The Sarmatian Connection: Stories of the Arthurian Cycle and Legends and Miracles of Ladislas, King and Saint

The article “The Sarmatian Connection: Stories of the Arthurian Cycle and Legends and Miracles of Ladislas, King and Saint” reproduced below is by János Makkay of the [Department of Archaeology, University of Pecs, in Hungary] (1996). This originally appeared in:

The New Hungarian Quarterly, Volume 37, no. 144, Winter 1996, pp. 113-125.

Note that the article below has printed the major portions of the article and not its entirity. Interested readers are referred to the New Hungarian Quarterly for more information.

Kindly note that none of the images and accompanying descriptions have appeared in the original article and/or any other previous postings of this article.

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Under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180) the Roman Army campaigned for eight years in Pannonia Barbarica (i.e., in the central and northern parts of the Carpathian Basin, north and east of the Roman limes along the Danube) against the Quadi, a German tribe, and Sarmatians and Alans, Iranian speaking barbarians who came from east of the Carpathians, from the south Russian steppe and from the Lower Danube Plains near the Black Sea. After hard but victorious battles, 5,500 Sarmatian/Alanian heavy cavalry (called cataphractarii, i.e. clothed fully in scale armour) consisting of prisoners taken in war were posted to Britain in 175. Marcus Aurelius sent these warriors to Britannia not only to keep them out of trouble in Pannonia Barbarica but also to deploy them beyond Hadrian’s Wall.2 These Sarmatians are known to have been stationed in permanent camps outside the Roman forts at Ribchester in Lancashire, Chester, and elsewhere. The Sarmatian enclaves – especially the one at Ribchester, a Lancashire site known in ancient times as Bremetennacum veteranorum – survived until the end of the Roman era in the late 4th century A.D.

Fig. 1. Roman tombstone from Chester (housed at Grosvenor Museum, item #: 8394907246), UK depicting Sarmatian horseman attired like other kindred Iranian  peoples such as the Parthians and Sassanians  (Source: Carole Raddato, uploaded by Marcus Cyron in Public Domain).

The tombstone fragments of a Sarmatian/Alanian standard bearer were found at Chester (Deva) in 1890. This is unique evidence of the presence of heavily armoured Sarmatian cavalry from the earliest third century A.D. The two fragments of the tombstone (now in the Grosvenor Museum in Chester) show a horseman wearing a cloak and turning to the right. He holds aloft, with both hands, a dragon standard of the Sarmatian/Alanian type, and his conical helmet, with a vertical metal frame, is of the same pattern. A sword hangs at his right. Both man and horse are shown clad in tightly fitting scale armour. This attire for man and mount was characteristic of Sarmatian/Alanian heavy cavalry.

Fig. 2. Russian reconstruction of King Arthur and his Sarmatian cavalry (Source: Our Russia); note Iranian dragon standards of the cavalrymen also seen in the armies of the parthians and Sassanians.

he original dragon standard shown on the tombstone had a metal head and a cloth body designed like a windsock so that the animal appeared to come alive in the wind. It has been suggested that these standards may have indicated the position of the given Iranian troops and their command posts during the battle and also the wind direction for the Sarmatian/Alanian archers. The best description of this characteristic Iranian tactic and symbolism is in the Tactica of Arrian of Bithynia (2nd century A.D.) who defeated the Alanian invasion of 134. He must have had exact knowledge of how the Iranian peoples conducted themselves in war.3 We know that the military symbol of the kings of the Parthians (as for instance of Mithridates I. in 139 B.C.) was a dragon standard made of textile or leather.4 There is no indication, however of the use of similar standards in Achaemenid times.

The closed society of Sarmatian cataphractarii in Britain was able to maintain its ethnic features during the Late Roman period and afterwards. One reason is that their troops, called cuneus Sarmatorum, equitum Sarmatorum Bremetennacensium Gordianorum were not part of any military organization in active service. Consequently, after the withdrawal of the Roman army, they continued to live on their accustomed sites (Chester, Ribchester, etc.). They were still called Sarmatians after 250 years. A semihistoric Arthur lived about A.D. 500. He was very probably a descendant of those Alan horsemen, a battle leader of the Romanized Celts and Britons against the Anglo-Saxons, who invaded Britain after the Roman army had withdrawn. Arthur and his military leaders could therefore manage to train the natives as armoured horseman after Iranian patterns against the attacks of Angles and Saxons fighting on feet until their victory at Badon Hill.

Fig. 3. Parthian standard bearer with Draco standard (Source: Farrokh, page 130, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا– this drawing originally appeared by Zoka in the 2,500 Year Celebrations of the Persian Empire in 1971).

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae contains detailed accounts of the traditional Roman military tactics used by the army of Arthur in his legendary wars against the Romans.5 He also mentions the dragon standard of the Arthurian army which was set up at a suitable and easily defensible place to show exhausted and wounded warriors where they could find drinking water and have their wounds dressed.6 His own golden helmet was decorated with a dragon, probably the same dragon which appeared to him in a dream while crossing the Channel. Sir Thomas Malory recounted the story as follows:

And as the kyng laye in his caban in the shyp, he fyll in a slomerynge and dremed a merueyllous dreme. Hym semed that a dredeful dragon dyd drowne moche of his peple, and he cam fleynge oute of the West, and his hede was enameled with asure, and his sholders shone as gold, his bely lyke maylles of a merueyllous hewe, his taylle ful of tatters, his feet ful of fyne sable, and his clawes lyke fine gold, and an hydous flamme of fyre flewe oute of his mouthe, lyke as the londe and water had flammed all of fyre.7
What Geoffrey of Monmouth and Malory describe is the peculiar features and use of the military dragon standard by the Iranian peoples and, later, by the Roman army. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, on the triumphal procession of Constantius II in Rome in 357 the Emperor sat alone upon a golden chariot “… and was surrounded by dragons, woven out of purple thread and bound to the golden and jewelled tops of spears, with wide mouths open to the breeze and hence hissing as if roused by anger, and leaving their tails winding in the wind.”8

The dragon standard on the Chester tombstone (a metal head and a cloth body) closely corresponds to two unique archaeological finds, both made of metal and representing the heads of dragon standards. One of them is of bronze and was found in the canabae area of the Roman castellum at Niederbieber, Nordrhein-Westfalen. It dates from the first part of the 3rd century A.D. It has a length of 30 cm, is gilded on its upper part while the lower part is silvered (see the description in Malory). It shows an open-mouthed dragon head with sharp teeth and has a widening rim at its back end with perforations for fastening textile stripes, while a wide vertical perforation across the body served to fit the head to the top of a spear, lance or simple pole.

