Book: Tappeh Sialk, The Glory Of Ancient Kashan

The Iran Heritage Foundation and Payvand News of Iran announced on December 16, 2019 of a new book entitled:

Tappeh Sialk: The Glory Of Ancient Kashan

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£25 + P&P
To order a copy of the book contact the distributor:
Telephone: +44 (0)1666 503242

The textbook has been edited by the following scholars:

  • Jebrael Nokandeh: Director of the National Museum of Iran
  • John Curtis: Chief Executive Officer of the Iran Heritage Foundation
  • Marielle Pic: Director of the Department of Oriental Antiquities, Musee du Louvre

The information below is the news release from the Iran Heritage Foundation pertaining to the textbook:

Tappeh Sialk on the outskirts of modern Kashan is arguably the most important ancient site in Iran before the rise of the Persian Empire in 550 BCE. Excavations here in the 1930s by a French team and by Iranian teams from 2000 AD onwards have cast light on the history of Iran from 6000 BCE onwards, spanning the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age periods. These results have been so significant that Tappeh Sialk has become a ‘type-site’ for Iranian archaeology and has provided a chronological framework against which other sites in Iran can be measured.

In addition, the spectacular finds from two cemeteries at Sialk now grace museums in Tehran and Paris as well as in other parts of the world. In view of the special importance of Tappeh Sialk, two international conferences were held at Asia House in London in 2017 and 2018 with the intention of reviewing what is known about the site and how it may best be protected and promoted in the future.  A selection of papers delivered at the first two conferences is published in this volume. This is the first volume in a series of IHF special studies.

For more information with respect to pre-Achaemenid era Iran (as far back as the Neolithic era), kindly click the image below:

An Overview of the History of Mithraism

The article belowA History of the worship of Mithras, and Mithraism as a Mystery Religion” was originally published in the website. Kindly note that the images and accompanying inserted below do not appear in the original article posting in the website.


Mithraism is the worship of the god Mithras, best known as an ancient Roman Mystery Religion. Mithras is the Roman name for the Indo-Iranian deity Mitra or Mithra, and it is by that name that he was known the Persians. Mithra was one of the minor deities under Ahura-Mazda in the Zoroastrian pantheon, from 1,500 BCE onward. Since the beginning, Mithra, or Mithras has been associated with the Light of the Sun, Truthfulness, and Mediation.

Roman worship of Mithras began sometime during the 1st century CE and continued to the end of the 4th Century CE.  During this time the worship of Mithras spread throughout the ancient world. Mithraeums, Roman temples of the Mithraic Mysteries, are found in almost every ancient European country; Britain, Spain, Germany and the rest of Western and Eastern Europe, and even into Aftrica.    It is believed that the Romans first encountered the worship of Mithras  within the religion of Zoroastrianism in the Eastern provinces of the Empire, near the Persian border.  There are various theories as to the beginnings of Roman Mithraism, and exactly how much Persian information was incorporated in the Roman Mysteries.  Today most of what is known about Mithrasim comes from archaeological remains from Mithraeums, dedicatory inscriptions, iconography, and a small amount of literary evidence from the Classical world. 

Aspects of Mithras the God

Mitra, or Mithra  is the Indo-Iranian name for the Roman god Mithras. Mitra is known from the ancient  Hindu pantheon, and Mithra is a name known from the Zoroastrian pantheon. In Zoroastrianism, Mithra is one of the “yazatas”, or minor deities under Ahura-Mazda. In Zoroastrianism Mithra is a god of Light that mediates between heaven and earth. Mithra also presides over honorable contracts and mediation.


Zoroastrian magi from Kerman during the Jashne Sadeh ceremonies (Source: Heritage Institute).

Mithras is mentioned both in the Vedas, the ancient holy books of Hindusim, and he is also named in the hymns of the Zoroastrian Avesta, which was written between 224-640 CE as a compilation of older religious oral traditions.

