Jens Kröger: Ctesiphon

The article below is by Jens Kröger and originally appeared in the Encyclopedia Iranica. Kröger’s article was originally published in print on December 15, 1993 and last updated on November 2, 2011. This article is also accessible in print (Vol. VI, Fasc. 4, pp. 446-448). The version published below has embedded photographs, paintings and accompanying captions that did not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica publication/posting.

Readers are also encouraged to support the fundraising campaign for making of the first-ever documentary on the monument of Taq Kasra situated in the Sassanian capital, Ctesiphon – Click Here … and see below video:


CTESIPHON (Ṭīsfūn), ancient city on the Tigris adjacent to the Hellenistic city of Seleucia, ca. 35 km south of the later site of Baghdad. The origin and meaning of the name is unknown (for the forms, see Honigmann, cols. 1102-03; Markwart, Provincial Capitals, pp. 60-61). In the Greek sources it appears as Ktēsiphôn, in Latin Ctesiphon/Ctesifon from the Greek and T(h)esifon or Et(h)esifon, reproducing lo­cal forms. In the Aramaic Talmud (ʾ)qṭyspwn (in Syriac qṭyspwn) occurs. From Iranian texts of the Sasanian period Manichean Parthian tyspwn (or *tysfwn; Henning, pp. 943-44), Pahlavi tyspwn, and Christian Sogdian tyspwn (Sims-Williams, pp. 144, 147-49; Yoshida) are attested. In Arabic texts the name is usually Ṭaysafūn. According to Yāqūt (III, p. 570, IV, p. 446), quoting Ḥamza, the original form was Ṭūsfūn or Tūsfūn, which was arabicized as Ṭaysafūn.

Rare 1864 photograph of the Gateway of Ctesiphon before the right-hand facade of the structure collapsed (Source: Public Domain).

The history of the city has been reported and its ruins extensively described by scholars and travelers through the ages. M. Streck (1900-01, I, pp. 246ff.; 1917, pp. 26ff.) was the first to collect and comment on these writings. Systematic topographical research in the region of Seleucia/Ctesiphon began with Ernst Herzfeld, who worked there from 1903 to 1911 (Sarre and Herzfeld, pp. 46ff.). In 1927 an American expe­dition led by Leroy Waterman located and excavated Seleucia, on the west bank of the river, near modern Tell ʿOmar. German (1928-29) and German-Ameri­can (1931-32) teams under Oscar Reuther and Ernst Kühnel respectively excavated sites on both banks and conducted surveys of the area. Since 1964 an Italian expedition under the direction of Giorgio Gullini and Antonio Invernizzi has carried on this work on the west bank. Its findings have helped to clarify the general topography of the site and to provide an initial stratig­raphy. Because of the sprawling nature of the city and the complexity of the questions that it poses, however, many points still await further research, and some of the conclusions reached cannot be accepted without doubt (for a differing view, cf. von Gall).

Parthian period

Parthian Ctesiphon has been tenta­tively located on the east bank of the Tigris opposite Seleucia at a site now bisected by a loop in the Tigris several kilometers north of the Ayvān-e Kesrā, an area that has not yet been systematically explored by archeologists. In the early Parthian period the metropolis of Seleucia/Ctesiphon was the administra­tive center of Babylonia and also a center for the long-­distance trade through the Persian Gulf (cf. Strabo, 16.1.16). When the Arsacids conquered the Mesopotamian lowlands, the capital was transferred to Ctesiphon from Hecatompylos, identified with Šahr-e Qūmes near Dāmḡān (see capital cities i); it thus also became the main terminus for the luxury trade along the Silk Route, as well as through the Persian Gulf. From the time of Mithradates I (ca. 171-38 b.c.e.) until the fall of the Arsacid dynasty in 224 c.e. it was the winter residence of the Arsacid kings (Strabo, 16.1.16; cf. Tacitus, Annals 6.42), though there was a functioning mint in Seleucia throughout the Parthian period (see arsacids iii, p. 540).

The rock relief of Khong-e Azhdar (خونگ اژدر) in Izeh, Khuzestan (in SW Iran) of Mithradates I (r. 165-132 BCE) (Source: Hamshahrionline).

