Professor H. E. Wulff The Aqueducts of Iran

The article below is by professor H. E. Wulff. This originally appeared in the CAIS (Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies) venue. The CAIS site is hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav. Note that the article originally appeared in the April 1968 issue of the Scientific American (pages 94 – 105).

This topic of Qanats or ancient Iranian aqueducts has been presented in Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006.  

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A traveler flying over Iran can see plainly that the country has an arid climate. The Iranian plateau is largely desert. Most of Iran (excepting areas in the northwestern provinces and along the southern shores of the Caspian Sea) receives only six to 10 inches of rainfall a year. Other regions of the world with so little rainfall (for example the dry heart of Australia) are barren of attempts at agriculture. Yet Iran is a farming country that not only grows its own food but also manages to produce crops for export, such as cotton, dried fruits, oilseeds and so on. It has achieved this remarkable accomplishment by developing an ingenious system for tapping underground water. The system, called qanat (from a Semitic word meaning “to dig”), was invented in Iran thousands of years ago, and it is so simple and effective that it was adopted in many other and regions of the Middle East and around the Mediterranean.

 

Figure 1: UNDERGROUND AQUEDUCT conveys water gently downhill from the highlands to distribution canals in the and plain below. The water source is the head well (right), which reaches down to the water table. The other shafts provide ventilation and give access for cleaning and repair of the conduit tunnel below. Called qanats after the Semitic word meaning “to dig,” the irrigation systems were invented in Persia during the first millennium B.c. The horizontal tunnel of the qanat is commonly from six to 10 miles long (Picture from CAIS).

The qanat system consists of underground channels that convey water from aquifers in highlands to the surface at lower levels by gravity. The qanat works of Iran were built on a scale that rivaled the great aqueducts of the Roman Empire. Whereas the Roman aqueducts now are only a historical curiosity, the Iranian system is still in use after 3,000 years and has continually been expanded. There are some 22,000 qanat units in Iran, comprising more than 170,000 miles of underground channels. The system supplies 75 percent of all the water used in that country, providing water not only for irrigation but also for house-hold consumption.

 

Figure 2: EXCAVATION OF A QANAT begins at the downhill end after a trial well (right) has successfully tapped the uphill water table. Where the gradually sloping tunnel passes through zones of loose earth (left) hoops of tile support the walls, but a tunnel generally lacks masonry except at the discharge point. Ventilation shafts are dug at intervals of 50 yards or so; earth and rock excavated from the tunnel face are winched to the surface through the shafts. Sightings over a pair of oil lamps help to keep the tunnel diggers’ progress on a straight line. A lamp flame that burns badly also gives warning of bad air. Before the tunnelers break through to the head well, men at the surface hail it dry (Picture from CAIS).

Until recently (before the building of the Karaj Dam) the million inhabitants of the city of Tehran depended on a qanat system tapping the foothills of the Elburz Mountains for their entire water supply.

Discoveries of underground conduits in a number of ancient Roman sites led some modern archaeologists to suppose the Romans had invented the qanat system. Written records and recent excavations leave no doubt, however, that ancient Iran (Persia) was its actual birthplace. As early as the seventh century B.C. the Assyrian king Sargon II reported that during a campaign in Persia he had found an underground system for tapping water in operation near Lake Urmia. His son, King Sennacherib, applied the “secret” of using underground conduits in building an irrigation system around Nineveh, and he constructed a qanat on the Persian model to supply water for the city of Arbela. Egyptian inscriptions disclose that the Persians donated the idea to Egypt after Darius I conquered that country in 518 B.C. Scylax, a captain in Darius’ navy, built a qanat that brought water to the oasis of Karg, apparently from the underground water table of the Nile River 100 miles away. Remnants of the qanat are still in operation. This contribution may well have been partly responsible for the Egyptians’ friendliness to their conqueror and their bestowal of the title of Pharaoh on Darius.

 

Figure 3: TUNNEL CROSS SECTIONS indicate some of the variations possible in qanat conduits. The tunnel walls may be strengthened with tile hoops (a) or where the tunnel passes through clay or well-compacted soil the walls may be left unlined (b). If the head well should go dry and therefore need to he dug deeper, the conduit would also need to be deepened (c) (Picture from CAIS).

References to qanat systems, known by various names, are fairly common in the literature of ancient and medieval times. The Greek historian Polybius in the second century B.C. described a qanat that had been built in an Iranian desert “during the Persian ascendancy.” It had been constructed underground, he remarked, “at infinite toil and expense … through a large tract of country” and brought water to the desert from sources that were mysterious to “the people who use the water now.”

Qanats have been found throughout the regions that came within the cultural sphere of ancient Persia: in Pakistan, in Chinese oasis settlements of Turkistan, in southern areas of the U.S.S.R., in Iraq, Syria, Arabia and Yemen. During the periods of Roman and then Arabian domination the system spread westward to North Africa, Spain and Sicily. In the Sahara region a number of oasis settlements are irrigated by the qanat method, and some of the peoples still call the underground conduits “Persian works.” In the Middle East several particularly interesting qanats constructed by Arab rulers of early medieval times have been excavated. In A.D. 728 the caliph of Damascus built a small qanat to supply water for a palace in the country. A century later the caliph Mutawakkil in Iraq likewise constructed a qanat system, presumably with the aid of Persian engineers, that brought water to his residence at Samarra from the upper Tigris River 300 miles away.

 

Figure 4: REMAINS OF PERSEPOLIS, the ancient capital of Persia built by Darius in 520 B.C., are am the center of the aerial photograph on the opposite page. The rows of small holes resembling pockmarks reveal the presence of several qanat systems below the surface: each hole is the top of a ventilation shaft. Most of the qanats around the ruins of Persepolis were built only a few decades ago (Picture from CAIS).

Thanks to detailed descriptions by several early writers, we have a good idea of the techniques used by the original qanat builders. Vitruvius, the first systematic historian of technology, gave an account of the qanat system in technical detail in his historic work De Architectura (about 80 B.C.). In the ninth century A.D., at the request of a Persian provincial governor, Abdullah ibn-Tahir, a group of writers compiled a treatise on the subject titled Kitab-e Quniy. And about A.D. 1000 Hasan al-Hasib, an Arabian authority on engineering, wrote a technical work that fortunately is still available and gives surprisingly good details of the construction and maintenance of the ancient qanats.

The methods used in Iran today are not greatly different from the system devised thousands of years ago, and I shall describe the system as it can now be observed. The project begins with a careful survey of the terrain by an expert engaged by the prospective builders. A qanat system is usually dug in the slope of a mountain or hillside where material washed down the slope has been deposited in alluvial fans. The surveyor examines these fans closely, generally during the fall, looking for traces of seepage to the surface or slight variations in the vegetation that may suggest the presence of water sources buried in the hillside. On locating a promising spot, lie arranges for the digging of a trial well.

Two diggers, called muqanni, take up this task. They set up a windlass at the surface to haul up the excavated material in leather buckets and proceed to dig a vertical shaft about three feet in diameter, one man working with a mattock and the other with a short-handled spade. As they load the spoil in the buckets, two workers at the surface pull it up with the windlass and pile it around the mouth of the shaft. If luck is with them, the diggers may strike an aquifer at a depth of 50 feet or less. Sometimes, however, they dig down 200 to 300 feet to reach water, and this necessitates installing a relay of windlasses at stages 100 feet apart on the way down.

When they arrive at a moist stratum – a potential aquifer – the diggers scoop out a cavity to its impermeable clay bottom, and for the next few days the leather buckets are dipped into the hole periodically to measure the rate of accumulation of water in it. If more than a trickle of water is flowing into the hole, the surveyor can conclude that he has tapped a genuine aquifer. He may then decide to sink more shafts into the stratum in the immediate area to determine the extent of the aquifer and its yield.

 

 

Figure.5: WINDLASS CREW, sheltered from the sun by an improvised tent, raises a load of accumulated silt in the process of cleaning a qanat conduit tunnel. Standing beside the tent is a child who is needed on this job because the ventilation shafts are smaller than usual (Picture from CAIS).

The surveyor next proceeds to chart the prospective course of an underground conduit through which the water can flow from this head well or group of wells to the ground surface at some point farther down the slope. For the downward pitch of the conduit he selects a gradient somewhere between one foot in 500 and one in 1,500; the gradient must be slight so that the water will flow slowly and not wash material from the bottom of the conduit or otherwise damage it. For his measurements the surveyor uses simple instruments: a long rope and a level. (The ninth-century treatise Kilab-e Quniy described a tubular water level and a large triangular leveling device with a plumb that was then employed in this task.) The surveyor lets the rope down to the water level in the well and marks the rope at the surface to show the depth. This will be his guide for placing the mouth of the conduit; obviously the mouth must be at some point a little below the water level indicated by the rope. A series of vertical shafts for ventilation will have to be sunk from the surface to the conduit at certain measured intervals (perhaps 50 yards) along its path. Consequently the surveyor must determine the depth from the surface for each of these shafts. He uses a level to find the drop in the ground slope from each shaft site to the next and marks the length of this drop on the rope. This tells him how far down from the surface each shaft would have to be dug if the conduit ran a perfectly level course. He then calculates the additional depth to which each should be dug (in view of the prospective pitch of the conduit) by dividing the total drop of the conduit from the well’s water level to the mouth by the number of proposed ventilation shafts.