A depiction of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d”Arthur. Note the windsock carried by the horseman (Farrokh, page 171, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا) – this item was bought from the wider Iranian realm (Persia, Sarmatians, etc.) into Europe by the Iranian-speaking Alans. The inset depicts a reconstruction of a 3rd century AD Partho-Sassanian banner by Peter Wilcox (1986).

The other piece is in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. It is made of silver and comes from the Government of Perm in Russia. This Sassanian piece of the 7th century A.D. shows a dragon-like head of hybrid (dog- or wolf-shaped) character with an open mouth and chased embossé decoration. It also has a vertical perforation for a pole.9

These two pieces in fact have a third parallel. It is a gold dragon standard head found in the Sargetia valley, Transylvania, around 1543, which once belonged to the royal treasures of the Dacian king Decebalus and was hidden in the early autumn of 106 A.D., at the end of Trajan’s second Dacian war.10 Descriptions of the circumstances under which the discovery was made by Trajan in A.D. 106 and then in 1543 of these large treasure troves reveal many details of a belief in a dragon-guardian – as the Beowulf calls it: hordweard.

Recently, in a series of publications, Helmut Nickel and C. Scott Littleton argued that the roots of the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, as well as those concerned with the Holy Grail, are not to be found in the indigenous Celtic traditions of the British Isles, as most Arthurian scholars hold, but rather in a “Scythian tradition”12 that seems to have originated from the religious beliefs of Iranian Sarmatians/Alans of the Hungarian Plain of the 2nd century A.D.

Fig. 5. Sarmatian armour discovered near Hadrian’s Wall in England (Source: Periklisdeligiannis); this most likely belonged to an Iranian-speaking Alan or related Ia-zyges cavalrymen serving as mercenaries in the Roman army in Britain. 

These beliefs centre around the divine sword, the sacred cup of heavenly splendour, the dragon standard as military symbol, and early literary traditions connected with them. The resemblances are not limited to mythology. In some cases artefacts (as for example scale armour and standards) or representations, strongly related to mythological-religious matters were also similar. Now, our whole story starts with such one material connection, with the golden serpentine dragon symbol of the Dacians.

The most intriguing parallel of the triple combination of dragon standards, heavy Iranian cavalry and scale armour appears in recently excavated finds in Uzbekistan. In the cemetery of Orlat two bone plates were discovered in kurgan grave 2, measuring 13,5 x 10,5 cms.13 They are decorated with finely engraved motifs, and one of them represents eight heavily armed men in individual combat. Five are horsemen while three are fighting on foot. Their weapons are swords, long spears, bows and in one case, a battle axe. All of them wear scale armour. One of the horsemen with a very long spear holds a dragon standard which closely resembles the lower (textile) part of the above discussed standards in every detail (see Fig. 6). The plate dates from between the 2nd century B.C. and the end of the 1st century A.D., and the warriors can be identified as Central Asian Alans.

Fig. 6. Sassanian court of Khosrow II and his queen Shirin (Source: Farrokh, Plate F, p.62, -اسواران ساسانی- Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005); note the monarch who sits with his ceremonial broadsword. The Sarmatians shared the culture and martial traditions of their Iranian kin, the Parthians and the Sassanians.

A gold plaque of Iranian character from the Siberian collection of Peter the Great dated around 300 B.C. (See Fig. 8.)27 shows a woman seated under a tree, holding a

sleeping man’s head in her lap, and a pair of horses, held by a groom, standing by. The weapons of the warrior, bow and quiver, hang in the branches of a tree. It is not difficult to recognize the scene of Walther’s sleep before the fight in the representation on the plaque.

Fig. 7. Scythians on the steppes of the ancient Ukraine. Scholars are virtually unanimous that the Scythians were an Iranian people related to the Medes and Persians of ancient Iran or Persia (Painting by Angus McBride).

The same scene of repose, however, is well-known from early medieval Hungarian wall paintings centering around Ladislas, King and Saint of the House of Árpád (1077-1095). As Gyula László has shown in a masterful book, the story goes back to eastern, Iranian (or Iranized Turkic) elements, before the Hungarians were christianized after 1000 A.D. onward.28 His research, and that of others, also showed that this motif from the 13=14th century is central in the still extant Hungarian folk ballads Molnár Anna and Kerekes Izsák from Transylvania. In the Saint Ladislas legend a Hungarian princess is abducted by a warrior of the Turkish Kumans. As represented on the wall paintings of the Bántornya medieval church, while they are resting under a shady tree, the warrior asks the princess to take his head in her lap. When he falls asleep, the pursuing knightly saint catches up with them and after a heavy fight will the abductor he liberates the princess.

Another and more common variant of the story is when the king kills the Cumanian raider with the help of the girl after a heavy duel and becomes himself wounded .29

We have an interesting complex of additional elements connecting these and further details of the Arthurian story, the Nibelungen cycle, the Saint Ladislas Legend and Hungarian folk ballads: the nine branches of the tree, the escape of the lady into a cleft (or in a cavity of a tree), murder (usually beheading) of the girl with a sword, hanging of the head in the tree, hanging of the weapons and helmet of the warrior in the branches of a tree, the gentle fondling of the warrior’s hair by the girl, and finally, when Hildegund dresses the wounds of Walther and Hagen, and offers them a drink in a golden bowl.

Fig. 8. Gold plaque housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg depicting a panther, most likely used to decorate breast-plate or shield, dated to the late 7th-century BCE (Source: Sailko in Public Domain).

