In the seventh century BC, the tribes of the Scythian people who lived to the east along the lower reaches of the Syr Darya attacked Mydia, the base of the later Persian Empire. These tribes were the Saka. In 530 BC, the troops of Cyrus II were defeated in a battle against the Massagets, led by the Tomaris. The Persians could not forgive the nomads for these insulting defeats, and in 520 BC Darius I decided to launch a campaign against the Sakas to finally break the nomads’ resistance.
Darius I gathered 700,000 soldiers against the Sakas. This shows that he not only intended to subjugate the Sakas, but also pursued other goals. By conquering the Scythians, he would weaken the position of the Black Sea Scythians, who could submit to the Persians without the help of their eastern relatives. After conquering the Black Sea region, Darius was able to launch a successful campaign against the Greek city-states.
At this time there was no unified authority in the land of the Sakas. Numerous tribes of the Sakas fought over territory and pasture and constantly attacked each other. According to legend, among them was a tribal chief, Skunkha, whose son Shirak was one of the best Sakas warriors. But Shirak preferred to live a peaceful life, tending flocks of sheep and living in love and happiness with his family. But one day, Shirak’s tribe was attacked by the neighbouring Sakas, who had been bribed by Dareus. Shirak’s wife was killed in the battle and he himself was wounded. He rode far into the steppe, buried his beloved there and mourned her for seven days. On the seventh day he swore over his wife’s grave that he would take revenge on the traitors of the Sakas and Persians.
When he returned to his tribe, he came to a council where the chiefs of the Sakas Omar, Tamir and Saqesfar were gathered. They discussed a plan of defence. Shirak proposed his plan. He said, “We are now on the edge of a desolate and waterless desert. After us comes Darius with his army. If we lure the Persians, lead them into the heart of the desert, the Persians will die. Life is given to man only once; one day death will come anyway. Is it not better to die so that posterity remembers you than a man who gave his life for his homeland and his people? The only thing he asked was that his children be taken care of.
After that, Shirak shredded his whole face, cut off his ears and nose and went to the Persian camp. When he was brought before Darius, the latter asked him why he had betrayed his people, to which Shirak replied, “Look what they have done to me! I must avenge them! I will lead you by detours to the rear of the Scythian army. That is how I will repay them for mocking me!”
The Persians believed Shirak. He told them to eat food for only seven days. Shirak led them into the waterless desert. Many Persians died of thirst and heat on the way. Shirak promised them that he would lead the troops to the oases, but the troops went further and further into the desert and there was no water. Then Ranasbat, the Persian commander, thrust his sword at Shirak’s throat to kill him. Shirak exclaimed, “This is victory!” and fell dead.
The Persian units retreated from the desert with heavy losses. King Darius I himself survived, but ordered him to leave the land of the Sakas. Later he won many victories over other peoples of Asia and Europe, but the Sakas remained beyond the reach of the Persian arrows.
The memory of Shirak and his great devotion to his people has survived the millennia, and even today he is sung about in the fairy tales and folk songs of the Central Asian peoples.