As the muqanni proceed to dig the conduit itself, guide shafts are sunk to the indicated depths at intervals of about 300 yards to provide information regarding the route and pitch of the conduit for the diggers. They start the excavation of the conduit from the mouth end, digging into the alluvial fan. To protect the mouth from storm-water damage they often line the first 10 to 15 feet of the tunnel with reinforcing stone. The conduit is about three feet wide and five feet high. As the diggers advance they make sure they are following a straight course by sighting along a pair of burning oil lamps. They deposit the excavated material in buckets at the foot of the nearest ventilation shaft, and it is hauled up by their teammates above. The tunnel needs no reinforcement where it is dug through hard clay or a coarse conglomerate that is well packed. When the muqanni come to a boulder or other impassable obstacle, they turn around it and then must recover their bearing toward the next ventilation shaft. They show a good deal of skill in this, relying partly on their sense of direction and partly on listening for the sounds of the diggers working on the vertical shaft ahead. The greatest danger encountered by the muqanni is sandy, soft, friable or otherwise unstable soil, which may cause the roof of the tunnel to collapse on them. In such passages the diggers generally line the excavation with oval hoops of baked clay as they cut away the face of the work. Gases and air low in oxygen also are hazards; the diggers carefully watch their oil lamps for warning of the possibility of a suffocating atmosphere. As the rnuqanni approach the aquifer they must be alert to another danger: the possible flooding of the tunnel by a sudden inrush of water. This hazard is particularly great at the moment of breakthrough into the head well; the well must be emptied or tapped very cautiously if the men are not to be washed down the conduit by a deluge. Because of these hazards muqanni call the qanat “the murderer.” A muqanni always says a prayer before entering a qanat, and he will not go to work co a day he considers unlucky.

Depending on the depth of the aquifer and the slope of the ground, qanats vary greatly in length; in some the conduit from the head well to the mouth is only a mile or two long, and at the other extreme one in southern Iran is more than 18 miles long. Commonly the length is between six and 10 miles. The water discharge obtainable from individual qanats also varies widely. For example, of some 200 qanats in the Varamin plain southeast of Tehran the largest yields 72 gallons per second and the smallest only a quarter of a gallon per second.

 

Figure 6:  TILE HOOPS are piled up near one of the vertical shafts that lead to the conduit tunnel of a qanat under construction in rural Iran. Their presence indicates that the construction crew has encountered a zone of loose earth and must shore up the tunnel walls (Picture from CAIS).

Not until the qanat has been completed and has operated for some time is it possible to determine whether it will be a continuous “runner” or a seasonal source that provides water only in the spring or after heavy rains. Because the initial investment in construction of a qanat is considerable, the owner and builders often resort to probing and laborious devices to enlarge its yield. For example, they may extend branches from the main conduit to reach additional aquifers or excavate the floor of the existing conduit in order to lower it and tap water at a deeper level [see illustration at right on page 97]. A great deal of care is also given to the maintenance of the qanat. The ventilation shafts are shielded at the top with crater-like walls of spoil and sometimes with hoods to prevent the inflow of damaging storm waters. Muqanni are continually kept employed cleaning out silt that is washed into the conduit from the aquifer, clearing up roof cave-ins and making other repairs.

As is to be expected of a system that has existed for thousands of years and is so important to the life of the nation, the building of qanats and the distribution of the water are ruled by laws and common understandings that are hallowed by tradition. The builders of a qanat must obtain the consent of the owners of the land it will cross, but permission cannot be refused arbitrarily. It must be granted if the new qanat will not interfere with the yield from an existing qanat, which usually means that the distance between the two must be several hundred yards, depending on the geological formations involved. When the par ties cannot agree, the matter is decided by the courts, which normally appoint an independent expert to resolve the technical questions at issue.

 

Figure 7: ROW OF CRATERS, each one marking the mouth of a qanat ventilation shaft, runs across an and plain in western Iran. The walls of the craters protect the shafts and the tunnel below from erosional damage from the inflow of water during a heavy desert rainstorm (Picture from CAIS).

Similarly, there are traditional systems for the fair allocation of water from a qanat to-the users. If the qanat is owned by a landowner who has tenant farmers, he usually appoints a water bailiff who supervises the allotment of water to each tenant in accordance with the size of the tenant’s farm and the nature of the crop he is growing. When the peasants themselves own the qanat, as is increasingly the case under the new land reforms in Iran, they elect a trustworthy water bailiff who sees that each farmer receives his just share of the water at the proper time – and who receives a free share himself for his service. The bailiff is guided by an allocation system that has been fixed for hundred of years. For instance, three hamlets in the region of Selideh in western Iran still receive the shares that were allotted to them in the 17th century by the civil engineer in the reign of Shah Abbas the Great. The hamlets of Dastgerd and Parvar are entitled to eight shares apiece and Karton nine shares, and these allocations are built into the outlets from the qanat distribution basin: the outlets at Dastgerd en and Parvar are eight spans wide and the one at Karton is nine spans wide.

The agricultural production made possible by the qanats amply repays the investment in construction and maintenance. My own recent inquiries showed that the return on these investments in value of crops and sale of water ranges from 10 to 25 percent, depending on the size of the qanat, the yield of water and the kind of crop for which it is used. A qanat about six miles long between $13,500 and $34,000 to build, the cost varying with the nature of the terrain. For a qanat 10 to 15 miles long the cost runs to about $90,000.

 

Figure 8: MASONRY MOUTH of an Iranian qanat is equipped with a pair of sluice gates that allow diversion of the water into separate canal systems. The amount of qanat water that may be allotted to village or individual is sometimes determined by decisions made centuries ago (Picture from CAIS).

Construction costs have risen in recent years as the standard of living in Iran improved and labor costs have increased. Moreover, the division of large landholdings into smaller ones under the new land-distribution policy, as well as the introduction of expensive modern machinery has made it difficult for the individual landowners to afford the expense of constructing new qanats or maintaining old ones. Many of these farmers are now drilling wells and using diesel pumps, rather building underground conduits, to bring the water to the surface. Consequently the construction of new qanats may cease, unless the peasants’ newly formed village-cooperatives find it profitable and can raise the necessary capital to built them.

Whatever the future of Iran’s qanat system may be, it stands out today as an impressive example of a determined and hardworking people’s achievement. The 22,000 qanats in Iran, with their 170,000 miles of underground conduits all built by manual labor, deliver a total of 19,500 cubic feet of water per second – an amount equivalent to 75 percent of discharge of the Euphrates River into the Mesopotamian plain. This volume of water production would be sufficient to irrigate three million acres of arid land for cultivation if it were used entirely for agriculture. It has made a garden of what would otherwise have an uninhabitable desert. There are indications that in early times the country had a flourishing vegetation that gradually dried up, partly because of deforestation and the loss of fertile soil by erosion. The Persian people responded to potential disaster with an and farsighted solution that is a classic tribute to human resourcefulness.

 

Figure 9: STREAM OF QANAT WATER flows past a wall-enclosed garden in an Iranian villages. The stream first flows through the town and then is diverted into farm irrigation channels (Picture from CAIS).

Salt Mummies of Iran

Iranian miners working at the Chehr Abad salt mines (located west of the city of Zanjan in Iran’s northwest) made a startling discovery in the winter of 1993. They discovered a human body with long reddish hair, beard and a lower left leg still inside a boot. The body had been buried inside a tunnel which was roughly 45 metres long. Another five bodies were to be discovered in the ensuing years, including those of a woman and teenager.

There were other artefacts found with the body, notably three iron knives, a pair of woollen trousers, a silver needle, sling, parts of a leather rope, a grindstone, and a walnut.

Isotopic analyses have been conducted on five of the salt-preserved “mummies” to help identify their origins and determine the times they had lived.

[Click to Enlarge] The male Salt Mummy of the Chehr Abad salt mines (left) and his left boot and lower leg (right). The boot is of interest as it matches the riding boots of Iranian cavalrymen from the Achaemenid to Sassanian eras (Picture Sources: Past Horizons – pictures edited by Kavehfarrokh.com).

The bodies have been dated to a vast time range between the 4th century BCE (circa Achaemenid era) and 4th century CE (Sassanian era). See the table below for details:

[Click to Enlarge] Radiocarbon dates for the Chehr Abad bodies recovered to date; note the wide time range of the bodies. Clearly, the people buried in these mines were generations apart. There are also indications that these people hailed from different regions as well. (Source: University of Oxford).

There are variations in the geographical origins of these bodies as well. Researchers from the Department of Environmental Sciences, Università Ca’ Foscari in Italy, have matched the osteological samples from various the Iranian sites and those from the salt “mummies” found in the mine.

 Video by Davood Akhavan on the Salt “Mummies” of Chehr Abad.See also video by the National Geographic News.

The isotopic studies have led the Italian researchers to the following hypotheses:

1) Two of the “mummies” may possibly have hailed from the Tehran-Qazvin area, which is consistent with the salt mine region.

2) Two of the “mummies” were probably from Iran’s northeast regions or even modern-day Central Asia.

3) The fifth body appears to have come from further away, possibly from further east (possibly further into Central Asia towards China’s northwest or ancient Mongolia).

 

[Click to Enlarge] One of the mummies (number 4) has been very well preserved; note the details of clothing and personal items and equipment. (Source: University of Oxford).

According to a Tehran Times report, a number of the salt mummies are currently being housed in special showcases under controlled conditions at the Zolfaqari Museum of Zanjan.

 

[Click to enlarge ] One of the Salt Mummies of Chehr Abad displayed in Zanjan’s Zolfaqari Museum (Picture source: Saghar Amir-Azimi of the Cultural Heritage News Agency of Iran).

