Farrokh Lecture on Cyrus the Great in Washington DC Nov 3 2012


Kaveh Farrokh was invited to provide a short presentation on Cyrus the Great at Washington DC on November 3, 2012. The event was reported by the Voice of America network:

بزرگداشت کورش بزرگ، بهانه ای برای اتحاد-Cyrus the Great event report on VOA satellite Television:Broadcast on Tuesday, November 13, 2012 (23 Aban 1391). Kaveh Farrokh is interviewed 2 minutes 14 seconds into the report.

Below is a 2-part video of Farrokh’s presentation followed by Professor Marc Golpin’s excellent analysis of Cyrus the Great, his policies and legacy to this day. The event was attended by prominent members of the Iranian Community as well as US lawmakers in Washington.

Part I of Farrokh lecture on Cyrus the Great at Washington DC on November 3, 2012. Farrokh is a member of the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division where he has been noted by the university as being “a leading authority in the history of Persia”. He is also the Head of Department of Traditions & Cultural History (استاد سنتها و تاریخ فرهنگی ازدانشکده دیپلماسی فرهنگی  –  انگلستان ) of the WAALM School of Cultural Diplomacy (WAALM-SCD) affiliated with the  Academic Council On The United Nations System (ACUNS) and The International Peace Bureau. WAALM was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

Part II of Farrokh lecture on Cyrus the Great at Washington DC on November 3, 2012.

Professor Marc Gopin provides a highly informative and decisive lecture on Cyrus the Great. Professor Golpin is the director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. He is an expert on the role that religion and culture play in conflicts and conflict resolution. In 2008 he received the Andrew Thomas Peacebuilder Award from the New York State Dispute Resolution Association (NYSDRA). He is currently the James H. Laue Professor of Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University’s [School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

For more on this topic kindly consult: کوروش بزرگ -Cyrus the Great & the Cyrus Cylinder

The Cyrus Cylinder (housed at the British Museum)


Kaveh Farrokh lecturing on Cyrus the Great in Washington DC, November 13, 2012.





Duncan Head book on Achaemenid Army translated into Persian


The Khouznews network has reported that Duncan head’s book on the Achaemenid army has been translated to Persian:



(left ) The original English-language text by Duncan Head, The Achaemenid Persian Army, (Montvert Publications, 1992, ISBN: 1874101000) (Right) Persian translation of the book – by Mohammad Aghajari (2011, Qoqnoos Publishing).

Readers may also wish to consult:

For more information on the Achamenid military, kindly click the picture below:

For more information on the Achaemenids, kindly click the image below:









Professor Shapour Shahbazi: The Achaemenid Army

The posting below highlights the late Professor Shapour Shahbazi’s discussion of the Achaemenid army which was orginally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1986 .


The Achaemenid army is well known through descriptions by Herodotus, Xenophon, and Arrian as well as by illustrations on Persepolitan and Greco-Persian monuments (see especially G. Rawlinson, The Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World III, London, 1871, pp. 172ff.; E. Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums [1939 ed., Stuttgart] IV/I, pp. 63-73; W. Hinz, Darius und die Perser II, Baden-Baden, 1979, pp. 135-50). Of particular importance for the topic are the Greek representations of Persian warriors (A. Bovon, “La représentation des guerriers perses et la notion du barbare dans la Ire moitié du Ve siècle,” Bulletin de correspondence hellénique 87, 1963, pp. 579-602) and the evidence of the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus from Sidon (V. v. Graeve, Der Alexandersarkophag und seine Werkstatt, Berlin, 1970, pp. 95ff.). The Persians whom Cyrus united (Herodotus 1.125) did not possess a professional army: as in days of old, the “people” of a region was represented by its backbone, the “military force,” so the two words were used synonymously in one Old Persian term, kāra (cognate with Lithuanian kãrias/kãris “war, army,” Gothic harjis “army,” and German Heer “army,” see W. Brandenstein and M. Mayrhofer, Handbuch des Altpersischen, Wiesbaden, 1966, p. 129), a sense still retained in the New Persian term kas-o kār “relatives and supporters.” At first the Achaemenid army consisted wholly of Persian warriors, and even when other regions were subjugated, Persians formed the nucleus of the imperial army (C. Hignett, Xerxes’ Invasion of Greece, Oxford, 1963, pp. 40ff.). Darius advises his successor: “If thus thou shalt think: “May I not feel fear of (any) other,” protect this Persian kāra; if the Persian kāra shall be protected, thereafter by the will of Ahuramazdā happiness shall come down uninterruptedly and eternally upon this royal house” (Darius, Persepolis e, 13ff.). With the expansion of the petty kingdom of Persis into a world-empire embracing all Iranian groups from Central Asia to the Danube, a standing army was formed from Persians, Medes, and closely related peoples, and an imperial army was organized by incorporating warriors of all subject nations. Persepolitan representations, and official Persian economic and military documents ultimately used by Herodotus (3.90ff.; 7.61ff.) prove that the closer a nation was to the Persians, the more it shared in the domination of the empire by paying less tribute but contributing more soldiers. Thus, the Medes who had the second position in the empire furnished more soldiers than others and indeed many of the imperial generals were chosen from the Medes (Mazares, Harpagus, Taxmaspāda, Datis, etc.). Then came the Sacians, Bactrians, Hyrcanians, and other East Iranian groups (see in general P. J. Junge, Dareios I. König der Perser, Leipzig, 1944).

