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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the name of Iranian-speaking tribes, mostly nomadic, that lived from the first millennium B.C. to the first centuries A.D. The name “Saka” is used in cuneiform inscriptions, by classical authors, in Chinese chronicles, and in Indian sources to denote various tribes; classical sources generally use the term to refer to the Scythians. Ancient Persian inscriptions distinguish three groups of Saka: Saka-Haumavarga (“god-fearing,” called Ami-urgii in classical sources), Saka-Tigrahauda (“with pointed hats”), and Saka “who live beyond the sea” (Black Sea Scythians). In modern scholarly literature, Saka is the name given to the ancient tribes of the northern and eastern regions of middle Asia, Kazakhstan, and East Turkestan to distinguish these tribes from the related Massagetae of the Aral and Caspian regions and the Scythians of the Northern Black Sea Shore.

In the late sixth century B.C. and the early fifth century, some of the Saka were conquered by the Persian kings of the Achae-menid dynasty; they paid the Persians tribute and sent men to serve in the Persian army. As part of the Persian army, Saka fought in the wars between Greece and Persia (500–449 B.C.) and served in garrisons in various parts of the Achaemenid state.

The Saka were predominantly nomadic cattle breeders, with only individual groups becoming sedentary. A class society developed among the Saka of Middle Asia. There was sharp social and property stratification, and the aristocracy had great wealth concentrated in its hands, although an important role was still played by clan-tribal relations. In approximately the mid-third century B.C., a group of Saka tribes invaded Parthia and contributed substantially to the formation of the Parthian kingdom. Later these tribes penetrated into Drangiana, where they settled, giving Drangiana the name Sakastan (“the land of the Saka”; modern Sistan, or Seistan). In the late second century and the first half of the first century, the Saka penetrated into North India. By the first centuries of the Common Era, they were evidently already assimilated by local peoples and newly arrived nomadic tribes in what is now Middle Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North India. In East Turkestan (Kho-tan) their language was preserved until the tenth century A.D. The Saka played an important role in the ethnogenesis of the peoples of Middle Asia, Afghanistan, and northern Hindustan.

Remains of Saka culture have been discovered by Soviet archaeologists in the southern regions of the Kazakh SSR and the Uzbek SSR, as well as in the Kirghiz SSR and the Tadzhik SSR. Religion was in large measure bound up with a supreme deity and sun worship. Saka art was characterized by art objects executed in what is called the Scythian animal style. The epic literature of the Saka is one of the sources of Middle Asian epic literature.


Bernshtam, A. N. Istoriko-arkheologicheskie ocherki Tsentral’nogo Tian’-Shania i Pamiro-Alaia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1952.
Gafurov, B. G. Tadzhiki. Moscow, 1972.
Litvinskii, B. A. Drevnie kochevniki “Kryshi mira.” Moscow, 1972.
Artamonov, M. I. Sokrovishcha sakov. Moscow, 1973.
Vishnevskaia, O. A. Kul’tura sakskikh plemen nizov’ev Syrdar’i v VII-V vv. do n. e. Moscow, 1973.
Junge, J. Saka-Studien. Leipzig, 1939.
Bailey, H. W. “Languages of the Saka.” In Handbuch der Orientalistik, vol. 4: Iranistik, part 1: Linguistik. Leiden-Cologne, 1958.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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