For further reading on this topic kindly consult:

Ramaroli, V., J. Hamilton, P. Ditchfield, H. Fazeli, A. Aali, R.A.E. Coningham, and A.M. Pollard, The Chehr Abad ‘‘Salt Men’’ and the Isotopic Ecology of Humans in Ancient Iran. American Journal Of Physical Anthropology 143:343–354 (2010). See abstract.

 

Letter to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher Regarding Azarbaijan

Letter to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher Regarding Azarbaijan

To: Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (Chairman-Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee – House Committee on Foreign Affairs)

From : Kaveh Farrokh (PhD)

Regarding: Letter (dated July 26, 2012) to The Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton (US Secretary of State) (download in pdf)

Date: September 1, 2012

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Dear Congressman Rohrabacher,

I am writing this letter to you regarding your letter to the US encouraging the break-up of Iran (a fellow member country at the United Nations) by forcing the secession of its Azarbaijan province.

It is clear that you have adopted or been influenced by post-Soviet era propaganda. In that endeavor I am humbly obliged to address your misconceptions by expostulating the works of non-partisan professors regarding Russo-Soviet (and especially Stalin-era) Persophobic historical revisionism.

You are perpetuating what are essentially propaganda statements from the Soviet era regarding the validity of the existence of a “South” versus “North” Azarbaijan.

Historian Nazrin Mehdiyeva, who is from the Republic of Azarbaijan herself, corroborates this by affirming that:

“…the myth [of a North versus South Azerbaijan] was invented under the Soviets for the purpose of breaking Azerbaijan’s historical links with Iran. To make this historical revisionism more acceptable, the Soviet authorities falsified documents and re-wrote history books. As a result, the myth became deeply ingrained in the population [of the ROA] … as part of the rhetoric.” (Mehdiyeva, 2003, p.280) Full article: Mehdiyeva, N. (2003). Azerbaijan and its foreign policy dilemma. Asian Affairs, 34, pp. 271-.285.

Professor Mehdiyova makes a very important point. The Soviets retained the pan-Turkist invention for Arran and the Khanates. these were now known as ”The Soviet Republic of Azarbaijan”. A quick study of rare historical archives reveals a very cynically self-serving Soviet approach to this affair – note Professor Bartold who noted:

The name “Azerbaijan” for the Republic of Azarbaijan (Soviet Azarbaijan) was selected on the assumption that the stationing of such as republic would lead to that entity Iranian to become one…this is the reason why the name “Azerbaijan” was selected (for Arran)…anytime when it is necessary to select a name that refers to the territory of the Republic of Azarbaijan, we should/can select the name Arran…” (Bartold, 1963, p.217) Source: Bartold, Soviet academic, politician and foreign office official. See Bartold, V.V., Sochineniia, Tom II, Chast I, Izdatelstvo Vostochnoi Literary, 1963).

Bartold’s above quote also hints that the term “Azerbaijan” did not exist as an appellation for the republic of that name. Soviet-era terminology of “Az/e/rbaijan or Azerbaidjanskii (note emphasis on /e/ instead of the traditional /a/) which began in earnest by the 1930s does not corroborate with the linguistic origin of the term which lies in Iranic languages and the Persinate cultural dynamic.

After a thorough study of Soviet and Russian archives Zenkovsky concluded that prior to the rise of the Baku Musavats in 1918:

Azarbaijani [in reference to modern Republic of Azarbaijan and not Azarbaijan in Iran] territory never formed a separate, united state, and even under Persian domination eastern Transcaucasia was divided into a multitude of loosely connected feudal principalities”. The very term ‘Azarbaijan’ was rarely applied before 1917 to the Elizavetopol [Ganja] and Baku provinces which later formed the Azarbaijani Republic, this term being commonly used only for the Persian provinces bordering Russian Transcaucasia” (Zenkovsky, 1960, p.274). (Zenkowsky, 1960, p.94). Text: Zenkoswki, S.A. (1960). Pan-Turkism and Islam in Russia. Harvard University Press.

A leading proponent of the Caucasian khanate’s name change to “Azerbaijan” was Mohammad Amin Rasulzadeh (1884-1955), the first leader of the newly created Republic of Azerbaijan (see photo below). Rasulzadeh was of Iranian origin from Baku, and was in fact heavily involved in the constitutional democratic movement of Iran during the early 1900s (Chaqueri, Cosroe, Origins of Social Democracy in Iran, 2001, p.118, 174-181, 209-210).

 

Mohammad Amin Rasulzadeh (1884-1955) was a leading proponent of changing the name of the Caucasian Khanates into the “Republic of Azarbaijan” on May 1918. He also became the president of that newly created republic. Under his political party (the “Musavats”) the notion of abosrbing the real historical Azarbaijan in Iran was officially proposed. The Soviets who then entered Baku in 1920, expanded on the former Musavat policies to give rise to the “Greater Azarbaijan” myth,

Historical maps serve to consistently demonstrate that the notion of the historical existence of a “Greater Azarbaijan” is false. Kindly see the examples below:

Below is an Ottoman map drafted in 1893:

 

Ottoman map [Click to Enlarge] outlining Western Iran and the Caucasus in 1893.  Note that Azarbaijan is clearly shown to be the land below or to the south of Aras (Araxes) river – the territories corresponding to the present Republic of Azarbaijan were not known as “Azarbaijan”, but variously as the Caucasian khantes (i.e. Baku, Sheki, Nakhchevan, etc.) or as “Albania” or “Arran”.

See also a map from 1742:

 

[Click to Enlarge] Map of the Caucasus in 1742 (part of Senex’s map of the Caspian Sea). Note there is no entity known as “Greater Azarbaijan”. The only reference to Azarbaijan is the province of that name which is clearly marked inside present-day Iran. Note that the location of the region known as Republic of Azarbaijan (since 1918) is identified as “Schirvan” which north of the Araxes River. The only reference to historical Azarbaijan is the Iranian province of that name located to the south of the Araxes river. Picture Source: R. Galichian, The Invention of History: Azarbaijan, Armenia and the Showcasing of Imagination, London: I.B. Taurus (2004)/Yerevan:  PrintInfo Art Books (2009),  pp.30.

The territoryof Schirvan (also known as Arran, Albania, etc.) was a part of Iran as is Azarbaijan today. Note that Schirvan was a distinct provinces of Iran before the Russian conquests of the Caucasus. in the early 19th century, This makes clear one fact:

The notion of a so-called “North” and “South” Azarbaijan that was “divided” is a Soviet-era and pan-Turkist fabrication. Russia simply conquered Iran’s Caucasian provinces in the early 19th century.

 

 

[Click to Enlarge] French Map of Iran or Persia in 1749 (drafted by Robert de Vaugoudy). Note there is no entity known as “Greater Azarbaijuan”. The territories to the north of the Araxes river are not known as “Azarbaijan”. The only Azarbaijan identified resides to the south of the Araxes River which corresponds to the province of that name inside modern Iran’s northwest. Note that many of the regions north of the Caucasus were also part of Persia at the time. Pictures of the Planet.

Despite their victory over Iran, the Czarist Russians were determined to stamp out the Caucasus’ Persian cultural legacy as they colonized the region in the 19th century. According to Professor Hostler:

This cultural link between the newly conquered country [modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan, historically known as Arran until May 1918] and its still strong Persian neighbor annoyed Russia who tried to destroy it by supporting local Turkish cultural developments“(Hostler, 1957, p.22). Text: Hostler, C. W. (1957). Turkism and the Soviets: The Turks of the World and their Political Objectives. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Professor Zenkowski notes that despite the finalization of Russian conquests by 1826 (Treaty of Turkmenchai):

“…the Persian language remained the main language of administration in these provinces [Karabagh, Ganja, Sheki, Shirvan, Derbend, Kuba, Baku, and Talysh] until the reforms of 1840…the Persian tongue continued to be spoken in the courts until the 1870s…Persian also remained the language of the upper classes and of literature” (Zenkowsky, 1960, p.94). Text: Zenkoswki, S.A. (1960). Pan-Turkism and Islam in Russia. Harvard University Press.

Note that none of those Caucasian khanates cited by Zenkoswku were called “Azarbaijan”. The local authorities in the khanates were either Persian-speaking or of aristocracies who spoke Persian. The Shiite clergy who held considerable influence over the local courts and schools, helped maintain the influence of Iranian culture in the Caucasus.

 

[Click to Enlarge] Kuban Cossacks enjoy and repose with a cup of tea pr “Chai” in the Perso-Turkish style in early 20th century or late 19th century. Even their dress is based on Old Iranian riding costume worn by the ancient Medes, Persians and Scythians. The Communists worked very hard to stamp out all “Oriental” – meaning Persian – influences from mainstream culture in the Slavic and Turkic regions of the Soviet Union (including the Caucasus and Central Asia). The Soviet Union also promoted its Persophobic philosophies by publishing books and distributing these its Moscow and Baku outlets.

As noted by Professor Swietochowski:

The hold of Persian as the chief literary language in [the current Republic of ] Azerbaijan was broken, followed by the rejection of classical Azerbaijani, an artificial, heavily Iranized idiom that had long been in use along with Persian, though in a secondary position. This process of cultural change was initially supported by the Tsarist authorities, who were anxious to neutralize the still-widespread Azerbaijani identification with Persia.” (Swietochowski, 1995, p.29). Text: Swietochowski, T. (1995). Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Few are aware that the Czarist Russians and their Communist successors began an intense Persophobic campaign to erase the Caucasus of its Persian heritage.

 

[Click to Enlarge] Cartoon of the Czarist-supervised Mulla Nassreddin Magazine which often published anti-oriental cartoons in the Caucasus, especially against Iran and Persian speakers. The above cartoon portrays Persian-speakers as donkeys with large feet, a visual way of portraying Persian-speakers as dumb and stupid. The Shahs of Iran are portrayed as cruel, and destructive despots. Picture source: Azer.com.

