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Rome, Egypt, Greece – the big
three ancient civilisations that
everyone knows about. But what
about the others? In All About
History Ancient Civilisations, take
a tour of antiquity as you uncover some of
the greatest cultures the world has seen.
Play a game of Pok-ta-Pok with the Mayans,
wander the streets of Babylon and get up
close to the Terracotta Army as we reveal
some of the most interesting and exciting
civilisations in Europe, Asia, Africa and the
Americas. So turn the page, take the clock
back 2,000 years and uncover what life was
really like in the ancient world.



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Part of the

bookazine series



08 Lost Civilisations


16 The Indus Valley 76 50
20 The Akkadian Empire
56 The Kingdoms of
24 The Mauryan Empire Ancient Egypt

26 Babylon 597 BCE 64 Kingdom of Kush
68 The Nok Culture
28 Secrets from 70 The Kingdom
Ancient China
of Aksum
36 The Scythians

38 The Golden Ages
of Persia

42 The Nabateans

44 The Three Kingdoms
of Korea

48 The Seleucid Empire

50 Rise and Fall of
the Xiongnu




76 The Greek City-States
82 The Celts
84 Ancient Rome
94 Ancient Sea Peoples
96 The Mycenaeans
98 Introducing the Picts
102 The Kingdom

of Macedonia



108 Secrets of the Mayans
116 The Quimbaya

118 The Olmecs
122 The Chavín Culture
124 Norte Chico: Ancients
98 in the Americas


Ancient Civilisations



Six forgotten superpowers that shaped the world we know today

Written by Jack Griffiths

History is often described as being written legions or Greek hoplites, while others were victims their more famous counterparts, but they remain an
by the winners, which is a fair point of devastating natural disasters. Additionally, the integral cog in the evolution of trade, architecture
when you consider the emphasis that fall of some of these civilisations is shrouded in and warfare.
is placed on the Romans, Egyptians mystery, with various theories as to how and why
and Greeks. However, in the ancient they suddenly vanished. Subsequently, much of their Discover the cultures that built the first
world, there were many other cultures and kingdoms influence and memory have been long since forgotten. aqueducts, invented the 365-day calendar, smelted
that helped form the history of the human race and the first iron weapons and even built the first zoos.
add to humanity’s conquest of Earth. Originally full Luckily, the modern world is full of clues that have Read on to meet the people who gave the Egyptians
of bustling metropolises and unique cultures, some stood the test of time, from the ruins of fallen cities an honest run for their money and a civilisation that
of these empires were unlucky enough to come into through to the systems and structures that we use survived two natural disasters that shook their small
contact with the all-conquering force of the Roman today. These seven forgotten civilisations may not remote island home, as we shine a light on Earth’s
have contributed as much to human progression as greatest lost civilisations.

HITTITE EMPIRE aiTnghaaeinfHisetirttcthieteebsEaetgtnylegpatigaends

Egypt’s greatest rivals, the Hittites were masters of the chariot

Where was it: they slipped quietly from the historical radar after
Turkey, Syria and Iraq being assumed into the Assyrian Empire and because
Dates of civilisation: their culture varied considerably between each
c.1700-700 BCE region. The Hittites’ call to fame was their chariot
Strengths: Expert chariot building. Among the first civilisations to pioneer the
makers, iron manufacture, manufacture of iron, their warrior-like culture thrived
fortified city of Hattusa before being overwhelmed by the superior Assyrians.
Weaknesses: Drawn-out rivalry with Egyptians,
city-states had no political unity, slow At its largest extent, Hittites were found in modern-
economical advancement day Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Like many other forgotten
Amazing fact: Hittite battle axes were shaped civilisations, Hittite lands were divided up into city-
like human hands! states with no political unity with each other. The
biggest of these was the mountain fortress of Hattusa,
At its peak, the Hittite Empire rivalled the more which was heavily fortified by King Suppiluliuma.
famous kingdom of Egypt, and were such a threat
that Egypt’s pharaoh Ramesses II resorted to signing The Hittite Empire collapsed in 1160 BCE after a
a peace treaty with the Hittites after the brutal Battle civil war and a scramble for the throne. Scattered and
of Kadesh, history’s biggest chariot battle. However, leaderless, a settlement was formed between the Syro-
Hittite peoples, but this was only a brief respite before
they were invaded by the Assyrians in 700 BCE.


Lost Civilisations


Before the Romans, Italy was occupied by a civilisation who were just as advanced

Where was it: for their time, were set into the first type of Dr Kathryn Lomas
Central Italy rectangular urban planning and were accompanied
When did it exist: by roads and bridges, which used arch and vault Dr Lomas is an honorary senior
800-250 BCE construction techniques. Even the Latin alphabet research associate at University
Strengths: Construction and the Roman toga have their origins in the College London and a part-time
expertise, iron and copper Etruscan people. tutor in Classics at the University of
trade, urban planning Durham.
Weaknesses: Poor army, territory desirable to Etruria is also known for its maritime prowess The most significant Etruscan remains
invaders, locality to Rome as the Etruscans explored the Adriatic and Aegean are the cemeteries of their key
Amazing fact: The Etruscans invented the Seas, establishing colonies on Corsica, Sardinia cities and, to a lesser extent, their
idea of armed combat for sport, or as we more and even in Spain. The Romans, a civilisation that settlements. Unlike the Greeks, they
commonly know them: gladiators. owed so much to the Etruscans, proved to be their did not leave impressive buildings, but their tombs
downfall. The growing Roman military juggernaut (many with frescoes depicting Etruscan society, myths
The Etruscan story begins in post-Iron Age Italy. proved irresistible to Etruscan resistance as their and legends) and their contents are elaborate. Their
Originally inhabiting the area we now know as league of city-states was annexed into the new most obvious lasting impact is the dissemination of
Tuscany, Ancient Etruria grew in the 9th and 8th Roman Republic in 250 BCE. writing and literacy. The Etruscans were the first Italian
centuries BCE thanks to its rich seams of mineral culture to adopt writing, adapting the Phoenician
ores, strong agriculture and plentiful timber alphabet in the 8th century BCE.
resources. The civilisation reached the height of its
power in the 6th century BCE when 12 city-states The city walls of
were allied in the Etruscan League. The main Velathri, a major city
cities were Tarquinii, Vulci, Caere and Veii, whose in the Etruscan League
economy was based on a thriving copper and iron
trade with the Greeks and Carthaginians. Being the
first real major settlement on the Italian peninsula,
Etruria became the basis of the civilisations in
late antiquity to follow. They were one of the first
peoples to dispose of kings and be ruled by an
intelligentsia of aristocrats and magistrates, and
their architecture and construction techniques
arguably influenced the Romans as much as the
Greeks did. Their homes were made from mud
brick baked in the hot Mediterranean sun mixed
with wood and stone, and some even had upper
storeys. These houses, which were very advanced

How we
picked our list

Choosing which ‘forgotten’ civilisations to
include was difficult as it depends on how the
word ‘forgotten’ is defined. It was essential that
we find civilisations that were much less known
than the major cultures of antiquity, such as
the Romans and Greeks, but also contributed
to the human race. There were a number of
South American civilisations, but the Tiwanaku
fit the bill due to their iconic pyramids and
innovative farming methods. The Etruscans and
Minoans were definite choices as they fit the
bill perfectly, while the Hittites and Phoenicians
both contributed to their area and era in ways
that haven’t been discussed extensively.


Ancient Civilisations


The Minoans flourished as expert The Minoan city
traders and shipbuilders of Knossos

Where was it: gold. Around 1700 BCE, the Minoan culture was Dr Nicoletta Momigliano
Crete shaken by an earthquake that destroyed many of
When did it exist: their settlements. They managed to recover from Dr Momigliano is a reader in
3000-1100 BCE this natural disaster, but now had company on the Aegean Prehistory at the
Strengths: Bureaucratic Mediterranean; Greeks and Mycenaeans began to University of Bristol and a
hierarchy, shipbuilding, threaten trade interests, especially as the Minoans specialist in Minoan archaeology.
knowledge of metallurgy had now expanded to other Greek islands such as I would not say that the Minoan
Weaknesses: Weak military, natural disasters Thera, Rhodos, Melos and Kythira. Their luck got civilisation is ‘forgotten’ – instead,
Amazing fact: The Minoans had a sport that even worse when in 1375 BCE, the island’s largest I would say it is not as well known
involved jumping over bulls’ horns city, Knossos, was devastated. Historians argue as the Roman, Greek or Egyptian
whether this was the work of an invasion force civilisations for three principal
Of all the lost civilisations, the Minoans may be the or a volcanic eruption, but either way it crippled reasons. First, because the Minoans have been known to
most mysterious. Isolated on the Greek island of the Minoan people, who were dispatched by an scholars and the general public alike for a much shorter
Crete, their society flourished with little interruption oncoming invasion force in 1100 BCE. The people of time, having been rediscovered only in the early 20th
for centuries. Arguably the first European civilisation, Crete now answered to Athens. The Minoans would century; second, because they have left their mark on
they first settled on Crete in 3000 BCE and were never trouble the history books again. a smaller geographical area; and third, because their
later influenced by the neighbouring Greek and artefacts and monuments, although impressive, are not
Egyptian civilisations with whom they frequently Knossos Palace is the largest Bronze as large and grandiose as those of the Egyptians, Greeks
traded with. Minoan culture originally had no Age archaeological site on Crete and Romans.
centralised government and a flexible ruling system
with large, grand palaces acting as the key areas of
administration. Tombs known as ‘tholos’ were the
key architectural feature of the Minoans and this,
along with their paved road system, running water
and pottery was incorporated by the later Greek and
Roman civilisations.

By 2000 BCE, kings had assumed control of the
island as wine, olive oil, wool and cloth exports
flourished. It was the beginning of a bureaucratic
system and social hierarchy on the island, with
nobles and peasants making up an early feudal
system. Women also played a large role in society,
serving as administrators and priestesses, and had
the same rights as men. It was this unity that made
the Minoans such a remarkable people.

