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For other uses, see Saka (disambiguation).
Scythia-Parthia 100 BC.png
Approximate extent of Eastern Iranian languages in the 1st century BC is shown in orange.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Central Asia
South Asia
Scythian language, Sakan language
Scythian religion
Related ethnic groups
Iranian peoples, Indo-Iranians

The Saka (Old Persian: Sakā; New Persian/Pashto: ساکا‎; Sanskrit: Śaka; Greek: Σάκαι; Latin: Sacae; Chinese: ; pinyin: Sāi; Old Chinese: *Sək) was the term used in Persian and Sanskrit sources for the Scythians, a large group of Eastern Iranian nomadic tribes on the Eurasian Steppe.[1][2][3]

"The regions of Tashkent, Fergana, and Kashgar were inhabited by the people known to the Chinese under the name Sse (ancient pronunciation, Ssek), to the Persians and Indians as Saka, or Shaka, and to the Greeks as Sakai: our Sakas. They were in fact the 'Scythians of Asia.' They formed a branch of the great Scytho-Sarmatian family; that is, they were nomadic Iranians from the northwestern steppes."[4]

Usage of the name Saka[edit]

Gold artifacts of the Saka in Bactria, at the site of Tillia tepe.

Modern debate about the identity of the "Saka" is due partly to ambiguous usage of the word by ancient, non-Saka authorities. According to Herodotus, the Persians gave the name "Saka" to all Scythians.[5] However, Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus, AD 23–79) claims that the Persians gave the name Sakai only to the Scythian tribes "nearest to them".[6] The Scythians to the far north of Assyria were also called the Saka suni "Saka or Scythian sons" by the Persians.[citation needed] The Assyrians of the time of Esarhaddon record campaigning against a people they called in the Akkadian the Ashkuza or Ishhuza.[7]

Another people, the Gimirrai,[7] who were known to the ancient Greeks as the Cimmerians, were closely associated with the Sakas. In ancient Hebrew texts, the Ashkuz (Ashkenaz) are considered to be a direct offshoot from the Gimirri (Gomer).[8]

A cataphract-style parade armour of a Saka royal, also know as "The Golden Warrior", from the Issyk kurgan, an historic burial near ex-capital city of Almaty, Kazakhstan

The Saka were regarded by the Babylonians as synonymous with the Gimirrai; both names are used on the trilingual Behistun inscription, carved in 515 BC on the order of Darius the Great.[9] (These people were reported to be mainly interested in settling in the kingdom of Urartu, later part of Armenia, and Shacusen in Uti Province derives its name from them.[10]) The Behistun inscription mentions four divisions of Scythians:

  • the Sakā paradraya "Saka beyond the sea" of Sarmatia,
  • the Sakā tigraxaudā "Saka with pointy hats/caps",
  • the Sakā haumavargā "haoma-drinking Saka"[11] (Amyrgians, the Saka tribe in closest proximity to Bactria and Sogdiana),
  • the Sakā para Sugdam "Saka beyond Sugda (Sogdiana)" at the Jaxartes.

Of these, the Sakā tigraxaudā were the Saka proper.[citation needed] The Sakā paradraya were the western Scythians or Sarmatians, the Sakā haumavargā and Sakā para Sugdam were likely Scythian tribes associated with or split off from the original Saka.[citation needed]

In the modern era, the archaeologist Hugo Winckler (1863–1913) was the first to associate the Sakas with the Scyths. I. Gershevitch, in The Cambridge History of Iran, states: "The Persians gave the single name Sakā both to the nomads whom they encountered between the Hunger steppe and the Caspian, and equally to those north of the Danube and Black Sea against whom Darius later campaigned; and the Greeks and Assyrians called all those who were known to them by the name Skuthai (Iškuzai). Sakā and Skuthai evidently constituted a generic name for the nomads on the northern frontiers."[12] Conversely, the political historian B. N. Mukerjee has claimed that ancient Greek and Roman scholars believed that while "all Sakai were Scythians", "not all Scythians were Sakai".[why?] [13] Persian sources often treat them as a single tribe called the Saka (Sakai or Sakas), but Greek and Latin texts suggest that the Scythians were composed of many sub-groups.[14][15]


Artifacts found the tombs 2 and 4 of Tillia Tepe and reconstitution of their use on the man and woman found in these tombs

Migrations of the 2nd and 1st century BCE have left traces in Sogdia and Bactria, but they cannot firmly be attributed to the Saka, similarly with the sites of Sirkap and Taxila in ancient India. The rich graves at Tillya Tepe in Afghanistan are seen as part of a population affected by the Saka.[16]

According to Grousset, "the Saka, under pressure from the Yueh-chih, overran Sogdiana and then Bactria, there taking the place of the Greeks." This would have been around 140 and 130 BCE. Then, "Thrust back in the south by the Yueh-chih," the Saka occupied "the Saka country, Sakastana, whence the modern Persian Seistan."[4]


Main article: Indo-Scythians

Tadeusz Sulimirski notes that the Saka also migrated to North India.[17] Weer Rajendra Rishi, an Indian linguist, identified linguistic affinities between Indian and Central Asian languages, which further lends credence to the possibility of historical Sakan influence in North India.[17][18] According to historian Michael Mitchiner, the Abhira tribe were a Saka people cited in the Gunda inscription of the Western Satrap Rudrasimha I dated to 181 CE.[19]

Kingdom of Khotan[edit]


Main article: Saka language
Drawing of the Issyk inscription

The linguistic heartland of the Saka language was the Kingdom of Khotan, which had two dialects, corresponding to the major settlements at Khotan (modern Hotan) and Tumshuq (Tumxuk).[20][21] The Saka heartland was gradually conquered during the Turkic expansion, beginning in the 4th century and the area was gradually "Turkified" linguistically (under the Uighurs).

