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The Saks

The early history of Kazakhstan is a shadowy procession of nomadic peoples, most of whom swept into the region from the east and left few records.

From around 1000 BC, during the Iron Age, the territories of modern Kazakhstan were occupied by Scythians, nomadic pastoralists who spoke an eastern Iranian language. These are thought to have been one of the tribes or branches of the Scythians, a people who are thought ultimately to have migrated from the inner Asian regions north of China, and settled from the coasts of the Black Sea to as far as southern Siberia.

The term 'Scythians' was used to refer to a widespread group of peoples, inhabiting an area which included territories of present-day Ukraine north of the Black Sea, east to the Altai. Some historians use the term 'Saka' to refer to Scythian peoples specifically of the eastern part of this range, including those in Kazakhstan, though other sources imply that the terms are interchangeable, Scythian being a Greek word, Saka a Persian one.

Little can be said for certain of their political history. They were nomadic pastoralists, treasuring the horse both as transport and food. Scythians lived in confederated tribes, developing alliances, sometimes forced, with sedentary peoples, to whom they offered military protection and animal produce in return for such goods as cereals.

What literary evidence we have of them is generally found in ancient Persian and Greek sources, and often this is vague and contradictory. Even with respect to such writers as the historian Herodotus, it is difficult to pin down geographical locations, or see through the haze of myth and rumour. (Sak horsemen were reputed to have been the first to shoot with bows and arrows from a galloping horse and to have mastered the art of iron forging before any other nation did. Excavations have revealed that the Sak penetrated deep into mountain ranges on their hunting expeditions -  an arrow tip of Sak design was found at 2,000 metres.)

However, descriptions are given of their nomadic behaviour and customs, and of them Herodotus writes in book IV of his Histories that "all carry their houses with them and are mounted archers, living not by the plough but by cattle, [and some] whose dwellings are upon carts, these assuredly are invincible and impossible to approach."

His elaborate descriptions of divination and interment rites are also to a certain extent confirmed by the recent excavation of Sak burials (in large earthen mounds known as kurgans) throughout Kazakhstan and further afield. Distinctive Saka items include pointed headgear and striking gold ornamentation, especially stylised animal figures. The Saka left many burial mounds, in some of which fabulous relics have been found – above all, the Golden Man, a superb warrior’s costume containing some 4,000 gold pieces discovered near Almaty that has become a Kazakhstan national symbol.

The tomb of Golden Man was found in the Issyk Kurgan discovered in 1969. It contained the skeleton of a Sak warrior (the "Golden Man") clad in ornamental golden mail finely wrought with a variety of animals, including horses and griffins, snakes and leopards. An inscription on a silver goblet points to an indigenous and as yet undeciphered alphabet, and the rest of the artefacts suggest a high level of culture. However, the title "Golden Man" may be a misnomer, since it is unknown whether this specific skeleton is that of a man or a woman. Yet, in a great number of instances, skeletons which are clearly female have been found dressed as warriors, and it gives some credence to the theory that these regions are also to be associated with the legendary female warrior tribe, the Amazons.

Other groups similar to the Scythians, speaking eastern Iranian languages, but considered as separate peoples by many historians, included the Sarmatians, whose territories lay in present-day Ukraine, European Russia and eastern Balkans, but stretched eastwards as far as the Caspian, and the Massagetae, who lived east of the Caspian. The latter are well known in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in central Asia primarily through the exploits of their Queen Tomyris, who according to an account from Herodotus was responsible for the defeat of Cyrus the Great, the ruler of the mighty Achaemenid Empire. Classical sources tell us that Cyrus left as a trap a vacated camp, full of wine, a drink to which the Massagetae were not accustomed. A group of Massagatae troops captured the camp, got drunk on the wine, and were overpowered by Cyrus's returning troops. Tomyris's son, Spargapises, was captured, and committed suicide out of shame. The enraged Tomyris challenged Cyrus to fight an honourable battle, and defeated his forces. Cyrus himself was beheaded: it is said that Tomyris dipped the head in a leather bag filled with blood, so that he might have his fill of the blood he had so clearly wanted. Given the ending to this story it is perhaps of concern that there are a number of restaurants in Kazakhstan named after Tomyris.