The Minoans had a strong maritime presence that
helped them import large sums of copper, silver and


Lost Civilisations

PHOENICIA Dr Mark Woolmer

A kingdom of expert traders, this civilisation sailed the seas Dr Woolmer is a fellow in Ancient
with no fear and colonised vast swathes of the Mediterranean History in the Department of
Classics and Ancient History and
Where was it: simply because their trade was too valuable to assistant principal of Collingwood
Lebanon and Israel lose. The Phoenicians’ openness to dealing with all College, Durham University.
When did it exist: nations they came across allowed them to trade a The Phoenicians have long been
4000-332 BCE variety of goods. considered a lost or forgotten
Strengths: Peaceful and civilisation due to the almost complete
diplomatic city-states, They were particularly skilled in shipbuilding loss of their literary culture. None of
maritime strength, dye and (they were the first people to invent the curved the histories, chronicles, philosophical treaties, religious
metal production hull and the galley design), glass making, jewellery manuals or scientific texts have survived the ravages
Weaknesses: Minimal military strength, no real and even furniture. There is evidence of Phoenician of time. In one of history’s greatest ironies, the very
capital city or stronghold involvement throughout the Mediterranean, civilisation responsible for transmitting the alphabet to the
Amazing fact: The Ancient Olympic Games even reaching as far west as modern-day Spain West has left virtually no written legacy. Compounding this
originated in Phoenicia and Portugal. There are also claims they sailed problem is the fact that until recently, there had been no
to Britain in search of rich tin seams. Equally systematic excavations of Phoenician sites.
Before transport systems on land became popular, unknown to many, they are credited with founding
waterways were the best way of travelling long Carthage, a city that would become a major centre Alexander’s vastly superior army. However, Tyre
distances, be it for trade or conquest. The greatest in the Carthaginian and Roman Empires. decided to take the invaders on at their own
pioneers of sea travel in the ancient world were the game but this backfired spectacularly as hoplites
Phoenicians who made the Mediterranean their Phoenicia is known as Canaan in Hebrew and is laid siege to the island city for seven months and
own until their demise at the hands of Alexander named after ‘phoinikes’, the Greek word for purple, massacred the population once they had overcome
the Great in 322 BCE. A series of independent city- due to their production of purple dye, which would the fortifications. After the Macedonian decline,
states, the biggest of their settlements were Tyre later become the colour of royalty and aristocracy Phoenicia became a Roman state in 64 CE and
and Sidon. A peaceful people, it is believed these in both Greece and Rome. Prior to Alexander’s developed a Hellenistic society and culture.
states never once went to war with each other, and conquest, the Persians invaded Phoenician lands
their peaceful and diplomatic reputation helped in 539 BCE, but the Macedonian invasion was Phoenicians heavily
them stave off invasion for a prolonged period, much more devastating, especially for Tyre. The influenced culture,
majority of the cities such as Sidon submitted trade and architecture
automatically, unwilling to cause bloodshed against

The Phoenician
world was based
around trade from
their busy ports


Ancient Civilisations

Assyrians were
innovators of weaponry

and military strategy


Combining a strong military ethos with huge leaps in
education, the Assyrians were a force to be reckoned with

Where was it: The Assyrians were pioneers of animal other settlements of the age, the Assyrians had
Iran and Syria domestication, pottery, controllable fire and iron a kingdom that was unified and not limited to
When did it exist: smelting – it was the latter technology that gave separate city-states. Instead, imperial administration
2400 BCE – 1300 CE their military a huge boost. Fighting enemies ruled the land as local governors reported to the
Strengths: Technological armed with bronze, the stronger iron weapons central authority.
advances, iron weapons, allowed them to conquer the Hittites, who were
emphasis on education roundly defeated at the Battle of Nihriya in 1245 The final Assyrian demise is shrouded in
Weaknesses: Proximity to other strong empires, BCE. Assyrian policy for defeated powers was to mystery, but it is believed they entered a dark age
administration spread too thinly not incorporate their people into their nation but in 1300 CE after constant wars with the Byzantine
Amazing fact: Assyria contained several zoos as deport them to ensure there was no rebellion Empire. After their empire crumbled, their
one of their kings, Tiglath-Pileser, was obsessed under their rule. Exceptions were only made if civilisation saw a mass influx of Jews and Arabs.
with animals the individual or group was believed to be of use Assyrians were primarily Christian, but after high
to the greater Assyrian society, such as scholars. taxes were put on this faith, they changed to Islam.
The Assyrians shared the area of Mesopotamia One of the Assyrians’ greatest achievements was This effectively ended the idea of being ‘Assyrian’.
(Iraq, Turkey and Syria) with the Babylonians, in education, as the School of Nisibis is believed As the Assyrians were ethnically distinct from both
but they could not have differed more. While in to be the first-ever university, teaching theology, Arabs and Jews, this may be a contributing factor to
Babylon the kingdom was ruled by the priesthood, philosophy and medicine. These houses of their slip into relative obscurity.
Assyrians were ruled by kings and generals. This education provided the first systematic lists of
allowed the Assyrians to become a much larger plants and animals, as well as progression in other
military power and they were able to expand their areas, such as an early postal system.
empire considerably. The benefactors of the rich
and fertile land on the Arbel and Nineveh Plains, The Assyrians are also attributed with building
the Assyrians amassed a huge population who some of the first aqueducts and arches, hundreds
gathered in their largest cities, Arbel, Ashur and of years before the Romans, and introducing the
Nimrud. They spoke Akkadian and were some of modern idea of keeping time. Pax-Assyria ruled the
the first peoples to record writings on stone tablets majority of Mesopotamia for approximately 1,800
and later, parchment and papyrus. years, where their cities were huge metropolises
guarded by extensive fortifications. Unlike

The Assyrian war machine
besieging the ancient town of
Lachish in what is Israel today

Dr Lee L Brice

Dr Brice is a
professor of
Ancient History
and the president
of the Association
of Ancient
Historians at
Western Illinois
The Assyrians overextended their
empire and were wiped out by the
Chaldeans, who themselves fell to the
Medes and Persians. The Assyrians
were the model army in the Ancient
Near East, and their cultural and
military legacy was an immense
cultural and military impact on the
Persian Empire.   


THE Lost Civilisations
This civilisation proved you didn’t need an army to survive

15 METRES Where was it: Bolivia fields in the capital) allowed the Tiwanaku to
When did it exist: expand into many other areas of South America.
was the thickness of the walls surrounding its capital city 500-900 The civilisation was at the peak of its powers in the
Strengths: Good agricultural 8th century, but it mysteriously ended in the 9th
1 TON location, construction century. No one is quite sure why the Tiwanaku
techniques, expert farmers disappeared but is believed that they, as well as a
of gold was seized during its invasion of Jerusalem Weaknesses: No writing similar culture known as the Wari, were victims of
system, overuse of their farming land, no a dramatic shift in climate which devastated the
30,000 military presence crops and caused mass starvation. As they had
clay tablets Amazing fact: Tiwanaku cities were so grand no writing system and never engaged in war with
were found in that when the Incas discovered them, they Spanish conquistadors, the Tiwanaku are a true
the ruins of an believed they were made by gods forgotten civilisation.
Assyrian library
The most prominent civilisation to come out of monumeAnTt itwhaatnsatkilul
200,000 Peru was the Incas, whose culture flourished from stands today
approximately 1200 until the Spanish conquest of
The size of the empire’s army 1532. However, before the Incas came the Tiwanaku
at its strongest tribes, who colonised both Chile and Peru. A multi-
ethnic society who settled in the upper reaches of
2,100 the Andes, the Tiwanaku are remembered for their
many remarkable monuments that still stand today.
gods made up the Mesopotamian pantheon The most famous of these were the Kalasasaya’s
Temple and the step pyramid of Akapana, which
4 MILLION were used as a temple and observatory respectively.
people were deported by the Assyrians As well as these impressive structures, the
Tiwanaku also had underground drainage and
paved streets, with cities that were planned in a
grid system.

Over 10,000 people lived in their capital city
(also called Tiwanaku), which is believed to be one
of the oldest cities in the world. Their society was
aided by its base in the rich Titicaca basin, which
had just the right mix of rainfall, food sources and
land. Subsequently, the Tiwanaku became expert
farmers and pioneered a method of farming known
as ‘flooded-raised field’ agriculture, which used
the effective system of irrigation. This well-fed
population (there were over 50,000 agricultural

Which was the greatest?

Every civilisation on our The Tiwanaku could well be The Aqar Quf ziggurat © Alamy, Look and Learn, Creative Commons; sailko, O.Mustafin, Rais67, Claire Pouteau
list has its own merits and the ‘true’ forgotten civilisation in modern-day Iraq was
drawbacks, but the Assyrians as, out of all of our entries, built by the Hittites
were undoubtedly the most they left the least amount
successful of the civilisations of clues to their history and
included as they had the vanished under mysterious
largest empire and survived circumstances. Overall, it must
for the longest period of be said that from our list, the
time. However, where would greatest forgotten civilisation
Mediterranean trade have must be the Assyrians for their
been without the Phoenicians? ability to harness an extensive
Would Rome have still risen and populous empire and
without the Etruscans? How the fact that some of their
long would the Minoans have descendants still roam small
lasted if they weren’t damaged pockets of the Middle East in
by two natural disasters? search of a homeland.





16 The Indus Valley 42 The Nabateans

Civilisation 44 The Three Kingdoms

20 The Akkadian Empire of Korea

24 The Mauryan Empire 48 The Seleucid Empire

26 Babylon 597 BCE 50 Rise and Fall of
the Xiongnu
28 Secrets from
Ancient China 48

36 The Scythians

38 The Golden Ages
of Persia










yseTtoxhauatenum‘gedp,alldaendecopyifn,icaegtnnignjIoignryld’ainiuscgsoabnhrrfeaoirdrneyezoneut th

Indus Valley cities were laid
out in a grid, stretching from
long thoroughfares





Cloaked in mystery, the Old World’s largest civilisation pioneered
grid urban planning and sewage systems, only to disappear

completely for thousands of years, still waiting to be understood

Written by Hareth Al Bustani

In 1826, a British East India Company explorer established the first overseas trade route, across The two largest settlements, Harappa and
encountered an ancient city, hitherto known the Arabian Sea – helping its major urban Mohenjo-daro, were enormous, housing up to
only to the locals, and assumed to be around centres amass power and wealth. At its peak, the 50,000 inhabitants each. Due to Harappa’s apparent
1,500 years old. However, within 50 years, civilisation stretched across more than 500,000 pre-eminence, the Indus Valley Civilisation is often
referred to as the Harappan Civilisation. Such cities
the ruins had been stripped of their fired square miles, with 1,500 settlements clustered boasted shared principles of urban planning, with a
citadel of large public buildings, built atop a mound
bricks, which rail engineers had quarried throughout northwest India, most of Pakistan to the west, accompanied by a lower residential
town to the east. Indus cities were built in a grid,
for ballast. In the ensuing decades, and into Afghanistan. forming parallelograms, with long thoroughfares
running north to south and east to west – an urban-
archaeologists began to piece By 2600, the Valley’s larger planning first. Uniformity was widespread across
Indus settlements, down to brick sizes.
together the puzzle, unearthing settlements came to resemble
Streets were designed in accordance with wind
a lost civilisation, far larger state-level societies, with direction, guiding a breeze through the city and
ventilating fresh air into homes. Public drains ran
and older in scope than While the smaller outlying settlements through the middle of wide roads, complete with
manholes to collect and remove waste. Built around
previously imagined. The civilisation had resembling chiefdoms. central courtyards, complete with living rooms,
private mud houses also featured elaborate indoor
city robbed of its bricks a writing system, it While the vast majority bathing and toilet facilities, lined with ceramic tiles.
was Harappa, the power remains a mystery of its residents lived in Connecting to the public drains, their plumbing
capital of the Old World’s small peripheral villages, systems were not only advanced compared to their
largest civilisation, the as all attempts contemporaries, but, in many cases, superior to
Indus Valley. to decipher it the most powerful cities those found in Indian and Pakistani homes today.
have failed existed as autonomous city-
The vast civilisation states. Though surrounded by Municipalities also offered public restrooms, with
Harappa and Mohenjo-daro both housing large
began with the humblest enormous mud-brick and stone public baths many centuries before the Romans,
their central locations indicating a fixation on
of roots in around 3300 walls, conflict seemed to play, at

BCE, when villages sprouted most, a very minor role in Indus

along the flood plains of the parallel Valley culture, with few arrowheads

Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra Rivers. Drawing or spears discovered among the ruins in the

upon the region’s spectacularly rich hunting and region. On the contrary, influence seems to have

fishing grounds, the Indus soon began to amass been exuded through the force of culture, as

high yields of wheat, barley and cotton, building homogenised systems of urban planning, economy

granaries to store their sizable surplus. While and society reverberated across a region that was

previous cultures traded with Iran, Afghanistan and twice the size of its counterparts in Mesopotamia

even Turkmenistan, the Indus Valley Civilisation and Ancient Egypt.



