Conversion to Zoroastrianism

The article below by Hannah Michael Gale Shapero originally appeared in the CAIS website hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav  in London.


Hannah Michael Gale Shapero is an artist, illustrator and scholar. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts, US and grew up in the Boston area and in Rome, Italy. Shapero studied Classics-Greek and Latin as an undergraduate at Brandeis University and as a graduate at Harvard. She was also active as an artist and writer during that time. In 1978 she left academia for an art career and in 1981 became a professional artist. She has studied art at the Boston University art school but most of her training has been with private teachers, especially her mother.


The question of whether Zoroastrianism should allow converts is one of the most divisive and bitter issues facing the whole community. While other religions, such as Christianity and Islam, depend on converts to increase their numbers, Zoroastrianism has been, at least in recent centuries, strictly based on ethnicity. You have to be born a Zoroastrian in order to be one; you cannot enter into the faith from outside. But the question is continually asked: why must this be true? Can this policy be changed? And has this always been true in the long history of the faith? In this essay I will try to describe the many problems, arguments, and reasons on both sides of the question.

Can you convert to Zoroastrianism? The official answer, which is given by the Parsi priestly hierarchy in Bombay, and supported by a large number of traditional Zoroastrians, is NO. In order to be a Zoroastrian, you must be born of two Zoroastrian parents. One is not enough! No children of mixed marriages are officially Zoroastrian. In practice, however, the children of Zoroastrian fathers and non-Z. mothers are sometimes given admission to the faith – but not the children of Zoroastrian mothers and non-Z. fathers. Zoroastrian identity descends through the father’s line, unlike Jewish identity, which is defined by the mother being Jewish.

Why has this rule against conversions come about? There are many levels of reasoning behind it. Conservatives who support the ban on conversions will cite philosophical, religious, political, social, and emotional reasons for it. Here are some of the arguments against conversion, which are commonly used by Zoroastrian traditionalists to justify their belief in the ethnic exclusivity of their faith.

The philosophical and religious reasons are represented by educated Zoroastrian conservatives. They say that all great religions are equally true, and that no one faith is better or more desirable than any other. All religions that lead to righteous and constructive actions are inspired by God, and will lead their good believers to a heavenly reward. Therefore there is no reason to choose one religion over another. These conservatives recommend that a spiritual searcher should seek within his/her own faith, without trying to adopt other religions. In this view, not only should there be no conversion to Zoroastrianism, but the need should not even arise. Christians should be good Christians, Muslims good Muslims, and Jews good Jews – without coveting the illusory benefits of someone else’s faith.


Sedreh Pushi of a group Russian converts to Zoroastrianism – Moscow, Russia (Source: CAIS).

A religious version of this argument claims that God Himself has placed everyone in his/her faith in a kind of religious destiny, and thus conversion is a disobedience against the God who has given you your specific religion. Many Zoroastrian traditionalists, especially Parsis, believe that the soul, which pre-exists birth into a material body, has chosen, in union with the will of God, to enter a specific religion. Attempting to convert is going against the true nature of one’s own Soul. For traditionalists, conversion to Zoroastrianism is just short of blasphemy – an act of contempt for the God who has given you birth in a specific tradition. It is true, the traditionalists admit, that many of the great faiths were originally built on conversions from other religions, but these early, founding conversions are justified because they were done under the inspiration of a true Prophet – such as Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed. Once the era of the Prophet is gone, then conversions again become invalid, for only a divine Prophet has the authority to convert people.

This leads to the conclusion that hundreds of millions of people are worshiping invalidly, because their ancestors, without the benefit of a Prophet, chose an alien faith – whether willingly or because of coercion. This includes numerous Iranians, who were originally Zoroastrian but were converted to Islam. The conservatives, though they are aware of this, still maintain that even an Iranian Muslim whose Zoroastrian ancestors were forcibly converted to Islam cannot return to the faith of his/her fathers. God, and those individual souls, chose that particular birth, no matter what went on historically. History cannot be reversed. Only a divine Prophet can convert people back to Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrian traditionalists rely on their religious beliefs about a coming Savior – the _saoshyant_- as a final answer to the problem of conversion. When the Savior arrives (a Zoroastrian idea that pre-dated Jewish Messianism and may have inspired the Jewish idea of the Messiah) this divine man will have the authority to convert people. Zoroastrians then hope that all people will be converted to Zoroastrianism through the power of the Savior, who will appear at the End of Time.


Sedreh Pushi of a group Iranian converts to Zoroastrianism by Dr Vandidad Golshani in London, United Kingdom (Source: CAIS).

Meanwhile, traditionalist Zoroastrians wait patiently and continue to oppose conversion to their ancient faith. The next reason they use to justify their opposition is political and cultural. When groups of Iranian pilgrims fled an oppressive Muslim regime in Iran in the 10th century AD, they came to Gujarat, a kingdom on the west coast of India. The Kisseh-i-Sanjan, an epic poem written by a 16th-century Parsi priest, documents the history of his people in India. According to the poem, the pilgrims negotiated with the rulers of Gujarat for safe haven there, and they worked out an agreement. The pilgrims were required to explain the tenets of their religion to the ruler; they were also to learn the local language and speak it rather than Persian. They were also required to adopt the dress of the area rather than wear Iranian garb, they were to celebrate their weddings in the evening rather than in the morning, and they were to put aside their weapons and not wear them at any time. Other traditions say that the Zoroastrian pilgrims were never to convert their Hindu or Muslim neighbors. This promise of non- conversion may not be documented in the poem or other surviving texts, but it is oral tradition, handed down in Zoroastrian culture for a thousand years and more. And the Parsis, as these pilgrims to India were called, have kept their promises. Thus the prohibition against conversion has a longstanding political background.

The social argument against conversion relies on the idea that Zoroastrianism is a strictly ethnic religion. In the traditionalists’ historical view, Zarathushtra was not an innovator, but a reformer who practiced the priestly traditions of his ancient Indo-Iranian people. Zoroastrianism, then, does not break traditions, but continues them – reformed from polytheism to monotheism by the divinely inspired Prophet. And these traditions are from time immemorial the exclusive possession of a people known as Aryans. In the West, the term “Aryan” has been permanently discredited by its misuse by the Nazis, and the more neutral “Indo-Iranian” is preferred. For a conservative Zoroastrian, especially those with a more extreme outlook, only those who are Indo-Iranian Zoroastrian, with an unbroken lineage unmixed with any non-Zoroastrian heritage, can be true Zoroastrians.

Proselytizing and conversion: Parsi Zoroastrians do not proselytize. In recent years, however, Zoroastrian communities in Iran, Europe and the Americas have been more tolerant towards conversion. While this move has not been supported officially by the priesthood in Mumbai, India, it has been endorsed by the Council of Mobeds in Tehran.


Sedreh Pushi of two Iranian converts in Stohkolm, Sweden (Source: CAIS).

Traditionalists regard Zoroastrianism as more than just a religion. It is an integral culture, which comprises not only faith and practice but an entire lifestyle: language, symbolism, law, clothing, calendar, festivals, food, family life, songs and literature, humor, history, etiquette, gestures, even interior decoration. This integral culture is learned from the earliest moments of life – transmitted from parents to children in an education that no school or sociological study could ever provide. In the traditionalist view, it is impossible to enter into this culture if you have not been born into it – you cannot learn as an adult things you should have learned along with your first steps and words. This culture, and the religion that goes with it, thus cannot be transferred. A non-Zoroastrian married to a Zoroastrian will always be at a loss to understand things his/her spouse takes for granted. And the non-Zoroastrian spouse will bring elements from his/her own culture that are alien to the Z. culture. It is better never to marry outside the culture, as conflict will always follow. The religion is a precious heirloom, which will only be misunderstood and adulterated by outsiders. In this view, intermarriage can only be seen as a threat, which will result in the dilution or even the extinction of the precious culture. And as Zoroastrians, both Iranian and Parsi, migrate away from their native countries, the immigrants are terrified, with good reason, that this heirloom culture will be swept away by the polluted ocean of “Western” culture which surrounds them. Modern culture is a deeply fearsome thing to many traditionalist Zoroastrians.

