The Battle of Talas (Chinese: 怛羅斯之戰; Arabic: معركة نهر طلاس) was a military engagement between the Abbasid Caliphate and Tang dynasty which occurred in August 751 along the Talas River. The battle ended with a decisive Abbasid victory after the Karluks who had allied with the Tang suddenly betrayed them on the fifth day, putting an end to the Tang's westward expansion.
In 751, the Tang jiedushi Gao Xianzhi of the Anxi Grand Protectorate led his forces westward over the Pamir Mountains in an expansionist campaign. Simultaneously, the Abbasids carried over their momentum from their overthrow of the Umayyad Caliphate the previous year into an expedition eastward into Central Asia. The two empires ultimately collided at the Talas River near Fergana late that summer. A substantial portion of the Tang forces was comprised of not Tang soldiers but Karluk mercenaries who had allied with them.
For five days, the spirited Tang soldiers held the advantage against the Abbasids. They had arrayed three lines of spearmen wielding great shields in front to serve as a bulwark against cavalry, which comprised a substantial portion of the Abbasid forces. At the onset of battle, these shield-bearers were interspersed with crossbowmen. When the Arabians opened battle with a massive cavalry charge, these crossbowmen unleashed volleys of bolts to reduce as many of their men before the inevitable clash. They were able to get off at least three volleys before their commander had to order them to withdraw so that the spearmen may form-up their shield wall.
With the giant shields measuring around two meters in height, locked together side-by-side, they formed a formidable and resolute barrier whose effectiveness against cavalry was enhanced by the soldiers' spears bracing against the gaps between each shield and pointing outwards to face the oncoming charge. Nonetheless, it was not impenetrable and many shields still buckled under the impact of the armored Arabian horses' fierce momentum.
On the fifth day, the Karluks at the rear flanks of the Tang army suddenly betrayed their suzerain and attacked from behind. Alongside another assault from the Abbasids in the front, the Tang were caught in a shocking pincer movement that destroyed all cohesion and resulted in the near total annihilation of their 30,000-strong force.
Very few of the Tang soldiers survived to flee the battle. Among them were Gao Xianzhi and the twenty-one-year-old footsoldier Li E. By the orders of the Abbasid general Ziyad ibn Salih, who hoped to bring back knowledge of Chinese papermaking, Tang craftsmen among the surviving troops were to be carefully identified and taken captive alive in case they could provide vital information with their technological expertise. In contrast, Tang soldiers were to be executed under the rationale that they did not have enough rations to feed additional prisoners.
Li E overheard these orders and, recognizing his impending peril, sprung into action, seizing a repeating crossbow from the ground. Thinking only of making a valiant last stand, he sniped a lone Arabian swordsman who had his guard down. Instantly, nearby shocked Arabian soldiers spotted the assailant perched among a pile of dead Tang soldiers, beneath one of the toppling sun banners of his country. They rushed at him in a fury that was matched by Li E himself as he shot down several more of their swordsmen before they could close the gap. At last, with even Abbasid lancers almost upon him charging at full speed to run him down, Li E tossed the crossbow aside and turned to his sword. He screamed a desperate battle cry while unsheathing his blade, but by chance, it proved to be unnecessary. Just as his foes had reached his position, mysterious, hooded riders intercepted them from behind him, saving his life.
These riders, led by a woman named Éléna, were the Hidden Ones, a multi-ethnic secret organization with roots in Egypt dating back to the 1st century BCE. This first meeting between them and Li E would become a pivotal moment in the history of the Assassins, as the Hidden Ones would later be known by, for in the coming years, Li E would be inducted as a Hidden One and play a vital role fighting against the An Lushan Rebellion.
Apart from its significance for the Assassins, the Battle of Talas marked the limits of the Tang dynasty's expansion westward into Central Asia. A rare confrontation between the Arabians and the Chinese, it became in history a relatively forgotten battle.