“While villagers lived simple lives, cities were
vibrant centres of culture, trade and industry”

The cleanliness beyond simple hygiene. This implies Despite a lack of evidence,
secret script that ritual purity might have played a crucial role this rare statue found in
in the Harappan psyche, with dirt and impurity Mohenjo-daro has been
Still undeciphered, the Indus considered to be unholy – a precursor to later named the Priest King
script may just be the key to Hindu traditions.
unlocking the civilisation’s Meanwhile, potters mass-produced wares in
Power appears to have been decentralised in the circular kilns, with a stokehole and furnace placed
greatest secrets cities, shared among various groups of occupational beneath a perforated floor, covered by a dome
elites ranging from merchants and ritualists to ceiling. These were primarily designed with
The Indus Valley Civilisation developed an those in control of land and livestock. However, function in mind, with potters producing goblets,
intricate writing script, depicting hundreds uniformity across residential and burial areas cups, pans and many other utilitarian objects,
of logographic visual symbols: dots, lines, indicates that, whether one was a priest, warrior, using a base of pinkish river clay. They made use
geometric shapes, humans and animal forms. peasant, trader or artisan, there was a higher of efflorescence, a process that ensures the interior
There seem to have been between 300 and fluidity of social status that would later become core and glaze are exactly the same colour, while
700 symbols, half of which were basic, with synonymous with the varna or caste systems. Most bonding the glaze to the body. Decorated pottery
many compounds – indicating that it may have Indus were given the same funerary rites – placed featured bright-red backgrounds, with black designs
been a logosyllabic script, where each symbol in a coffin or wrapped in a shroud, and buried painted atop – depicting both geometric and
represents a syllable rather than a single letter. atop grave furniture; pottery, jewellery, ornaments naturalistic imagery, such as a fisherman carrying
Written from right to left, in rows from the top and personal artefacts, such as copper mirrors his nets and pole, with a fish and turtle by his feet.
down, the endemic script adorned seals and or mother-of-pearl shells. Although these objects
trade goods, perhaps conveying ownership certainly seem to demonstrate a belief in the While early Indus settlers made beads from
information, a protective invocation, or a afterlife, the Harrapans’ relatively small cemeteries seashells, now they had become increasingly
dedication. It was also imposed on wooden indicate that not everyone was buried; others may resourceful, crafting beads from gemstones and
signage, either for administrative purposes, to have been cremated.
identify houses or to bless travellers.
While villagers lived relatively simple lives,
Across the Indus Valley, it appears that herding animals and growing crops, major cities
the rules of language, sentence structure and were vibrant centres of culture, trade and industry.
grammar were homogenous. Though various Artisans were masters of metalwork, lapidary
attempts have been made to decipher it, in the and ceramics, producing ornaments and tools
absence of a figurative Rosetta Stone, none to use and export to distant lands. Metalsmiths
have succeeded. Compounding the problem, worked with both copper and bronze, creating
most incidences of the script are only eight casts by pouring molten metal into moulds, and
symbols long, with the longest just 17. Another adding tin or arsenic to remove bubbles. In this
difficulty is in trying to infer pictorial meaning; way, they crafted everything from arrowheads
where one scholar sees a snake, another sees a and axes to harpoons and small bottles. They
seated man. The disappearance of the language also manufactured textiles, using their natural
is perhaps even more bewildering than that of abundance of high-quality cotton.
its parent civilisation, and should the code ever
be cracked, would unshroud many a mystery.

An Indus Valley seal is adorned
with indecipherable symbols,
written from right to left

The Indus Valley’s abundance of wheat and barley
was a major step in its rapid development, leading

to the construction of granaries and grindstones


The Indus Valley Civilisation

Ox carts, with wooden wheels fixed to the
axel, are still used by Indus farmers to this day

even gold. Artisans also produced a unique,

compact, glassy faience in an assortment of colours.

They forged tools, jewellery and dice from ivory,

and tanned animal hides for leather for both

clothing and sails. Hygiene was important to Indus Valley
Though the Indus did not produce much fine residents; cities boasted public and private baths,
all connected to an intricate sewage system
art, among a series of limestone statues found at

Mohenjo-daro is a particularly curious piece. Just

over 17 centimetres high, it depicts a bearded man hips, thighs, breasts and showy hairstyles. They writing system still undeciphered, the civilisation’s
true cultural legacy remains shrouded in mystery,
wearing a robe with one shoulder exposed – a man seem to symbolise the worship of a mother patiently waiting to be discovered.

some have speculated was a Priest King. Bronze goddess, perhaps used ritualistically in conjunction Afirrntoinmsoavnsaestacisvrhaeefftloelsrd,mgaeovmfagrsilteaotsnyseyosffaabnieedandacsne,

statues were even rarer, most notably the renowned with an animist spiritual view. Cattle bones found

‘dancing girl’, portraying a woman wearing only at the fire altars of Kalibangan and Rakhigarhi

bangles on her arm and a necklace, in the throes of indicate that perhaps these were offered in sacrifice.

dance. It is particularly remarkable, not just With a lack of temples, religious ceremonies

in its form, but for its embrace of dance were most likely conducted in the open,

and sensuality. and decentralised worship practiced

Across the Indus Valley, settlements at home. It is also possible that while

traded in standardised weights the mass of culture was homogenised

– many found as far as Oman in the larger cities, even the distant

and Mesopotamia. The rural Indus may have played a

Mesopotamians also imported significant role in tweaking their

onions, cotton, hardwoods, pearls, culture and traditions.

carnelian, peacocks and monkeys, in The Indus Valley Civilisation

return exporting raw materials, copper, began to experience a rapid decline

gold, woollen items and perfumes to from 1900 BCE, with settlements

the Indus Valley. While Indus Valley becoming increasingly isolated from

traders lived in Mesopotamia, one another, forced to rely on their own

Mesopotamians did not settle the resources and local trade networks.

other way, suggesting a somewhat Uniformity slipped away from town

closed-off society. planning, craftsmanship and virtually all

Archaeologists have also other aspects of life. As the civilisation

uncovered hundreds of small went into freefall, drains fell into

soapstone seals, used to stamp disrepair, houses were built of inferior

designs and inscriptions into soft Terracotta figurines quality using salvaged bricks, and
clay – most likely used by merchants, seem to depict a mother heavy industry splintered off into little
in the same manner of a signet ring. goddess with exaggerated workshops. In Mohenjo-daro, as the
The most widespread iconography living took to burying their valuables,
features of femininity

is that of a unicorn, resembling a cross between the dead were given unceremonious send-

a humpless bull and an antelope, with long legs offs in derelict houses and streets. © Getty Images

and exaggerated genitals. Another depicts what Over the next 500 years, the

may be a male deity, often referred to as Shiva settlements withered and disappeared,

Pashupati, Lord of the Beasts. Wearing a headdress with a gradual exodus to new

of buffalo horns with a pipal tree growing from settlements in nearby Gujarat, the

it – the same tree Buddha was said to have Kachi Plain and east Punjab. Here,

achieved enlightenment under – he sits in the lotus despite slipping into obscurity, Indus

position, symbolising meditation and introspection, Valley bead making, metallurgy,

sometimes appearing with three faces, surrounded ceramic production, glazed faience

by animals, forming a mandala. Other seals feature and architecture were all kept alive.

bulls, baboons, elephants, rhinos, tigers and other After a long hiatus, traditional traders

animals that were native to the region, often have re-embraced the Harrapan

depicted as males. standardised use of weights, and Indus

Terracotta figurines, meanwhile, depict women, farmers still use the same wooden-wheeled

with special attention drawn to their prominent ox carts to this day. However, with the Indus

After a long day’s work in the
fields, or at the kiln, Harappans

enjoyed playing board games




Discover the spectacular rise and rapid
fall of the world’s first empire

Written by Scott Reeves

When the 5,000-strong army of foundation of a personal army, eventually allowing
Sargon of Akkad managed to him to seize the throne in 2334 BCE.
conquer the Sumerian city of
Uruk – once the biggest in the Sargon was ruler of one of several kingdoms
throughout Mesopotamia, but he had higher

world, with a population ten ambitions. Aside from conquering his Sumerian

times larger than the army that faced rival to the south, he embarked on a series

it – it was a milestone moment in of invasions of nearby territory, seizing

world history. The balance of land and amalgamating it into

power between the kingdoms an empire that he ruled from

of Akkad and Sumer had his capital, Akkad. His armies

shifted, allowing Sargon to Sargon ventured westwards into

capture 34 more Sumerian manipulated Syria and Canaan, reaching

cities and his Sumerian religious affairs the Mediterranean Sea and

fellow monarch, Lugal- by appointing his perhaps even stretching
Zage-Si. In conquering daughter high across the water to Cyprus.
his neighbour to create a priestess of To the east, the Elamite cities
multi-ethnic territory ruled Inanna at Ur and kingdoms of modern Iran
by a central government, came under Akkadian control.

Sargon had created the To the north, Sargon claimed

world’s first empire in what is land as far as the mountains of

mostly modern-day Iraq. Anatolia (modern Turkey), while to

Sargon the Great’s rise to power the south his influence reached to Magan

was spectacular. Originally a cupbearer to the (modern Oman).

king of Kish, he was subsequently appointed to However, the outposts of the Akkadian Empire

the position of gardener, which gave him the vital did not always accept Sargon’s rule without

responsibility of clearing the irrigation canals question. Rebellions flared in Elam and Assyria,

that allowed enough food to be grown in the hot but the imperial armies ruthlessly quashed any

Mesopotamian climate. This gave Sargon access opposition and installed loyal Akkadian governors

to a disciplined corps of workers who became the to control those they vanquished.


