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States without Sacred Lands

At one point last week, as I was developing the Aeon article, a process that required multiple ‘back-and-forths’ between me and the editor Ed Lake, Ed asked me whether I could provide an example of a state without Sacred Lands, to illustrate the idea that such states are at a competitive disadvantage in the “ruthless and dangerous business” of international politics. I went mentally through all the modern states I have some knowledge of, and I just couldn’t think of one that did not hold some core territory as sacred.

In most states, their capitals are certainly not negotiable. It’s inconceivable that the United States, for example, would give up Washington D.C. in exchange for some other piece of real estate, no matter how large and how well-appointed. Anybody who has stood in the middle of the National Mall in Washington D.C., with its memorials, monuments, statues, and government buildings (most notably, the Capitol) must realize that one is on hallowed grounds. Paris, Moscow, and Beijing are similarly sacred to France, Russia, and China, respectively.

So, for a moment, I was stumped by Ed’s question. I then started going through historical states I know, and I immediately realized that I could, indeed, come up with a number of examples of states without Sacred Lands. In the end, this resulted in just a single phrase in this paragraph:

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States and populations that are willing to escalate conflict as far as necessary in defense of their sacred lands are more likely to persist in the international arena. Those that treat their core territory in a rational manner – forfeiting it in accordance with strategic imperatives, as, for example, several Germanic tribes did repeatedly during the Migration Period – get wiped out.

But since I am not as severely limited by the word count in my blog, I can expand on this example here at some length.

The specific ethnic group I was thinking was the Goths. The early history of the Goths is rather obscure, but both historical and archaeological evidence suggest that they originated in southern Sweden (which is still called Götaland, or the land of the Goths). At some point in the middle of the first millennium BC they moved to Pomerania on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea (in modern Poland). A few centuries later they began migrating further south, and by 200 AD they established themselves on the northern shores of the Black Sea.

The Goths created a large kingdom stretching from modern Hungary to southern Ukraine. They raided the Roman Empire, but also served in the Roman army and fought in the Roman-Persian wars.

All this came to an end in the 370s AD, when a powerful nomadic confederation, known to us as the Huns, appeared on the eastern frontier of the Goths. And here comes the puzzling part. Instead of fighting the Huns, the Goths (or, at least, the majority of them) decided to move – again. Previous migrations can be understood by the lure of better lands (if you had a choice, would you live in the gloomy and cold Baltic, or on the warm shores of the Black Sea?). But now the Goths decided to give up the lands where they lived for two centuries – that’s eight generations – and move into the Roman Empire.

The Goths were quite fearsome warriors. Later, they were instrumental in defeating the Huns (the Battle of Bassianae in 468, in which Ostrogoths defeated Huns). So why did they decide to give up without struggle in 376?

The only explanation is that none of their lands that they controlled in the Pontic (Black Sea) region were considered as sacred. Their territorial possessions were not something for which they were willing to fight to the death. So the Pontic Gothia of the fourth century AD is a credible example of a state without sacred lands.

In the subsequent history the Goths seem to have followed the same rational strategy. They grabbed land when they could, and gave it up when it was too much trouble to hold. One of the two main Gothic branches, the Visigoths, left the Balkans and invaded Italy, where they sacked Rome in 410. Then they made a treaty with the Roman government, which gave them Aquitania (southwestern France), if they could expel another Germanic tribe, the Vandals, from it. The Visigoths were successful and settled in southern France, establishing their capital in Toulouse. Then they saw an opportunity to conquer most of Spain, which they did. But when they were pressed by the Franks, they gave up Toulouse and moved the capital first to Barcelona, then to Toledo. In other words, they continued to stick to their rational strategy of not being attached to any particular piece of real estate.

It all ended poorly for them. In 711 the Visigothic kingdom was defeated by the Umayyad Muslims, and the Visigoths disappeared from history. The second Gothic branch, the Ostrogoths, had a similar fate, although their demise came much faster. They created a large kingdom that encompassed Italy and the Balkans, but were defeated by the brilliant Byzantine general Belisarius in 540, and within a generation they also disappeared from history.

It seems to be the rule. All those Germanic tribes that easily gave up territory did not last for very long. The Vandals gave up southwestern France, then Spain to Visigoths and moved to northern Africa. Their kingdom was destroyed by the same Belisarius in 534. In 568 the Longobards, yet another Germanic tribe from Scandinavia – abandoned their kingdom in Pannonia (modern Hungary) – according to some historians, they gave it to the Avars. The Longobards conquered most of Italy, where their kingdom lasted for two centuries, before succumbing to the Franks.

