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

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


Introductory Summary

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

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

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

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

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

Main Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here follows a brief description of the graffiti.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Abka’i-Khavari, M. (2000) Das Bild des Königs in der Sasanidenzeit (Texte und Studien zur Orientalistik, 13). Hildesheim-Zürich-New York.

Allotte de la Füye (1928) Graffitis relevés en 1928 dans les ruines de Persépolis. Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale 25, pp. 159-168.

Alram, M. (1986) Nomina propria iranica in nummis. Materialgrundlagen zu den iranischen Personennamen auf antiken Münzen (Iranisches Personennamenbuch, IV). Wien.

Azarnoush, M. (1986) Shapûr II, Ardashir II and Shâpûr III: Another Perspective. Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Iran, n.F., 19, pp. 219-47.

Callieri, P. (1998) A proposito di un’iconografia monetale dei dinasti del Fars post-achemenide. OCNUS, 6, pp. 25-38.

Calmeyer, P. (1976) Zur Genese altiranischer Motive V. Synarchie. AMI, N.F. 9, 1976, pp. 63-95.

Chaumont, M.-L. (1959) Papak, roi de Staxr, et sa cour. Journal Asiatique, 247, pp. 175-91.

Curtis, J. & Finkel, I. (1999) Game Boards and Other Incised Graffiti at Persepolis. Iran, XXXVII, pp. 45-48.

Erdmann, K. (1969) Die Kunst Irans zur Zeit der Sasaniden. Repr. Mainz (1st ed. Berlin 1943).

Faccenna, D. (1997) Sculptors’ trial pieces in Gandharan art. East and West, 47, pp. 67-93.

Frye, R.N. (1962) The Heritage of Persia. London.

Frye, R.N. (1966) The Persepolis Middle Persian Inscriptions from the Time of Shapur II. Acta Orientalia 30, pp. 83-93.

Frye, R.N. (1975) The rise of the Sasanians and the Uppsala school. Monumentum H.S. Nyberg, I (Acta Iranica 4, deuxième série, I), Leiden- Téhéran-Liège, 1975, pp. 237-45.

Goldman, B. (1999) Pictorial Graffiti of Dura-Europos. Parthica-Incontri di culture nel mondo antico, I, pp. 19-106.

Harper, P.O. (1981) Silver Vessels of the Sasanian Period. I. Royal Imagery. New York.

Henning, W.B. (1953) A New Parthian Inscription. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, pp. 132-36.

Henning, W.B., ed. (1963) Minor Inscriptions of Kartir (Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum, 3). London.

Herzfeld, E. (1935) Archaeological History of Iran. London. Herzfeld, E. (1941) Iran in the Ancient East. New York.

Hinz, W. (1966) Die Felsreliefs Ardashirs I. In Altiranische Funde und Forschungen, 115-44. Berlin.

Labbâf Khâniki, R. & Bashâsh, R. (1994) Sang-negâre-ye Lâkh Mazâr, Birjand (Selsele-ye maqâlât-e pojuheshi, 1). Tehran 1373.

Loukonin, V.G. (1968) Monnaie d’Ardachir I et l’art officiel sassanide. Iranica Antiqua, 8, pp. 106-17.

Lukonin, V.G. (1969) Kul’tura sasanidskogo Irana. Iran v III-V vv. Otcherki po istorii kul’tury. Moskva.

Roaf, M. (1998) Persepolitan Echoes in Sasanian Architecture: Did the Sasanians attempt to re-create the Achaemenid empire? The Art and Archaeology of Ancient Persia. New Light on the Parthian and Sasanian Empires, ed. V. Sarkhosh Curtis, R. Hillenbrand, J.M. Rogers, pp. 1-7. London-New York.

Sami, A. (1338) Naqqâshi va tarâhi az ru-ye noqqushriz-e Sâsâni. Gozâreshhâ-ye bâstânshenâsi. 4. Moshtamel bar haffâri va xâkbardâri va ta‘mirât-e Pâsârgâd va Taxt-e Jamshid az sâl-e 1331 tâ sâl-e 1338 xurshidi, pp. 270-76. Shirâz.

Schmidt, E.F. (1953) Persepolis. I. Structures, Reliefs, Inscriptions (Oriental Institute Publications, LXVIII). Chicago.

Skjærvø, P.O. (1997) The Joy of the Cup: A Pre-Sasanian Middle Persian Inscription on a Silver Bowl. Bulletin of the Asia Institute, 11, pp. 93-104.

Soudavar, A. (2003) The Aura of Kings. Legitimacy and Divine Sanction in Iranian Kingship. Costa Mesa, Ca.

Wiesehöfer, J. (1994) Die “dunklen Jahrhunderte” der Persis. Untersuchungen zu Geschichte und Kultur von Fârs in frühhellenistischer Zeit (330-140 v. Chr.) (Zetemata, 90). München.

Dr. Manouchehr M. Khorasani: Persian Fire and Steel

The project for the book “Persian Fire and Steel: Historical Firearms of Iran” came about from Dr. Manouchehr M. Khorasani’s desire to share with the world the beauty and the sophistication of historical Persian firearms, and his respect for the skill of the craftsmen who made and decorated them, the ingenuity of the engineers who designed them, and the bravery of the people who used them.

Book cover of “Persian Fire and Steel: Historical Firearms of Iran“; for more information contact: info@mmkhorasani.com. 

Like his previous book, Arms and Armour from Iran, the aim of Persian Fire and Steel is to give the reader a view of these artifacts not only as instruments of war, but also as objects of art and great beauty.

Sample page from the textPersian Fire and Steel: Historical Firearms of Iran“.

This book is the result of several years of research and translation by Dr. Khorasani in several collections and archives in different countries. It is his hope that lovers of art, history, and weaponry all find in it something that speaks to them.

With over four hundred pages and hundreds of high quality photographs and illustrations describing over , Persian Fire and Steel represents one of the most comprehensive insights into the world of historical Persian firearms ever written.

Ranging from small arms to artillery, it covers everything on the subject from their manufacture to their deployment in battle as described in contemporary treatises. Many of these texts are included in this book, where they have been translated to English for the first time.

Short video by Dr. Khorasani’s on his project and text “Persian Fire and Steel: Historical Firearms of Iran“; to support Dr. Khorasani’s pledge and reward campaign kindly click this link here …

A Refreshing view of History and the Movie 300

The below YouTube video “Why The Persians Should Be The Good Guys In ‘300’ ” was posted by Cracked on December 27, 2016 and received 70k hits in less than a day. This is a remarkable posting by young western bloggers and writers who question Eurocentrist historical revisionism and place the ancient Greco-Persian wars in a more even-handed perspective. Readers may also find the article “The 300 Movie: Separating Fact from Fiction” of interest (posted in 10 segments below):

  1. Introductory notes — see also: The Notion of Democracy and Human Rights
  2. What really led to War
  3. The Military Conflict: Separating Fact from Fiction
  4. The Error of Xerxes: The Burning of Athens
  5. The “West” battling against the “Mysticism” of “the East”
  6. The Portrayal of Iranians and Greeks
  7. A Note on the Iranian Women in Antiquity
  8. “Good” versus “Evil”
  9. Bibliography
  10. ترجمه مقاله کاوه فرخ به فارسی توسط غزال خاكسارى: فیلم 300: افسانه یا واقعیت

Consult also John Trikeriotis’ article: False depictions of Xerxes and Artemesia in “300: Rise of an Empire”; See also articles under: “کوروش بزرگ -Cyrus the Great & the Cyrus Cylinder



Notes on Iranian Cuisine

The article below by Maryam Ala Amjadi on Iranian Cuisine was originally printed in the Tehran Times on September 4, 2011. Kindly note that the pictures and captions posted below did not appear in the original Tehran Times publication.


An incredibly wise man and a passionate food lover once opined that if the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is to prepare them well and serve them with ceremony. This axiom of festive spirit is perhaps the most evident feature that lies at the core of Iranian culinary.

Enriched with a colorful and yet a healthy diversity of dishes that are peculiar to various regions of this country, Iranian food is highly popular in the east and the west for its freshness and deliciousness. The Persian kitchen has the ability to retain its uniqueness by preparing meals within a range of subtle and yet contrasting flavors, such as a combination of sweet and sour or mild and rarely, spicy.

Ash-e-Anar[Click to Enlarge] A bowl of Ash-e Anar known for its unique taste made with pomegranates (Picture Source: Public Domain).