Cartoons like the one shown above were part of the Russian Czarist propaganda campaign to show Iran as a backward and ignorant “oriental” country. The notion of equating the Persian language with the “braying of a donkey…” was first made by Hassan Majidi Zardabi (or Hasan Bey Zardabi) , the chief editor of the Ikenci newspaper (1875-1877) published in Baku (consult Hajibely, Jeyhoun Bey, 1930, “The Origin of the National Press in Azerbaijan” in The Asiatic Review, 26(88, p 757). Much of this anti-Persian propaganda was to continue into the Soviet era and beyond.

Professor Thorez (see article Caucasus and Iran” in the Encyclopedia Iranica) also corroborates these facts by reporting that:

Although throughout history the Caucasus has usually been incorporated in political entities belonging to the Iranian world…Russia took it…from the Qajars (1779-1924), severing those historical ties.”

Shireen Hunter, who (like myself) is of Iranian-Azarbaijani descent, notes the following:

In the Republic of Azerbaijan, the long Soviet practice of historic falsification has left a legacy which has distorted …the views of …the true nature of their cultural, ethnic and historic connections…The first myth is that there was an ancient Azerbaijani state which incorporated most of what is currently northern Iran…. Yet, historically, the Republic of Azerbaijan was not known by this name until 1918, … using this myth to justify irredentist claims toward Iranian territory. The second myth is that the division of united and ancient Azerbaijan into two separate regions was the result of a Russo-Iranian conspiracy… The third myth is that the Persians colonized and oppressed the Azerbaijanis… the indigenous Iranian peoples…were linguistically colonized as a result of Turkic invasions… However, even the most ardent pan-Turkists are aware – as indeed were the Communists – of the historic falsity of their views. They freely admit this in private and argue that the reason for their continued promotion of these themes is to help strengthen nationalist feelings and to forge a purely Turkic Azerbaijani identity.”” (Hunter, 1998, pp.106-107) Full article: Hunter, S. (1998). Iran and Transcaucasia in the post-Soviet era, in D. Menashri (ed.), Central Asia meets the Middle East, London: Frank Cass Publishers, pp. 98-128.

 

[Click to Enlarge] Map of Iran in 1805 before the invasions of Czarist Russia. Note the Caucasus, north of Iran and along the eastern Caspian littoral, which was Iranian territory. There was no “Greater Azerbaijan” supposedly “divided” between Iran and Russia. Russia invaded Iran and forced her to cede the Caucasus. Iran also lost important eastern territories such as Herat, which broke away with British support.  Picture source from CAIS.

As noted by Professor Roy with respect to those territories situated above the Araxes north of the historical Azarbaijan province in Iran:

The concept of Azeri identity barely appears at all before 1920. Up until that point Azerbaijan had been a purely geographical area. Before 1924, the Russians called Azeri Tatars “Turk” or “Muslims“ (Roy, 2007, p. 18) Full text: Roy, O., The New Central Asia, I.B. Taurus, 2007.

 

 

[Click to Enlarge] A British map of Qajar Persia in 1814. Note the absence of a “Greater Azarbaijan”. Picture source: Fouman.com.

Professor Kaufman has observed that:

In fact, the very name “Azerbaijani” was not widely used until the 1930s; before that Azerbaijani intellectuals were unsure whether they should call themselves Caucasian Turks, Muslims, Tatars, or something else” (Kaufman, 2001, p. 56). Full text: Kaufman, S., Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War, Cornell University Press, 2001].

Below is an actual map drafted during the Arab caliphates which reveal the historical Azarbaijan being in Iran and distinct from Arran (modern Republic of Azarbaijan):

 

[Click to Enlarge] A map drawn by Ibn Hawqal (ابن حوقل) during the Arab caliphates which shows the clear distinction between Arran (north east Caucasus just above Araxes), Armenia (north/northwest Caucasus just above Araxes River) and Azarbaijan inside Iran and below the Araxes River. Ibn-Hawqal:clearly cited the Araxes River as the southern limit of Arran.

Here are more examples of the Arran (modern Republic of Azarbaijan since 1918)-Azarbaijan distinction made by Islamic and medieval era cartographers and historians:

  • The Hodud-ol-Alam Text (10th century AD): Cites the Araxes River as the northern limit of Azerbaijan. The Araxes River divides the historical Azarbaijan in Iran (south of the River) versus the north of that River which was not called “Azarbaijan”.
  • Ibn Khordadbeh (ابن خردادبه) made a clear distinction between Arran and Azarbaijan.
  • Al-Muqaddasi (10th Century AD): Divided Persia into eight regions which include both Azarbaijan and Arran. Defines Arran as being situated between the Caspian Sea and the Araxes River.
  • Yaqut Al-Hamavi (13th Century AD) (یاقوت حمودی، ): Defines Arran and Azarbaijan as distinct territories with the Araxes River forming the boundary between them. Arran defined as north and west of the Araxes, with Azarbaijan to the south of the River
  • Borhan-e-Qate (فرهنگ برهان قاطع) (Completed 1602 or 1632 CE– during the Safavid era): Aras (Araxes) defined as a river flowing past Tbilisi in Georgia and forming the boundary between Arran and Azarbaijan..
  • Hamdollah Mostofi (حمداله مستوفی): makes a clear distinction between Arran and Azarbaijan being divided by the Araxes River.
  • Abu al-Fadai Dameshqi (ابوالفدائ دمشقی): makes a clear distinction between Arran and Azarbaijan being divided by the Araxes River.

The same distinction in antiquity and pre-Islamic times is seen between Azarbaijan (in Iran) below the Araxes River versus Arran (in the Caucasus above the Araxes River with Strabo (64/63 BC-23 AD) who noted that the people of Iranian Azarbaijan (known as Media Atropatene at the time of Strabo) as Iranians with Persian as their language (Strabo, Geographica, see p. 17-18). Another example is Arrian (92-c. 175 AD) who noted that the region north of the Araxes River is cited as “Albania” and south of the Araxes as “Media Atropatene”.

 

[Click to Enlarge] Sassanian Emperor, Shapur I (r. 241-270 CE)شاپور اول ساساني ] , cited Albania and Media Atropatene as two separate provinces of the Persian Empire. Professor Mark Whittow’s map of Oxford University clearly shows the historically attested distinction between ancient Arran/Albania and the original Azarbaijan in Iran. Note how the Araxes River separates Arran from the historical Azarbaijan (in Iran).

Professor Whittow has clearly noted that:

The oldest outside influence in Trans-Caucasia is that of Persia…many of its populations, including Armenians and Georgians, as well as Persians and Kurds, the Transcaucasus had much closer ties with the former Sassanian world to its south and east than with the world to the west”. Whittow, 1996, p.203-204. Text: Whittow, M. (1996). The Making of Byzantium: 600-1025. Berkley: University of California Press.

These references continue well into the post-Islamic era. Another primary Arab historian, Al-Mas’udi, notes clearly that:

The Persians are a people whose borders are the Mahat Mountains and Azarbaijan up to Armenia and Arran [modern Republic of Azarbaijan since 1918], and Bayleqan and Darband, and Ray and Tabaristan and Masqat and Shabaran and Jorjan and Abarshahr, and that is Nishabur, and Herat and Marv and other places in land of Khorasan, and Sejistan and Kerman and Fars and Ahvaz…All these lands were once one kingdom with one sovereign and one language… although the language differed slightly. The language, however, is one, in that its letters are written the same way and used the same way in composition. There are, then, different languages such as Pahlavi, Dari, Azari, as well as other Persian languages.” Source: Al Mas’udi, Kitab al-Tanbih wa-1-Ishraf, De Goeje, M.J. (ed.), Leiden, Brill, 1894, pp. 77-8.

There are also academic references to the role of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) of the Soviet in deliberately falsifying history to suit imperialist purposes. Professor Kolarz for example noted of Stalin’s statement with respect to Nizami Ganjavi:

“…the great poet of our brotherly ‘Azerbaidzhani people’ who must not be surrendered to Iranian literature, despite having written most of his poems in Persian.” (Kolarz, 1952, p. 246.). Text: Kolarz, W. (1952). Russia and her Colonies. London: George Philip.

Stalin wanted to twist the facts of history to give the false impression that (a) Nezami was Turkic in origin and (b) wrote his “other” poems in Turkish. This does not jive with mainstream historians who acknowledge that Nezami was “…one of the famous Persian poets…” and “…wrote exclusively in Persian” (From the Brockhaus and Efrona Encyclopedia as cited by HOEB article of Moscow, Russia – Full text of report by Amal Tarzan-Zade entitled “Monument to Great Persian poet opened in St. Petersburg” posted on-line at Noev Kovcheg).

For more on this topic consult:

 

 Falsifiers of history: the late Ziya Bonyadov (1921-1997) (left) and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) (right). Stalin continued the former Czarist regime’s Persophobic policies by promoting the “Greater Azarbaijan” myth in which he referred to Iranian historical icons as “Azarbaiajni historical figures”. Stalin’s myths (called “Stalin’s school of historical falsification by Leon Trotsky) have been adopted by the modern day citizens of the Republic of Azarbaijan. Ziya Bonyadov for example deliberately falsified history to omit the fact that Babak Khorramdin is identified as a Persian in ancient sources. Instead, he promoted Stalinist terminology which is essentially Persophobic.

Communists and pan-Turk activists have often falsified historical facts to promote their political agenda. The role of Stalin in such processes was even criticized by ardent Communist Leon Trotsky.

