For most Americans, Kazakhstan evokes images of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character, driving across America, uttering timeless quotes about his wife, his neighbor Ursultan, or those a**holes in Uzbekistan. Those interested in military history might want to look beyond Borat’s neon green bikini – it was a Kazakh who hoisted the Soviet flag over the Reichstag during World War II after all and until it was absorbed into the Soviet Union, Kazakh tribes remained largely undefeated in military history.
In 1969, a burial mound was discovered near Issyk in what was then the Kazakh SSR of the Soviet Union. The mound contained an ancient skeleton along with warrior’s gear and funeral treasures belonging to a long-dead Scythian soldier, estimated to be buried around the 5th Century BCE. Based on the funerary treasures, the skeleton was considered to be that of a noble, a prince or princess. Among those treasures was what has come to be called the “Golden Man” amongst Kazakhs – a suit of ornate armor made of more than 4,000 pieces of gold.
The suit is so ornate and valuable, the Kazakh government will only show replicas of the Golden Man in museums. The original is said to be housed in the main vault of the National Bank of Kazakhstan in Almaty.
The Prince is from a tribe of ancient Scythian warriors called the “Saka” who lived in the lands north of what is today Iran. While the ancient historians called all tribes living in the Asian steppe Scythian, the ancient Persians referred to those Scythian tribes at their northern border as the Saka. These nomadic peoples likely fought against Alexander the Great as his forces moved west. They also engaged Cyrus the Great’s Persian forces, killing him in battle around 530 BCE.
The Scythian tribes of this time were not dominated by men, and like their modern-day Soviet Kazakh armies, women would fight alongside their men. It was their Empress Tomyris who led the army that killed Cyrus. Descendants of these same tribes would resist incursions from early Russian, Chinese, and Roman armies.
So while it’s very possible the “Golden Man” wasn’t a man at all, the ancient, cataphract-style armor – armor used by nomadic-style cavalry units – is a beautiful historical work of art. The gold works depict snow leopards, deer, goats, horses, and majestic birds. These are all depicted on the likely ceremonial armor and form a clear basis for the modern style of tribal jewelry-making in the Central Asian country.
As for the bones of the ancient warrior, they were reinterred using the customs of the Scythian warriors of the time. The people of this area are still so very close to their tribal origins that they all know from which of the three tribes of Kazakhstan they descend.