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Nisa - the first capital of the Parthians

Sacred Horses: The Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy by Jonathan Maslow

I had long wanted to visit the archaeological site of Nisa, the first capital of the Parthians, predecessors of the Turkmen in raising large horses of quality on the dry steppes. The ruins are located twelve kilometers west of Ashkhabad off a paved road that today runs through shriveled clusters of crude mud-brick huts, then to open desert where camels graze. The site is less than a square mile, and appears to have been only partially excavated by Soviet archaeologists. Missing from view are the mighty walls of Nisa, which were nine feet thick in the second and first centuries b.c., when the Parthians were Oriental rivals of the Romans, ruling an empire that stretched from Syria to India. The walls of old Nisa have served as a windbreak for two thousand years, until they now appear as a great aureole of sand fifty feet high and running around the entire perimeter. This, and its isolated location in the desert, make the old Parthian center look more like a strange port for UFO landings than a city of ancient Central Asia.

From the top of this earthwork, which can easily be climbed at any point, I looked due west toward the jagged rock faces of the Kopet-Dag. From the point of view of an incoming UFO, the site of Nisa must look like a long line with a small circle next to it. Maybe it was meant as some-kind of coded communication from the Parthians to the aliens.

Not much is known about the Parthians. They left few written records, and most students of Parthia study their coins to glean informa tion. Apparently they were a group of exiled or breakaway Scythians, nomadic horsemen who migrated from the northern steppes around the shores of the Caspian Sea and established themselves on the plains of Central Asia in the first millennium b.c. The Roman historian Justinian points out the word parthu actually means "exiles" in Scythian; he called the Parthians "the most obscure of all people of the East in the time of the Assyrians and Medes. " When the Persians took control of Central Asia just before the time of Alexander, the Parthians were still, according to Justinian, "a herd without a name."

After the time of Alexander, however, the Parthians began to increase in population and power. Never a territorially stable empire with a strong monarchy, it was more a loose confederation of provinces ruled by a strongly assertive aristocracy, which contributed military forces in defense of the monarch or to expansionist efforts. It is thought that under Greek influence Parthia developed an imperial organization capable of planning, financing, and carrying out massive irrigation projects. These gravity-flow canals, the remnants of which have been located in former Parthia by aerial photography, made the agricultural exploitation of semiarid land possible, which in turn fostered maximum human settlement. Having come from the nomadic steppe, the Parthians may have been an example of a civilization that resettled the land with the aid of Greek-style administration and Greek technology. The perception of Parthia, then, is generally one of large cities with great populations set in a well-watered, fertile land.

The area within Nisa's sand-covered walls is an open bowl-shaped meadow, perhaps once the parade grounds for the famed Parthian cavalry. In fact, the whole site of Nisa appears to be little more than a fortress housing cavalry, a round temple, and a residence for the king. While Moira took some footage and Sasha waited in the shade afforded by the rustic roof of the site's entranceway, I sat on a portion of unmortared stone wall and made a sketch of the site in my notebook.

Nisa's situation, snuggled up under the Kopet-Dag, must have made it almost impossible for enemies to attack from the west. They would have had to lower themselves down on ropes, cross the open plains, and surmount the high walls. The cuts in the earthworks facing east and west are probably the gates of old Nisa. How stupendous and terrifying must have been the sight of thousands of Parthian horses—mailed lancers on mailed horses—emerging from the gates of Nisa ready to gallop across the broad plains.

It is Geldi Kiarizov's contention that the Parthians were the first to make cavalry warfare specialized; they deployed both heavy and light cavalry. Light cavalry archers, the prototypical mounted warrior of Central Asia over thousands of years, attacked and withdrew fast. The heavy cavalry carried long wooden spears on their armored mounts. Geldi thinks the light cavalry horse corresponds to the Akhal-Teke foundation stallion Boynou from which come more than 80 percent of contemporary Akhal-Teke blood lines. Its frame was like that of the 1960 Rome Olympics winner Absent, a horse of more than sixteen hands.

How many horses did Parthia have? Geldi said that initially, when they became part of the Persian Empire, the Parthians were required to send twenty thousand horses a year as tribute. Considering that mares would not have been acceptable, and that not every mare would produce a foal every year, he deduces that the Parthians must have had herds totaling almost one hundred thousand when their territory was still confined to their original homeland, the provinces adjoining the great desert of Chorasmia. Later, they scaled the mountains and carved themselves new grazing grounds for their horse herds on the plateau of eastern Iran. At their strongest, the Parthians could put an army of horses in the field all by themselves, though no one if sure if this might include the nomadic allies who sometimes fought with them.

Such immense numbers of horses must, in any case, have required truly vast harvests of alfalfa and other grasses. Yet today, looking out from the eastern side of the earthworks, the view to the horizon in three directions is a flat, desiccated, monochrome yellow at the height of summer. Could these scabrous flatlands have once been green, lush, and bountifully watered? It is easier to believe this was a fortification at the end of the world, at a time when the world still had certifiable ends.