UNESCO: The Parthian Fortresses of Nysa

The article Parthian Fortresses of Nysa” was originally posted by UNESCO. The photographs inserted below are from the Meros.org venue, with the descriptive captions and map of the Parthian Empire provided by Kavehfarrokh.com. The version printed below has also been slightly edited.

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Nisa was the capital of the Parthian Empire, which dominated this region of central Asia from the mid 3rd century BCE to the early 3rd century CE. As such it formed a barrier to Roman expansion, whilst at the same time serving as an important communications and trading centre, at the crossroads of north-south and east-west routes. Its political and economic power is well illustrated by the surviving remains, which underline the interaction between central Asian and Mediterranean cultures.

Map of the Parthian Empire in 44 BCE to 138 CE (Picture source: Farrokh, page 155, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا). See also Military History and Armies of the Parthians

The Parthian Fortresses of Nisa consist of two tells of Old and New Nisa, indicating the site of one of the earliest and most important cities of the Parthian Empire, a major power from the mid 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. They conserve the unexcavated remains of an ancient civilization which skillfully combined its own traditional cultural elements with those of the Hellenistic and Roman west. Archaeological excavations in two parts of the site have revealed richly decorated architecture, illustrative of domestic, state and religious functions. Situated at the crossroads of important commercial and strategic axes, this powerful empire formed a barrier to Roman expansion while serving as an important communication and trading centre between east and west, north and south.

A close-up of one of the sections of Nysa’s enduring Parthian system of architecture (Meros.org).

UNESCO Criteria

Criterion (ii): Nisa is situated at the crossroads of important commercial and strategic axes. The archaeological remains vividly illustrate the significant interaction of cultural influences from central Asia and from the Mediterranean world.

Criterion (iii): The Parthian Empire was one of the most powerful and influential civilizations of the ancient world, and a brilliant rival of Rome which prevented the expansion of the Roman Empire to the east. Nisa, the capital of the Parthian Empire, is the outstanding symbol of the significance of this imperial power.

A walled structure of one the chambers at Nysa(Meros.org). Later Sassanian architecture would also display especially thick walls and depending on the region, either bricks or stones could be used in their construction. For more on Parthian and Sassanian military architecture, consult Chapter 13 “Military Architecture”  in Armies of Ancient Persia: The Sassanians (2017).

The integrity and authenticity of the property, and also of the surrounding landscape, in terms of the size of the two tells and the siting of the capital at the foot of the Kopet-Dag mountains, are unquestionable. The two tells do not in any sense represent the original appearance of the Parthian capital, but their present appearance is due solely to natural erosion.

A meandering pathway towards a Nysa structure(Meros.org).

The site is gazetted as one of the 1,300 historical and cultural monuments of Turkmenistan. Nisa is also one of the eight State Historical and Cultural Parks (SHCP) that have been created to protect the most significant sites in Turkmenistan. A buffer zone has been established. The property comes within the provisions of the Bagyr town development plan. Serious efforts are still needed to set up an efficient preventive maintenance scheme that will ensure the survival of recently excavated parts of the site. A five-year plan has been formulated for 2006-2010, in order to ensure a better balance between the different activities (e.g. archaeology vis-à-vis conservation) and to combine and harmonize all the existing documents and strategies relating to the site.

A View of Russian Emigres to Iran

The report Fleeing 1917 Revolution: Orthodox church in Tehran maintained by Russian émigré descendant” was originally made by RT news (November 5, 2017).

Readers are also encouraged to see the following post as well … Evangelos Venetis: Greeks in Modern Iran

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Hundreds of thousands fled Russia after the 1917 Revolution. Some of them found a new home in Iran. RT talked to a descendant of these immigrants, who takes care of an Orthodox Church in Tehran and the first home for the elderly in the country.

One hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin took over the power in Russia in the October Revolution of 1917. With the end of the monarchy and the dawn of the Soviet Union, the events led to changes too dramatic for many to stay.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Tehran, Iran (Source: RT News).

The Russian Civil War, which lasted from 1918 to 1922, forced out many who could not find a place under the new regime. Over one million emigrants went looking for a new home in Europe, the US, and around the world. RT found descendants of the ‘white émigrés’ in Iran.

Emanoel Shirani, 51, has been maintaining the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church for almost 20 years. It was built in the Iranian capital in 1945 from donations by Russian emigrants.

Emanoel Shirani, at age 51 in 2017 (Source: RT News).