[Click to Enlarge] Mede Cavalryman of the later Achaemenid era

The general term for the professional army was spāda. This consisted of infantry (pasti), cavalry (asabāri “horse-borne,” and occasionally ušabāri “camelborne”), and charioteers (only the noblest warriors used the then obsolete but symbolic chariot), and a large number of camp followers (Rawlinson, op. cit., pp. 172ff.; Meyer, op. cit., pp. 64ff.; Hinz, op. cit., pp. 137ff.; M. Ehtecham, L’Iran sous les Achéménides, Freiburg, 1946 [revised Persian version: Īrān dar zamān-e Haḵāmanešīān, Tehran, 1976, pp. 57ff.]). From the moment they met the Greeks, the Persians incorporated subject or mercenary Greeks in their army (Ionians and Aeolians in the army of Cyrus: Herodotus 1.171; in the army of Cambyses: ibid. 3.1.25). As the time went by, not only Persian satraps in Asia Minor but also the Great King employed Greek mercenaries, each of whom received free board and a monthly wage (a gold Daric per month in 401 B.C., Xenophon, Anabasis 1.3.21). By the time of Alexander, these mercenaries had become a regular part of the spāda and their leaders had been incorporated into Iranian aristocracy (for Greek mercenaries in Persian service see H. W. Parke, Greek Mercenary Soldiers, Oxford, 1933; J. Roy, “The Mercenaries of Cyrus,” Historia 16, 1967, pp. 287-323; G. F. Seibt, Griechische Söldner im Achaimenidenreich, Bonn, 1977). They played a major role in Greco-Persian cultural relations, and helped an eastward expansion of Hellenism.

Achaemenid Achenakes. Note the lion and ram motifs, both symbols of ancient Iran (Copyright, Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani,  Arms & Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period ,  2006).

The size of the imperial army was never as large as the Greeks asserted. Careful examination of topography, logistics, organization of the spāda, and official battle orders enable historians to arrive at reasonable figures for Persian forces. Thus, Xerxes’ 3,000,000 fighting men (Simonides cited by Herodotus 7.228) or 2,641,610 soldiers and an equal number of attendants (Herodotus 7.185f.) are reduced to 70,000 infantry and 9,000 horsemen (Hignett, op. cit., p. 355); the 900,000-strong army of Artaxerxes II at Cunaxa (Xenophon, Anabasis 1.7.12) was in reality no more than 40,000 (E. Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums V [1921 ed., Stuttgart], p. l85), and the 1,040,000 soldiers of Darius III at Gaugamela (Arrian, Anabasis 2.8.8; 3.8.6) is brought down to 34,000 cavalry and some infantry (E. W. Marsdon, The Campaign of Gaugamela, Liverpool, 1964, p. 37). Unfortunately, historians have seldom paid attention to these exaggerations, accordingly, their judgments of Persian tactics, strategy, and motives have been impaired by faulty calculations (Hignett, op. cit., pp. 344ff.).

The organization of the spāda was based on a decimal system “far superior to anything on the Greek side” (Hignett, ibid., p. 42) and was not employed in any Asiatic army until the Mongols (Hinz, op. cit., p. 135). Ten men composed a company under a daθapati (on the term see W. Hinz, Altiranisches Sprachgut der Nebenüberlieferungen, Wiesbaden, 1975, p. 87 with literature); ten companies made up a battalion under a *θatapati (Hinz, op. cit., p. 240); ten battalions formed a division under a *hazārapati (J. Marquart, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte von Eran I, Göttingen, 1896, p. 57); and ten divisions comprised a corps under a *baivarapati (Marquart, op. cit., p. 19 n. 84). The whole spāda was led by a supreme commander (probably *spādapati, although a generalissimo with full civil authority was called *kārana [Greek karanos]; Xenophon, Hellenica 1.4.1-4), who was either the Great King himself or a trusted close relative or friend (e.g., Mazares the Mede led Cyrus’ army and Datis the Mede that of Darius at Marathon). A characteristic of the Achaemenid period is that commanders and dignitaries participated in actual fighting, and many of them lost their lives in action (five of the eleven sons of Darius the Great fell on the front: Ariabignes [Herodotus 7.89], Achaemenes [ibid., 3.12; 6.7.], Arsames [Aeschylus, Persae 36f., 310], Abrocomas, and Hyperanthes [Herodotus 7.224]).

[Click to Enlarge] Achaemenid Persian officers as they would have appeared during Xerxes’ invasion of Greece.