 

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) one of the ideological founders of the former Soviet Union. Trotsky who was finally deported from Russia in 1929, was highly critical of Stalin’s falsification of history to suit political purposes, a process which he characterized as “Stalin’s School of Falsification”. One of the results of “Stalin’s School” was the rewriting of Iran’s cultural, linguistic and historical legacy in the Caucasus. Trotsky himself was brutally murdered by Stalin’s agents in Mexico in August 20, 1940.

But perhaps you may wish to consult those Iranians of Azarbaiajni descent (whom you choose to call “South Azarbaijanis”). You may have fallen victim to the propaganda of Baku lobbyists and their supporters. You may not realize that vast majority of Iranian Azarbaijanis reject (and are also insulted by) your letter.

I was profoundly shocked by your letter as an Iranian with Azarbaijani roots. Perhaps pictures speak louder than any words I could convey. Kindly see these below:

 

[Click to Enlarge] Iranian Azarbaijanis carrying protest notes against Baku propaganda. [LEFT] The poster held by the lady wearing a red-white scarf reads “Demand of the Iranian People: Repeal the Turkmenchai and Golestan treaties”. These refer to treaties in which Imperial Russia forced Iran to relinquish all of its historical possessions in the Caucasus in the early 19th century. Once Czarist Russia began its occupation of the Caucasus, it began a relentless anti-Persian cultural offensive, a policy which continued into the Communist era (till 1990) and continues to this day by the Baku government and its Western lobbies [RIGHT] Iranian Azarbaijani girl holds a caption which reads “Country means Persian Gulf”. Photos by Ariaman.

Iranian Azarbaijanis have been Iran’s culture bearers in both pre and post-Islamic times, a fact which has been virtually erased from Baku’s history books. Interestingly many of the pictures shown above were ignored in the Baku media and the West.

You may of course be aware of racist and fascistic lobbyists from Baku who are consistently trying to recruit Iranian Azarbaijnis (especially in California) to then lobby in the US and Western governments?

With a few isolated exceptions, these efforts have met with spectacular failures. Kindly see the picture and caption below:

 

[Click to Enlarge] The Hercules of Iran: Hossein Rezazadeh seen above weighing in at 156.6 kg for the 2004 Games, Rezazadeh is the first Iranian to win two Olympic gold medals and enjoys a hero status across Iran. It was in November 2002 when Rezazadeh stated publically in Istanbul in November 2002 that “I am an Iranian and love my country and people” (see report in Payvand News). This was in response to Naim Suleimanoghlu’s (see inset) attempt to get Rezazadeh (an Iranian-Azari) to renounce his Iranian identity in favor of 10 million Dollars, luxury cars and Turkish citizenship. Rezazadeh represents the vast majority of Iranian Azaris who identify themselves as Iranians.

The video below makes clear that Iranian azaris reject the current policie sof the Baku authorioties to falsify history.

-سخنرانی یکی از فعالین آذری زبان صدای موج سبز لندن- Iranian Azari Green Movement activist in London speaks in Azari Turkic against pan-Turk activists and highlights their historical falsifications. At the end of the video, he and all other Green Movement activists chant “Payande Iran” (Long Live Iran).

It is at this juncture where I am happy to share with you the new book by Professor Garnik Asatrian (Chair, Iranian Studies Department, Yerevan State University; Editor, “Iran and the Caucasus”, BRILL, Leiden-Boston) entitled: The Ethnic Composition of Iran (published August 29, 2012)

Professor Asatrian’s book, which will become a major reference text in academia, adresses the false myths regarding Iran with respect to ethnic identities, territories, etc. In addition, the text deals with the following domains:

  • The anthropological, historical and linguistic aspects of the formation of the population of Iran from ancient times to the present.
  • Demonstration that Iran is not a multiethnic country but rather a mono-ethnic construct with linguistic diversity.
  • Scientific studies showing that much of Iranian population is the direct continuation of the Iranian plateau’s population before the Indo-European migrations.
  • The real statistics of Azarbijanis in Iran and their number.
  • The book is currently in Russian and will most likely be translated into English and Persian.

There is one final point we must adress: the tragedy that continues to take place within the Republic of Azarbaijan today. There are gross Human Rights violations that have been taking place since the Communist era and which continue to this day. These are the forced assimilation policies of the Republic against the region’s Talysh and Lezgian minorities. Please consult the following:

It is my sincere hope that you consider drafting a letter defending the human rights of these oppressed minorities to your colleagues in Congress.

 

An undated photo of a Talysh woman and her child. Despite massive Russian and later Soviet political pressure, ethno-engineering efforts and funding, the Talysh have retained their Iranic identity in Arran (modern Republic of Azarbaijan).

Sincerely Yours

Kaveh Farrokh (PhD)

 

Professor Shapour Shahbazi: The Parthian Army

The posting below highlights the late Professor Shapour Shahbazi’s discussion of the Parthian army which was orginally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1986 .

For more on Parthian Military History click on the picture below:

Kindly note that a number of pictures displayed in the Shahbazi article below are from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006; Farrokh’s textbook  Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-) as well as venues such as the Civilization Fanatics Center and Ancientbattles.com.

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The Greco-Persian wars and Alexander’s victories proved that light-armed troops could not stop heavy, well-trained, and brilliantly led infantry of the type of hoplites or phalanx. These could only be encountered with heavily armed and highly professional cavalry causing disorder in the massed ranks and then attacking them on vulnerable points with bowshots capable of piercing armor and lances effective against shields. This lesson went home with the Parthians who in ousting the Seleucids from Iran had ample opportunity to experience the effect of heavily armed professional infantry led by Macedonian kings, and soon came to learn about the armament, tactics, and strategy of the Roman empire as well. So they formed their armies on sound bases, taking into consideration what was needed and what was available to them.

34-Map of Parthian Empire 44 BC to 138 AD

[Click to Enlarge] Map of the Parthian Empire in 44 BCE to 138 CE (Picture source: Farrokh, page 155, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا).  

In extent, the Parthian empire was smaller than that of the Achaemenids; it was also far less centralized. It lacked, for instance, a standing army (Herodian 3.1). There were of course the garrisons of towns and forts as well as armed retinues of tribal chiefs, feudal lords, and of the Great King himself, but these were limited and disunited. The military concerns were conditioned by the feudal system: when the need arose, the Great King appealed to his subordinate kings (there were 18 of them at one time: Pliny, Natural History 2.26), regional, and tribal lords and garrison commanders to muster what they could and bring them to an appointed place at a given time (Herodian, loc. cit.). The feudal lords and officials brought the mustering levies (*hamspāh: E. Herzfeld, Altpersische Inschriften, Berlin, 1938, pp. 313f.), and sometimes supplemented them with foreign mercenaries (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.9.2, 22.3.4; on the mercenaries in general see J. Wolski, “Le rôle et l’importance des mercenaries dans l’état parthe,” Iranica Antiqua 5, 1965, pp. 103ff.). The backbone of the army (Parth. spā’) and the chief power of controlling the empire consisted of the Parthians themselves. Accustomed from an early age to the art of horsemanship and skilled in archery, the Parthian secured a reputation that is still echoed in the Persian term pahlavān (< Pahlav < Parθava) while Parthian tactic and shooting are examplary in military histories.

30-Parthian Cavalry officers and banners

[Click to Enlarge] Parthian cavalry and banners (Picture source: Farrokh, page 130, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا– these drawings originally appeared by Zoka in the 2,500 Year Celebrations of the Persian Empire in 1971).  

The nature of their state and political conditions combined with lessons of history enforced an unusual military structure in Parthia: North Iranian nomads constantly threatened eastern borders while in the west first the Seleucids and then the Romans were ever ready for full-scale invasions. Any stratagem against such a double danger required rapid mobility for going from Armenia to the Jaxartes on short notice; and the solution the Parthians found was to rely on cavalry (asbārān; ʾsbʾr attested in Nisa documents; V. G. Lukonin in Camb. Hist. Iran III/2, 1983, p. 700). It is true that Parthian armies did have foot soldiers, but their numbers were small and their function insignificant (Plutarch, Crassus 19; Appian, Bella civilia 2.18). On tactical considerations, too, only the cavalry could be useful to the Parthians, for the nomads of the east could easily break through any infantry that the Parthians were able to muster, while no Parthian infantry could have matched the Roman phalanxes on the western front. The Parthian nobles (āzāt, misunderstood by Greek and Roman sources as “free-men,” Lukonin, loc. cit.) formed the army by bringing along their dependants (misunderstood by Greek and Roman sources as “slaves,” Lukonin, ibid.). The example par excellence was Sūrēn who was not yet thirty years old when he vanquished Crassus: he came escorted by a thousand heavy-armed horsemen and many more of the light-armed riders, so that an army of 10,000 horsemen was formed by his bondsmen and dependants (Plutarch, Crassus 21 ). 400 Parthian āzāts threw an army of 50,000 mounted warriors against Mark Antony (Justin 41.2).

 

Parthian armored lancer (Picture Source: Civilization Fanatics Center).

