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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee




Page 1

The Saka

Saka & Scythians

Location & Composition of the Saka

Parthian Saka as a Part of the Aryan Nations & Zoroastrian Family

Dahi & Zoroastrianism

Original Homeland of the Saka

Sagastan - Sakastan. Sistan

Kingdom of Rustam - Greater Sakastan. Connections with India

Page 2

Love-Hate Relationship Between the Autonomous Saka and Iran-Shahr's Overlords

Herds-People / Nomadic Aryans

Predatory Aryans Living Amongst Civil Aryans

Parataceni / Paretaceni / Paraetaceni

Predatory Saka

Page 3

Frontier Saka

Saka in Achaemenian Inscriptions

Saka Tigrakhauda / Massagetae


Saka Tigrakhauda-Massagetae Sub Groups

Lifestyle of the Massagetae

Battle Skills. Metal & Gold Use by the Massagetae

Herodotus' Account of the Death of Cyrus Fighting the Massagetae

Saka Haumavarga / Amyrgian Sacae

Saka Women in Leadership & War


Page 4

Eastern-Most Saka: Saka Para-Draya / Saka Para-Sugd

Saka Language - Middle Iranian

Where Have all the Saka Gone?

Saka & Turkic Peoples

Turks & Turan

Saka & Scythians Art - Links

Page 3: Frontier Saka. Achaemenian Saka,
Saka Tigrakhauda / Massagetae,
Saka Haumavarga / Amyrgian Sacae

Related reading:

» Khvarizem (Uzbekistan)

» Dahi (Dahistan)

» Parthava (Parthia)

» Far Eastern Lands. Phryni & Seres, Tashkurgan, Khotan, Kashgar, Yarkand

» Iranian-Aryan Connections with Western Tibet

» Kangdez - Far Away Land Beyond the Seas

» Great Ocean Vourukasha / Frakhvkard / Varkash

Frontier Saka

Saka of the Achaemenian Inscriptions

Cuneiform Inscription  on rock at Behistun, Iran
Darius' listing of Persian Empire nations
Cuneiform Inscription on rock at Behistun, Iran
Column 1 lines 9-17

In the Achaemenian cuneiform inscriptions of Darius I the Great (522-486 BCE), the list of nations that comprised the Persian Empire included three nations using Saka as a prefix to their names: Saka Haumavarga, Saka Tigrakhauda and Saka Paradraya.

In the English/European language translation of these inscription, the original word Saka has been universally substituted with the word Scythian. This substitution - together with other Greek-English substitutions for authentic local names - has unfortunately become automatic today. As we have stated above, these substitutions leave us with a distorted and incorrect picture of both the Scythians and the Saka, their place in history, and their location in geography.

For instance, Darius' (522-486 BCE) column 1 inscription at Behistun (in north-western Iran) lists the nations that were part of his Persian Empire. If they are transcribed wiyout substituting the Persian names with Greek-English names, they read as: "Parsa, Uvja, Babirush, Athura, Arabaya, Mudraya, tyaiy drayahya, Sparda, Yauna, Mada, Armina, Katpatuka, Parthava, Zraka, Haraiva, Uvarazmīy, Bakhtrish, Suguda, Gadara, Saka, Thatagush, Harauvatish, Maka, fraharavam, dahyava XXIII thatiy."

The list is universally translated into English as "Persia, Elam, Babylonia, Assyria, Arabia, Egypt, (those) who are beside the sea, Sardis, Ionia, Media, Armenia, Cappadocia, Parthia, Drangiana, Aria, Chorasmia, Bactria, Sogdiana, Gandhara, Scythia, Sattagydia, Arachosia, Maka; in all, 23 lands."

Darius provides us with more information about the Saka in column 5 of Behistun's inscriptions which transcribes as: "Darayavaush khshayathiya pasava, hada kara adam ashiyavam abiy Sakam, pasa Saka tyaiy khaudam tigram baratiy, imaiy Saka hacama aisha, yadiy abiy draya, avarasam parashim avada hada kara visa viyatarayam pasava, adam Saka vasiy ajanam, aniyam agarbayam hauv basta anayata abiy mam utashim, avajanam mathishtasham Skukha nama avam agarbaya uta anaya abiy, mam avada aniyam mathishtam akunavam yatha mam kama aha, pasava dahyaush mana abava, thatiy Darayavaush khshayathiya avaiy, Saka arika aha uta naiy Auramazdasham ayadiya, Aurmazdam ayadaiy vashna, Auramazdaha yatha mam kama avathadish akunavam, thatiy Darayavaush khshayathiya hya, Auramazdam yadataiy avahya, yanam ahatiy uta jīvahya utamartahya."

