On one of the continents in one of my fantasy worlds, I have a kingdom. The kingdom is comprised of two different geographical regions, a steppeland area in the kingdom's north and a desert region in the kingdom's south.

The problem is, I've been trying for a while now to figure out how this kingdom would function, as the geography poses several issues.

  • The only major source of freshwater in the kingdom is a tributary river that flows from the steppeland area into a larger river on the kingdom's northern border. The kingdom is surrounded by two large bodies of water on its western and eastern sides, an ocean to the west, and a large inland sea to the east, but you can't really use that water because it's saltwater.

  • The kingdom doesn't really have access to any major forests because of its geography.

  • There are only two major cities in the kingdom due to it only having a single river and the land being flat, the capital city at the head of the steppeland river and a port city on the kingdom's eastern coast also in the steppelands.

  • There are no mountains or large lakes in the kingdom.
  • The world technology level is roughly medieval.

So, taking the points above into account, how would a kingdom with this kind of geography function? Specifically:

  • How would the king maintain control over his people with such harsh geography?

  • How would the kingdom's citizens live, considering the lack of land good for building settlements?

  • Lastly, how do I justify the kingdom not being invaded?

Edit: It seems I didn't really describe the geography all that well, so I'm going to link a map: https://i.sstatic.net/NlAXK.jpg The kingdom I'm referring to is the one called Morizar

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    $\begingroup$ Why isn't steppe good for building settlements? The best agricultural land in Europe is the chernozem belt, and in its natural state it is a steppe. You may want to check out how rich and powerful kingdoms and empires flourished for many millennia in Mesopotamia. I can hardly imagine land flatter and less good for agriculture than Mesopotamia in its natural state. And forests are problem only if the people of that kingdom don't actively plant trees and don't trade wheat for wood, as the Egyptians did... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ The problem is that the kingdom only has the one tributary river in the north. Because of this a big portion of the kingdom is without access to freshwater outside of small springs, so irrigation is difficult. Also, I imagine the steppes would be kind of dry considering the desert to its south. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ The desert is a desert. Your kingdom's rule over the desert will be limited to trading routes and mines. But the steppe may be prime agricultural land. Have you looked at the map of the Eastern European chernozem belt? Rivers are few and far between. Have you checked out how the Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians etc. managed to make Mesopotamia flourish for more than four millennia? Mesopotamia not only is flat and lacks any natural water except the Tigris and, most importantly, Euphrates, it is also sandy. And how can you forget that Egypt is a gift of the (north flowing) Nile? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP - western part of chernozem belt was relatively wet, but drier, eastern part was put to agriculture use only in modern times. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander: I know, I live near the south-western tip of that belt... The Romanian Plain is a steppe in its natural state, but rain-driven agriculture is possible and it has good enough output so that Wallachia exported wheat (and later maize) for centuries. Even with less rain, if the soil is worth it then they can still do irigation and agriculture relatively easily for about 20 to 30 km from the river, given that they have a flat steppe. For a pre-modern kingdom that should be ample agricultural basis. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 20:05

6 Answers 6


Available resources :

Natural borders

Significant river in the north, a desert in the south, and sea to the east and west. Your northern neighbours might occasionally come and occupy or loot the cities. If they are powerful they might demand tribute from you, if weak they will pay tribute in exchange for a quiet border free of raiding and unrest. Realistically it would vary over time. I guess the normal would be an exchange of gifts based on wealth and power.

In any case your neighbours neither want your land nor have any capability to hold most of it, so your defense is fairly good. Similarly you are extremely unlikely to be attacked from the sea or the desert. Most of your wars would be to suppress uppity tribal chieftains to submit to the power of the king.

The steppes

Steppes grow cattle and horses. You can export meat and leather from cattle. You will also probably almost always have more and better light cavalry than your neighbours. You can easily raid their lands if you wish while an attempt to harass you beyond the border and the few cities and towns will result in losing whatever army was wasted on the attempt.

The desert

A flat desert you describe will probably have evaporites. So you can expect to mine and trade salt and maybe nitrates and gypsum. This could easily be a royal monopoly (nobody actually owns the desert) and give the monarchy an independent source of income. The salt trade would also be a good reason to have a king keeping things in order and suppressing unrest. And the wealth from trade would make it worthwhile for the chieftains to submit to the royal authority. You might also get placer deposits of gold and gem stones.

The rivers

Your tributary river makes shipping the riches of the desert to markets much easier. From your capital you control the river trade to the north or to the port city.

Actual answers :

How would the king maintain control over his people with such harsh geography?