The Mysteries of Mithras

The Roman cult of Mithras is known as a “mystery cult.” A Mystery Cult is  an organized,  secret system of learning and worship through which participants undergo ritual  ritual initiations to confirm various stages of knowledge and inner development. Worship took place in a temple, called a mithraeum, which was made to resemble a natural cave. Sometimes temples were built specifically for the purpose, but often they were single rooms in larger buildings which usually had another purpose (for example, a bath house, or a private home). There are over a hundred mithraea preserved in the empire. Mithraea were longer than they were wide, usually around 10-12m long and 4-6m wide, and were entered from one of the short sides. Roman dining couches, called klinai or podia, lined the long sides of the mithraeum, leaving a narrow aisle in between. At the end of this aisle, opposite the entrance, was the Tauroctony,  the cult image showing Mithras sacrificing a bull. The ceiling of the mithraeum was often painted with stars to symbolize the dome of heaven, or the cosmos.


A reconstruction of a Mithraeum (Darb-e Mehr) depicting the stages of ascension on the floor as alluded to in the previous photo this posting (Source:Wolfgang Sauber for Public Domain). Note the placing of grapes (right side); grapes continue to signify vitality and renewal in Iran, Italy, Anatolia and the Caucasus.

Very little Mithraic liturgical text has survived, but much is known from temple imagery and inscription. It is known that in certain rites mithraists gathered for a common meal, initiation of members, and other ceremonies. It is also known that the  structure of Mithraism was hierarchical. Members went through a series of seven grades, each of which had a special symbol and a ruling planet. From lowest to highest these grades were Corax (raven, under Mercury), Nymphus (a made-up word meaning male bride, under Venus), Miles (the soldier, under Mars), Leo (the lion, under Jupiter), Perses (the Persian, under Luna, the moon), Heliodromus (Sun-Runner, under the sun), and finally Pater (father, under Saturn). Those who reached the highest grade, Pater, could become the head of a congregation. Because mithraea were so small, new congregations were probably founded on a regular basis when one or more members reached the highest grade. It is known that it was possible for Mithraic initiates to be members of more than one cult, as inscriptions from various Mithraists have shown.

Click to Enlarge] The stages of Roman Mithraism: Stage 1: Cerax (Raven); – Stage 2-Nymphos (Bride); Stage 3-Miles (Soldier); Stage 4-Leo (Lion); Stage 5-Perses (Persian); Stage 6- Heliodrommus (Sun-Runner); Stage 7-Pater (Father) (Picture sources: Hinnels, 1988). Note that term “Bride” often used to denote “Nymphos” for the second stage is simplistic at best. The Latin term should actually be in the feminine “Nymphe” and not the masculine “Nymphos” or a male bride which possibly may suggest something of a mystical male-female fusion. The reasons for this are not as yet clear, but it seems consistent with Roman or Western (as opposed to the original Iranian) Mithraism which is believed to have excluded women from its rituals and membership. Note that in the final grade (Stage VII-Father) there is a distinct Persian cap symbolizing the cap of Mithras (Picture sources: Cerax, Nymphos, Miles from Hinnels, 1985; Leo, Persian, and Heliodrommus, and Pater in Public Domain).

Mithraic Iconography

There is a rich and cohesive body of iconography which has survived within the various Mithraeum temples. Central to each mithraeum there was the tauroctony, the image of the bull slaying which was shown at the main altar.  In the tauroctony Mithras is clad in a tunic, trousers, cloak, and a pointed cap usually called a Phrygian cap. He looks away from the bull while  half-straddling its back, and pulling  the bull’s head back by its nostrils with his left hand. Mithras is plunging a dagger into the bull’s shoulder with his right hand.  Various figures surround this dramatic event. Under the bull a dog laps at the blood dripping from the wound and a scorpion attacks the bull’s testicles. Often the bull’s tail ends in wheat ears and a raven is perched on the bull’s back. The scene is bracketed at the sides by the two smaller figures of Cautes and Cautopates, both of whom wear costume similar to that of Mithras. Cautes is to the right, holding an upraised and burning torch. Above him, in the upper left corner, is the sun god, Sol, in his chariot. On the viewer’s left there is  Cautopates, who holds a torch that points downards and is sometimes, but not always, burning. Above Cautopates in the upper right corner is the moon, Luna. This group of figures is almost always present, but there are variations, of which the most common is an added line of the signs of the zodiac over the top of the bull-sacrificing scene.

