Ancient History & Civilisation

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THE KHORASAN HIGHWAY

Woe to the Bloody City

The gods, having scorned to mold a world that was level, had preferred instead to divide it into two. So it seemed to those who lived in the Zagros, the great chain of peaks which separates the Fertile Crescent from the upland plateau of Iran. Yet these mountains, though savage, were not impassable. One road did snake across them: the most famous in the world, the Khorasan Highway, which led from the limits of the East to the West, and joined the rising to the setting of the sun. In places, as it climbed through the Zagros Mountains, winding along river beds, or threading between jagged pinnacles and ravines, it might be little more than a footpath—but even that, to those who used it, was a miracle enough. Only a beneficent deity, it was assumed, could ever have fashioned such a wonder. Who, and when, no one really knew for sure,*3 but it was certainly very ancient—perhaps, some said, as old as time itself. Over the millennia, the Khorasan Highway had been followed by any number of travelers: nomads, caravans—and the armies of conquering kings.

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One empire, in particular, for centuries synonymous with cruel and remorseless invincibility, had sent repeated expeditions into the mountains, dyeing the peaks, in its own ferocious vaunt, “like wool, crimson with blood.”1 The Assyrians, inhabitants of what is now northern Iraq, were city-dwellers, a people of the flat, alluvial plains; but to their kings, warlords who had spread terror and extermination as far as Egypt, the Zagros was less a barrier than a challenge. Themselves the patrons of a proud and brilliant civilization, sumptuous with palaces, gardens and canals, the kings of Assyria had always seen it as their duty to flatten resistance in the wilds beyond their frontiers. This, the wilds being what they were, had proved a calling without limit. Not even with their incomparable war machine could the Assyrians pacify all the mountain tribes—for there were some living in the Zagros who clung to the peaks like birds, or lurked in the depths of thick forests, so backward that they subsisted entirely on acorns, savages hardly worthy of the royal attention. These too, however, with regular incursions, could be taught to dread the name of Assyria, and provide her with the human plunder on which her greatness had come increasingly to depend. Again and again, punitive expeditions would return from the mountains to their native plains, to the sacred cities of Ashur, Nimrud and Nineveh, while in their wake, naked and tethered, followed stumbling lines of captives. Increasingly, the Assyrians had fallen into the habit of moving entire populations, shunting them around their empire, transplanting one defeated enemy into the lands of another, there to live in the houses of the similarly transported, to clear weeds from the rubble, or cultivate the abandoned, smoke-blackened fields.

These tactics had in the end had due effect. By the late eighth century BC, the reaches of the Khorasan Highway had been formally absorbed into the empire and placed under the rule of an Assyrian governor. “Grovelling they came to me, for the protection of their lives,” boasted Assyria’s greatest king, Sargon II. “Knowing that otherwise I would destroy their walls, they fell and kissed my feet.”2

Not that captives were the only source of wealth to be found in the Zagros. Wild and forested though the mountains were, and often bitter the climate, the valleys were famous for their clover-rich pasture. Over the centuries, and in increasing numbers, these had been attracting tribes who called themselves “Arya”—“Aryans”: horse-taming nomads from the plateau to the east.3 Even once settled, these immigrants had preserved many of their ancestors’ instincts, filling the valleys of their new homeland with great herds of long-horned cattle, and preferring, wherever possible, to live in the saddle. The Assyrians, no horse-breeders themselves, would speak in wondering terms of the stud farms of the Zagros, with their “numberless steeds.”4 It was relatively easy for the Assyrian army to cherry-pick these as tribute, for the finest horses, by universal consent, were those bred by the Medes, a loose confederation of Aryan tribes settled conveniently along the Khorasan Highway itself. No wonder the Assyrians came to prize the region. Their mastery of Media,5 as well as enabling them to control the world’s most important trade route, permitted their armies to develop a new and lethal quality of speed. By the eighth century BC, cavalry had become vital to the ability of Assyria to maintain her military supremacy. The tribute of horses from the mountains had become the lifeblood of her greatness. The richest silver mine could not have been more precious to her than the stud farms of the Zagros.