Modern knowledge about Parthian Ctesiphon is lim­ited and drawn mainly from the accounts of Greek and Roman historians. According to Strabo (16.1.16), the city was founded as a camp for the Parthian armies because the Arsacids did not think it appropriate to admit their troops into the Greek city of Seleucia; Pliny (Natural History 6.122), on the other hand, reported that Ctesiphon was founded to draw the population away from Seleucia. Artabanus II (q.v.; d. 38 c.e.) was said to have been crowned in Ctesiphon in 10 or 11 c.e. (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.48-50). According to Ammianus Marcellinus (23.6.23), the city was enlarged by immigration under Pacorus I around 39 b.c.e. and the same ruler built the city walls. In other sources, however, it is reported that the walls were built somewhat later (Pauly-Wissowa, Suppl., IV, col. 1110). Under Vologeses I (ca. 51-76 or 80 c.e.; for further references, see balāš i) an important new commercial center called Vologesocerta was founded in the region of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, but its identification and precise location are still uncertain.

Coin of Vologeses I (Source: Classical Numismatic Group available in Public Domain).

In the following centuries Ctesiphon was repeatedly conquered by the Romans. Trajan captured the city in the spring or summer of 116, receiving the title Parthicus in consequence (Din Cassius, 68.30.3; Arrian, Parthica, frag. 1 in Müller, Fragmenta III, pp. 587, 590); his booty included a daughter of the king Osroes and the golden Parthian throne (Dion Cassius, 68.80.3). In 117 he invested Parthamaspates with the royal Parthian diadem in Ctesiphon. The city was again invaded in December 165, during the reign of Vologeses IV (148­92/3; see balāš iv), by the Roman general Avidius Cassius, who demolished the royal palace (Dio Cassius, 71.2.3). In 198, in the reign of Vologeses V (ca. 190 or 193-208), Ctesiphon was conquered for a third time, by Septimius Severus, after hard fighting. The city was sacked, and part of its population was forcibly transported. Following the example of Trajan, Septimius took the title Parthicus Maximus (Dio Cassius, 75.9.2-5; “Severus,” in Historia Augusta 16.1­2).

After the Romans had withdrawn the city walls were rebuilt. The history of Parthian Ctesiphon ended with the defeat of Artabanus IV in 224 c.e. and the corona­tion of the Sasanian king Ardašīr I at Ctesiphon in 226.

Sassanian period

Ctesiphon remained the capital and coronation city of the Sasanian empire from the accession of Ardašīr until the conquest by Muslim armies in 16/637. It was at once royal residence, imperial administrative center, and one of the most important cities of the rich agricultural province of Babylonia/Āsōristān, which, with its network of waterways and fertile soils, supported a dense popula­tion, especially along the lower Dīāla basin on the east bank of the Tigris, and many large towns (Adams, pp. 69-70). Following ancient custom (see courts and courtiers i), the Sasanian kings used the palace at Ctesiphon only as a winter residence, spending the summers on the cooler highlands of the Persian pla­teau.

Sassanian stucco from Ctesiphon housed at the British Museum (Photo: Pejman Akbarzadeh).

Although situated in the heartland of the Sasa­nian empire (del-e Ērānšahr), Ctesiphon and the sur­rounding area were inhabited mainly by Arameans, Syrians, and Arabs, who spoke Aramaic and were predominantly Christian or Jewish. Both the Jewish exilarch and the Nestorian catholicus resided in the city, and in 410 a Nestorian synod was held there (see Eilers, p. 499; Neusner pp. 917-18, 931). The Zoroastrian Persian ruling class, on the other hand, was in the minority. Curiously, none of the major fire temples was located in Sasanian Mesopotamia, though there were a few smaller ones, apparently including one at Ctesiphon; its exact site has not been identified (Morony, p. 238). In the later Sasanian period it became customary for each king to make a pilgrimage to the venerated fire sanctuary of Ādur Gušnasp at Šīz (Taḵt-e Solaymān) after the coronation ceremo­nies. The capital was connected by a network of roads with all parts of the empire, and one of the most important routes led to Media, where the summer residence (Hamadān) and the great fire temple were located.