Another depiction of Mithras with Persian dress slaying the sacred bull at the Vatican Museum in Rome (Source: Note the dog and serpent heading towards the gushing blood pouring down from the bull’s neck as the the scorpion heads towards the dying bull’s testicles.

In addition to this central scene there can be numerous smaller scenes which seem to represent episodes from Mithras’ life. The most common scenes show Mithras being born from a rock, Mithras dragging the bull to a cave, plants springing from the blood and semen of the sacrificed bull, Mithras and the sun god, Sol, banqueting on the flesh of the bull while sitting on its skin, Sol investing Mithras with the power of the sun, and Mithras and Sol shaking hands over a burning altar, among others. These scenes are the basis for knowledge of mithraic cosmology. There is no supporting textual evidence.

Mithraism and the Ancient World

The archaeological evidence for Mithraism, consisting mostly of monuments, inscribed dedications, and the remains of mithraea, indicates that the cult was widely practiced among the Roman Legions legions stationed in frontier areas. The Danube and Rhine river frontier has the highest concentration of evidence, but a significant quantity of evidence amply demonstrates that Mithraism was also popular among the troops stationed in the province of Numidia in North Africa and along Hadrian’s wall in England. The inscriptions on dedications found in all these areas show s Mithraism was most popular among legionaries (of all ranks), government officials, and even also merchants and even slaves.

-Mithraeum Rome San Clemente

The Mithraeum located under Rome’s Basilica of San Clemente (Source: Public Domain).

The area where the concentration of evidence for Mithraism is the most dense is the capital, Rome, and her port city, Ostia. There are eight extant mithraea in Rome of as many as seven hundred (Coarelli 1979) and eighteen in Ostia. In addition to the actual mithraea, there are approximately three hundred other mithraic monuments from Rome and about one hundred from Ostia. This body of evidence reveals that Mithraism in Rome and Ostia originally appealed to the same social strata as it did in the frontier regions. The evidence also indicates that at least some inhabitants knew about Mithraism as early as the late first century CE, but that the cult did not enjoy a wide membership in either location until the middle of the second century CE.

Entrance to the Temple of Hatra in Iraq, possibly dedicated to Mithras (Source: Public Domain).

As the cult in Rome became more popular, it seems to have “trickled up” the social ladder, with the result that Mithraism could count several senators from prominent aristocratic families among its adherents by the fourth century CE. Some of these men were initiates in several cults imported from the eastern empire (including those of Magna Mater and Attis, Isis, Serapis, Jupiter Dolichenus, Hecate, and Liber Pater, among others), and most had held priesthoods in official Roman cults. The devotion of these men to Mithraism reflects a fourth-century “resurgence of paganism,” when many of these imported cults and even official Roman state religion experienced a surge in popularity although, and perhaps because, their very existence was increasingly threatened by the rapid spread of Christianity after the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 313 CE.


Kurdish man engaged in the worship of Mithras in a Pir’s (mystical leader/master) sanctuary which acts as a Mithraic temple (Source: Kasraian & Arshi, 1993, Plate 80). Note how he stands below an opening allowing for the “shining of the light”, almost exactly as seen with the statue in Ostia, Italy. These particular Kurds are said to pay homage to Mithras three times a day.

Mithraism had a wide following from the middle of the second century to the late fourth century CE.  Although Christianity and Mithraism were rival cults Mithraism was at a serious disadvantage right from the start because it allowed only male initiates. What is more, Mithraism was only one of several cults imported from the eastern empire that enjoyed a large membership in Rome and elsewhere. It was these groups as a combined whole that were the greatest competition to Christianity.

The End of Ancient Mithraism

Mithraism as an organized religion seems to have been in trouble almost immediately after about 313 CE, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. The power centers of Mithraism were in Rome, the area closest to the newly Christian state. A great number of its adherents were part of the government and the Legions. In order to maintain the good graces of the Emperor many Mithraists seem to have left or even turned against the worship of Mithras. From this time onward there is archaeological evidence of Mithraeums being abandoned and even desecrated and destroyed. This was certainly encouraged by the early Church.  Christians saw Mithraism as a devilish imitation of what they believed to be the one true religion, and they frequently broke into and destroyed Mithraic temples with “official” approval.