The third set of reasons that Zoroastrian traditionalists give for their opposition to conversion is emotional and psychological. Zoroastrianism, ever since the Muslim conquest of Iran, has been a minority religion. It has been persecuted in Iran for centuries. Even in India, where the Parsis lived more or less undisturbed by their hosts, the Zoroastrians have always remained separate from the majority. The main reason why these minorities have been able to survive through the centuries is because their religion gives them strength. Zoroastrianism has been the coherent core of the people, the rallying point that keeps them going through hard times, poverty, and persecution. Why, then, should it be given away to those who have not earned it, not suffered through the long years of trial? It would mean nothing to an outsider. And so conversion becomes meaningless, or even an insult.


Sedreh-Pushi ceremony of a group of Turkish Kurds and Iranians in Istanbul who are recent converts to Zoroastrianism (Source: CAIS).

There seems to be a series of good arguments for banning conversion to Zoroastrianism. The trouble is that the number of “true” Zoroastrians continues to decrease. There are many reasons for this: a low birth rate, economic problems, the difficulty of finding qualified mates and raising families with a high standard of living, emigration, intermarriage, and simple apathy or ignorance of the faith. The resistance to any religious change has alienated many Zoroastrians, who question ancient laws and practices that they say were appropriate for the agrarian society of the past but have no relevance in a modern, technological world. If Zoroastrianism does not accept converts, say these questioners, it risks going the way of near-extinct sects such as the Shakers, whose inflexible practices (in the case of the Shakers, maintenance of celibacy and thus non- procreation) made it impossible to continue as a group.

It must be added that most of the anti-conversion sentiment in the Zoroastrian world comes from the Indian Parsis. Iranian Zoroastrians are much more likely to accept converts, marriages to non-Zoroastrians (who are then welcomed into the community) and people of mixed ancestry. The problems with conversion in Iran are mainly political: converting someone away from Islam is an offense against the Islamic Republic and may be seriously penalized. Therefore, conversions in Iran are done very quietly.

Since the late 1980s, new Zoroastrian congregations have been founded hroughout the world, including Brazil, Norway, Venezuela, Germany, Sweden, United Kingdom and the newly created republics of Central Asia. The yare mainly inspired by the missionary organization The Zarathushtrian Assembly, based in Los Angeles, California, and in line with Zoroaster’s original teachings, these congregations have, contrary to the Indian Zoroastrians which accept converts. 

What arguments do the “liberal” Zoroastrians use to counter the conservatives? The liberal reformists claim documented history as their strongest argument in favor of conversion. According to the scriptures of Zoroastrianism, which range from the original Gathas of Zarathushtra to doctrinal works written in medieval times, conversion has not only been mentioned but accepted as a practice throughout the long history of the religion.


Sedreh Pushi of a group Iranian and Norwegian converts, Oslo, Norway (Source: CAIS).

There are many passages in the original hymns of Zarathushtra, the Gathas, where the Prophet explicitly claims a mission to convert all people – not just Indo-Iranians. References to conversion occur throughout the Avesta and even in the latest book of the Avesta, written about 200-400 AD, the Vendidad. Scholars both Western and Zoroastrian have written extensively on the spread of Zoroastrianism to Armenia, Central Asia, and as far east as China; other historical texts and archaeological studies prove that Zoroastrianism had spread, through Persian traders, as far west as Asia Minor, Syria, and possibly even Eastern Europe. In lands bordering Iran, many people became Zoroastrians who were not of Indo-Iranian ethnicity. Even after the Islamic conquest, Zoroastrianism was still open to converts, especially servants in Zoroastrian homes who were adopted into the faith by their employers. The strict ban on conversion only dates from the nineteenth century AD.

Notable converts to Zoroastrianism include Swedish artist and author Alexander Bard. and became one of the founders of the Swedish Zoroastrian congregation, currently the largest in Europe.

The textual and historical evidence provide a strong and convincing argument for conversion to Zoroastrianism. The traditionalists, faced with Zarathushtra’s clear references to converting all people, including non-Indo-Iranians, can only respond with the counter-argument that it is the TEACHINGS and IDEASof the Prophet that are intended for the whole world, while the RELIGION and its rituals belong only to the Indo-Iranian people. In other words, everyone can be inspired by Zarathushtra’s holy words, but only pure-bred Indo-Iranians can practice the actual religion of Zarathushtra. Another variant of this argument is that Zarathushtra’s references to a “universal” conversion only refer to a MORAL conversion from wrong-doing to right action, rather than a RELIGIOUS conversion from one faith to another. The more extreme traditionalists discount any conclusions or evidence provided by Western scholarship, regarding all Western interpretations of the Avesta scriptures as misguided, irreligious, and devoid of spiritual insight. Thus the Gathas, when considered as a separate text, are regarded by these traditionalists as a scholarly reconstruction, imposed by Western colonialists. For these extreme traditionalists, the entire Avesta, not just the Gathas, are the words of the Prophet, given by God, and its interpretation must be done in a spiritual and sometimes mystical fashion.


Sedreh Pushi of three Iranian converts in Dubai (Source: CAIS).

The “liberal” Zoroastrians are inspired by the text of the Gathas, which they regard as the only surviving words of the Prophet, and the primary text of the faith. They view Zarathushtra as a great innovator, rather than a reformer of a previous tradition. In the Gathas there is no mention of elaborate mythology, sacred time-schedules, coming Messiahs, Indo-Iranian exclusivity, priestly laws, or strict religious and ritual practices. The tone of the Gathas is philosophical, abstract, and ethical. The rituals, myths, and practices that the traditionalists are so intent on keeping, say the liberals, were DISCONTINUED by Zarathushtra, who never wanted them. It was only later that these religious and social elements were re-introduced into the religion. Therefore, say the reformers, there should be no objection to converting to Zoroastrianism, because the exclusive religious privileges of the Indo-Iranian people were never intended by Zarathushtra.


The article below entitled “Caravansaray” by Moḥammad-Yūsuf Kīānī and Wolfram Kleiss originally appeared on the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1990 and is available in print (Vol. IV, Fasc. 7, pp. 798-802).

Kindly note that excepting three figures and captions from the original Encyclopedia article, all other images and captions did not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica posting.


Caravansaray (also Caravansarai, Caravansaray, Pers. kārvān-sarā/-sarāy “lodging for caravans,” from kār(a)vān “caravan” and sarāy “house”; sometimes called ḵān), a building that served as the inn of the Orient, providing accommodation for commercial, pilgrim, postal, and especially official travelers. The term kārvān-sarā was commonly used in Iran and is preserved in several place names.

In Persian the Arabic term rebāṭ, meaning a fortified rest house on a land route, was common, as was the popular designation kārvān-sarāy-e šāh-ʿabbāsī (built by Shah ʿAbbās) after Shah ʿAbbās I (996-1038/1588-1629); the latter term, however, was applied indiscriminately to all caravansaries built between the late 10th/16th and 13th/19th centuries.


Jean Chardin’s illustration from his book “Voyages de Mr. Le Chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient 1723” of a caravansary in Kashan during the late Safavid era i(Source: Public Domain from Gallica website).