The Akkadian Empire

The Akkadian Empire
ruthlessly subdued all
opposition in Mesopotamia,
but also tried to assimilate

those it conquered

“The imperial armies ruthlessly
quashed any opposition and installed

loyal Akkadian governors”



That Sargon was able to build and maintain The battleground of empires
a grip on such a vast domain was undoubtedly
helped by his longevity – he sat on the throne for Uncover Mesopotamia, the land that was fought
56 years – but the empire continued to grow under over by a succession of ancient empires
his successors. Some degree of instability was
inevitable after the death of a king who had ruled Conflict in Iraq is, unfortunately, nothing new. Perhaps the most famous Mesopotamian
so successfully for so long, but two of Sargon’s sons, The brief flourishing of the Akkadian Empire in ruler, Hammurabi of Babylon controlled the
Rimush and Manishtushu, faced down further Mesopotamia was followed by a Dark Age under region 500 years after the Akkadian Empire
revolts and rebellions. Indeed, both Rimush and the Gutians, with few written documents to shine
Manishtushu actually suffered more from internal a light on the era. However, the peoples of the
threats than from the wider empire – both were former Akkadian Empire eventually coalesced into
assassinated by courtiers in palace conspiracies. two long-lived nations: Assyria in the north and
Babylonia in the south.
By the time Naram-Sin, Manishtushu’s son and
successor, acceded the throne in 2254 BCE, the Babylon fell in 539 BCE, when it was conquered
Akkadian Empire was ready to resume a policy by the Achaemenid Empire – the first of the Persian
of conquest. The Syrian kingdoms of Ebla and incursions from the east. The next set of invaders
Armanum fell to the new king, while his forces came from the west in the form of Alexander the
ventured further into Anatolia and battled the Great in 332 BCE, after whose death Mesopotamia
Hittites. Naram-Sin’s 36 years on the throne saw the became part of the Greek Seleucid Empire.
empire reach its greatest extent and coincided with
a second golden age of conquest. By 150 BCE, the pendulum had swung back to
the east as Mesopotamia came under the control of
Yet the Akkadian Empire was more than just the Parthian Empire. The fertile land between the
a powerful military force – it had a sophisticated Euphrates and Tigris Rivers was a scene of conflict
economy, although it was almost entirely between Romans and Parthians for centuries,
dependent upon agriculture. Two belts of fertile eventually being split between Roman Byzantines
land made it the breadbasket of the region; one in in the west and Sassanid Persians in the east until
northern Mesopotamia that was fed by rainfall, the Muslim conquest of the Levant in the first half
and one in the south that relied upon irrigation of the 7th century. Barring Mongol invasions, the
canals to remain productive. Grain and oil rations battleground of empires was finally at peace until
were controlled by the state and distributed in the 20th century.

Cylinder seals, such as this one
depicting a seated god of water and
wisdom, were used to seal letters
in the Akkadian postal system


The Akkadian Empire

standardised vessels. Where of a god and granted his own was won by Dudu, who was succeeded by his
son, Shu-Turul. However, neither king was able to
shortages occurred in one area, temple establishment. The prevent the eventual loss of Akkad to the Guti.

another would be able to make deification of a ruler was One explanation for the sudden collapse of the
once-great empire was that it relied on personal
up the shortfall. not new – it had happened leadership. Sargon and Naram-Sin may have had
the capability of building and holding onto vast
Taxes could be paid either in to Gilgamesh, who had territories, but the other kings who sat on the
throne did not have the same aptitude. However,
produce or in kind by labouring ruled as king of Urk a few some scientists have suggested an alternative
explanation – that the final years of the Akkadian
on public projects, such as centuries previously – but it period coincided with a long drought caused by
declining rainfall.
building city walls and temples or was the first time a king was
Archaeological evidence indicates that several
carrying out the vital autumnal considered a god during his cities in Sumer were abandoned in the late
Akkadian period. Excavations at Tell Leilan in Syria
clearance of irrigation ditches. lifetime. However, an ancient show that massive city walls and a temple were
built when times were good, but that soon after
Nomadic farmers could graze sheep text called the Curse of Agade all trace of human activity in the city of 28,000
people disappeared. Soil samples indicate that the
and goats near the canals but had tells of a king, thought to be fine sand covered the ground with no trace of the
earthworm activity usually found in fertile soil. At a
to pay a levy in wool, meat, milk Naram-Sin, who angered the similar time, the nearby city of Tell Brak shrank in
size by 75 per cent.
and cheese. gods through his deification and
If a similar story played out across Mesopotamia,
Although the Akkadian Empire by tearing down the Temple of the economy of the Akkadian Empire would
have gone into freefall. Agrarian output would
generally benefited from a surplus Enlil in Nippur. have plummeted and trade would have collapsed
as people moved away from urban areas in a
of foodstuffs, it was short of other Whether or not there was desperate search for reliable water. Centralised
control of a vast empire became impossible and
resources, particularly metal, timber any divine retribution involved, loyalty to Akkad would have evaporated as quickly
as the water.
and stone. A desire to secure reliable the Akkadian Empire collapsed
Whatever the cause of its spectacular collapse,
supplies of these in part contributed spectacularly just 64 years the Akkadian Empire remains the world’s first; a
brief but historic milestone. It makes Sargon the
to Akkadian conquests. The Taurus after Naram-Sin’s death. Naram- forebear of later illustrious emperors including
Augustus and Genghis Khan – not a bad
Mountains of Anatolia provided silver, Sin’s son, Shar-Kali-Sharri, faced achievement for a former royal cupbearer.

while copper ore could be found in increasing raids from the Guti in An inscription at
the base of the
Magan, lapis lazuli in Afghanistan and Sumeria. These nomadic people
Bassetki Statue,
timber in Lebanon. lived in the Zagros Mountains and unearthed in the
1960s, indicates
In order to secure their family’s This life-size bronze head proved stubbornly determined to that it once stood
place on the throne, the Akkadian housed in the National carry out hit-and-run raids against
monarchs made full use of their Museum of Iraq is Akkadian targets. Faced with a in a doorway of
wider family as a strategic network of thought to depict either new type of enemy who did not Naram-Sin’s palace
Sargon or Naram-Sin
control. They installed their sons as have a city-state base that could

provincial governors and married their daughters fall to the Akkadian army, the Guti slowly crippled

to other rulers of imperial territory. Two daughters the Akkadian economy. High taxes were imposed

of Sargon and Naram-Sin were also appointed as to pay for ongoing military campaigns against the

high priestesses to Sin, meaning that their family’s Guti, leading to unrest and rebellion in the rest of

power would be felt as far south as the influential the empire.

Sumerian temple complex of Ur. By the time Shar-Kali-Sharri died without an

The Akkadians also attempted to assimilate heir, the Akkadian Empire had fallen back to

their conquests to create a single, consolidated a rump around the capital and three years of

nation. Akkadian became the primary language anarchy left the throne unclaimed. The civil war

of Mesopotamia, although many of its people

were bilingual and continued to speak Sumerian.

Communication across the empire was possible

through a road network that also supported a

postal service. Clay tablets inscribed with Akkadian

script were wrapped in outer clay envelopes

marked with the name and address of the recipient

and the seal of the sender; only the intended

recipient was supposed to break the envelope

to reveal the contents. A calendar based on year

names, where each year of a reign was named

after an event performed by the king, was adopted

across Mesopotamia.

What we don’t know a great deal about, however,

is the capital itself. The location of Akkad is still

shrouded in mystery. The name ‘Akkad’ does not

derive from the Akkadian language, suggesting that

the city existed prior to Sargon and the rise of his

empire. The most likely site is on the Tigris River,

somewhere between the modern cities of Samarra

and Baghdad – however, that still leaves more than

80 miles to explore. © Alamy, Getty Images

Wherever his palace was located, such was

Naram-Sin’s power as the self-titled king of the

Four Quarters that he was elevated to the status


© Alamy


An illustration of the Ishtar
Gate, which was constructed
around 575 BCE

Society Law

The social separation between slaves and The Code of Hammurabi, named
masters was integral in Babylon. The upper after its creator, the first king
class, called the awilu, were free citizens of Babylonia, details the law.
of the city, while the wardu formed the Stealing was often punishable
slave class. The mushkenu made up a by death, while a reduction to
middling group of low-class free persons slavery was very common.
who experienced modest living conditions.
Slavery was commonly used as a punishment,
meaning citizens could be sold into bondage
to atone for a crime, no matter which class
they belonged to.


While Nebuchadnezzar II ruled
his country and its capital as an
absolute monarch and dictated
most of the big decisions, from
planning construction projects to
waging wars, much of the city’s
day-to-day running was handled
by secretaries, elders and prefects.
Regional governors and de-facto
mayors were also used to handle
the business of the city and the
empire in the king’s absence.


It was believed each aspect of
life and death was protected or
antagonised by a supernatural
being. Under Nebuchadnezzar II’s
reign, hundreds of religious shrines
were constructed, dedicated to the
many Mesopotamian gods and
demigods. Principal among these
was Marduk, to whom the central
ziggurat (temple) was dedicated.


Ruins of the Ishtar Gate, 1932


597 BCE
Irrigation and agriculture
inherited from Sumerian The infamous capital of Mesopotamia’s
tradition helped Babylonian most prolific ancient empire was home to
engineers maintain reservoirs
and canals essential for law, riches and a powerful king
successful crops. The core of
the city’s economy was farm Written by Tim Williamson
produce, which was traded as far
as India. Textiles were also a key Aname synonymous with This military success brought the spoils
export of the city. wealth and decadence in of war back to the capital city of the empire,
the ancient world, for a long which thrived from the king’s ambitious
Military time Babylon was at the construction projects. During his reign,
centre of the largest empire Nebuchadnezzar II had new walls built for
Babylonia’s armies were supplemented through in the region of Mesopotamia and a jewel the city, as well as shrines, temples and an
levies, with ordinary citizens drafted in to of civilisation. Rumoured as the architect of improved network of canals to increase the
serve as archers or slingers for periods of time. the supposed Hanging Gardens, one of the productivity of the farmland.
Nebuchadnezzar II would lead his armies seven wonders of the ancient world, King
surrounded by officers in grand chariots, guards Nebuchadnezzar II ruled during the most However, this golden period in Babylon’s
on horseback and members of his court. prosperous period of Babylonia’s rich history. history would prove to be its peak and
His military conquests expanded the empire within the following centuries, the empire
Education as far as Egypt and saw him sack Jerusalem, and its main city would be invaded by
destroying the First Temple and enslaving Persian, Greek and Muslim conquerors.
While vast portions of the population were most of its population in 597 BCE. Today, in modern-day Iraq, only ruins
illiterate, the administrative arms of the courts remain of this once-glorious capital.
and the government were well-read and could
use the ancient cuneiform system of writing. As
part of his training, a scribe or secretary would
repeatedly copy out lists of words, phrases
and whole passages in both Babylonian and

Sumerian to perfect his writing.

