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 steppe. 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.

Picture yourself in a camp of animal-hide tents, surrounded on every side by a sea of open grassland and rolling hills, broken at distant intervals by small groves of trees swaying in the wind. Your only companions are the tight-knit group of people you’ve known all your life, and the herds of sheep, goats and cattle that accompany you in your migrations across the plains.

Your camp probably would've resembled this one, in modern Kyrgyzstan.
Your camp probably resembles this one, in Kyrgyzstan.

One morning, you hear a strange rumbling.

Putting your ear to the grass, you hear a thunder in the earth; an approaching storm unlike any you’ve ever heard.

Then you raise your eyes and see them pouring over the northern hills: men in horse-drawn chariots, clad in armor of fur and boiled leather, notching arrows to to the strings of great bows, whooping and shouting as they descend on your camp.

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

Now look back on this moment with modern eyes, and ask — who are these invaders?

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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.

Here in this unforgiving landscape, “Black Sand” (as the desert’s name means in the Turkmen language) sprawls across more than 200,000 square miles (350,000 sq. km.) northeast of Iran; a salt-flat scoured by sandstorms, sun-hammered by day, near-freezing at night. It’s one of the most sparsely populated environments on earth, with an average of just one person per 2.5 square miles (6.5 sq. km.).

But it was not always this way. Nearly 5,000 years ago, this plain was a fertile river basin, fed by currents rushing down from the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush. Wheat and barley grew here, along with date-palms and fruit trees. Herds of sheep and goats grazed on grass along the mountain slopes.

In other words, this riverplain once resembled the valley of Mesopotamia not only in its ecology, but also in culture.

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