Experience had shown that light cavalry—armed with a bow and arrows and probably also a sword—was suitable for skirmishes, hit-and-run tactics, and flank attacks, but could not sustain close combat (Justin, loc. cit.; Plutarch, Crassus 24; G. Rawlinson, The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy, London, 1873, p. 405). For the latter task, heavy cavalry (cataphracti) was formed, which wore steel helmets (Plutarch, Crassus 24), a coat of mail reaching to the knees and made of rawhide covered with scales of iron or steel that enabled it to resist strong blows (ibid., 18, 24, 25; Justin, loc. cit.; on the description of the armor worn by the cataphracti given by the third-century story writer Heliodorus of Emesa, Aethiopica 9.15, see F. Rundgren, “Über einige iranische Lehnwörter im Lateinischen und Griechischen,” Orientalia Suecana 6, 1957, pp. 31-65 esp. pp. 33ff. with references). This was akin to the lamellar armor of the Sacians of the Jaxartes who in 130 B.C. overthrew the Greco-Bactrian kingdom (A. D. H. Bivar, “Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier,” Dumbarton Oaks Paper 26, 1972, pp. 273f.). The charger too was covered from head to knees by armor made of scale armor said to have been of steel or bronze (Justin, loc. cit., Plutarch, Crassus 24). An actual example of this horse-armor was found at Dura Europos (M. I. Rostovtzeff, The Excavations at Dura-Europos: Preliminary Report of the Second Season, New Haven, 1931, pp. 194ff.), while a famous graffito of the Parthian cataphract from the same site clearly demonstrates his full panoply (idem, Caravan Cities, Oxford, 1932, p. 195; F. E. Brown, “Sketch of the History of Horse Armor,” in M. I. Rostovtzeff and A. R. Bellinger, eds., The Excavations at Dura-Europos: Preliminary Report of the Sixth Season of Work, New Haven, 1936, pp. 444ff.).

 

[Click to Enlarge] Horse armor (Bargostvan) constructed of metal scales discovered at Dura Europus mounted on leather for a horse (Picture source: Stlcc.edu).

For offensive weapons the cataphract had a lance and a bow. The spear was of unusual thickness and length (Plutarch, Crassus 27, Antony 45; Dio Cassius 40.22; Herodian 4.30), and was used with such skill—relying on its weight—and power that it “often had impetus enough to pierce through two men at once” (Plutarch, Crassus 27). The bow was of the powerful and large compound type which outranged Roman weapons and its arrows, shot with swiftness, strength, and precision, penetrated the armor of the legionaries (Plutarch, Crassus 18, 24; see further Rawlinson, op. cit., p. 404; N. C. Debevoise, A Political History of Parthia, Chicago, 1938, p. 86; F. E. Brown, “A Recently Discovered Compound Bow,” Seminarium Kondakovianum 9, 1937, pp. 1-10). The cataphract was probably equipped with a knife as well (Rawlinson, loc. cit.). So armed and thus skilled, he was one of the ablest and most feared soldiers of antiquity (on the cataphract see in more detail O. Gamber, “Grundriss einer Geschichte der Schutzwaffen des Altertums,” Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien 52, 1966, pp. 7ff. esp. pp. 49-52; idem, “Katafrakten, Clibanarii, Normanenreiter,” ibid., 64, 1968, pp. 7ff.; B. Rubins’s summary of Drevniĭ Khorezm by S. P. Tolstov, Moscow, 1948, in Historia 4, 1955, pp. 264ff.). The Parthian army was at times additionally supported by camel-borne troops (Herodian 4.28, 30). The animal could bear the weight of the warrior and his armor better and endure harshness longer than the horse; also, the archer could discharge his arrows from an elevated position. These would have made the division very desirable had it not been greatly hampered by Roman caltrop (tribulus) which, scattered on the battlefield, injured the spongy feet of the animal (ibid.).

 

A reconstruction of the face on the statue of a Parthian nobleman housed at Tehran’s Iran Bastan Museum (Picture Source: Parthian Empire).

The Parthian tactic was that of harassing the enemy by the hit-and-run action, dividing his forces by pretending retreat and enticing pursuit but then turning unexpectedly back and showering the foe with deadly arrows, and, finally when he was reduced in number and courage, to surround him, and destroy him with volleys of missiles. The tactic was thus unfavorable to close combat operation, and inefficient in laying siege to forts and walled towns; nor could the Parthians sustain long campaigns, especially in the winter months (Rawlinson, op. cit., pp. 406ff.). Since they lacked siege-engines, the Parthians made no use of Roman machines whenever they captured them (Plutarch, Antony 38). And since the army was composed mainly of the dependants of the āzāts, it had to disband sooner or later and go back to the land and the crops. The Parthian general desired to bring to a close a campaign as soon as possible and return home. When the Great King led the army this haste was doubled by the fear of insurrection at home, the frequency of which was the greatest weakness of the Parthian empire. The battle was furious: war cries and kettledrums resounded from all sides, setting fear in enemy ranks (Plutarch, Crassus 23, 26; Justin 41.2; Herodian 4.30); mounted on the light horse the archers showered the enemy with volley after volley, and then retreated but again turned back to shoot while the charger was at full gallop—an ancient art which came to be known as “the Parthian shot” (M. L. Rostovtzeff, “The Parthian Shot,” AJA 47, 1943, p. 174ff.). Then the shock cavalry (cataphracts) moved in, still avoiding hand-to-hand combat but picking up the enemy with their missiles and piercing them with the heavy lance. Charging on large and trained war horses (see under Asb), of which some were brought as reserves (Dio Cassius 41.24), the Parthians avoided the deficiency of the Achaemenid cavalry by carrying camel-loads of arrows for use in the field as soon as their archers ran out of their own; this enabled sustained and effective long-range engagements and reduced the number of the enemy rapidly (Plutarch, Crassus 25, see further Rawlinson, op. cit., pp. 160f.; 402ff.).

 Parthian Shiva-tir (Horse Archers) engaged in discharging their missiles (Source: Ancientbattles.com). 

The organization of the Parthian army is not clear, and lacking a standing force, a strict and complicated organization was unnecessary in any case. The small company was called wašt; a large unit was drafš; and a division evidently a gund (G. Widengren, “Iran, der grosse Gegner Roms: Königsgewalt, Feudalismus, Militarwesen,” in H. Temporini and W. Haase, eds., Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II/9.1, 1976, 220ff. esp. pp. 281f.). The strength of a drafš was 1,000 men (Lucian cited by A. Christensen, Smeden Kāväh og det Gamle Persiske Rigsbanner, Copenhagen, 1919, pp. 23f. [tr. J. M. Unvala, “The Smith Kaveh and the Ancient Persian Imperial Banner,” Journal of the Cama Oriental Institute 5, 1925, pp. 22ff. esp. p. 37 n. 2]), and that of a corps 10,000 (cf. Sūrēn’s army). It seems, therefore, that a decimal grade was observed in the organization of the army. The whole spā’ was under a supreme commander (the Great King, his son, or a spā’pat, chosen from the great noble families). The largest army the Parthians organized was that brought against Mark Antony (50,000: Justin 41.2). At Carrhae the proportion of the lancers to the light horse was about one to ten, but in the first and second centuries the number and importance of the lancers as the major actors of the battle-field increased substantially (Bivar, op. cit., pp. 274-75). The Parthians carried various banners, often ornamented with the figures of dragons (Christensen, op. cit., tr. Unvala, pp. 37f.), but the famous national emblem of Iran, the Drafš-e Kāvīān, appears to have served as the imperial banner (ibid., p. 39). The Parthians marched swiftly but very seldom at dark (Plutarch, Crassus 29; Antony 47). They used no war chariots, and confined the use of the wagon to transporting females accompanying commanders on expeditions (Rawlinson, op. cit., p. 409).

Royal family members at Hatra  (Picture source: Farrokh, page 150, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا).  

The Parthian period holds an important place in military history. Several Parthian kings—including the first and the last—fell in action, and their three century-long conflicts with Rome had profound effects on Roman military organization. For they not only succeeded in repulsing repeated Roman attempts at the conquest of Iran, but they inflicted severe defeats—even in their last days—upon the Roman invaders; and to face the long-range fighting tactics of the Parthian armored cavalry and mounted archers, the Romans started to supplement their armies of heavy and drilled infantry with auxiliary forces of riders and bowmen, thereby increasingly modifying traditional Roman arms and tactics (for details see E. Gabba, “Sulle influenze reciproche degli ordinamenti militari dei Parti e dei Romani,” in La Persia e il mondo greco-romano. Rome, 1966, pp. 51ff.).

Partho-Sassanian belt buckle dated to the 2nd or 3rd century CE (Picture source: Farrokh, page 143, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا).  

The Parthians finally submitted to an Iranian dynasty which had close links with them and retained the power of their nobility, one reason for their defeat being that while they still wore the old style lamellar armor, the Sasanians went to battle with the Roman type mail shirt, i.e., armor of chain links, which was more flexible and afforded better protection (Bivar, op. cit., p. 275).

Professor Shapour Shahbazi: The Sassanian Army

The posting below highlights the late Professor Shapour Shahbazi’s discussion of the Sassanian army which was orginally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1986 .

The notion of deriding the martial facets of Iran’s history can be partially traced to the political activities of the Iranian left and religious right mainly during the 1950s – 1970s, although the roots of Iranian anti-Iranism may be traced to earlier decades. There are presently links between Eurocentrists and similar minded Iranian anti-Iranists who share an antipathy towards Iranian military history and the legacy of Iranian history in general.