Caravansaries could be established by religious foundations on pilgrim routes or by merchants’ guilds, as well as by rulers and notables on normal commercial routes, which were often identical with the pilgrim routes (in only rare instances are original building inscriptions preserved in situ). In addition, especially in the reign of Shah ʿAbbās, when the road system was systematically extended throughout Iran, the court at Isfahan seems to have built many caravansaries along the new roads: those linking Isfahan to Faraḥābād on the Caspian Sea (Kleiss, 1980); those leading from Bandar-e ʿAbbās(ī) on the Persian Gulf coast to Lār (either directly or through Bandar-e Lenga) and Shiraz, to Sīrjān and Yazd, and to Bāft and Kermān; and those from Isfahan to Hamadān, from Isfahan to Mašhad via Yazd and Ṭabas, from Isfahan to Kermān via Yazd, from Kermān to Mašhad, from Qazvīn to Shiraz via Sāva and Isfahan, from Qazvīn to Jolfā via Tabrīz, and from Tehran to Mašhad (Kleiss, 1987; 1981, pp. 203ff.).

From the number of surviving caravansaries (by 1366 Š./1987 some 465 buildings had been systematically measured) and from their sizes it is clear that in Safavid and Qajar times there was a state architectural department that was specifically concerned with the construction of caravansaries and stations on the overland routes. Furthermore, in the cities a number of caravansaries were erected as lodging houses, depots, and commercial offices in the vicinity of the bāzārs. They resembled the road caravansaries in form, except that most had two stories, whereas the latter had only one.


The Izadkhast carvansaray dated to the Samanid era (c. 819-999) (Source: Public Domain by Mbenoist).

A social consciousness fostered by the laws and beliefs of Islam and embodied in the institution of the waqf (pious endowment) certainly played a role in the construction of caravansaries, but the desire for prestige was also recognizable in all periods and especially under the Safavids and the Qajars, when rulers and merchants sponsored many such structures along the caravan routes near Isfahan and Tehran.

The normal caravansary consisted of a square or rectangular plan centered around a courtyard with only one entrance and arrangements for defense if necessary. Whether fortified or not, it at least provided security against beasts of prey and attacks by brigands. This architectural type developed in the 1st millennium b.c. in Urartian and Mesopotamian architecture (Kleiss, 1979; Frankfort, pp. 73ff.) and was further evolved in the ancient world, in the palace architecture of the ancient Greeks, for example, the palace of Demetrias called the Anaktoron, with rooms opening from a large colonnaded courtyard (Marzolff; pp. 42ff.); Greek and Roman peristyle houses; and a.d. 3rd- and 4th-century Roman castles like Burgsalach (Ulbert and Fischer, p. 87, fig. 67) and the Palast-Burg in Pfalzel, near Trier (Cüppers, pp. 163ff.). The same building type persisted in the Near East in structures like the church-house from Dura Europos (a.d. 3rd century; Klengel, p. 162). It achieved its fullest expression, however, in the work of Muslim architects: in the desert palaces of the Omayyads, hypostyle (or “Arab”) mosques, Koran schools (madrasas), and above all rebāṭs and caravansaries. It thus played an integral part in the architectural history of the Islamic lands. The Crusaders brought it to Europe, where it was combined with the cruciform aisles of Christian architecture and adopted for the castles of the Teutonic Knights (Holst), as well as for Renaissance (e.g., the castle of Aschaffenburg; Wasmuths Lexikon, p. 191) and Baroque palaces (Wasmuths Lexikon, pp. 321ff.); it survived in modern architecture in buildings for special purposes, like 19th-century museums (e.g., the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin).

In the Persian setting this courtyard plan, the one most commonly adopted for caravansaries, was probably borrowed from the rebāṭ. In the 2nd-6th/8th-12th centuries the Persian rebāṭ was typically almost square, with a single entrance, frequently emphasized by a projecting block. Towers at the corners and at intervals along the curtain walls conveyed a powerful and forbidding impression. Inside the walls the courtyard was surrounded by arcaded porticos and four halls (ayvāns) open toward the courtyard as at Qaḷʿa-ye Sangī near Kāj on the road north of Qom (Figure 61 A). Arrayed against the outer walls were vaulted rooms, opening from the arcades. In the four corners of the structure there were large domed rooms or more complex spaces consisting of cruciform corridors, each with four corner rooms. Only such rebāṭs, which had been designed mainly as military guardposts to ensure safety on the roads but which naturally also served to shelter travelers, could be considered suitable for reception of large camel caravans.

The Mongol invasion brought a visible change in building forms and functions. In the post-Mongol period, for example, it is clear from the plans themselves that the main function of caravansaries, such as that at Bīsotūn, was as inns, especially in the Safavid constructions of the 11th/17th century (see Figure 61 B).


Figure 61. Plans of large courtyard caravansaries. A. Qaḷʿa-ye Sangī near Kāj, with porticos (after Kleiss). B. Bīsotūn, with diagonal walls in the corners and anterooms opening directly from the courtyard (after Kleiss; Encyclopedia Iranica).

Typically there were arched niches on both sides of the portal, which served as cupboards and fireplaces for those staying overnight outside the caravansary. The portal was placed more architectonically, on the central axis of the facade, and emphasized by a projecting two-storied entrance block; in the upper story there were residential quarters for more affluent travelers. There were no porticos around the courtyard; instead there was a series of anterooms with arched entrances, through which travelers passed to reach the guest rooms. The anterooms were raised 60-100 cm above the level of the courtyard so that the caravan animals could not stray into them. Both anterooms and guest rooms were provided with niches and fireplaces, the latter vented through chimneys. The ayvāns, also slightly raised above the level of the courtyard, served to articulate the inner facades and, with the exception of the entrance ayvān, provided additional accommodations for more important travelers. On both sides of the entrance behind the portal there were usually at least two rooms, intended for a guard and for the manager of the caravansary, who no doubt also offered provisions for sale. Larger caravansaries had storerooms, latrines, baths, and places for prayer; in particular there might be a prayer niche in one of the ayvāns, depending on whether or not one of the building axes was oriented to the qebla (the direction of Mecca). In the four corners of the courtyard there were often diagonal walls with entrances to the stables (though arrangements for access to the stables varied considerably). The stalls, with raised sleeping platforms for caravan drivers, were found between the outer walls and the guest rooms (Figure 61 B) and were frequently divided into four sections, in order to increase the capacity for accommodations. The sleeping platforms in the stables were also provided with niches and fireplaces. In a few caravansaries, instead of stable entrances in the four corners of the courtyard, elaborate suites of guest rooms opened directly from the courtyard. These suites could also be entered from the stables through domed rooms. The range of architectural variation in Iranian caravansaries was considerable and was further developed in each subsequent period. Until the construction of caravansaries came to an end at the beginning of the 14th/20th century, they represented an unbroken tradition of considerable achievement within Iranian architecture.

Aside from courtyard caravansaries of this type, among which there were a few examples with two entrances on opposite sides, as well as one with entrances both in front and in one side wall (e.g., Ḵātūnābād near Tehran, see Figure 62 A), there were also round caravansaries with twelve-sided courtyards and octagonal caravansaries (see Figure 63 B-C further below). The number of ayvāns could vary between two and four.


Figure 62. A. Plans and sections of mountain caravansaries at Ḵātūnābād (left; after Kleiss) and Gambūj east of Tehran on the road to Āmol (right; after Siroux, 1949). B. Plan of the mountain caravansary at Gadūk near Fīrūzkūh (after Kleiss; Encyclopedia Iranica).

