Now that we’ve finished talking about Westeros, let’s go over a bit of Essos history. This piece will include the rise and fall of two of the ancient Essosi empires. The next edition will focus on the Free Cities and other Essosi cultures/places in present-times (including Qarth and the Dothraki).
A Note on Spoilers: I won’t spoil things past Season 3 of the HBO series in terms of plot. Of course, the whole point of this series of posts will be to give some extra information to non-readers about the history of this wonderfully-constructed world, so most of what will be here is taken from the books, even if it contains no spoilers.
The Ghiscari Empire was the oldest recorded civilization in Essos, and perhaps one of the oldest in the world. It is unclear exactly how long ago it rose, but it fell over 5,000 years ago.
The Ghiscari Empire reigned supreme over much of Essos, and had the Harpy as its emblem. The capital was Old Ghis, a city which now does not exist. On the map, it is south of Meereen, Yunkai, and Astapor, near the south of Essos. The architecture of Ghis and its closest colony cities were based around pyramids built by slaves. The Ghiscari army was highly disciplined and feared around the region. They could be considered the precursors to the Unsullied.
Not a lot is recorded about the Ghiscari Empire except its fall. But before we get to its fall, we must look at the rising empire known as the Valyrian Freehold.
Across from Ghis sits the Valyrian Peninsula. The Valyrians were once a humble people, mostly sheep herders. They were a peaceful folk until the dragons along the Fourteen Fires, a group of islands to the south of the mainland, were discovered. The Valyrians tamed the dragons with magic, and trained them to become devastating weapons of war.
The Valyrians expanded their influence, establishing the Freehold with Valyria as its capital. With dragons came a great magic. Skyscrapers were constructed, stone sphinxes built. Smiths forged swords of legendary strength and sharpness, later known as Valyrian Steel. But the heart of their power was their dragons.
War Between the Ghiscari Empire and the Valyrian Freehold
Around 5,000 years before the series, the Ghiscari Empire saw the rising Valyria and decided to take their dragons. They knew that the dragons were the base of Valyrian power. With dragons, the Ghiscari could subjugate Valyria, expand their influence further, and be undefeatable. Five great wars were fought between Ghiscar and the Freehold, but Valyria’s dragons defeated the Ghiscari armies each time.
In the last of the great wars, the Valyrians smashed the Ghiscari legions and used their dragons to burn Ghis and its great pyramids to the ground. After Ghis was burned, the Valyrians sowed the fields with salt and sulfur to prevent any survivors from returning. It was a lot like the Roman/Carthage wars in real history.
With the destruction of Ghis, the Ghiscari Empire collapsed. The survivors fled to an island to the south of Ghis, and raised New Ghis. The Slaver’s Bay colonies – Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen – rose to prominence as the global center for the slave trade, and the Masters of the cities became extremely wealthy.
Meanwhlie, Valyria’s power grew and grew. They themselves kept more than just a toe in the slave market. The Valyrians began to look to the civilizations along the Rhoyne River. As they began to encroach, Prince Garin of the Rhoynar led an army of 250,000 soldiers against Valyria. As I mentioned last week, they wree easily defeated by the dragons, and the remnants fled to Dorne under Nymeria.
Valyria continued to expand and conquer further west. They captured slaves and used them to mine the Fourteen Flames for more wealth and to build great cities and roadways that led to Valyria. The Freehold’s cities included Valyria, Oros, Mantarys, Tyria, and the Free Cities (except for Braavos): Pentos, Lys, Qohor, Norvos, Myr, Tyrosh, Volantis, and Lorath.
At its height, the Freehold controlled most of the continent. All of the present-day Free Cities were colonies of Valyria, with the sole exception of Braaovs (which itself was a hidden city formed by former Valyrian slaves). They did not focus so much on eastward expansion, as the Red Waste laid between Valyria and the other more enticing places (Qarth, Yi Ti, Asshai, etc.).
The westernmost outpost of the empire was Dragonstone, in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros (known in Essos as “the Sunset Kingdoms,” as they are in the west, where the sun sets).
One important thing to note about Valyrian culture is the language. If the Ghiscari Empire was akin to Carthage, then Valyria is the equivalent to Rome. High Valyrian is the main language of the Valyrian Freehold. After the eventual fall of Valyria, the language persisted, just as Latin gave way to the Romance Languages.
In present-day Essos, in addition to the High Valyrian usually spoken in formal settings, there are countless dialects. Bastard Valyrian is spoken in each of the Nine Free Cities, though each city has its own dialect with their own vocabulary, and they can be counted as nine separate languages. The Slaver’s Bay remnants of the Ghiscari Empire speak in a tongue with a Valyrian-base, though their language is heavily influenced by the gutteral Ghiscari language. Still, each city (Astapor, Yunkai, Meereen, New Ghis) all have their own dialects.
Like Latin, High Valyrian is a language with much prestige. Daenerys learns it from a young age, growing up in the Free Cities. Most high-born Westerosi learn a bit of High Valyrian. It is mentioned that Arya has learned a bit of High Valyrian from Maester Luwin, though it isn’t all that great. Tyrion knows a fair bit of Valyrian, as does Ser Barristan Selmy, though he doesn’t know as much as the Mother of Dragons. In addition to the highborns, many Septons (priests of the Faith of the Seven) and Maesters know High Valyrian.
Robb Stark probably knew a smattering of High Valyrian, though obviously not enough to read his wife’s letters to her mother.
The Doom of Valyria
The Doom of Valyria has not been expressly explained, although one of the largest fan theories is that it involved volcanoes. Either way, it was a cataclysmic event that took place around 100 years before Aegon would conquer Westeros. The city of Valyria was destroyed, and much of the land was as well.
Look at the Valyrian area of the map linked at the article’s beginning. It is the area to the west of Astapor and Yunkai, to the south of the Dothraki Sea, inside the white dotted square. That land mass was a solid peninsula before the Doom, but much of it is now underwater.
The land that was once Valyria is now considered cursed, and still smokes from the event 400 years ago. The sea surrounding Valyria is also considered unlucky, and most sailors prefer to sail around it. After the Doom, the Freehold fell apart. Of the forty ancient noble houses, only a few survived, most notably the Targaryens.
Targaryens on Dragonstone
One of the least notable houses during the reign of the Freehold was the Targaryens. They had only a few dragons, and didn’t do much of note. Around 12 years before the Doom, the daughter of the Head of House (Aenar), named Daenys the Dreamer, had a vision about the Doom that would come over Valyria.
The Targaryens were the only dragonriders of the Freehold to survive, although a few other Houses survived and would later join the Targaryens. Balerion (later known as the Black Dread) was one among five dragons they had. The four others died, but two more were born from eggs, Vhagar and Meraxes. Baerion, Vhagar, and Meraxes were ridden by Aegon and his sisters during his conquest, which I will talk about next installment.
So that’s the first bit of Ancient Essos history. A lot of this occurs during the same time period of the fighting between Children and First Men and Andals and Rhoynar in Westeros. Next installment, I plan on posting about the nine Free Cities, the Dothraki, the Lhazareen, and Qarth. After that, the really exciting stuff comes, and we can talk about Westeros’ major conflicts and the reigns of the various Targaryen kings.
As always, if you have any questions or comments, please let me know in the comments. And if a book reader wants to supplement me or correct me, please feel free to do so.