Mithradates as Magus

An interesting relief at the ruins of Arsameia, the capital of the kingdom of Commagene in 1st century BC. King Mithradates I Kallinikos of Commagene (100–70 BC) dressed as the Zoroastrian Magi (left) shakes hands with the Greek god Hercules (Source:Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at The University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division; Photo originally by Mani Moradi). Note that Hercules in Commagene also represented the Persian god Artagnes. Commagene like the Pontus was a small post-Achaemenid Iranian kingdom in Anatolia situated squeezed between Parthia to its east and the expanding Roman Empire to its west. Various versions of Mithradates’ crown continue to appear among various mystical sects of Western Iran, notably Kurdistan.

Although evidence is not conclusive it is thought that Mithraism may have lacked a clear and cohesive organization and hierarchy between individual groups, as Christianity was to have later. If this is the case,  then an already depleted Mithraic cult must have found it difficult indeed to stem a rising tide of official opposition. Individual Mithraeums and groups seem to have fallen one by one without a system of mutual support.

The last known archaeological dating from a Mithraeum is from 408 CE. It is entirely possible that pockets of Mithraism survived later than that, but it is certain that there was in essence no public Mithraic cult in the Roman world after that time.

The Modern Rediscovery of Mithraism

Very little popular knowledge of Mithraism survived the ancient world until the 20th century. There were a few literary references to a cult known as Mithraism which survived through the Middle Ages in literature, and there were even a very few bits of iconography to attest that the cult did indeed exist. However, no in-depth study of Mithraism was attempted until the work of Franz Cumont, (1868-1947). Cumont participated in a great amount of new archaeology and research into Mithraism, and formulated the theory that that Roman Mithraism had its roots in Zoroastrianism. He wrote two books, ” Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra” in 1896 and 1899. Cumont compiled a catalogue of every known mithraic temple, monument, inscription, and literary passage relating to Mithras and claimed on the basis of his study of this body of evidence that Roman Mithras was, ultimately, Zoroastrian Mithra. Cumont argued by extension that if Roman Mithras had Iranian roots, the cult of Mithraism must have originated in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire and spread westward with legionaries in the Roman army, merchants from eastern provinces (often lumped under the broad misnomer “Syrians”), freedmen in the imperial bureaucracy, and slaves.


Mithras’ Enduring Legacy? (Left) Mithras at Taghe Bostan, Western Iran; (Middle) Deo Sol Invictus, Italy; (Right) The Statue of Liberty, Staten Island, New York.

Cumont’s large scholarly corpus and his opinions dominated Mithraic studies for decades. A series of conferences on Mithraism beginning in 1970 and an enormous quantity of scholarship by numerous individuals in the last quarter century has demonstrated that many of Cumont’s theories were incorrect (see especially Hinnells 1975 and Beck 1984). At the same time this recent work has greatly increased modern understanding of Mithraism, and it has opened up new areas of inquiry. Many questions, particularly those concerning the origins of the Roman cult of Mithras, are still unresolved and may always remain so. Even so, recent studies such as Mary Boyce’s and Frantz Grenet’s History of Zoroastrianism (1991) approach the relationship between Zoroastrianism and Mithraism in an entirely new light. Iconographic studies, especially those focused on the astrological aspects of the cult, abound, while other scholars examine the philosophical and soteriological nature of the cult (Turcan 1975 and Bianchi 1982). The field of mithraic studies is one which remains active and dynamic and one for which serious attention to the recent work greatly repays the effort to tackle this vast body of exciting new work.

Mithraism as a Modern Religion

As modern scholars have continued to research and rebuild the basics of Mithraism, there has been a corresponding rise of contemporary active Religious interest in the Mithraic Mysteries. In the last two decades the number of people actively aspiring to worship Mithras, (and to become initiated in his Mysteries) has grown exponentially. Mithraism has come from being a forgotten, dead ancient cult remembered only by specialized academics to a path often mentioned among modern Pagans, occultists, reconstructionists and reenactors.

Modern scholarship has made more Mithraic knowledge available to the world than has been available for many centuries. Such information is crucial, yet it is perhaps not the entire reason why the idea of Mithraism as a living path has been gaining popular interest.