Furthermore, in certain regions of Iran, there were caravansaries without interior courtyards: completely roofed mountain caravansaries and a pavilion type in the coastal areas on the Persian Gulf. Mountain caravansaries were built in or close to passes and were partially dug out of the cliffs so that their backs and parts of their side walls were sheltered under the overhanging mountains. They provided travelers with shelter from snow storms and avalanches in the autumn and spring (Figure 62 A); in winter the roads through the passes are almost entirely blocked. In lower mountain regions completely vaulted caravansaries also occurred but as a rule only as later additions or as entrance structures associated with courtyard caravansaries. This combination of enclosed and open-court caravansaries occurred much more frequently in the Saljuq ḵāns of central Anatolia and in the Transcaucasian steppes than in Iran. The completely roofed type of mountain caravansary encompassed a broad range, from small road stations to royal structures of the period of Shah ʿAbbās (Figure 62 B). In the smaller examples there is typically a central domed room with surrounding stable corridors or a series of tunnel-vaulted or domed chambers.

In the hot, humid coastal areas along the Persian Gulf, the climatic pattern is entirely different from those in the central Iranian desert basins or the uplands. The caravan routes and buildings on the coastal lowlands along the Persian Gulf can best be studied on the stretches of road built by the Safavids from Bandar-e ʿAbbās to the west, northwest, and north, especially the stretch between Bandar-e ʿAbbās and Lār (Gaube, 1979, pp. 33ff.). The majority of caravansaries on these roads were built in pavilion style (see Figure 63 A), with many variations in plan and construction. The basic type was a square building with a cruciform central space and corner rooms.


Figure 63. A. Plans and sections of three pavilion caravansaries (top; after Kleiss). B. Plans of centralized caravans: Rebāṭ-e Zayn-al-Dīn (middle; after Kīānī) and the Zīza caravansary (bottom; after Siroux, 1971). C. Plans of octagonal caravansaries at (1) Dehbīd, (2) Amīnābād and Ḵān-e Ḵorra, and (3) Čahārābād (all in Fārs)

A stone platform encircled the building. The rooms could all be entered from the outside, as these caravansaries were not intended to provide protection; apparently such measures were unnecessary when the type was introduced by Shah ʿAbbās I, who provided for general security on the caravan routes. The pavilion caravansary could thus be open on all sides in order to permit the cooling winds to blow through the buildings. The cisterns that stood next to such pavilion caravansaries were usually larger than the accommodations themselves.

The size of the caravansaries, especially those built in courtyard form, depended upon the frequency of traffic on the different roads. The prime considerations in construction were function and the need for space, not ostentation. By the size of the buildings the relative significance of the roads can thus be measured.

The spacing of way stations on level terrain was 30-40 km (average 35 km), which represented a day’s caravan journey. In mountainous regions, where the distance between two caravansaries was determined by the steepness of the road, the interval could be as small as 10-20 km. The pavilion caravansaries in the lowlands along the Persian Gulf were only about 5 km apart, often even closer together. The same is true of the small courtyard caravansaries on the road from Bandar-e Lenga to Ḵonj via Lār. These buildings consisted of long, narrow stables, which were grouped around mainly square courts, with small rooms for travelers flanking the entrances.


Interior passageway of the Orbelian (previously Selim) carvansaray in Armenia (Source: Wowarmenia).

Čāpār-ḵānas (postal stations; cf. čāpār) were frequently built next to large caravansaries, mainly in the Qajar period. They also had courtyard plans, but because of their size and construction technique they were not suitable for caravans.

Large Iranian courtyard caravansaries were built mainly of baked brick. The rebāṭs, the mountain caravansaries, and the pavilion types of the Persian Gulf were more frequently built of rubble and faced with stucco. Rubble was also used for many Qajar courtyard caravansaries. In the Saljuq period dressed stone was used in such buildings only in Khorasan, but it was typical for caravansaries in Armenian settlement areas of Azerbaijan in the 12th/18th and 13th/19th centuries.


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Idem, “Les caravansérais routiers safavides,” Iranian Studies 7/3-4, 1974, pp. 348-79.

G. Ulbert and T. Fischer, Der Limes in Bayern. Von Dinkelsbühl bis Eining, Stuttgart, 1983. Wasmuths Lexikon der Baukunst I, Berlin, 1929.

Pierfrancesco Callieri: At the Roots of the Sasanian Royal Imagery – The Persepolis Graffiti

The article below by Pierfrancesco Callieri, At the Roots of the Sasanian Royal Imagery – The Persepolis Graffiti” was originally posted in the CAIS website.


Introductory Summary

Among the most interesting evidence of post-Achaemenid age at Persepolis are a few graffiti, engraved with very thin lines on the limestone blocks of the Harem of Xerxes and of the Tacara.

While initially only isolated images of princely figures were recognised, a more accurate survey has shown that at least in two instances we have evidence of more complex scenes and perhaps of different “layers”.

By comparison with coins of the rulers of Persis, some of these figures have been identified as the immediate predecessors of the Sasanian kings.

In the light of the recent reassessment of the coinage of Fars and of the post-Achemenid epigraphical evidence, the author examines again the problem of the identification of the figures. Besides, the author proposes some reflections on the nature and function of these graffiti, investigating their link on one side with parallel production of graffiti, on the other with the few extant traces of Parthian and Sasanian painting.

This study is offered to Boris Marshak as a token of gratitude for his illuminating contributions to the understanding of the figural world of the Sasanians.

Main Article

Among the most interesting evidence of post-Achaemenid age at Persepolis are a few graffiti, engraved with very thin lines on the limestone blocks of the Harem of Xerxes and of the Tacara.

While initially only isolated images of princely figures were recognised, a more accurate survey has shown that at least in two instances we have evidence of more complex scenes and perhaps of different “layers”.

By comparison with coins of the rulers of Persis, some of these figures have been identified as the immediate predecessors of the Sasanian kings.

In the light of the recent reassessment of the coinage of Fars and of the post-Achemenid epigraphical evidence, the author examines again the problem of the identification of the figures. Besides, the author proposes some reflections on the nature and function of these graffiti, investigating their link on one side with parallel production of graffiti, on the other with the few extant traces of Parthian and Sasanian painting.

This study is offered to Boris Marshak as a token of gratitude for his illuminating contributions to the understanding of the figural world of the Sasanians.

Among the most interesting findings of the post-Achaemenid age at Persepolis are a few figural graffiti, engraved with very thin lines on the limestone blocks of the Harem of Xerxes, now the Persepolis Museum, and of the Tacara. They are only one aspect of the extremely abundant material engraved on the limestone blocks of the Achaemenid complex (see Curtis and Finkel 1999), prevailingly of epigraphical character and currently being investigated (S. Razmjou, personal communication).

While initially only isolated images of princely figures were recognised (Allotte de la Füye 1928; Herzfeld 1935, 1941; Schmidt 1953), a more accurate survey has shown that at least in two instances we have evidence of more complex scenes (Calmeyer 1976: 65-67; Abka’i Khavari 2000: 31, 37), which are extremely similar to some images on the rock-reliefs of the Sasanians. Despite the patent importance of this evidence for the study of the birth of the official art of the Sasanian dynasty, until now an overall view of the different figural graffiti has never been proposed (cf. Faccenna 1997: 89, fn. 30).

The main aim of the present contribution, which is offered to Boris Marshak as a humble token of gratitude for his illuminating contributions to the understanding of the figural world of the Sasanians, is the edition of a “catalogue raisonné” of the Persepolis figural graffiti, which must be considered preliminary due to a lack of adequate documentation which only new field-work will be able to produce.

At Persepolis, figural graffiti recorded to date are concentrated in two buildings: the Harem of Xerxes and the Tacara of Darius I.