A reconstruction of Ctesiphon as it may have appeared in the 6th and early 7th centuries CE (Source: in Pinterest).

From the sources it seems that Parthian Ctesiphon continued to flourish throughout the Sasanian period. A royal palace, the “white palace” (al-qaṣr al-abyaż, abyaż al-Kesrā), as yet unidentified, was still standing there when Mesopotamia was conquered by the Arabs (Ṭabarī, p. 2440; Balāḏorī, Fotūḥ, p. 262). During the Sasanian period Ctesiphon developed into a me­tropolis, consisting of a series of cities and suburbs along both banks of the Tigris (for a topographical plan, see ayvān-e kesrā). It thus became known as “the cities” (Aram. Māḥōzē, Ar. al-Madāʾen). The process began around 230, when Ardašīr I founded a new city at Ctesiphon; it was called Weh-Ardašīr (see beh-ardašīr) by the Persians, New Seleucia by the Greeks, and Kōḵē by the Syrians. A cathedral church is known to have been located there (Streck, 1917, pp. 42-46). A circular walled city west of the Ayvān-e Kesrā has been identified by the Italians as Weh­-Ardašīr (von Gall, pp. 81-84). Excavations have revealed part of the fortifications, artisans’ quarters, and residential areas. A late Sasanian church with a long prayer hall lined by two rows of piers and a tripartite choir was excavated by the German expedi­tion in 1928-29; a fragmentary painted stucco figure found there may represent a saint (Kröger, pp. 47-48, pl. 12/3). Around the middle of the 5th century the course of the Tigris shifted and divided Weh-Ardašīr in two (Venco Ricciardi and Negro Ponzi Mancini, pp. 100-10). The ensuing severe flooding and other haz­ards must have severely disrupted city life and led to a general decline of this town in the 6th century, when only patches of high ground (e.g., modern Tell Barūda) continued to be inhabited (Venco Ricciardi, 1977, pp. 11-14).

German archeological Map of Seleucia-Ctesiphon during the Sassanian era (Map redrawn by user “Lencer” in Public Domain from original Mesopotamia XL, 2005, 169).

Perhaps owing to these changes or perhaps even earlier Asbānbar, or New Ctesiphon, developed, also on the east bank of the river, south of Parthian Ctesiphon. There stood the Sasanian royal palace, Ayvān-e Kesrā, with its enormous audience hall, still standing today. The German excavations revealed that this structure had been part of a larger complex, probably including a corresponding building on the east side of a large courtyard (Kröger, pp. 13-16). A palace or religious building may have stood on a terrace now called Ḥaram Kesrā or Tell al-Ḏabāʾī about 100 m to the south (Kröger, pp. 40-45). Only the remains of the terrace foundations and stucco fragments of hunting scenes, possibly from a continuous frieze with large busts of kings, were found (Kröger, p. 26). The main decorative features of the palace area were stucco disks decorated on each side with a rosette design. A square terrace known as Tell Ḏahab farther to the southeast yielded similar disks and must thus have had some connection with the palace city. The floors and walls of the palace were decorated with marble, opus sectile, mosaics, and stucco sculptures. It has been suggested that the complex was built by Ḵosrow I Anōšīravān (r. 531-79) to commemorate his conquest of Antioch in Syria in 540 and that it was decorated with mosaics depicting the victory; it is also possible that Byzantine craftsmen sent by the emperor Justinian were employed, which would indicate a probable date before his death in 565. To the north and east of the Ayvān-e Kesrā private houses, probably of the 6th century, have been excavated at the sites of Maʿāreḏ and Omm al-Saʿāter in New Ctesiphon (Kröger, pp. 30-136). Their elaborate ground plans suggest that they belonged to members of the upper classes. Vaulted ayvāns set somewhat apart from the other living quarters contained elaborate ornamental or figural stucco reliefs with religious connotations. Mosaics were not used in these private houses, most of which seem to have been abandoned after the fall of Ctesiphon to the Arabs (Kröger, pp. 50ff.).

