Great Empires of Central Asia, Part 4: Lords of the Silk Road
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They drank, smoked, plundered, raided and traded their way across ancient Asia. Meet the Scythians — the deadliest crew you’ve ever wanted to party with.
I’ve experienced some surprisingly intimate moments at archaeological museums around the world.
When I gaze into the lifelike eyes of a statue like that of Ebih-Il, or stumble upon a familiar name in an ancient inscription, the centuries seem to melt away, bringing me and the other person together across thousands of years. For a few brief seconds, we meet in a time outside of time.
But my most intimate historical moment happened at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
I was strolling through an exhibit of armor, clothes and weapons belonging to people who ruled Ukraine, western Russia and Siberia in the 500s BCE (around the same time that the city of Athens was entering her golden age, far to the west). In one of those glass cases, I came face-to-face with an extraordinary relic.
It was a piece of human skin, frozen for more than 2,500 years in the dry soil of the Siberian tundra. This skin, from a man’s arm and shoulder, is the canvas for some of the world’s oldest surviving tattoos: fantastic beasts with antlers and hooves and curved beaks, clearly representing the apex of an artistic tradition about which we know next to nothing.
I have these same tattoos on my own shoulders.
As I stared at that 2,500-year-old flap of skin, I felt an emotion that’s very hard to describe. That skin was not just a work of art; it was a part of that man’s body, as my tattoos are parts of mine.
And I knew that if I met the owner of that skin on a snow-covered plain in the 500s BCE, I could bare my arm and he could bare his, and we could examine one another’s skin and compare our ink — and share, perhaps, a brusque nod of mutual respect.
The difference, of course, is that I got these tattoos because that man got them; because I found them online and loved the culture that produced them, and wanted to adorn my body with a reflection of that culture.
Musical accompaniment for this story:
Their original owner, on the other hand, would have gotten those designs for reasons we understand only dimly — reasons connected, no doubt, with the shamanic nature-religion practiced by his people, and with artistic movements and aesthetic schools whose names and prodigies and great works are long-lost to us today.
All that remains of his world’s “softer” side are a few scraps of fabric and flaps of skin.
We have no records of his people’s great poetic epics, their popular songs, their typical dishes or courtship rituals or favorite jokes, because they did not write. We don’t know whether they even thought of themselves as a single people, or as more of a confederation, or even a subculture. (As we’ll see in a minute, there’s evidence for all three possibilities.)
The hints we do have, though, are tantalizing. Almost everything we know about this people (or these peoples) comes to us from their neighbors — literate civilizations like the ancient Assyrians, Greeks, Achaemenid Persians, and even the Zhou Chinese.
Their own word for themselves almost certainly comes from the Iranian root sak– “to go; to roam.” This word lent them the name by which they were known most widely in their heyday, among the peoples they fought, raided and traded with, all across the vast continent of Asia: in Old Persian, they were the Sakā. In ancient Greek, Σάκαι. In Sanskrit, Śaka. In Old Chinese, Saik.
In their own tongue, they called themselves the Saka — the Ones Who Roam.
But we know them today by the name Herodotus gave them: the Scythians.
At their peak, the Scythians ranged freely across the vast belt of steppe-land that stretches from Hungary, Turkey and Ukraine in the west, to northern China in the east; from the Arctic Circle in the north to Iran and Afghanistan in the south.
It’s very hard to convey, in written word, just how far this steppe culture reaches — both in space and in time.
The people of that unforgiving land have been living essentially the same lifestyle, with only minor variations, since at least the 3000s BCE (the age of the Sumerians), if not even earlier. They continued to live on horseback, in tents, straight through the European Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution — and if you go to Mongolia or Kazakhstan today (as I have), you’ll see that many steppe people are still living the same way right now.
But that doesn’t mean nothing at all has changed in all those centuries.
Some of these steppe peoples unlocked a genuine real-life superpower: they domesticated the horse.
For the first time in human existence, speed and distance were no longer limited by legs. People could fly now, sailing above the ground atop thundering hooves. Hunters could range across dozens of square miles every day in search of food — and warriors could ride for distant battlefields to raid their enemies.