As mentioned above, the available documentation on them is uncertain, not only because there has been some uncertainty in the description of the graffiti, but particularly because the graphic rendering of the same graffito in different publications is not always uniform, both in what concerns the isolated figures and the scene as a complex composition. In the absence of a new direct documentation, the only drawing which seems sufficiently reliable is that of Graffito no. 2 by B. Grunewald, published in Calmeyer 1976, which seems to be more accurate in the composition of the scenes and scale as compared to the drawings by Taghi Assafi published in Sami 1338 (see Calmeyer 1976: 65, fn. 132). Moreover, in some points near the principle scenes we find graffiti of isolated parts of figures, which may pertain to different chronological layers of graffiti, or instead, represent engraved patches which were then completed by painting (see below).

Here follows a brief description of the graffiti.

Graffito no. 1 (Sami 1338: fig. on p. 274) (Fig. 1) – A lion in full profile to left, sitting on his hind legs: a mane covers the entire upper part of the body up to the ears and neck, while a long thin tail with tuft of hair at the end is turned up parallel to the back. In the open jaws, its fangs are visible.

 Fig-1-callieri_01Fig. 1 – Graffito no. 1 (after Sami 1338: fig. On p. 274). Not to scale.

The heraldic pose of the animal is rendered with a certain plasticity of volumes. Given the uniqueness of this graffito, we will only mention here that the posture of the animal has an illustrious antecedent in the stone sculpture of a lion in the tomb of Antiochus I’s at Nemrud Dagh in Commagene (Ghirshman 1962: fig. 18), whereas the rendering of the head and tail is not dissimilar from that on some Sasanian silver vessels (e.g. Harper 1981: pl. 14). The attribution of the graffito, therefore, remains problematic.

Graffito no. 2 (Sami 1338: fig. after p. 274; Calmeyer 1976: fig. 3) (Fig. 2) – One scene composed by more figures, of which the two available illustrations give a different composition. In Calmeyer 1976, the long scene is basically centered on two princely mounted figures, one to the extreme left and the other to the extreme right, with isolated elements of other figures in between the two, whereas Sami’s version of the drawing gives a very different composition of the figures, and even the rendering of many details differs a lot.

 Fig-2-callieri_02Fig. 2 – Graffito no. 2 (after Calmeyer 1976: fig. 3). Not to scale.

The main figure on the left part of the scene (Figs. 3, 4) is a male princely personage mounted on a horse, in profile to the left. The personage wears a tunic and trousers, each characterized by a different fabric rendered in detail, while the foot bears a plain shoe. Whereas the bust is frontally viewed, the head is in full profile to the left, with long rounded-tip beard; he wears a tall curved cap with ear-flaps and neck-shield, decorated with a crescent at the middle among embroidered (?) dots which form also a curved perimeter all around, and with what seems the indication of the scaled crest at the center of the tiara (cf. the heads from Hatra in Ghirshman 1962: figs. 100, 102), here seen in profile, with two long ribbons hanging down along the back. With the right hand extended before him he holds a ribboned ring-shaped diadem, while his left hand is placed on the hilt of the long sword, whose scabbard is decorated with pearls along the edges.

 Fig-3-callieri_03Fig. 3 – Graffito no. 2, left part (after Calmeyer 1976: fig. 3). Not to scale.

The horse, of a race with small head and powerful body, has a tuft of tied hair drawn up above the head, while the mane is trimmed regularly, and wears a short caparison along the neck and body; the tail is combed in a plait ending in two bifurcated points. The harness is elaborate: small plain phalerae decorate the muzzle harness, while across the chest and rump the straps carry elaborate circular phalerae; a larger oval ball of hair hangs from below the square saddle blanket, which is decorated with five-petalled flowers.

 Fig-4-callieri_04Fig. 4 – Graffito no. 2, left part (after Sami 1338: fig. following p. 274). Not to scale.

In Calmeyer’s version of the drawing, two oval balls of hair from the horses’ harness are represented at a certain distance behind the mounted figure (elements of figures rendered in painting? see below), whereas even further behind is the head in profile to the left of a male princely figure with beard and curved cap with ear-flaps and neck-shield, decorated with a crescent at the middle, dotted border and what seems to be the indication of the scaled central crest along the outer perimeter, with two long ribbons behind. To the right of the latter, we see a male bearded bust with head in profile to left, with tall curved cap with ear-flap and neck-shield and long ribbons from the nape, and above this bust are the faces in profile to left of two bearded figures. The row of personages is followed on the right by a group of four figures.

The main figure on the right is a male princely personage mounted on a horse, in profile to the left (Figs. 5, 6). The personage wears a tunic, trousers and cloak, each characterized by a different fabric rendered in detail; the cloak, tied on the chest, has two round epaulettes; two short ribbons hang from the dotted shoe. While the bust if frontally viewed, the head is in full profile to the left, with long pointed beard; he wears a tall curved cap with ear-flap and neck-shield, decorated with a crescent at the middle among embroidered (?) dots and with what seems the indication of the scaled central crest along the upper perimetre, with two long ribbons hanging down along the back. With the right hand, visible from across the horse’s neck, he holds the bridles, while his left hand is placed on the hilt of the long sword, whose scabbard is decorated with a row of stars.


Fig. 5 – Graffito no. 2, right part (after Calmeyer 1976: fig. 3). Not to scale.

The horse has a tuft of tied hair drawn up above the head, while the mane is trimmed regularly; the tail is tied at its top with a ribbon. The harness is elaborate: small phalerae decorate the muzzle harness, from which hangs a small oval ball of hair, while across the chest and rump the straps carry elaborate circular phalerae; a larger oval ball of hair hangs from below the square saddle blanket, which is decorated with rosettes and a tasseled border. Ribbons are tied on the four legs, above the heel.

 Fig-6-callieri_06Fig. 6 – Graffito no. 2, right part (after Sami 1338: fig. following p. 274). Not to scale.

A second figure is represented in the background, in the space between the princely figure and the neck of the horse: only his head in full profile to the left is visible, characterized by a long pointed beard and a high cap with ear-flaps and neck-shield and pointed top turned backwards (missing in Sami’s version).Two male figures standing almost frontally viewed, with head in profile to the left, wearing plain tunics tightened at the waist and trousers with the indication of their fabric, hold the reins of the horse: both the figures have long pointed beards and flimsy hair with no headdress.

Even though the rendering of the two main figures is somehow stiff and far from naturalistic, the richness and accuracy with which the details are depicted betray the hand of an artist with good drawing capacity. The side figures, instead, are rather summarily executed.

Graffito no. 3 (Allotte de la Fuÿe 1928: fig. on p. 168; Herzfeld 1941: 308, fig. 402; Sami 1338: fig. before p. 275) (Figs. 7-9) – A standing male figure with frontal body, head turned in profile to the right (but in Herzfeld’s drawing the figure is turned to left!) and feet seen from above turned three-quarters to right (?). He wears tunic at knee length, trousers and cloak, each made of different fabric schematically rendered: the tunic has a decorated border at the neck (different indications in the available drawings), the trousers have a long band decorated with chevron pattern along the vertical border of the right leg, while the cloak, tied on the chest, has two round epaulettes. The headdress consists in a plain hemispheric cap with plain neck-shield and long waved ribbon from the nape, surmounted by a seven-pointed fan-like element apparently obtained by tying a large cloth to the head. The figure, with a long beard including moustache, has the left hand (rendered as the right one) placed on the long sword hilt protruding from the waist, whereas the right arm is stretched forward toward a short incense-burner (?), the rendering of which is very different in the available drawings: the elongated ending appearing in Allotte’s version (Fig. 7), is missing in Herzfeld’s (Fig. 8) and Sami’s (Fig. 9) version; in the latter, we have instead the forepart of a caprid running towards the figure, missing in the other two versions.


Fig. 7 – Graffito no. 3 (after Allotte la Fuÿe 1928: fig. on p. 168). Not to scale.