A soldier gazes upon the remains of the archway of Ctesiphon (Source: Sgt. Rebecca Schwab, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, USD-C in Public Domain).

Another city, still unlocated, was founded at Ctesiphon by Ḵosrow I for the population forcibly transported from Antioch in 540. It was called Weh-­Antīōk Ḵosrow/Rūmagān (Ar. Rūmīya) and was mod­eled on the original plan of Antioch, with its own hippodrome and bath; marble taken by Ḵosrow on his Syrian campaigns is reported to have been used as a building material (Ṭabarī, I, pp. 898, 959; Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, pp. 165, 239-40; Dīnavarī, ed. Guirgass, p. 70; Ṯaʿālebī, Ḡorar, pp. 612-13; Masʿūdī, Morūj, ed. Pellat, I, p. 307). In the late 6th century Weh-Antīōk had a population of about 30,000. In the opinion of the German excavators this city may have stood southeast of the Ayvān-e Kesrā in an area now known as Bostān Kesrā, where a rectangular section of an apparent city wall has survived (Kröger, p. 45). It is possible, however, that this section was part of some other wall, perhaps that of a garden. Ḵosrow II Parvēz (r. 590, 591-628) also departed from the established pattern of summering in the Persian highlands and built his royal summer residence at Dastgerd, north­east of Ctesiphon (Same and Herzfeld, pp. 76ff.).

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

In contrast to its history under Parthian rule, Sasa­nian Ctesiphon was successfully invaded only once before the Muslim conquest, by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Carus in 283. In 363 the emperor Julian passed close to the city on his disastrous retreat after the burning of his fleet on the Euphrates but did not enter it.

Emperor Julian, who failed to capture Ctesiphon, 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, as they would have appeared during Julian’s failed invasion. Note the heavily armored Sassanian elite guardsman (Pushtighban) whose lance has pierced a Roman infantryman. Further right is a Savaran officer whose sword is drawn in what is now known as the “Italian grip” but Sassanian in origin. To the far right can be seen a Zoroastrian or Mithraist Magus brandishing a Sassanian era symbol. Also of interest are the armored elephants in the background. Armored elephants were especially prized as their cabs afforded very high elevation over the battlefield, which was ideal for Sassanian archery (Source: Farrokh, Plate D, Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005).

In 628 the Byzantine emperor Heraclius advanced toward the capital on his campaign against Ḵosrow II. After having destroyed the sanctuary of Šīz/Taḵt-e Solaymān in Azerbaijan and looted Dastgerd he followed the fleeing Ḵosrow II as far as the west bank opposite Ctesiphon. There, in a last effort, Ḵosrow assembled his army and forced Heraclius to retreat (Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, pp. 295-96). Only a few years later, however, in March 637 the city was conquered by Muslim troops under Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ (Balāḏorī, Fotūḥ, pp. 262ff.; Dīnavarī, ed. Guirgass, p. 133; Ṭabarī, I, pp. 2431ff.; Yaʿqūbī, Taʾrīḵ II, p. 165; Baḷʿamī, ed. Rowšan, I, pp. 464-67). The Sasanian royal family, the nobles, and the army fled, and the invading army seized fabulous amounts of booty from the royal treasury, including the cel­ebrated garden carpet called bahār-e Kesrā.


R. M. Adams, Land behind Baghdad, Chicago, 1965.

S. A. al-ʿAli, “Al-Madaʾin and Its Surrounding Area in Arabic Literary Sources,” Mesopotamia 3-4, 1968-69, pp. 417-39.

N. C. Debevoise, A Political History of Parthia, Chicago, 1938.

W. Eilers, “Iran and Mesopotamia,” in Camb. Hist. Iran III/1, pp. 481-504.

J. M. Fiey, “Topography of al-Madaʾin,” Sumer 23, 1967, pp. 3-36.

H. von Gall, review of Mesopotamia 1, 1966, in Kunst des Orients 6, 1969, pp. 80-85.

G. Gullini, “Prob­lems of an Excavation in Northern Babylonia,” Mesopotamia 1, 1966, pp. 7-38.

W. B. Henning, “Mani’s Last Journey,” BSOAS 10/4, 1942, pp. 911-­53; repr. in Selected Papers II, Acta Iranica 15, Tehran and Liège, 1977, pp. 81-93.