This translates roughly as "Darius the King says: Afterwards with an army I journeyed to Sakam, beyond the Saka Tigrakhauda (commonly translated as 'pointed caps'). These Saka went from me. When I arrived at the draya (cf. darya, river or sea), I crossed and went beyond it with all my army. Afterwards, I smote the Saka exceedingly; another (leader) I took captive; this one was led bound to me and I slew him. The chief of them by name Skunkha - they seized and led him to me. Then I made another their chief as was my desire. After that, the land became mine. Darius the King says: Those Saka were faithless and by them Ahura-Mazda was not worshipped. I worshipped Ahura-Mazda; by the favour of Ahura-Mazda, as was my desire, thus I did to them. Darius the King says: Darius the King says: Who so shall worship Ahura-Mazda, divine blessing will be upon him, both (while) living and (when) dead."

If the translation is correct, we are provided with information that can add to our understanding of the Saka. First, there were more than one group of the Saka - more than one Saka nation. The first Saka Darius encountered were the Saka "who wear pointed caps", the Saka Tigrakhauda (see below) - a Saka nation that did not resist his advance. Next, in order to reach a second Saka nation, Darius and his army crossed a draya, translated as river or sea (if this was a sea, he would have needed a flotilla of ships, the construction of which would have been noteworthy). Draya's modern version is likely darya. Today, two rivers in Central Asia use the name: the Amu Darya (Greek Oxus) and Syr Darya (Greek Jaxartes). Since our information tells us that the land of Sugada (Sugd) lay between the Amu and Syr Daryas, the Amu and Syr Rivers with the Syr being eastern-most, and given the additional information contained in another inscription cited below, Darius is likely talking about crossing Sugada and then the Syr Darya (Jaxartes).

We also understand from the inscription's translation that the two Saka nations he mentions were neighbours separated by a darya, river. If the two Saka were neighbours and if the common identification of the Saka Tigrakhauda with the Massagetae who lived around today's Aral Sea in central Asia is correct, then the 'draya' mentioned here cannot be the Black Sea in Europe some 1,500 km to the west of the Saka Tigrakhauda and in the opposite direction from Persia.

We have additional information that can assist us in indentifying the Saka Para-Darya, the Saka across the draya. An inscription left by Darius at Persepolis transcribes as: "Thatiy Darayavaush khshyyathiya ima khshacham tya adam daray amiy haca, Sakaibish tyaiy para Sugdam, amata yata Kusha, haca Hidauv amata yata a Sparda, tyamaiy Auramazda frabara hya mathishta baganam mam, Auramazda patuv utamaiy vitham."

Roughly translated, this reads, "Darius the King says: This is the empire which I hold: from the Sakaibish (Sakas) who are beyond Sugdam (Sogdiana), thence to Kusha (Ethiopia), from Hidauv (Hind / Indus?) thence to Sparda (Sardis) - which Ahuramazda the greatest of the deities bestowed upon me. May Ahuramazda protect me and my royal house."

What we are further informed here is that he states the extent of Darius' empire - from the farthest reaches east to west - extended at one end from the Sakas para-Sugdam, i.e. beyond Sugd to Kusha (Ethiopia) at the other end. Sugd is fairly well identified and continues to exist today as a province divided between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Ancient Sugd was bordered on the east by the Syr Darya (draya or river. Also see Saka para-draya below. Sugd provides us with a credible anchor around which to place the various pieces of the puzzle. The far-eastern land of Darius' empire was the land of the Saka para-Sugd, beyond Sugd to its east.

Saka Tigrakhauda / Massagetae

Saka tigrakhauda - Stone reliefs at Persepolis
Saka Tigrakhauda - Stone reliefs at Persepolis
Saka Prince - Issyk
Saka Prince - Issyk
Wearing golden armour


The Haumavarga's northern and north-western neighbours, the Saka Tigrakhauda, inhabited the grasslands around the Aral sea (south-western Kazakhstan today). The stone reliefs at Persepolis show the Saka Tigrakhauda with pointed caps. The height of the cap would have been an indication of status - the tallest caps being reserved for the senior most ruler or king.