The Mithraeum of Seven Gates, Ostia (Source: Philip Coppens). As noted by Philip Coppens: “The Cult of Mithras, rather than Christianity, almost became the religion that dominated Western Europe. It failed, but intriguingly, we now hardly know anything about it”.

The rediscovery of Mithraism has shown the Mithraic Mysteries to be a religious path amazingly well suited to the modern world. It is an organized, honorable path of Virtue, yet one that accepts and even incorporates other religions. It is a path presided over by a guiding Savior God – but yet one that demands that practitioners learn, grow and become powerful spiritual beings in their own right. It is a path where belief is honored . Yet it is also a path where knowledge and direct experience are considered to be crucial to spiritual understanding.

Mithraism may well become a much-needed bridge between various religions and faiths that exist in the world of today. To those from Christian and other monotheistic backgrounds, Mithraism offers a positive religion of the Light that is presided over by a strong Savior God. To those practicing various Pagan or New Age paths, Mithraism offers organization, systematic knowledge and growth, and a path that historically respects a wide variety of other religious paths and world cultures.

The Future of Mithraism

While the future of Mithraism is of course uncertain, it is still possible to focus on specific facts that are likely to continue. Firstly, it is very unlikely that Mithraism will “slip back into the shadows” to become obscure once again. Mithraic information recovered over the past several decades will continue to be available, and new Mithraic sites, artifacts and inscriptions will continue to be recovered.

It is also likely that a general religious interest in Mithraism will continue to rise. One by one the religions of the ancient world are being reclaimed. It is impossible to say if Mithraism will ever again regain the world position it held during the Roman Empire, it is possible to say that from this point onward there will always be at least a few people who honor Mithras in a religious manner.

Whether organized groups take hold and and organized group Mysteries are rebuilt in the future will be very much determined by what takes place in the present and near future. Mithraeum has been formed to help this possibility become reality.

Persian Roots of Puccini’s Opera Turandot (Turandokht)

The article “Persian roots of Puccini’s opera Turandot” (posted 29 November 2019) on Leiden University’s Leiden Medievalists Blog has been penned by Dr. Asghar Seyed Gohrab, Senior University Lecturer at Leiden University. who has dedicated this article to his friend Dr. Rokus de Groot (University of Amsterdam). The article was bought to the attention of by Anosh Tozie through the Facebook venue.

Readers further interested in Europa-Iran ties can access more resources on this domain in the below links:


What is the place on earth that saw the sun only once? What is it that all beings have, human beings, angels, fairies, demons, anything that grazes and flies, heaven and earth, anything that God has created? How did a Persian story grow to a world opera?

Bahram Gur in the Room of the Seven Portraits (Leiden Medievalists Blog & Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon).

Europeans inspired by Persian culture

Persian culture has captured the attention of European artists from antiquity. Persian imperial history, myths and legends, religions, and poetry have all in one way or another enticed European artists, musicians and scholars. European composers were inspired by Persian subjects creating artistic works. Johann Strauss’s Persische March (1864), Thomas Arne’s (1710-1778) opera Artaxerxes, George Friedrich Handel’s Serse (1738), Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, are famous examples, which are inspired by Persian culture and history.

Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot in 1926 (Leiden Medievalists Blog & Public Domain).

Turan’s daughter

But how did a medieval Persian anecdote inspire Puccini’s opera Turandot? The name derives from the Persian compound name Turan and dokht, meaning the daughter of Turan. Dokht is a shortened form of dokhtar or ‘daughter,’ ‘girl.’ As Persian belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, the word dokhtar has cognates in European languages. Turan refers to the north eastern borders Persia. Turandot recounts the story of a Chinese princess who kills her suitors when they fail to decipher riddles.

Puccini: Nessun Dorma from ‘Turandot’ – BBC Proms

Seven Beauties

As a recent investigation has shown (Mogtader & Schoeler, 2019), this story appears in anecdotal form in twelfth century Persia in at least two different sources.

Scene from the opera Turan Dokht by Miranda Lakerveld (Leiden Medievalists Blog & Copyright: Nichon Glerum).

