Ferdowsi as a local historian

The question of Shahnama of Ferdowsi as a historical text has been a persistent one since the invention of Shahnama studies as a modern discipline (arguably by Theodor Nöldeke’s monumental das iranische Nationalepos). While many insist on the importance of the person of Ferdowsi as a historian himself, the general consensus of most Shahnama scholars, particularly the Iranian ones, is that the sources of the Shahnama were in fact written and that Ferdowsi was basing his poem on a recorded and prepared text (see here for a discussion by Dick Davis, as well as the opposite views of Olga Davidson and Mahmood Omidsalar, the latter of which reflects a common take among Iranian scholars of the Shahnama).

The main concentration, of course, is on the general historical framework of the Shahnama, what I call an Orientalist-imposed tripartite the division of the Shahnama. This is basically divided alongside the dynastic divisions, with the Pishdadi dynasty from Gayumarth to Zab representing the Mythological section, the Kayanids from Kay Qubad to Daray-e Darayan representing the Epic section, and the short section on the Arsacids and the much longer section on the Sasanians being deemed Historical. This division was first proposed by Nöldeke and is almost canonical in Shahnama studies. I disagree with this division strongly, as I believe that much like the similar narratives in many other Islamic sources, for Ferdowsi himself, and his sources, all three (four?) dynasties were historical indeed. I will, however, not dwell on it much here as that would require a whole different essay.

I have suggested elsewhere that Ferdowsi’s role as a historian is really most significant when it comes to local history of East Iran/Khurasan, essentially the geographical space in which he was active. This geography also is also intertwined with the historical space that Ferdowsi occupied, namely the Samanid-Ghaznavid transition, as Ghazzal Dabiri has already pointed out. But we seem to ignore most of this local historical and geographical context because of interest in the larger “universal” history of pre-Islamic Iran which is indeed the focus of Ferdowsi.

In fact, a feature of Persian historiography as a while is this focus on geography, concentrating on local and regional history and gazing at the larger “universal” history – the Iranian National History as Ehsan Yarshater puts it – from the point of view of the local. This geographical gaze of pre-Mongol Persian historiography is not something that I have seen pointed out too often, even in works such as Julie Scott Meisami’s Persian Historiography. Despite concentration on the question of “Why Write History in Persian?”, considering the relation between Persian and power in the Samanid, Ghaznavid, and Seljuq courts, the geographical aspect seems not to be of much concern when looking for whens and whys of Persian historiography. This is probably because historiography per se is supposed to have a clear indication of political power and claim to universality.

What is thus neglected is taking note of regional historiographies, written often by anonymous authors (eg Tarikh-e Sistan) where the geographical space becomes the main actor. Apart from Tarikh-e Sistan, the Farsnama of Ibn Balkhi is an excellent example of this. But this even pre-dates writing in Persian, as the original – and now lost – Arabic versions of the History of Bukhara and the History of Qom demonstrate. One could argue that the Iranian tradition of historiography was itself largely regional and started as an expression of regional histories. I have made this argument for the case of the Sasanian section of the history of al-Tabari as well and shall expand on it later. But this can even be seen in the historical segments of Middle Persian texts.

So, I think Ferdowsi too should be seen as a local historiographer. The location of Tous, Ferdowsi’s native city, at the heart of Samanid and Ghaznavid Khurasan, makes this quite natural, although today’s political borders render it a peripheral town on the extreme north-east of Iran. As mentioned before, Ferdowsi’s information about certain local events, including the Battle of Bukhara between the Western Turk and the Hephthalite forces, is unparalleled and not repeated elsewhere. Farzin Ghaffouri’s work on the sources of the Shahnama for the reign of Khosrow I Anusheruwan also points out this local aspect.

the Iranian political powers in the 10th century (source: wikipedia)

An example of this, which might be worth mentioning, is the entire historiography of Rostam. The possible historical origins of Rostam have occupied the pages of many books and journals (see here for ADH Bivar’s famous, and quite influential, take). But Ferdowsi himself, or at least in a verse attributed to him, says that “Rostam was a hero in Sistan/I am the one who made him the hero of stories” (my loose translation). So, for Ferdowsi, Rostam was a real hero from Sistan, made into an almost mythological character in Ferdowsi’s tale. Of course, Ferdowsi did not make up Rostam, nor was the man unknown as is obvious from his mural from Panjikent hundreds of years before Ferdowsi.