The Saka Tigrakhauda appear to be the Massagetae mentioned by Strabo, Herodotus and others. As we have stated in our introduction above, Strabo in 11.8.8 indentified the Massagetae as Saka. He further indentified the Chorasmii, residents of Khairizem / Khvarizem / Khwarezm (Gk. Chorasmia) as Massagetae. The Chorasmii were therefore a sub-group of the Massgetae who were a sub-group of the Massagetae, known to the Achemenians as Saka Tigrakhauda.

Chorasmia, later known as Khwarezm, occupied both banks of the lower Amu Darya (Oxus River). The largest number of Zoroastrian related ruins and artefacts, including a dakhma, a Zoroastrian burial tower known as a 'Tower of Silence', have been uncovered in Khwarezm.

Strabo (c. 63/64 BCE - 24 CE) further describes the location of the Massagetae in his Geography11.8.8:
Unknown translator 1924:: "Belonging to the tribe of the Massagetae and the Sacae (Saka) are also the Attasii and the Chorasmii, to whom Spitamenes fled from the country of the Bactriani (of Bactria: Bakhdhi, Balkh including Western Tajikistan) and the Sogdian (Sughd, Sugd). Spitamenes was one of the Persians who escaped from Alexander, as did also Bessus; and later (Parthian king) Arsaces, when he fled from Seleucus Callinicus, withdrew into the country of the Apasiacae. Eratosthenes says that the Arachoti and Massagetae are situated alongside the Bactrians towards the west along the Oxus River (Amu Darya), and that the Sacae and the Sogdiani, with the whole of their lands, are situated opposite India (Indus), but the Bactriani only for a slight distance; for, he says, they are situated for the most part alongside the Paropamisus (mountain range in Northern Afghanistan), and the Sacae and the Sogdiani are separated from one another by the Iaxartes River (Jaxartes, Syr Darya, and the Sogdiani and the Bactriani by the Oxus River (Amu Darya)."

11.8.8 (translation: H.C. Hamilton, Esq., W. Falconer, M.A., 1903): The Attasii (Augasii?) and the Chorasmii belong to the Massagetę and Sacę, to whom Spitamenes directed his flight from Bactria and Sogdiana. He was one of the Persians who, like Bessus, made his escape from Alexander by flight, as Arsaces afterwards fled from Seleucus Callinicus, and retreated among the Aspasiacę. Eratosthenes says, that the Bactrians lie along the Arachoti and Massagetę on the west near the Oxus, and that Sacę and Sogdiani, through the whole extent of their territory, are opposite to India, but the Bactrii in part only, for the greater part of their country lies parallel to the Parapomisus; that the Sacę and Sogdiani are separated by the Iaxartes, and the Sogdiani and Bactriani by the Oxus.

What we understand from the above is that the Massagetae at the time of Strabo (around 0 BCE), occupied land to the west of the Amu Darya (Oxus) and immediately to the north-west of Bakhdi (Bactria i.e. including today's Balkh, Wakhan / Panj valley, and Western Tajikistan) and north of the Paropamisus mountains (in Northern Afghanistan today). Further, the Sogdians and the (main/parent/eponymous) Saka lived north of the Bactrians and therefore immediately east of the Massagetae - on the east bank of the Amu Darya (Oxus). This location for the Massagetae and the Saka Tigrakhauda describes today's Eastern Turkmenistan & North-western Uzbekistan. It coincides well with Chorasmia as well with the only difference being that Chorasmia occupied the narrow stretch of feritile bank on the east bank of the lower Amu Darya including the river's delta at the Aral Sea.

Strabo 11.8.6: "Statements to the following effect are made concerning the Massagetae: that some of them inhabit mountains, some plains, others marshes which are formed by the rivers, and others the islands in the marshes. But the country is inundated most of all, they say, by the Araxes River (Strabo perhaps quoting Herodotus and others who mistakenly call the Oxus, the Araxes), which splits into numerous branches and empties by its other mouths into the other sea on the north, though by one single mouth it reaches the Hyrcanian Gulf (Caspian Sea) (The Oxus, a large river in ancient times, frequently changed course. One arm is known to have emptied north into the Caspian Sea with other arms ending in the desert creating marshes. It has since changed course and empties into the Aral Sea where its delta creates marshes)."