In contrast, during the same period (Age of Migrations, or Völkerwanderung) those Germanic tribes that never abandoned their ancestral lands thrived and left a lasting imprint on the European history. Of course, the most successful group was the Franks. Apart from their influence on France and the German province of Franconia, the Franks are still with us, under the guise of the Flemish.

The Saxons are another highly successful ethnic group. They established the medieval German Empire (known as the Holy Roman Empire, which as Voltaire famously quipped was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor Empire). Basically, the Saxons are responsible for the ethnic core of the modern Germany. The Bavarians were another long-lasting group, which survived as an independent kingdom all the way to the German unification, and still persist as one of the most influential Länder of Germany.

In summary, those Germanic groups that treated territory in a rational manner disappeared without leaving any traces (well, there is an Italian province called Lombardy, but that’s all that’s left of the Longobards). Those groups that build states in which the elites and the population were committed to defending Sacred Lands until death, in contrast, persisted. Which is probably why today we don’t see any countries that lack Sacred Lands. It’s a result of a long evolutionary process.


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  1. pjricherson says:

    Perhaps pastoral nomads more generally take their animals and their way of life to be sacred but are necessarily less concerned about specific territory. They invest little in improvements to land, and the quality of pastures fluctuates with weather and climate change. The impression I took away from Rene Grousset’s classic The Empire of the Steppes is that most empires built by pastoralists were ephemeral, supporting your point.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      But not to all. To the Mongols the river Kerulen and the mountain Bogd Khan are sacred. Notice, that the Mongols are still there. So it varies even within pastoralists, and the general rule seems to hold.

      • Peter Turchin says:

        Take a look here:

        link to

        • T. Greer says:

          But the Zunghar Mongols had no trouble abandoning the Kerulean when the going got tough. This is a pretty common pattern in Inner Asian nomadic history–any khanate that wanted to unit the steppe needed the Kerulean and surrounding environs for political legitimacy, but after such legitimacy was gained, quite a few abandoned it (including the Uighurs and Xiongnu, off the top of my head).

          Reference: Allsen, Thomas. “Spiritual Geography and Political Legitimacy in the Eastern Steppe,” in Ideology and the Early State, ed. H. Claessen and J. Oosten. (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 116-35.

  2. radek says:

    One little, but I think relevant quibble, is that the Goths who left Gotland in the first millenium BC were actually somewhat a different people than the “Goths” who defeated Valens at the Battle of Hadrianopolis. The whole process of migration took centuries and along the way the Goths, in a way similar to the Huns, Avars and Vandals, swept up, incorporated and intermingled with the peoples whose territory they passed through. And of course also experienced naturally occurring cultural temporal development. Comparing the latter Goths with those who left is a bit like comparing the “American” Pilgrims at Plymouth with the average American inhabitant of today’s Los Angeles.

    Perhaps it was this willingness to coalesce with other societies that precluded the establishment of “Sacred Values” for the (later) Goths in the first place. For something (land, but also more generally) to acquire such a status you got to have a significant portion of the members of your tribe believe it is a Sacred Values. If you’re absorbing in newcomers (which itself may have a short term evolutionary advantage), the customs and beliefs of the society will be more fluid and amorphous.

    Which brings up the question “where do Sacred Values themselves come from”? It could be an accident of history (some important birth, some important death or battle, some “sign” from the Gods) Or in some cases some conscious effort by some institutional authority to create these (creation of saints and martyrs, relics and shrines). Or a bit of both.

    So what kind of factors that can be measured contribute to establishment of Sacred Values? Off the top of my head I’d guess that both secluded lands (islands – Japan, Britain) and “exposed” lands (Russia, Levant) under constant threat would be more likely to invent these. It’s the in-between lands that are less likely to have them. Just a quick hypothesis which may very well – probably is – wrong.

    • Igor Demić says:

      Many of the “disappeared” German tribes seemed to be Arians or other heretic factions. Some of them stubbornly refused to go mainstream. In any case, most of them were new to monotheism in the short periods they had their 5 minutes of fame. Establishment of sacred values is heavily dependent on the presence of a “strong religion” and state rituals. Maybe the hectic character of the great migrations was a period when religious mechanisms couldn’t easily establish in some types of societies. It reminds me of a common story about Islam growing in the military camps during the first decades after Muhammad. Goths and Vandals obviously lacked that type of religion.

      • Peter Turchin says:

        Again, I don’t think that religion is an important issue. Most of the Germanic nations eventually accepted the mainstream religion of the populations they governed. This happened to Visigoths in Spain, for example.

