Sacred Horses: Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy by Jonathan Maslow
Now isn't that just the way it is? I asked myself. Here we are, charging full tilt into the Information Age, celebrating planetary shrinkage and the growth of the global village, with all our dandy computer networks and satellite uplinks, the whole damn solar system supposedly on our remote-control devices, and then there is Turkmenistan—better known, in fact, to Marco Polo in the thirteenth century.
What is called Turkmenistan today then lay along the northern route of the Great Silk Road, which the Polos traversed on their way to Cathay to discover spaghetti and to trade with the Chinese. As caravan merchants, the Polos knew these lands well enough. They once spent several years in nearby Bukhara, waiting out a war. Marco Polo mentions the "Turcomans" on the very first page of his memoirs: "a primitive people, speaking a barbarous language," he curtly summed them up. But the Venetians praised their "good Turcoman horses," and said they wove the most beautiful carpets in the whole world.
Before Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde pulverized the territory to lifeless dust in 1219, the area of much of modern-day Turkmenistan was known as Khwarizm. Or Khwarazm. Or Khwarezm, which is milder on the throat and tongue. Or just Chorasmia, as the ancient Greeks called it.
The Mongols' intention was to obliterate Muslim civilization, which had flourished in Khwarizm since the Arabian conquest at the beginning of the eighth century. The Arab geographers of Islam's fabulous bloom described southwest Asia in lyrical details from firsthand knowledge. Ibn Battutah compared the Chorasmian capital Urgench to "the perturbing sea," because there were so many people bustling about in its bazaars and streets.
Long before the Mohammedans spread the Word of Allah on horseback, however, the same Chorasmia lay athwart the path of Alexander the Great on his otherwise whirlwind march across the world. The horse-mounted tribesmen of Chorasmia, Parthia, Sogdiana, Hyrcania, Margiana (sometimes known collectively as the Sacae) put up such a fierce guerrilla style resistance to Alexander's phalanxes—the first highly mobile light cavalry the Greeks, or any Europeans, had ever encountered—that no chronicler of ancient times failed to speak of them. Arrian, in the Anabasis of Alexander, written in about 150 a.d., told the story of Pharasmanes, king of the Chorasmians, who, in submitting his tribe to Alexander's power, offered to personally conduct die king through Chorasmian dominions to the land of the Amazons, bordering Chorasmia, a tribe of woman warriors who fought with javelins and short bows from the backs of their tall, swift horses. It is said the Amazon queen came to Alexander with a proposition of sexual union, maintaining that the child would be proclaimed a god at birth.
As winter followed autumn, and autumn followed summer, making no noticeable progress toward actually obtaining travel documents to Turkmenistan, I delved into Strabo, dabbled in Quintus Curtius Rufus, and daydreamed around the Histories of Herodotus, written several generations before Alexander and a lot less certain of what was fact and what was fantasy in "hither Asia." Not a single ancient writer, however, Muslim or pagan, failed to mention the stupendous quality of the legion's riding horses. Herodotus said they were sacred among the Persians. Xenophon, the Greek historian who wrote Treatise on Horsemanship, the first book still extant on horses, tells the story of a Sacae horseman at the equestrian contests celebrating the Persian Cyrus the Great's capture of Babylon, who left the others at the starting line and finished the race hall the length of the hippodrome ahead of the pack. Then the Sacaen presented his horse to one of Cyrus's companions as a gilt. For this reason, some say the Sacae were never really vassals of Persia, but rather considered as allies.
Such tales only made me want to go to Turkmenistan all the more.