Saka Tigrakhauda-Massagetae Sub Groups

From the accounts above, the sub groups of the Saka Tigrakhauda-Massagetae Sub Groups are:
• Chorasmii (Khorasami)
• Attasii/Augasii
• Apasiacae

Lifestyle of the Massagetae

Strabo 11.8.6: "Statements to the following effect are made concerning the Massagetae: that some of them inhabit mountains (probably referring to the Haumavarga / Amyrgian Sacae), some plains, others marshes which are formed by the rivers, and others the islands in the marshes. But the country is inundated most of all, they say, by the Araxes River (Strabo is quoting others such as Herodotus, who mistakenly called the Oxus, the Araxes), which splits into numerous branches and empties by its other mouths into the other sea on the north, though by one single mouth it reaches the Hyrcanian Gulf (Caspian Sea. The Oxus was a large river in ancient times that frequently changed course. One arm is known to have emptied north in to the Caspian Sea with other arms creating a marsh like area with islands near today's Aral Sea)."

[Strabo may have been citing Herodotus who only had a vague idea about the northern rivers, combining rivers that flowed into the west and east of the Caspian. Strabo correctly names the Oxus further below in 11.8.8. Knowing that by Araxes, Strabo means the Oxus, this passage fairly clearly describes the Massagetae (Saka Tigrakhauda) as living around the northern stretches of the Oxus that at one time ran into the Caspian as well as the Aral Sea. As well, the river's various branches formed deltas or ended in desert marshes. Since the Massagetae lived north of the Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts, the implication here is that it is the Massagetae who were the Saka raiders of Varkana, Nisa and Parthia. It is also the Massagetae (Saka Tigrakhauda) that King Cyrus (the Great) sought to tame, and it is also they who killed Cyrus in battle.]

Strabo 11.8.7: "Now those who live in the islands, since they have no grain to sow, use roots and wild fruits as food, and they clothe themselves with the bark of trees (for they have no cattle either), and they drink the juice squeezed out of the fruit of the trees (probably referring to the Haumavarga / Amyrgian Sacae)."

Strabo 11.8.7 (contd.): "Those who live in the marshes eat fish, and clothe themselves in the skins of the seals that run up thither from the sea. The inhabitants of the plains, although they possess land, do not till it, but in the nomadic or Scythian fashion live on sheep and fish." (we have excluded references to 'mountaineer" Saka here and included them in the section on Haumavarga / Amyrgian Sacae.)

Battle Skills. Metal & Gold Use by the Massagetae

Herodotus wrote (1.215) "In their dress and mode of living, the Massagetae resemble the Scythians. They fight both on horseback and on foot, neither method is strange to them: they use bows and lances, but their favourite weapon is the battle-axe. Their arms are all either of gold or brass. For their spear-points, and arrow-heads, and for their battle-axes, they make use of brass; for head-gear, belts, and girdles, of gold. So too with the caparison of their horses, they give them breastplates of brass, but employ gold about the reins, the bit, and the cheek-plates. They use neither iron nor silver, having none in their country; but they have brass and gold in abundance."

Artefacts uncovered at the royal tomb of the Saka Golden Warrior Prince at ancient town of Issyk (close to Almaty and the Kyrgyz border in southern Kazakhstan) have permitted a reconstruction of the clothing and armour worn by the prince. These items show an extensive use of gold and bronze - and a very tall pointed cap.

Strabo 11.8.6: "They are good horsemen and foot-soldiers; they use bows, short swords, breastplates, and sagares made of brass; and in their battles they wear headbands and belts made of gold. And their horses have bits and girths made of gold. Silver is not found in their country, and only a little iron, but brass (copper) and gold in abundance."

Herodotus' Account of the Death of Cyrus Fighting the Massagetae

Selections from Book 1. 201-216:

When Cyrus had achieved the conquest of the Babylonians, he conceived the desire of bringing the Massagetae under his dominion. Now the Massagetae are said to be a great and warlike nation, dwelling eastward, toward the rising of the sun, beyond the river Araxes, and opposite the Issedonians.

The river Araxes, like the Gyndes, which Cyrus dispersed into three hundred and sixty channels... has forty mouths, whereof all, except one, end in bogs and swamps. These bogs and swamps are said to be inhabited by a race of men who feed on raw fish, and clothe themselves with the skins of seals. The other mouth of the river flows with a clear course into the Caspian Sea. [Note: the old course of the Amu Darya, the River Oxus which Herodotus confuses with the Araxes, ran into the Caspian rather than the Aral Sea as it does today.]