And yet, in Assyria’s supremacy lay the seeds of its own downfall. The mountains were a mishmash of different peoples, Aryans and aboriginals alike, with even the Medes themselves ruled by a quarrelsome multitude of petty chieftains. Foreign occupation, however, by imposing a unitary authority upon the region, had begun to encourage the fractious tribes to cohere. By the 670s BC, menaced by the shadowy leader of a formal Median union, the Assyrians’ hold on the Zagros started to slip alarmingly. Tribute dried up as its collection became ever more challenging. Open revolts blazed and spread. Over the following decades, the scribes of the Assyrian kings, employed to keep a record of the victories of their masters, ceased to make mention of Media at all.

This silence veiled an ominous development. In 615 BC, a king who claimed sovereignty over all the clan chiefs of the Medes, Cyaxares by name, joined an alliance of the empire’s other rebellious subjects and led his troops from their fastnesses against the Assyrians’ eastern flank. The effect of this sudden eruption of the mountain men was devastating. After only three years of campaigning, the inconceivable occurred: Nineveh, greatest of all the strongholds of Assyrian might, was stormed and razed. To the amazement—and joy—of the empire’s subject peoples, “the bloody city” was pulverized beneath the hooves of the Median cavalry. “Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end—they stumble over the bodies!”6

Four years later, and all traces of the Assyrian colossus, which for so long had kept the Near East in its shadow, lay obliterated. To the victors, naturally, had fallen the spoils. Media, precipitately elevated to the rank of great power, seized a huge northern swath of the defeated empire. Her kings, no longer small-time chieftains, could now indulge themselves in the occupations proper to their newly won status—throwing their weight around and scrapping with other great powers. In 610 BC, the Medes swept into northern Syria, burning and looting as they went. In 585, they went to war with the Lydians, a people based in the west of what is now Turkey, and only a solar eclipse, manifesting itself over the battlefield, finally persuaded the two sides to draw back. By the terms of a hurriedly patched-up treaty, the Halys, a river flowing midway between Media and Lydia, was established as the boundary between the rival empires, and for the next thirty years, throughout the Near East, peace, and the balance of power, were maintained.7

Not that the new king of Media, Astyages, had any intention of hanging up his saddle. Undistracted now by war with other major empires, he turned his attention instead to the wilds north and east of his kingdom, far distant from the cockpit of the Fertile Crescent. Leading an expedition into the badlands of Armenia and what is now Azerbaijan, he was following in the footsteps of the Assyrian kings, teaching the savages beyond his frontiers to fear his royal name.8 In other ways, too, the traditions of the great monarchies of the Near East, so alien to those of his own people, still semi-tribal and nomadic as they were, appear to have whetted the ambitions of the Median king. After all, a ruler of Astyages’ stature, no less powerful than the King of Lydia or the Pharaoh of Egypt, could hardly be expected to rule his empire from a tent. What the monarchs of more ancient lands had always taken for granted—a palace, a treasury, a mighty capital—Astyages, naturally, had to have as well: proofs of his magnificence raised in gold and blocks of stone.

Travelers who made the final ascent through the mountains along the Khorasan Highway would see, guarding the approaches to the Iranian plateau ahead of them, a vision which could have been conjured from some fabulous epic: a palace set within seven gleaming walls, each one painted a different color, and on the two innermost circuits, bolted to their battlements, plates of silver and gold. This was Ecbatana, stronghold of the kings of Media, and already, barely a century after its foundation, the crossroads of the world.9 Commanding the trade of East and West, it also opened up to its master the whole range of the Zagros, and beyond. Here, for the Median clan chiefs, in particular, was a thoroughly alarming development. The surest guarantee of their freedom from royal meddling, and of the continued factionalism of the kingdom itself, had always been the inaccessibility of their private fiefdoms—but increasingly they found themselves subordinated to the reach of Astyages’ court. At one time, before the building of the polychrome palace walls, Ecbatana had been an open field, a free meeting place for the tribes, a function preserved in the meaning of its name: “assembly point.” But now those days were gone, and the Medes, who had fought so long to liberate themselves from the despots of Nineveh, found themselves the subjects of a despot nearer to home.

No wonder that later generations would preserve a memory of Astyages as an ogre. No wonder, either, that when they sought to explain their loss of freedom, the Medes would identify Ecbatana as both a symbol of their slavery, and a cause.10

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