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The Horses of Heaven

Beverley Burris-Davis has posted another article documenting her research into the Parthian equestrian tradition. You may correspond with Beverley on this and other issues concerning horses by clicking on the e-mail link.


Cyrus the Great (580-529 B.C.) was a truly remarkable man in that he survived his grandfather's murderous attempt to destroy him and united Persians in a brilliant take over of the Median Empire. Astyages, a monstrous character more at home in a Greek fable than in a real life drama, was the son of Cyaxares, the man who broke the might of Assyria and humbled the powerful Scythians who had been plaguing him at the time. Although the son of Astyages' daughter Mandane, Cyrus was also the son of Cambyses, a minor Persian nobleman and subject to the Median king. On reaching manhood, Cyrus united the Persians against the Medes and overthrew his wicked grandfather, but ever respectful of his mother's people, he always treated them as equals to the Persians. The two cultures mingled and Cyrus expanded his empire. One thing he took from the Medes and embraced as his own was their great horse, the Nisean (Niceaen). Magnificent animals, white stallions pulled Cyrus' personal chariot and the sacred chariot dedicated to the Persian god Ahura Mazda. So great was his love for the breed that he had a river drained after one of his white stallions drowned while trying to cross it. Cyrus believed that the river had been cruel and no longer deserved to exist after drowning such a beautiful creature.

But Cyrus never utilized the Nisean breed to its fullest. Overstepping his bounds, he confronted the Massagetae queen, Tomyris, whose army fought a terrible battle and ultimately drove the Persians from the field. The Massagetae, one of the tribes of Scythia, had taught the Persians the value of a well-trained cavalry, something the Persians had been lacking.

Cyrus the Great died in his war against the Massagetae and was succeeded by his crazy son Cambyses. Mercifully, he didn't rule long. Leaping on the back of his horse, he stabbed himself with his sword and bled to death in Egypt. His successor was Darius I, whose father had been governor of Parthia. According to legend, it was his horse and groom who won him the throne of Persia, and a monument was carved to commemorate the event. Conquering more territory than Cyrus, Darius captured the lands of Sogdiana and added it to the Persian Empire. Now a dry region in modern Uzbekistan, Sogdiana was a wet and fertile land 2500 years ago with grasslands and lakes where there are now deserts. The region was perfect for horses, and Darius I set up an imperial stud in the Davan Valley (now Ferghana).

The Sogdians belonged to the same Indo-Iranian family as the Persians and Medes and were readily incorporated into the empire. Extremely successful as merchantmen, the Sogdians grew wealthy under the protection of the Persian king. When Alexander the Great came along, the Sogdians put up an unsuccessful resistance that led to their capture and the marriage of one of their women, Roxanne, to the enigmatic Greek. Shifting their loyalty to Alexander, who now controlled the Old Persian Empire, they offered no further resistance. But peace was not long-lasting. Upon Alexander's death, the Greek generals took to warring with each other for control of the empire. Sogdiana and Bactria became relatively independent, although Sogdiana retained more of Persia's flavor, while Bactria embraced the Greek culture, even allowing Greek cities to be built in her territory.

Click image to enlargeThe emergence of Parthia returned more of Old Persia to the region, although there was an important change in military tactics. Unlike the Persians who had kept the Nisean for ceremony and hunting, the Parthians developed the greatest cavalry of its time, and Sogdiana was Parthia's richest ally. Embracing many Parthian legends, the Sogdian's painted beautiful frescoes on the walls of their homes and palaces. The ancient legend of Rustam and Rakush, immortalized in the Shahnameh, traces back to Parthia, but one of the most exquisite murals depicting the legend comes from Sogdiana. A fresco in the Hermitage Museum depicts a proud young man on a red horse that came from the Castle Mug. The proud horse is unmistakably a descendent of the Niseans left behind by Darius I.
[Year of the Cat, a red corn mare. Photo by Vickie Spears Karma Farms Marshall, Texas]

A few years ago a pictograph was found carved on the side of a mountain overlooking Mug (Ershih) Castle. The horse was slender and racy and beside it was a fallow deer. The Tajikistani researchers claimed this might be the Heavenly Horse of Ferghana, but the Sogdians did not worship the fallow deer, so prominent in the picture. Only one group held the fallow deer in such high esteem, the Scythians, called the Yeuzhi by the Chinese and the Sakas by the Persians. These folks were enemies of the Sogdians and Parthians, and the carvings were used to taunt the garrison at Mug Castle. Scythian art is full of golden fallow deer, and the royal tombs were often found with the mummified remains of horses wearing deer headdresses.