The training of the Persian nobility was arduous. As a youth, the Persian was schooled—in companies of fifty—in running, swimming, horse grooming, tilling the land, tending the cattle, making various handicrafts, and getting accustomed to standing at watch; he would be trained in the arts of the chase (both afoot and on horseback), archery, throwing the spear and javelin, and of sustaining forced marches in unfriendly climate (Strabo 15.3.18, 19; Herodotus 1.136, 9.122; Xenophon, Cyropaedia 1.2.9-11). At twenty he started his military profession (Herodotus 1.209; Strabo 15.3.19) which lasted till the age of fifty (Strabo 15.3.19) as a foot soldier or a rider. The elitist groups were trained for both tasks. Thus, Darius says proudly: “Trained am I both with hands and with feet. As a horseman I am a good horseman. As a bowman I am a good bowman both afoot and on horseback. As a spearman I am a good spearman both afoot and on horseback” (Darius, Naqš-e Rostam b, 40-45, tr. Kent, Old Persian, p. 140). The foot soldier carried a short sword (acinaces), a spear with wooden shaft and metal head and butt, a quiver full of arrows of reed with bronze or iron heads, and a bow about one meter long with ends formed in animals’ heads, and a case which combined the bow-case and quiver-holder (Herodotus 7.61, cf. Rawlinson, op. cit., pp. 174ff.; Hinz, Darius und die Perser II, pp. 140ff.). A symbol of kingship and the Iranian national arm, the bow was held in the hand of the Great King on his tomb and coins. Battle-axe was also used, especially by North Iranians (Walser, Die Völkerschaften, pp. 65, 93ff.). For protection, the infantryman relied on his wicker shield (made of sticks evidently threaded through a wet sheet of leather capable of stopping arrows: P. H. Rahe, “The Military Situation in Western Asia on the Eve of Cunaxa,” American Journal of Philology 101, 1980, pp. 82f.). The shield was either small and crescent-shaped or large and rectangular; the latter could be planted in the ground allowing the archer to discharge his arrows from behind it (Herodotus 9.61, 102). Some guards carried the large “figure-of eight”-shaped shield known as the Boeotian, while the Gandharans carried round shields not dissimilar to those of Greek hoplites (Walser, op. cit., pls. 28, 77; Hinz, op. cit., pl. 14).

[Click to Enlarge] Reconstruction of Achaemenid ships in 1971.

Some Persians wore metal helmets, but only the Egyptians and the Mesopotamian contingents wore armor for body protection (Hignett, op. cit., p. 44 with references). The elite infantry had variegated costumes: either the fluted hat, short cape over a shirt, pleated skirt and strapped shoes of the Elamite court dress, or the conical felt hat, tight-fitting tunic and trousers and boots of the Median cavalry suit. One division of the infantry comprised “one thousand spearmen, the noblest and bravest of the Persians” who formed a special royal guard; their spears had golden apples as butts from which they were called the Apple-bearers (Herodotus 7.41). As a prince, Darius served in this guard of spearmen under Cambyses (Herodotus 3.139). Their commander was the hazārapati of the empire, who, as the officer next to the king, possessed vast political power (F. Justi, “Der Chiliarch des Dareios,” ZDMG 50, 1896, pp. 659-64; Marquart, op. cit., pp. 57-63; P. J. Junge, “Hazārapatiš,” Klio 33, 1940, pp. 13-39; E. Benveniste, Titres et noms propres en iranien ancien, Paris, 1961, pp. 67-70). All members of this guard fell at Plataea defending their position (Herodotus 9.63).

Achaemenid Archers in standard firing volley (Source: Head, D. (1992). The Achaemenid Persian Army. Stockport, England: Montvert Publications).

One corps of the spāda consisted of ten thousand elite Iranian foot soldiers, the so-called “Immortal Guard,” whose “number was at no time either greater or less than 10,000” (Herodotus 7.87 where his “Persians” must be understood in the sense of Iranians, as Persis alone could not furnish such an army). These had variegated costumes (A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, Chicago, 1948, pp. 238-39 describes the dress) and acted as the Imperial Guards (Herodotus 7.41). “Of these one thousand carried spears with golden pomegranate at the lower end instead of spikes; and these encircled the other nine thousand, who bore on their spears pomegranates of silver” (Herodotus 7.41). The cavalry had been instrumental in conquering subject lands, and it retained its importance to the last days of the Achaemenid empire. The horseman was equipped more or less like the foot soldier; but he carried two javelins, one for throwing and one for fending—at least this was the case in Xenophon’s time—(Anabasis 1.8.3; The Art of Horsemanship 12. l2). Some wore metal helmets and padded linen corselets covered with metal scales (the Chwarazmians had formed heavy cavalry units—predecessors of the Parthian Cataphracti—by Cyrus’ time: B. Rubins, “Die Entstehung der Kataphraktenreiterei im Lichte der chorezmischen Ausgrabungen,” Historia 4, 1955, pp. 264f.; for remnants of lamellar armor from Persepolis see E. F. Schmidt, Persepolis II, Chicago, 1957, p. 100 with pl. 77). A Babylonian document dated to the second year of Darius II lists the requirements of a horseman as follows: a horse along with its girdle (?) and bridle, a helmet, a cuirass of iron, a bronze shield, 120 arrows, a mace of iron, and two iron spears (E. Ebeling, “Die Rüstung eines babylonischen Panzerreiters nach einem Vertrage aus der Zeit Darius II,” ZA, N.F. 16, 1952 pp. 204-13, esp. p. 210). There were also units of camel-borne troops, and some riding chariots and scythed-chariots, but these were very seldom effective against massed infantry. At Gaugamela 15 elephants were also present but their action is not recorded (Arrian, Anabasis 3.8). Various divisions bore particular standards (Herodotus 9.59), but the imperial banner was a golden eagle with outstretched wings borne on a spear at the side of the commander-in-chief of the army (Xenophon, Anabasis 1.10.12, Q. Curtius 3.3.10).