Fig. 8 – Graffito no. 3 (after Herzfeld 1941: fig. 402). Not to scale.

The rendering of the image is rather schematic and simplified, despite the detailed indication of the clothes fabric and of the physiognomic traits.


Fig. 9 – Graffito no. 3 (after Sami 1338: fig. preceding p. 275). Not to scale.

Graffito no. 4 (Schmidt 1953: pl. 199A; Calmeyer 1976: 67, fn. 134, fig. 4; Harper 1981: fig. 19) (Fig. 10, top left) – A male princely figure mounted on a horse, in profile to the left. The personage wears tunic and trousers, each characterized by a different fabric rendered in detail, while the foot has a plain shoe with a ribbon. While the bust if frontally viewed, the head is in full profile to the left, with long rounded-tip beard; he wears a tall curved cap with ear-flaps and neck-shield, decorated with a crescent at the middle and bordered by a dotted perimeter all around, and with what seems to be the indication of the scaled central crest along the upper perimeter, with four long ribbons hanging down along the back. A fan-like element above the head visibly represents a later addition (see below). With the right hand extended before him he holds a ribboned ring-shaped diadem, while his left hand is placed on the hilt of the long sword, whose scabbard is decorated with pearls along the edges.


Fig. 10 – Graffiti nos. 4, 5 (after Calmeyer 1976: fig. 4). Not to scale.

The horse, with a very small head, has a tuft of tied hair drawn up above the head, while the mane is trimmed regularly; the tail is tied by a ribbon at its top. The harness is elaborate: small plain phalerae decorate the muzzle harness, while across the chest and rump the straps carries plain circular phalerae; a larger oval ball of hair hangs from then harness below the horseman.

Even though the scene is less rich in detail as compared to Graffito no. 2, and despite the dis-proportion of the horse’s head, its rendering is less rigid, and betrays the hand of an artist with good drawing capacity.

Graffito no. 5 (Calmeyer 1976: 67, fn. 134, fig. 4) (Fig. 10, bottom right) – A male princely figure mounted on a horse, in profile to the left. The personage wears tunic and trousers, with no indication of the fabric, while the foot appears covered by the trousers. While the bust if frontally viewed, the head is in full profile to the left, with long rounded-tip beard and long hair flowing from the nape of the neck. He wears a tall curved cap with ear-flaps and neck-shield, decorated with a crescent and disk at the middle and with a border all along the perimeter, with two (?) long ribbons hanging down the back. With the right hand extended before him he holds the bridle, while his left hand is placed on the hilt of the long sword.

The horse, with a very small head, has a tuft of tied hair drawn up above the head (?), while the mane is trimmed regularly; the tail is tied by a ribbon at the top. Across the chest and rump the straps carry plain circular phalerae, while a large oval ball of hair hangs from the harness below the horseman.

Despite the dis-proportion of the horse’s head and legs, the rendering of the scene is not rigid, and betrays the hand of an artist with good drawing capacity.but remarkably different from the author of the other graffiti (cf. also Calmeyer 1976: 66, caption to fig. 4).

Graffito no. 6 (Herzfeld 1935: 80 ff., fig. 10; 1941: 308, fig. 401; Sami 1338: fig. after p. 273) (Figs. 11, 12) – A standing male figure with frontal body, head turned in profile to the left and feet seen from above turned three-quarters to right. He wears a tunic at knee length, with decorated border, tightened with a belt at waist, and trousers; the headdress consists in a plain hemispheric cap with two (?) long ribbons from the nape, but the presence of an element of some sort above it is indicated both by a few ondulated strokes in the available drawings and by a specific statement by Herzfeld, according to whom this element was “shaped as on [Shabuhr’s] coins, like a huge egg” (Herzfeld 1941: 308). Ears are not visible, but it is unclear whether they are covered by an earflap or by the hairline. The figure, with a long square-pointed beard, has the left hand placed on the sword hilt at waist, whereas the right arm is raised to the side.

Fig-11-callieri_11Fig. 11 – Graffito no. 6 (after Herzfeld 1941: fig. 401). Not to scale.

The rendering of the image is extremely schematic and simplified, despite the detailed indication of the trousers’ fabric and the tunic’s border.


Fig. 12 – Graffito no. 6 (after Sami 1338: fig. following p. 273). Not to scale.

As concerns the localization of the graffiti, which as we shall see may have been of some importance for their comprehensive understanding, our information is not uniformly detailed (Fig. 13). Thanks to the accurate recording of E.F. Schmidt, we know precisely that in the Harem of Xerxes, now the Persepolis Museum, Graffito no. 2 is engraved on the S wall of the portico of the Central Section, below the sill of the W window, and Graffito no. 4 is engraved on the S wall of the Main Hall of the Central Section, west of the doorway to the inner court (or, in Calmeyer’s words, ‘rechts neben der westlichen Südtür: see caption to fig. 4). Graffito no. 5 has also the same location as no. 4 (cf. Calmeyer 1976: 66, caption to fig. 4). Two more graffiti are in the some building, even though other authors have not indicated their position in the same detail: Graffito no. 3 is engraved on the S wall of the portico of the Central Section (we do not know the exact point, while this information would be extremely important in order to confirm the hypothesis by Lukonin see below that graffiti nos. 2 and 3 are part of a same investiture scene: see below). Graffito no. 1 is said to be engraved in the Main Hall (Sami 1338: 274; here Graffito no. 6 is also said to be found in the same location: see 275-76).


Fig. 13 – Map showing the localization of the graffiti as can be understood from the bibliography (map after A. Sami, Persepolis, seventh Edition, Shiraz 1970).

In the Tacara of Darius I, Graffito no. 6 is described as being on a side-door of the side apartments (Herzfeld 1935: 80 ff.; 1941: 308; Schmidt 1953: 227, fn. 40).

Since the very first discovery, by comparing them with coins of the ruler of Persis, some of these figures have been identified respectively as “one Manuchihr of Stakhr”, i.e. one of the local dynasts of Fars immediately preceding the Sasanians, as Pabag [Papak], the father of Shabuhr and Ardashir I, and as Shabuhr, the brother of Ardashir I, “who reigned for three months and was killed by a falling stone when visiting Persepolis” (Herzfeld 1941: 308).

Namely, Manuchihr would be one of the figures on the S wall of the Main Hall of Xerxes’ Harem, our no. 4 or 5 (Herzfeld 1935: 81); Pabag would be another figure of the same scene as well as the figure represented in the S wall of the Portico of Xerxes’ Harem, our no. 3 (Allotte de la Füye 1928: 165; Herzfeld 1941: 308, fig. 402; Lukonin 1969: 30, fig. 25.1); Shabuhr would finally be the figure represented on the Tacara, our no. 6 (Herzfeld 1935: 80; 1941: 308, fig. 401) but also the horseman on the left on no. 2. (Lukonin 1969: 30, fig. 25.2)

However, the comparison with the coinage is not so useful in specifically identifying the figures, as has been believed till now on Herzfeld’s footsteps (se also Calmeyer 1976: 65, fn. 131).

Even though the figures bear distinctive marks of their high status, indicated by the diadem which in Arsacid period still represented a kingly prerogative, their identification remains difficult.

The only sure information is that most of the figures have their head in profile to the left, as we see in the coinage of the sub-Arsacid kings of Persis, and that also their headdresses are extremely similar to those of the same dynasty: a high tiara, borded with pearls and with a scaled central crest, with the indication of a specific coat-of-arms at the middle of the side: a crescent or a crescent with disc.

The same type of tiara, in fact, appears on the coins of several kings of Persis, where the main difference between one king and the other is the presence of the crescent alone or of the crescent and dot or of the crescent surrounded by three dots, where the dot can be a representation of a star (see Soudavar 2003: 62).