The original story of the sleeping maiden-abductor (or occasionally of the escorting knight) under a tree seems to have originated in Central Asia and has ancient Middle Iranian sources. The scene was probably a central part of a myth from a by now forgotten Central Asian heroic epic. Nobody has tried to show so far that this Hungarian legend may be a result of Iranian influence on early Hungarian folklore and related somehow to a local “Sarmatian tradition” surviving in the Carpathian Basin. The surviving Sarmatian/Alan population of the Great Hungarian Plain (from the fifth century A.D. to the coming of the Magyars) would be the medium. These Iranian (Sarmatian/Alan) tribes of the great Hungarian Plain were to be linguistically absorbed by the Magyars. The above motifs in Hungarian legends and folklore have their parallels in the Arthurian legends and the Nibelungen cycle and – in this view – go back to the same source, namely the influence of Iranian Alans. First to those 5,500 warriors who were sent to Britain by Marcus Aurelius, and later, in the second half of the fourth century A.D. when Alan tribes fled from the invading Huns and established themselves in Italy, in Gallia Transalpina and in the Rhine valley. A great many Sarmatian and Alan warriors also served in the Roman army in the fourth century A.D. The Sarmatian/Alan connection as traced in Hungarian medieval legends appears further to confirm what was suggested about the Eastern, Iranian, connections and origin of the Arthurian legends and its related details including the motiv of the Holy Grail.

Footnotes

2 * I. A. Richmond: “The Sarmatae, Bremetennacum Veteranorum, and the Regio Bremetennacensis”. Journal of Roman Studies 35, 1945, pp. 16=29. I express my thanks for help and advice to Tom Strickland, Chester.

3 * Arriani Nicomediensis: Tacticá, 35, 1=5. For other ancient sources see Vegetius: Epitoma rei militaris, ii, 13.; Sidonius Apollinaris: Panegyricus Maioriani, Carmina v, 402.; Nemesianus: Cynegetica, 82. – Trebellius Pollio in Historia Augusta, Gallienus, 8.; Codex Iustinianus, 1, 27.; Lucianus Sophista: Quomodo historia conscribenda sit, 29. – [Flavius Vopiscus Syracusius]: Historia Augusta, Divus Aurelianus, xxxi.; Ammianus Marcellinus, xvi, 12, 38=39 and also xv. 5, 16.

4 * János Harmatta in Antik Tanulmányok (Studies in Antiquity) 28, 1981, pp. 111 and 129=131.

5 * Book IX, 1, 3, 4, 11, X, 3, 6, 9, 11, esp. Book X, l, and also XI, 2.

6 * Book X, 6. The dead body of Sir Bedivere was also brought to the same place: Book X, 9.

7 * Caxton’s Malory. A new Edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, ed. by James W. Spisak, (referred as Morte Darthur). Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1983, p. 124, i2recto, 4, Book v. 4. – Historia Regum Britanniae, Book X, 2.

8 * Ammianus Marcellinus xvi, 10, 6=7. Loeb Classical Library.

9 * K.V. Trever: Un étendard Sassanide. Musée de l’Ermitage, Travaux du Département Oriental, tome III, Léningrad, 1940, pp. 167=78, Pls. I-II.

10 * For a detailed account see János Makkay: “Decebál kincsei – The Treasures of Decebalus”. Századok, 129, 1995, pp. 967=1032, and by the same author: “The Treasures of Decebalus.” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 14:3, 1995, pp. 333=43, with further literature.

[…]

12 * C.Scott Littleton – A.C. Thomas: “The Sarmatian Connection: New Light on the Origin of the Arthurian and Holy Grail Legends.” Journal of American Folklore 91, 1978, pp. 512=27.; C.Scott Littleton: “The Holy Grail, the Cauldron of Annwn, and the Nartyamonga. A Further Note on the Sarmatian Connection”. Journal of American Folklore 92: 365, 1979, pp. 326=33. C. Scott Littleton: The New Comparative Mythology. Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1982.; C. Scott Littleton: “From Swords in the Earth to the Sword in the Stone: A Possible Reflection of an Alano-Sarmatian Rite of Passage in the Arthurian Tradition” In Homage to G. Dumézil. Washington, 1983, pp. 53=67.; C. Scott Littleton – Linda A. Malcor: From Scythia to Camelot. A Radical Reassesment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and the Holy Grail. New York-London, 1994; Helmut Nickel: “Wer waren König Artus’ Ritter? Über die geschichtliche Grundlage der Artussagen.” Waffen- und Kostümkunde 17: 1, 1975, pp. 1=28.; Also by the same author: “About the Sword of the Huns and the Urepos of the Steppes.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 7, 1963, pp. 131-42.

13 * G.A. Pugatsenkova: Iz khudozestvennoi sokrovishnitsy Srednevo Vostoka. (Ancient art treasures of Central Asia).

[…]

27 * Nickel, op. cit. 1975. pp. 4=5, and Fig. 3.

28 * Gyula László: A Szent László-legenda középkori falképei (The Legend of Saint Ladislas and its Representations on Mediaeval Wall Paintings). Budapest, 1993, pp. 24=56 with many figures, pictures and earlier literature.

29 * The well-known story told by our medieval chronicles is connected with the victory of the king – then a royal prince – against the Cumans at Kerlés, Transylvania, in 1068.

[…]

Dura Europos: Its’ Archaeology & History

The article “Dura Europos: Its’ Archaeology & History” by Pierre Leriche was originally published in the CAIS venue hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav in London.

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Abstract

Dura Europos ruined city on the right bank of the Euphrates between Antioch and Seleucia on the Tigris, founded in 303 B.C.E. by Nicanor, a general of Seleucus I. It flourished under Parthian rule. The site is in modern Syria, on a plateau protected on the east by a citadel built on bluffs overlooking the river, on the north and south by wadis, and on the west by a strong rampart with powerful defensive towers. Its military function of the Greek period was abandoned under the Parthians, but at that time it was the administrative and economic center of the plain extending 100 km between the confluence of the Khâbûr and Euphrates rivers and the Abû Kamâl gorge to the south.