General Qian

In 90 B.C., a man named Sima Qian (145-85 B.C.), court historian and astrologer for Emperor Wu Ti, set about writing the tale of General Qian and his visit to Sogdiana and Parthia. In 137 B.C., the general along with 100 men set out to locate a nomadic band of people called the Yeuzhi (Scythians) to acquire their help against the Xiongnu (Huns). This particular band of Scythians had lost a king to the Huns sometime between 176 and 165 B.C.. His head had been turned into a drinking cup, something the Scythians had often done to their enemies. Apparently the Huns were adopting the ways of Central Asia's first horse people.

Qian found these Scythians in western Xinjiang province, but the Scythians wanted no part of their old enemy and politely declined. One of Qian's aides informed him of potential allies farther west, over the mountains, but before the general could get there, the Huns captured him. His hoped-for Scythian allies decided it was time to move on and by 130 B.C., they were taking over the Greco-Bactrian kingdom south of Sogdiana.

Qian lived among the Huns for ten years and even had a wife, but obedient to his emperor, he finally made his escape, crossed the Tangri Tagh and continued on to Sogdiana. The Sogdians at Mug Castle treated him well and escorted him to nearby Kokand, one of the major Sogdian towns in the valley. A rider was sent out to notify Phraates II (c. 138 - 127 B.C.) of Qian's arrival and his mission, and the Sogdians were asked to escort him to Parthuva, one of Phraates' main residences. (Sometime during the year 127 B.C., Phraates II died and Artabanus I took over. Artabanus ruled from 127-124 B.C.) The Chinese name for Parthuva was P'antu, but whatever Qian called it, his welcoming committee was overwhelming. A 20,000 horse cavalry rode out to great him. Through an interpreter, Qian recognized the speech of the Parthians as being similar to the Yeuzhi and called them the Anxi Yeuzhi or Greater Scythians. (During his travels, General Qian utilized the services of at least 30 interpreters.) Certainly these people would be able to stand up to the Huns.

General Qian stayed in Parthia one year (127-126 B.C.) and saw many wondrous things. The lands were full of wildlife that no longer exists there, and one animal in particular fascinated him, the ostrich. When he finally made it back to China in 125 B.C., he had ostrich eggs with him. The Chinese named them anxi-chiao, Parthian birds, but as interesting as they were, nothing intrigued Wu Ti more than the tale of the Parthian horses that he had seen.

But the description of the 20,000 horse cavalry must have made Wu Ti pause and consider his next action. Instead of returning right away to get the horses, he had a garrison built at Jiaohe near the famous Dunhuang Caves, where a mural of General Qian preparing for his journey can be found. The year the garrison was founded was 111 B.C. But even after the garrison was built and manned, it was not until 104 B.C. that a troop, led by General Li Guangli, undertook the journey back up to Mug Castle and Kokand. Stymied at first by the Sogdians who refused to hand over the horses, he left but quickly returned when he was told to get the horses or else. According some accounts a great battle broke out, while another states that a siege was initiated, but one thing was certain: the Chinese refused to let anyone leave the region and warn the Parthians. While 2,000 horses were gathered from the surrounding grasslands, only two dozen Niseans were located and handed over to the Chinese, who must have sensed that they were about to be discovered and left. No doubt General Guangli was aware of Mithradates II (c. 123 - 88 B.C.) reputation and didn't want a confrontation.

But instead of lasting animosity, the Parthians and Sogdians viewed the encounter realistically. The Chinese were more valuable as trade partners than enemies. The Sogdians even set up a trading post at Jiaohe, which seemed to suit the Chinese as well. By 80 B.C., China's hoped for alliance with the Lesser Scythians had fizzled out. Those intrepid nomads were now masters of Taxila, creating the Vonones-Scythian Kingdom in modern Punjab, Pakistan.

Close on the heels of each other, the Han Dynasty in A.D. 220 and the Parthian Empire in A.D. 228 expired. And by A.D. 389, the Yeuzhi/Scythians in Bactria had been conquered by Chandrgupta II (A.D. 380-413) after six years of constant warfare. But the Sogdians and Chinese remained trade partners at least until A.D. 745 when the Chinese of the Tang Dynasty could no longer get horses from Sogdiana and had to turn to the Uyghurs for mounts. Ironically, the Uyghurs had been influenced by the Sogdians, via the Aramaic script that was the official language of business of the Old Persian Empire. The Uyghurs passed this on to the Mongolians, and sometime during the 21st century, the Mongolians plan to resurrect their language using the Aramaic script or some variation of it.

The Fate of the Heavenly Horses

People and animals have always been at the mercy of weather, and the great horse tribes of Central Asia were no different. At the time Persia came to power, the climate was mild and wetter than it is now, and the region was perfect for horse rearing. From 2500 B.C. to 500 B.C., the world had been under what is called the Iron Age Cool Epoch, which was partially responsible for the drying out of North Africa, although it has taken many centuries to get to where it is now. But from 500 B.C. to A.D. 500, Central Asia was horse heaven.