Details of the Rostam mural from Panjikent (now at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia)

He also was well known in the late Sasanian period, as we can see from the name of Rostam-e Farrokhzad, the Sasanian general who commanded the Sasanian forces against the Muslim troops of Sa’ad b. abi-Waqqas at the Battle of Qadisiyya. The name is also a common one among the post-Sasanian rulers of the region of Padishkhwargar (the southern Caspian coast), including the Bavandid and Qarinvand ispahbeds of Tabarestan, as well as various Daylamite warlords.

So Ferdowsi’s statement about Rostam being a “hero in Sistan” seems to be an interesting case of history moving toward mythology. The association of Rostam with Sistan and Zawulistan obviously pre-dates Ferdowsi, as is shown, again, by the Panjikent mural. It was already pointed out by Frantz Grenet that the head of Rostam in the mural looks very much like the portrait of the Alkhan kings of S. Hindukush and Gandhara region such as Khingila. I discussed this further in the epilogue of my book and posited that this might in fact reflect the contemporary politics of the Seventh century, when the mural was produced. This means that the artist of the mural in fact associated Zabulistan with its contemporary rulers, the issuing authorities of the Alkhan-Nezak crossover coins (see Klaus Vondrovec’s volumes for a deep discussion of these), and thus modelled Rostam on these kings.

Silver drahm of king Khingila of the Alkhan
An Alkhan-Nezak Crossover coin

So, for the artist of the Panjikent mural, as well as for Ferdowsi, Rostam indeed was a Zabulistani/Sistani hero (explanation here: Sistan and Zabulistan are often juxtaposed and presumed to be the same in the Shahnama). So, Ferdowsi’s inclusion of the stories of Rostam across most of the earlier parts of the Shahnama – indeed he straddles both the so-called Mythological and Epic sections – is in fact his own historiographical contribution. This weaving of the stories of the hero of Sistan/Zabulistan (see Saghi Gazerani’s work on this, although I disagree with many of her takes) is thus a way of “localising” history by Ferdowsi. Alongside other tales such as the Western Turk vs. Hephthalites war or the story of Wahram Chobin (perhaps relying on the same local work that Bal’ami had used earlier), these accounts bring a particularly regional flavour to Ferdowsi’s historiography. This, in my opinion, renders him indeed a historian – at least as much as Bal’ami was one beside being a translator of al-Tabari – who can also be credited with authorship, although not the sort of historian that was imagined before.

اسامی شهرهای تاریخی خاورمیانه به فارسی

اخیراً چندین بار در ترجمه‌های مختلف فارسی از تحقیقات تاریخی به زبان‌های اروپایی، دیده‌ام که اسم شهرهای منطقه را به صورت انگلیسی یا مخلوطی از انگلیسی و لاتین می‌نویسند (پالمیرا، برای مثال). طبیعتاً، این شهرها اسامی‌ محلی‌ای دارند و داشته‌اند که از ریشه‌های مختلف اکدی، آرامی، فارسی، ارمنی، فینیقی، عبری، و عربی آمده و اکثراً از طریق عربی و فارسی، در زبان فارسی‌نو حفظ شده و در متون ادبی و تاریخی دوران میانه هم آمده‌اند. فهرست‌های کاملی از این‌ها را در کتاب‌های مختلف جغرافیایی نو می‌شود یافت. اما در اینجا، چون به هرحال اینترنت بیشتر و بیشتر منبع تحقیق است برای بسیاری، فهرست مختصری از اسم‌هایی که دیده‌ام بیشترین سؤتفاهم را بوجود میاورند، می‌نویسم. این فهرست را سعی می‌کنم تکمیل کنم. تکیه هم بیشتر به مناطق تاریخی هزاره اول میلادی است.

در منطقه عراق و سوریه/شام:

Nisibis: نصببین

Daras: درا

Singara: سنجار

Karkha d-bet Slok: کرکوک (کرخه بیت سلوک)

Kaskar: کسکر

Edessa: الرها

Antioch: انطاکیه

Mypherkat: میافارقین

Emesa: حمص

Carrhae : حرّان

Aleppo: حلب

Callinicum: الرقه

Palmyra: تدمر

Dura-Europos: دورا

Petra: البترا/رقمو

Amida: آمد

Al-Hira:الحیره (یا «شهرهرت»)

