique ethnic group, but I'd probably compare their situation to that of the Occitans in France: a different ethnic group, but still a part of the same civilization as their "parent" nation state. As far as I know, the Catalans weren't independent for very long either; they were a part of the "Spanish Marches" of Charlemagne's Empire before joining the Kingdom of Aragon later on. I'm sure there are some Catalan firebrands out there that see things quite differently, though.
  6. Lancer's Avatar
    Looking forward to the next installment.
  7. BigDork's Avatar
    A great read again. Thank you for all the work you put into these. I knew nothing about the people of Tibet so this was very interesting to me.

    A couple things I particularly noted/was intrigued by...

    I find it very interesting that over the past couple thousand years the lands of the Zhang Zhung have become more and more inhospitable. Over time it caused a shift of the norm in ancient Tibet. I find it and other examples of climate change and the affects it had on ancient civilizations interesting because there's no denying the world we live on is still changing and future generations are going to face challenges as certain areas become inhospitable and other areas open up. History often does repeat itself.

    One thing I also noted was that over the course of history Tibet was subjugated and regained their independence several times. While they are currently controlled by the Chinese who's to say that it will be like that forever. History tends to show that someday Tibet will be free again.

    Much like Lancer, I had no idea that one of the most respected titles in the world was created by the Mongols in what is essentially a back room deal to ensure people stay in power. Fascinating.

    I dunno how much info you could dig up but I'd be interested in reading about the Sami, the Ainu, or perhaps some peoples I've never heard of from deep in Russia. I just don't really know how much of a civilization those indigenous peoples really had.
    Updated 16-02-13 at 09:05 by BigDork
  8. fishtray6's Avatar
    Ü-Tsang is a beautiful city.
    Updated 18-10-14 at 05:58 by Penry