Monday, December 29, 2008

Erebouni fortress, Arin Berd, seen from the sky

The Scythians (Assyrian: “Ašguzai” or “Išguzai”; Hebrew: “Askenaz”; Greek: “Scythioi”) were a nomadic people belonging to the North Iranian language group. Their earliest mention, by Assyrian sources, comes from the first half of the seventh century B.C., during the reign of Esarhaddon (681–669 B.C.). The Scythians then appeared in northern Media, in the Lake Urmia region of Mannea (in modern-day Iran). They were involved in the Median- Assyrian conflicts. As Assyrian allies, in 673 B.C. they helped to suppress a Median uprising under the leadership of Kaštaritu. They played a still more important role in 653 B.C., saving the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, besieged by Kaštaritu’s army.

At that time the Scythians were a significant military power. Their raiding parties ventured as far as the borders of Egypt in Syria, even forcing the pharaoh Psamtik I (r. 663–609 B.C.) to pay them ransom. In about 637 B.C., during the reign of Ashurbanipal (669–631? B.C.), they played an important role in defeating the Cimmerians, dreaded invaders that wreaked havoc across Asia Minor. Earlier still, the Scythians forced the Cimmerians out from the lands north of the Caucasus and the Black Sea. It was Cyaxares (r. 625–585 B.C.), the ruler of Medes, who finally managed to drive the Scythians out of the Near East.


The most important accounts on the origins of the Scythians can be found in the Histories of Herodotus (book 4) relating to “the Scythian-Cimmerian conflict.” According to this Greek historian, the Scythians, as a migrating people, invaded and conquered the lands north of the Black Sea, forcing out the indigenous Cimmerians. Herodotus locates their original dwelling sites somewhere in Asia. He writes: “The Scythians were a nomadic people living in Asia. Oppressed by the warlike Massagetae [another nomadic central Asian people], they crossed the Araxes River [the Volga] and penetrated into the land of the Cimmerians [who were the original inhabitants of today’s Scythian lands].”

In the absence of historical data, archaeology has played the main role in determining the Scythians’ original “Asian” settlements. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, exploration showed that the origins of Scythian culture should be sought mainly in central Asia, in the upper Yenissei River basin, the Altai hills, and the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan. As early as the ninth century B.C. the Scythians’ nomadic ancestors began to migrate westward from those territories, along a stretch of the Great Steppe, seeking ecological niches to suit their herding economy. This process also was stimulated by ecological changes, resulting from the cold, dry climate prevalent since about the thirteenth century B.C. As a consequence, the steppe pastures degraded. The westward migration gained impact in the second half of the eighth century B.C., and the mass influx of the Scythian tribes eventually led to the occupation of the steppes at the foot of the Caucasus. It was from these regions that the Išguzai launched their Asian invasions.

Beginning in the first half of the seventh century B.C. the Scythians gradually conquered the middle regions of the Dnieper River (which had been penetrated earlier), on the northern edge of the steppe in the forest-steppe zone. Despite living in strongly fortified settlements, the native, settled farming communities had to yield to the military might of the invading nomads. Around that time, Scythian expansion also reached into the Transylvania territories, located still farther to the west, in the Carpathian valley. With time, especially after withdrawing from the Near East, the Scythians increasingly focused their attention on the steppe regions. This was in part due to climate change and improvement in the ecological conditions in the steppes north of the Black Sea. The climate became more humid and mild, which in Europe manifested itself as the so-called Subatlantic fluctuation.

Beginning in the mid-seventh century B.C., the Black Sea region also became more “attractive” as the result of the founding of Greek colonies on the north shores of the Black Sea. The oldest among them, Borysthenes (also the ancient name for the river Dnieper), on the island of Berezan at the mouth of the Boh River, dates from about 646 B.C. Numerous other colonies, for example, Olbia and Panticapaeum, soon developed into great economic (production and trade) centers and played an enormous role in the economic and cultural development of the Scythian tribes.

After having been driven out from the Near East in the late seventh century B.C., the Scythians shifted their political center to the Black Sea region. This was not a peaceful process. Its echoes are found in a legend reported by Herodotus (book 4). The legend tells of the “old” Scythians returning from the Near East and fighting with the “young” Scythians, who were the sons of the slaves and wives of the “old” Scythians “left behind in the old country.” In the late seventh and early sixth centuries B.C. the military activity of the Scythians was spread over vast territories, reaching west into the Great Hungarian Plain and into what is today southwestern Poland. Gradually, as the result of these processes, Scythian tribes living in the Black Sea region between the Don River and the Lower Danube organized themselves into a proto-state, called “Scythia” by Herodotus. There is no doubt that it consisted of the affluent ethnic Scythians as well as the conquered local peoples, in particular, the settled forest-steppe peoples, who were politically and culturally dominated by the Scythians.

The organization was a sort of a tribal federation. The power was in the hands of the Scythian “kings,” local rulers who probably accepted the authority of the leader of the politically strongest tribe. This complex sociopolitical structure of Scythia probably is what Herodotus meant when he talked about the “Royal Scythians” who “consider other Scythians to be their slaves” and about the “Scythian Nomads,” the “Scythian Farmers,” and the “Scythian Ploughmen” living in the various regions of Scythia. Scythia’s political center and, at the same time, a mythical land, Gerrhus, where the Scythian kings were buried, was situated in the lower Dnieper River basin.




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