Disaster struck in the 6th century A.D. when the climate turned considerably colder and a terrible drought hit the region. Whole herds of horses died throughout Asia as lakes dried up and the grasslands died. The horses bred by the Sogdians suffered as well but did not become extinct at this time, and a legend persists in the region that speaks of great herds of Heavenly Horses drinking lakes dry. Could this be a memory from that time when desperate animals struggled to find water in the dwindling lakes?

During the 8th century, another disaster befell the region, but this time it was the Sogdians who suffered. In one brutal attack after another, the Arabs destroyed the wealthy Sogdians and drove them into virtual extinction. It was at this time that the Tang Dynasty stopped receiving horses from Central Asia. The Arabs, while devoted to their small desert bred horses, had nothing but disdain for the horses dedicated to pagan gods.

Some time before 1055, the Arabs purchased 70,000 Seljuk Turks to fill out the ranks of their army. Originating on the Central Asian Steppes around the Caspian Sea, the Turks knew well the Nisean horse and were familiar with the stories of Rustam and Rakush, the old Parthian tale of a boy and his horse. A plate in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., attributed to the Seljuk Turks shows a young man in a leopard skin on an appaloosa horse -- a color common among the Nisean and a color often associated with Rakush. But the horse on the plate is lighter than the one of the Sogdian fresco in the Hermitage. Arabian horses, beloved of Allah, were being crossed with the sacred horses of Ahura Mazda.

Today in Uzbekistan and northern Tajikistan, the old home range of Parthia and Sogdiana, there is an ancient breed of horse called the Karabair. This is a large handsome animal that occasionally throws the appaloosa color. And in China where the Soulun, the Chinese name for the sacred horse, once grazed, another handsome animal grazes, the Sanhe, but neither of these breeds are true types of the old breed. Arabian blood flows in the Karabair, and Russian blood flows in the Sanhe.

We have just come out of a mini Ice Age that devastated China. Ancient orange groves died off as well as numerous herds of horses and cattle. And when people are suffering, who has time to pay attention to a horse, even an imperial horse? Some may have continued to exist at the Forbidden Palace, but a Chinese Revolution most certainly put an end to them along with the Chinese Monarchy.

The Heavenly Horse continues to exist in Asian Art from Constantinople to China. His last descendents are in Europe and America, via the Andalusian, Neopolitano, and Lippizan, from the Spanish Mustang to Thoroughbred. But that's the next story.

Beverley Burris-Davis, Texas, July 2001 (last updated 16 Jan 2002)


1. Bauer, Bruce A., Data Manager, World Data Center for Paleoclimatology and Paleoclimatology Program, 325 Broadway, E/GC, Boulder, Colorado 80305

2. Chandragupta II Vikramaditya; Itihaas, copyright: Satyam Infoway Ltd.  **

3. Compareti, Matteo. Sogdiana: Iranian Culture in Central Asia: The Iranian, July 24, 2001- ****

4. Dien, Albert. The Glories of Sogdiana. The Silk Road Foundation, copyright 1997-2000

5. Encarta: "Sima Qian", "Darius I", "Cyrus the Great"

6. Encyclopedia Britannica: "Sogdiana", "Kokand", "Ferghana", "Chan Chi-en", "Wu Ti"

7. The Epic of Shahnameh Ferdowsi (The Epic of Kings: Hero Tales of Ancient Persian) created by Hakim Abol-Ghasem Ferdowsi Toosi

8. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC

9. Hermitage Museum, Central Asian Exhibits, St. Petersburg, Russia.

10. Herodotus. Histories

11. Hulsewe, A.F.P. China in Central Asia: the Early Stage: 125 BC-AD 23. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1979

12. Mallory, J.P. and Victor Mair. The Tarim Mummies:Ancient China and the Mystery of Earliest People from the West (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000), pp. 55-59

13. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution: Indo-Parthian Kingdom

14. Panther, Barbie. "Proxy Data of Past Weather and Climate", Monash University

15. Isidore of Charax. Parthian Stations

16. Parthia: The Forgotten Empire. Parthian Ruler List

17. Wee-Cheng, Tang. Heart of the Silk Road; Sogdiana and Sogdian Art, December 14, 2001

18. Wong, Frank. "Pirooz in China: Defeated Persian army takes refuge", The Iranian, August 11, 2001

19. Woods, Michael. In the Footsteps of Alexander, University of California Press, 1997 (also a PBS special)

   -----. The Silk Road Tapes. "The Sky Horses of Ferghana and the end of the Sogdians" (PBS)

Photo credits:
1. Vickie Spiers. Redcorn mare. Karma Farms 7925 US Hwy 59 N. Marshall, Texas 75670 [Facebook link}
2. Stal de Hogenkamp Appaloosas-European appaloosas Fam.Kollau Tel/Fax 0031 3185551905 Nieuwe Maanderbuurtweg 438 6717 BB E de Nederland

This page last updated 14 Mar 2021

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