[Click to Enlarge] Ethiopian marine (left), Iranian warrior (centre) and Iranian spear bearer (Nick Sekunda, The Persian Army, Osprey Publications, 1992, Plate C; Paintings by Simon Chew). Note how these re-constructions differ from how Iranians have been portrayed in the “Alexander” and “300″ movies.

Apart from the standing army, the rest of the levies were recruited when the need arose, and it took a long time, sometimes years, to muster a grand army. There were many Persian garrisons in important centers of the empire, and satraps and governors also had their guards and local levies, but these could not be depleted to form an army on short notice because the danger of revolt was always present. Tribal troops, especially from East Iran, were more readily available. Levies were summoned to a recruiting station (*handaisa, Hinz, Altiranisches Sprachgut, p. 115) where they were marshaled and reviewed. Campaigns usually started in early spring (Herodotus 4.43, 7.37, cf. 1.190). Provisions were stored at various magazines along the route of the army, and were also brought with it in baggage-trains (Rawlinson, op. cit., pp. 192f.; Meyer, op. cit., pp. 66ff.). Royal and religious emblems accompanied the center of the army where the commander had his position: the eagle standard and the holy fire in portable fireholders attended by Magi chanting hymns, and the sacred chariots of Miθra, Ahura Mazdā and others (Herodotus 7.40; Xenophon, Cyropaedia 8.3.12; Q. Curtius 3.8.11). Mounted scouts were sent in advance to watch the enemy’s movements (Xenophon, Anabasis 1.7.11; Arrian, Anabasis 2.8). There was also an excellent system of communication: couriers on the royal road changed

horses at short intervals and speedily conveyed their messages to their destinations (Herodotus 8.98); also by their light and mirror signals the kings in Susa and Ecbatana received the news from the whole empire—it is claimed—on the same day (Aristotle, de Mundo 398a). Fire signals communicating the news from towers and heights were widely used with good results (Hinz, Darius II, p. 146). Fortified gates were set up in narrow passes leading into various provinces not only for custom checks but also for stopping the advance of an enemy (e.g. Cilician Gates: Xenophon, Anabasis 1.2.21; Arrian, Anabasis 2.4; The Caspian Gates, Arrian, ibid., 3.2.; The Persian Gates: ibid., 3.18.2). The Persians disliked night marches and did not attack at night; their daily marches were, however, in slow pace because of the heavy baggage-train which often comprised litters for conveying the wives and concubines of the commanders (Rawlinson, op. cit., pp. 188ff, with references). When night fell, they encamped in a flat area, and if they were approaching the enemy, they dug a ditch and set up ramps of sand-bags around it (ibid., pp. 190f.). Rivers were forded by using rafts, boat-bridges, or inflated skins or simply by riding across on horses and camels (Herodotus 1.90.208; Xenophon, Anabasis 1.2.5; Darius, Behistun 3.86ff.).

[Click to Enlarge] Court Eunuch (left), King Xerxes (centre) and Royal Spear bearer (right) (Nick Sekunda, The Persian Army, Osprey Publications, 1992, Plate B; Paintings by Simon Chew).

Before the battle (hamarana), a council of war was held and plans of action discussed. The line of battle was usually drawn up as follows: the foot archers were stationed in the front, flanked by cavalry and supported by light-armed and heavier-armed infantry. The commander-in-chief occupied the center, observing the lines and directing the actions from an elevated point, where he was best protected, and his orders were received by both wings at the same time. When the battle was joined the archers discharged their arrows, and the slingers (there were units of them: Xenophon, Anabasis 3.3.6, 4.16; Q. Curtius 4.14; Strabo 15.3.18) threw their stone missiles (lead missiles with longer range became fashionable from 400 B.C., and an actual lead bullet bearing the name of Tissaphernes in Greek has survived: C. Foss, “A Bullet of Tissaphernes,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 95, 1975, pp. 25-30). The aim was to throw the enemy lines into confusion. The effective range of the Persian archer was about 120 yards (Hignett, Xerxes’ Invasion of Greece, p. 44 with n. 6). Then the heavier infantry with spear and sword moved in, supported by cavalry attacking the flanks. These tactics worked well against Asiatic armies, but failed against heavy-armed Greek infantry (hoplites) and Macedonian phalanxes: the arrows were simply stopped by the body armor and the huge shield of the hoplites, and once the hand to hand combat began, no amount of personal bravery could compensate for the Persians’ lack of armor and their inferior offensive weapons (see especially W. W. How, “Arms, Tactics, and Strategy in the Persian Wars,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 43, 1923, pp. 117ff.; Hignett, op. cit., pp. 40ff. with extensive documentation; Rahe, op. cit., 79ff.). At the battle of Plataea, for instance, a fierce hand-to-hand combat raged between the Persians and the Greek hoplites: The Persians “many times seized hold of the Greek spears and broke them; for in boldness and warlike spirit the Persians were not a whit inferior to the Greeks; but they were without shields, untrained, and far below the enemy in respect of skill in arms. Sometimes singly, sometimes in bodies of ten, now fewer and now more in number, they dashed forward upon the Spartan ranks, and so perished” (Herodotus 9.62). Another weakness of the Persians was the attitude towards their commander: with an able and farsighted general, they displayed unsurpassed courage, but the same men took to disorderly flight as soon as the commander was killed or forced to flee (Rawlinson, op. cit., pp. 186-87 with references). Knowing that the Great King was the heart of his army, Cyrus the Younger ordered Clearchus—his Greek mercenary leader—to attack the center where the Great King was stationed: “and if,” he said, “we are victorious there, our whole task [of defeating his army] is accomplished,” (Xenophon, Anabasis 1.8.12-13).