        • Igor Demić says:

          In my opinion (organized) religion has some importance in creating national myths, at least as a ‘Petri dish’ of such ideas. So it is a proximate cause, although it doesn’t have to participate in the ultimate causes of sacred values behavior. The creation of “Kosovo myth” in Serbia for example is connected to the role of church after the XV century. The actual ‘vectors’ of that meme were secular people, something like French troubadours. Church didn’t make those epic songs, it maybe even didn’t have any intention to propagate them (which I doubt), but there’s something in the church system that facilitated it’s spread. OK that’s one example. Doesn’t prove anything. But I still think that organized religion has an impact on (at least) spread of sacred values. Be it the Orthodox Church, or the Central Committee of some Communist Party. Sacred values are enhanced by the ideological values whose proponent is that church. A church (or a secular organization of the same type) being ‘national’ (like many orthodox churches) might have been important, because the priorities might differ in multinational organizations. This is, of course an example about a period quite different from the VI-VIII centuries Europe, and I see how it might not have much value in explaining the ‘Germanic tribes problem.’

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Radek, I don’t think that coalescent nations are less likely to have Sacred Values. Americans and Russians, and Romans, for that matter, all were or are coalescent nations.

      • radek says:

        I think that’s because for these countries the very phenomenon of coalescing is a sort of Sacred Value. America has its melting pot myth, Rome invented (or at least took very seriously, particularly in the middle and late imperial period) the concept of citizenship, Russia had the Soviet idea and before that some version of pan-Slavism (yes, there is a bit of contradiction between these two ways of coalescing).

        But as you point out, there really are not that many observations of states without Sacred Values which makes it hard to generalize.

  3. Interesting indeed! Of course the descendants of the Goths are still with us, but blended and absorbed into the modern Spanish, East Europeans, etc. Many of the Ostrogoths joined up with the Huns, who also got absorbed eventually. (Ostrogothic did not die out as a language till the 18th century, by the way.) Spanish surnames have a West Gothic core (Gonzalez, Rodriguez, etc.) and Spanish still uses the German plural (-s, -es) instead of the Latin ones that survive in Italian. So we might say that having sacred lands protects one from acculturation.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      If we focus on the state as the selection unit, or the unit of analysis, which is what the IR theorists do, then the Visigothic state left no descendants. It’s ‘fitness’ = 0

  4. Edward says:

    Is some land more likely to be designated “Sacred” than others? A river that carries trade and life bringing water has much higher strategic value to a small pond. A big mountain could be a “place marker” for a location that has high strategic value.

  5. Edward says:

    This doesn’t explain why the Goths did not designated any land “sacred” but the land that is sacred might be chosen for a logical reason.

  6. O.Voron says:

    ‘the German province of Franconia’ with its capital called Frankfurt? :))

  7. Edward says:

    No, it doesn’t make any sense that sacred land should be chosen for a logical reason. But are there any good examples of sacred land that is not also valuable in strategic terms? If we consider the example of Crimea that has a lot of geopolitical importance. Controls Russian entrance to Black Sea. The Mongolian Bogd Khan mountain is outside Ulaanbaatar at the intersection of multiple modern roads – are those trade routes historical? Maybe societies that that designate land as sacred that is not also of strategic value are eliminated so only societies where the sacred is linked to strategic succeed. (Don’t know mechanism how that would happen). Maybe I’m just thinking about this too hard 🙂 But I’d like some examples where the sacred land is has no obvious geopolitical value to the state.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      The Kosovo Field. A place of huge symbolic significance to the Serbian people, but of no particular geopolitical importance. However, the Serbs have essentially lost it.

      • O.Voron says:

        ‘the Serbs have essentially lost it.’ Without giving much of a fight. Which means that Kosovo Field was not sacred to Serbs after all. So Edward has a point.

        • Igor Demić says:

          O.Voron, there was an actual war in 1999 over Kosovo. Thousands of dead soldiers and ‘collaterals’. I don’t think that “giving much of a fight” made much sense in that situation, though.
          There was a battle on Kosovo Field in 1389. when Turks defeated Serbs. Some years later medieval Serbian state lost the “sovereignity” over Kosovo. That didn’t make Serbs stop considering it a scared place. Kosovo was the seat of Serbian Orthodox Church. In some periods the state capital was placed there. It still holds some of the oldest churches and monasteries – many of them destroyed or damaged after 1999. Those things make it even more sacred for Serbs, be they nationalists or moderates.
          Strategically Kosovo was always important in the Balkans, especially for Serbia. It’s a connection with its traditional allies to the south – Greece and Montenegro, and it holds some important ore deposits. It’s also the watershed to 3 seas, also an important thing in the Balkans.
          I think Kosovo is not a good example being that it has some strategic importance to Serbia.