The first source is the Persian masterpiece Seven Beauties, by the Persian poet Nezami (d. 1209) who recounts the romantic history of the pre-Islamic Persian king Bahram. The plot of this story is very complex, filled with mathematical, astronomical, cosmogonic, medical and mystical symbolism. A simplified plot runs as follows. In his early years, Bahram is sent away for education. During a hunting expedition, he comes across a temple. He goes inside the building and sees portraits of seven princesses from the Seven Regions of the world. He instantly falls in love with all of them. As soon as he comes back to Persia, he builds seven pavilions and invites the brides to his palace complex. From Saturday to Friday he visits each night one princess, telling him erotic and didactic stories. Each of these princesses teaches him a lesson and is instrumental in his development as a human being. He starts with the Indian princess in the black pavilion, and then on Sunday, the day of the Sun, goes to the Byzantine princess Humay, till he visits the Persian princess in the White pavilion on Friday, the day of Venus. The colour symbolism, from black to white (leading finally to radiance and colourlessness) is based on astronomical/astrological, mathematical and spiritual symbolism. This journey from black to white also refers to Bahram’s spiritual development from darkness and ignorance to light and illumination, uniting himself with the source of light. He grows to a Perfect Man and an ideal king.

Bahram Gur in the Room of the Seven Portraits (Leiden Medievalists Blog & Collection Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon).

The Ruthless Princess

The plot of a cruel princess who asks riddles from her suitors appears in the red pavilion. It takes place on Tuesday, the day of Mars. Dressed all in red, King Bahram visits the princess Nasrin, who wears crimson robes with hair like the colour of fire and skin whiter than snow. The whole interior of the pavilion is decorated in red, red carpets, roses, and serving red wine. The princess tells a story of a princess in a far-off place in Russia. She is beautiful, skilful in bow and arrow, and is more learned than any men. Her father begs her to marry one of the suitors but she declines. Eventually she leaves the palace and let a palace be built high on a mountain. Hidden swords are placed on the passageway leading to the palace so that they decapitate anyone walking on the road.

She would only marry the strongest and the most intelligent man who could enter this new palace, escaping the swords, and opening the locked door of the palace. Once in the palace, they had to answer four riddles asked by the princess. Would the suitor fail, he was immediately put to death. The princess orders to put her portrait on the city gate, challenging young men to suit her. Many suitors come but lose their lives. While her father weeps and shows pity on their deaths, the princess is cold and laughs, ordering to put the severed heads on the city gate. One day, a prince who is on a hunting expedition, arrives and falls deeply in love with the portrait of the princess. Realizing that this princess is ruthless, he goes to a sage, and asks him how to overcome the invisible swords, how to unlock the palace’s door, and how to answer the riddles. The wise sage says that death comes to everyone but love does not, so the prince should pursue his quest. The sage teaches him how to escape the swords, unlock the door, and answer the four riddles, giving him equipment. The prince succeeds to come into the palace’s garden, a desolate court without any trees and flowers. After long waiting, a maiden comes to him and asks him to go back to her father’s palace and wait for the princess to come and ask him the riddles. The prince goes back. At seeing the prince, people rejoice and remove the portrait of the princess and the skulls of suitors from the city gate. People prepare a feast, drink wine, dance and play music. After waiting for two days, on the third day the princess comes. While smiling, she removes two pearls from her ears and gives them to the prince, asking him what these gifts mean. The prince gives her three pearls that the wise sage had given him. Then he orders courtiers to bring a scale and puts these three pearls on one side and the two pearls on the other. They were equal in weight. The prince answers: “if, as the scholars say, life is but two days long, here is your life and mine. And here is yet another life, which is our life together, when we are made one by love.” (Chelkowski, 1975: 93) Afterwards, the princess calls for a mortar, grinding the pearls and adding sugar to them. She then throws them into a cup and gives them to the prince, asking him what he thinks of such a gift. He brings forth a flask of milk that the sage had given him and pours it to the cup and asks the princess to drink. The powdered pearls remain in the bottom of the cup. Afterwards, the princess gives the prince her precious ring and asks him what he thinks of the gift. The prince gives her a luminous perfect pearl. Finally, the princess unfastens her necklace and gives the prince a pearl exactly the same as the one the prince had given her, asking him what he thinks of the gift. The prince brings forth a glass bead and a string and puts the bead between the pearls, saying to the princess, may our love guard us against evil spirit. In this way he answers all questions.