Until the invention of the locomotive in the 1800s, the maximum speed of human land travel was equivalent to the speed of a horse. Until the development of landmines and fully-automatic rifles, horse cavalry were the spear-point of any respectable attack. As late as the 1910s, some generals were still insisting that horses would never become obsolete.
It’s no surprise, then, that the horse became the central feature of steppe life, as it still is today.
Like the Comanches, the Scythians were nomadic riders who knew their wilderness by heart. And like the Vikings, they were voracious feasters, and loved a good party after a successful raid.
In fact, the Scythians’ love for drinking was a byword in ancient Greece. In addition to strong (i.e., undiluted) wine, ancient sources mention that they also drank and/or smoked a plant called soma or haoma, which hasn’t been identified conclusively, but was clearly some kind of psychoactive drug.
Archaeologists weren’t sure how much of this reputation to believe (after all, Herodotus is known for being a bit of a tabloid historian) until 2015, when they dug up a Scythian grave and found a set of gold bongs coated with marijuana and opium residue. So we’ll just say these people clearly liked to party, and leave it at that.
But like many steppe peoples, the Scythians fought just as hard as they feasted. Like their successors the Huns and Mongols, they were archers of legendary skill, uncannily joined with the beasts they rode.
It’s no accident that Greek centaurs were famous for their archery skills.
And, most infuriatingly for their “civilized” neighbors, the Scythians refused to stand still and fight a pitched battle — a fact that, combined with the rarity of their permanent settlements, made it just about impossible to get a grip on them.
Despite a few brief exceptions (which we’ll get to in a moment), these people remained fiercely independent for centuries — subjugating local peoples and exacting tribute when they could; raiding from the fringes when they couldn’t. For settled peoples, the nomadic Scythians served as uncomfortable reminders of an older, wilder world that just refused to die.
Who were these people, exactly? Where did they come from, and how did they last so long?
The Scythians invite a whole list of tempting comparisons: Comanches. Cherokees. Vikings. Celts. Mongols. Huns. Gauls. Hell’s Angels. And yet, although there’s something to be said for each of these analogies, none of them really gets to the heart of the Scythians — that unique “Scythian-ness” that makes them themselves, and no one else.
Okay, fine — but what’s a “Scythian,” anyway? How close can we get?
Scythians were, at their cultural core, an Indo-Iranian people. We know that much — although, like many steppe cultures throughout history, they almost certainly incorporated people of many different ethnicities, including Turkic, Mongolic and Uralic groups.
In fact, much like the Celts and Mongols in later centuries — and the Andronovo warriors before them — the Scythians may not have been so much a single people, or even a strict confederation, as a loose-knit culture of men and women who practiced certain kinds of lifestyles. In other words —
The term “Saka” may originally have been less like the term “Greek,” and more like the terms “biker” and “buccaneer.”
In terms of lifestyle, the original “old-school” Scythians were akin to Turks, Huns and Mongols — or, for that matter, Cherokees and Sioux. They built huts of wood and animal pelts, hunted and raided for food, and (judging by the thousands of Scythian burial mounds we’ve dug up) lived in a relatively gender-equal society, as many steppe peoples have done for millennia, and still do today.
Among Scythians who lived as nomads on the steppe, both men and women could ride, fight, command, accumulate wealth, and pass it to their descendants. In fact, some historians (including Herodotus) have connected the Scythians with the legendary Amazon warrior women.
A wide variety of different Scythian groups ruled and raided various swathes of modern-day Ukraine, southern Russia, Siberia, and possibly small areas of northern China, for about 800 years, from the 9th to the 1st century BCE.
Even in the days of ancient Mesopotamia, the Scythians were already a force to be reckoned with. In the 600s BCE, Assyrian records mention a nomadic horse-people called the Aškuzai, who were almost certainly Scythian.
When the Medes and Persians banded together to sack the city of Nineveh and end the Assyrian Empire for good, the Aškuzai were right on the front lines, fighting beside their horse-archer brethren.
Around 300 years later, when Alexander the Great rode eastward to conquer Babylon, Persia and Bactria (now Afghanistan), he followed routes laid down by Scythian warriors and traders, centuries before him.
Everywhere Alexander and his army rode, they encountered Scythians and Scythian-like peoples — sometimes even fought them head-on, like at the Battle of the Jaxartes River, where his infantry managed to pin down and kill (he says) 1,200 Scythian horse-archers.