The Caspian is a sea by itself. On the cast it is followed by a vast plain, stretching out interminably before the eye, the greater portion of which is possessed by those Massagetae against whom Cyrus was now so anxious to make an expedition. Many strong motives weighed with him and urged him on - his birth especially, which seemed something more than human, and his good fortune in all his former wars, wherein he had always found that against what country soever he turned his arms, it was impossible for that people to escape.

At this time the Massagetae were ruled by a queen, named Tomyris, who at the death of her husband, the late king, had mounted the throne. To her Cyrus sent ambassadors, with instructions to court her on his part, pretending that he wished to take her to wife. Tomyris, however, aware that it was her kingdom, and not herself, that he courted, forbade the men to approach. Cyrus, therefore, finding that he did not advance his designs by this deceit, marched towards the Araxes, and openly displaying his hostile intentions; set to work to construct a bridge on which his army might cross the river, and began building towers upon the boats which were to be used in the passage. [Note: by this we understand that the Massagetae Saka lived on the east of the Amu Darya/Oxus. Strabo informs us that the Dahi Saka occupied the stretch of land between the Caspian and the Oxus.]

While the Persian leader was occupied in these labours, Tomyris sent a herald to him, who said, "King of the Medes, cease to press this enterprise, for you cannot know if what you are doing will be of real advantage to you. Be content to rule in peace your own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern. As, however, I know you will not choose to hear to this counsel, since there is nothing you desire less than peace and quietness, come now, if you are so mightily desirous of meeting the Massagetae in arms, leave your useless toil of bridge-making; let us retire equal distance three days' march from the river bank. Then come across with your soldiers, or, if you prefer we will give you battle on your side the stream." Cyrus, on this offer, called together the chiefs of the Persians, and laid the matter before them, requesting them to advise him what he should do. All the votes were in favour of his letting Tomyris cross the stream, and giving battle on Persian ground. [Note: there is a suggestion here than the river Amu Darya (Oxus) was the border of the Persian Empire to this point. The river has even in legend been the border between Iran-shahr and Turan.]

But Croesus the Lydian [note: Lydia was located in south-western Asia Minor, a part of Asiatic Greece], who was present at the meeting of the chiefs, disapproved of this advice; he therefore rose, and thus delivered his sentiments in opposition to it: "Oh! my king! I promised you long since, that, as God had given me into your hands, I would, to the best of my power, avert impending danger from your house. Alas! my own sufferings, by their very bitterness, have taught me to be keen-sighted of dangers. If you deem yourself an immortal, and your army an army of immortals, my counsel will doubtless be thrown away upon you. But if you feel yourself to be a man and a ruler of men, lay this first to heart, that there is a wheel on which the affairs of men revolve, and that its movement forbids the same man to be always fortunate. Now concerning the matter in hand, my judgment runs counter to the judgment of your other counsellors. For if you agree to give the enemy entrance into your country, consider what risk is run! Lose the battle, and therewith you whole kingdom is lost [note: we have confirmation here that the river Amu Darya was the border between the two]. For assuredly, the Massagetae, if they win the fight, will not return to their homes, but will push forward against the states of your empire. Or if you win the battle, why, then you win far less than if you crossed the river where you might follow up your victory. For against your loss, if they defeat you on your own ground, must be set theirs in like case. Rout their army on the other side of the river, and you may push at once into the heart of their country. Moreover, were it not disgrace intolerable for Cyrus the son of Cambyses to retire before and yield ground to a woman? My counsel, therefore, is that we cross the stream, and pushing forward as far as they shall fall back, then seek to get the better of them by stratagem. I am told they are unacquainted with the good things on which the Persians live, and have never tasted the great delights of life. Let us then prepare a feast for them in our camp; let sheep be slaughtered without stint, and the wine cups be filled full of noble liquor, and let all manner of dishes be prepared: then leaving behind us our worst troops, let us fall back towards the river. Unless I very much mistake, when they see the good fare set out, they will forget all else and fall to. Then it will remain for us to do our parts manfully."