Hatra: حترا

Militene: ملاطیه

Marqas/Maras: مرعش

Tripolis: طرابلس

Tyre: صور

Sidon: صیدا

Acre: عکا

Tiberias: طبریه

Misikhe: شادشاپور/انبار

Paikuli: پایقلی

Arbela: اربیل

Qinnasrin: قنسرین

Caucasus/East Anatolia

Dvin: دبیل

Yerevan: ایروان

Kars: قارص

Arsamosata: ارشم‌شاد

Manzikert: ملازگرد

Trepezus/Trebizond: طرابوزان

Tigranocerta: تیگران‌کرد/دیار‌بکر

Karin/Theodosiopolis: کارین/ارزروم

Cesarea: قیصریه

Caucasian Albania: اران

Caucasian Iberia: گرجستان

Tbilisi: تفلیس

Narkala: نارقلعه

Siwnik: سیسکان

Vagharshapat: بلاشاباد

Partaw: بردعه

Lazica: لازستان

Archaeopolis: گوجی

Bathys: باطوم

Her: خوی

Cepha: حصن کیفا

Peroz and Narseh: Coins of Post-Sasanian Princes in Balkh

It is well-known that after the death of Yazdgerd III, the last Sasanian Shahanshah (king of kings) in 651, an attempt was made by his sons Peroz and Wahram to recover at least a part of his empire with the help of the Chinese.[1] These attempts, however, were not successful and finally resulted in the withdrawal of the remnants of the Sasanians royal family to the Tang’s newly built capital of Chang’an 長安, where Peroz died in 678/679. He was buried in the mausoleum of Gaozong of the Tang and an inscription naming him king of Persia 波斯王 and Commander of Persia 波斯都督 was included on a nearby pedestal. Before his death, Peroz had managed to secure the permission to build a temple for the exiled Persian community in China, although we aren’t quite sure of this was a Zoroastrian, Manichaean, or Christian temple.

Map of the Tang Empire at the height of its power in the early 8th century
Statues at the tomb of the Gaozong emperor of the Tang

Before meeting his end, Peroz had put up a fight against the invading forces of the nascent Islamic caliphate and keep at least an illusion of ruling his father’s territories. Specifically, following Yazdgerd’s death in 651 in Marw (Merv), Peroz had set up a minor kingdom in a city that the Chinese call Jiling 疾陵, which is usually thought to be the city of Zrang/Zaranj in Sistan.[2] Considering that Sistan was not really invaded until the caliphate of Mu’awiyya (661-663), we can imagine that it was the conquest of Sistan that drove Peroz out of Sistan and to Tukharistan around 663. This would also support Daryaee’s suggestion that all of those Yazdgerd year 20 coin issues were in fact minted in Sistan, presumably in the 10 years of so when he ruled after his father there.[3]

The Conquests of early Islam

On the other hand, Peroz’s appearance in Chang’an happens between 673 and 674[4], meaning that he had spent the previous decade or more in the west. Based on Chinese sources (which might very well be exaggerations), he ruled in Tukharistan, under Chinese auspices, trying to recover his kingdom. Presumably, it is after his arrival in Chang’an that his son, Narseh 涅涅师, was raised to the throne in his stead by the Chinese general in Tukharistan. But Narseh too, after a 20 year struggle, could not recover any territories and returned to China in 708-709 and died in Chang’an. Now, apart from the year 20 issues of Yazdgerd III that we can assume were continually re-issued by Peroz, we have very little evidence of coins from either Peroz or Narseh, while we can only assume that some should have existed as coinage was firmly established in this region both as a sign of authority and for means of circulation. However, no certain coins can be attributed to either authorities, leaving us puzzled.

If we don’t consider the claims of Tang chroniclers as pure fabrication, we should then look at the selection of coins that we do have and consider that they might in fact contain some coins that can be attributed to either Peroz or Narseh, or both. Somehow, these coins have escaped the attention of the scholars somehow, mainly in any clear indication of the name of either authority. The issue is that the inscriptions on the coins of East Iran are written in a maddening variety of scripts, ranging from cursive Bactrian to Pahlavi, Brahmi, and Arabic. A few coins have clearly legible inscriptions, and given the frustrating ambiguities of both the Pahlavi and the Bactrian scripts, all sorts of readings can be proposed. To make things even more complicated, the coins in the region were often issued based on established prototypes, thus coins of the previous authorities – many of them originally based in Sasanian issues of the fourth and fifth centuries. So, it is not too much of a surprise if a coin does not immediately jump out or can be attributed to an authority otherwise known from the pages of standard historical narratives.[5]

The available array of coins from the Hindukush region in the post-Sasanian period is quite bewildering, with many local authorities issuing silver and copper/bronze coins. Many of these coins, for example those of the iltäbär, or Zhulad Gozgan belong to authorities whom we know from historical sources. Others, such as Tegin Khurasan Shah and his son Phrom Kesar, are mainly known from their coins but are entering the gaze of history through discovery of newer sources such as inscriptions.[6] Others such as “Spur Martan Shah,” or “Sero” or “the Bactrian Yabghu” are completely unknown and still waiting identification. So, I would like to venture into a group of these, namely the last named Yabghu, to find some coins that might be connected to Peroz and his son Narseh, the last claimants to the Sasanian throne in the East.

