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The Real History Behind Game of Thrones, Part 2: The Dothraki
By Ben Thomas Posted in Culture, History on April 27, 2019 0 Comments
The Real History Behind Game of Thrones, Part 3: Slaver's Bay Previous The Real History Behind Game of Thrones, Part 1: Dorne Next

They rode wild and free across an entire continent — and made emperors tremble in their beds. Meet the REAL Dothraki.

The howling riders thundered over the horizon. They appeared infinite in number — pouring across the plains, swinging swords and firing arrows, crushing well-trained armies beneath their horses’ hooves.

To those who glimpsed them up close and lived to tell of it, the riders appeared demonic: superhuman in size, with inhumanly elongated skulls, ritually scarred faces, and knotted dreadlocks down their backs.

It was only logical, then, that priests and prophets called the invaders a divine punishment — a horde of demons straight out of Hell itself, sent to punish the empire’s people for sins beyond counting.

Huns on the attack
Riders from the steppe

But even as the people flocked to their temples to pray for deliverance, the riders overran their great cities one by one — carrying away heaps of priceless relics, slaughtering the defenders, raping the women, and dragging the children away in chains, to live out their days as slaves.

By the time a peace was negotiated, tens of thousands of people lay in their graves — while the bodies of great warriors rotted in the summer sun, serving as food for wild dogs, vultures and crows.

The kingdom these riders invaded wasn’t Westeros — it was the Eastern Roman Empire. And instead of Dothraki, they called themselves Khun’nu; which the Romans pronounced “Hunni” — “The Huns.”

Roman legionaries battling Huns
Roman legionaries battling Huns

To Romans of the 5th century, these alien invaders defied categorization. They hailed from no recognizable tribe, spoke no known language, and rejected all initial attempts at diplomacy. All they wanted, it seemed, was to kill, destroy and plunder.

But among themselves, of course, the Khun’nu represented the apex of a proud ancient tradition of life on the sprawling grasslands of Central Asia — a tradition that could trace its lineage back through thousands of years of poem and song.

As records from other civilizations make clear, the Huns were far from the first nation of nomads to make war on “civilized” peoples — nor would they be the last.

These nations made their home among the trackless lands of the Eurasian Steppe — a prairie that spans thousands of unbroken miles from eastern Hungary all the way to northern China; from Siberia down into Iran.

The Eurasian steppe: an almost unbroken belt of flat land from Ukraine to Manchuria; from Siberia to Iran.
The Eurasian steppe: an almost unbroken belt of flat land from Ukraine to Manchuria; from Siberia to Iran.

Nomadic hunters had been living on these vast plains since the last Ice Age — at least 20,000 years ago, when mastodons and woolly rhinoceros grazed among its half-melted snow.

We do not know what these early steppe peoples called themselves — or even what languages they spoke — because they did not write. But we know from their burials that they hunted with flint-tipped spears and arrows, dressed in warm furs and copper jewelry, and lived in tents.

Ancestors of the Andronovo people
Ancestors of the Andronovo people

They also raised tattooing to a high art form — as we can see from the evidence of their own skin, since many of their buried bodies were mummified by the freezing dryness of the Siberian climate.

Tattoos on a mummy buried at Pazyryk, Russia
Tattoos on a mummy buried at Pazyryk, Russia

For thousands of years, these peoples walked across the steppe on foot. They often hunted herds of wild steppe horses for meat — just as they hunted deer and elk — and over time, they taught these temperamental animals to pull their carts and chariots.

But around 5,500 years ago, someone in the western reaches of the steppe tried something no one had ever tried before: they leaped onto a horse’s back and rode it.

With the domestication of the horse, steppe life would never be the same (photo copyright Mike Reyfman)
With the domestication of the horse, steppe life would never be the same. (photo copyright Mike Reyfman)

In a world where everyone else walks on foot, horse-riding is nothing short of a real-world superpower. It’s like flying, zooming across the plains far faster than anyone can run — without even breaking a sweat.

