Great Empires of Central Asia, Part 4: Lords of the Silk Road

This painting of the market in Samarkand dates from a few centuries later.

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.

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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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