Generally, in Persian cooking food is not overpowered with spices. While herbs, spices and sometimes fruits are used for seasoning and garnishing, the flavors are quite subtle and delicate as in the design patterns of a Persian carpet.

Persian cooking largely relies on rice as one of the main ingredients, which is an affordable and readily available staple in everyday diet. A typical Iranian meal is often a full plate of chelo (plain cooked rice) topped with vegetables, meat or fish. The mild flavor of rice provides a delightful contrast to the seasoned meat and vegetable toppings.

 Dolmeh Kadoo[Click to Enlarge] A vegetarian delight: the Dolmeh Kadoo (stuffed squash in the Persian style) (Picture Source: My Persian Kitchen).

Another staple food of Iran is naan (bread), typically a round, flat bread that can either be baked or cooked over a bed of small stones. While in villages, locals make their own naan, several varieties of fresh-from-the -oven bread is easily purchasable at naan shops in the cities.

After lamb, which is Iran’s favorite meat, beef and chicken are commonly eaten in stews as well as in the form of the popular kabab (kebab) , which is actually meat grilled on a skewer. Fish is common as well, particularly in the North and the neighboring Caspian Sea towns where it is found fresh. In addition, there are a number of dishes prepared with a combination of herbs, grains, pulses, vegetables and even fruits.

 Persian CuisineThe diversity of Persian cuisine as displayed in the Ariana restaurant in London, England (Picture Source: Ariana Restaurant).

A bowl or platter of seasonal fresh fruits and dishes of herbs and vegetables which may be considered “exotic” (like dates and figs) in some other countries, are standard side dishes to most meals. They are also very creatively combined with meats in order to form flavored accessories to the main dishes. The dolma, for example, is one such dish. The term actually describes any vegetable or fruit stuffed with rice-meat mixture. The stuffed grape leaves are the most popular form of dolma.

Today, Persian cuisine is gaining popularity in multicultural cities and cosmopolitan arenas, particularly Los Angeles, Vancouver, Washington D.C., Toronto and London. These cities have significant Iranian population.

Some similar traits of Persian cookery can be found in the cuisines of a few other nations such as the Turks and the Greeks, mainly due to cultural and historical contacts among Iran and these nations. For instance, the kabab which is found worldwide today initially originated in Persia and was later on adopted by the Middle East and Turkey. There are of course many distinct features that set Iranian cuisine apart from other Middle Eastern food. First and foremost, Iran’s rich agriculture and diverse regional climates provide high quality food items and a natural wide diversity of herbs and vegetables. Iranian cookery, therefore, begins with high quality ingredients which preserve a strong natural taste, smell and texture. Secondly, most dishes are a work of art and delicacy and like other artistic works of this land, they are a little more time consuming in terms of preparation. Thirdly, the food is prepared fresh and served fresh. Fourth, less salt and oil are used in Iranian cooking as compared to other Middle Eastern cooking, a positive feature which makes Iranian cuisine, a healthy and hearty choice in one go. Moreover, side dishes shape a colorful panorama on the Iranian table. Spinach and yogurt, minced shallots in curd, lentil soup, a range of salads with olive oil and vinegar dressing, pickled fruits and vegetables peculiar to various regions of Iran are some of the side dishes that accompany the main edibles.

Sabzi-polo-Mahi[Click to Enlarge] Sabzi-polo Mahi (vegetable-seasoned rice and north-Iranian style fish filet) (Picture Source: Phancouver).

Rising above the ingredients of Iranian cooking, one can claim that food is undoubtedly a fundamental part of the Persian heritage. Each item is a tasty representation of geographical aestheticism in a range of colors and scents specific to those regions. Eating is associated with a great deal of social events, as in births, funerals, weddings and many other rituals that convince us of the fact that culinary traditions are intertwined with Iran’s history, religion, culture and even literature. Some ingredients are even used as metaphors in Iranian poetry and prose: Honey colored eyes, peach colored complexion, laughing mouth like pistachio, pomegranate colored lips, hazelnut-like noses, red apple cheeks, almond-shaped eyes and many others.

Deep dish delights at Persian Restaurants

Even through economic slumps, restaurants in Iran are an ever growing industry. After cafés, they are the most popular hangouts for the Iranian youth particularly in the capital. Moreover, with their tradition setting and unique ambiance, they are also a compelling tourist attraction both inside and outside the country as they generally observe the standards of cleanliness and hygiene.

Restaurants are majorly categorized by the type of dishes and services they provide. In a very typical and traditional restaurant, also known as sofreh khaaneh you can expect kabaabs done in a variety of styles: soft kababs, such as koobideh (minced meat kabab), pure meat kababs such as chenjeh (lamb chop kabab), bakhtiyari (a combination of roasted chicken and meat pieces on skewers) and a few others. These kababs as well as almost all stews are served with plain rice, side dishes and a popular yogurt based drink called doogh.

Kabab DishMixed Koobideh, Barg and Joojeh Kabab skewers served with rice (Picture Source: Reza Restaurant); for more on this culinary art, see “Iran’s favorite dish: the Chelo Kebab“…

Sofreh khaneh has flat wooden day beds with large cushions laid out for the diners to recline on as they eat. Sometimes the beds are laid out in a small garden. There are of course many restaurants that offer the same traditional food in the standard restaurant settings but for its relaxed and unique ambience, the sofreh khaneh continues to evolve into an even more popular place, where families and closed ones can bond over food.

Mastokhiar[Click to Enlarge] Persian appetizer (also a yoghurt-dip) called Maast-o Khiar which is a combination of cucumbers, raisins, walnuts, in a Persian-style yogurt (Picture Source: Debbie Ohi). 

Modern Pizzerias face the Kabab Tradition

The much younger generation, however, seems to have developed an increasing preference for fast food which has naturally resulted in the establishment of small and big fast food outlets, where one can usually find a variety of pizza, steak, hamburger, fried chicken etc.

Known humorously as ‘keshloghmeh’ (elastic loaves), a modified Persian word, pizza done in an assortment of styles and flavors, continues to remain a very popular fast food dish among young Iranians. Despite the allure, however, the youth still know where to turn if they are, in the long run, looking for wholesomeness and deliciousness in one plate: the gastronomic charms of the traditional Persian platter. Restaurants serving traditional Iranian dishes, like the cholo kabab are still the most crowded and favored places.

International cuisines are also currently in trend. Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai and Mexican food have become quite popular in recent years, primarily in Tehran.

Persian Pizza[Click to Enlarge] Persian-style “Pizza” from the eateries of Tehran (Picture Source: iFood.TV). There is fact a very large difference between the Persian Pizza and its classic Italian counterpart with respect to the base, toppings, etc. The “Persian Pizza” has become one of the most popular streets foods in Iran.

Facts about food and table manners in Iran

Fork and spoon are the main pieces of cutlery used at the Iranian table. A knife is rarely used at lunch or dinner.

When invited as a guest to lunch or dinner, expect to be offered second and even third helpings. Initial refusals will be assumed to be polite gestures (ta’arof, a sign of social decorum) and are taken mildly.

Iranians usually eat a handful of herbs and greens along with their meals. Known as sabzi khordan (edible greens) these herbs are typically a combination of chives, spring onions, mint leaves, basil, tarragon, radish, parsley and dill, often along with handful of walnuts, naan and a piece of feta cheese.

In most modern house settings food is eaten at the table but in a more traditional atmosphere, sofreh (table cloth like garment) available in a range of material and design pattern is spread on a Persian rug or table. Even in modern houses, some meals are still served on the floor and the sofreh is spread on the dining table.

There are four major types of flat breads (naan) and about ten types of unflat and sweet breads available in various shapes and sizes in the art of Iranian bakery.

Naan e Barbari[Click to Enlarge] Naan-e Barbari (Picture Source: Food and Wine).

Iranians revere bread to a great extent and do not discard or throw away stale bread along with other trash. Leftovers are usually disposed in separate containers. A practical way to refrain from unwanted disposal of bread was the formerly popular custom of trading dried bread for salt or fruit baskets with hawkers who roamed around for this purpose, a tradition that has been fading out, but still in practice in rural areas.

Black tea is an all time beverage in Iran. It would not be an exaggeration to call it the national drink of the country. It is mostly drunk along with sugar cubes and on occasion with sweets. The sugar cubes are taken between the teeth and then the tea is sipped.