[Click to Enlarge] Greek depiction of Darius the Great (seated on throne in top row at centre) debating with his advisers as to whether he should invade Greece in 490 BC. Prince Xerxes is seen on the top row, second from the right

Cyrus the Younger who knew both the Persian and Greek armies, tactics and strategies, nearly succeeded in removing Persia’s military weaknesses. He supplemented his Asiatic force with a large army of Greek hoplites, formed battalions of heavy cavalry which wore helmets, breast-plates, and thigh-guards (this protected the sides of the horse as well), and carried a Greek sword in addition to their own arms; their horses too were protected with frontlets and breast-pieces (Xenophon, Anabasis 1.8.6, cf. The Art or Horsemanship 12.8-10 and P. Bernard in Syria 41, 1964, pp. 195-216; J. K. Anderson in Journal of Hellenic Studies 80, 1960, p. 9; A. Sh. Shahbazi, Irano-Lycian Monuments, Tehran, 1975, pp. 140-42). He made effective use of the coordination of heavy cavalry and heavy infantry—an art which later Agesilaus and especially Alexander employed to the fullest and with the best results. It must be remembered, however, that the effectiveness of the Persian shock cavalry was severely hampered by the lack of stirrup and the saddle. “Encumbered with a corslet of scale armor and poised precariously atop his steed, the horseman kept his seat only through the pressure of his knees. He will have been in serious danger of being unhorsed whenever he delivered a blow with his saber or came within reach of an enemy soldier” (Xenophon, Anabasis 3.2.18-19; cf. Rahe. op. cit., p. 85).

An example of a reconstructed Achaemenid ship (above prototype in the scale of 120 by 40 by 60 cm). These were part of a series of studies of Iranian Aero-Marine research Center of Malek Ashtar University in Iran. The Archaeological wing of this were archaeologists of the university (under the direction of Dr. Kambiz Alampour) who has studied the Achaemenid Navy extensively. Consulting 47 different sources (Iranian and non-Iranian) the Alampour team reconstructions in Shiraz pertain to Iranian vessels of  the Darius-Xerxes era.

The Persians gave quarter to the adversary who requested it, and usually treated their captives with respect and kindness. Noble prisoners were accorded due honor, and princes treated royally. Even rebellious peoples were deported only to be given new lands and houses and enrolled as ordinary subjects. Personal valor was greatly esteemed, and special boons were conferred on brave servants of the empire (Rawlinson, op. cit., pp. 193ff. with references). Records of battles were kept, detailing the course of an engagement and casualty figures (Darius, Behistun 1-5). The commander-in-chief’s scribe wrote down distinguished deeds of warriors: “During the whole battle Xerxes sat at the base of the hill…, and whenever he saw any of his own captains perform any worthy exploit he inquired concerning him, and the man’s name was taken down by his scribe, together with the names of his father and city” (Herodotus 8.90). In the same way Darius recorded the names of his six helpers, together with those of their fathers and nationality, adding: “Thou who shalt be king hereafter, protect well the family of these men” (Behistun 4.80ff.). In 335 B.C. both Athens and Thebes sought Persian help, and the ambassadors of the latter city were received with the greatest honor at the royal court and their wishes were granted on the account that their forebears had rendered military assistance to Xerxes 150 years earlier (Diodorus 17.14).

Voice of America Interview October 29 2012

The Voice of America Television Network Persian language service interviewed Shokooh Mirzadegi (Founder & Director of the Pasargad Heritage Foundation), and Kaveh Farrokh regarding کوروش بزرگ -Cyrus the Great and his legacy.  The host of the program was Siamak Dehghanpour (رنامه روز کورش بزرگ، صدای آمریکا، سیامک دهقان پور).

The time of the interview was on: Monday October 29, 2012 9:15-10:30 am (West Coast)/12:15-1:30 pm [EDT]

Interview of Voice of America network program hosted by Siamak Dehqghanpour (October 29, 2012)-رنامه روز کورش بزرگ، صدای آمریکا، سیامک دهقان پور-. 

 For more information on Cyrus the Great and his Legacy kindly consult: کوروش بزرگ -Cyrus the Great

The Cyrus Cylinder (housed at the British Museum) 


Professor H. E. Wulff The Aqueducts of Iran

The article below is by professor H. E. Wulff. This originally appeared in the CAIS (Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies) venue. The CAIS site is hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav. Note that the article originally appeared in the April 1968 issue of the Scientific American (pages 94 – 105).

This topic of Qanats or ancient Iranian aqueducts has been presented in Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006.  