I grew up in this church. I feel that somebody has to look after it,” he told RT. Emanoel’s father was Iranian, but he’s an Orthodox Christian, thanks to his “very religious” grandmother. He said he never missed a single service until the age of 13. His grandmother took him to church even if he was sick. Saying in perfect Russian:

“People used to gather here [at St. Nicholas Church] for big holidays. We had about 60-70 children. They played here altogether. We all visited each other. Life was calm, kind.”

Emanoel’s family escaped to Iran in 1923, as it wasn’t safe for them to stay longer. “My grandmother and mother came here from Saint Petersburg.” His father and grandfather, “they were all in the White Army. They were all shot. Nobody was left,” he said. The man said his grandma always “hated that red flag[ of the USSR] and waited to see it fall. She wasn’t lucky enough” as she passed away before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Christians are respected in Iran,” but life for the Russian immigrants wasn’t always easy, the 51-year-old remembered. There was a lot of suspicion towards them before the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979, with fears that even the descendants of those who fled the Bolsheviks were Soviet spies.

The interior of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Tehran, Iran (Source: RT News).

They could only engage in craftsmanship or trade, as it was impossible to get a good government job with a Russian name, he said. Like many others, Emanoel himself had to change his name to ‘Akhmat,’ but he restored his papers after the Iranian Revolution.

St. Nicholas Church is also famous for opening the first home for the elderly in Iran back in 1945. It initially hosted Russian immigrants, but now it’s open to non-Christians and has many Muslim inhabitants. Maintaining the senior home is a “complicated affair,” as most of its residents stay there for free, Emanoel said. Another problem is that St. Nicholas Church currently lacks a permanent Orthodox priest, but Emanoel expressed hope that it will soon change.

Babak Khorramdin – The Freedom Fighter of Persia

The article “Babak Khorramdin – The Freedom Fighter of Persia” written by Mahbod Khanbolouki was originally published in the Ancient Origins venue on January 21, 2015. The version printed below has been slightly edited.

Readers interested in this topic can also read and download the below article as well:

Farrokh, K. (2014). An Overview of the Historical Circumstances that led to the Revolts of Babak Khorramdin. Persian Heritage, Volume XIX, No. 74, Summer, pp.21-23.

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The Umayyad- and Abbasid Caliphate of the Arabs had invaded and occupied the Sassanid Persian empire for 144 years when in 10 July 795 CE, a child was born in a village called Balal Abad situated near modern day Ardabil in northwestern Iran. This child would grow up to become the most prominent rebel leader of the Persians and he would create the largest rebel force the Arabs had ever faced anywhere in the Islamic Caliphate. He fought the invading Arabs for regaining control over Persian territories in order to liberate the Persian people and to restore Persian culture. He would be known as Babak Khorramdin.

Babak lost his father Merdas in his early childhood which resulted in him taking on the responsibility of his family, including his mother and his two younger brothers. His mother Mahrou worked as a nurse for infants while Babak himself worked as a cowherd until he was twelve years old. By the age of eighteen he was already involved in arms trade and business. He enjoyed music and singing and learned to play the Persian string instrument called tambour. A number of stories have been told about him. One story says that Babak was sleeping under a tree during an afternoon when his mother saw his hair and chest drenched in blood. But when his mother quickly woke him up and he stood on his feet, all blood had vanished and he was unharmed. Based on what she had witnessed, she told Babak that he had a great task ahead of him.

A conjectural image Babak Khorramdin (Source: Ancient Origins). Note the Bazz castle in the mountainous background.

The Khorramian sect

One winter day, a wealthy man named Javidan Shahrak was on the way home from the city of Zanjan where he had gained the leadership of a Persian rebel group called the Khorramian sect established in the nearby highlands. Due to a violent snow storm, Javidan couldn’t continue his journey and had to find shelter. By chance, he found the home of Babak and knocked on the door. His mother welcomed him into their home and lit a fire for him. During his stay, Babak took care of Javidan’s horses and showed good manners towards the guest. His level of intelligence impressed Javidan and when the time had come for Javidan to leave, he asked Mahrou whether he could take Babak with him to work in his farms. Javidan also promised her that he would send plenty of money. She accepted his request and by this event, Babak joined the Khorramian rebel group and Javidan became Babak’s role model and teacher. After some time, Babak gained the name Khorramdin, meaning of the delightful faith referring to the pre-islamic religion Zoroastrianism which is the ancient native religion of Persia.