 Chai Irani-TS[Click to Enlarge] Traditional Persian Tea (Picture Source: Tumeric Saffron).

Lunch and Dinner: Rice, white gold on the Iranian dining table

Grown mostly in Iran’s northern Caspian provinces and prized mainly for its aroma, rice is indeed the jewel of Persian cuisine. What distinguishes Iranian rice dishes is the range of methods in which this ingredient can come to life in a Persian kitchen. Iranians consume rice daily in ways that somehow elevate it; sometimes it is as simple as boiling it in salt and oil and at times, it can be a ritual of running it half cooked through a sieve, throwing it back into the pot to fully steam and develop , then enriching it with a dash of saffron on the top and creating a golden crust (tahdig) at the bottom of the pot which comes out in different shapes and flavors, after the top of the pot is emptied and served, usually with a combination of another ingredient.

 TahdigThe Tahdig delicacy crust shaped around the rice in the form of a cake (Picture Source: YumSugar). There are in fact a large varieties of the Tahdig.

The main typical Persian dishes are a blend of rice with meat, chicken or fish but rice can also be prepared as the main dish per se: On occasion, Persian rice dishes are richly studded with fruits, nuts, herbs and spices but more than often, rice is seen as an a companion to other dishes.

 Khoresht-e Karafs

The Khoresht-e Karafs (Picture Source: Mastering Persian Cooking).

Another distinct feature in the tradition of rice eating as compared to rice eaters in the west that, when served with stew (khoresht) of either meat or chicken; rice is used as an edible bed where both items are mixed in proportion by the consumer before they are eaten.

The two main national rice dishes are chelo and polo (white rice alone or with addition of meat and/or vegetables and herbs).

Chelo Kabab-Tabriz[Click to Enlarge] Serving of fresh skewers of Čelow-kabāb in the city of Tabriz, Iran’s Azarbaijan province (Picture Source: Payvand News). Tabriz is famous throughout Iran for its culinary style of the Čelow-kabāb dish and is also known for having popularized this throughout the country as well. There are still traditional restaurants in Tabriz that serve skewers almost a meter long! For more on the Čelow-kabāb culinary arts see “Iran’s favorite dish: the Chelo Kebab” …


Persian Omelette[Click to Enlarge] Traditional Persian Omelette (Picture Source: Herald Sun).

The Mithraic Mysteries

The original draft of article below, The Mithraic Mysteries, was originally written by the late Franz Cumont (1868-1947), with the version below edited and updated by Shapour Suren-Pahlav, host of the CAIS website.

Kindly note that the pictures/illustrations and accompanying descriptions of these do not appear in the original posting of Suren-Pahlav’s article in CAIS.


Most of the research into Mithraism, a religion with many parallels to Christianity, comes from two writers, Cumont and Ulansey with a variety of other writers input.  Some Similarities Between Mithraism and Christianity are:

  • Virgin birth
  • Twelve followers
  • Killing and resurrection
  • Miracles
  • Birthdate on December 25
  • Morality
  • Mankind’s savior
  • Known as the Light of the world

Have you ever wondered why December 25th was chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ?   If the accounts in the Bible are correct, the time of Jesus birth would have been closer to mid-summer, for this is when shepherds would have been “tending their flocks in the field” and the new lambs were born. Strange enough there is an ancient pagan religion, Mithraism, which dates back over 2,800 years that also celebrated the birth of their “savior” on that date.   Many elements in the story of Jesus’ life and birth are either coincidental or borrowings from earlier and contemporary pagan religions. The most obviously similar of these is Mithraism.  Roman Mithraism was a mystery religion with sacrifice and initiation. Like other mystery cults, there’s little recorded literary evidence.

-Mithraeum Rome San Clemente

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

What we know comes mainly from Christian detractors and archaeological evidence from Mithraic temples, inscriptions, and artistic representations of the god and other aspects of the cult.  In an EAWC (Exploring Ancient World Cultures) essay entitled Mithraism, Alison Griffith explains Cumont’s theory of a Zoroastrian origin for the Roman Mithraist religion.  While this theory is disputed, there was a Mitra in the Hindu pantheon and a minor deity named Mithra among the Persians as well.   Cumont came to believe the religion spread westward from Eastern Roman provinces. However, as Griffith explains, there is little evidence of a Zoroastrian Mithra cult and most evidence for Mithraic worship comes from the western portion of the empire from which Cumont correctly deduced that:

Mithraism was most popular among legionaries (of all ranks), and the members of the more marginal social groups who were not Roman citizens: freedmen, slaves, and merchants from various provinces….”

No women were allowed.

The Dawning of the Age of Aries

Ulansey says the main problem with basing Mithraism on a Zoroastrian cult is that there is no evidence that the Zoroastrians’ Mithra practiced bull killing, the central aspect of Roman Mithraic iconography. An image of Mithras killing the bull holds pride of place in each mithraeum (cave-like temple for the worship of Mithras).  Ulansey believes the images of Mithras slaying the bull are actually astronomical star maps. In support of this he points out that all the figures represented in the iconography have a place in the constellations (Taurus, Canis Minor, Hydra, Corvus, and Scorpio). He says that the other iconography and even the initiation ceremonies are consistently astronomical. Mithras’ place as bull-slayer has cosmological significance because, if Ulansey is right, Mithraists attribute to their god the ability to shift the equinox from the constellation of Taurus to Aries: His killing of the bull symbolizes his supreme power: namely, the power to move the entire universe, which he had demonstrated by shifting the cosmic sphere in such a way that the spring equinox had moved out of Taurus the Bull.

-Column with Bull Motif at Persepolis

Column from Persepolis, capital of the Achaemenid Empire, with Double-Bull motif (Source: Based on photo by Luis Argerich for Public Domain).

For more research see:

  • Professor Roger Beck: Mithraism
  • Hinnells, John R., Studies in Mithraism: Papers associated with the Mithraic Panel organized on the occasion of the XVIth Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions.
  • Hinnells, John R., Persian Mythology, Hamlyn, 1988.
  • Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider Reviewed by Helen F. North. Twenty papers from the fourth international Mithraic congress held in Rome in 1990.
  • Mithraism:  A Historical Introduction

For over three hundred years the rulers of the Roman Empire worshipped the god Mithras. Known throughout Europe and Asia by the names Mithra, Mitra, Meitros, Mihr, Mehr, and Meher, the veneration of this god began around 3000 BCE in Persia, which was moved west and became imbedded with Babylonian doctrines. There is mention of Mithra or Mitra (et al) before 2800 BCE, but only as a minor diety and without much information. It appears to be after 2800 BCE when  Mithra is transformed and starts to play a major role among the gods.  The faith spread east through India to China, and reached west throughout the entire length of the Roman frontier; from Scotland to the Sahara Desert, and from Spain to the Black Sea. Sites of Mithraic worship have been found in Britain, Italy, Romania, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, Persia, Armenia, Syria, Israel, and North Africa.    In Rome, more than a hundred inscriptions dedicated to Mithra have been found, in addition to 75 sculpture fragments, and a series of Mithraic temples situated in all parts of the city. One of the largest Mithraic temples built in Italy now lies under the present site of the Church of St. Clemente, near the Colosseum in Rome.   The widespread popularity and appeal of Mithraism as the final and most refined form of pre-Christian paganism was discussed by the Greek historian Herodotus, the Greek biographer Plutarch, the neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, the Gnostic heretic Origen, and St. Jerome the church Father. Mithraism was quite often noted by many historians for its many astonishing similarities to Christianity.   The faithful referred to Mithra as “the Light of the World”, symbol of truth, justice, and loyalty.  He was mediator between heaven and earth and was a member of a Holy Trinity.  According to Persian mythology, Mithras was born of a virgin given the title ‘Mother of God’.

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

The god remained celibate throughout his life, and valued self-control, renunciation and resistance to sensuality among his worshippers.  Mithras represented a system of ethics in which brotherhood was encouraged in order to unify against the forces of evil.   The worshippers of Mithras held strong beliefs in a celestial heaven and an infernal hell. They believed that the benevolent powers of the god would sympathize with their suffering and grant them the final justice of immortality and eternal salvation in the world to come. They looked forward to a final day of Judgment in which the dead would resurrect, and to a final conflict that would destroy the existing order of all things to bring about the triumph of light over darkness.