A traveler flying over Iran can see plainly that the country has an arid climate. The Iranian plateau is largely desert. Most of Iran (excepting areas in the northwestern provinces and along the southern shores of the Caspian Sea) receives only six to 10 inches of rainfall a year. Other regions of the world with so little rainfall (for example the dry heart of Australia) are barren of attempts at agriculture. Yet Iran is a farming country that not only grows its own food but also manages to produce crops for export, such as cotton, dried fruits, oilseeds and so on. It has achieved this remarkable accomplishment by developing an ingenious system for tapping underground water. The system, called qanat (from a Semitic word meaning “to dig”), was invented in Iran thousands of years ago, and it is so simple and effective that it was adopted in many other and regions of the Middle East and around the Mediterranean.


Figure 1: UNDERGROUND AQUEDUCT conveys water gently downhill from the highlands to distribution canals in the and plain below. The water source is the head well (right), which reaches down to the water table. The other shafts provide ventilation and give access for cleaning and repair of the conduit tunnel below. Called qanats after the Semitic word meaning “to dig,” the irrigation systems were invented in Persia during the first millennium B.c. The horizontal tunnel of the qanat is commonly from six to 10 miles long (Picture from CAIS).

The qanat system consists of underground channels that convey water from aquifers in highlands to the surface at lower levels by gravity. The qanat works of Iran were built on a scale that rivaled the great aqueducts of the Roman Empire. Whereas the Roman aqueducts now are only a historical curiosity, the Iranian system is still in use after 3,000 years and has continually been expanded. There are some 22,000 qanat units in Iran, comprising more than 170,000 miles of underground channels. The system supplies 75 percent of all the water used in that country, providing water not only for irrigation but also for house-hold consumption.


Figure 2: EXCAVATION OF A QANAT begins at the downhill end after a trial well (right) has successfully tapped the uphill water table. Where the gradually sloping tunnel passes through zones of loose earth (left) hoops of tile support the walls, but a tunnel generally lacks masonry except at the discharge point. Ventilation shafts are dug at intervals of 50 yards or so; earth and rock excavated from the tunnel face are winched to the surface through the shafts. Sightings over a pair of oil lamps help to keep the tunnel diggers’ progress on a straight line. A lamp flame that burns badly also gives warning of bad air. Before the tunnelers break through to the head well, men at the surface hail it dry (Picture from CAIS).

Until recently (before the building of the Karaj Dam) the million inhabitants of the city of Tehran depended on a qanat system tapping the foothills of the Elburz Mountains for their entire water supply.

Discoveries of underground conduits in a number of ancient Roman sites led some modern archaeologists to suppose the Romans had invented the qanat system. Written records and recent excavations leave no doubt, however, that ancient Iran (Persia) was its actual birthplace. As early as the seventh century B.C. the Assyrian king Sargon II reported that during a campaign in Persia he had found an underground system for tapping water in operation near Lake Urmia. His son, King Sennacherib, applied the “secret” of using underground conduits in building an irrigation system around Nineveh, and he constructed a qanat on the Persian model to supply water for the city of Arbela. Egyptian inscriptions disclose that the Persians donated the idea to Egypt after Darius I conquered that country in 518 B.C. Scylax, a captain in Darius’ navy, built a qanat that brought water to the oasis of Karg, apparently from the underground water table of the Nile River 100 miles away. Remnants of the qanat are still in operation. This contribution may well have been partly responsible for the Egyptians’ friendliness to their conqueror and their bestowal of the title of Pharaoh on Darius.


Figure 3: TUNNEL CROSS SECTIONS indicate some of the variations possible in qanat conduits. The tunnel walls may be strengthened with tile hoops (a) or where the tunnel passes through clay or well-compacted soil the walls may be left unlined (b). If the head well should go dry and therefore need to he dug deeper, the conduit would also need to be deepened (c) (Picture from CAIS).

References to qanat systems, known by various names, are fairly common in the literature of ancient and medieval times. The Greek historian Polybius in the second century B.C. described a qanat that had been built in an Iranian desert “during the Persian ascendancy.” It had been constructed underground, he remarked, “at infinite toil and expense … through a large tract of country” and brought water to the desert from sources that were mysterious to “the people who use the water now.”

Qanats have been found throughout the regions that came within the cultural sphere of ancient Persia: in Pakistan, in Chinese oasis settlements of Turkistan, in southern areas of the U.S.S.R., in Iraq, Syria, Arabia and Yemen. During the periods of Roman and then Arabian domination the system spread westward to North Africa, Spain and Sicily. In the Sahara region a number of oasis settlements are irrigated by the qanat method, and some of the peoples still call the underground conduits “Persian works.” In the Middle East several particularly interesting qanats constructed by Arab rulers of early medieval times have been excavated. In A.D. 728 the caliph of Damascus built a small qanat to supply water for a palace in the country. A century later the caliph Mutawakkil in Iraq likewise constructed a qanat system, presumably with the aid of Persian engineers, that brought water to his residence at Samarra from the upper Tigris River 300 miles away.


Figure 4: REMAINS OF PERSEPOLIS, the ancient capital of Persia built by Darius in 520 B.C., are am the center of the aerial photograph on the opposite page. The rows of small holes resembling pockmarks reveal the presence of several qanat systems below the surface: each hole is the top of a ventilation shaft. Most of the qanats around the ruins of Persepolis were built only a few decades ago (Picture from CAIS).