As the leader of the Khorramian rebel group, Javidan fought the Arabs alongside Babak Khorramdin around their strong hold in northwestern Persian between the years 807-817 CE until Javidan became wounded in a battle and died in 817 CE. By the time Javidan died, Babak had learnt how to use geostrategic locations, to apply various military tactics and to lead troops. Javidan had chosen Babak as his successor and leader of the Khorramian sect before he died. Multiple rebel groups were scattered throughout the cities of Persia by the time Babak became a leader. Eventually Babak married Banu Khorramdin, the former wife of Javidan who was a female warrior and who fought side by side Babak and his men. Members of the Khorramian group wore red clothes and therefore they were known as sorkh jamegan among people, meaning the red clothed ones .

Beginning of the Rebellion

The same year as Javidan died, Babak started to motivate his followers to come together and to start a rebellion against the Arab Caliphate, and so the rebellion of the Persians begun. Babak started to recruit farmers and rebel leaders from all around Persia and ordered them to go to arms and to spread fear in the eyes of the Arabs. Babak’s popularity increased rapidly and thousands of people joined his movement. There are different accounts of the number of people who joined his rebel army but the number is estimated to be between 100 000 – 300 000 people strong. The army mainly consisted of farmers and when Babak recruited these men, he also trained them for battles. He ordered his men to raid caravans along the Silk Road, to destroy Arab strongholds and to seize villages, which in turn contributed to loss of control in many provinces ruled by the Arabs.

Statue of Babak Khorramdin the Nakhchevan region of the Republic of Azerbaijan in the southern Caucasus (Wikimedia Commons). Kindly note that the Caucasian Republic with the name “Azerbaijan” was not known by this name until May 1918 – the historical Azerbaijan is located in southwest of Iran. The region of the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan was known as Arran and the Khanates and also as Albania in pre-Islamic times.

In 819 CE, full scale battles between Persians and Arabs were initiated. The Caliphate continuously ordered Arab generals to fight Babak. An Arab general named Yahya ibn Mu’adh was sent to fight the Khorramian rebel group, but failed to defeat Babak. During two years time, armies under the command of Isa ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Khalid continuously attacked Babak’s forces with no success. In 824 CE, Ahmad ibn al Junayd attacked the Khorramian rebel group but ended up captured by Babak. In 827 CE, the Arabs under the command of Muhammad ibn Humayd Tusi attacked and became victorious but could not capture Babak and his closest men. In 829 CE, Babak returned to restore his strongholds and defeated Muhammad ibn Humayd Tusi who ended up getting killed while his Arab army suffered heavy losses.

An image of Babak Khorramdin (Source: Ancient Origins).

The stronghold of the Khorramian rebel group was the Castle of Babak which is situated on an altitude of 2600 metres on the mountain Badd (also known as Bazz). The castle is surrounded by mountains and ravines which during ancient times provided protection from invading troops. A handful of Khorramian soldiers could easily wipe out thousands of enemies and the castle was impossible to invade during winter seasons. It was built during the Sassanid dynasty (224-651 CE) with foundations built during the Parthian dynasty (247 BC-224 CE). As the brilliant war lord that he was, Babak Khorramdin took full advantage of the strategic location of the castle which had an important role in the numerous victories he had against the Arab generals.

The remains of the Castle of Babak which are visited by Iranians and tourists all year round (Source: Iran Tour Center).

In 835 CE, the caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate named al Mu’tasim ordered his best general to confront Babak Khorramdin and to capture him. His name was Haydar ibn Kavus Afshin and was chosen as the governor of the area where Babak was active. He had been a former compatriot of Babak. In the early days of the Persian rebellion, Afshin made an oath together with Babak to cooperate and defeat the Arab armies and to bring back the power of Persia to the hands of the former Sassanid monarchs. By this time, after 18 years of Persian revolts, Afshin had treacherously started to cooperate with the Arabs in exchange for excessive riches, benefits and to be the head general of the Caliphate army. With the help and resources provided by the caliph, Afshin ordered Arab strongholds, which had been destroyed by Babak and his men, to be rebuilt and reinforced. Al Mu’tasim on the other hand managed to capture one of Babak’s men which by torture was forced to exploit information about Babak’s tactics, territorial strategies and about hidden pathways. Shortly before Afshin attacked the Castle of Babak, Babak had sent a letter to the Byzantine emperor Theophilus in request for military reinforcements but the letter did not reach the emperor in time. Babak and his men had to evacuate the castle and flee. Babak himself together with his wife and a few soldiers fled to Armenia while Afshin plundered and thereafter demolished the castle. While Babak was in the custody of the Armenian prince Sahl ibn Sonbāt, the prince was informed about the large reward for finding Babak. Afshin was informed about Babak’s presence in Armenia and he sent a large army to Sahl ibn Sonbāt’s residence and captured Babak.

