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King Arthur was Kazakh

I was amazed to learn from an offhand remark made by Yermek that the fearsome Mamelukes of Egypt, whose rule spanned 300 years, were descended from enslaved Kazakh warriors of the nomad Kipchak tribe. He related a tale of murder and intrigue as gripping as that of the Caesars.

The Mamelukes came into being when the caliphs of Baghdad decided to use nomad slaves to strengthen their armies (the word Mameluke comes from the Arabic, mamluk, meaning owned).

They proved to be fine soldiers and rose to high positions in the military, until in AD 870 one seized power in Egypt. In less than ten years the Mameluke sultan had conquered the Mediterranean coast from Egypt to Syria.

Although early Mameluke rule was short-lived, they regained power in 1250, and from then on grew in strength. The Mameluke sultans were not a family dynasty but warlords of a military oligarchy, plotting and struggling against one another to gain power. Their loyal troops and administrators from the steppe spoke their own Turkic language, as well as the Arabic of their masters, and their numbers were constantly replenished with nomad warriors. The greatest of the Mameluke sultans was Baybars, an enslaved Kipchak brought from the steppe to Egypt, who rose to become a general and killed his own Mameluke sultan to seize power in 1260. During his rule he crushed the Assassins in their last strongholds in Syria, drove the Crusaders from Antioch, and extended Mameluke rule across the Red Sea to Mecca and Medina. The Mameluke sultans remained in power until 1517, when their yet more powerful Turkic kinsmen, the Ottomans, captured Egypt and hanged the last of them. But the Mameluke soldiers and administrators were useful to their new masters and were allowed to live, although a wary eye was kept on their power. When it once again grew to be too great in the early nineteenth century the Ottomans massacred them to a man.

'Well, well, well,' I said. 'So the mighty Mamelukes started out as Kazakh slaves.'

And I am sure you are aware,' Yermek said politely, 'that it is highly probable that the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table originated from Kazakhstan.'

'King Arthur was Kazakh?!'

it's possible he was the Roman leader of Sarmatian cavalry posted to Britain.'

'My God, the Welsh and the Cornish will go nuts when they hear this!'

'Better suppress information,' Krym said.

It was beginning to seem as if everything was from Kazakhstan: apples, tulips, the Mamelukes ... even the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I wondered whether in the fullness of time I would discover that the hot dog, the hamburger and the oven glove came from Kazakhstan. 'Was Marilyn Monroe Kazakh?'

'Yes please,' Krym said.

'I am serious,' Yermek said, looking a bit cross. 'This is not patriotic rubbish to boost Kazakhstan. Although not absolute historical fact, like the Mamelukes, it is serious scholarly speculation.'

The notion that the story of King Arthur, as much a part of British identity as warm beer and the class system, was based on ancient legends from the steppe came as a shock. To dip a toe into the shark-infested waters of Arthurian scholarship is to risk losing a leg, for academics defend long-held positions without quarter, but the theory is that the Celtic legends of Arthur are an elaboration of much older stories.

King Arthur, if he existed at all, lived from circa AD 500. The earliest written references to him date from the twelfth century, by which time historical fact and folk legend had become so interwoven that one contemporary who had heard the stories through the Bretons of France described them as, 'Not all lies, nor all true, not all foolishness, nor all sense; so much have the storytellers told, and so much have the makers of fables fabled to embellish their stories that they have made all seem fable.'

Almost a thousand years before the first stories of Arthur were written, there are historical records of steppe warriors arriving in Britain. In AD 175, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius sent a contingent of 5,500 Sarmatian cataphracti-heavily armed auxiliary cavalry- to Britain from the Roman province of Pannonia, modern-day Hungary. The Sarmatians had been pressed into service in the Roman legions after defeat in battle, and they were posted in garrisons 500-strong along the length of Hadrian's Wall, which marked the limit of Roman control in Britain. Their mission was to keep out marauding Piets and Caledonians. After their service was over they settled in Bremetennacum Veteranorum, adjacent tо an important Roman cavalry post near the modern village of Ribchester, in south-west Lancashire. And no doubt in their retirement the veterans repeated the legends of the old country, and told war stories of their battles under their leader.