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Initial archeological exploration of the city took place in 1920-22, under the direction of Franz Cumont and the sponsorship of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. From 1929 to 1937 Yale University and the Acade‚mie sponsored excavations under the initiative of M. I. Rostovtzeff, who published Dura-Europos and Its Art, a synthesis of the history of the town and of its civilization, formed from Greek, Semitic, and Iranian components. This work has served as the basis for all subsequent studies of the site. In fact, however, understanding of Dura Europos depended mainly on written materials (parchments, papyri, inscriptions, and grafitti; see ii, below), paintings, tombs, and portable objects (e.g., coins, bronzes, and lamps) from the excavations, and very little attention has been paid to the architectural remains. Although nearly a third of the town has been excavated, a large number of buildings have been published only summarily or not at all. It therefore became necessary to resume the work of publication, and for this reason the Mission Franco-Syrienne de Doura-Europos was formed in 1986 under the joint direction of the author and Assad Al-Mahmoud; the major objectives are to reexamine the archeological data, to make available the entire mass of documentation from previous excavations, as well as to save the monuments from destruction.

Fresco at Dura Europos (Source: CAIS).

Dura Europos was brought into the Iranian cultural sphere after the Parthian conquest in about 113 B.C.E. (Bellinger; Welles). This domination lasted three centuries, interrupted by a Roman occupation in 115-17 C.E., during Trajan’s expedition to Ctesiphon (q.v.). In 165 Dura was conquered by Avidius Cassius and became a stronghold in the Roman defensive system along the eastern frontier of the empire. Nevertheless, despite an impressive effort to reinforce its defenses, the town was unable to withstand the great offensive launched by the Sasanian Šâpûr I (240-70) in 256; it was taken after a bitter siege, and the population was deported, thus putting an end to the town’s existence.

The Parthian period

According to recent discoveries, Dura Europos, originally a fortress, was constituted as a city only in the late Hellenistic period and had been only sparsely populated throughout the Greek period. It was under the Parthians, however, that the city assumed its essential aspect, as revealed by the excavations, a configuration only partly modified by the Roman occupation, except for transformation of the northern sector into a Roman camp. Recent work by the Mission Franco-Syrienne has permitted some refinement of this picture; certain buildings that had formerly been attributed to the Parthians can now be dated to the Hellenistic period. For example, according to Armin von Gerkan, the cut-stone fortifications of Dura Europos had been built by the Parthians, fearful that the Greek wall of unbaked bricks would be insufficient against a Roman attack. Only the northern section of the original western wall survived, which he took as proof that the project had been rendered unnecessary by the peace concluded between the Parthians and Augustus in 20 B.C.E. (pp. 4-51). This conclusion was based more on probabilities extrapolated from the reports of ancient historians than on archeological discoveries and has been contradicted by the results of recent soundings and clearing of earlier trenches. It is now clear that it was the Greeks themselves who built the stone fortifications, in the second half of the 2nd century B.C.E., and that the use of mud bricks resulted from the imminent threat from the Parthians, which forced the builders to finish the wall with more easily obtained material (Leriche and Mahmoud, l990). Similarly, the reconstruction of the palace of the strategus (the redoubt palace; Figure 30/24) and its extension to the north, as well as construction of the second palace in the citadel, which shows a number of similarities, had been attributed to the Parthian period, but recent excavations in the interior and at the base of the facade of the former building have revealed that it belongs to the 2nd century B.C.E., that is, the Greek period. In a recent study Susan Downey (1988) has also called into question the restoration of one palace with an ayvân (q.v.), which was suggested in the Yale publications and would imply a Parthian construction.

Mithraic temple at Dura Europos (Source: CAIS).

The Parthian period thus appears to have been primarily a phase of expansion at Dura Europos, an expansion favored by abandonment of the town’s military function. All the space enclosed by the walls gradually became occupied, and the installation of new inhabitants with Semitic and Iranian names alongside descendants of the original Macedonian colonists contributed to an increase in the population (Welles et al.). In his celebrated Caravan Cities Rostovtzeff had argued that this prosperity could have resulted from the town’s position as a trading center and caravan halt, but this hypothesis has been abandoned, for nothing uncovered by the excavations has confirmed it. Instead, Dura Europos owed its development to its role as a regional capital, amply illustrated by the contents of inscriptions, parchments, and papyri.

In the Parthian period Greek institutions remained in place (Arnaud), and the property-zoning scheme established in the Hellenistic period was respected in new construction; that is, buildings were kept within the limits of pre-existing blocks 35 x 70 m laid out uniformly over the entire surface of the plateau, even to a large extent in the interior wadis. The only exceptions were the quarter of the town southeast of the citadel, which had apparently already been occupied before the division into lots, and a sector of the agora that had been invaded by domestic buildings. The ramparts were neglected: Domestic trash accumulated along the periphery, finally forming a mass so thick that it prevented access to certain towers on the western wall.

The architecture of the Parthian period was characterized by a progressive evolution of Greek concepts toward new formulas in which regional traditions, particularly those derived from Babylonia, played an increasing role. These innovations affected both religious and domestic buildings. No secular public building is known to have been built during the Parthian period, with the possible exception of a bath constructed of cut stone in the northeast sector of the town. The evolved Parthian forms generally persisted into the Roman period, except for buildings in the Roman camp in the northern third of the town, for example, the palace of the Dux Ripae and the praetorium.

Depiction of Iranian god Mithras slaying the sacred bull (Source: CAIS).

The architecture of private dwellings varied in detail according to the wealth of the owner. The systematic layout of the Greek city, in which each house was supposed to cover one-eighth of a block (ca. 300 m2), was abandoned or modified through subdivision and consolidation resulting from sales or inheritance (Saliou). The smallest houses covered one quarter or even less of a Greek lot, whereas other, more luxurious examples might cover up to half a block. But the organizing principle of the house remained fundamentally the same: The street door, often situated at a corner of the house, opened onto a corridor leading into a central courtyard, which provided access and light to the various rooms of the house. The principal room, the andro‚n, was usually situated on the south side, opening to the north, and was surrounded on all four walls by a masonry bench; it served as a reception room (Allara). Some houses incorporated columns, but gabled roofs disappeared in favor of terraces, rooms became irregular in shape, and several houses had second stories.