Silver drachm of Zhu(n)lad Gozgan, “Garigo Shaho”

The Yabghu of Balkh/Bactrians

The ultimate source, in English, for the coins that I like to consider here is the monumental two volumes produced by the Austrian numismatist, Klaus Vondrovec, who I can also call a friend and a mentor.[7] In these volumes, Klaus has done a magnificent job of studying the coins from east Iran from the end of the Kushano-Sasanian period to the complete control of the area by the Muslims in the eighth century. His meticulousness has rendered a wonderful resource, detailing typologies, iconographies, and inscriptions of each coin, and providing his own innovative groupings and analysis, mainly based on the previous work by Robert Göbl, but furthering the study of these coins manifold.

Section 9 of Klaus’ work is devoted to the coins produced under the suzerainty of the Western Turk (Gök Türk) Empire, originally founded on the second half of the sixth century and continuing until the late 7th/early 8th century when it was destroyed and temporarily merged into the Tang Empire of China. It was in fact the Chinese advances westwards to destroy the Western Turk that brought them into contact with the Islamic caliphate, resulting in the cataclysmic Battle of Talas that checked both the western ambitions of the Chinese and the eastern expansion of the Caliphate.[8]

The late Sasanian and the Western Turk empires

The early coins of this period are the continuation of what Klaus, following a suggestion by Göbl, has called the “Alkhan-Nezak Crossover” series. These are the coins of the period before the Western Turk take over of the Hindu-Kush region and show elements of both the Nezak Shah group (rulers of Kabulistan and Zabulistan), as well as those of the Alkhan group (a group of “Iranian Huns” who had gone over to conquer northern India in the fifth and sixth centuries).[9] By Klaus’ estimation, a part of the Alkhans had returned to the region of Kabul and Zabul and somehow integrated into the Nezak Shahs, and merging their distinctive coinage style with that of the Nezak Shahs, establishing their own Alkhan-Nezak Crossover group.

Silber drahm of an Alkhan king
A coin of Nezak Shah
An Alkhan-Nezak Crossover coin

The first authority that Klaus Vondrovec assigns to the Western Turk period is an authority on whose coins inscriptions in Bactria and Brahmi render his name as Sri Shahi (a mix of Indian and Iranian titles: “the Perfect/respected King”). This is respectively written as σριο þαυιο (with spurious Bactrian final -o) in Bactrian and as śrī ṣāhi in Brahmi on two different sets of coins which share the same iconography and typology. On the Nezak and Alkhan-Nezak Cross over coins, the name of the authority, Nezak Shah, was written in the Pahlavi script as nycky’ MLK’.[10] But in these coins, the Sri Shahi inscription has replaced the Pahlavi legend. The dual languages, one showing influences from the northern slopes of the Hindukush, historical Bactria and Tukharistan, and the other from the southern side, Kabul and Gandhara, is interesting and might suggest that Sri Shahi, whoever that he was, had influence over a wide range of area on both sides of the Hindukush, possibly making him a sub-king of the Western Turk, or an independent ruler – if the second half of the seventh century date that Vondrovec gives him is correct.

Coin of Sri Shahi

Another type of coin that Vondrovec mentions bears a Pahlavi legend on it that reads ybgw bhlk’n, so the Yabghu of Bactrians/Balkh.[11] This title would indicate the authority of the issuer in Balkh and Tukharistan, to the north of the Hindukush. However, Klaus reads a reverse legend on the coins as z’wlst(’n) and speculates that these coins might gave been issued in the area of Zabulistan, to the south of the Hindukush. There is an analogy that is suggested here in comparison with the coins of another authority called “Pangul” (who I have suggested is the same person as Amir Banji mentioned by Minhaj Seraj) who seems to call himself both a ruler in Balkh, while issuing coins with the mint signature of Rakhvad (al-Rukhaj) in the area of modern Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan. I am not sure if this can be entertained though, and have a really hard time reading the inscription there as z’wlst the way Vondrovec does. But aside from the mint, the iconography of two of the coin types is interesting and worth looking into.