Meanwhile, ancient Chinese records describe conflicts with many different groups of nomadic archers from the steppe — including the Scythians and their ancestors.
Across thousands of years, China’s governors and generals did their best to handle Scythian, Mongolic, Turkic, Uralic, Yeniseian (Siberian) and multi-ethnic tribal confederations — with mixed degrees of success. Sometimes nomad confederations even conquered large swathes of China.
Unlike their poorer counterparts in the steppe’s mysterious interior, whom the Chinese called “uncooked barbarians” (shengfan 生番), the “cooked barbarians” (shufan 熟番) on the periphery, including the Scythians, tended to have much more nuanced — even cooperative — relationships with their city-dwelling neighbors.
In later years, some Scythian groups in the Baltic region settled down in fortified city-states, where they ruled the local populations as a wealthy aristocracy known as the “Royal Scyths.” But not all Scythians felt the urge to stop roaming.
The continued presence of Scythian burial mounds throughout the Eurasian steppe makes it clear that many groups preferred the free-riding way of life — and even raided their urban cousins.
This diversity of Scythian ways of life, combined with the lack of firsthand accounts from Scythians themselves, can make it extremely tough to know what Greek and Persian writers mean when they say, “Scythians do such-and-such.”
Are these writers talking about all Scythians, or just certain groups?
For example, when Herodotus writes that “Scythia” is ruled by a dynasty of kings, he’s clearly talking about the Kingdom of Scythia, on the Black Sea coast. But he also describes “farming Scythians” and “nomadic Scythians” who live further east on the Eurasian steppe — which (of course, for clarity’s sake) he also calls “Scythia.”
Sometimes he seems to be implying that Royal Scyths of the Baltic city-states ruled all the nomadic tribes on the steppe (which definitely wasn’t the case), then in other passages he describes free-ranging Scythian hordes who refuse to submit to any ruler. Sometimes he calls out specific tribes by name, while other times he just says “Scythians” without specifying which ones he’s talking about.
Some ancient chroniclers tried to make different sorts of distinctions — Achaemenid Persian writers, for example, distinguished the “Pointed-Hat Saka” (Sakā tigraxaudā) from the “Haoma-Drinking Saka” (Sakā haumavargā) — but it’s extremely difficult to know how much these labels had to do with the distinctions these peoples made among themselves.
Herodotus insists that they all called themselves “Scythian” — but who knows, really? After 800 years of expansion across Asia, many of them had drifted into lifestyles far different from the nomadism that had earned them the name “Saka” in the first place.
The Royal Scyths, for their part, were about as far from steppe barbarians as it’s possible to get. From their seats of power in city-states like Chersonesos, Sindica and Tanais on the coast of the Black Sea, they controlled a continent-wide trading network connecting Greece, Egypt, Syria, Persia, India and China.
You might’ve heard of the trading network the Scythians built. Today it’s known as the Silk Road.
Scythian noblemen and women often appear in their own art wearing tunics of fine Persian silk, along with fabrics, weapons, cups, bowls and cutlery manufactured by master craftsmen all across Asia. Many Scythian princes and princesses were buried with hoards of finely worked gold jewelry (as well as the aforementioned golden “medicinal waterpipes”).
This artistic blending brings us to perhaps the most mind-blowing aspect of life on the steppe.
It wasn’t neatly divided up into separate cultural regions, like the areas around it were. It was a vast mixing bowl, constantly being stirred.
There are no oceans in that sea of grass. A few mountain ranges, sure. Some of the world’s harshest deserts. But very few uncrossable barriers between one subcontinent and another. Mostly it’s flat, empty, and easy to cross at a gallop. So it’s always been a melting pot where cultures blend — and an anvil where new ones are forged.
And from the interior, waves of steppe peoples would periodically erupt outward across Europe and Asia.
The names of these peoples read like a list of shadowy ancient nightmares: The Goths. The Huns. The Magyars. Hephtalites. Göktürks. Tatars. Mongols. These “uncooked barbarians” were poorer, colder, hungrier and more desperate than their “cooked” counterparts; and their desperation made them even more ferocious than their relatives on the fringes.
