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The Scythians

The Scythians live north of the Himalayas in eastern Kazakhstan, at the far end of the steppe territory dominated by nomadic Indo-European tribes (a group which includes themselves). In the 8th century BC they begin to move west, pushing other Indo-Europeans (the Cimmerians) ahead of them.

They become widely feared for their military prowess, based on a brilliant combination of riding skills and archery (the Parthians, famous later for the same reasons, are closely related). In the 7th century BC the Scythians even raid southwards through Syria and Palestine to the borders of Egypt. But their main thrust is westwards.

The Scythians move into the regions north of the Black Sea. Their claim to them is emphasized in 513 BC, when they are able to protect this territory from the Persian emperor, Darius, during his first campaign against the Greeks. In the Crimea and southern Russia the Scythians now develop a rich and influential kingdom. It lasts until gradually squeezed, from the 3rd century BC onwards, by another wave of nomadic tribes from the steppes - the Sarmatians.

In this succession of migrating nomads, it is the Scythians who have acquired the most lasting fame - largely because of the artefacts found in their tombs.

The Scythian tombs at Pazyryk, in the Altai mountains to the west of Mongolia, are perfectly preserved due to an accident of their design. They are capped by loose boulders, through which water can filter to form a layer of ice protected from the summer sun. The occupants of the tombs, together with their possessions, have been deep-frozen since soon after their burial.

The tombs have yielded elaborately embroidered garments, felt cushions and mattresses and wall hangings, a woven carpet of great beauty from Persia, and embalmed bodies decorated with intricate tattoos. The burials date from the 5th to the 3rd century BC.

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