Trailer for the Arabian military history series “Omar”. The movie carefully avoids mention of the fact that Sassanian Persia and the Romano-Byzantine Empire had fought a devastating 22-year old war which resulted in the deaths of close to 400,000+ warriors on both sides (see Nabil Rastani: the Ancient World War and pages 256-261 in Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-). The Arabs attacked just 8-9 years after the Sassanian-Byzantine ceasefire in 628 CE, catching both empires when they were at the height of their military exhaustion.  In short, the Arabs were not facing legions of first-rate and battle-experienced warriors when they invaded the Sassanian and Romano-Byzantine Empires. The movie also falsifies information by portraying the Elite Sassanian knights or Savaran (Arabic: Asawira) as cowardly when in fact Greco-Roman and even Arabo-Islamic historical sources contradict this. Perhaps the most important omission in the movie is the fact that numbers of Iranians actually joined the invading forces to fight against the Sassanian Empire. On the other hand, the movie correctly portrays the military equipment of the Arabs at the time; the Arabs for example carried straight swords rather than the later curved sabres of Turkish origin.

The latest research by Dr. Parvaneh Pourshariati indicates that the fundamental reason for the fall of the Sassanians was due to the process of political disintegration between the Arsacids (Parthian) clans and the Sasanian royal family. For more on this topic see:

Parvaneh Pourshariati (2008). Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire: The Sasanian-Parthian Confederacy and the Arab Conquest of Iran (International Library of Irani. I. B. Tauris.  See Foreword (translated to Persian) by Khashayar Rokhasani –پیشگفتار: خشایار رُخسانی; See first chapter (translated to Persian) –نشیب و فروپاشی فرمانروایی ساسانی(pdf).

For more on Sassanian Military History click on the picture below:

Kindly note that a number of pictures displayed in the Shahbazi article below are from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006; as well as various textbooks such as Ian Hughes’ textbook –Belisarius-the Last Roman General and Farrokh’s texts اسواران ساسانی– Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005 and Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-.

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The Iranian society under the Sasanians was divided—allegedly by Ardašīr I—into four groups: priests, warriors (artēštār), state officials, and artisans and peasants. The second category embraced princes, lords, and landed aristocracy (Christensen, Iran Sass., p. 98), and one of the three great fires of the empire, Ādur Gušnasp at Šīz (Taḵt-e Solaymān in Azerbaijan) belonged to them (ibid., pp. 166f.). With a clear military plan aimed at the revival of the Persian empire (Dio Cassius 80.4.2; Herodian 6.2.2), Ardašīr I formed a standing army which was under his personal command and its officers were separate from satraps and local princes and nobility (Agathangelos [Greek version] 1.8). Ardašīr had started as the military commander of Dārābgerd (Ṭabarī, tr. Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 5), and was knowledgeable in older and contemporary military history, from which he benefited, as history shows, substantially. For he restored Achaemenid military organizations, retained Parthian cavalry, and employed Roman-style armor and siege-engines, thereby creating a standing army (Mid. Pers. spāh) which served his successors for over four centuries, and defended Iran against Central Asiatic nomads and Roman armies (Christensen, op. cit., p. 207).

[Click to Enlarge] Ardashir I in a lance-joust scene at Firuzabad which ciommemorates the great battle in which the House of Sassan overthrew the Parthians in 224 CE. Note the large hair bundle (Korymbos) on top of Ardashir I’s head  (Picture source: Photo taken by Farrokh in August 2001 and shown in Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at The University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

The backbone of the spāh was its heavy cavalry “in which all the nobles and men of rank” underwent “hard service” (Ammianus Marcellinus 23.6.83) and became professional soldiers “through military training and discipline, through constant exercise in warfare and military manoeuvers” (ibid.). From the third century the Romans also formed units of heavy cavalry of the Oriental type (Rundgren, Orientalia Suecana 6, 1957, pp. 35ff.); they called such horsemen clibanarii “mail-clad [riders]” (e.g. Ammianus Marcellinus 16.10.8), a term thought to have derived from an Iranian *grīwbānar < *grīwbānwar < *grīva-pāna-bara “neck-guard wearer” (Rundgren, op. cit., pp. 48f., evidently unaware that the Pahlavi grīwbān “neck-guard” is attested inVendidad 14.9: A.V. W. Jackson, “Herodotus VII. 61, or the Arms of the Ancient Persians Illustrated from Iranian Sources,” in Classical Studies in Honour of Henry Drisler, New York, 1894, pp. 95ff., esp. p. 118). The heavy cavalry of Šāpūr II is described by an eye-witness historian as follows: “all the companies were clad in iron, and all parts of their bodies were covered with thick plates, so fitted that the stiff joints conformed with those of their limbs; and the forms of human faces were so skillfully fitted to their heads, that since their entire body was covered with metal, arrows that fell upon them could lodge only where they could see a little through tiny openings opposite the pupil of the eye, or where through the tip of their nose they were able to get a little breath. Of these some who were armed with pikes, stood so motionless that you would have thought them held fast by clamps of bronze” (Ammianus Marcellinus 25.1. 12-13, cf. 24.6.8).

[CLICK TO ENLARGE]- Emperor Julian is killed during his failed invasion of Sassanian Persia in June 26, 363 AD. Above is a recreation of  Sassanian Persia’s elite cavalry, the Savaran, as they would have appeared during Julian’s failed invasion.  Note the heavily armored Sassanian elite guardsman (Pushtighban) whose lance has pierced a Roman infantryman. Further right is a Savaran officer whose sword is drawn in what is now known as the “Italian grip” but Sassanian in origin. To the far right can be seen a Zoroastrian or Mithraist Magus brandishing a Sassanian era symbol. Also of interest are the armored elephants in the background. Armored elephants were especially prized as their cabs afforded very high elevation over the battlefield, which was ideal for Sassanian archery ( Picture source: Farrokh, Plate D, -اسواران ساسانی- Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005).

AThe described horsemen are represented by the seventh-century knight depicting Ḵosrow Parvēz on his steed Šabdīz on a rock relief at Ṭāq-e Bostān in Kermānšāh (E. Herzfeld, AMI 9/1938, pp. 91ff.). Since the Sasanian horseman lacked the stirrup (A. D. H. Bivar, “The Stirrup and its origins,” Oriental Art, N.S. 1, 1965, pp. 61-65), he used a war saddle which, like the medieval type, had a cantle at the back and two guard clamps curving across the top of the rider’s thighs enabling him thereby to stay in the saddle especially during violent contact in battle (E. F. Schmidt, Persepolis III, Chicago, 1970, p. 135). The inventory of weapons ascribed to Sasanian horsemen at the time of Ḵosrow Anōšīravān (Ṭabarī, I, p. 964 [tr. Nöldeke, pp. 248f.]; Baḷʿami, Tārīḵ, p. 1048; Ferdowsī, Šāh-nāma VIII, p. 63), resembles the twelve items of war mentioned in Vendidad 14.9 (Jackson, loc. cit.), thus showing that this part of the text had been revised in the later Sasanian period.

[Click to Enlarge] An excellent depiction of late sassanian knights at Taghe Bostan. The figure is oftne identified as Khosrow II “Parviz” and his steed, Sabdiz (Picture source: Farrokh, page 225, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا).  

More interestingly, the most important Byzantine treatise on the art of war, the Strategicon, also written at this period, requires the same equipments from a heavily-armed horseman (Bivar in Dumbarton Oaks Papers 26, 1972, pp. 287-88). This was due to the gradual orientalization of the Roman army to the extent that in the sixth century “the military usages of the Romans and the Persians become more and more assimilated, so that the armies of Justinian and Khosrow are already very much like each other;” and, indeed, the military literatures of the two sides show strong affinities and interrelations (C. A. Inostrantsev, “Sasanian Military Theory,” tr. L. Bogdanov in Journal of the Cama Oriental Institute 7, 1926, pp. 7ff. esp. p. 23). According to the Iranian sources mentioned above, the martial equipments of a heavily-armed Sasanian horseman were as follows: helmet, hauberk (Pahlavi grīwbān), breastplate, mail, gauntlet (Pahlavi abdast), girdle, thigh-guards (Pahlavi rān-ban), lance, sword, battle-axe, mace, bowcase with two bows and two bowstrings, quiver with 30 arrows, two extra bowstrings, spear, and horse armor (zēn-abzār); to these some have added a lasso (kamand), or a sling with slingstones (Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, pp. 248f.; Jackson, op. cit., pp. 108ff.). The elite corps of the cavalry was called “the Immortals,” evidently numbering—like their Achaemenid namesakes—10,000 men (Christensen, Iran Sass., p. 208 with references). On one occasion (under Bahrām V) the force attacked a Roman army but outnumbered, it stood firm and was cut down to a man (Socrates Scholasticus 7.20). Another elite cavalry group was the Armenian one, whom the Persians accorded particular honor (Christensen, op. cit., p. 210). In due course the importance of the heavy cavalry increased and the distinguished horseman assumed the meaning of “knight” as in European chivalry; if not of royal blood, he ranked next to the members of the ruling families and was among the king’s boon companions (ibid., pp. 112, 368-69; J. M. Unvala, The Pahlavi Text “King Ḫusrav and his Boy,” Paris, 1921).

Recreation of the Savaran during the 2,500 year celebrations in Iran, 1971 (Picture source: Farrokh, page 222, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا).

The Sasanians did not form light-armed cavalry but extensively employed—as allies or mercenaries—troops from warlike tribes who fought under their own chiefs. “The Sagestani were the bravest of all” (Ammianus Marcellinus 19.2.3); the Gelani, Albani and the Hephthalites, the Kushans and the Khazars were the main suppliers of light-armed cavalry. The skill of the Dailamites in the use of sword and dagger made them valuable troopers in close combat (Agathias 3.17), while Arabs were efficient in desert warfare (Christensen, op. cit., pp. 209, 275).