Specifically, these are Klaus’ types 265 and 266, both showing a beardless man (Vondrovec p. 528). Klaus suggests that these might be a reference to the teenage Ardashir III who ruled the Sasanian empire for a bit more than a year in 628-629/630 and whose coins show a beardless man. But I don’t quite understand why Ardashir III coins should be reissued, with a whole new iconography added, after his death and much later, in the area of Balkh, where he never held any authority. The beardless bust showing an immature person though, that I understand and support!

Yabghu of Balkh, type 265, possible authority Narseh (Pahl. nrsyh’)… the mint name reads hlbwc (corrupted for Rakhwad?) year 10?

So, who could this beardless man be? My suggestion here is that this is Narseh, the son of Peroz, who has been left in charge of the Tang Command of Persia after his father’s move to Chang’an. We have no idea of Peroz’ age. Presumably his father, Yazdgerd III, was a teenager himself when he was installed in the throne in 632. We might assume that Peroz was born after this, say 635 to have a round number, and when he died in 678/79, he was about 43-44, a respectable age to die in the 7th century, although quite early. Narseh could have been born quite early and be in his early to mid-twenties, or if we assume a later birth (say while his father was “securely” ruling in Sistan in the 650’s and early 660’s), he would be a teenager indeed. So, the young bust for him would be quite appropriate.

The two types that show the beardless man bear a very elaborate crown. This crown carries the wings on the crown of Yazdgerd III, the father of Peroz, but also has a buffalo’s head on top of an elongated “pedestal”. These buffalo heads were first introduced by the Nēzak Shahs and seem to be their invention, so their appearance on these coins say something about the “local” nature of these issues. While they are very Sasanian in style and bear a Pahlavi legend, they also add a local flavour (and thus authority and circulation) by adding a local piece of iconography. The single border reverse also means that these coins are pre-687 (the shared terminus post quem by which Vondrovec dates the relative date of the later coins) and belong to a period before the introduction of Arab-Sasanian coin types to this region. On some of these issues, I read the legends n(?)rsyh’ in Pahlavi, a name that could clearly point to the identity of the authority as Narseh, the son of Peroz.

A related type, 265A, using the same iconography but showing an older, bearded man, in silver and copper drachms. In addition to being bearded, the bust on the reverse is also wearing a crown with a crescent and a star in the front, something that had become associated with the outside margins on the coins of Khosrow II where they appear in four cardinal points. In front of the bust on some of the coins, a Pahlavi inscription can be read, an I provisionally and with much uncertainty propose the reading of kd(y) bwhl(‘)n for it, possibly to be read as Kay Wahram, although the spelling would be significantly different than the normal spelling of Wahram as wlhl’n, so I have great reservations about it. as One thing that unites all these coins, aside from the iconography, is the presence of “tamga S 61”, a sign consisting of a half circle with another sign, resembling an open V with wings. These tamgas appear in the same places that a crescent and a star would appear on the coins of Khosrow II, on the outside margins of the obverse, except one example of it occurring on the reverse as well of the type 265A, variant 3. Coins of type 265A also carry a mint year of 15, although it is not specified based on which calendar. The coins also mainly carry the mint name of LHW, localising them in Rakhwad/Al-Rukhaj, in Sistan. We can only assume that this is a reference to the regnal year of the authority it depicts. I would attribute this related type as either issued by Narseh himself when he was older, or possibly belonging to Peroz, or his brother Wahram?, issued before he had to leave for China.

Yabghu of Balkh, type 265A, possibly with Pahl. kd(y) bwhl(‘)n (Kay Wahram?) on the reverse, mint LHW(d)? (Rakhwad/al-Rukhkhaj?)

The question remains as why the names of the authorities cannot be found on the coin. In my opinion, there are two answers to be given here. One is that these Yabghus, bearing a title that we known from the Hephthalite period onwards, were actually governors of Peroz and Narseh, ruling over some of the dudufus 都督府 of the Tang Persian (Anxi) Protectorate 安西都護府, and thus issuing coins using their title and the position. Alternatively, these are Peroz and Narseh themselves, but that living under Tang suzerainty, they only mention their position as Yabghus of Balkh, on their coins. However, the extension of their power to the southern Hindukush, observed from the spread of the coinage circulation to Zabulistan – much like Sri Shahi – is an indication of their wider influence beyond Balkh, perhaps even expressing their claim to Sistan, from which Peroz had escaped to Balkh.