Religious architecture underwent a comparable evolution, traceable through numerous excavated buildings: the temples of Artemis Nanaïa II and Zeus Megistos II, the necropolis temple, and the temples of Artemis Azzanathkona, Zeus Kyrios, Atargatis, Bel, Aphlad, Zeus Theos, Gad, and Adonis. This architecture diverged more and more from the hypothetical Greek model, if in fact such a model had ever been introduced at Dura Europos (Downey, 1988, p. 176). All the temples of the Parthian period have the same basic plan, with variations in detail. A generally square temenos is enclosed by a blank wall; the naos stands at the back of the interior courtyard facing the entrance. Against the interior face of the enclosure wall are a series of rooms for service or secondary cults, usually built by donors. When the naos is set against the back wall of the temenos, a narrow space is left between them to provide a separation of the cella from the exterior world. The building is small, usually square in plan, and raised on a podium of two or three steps, with one or more altars in front. The interior is divided in two: the pronaos, which occupies the full width of the building and is sometimes furnished with tiers of benches on either side of the entrance, and the cella, usually flanked by two chapels or lateral sacristies. The cult image on the wall opposite the entrance, either mounted on a pedestal or painted directly on the surface. All that remains from the Greek tradition is the occasional presence of a columned facade in front of the temple or porticoes along the sides of the courtyard, as at the temple of Bel.

The undermined defenses at Tower 19 (background), where many of the finest military artefacts were preserved (Source: CAIS).

It is thus clear that at Dura Europos entirely original architectural formulas were perfected during the Parthian period, in both religious and domestic constructions; the Babylonian element predominated, though with a certain Greek dressing, but no unequivocal Iranian influence appears. The formula for religious buildings was followed in all temples, whatever the form of worship to which they were consecrated, Greek or Semitic.

The only Iranian cult known at Dura Europos was that of Mithra, which paradoxically had been introduced into the city by Roman troops in 168. The mithraeum, located near the western wall in the Roman camp (Figure 307), belongs to the type dedicated to the cult throughout the Roman world and has no features in common with the other religious buildings at Dura Europos, except that it stands on a podium. It appears to have been a single room of modest dimensions with a bench on each of the longer sides; above the central aisle there was a raised ceiling with a clerestory. At the end of the room was a niche containing two cultic bas-reliefs with an altar before them. The entire surface of the room was covered with painted decoration: scenes from the life of Mithra, representations of magi and the zodiac around the bas-reliefs in the niche, and mounted hunting scenes on the side walls.

Although Iranian influence is difficult to find in the architecture of Dura Europos, in figurative art it is much more pronounced. In fact, owing to landfill that preserved religious buildings along the western wall (see below), Dura has provided the main evidence of a decorative art that seems to have developed in Parthian domains, reflecting a synthesis of the traditions of the ancient Near East (linear drawing, two-dimensional forms, stiff poses) and the Hellenic world (the use of architectural decoration and friezes, types of dress). Furthermore, in religious settings, those most fully represented, the principle of “Parthian frontality” prevailed. This convention, according to which all figures, human or divine, face directly forward, with eyes fixed on the spectator, made its appearance at Dura very early, in the oldest painting, of the sacrifice of Conon, in the temple of Bel (probably 1st century C.E.; Figure 30/8). It persisted until the destruction of the city, as attested in the frescoes of the synagogue, dating from 245 (Figure 30/5). It was equally apparent in sculpture and terra-cottas (except for a statue of Artemis with the tortoise, which comes from a Hellenistic center) and, for example, in two reliefs of the Gads of Dura and Palmyra. On the other hand, in frequent narrative scenes of combat and hunting on horseback, like those in the mithraeum (Figure 30/7), the horses and wild beasts are portrayed in a flying gallop, a characteristic that was to be developed in Sasanian art.

The Siege of Dura Europos

The Sasanian siege of Dura Europos in 256 brought an end to the town’s existence and immobilized Šâpûr’s army for several months. The determined resistance put up by the inhabitants forced the assailants to adopt various siege tactics, which eventually resulted in conquest of the city; the defensive system, the mines, and the assault ramp were left in place after the deportation of the population, which permits modern investigators to gain an exact idea of the military techniques of the Sasanians and the Romans in the mid-3rd century.

A Sasanian helmet from the siege mines beneath Tower 19, Dura-Europos. It is a rare find of Sasanian military archaeology, and also clearly a prototype for Roman helmets of the 3rd century CE (Source: CAIS).

It is not known where the Sasanians located their camp, but traces of their operations against the city wall still survive (du Mesnil du Buisson). To guard against the attack, which was clearly expected from the time that the Sasanian empire was established, the Romans had heightened and reinforced the external faces of the western and northern ramparts by masking them with thick layers of fill covered by a mud-brick glacis and thus burying the buildings along the inside of the wall. The Persians undermined towers 19 and 14 (Figure 30) on the western wall in order to bring them down, but, owing to the filling and the glacis, the towers were not really destroyed. At the southeast corner of the town they built an assault ramp 40 m long and 10 m high against the wall to permit troops to enter; it consisted of a mass of fill packed between two walls of brick and paved with baked bricks, which made it possible to move a siege machine close to the wall. Two tunnels, each wide enough to permit several men to advance abreast, were dug near the body of the ramp. There is no surviving textual description of the siege of Dura Europos, but Ammianus Marcellinus’ account of the siege of Amida (q.v.) a century later, in which the same techniques were used, permits reconstruction of the operations at Dura; the main siege weapons were catapults, movable towers, and even elephants. Clearly the Sasanian armies had a sophisticated knowledge of siege techniques.

The discovery of the body of a Sasanian soldier in one of the trenches has also yielded precious information. He was equipped with a coat of mail, a sword ornamented with a jade disk of Central Asian type, and an iron helmet (left figure) made in two halves with an iron crest running vertically down the center of the front, of clearly Mesopotamian and Iranian origin. This type of helmet served as a model for those adopted in the Roman empire in the 3rd century (James).

The chronology of the siege operations has given rise to a debate that is still far from having been resolved. The discovery of Pahlavi inscriptions on the frescoes of the synagogue does not prove that the town had first been occupied by the Sasanians during a campaign in 253, three years before the final siege. It is also improbable that a house near the triumphal arch on the main street, in which there was a fresco of Sasanian type showing a fight between cavalrymen, belongs to this putative first occupation. It seems now that this fresco, several ostraca in Pahlavi found in the palace of the Dux Ripae (Figure 30/13), and the tombs discovered in the town and along the river resulted from temporary installation of a small Persian detachment in the town after the victory of 256 (MacDonald; Leriche and Al Mahmoud, 1994).