A. Invernizzi, “Ten Years’ Research in the al-Madaʾin Area, Seleucia and Ctesiphon,” Sumer 32, 1976, pp. 167­-75.

J. Kröger, Sasanidischer Stuckdekor, Mainz, 1982.

E. Kühnel, Die Ausgrabungen der zweiten Ktesiphon-Expedition (Winter 1931/2), Berlin, 1933.

O. Kurz, “The Date of the Taq i Kisra,” JRAS, 1941, pp. 37-41.

A. Maricq, “Vologésias, l’emporium de Ctésiphon,” Syria 36, 1959, pp. 264-76; repr. in Classica et Orientalia, Paris, 1965, pp. 113-25.

M. G. Morony, Iraq after the Muslim Conquest, Princeton, N.J., 1984.

M. M. Negro Ponzi and M. C. Cavallero, “The Excavations at Choche,” Mesopotamia 2, 1967, pp. 41-56.

J. Neusner, “Jews in Iran,” in Camb. Hist. Iran III/2, pp. 109-23.

O. Reuther, Die Ausgrabungen der Deutschen

Ktesiphon-Expedition im Winter 1928/29, Witten­berg, 1930.

F. Sarre and E. Herzfeld, Archäologische Reise im Euphrat- und Tigrisgebiet II, Berlin, 1920.

K. Schippmann, Grundzüge der parthischen Geschichte, Darmstadt, 1980.

N. Sims-Williams, The Christian Sogdian Manuscripts C2, Berliner Turfantexte 12, Berlin, 1985.

M. Streck, Die alte Landschaft Babylonien nach den arabischen Geographen, 2 vols., Leiden, 1900-01.

Idem, “Seleucia und Ktesiphon,” Der Alte Orient 16, 1917, pp. 1-64.

R. Venco Ricciardi, “The Excavations at Choche,” Mesopotamia 3-4, 1968-69, pp. 57-68.

Idem, “Trial Trench at Tell Baruda,” Mesopotamia 12, 1977, pp. 11-14.

Idem and M. M. Negro Ponzi Mancini, La terra tra i due fiumi, Turin, 1985.

L. Waterman, Preliminary Report upon the Excava­tions at Tel Umar, Iraq, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1931-33.

Y. Yoshida, review of The Christian Sogdian Manu­scripts C2, BSOAS 51/1, 1988, pp. 146-48.

Rock art from unknown ancient civilization in Iran discovered on top of mountain

The article below “Iran: Rock art from unknown ancient civilization discovered on sacred volcanic stone at top of mountain” penned by Léa Surugue was first published in the International Business Times (IBT) on May 30, 2017.


In Iran’s remote north-east, the discovery of mysterious rock art is intriguing archaeologists. Strange symbols engraved on an outcrop of volcanic rock, on top of a mountain, appear particularly puzzling.

The site, known as Pire Mazar Balandar (or PMB001), is situated near a small village and is well known to the locals. They in fact consider the engraved stone to be sacred. It is covered in 16 simple symbols, including U-shapes which the villagers believe are the hoof prints of the horse of the prophet Imam Reza, who is buried at a nearby shrine.

Pilgrims had for years left offerings by the volcanic stone and had started to build a small temple around it. But it was only recently, in 2015, that archaeologist Mahmoud Toghrae discovered the site and began documenting the rock art.

The first results of these investigations are now published in the journal Antiquity.

Ancient rock art from Iran of an unknown ancient civilization (Source: Léa Surugue in IBT).

Age mystery

In August 2016, Toghrae and two of this colleagues conducted fieldwork at the site, carefully describing the mysterious symbols marked in the stone. They also conducted a survey of the area and met with local people.

This led them to discover a second nearby site with volcanic rocks covered with engravings representing animals and humans.

“We found this second rock art group after a local pilgrim invited us to have lunch at his home. There, we discovered rock outcrops with several engravings showing specific subjects – anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures. They are small in size, different from the ones documented on PMB001 but similar to other figures found in rock art all over Iran,” co-author of the paper Dario Sigari, from the University of Ferrara in Italy told IBTimes UK.