© Alamy, Corbis




A giant tomb-mound and an army of clay soldiers protect
the body of China’s first emperor. Scholars have solved many

mysteries – but many more remain

Written by John Man


Secrets from Ancient China

March, 1974. Orchards and fields kids see it and throw stones at it. A few adults Over 2,000 years ago, this was the heartland of
near Xian, north-central China. arrive. An old woman picks up the head, takes the state known as Qin (pronounced Chin). That
In the background is a conical it home and puts it on her table. Meanwhile, the hill in the background, a giant pyramid of earth,
hill. We’re in an orchard, but the Yang brothers make other finds: bricks, bits of was the tomb of the emperor who united China’s
trees are bare and the grass is bronze and some arrowheads. warring states into a single nation. Zhao, like most
dusty. There’s a drought. Five peasants, the Yang educated people, knew all about the First Emperor,
brothers, are digging a well. They are two metres A month later, a 24-year-old archaeologist because the story of his rise was told in dramatic
down, taking turns to dig while the others haul named Zhao Kangmin, who was working in a local terms by Sima Qian, one of China’s greatest
out soil in baskets. Suddenly the one in the pit, museum, hears about the finds. He gets on his historians, who was writing a century after the
Yang Zhefa, shouts: “An earth-god!” bike, rides to the orchard and finds the Yangs, still events he describes.
busy on their well. By now there are more clay
Sticking out of the soil is a head made of bits on their heap of rubbish: legs, arms, two more Qin had been one of seven warring states, all
clay – it has two eyes, long hair tied in a bun heads. He takes charge of matters and has the with their own armies and systems of government,
and a moustache. This is bad luck, because it is finds brought to his museum in nearby Lintong. rivalling each other. But Qin had made itself
underground, where the dead live. The men toss He guesses they are important, because he knows the most powerful by becoming a military
the head aside and keep digging, but some local the historical background. dictatorship, a police state in which the ruler



The Warring States in 250 BCE Fearful of Qin, Yan’s heir apparent,
Prince Dan, planned to assassinate
Birthplace of Lord Shang, Fought off the northern ZHAO YAN the First Emperor. The plot failed, but
military theorist, who advised nomads, the Xiongnu, by replacing WEI QI reinforced the emperor’s sense of
rulers to be ruthless. He moved chariots with mounted archers. insecurity, and his imperial ambitions.
to Qin and helped it become This enabled Zhao to withstand Qin Yan was the second-last state to fall to
an efficient police state. He until weakened by a bloody defeat Qin, in 222 BCE.
surrendered to Qin in 225 in 260 BCE. Qin defeated and
BCE, after the Qin diverted the occupied it in 222 BCE. After defeat in
Yellow River and flooded the 284 BCE, it won
Wei capital Daliang. back lost land when
its great general Tian
HAN Dan had the tails of
oxen coated with
Controlled the eastern approaches QIN grease, set alight and
to Qin. Smaller and weaker than all the released to trample
other states, it could not expand. Since it CHU the enemy. Last state
blocked Qin’s access to the rich lowlands to surrender to Qin,
of eastern China, it was the first of the which it did peacefully
states to fall to Qin, in 230 BCE. in the end.

In 350-250 BCE it absorbed several weaker Dominated China’s rich
neighbours. In 230-221 BCE, its ruthless leader, Zheng, lowlands and the Yangtze
conquered Qin’s six remaining rivals, formed the heart River. Joined other states
of modern China, and named himself Qin Shi Huang Di, to attack Qi in 284 BCE,
Qin’s First August Emperor – the First Emperor. but went into swift decline
when Qin seized its capital
four years later. Birthplace of
Li Si, who became the First
Emperor’s top adviser.

“These record cruel punishments, different systems of law, money, weights, measures
including being torn apart by carriages” and even styles of clothing were standardised.

had total control. For example, as one chronicler he was master of a unified China, which gets its Dissent of any kind was crushed. According
to Sima Qian, when a scholar dared criticise the
recorded, “Anyone who failed to report criminal name from his kingdom. This was not China as it emperor for breaking with tradition, Prime Minister
Li Si pointed out that the roots of rebellion lay
activity would be chopped in two at the waist.” is today, just the central and northern bits, but ever with scholars and books: “Those who use the past
to criticise the present should be put to death!”
The system worked. By 238 BCE, Qin was a since then, the idea of unity has been at the So the royal archives “were all destroyed. How
regrettable!” – burned, said Sima Qian. This episode,
rich, self-confident kingdom under the heart of Chinese history. Zheng gave known as the Burning of the Books, is generally
accepted as true, as is another claiming that “over
control of a new 22-year-old ruler, himself a suitably grand title: Qin 460” scholars were buried
alive. But Sima Qian, writing
King Zheng. Shi Huang Di, meaning Qin (or during the next dynasty,
was keen to discredit his
Zheng was fanatical about China) First August Emperor. predecessors, and experts
question the true meaning of
security. He thought he Ancient China Non-Chinese usually call him the words widely translated
could make Qin even safer is known for being the First Emperor. as “burned” and “buried”.
by using his tough, mobile the birthplace of Anyway, countless Qin
army to extend his Confucius, the father Now he needed to weld books survived. These
control over the other six of Confucianism his conquests together record cruel punishments,
states. To ensure victory, he with a revolution in including being torn apart
government and vast by carriages and being
boiled to death. But there
turned his nation into a war philosophy building projects that would are no records of the
execution of scholars.
machine fuelled by good food control his people and keep It seems the emperor’s

supplies, ruthless tax-gatherers, enemies out. First, he ordered

military service for almost all a revolution in administration,

men, and highly trained soldiers. setting up a government of 36

We have no details of his conquests, regions, each divided into counties, and

which started in 230 BCE, but in nine years he each with both civil and military governors,

defeated all the other six kingdoms. In 221 BCE, overseeing tax collectors and judges. All the


Secrets from Ancient China

Many of the
damaged terracotta
warriors have been

The level of detail in The emperor’s
the terracotta statues’ greatest
design is astounding
Every terracotta
warrior discovered so Unification
far has a unique feature
The First Emperor is referred to as China’s First
Unifier. There have been many others since,
the latest being Mao Zedong, who created
Communist China from the ruins of war and
revolution in 1949. There have been many
periods of division and China has changed
shape often. Today’s China is 3.4 times the size
of Qin, but for 2,000 years, China has looked
back to the First Emperor as a symbol of the
ultimate ideal: unity.

Standardisation of coins,
axles, colours & weights

The Qin Empire was held together by a series
of measures that made Qin standards universal.
Black was the colour of flags and uniforms.
Every state abandoned its own coins for round
copper ones with a square hole in the middle.
Cartwheels were given a single gauge, so that
they all ran in the same ruts. Weights and
measures became uniform. Law and order was
harsh but equal.

Standardisation of writing

China had had a script for 1,500 years, but it
changed with the centuries and each state had
its own variant. Under the First Emperor, all
regional variations gave way to a single ‘seal
script’. This was perhaps his most significant
reform, because all officials could understand
his orders and each other, whatever their
dialects. Today, China’s script still binds the
nation together. Mandarin speakers may not
understand spoken Cantonese, but both
understand the same written characters.


Fast travel was vital for messengers, troops and
royal retinues, so the emperor put his labourers
to work building roads – almost 7,000km
(3,730mi) in all. All the nation’s 270 palaces
were connected. In part, this was for security.
He travelled between them in secret and
executed anyone who revealed where he was.
One of the roads ran 800 kilometres northward
across the Ordos semi-desert so that troops
and workers could get to the border – and the
Great Wall – as quickly as possible.

Great Wall of China

This was nothing like today’s Great Wall, which
dates from 1,500 years later. At the time, there
were many walls. After unification, there was
only one enemy; the nomadic ‘barbarians’ of
the northern grasslands. Fearsome mounted
archers, they often galloped south on raids. The
emperor’s huge workforce joined up many small
walls along the northern borders of Zhao and
Yan, creating a single barrier stretching across
northern China for 2,500 kilometres.



The painted warriors

The warriors today are clay-coloured, as are the
reproductions bought by tourists. That’s what seems
‘authentic’, but it’s wrong. They were originally painted
in vivid colours, which were stripped away by their
earthy blanket. In the First Emperor’s day, the
rich loved colours. because they were
expensive to make and thus symbols
of luxury. Surviving flecks of
paint reveal what the statues
were like, with pink (for faces),
red, green, brown and purple
– especially so-called ‘Chinese
purple’, made from a complex
mixture of barium, copper,
quartz and lead.

new legal system actually The imperial ‘grave goods’, like chariots, But the emperor would also need an army, and
prevented gross abuses era finally ended weapons, animals and so he commissioned something that was totally
of power. in 1912 when Sun servants, both real ones,
Yat-sen founded the killed and buried with
Peace had one startling Republic of China
result: the king’s vast after the Xinhai their lord, and models, for a
army – millions of soldiers
from all seven nations

– was no longer needed. Revolution life-like image could in some original and unique. He had his artisans, hundreds

Something had to be done magical way become ‘real’ in of them, make thousands of full-size warriors out

with them, or risk rebellion. So the spirit world. Everything was of clay, all painted in vivid colours and carrying

the soldiers were set to work on designed to remake the emperor’s real bronze weapons (which was why they had to

huge projects: over 6,000 kilometres life on Earth – government, banquets, be full size).

of paved roads, half a dozen royal palaces, entertainments, hunting, fighting. Much of this work must have been done before

military bases, and – most famously – the first The tomb itself was perhaps devoted to his death, which was the result of an unspecified

Great Wall. government. Sima Qian says it contains a model cause at the age of 50 in 210 BCE. However, for

One the First Emperor’s grandest projects was of the empire, with the rivers picked out in his burial, tens of thousands of workers rushed

his tomb, built near the ancient capital, Xian, at the flowing mercury, the night sky portrayed in the to finish the tomb and its many outlying graves.

foot of a sacred mountain, Mount Li. Records claim ceiling, and all defended by crossbows ready to The terracotta warriors were placed in three pits

that 700,000 worked on it, although 1.5 kilometres to the east of the tomb.

40,000 is a more accurate figure, and Well-armed with spears, lances, swords

they spent a year digging out a pit for the “The emperor, like his and crossbows, they were lined up on
tomb itself. Later, after his death, the tomb a tiled floor as if on a parade ground,

would be covered with the hill that is still whole society, was obsessed ready to help their lord fight off any spirit
there today – 50 metres high, 350 metres with life after death” armies coming to take over his empire.
per side; the size of the Great Pyramid, The pits, nine metres deep, were roofed
though made of earth, not stone. with wooden beams, twice as thick as

What was it all for? The answer is: telegraph poles, weighing 500 kilograms

to live forever in the spirit world. The each, over 6,000 in all. The beams were

emperor, like his whole society, was obsessed fire on intruders. It sounds unlikely, but in 1982 covered with matting, on top of which workers

with life after death. He believed the next world archaeologists probed the tomb with 560 drillings piled three metres of earth.

mirrored this one, and that a dead person needed that revealed the outlines of a building and slight Then they vanished. There were no records.

familiar objects in the grave to recreate life. The traces of mercury vapour. The truth will only be Sima Qian makes no mention of them. After a

rich and powerful needed big tombs, filled with known if and when the tomb is opened. generation or two, they were forgotten, the memory


Secrets from Ancient China


The mock-soldiers carried real weapons
made of bronze and wood by the thousands.
Swords (17 have been found) were for high-
ranking officers, while specialists used bows
and crossbows. Rank-and-file soldiers had
halberds and spears.

of them erased by the chaos and civil war that Unique
destroyed the Qin Empire. designs

So when the warriors were found in 1974, they Of the 7,000-
were a total surprise. And when archaeologists got 8,000 buried and
to work there was another surprise: not a single broken figures,
soldier was found intact. All had been shattered. about 1,000 have
Today’s display is the result of painstaking been restored,
reconstruction. So far, 1,000 have been restored, and each one is
though all their bright colours vanished into the different. They are
earth that buried them. The rest are still buried, not portraits, but
awaiting techniques that can ensure better ideals – handsome,
preservation. No one knows exactly how many well built, serene.
there are: the 7,000-8,000 is an estimate, as is the The artists just
number of 670 horses. But this is not enough for varied the details,
an army. The emperor’s real army numbered in the like eyebrows,
tens of thousands. Perhaps there are more to be beards and
discovered. After all, there have been many other moustaches.
finds over the years, including horse skeletons,
tombs of officials, other types of terracotta statues, 33
bronze birds, and two astonishing half-sized
chariots, complete with horses and drivers.