Purification through a ritualistic baptism was required of the faithful, who also took part in a ceremony in which they drank wine and ate bread to symbolize the body and blood of the god. Sundays were held sacred, and the birth of the god was celebrated annually on December the 25th. After the earthly mission of this god had been accomplished, he took part in a Last Supper with his companions before ascending to heaven, to forever protect the faithful from above.

However, it would be a vast oversimplification to suggest that Mithraism was the single forerunner of early Christianity.  Aside from Christ and Mithras, there were plenty of other deities (such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Balder, Attis, and Dionysus) said to have died and resurrected.   Many classical heroic figures, such as Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus, were said to have been born through the union of a virgin mother and divine father. Virtually every pagan religious practice and festivity that couldn’t be suppressed or driven underground was eventually incorporated into the rites of Christianity as it spread across Europe and throughout the world.

The Persian Origins of Mithraism

In order to fully understand the religion of Mithraism it is necessary to look to its foundation in Persia, where originally a multitude of gods were worshipped. Amongst them were Ahura-Mazda, god of the skies, and Ahriman, god of darkness. In the seventeen or eighteen century B.C.E., a vast reformation of the Persian pantheon was undertaken by Zarathustra (known in Greek as Zoroaster), a prophet from the East of Iranian World, probably Bactria.  The stature of Ahura-Mazda was elevated to that of supreme god of goodness, whereas the god Ahriman became the ultimate embodiment of evil.   In the same way that Ahkenaton, Heliogabalus, and Mohammed later initiated henotheistic cults from the worship of their respective deities, Zarathustra created a henotheistic dualism with the gods Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman.


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.

As a result of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews (597 B.C.E.) and their later emancipation by Cyrus the Great of Persia (538 B.C.E.), Zoroastrian dualism was to influence the Jewish belief in the existence of Ha-Shatan, the  Adversary of the god YHVH, and later permit the evolution of the Christian Satan-Jehovah dichotomy. Persian religious dualism became the foundation of an ethical system that has lasted until this day.  The reformation of Zarathustra retained the hundreds of Persian deities, assembling them into a complex hierarchical system of ‘Immortals’ and  ‘Adored Ones’ under the rule of either Ahura- Mazda or Ahriman.   Within this vast pantheon, Mithras gained the title of ‘Judger of Souls’. He became the divine representative of Ahura-Mazda on earth, and was directed to protect the righteous from the demonic forces of Ahriman.   Mithras was called omniscient, undeceivable, infallible, eternally watchful, and never-resting. In the Avesta, the holy book of the religion of Zarathustra, Ahura-Mazda was said to have created Mithras in order to guarantee the authority of contracts and the keeping of promises. The name Mithras was, in fact, the Persian word for ‘contract’. The divine duty of Mithras was to ensure general prosperity through good contractual relations between men. It was believed that misfortune would befall the entire land if a contract was ever broken.


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

Ahura-Mazda was said to have created Mithras to be as great and worthy as himself.  He would fight the spirits of evil to protect the creations of Ahura-Mazda and cause even Ahriman to tremble. Mithras was seen as the protector of just souls from demons seeking to drag them down to Hell, and the guide of these souls to Paradise.  As Lord of the Sky, he took the role of psychopomp, conducting the souls of the righteous dead to paradise.   According to Persian traditions, the god Mithras was actually incarnated into the human form of the Saviour expected by Zarathustra. Mithras was born of Anahita, an immaculate virgin mother once worshipped as a fertility goddess before the hierarchical reformation. Anahita was said to have conceived the Saviour from the seed of Zarathustra preserved in the waters of Lake Hamun in the Persian province of Sistan. Mithra’s ascension to heaven was said to have occurred in 208 B.C.E., 64 years after his birth. Parthian coins and documents bear a double date with this 64 year interval.

Mithras was ‘The Great King’ highly revered by the nobility and monarchs, who looked upon him as their special protector. A great number of the nobility took theophorous (god-bearing) names compounded with Mithras. The title of the god Mithras was used in the dynasties of Pontus, Parthia, Cappadocia, Armenia and Commagene by emperors with the name Mithradates. Mithradates VI, king of Pontus (northern what is known as Turkey) in 120-63 B.C.E. became famous for being the first monarch to practice immunization by taking poisons in gradually increased doses.

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.

The terms mithridatism and mithridate (a pharmacological elixir) were named after him.  The Parthian princes of Armenia were all priests of Mithras, and an entire district of this land was dedicated to the Virgin Mother Anahita.   Many Mithraeums, or Mithraic temples, were built in Armenia, which remained one of the laststrongholds of Mithraism.   The largest near-eastern Mithraeum was built in western Persia at Kangavar, dedicated to ‘Anahita, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of the Lord Mithras’. Other Mithraic temples were built in Khuzestan and in Central Iran near present-day Mahallat, where at the temple of Khorheh a few tall columns still stand.   Excavations in Nisa, later renamed Mithradatkirt, have uncovered Mithraic mausoleums and shrines.   Mithraic sanctuaries and mausoleums were built in the city of Hatra in upper Mesopotamia. West of Hatra at Dura Europos, Mithraeums were found with figures of Mithras on horseback.   Persian Mithraism was more a collection of traditions and rites than a body of doctrines. However, once the Babylonians took the Mithraic rituals and mythology from the Persians, they thoroughly refined its theology. The Babylonian clergy assimilated Ahura-Mazda to the god Baal, Anahita to the goddess Ishtar, and Mithras to Shamash, their god of justice, victory and protection (and the sun god from whom King Hammurabi received his code of laws in the 18th century B.C.E.) As a result of the solar and astronomical associations of the Babylonians, Mithras later was referred to by Roman worshippers as ‘Sol invictus’, or the invincible sun.


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

The sun itself was considered to be “the eye of Mithras”.    The Persian crown, from which all present day crowns are derived, was designed to represent the golden sun-disc sacred to Mithras.   As a deity connected with the sun and its life-giving powers, Mithras was known as ‘The Lord of the Wide Pastures’ who was believed to cause the plants to spring forth from the ground.  In the time of Cyrus and Darius the Great, the rulers of Persia received the first fruits of the fall harvest at the festival of Mehragan.  At this time they wore their most brilliant clothing and drank wine.  In the Persian calendar, the seventh month and the sixteenth day of each month were also dedicated to Mithras.    The Babylonians also incorporated their belief in destiny into the Mithraic worship of Zurvan, the Persian god of infinite time and father of the gods Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman. They superimposed astrology, the use of the zodiac, and the deification of the four seasons onto the Persian rites of Mithraism.

Astrology, of which these postulates were the dogmas, certainly owes some share of its success to the Mithraic propaganda, and Mithraism is therefore partly responsible for the triumph in the West of this pseudo-science with its long train of errors and terrors.”  (Franz Cumont, French Mithraic researcher  Les Mystères de Mithra, p.125).


Investiture of Ardashir II (r. 379-383) (center) by the supreme God Ahuramazda (right) with Mithra (left) standing upon a lotus (Ghirshman, 1962 & Herrmann, 1977). Trampled beneath the feet of Ahura-Mazda and Ardashir II is an unidentified defeated enemy (possibly Roman Emperor Julian). Of interest are the emanating “Sun Rays”  from the head of Mithras.  Note the object being held by Mithras, which appears to be a barsum, or perhaps some sort of diadem or even a ceremonial broadsword, as Mithras appears to be engaged in some sort of “knighting” of Ardashir II as he receives the “Farr” (Divine Glory) diadem from Ahura-Mazda (Picture source: Shahyar Mahabadi, 2004).

The Persians called Mithras ‘The Mediator’ since he was believed to stand between the light of  Ahura-Mazda and the darkness of Ahriman.   He was  said to have 1000 eyes, expressing the conviction that no man could conceal his wrongdoing from the god. Mithras was known as the God of Truth, and Lord of Heavenly Light, and said to have stated:

I am a star which goes with thee and shines out of the depths”.

Mithras was associated with Verethraghna, the Persian god of victory. He would fight against the forces of evil, and destroy the wicked. It was believed that offering sacrifices to Mithras would provide strength and glory in life and in battle. In the Avesta, Yasht 10, it reads that Mithras:

spies out his enemies; armed in his fullest panoply he swoops down upon them, scatters and slaughters them. He desolates and lays waste the homes of the wicked, he annihilates the tribes and the nations that are hostile to him. He assures victory unto them that fit instruction in the Good, that honour him and offer him the sacrificial libations.”