The administrative divisions of the Tang Empire in the west

[1] Quite a few studies of these, some with more care than others, have been published. The sources are still most easily available in Chavannes, Edouard. 1903. Documents Sur Le Toukiue (Turcs) Occidentaux. St. Petersburg: Commissionnaires de l’Académie Impériale des Sciences. Daffina’s short, but monumental work remains one of the best studies of the subject, Daffinà, Paolo. 1983. “La Persia Sassanide Secondo Le Fonti Cinesi.” Rivista Degli Studi Orientali 57: 121–70. A brief discussion of all these plus newer observations is Compareti, Matteo. 2003. “The Last Sasanians in China.” Eurasian Studies 2 (2): 197–213.

[2] Comparetti 2003, 206. However, see Hamidreza Pashazanous, Ehsan Afkande, “the Last Sasanians in Eastern Iran and China” Anabasis 5 (2014), 139-153 for an argument against this, rather putting Jiling in Tukharistan.

[3] Daryaee, Touraj. 2006. “Yazdgerd III’s Last Year: Coinage and the History of Sistan at the End of Late Antiquity.” Iranistik: Deutschsprachige Zeitschrift Fur Iranistische Studien 5 (1 & 2): 21–29.

[4] Comparetti 2003, 207

[5] For an example of this, see my article identifying certain coins from the area of western Tukharistan as belonging to characters said to be the ancestors of the Amirs of Ghur by the famous 13th century historian, Minhaj Siraj Jowzjani in his Tabaqat-e Nasseri: K. Rezakhani. 2020. “Pangul and Bunji, Zhulad and Fulad: a Note on the Genealogy of the Shanasbid Amirs of Ghur.” In Dinars and Dirhams: Festschrift in Honor of Michael L. Bates, edited by Touraj Daryaee, Judith A. Lerner, and Virginie Rey, 219–30. Irvine: Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture.

[6] For the newest example of this, see Nicholas Sims-Williams. 2020. “The Bactrian Inscription of Jaghori: A Preliminary Reading.” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 30.

[7] Klaus Vondrovec. 2014. Coinage of the Iranian Huns and Their Successors from Bactria to Gandhara (4th to 8th Century CE). Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

[8] For a general review, see Denis Sinor. 1990. “The Establishment and Dissolution of the Türk Empire.” In The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor, I:285–316. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[9] For these, see the excellent work produced by another brilliant Austrian scholar, Matthias Pfisterer, 2013. Hunnen in Indien. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

[10] The reading of this inscription, previously read as Napki Malka and long known as that, is one of the more exciting stories of ancient studies. See J. Harmatta. 1969. Late Bactrian Inscriptions, Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 17, 408, and Richard N. Frye, “Napki Malka and the Kushano-Sasanians,” in Near Eastern Numismatics, Iconography, Epigraphy and History: Studies in Honor of George C. Miles, ed. Dikran K. Kouymjian (Beirut, 1974), 115–22.

[11] There is some debate as how to read this, either as Bactrians or Balkh (see Vondrovec p. 527 and other places). I prefer to consider this “that of Balkh” (in analogy to Ērān) and don’t get too worried if this is a reference to the people or the land.

How I hate WordPress Gutenberg Editor!

Why do technology companies take something that is good and perfectly serviceable and make it more complicated and less user friendly, all in the name of being modern and “cool”? The wordpress classical editor was a familiar editor with everything one needed. If you had worked with any text editor, you could easily use it and it came naturally. Yes, I understand that it was not perfect for “visual” creators who might need to create “new” and “unique” layouts to do their work, but it surely was possible to ADD those features (or actually just to take away the unnecessary restrictions that prevented the creation of such layouts) while leaving the core idea of writing intact? Here, it feels like I am writing on an empty screen with no access to anything, having to go back and do anything I need, including making words bold or into italics. Worse yet, there is no way to edit the title of a post, or in my case, change the direction of it when I want to write in Persian! Why is this done? How is it that in this world of increased globalisation and cross-cultural contacts, we are going BACK to the time when everything was just for the English speaking tech-bros?

Also, wth is a featured image and why do I need it?

Barāyé: a Song of Protest and Compassion

You can now read this entry on Ajam Media Collective’s site: https://ajammc.com/2023/02/09/baraye-irans-song-of-protest/

Zimbabwe 1

I’ve been too overwhelmed by Zimbabwe to write much, although I planned to write a travelogue of it. I’ve actually been very bad in writing travelogues, as I find them essentialist, pretentious observations of a visitor about a place with which they have little familiarity. Most travelogues, particularly those about the places one visits for the first time, in fact become an exercise in reflecting one’s cultural biases on the new circumstances, or actively – and painstakingly – avoiding doing so. I am averse to comparison & value assignment & frequently find travelogues, particularly those written by the First Worlders on the “global south,” quite frustrating and cringy.