Cyrus, when the two plans were thus placed in contrast before him, changed his mind, and preferring the advice which Croesus had given, returned for answer to Tomyris that she should retire, and that he would cross the stream. She therefore retired, as she had engaged; and Cyrus, giving Croesus into the care of his son Cambyses (whom he had appointed to succeed him on the throne), with strict charge to pay him all respect and treat him well, if the expedition failed of success; and sending them both back to Persia, crossed the river with his army.

Meanwhile Cyrus, having advanced a day's march from the river, did as Croesus had advised him, and, leaving the weaker portion of his army in the camp, drew off with his good troops towards the river. Soon afterwards, a detachment of the Massagetae, one-third of their entire army, led by Spargapises, son of the queen Tomyris, coming up, fell upon the body which had been left behind by Cyrus, and on their resistance put them to the sword. Then, seeing the banquet prepared, they sat down and began to feast. When they had eaten and drunk their fill, and were now sunk in sleep, the Persians under Cyrus arrived, slaughtered a great multitude, and made even a larger number prisoners. Among these last was Spargapises himself.

When Tomyris heard what had befallen her son and her army, she sent a herald to Cyrus, who thus addressed the conqueror: "you bloodthirsty Cyrus, pride not yourself on this poor success: it was the grape-juice - which, when you drink it, makes you so mad, and as you swallow it down brings up to your lips such bold and wicked words - it was this poison wherewith you did ensnare my child, and so overcame him, not in fair open fight. Now hear what I advise, and be sure I advise you for your good. Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed, triumphant over a third part of the host of the Massagetae. Refuse, and I swear by the sun, the sovereign lord of the Massagetae [note: were the Massagetae Mithra worshippers?], bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood."

To the words of this message Cyrus paid no manner of regard. As for Spargapises, the son of the queen, when the wine went off and he saw the extent of his calamity, he made request to Cyrus to release him from his bonds; then, when his prayer was granted, and the fetters were taken from his limbs, as soon as his hands were free, he destroyed himself.

Tomyris, when she found that Cyrus had paid no heed to her advice, collected all the forces of her kingdom, and gave him battle. Of all the combats in which the barbarians have engaged among themselves, I reckon this to have been the fiercest. The following, as I understand, was the manner of it:

Gold deer Pazyryk, Kazakhstan
Saka Gold deer Pazyryk, Kazakhstan

First, the two armies stood apart and shot their arrows at each other; then, when their quivers were empty, they closed and fought hand-to-hand with lances and daggers; and thus they continued fighting for a length of time, neither choosing to give ground. At length the Massagetae prevailed. The greater part of the army of the Persians was destroyed and Cyrus himself fell, after reigning twenty nine years. Search was made among the slain by order of the queen for the body of Cyrus, and when it was found she took a skin, and, filling it full of human blood, she dipped the head of Cyrus in the gore, saying, as she thus insulted the corpse, "I live and have conquered you in fight, and yet by you am I ruined, for you took my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give you your fill of blood." Of the many different accounts which are given of the death of Cyrus, this which I have followed appears to me most worthy of credit. [Note: Of course! One can hardly accuse Herodotus of choosing the most sensational of all the myths. Nevertheless, the story as it is, contains bits of information relevant to our study of the Saka.]

In their dress and mode of living the Massagetae resemble the Scythians. They fight both on horseback and on foot, neither method is strange to them: they use bows and lances, but their favourite weapon is the battle-axe. Their arms are all either of gold or brass [note: this is fairly consistent with artefacts uncovered]. For their spear-points, and arrow-heads, and for their battle-axes, they make use of brass; for head-gear, belts, and girdles, of gold. So too with the caparison of their horses, they give them breastplates of brass, but employ gold about the reins, the bit, and the cheek-plates. They use neither iron nor silver, having none in their country; but they have brass and gold in abundance.

The following are some of their customs: Each man has but one wife, yet all the wives are held in common; for this is a custom of the Massagetae and not of the Scythians, as the Greeks wrongly say. Human life does not come to its natural close with this people; but when a man grows very old, all his kinsfolk collect together and offer him up in sacrifice; offering at the same time some cattle also. After the sacrifice they boil the flesh and feast on it [note; sic. Herodotus did say earlier had his stories of the Massagetae had been collected from various source]; and those who thus end their days are reckoned the happiest. If a man dies of disease they do not eat him, but bury him in the ground, bewailing his ill-fortune that he did not come to be sacrificed. They sow no grain, but live on their herds, and on fish, of which there is great plenty in the Araxes [Amu Darya / Oxus]. Milk is what they chiefly drink. The only god they worship is the sun, and to him they offer the horse in sacrifice; under the notion of giving to the swiftest of the gods the swiftest of all mortal creatures.