Mithras was worshipped as guardian of arms, and patron of soldiers and armies. The handshake was developed by those who worshipped him as a token of friendship and as a gesture to show that you were unarmed.   When Mithras later became the Roman god of contracts, the handshake gesture was imported throughout the Mediterranean and Europe by Roman soldiers.

Nik Spatari-Mithras

[Click to Enlarge] Nik Spatari’s drawing of the site of Eski Kale in Turkey (dated to circa 300 BCE) showing  Mithras at left in Iranian attire shaking hands with the Hellenic God Zeus at right. This may be one of the first artistic depictions of the  handshake symbolizing the “Payman” (pact).

In Armenian tradition, Mithras was believed to shut himself up in a cave from which he emerged once a year, born anew.  The Persians introduced initiates to the mysteries in natural caves, according to Porphyry, the third century neoplatonic philosopher. These cave temples were created in the image of the World Cave that Mithras had created, according to the Persian creation myth.   As ‘God of Truth and Integrity’, Mithras was invoked in solemn oaths to pledge the fulfillment of contracts and punish liars. He was believed to maintain peace, wisdom, honour, prosperity, and cause harmony to reign among all his worshippers.

Garni Temple-Armenia

[Click to Enlarge] The Temple of Garni in Armenia. An example of Classical Armenian architecture of Hellenic inspiration, this Temple was first ordered to be built in dedication to Mithras by Tiridates I in approximately 66 CE. The god Mithras in time became merged with the Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) of the Roman Empire (Picture Source: Skyscraper City).

According to the Avesta, Mithras could decide when different periods of world history were completed. He would judge mortal souls at death and brandish his mace over hell three times each day so that demons would not inflict greater punishment on sinners than they deserved. Sacrificial offerings of cattle and birds were made to Mithras, along with libations of Haoma, a hallucinogenic drink used by Zoroastrian and Hindu priests, equated with the infamous hallucinogen ‘Soma’ described in the Vedic scriptures. Before daring to approach the altar to make an offering to Mithras, Persian worshippers were obliged to purge themselves by repeating purification rituals and flagellating themselves. These customs were continued in the initiation ceremonies of the Roman neophytes.

Expansion of the Faith

With the rapid expansion of the Persian Empire, the worship of Mithras spread eastward through northern India into the western provinces of China. In Chinese mythology, Mithras came to be known as ‘The Friend’.   To this day, Mithras is represented as a military General in Chinese statues, and is considered to be the friend of man in this life and his protector against evil in the next. In India, Mithras was recognized as ‘God of Heavenly Light’ and an ally of Indra, King of Heaven. Mithras was often prayed to and invoked along with Varuna, the Hindu god of moral law and true speech. Jointly known as ‘Mitra-Varuna’, it was believed that together they would uphold order in the world while travelling in a shining chariot and living in a golden mansion with a thousand pillars and a thousands doors. Mithras was also praised in the Vedic hymns. Just as in the Zoroastrian Avesta, the Hindu scriptures recognized Mithras as ‘God of Light’, ‘Protector of Truth’, and ‘Enemy of Falsehood’. The worship of Mithras also extended westward through what is now Turkey to the borders of the Aegean Sea.  A bilingual dedication to Mithras, written in Greek and Aramaic, was found engraved upon a rock in a wild pass near Farasha in the Turkish province of Cappadocia. Mithras was also the only Iranian god whose name was known in ancient Greece.   A grotto located near the Greek town of Tetapezus was dedicated to Mithras, before it was transformed into a church. However, Mithraism never made many converts in Greece or in the Hellenized countries.   That country never extended the hand of hospitality to the god of its ancient enemies.   According to the Greek historian Plutarch (46-125 C.E.) Mithras was first introduced into Italy by pirates from Cilicia (Sout-East Turkey) who initiated the Romans into the secrets of the religion. These pirates performed strange sacrifices on Mount Olympus and practiced Mithraic rituals, which according to Plutarch “exist to the present day and were first taught by them”. However, there were many foreign cults in Italy at that time, and these early Mithraists did not attract much attention.


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”.

It is one of the great of ironies of history that Romans ended up worshipping the god of their chief political enemy, the Persians. The Roman historian Quintus Rufus recorded in his book History of Alexander that before going into battle against the ‘anti-Mithraean country’ of Rome, the Persian soldiers would pray to Mithras for victory. However, after the two enemy civilizations had been in contact for more than a thousand years, the worship of Mithras finally spread from the Persians through the Phrygians of Turkey to the Romans.   The Romans viewed Persia as a land of wisdom and mystery, and Persian religious teachings appealed to those Romans who found the established state religion uninspiring – just as during the Cold War era of the 1960′s many American university students rejected western religious values and sought enlightenment in the established spirituality of Communist east-Asian “enemy countries”.

Mithras in the Roman Empire

“Let us suppose that in modern Europe the faithful had deserted the Christian churches to worship Allah or Brahma,  to follow the precepts of Confucius or Buddha, or to adopt  the maxims of the Shinto;  let us imagine a great confusion of all the races of the world in which Arabian mullahs, Chinese scholars, Japanese bonzes, Tibetan lamas and Hindu pundits should all be preaching fatalism and predestination, ancestor-worship and devotion to a deified sovereign, pessimism and deliverance through annihilation – a confusion in which all those priests should erect temples of exotic architecture in our cities and celebrate their disparate rites therein.   Such a dream, which the future may perhaps realize, would offer a pretty accurate picture of the religious chaos in which the ancient world was struggling before the reign of Constantine.”    Among the Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, At a time when Christianity was only one of several dozen foreign Eastern cults struggling for recognition in Rome, the religious dualism and dogmatic moral teaching of Mithraism set it apart from other sects, creating a stability previously unknown in Roman paganism.   Early Roman worshippers imagined themselves to be keepers of ancient wisdom from the far east, and invincible heroes of the faith, ceaselessly fighting the powers of corruption.   Mithraism quickly gained prominence and remained the most important pagan religion until the end of the fourth century, spreading Zoroastrian dualism throughout every province of  the empire for three hundred years.


Map of Mithraism in the Roman Empire at its greatest extent in the 1st to early 4th centuries CE (Source: Hinnells, 1988, p.77).

In those days, it was imperial policy to remove troops as far as possible from their country of origin in order to prevent local uprisings. A Roman soldier who, after several years of service in his native country had been promoted to the rank of centurion, was transferred to a foreign station where he was later assigned to a new garrison. This way, the entire body of centurions of any one legion constituted a microcosm of the empire. The vast extent of the Roman colonies formed links between Persia and the Mediterranean and caused the diffusion of the Mithraic religion into the Roman world. Mithraism became a military religion under the Romans. The many  dangers to which the Roman soldiers were exposed caused them to seek the protection of the  gods of their foreign comrades in order to obtain success in battle or a happier life through death. The soldiers adopted the Mithraic faith for its emphasis on victory, strength, and security in the next world. Temples and shrines were dedicated to Mithras across the empire.

In 67 B.C., the first congregation of Mithras-worshipping soldiers existed in Rome under the command of General Pompey. From 67 to 70 C.E., the legio XV Apollinaris, or Fifteenth Apollonian Legion, took part in suppressing the uprising of the Jews in Palestine. After sacking and burning the Second Temple in Jerusalem and capturing the infamous Ark of the Covenant, this legion accompanied Emperor Titus to Alexandria, where they were joined by new recruits from Cappadocia (Turkey) to replace casualties suffered in their victorious campaigns.

Julian's failed invasion of Persia in 363 AD

An irony? Emperor Julian is killed during his failed invasion of Sassanian Persia in June 26, 363 CE. Above is a recreation of  Sassanian Persia’s elite cavalry, the Savaran, and combat elephants as they would have appeared during Julian’s failed invasion. Note the  rider in Mithraic attire bearing an unknown Sassanian 3-pronged symbol  (Picture source: Farrokh, Plate D, -اسواران ساسانی- Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005). It is possible that numbers of the Roman troops in Julian’s army also worshiped the Iranian god, Mithras!