The commander of the Sarmatian cavalry was a Roman officer named Lucius Artorius Castus, prefect of the VI Legion Victrix, headquartered at Eboracum (modern-day York). The Welsh name Artyr is derived from the Roman Artorius, and as there was no king of that time recorded when Arthur is said to have lived, it is reasonable to regard Artorius as a likely candidate. He was charged with the defence of northern England and was a dux bellorum - war leader-with a distinguished military career both before and after his British posting. Born in central Italy, he had begun his career as a centurion in Syria and earned rapid promotion through service in Judaea, the Danube, Macedonia, Transylvania and Hungary. He commanded a Roman fleet near Naples, was procurator of Liburnia, and is thought to have died in the Battle of Septimus Severus, at Lyons, in AD 196. His Sarmatian auxiliaries seem to have idolized him, and many took the name Lucius or Castus themselves and named their sons after him. It is suggested that Artorius' many triumphs and victories in the north and elsewhere were later transposed to Arthur in his battles against the Saxons in the West Country.

Even if Arthur did exist, the stories of the Knights of the Round Table have Iittle connection with the reality of the post-Roman Celtic world of ancient Britain. Celtic warriors drove clumsy chariots and were not noted horsemen. Similarly, the Romans concentrated mostly on infantry rather than cavalry. The Sarmatians, as direct descendants of the Scythians, had always been mounted warriors, and there are engraved images ofwarriors wearing chain mail and jousting that predate medieval knights by a thousand years. They were the first great cavalry nation, 1,500 years before Europeans adopted the notion of cavalry, and they fought from horseback with swords and lances, and were able to fire bows accurately from galloping horses using deadly three-sided bronze arrows. The mounted warriors of Central Asia were also known to carry silk dragons resembling wind socks as their battle standards, which is why modern cavalry regiments are known as dragoons. Warriors were identified with individual emblems that slowly evolved into the medieval concept of the heraldic device. And the Sarmatians actually looked like medieval knights. They wore overlapping scale armour, conical hats and trousers, instead of the loose Roman or Celtic tunic (trousers are from Kazakhstan).

The rich Sarmatian heritage of legend, describing an epic tradition that flourished in ancient Scythia in the first millennium ВС, seems to have been shamelessly plagiarized in the stories of Arthur. Just as the young Arthur draws the magical Excalibur from stone, so the Scythian god of war is symbolized by a magical sword thrust into and drawn from the earth. Similarly, just as Excalibur was thrown into a lake on Arthur's death, so the magic-sword of a great warrior chieftain of the steppe is thrown into the sea on his death. And just as Arthur is said to have led his knights to the continent, so the real Artorius led an expedition to Armorica (Brittany) to put down a local rebellion. A legend on the origin of the Scythians also tells of golden objects falling from the sky, one of which was a golden cup - suggesting the Holy Grail. The numerous similarities and parallels with the stories of King Arthur begin to make the hypothesis seem obvious.

'You've convinced me,' I told Yermek.

'There are many, many more similarities,' Yermek said. 'And then, of course, there is Lancelot...'

'Sarmatian, no doubt,' I said.

'Probably Alan - first cousins and indistinguishable from the Sarmatians, also from the steppe. They ended up in France, not Britain.'

The theory here is that Lancelot was a warrior from the Alan tribe who settled in Gaul, on the River Lot, in the early fifth cent ury AD-Alan of Lot, Alanus a Lot... Lancelot. A band of Alans is said to have stolen vessels from the Basilica of St Peter's during the sack of Rome in 410, including a sacred gold chalice they associated with their own legend. The vessel was taken with them to southern Gaul, the region traditionally associated with the grail legends - where it disappeared.

In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins