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.
Chinese crossbows and arrows made quick work of these newcomers’ flimsy shields, and soon the spear-fighters were falling in droves. They died quickly, without making it anywhere near the Chinese line.
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.
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.
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.