After their transportation to the Danube with the veteran legionnaires,  they offered sacrifices to Mithras in a semicircular  grotto that they consecrated to him on the banks of the river. Soon, this first temple was no longer adequate and a second one was built adjoining a temple of Jupiter.   As a municipality developed alongside the camp and the conversions to Mithraism continued to multiply, a third and much larger Mithraeum was erected towards the beginning of the second century.  This temple was later enlarged by Diocletian, Emperor from 284-305 C.E. Diocletian  rededicated this sanctuary to Mithras, giving him the title  “The Protector of the Empire”. Five Mithraeums were found in Great Britain, where only three Roman legions were stationed. Remains were discovered in London near St.  Paul’s Cathedral, in Segontium in  Wales, and three were found along Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England.   Mithraism also reached Northern Africa by Roman military recruits from abroad. By the second century, the worship of Mithras had spread throughout Germany due to the powerful army that defended this territory.  The greatest number of Mithraeums in the western world were discovered in Germany. An inscription has been found of a centurion’s dedication to Mithras dating back to the year 148 C.E. One of the most famous Mithraic bas-reliefs, showing twelve scenes from the life of the god,  was discovered in Neuenheim, Germany in 1838. When Commodus (Emperor from 180-192 C.E.) was initiated into the  Mithraic religion, there began an era of strong support of Mithraism that included emperors such as Aurelian, Diocletian, and Julian the Apostate, who called Mithras “the guide of the souls”. All of these emperors took the Mithraic titles of ‘Pius’, ‘Felix’, and ‘Invictus’  (devout, blessed, and invincible). From this point on, Roman authority legitimized their rule by divine right, as opposed to heredity or vote of the Senate. The Babylonian astrological influence within Mithraism established a solar henotheism as the leading religion at Rome.     In 218 C.E.  the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (placed upon the throne at age 14) attempted to elevate his god, the Baal of Emesa to the rank of supreme divinity of the empire by subordinating the entire ancient pantheon.  Heliogabalus was soon assassinated for his aspiration of a solar henotheism, but half a century later his attempt inspired emperor Aurelian to initiate the  worship of the Sol invictus. Worshipped in an elaborate temple, magnificent plays were held in honour of this deity every fourth year.   Sol invictus was also elevated to the  supreme rank in the divine hierarchy, and became the special protector of the emperors and the empire. Many Mithraic  reliefs showed scenes of Mithras and Sol sharing a banquet over a table draped with the skin of the bull. Soon after, the title of Sol invictus was transferred to Mithras. The Roman emperors formally announced their alliance with the sun and emphasized their likeness to Mithras, god of its divine light. Mithras was, also, unified with the sun-god Helios, and became known as ‘The Great God Helios-Mithras’. Emperor Nero adopted the radiating crown as the symbol of his sovereignty to exemplify the splendour of the rays of the sun, and to show that he was an incarnation of Mithras. He was initiated into the Mithraic religion by the Persian Magi brought to Rome by the King of Armenia. Emperors from that time onwards proclaimed themselves destined to the throne by virtue of having been born with the divine ruling power of the sun.

The Rites of Mithraic Initiation

Upon enlistment, the first act of a Roman soldier was to pledge obedience and devotion to the emperor. Absolute  loyalty to authority and to fellow soldiers was the cardinal  virtue, and the Mithraic religion became the ultimate vehicle  for this fraternal obedience. The Mithras worshippers  compared the practice of their religion to their military service.   All of the initiates considered themselves sons of the same father owing to one another a brother’s affection.   Mithras was a chaste god, and his worshippers were taught reverence for celibacy (a convenient trait for soldiers to maintain). The spirit of camaraderie (and celibacy) was to be continued in the Roman Empire by the Christian belief in neighborly love and universal charity.    However, the worshippers of Mithras did not lose themselves in a contemplative mysticism like the followers of other near-eastern sects.   Their morality particularly encouraged action, and during a period of war and confusion, they found stimulation, comfort and support in its tenets. In their eyes of the Roman soldiers, resistance to evil deeds and immoral actions became just as valued as victory in glorious military exploits.   They  would fight the powers of evil in accordance with the ideals of Zoroastrian dualism, in which life was conceived as a struggle against evil spirits. By supplying a new conception of the world, Mithraism gave new meaning to life by determining the worshipper’s beliefs concerning life after death. The struggle between good and evil was extended into the afterworld,  where Mithras ensured the protection of his followers from the powers of darkness. It was believed that Mithras would judge the souls of the dead and lead the righteous into the heavenly regions where Ahura-Mazda reigned in eternal light.    Mithraism brought the assurance that reverence would be rewarded with immortality.

Mithra temple-Carrawburgh

Remains of the Temple of Mithra at Carrawburgh, England (Source: Britain Express). The culture 0f Mithras continues to endure among the Iranians (within Iran and the Kurds of the Near East beyonf modern-day Iran. The Kurds speak West Iranian languages (i.e. Kurmnaji, Gowrani, etc.) that are akin to Persian and Luri.

Mithraism was an archetypal mystery cult and secret society. Like the rites of Demeter, Orpheus, and Dionysus, the Mithraic rituals admitted candidates by secret ceremonies, the meaning of which was known only to the initiated. Like all other institutionalized initiation rites of the past and present, this mystery cult allowed the initiates to be controlled and put under the command of their leaders. Preceding initiation into the Mithraic fold, the neophyte had to prove his courage and devotion by swimming across a rough river, descending a sharp cliff, or jumping through flames with his hands bound and eyes blindfolded.    The initiate was also taught the secret Mithraic password, which he was to use to identify himself to other members, and which he was to repeat to himself frequently as a personal mantra.   Mithraic worshippers believed that the human soul descended into the world at birth. The goal of their religious quest was to achieve the soul’s ascent out of the world again by gaining passage through seven heavenly gates, corresponding to seven grades of initiation. Therefore, being promoted to a higher rank in the religion was believed to correspond to a heavenly journey of the soul. Promotion was obtained through submission to religious authority (kneeling), casting off the old life (nakedness), and liberation from bondage through the mysteries.


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.

The process of Mithraic initiation required the symbolic climbing of a ceremonial ladder with seven rungs, each made of a different metal to symbolize the seven known celestial bodies. By symbolically ascending this ceremonial ladder through successive initiations, the neophyte could proceed through the seven levels of heaven. The seven grades of Mithraism, were: Corax (Raven),  Nymphus (Male Bride), Miles (Soldier),  Leo (Lion), Peres (Persian), Heliodromus (Sun-Runner), and Pater (Father);  each respective grade protected by Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, the Moon, the Sun, and Saturn.    The lowest degree of initiation into the grade of Corax symbolized the death of a new member, from which he would arise reborn as a new man.    This represented the end of his life as an unbeliever, and cancelled previous allegiances to the other unacceptable beliefs. The title Corax (Raven) originated with the Zoroastrian custom of exposing the dead on funeral towers to be eaten by carrion birds, a custom continued today by the Parsis of India, the descendants of the Persian followers of Zarathustra.   Further initiation involved the clashing of cymbals, beating of drums, and the unveiling of a statue of Mithras. The initiate drank wine from the cymbal to recognize it as the source of ritual ecstasy.   Next, he ate a small morsel of bread placed on a drum, to signify his acceptance of Mithras as the source of his food. This bread had been exposed to the rays of the sun, so by eating the bread the worshipper was partaking of the divine essence of the sun itself.   The initiate would also offer a loaf of bread and cup of water to the statue of Mithras.    When a neophyte reached the degree of Miles (soldier), he was offered a crown, which he had to reject with the saying:

Only Mithras is my crown”.

The indelible mark of a cross, symbol of the sun, was then  branded on his forehead with a hot iron to symbolize his ownership by the deity, and he would renounce the social custom of wearing a wreath. From then on, the neophyte belonged to the sacred militia of ‘The Invincible God Mithras’. All family ties were severed and only fellow initiates were to be considered brothers.


[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).

Worshippers used caves and grottos as temples wherever possible, or at least gave temples the internal appearance of caves or of being subterranean by building steps leading down to the entrance. They took part in masquerading as animals, such as ravens and lions, and inserted passages into their ritual chants that were devoid of any literal meaning.

All of these rites that characterized Roman Mithraism  originated in ancient prehistoric ceremonies.

During the rituals, the evolution of the universe and the destiny of mankind was explained. The service consisted chiefly of contemplating the Mithraic symbolism, praying while knelt before benches, and chanting hymns to the accompaniment of flutes. Hymns were sung describing the voyage of Mithras’ horse-drawn chariot across the sky.

Invokers and worshippers of Mithras prayed:

 “Abide with  me in my soul. Leave me not [so] that I may be initiated and that the Holy Spirit may breathe within me.”

Animal sacrifices, mostly of birds, were also conducted in the Mithraeums. The Mithraic clergy’s duty was to maintain  the perpetual holy fire on the altar, invoke the planet of  the day, offer the sacrifices for the disciples, and preside at initiations. The Mithraic priests were known as Patres Sacrorum, or Fathers of the Sacred Mysteries.