The first type is found on the coinage of Dare-v/Darayan II, first half of 1st century BC (Alram 1986: 173, pl. 19, no. 564; for the new reading of the name, see Skjærvø 1997: 94). The second type characterizes the images of Napad (Alram 1986: 178, pl. 20, 615), Mantchihr I (Alram 1986: 180, pl. 21, 627), Mantchihr II (Alram 1986: 182, pl. 21, 634), Mantchihr III (Alram 1986: 183, pl. 21, 642), Shabuhr (Alram 1986: 185, pl. 22, 653) and Ardaxshir V (Alram 1986: 186, pl. 22, 656), kings reigning from the second half of the 1st century AD to the first quarter of the 3rd century AD; the third type belongs to the Unknown King II (Alram 1986: 179, pl. 21, 618) and Vadfradad IV (Alram 1986: 180, pl. 21, 623), dated between the end of the 1st and the beginning of the 2nd century AD. The busts attributed to the Unknown King III, second half of the 2nd century AD, have the crescent sometimes with three dots (Alram 1986: 183, pl. 21, 641).

However, the presence of the dot or dots is not so clear neither on the graffiti nor on the coinage, so that we would refrain from relying on this aspect for an identification of the king of Graffito no. 3 with Darayan II.

V.G. Lukonin has also suggested that the tiara, wore by Shabuhr in one of the graffiti (our no. 2, left) is a possible distinctive mark of Shabuhr being a priest of Anahita (Lukonin 1968: 113): but this remark appears contradicted by the other interpretation by the same author, according to which graffiti nos. 2 and 3 are part of a single scene of investiture, in which Shabuhr, dressed as a king (no. 2, left), would receive the investiture from his father Pabag, dressed as a priest (no. 3) (Lukonin 1969: 30).

Apart from the tiaras, other headdresses appear on the graffiti.

One particular case is that of the head of the figure on Graffito no. 4. P.O. Harper interprets the “huge fan-shaped object projecting above the head” of our figure 6, perhaps illustrating “Shapur, son of Papak” (Harper 1981: 53, fn. 71, fig. 19) as part of the headdress, similar to the headdress appearing on a plate from Sari (ibid.: pl. 10) dated between the third and the early fourth century A.D.: a headdress which “is not a royal Sasanian crown type”, but belongs to a “crown prince” (ibid;: 55). However, the remarkable difference between the engraving of all the figure and that of this object, well noticeable in the photograph published by Harper and confirmed by the absence of this detail in the drawing published by Sami, can be explained by the fact that the latter belongs apparently to a second layer of graffiti, intended to render the head similar to that of a Sasanian king.

A second peculiar headdress is the one worn by the standing personage of Graffito no. 3, a seven-pointed fan-like element apparently obtained by tying a large cloth onto the head. This is extremely similar in shape to the five-pointed fan-like element which appears on the head of the figure represented on the reverse of some coin types (Alram 1986: 185, nos. 653-655) of Shabuhr, the predecessor of the last king of Persis and first king of the Sasanians, interpreted subjectively by some scholars as the image of the father Pabag (see below).

Of the other standing figures, the one of Graffito no. 6 has the plain hemispherical cap which, as we have seen, was perhaps surmounted by a further element. If, on the basis of the existing incisions, we can exclude that this element was similar to the fan-like element of Graffito no. 3, we think that the interpretation proposed by Herzfeld as a “huge egg” (v. supra) is only hypothetical. At any rate, even if this should prove correct, the fact cannot be taken as a proof for the identification of the personage as Shabuhr, as Herzfeld does, because the figure wearing this “egg-shaped” headdress – which will then be adopted by Ardashir I in his new role of founder of the Sasanian dynasty (Lukonin 1969: pl. XV, types V-VI) – on one of Shabuhr’s types (Alram 1986: 185, no. 656), is that on the reverse: his identification is doubtful, but in any case different from the king himself (see infra).

Other two in Graffito no. 2 are bare-headed, and have large and full hair. They preceed the mounted figure and keep the reins of his horse, therefore they may represent squires.

An interesting observation is that each of the mounted figures, which seem to enact the main role in the scenes, have a custom slightly differing from the other. Only the figure on Graffito no. 2 wears a cloak over the tunic, of the same shape as the cloak worn by the standing figure of Graffito no. 3. The other three horsemen have only tunic and trousers. Also, the decoration of the fabric in which the costumes have been cut is different from character to character, although it does not appear to be linked to any difference of rank between them: one can only note that the figure of Graffito no. 2 is without doubt the figure which carries the richest decoration, along with the most elaborated horse harness.

The main difference, however, lies in the fact that of the four mounted figures, only two keep, with their extended right arm, the ribboned ring-shaped diadem which in the Sasanian investiture scenes will become the standard symbol of the royal khwarrah. Now, the most richly decorated horseman, the one from Graffito no. 2, is not one of these, and yet seems to have the honour of being led step by step by one or two squires: even more enigmatic is the head with pointed cap turned backwards which appears in the background behind him.

As concerns the horses and their elaborate trappings, the large circular phalerae on the harness straps and the balls of hair hanging from chains occur in Sasanian metalwork and rock reliefs, as well as in Parthian and Palmyrene art (see Harper 1981: 51, and fn. 66 with bibliography).

A striking difference is the one between the tail of the horse of the prince on the left side of Graffito no. 2 and the tails of the other horse figures: whereas the latter are tied with a ribbon at their upper end, near the horse body, as in most of Sasanian reliefs, the tail of that horse is combed in a plait ending in two bifurcated points, such as in the Ardashir I rock reliefs at Firuzabad I celebrating the victory over the Arsacid king, or in the Naqsh-e Rostam reliefs IV and VII: a difference whose significance still eludes us.

As we mentioned before, all the figures are in profile to the left, and the only head in profile to the right could be that of Graffito no. 3, which we have seen similarly on the reverse of the Shabuhr coinage.

If we consider that one of the distinctive changes of the coinage of the Sasanians as compared to the previous Iranian coinages is the change of the profile’s direction, we can perhaps suggests that almost all the figures on the graffiti are not Sasanian princes but rather belong to the kings of Persis.

At the same time, the fact that the only right-facing bust is the one similar to the reverse of the coinage of Shabuhr, might suggest that Graffito no. 3 is the latest in the series. Given that we are not sure about the identity of the personage represented on the reverse of many of the coin types of the kings of Fars, either the father, or the forefather, or even the son or the throne heir (cf. Alram 1986: 164; contra, Lukonin 1969: 29, on the basis of the legend BRH bgy X MLK’, interprets the images on the reverse as those of the father of the king), we cannot use the similarity between Graffito no. 3 and the bust on the reverse of the Shabuhr coinage to prove that the figure on Graffito no. 3 is Pabag: particularly if we keep present that the image represented on the reverse of one of the earliest coin types of Ardashir I, and bearing the same legend as the one of the coins of Shabuhr, wears the typical tiara of the ruler of Persis (Alram 1986: 186, no. 657). We therefore prefer to abstain from a precise identification of the figure, but rather point to its being near in time to the Sasanian period, both for the right-facing profile and the similarity in headdress with the figure on the reverse of the last but one king of Persis.

If, as we have seen, it is more than likely that the figurative characters on the graffiti belong to the sub-Arsacid dynasty of the Kings of Fars, we naturally must ask ourselves what could have been the the purpose of these graffiti, inscribed and perhaps painted on the walls of important edifices of the Achaemenid epoch.

