Great Empires of Central Asia, Part 3: Pirates on a Sea of Grass

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.

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Great Empires of Central Asia, Part 2: Thunder on the Steppe

Imagine looking across your undefended camp, and seeing this thundering toward you.

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.

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Great Empires of Central Asia, Part 1: Primeval Beginnings

They inspired Sumerian cities, Indian trade and Persian art. Meet the most influential civilization you’ve never heard of.

In the 1970s, Soviet archaeologists traveled deep into Turkmenistan’s Kara-Kum Desert, which most people can’t even point to on a map.

This might seem a strange place to seek the ruins of a lost civilization. But that’s exactly what they were searching for.

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Great African Empires, Part 6: The Tattooed Lords of the Desert

The Berber queen known as Tin Hinan, whose remains date from the 4th century BCE

Meet the nomad warriors who conquered Egypt, battled Rome, and ruled Spain.

If you grew up watching Star Wars (like I did), you probably dreamed of visiting Tatooine, the desert planet where Luke Skywalker gazed up at the twin suns and imagined becoming a Jedi.

Like a surprising number of things in sci-fi and fantasy,

Tatouine is a real place.

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.

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Great African Empires, Part 5: The Richest Man in History

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.

 

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Great African Empires, Part 4: Bringing Ideas Westward

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 —

Whose name, by the way, means “the Desert Desert.”

— and helped speed up the exchange of goods and ideas throughout Northern and Western Africa.

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Great African Empires, Part 3: Kingdom of Gold

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.

Yet Aksum’s wealth was the stuff of legend.

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Great African Empires, Part 2: Pharaohs of the Upper Nile

They conquered Egypt, battled Assyria and Rome, and ruled the Upper Nile Delta for thousands of years. Meet the pharaohs of Sudan.

You know that feeling when your favorite actor or musical artist makes a mass-market hit — and you realize that’s the one thing they’re going to be remembered for? From now on, no one’s going to care about all their brilliant early albums, or all the great dramatic roles they’ve played. Instead, this complex, talented artist is going to be known for a one-hit wonder, or a brief role in a historical epic.

That’s essentially what happened to the Kingdom of Kush. This civilization (not to be confused with the Kushan Empire of Asia) is remembered mainly as “the Nubian Pharaohs who conquered Egypt” — which they did, it’s true; at one particular period —

In their thousands of years of cultural history.

 

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Great African Empires, Part 1: Staggering Timescales

Who ruled Africa while Rome ruled Europe? How did they come to be forgotten?

A quick scan of online message boards will tell you that worldwide awareness of African empires — aside from ancient Egypt — is seriously limited, to say the least.

A Quora commenter asks, “Why hasn’t a single prominent civilization come out of Africa?” On Reddit, someone poses (or rather, begs) the question, “Why were there so few empires in Africa?” Although responders quickly mopped the floor with those commenters’ loaded questions, millions of other people around the world have never bothered to ask in the first place.

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