For “civilized” peoples, the steppe was an impenetrable black hole; its internal politics an utter mystery — and when an unknown tribe erupted from those depths without warning, burning farms and slaying villagers, it’s not hard to understand why priests of many religions described them as demons from hell.
This outward-pushing pattern played out time and again on the Eurasian steppe, for thousands of years. The Scythians themselves had dislodged a semi-settled people known as the Cimmerians, centuries earlier
The Cimmerians, in their turn, would be displaced out of the fertile river valleys by their relatives the Sogdians (whom you’ll meet in Part 4 of this series), then kicked out of their heartland altogether.
These shifts heralded the arrival of the Huns — who represented a sort of “Scythians version 2.0,” at least in military terms.
Throughout the medieval period, successive waves of Turks, Uyghurs, Magyars and other peoples from the deep interior would push outward and settle (at least somewhat) into sedentary life — until they were overrun by hungrier, fiercer nomads… who looked quite a bit like their ancestors.
The Mongol armies of Genghis Khan arguably brought this pattern to a crashing finale. Though their empire fragmented and dissolved in just a few hundred years, in the 1300s CE, no other people has ever surpassed the Mongols in the art of steppe warfare.
In that sense, the Mongols represented the culmination of thousands of years of steppe culture — the climax of the “Scythian” way of life (which, of course, already existed long before anyone took the name “Saka”).
And although no one ever did it as well as Genghis Khan and his sons, horse-nomad Khanates would continue to rule parts of Asia, well into the modern era.
Like the scale of the steppe itself, the timescale of steppe culture is so vast that it’s hard to fathom. But let’s try. If we were to draw a timeline from the domestication of the horse around 3000 BCE, all the way to — let’s pick a somewhat arbitrary date; say, Russia’s final conquest of the Siberian Khanate in 1598 CE —
That adds up to a staggering 4,598 years of unbroken cultural continuity on the Eurasian steppe.
Throughout all that time, the wild plains and tundras were ruled by free-ranging nomadic horse-archer peoples, whose cultures and ways of life would’ve been easily recognizable to one another. And if you go to Mongolia or Kazakhstan today, you’ll find that many people still live that same lifestyle.
Scythian culture never really died. It’s still with us right now.
But then, what happened to the Scythians themselves?
The exact chain of events is hard to pin down — but we’ve got enough contemporary anecdotes to give us a fairly good idea.
Our most famous ancient source for info on Scythians — and the first source in the world to refer to them by that name — is Herodotus, the so-called “Father of Greek History.”
Although Herodotus devotes a few lines to the Royal Scyths in their wealthy city-states, he leans toward a more romantic vision of the Scythian way of life, painting the steppe Scythians as courageous barbarians, who aren’t afraid to throw the Persians a well-worded diss when they’re in the mood.
Now, let me preface the following story by pointing out that our source here is a Greek historian renowned for his… shall we say… flair for the dramatic. He’s writing about a message sent by a Scythian king (whom he never met) to a Persian emperor (whom he also never met), during a campaign he learned about only through hearsay.
All the same, Herodotus’s little story captures enough of the “feel” of Scythian chutzpah that I’m going to paraphrase it anyway.
In the early summer of 513 BCE, the armies of the Persian emperor Darius I were scouring the Central Asian steppes, in search of a Scythian horde they just couldn’t seem to catch.
The Persians had already conquered everything from Turkey to eastern Iran — but they couldn’t seem to get a grip on the open prairie. Every time they thought they’d pinned the Scythians down, the nomads simply turned around, packed up, and ran away.
This happened again, and again, until Darius finally sent this message to the Scythian king Idanthyrsus:
“Why do you keep fleeing, when I invite you to come and fight me? If you think you’re up to the challenge, then come take a stand! Or, if you admit your weakness, come bow before me, and offer me earth and water.”
— King Darius I of Persia
Idanthyrsus sent this reply to the most powerful emperor in the world:
“This is our way, O Persian: I’ve never feared a man yet, or fled from one. My people do the same in war as we do in peace: we move. We have no towns or farms for you to capture or cut down. If you’re thirsting for a fight, come look for our fathers’ graves. But until you find them, we will never join battle with you, unless we see a good reason to do so. The Blue Sky is my only master. And instead of earth and water, I offer you only this invitation: Weep.”