The infantry (paygān) consisted of the archers and ordinary footmen. The former were protected “by an oblong curved shield, covered with wickerwork and rawhide” (Ammianus Marcellinus 24.6.8). Advancing in close order, they showered the enemy with storms of arrows. The ordinary footmen were recruited from peasants and received no pay (ibid., 23.6.83), serving mainly as pages to the mounted warriors; they also attacked walls, excavated mines and looked after the baggage train, their weapons being a spear and a shield (ibid., 23.6.83; Procopius 1.14.24, 52; Christensen, op. cit., p. 209). The cavalry was better supported by war elephants “looking like walking towers” (Ammianus Marcellinus 25.1.14; sec also E. Herzfeld AMI 3, 1931, pp. 26ff.), which could cause disorder and damage in enemy ranks in open and level fields. War chariots were not used by the Sasanians (contra Alexander Severus in Lampridius, Vita Alex. Sev. 56). Unlike the Parthians, however, the Persians organized an efficient siege machine for reducing enemy forts and walled towns. They learned this system of defense from the Romans but soon came to match them not only in the use of offensive siege engines—such as scorpions, balistae, battering rams, and moving towers—but also in the methods of defending their own fortifications against such devices by catapults, by throwing stones or pouring boiling liquid on the attackers or hurling fire brands and blazing missiles (Ammianus Marcellinus 19.5f., 20.6-7, 11).

Sassanian helmet of riveted construction of the “Spangenhelm” type, discovered at Ninenveh, dated to 5th – 7th centuries CE  (Picture source: Farrokh, page 222, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-).

The organization of the Sasanian army is not quite clear, and it is not even certain that a decimal scale prevailed, although such titles as hazārmard (Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 284 n. 2) might indicate such a system. Yet the proverbial strength of an army was 12,000 men (Ferdowsī, Šāh-nāma VIII, p. 343). The total strength of the registered warriors in 578 was 70,000 (Ṭabarī, tr. Nöldeke, p. 271). The army was divided, as in the Parthian times, into several gunds, each consisting of a number of drafšs (units with particular banners), each made up of some wašts (Christensen, op. cit., p. 210). The imperial banner was the Drafš-e Kāvīān, a talismanic emblem accompanying the Great King or the commander-in-chief of the army who was stationed in the center of his forces and managed the affairs of the combat from the elevation of a throne (A. Christensen, Smeden Kāväh, tr. Unvala, pp. 28f.). At least from the time of Ḵosrow Anōšīravān a seven-grade hierarchical system seems to have been favored in the organization of the army (M. Grignaschi, “Quelques spécimens de la litterature sassanide conservés dans les bibliothèques d’Istanbul,” JA, 1966, pp. 1ff. esp. pp. 24, 42 n. 76).

The highest military title was argbed (q.v.) which was a prerogative of the Sasanian family (Nöldeke, op. cit., p. 5 n. 3). Until Ḵosrow Anōšīravān’s military reforms, the whole of the Persian army was under a supreme commander, Ērān-spāhbed, who acted as the minister of defense, empowered to conduct peace negotiations; he usually came from one of the great noble families and was counted as a counselor of the Great King (Christensen, Iran Sass., pp. 130f.). Along with the revival of “heroic” names in the middle of the Sasanian period, an anachronistic title, artēštārān sālār (q.v., Greek rendering adrastadaran salanes: Procopius 1.6. 18) was coined to designate a generalissimo with extraordinary authority, but this was soon abandoned when Anōšīravān abolished the office of Ērān-spāhbed and replaced it with those of the four marshals (spāhbed) of the empire, each of whom was the military authority in one quarter of the realm (Christensen, op. cit., pp. 131, 370). Other senior officials connected with the army were: Ērān-ambāragbed “minister of the magazines of empire,” responsible for the arms and armaments of warriors (ibid., pp. 107-108); the marzbāns “margraves”—rulers of important border provinces (ibid., pp. 102, 108, 371ff.; 518ff.); kanārang—evidently a hereditary title of the ruler of Ṭūs (ibid., pp. 108, 351, 507); gund-sālār “general” (ibid., p. 210); paygān-sālār “commander of the infantry” (ibid.); and puštigbān-sālār “commander of the royal guard” (ibid.).

Late Sassanian sword from Dailaman, northern Iran (Picture source: Farrokh, page 222, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-).

A good deal of what is known of the Sasanian army dates from the sixth and seventh centuries when, as the results of Anōšīravān’s reforms, four main corps were established; soldiers were enrolled as state officials receiving pay and subsidies as well as arms and horses; and many vulnerable border areas were garrisoned by resettled warlike tribes (ibid., pp. 367ff.). The sources are particularly rich in accounts of the Sasanian art of warfare because there existed a substantial military literature, traces of which are found in the Šāh-nāma, Dēnkard 8.26—an abstract of a chapter of the Sasanian Avesta entitled Artēštārestān “warrior code”—and in the extracts from the Āʾīn-nāma which Ebn Qotayba has preserved in his ʿOyūn al-aḵbār and Inostrantsev has explained in detail (in Journal of the Cama Oriental Institute 7, 1926, pp. 7-52; see also Christensen, op. cit., pp. 215f.).

Late Sassanian sword (Farrokh 2004; reprinted Hughes 2010, p.51). Entire sword from front [1] and back [2]; sword handle at front [3] and back [4]; sword mount at front [5] and back [6].

The Artēštārestān was a complete manual for the military: it described in detail the regulations on recruitments, arms and armor, horses and their equipments, trainings, ranks, and pay of the soldiers and provisions for them, gathering military intelligence and taking precaution against surprise attack, qualifications of commanders and their duties in arraying the lines, preserving the lives of their men, safeguarding Iran, rewarding the brave and treating the vanquished (Sanjana’s tr. in Dēnkard, vol. XVI, Bombay, 1917, pp. 6ff.). The Āʾīn-nāma furnished valuable instructions on tactics, strategy and logistics. It enjoined, for instance, that the cavalry should be placed in front, left-handed archers capable of shooting to both sides be positioned on the left wing, which was to remain defensive and be used as support in case of enemy advance, the center be stationed in an elevated place so that its two main parts (i.e., the chief line of cavalry, and the lesser line of infantry behind them) could resist enemy charges more efficiently, and that the men should be so lined up as to have the sun and wind to their back (Inostrantsev, op. cit., pp. 13ff.).

Battles were usually decided by the shock cavalry of the front line charging the opposite ranks with heavy lances while archers gave support by discharging storms of arrows. The center, where the commander-in-chief took his position on a throne under the Drafš-e Kāvīān, was defended by the strongest units. Since the carrying of the shield on the left made a soldier inefficient in using his weapons leftwards, the right was considered the line of attack, each side trying to outflank the enemy from that direction, i.e., at the respective opponent’s left; hence, the left wing was made stronger but assigned a defensive role (ibid., pp. 16ff.; Bivar, op. cit., pp. 289f.). The chief weakness of the Persian army was its lack of endurance in close combat (Ammianus Marcellinus 25.1.18). Another fault was the Persian’s too great a reliance on the presence of their leader: the moment the commander fell or fled his men gave way regardless of the course of action.

[Click to Enlarge] Iranian belt from the Sassanian era found in the Caucasus (Picture source: Farrokh, page 214, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-Picture printed in text was under the Courtesy of the Institute of Manuscripts, Georgian Academy of Sciences and printed specifically  with the permission of Dr. David Khoupenia) .

During the Sasanian period the ancient tradition of single combat (mard o-mard) developed to a firm code (Christensen, op. cit., p. 216). In 421 Bahrām V opposed a Roman army but accepted the war as lost when his champion in a single contest was slain by a Goth from the Roman side (Johannes Malalas [in B. G. Niebuhr, ed., Hist. Byzant. Scriptores, Bonn, 1831], p. 14a). Such duels are represented on several Sasanian rock-reliefs at Naqš-e Rostam (Schmidt, Persepolis III, pp. 130ff.), and on a famous cameo in Paris depicting Šāpūr I capturing Valerian (R. Ghirshman, Iran 249 B.C.-A.D. 657: The Parthian and Sassanian Dynasties, London, 1962, fig. 195).

Sasanian kings were conscious of their role as military leaders: many took part in battle, and some were killed; the Picture Book of Sasanian Kings showed them as warriors with lance or sword (Ḥamza, pp. 50-54; Moǰmal, pp. 33ff.). Some are credited with writing manuals on archery (Bivar, op. cit., p. 284), and they are known to have kept accounts of their campaigns (e.g., Šāpūr’s inscription on the Kaʿba-ye Zardošt, and cf. Ebrāhīm b. Moḥammad Bayhaqī, al-Moḥāsen wa’l-mosāwī, ed. F. Schwally, Giessen, 1902, p. 481: “When Ḵosrow Parvēz concluded his wars with Bahrām-e Čūbīna and consolidated his rule over the empire, he ordered his secretary to write down an account of those wars and related events in full, from the beginning to the end”).

Remains of the Archway of Ctesiphon, capital of the Sasanian Empire (224-651 AD). Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

While heavy cavalry proved efficient against Roman armies, it was too slow and regimentalized to act with full force against agile and unpredictable light-armed cavalry and rapid foot archers; the Persians who in the early seventh century conquered Egypt and Asia Minor lost decisive battles a generation later when nimble, lightly armed Arabs accustomed to skirmishes and desert warfare attacked them. Hired light-armed Arab or East Iranian mercenaries could have served them much better.

[Click to Enlarge] Map of the Sassanian and Roman campaigns of the 6th century  CE (Picture source: Farrokh, page 233, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-). The end result of the ensuing long and devastating Romano-Sassanian wars of the early 7th century CE was the creation of a military vacuum which was to be adeptly expolited by the Arabo-Islamic invasion forces of the newly established Caliphate in Arabia.