By controlling mining and trade and then leveraging it to rule the nomadic tribes. Those who support the king get their share of the wealth and get to sell their meat and leather in the markets the king controls. Given that the wealth sharing might happen in the form of steel weapons, I'd expect that loyalists protecting the trade will outcompete rebels trying to loot the trade. Or even tribes trying to just opt-out of the kingdom.

Alliances would also be cemented with marriages, so after a century or two, you can expect leading families of all tribes of any significance to be related to the royal lineage. So the king would have the best connections and likely be the one source of stability needed for the trade.

Monarchies often have some religious component as well. It might be as simple as the first king who unified the tribes having legendary status. It might be a story about the royal family descending from an actual God. In any case the royal family has the status and respect that possible competitors do not.

The king is also the sole focus of the network of alliances of the tribes, so rebellions against him would normally be opposed by other tribes and the largest alliance that can oppose him would normally be much smaller than the one supporting him. This can of course fail if a weak king coincides with a charismatic and ambitious challenger. But the rival would normally be part of the royal family as well, or at least claim he is.

The king is also the sole source of stability and peace, so the traders and usually the northern neighbours would back him against rebels.

How would the kingdom's citizens live, considering the lack of land good for building settlements?

Not sure what you mean with this. Steppe nomads do not really need settlements except for trade and you have that covered. Also the steppes and even the desert will probably have places that are good for agriculture and work as major nodes of commerce. Purely from the description of land I'd expect more cities along the rivers and good spots in the steppes and the desert. I'd assume the king is actively suppressing the formation of cities other than those he needs to control trade. This sounds silly, but is actually a valid strategy to prevent conquest by his northern neighbour. Even the strongest army cannot conquer a city that does not exist. And nomadic tribes are a much better source of cavalry than city people are.

Lastly, how do I justify the kingdom not being invaded?

Natural borders, lots of cavalry, and few locations you can conquer and hold against the said cavalry. Trading for peace and trade goods is clearly a better option as long as the king is powerful enough to keep the peace.

Minor complaint :

If you have a river along the northern border there must be height difference east to west. So you would probably need a coastal mountain range on one side. Of course the mountains can be old enough to be closer to hills if you wish.


You have a few options for your kingdom.

  1. Ancient Egypt. Everything is centered around the river, which is the source of virtually all necessities for the people. All cities are situated on the river, and there are almost no settlements inland. Big river like Nile can provide for a population that is huge by preindustrial standards. Your kingdom can build high walls and field considerable armies.

  2. Mongol Empire. Your steppe can maintain considerable amount of livestock, and kingdom's people are very connected to their nomadic roots. Cities for them are more like religious and trading centers than places of permanent habitation. Who would invade such a kingdom? Neighbors beware!

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    $\begingroup$ Option 3: Feudal kingdom with the King based in one region and a large amount of autonomy in the 2nd. Water can be extracted from underground wells. All of that water has to somehow flow to either the oceans or river, so there will be a lot of underground streams. And the hostile terrain would make anything other than raiding expensive. Why take rough terrain when you have to pay to develop it. Not to mention the difficulty of even invading it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 21:34

Does the river flood during the rainy season (even if it doesn't rain in the desert)?

If so, you have the Nile. When it floods, it spreads good soil across the land around the banks which makes for good farming. That will allow for a very large population.

If it doesn't flood, then there will be a narrower strip of land that they can farm (unless you allow good canal and irrigation systems).

Is the river navigable?

If so, you have trade of goods all up and down the river.

If not, you have roads running down one or both sides of the river and trade routes will be shorter.

Does the desert kingdom extend to the point where the river lets out into the sea?

If so, you have a, potentially, large delta region for crops. You also have a good trade city for trade with other sea faring cultures.

If not, there is probably a trade city at the farthest down flow end of the river.

Don't forget the steppes.

With farming near the river and herds livestock and, maybe horses, this becomes another food source.


The two climactic regions would tend to support two very different economies, which suggests that the Kingdom is either rife with intrigue and strife as the pastoralists of the Steppe come into conflict with the very differing lifestyles of the sedentary farming "River dwellers" who hug the river.

The real life counterpart seems to be the early Mesopotamian civilizations, which were "hydraulic" empires built around the maintenance of elaborate irrigation systems. These kingdoms were periodically raided by the steppe dwellers, who might even establish a dynasty of their own for a few generations until the next large armies of raiders came swooping down.

How the upper an lower kingdoms combine in this scenario is up to you (perhaps it is simply the river dwellers are under the control of a new and vigorous dynasty that swept down from the Steppes).

Remember the "Farmers" may not be very militaristic, but have numbers, are able to assemble in compact masses quickly and have logistical advantages in terms of stored food, the ability to build and man fortifications on choke points and so on. The Stepp dwellers will be more mobile, and have a hunting/warrior culture where people train in riding and shooting bows or throwing spears from horseback at an early age, and can live off the land or drive their flocks before them.