Regarding this, an epigraphic testimony, even if it dates back one to two centuries from the graffiti, seems to be particularly pertinent, providing a key to the reading. These are the two Middle Persian inscriptions, dated to the fourth century A.D., engraved at Persepolis, (Henning 1963: pls. 85 and 87; Frye 1966, with bibliography; Lukonin 1969: 128-29; Azarnoush 1986: 223, 228). Both of them were ordered by a Shabuhr Sakanshah who calls himself a son of Hormozd King of King, and has been differently identified with a son of Hormozd I or a son of Hormozd II and brother of Shabuhr II. Leaving aside the problem of the true identity of the personage, what is interesting for us is what is recorded in one of the two inscriptions, the longest one, engraved on a door-jamb to the S of the main hall of the Tacara: V.G. Lukonin translate it as thus: “He [i.e. Shabuhr Sakanshah] arrived in Persepolis [st stwny, “hundred columns”], and had wine near this building. He made great rejoicing and ordered to perform service for the Gods [yzd’n]. He proclaimed praise to his father and grandfather. He proclaimed praise to Shabuhr, King of Kings. And proclaimed praise to himself. He lauded those who built this palace” (Lukonin 1969: 129).

It is not by chance that just in Persepolis Shabuhr Sakanshah had a banquet, ordered rites for Gods, and gave blessing to his father and grandfather. In the long debate about the continuity between the Achaemenid and the Sasanian dynasts, it is now every day clearer that the Sasanians considered themselves heirs of the Achaemenians, whom they knew in a distorted way (cf. Roaf 1998) nevertheless correctly as the authors of Persepolis imposing buildings. This process is not new to the Sasanian dynasty, since it is probably already present in the Fratarakas of Hellenistic Fars: in the coinage of their first series, in fact, the link with the Achaemenid dynasty is stressed both by the legend and particularly by the iconographic elements of the standard and of the building appearing on the reverse (Chaumont 1959: 179; Callieri 1998: 36; for a different interpretation, see Panaino 2003; on this question, see also Skjærvø 1997: 102).

As R.N. Frye has recalled in a paper on the rise of the Sasanians, even during the time of the Fratarakas “the ruins of Persepolis were present, however, to remind the people of the power and magnificence of their ancestors” (Frye 1975: 238).

There seems to be a continuity from the Fratarakas to the early Sasanians in the privileged relationships with these ruins, lasting at least to the fourth century, when Shabuhr Sakanshah had his inscriptions engraved there (cf. also Wiesehöfer 1994: 139, fn. 4).

The act of incising (and painting) on the walls of these ancient monuments would therefore represent an homage to the ancestors, and at the same time a mark of ownership of the ruins and a way to point out the continuity between those kings of the mythical past and the kings of the present time.

This connection with the Sasanian period leads us to examine one last important aspect of the graffiti, which the remarkable iconographic similarities with some of the themes of the Sasanian rock reliefs immediately recall: the role that they have carried out in the development of Sasanian Art.

E. Herzfeld, with his usual insight, comparing the Persepolis graffiti with the graffiti from Dura Europos, underlines their importance to show that “even before the Sasanian period the repertory of motifs that were typical of Sasanian sculpture existed in painting”: “we may assert that a traditional painting was from the beginning the constituent factor also of Sasanian rock-sculpture” (Herzfeld 1941: 308). At the same time, the graffiti “reveal the artistic conception behind the conventionalized forms of the large rock-sculptures” (ibid.): the graffiti would in this way be really the starting point of Sasanian rock-sculpture.

Herzfeld’s view is fully shared by K. Erdmann, who recalls them among the art production which has influenced the birth of Sasanian art (Erdmann 1969: 55-56). The opinion of the two scholars can still be considered still valid, given the deep similarity between the graffiti and the Sasanian rock reliefs.

However, Herzfeld’s observations on the connection of these graffiti with painting seems particularly fitting also. When visiting the site of Persepolis some years ago, the present author was impressed by the fact that the signs incised on the stone are so thin, that the motifs are barely visible, only with a grazing light. Therefore, it is likely that the graffiti were originally painted with colour, and that the incisions were only the preliminary phase of the painting.

Indeed, if we examine the whole of Graffito no. 2, we can really consider the possibility that the minor figures, or better the figures of which only parts are represented in the different modern drawings, are not parts of an unfinished scene (Calmeyer 1976: 65), but may represent engraved patches of a larger scene which were originally painted. If we try to complete all the engraved figures with painted ones, now vanished, we have the representation of a procession, in which mounted princely figures line up with their horses each guided by two standing figures (rather than an investiture on horse with the omission of the god as suggested by Abka’i-Khavari 2000: 37).

This hypothesis will be verified when it is hopefully possible to examine the graffito with infra-red techniques in order to detect the original presence of colour.

However, coming back to Herzfeld’s observations, there is a remarkable difference with the graffiti from Dura-Europos, now available in a comprehensive publication (Goldman 1999). Whereas Dura graffiti are real “occasional” graffiti, incised by common persons not always having a professional training in drawing, Persepolis graffiti show to be the work of well-trained craftsmen. Herzfeld himself recognizes that “the picture of Papak is a work of amazing technical skill” (Herzfeld 1941: 308). Therefore, they are not extemporary traces but works of art, commissioned by the personages which are represented.

Pictorial graffiti are quite rare in Iran. The only area where this form of art has been extensively recorded is that of Birjand, in Southern Khorasan. Here in the 1950s a Persian student identified on the rock-walls of the gorge known as Kal-e Jangal several rock drawings, i.e. drawing in which the line was obtained by simply skratching the surface of the stone without incision, and therefore different from graffiti: “a rock drawing of a man and a lion”, accompanied by a Parthian inscription, “a rock drawing of a male bust (bearded head, with helmet and diadem, in profile turned to the left), with a damaged Parthian inscription,” as well as fragments of seven other inscriptions, all apparently in Parthian, belonging to different periods (Henning 1953: 132-33). On the basis of the reading of the inscription, mentioning the name of a city named after Ardashir (the Sasanian king), Henning is inclined to date the first image also to the early Sasanian period, whereas as regards the male bust (the photo of which, published in an Iranian volume, is not available to the present author), he stresses the fact that it is “reminiscent of the representations of the Parthian kings on their coins”, and therefore “somewhat older” (Henning 1953: 135). Indeed, the motif of the foot combat with the lion is represented once on Sasanian rock reliefs (Barham II at Sar Mashhad) whereas on Sasanian silver vessels the combat with the lion is generally on horse; the rendering of the trousers and foot is not dissimilar to that on several mounted king images on Sasanian vessels (e.g. Harper 1981: pls. 9, 10).

However, in recent times the area of Birjand has been the object of a thorough campaign of surveying rock drawings, graffiti and inscriptions, which has located a new and rich rock-wall at the site of Lâkh Mazâr, near the village of Kutch (Labbâf Khâniki & Bashâsh 1994). Apart from the inscriptions, several human heads, all in profile (ibid.: figs. 13-14), as well as images of lions and caprids (ibid.: figs. 15-16) have been recorded, plus a large number of very poor graffiti which are likely to belong to recent times. Particularly noteworthy as regards the high craft level is the image of a lion with an extremely elaborate rendering of mane and paws (ibid.: fig. 15, D2). While the epigraphical study has suggested a date to the Sasanian period, and particularly to the reign of Kawad, a similarity of some of the busts with Hephthalite busts on engraved gems and coins confirms, at least for a part of the images, a date to the 5th century AD, whereas for some images of lion, a date in the Parthian period has been proposed on rather weak grounds (ibid.: 29-30). It is therefore likely that the rock-wall was sited in such a position that it was used for graffiti for some time during the Sasanian period, while the existence of pre-Sasanian material is still to be proven.

The testimony of Birjand, therefore, although of great interest as far as concerns the common choice to use graffiti as the technical means, is, as comparative material, of secondary importance due to its placement in time which surely comes after that of Persepolis.


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