The Scythians (Sakas)

The Scythians (Sakas)

In the middle of the second century B.C.E. nomadic horsemen from Central Asia called Scythians—the fi rst in a progression of these invaders—began to pour into what is now Pakistan. The nomadic tribe had invaded and conquered Persia and Khurasan in about 150 B.C.E. The Sakas were a branch of the Scythians.

Menander was on a military campaign to expand his kingdom east-ward at the time, Mathura had already fallen, and Menander was prepar-ing to advance on the grand city of Pataliputra when he learned of the Scythian incursion. He turned his army north to meet them. Menander was killed in the ensuing battle, and his death marked the end of the Bactrian kingdom. Rent by internal rivalries and disputes and bereft of its greatest leader, it split into several minor kingdoms.

The Sakas quickly overran the patchwork of Greek-led kingdoms and set about building new settlements to accommodate their vast numbers. Such was the preponderance of these new arrivals that Greek geographers and cartographers began to refer to what is now Pakistan as Scythia, while Indians referred to it as Saka-dipa. The Sakas quickly assumed rule over the northwest subcontinent. Branches of the Sakas founded kingdoms in Taxila, Lower Punjab, Malwa, and Jujarat Kathiawar. Their rulers preferred to use the Persian title of satrap.

The fi rst three of the Saka kings were Maues, Azes I, and Azilises. Gandhara was their principal stronghold and Taxila their capital. The scanty historical evidence indicates the Sakas initially showed deference toward the assimilated Greek rulers they conquered. The coins struck during their reigns, for example, closely resembled those of the Bactrian Greeks they supplanted. But after several decades the Saka rulers felt confi dent enough to assert their supreme authority and display their cultural roots. They followed the style of the Pahlavas, or Parthians of Iran, in time even turning the throne over to Pahlava princes.

One of these princes, Gondophares (ca. 20–48 C.E.), announced his indepen-dence from Parthian control, establishing the Indo-Parthian Kingdom. Early ecclesiastical accounts suggest the Christian apostle St. Thomas was martyred here after coming to the region—and even Gondophares’s court—to preach. Over some 100 years of the Indo-Parthian kingdom’s existence, it grew at the expense of the Sakas to encompass present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India. The capital, originally at Taxila, was relocated to Kabul shortly before the kingdom’s demise.

Though Greek rule had ended, their language remained in use by the ruling and upper classes into the common era. In the second half of the fi rst century C.E., the king of Taxila, for example, spoke fl uent Greek.