You said:

"Lastly, how do I justify the kingdom not being invaded?"

Never Get Involved in a Land War in Asia

Perhaps the denizens of your country use a scorched earth tactic, retreating into the steppe and eventually the desert when invaded, using paths known only to them.

Better Targets/Threats Nearby

Are there better places to invade? Are there more threatening enemies lurking? The opportunity cost of invading this region may be too high if you open yourself up for an attack by your belligerent neighbors.

"How would the king maintain control over his people with such harsh geography?"

Control of Trade

With few natural resources available, the monarchy, with a monopoly on trade, could completely dominate the nobility.


The Mongols, a steppe people, habitually rallied around charismatic leaders and dominated their contemporaries, usually due to superior cavalry and their ability to travel close to 50 miles per day, compared with 15 for almost everyone else. Perhaps your steppe people would run circles around their opponents?

*Note: The river coming from your steppe city needs to originate from somewhere. If the river it joins is flowing from east to west, your city is located where the river begins to dry up. If from west to east, there needs to be a mountain where your city is located.


The Gothelari kings are clients of the Vanlian Empire. The kings are descended from tribes of Alsakubraans that were denied the chance to make the pilgrimage to the Great Oasis.

The Vanlians support the Gothelari kings for three reasons:

  • To prevent the Tirreans from settling south of the river. If the Tirreans could settle south of the river, they could double their territory, build a major navy along their Inner Sea coast, and generally be a major threat to the Vanlians.

  • To prevent the prophesied re-union of the Alsakubraa. Alsakubraan prophesies predict that a future Alsakubraan Empire will scourge the heretics of all the Southern Lands, forcing the Raelins and Aumedeszeli to flee to the Tempest Islands. This would destroy trade routes that are very profitable to the Vanlians.

  • To hire experienced mercenaries for use in their wars with various land-based powers around the Inner Sea.

Much like the nineteenth-century British Empire, the Vanlians have chosen to ally with a warlike, powerful minority within Morizar. The Gothelari kings know that if the steppe peoples unite, the kingdom is likely to fall; they rely on the Vanlian subsidy and remittances from mercenaries to stay in power.

The Gothelari kings encourage their fellow desert tribemen to have a rite of passage in which young fighters raid dissident steppe tribes, or smash any Tirrean outposts on the south side of the river. The survivors become eligible to join the Expeditionary Forces, which are hired out to the Vanlians.

Steppe tribes can appease the Gothelari kings by making pilgrimages to Gothelar, by raising animals that the Vanlians value, and by carrying trade between the Western Ocean and the Vanlian harbor at Dalere. Each year, the steppe tribes that do the most to appease the kings are spared being intentional targets of the young fighters' raids.

As for dealing with threats of invasion:

  • The Tirreans occasionally invade, usually in retaliation for the destruction of Tirrean settlement(s) on the south side of the river. But Tirrean logistics are designed for settled lands, not the steppe. Their only useful invasion route is up the river tributary toward Gothelar. Gothelar is strong enough to resist even a strong Tirrean raid. A typical Tirrean raid results in more Tirreans being captured and sold as slaves, than any lasting damage to the desert tribes. The Tirreans still have not figured out that the Gothelari kings don't care about the damage a Tirrean raid does to the steppe peoples.

  • Any Lanvelensi invasion is aimed at the Tirreans, not Gothelar. Basically, the Lanvelensi march along the south side of the river to bypass Tirrean strongpoints. If the Vanlians are allied with, or neutral toward, the Lanvelensi at the time, the Gothelari just charge the Lanvelensi suitable tolls. If the Vanlians are hostile toward the Lanvelensi at the time, the Lanvelensi army risks the same fate as a Tirrean army would suffer.

  • The Alsakubraans are currently not set up to invade anybody. They might be the greatest threat to the Gothelari kings, but by subversion instead of invasion. If they can convince the desert tribes to worship at the Great Oasis, and turn their eyes to the South instead of the North, then the Gothelari kings would be left without any forces to suppress the steppe tribes and without any mercenaries to rent out to the Vanlians.

  • The Expeditionary Forces have fought various overseas potentates. But these powers cannot retaliate against the Morizari as long as the Vanlian Navy stands in their way.

  • A civil war in the Vanlian Empire might result in an invasion of Morizar. But the invasion would have a limited objective: Capture the port of Dalere. The Gothelari kings can be relied on to accept their subsidy from whichever Vanlian faction controls Dalere. Having the Gothelari kings change sides would make life difficult for the Expeditionary Forces, and any Vanlians accompanying them.


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