Bibliography

he results of the French-Syrian campaigns have been published in P. Leriche, ed., Doura-Europos. Études I-III (DEE), published in Syria, 1986, 1988, 1992. The fourth volume is forthcoming in the series Bibliotheàque Arche‚o-logique et Historique, Beirut.

A. Allara, “Les maisons de Doura-Europos. Questions de typologie,” in DEE I, pp. 39-60.
P. Arnaud, “Doura-Europos. Microcosme grec ou rouage de l’administration arsacide?” in DEE I, pp. 135-55.

A. R. Bellinger, “The Evidence of the Coins,” Berytus 9, 1948, pp. 51-67.
A. Bounni, “Un nouveau bas-relief palmyrênien de Doura-Europos,” Comptes Rendus de l’Acade‚mie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 1994, pp. 11-18.

F. Cumont, Fouilles de Doura-Europos (1922-1926), Paris, 1926. S. B. Downey, “The Citadel Palace at Dura-Europos,” in DEE I, pp. 28-37.
Idem, Mesopotamian Religious Architecture. Alexander through the Parthians, Princeton, N.J., 1988.
A. von Gerkan, “The Fortifications,” in M. I. Rostovtzeff, ed., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Preliminary Reports VII-VIII, New Haven, Conn., 1939, pp. 4-61.

R. Ghirshman, Iran. Parthians and Sasanians, tr. S. Gilbert and J. Emmons, London, 1962 (for illustrations).
C. Hopkins, The Discovery of Dura-Europos, New Haven, Conn., 1979 (with an almost complete bibliography on the site up to that time).
S. James, “Evidence from Dura Europos for the Origins of Late Roman Helmets,” in DEE I, pp. 107-34.
P. Leriche, “Chronologie du rempart de briques crues,” in DEE I, pp. 61-82. Idem, “Techniques de guerre sassanides et romaines aà Doura-Europos,” in F. Vallet and M. Kazanski eds., L’arme‚e romaine et les Barbares du IIIe au VIIIe sieàcle, Paris, 1993, pp. 83-100.
Idem and A. Al Mahmoud, “Bilan des campagnes de 1986 et 1987 de la mission franco-syrienne aà Doura-Europos,” in DEE II, 1988, pp. 3-24.
Idem, “Bilan des campagnes de 1989 et 1990 à Doura-Europos,” in DEE III, pp. 3-28.
Idem, “Doura-Europos. Bilan des recherches re‚centes,” Comptes- Rendus de l’Acade‚mie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 1994, pp. 395-420.
D. MacDonald, “Dating the Fall of Dura-Europos,” Historia 35, 1986, pp. 45-68.
S. Matheson, Dura Europos, New Haven, Conn., 1982.
R. du Mesnil du Buisson, “Les ouvrages du sieàge de Doura- Europos,” Me‚moires de la Socie‚te‚ nationale des antiquaires de France 81, 1944, pp. 5-60.
A. Perkins, The Art of Dura-Europos. Oxford, 1973.
M. I. Rostovtzeff, ed., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Preliminary Reports, 9 vols., New Haven, Conn., 1929-52.
Idem, Caravan Cities, Oxford, 1932.
Idem, “Dura and the Problem of Parthian Art,” Yale Classical Studies 5, 1935, pp. 157-304.
Idem, Dura-Europos and Its Art, Oxford, 1938.
Idem, and A. Perkins, eds., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Reports,, 11 vols., New Haven, Conn., 1943-77.
C. Saliou, “Les quatre fils de Pole‚mocrateàs,” in DEE III, Paris, 1990, pp. 65-100.
D. Schlumberger, L’Orient helle‚nise‚, Paris, 1970.
C. B. Welles, “The Chronology of Dura-Europos,” Eos 48, 1957, pp. 467-74.
Idem, The Parchments and Papyri, The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report 5/1. New Haven, Conn., 1959.

Ibn Sina, Persian Polymath and Physician, Never Demanded Money from his Patients

The article below entitled Ibn Sina, the great Persian polymath and physician, never demanded money from his patients” was written by Damjan Stojanovski and published in the Vintage news outlet on October 13, 2016.

Kindly note that three of the images and accompanying captions displayed below do not appear in the original Vintage News posting.
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The cultural and scientific enlightenment fostered by the Islamic Golden Age during the Abbasid Caliphate undoubtedly propelled mankind’s progress during the High Middle Ages. Contributing to various scientific fields, many thinkers and philosophers such as Al-Farabi, Al-Kindi, Rhazez, and others have cemented their names in the history of science. As for Ibn Sina (980-1037), his work and research are arguably the most revered.

13th-century illustration depicting scholars at an Abbasid library from the Maqamat of al-Hariri by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti. Baghdad, 1237 (Source: Vintage News).

Also known as Avicenna, Ibn Sina was a Persian polymath with contributions in medicine, psychology, geology, physics, astronomy (he was the first to propose that Venus was closer to the Sun than the Earth), and of course, philosophy. A prominent thinker and empiricist, in contrast with his scientific penchant for knowledge, he was also a poet and an Islamic theologian.

A Portrait of Ibn Sina (Source: CGIE.org).

Records and historical facts about his life are hard to pin down, as there exists only one known autobiography about him, written by one of his students, al-Jūzjānī. He was born in a village near Bukhara (modern-day Uzbekistan) in 980 CE, most likely in August.

The Statue of Ibn Sina at the Persian Scholar Pavilion in the Vienna International Center (Source: “Yamaha5” in Public Domain). To the right of Ibn Sina, holding a bulbous long-necked beaker, is Zakariya Razi (854 CE – 925 CE), known as “Rhazes” in the West). Razi was another important Iranian polymath, medical prodigy and physician, philosopher and alchemist. To the left of Ibn Sina is the Iranian Polymath and scholar from Khwarezm, Abu-Reyhan Biruni (973-1048 CE),

Because of his father’s position as a governor and a respected scholar, Ibn Sina received a quality education and upbringing. The young genius could memorize the Quran at the age of 10 and had a thirst for unconventional knowledge for his age. At times, he prayed in mosques, when challenged with difficult texts and ideas.