Having said all this, here is a quick recap and some observations, as non-judgemental as possible. We arrived here after a few days in South Africa. We spent those few days at a Safari lodge & didn’t spend much time in cities (we had been made afraid of Jo’burg enough!). So we used SA (ZA?) mostly as a stopover. The objective was to visit our friends who’ve recently moved for work reasons to Zimbabwe.

So from the beginning, our exposure to Zim (popular nickname, more prevalent among the White Zimbabweans) was from within a sort of bubble. Our friends are worldly, culturally sensitive, & environmentally conscious (naturally!), but still, we have been in a bubble. A USD spending, best-restaurant-in-Harare dining, pool-side wine sipping “global elite” who can afford to ignore the inconveniences of 4-hours a day electric by using generators & solar batteries. We are living the high-life. Not the highest-life though, as gigantic estates, expensive cars, luxurious golf clubs, and “it don’ matter if you’re Black or White” local elite, wearing Gucci & sucking on Dubai-inspired shisha, make it obvious.

What we’ve seen has been a mixture of the global diaspora (businessmen, Aid workers, diplos, lost souls), local elite, White Africans (some of whom fought other Whites to bring freedom & are local heroes), and odd foreigners from all around finding this a last frontier. There is a feeling that everything is possible, and it truly seems to be the case, for those who have the guts – & the stomach – for it.

But we have also “seen” – passed by, chatted, bought wooden animal carvings from – the locals. Poor, anxious, round-eyed, but extremely decent & honourable locals. The integrity of the people is humbling, and their sharp minds, and almost unbelievably quick wit too. No one begs in the bazaar (two begging boys were odd & gave up after one “no”) & the man with torn up pants & no shoes offering hand carved statues treats his work like an artist does, and expects you to do the same.

Talking & joking is quite easy. We visited the city centre (the “CBD”) once, and it looks very American. It could be a city centre of any American city in a poorer state (it reminded me of Louisville, KN), except the pothole-ful roads (which makes it more like NJ!). Driving is a bit of a challenge, although everyone is very courteous & no one speeds or gets mad. In general, the Shona people (the Bantu speaking population of the northern Zim) seem averse to getting angry: haven’t seen anyone shouting & everyone is smiling wide. Everyone speaks English, sometimes too perfectly, so no communication, comment, joke, or snark is lost. People seem remarkably content, despite all sorts of basic infrastructural problems and obvious poverty. The local money is nonexistent and dollar reigns supreme. The roadside fruits and car parts market (!) had people trading in Zimbabwean dollars (only one of the three or four real and virtual currencies), but I had to ask at the international chic supermarket to be given the return change for USD 1$ in local money (176 Z$ for which I was casually given 180…).

Enough of people perhaps, because nature is the wonder here. Harare is like a big botanical garden, from the odd South American jacaranda lined trees to Acacias and palms and banana trees (oh the bananas!) to roses and waterlilies. Come to think of it, writing about the nature requires another blog. So I will do that later. For now, wow!

CBD… Harare city centre

Sasanians and Early Byzantium: Raids, Tributes, and the Loss of Dara

In most works of modern scholarship concerned with the Sasanian-Byzantine relations in the 6th & 7th centuries, the issue of “tributes” is treated as hyperbole. Basically, claims by the Sasanians, reflected in later narratives like al-Tabari or Shahnama, that the Byzantines paid tributes to the Sasanians are dismissed as exaggerations and “about face” statements, almost the way the Chinese empires claimed to have extracted tribute from everyone! The actual instances of payment, available in abundance in Byzantine sources (Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite, Procopius, Malalas, John of Epiphania, and Menander Protector) are usually considered to be payments either for the mutual defense of both empires on the Caucasus front (the so-called Alan Gate or the Caspian Gate), or as temporary pay offs to keep Sasanians at bay. This second mode contributes to the image of the Sasanians as a predatory entity on the periphery of the Roman world, barely any more sophisticated than pirates and brigands, that needed to be “appeased” and controlled. The persistence of this attitude, often taking Byzantine sources and their use of “Barbarians” for the Sasanians at face value, also signals a certain Eurocentrism/Roman-centrism prevalent in many studies of the ancient world.