Musical accompaniment for this story:

All of a sudden, hunters could range over dozens of square miles every day, chasing down fleet-footed prey that would’ve eluded them on foot. And in war, mounted fighters could raid more distant enemies, and carry home much more treasure.

Even against an army of horse-drawn chariots (like those used by the ancient Andronovo civilization), horseback riding represents a major leap forward in military technology. Horse riders can gallop faster, turn tighter, brake harder, and easily outflank their clunky enemies.

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

Steppe riders soon mastered a whole array of brilliant new tactics — like loosing arrows while balancing on tiptoe atop their saddles, or swinging down alongside their horses for a surprise bow-shot or sword-swipe.

In Game of Thrones season 7 episode 4, “The Spoils of War,” you can see Dothraki warriors using many of these very same tactics against their Lannister enemies during the Battle of Highgarden:

Dothraki riders loosing arrows from horseback
Dothraki riders loosing arrows from horseback

And so, a brand-new way of life was born. Across the next 2,000 years, horse-riding spread eastward across the steppe — sometimes by trade, other times by conquest.

By 1,500 BCE (the golden age of Babylon and the Egyptian New Kingdom) every child on the Eurasian Steppe was placed in the saddle from the day they could walk — and lived on horseback until the day they died. Many were even buried with their favorite horses.

A steppe warrior wouldn’t dream of traveling more than a few paces without leaping onto the back of a nearby horse. Men counted their wealth — and paid their marriage dowries — in horse herds. Warriors painted their horses in ornate designs, and even dressed them in fancy costumes.

A Scythian horseman in full ceremonial dress. And before you ask, yes; that is a real costume. I've seen the original in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
A Scythian horseman in full ceremonial dress. And before you ask, yes; that is a real costume. I’ve seen the original in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

And to the agricultural peoples of Europe, India, Persia and China, steppe riders became an ever-present threat — the danger that spurred the construction of the Great Wall, and drove several emperors to marry their daughters to steppe chieftains in hopes of securing peace (which rarely lasted long).

Parents in all these “civilized” kingdoms warned their children that if they didn’t behave, they might be snatched up and carried away by the Huns, or the Turks, or the Mongols — just as, in GoT‘s Kingdom of Westeros, people tell frightening fireside tales of the Dothraki.

While we in the West might be most familiar with Attila and his Huns, every Eurasian civilization has its own horror stories about steppe “barbarians.”

Steppe raiders descend on their enemies.
Steppe raiders descend on their enemies.

As far back as ancient Mesopotamia, Assyrian chroniclers wrote of ferocious horse-tribes called the Aškuzai, which frequently raided towns and farms along their borders.

Ancient Chinese garrisons feared steppe warriors known as the Xiongnu — who may well have been the Khun’nu: those same horseback fighters who Romans would later come to fear as “Huns.”

As Alexander the Great pressed eastward on his campaigns, he often faced off against armies of horse-warriors known as the Scythians, or Saka — who were feared by that same name in Persia, India and western China.

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

Across all those thousands of years and thousands of miles, the essentials of steppe life remained very similar: horses, bows and arrows, mobile tent camps, and a free-roving lifestyle of raids and hunts.

Though steppe peoples typically ate a simple diet of meat and milk — with which they traveled on the hoof — they also discovered a stunning variety of ways to party hard.

For a reasonably close modern approximation of the Scythians, look no further than the Dothraki from "Game of Thrones."
For a reasonably close modern approximation of the Scythians, look no further than the Dothraki from “Game of Thrones.”

At some point in the mists of prehistory, they figured out how to brew a strong drink of fermented horse milk — which the Dothraki on Game of Thrones also love. (I drank it a few times in Mongolia. It’s definitely an acquired taste, a bit like sour milk with a sharp citrus tang.)