One of his many tutors, Nātilī, had the honor to teach elementary logic to Ibn Sina. However, his teachings were obsolete, since the young thinker was rapidly grasping advanced ideas and was already entering new fields of knowledge.

Undertaking a tremendous task of studying the works of Aristotle on his own, he gained a methodical approach to the sciences which, in return, aided his logical viewpoint. He had difficulty at fist, but once he read Al-Farabi’s commentary on the work, he quickly understood Aristotle’s “Metaphysics”. Contrary to popular belief, he was not the first to introduce Aristotelian philosophy to the Middle East, but he was by far the most distinguished.

Pages from a 17th-century manuscript of Al-Farabi’s commentary on Aristotle’s metaphysics (Source: Vintage News & Public Domain).

Ibn Sina favored medicine and anatomy over the rigid field of mathematics and logic; thus he began studying medicine at the age of 16 and became a skilled physician by 18. By 997 CE, Ibn Sina healed the local emir, Nuh II, from a life-threatening illness and was promptly appointed as the emir’s personal doctor. The respected position that Ibn Sina gained from this rather heroic deed allowed him valuable access to the Sāmānid royal library, consequently opening new doors of knowledge. Ibn Sina never required payment from his patients, as the practice of curing and mending their wounds was payment enough for the curious physician.

A manuscript written on paper during the Abbasid Era (Source: Vintage News & Public Domain).

By his 20s, Ibn Sina undertook writing his ideas, penning many books about astronomy, medicine, philosophy, mathematics, music, poetry, and philology.

Tomb of Ibn Sina in Hamedan, Iran (Source: Public Domain).

Pirooz in China: Defeated Persian army takes Refuge

The article below “Pirooz in China: Defeated Persian army takes Refuge” was originally written by Frank Wong in August 11, 2000 and posted in the CAIS venue hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav in London. Kindly note that the images and accompanying descriptions below do not appear in the original posting in CAIS.

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I read the story of Pirooz written in a formal and ancient aristocratic Chinese language. It was quite tough, but with the help of my Chinese friends and associates I got through it. It was written by Prince Nah-shieh (Narseh), who was the son of Prince Pirooz, who was the son of King Yazdgerd III– the last Sasanid king of Persia. Narseh was a Chinese general stationed in the Tang Chinese military garrisons.

Visitors to the tomb of Emperor Gaozong (r. 649-683 CE) of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) will see that one of the statues guarding the emperor as depicted above has the name of Sassanian prince Peroz (d. 679 CE) (Picture source: Tour Beijing). Peroz was crowned in China after the Arab invasion which toppled the Sassanian Empire in 637-651 CE. There is a tomb and statue in China which bears this inscription: Peroz, Shah of Iran, crowned in Tang dynasty court: Commander-in-chief of Iranian Army, Martial General of the Right [Flank] Guards, Awe-inspiring General of the Left [Flank] Guards. Peroz asked for Chinese military assistance in 661 CE against the Arabs occupying Iran. Peroz’s descendants in China adopted the Tang dynasty’s Imperial Family Name of Li.

In 751 A.D., the Chinese lost a decisive battle to the Arabs at Talas (now in Uzbekistan), and they retreated from their colonies in Central Asia. All the garrisons shut down, and the armies fled back into China. Many Persians and Sogdians followed the Chinese back into China and abandoned their homes in Central Asia in wake of the Muslim Arabic invasions. Some Sogdians came as widows who then married Chinese soldiers along with their orphaned children.

The above figure is from a Tang dynasty burial site, now housed now at the museum at Turin, Italy. Curators and scholars continue to debate the figure’s origins; one possibility is that he was of Iranian descent (Picture source: The Wall Street Journal).

Narseh recounts in his diary of how his father set foot in China around the 660s A.D. Pirooz was only a little boy when the Arabs beheaded his father. Pirooz, scared and was awaiting the help of Chinese armies. He had written to his sister who was the wife of the Chinese emperor. With the Arab armies in sight, he waited no longer. They decided to cross the Pamirs. Their families along with other noble Persian clans and the soldiers crossed the treacherous snowy mountains. Many of the imperial treasures were either abandoned or lost. Recently, Chinese research teams recovered some of the lost items. They are now housed in various museums in Beijing or Taiwan.

Pirooz finally made it to China. In the Chinese capital, he encountered long-established Persian, Sogdian, and Bactrian merchant communities in China. He was accompanied into the imperial palace. Going through the long and beautiful halls. At last, he saw the Chinese emperor seated on a high golden throne wearing golden boots and robes. The little boy Pirooz knelt and prostrated before the emperor. The emperor then picked up the boy Pirooz and embraced and kissed him on the cheeks. He said: “You’ve come a long way. Have no more fears. For you are my brother and this is your new home.” With tears in his eyes, Pirooz knelt again and thanked the emperor. The emperor then allowed Pirooz and his people to settle in 38 villages and rebuild their communities. They were allowed to set up a mini royal court in exile.

As noted in the above Google Maps description: “Shahyar is a place with a very small population in the province of Xinjiang, China which is located in the continent/region of Asia”. Cities, townships and locales close to Shahyar include ShorYar, Xayar, Schahjar and Chahyar. The closest major cities include Aksu, Yining, Shihezi and Urumqi (Urumchi).

Pirooz learned Kung Fu (martial arts) and grew up to be a general in the emperor’s court. Chinese armies still held military garrisons in areas of what are today’s Tajikistan, Afghanistan and parts of Uzbekistan. The Chinese emperor never allowed Pirooz to be stationed there because he knew that he would immediately cause trouble with the Arabs. However, Pirooz financed most of the garrisons there with his own money. When the Chinese emperor died, Pirooz and his son Narseh were allowed to be stationed on western border garrisons by the new Chinese emperor. Immediately, they started to clash with the Umayyad Arabs. They solicited the aid of Turkish tribes and fought border skirmishes against the Arabs.