Area where the rock art was discovered (Source: Léa Surugue in IBT).

At present, it is impossible to date the engravings or to associate them with any particular culture. This is a problem that archaeologists have always almost encountered when trying to date rock art in Iran. Because similar symbols and figures have been depicted repeatedly over the years, it is difficult to link them to a specific period – unless artifacts are found nearby, helping researchers come up with a more precise chronology.

Some of the symbols at PMB001 do give some clues. For instance, circular symbols on the stone are comparable to those found at another site and attributed to the Bronze Age. However, no precise dates can be put forward by the archaeologists without conducting more in-depth excavations in the area.

“There is a lot of debate when it comes to rock art in Iran to know whether we can attribute certain engravings to a period or another. We have a dating problem, because the same figures were represented, at different points in time from the Neolithic to the Iron Age. Probably the PMB001 area was settled at different periods, and the rock art represents all these phases. But without more excavations conducted at the site, we can’t say for certain what the chronology of the two sites is,” Sigari said.

Close-up of ancient rock art from Iran of an unknown ancient civilization (Source: Léa Surugue in IBT).

The archaeologists also want to investigate what the location of the stones in the landscape can reveal about the significance of the rock art. The fact that PMB001 is located at the top of a mountain may prove important in interpreting the engravings.

It’s possible that this position gave it a greater perceived sacred value, which was later adapted by modern population, in light of their new beliefs. “Such re-purposing of rock art for new beliefs and rituals will form another part of our ongoing research,” the authors conclude.

Ancient Dams at Pasargadae

The site of Pasargadae in Iran is host to the tomb of Cyrus the Great and is also the site of the ancient Persian Gardens known as Paridaeza (Paradise). The term “Paridaeza” (which roughly means “enclosed encampment” in ancient Median) has linguistic relations with the Indo-European term “Perimeter“.

There are reports of yet another interesting discovery near the site of Pasargadae dated to the Achaemenid dynasty (550-330 BC): the discovery of at least eight different dams at the Pasargadae locale (see report in CAIS).

achaemenid-dam-at-pasargadaePartial view of the dam excavated by a Franco-Iranian archaeological expedition in February-March 2008. The site is approximately 30 kilometers distant from Pasargadae.

These have been discovered by an archaeological team of Iranian, Belgian and French researchers. The team excavated the Achaemenid dams in the Morghab plain, in southern Iran.

The region of Pasargadae and its environs is one of Iran’s most ancient plateaus with archaeologists having already discovered artifacts dating to several millennia B.C. As noted by a French expert of the archaeological team:

Since recognizing the irrigation system of ancient people, especially those living under the reign of the Achaemenid Empire, is significant, we attempted at discovering archaeological structures with help of the past research projects and newly developed tools

The team discovered 8 ancient mud-brick dams. Aerial photography and other techniques have dated these to the Achaemenid era. Two of those dams were over 20 meters tall with the height of the remainder ranging between 8 to 10 meters. Another expert of the archaeological team stated that these irrigation dams featured stone floodgates.

Gertster-Qanat-1976Excellent aerial photogrpah taken in 1976 by Georg Gerster of an Qanat irrigation system. For more on Qanats consult article by Professor H.E. Wulff. (Picture source: Iranfacts). 

Interestingly, the French archaeologists have also been involved in the excavations of an Achaemenid palace (attributed to Cyrus the Great) in the Tang e Bolaghi Valley.

Iranian archaeologist Hamidreza Karami, who is a specialist of Pasargadae, reported on these findings on April 1, 2008. Karami noted that the team had actually discovered two dams dated to the Achaemenid era: (approximately 2500 years) at Tang-e Hanā (Hana Pass). It is believed that the dams had been constructed during the earlier days of the Achaemenids.

According to Karami the dams were most likely constructed to power some type of industrial projects. One possibility according to Karimi was that the dams were powering mills. This is possible as there were no agricultural works in the area that depended on irrigation 2500 years ago.