But the star turn is the army, now partly restored
from jigsaw puzzles of bits and pieces. Not a single
one in the main pit has been found complete.
All were shattered – but how? Fire was somehow
responsible, for the earth above them was baked


The elixir of life Restoration of the
terracotta warriors is
Some people taught that the body could be made currently in progress
incorruptible by death, and so become a xian, an
immortal. For centuries, Daoists experimented with elixirs
– mixtures including gold, mercury, arsenic and lead –
undeterred by the often fatal results. The First Emperor
believed in the elixir, and took seriously a charlatan
named Xu Fu, who told him it could be found in islands
off the east coast. Xu promised to find it but did nothing.
In 210 BCE, the emperor, when touring the east, found
and questioned Xu, who claimed he had been prevented
from sea travel by a large fish. The emperor, deranged by
paranoia, believed him and fired arrows into the sea to kill
the non-existent monster. He died soon afterwards.

Many terracotta
horses were also made
for the emperor’s tomb

A depiction of what is
believed to be buried
under the mound – the
transparent pyramid in
the picture representing
the earth on top of it

solid. But how did the fire start, and how could it stop them. Historian Ban Gu, writing 200 years

break every single statue? later, says the Qin generals advised: “There are

To answer, we must become detectives. It forced labourers at the Mount Li grave complex.

must have had something to do with Grant them amnesty and supply them

the rebels who rose against with arms.” This was done, which

the Qin dynasty after the temporarily blocked the rebel

First Emperor’s death army, and also stopped work

in 210 BCE, opening on the First Emperor’s

eight years of civil After the First tomb. This explains why

war before the Emperor, the Han there are three pits full of

Han Dynasty dynasty came to the soldiers – but a fourth

took over in throne, ruling on and pit is completely empty,
202 BCE. In a film off from 202 BCE awaiting more warriors,
shown to tourists in to 220 CE which never arrived.
the Terracotta Army In Lintong, rebels knew

museum, rebel soldiers about the Terracotta Army

break through doors and from the hastily recruited

torch the place. But there labourers. So in early 206 BCE,

were no doors, no mass break- with the Qin palaces ablaze, rebels

in. There is no evidence of the roof arrived at the tomb-site, eager for more

being dug up. So there was no oxygen to booty. The vast tomb itself was too much of a

sustain a fire. That’s the mystery: a fire, challenge. But they knew of the buried army, knew

but no means to keep it burning. also that it contained real weapons.

This might have happened: as There was no time to dig up the earth and

the empire fell apart, a rebel army beams. The best way in was to dig straight down.

approached the tomb, with no army to The evidence is there. In Pit No 2, a hole like a


Secrets from Ancient China

The burial site

TERRACOTTA ARMY 1. The tomb 6. Side Hall
The burial mound is some In these above-ground
3 50 to 75 metres high. buildings, family members
6 Soundings suggest that would prepare themselves
beneath it is a stepped half- for the frequent rituals of
45 pyramid up to 150 metres mourning and worship.
wide with two entrances.
2 1 Inside, presumably, is the 7. Pit of the
9 emperor’s coffin. ‘Acrobats’

10 8 2. Pit of the 12 figures, dressed in skirts.
7 Bronze Chariots 11 of them are perhaps
acrobats. One is heavily
Two half-size chariots were built, possibly a wrestler.
found in 1980. One (the
so-called High Chariot) 8. Stone
was open, the other (the armour pit
‘Comfortable Chariot’) was
enclosed, for the emperor’s Discovered in 1998, this pit
spirit. Both were crushed, contains about 120 suits
but are now restored. of limestone armour, all
broken. Limestone does
3. Servants’ not make real armour. It is
quarters too heavy and too fragile.
It was probably a symbolic
The worship of the emperor defence against evil spirits.
needed a staff of hundreds.
Here they lived, with offices 9. Menagerie Pits
and washing facilities.
Several pits that each
4. Banqueting contain the skeleton of
Room a bird or animal. They
possibly symbolise the First
It was probably used to Emperor’s hunting ground
provide meals for all the or zoo.
functionaries and to make
the food offered every day 10. Pit of the
to the emperor’s spirit. Officials

5. Resting Hall Discovered in 2000,
it contained 20 horse
This 57-by-62-metre skeletons and 12 terracotta
complex was above ground; figures. Long sleeves and
the centre for the cult writing gear make clear that
devoted to the emperor. they are officials.

small mineshaft bypasses the roof and enters happened next, we must rely on modern fire- Yet we know that fire destroyed the pit. How? © Thinkstock; Adrian Mann; John Man;Terracotta Army Museum
the pit. It’s a metre or so wide – big enough for protection engineers, like Joe Lally, an archaeologist This was a special sort of fire, like those that spread
one person at a time to enter, big enough to hand with the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of underground along seams of coal. Coal-seam fires
weapons to the surface. Land Management in Albuquerque, New Mexico. are started by bush fires or lightning and there are
In his computerised scenario, there was no exit for thousands of them around the world, burning very
Imagine the first rebel soldier breaking through, the smoke. The corridors filled with smoke in about slowly, for a very long time. There’s one under the
seeing nothing, calling for a blazing torch. Its
flickering light reveals the front lines “Then, in the chaos, town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, that has
of clay soldiers in their original painted something cut the been smouldering for half a century, and
finery, with pink faces and brightly it may go on doing so for another 250 or
coloured coats. In cavernous corridors, break-in short” so years.
the soldiers range backward into darkness
and – most importantly – all armed. For four minutes, forcing the thieves to crawl to the Imagine the scene: in the main pit,
fighting men, it’s a treasure-trove. exit, toppling more warriors and horses. They have the flames are dead, the pit dark again,
only a few precious minutes to escape, and there smoke drifting along the corridors. But
Others slither down the hole, holding is only room for one at a time up the exit shaft. the fire has found a home in the ceiling,
more torches. The intruders begin to They all made it because no charred skeletons were where the earth keeps a lid on it. Traces
weave and shove their way through, found with the smashed soldiers. of oxygen seep in, just enough to keep the
grabbing weapons, passing them back to the ceiling smouldering. Slowly, the slow fire eats away
tunnel. “There is no evidence of organised There is something odd about this fire. It takes at the beams. At some point, charred timbers fall,
destruction,” says the army’s senior archaeologist, a powerful hold, but it needs a flow of oxygen breaking a piece off a warrior or two. A section of
Yuan Zhongyi. “We found remains of warriors to keep it going. There’s not enough coming in earth follows.
which seem to have fallen in a zig-zag pattern, through the small entrance, so the flames go out. And so it goes, for years, the warriors, chariots
which suggests they were pushed over as people and crossbow-men crushed by the falling beams,
forced their way through.” the surface subsiding bit by bit, filled again by
water-borne mud, until not a trace remains of what
Then, in the chaos, something cut the break-in lies beneath, until the five Yang brothers find an
short. Fire. A torch smouldering beside a wooden earth-god while digging a well.
pillar or one of the wooden chariots. For what




© Alamy



In the ancient world, pre-Islamic
Persia was a beacon of political
centrism and cultural diversity

Written by April Madden

One night in 600 BCE, Astyages, Harpagus, to Anshan to bring his pregnant Cyrus II, better known to posterity as Cyrus the
king of Media, had a terrible dream. daughter home. Great, the founder of the Persian Empire.
He dreamt that his daughter,
Mandane, gave birth to a vine that What happened next sounds like a fairytale, Cyrus’ empire, however, began almost by
and perhaps it is, because the Greek historian accident. He took some territories by fighting
invasive forces back to the cities they’d come
overgrew his house. It spread all Herodotus related it. When Mandane’s son was from; he inherited others. By the time Cyrus had
developed a taste for conquest, he had taken
over Media; it surged into neighbouring Lydia, the born, Harpagus found a shepherd with a stillborn Sumer, Akkad and Babylonia; he swept through
Asia Minor. He was proclaimed the king of the
ancestral home of his queen, Aryenis, until it had son, swapped them over and presented Astyages four corners of the world. But, unlike other empire
builders, Cyrus didn’t demand homogenous
run rampant over all of the kingdoms with the body. Mandane returned to unity from his conquests – vassal states retained
their own cultures and cultural practices. When
of the land that is today called Anshan; the shepherd, Mitridates, Cyrus took the ancient, fabled city of Babylon, he
ensured religious freedoms for all of its culturally
Iran. It was an omen, Astyages’ raised her baby. The deception diverse peoples, meaning that the Jewish exiles
there could practice their faith openly once more.
soothsayers told him. went according to plan until
Cyrus’ fledgling Achaemenid Empire was
Mandane would bear a Persepolis, the the young Cyrus was in characterised by its embrace of diversity, and this
child who would supplant his teens, at which point was a social constant throughout the years that
followed. People in its assorted city-states adopted
their grandfather. ancient Persian the apparently genetic styles of jewellery, clothing and other fashions
from different parts of the empire; textiles and
Astyages was capital, became kingliness of his nature pottery embraced new designs from far-flung
places. Key to this was the way that the empire
perplexed. He had a UNESCO World asserted itself and brought was structured, maximising both peace and profit.
Each region was governed by a local overlord
married Mandane off to one Heritage Site him to the attention called a satrap who combined local administration
of his vassals. Cambyses, in 1979 of Astyages again. The with imperial policy. All free subjects were
first of his name, was the shepherd confessed, the boy

ruler of a small Elamite city- was packed off home where

state called Anshan. It had he immediately assumed his

once been an important place, battle-weary father’s throne and

wealthy and cultured, a prize that the Harpagus’ own son was killed and

old empires had fought over. But that was served up to him on a plate in retribution.

long ago. Whatever sons Mandane bore Herodotus was never one to let the facts get in

to the upstart little monarchy that now ruled it, the way of a good yarn, and his version of events,

the scions of these backwater client-kings could with all the conventions of Greek myth, owes

never rise to challenge mighty Astyages. Still, more to legend than it does to fact. Nevertheless,

better safe than sorry. He sent one of his generals, the people in the tale are real enough, particularly