Saka Haumavarga / Amyrgian Sacae

The Saka Haumavarga along with the Saka Tigrakhauda, are the two Saka nations or peoples most consistently mentioned as part of the Persian Empire. The literature suggests that Hauma-varga describes a defining trait of this Saka group. It is taken to mean that this Saka practiced haoma-drinking Saka. Haoma is the medicinal and health-giving extract from plants. Haoma is associated with ancient Zoroastrian healing practices and if this association is correct, it provides a further connection between at least one Saka group and the Zoroastrian family. Haoma is a regular part of Zoroastrian ritual and why this group should be singled out be bear the name is unclear. Perhaps this is where the practice originated; perhaps, this Saka group were renowned for their knowledge of the haoma curative sciences; we do not know.

Strabo in 11.8.7 refers to the Saka who "drink the juice squeezed out of the fruit of the trees" and adds, "The mountaineers themselves also live on wild fruits."

Haoma is not a fruit juice. It is the juice squeezed out of stems of ephedra found in the mountains mixed with the juice of tender branches of trees such as wild Willow (to combat headaches). Different mixture are made for different ailments. A mixture made to promote wellness, uses the branches as well as leaves of fruit trees such as the pomegranate. The pomegranate fruit can was probably was eaten as a regular fruit and its juice drunk as a refreshment and tonic. There is of course nothing to prevent someone from mixing the juice of the pomegranate's branches, leaves and fruit to make it more palatable. To an outsider, not familiar with the tradition, we can allow for for the practice to be seen at fruit-juice drinking.

Strabo in 11.8.7 states: "... they have sheep also, though only a few, and therefore they do not butcher them, sparing them for their wool and milk; and they variegate the color of their clothing by staining it with dyes whose colors do not easily fade.

Herodotus refers to the eastern Saka as the Amyrgioi or Amyrgian. There is some suggestion that the name Amyrg is somehow derived from haoma. That would be a stretch. Amorg is closer to Amord which means undying , but this is just a thought that crossed the mind of this author.

Herodotus in Book 7.64 of his Histories mentions the Saka or Amyrgian Scythians as being part of the Persian army: "The Sacae, or Scyths, were clad in trousers, and had on their heads tall stiff caps rising to a point. They bore the bow of their country and the dagger; besides which they carried the battle-axe, or sagaris. They were in truth Amyrgian Scythians, but the Persians called them Sacae, since that is the name which they give to all Scythians. The Bactrians and the Sacae had for leader Hystaspes, the son of Darius and of Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus." The description of pointed hats applies to the Saka Tigrakhauda described above.

Hellanicus (fifth century BCE) refers to the "Amyrgian plain, Amyrgion pedion, of the Sakas" (frag. 65, Jacoby), as well as valleys and mountains. The mountains could well have been home to the Paraetaceni or 'mountaineer' Saka referred to by Strabo 11.8.7).

In describing the haoma drinking custom, Strabo has moved east beyond the Massagetae towards the Jaxartes, the Syr Darya. In describing the mountains, he is moving towards the headwaters of the river as there are no hills leave aside mountains in its lower reaches. The descriptions of the geography of the homeland of the The Saka Haumavarga / Amyrgian Sacae is one of plains, valleys and mountains. The vegetation includes cotton and fruit trees.

The Syr Darya starts in the southern mountains, runs through the Fergana Valley and its plains, enters the broad plains of the Qyzylqum and empties into the Aral Sea via a delta. In the Fergana Valley, since the river runs east to west, one cannot cross it to go over to the east. Therefore, the upper reaches of the Syr Darya and the Fergana Valley are not the places to look for the Saka Para-Darya.

In the Fergana Valley there are reported ruins of a city in the Fergana Valley constructed by Cyrus the Great. On this subject, Sir George Rawlinson in his Seven Great Monarchies writes: "Arrian relates that there was a city called Cyropolis, situated on the Jaxartes, a place of great strength defended by very lofty walls, which had been founded by the Great Cyrus. This city belonged to Sogdiana."

