Their realm was the heart of civilization — until the apocalypse came. Meet the great masters of Central Asia’s last golden age.
When you think of “Arabian culture,” what do you imagine? Towering citadels, perhaps; adorned with domes and minarets. Flowing robes of many colors, and turbans and embroidered veils. Gardens of colorful flowers and birds, where courtesans sing poetry for sultans. Spices and the scent of sandalwood, and the tales of the Thousand and One Nights.
It might surprise you, then, to learn that none of this comes from Arabia. Not at all.
They brought together the best of Asia—then improved on it. Meet the merchant princes of the ancient East.
In the year 36 BCE, a Han Chinese expedition marched west across the Jaxartes River, in what’s now Kazakhstan — more than 4,000 miles west of their home in China, in the heart of the mountainous wilderness of Central Asia.
There on the forested riverbank, the Han horsemen and crossbowmen encountered a force of strange barbarians —
Warriors in heavy iron armor, who fought with long spears and tall shields.
They drank, smoked, plundered, raided and traded their way across ancient Asia. Meet 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.
Long before the Huns, or the Mongols, or the Aryans, a different people ruled the Eurasian plains. Meet the inventors of thunderbolt-hurling sky gods.
Imagine a time long before Asia’s vast interior was crossed by railroads or telephone lines. Thousands of years before anyone dreamed of the Silk Route; before there were friendly roads and caravansaries to welcome travelers from across the desert. Long before anyone had heard the names of China, or India, or Rome.
It is 1900 BCE, or thereabouts. Far to the west, the Sumerians are experiencing their Renaissance, Egypt has entered its Middle Kingdom era, and Babylon is about to rise to power for the first time.
But here in Central Asia, there is only wilderness.
It’s a town in Tunisia, North Africa, where many of the desert scenes in Star Wars were actually filmed. And while it’s not home to any starships or aliens, its true story is every bit as strange.
In my first article of this “Great African Empires” series, I mentioned that people in North Africa were living in settled villages, practicing farming and animal agriculture, as early as the 11,000s BCE —
A full 7,500 years before the Great Pyramid was built.
His spending sprees were legendary. His entourage crashed whole cities’ economies. Meet the flashiest emperor in African history.
Imagine a billionaire arriving with his entourage in London, or Las Vegas, or Rome; and completely taking over an entire city block— turning a five-star restaurant into his exclusive kitchen; a skyscraper into his private office; a museum into his personal art gallery. The CEO brings along hundreds of aides and assistants, all of them clad in designer clothes, driving luxury cars. At each stop along the way, he instantly turns ordinary people into millionaires with a single swipe of his credit card.
It’s hard to imagine any modern mogul willing to flash that kind of cash —
But that doesn’t even begin to describe Musa’s pilgrimage.
They turned a Saharan trade route into a world-class center of Islamic learning. Meet the first medieval empire in West African history.
Some empires blossom around central seaports, or on the banks of vital rivers. But the Kingdom of Wagadu’s wealth was born — at least, in the beginning —
Thanks to a big, cranky animal.
The dromedary camel had been domesticated in Arabia around 3,000 BCE, and was used as a pack animal throughout the ancient Middle East; but it wasn’t until the Roman period that domesticated camels made their way to the Sahara Desert —
They traded with Egypt, Israel and Babylon. But when they turned to the Christian God, East Africa would never be the same.
In the 200s CE, the Persian prophet Mani referred to the “four great powers” of the world. The first three empires are easy to guess: Rome, Persia, and China. Mani’s fourth choice might come as a surprise. He named the Aksumite (or Axumite) Empire of East Africa —
As equal in importance to the other three.
The Aksumites never made any significant attempts to expand outside their own continent (but then again, neither did the Han Chinese). The Aksumite army wasn’t particularly formidable. The empire’s geographical extent was fairly small. Its language never became widely known in the outside world.