Rehearsal footage of Turan Dokht, created by director Miranda Lakerveld and composer Aftab Darvishi. 

In Nezami’s account, the prince does not ask riddles, and the riddles asked by the princess are not verbal questions. But in a second source of the story, we find several verbal riddles asked by both the prince and the princess. This second source is Javāmiʿ al-hekāyāt (‘Collection of Stories’) by Mohammad ʿAufi (ca. 1170-1232). ʿAufi’s story is short and it mostly concentrates on ten riddles presented by the princess. ʿAufi places the story in the Roman empire and emphasizes the cruelty of the princess as she kills 42 suitors who failed to answer the riddles. Here a prince falls in love with the cruel Roman princess by hearsay. He goes to her palace and challenges her. The princess’s father shows big sympathy with him. The majority of the riddles are related to cosmogony, religion and ethics. These are riddles to test the intelligence of a young person, which often appear in Persian epic poetry. After answering all of these questions, the prince asks a riddle from the princess, and gives her one day to solve it. In ʿAufi’s retelling, the princess goes to her mother for advice. She convinces her to marry the prince. Several of the motifs Nezami used also appear in ʿAufi’s story such as putting severed heads on the city gate, the king who deeply sympathizes with the young men vising his daughter, and falling in love either through hearsay or portrait.

Bahram vising the red pavilion (Leiden Medievalists Blog).

Another source of the story, which is written much later, is a longer story based on ʿAufi’s narrative. It is here that we see the setting is changed to China. In Persian romantic tradition, including folklore, China is famous for handsome girls, and a Persian prince often goes in quest of finding his marriage partner in China. In this quest story, after much hardship the prince arrives in China and falls in love with a princess through hearsay. An old woman tells him about the cruel behaviour of the princess, imploring him to forget her. The prince goes to the princess’s palace, and she asks him riddles in four consecutive days. The prince answers them all. On the last day, the prince presents a riddle to the princess and gives her one day to guess an answer. Unable to solve the riddle, she sends beautiful maidens to the prince to make him drunk, and to seduce him to dig out the answers. One of the maidens brings the drunken prince to bed and discovers the answer to the riddle. Before making love, the maiden tricks him, running away while leaving behind her cloths. When the next day, the prince comes to the palace to receive the answer from the cruel princess, who haughtily says to the prince that she will kill him, he says, “last night I was on a hunting expedition. I chased a bird. I caught her, prepared her for consummation, but she flew away, yet I have her wings and feathers still with me.” This answer convinces the princess of his intelligence and agrees to marry him.

This longer version of the story was translated into Turkish under the title of Ferec baʿd al-shedda (‘Relief after Hardship’). In the Persian stories, the actual names of the prince and the princess are not mentioned, but in this Turkish translation, Calaf appears, which is a corruption of Khalaf meaning ‘successor,’ ‘child,’ or ‘offspring.’

François Pétis de La Croix (1653-1713) translated the story very freely into French and added Chinese colouring to it. The European versions of the riddle princess starts from this period. Carlo Graf Gozzi (1720-1806) had adapted several oriental stories, among which this particular narrative. Puccini’s libretto is written by Giuseppe Adami (1878-1946) and Renato Simoni (1875-1952). Puccini knew the story already through the play written by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), which was based on Gozzi’s version.

Riddles asked by Puccini’s Turandot.

            It is fascinating to see how an anecdote, which comes probably from an oral Persian background, developed to several complex stories which all emphasize the riddling elements through a powerful, handsome and cruel princess, who tests the intelligence and physical prowess of her suitors.

Answers to riddles:

  • the Red Sea
  • a name


Chelkowski, P., “Āyā operā-ye Turandot-e Puccini bar asās-e kushk-e sorkh-e Haft Peykar- e Nezāmi ast?” (Is Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ based on the Red Pavilion of Nezami’s Haft Peykar?), in Iranshenasi, 1991, pp. 715–721.

Dabashi, H., Persophilia: Persian Culture on the Global Scene, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Marzolph, U. & R. van Leeuwen, The Arabian Nights: Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara: ABC CLIO, 2004.