They were mystically designated with the titles Leo and Hierocorax, and presided over the priestly festivals of Leontica (the festival of lions), Coracica (the festival of ravens), and Hierocoracica (the festival of sacred ravens). The great festival of the Mithraic calendar was held on December the 25th, and the 16th of every month was kept holy to Mithras. The first day of the week was dedicated to the sun, to whom prayers were recited in the morning, noon, and evening.

Reconstruction of Mithra ceremony

An interesting reconstruction of a Mithraic ceremony in at the Mithraic temple of Osterburken, Germany (Mithraeum.eu).

Services were held on Sundays, in which bells were sounded and praises were offered to Mithras. On great occasions, the ‘soldiers of Mithras’ took part in the sacrament of bread and wine as sacred bulls were sacrificed.

The Taurobolium

While Mithras was worshipped almost exclusively by men, most of the wives and daughters of the Mithraists took part in the worship of Magna Mater, Ma-Bellona, Anahita, Cybele, and Artemis. These goddess religions practiced a regeneration ritual known as the Taurobolium, or bull sacrifice, in which the blood of the slaughtered animal was allowed to fall down upon the  initiate, who would be lying, completely drenched in a pit below. As a result of their association with practitioners of this rite, Mithraists soon adopted the Taurobolium ritual as their own. This baptism of blood became a renewal of the human soul, as opposed to mere physical strength.

"Tauroctony" - Mithras slaying a bull

[Click to Enlarge] Another depiction of Mithras with Persian dress slaying the sacred bull at the Vatican Museum in Rome (Source: Tertullian.org). 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.

Mithraic baptism wiped out moral faults; the purity aimed at had become spiritual. The descent into the pit was regarded as symbolic burial, from which the initiate would emerge reborn, purified of all his crimes and regarded as the equal of a god. Those who made it through the Taurobolium were revered by their brethren, and accepted in the fold of Mithraism.

The taurobolium had become a means of obtaining a new and eternal life; the ritualistic ablutions were no longer external and material acts, but were supposed to cleanse the soul of its  impurities and to restore its original innocence; the sacred repasts imparted an intimate virtue to the soul and furnished sustenance to the spiritual life” (Franz Cumont Les Mystères de Mithra).

The bull has been exalted throughout the ancient world for its strength and vigour. Greek myths told of the Minotaur, a half-man half-bull monster who lived in the Labyrinth beneath Crete, and took an annual sacrifice of  six young men and six maidens before being slain by the hero Theseus. Minoan artwork depicted nimble acrobats leaping bravely over the backs of bulls. The altar in front of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was adorned with bull horns believed to be endowed with magical powers. The bull was also one of the four tetramorphs, the symbols later associated with the four gospels.  The mystique of this powerful animal still survives today in the ritualistic bull-fighting of Spain and Mexico, and in the rodeo bull-riding of the U.S. The bull was an obvious representation of masculinity by nature of its size, strength, and sexual power. At the same time, the bull symbolized lunar forces by virtue of its horns and earthly forces by virtue of its powerful root to the ground.


[Click to Enlarge] Depiction of Mithras with Persian dress of the (Parthian and Early-Mid Sassanian era type) slaying the sacred bull at the Santa Maria Capua Vetere (Source: Dom De Felice for Public Domain). Note the dog and serpent.

The ritual sacrifice of the bull symbolized the penetration of the feminine principle by the masculine. The slaying of  the bull represented the victory of man’s spiritual nature over his animality; parallel to the symbolic images of Marduk slaying Tiamut, Gilgamesh killing Humbaba, Michael subduing Satan, St. George slaying the dragon, the Centurion piercing Christ’s side, Lewis Carroll’s “beamish boy” slaying the Jabberwocky, and Sigourney Weaver slaying the Alien.

According to the archetypal hero myth recited in Roman Mithraic rituals, the infant Mithras formed an alliance with the sun and set off to kill the bull, the first living creature ever created. While the bull was grazing in a pasture,  Mithras seized it by the horns and dragged it into a cave. The bull soon escaped, but was recaptured when Mithras  was given the command by the raven, messenger of the sun, to slay the bull. With the help of his dog, Mithras succeeded in overtaking the bull and dragging it again in the cave.    Then, seizing it by the nostrils, he plunged deep into its flank with his knife.  As the bull died, the world came into being and time was born. From the body of the slain beast sprang forth all the herbs and plants that cover the earth.


A Roman version of the statue of Mithras “Bringer of Light” in a Mithraic temple in Ostia, Italy (Consult, Hinnells, 1988, p.83). Note the opening on the ceiling just above Mithras, allowing the sun rays to “illuminate” the god. Mithras in Iranian mythology is the bringer of light and justice as well as a manifestation of the eternal sun.

From the spinal cord of the animal sprang wheat to produce bread, and from the blood came the vine to produce wine. The shedding of the sacrificial blood brought great blessings to the world, which Ahriman tried to prevent. The struggle between good and evil, which at that moment it first began, was to continue until the end of time.

This ingenious fable carries us back to the very beginnings of civilization. It could never have risen save among a people of shepherds and hunters with whom cattle, the source of all wealth, had become an object of religious veneration”.

Mithraic sculpture depicted the Taurobolium with invariable consistency. Mithras was often depicted in the cave kneeling on the back of the bull, dagger in hand, wearing a flowing cape and Phrygian cap (the rounded, conical hats currently en vogue amongst rap-music fans). He was shown pulling back the bull’s head by its nostrils and stabbing it with the dagger, back foot extended over the bull’s right leg. A dog and a snake were shown leaping into bull’s wound, representing the dualistic conflict of good and evil at the moment of creation. A scorpion was shown at the bull’s genitals, depicting evil seeking to destroy life at its source. Ears of corn sprung from the tail of the bull representing victory of good over evil.     During the celebration of the vernal equinox, the Phrygian priests of the Great Mother attributed the blood shed in the Taurobolium to the redemptive power of the blood of the Divine Lamb shed on the Christian Easter. It was maintained that the dramatic Taurobolium purification ritual was more effective than baptism.   The food that was taken during the mystic feasts was likened to the bread and wine of the communion; the Mother of the Gods (Magna Mater) received greater worship than the Mother of God (Mary), whose son also had risen again.  An inscription in the Mithraeum under the  Church of Santa Prisca in Rome referred to Mithras saving men by shedding the eternal blood of the bull. On the very spot on which the last Taurobolium took place at the end of the fourth century, in the Phrygianum, today stands the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica.


Relief of Mithras and the Tauroctony from the “Heidenfeld” Mithraeum of Heddernheim, Germany, presently located in Wiesbaden (Source: Dierk Schaefer for Public Domain).

The Evolution

As the religious history of the empire is studied more closely, the triumph of the church will, in our opinion, appear more and more as the culmination of a long evolution of beliefs. We can understand the Christianity of the fifth century with its greatness and weaknesses, its spiritual exaltation and its puerile superstitions, if we know the moral antecedents of the world in which it developed” (Franz Cumont).

As the final pagan religion of the Roman Empire, Mithraism paved a smooth path for Christianity by transferring the better elements of paganism to this new religion.  After Constantine, Emperor from 306-337 C.E., converted on the eve of a battle in 312 C.E., Christianity was made the state religion. All emperors following Constantine were openly hostile towards Mithraism.  The religion was persecuted on the grounds that it was the religion of Persians, the arch-enemies of the Romans. The absurdity with which Christianity enveloped Roman paganism was characterized by the early Church writer Tertullian (160-220 C.E.), who noticed that the pagan religion utilized baptism as well as bread and wine consecrated by priests. He wrote that Mithraism was inspired by the devil, who wished to mock the Christian sacraments in order to lead faithful Christians to hell. Nonetheless, Mithraism survived up to the fifth century in remote regions of the Alps amongst tribes such as the Anauni, and has managed to survive in the near-east until this day.

Mithras is still venerated today by the Parsis, the descendants of the Persian Zoroastrians now living mainly in India. Their temples to Mithras are now called ‘dar-i Mihr’ (The Court of Mithras). A scholar living among Parsis in Karachi, Pakistan reported that a Parsi mother, finding one of her grandchildren fighting with a younger child, told him to remember that Mithras was watching and would know the truth. Upon initiation, Parsi priests are given a ‘Gurz’, the symbolic Mace of Mithras, to represent the priestly duty to make war on evil.  The priests continue to conduct their most sacred rituals under Mithra’s protection.