A 2009 canvas oil painting produced in Tehran by Shahab Mousavizadeh depicting the arrest of Babak Khorramdin (in c. 800 CE) by the Caliphate (Source: Shahab Mousavizadeh).

Babak Khorramdin was held in the presence of the caliph in the city of Samarra and was sentenced to death in 838 CE. Before he was executed, his hands and feet were cut off and it is said that in his agony, Babak washed his face with blood pouring out of his cuts. When the caliph asked him what he was doing, Babak answered that he wouldn’t let the Arabs see his pale face when he was dead so that they wouldn’t think he died with fear of the Arabs. He was decapitated and his head was later sent around the cities of Persia in order to spread fear among Iranians. His body was hanged on the walls of Samarra.

For 21 years, Babak Khorramdin successfully lead a major rebellion which brought the Arabs to their knees one battle after another. Ultimately, he wasn’t defeated by the Caliphate but by treacherous allies. He will always be remembered as the Persian hero who sacrificed his life for freedom and his cultural heritage. He was a brilliant leader and is very much alive today in the minds of Iranians just as he was back in time. Today Iranians visit the ruins of his castle 10 July every year to honor the great legend and his men.

Persian Archery and Tactics

The article “Persian Archery and Tactics” was originally posted by the Legio I Lynx Fulminata outlet on February 10, 2014. The version printed below has been slightly edited. Kindly note that the images displayed below do not appear in the original Legio I Lynx Fulminata posting. readers interested in this topic are also referred to the following article on Sassanian archery published in the prestigious peer-reviewed RAMA (Revista de Artes Marciales Asiáticas) journal (download in pdf):

Farrokh, K., Khorasani, M. M., & Dwyer, B. (2018). Depictions of archery in Sassanian silver plates and their relationship to warfare, RAMA (Revista de Artes Marciales Asiáticas). Volumen 13 (2), Julio-Diciembre, pp. 82-113.

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Persian armies had many traits that made them some of the most feared and most successful armies of all time.  The Special Forces of the Persian armies were a huge reason why they were so successful; some of the most important special force soldiers were the archers. Archery was a huge part of the Persian Army, it often times was the deciding factor in wars that were fought. I am going to focus on the tactics that the archers used.

 تندیس آرش کمانگیر در مجموعه سعدآباد تهران – Statue of Arash Kamangir (Arash the Archer/Arash who grasps the bow) at Saadabad Palace in Tehran (Source: Drafsh Kaviani [درفش کاویانی] in Public Domain).

In his Landmarks Herodotus stated:

They used volleys of arrows that darken the sun.” (7.218.3)

Persian archers would shoot thousands of arrows at the same time into the sky.  Archers’ job wasn’t to hit specific targets, but to weaken the line opposing them.  You didn’t necessarily have to have a good shot to be an archer for the Persian army.  In the Landmarks Herodotus it says, “ Persians launch arrows tipped with burning hemp at walls of Athenian Acropolis.”(9.49.1)  So fire arrows were developed to weaken and distract the opposing forces.  These were brilliant tactics to use in war, because oftentimes whoever’s front line broke first would lose the fight. I imagine it would be quite difficult to keep in perfect formation while flaming arrows are setting a blaze to your surrounding and hitting and burning you.

Exhibit of Achaemenid archers (Image Source: Ancient Origins). 

Archers couldn’t just be exposed to enemy fire, so a tactic that the Persians used was  setting up wicker shield walls which sheltered archers as they shot volleys of arrows at their enemies. A Persian archer would not have been very effective on their own. That is why there were lines of archers that all stood in formation and shot at the same time to take down enemies. The arrows they used were often times made out of light wood or reed, so archers actually didn’t have as much range as we think of archers having today.  Also since the arrows were so light, more than one was usually required to kill an opposing Greek.  Tactics were very important for Persian archers. They had to work with each other in order to be effective.

Grave of Female Scythian Warrior Found in Ukraine

The article “Grave of Female Scythian Warrior Found in Ukraine” written by Ingvar Nord was first published in the Ancient Origins venue on September 1, 2018. Kindly note that article fails to mention the Iranian connection of the Amazons as well as the Scythians and Sarmatians/Alans in particular – instead the author makes reference to a vague characterization of these having been “Indo-European-speaking herders” which fails to distinguish between Celtic, Italic, Balto-Slavic, Germanic, Illyrian, Hellenic, Armenian, Dacian, Tocharian, and Indian (Bharat), and Iranian peoples. For the Iranian Iranian identity of the Scythians, Sarmatians and Alans readers are referred to the following sources:

The Amazons were essentially of Iranian stock as these were of the above noted Iranian peoples. Readers are referred to the following sources on the Amazons:

There are also archaeological reports pertaining to excavations of Amazon warrior women in Iran – see for example:

Kindly note that Ingvar Nord’s article has been slightly edited below – also: two images and accompanying captions inserted below do not appear in the original Ancient Origins posting.