Saka Women in Leadership & War

We found an interesting story in History of Antiquity by Max Duncker and Evelyn Abbott (Vol 5): "Then Cyrus conquered the Sacae, and took their king Amorges captive. We remember that, according to Herodotus' statement, the proper name of the Sacae was Amyrgians, and in the inscriptions of Darius we found the Saka Humavarka. The name Amorges seems to be borrowed from the Amyrgians. When Amorges had been defeated and taken captive by Cyrus, his wife Sparethra, as she is called in Ctesias, collected the Sacae and took the field with them. Zarinaea (Zarin is a common Zoroastrian name for women), a princess of the Sacae, had previously fought with great bravery against the Medes, but her achievements are far surpassed by those of Sparethra. With 300,000 men and 200,000 armed women, she went against the Persians, and defeated Cyrus, taking many captives, among whom were Medes of distinction. As a ransom for these Amorges was restored to Sparethra, and there was friendship between Cyrus and the king of the Sacae, and the latter marched with him to the war against the Lydians. Strabo also speaks of a battle in which Cyrus was defeated by the Sacae. Being hard pressed on his retreat he abandoned his camp with large stores of every kind, especially of wine. When the Sacae had enjoyed their spoil, Cyrus fell upon them and massacred nearly all." [This story about using wine in battle sounds suspicious similar to the one related by Herodotus in Book 1. 201-216 and which have include in the section on the Saka Tigrakhauda.]


Map of Eastern Uzberistan & Tajikistan - Fergana Valley
Map of Eastern Uzbekistan & Tajikistan - Fergana Valley
A yurt & nomadic life in the mountains over Fergana
A yurt & nomadic life in the mountains over Fergana

Fergana is the region at the upper reaches of the Syr Darya river. It consists of a fertile valley surrounded by the Alai, Tian Shan and Turkistan mountains. The Fergana valley is formed by the confluence of two rivers near Namangan: the Naryn and the Kara Darya, coming together to form the Syr Darya rivers. The Syr Darya was known to Greek writers as the Jaxartes or Yaxartes, a name derived from the Old Persian name Yakhsha Arta.

Strabo made an interesting and significant observation in 11.8.7 regarding the Saka who lived in the mountains. "The mountaineers themselves also live on wild fruits; but they have sheep also, though only a few, and therefore they do not butcher them, sparing them for their wool and milk; and they variegate the color of their clothing by staining it with dyes whose colors do not easily fade."

The tradition of dyeing and producing fabrics with variegated colours continues today in Fergana. This age-old are has been taken to new heights to include cotton and silk fabrics that are renowned world wide as khan-atlas fabrics.

» Further offsite reading: Ferghana Valley - A Story of Silk

Colourful silk thread spinning in Fergana
Colourful silk thread spinning in Fergana
Colourful fabrics - Fergana
Colourful fabrics - Fergana

Fergana is also known for its blue glazed pottery for hundreds of years. 50 kilometres from Fergana city lies the pottery producing town Rishtan, renowned for its ceramics made from local red clay mixed with natural mineral dyes and the ashes of the mountain herbs. The techniques of ceramic production has been gained and passed down over generations.

Colourful silk and blue glazed pottery were popular items traded along the Silk Roads.

Fergana Potter
Fergana Potter
Glazed blue ceramics
Fergana glazed blue ceramics

During Strabo's time, the Western Han dynasty (207 BC-9 CE) ruled northern and western China. Their local small and pony-like horses were incapable of carrying armoured soldiers while, Fergana horses, called celestial or heavenly horses, were known for their strength and speed. Han Emperor Wu-ti sent a delegation headed by a certain Chang Ch'ien to Fergana to purchase some of the famed celestial horses, but met with no success. The king of Fergana refused the offered gold and was rewarded with two Chinese invasions, after which the Chinese took back with them over 3,000 horse. Surprisingly, the unsuccessful negotiator Chang Ch'ien was credited with opening the eastern arm of the Silk Roads, a trade route that had been functioning a few thousands of years prior to his futile attempt at trade.

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Related reading:

» Khvarizem (Uzbekistan)

» Dahi (Dahistan)

» Parthava (Parthia)

» Far Eastern Lands. Phryni & Seres, Tashkurgan, Khotan, Kashgar, Yarkand

» Iranian-Aryan Connections with Western Tibet

» Kangdez - Far Away Land Beyond the Seas

» Great Ocean Vourukasha / Frakhvkard / Varkash

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