          My example would be Persepolis in Achaemenid Persia. It was its most important ceremonial center, and except the emotional connection – it was built in the Pars, the home of Achaemenids – it held no strategic importance.

  8. Jonas says:

    The Goths did survive for many hundreds of years, although they aren’t here now. There are many other societies that don’t survive for even that long.

    Were there other tribes in the European area that did have sacred lands but didn’t survive? Is there a survival bias where we tend to think only of the ones who did, and forget the ones who didn’t?

  9. Edward says:

    I had thought of Kosovo and I agree it does not seem to be of great geopolitical significance to Serbian territory. However, I would note that Serbia is a landlocked country and Kosovo is on the main route through to Durres, which was an important port on the Adriatic coast.

    Here was my list of recent/modern states with possibly “sacred” territory.

    Sacred territory – states – geopolitical significance

    Jammu and Kashmir – Pakistan/India – The Indus River basin has its origin in Kashmir. Pakistan’s economy and people are 100% dependent for survival on this river. There is also an important historical trade route through to China nearby, which has recently reopened (Karakoram Highway).

    Alsace-Lorraine/Rhineland – France and Germany – Rhine river was an important natural boundary and trade route. The region also had vast coal and iron resources

    Greek Islands/Aegean dispute – Greece – Possession of the islands in the Aegean enables Greece to controls the Aegean sea. This means while Turkey controls the entrance to the Black Sea (of historic importance) Greece can control Turkey’s sea access to Europe.

    Senkaku Islands – Japan – possession of these uninhabited islands (which are close to Taiwan) allows Japan to control its sea trade routes. Vast hydrocarbon reserves have been discovered on the sea shelf around these islands. The area is also important for fishing.

    Kuwait – Iraq (under the Ottoman Empire the region of Kuwait was under the influence of the Ottoman vilayet of Basra) – Control of Kuwait would enable Iraq to control Persian Gulf shipping lanes close to its major port, Basra. Kuwait also had a lot of oil.

    Karelia – Finland and Russia – Don’t know the history of this but I understand Karelia was important to Finland. The area lost in the winter war represented 30% of the Finnish economy.

    The Goths are an example of a people who did not consider any land sacred.

    However the apparent sacred/strategic unity could not evolve without an intermediate stage where it was quite common for peoples to consider insignificant areas as sacred.

    • Richard says:

      OK, several of these examples, while of great geopolitical significance, are pretty obviously not sacred lands.

      The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are obviously not of sacred significance to the Japanese. Yamato Japan arose around Nara, and the great fertile plains of Kansai and Kanto west and east of Nara were where the Japanese built their sacred institutions. Heck, _Okinawa_ wasn’t considered Japanese by Japan for most of it’s history, much less the islands to the south of Okinawa. The Senkakus are not anywhere near any of the 4 Japanese Home islands and are about as sacred as Sakhalin to the Japanese (which, you’ll note, the Japanese have not started a war over to regain.

      It’s also hard to consider Alsace-Lorraine to be considered sacred by the French, considering that it has traditionally been filled with German speakers, and wasn’t part of any iteration of medieval France.

      • Edward says:

        Okay, thanks for the clarification.

        Jerusalem is a good example that is not on my list, sacred for Christians, Muslims and Jews. Jerusalem was an important trade town. That’s how the resident population could afford to repeatedly build big temples and adorn them with expensive shiny stuff.

        Question: what came first, the sacredness or the money?

        Similarly, from history, for a long time Constantinople was sacred for Christian Europe. Crusaders, who at the time didn’t possess it, fought the Byzantines for it, and created the short-lived Latin Empire (1204-1261). Constantinople was another highly important international trade centre .

        Jerusalem and Constantinople demonstrate that sacred territory will combine with strategic logic. It is then appropriate to ask whether such were always destined to be sacred (at least for a time) because they were created sacred by wealth at that location.

        At an important trade centre there is lots of wealth available to build impressive monuments and buildings, hold ritual occasions etc. Such a valuable location is also a frequent target for conquers and the site of battles to be retold in stories that become legends.

        Over time the bourgeois hawks holding on to irrational sacred territory (irrational because it is territory that is strategically insignificant) get eliminated by the hawks who hold rational sacred territory, so you end up with a world of states whose strategic interests always happen to line up with their sacred interests.

  10. Uli49 says:

    To me the Berlin airlift 1948/49 demonstrated the importance of sacred land, it has nothing to do with religion. I suppose without this successful airlift there would have been no reunification 40 years later.