In Iran, up until 1979, traditional Mithraic holidays and customs still continued to be officially practiced, however the celebrations have continued despite the current Iranian establishment’s pan-Islamic outlook .  The Iranian New Year celebration called ‘Now-Ruz’ takes place during the spring and continues for thirteen days.  During this time Mehr (Mithras) is extolled as ancient god of the sun. The ‘Mihragan’ festival in honor of Mithras, Judge of Iran, also runs for a period of 5 days with great rejoicing and in a spirit of deep devotion.


Zoroastrians engage in the celebration of Mehregan or festival of Mithras in Shushtar, Iran (Picture source: Kouroush Niknam). For more see article by Massoume Price entitled “Mehregan”

Manicheans and Later Heresies

Back in early medieval Europe, a form of Mithraism had managed to survive for centuries beyond the edicts of Constantine. Even when it had been dethroned by Christianity, the Mithraic faith lived on in dignified opposition by mutating into a Christian heresy known as Manichaeism, which was to become a source of strife and bloodshed right down to the Middle Ages. The Persian dualism of Zarathustra introduced such strong principles into Europe that they continued to exert an influence long after the fall of the Roman Empire.  The Manichean faith succeeded as an heir to Mithraism, spreading within decades throughout the territories once covered by Mithraism in Asia and throughout the Mediterranean, eventually encompassing regions from China to North Africa, Spain, and Southern France.


A portrait of the prophet Mani (216-274 or 277 CE) (Source: Great Thoughts Treasury). Mani viewed himself as the final seal of the prophets, completing the previous religious messages of Zoroaster, Christ and the Buddha. His theological views, especially with respect to evil and its relation to material existence incurred the wrath of not only the Zoroastrian Magi of his Persian homeland but also that of the later Christians and Emperors of China.

Mani was born in 216 C.E. nearly 500 years after the incarnation of Mithras, and given the title ‘The Seal of the Prophets’ (a title since given to Mohammed by Islam).   He was also called the Bagh, or the Lord to succeed Mithras. Mani preached a dualistic theological system emphasizing the purity of the spirit and the impurity of the body.   He believed that the universe was controlled by the opposing powers of good and evil which had become temporarily intertwined, but at a future time would be separated and return to their own realms. Manichaean ethics focused on freeing the soul from the body and opposing material and physical pleasures.Mani’s followers attempted to assist this separation by leading ascetic lives, preaching renunciation of the world, and discouraging marriage and procreation.

Map of Manicheaism

Map detailing the spread of Manicheaism (Source: Trans Cultural Studies).

Ironically, Manichaeism was denounced in the west by the Papacy as a dangerous heresy considered detrimental to social life and common human institutions.    It was also condemned in Persia for similar reasons. Mani was persecuted and finally put to death in 276 C.E, as were many of his followers. Regardless, Manichaeism spread  widely and was a major religion in the East until the 14th century. It died out in the West by the 6th century, but later led to the creation of several early Christian heresies, such as the those of the Cathars and the Albigenses.


Medieval depiction of a dispute between Saint Dominic and the Cathars, also known as the Albigensians (Source: Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at The University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division). Interestingly, the Cathars denied charges of being Manicheans, yet their belief systems were wholly consistent with Mani’s teachings.

The Albigenses were a heretical Christian sect whose influence became widespread in Southern France around the year 1200 C.E. Its theology was based entirely upon Manichean dualism.    The Dominican Order was  founded in 1205 in order to combat this heresy. Following the assassination of the papal legate in the year 1208, Pope Innocent III  declared a crusade against the Albigenses. This developed into a political conflict with civil war between the north and south of France lasting until 1229.     The Knights Templar, a religious military order founded by Crusaders in  Jerusalem in 1118, came into contact with Manichean heretics who despised the Cross, regarding it as the instrument of Christ’s torture.   This tenet was believed to have been adopted by the Templars, who were suppressed and charged with blasphemy in 1312 for committing homosexual acts, worshipping the demon Baphomet, and ritually spitting upon crucifixes.   To this day, the Knights Templar have been emulated by dozens of mystical sects and secret societies, including the Freemasons, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the notorious Ordo Templi Orientallis reformulated by Alistair Crowley.


If Christianity had been checked in its growth by some deadly disease, the world would have become Mithraic” [Joseph Renan, French religious historian and critic Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique]

The Mithraic legacy resulted in customs still carried out today, including the handshake and the wearing of the crown by the monarchy. Worshippers of Mithras were the first in the western world to preach the doctrine of divine right of kings. It was the worship of the sun, combined with the theological dualism of Zarathustra, that disseminated the ideas upon which the Sun-King Louis XIV (1638-1715) and other deified sovereigns of the West maintained their monarchial absolutism. Of all the Roman pagan religions, none was so severe as Mithraism. None attained an equal moral elevation, and none could have had so strong a hold on mind and heart as the worship of this sun god and saviour.   The major competitor with Christianity during the second and third centuries C. E., not even during the Moslem invasions had Europe come closer to adopting an Eastern religion than when Diocletian officially recognized Mithras as the protector of the Roman Empire. But in the end,  Christianity finally became the champion of the inevitable conflict with the Zoroastrian faith for the dominion of the known world.

In theory, a proper coup-d’etat by the Mithras-worshipping Roman centurions could have prevented the Emperor Constantine from establishing Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Mithraism could quite possibly have survived through the following centuries with the theological assistance of the Manichean Heresy and its various offshoots, assuming that the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth had somehow have been simultaneously quashed (possibly through an increased number of crucifixions).   With the absence of Christianity due to the continuation of Mithraism in the west, the rise of Islam may similarly have been prevented in the seventh century, and the violence of the crusades need not have occurred. Assuming that Islam had not enveloped Persia, the worship of Mithras could have continued within the pantheon of Zarathustra.

Consequently, Mithraism would have made an even stronger indentation upon the pantheons of India and China, and possibly spread beyond to other far-eastern countries. Columbus set sail during the Inquisition, another savage event representing the culmination of over a thousand years of European Christianity. Had Mithraism survived the millennium until the year 1492,  the Indigenous people of the Americas would have been exposed to Mithraic worshippers instead of Catholic missionaries. Quite possibly, the Taurobolium would have been transposed upon the buffalo hunt rituals of the Plains Indians and the sacrificial ceremonies of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec, and these great empires would not have been annihilated by the brutal European conquerors who plundered in the name of King and Christ.

Let us play quantum physics through manipulating causality and further extending this ‘What If?’ scenario (and selectively ignoring countless variables) it is possible to reconstruct our current North American society with Mithraism in place of Christianity as the predominant religion and cultural driving force. After all, best selling author Mary Stewart used the concept of the local revival of Mithraism in medieval Britain for her novel Merlin of the Crystal Cave.

The great Mithraic researcher Franz Cumont also commented extensively on the possibility that Mithraism had survived beyond Constantine:

The morals of the human race would have been but little changed, a little more virile perhaps, a little less charitable, but only a shade different.    The erudite theology taught by the mysteries would obviously have shown a laudable respect for science, but as its dogmas were based upon a false physics it would apparently have insure the persistence of an infinity of errors.     Astronomy would not be lacking, but astrology would have been unassailable, while the heavens would still be revolving around the earth to accord with its doctrines. The greatest danger,  would have been that the Caesars would have established a theocratic absolutism supported by the Oriental ideas of the divinity of kings.  The union of throne and altar would have been inseparable, and Europe would never have known the invigorating struggle between church and state. But on the other hand the discipline of Mithraism, so productive of individual energy, and the democratic organization of its societies in which senators and slaves rubbed elbows, contain a germ of liberty.  While these contrasting possibilities may be interesting,  it is hard to find a mental pastime less profitable than the attempt to remake history and to conjecture on what might have been had events proved otherwise.”


Beny, Roloff. Iran: Elements of Destiny. McClelland and Stewart Ltd.  London, 1978.

Cumont, Franz. Les Mystères de Mithra. Dover Publications, Inc.,New York, 1956.

Cumont, Franz. The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, 1956.

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. The World Publishing Company. Cleveland, 1958.

Hinnells, John R. Persian Mythology. Peter Bedrick Books. New York, 1985.

Perowne, Stewart. Roman Mythology. Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd. London, 1969.