Legend of Tomiris, Queen of the Massagets

In the vastness of the Eurasian steppes, the legendary nomadic warriors from among the Scythians ruled in deep antiquity – the Sakas, the Massagetae, the Sarmatians and the Scythians. For a millennium, from the eighth century BC to the fourth century AD, they terrified the civilisations of the East and Europe: Greece, Rome, Egypt and Persia. The eastern tribes included the Sakas and the Massagetae, who lived in Central Asia.

In the sixth century BC, the first world empire of the Achaemenids was founded in Persia. After the Persian king Cyrus II united the lands of Mesopotamia, he launched a policy of conquest. He planned a great conquest of Egypt. However, Cyrus foresaw that a war with such a large state, which had been strengthened by the policy of the Pharaoh Amasis, would be difficult. Cyrus decided to postpone the campaign to Egypt and secure the eastern borders of the empire, where the nomads of the Sakas and Massagetae were in the vast steppes. The steppe tribes had impressive military strength and were unpredictable in their movements, so they could invade the Persian-conquered Central Asian territories at any time of the year. In 530 BC Cyrus the Great moved east at the head of his vast army.

The Massagetae were ruled at this time by Queen Tomiris. She was the daughter of Spargypis, the leader of all the tribes of the Massagetae. After the death of the chief, Tomiris inherited power as his only child, but many tribal leaders, unhappy with the fact that they were ruled by a woman, tried to overthrow her rule. Queen Tomiris fought all her life for the right to lead the Massagetae, and she proved this through her courage, military skills and devotion to her people.

There is a legend about how Tomiris chose her own husband. During the war with the other Sakas tribes, Spargapis asked his ally, the Sakas chief Tigrahaud Kawad, for help. Kawad was also fighting on his borders at the time, so he sent his beloved son Rustam in his place. When Rustam came to the fortress of the Massagetae, there was a contest between the Batyrs. The prize in this contest was the hand of the chief’s daughter, Tomiris. The one who caught up with Tomiris in the horse race would become her husband. Tomiris was one of the best riders in her tribe, so only the best of the warriors could catch up with her. Rustam won the competition.

When Tomiris learned of Cyrus II’s attack, she ordered the Massageteans to leave their camp and go into the steppe. Cyrus, for his part, decided to use a ruse to seize power over the Massagetans. He sent an emissary with a letter to Queen Tomiris. In it, Cyrus praises her beauty and intelligence and proposes that she become his wife. In this way he saves his people from a bloody war. But the wise Tomiris realised that the Persian ruler did not need her, but her kingdom, and refused. It seemed that the campaign began successfully for the Persians. The Massagetae cavalry, covering the nomads who were advancing further and further into the steppe, tried not to get involved in serious fighting and retreated before the advancing Persian army. This was a tactic to lure the enemy into the steppe. After the skirmishes, the Massagetae always successfully eluded pursuit on their fast horses. This is how the Persians reached Yaxart.

Here Cyrus decided to use a deception. He orders the camp to poison all the wounded and sick soldiers while he himself lurks in ambush with the main forces. The Massagetae, led by Tomiris’ son Spargapis, attacked the camp at night but were not repulsed because they thought the Persians had fled. To celebrate their victory, they drank the wine left behind by the Persians, which had been poisoned. At night, when most of the Massagetae were asleep, the Persians attacked and slaughtered almost the entire unit. The son of Tomiris was taken prisoner. When Queen Tomiris learned of this, she sent a messenger to Cyrus demanding that her son be released, as he had not been captured “by force of arms in a fair fight”. The queen of Massagetae warned the Persian ruler threateningly, “If you do not do this, I swear by the sun god, the ruler of Massagetae, I will indeed give you blood, no matter how insatiable you are”. Cyrus refused Tomiris, and Spargapis committed suicide, not wanting Cyrus to manipulate Tomiris with him.

When Tomiris learns of her son’s death, she decides to attack the Persians. A battle ensues in the steppes, in which the Massagetae unleash all their power and fury on the Persian army. Cyrus II dies in the battle. Tomiris ordered a wine bellows to be filled with blood, and after cutting off Cyrus‘ head, she threw him into the blood bellows with the words: “You wanted blood, so drink it in abundance!”

The victory of Tomiris over Cyrus has become legendary. For a long time the Sakas and the Massagetae secured their borders against the Persians. Queen Tomiris became a symbol of freedom and the strength of the army of the Sakas and Massagetae.

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