Attestations of Saka show that it was an Eastern Iranian language. Both dialects contain many borrowings from the Middle Indo-Aryan Prakrit, but also share features with modern Wakhi and Pashto.[22] The Issyk inscription, a short fragment on a silver cup found in the Issyk kurgan (modern Kazakhstan) is believed to be an early example of Saka, constituting one of very few autochthonous epigraphic traces of that language.[citation needed] The inscription is in a variant of the Kharoṣṭhī script. Harmatta (1999)[full citation needed] identifies the dialect as Khotanese Saka, tentatively translating its as: "The vessel should hold wine of grapes, added cooked food, so much, to the mortal, then added cooked fresh butter on".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ West 2009, pp. 713–717
  2. ^ "Scythian". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved January 18, 2015. 
  3. ^ P. Lurje, “Yārkand”, Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition
  4. ^ a b Grousset, Rene (1970). The Empire of the Steppes. Rutgers University Press. pp. 29–31. ISBN 0-8135-1304-9. 
  5. ^ Herodotus Book VII, 64
  6. ^ Naturalis Historia, VI, 19, 50
  7. ^ a b Westermann, Claus (1984). : A Continental Commentary. John J. Scullion (trans.). Minneapolis. p. 506. ISBN 0800695003. 
  8. ^ "The sons of Gomer were Ashkenaz, Riphath,[a] and Togarmah." See also the entry for Ashkenaz in Young, Robert. Analytical Concordance to the Bible. McLean, Virginia: Mac Donald Publishing Company. ISBN 0-917006-29-1. 
  9. ^ George Rawlinson, noted in his translation of History of Herodotus, Book VII, p. 378
  10. ^ Kurkjian, Vahan M. (1964). A History of Armenia. New York: Armenian General Benevolent Union of America. p. 23. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ I. Gershevitch,The Cambridge History of Iran (Volume 2), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 253 .
  13. ^ B. N. Mukerjee, Political History of Ancient India, 1996, p 690-91.
  14. ^ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society ... – Google Books. 2007-04-06. Retrieved 2010-12-30. 
  15. ^ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland By Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland-page-323
  16. ^ Yaroslav Lebedynsky, P. 84
  17. ^ a b Sulimirski, Tadeusz (1970). The Sarmatians. Volume 73 of Ancient peoples and places. New York: Praeger. pp. 113–114. The evidence of both the ancient authors and the archaeological remains point to a massive migration of Sacian (Sakas)/Massagetan tribes from the Syr Daria Delta (Central Asia) by the middle of the second century B.C. Some of the Syr Darian tribes; they also invaded North India. 
  18. ^ Rishi, Weer Rajendra (1982). India & Russia: linguistic & cultural affinity. Roma. p. 95. 
  19. ^ Mitchiner, Michael (1978). The ancient & classical world, 600 B.C.-A.D. 650. Hawkins Publications ; distributed by B. A. Seaby. p. 634. ISBN 978-0-904173-16-1. 
  20. ^ Sarah Iles Johnston, Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, Harvard University Press, 2004. pg 197
  21. ^ Edward A Allworth,Central Asia: A Historical Overview,Duke University Press, 1994. pp 86.
  22. ^ Litvinsky, Boris Abramovich; Vorobyova-Desyatovskaya, M.I (1999). "Religions and religious movements". History of civilizations of Central Asia. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 421–448. ISBN 8120815408. 


  • Bailey, H. W. 1958. "Languages of the Saka." Handbuch der Orientalistik, I. Abt., 4. Bd., I. Absch., Leiden-Köln. 1958.
  • Bailey, H. W. (1979). Dictionary of Khotan Saka. Cambridge University Press. 1979. 1st Paperback edition 2010. ISBN 978-0-521-14250-2.
  • Davis-Kimball, Jeannine. 2002. Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines. Warner Books, New York. 1st Trade printing, 2003. ISBN 0-446-67983-6 (pbk).
  • Bulletin of the Asia Institute: The Archaeology and Art of Central Asia. Studies From the Former Soviet Union. New Series. Edited by B. A. Litvinskii and Carol Altman Bromberg. Translation directed by Mary Fleming Zirin. Vol. 8, (1994), pp. 37–46.
  • Hill, John E. (2009) Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes during the Later Han Dynasty, 1st to 2nd Centuries CE. John E. Hill. BookSurge, Charleston, South Carolina. ISBN 978-1-4392-2134-1.
  • Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West from the Weilue 魏略 by Yu Huan 魚豢: A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265 CE. Draft annotated English translation.
  • Lebedynsky, Iaroslav. (2006). Les Saces: Les <<Scythes>> d'Asie, VIIIe av. J.-C.-IVe siècle apr. J.-C. Editions Errance, Paris. ISBN 2-87772-337-2 (in French).
  • Pulleyblank, Edwin G. 1970. "The Wu-sun and Sakas and the Yüeh-chih Migration." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 33 (1970), pp. 154–160.
  • Puri, B. N. 1994. "The Sakas and Indo-Parthians." In: History of civilizations of Central Asia, Volume II. The development of sedentary and nomadic civilizations: 700 B.C. to A.D. 250. Harmatta, János, ed., 1994. Paris: UNESCO Publishing, pp. 191–207.
  • Thomas, F. W. 1906. "Sakastana." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1906), pp. 181–216.
  • Yu, Taishan. 1998. A Study of Saka History. Sino-Platonic Papers No. 80. July, 1998. Dept. of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania.
  • Yu, Taishan. 2000. A Hypothesis about the Source of the Sai Tribes. Sino-Platonic Papers No. 106. September, 2000. Dept. of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania.
  • West, Barbara A. (January 1, 2009). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 1438119135. Retrieved January 18, 2015. 

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