The Golden Ages of Persia

Today Persepolis
lies in ruins, but it
was once the capital
of one of the world’s

greatest empires



Achaemenid Persia was famous for its artisans, who
produced work like these stunning gold drinking
vessels, now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art

throne. Under Darius the Great, the Persian receive a percentage of all ‘temple

Empire blossomed like never before. Where taxes’ – a compulsory fee of ten

Cyrus had laid foundations, he built walls. per cent of their total income that

He organised the provinces and the satrapy, he all citizens had to pay to their

introduced uniform coinage and standardised nearest Zoroastrian temple. In an empire replete

weights and measures throughout with artisans – predominantly metalworkers,

the empire, he made Aramaic weavers, potters and stonemasons –

its official language, he who made beautiful, expensive

Ancient Persian fashion drew widely from the constructed roads. The The first things from its rich resources
clothing styles of a diverse empire. Wealthier empire that had always Persian Empire, this was lucrative indeed, but
classes favoured flowing robes while active embraced diversity now the fee was even payable
people like soldiers preferred practical trousers found it even quicker and by subsistence farmers

considered equal under the law no matter what easier to trade goods, money founded by Cyrus who grew the grains, fruit

ethnic group they came from, and though there and ideas. He founded its the Great, is and vegetables that

was a state religion, local faiths, customs, laws and great ceremonial capital, also known as fed the majority of the
trade agreements were left in place. Women worked Persepolis, a city of 100 the Achaemenid empire, although the old-
and held supervisory positions in many professions pillars and 40 minarets, fashioned nomadic tribes
and trades, a convention in some parts of the although much of the real Empire who raised cattle, goats and

empire that was adopted by others. Meanwhile, governance of the empire sheep often moved too quickly

the empire kept the peace, collected taxes and actually happened in ancient, to be subject to it. And when

undertook public works through its satrapy well-established local capitals like Artaxerxes III took Egypt in 343

network, administered from the new capital of Babylon, Ecbatana and Susa. But Darius

Pasargadae that Cyrus had founded. It ruled over a also made poor decisions. After spectacular defeats The tomb of Cyrus the Great.
cultural melting pot, a sprawling, well-managed and by Greece at the Battles of Marathon in 490 BCE Alexander the Great paid his
wealthy empire that at its height claimed dominion and Thermopylae in 480 BCE, Persia was left on respects to the founder
over 44 per cent of the world’s population – the something of a back footing in the new Hellenic of the Achaemenid
largest relative rulership of a population of any world order. Empire when he
empire in history. conquered
By the 45-year reign of Artaxerxes II, Persia

It wasn’t to last. When Cyrus’ tyrannical, tax- the Achaemenid Empire’s longest-serving

hungry son Cambyses II conducted ill-advised ruler, Persia was reasserting its primacy.

forays into Egypt, the state priesthood inserted a Artaxerxes restored many of the earlier

usurper into his place, claiming he was Cambyses’ empire’s now fading architectural glories,

brother. The dissatisfied population didn’t care that and he presided over a new age in its

their new king was a puppet for the Zoroastrian state religion. The Zoroastrians, once

theocracy; they embraced him – for about seven persecuted for the part they played in the

months, until another true Achaemenid took the unsuccessful coup against Cambyses II,

now found their way back

This 15th-century historical into the centre of political
Greaitl’lsucmoninqauteiosnt osfhtohwesPAerlesixaannEdemrptihree power, largely thanks to
an innovation adopted

from Babylon that saw

the king’s treasury

AstytoagkeipsllaotifhnMetinyegoduibanyogJreCdayenrrsu-CshhiisanrglteehsniseNr1ia8cltahHis-aecrePpneatrgururinys The Golden Ages of Persia

Following a wise god

Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that
pits itself against evil and chaos

One of the oldest practiced religions in the world, In contemporary practice, Zoroastrianism is an
open-minded and sometimes syncretic religion
Zoroastrianism is a faith that is still followed today. that’s focused on the act of doing good. It has
adopted localised influences from the territories it
Based on the ancient teachings of the prophet found itself in during the golden ages of the Persian
Empire, which saw it travel as far as parts of India.
Zoroaster, it’s a monotheistic faith that worships Suppressed during the Arab conquest of Persia, it
was Zoroastrianism’s continual practice in outlying
Ahura Mazda, or ‘wise lord’. The god was initially territories that kept its flame alive: an important
idea in the faith, which treats fire and water as
invoked and worshipped alone; during the reign of elements of ritual purification. In the ancient world,
practitioners of Zoroastrianism were called ‘magi’,
Artaxerxes II, he began to be invoked as part of a from which our word ‘magic’ derives.

trinity with Mithra, a god of truth, justice and oath The Zoroastrian fire temple in Yazd,
Iran. It’s thought that there are between
keeping, and Anahita, a fertility goddess of water
124,000 and 190,000 Zoroastrians
and wisdom. The religion’s teachings concentrate practicing worldwide today

on the eternal struggle between good and evil, Darius depicted on the Greek Darius Vase,
dated to 340-320 BCE. It’s possible that
BCE, the incalculably valuable resources, money in which the latter will eventually be vanquished. the vase represents scenes from a now-lost
and learning of one of the ancient world’s most Many of its philosophical and cosmological ideas historical play popular in Greece at the time
advanced nations enriched Persia’s all-embracing have influenced other world religions, notably the
melting pot still further. concept of a holy trinity, judgement in the afterlife,
and the idea of heaven and hell.
But the old enemy, Greece, hadn’t forgotten

Persia, and once it had united under the banner

of Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the

Great), it toppled the Achaemenid Empire once

and for all. Alexander paid his respects at Cyrus

the Great’s tomb and was disturbed to find it

looted by thieves. He questioned the Zoroastrian

priesthood, ostensibly about what he viewed as

the blasphemous desecration of the tomb (Cyrus

was a hero of his) but he was in fact suspicious of

their influence on his new conquest’s politics and

society. Alexander went on to adopt much of the

Achaemenid Empire’s approach to civil service

and multiculturalism to manage his own vast

conquests, but upon his early death Persia became

just another broken remnant of the once-unified

Alexandrian Empire that had been inspired by it.

Under the rule of the ethnically, culturally

Grecian Seleucid Empire, it was just another territories nearby, a political decision that had very

little bit of Macedonian Hellas cast adrift, until little to do with whatever faith the multicultural

the Persians seized back control in 247 BCE. The Persian citizenry practiced behind closed doors.

newly arisen Parthian Empire maintained Secular Persia was still tolerant of a variety

Greek customs at court for perhaps 50 of religions, particularly Judaism,

years before giving in to a popular but under the new, codified

movement sweeping through the structures of state-sponsored

territory: the Persian revival. By Zoroastrianism, heresy,

the time the Parthian dynasty apostasy and the practice of

had fallen in mysterious Christianity were harshly

circumstances to be replaced punished crimes. In

by the Sasanian Empire, actual fact, the Zoroastrian

many aspects of Hellenic priesthood was worried © Getty Images, Creative Commons; Carlo Raso, Marie-Lan Nguyen , Makthorpe

culture had been replaced about the wrong faith:

by their Persian forebears. their theocratic grasp on

But where the Achaemenid the empire was eventually

Empire embraced diversity, A coin depicting Artaxerxes II, the longest- toppled in the 7th century
the Sasanian reigning monarch of the Achaemenid by Islam, the new religion
embraced religious Empire, who ruled for 45 years of the Arab skirmishers who

fundamentalism. had been harrying the Sasanian borders.

Zoroastrianism’s star rose The conquerors adopted the Babylonian concept

once more. of the temple tax, now renamed ‘jizya’, and used

This was in part it to extort their formerly diverse subjects into

a reaction to the adopting the culturally homogenous society of the

Christianisation caliphate states. The glory days of multicultural

of the Roman Persia were no more.




© Creative Commons; Susanahajer



As China crumbled into a series of petty kingdoms, three
powers emerged across the Korean Peninsula, ready to

overthrow the imperial yoke and seize power for themselves

Written by Hareth Al Bustani

In 108 BCE, the Chinese Han dynasty wiped pre-eminent cultural and political power. One by Central Asian Turks, a perennial thorn in the Sui’s
out the Gojoseon kingdom, the first Korean one, it conquered its neighbours; from the polities side. The Sui amassed an army of 300,000 men,
state, based in the north of the peninsula. of Ye and Okjeo to the Han Chinese prefecture of launching four successive campaigns, only to be
However, strong local resistance soon forced Xientu, all the way south to the central peninsula. utterly defeated every time – ushering in their
own demise.
the Chinese to withdraw from three of their Meanwhile, in 18 BCE, another supposed Buyeo
From its capital in Pyongyang, the Goguryeo
four commanderies. The fourth, in the prince led a group of settlers to the southwest of kingdom acted as a conduit for Chinese culture,
learning from the region’s established military
far northwest, with its capital at the Korean Peninsula, creating the Baekje and cultural powerhouse. Eager to elevate their
education and cultural institutions, the Goguryeo
Pyongyang, was a powerful dynasty, centred around the fertile established the first National Confucian Academy
in 372 CE. Though a shamanistic society, when the
outpost, facilitating the spread Han River near modern-day Seoul. Buddhist monk Sundo arrived that same year, the
king was suitably impressed, making it the official
of Chinese culture into the The Just one of 50 such polities in state religion. Through these twin schools, the
peninsula. In 313 CE, it was kingdoms the confederacy of Mahan, rulership sought to spread shared customs across
captured by an upstart of Korea were in the Baekje conquered and its growing territory, and unify its various sources
kingdom, called the constant rivalry with annexed their neighbours, of power. While the Baekje adopted Buddhism just
Goguryeo – one of three each other, with many before attacking and over a decade later, the Silla would not do so until
Korean powers to thrive alliances being destroying the Chinese the 6th century. In each society, Buddhism would
in the vacuum left behind commandery of Daifang. have a profoundly modernising effect, encouraging
and facilitating the advancement of education, art
by the Gojoseon, alongside forged and To the east, the Silla and culture.

the Baekje in the southwest, broken emerged from a small walled The Baekje enjoyed trade with the Chinese
Wu dynasty, specifically requesting copies of the
and the Silla in the southeast. town in the modern coastal Chinese classics, while simultaneously initiating
a cultural exchange with their allies, the Japanese
Having overturned the old North Gyeongsang Province in 57 kingdom of Yamato. They shipped over artists,
musicians, physicians, scholars, monks, artisans
order, in the ensuing centuries BCE. Uniting 12 chiefdoms from

the three would wage war on each across the southeast, the Silla then went

other until one emerged supreme. on to absorb their weaker neighbours. When the

According to the 11th-century history of Korea, Gojoseon kingdom fell, an exodus of refugees

the Goguryeo was founded by a prince of the flooded into Silla, bringing its iron culture and

former Manchurian kingdom of Buyeo in 37 BCE. boosting the state’s growth.