— King Idanthyrsus of Scythia
In this letter (as clearly Herodotus-flavored as it is) it’s easy to hear echoes of the Mongol Khans’ epic threats to their enemies; not to mention certain choice quotes from Native American leaders like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.
Since the most ancient days, it seems, nomadic warriors have held their sedentary rivals in a sort of sneering disdain — as bikers and gang members mock nine-to-five office workers today. There’s something timeless about that rivalry. Something hugely relatable, too. When we hear these stories —
We dream of pumping our fists right along with the rebel riders… no matter what fate those rebels eventually met.
In the case of the Scythians, the Persians managed to subjugate some of them — like the “Pointed-Hat Scythians” who show up in the famous palace reliefs at Persepolis, bearing gifts for their new emperor. And there, one might think, ended the story of the free Scythians.
But the truth about the Scythians’ demise wasn’t nearly so cut-and-dried.
Remember, different groups of Scythians lived all across Asia — some groups hunting and herding, others raiding and plundering, still others trading and growing wealthy inside walled towns and fortresses.
And long after some of these groups were “subdued” by the Persians, their relatives were still ranging freely across the steppe, doing booming business with many peoples along the Silk Road… including the Persians themselves.
Meanwhile, far to the east, the Zhou Chinese were contending with another group of Scythians, whom they called the Sai (or Saik, 塞). Other Scythian groups were migrating south from the steppe into eastern Iran and India, where they set up a state called Sakastan (literally “Scythian Land”).
Still other groups of Scythians rode into the Tarim Basin of northwest China, where they converted to Buddhism and created the Kingdom of Khotan.
Like many other steppe conquerors before and after them, the Scythians were gradually being drawn (and/or pushed) off the open plains; dissolving into the wealthy city-dwelling cultures around them.
Mentions of Scythian names, and Scythian battles, gradually fade from local records throughout the early centuries CE. In Pakistan and northern India, Chinese sources record that groups of Scythians settled in the area of Kashmir (Jibin, 罽賓), which was already Hellenized in the wake of Alexander’s conquests.
In China, the Scythians simply vanished into a vast multi-cultural vortex, never to be heard from again.
In Europe, meanwhile, writers applied the term “Scythian” ever more vaguely to any horse-riding steppe people, making it still more confusing to try to identify which groups were “real Scythians” — whatever that even means, exactly.
Some Roman writers described the Goths as “Scythian,” while others applied the term to the related Sarmatian people, who also spoke the Scythian language, and conquered major chunks of former Scythian territory throughout the early centuries CE.
The term “Scythian” continued to pop up, in increasingly strange contexts, well into the Middle Ages — and beyond.
For example, in 860 CE, Byzantine chroniclers described Russian raiders as “Tauro-Scythians,” because they were believed to come from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey. Some modern Russians still do, in fact, claim the Scythians as their distant ancestors — though this is hard to prove, one way or the other. More imaginative writers have connected the Scythians with the Scots, or the Franks, or even some lost tribe of Israelites.
It’s not without reason, of course, that so many people want to claim Scythian blood.
As a historical journalist, I’m supposed to be unbiased — but there are some cultures I just like more than others. I can’t help it.
And it’s hard not to love a gender-equal society of freewheeling horse-archers who talked smack to Persian kings, terrified Greek armies, created beautiful art, rocked cool tattoos, traveled and exchanged ideas throughout ancient Asia, and… oh yeah; let’s not forget the golden opium bongs.
Even at a distance of 2,500 years, there’s just something undeniably cool about Scythians.
Of course, it’s that remove of centuries that lets us conveniently forget how terrifying they were to their enemies. Or how bad they probably smelled (Herodotus says they never bathed), or the lack of respect they evidently felt for literate society, or the unimaginable cruelties they must have inflicted on the peoples they raided.
From this far off in time, we have the luxury of looking only at the fun stuff they left behind, and thinking how exciting it must’ve been to be part of their crew — to get the cool tats; to ride shirtless with the wind in your hair; to live free and raid for plunder like a horseback buccaneer, with your warrior woman (or man) at your side.
I’ll leave you to puzzle out that moral quandary for yourself.
As for me, well… I’ve already got the tattoos on my arms.
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