Marzolph, U., Relief after Hardship: The Ottoman Turkish Model for The Thousand and One Days, Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2017 (I had no access to this book).

Mogtader, Y. & G. Schoeler, Turandot: Die persische Märchenerzählung, Edition, Űbersetzung, Kommentar, Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2019.

Seyed-Gohrab, A.A., Courtly Riddles: Enigmatic Embellishments in Early Persian Poetry, Amsterdam, Rozenberg Publishers / West Lafayette, Indiana, Purdue University press, 2008. (republished in 2010 at Leiden University Press)

Seyed-Gohrab, A.A., Laylī and Majn‎ūn: Love, Madness and Mystic Longing in Nezāmi’s Epic Romance, Leiden / Boston: E.J. Brill, 2003.

Yohannan, J.D., Persian Poetry in England and America: a 200-Year History, New York: Caravan Books, 1977.

Preserving the Buddhist Stupa Structure in Topdara, Afghanistan

The article below was originally published as “Preserving the Cultural Heritage of Afghanistan” by the World Cultural Heritage Voices (CHV) outlet on October 17, 2018. Note that the photo and the accompanying caption do not appear in the original CHV outlet.

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The site of Topdara near Charikar in Parwan province, was built around the 4th century CE. Since 2016 the Afghan Cultural Heritage Consulting Organization (ACHCO) has been restoring the sites massive stupa (a holy structure from the Buddhist era). This stupa at Topdara has a diameter of 23 meters and would have originally been covered in white plaster.

The Buddhist stupa structure at Topdara, Parwan province in Afghanistan (Source: The Buddhist Forum). The CHV outlet traces the origins of the site to the 4th CE, during the Sassanian era – the Buddhist Forum states that the site originates in the 1st to 2nd centuries CE, making this contemporary to the Kushan and Parthian empires.

With support from the United States Embassy, ACHCO and the Archaeological Institute of Afghanistan will continue their valuable work to restore this important heritage site for Afghanistan and to continue archaeological excavations to better understand the site’s significance for Asia.

Iranian Documentary Movie Receives the Région Nouvelle-Aquitaine Creativity Award

The documentary “In the Realm of the Spider-Tailed Viper” was one of 40 films out of 600 documentaries selected by The Wildlife Film Festival held at Rotterdam for two screening times on (October 31 and November 3) 2019.

The producer of the movie “In the realm of the spider-tailed viper” is Dr. Mohammad Ala, winner of  the 2019 World Wildlife Film Award, the 2018 Cinema Vérité Award, the 2018 Panda Award and the 2013 Grand Prix Film Italia Award. The above photo shows Dr Ala at Rotterdam in 2019.

The Festival International Du Film De Menigoute held on November 2, 2019 in the new-Aquitaine region of France bestowed the Région Nouvelle-Aquitaine Creativity Award offered for the documentary “In the Realm of the Spider-Tailed Viper” for best film production.

The movie was chosen for this award as a result of its originality, innovation and creativity.

Certificate of award bestowed for the documentary movie “In the Realm of the Spider-Tailed Viper”

The Award ceremonies were also announced in the prestigious France 3 media outlet. The French Ambassador in Iran tweeted and congratulated the Iranian film makers for winning high prizes in France.

The above photo shows Dr. Ala (second from left receiving  the 2013 Grand Prix Film Italia Award) along with two Italian mayors from Lecce and Bari who attended this event. The festival is known among Italians because it started in 1962.

Spider-tailed viper has become winningest wildlife documentary film produced within Iran by an all-Iranian crew. As noted previously, the documentary movie “In the Realm of the Spider-Tailed Viper” has won numerous awards and citations including:

  • Won Green Oscar (Panda) in England
  • Won World Wildlife Film (WWF) Technical Award in Italy
  • Won the highest Wildlife Awards in France
  • Won the first Audience Award in Tehran, Iran
  • UN recognition as an endangered species
  • Various Certificates and Recognition citations in Germany, Italy, France, Iran, and Holland

A snapshot of the audience just before the commencements of the documentary movie screenings for the Wildlife Film Festival in Rotterdam in 2019.

In 2020, a new documentary film featuring a bird species will be introduced from Iran.