Bringing together five tribes in the middle reaches Of the three, the Goguryeo were the most

of the Yalu River in southern Manchuria, the aggressive. When the Sui dynasty came to power in

Goguryeo fast grew into the Korean Peninsula’s China, the Goguryeo offered their allegiance to the


“When the Gojoseon kingdom fell, an
exodus of refugees flooded into Silla,

boosting the state’s growth”


the Pensive

Trading with the Chinese Wu
dynasty gave the Baekje access
to Chinese literature, scholars,

artisans and monks, fuelling
rapid cultural development



and architects, playing a crucial role in the spread The kolp’um, or ‘bone-rank’, system, meanwhile,

of continental culture. While this East Asian trade divided the ruling class into five strata, followed

The Goguryeo route transformed the Baekje into one of the pre- by commoners. Each specific caste had its own
eminent Korean kingdoms, with tentacles as far hereditary socio-economic role to play in the
While all three kingdoms
had curious burial practices, as Shandong across the Yellow Sea in China, the service of the state and community. This pre-
Goguryeo royals and nobles
nature of the state – with a foreign ruling class determination governed every aspect of daily life,
began their journeys into
the afterlife in the most dominating the local masses – proved tenuous. down to the use of utensils. Such social rigidity
spectacular fashion of all
After the Goguryeo finished subduing the northern neutered the forces of ambition and factionalism,
Though some 10,000 Goguryeo tombs have
been discovered across North Korea and China, nomadic tribes, they attacked the Baekje, forcing proving a powerful tool for incorporating new
100 stand out from the crowd. Adorned with
intricate murals, they are not only some of them to move their capital city southwards twice, chiefdoms, while maintaining national unity.
the few extant samples of Goguryeo tangible
heritage, but among the most fascinating from landing at Sabi, or modern Buyeo, where By the 6th century, the Silla had
across the Three Kingdoms.
the kingdom began to truly thrive. already begun building warships,
While most Goguryeo burial chambers
were built of stone and covered with soil, they Meanwhile, the conservative and boosting agricultural output
ranged from single chambers to elaborate
multi-chambered tombs, utilising advanced Silla had a much slower start with the development of ox
engineering to support heavy ceilings. One,
for example, features an entrance room, an than its neighbours – at While there ploughs. However, the advent
antechamber with two side chambers and then times, even weaker than were three of Buddhism, which had
a main chamber at the rear, all connected by the confederacy of Gaya, kingdoms, there long taken root among their
corridors – a veritable underground palace, nestled between them was also a small peasant populace, heralded
designed for a dead couple. and the Baekje. However,

Inside such tombs, walls were adorned with in the absence of haste, confederation called The spread of
remarkable murals, depicting the deceased, they built their kingdom Gaya in the south of Buddhism was
their loved ones, their accomplishments, their on a solid foundation. Silla accompanied by a spate
nature, their clothing, their food, their passions was centred around an the peninsula of great works, such as
and their fates. Moments from their lives indigenous semi-democratic the Baekje’s remarkable
were captured, with colourful snapshots of institution, the council of wooden pagoda at
hunting expeditions, wrestling bouts, battles, Mireuksa Temple
their staff and their homes. Inside the main
chamber, each wall was adorned with one of hwabaek – a court of aristocrats
the four Goguryeo deities – the Azure Dragon
of the East, the White Tiger of the West, the descended from six communal chiefs,
Vermillion Phoenix of the South, and the
Tortoise and Snake of the North. Ceilings would headed by a sacred leader. The hwabaek allowed
be decorated with celestial and natural imagery,
complete with flying fish, birds, three-legged the Silla to table national issues for debate and
crows, toads and anthropomorphic cows.
reach a compromise all leaders agreed on – a

process augmented by the hwarang education

system, which trained young aristocrats to become

the leaders and generals of tomorrow.

In the ensuing two centuries, the spirit of

hwarangdo instilled the Silla with a strict warrior

code, whereby death in battle was preferable to the

shame of retreat. One story tells of a general who,

on the verge of losing his fortress, made a desperate

suicidal charge towards the Baekje, only to hit a

pagoda tree and die.

The Baekje settled in the fertile southwest
reaches of the Korean Peninsula, uniting the
local polities and pushing out the Chinese

The Goguryeo tomb mural paintings This gilt-bronze incense burner is a remarkable
offer a glimpse into the culture, clothing, example of Baekje craftsmanship, boasting many

lifestyles and spirituality of its elites layers of Buddhist and Taoist symbolism


The Three Kingdoms of Korea

The Baekje sent numerous monks
to Yamato Japan, playing a crucial

role in the spread of Buddhism

The Baekje were the last of the
Three Kingdoms to form, and

the first to be wiped out

a time of great reform as the Silla cast off old ally, seizing the Han River Valley in the heart of the peninsula, the two powers turned on each other. A
‘barbaric’ traditions, such as burying children alive
alongside dead kings. The grand chieftain changed peninsula. The Baekje king was so infuriated that unanimous Silla victory in 676 finally handed them

his title to the Chinese ideogram ‘wang’, or he launched a frenzied attack – only to be cut down control of the southern two-thirds of the peninsula.
‘king’, and formally named his kingdom Silla – a
Chinese proverb meaning ‘the newer the virtue, and defeated. With the Gaya out of the picture, For more than three centuries, the Silla ruled in
the broader the rule’.
They also began making paper and developed the remaining three kingdoms locked horns in peace and prosperity, continuing to adopt Chinese
an intricate knowledge of astronomy, building
Cheomseongdae, the world’s oldest surviving an existentialist war for supremacy, each customs, legal institutions and administrative
observatory. Around this time, the Three Kingdoms
adopted Chinese metallurgy and ceramics methods. desperately attempting to curry favour models – fashioning a Chinese-style
The Baekje produced high-quality steel weapons
and tools with heating and water-quenching, with China. state with the help of the Tang,
utilising an advanced bellows system, and
Of the three, the Silla were the while protecting their indigenous
replacing casting with forging. Meanwhile, the
quality of Silla ornamental craftsmanship most adept diplomats, allying culture. Silla monks, scholars
earned it the moniker ‘the Country of Gold’.
One bronze bowl, created in celebration of with the resurgent Tang and merchants travelled to
the Goguryeo king, Gwanggaeto the Great,
was discovered in a Silla tomb 100 years dynasty in 648. Having China and India, making
after its production, highlighting the flow
of culture and goods between the rival defeated the Western Turks their mark on the world and
powers. The former low-fired, plain and
coarse style of pottery was also replaced by in 657, the Tang threw learning from it. However,
dojil stoneware, high-fired, wheel-thrown
and greyish-blue. their weight behind the in the 10th century,
While the Goguryeo loved song and
Silla – simultaneously intellectuals began to grow
dance, the Baekje were fond of archery and
letter-writing. All three kingdoms celebrated attacking the troublesome resentful of the hereditary
their new faith by commissioning grand buildings
and artworks, infusing Chinese inspiration with Goguryeo, and helping to These earrings from the Silla bias of the bone-rank system.
indigenous flair; from the towering pagodas overcome the Baekje and their kingdom show the high level of Joining with regional magnates,
of Mireuksa Temple to Pensive Bodhisattva, a Yamato allies in 660. Thousands craftsmanship in the kingdom they rebelled, throwing the
remarkable gilt-bronze statue almost one metre
in height. of Baekje nobles, priests, scholars, country into civil war, and tearing
Though the Silla had previously been
a vassal under the protection of the craftsmen and refugees fled to Japan, it into three once again: Later Silla,
Goguryeo, when a succession crisis hit their
rather than live beneath the Silla yoke. Eight Later Goguryeo and Later Baekje. Through a © Alamy, Getty Images
northern overlords, they struck while the
iron was hot, declaring independence. years later, after some back and forth, the Silla combination of deft military ability and diplomatic
In 532, they teamed up with the
Baekje to subjugate the Gaya, and Tang surrounded Pyongyang, killing scores of clout, a Later Goguryeo magnate-general emerged
and just two decades later
would betray their erstwhile generals and capturing the king. After 70 years of supreme, creating the Goryeo

constant war, the Goguryeo were finally spent, with dynasty, from which modern

8,000 survivors fleeing to Mount Dongmo, to form Korea takes its name.

the Manchurian-Korean state of Parhae, ruled over

by former Goguryeo aristocrats.

When it became apparent the Tang had

merely used the Silla to pave the way

for their own conquest of the

Donggung Palace
was built by Munmu,
the first king of
Unified Silla, in 674
CE, complete with
artificial pond


apatwotncthesaoaerWtsmvsohbmteguhupuhrprgemttiamisehntrnodhesouAttueuttecaltshyoethdthlaxuytwieotmhtaeocefRwenapotrSiodrheorofevmeemuHsulereelaMledduttunGrihlcmiluatsdaeruipc-esidaGsnelteetbl.tere26ksIyhetl5E3iaynahnw0antiBidcssB’adysCettsgie.fvHseEeteTaoar.henarrhstelsiteutleteeoarbneSdannre,meliyIdbsgcrl,p,eyiaccsnBiunuournaec,lmcitbinhwudyegrsaletoosonf ia

© Alamy




When a confederation of nomadic peoples were brought
together, they proved strength in numbers could pave the way

for a truly dominant empire

Written by David Crookes

Occupying a region spanning the Mongolian nomads – slowly but surely unified Maodun brought order to the Xiongnu peoples,
Eastern Asian Steppe (comprised the various tribes. In doing so, he showed great but it remained a curious and wholly admirable
of modern-day Mongolia, parts of determination, cunning and ruthlessness, not least ancient civilisation in which women were not only
northern China and ancient central because Touman had previously sought to treated the same as men, but stood with them
as warriors. They were also in a position of some
Asia), groups of nomadic tribesmen overlook him as heir apparent, and promptly sent considerable strength, which, given the threats to
them, was entirely understandable. They could
would spend much of their lives seeking him as a hostage to a neighbouring tribe called amass 300,000 archers on horseback, which
proved vital in reclaiming lost lands.
water and pasture, leading horses, the Yuezhi.
They also came to be a structured, hierarchal
cows and sheep from one place The idea was that Touman’s people. Maodun created three tiers, placing the
nomadic supreme rulers (or Chanyu) at the top of
to another while learning to warriors would attack the Yuezhi the tree, and putting imperial governors and local
tribal leaders below them. Interestingly, the Chanyu
hunt, ride and produce their in the hope that Maodun’s were not surrounded by pomp and ceremony, and
their role was primarily to collect and distribute
daily essentials. captors would retaliate and booty among tribes. What’s more, according to
Sima Qian, the Chinese historian of the early Han
More than that, The nomadic slaughter him. Instead, dynasty who was born some 100 years later, age
played a large part in the civilisation’s structure –
however, they also proved Xiongnu managed Maodun escaped by stealing and experience didn’t count for much.
themselves to be rather to dominate much of a horse, prompting Touman
fierce warriors, picking Central Asia for more to reward such bravery by Young men, he said, would eat the richest and
up a strong – and lethal – best food, and be feted for their strength and youth,
feel for a bow and arrow than 500 years making him commander of while those older would consume the leftovers
10,000 horsemen. since advanced age and weakness were qualities
to be despised. Sima Qian revealed how everyone
from a very young age, and As it turned out, that was would eat the meat of domestic animals, however,
and wear felt and fur wraps and hides, yet poor
proving more than adept a bad move on Touman’s part. land meant they could not engage in agriculture so

at using a spear or sword at Maodun’s warriors became very

close range. This stood them in loyal, and after testing them by

good stead during battles against their ordering the shooting of his favourite

neighbours on China’s northern frontier as horse and the execution of his favourite wife, he

they sought grain, metal and silk during terrifying then got them to fire their arrows at his father.

raids. By the 3rd century BCE, however, these Those who subsequently failed to support him

separate far-flung groups began to form a dominant were also killed, but when the Qin dynasty looked

tribal confederation. to evict the Xiongnu from their pastures on the

Such a move began in 209 BCE when Maodun Yellow River in 215 BCE, the confederacy grew ever

– son of Touman, the supratribal leader of the stronger. An empire was forming.


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