Karimi also added that one of the purposes of the dams may have been to prevent floods from the Sivand River from swamping the area. As noted by Karimi, the water channels of the second dam are lower than the first dam. Also, the reservoir that would have been formed by the second dam would have been larger than the first dam.

For more information on engineering in ancient Persia, kindly click on the below item:

Pseudo-Scholarship about Iran: Insulting Cyrus the Great

Article below by John Limbert appeared in the LobeLog website on November 3, 2016. Kindly note that none of the pictures and their corresponding captions appeared in the original LobeLog release.


John Limbert is Class of 1955 Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. He served 34 years in the Foreign Service, including 14 months as a hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran.  He has recently authored Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History for the US Institute of Peace.


What is it about Harvard that impels its people to produce pseudo-scholarly non-facts about Iran? Four years ago a presi­den­tial candidate and graduate of the Harvard Business School claimed that Iran needed its alliance with Syria to achieve “access to the sea.” Perhaps they don’t use maps at the Business School. A couple years ago, a former professor and secretary of state who received his Ph.D. from Harvard warned darkly about a newly reconstructed “Persian Empire” that was about to dominate the Middle East.


The Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae where Alexander paid his respects. The tomb is a UNESCO World Heritage site (Source: Public Domain).

Such ahistorical nonsense and geographical mishmash never seems to die. In a recent Time article called “The Iran Paradox,” the current dean of Harvard’s (and Tuft’s) Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy continued this unfortunate precedent. About Iran he wrote that “the inheritors of that [i.e. Cyrus the Great’s] imperial tradition are today’s Shi’ite Iranians, and their present-day ambitions for the Middle East…will roil the already tense region deeply over the next few years.”


The Cyrus Cylinder housed at the British Museum (Source:  Angelina Perri Birney).

Of course there once were mighty Persian empires. The Book of Daniel tells of the great “empire of the Medes and Persians whose laws alter not.” In the sixth century BCE, Cyrus created a vast multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire whose organi­zing principle was acceptance and support of local customs and beliefs. About 539-538 BCE, the ruler spelled out that policy in the famous “Cyrus cylinder” of Babylonia, which many Iranians today proudly claim was the world’s first universal declaration of human rights. One can argue about Cyrus’ motives, but no one can argue with the success of his program.

Cyrus Koresh Kourosh street in Jerusalem

When History goes beyond Politics: Koresh or Cyrus street in Jerusalem. There is currently no street named Cyrus or Koroush in Tehran, the capital of Iran today. There is also an “Iran” street in Israel.

But all that happened over 2,500 years ago. What is the relation of Cyrus’ vast empire to the current Islamic Republic and its clumsy foreign policy? None. In the past there were great Persian empires, whose armies burned Athens and humbled mighty Rome. But the last of those empires disappeared over 1,400 years ago with the victory of the in­vading Arab Muslim armies over the Zoroastrian Sassanians. Since then, Iran has either been a province of larger empires or a country confined roughly to its present-day borders. Its history for the last 200 years has been anything but imperial. More often it has been invaded, divided, threatened, manipu­lated, and exploited by outside powers.


Journalism and Academia join to promote Eurocentricism: Matthias Schultz of Spiegel Magazine (July 15, 2008) and Harry de Quetteville of the Daily Telegraph (July 16, 2008) wrote parallel articles attacking the legacy of Cyrus the Great and his ancient legacy; both publications even criticized the people of Iran for appreciating the historical memory of Cyrus. See responses to the Spiegel article and the Daily Telegraph.

Iran today remains home to many monuments and memories of imperial glory, each a veritable Ozymandias. Iran retains only what British historian Michael Axworthy properly calls “the empire of the mind.” From time to time Iranian politicians will recall Iran’s past glories and issue bombast about reconquering territory lost centuries earlier. Such state­ments, however, ignore reality and are nothing but whistling past the graveyard in an attempt to conceal the Islamic Republic’s current weaknesses.


Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Cyropaedia (Picture Source:  Angelina Perri Birney). Like many of the founding fathers and those who wrote the US Constitution, President Jefferson regularly consulted the Cyropedia – an encyclopedia written by the ancient Greeks about Cyrus the Great. The two personal copies of Thomas Jefferson’s Cyropaedia are in the US Library of Congress in Washington DC. Thomas Jefferson’s initials “TJ” are seen clearly engraved at the bottom of each page.

What our Fletcher colleague calls “Shi’ite Iranians” are in no way the inheritors of Cyrus’ imperial tradition. Instead, the Islamic Republic today operates from a position of weakness caused by both cultural isolation and its own diplomatic ineptitude. It has managed to alienate almost all of its neighbors with the exception of chaotic Syria and tiny, land­locked Armenia. When the Islamic Republic’s rulers allowed a mob to trash Saudi diplomatic premises in January 2016, and then made only a grudging apology, they only further isolated themselves from much of the Arab world. Iran’s foreign influence today is feeble, and consists mostly of backing factions in the most dysfunctional places, including Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Contrast such ineptitude with the skills of Cyrus and his successors. Such a performance by his compatriots would make Cyrus the Great, if he were alive, turn over in his grave, as Yogi Berra would say.

6-Evil Immortals

Eurocentricism meets Hollywood: cartoon-like portrayal of ancient Iranians in the movie “300” – For more on this topic read here – and for more on Eurocentricism, consult here…

The persistence of such shallow pseudo-scholarship, especially among those associated with one of the world’s greatest universities, is inexplicable—unless perhaps the moon is always full over Cambridge and Somerville. Those presenting such an account of current events are certainly not learned in their subject. Instead, in order to argue for a questionable policy (for example, “a proactive approach to the Iranian challenge”) they repeat the empty phrases (“inheritors of an imperial tradition”) they have heard and that at first blush seemed profound. On closer examination, however, such ideas are only hollow catchphrases with no bases in scholarly history or geography. They also insult the memory of Cyrus the Great.

Piece of carved wood suggests Persian taught maths in Japan 1,000 years ago

The report posted below on October 6, 2016 by Gabriel Samuel of Britain’s Independent newspaper was first released by the Japan Times on October 5, 2016.

Kindly note that excepting the first image, all other images and accompanying descriptions are from Kaveh Farrokh’s Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia.


The piece of wood was discovered in the 1960s but as only now been fully analysed Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.

Archaeologists have unearthed a piece of wood revealing ancient Japan was a “cosmopolitan” nation “where foreigners were treated equally”, including details of one Persian man teaching maths more than a millennium ago.


Scientists analysed carvings on the wood using infrared imaging technology, which appeared to name a Persian lecturer who worked at a facility where government ministers were trained in the former Japanese capital of Nara.

Previous discoveries have revealed Japan had direct trade links with Persia as early as 600AD, but this is the first time it has been suggested a Middle Eastern official may have been employed in the country at that time.


Sassanian influences upon Japanese arts: the case of the metalwork plate of Shapur II hunting lions (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg – Inv. S-253) and motif-parallels in Japanese textile arts (Source: Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia).

Akirhiro Watanabe of the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, who led the survey, suggested the man was likely to have taught mathematics due to Persia’s renowned expertise in the subject. As noted by Watanabe to the Japan Times:

Although earlier studies have suggested there were exchanges with Persia as early as the 7th century, this is the first time a person as far away as Persia was known to have worked in Japan… This suggests Nara was a cosmopolitan city where foreigners were treated equally”.

Throughout the 17th century, thousands of Persian merchants were known to travel to the city of Nagasaki for the purposes of trade, but it is now believed the ties between the two countries date back far earlier.


Sassanian and Soghdian merchants were actively trading with China, a process that led to Iranian links with ancient Korea and Japan (Source: Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia).

Nara was the capital of Japan between 710 and 784, before it was shifted to Kyoto and later to present-day Tokyo.

A vast ancient tomb with colourful painted murals opened to the public at a museum in the Nara Prefecture last week, another impressive find by the local archaeological surveying team.

Last month, archaeologists were left baffled by the remarkable discovery of ancient Roman coins while excavating the ruins of Katsuren Castle on Okinawa Island recently.

The four copper coins were originally thought to be a hoax before their true provenance was revealed through detailed scanning.