Steppe peoples like the Scythians were also famous throughout the ancient world for gulping down huge flagons of undiluted wine — and for loving opium and marijuana so much that they smoked it out of solid gold bongs, until (the Greek writer Herodotus tells us) they “howled like wolves.”

A gold bong found in a Scythian burial mound in southern Russia.
A gold bong found in a Scythian burial mound in southern Russia.

In fact, if you visit Mongolia or Kazakhstan today (as I have), you’ll find that many people are still living that same steppe lifestyle right now — with a few minor upgrades such as smartphones and data networks.

A woman snaps a selfie in modern Mongolia
A woman snaps a selfie in modern Mongolia

Why live in a dirty, overcrowded city, these people have asked me, when you can live in a roomy mobile house in a gorgeous national park — breathing clean air, drinking pure spring water, dining on fresh meat, working no more than a few hours a day — and partying whenever you damn well please?

From that perspective, it’s easy to see why most steppe peoples were unimpressed by “civilized” cities — and wanted nothing from them but the riches in their vaults and the crops on their farms.

Steppe life in modern Mongolia would be easily recognizable to a person of 3,000 years ago.
Steppe life in modern Mongolia would be easily recognizable to a person of 3,000 years ago.

This nomadic lifestyle was so successful, for so many centuries, that even the defeat of a great steppe army couldn’t make a dent in the culture as a whole. If one steppe people went extinct, plenty of others remained to take up the banner and continue the fight.

No matter how many times “civilized” armies defeated invaders from the steppe, a completely different steppe people would come riding out of the uncharted wilderness just a generation or two later — living and fighting much the same as their predecessors, but boasting their own unique improvements to classic steppe technologies and tactics.

A Sogdian archer
A Sogdian archer

The Sogdians, for example, fought much as the Huns had — but with more powerful and accurate bows. The Turks, in turn, learned the art of bookkeeping from their Sogdian patrons — which helped them field even bigger, better-trained cavalries and conquer the eastern Mediterranean.

But it was the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, who brought steppe warfare to its tactical and technological apex.

Battle tactics of the Mongol army
Battle tactics of the Mongol army

Mongol armies were mind-bogglingly well disciplined (they spent at least as much time drilling as they spent fighting), and coordinated their attacks with a precision that seems almost inconceivable in a pre-digital age.

Using a complex system of whistles and flag signals, Mongol armies ten thousand strong could easily split up into three sub-forces — then charge their enemy from three different directions simultaneously, only to scatter a moment later, then loop around and attack along the army’s flanks.

What’s more, Mongol armies would often alter and adapt these tactics in real time, coordinating unpredictable retreats, regroupings and flanking maneuvers from opposite ends of a noisy battlefield — as if by telepathy.

(Sometimes I wish I could take a remote-controlled drone back to the 1200s and watch a Mongol attack from high above. It must’ve looked like some kind of gigantic arrow-shooting amoeba enveloping its prey.)

The traditional image of a disorganized Mongol “horde” is every bit as fictional as the Dothraki. In fact, a closer analogue for Mongol discipline would be the Unsullied!

A force of Unsullied await a command
A force of Unsullied await a command

In a mere two generations — starting with Genghis Khan’s unification of the steppe tribes around 1218 CE — the unstoppable Mongol armies conquered most of China, large swathes of Russia, all of Persia and Mesopotamia, and portions of eastern Europe.

As eastern Mongol rulers consolidated their Asian conquests, the western Mongol forces — under the command of Genghis Khan’s son Batu Khan and his general Subetei — utterly crushed large forces of Hungarian, Georgian and Polish knights: widely recognized as the fiercest warriors in Europe at the time.

The Mongols’ next big target was Vienna, Austria — and they were gearing up for a devastating siege when an unexpected disaster changed everything.

Mongol horsemen defeat a force of Polish knights
Mongol horsemen defeat a force of Polish knights

Back in the Mongol heartland, the Great Khan Ögedei dropped dead during an all-night drinking contest. Rumors of poison abounded — and the battle for the throne was on.