Pirooz died sometime around 700 A.D. He was buried facing west. People in China today still don’t know where his resting place is located. Some say that he was buried atop the Pamir mountains so that he could be close to the spirit of his father and where he got killed by the Arabs. But, in the diary, Narseh says:

“Pirooz requested only a simple burial and the Chinese emperor approved. The entire exiled court was in attendance along with the Chinese emperor. The Chinese emperor held Peroz’s shaking hands. Pirooz looked west and said: “I have done what I could for my homeland (Persia) and I have no regrets.” Then, he looked east and said: “I am grateful to China, my new homeland.” Then he looked at his immediate family and all the Persians in attendance and said: “Contribute your talents and devote it to the emperor. We are no longer Persians. We are now Chinese.”

Then, he died peacefully. A beautiful horse was made to gallop around his coffin 33 times before burial, because this was the number of military victories he had during his lifetime. Pirooz was a great Chinese general and great Persian prince devoted and loyal to his people.

A rectangular piece of tapestry coming from the Xingjian Ughur Autonomous Region of China clearly showing Sasanian Persian influences in design and artwork. The physiognomy of the person drawn in the tapestry is Caucasoid as opposed to Asiatic, indicative of the strong Indo-European presence in the region since proto Indo-Europeans (i.e. the Tocharians) first entered the region thousands of years ago (Picture source: Houston Museum of Natural Science). Several Western researchers however suggest that the person depicted above is a Greek.

Narseh’s daughters and sons all married into Chinese royalty and aristocracy. This was the case with all the noble Persian exiles in China. The great spirit of Persia is now in China, and all the Chinese people appreciate it. This was the story of Pirooz, and how he ended up in China.

I have studied another topic regarding the similar features often seen in both Persian and Chinese art. I know that the style was brought into Persia by Chinese artisans during Mongol (Ilkhan Period) in the 13th cent. A.D. When Kublai Khan conquered China, he “kicked out” and sent away all the former army, government officials, tax collectors, engineers, scientists, artisans, musicians and court doctors of the defeated Chinese Sung Dynasty. All these Chinese were sent to Hulagu Khan’s (Kublai’s brother) court in Persia. Kublai didn’t trust the native Chinese, so he eliminated the elite and sent them away to distant parts of the Mongol empire. In return, he transported many soldiers from Turkestan (Central Asia), tax collectors, scientists and government officials (from both Turkestan and Persia), Armenian and Jewish merchants all into China to serve his court. The story of Marco Polo is a vivid example.

Chinese Admiral Zheng He who was of Persian descent. Zheng He is recognized for having sailed with his giant fleet to Europe and Africa. (Source: Chris Heller/CORBIS & The Mail).

While in Persia, the Chinese officials and soldiers served their Mongol masters well. The Ismaili castles were very well fortified and the Mongol horsemen did not know how to break through the thick walls. They were only accustomed to lightning sieges and quick attack. Thus, they had to use Chinese siege machines and engineers along with Chinese foot infantrymen. The Chinese general Kuo Kan helped the Mongols very much in Persia. He then went to put down rebellions in Georgia. Then, his armies were crucial for the Mongol destruction in Syria and Iraq. Only recently, they found the grave of General Kuo Kan in Azerbaijan where his armies reportedly retired and settled.

A Chinese Qi depiction of Soghdians (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

The Chinese had intimate relations with Persia since the Arsacid Dynasty in Iran. Camel and donkey caravans travel back and forth both directions for almost a thousand year before the coming of Islam to this region. People mixed with each other without regards to race and color. The Chinese have a prevalence of the hereditary thalassemia disease also common throughout the Middle East and India. Other Asians such as Japanese and Koreans don’t have much occurrence of this blood disease.

Tse-Niao (Bird) motif mural painting in Kizil, Sinkiang, 6-7th Centuries AD. (left) and a Pheasant as depicted in late Sassanian arts 6-7th Centuries CE (Slide and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

This demonstrates that color did not have meaning in the past. There is even a tradition in Armenia, that says one of their lordly families (the Mamikonians) were originally descended from Chinese princes who fled to Persia and sought refuge after an unsuccessful rebellion in China. I am still doing some research on this. In fact, it was common in the past for both Chinese and Persian aristocracy to intermarry. The sister of Pirooz was married to the Chinese emperor as an example. Unfortunately, Arsacid and Sasanid records are scarce because the rulers of Persia never have the habit of keeping track records. After the Arab invasions and Islam, the trade ceased. It was revived a little bit during the Mongol period, but it was never the same.

Chinese girls of ancient Iranian descent (Source: Iranian People Of China (中国的伊朗人) ).

Well, this much I can say. I just wanted to give a description of what happened in the past. Back then, China and Persia were the dominant civilizations on earth. Children should know about this and be proud.

Military History Journal article on Mongolian Armies

The British Military History Monthly Journal of July 2017 features an article by Kaveh Farrokh on the armies of the Mongols:

Farrokh, K. (2017). The armies of the Mongols. Military History Monthly, July Issue 82, pp.36-41.

[Right] Cover of the July edition of the British Military History Monthly journal [left] Sample page of the article on Mongolian armies in the British Military History Monthly article. 

As noted in the article: “From the highest khans to the lowliest tribesmen, Mongol warriors would be capable of the most elaborate and coordinated combined-arms operations on the battlefield – partly due to relentless peacetime training, partly to the practice of the hunt, a regular form of military or ‘live fire’ exercise, with bows and other weapons as well as equestrian skills in use against dangerous prey”.

 

A contemporary image of a Mongol or Turkic archer with a recurved composite bow; long-range skirmishing and archery were fundamental to the steppelands way of war (Source: Military History Monthly, July 2017).

The article also provides an overview of the tactics, armaments and key characteristics of the armies of the Mongols. It is further averred in the article that: “…scholars attribute Mongol successes to a combination of exemplary tactics, tight discipline, and exceptional command and control“.

A contemporary image of a Persian horse archer; the warfare of Mongols, Turks and Persians alike was based on horsemanship and archery (Source: Military History Monthly, July 2017).

The Mongol armies of Genghis Khan perfected the stratagem “march divided, attack united”.

Uniform and helmet of a Mongol-Yuan warrior during the failed Mongolian invasion of Japan (Source: Public Domain).