Thanks to detailed descriptions by several early writers, we have a good idea of the techniques used by the original qanat builders. Vitruvius, the first systematic historian of technology, gave an account of the qanat system in technical detail in his historic work De Architectura (about 80 B.C.). In the ninth century A.D., at the request of a Persian provincial governor, Abdullah ibn-Tahir, a group of writers compiled a treatise on the subject titled Kitab-e Quniy. And about A.D. 1000 Hasan al-Hasib, an Arabian authority on engineering, wrote a technical work that fortunately is still available and gives surprisingly good details of the construction and maintenance of the ancient qanats.

The methods used in Iran today are not greatly different from the system devised thousands of years ago, and I shall describe the system as it can now be observed. The project begins with a careful survey of the terrain by an expert engaged by the prospective builders. A qanat system is usually dug in the slope of a mountain or hillside where material washed down the slope has been deposited in alluvial fans. The surveyor examines these fans closely, generally during the fall, looking for traces of seepage to the surface or slight variations in the vegetation that may suggest the presence of water sources buried in the hillside. On locating a promising spot, lie arranges for the digging of a trial well.

Two diggers, called muqanni, take up this task. They set up a windlass at the surface to haul up the excavated material in leather buckets and proceed to dig a vertical shaft about three feet in diameter, one man working with a mattock and the other with a short-handled spade. As they load the spoil in the buckets, two workers at the surface pull it up with the windlass and pile it around the mouth of the shaft. If luck is with them, the diggers may strike an aquifer at a depth of 50 feet or less. Sometimes, however, they dig down 200 to 300 feet to reach water, and this necessitates installing a relay of windlasses at stages 100 feet apart on the way down.

When they arrive at a moist stratum – a potential aquifer – the diggers scoop out a cavity to its impermeable clay bottom, and for the next few days the leather buckets are dipped into the hole periodically to measure the rate of accumulation of water in it. If more than a trickle of water is flowing into the hole, the surveyor can conclude that he has tapped a genuine aquifer. He may then decide to sink more shafts into the stratum in the immediate area to determine the extent of the aquifer and its yield.



Figure.5: WINDLASS CREW, sheltered from the sun by an improvised tent, raises a load of accumulated silt in the process of cleaning a qanat conduit tunnel. Standing beside the tent is a child who is needed on this job because the ventilation shafts are smaller than usual (Picture from CAIS).

The surveyor next proceeds to chart the prospective course of an underground conduit through which the water can flow from this head well or group of wells to the ground surface at some point farther down the slope. For the downward pitch of the conduit he selects a gradient somewhere between one foot in 500 and one in 1,500; the gradient must be slight so that the water will flow slowly and not wash material from the bottom of the conduit or otherwise damage it. For his measurements the surveyor uses simple instruments: a long rope and a level. (The ninth-century treatise Kilab-e Quniy described a tubular water level and a large triangular leveling device with a plumb that was then employed in this task.) The surveyor lets the rope down to the water level in the well and marks the rope at the surface to show the depth. This will be his guide for placing the mouth of the conduit; obviously the mouth must be at some point a little below the water level indicated by the rope. A series of vertical shafts for ventilation will have to be sunk from the surface to the conduit at certain measured intervals (perhaps 50 yards) along its path. Consequently the surveyor must determine the depth from the surface for each of these shafts. He uses a level to find the drop in the ground slope from each shaft site to the next and marks the length of this drop on the rope. This tells him how far down from the surface each shaft would have to be dug if the conduit ran a perfectly level course. He then calculates the additional depth to which each should be dug (in view of the prospective pitch of the conduit) by dividing the total drop of the conduit from the well’s water level to the mouth by the number of proposed ventilation shafts.

As the muqanni proceed to dig the conduit itself, guide shafts are sunk to the indicated depths at intervals of about 300 yards to provide information regarding the route and pitch of the conduit for the diggers. They start the excavation of the conduit from the mouth end, digging into the alluvial fan. To protect the mouth from storm-water damage they often line the first 10 to 15 feet of the tunnel with reinforcing stone. The conduit is about three feet wide and five feet high. As the diggers advance they make sure they are following a straight course by sighting along a pair of burning oil lamps. They deposit the excavated material in buckets at the foot of the nearest ventilation shaft, and it is hauled up by their teammates above. The tunnel needs no reinforcement where it is dug through hard clay or a coarse conglomerate that is well packed. When the muqanni come to a boulder or other impassable obstacle, they turn around it and then must recover their bearing toward the next ventilation shaft. They show a good deal of skill in this, relying partly on their sense of direction and partly on listening for the sounds of the diggers working on the vertical shaft ahead. The greatest danger encountered by the muqanni is sandy, soft, friable or otherwise unstable soil, which may cause the roof of the tunnel to collapse on them. In such passages the diggers generally line the excavation with oval hoops of baked clay as they cut away the face of the work. Gases and air low in oxygen also are hazards; the diggers carefully watch their oil lamps for warning of the possibility of a suffocating atmosphere. As the rnuqanni approach the aquifer they must be alert to another danger: the possible flooding of the tunnel by a sudden inrush of water. This hazard is particularly great at the moment of breakthrough into the head well; the well must be emptied or tapped very cautiously if the men are not to be washed down the conduit by a deluge. Because of these hazards muqanni call the qanat “the murderer.” A muqanni always says a prayer before entering a qanat, and he will not go to work co a day he considers unlucky.