  11. urilabob says:

    I like the idea of the importance of sacred lands to state survival enough to want it to be true. But I’m very troubled by the post-facto bias issue raised by Jonas. The Visigoths seem to me to exemplify this, in two ways.

    First, consider trying to distinguish the Ottoman Turks in 1500 from the Visigoths in 700. Both groups had migrated in stages a long way from their former homes. Both had been client warriors for large empires. Both had staged through a number of locations in their migrations. Both had eventually succeeded to aristocratic rule of large fixed kingdoms, which by that stage they had held for a few hundred years.

    The Visigoths are Peter’s archetypical example of an eventually-failing state without sacred lands. Today we would not think of the Ottoman Turks in those terms. But the difference seems to be what happened after 1500/700, not what happened before: aren’t we using post-facto judgements?

    I think there are other such examples. Even the Norman conquest of England seems a reasonable candidate: today in retrospect we would identify England as the sacred lands of that state. But was that the actual perception of the Norman or early Angevin dynasts? Given their actions, they seem to have been more committed to Normandy and Gascony – they lost those not because they were not sacred, but because there was a strong competitor for them in France; conversely, they retained England (and thus survived) not because it was sacred, but because there was no other real contender.

    Second, it’s clear that the Visigoths were originally not too committed to particular lands. But was this really true by 711? Consider the importance of the Visigothic identity right from the start of the reconquista – to the extent that the modern Spanish state considers itself the successor state of the Visigothic kingdom. This doesn’t seem consistent with the perception of the Visigothic kingdom of 711 as a state without sacred lands.

  12. Peter Turchin says:

    @jonas and urilabob: I am not saying that my argument is ironclad – this is a blog, not a scientific journal. However, I think the basic idea is correct, although more careful research would be needed to test it properly. First, there is no past-facto bias. Take a look at the map of Europe and Mediterranean around 500-600 AD, count all Germanic polities and then note how long they survived as polities. I believe that a statistical analysis will find a strong negative correlation with how far an ethnic group moved in the previous centuries and the longevity of the state it founded.

    Second, it would be interesting to score whether each group had sacred values – e.g. mausoleums, cathedrals they built, etc. This would require specialist historical research, but is in principle testable. This is precisely the kinds of questions that we can test with Seshat:

    link to

    • urilabob says:

      Thanks Peter.

      Subjectively, I think you are right about the fates of the German polities – the Vandals are a clear example, as you note. But there are two subjective biases that will be difficult to eliminate.

      It’s not too hard to count most of the German polities that didn’t have sacred lands – they turned up in the post-Roman lands and got recorded. But for those that remained in fixed locations, counting the polities is harder – the fifth-century ones we can conclusively count are mostly those that survived to the penetration of literacy, giving a clear survivor bias.

      The second issue is what we count as survival – did the Visigothic state die in 711 or is Spain its successor? Did the Burgundian state disappear or does it form some of the components of France? Is Flanders really the successor of the Frankish state? The hundreds of years that it was controlled by successors of Burgundy and the Visigoths are a rather more substantial interruption than the discontinuity between the Visigothic and Asturian kingdoms.

      Equally important, you’re proposing a general principle that needs to be tested in multiple eras and places. The subjectivity issues are difficult enough for the German expansion. For irruptions e.g. from Central Asia, they are even more difficult – in many cases, we don’t even know in detail who they were, or where they came from, so we won’t know who to compare them with.

  13. vdinets says:

    I think the Goths are actually an example to the contrary. They have persisted for over a millennium, which is likely more than an average lifespan of a state.

    Also, you are speaking about states in some cases and about ethnic groups in others. States are usually viewed as fenced territories, so they seldom move. But there’s plenty of ethnic groups that persist despite losing their sacred land (Jews, Armenians, early Aryans of India), or never having it in the first place (Gypsies, Inuit, etc., etc.)

  14. vdinets says:

    Oh, and a little-known fact: Goths actually survived in the Crimea until the Russian invasion of 1783. Here’s their story: link to

    • O.Voron says:

      “Almost no signs of the Crimean Goths exist today. It was claimed by the Third Reich and by Adolf Hitler that the Crimean Goths had survived long enough to interbreed with later German settlers in Crimea, and that the German communities in Crimea constituted native peoples of that area. He had intended to re-settle German people to Crimea, and rename numerous towns with their previous Crimean Gothic names. During the Nazi occupation of Crimea, Sevastopol was changed to Theoderichshafen.[20] There was talk among Nazi officials of building a superhighway between Berlin and the Crimea, turning Crimea into the German Gibraltar.”

      link to