The basic assumption behind this is that the sophistication of the Roman/Byzantine administration, including their war-machine, is indisputable and beyond doubt. It is taken for granted that the Roman state undertook all its actions with an eye toward proper strategic approach. In contrast, Roman opponents, be it Germanic tribes beyond the Danube or the Sasanian Empire, were but disorganised polities only few stages removed from raiding parties, with essentially a predatory style of warfare aimed at extracting resources from the Roman state. In this way, the continued references to Roman payments, even on regular, annual basis as mentioned in accounts of Procopius, Menander, or Evagrius, are treated as temporary payments to appease the Sasanians, not regular tributes that created a particular type of relationship between the two empires. This contributes to our lack of attention to the structure of the Sasanian state and the persistent assumption of its simplicity, extending from its administration and military to its economic and social policies – the latter being treated as essentially non-existent, or at most, haphazard in nature and practice.

This is why one sometimes finds references to Roman raiding, in a demonstrably predatory manner, so fascinating. Byzantine sources naturally attempt to present these as part of a larger strategy, something that modern scholars (I don’t want to name names, but just any modern edition of a Primary source) are happy to follow and oblige. But quite often, the fact that these actions are not directed by a greater strategy and are simply actions of greedy regional actors becomes too obvious to ignore. What would then happen if we view these actions through not the view point of imperial decisions makers in Constantinople or Ctesiphon, but from the vantage point of local actors in the frontier zone?

Consider the account of the Byzantine campaign of 573. The event is labelled by many Byzantine scholars as the “failure of the Byzantines to take Nisbis,” betraying an assumption that the events were centrally planned and directed and part of a larger strategy. But the event, given by all sources (Evagrius, Theophylact Simocatta, etc) is very clearly a haphazard, and ill conceived, raid! The story goes that Marcian, appointed by Justin as commander to Dara, basically attacks Nisbis willy nilly, without even having surveyed the field. Initially, his troops go out to take captives and pillage and return to Dara (Chr. 1234, 65). The attack then alarms the Marzban of Nisbis (26 km from Dara) who manages to drive the Byzantine troops back to Dara, presumably through negotiation but without any payments, which shows the former’s position vis-a-vis Marcian and Dara. The subsequent Byzantine raid against Nisibis is so badly done that “the Persians did not think it necessary to close the gates and mocked the Roman army quite disgracefully” for having worked themselves into an embarrassing situation. The result is so humiliating that Marcian is relieved of his post by Justin who sends Acacius Archelaus with an order to replace Marcian while the former is still in the enemy territory!

Of course, the entire thing ends up in a disaster. The unprovoked raid and invasion attempt seems to have annoyed Khosrow I so much that he launches a counterattack. Initially he seems to have crossed the Euphrates at Circesium and threatened Apamean (John Epiph. 4), but quickly turned his attention to Dara itself. He seems to have quite easily captured the fortress, a bone of contention between the two empires since 502, and removed it as a threat to his territories, while extracting 200 centenaria of gold. Khosrow then wonders “God will seek from you all the blood which has been shed; when you possessed all this gold, why did you not give one hundredth of it to me, and I would have left you?”! The loss of Dara of course famously drove Justin to madness and in fact ended his rule.

So, an ill advised raid, undertaken by an inexperienced general, results in the loss of an important frontier fortress for the Byzantines in 573. This loss strengthens the Sasanian position on the NW frontier and probably serves as an indication of the weakness of the Byzantine forces in the region. This is what is eventually exploited by the Sasanians in a large scale invasion of the Byzantine east in the seventh century and the loss of Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt to the combined forces of Khosrow II.

Modern remains of Dara

Perso-Centrism and the Iranian National Identity

Years ago, in 2003, when I was an MSc student at the LSE doing global history, I wrote a Persian article about issues of identity in modern Iran. There I argued that the increasing association of the identity marker of “Persian” with the nation-state identity of Iranian, influenced by a certain late Qajar/Early Pahlavi reading of ancient history, is one of the leading causes of the ethnic disenfranchisement and conflicts we witness today in Iran. This article was badly misunderstood (I was young and did not have the words) and misused (several websites cut it down to half its size, took the footnotes out, and published the parts they thought helps their cause). I decided that instead of trying to remove the article from all those website, I am going to put a PDF only version of it on my website, so people can read and judge it themselves. I still agree with a great part of it, but there are parts that I would completely redo and rewrite. I will do this in English if I were doing it now, but let it be as it is. So, here it is, for the posterity!

New Maps

Here are a couple of new maps I made. As usual, they are free to use for not-for-profit use, but for anything else, including physical printing, you’d need to email me at khodadad-at-ucla-dot-edu and ask for written permission!

New history article

A new article on the Kingdom of Hormuz, the medieval state that dominated the trade in the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman region between the 11th-17th century, is now added. Check it out (improvements, incl. maps, following).