Just as Khal Drogo’s abrupt death stopped the impending Dothraki invasion of Westeros in Game of Thrones season 1, Khan Ögedei’s sudden passing called a halt to the Mongol invasion of Europe — setting off an Asia-wide intra-Mongol war that quickly ripped their hard-won empire to pieces.

The Mongol Khanates' division of Asia in 1259.
The Mongol Khanates’ division of Asia in 1259.

Less than 200 years after the Mongols conquered an entire continent, their realms were re-divided along lines that still look strikingly familiar today: China in the far east, Tibet and Mongolia just to the west, “the ‘Stans” in the middle, Iraq and Iran to the southwest, and Russia to the north.

But the end of the Mongol Empire didn’t mean the end of the Mongols. Quite a few Mongol Khanates continued to rule large sections of Asia, well into the modern era!

On the northern Eurasian steppe, the Volga Tatars — direct descendants of Genghis Khan — ruled a realm called Kazan, which Russia didn’t conquer until the 1500s. Tatarstan remains an “autonomous republic” under the Russian Federation, with its own Tatar language and traditions.

Crimean Tatars in modern Russia
Crimean Tatars in modern Russia

A whole succession of independent Mongol dynasties also took back large chunks of Mongolia itself (which ostensibly belonged to China’s Qing dynasty) — until the 1770s, when Catherine the Great of Russia finally executed the last members of their noble houses.

The Qing dynasty — still nursing a bitter grudge against the Mongol conquest 500 years earlier — finally got to “send their regards” to their former conquerors. They forcibly deported most of Mongolia’s population, leaving it with the lowest population density of any country on earth.

The very last of the Mongol-installed Khans — Mohammed Alim Khan of the Emirate of Bukhara — lived so recently that there are color photos of him!

Mohammed Alim reigned — reasonably well, it’s said — until 1920, when the Russian Red Army invaded Bukhara and sent him into permanent exile.

It’s not entirely clear which of these steppe peoples — the Huns, the Scythians, the Turks, the Mongols, or many others — served as George R. R. Martin’s primary inspiration for the Dothraki.

Dothraki styles of hair and clothing (on the HBO series, at least) seem most similar to those worn by the Huns. Their skill with bow and arrow reminds one of the Sogdians — while their horseback acrobatics are still practiced by Turks and Mongols today.

As for the Dothraki “screamers” who charge into battle as a disorganized horde — they’d look hilariously amateurish to any well-disciplined Hun or Mongol. Their whooping, hollering chaos seems inspired more by Comanche raiding parties than by any professional steppe army.

An absurdly disorganized Dothraki charge
An absurdly disorganized Dothraki charge

And this wildly inaccurate reputation for disorganized fighting is just one of many common smears against steppe peoples. Most of us think of the Huns and Mongols — if we ever think of them at all — as shadowy monsters on a mission to destroy “civilized” society.

Even today, words like “Hun” and “Mongol” still evoke long-outdated concepts of “barbarism” and “savagery.”

In that sense, GoT‘s portrayal of the Dothraki owes far more to European, Persian and Chinese chroniclers — ancient enemies of the steppe peoples — than it owes to any genuine tradition of steppe life.

Peoples like the Huns, Scythians and Mongols, of course, did not consider themselves “barbarians,” but proud heirs of thousand-year-old cultures — far nobler and freer than the fattened lords of the cities they conquered.

A noble Scythian family

When Genghis Khan’s army conquered the Persian city of Otrar — whose governor had slaughtered two peaceful Mongol trade caravans — Genghis ordered the 280 richest men in the city herded into its largest mosque.

The Great Khan rode his horse up onto the pulpit, trampling pages of the Koran beneath his hooves.

One of the Persian noblemen dared to protest. “You are a great sinner!” the man cried to the Khan, “and God will punish you for these sins!”

Genghis smiled down at the nobleman.

“No,” said the Khan. “It is you who are great sinners — and I am the punishment God has sent.”

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