History Files


Middle East Kingdoms

Ancient Persia and the East




Massagetae / Massagetes

The River Syr Darya flows into the Aral Sea from the Tian Shan Mountains (a western part of the Himalayan mountain chain). Its name in the Persian-dominated second half of the first millennium BC was Yakhsha Arta, which referenced its 'great pearly' waters. The Greeks transcribed this as Axartes, or Yaxartes. Today the river flows through Kazakhstan, to the north of the border of Uzbekistan.

North and east of the river, the tribe of the Massagetae was one of many tribal groups in the region. Assumed to be an Iranian people, they were thought by the ancients to be related to the Scythian peoples who also occupied the territory between the Aral and Caspian Seas. They are known mainly due to the writings of Herodotus, who described them as living off their herds and a plentiful supply of fish from the Yaxartes. They were neighboured by the Aspisi to the north, Scythians and the Dahae to the west, and the Wusun to the east. Khorasan (Sogdia) lay to the south.

c.546 - 540 BC

At some point in his eastern campaigns, it seems that Persian king, Cyrus the Great, adds the eastern regions of Arachosia, Bactria, Drangiana, Khorasan, and Margiana to the empire, although records for these campaigns are characteristically sparse.

The River Syr Darya
The 'pearly waters' of the River Syr Darya which empties into the Aral Sea, and which in the sixth century BC formed the south-western boundary of the territory of the Massagetae

fl c.530 BC

Tahm-Rayiš / Tomyris

Queen. Her name is Iranian with the Greek form also shown.

530 BC

FeatureThe end of Cyrus the Great's reign is spent in military activity in Central Asia where, according to Herodotus, he dies in battle in 530 BC. Advancing across the Axartes to fight Tomyris' forces, he defeats part of the Massagetae army in a sneak attack. He also captures the queen's son, Spargapises, who commits suicide. The queen's remaining forces promptly destroy Cyrus' army and kill the Persian king.

330 BC

Alexander the Great's Greek empire conquers the Persian empire. In two years of further campaigning in the east of the empire, the Axartes comes to form its north-eastern border, leaving the region beyond it independent. There are no further records mentioning the Massagetae, but the fourth century AD Roman writer Ammianus Marcellinus considers the later Alans to be their direct descendants. Modern Indian scholars also consider the Jats of the Punjab to be directly related to them.