Depending on the depth of the aquifer and the slope of the ground, qanats vary greatly in length; in some the conduit from the head well to the mouth is only a mile or two long, and at the other extreme one in southern Iran is more than 18 miles long. Commonly the length is between six and 10 miles. The water discharge obtainable from individual qanats also varies widely. For example, of some 200 qanats in the Varamin plain southeast of Tehran the largest yields 72 gallons per second and the smallest only a quarter of a gallon per second.


Figure 6:  TILE HOOPS are piled up near one of the vertical shafts that lead to the conduit tunnel of a qanat under construction in rural Iran. Their presence indicates that the construction crew has encountered a zone of loose earth and must shore up the tunnel walls (Picture from CAIS).

Not until the qanat has been completed and has operated for some time is it possible to determine whether it will be a continuous “runner” or a seasonal source that provides water only in the spring or after heavy rains. Because the initial investment in construction of a qanat is considerable, the owner and builders often resort to probing and laborious devices to enlarge its yield. For example, they may extend branches from the main conduit to reach additional aquifers or excavate the floor of the existing conduit in order to lower it and tap water at a deeper level [see illustration at right on page 97]. A great deal of care is also given to the maintenance of the qanat. The ventilation shafts are shielded at the top with crater-like walls of spoil and sometimes with hoods to prevent the inflow of damaging storm waters. Muqanni are continually kept employed cleaning out silt that is washed into the conduit from the aquifer, clearing up roof cave-ins and making other repairs.

As is to be expected of a system that has existed for thousands of years and is so important to the life of the nation, the building of qanats and the distribution of the water are ruled by laws and common understandings that are hallowed by tradition. The builders of a qanat must obtain the consent of the owners of the land it will cross, but permission cannot be refused arbitrarily. It must be granted if the new qanat will not interfere with the yield from an existing qanat, which usually means that the distance between the two must be several hundred yards, depending on the geological formations involved. When the par ties cannot agree, the matter is decided by the courts, which normally appoint an independent expert to resolve the technical questions at issue.


Figure 7: ROW OF CRATERS, each one marking the mouth of a qanat ventilation shaft, runs across an and plain in western Iran. The walls of the craters protect the shafts and the tunnel below from erosional damage from the inflow of water during a heavy desert rainstorm (Picture from CAIS).

Similarly, there are traditional systems for the fair allocation of water from a qanat to-the users. If the qanat is owned by a landowner who has tenant farmers, he usually appoints a water bailiff who supervises the allotment of water to each tenant in accordance with the size of the tenant’s farm and the nature of the crop he is growing. When the peasants themselves own the qanat, as is increasingly the case under the new land reforms in Iran, they elect a trustworthy water bailiff who sees that each farmer receives his just share of the water at the proper time – and who receives a free share himself for his service. The bailiff is guided by an allocation system that has been fixed for hundred of years. For instance, three hamlets in the region of Selideh in western Iran still receive the shares that were allotted to them in the 17th century by the civil engineer in the reign of Shah Abbas the Great. The hamlets of Dastgerd and Parvar are entitled to eight shares apiece and Karton nine shares, and these allocations are built into the outlets from the qanat distribution basin: the outlets at Dastgerd en and Parvar are eight spans wide and the one at Karton is nine spans wide.

The agricultural production made possible by the qanats amply repays the investment in construction and maintenance. My own recent inquiries showed that the return on these investments in value of crops and sale of water ranges from 10 to 25 percent, depending on the size of the qanat, the yield of water and the kind of crop for which it is used. A qanat about six miles long between $13,500 and $34,000 to build, the cost varying with the nature of the terrain. For a qanat 10 to 15 miles long the cost runs to about $90,000.


Figure 8: MASONRY MOUTH of an Iranian qanat is equipped with a pair of sluice gates that allow diversion of the water into separate canal systems. The amount of qanat water that may be allotted to village or individual is sometimes determined by decisions made centuries ago (Picture from CAIS).

Construction costs have risen in recent years as the standard of living in Iran improved and labor costs have increased. Moreover, the division of large landholdings into smaller ones under the new land-distribution policy, as well as the introduction of expensive modern machinery has made it difficult for the individual landowners to afford the expense of constructing new qanats or maintaining old ones. Many of these farmers are now drilling wells and using diesel pumps, rather building underground conduits, to bring the water to the surface. Consequently the construction of new qanats may cease, unless the peasants’ newly formed village-cooperatives find it profitable and can raise the necessary capital to built them.

Whatever the future of Iran’s qanat system may be, it stands out today as an impressive example of a determined and hardworking people’s achievement. The 22,000 qanats in Iran, with their 170,000 miles of underground conduits all built by manual labor, deliver a total of 19,500 cubic feet of water per second – an amount equivalent to 75 percent of discharge of the Euphrates River into the Mesopotamian plain. This volume of water production would be sufficient to irrigate three million acres of arid land for cultivation if it were used entirely for agriculture. It has made a garden of what would otherwise have an uninhabitable desert. There are indications that in early times the country had a flourishing vegetation that gradually dried up, partly because of deforestation and the loss of fertile soil by erosion. The Persian people responded to potential disaster with an and farsighted solution that is a classic tribute to human resourcefulness.


Figure 9: STREAM OF QANAT WATER flows past a wall-enclosed garden in an Iranian villages. The stream first flows through the town and then is diverted into farm irrigation channels (Picture from CAIS).