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Ukrainian TV Channel, ZIK has reported the discovery of a burial of a female Scythian warrior – who is thought to have been part of the fierce all-female tribe of Amazons mentioned by the Greek epic writers and then the historian Herodotus. The find of a skeleton accompanied by grave goods and weapons associated with this noble fighting class has been found by a group of archaeologists, students and volunteers who conducted an archaeological expedition to Mamai Hill, Ukraine.

Findings at the grave

The burial of a female Scythian warrior is located in the Great Znamyanka, Kam’yansko-Dniprovskyi District, Zaporozhye region of Ukraine. The burial place that has been found is aged around 2400 years. Due to the location, age, and the grave goods that have been found, it has been assessed that this is likely to be the grave of a member of the Amazon warrior tribe , thought to be closely related to the Scythians, that legend claims lived and roamed in in various locations around the region.

A diminutive lekythos, a small jar for keeping aromatic oils and perfumes, was found in the grave (Image: Mamia Gora).

The excavators of the Scythian lady buried in Mamai Hill have also recovered a miniature jar – or lekythos to the Greeks, in which contemporary women of noble origin kept perfumes or aromatic oils. This was one of the indications that the grave was of a high-status woman. Other items found in the burial are exquisite bronze lanterns, bronze arrow heads and two lead spinners. The arrow heads are indicative that the woman was a warrior.

Arrow heads were found by the skeletal remains of the noblewoman (Image:Mamia Gora).

Warrior was Still a Lady

A well-preserved bronze mirror was also found. As well as serving the aesthetic purpose, mirrors also had a certain sacred function for the ancient peoples and were related to the ‘otherworld’ of the afterlife. That is why this item sometimes occurs, in particular in women’s Scythian burials.

Bronze mirror found in the Amazon burial site (Image:Mamia Gora).

The distinct outline of the funeral pit was noticed by archaeologists after the trench was removed by a bulldozer. From that moment on, the more delicate manual excavation and cleaning around the area of the grave took place.

Grave of a female Scythian warrior found in Ukraine (Source: Zik).

It remains for the anthropologists to determine just how old this Amazon was when she died and what was the cause of death. Whether this was a warrior that died in battle, from illness or even natural causes remains to be found out.

Other Amazon Warriors

These are not the first finds of warriors suspected to be Amazons. According to the New York Times , similar graves were found by Russian and American archaeologists among Sarmatian tribes at Pokrovka. The Sarmatians in Herodotus come from the union of Scythians with the Amazons. From the grave goods and other evidence, the first among this race were women warriors. The burials appeared to be associated first with the Sauromatians and then the early Sarmatians. These were Indo-European-speaking herders who lived on the steppes in the sixth to fourth century BC, and fourth to second centuries BC, respectively.

A reconstruction by Cernenko and Gorelik of the north-Iranian Saka or Scythians in battle (Cernenko & Gorelik, 1989, Plate F). The ancient Iranians (those in ancient Persia and the ones in ancient Eastern Europe) often had women warriors and chieftains, a practice not unlike those of the contemporary ancient Celts in ancient Central and Western Europe. What is also notable is the costume of the Iranian female warrior – this type of dress continues to appear in parts of Luristan in Western Iran. 

But the most striking discovery at Pokrovka has been the skeletons of women buried with swords and daggers . One young woman, bow-legged from a riding horseback, wore around her neck and amulet in the form of a leather bag containing a bronze arrowhead. At her right side was an iron dagger; at her left, a quiver holding more than 40 arrows tipped with bronze. As noted by Jeannine Davis-Kimball, a leader of the excavations:

“These women were warriors of some sort … They were not necessarily fighting battles all the time, like the Genghis Khan, but protecting their herds and grazing territory when they had to. If they had been fighting all the time, more of the skeletons would show signs of violent deaths.”

Iranian women from Malayer (near Hamedan in the northwest of Iran) engaged in target practice in the Malayer city limits in the late 1950s.  The association between weapons and women is nothing new in Iran; Roman references for example note of Iranian women armed as regular troops in the armies of the Sassanians (224-651 CE).