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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