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The Saks or Scythians

The knowledge of the Saks, who dominated the first millennium ВС in what is today's Kazakhstan, and indeed the entire Steppe west of the Caspian to the Sea of Azov and the Black sea, comes primarily from Greek sources. Herodotus Histories records his personal observations and earlier Persian writings on the Saks. Cuneiform rock inscriptions of the Persian and Median rules tell of Emperor Darius ferocious campaigns against a people whose presence as mounted warriors was felt from the Mediterranean and the Black sea across northern Iran and the illimitable spaces of central Asia. These were a people distinguishableby their pointed headdress. They were referred to in Greek literature as Scythians, by the Chinese as Saijuns, Shizhuns or Shimo. The term Scythian has remained in the parlance of the western world. Modern scholarship prefers the Persian name «Saks», or «Saka».
Indeed, it is Iranian Zoroastrian accounts of the Persian-Sak wars that tell us of the Saks victory over the Median Emperor, Cyrus 2, who had conquered the entire Persian region but was thus withheld from Central Asia. Herodotus account of the Persian emperor Cyrus 2s battle with Saks reveals their formidable strength. After Cyrus had destroyed Babylon in 539 ВС and was preparing to conquer Egypt, he annihilated the entireSak force together with the Sak heir. Nine years later, in a manoeuvre of vengeance, the Sak Queen Tomiris, enticed Cyrus into an ambush. Cyrus himself and a reputed 200,000 men-according to the contemporary Persian account-were slaughtered. Not a single Persian survived to bring the news to the Persian capital Queen Tomiris dropped the several head of Cyrus into a leather bag filled with the blood of his own army, declaring. «Be satiated now with the blood you thirsted for and of which you could never have enough. Some clues as to the Saks governance have reached us. The monarchy's authority was certainly sacred. Kings had important priestly functions. Women - by virtue of the strong exogamous rules which were enlarged the societal networks - were highly respected. A woman was thus as rightful an heir to the monarchy as a man. There was no dominance of a military aristocracy. All were mobilized in time of war and al were armed with the new iron weaponry. All fought on horseback. There was an equality of rights among all warriors, who exclusive were eligible to join the regular peoples council, which met to discuss day-to-day issues no less than external threats. The Sak tribes combined three pastoral techniques: nomadic, semi-nomadic and settled. The rearing of sheep predominated, while the horse was treasured both as the means of mobility and as portage and as a source of meat and milk-as, in more arid regions, the camel was likewise. Nomadic herding was dependant on the horse. Yet where there was a reliable source of water, there was also settlement, subsistence agriculture and the development of irrigation, mostlikely derived from Persian techniques. Yet nomadism predominates. The nomadism herdsmen lived in yurt transportable tents made of thick felt-or in houses of adoble and wood. Apart from their traditional headgear Saks traditionally wore tight kaftans with belts and pantaloons, and hells shoes
A primordial cult of the Saks was honour of ancestry-the implicit link with an eternal in which involved the living were. Bodies' were embalmed r mummified and were transported to central burial chambers. As large as 100 metres across and 10 metres high. Horses were buried alongside the warriors or dignitaries that rode them.
The Sak also adhered to a cult of sun and fire, as attested by early Persian -that is, sun-honouring Zoroastrian -chronicles. In 1969 there occurred an archaeological discovery of unprecedented significance. This was of the full panoply of the Golden Man; a figure caparisoned from head to foot in no less than 4,000 castplatelest of gold, somewhat like the of an armadillo, and scales evidently attached to garment of fabric or leather. This discovery riveted the attention of the world of archaeology. It seemed to imply the deification of man, and unquestionably points to the sacral use of metal gold. The buried figure lay next to a gold-tipped spear and held a whip with a gold-bond haft. A treasure of gold artifacts has come down to us, objects used as personal adornment, most probably in ritual situations, as armament and armour, as vessels (as for food or liquid), and seemingly as free-standing animal figures. The animal figures - wild, domestic, and mythological, lovingly configured-powerfully suggest a sense of the divine unity of creation.
Yet the pictorial is not the only remnant of the Saks contribution to the story of man. Today we can trace the languages spoken by this people on the Kazakh plains to east-Iranian or Turkic origins. Ancient runes indicate the high levels of social interaction between the peoples along the southern and southwestern frontier of the extensive empire. Diplomatic contacts with the Saks were taken seriously by the Persians, and by Alexander the Great, who confronted them on Syrdarya in 328 ВС. But at least on its southern reaches, the Saks realm appears to have weakened by the third century ВС. One Sal ruler, Khaomavarga, became a subject of the Persian emperor. Mean while, by the end of that third century ВС, Sal political authority elsewhere stood aside from Persia to develop complex tribal unions in the nomadic regions of Central Asia, such as are evident from the ensuing period.
The Usuns
At the end oh the third century ВС, a new political amalgamation was emerging, headed by a people known as the Usuns. In 160 ВС, the Usuns, of possible Turkic origin from the East, appeared in Jetisu - that is the land of the Seven Rivers-and defeated the Sak army. The Usuns were quick to spread there authority and were the first on Kazakh territory to establish a hierarchy of clan leaders. Such leaders reported to the Great Beg, or Gunmo, whose office was hereditary.
The territory of the Usun union stretched from Lake Balkhash in the north to Lake Issyk-Kul in the south and from the Tien-Shan Mountains in the East to the Talas river ( now close to present day Taraz). Their capital was sited on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, at Chiguchen (the City of the Red Vale). We know from Chinese sources as researched by Kazakh historian, Nygmet Mynzhan-that the population of the Usuns reached 630,000 at its zenith, in approximately the fourth century AD.
Ancient Chinese Emperors were apparently on good terms with the Great Beg. They sustained ambassadorial links with the ruler until the weakening of the Usun realm at the end of the third century, as a new invasion force was looming east of the mountains that border the great central Asian steppe.

The Huns
These were the Huns. They had been present in parts of the Steppe from as early as the third century ВС. Their reputation was barbarous and warlike. Now, in the fifth century AD, under the Attila (little father) from east of the Tien-Shan, they were to assert their power. With Attila to lead them they swept across central Asia leaving a trail of devastation, eventually to make an equally dramatic impact on Europe and the faltering civilization of Rome.
They very first mention (in Chinese records) of people named Hun dates from 822 ВС. They emerged from the plateau north of Tibet. Chinese sources claim that, at the turn of the third century ВС, the Huns brought pressure to bear eastwards on Han territory, obliging the Chinese emperors to build the Great Wall.
In 209BC, the Hun leader Mode pronounced himself Sengir (the highest) and energetically started to build a Hun state, uniting twenty-four tribes. The wars between China and the Huns, exhausting and seemingly endless, persisted until 188 ВС. Mode was at height of his power. As a result, the Chinese dynasty, under the Han, was in the state of vassalage to the Hun Empire. China dutifully paid an annual tribute to its aggressive neighbor. After 59 ВС а series of savage conflicts resultedtwelve years later in the division of the Hun dynasty into two. The northern part reverted to the full authority of the (Han) Chinese empire, while the southern remained independent-and Hunnic.
The Huns Sengir was further entitled the one born of Heaven and Earth, and placed on the earth by the sun and the moon. His was absolute power. He was responsible for the military, for diplomacy, and was himself an object of worship. Succession to throne was determined by the Sengirs choice, yet most often was passed to the eldest son. Blood relations of the Sengir sustained or comprised the elite of the Hun regime. The bureaucracy was complex. The legal system evolved a Code of Laws by which evasion of military duty warranted a death penalty. The Huns also pioneered a feudal land system. They introduced taxes and spread literacy, using an orthography of their own devising.
By the beginning of the first millennium AD, the Huns had reached the land between the Volga, the Don and the Aral Sea, having evidently spread north of the territory dominated by Saks and Usuns. There was intermarriage and the absorption of dominated peoples, including Alans and Kangars. By 375 AD they had crossed the Don and broken the defences of the Eastern Goths. All this had initiated a surge of migration in Western Asia and Eastern Europe. It was only when Attila had gained power (by killing his older brother, his fathers heir) that the Huns formalized their authority throughout much of the Steppe.
Attila's death in 453 AD led to the unraveling of the Hunnic empire.
The Huns own style of nomadism engendered a re-signed of the yurt .A framework of iron tubes, circulating warm air and placed inside the felt of the walls of the yurt, provided a heating system. The Huns used leather for clothing and also wove cloth of cotton and wool, while buying Chinese silk for the nobility's formal attire.
By the later fifth century AD, the Huns had been eliminated-or, at least their power was gone.
Upon this fragmentation of a once formidable empire, the Huns were apparently pushed south across the Syrdarya by the western Turks (a branch pf the so-called Kok-or Blue Turks) who, in 559 AD, allied with Sassanids of Persia. Thus were the Huns ousted, plunging the Steppes of Kazakhstan into another era: the early mediaeval years of competing Turkic-speaking groups among which may be discerned what scholars define as the Proto-Kipchak dialect, a significant linguistic ingredient of the Kazakh tongue of today.

Discovery Central Asia #18

Discovery Central Asia supplement #4/2005

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