An Iranian Icon: the Paykan Automobile

The interview below by Nazli Ghassemi on the Paykan automobile was published in the Reorient Magazine. As noted in Reorient this article discusses:

A new documentary tells the story of a much-loved – and loathed – iconic Iranian automobile

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Made against all odds in a tiny studio in the heart of Tehran, Iran’s Arrow – a 75-minute documentary written, directed, produced, and edited by Shahin Armin and Sohrab Daryabandari – is the story of a car called the ‘Paykan’. Meaning ‘arrow’ in Persian, the film chronicles the social impact of the car during its lifespan on Iranians and Iran itself, both before and after the Revolution. Through a collection of interviews, recovered archival footage, film clips, photographs, and data collected from various sources, Iran’s Arrow follows the Paykan’s tumultuous path in the hands of its Iranian consumers during the four decades in which it was produced.

1-PaykanA 1971 advertisement for a lottery involving various Paykan models (Source: courtesy Tarlan Rafiee for Reorient).

The Paykan – a seemingly unremarkable car – became a key figure in propelling a nation into modernity upon its production in 1967, and was later radically transformed into a symbol of resistance and endurance following the 1979 Revolution. Afterwards, it was seen as a breadwinner in times of war and distress, and ultimately became a national relic when production came to a halt in 2005. A noble and humble servant, the Paykan is an emblem hacked in Iran’s collective memory; and, to find out more about both the car and the new documentary, I chatted with Shahin and Sohrab in their Tehran studio.

Tell us a bit about the documentary. Aside from the obvious, what’s behind the choice of the title?

Sohrab – The reason we chose the title is because we thought it would point towards the trajectory of Iran in terms of how it was aiming to

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from a developing country to a developed [one]. [The film] also has a subtitle: The Rise and Fall of the Paykan.

For the Persian version [of the film], we called it This Paykan. I arrived at this by thinking about two things: one was the phrase, ecce homo – you know, ‘behold the man!’ I wanted to say, ‘behold the car!’ I was [also looking at] Magritte’s ‘this is not a pipe’ (The Treachery of Images), thinking, ‘this is not a car’. I mean, the movie isn’t really about a car, but it really is. [Later], I told Shahin about it, and he accepted without hesitation; this happened towards the end of the project.

2-Paykan 1960s adA 1960s advertisement for the Paykan (Source: Reorient).

What was the history of the Paykan in Iran?

Shahin – ‘Paykan’ means ‘arrow’ in Persian. [The car] was manufactured in Iran, but it was originally British, designed by the now-defunct Rootes Group. Rootes were in a bad financial position in the early 60s, and decided to design a simple car under the ‘Arrow’ name. Although the car was not a huge success in [neither] the UK nor the rest of the world, the Paykan became Iran’s most popular car for almost four decades. The production of the Paykan began in 1967, and continued until 2005.

It is quite unusual for such a car to become the subject of a documentary, especially one which, in the eyes of many (according to your film), is both famous and infamous; yet, you took it upon yourselves to go ahead with the concept. Why the Paykan?

Shahin – I had worked for 13 years in the US auto industry as a design engineer for Chrysler in Detroit, and as a product engineer at Honda. [During] all those years, I couldn’t get this freaking Paykan out of my head, and wondered what this car meant to my identity as an Iranian-American. In 2009 I decided to created a blog, and called it PaykanHunter.com. My first post on the blog was [titled] Let there be Paykan. When I uploaded that first blog post, I knew it was the beginning of something I wouldn’t be able to stop. A lot of people started to make fun of me for writing a blog about a ridiculous-looking, [little-known] car; [but], as an Iranian, I wanted to find out why we had been destined to drive it. I also believe that through cars, we can resolve a lot of misunderstandings that exist about Iran. Loving cars is a universal language, and knowing that Iranians have so much passion for them [can] paint a different picture of Iran.

3-Paykan-2The good life … (a photograph of the uncle of one of Shahin’s friends taken sometime in the early 70s) (Source: courtesy PaykanHunter.com for Reorient).

The more I delved into the Paykan’s history, the more interested I became in its social impact on Iran’s history and Iranians throughout its long years of production. I had this dream [about] how cool it would be to see a comprehensive documentary about the Paykan, [and] had a feeling that nobody would make [such a] film except me. Now, I’ve made the film I wanted to be seen.

Why did you two decide to team up?

Sohrab – Well, I really liked how enthusiastic Shahin was about the car. The image of this car engineer sitting in his apartment in Detroit and writing a blog about this car caught my attention; I am interested in [issues of] displacement, mobility, and migration. Writing about the Paykan from Detroit in English had a special meaning for me; I thought [Shahin] had something. He used to visit me every once in a while to discuss what he was doing, and told me that he thought there should be a documentary about this car. I thought he should have made it himself and wanted to [only] help him make it, but soon after we started to work, I realised I was playing the role of a director, too.

4-Paykan-3What car does Miss Iran drive? A Paykan, of course! (a Miss Iran contestant on the cover of a 1977 edition of Iran’s Zan-e Rooz (Modern Woman) magazine) (Source: Reorient).

Shahin – It was not until I started talking seriously with Sohrab that I became confident enough that I had collected enough material to tell a story. He was amongst the people who didn’t make fun of me; he took my research and project very seriously. He told me something that stuck in my head: ‘when there is a change, there is a story’. The Paykan changed Iran, and our film is about the story of that transformation.

In your film, you show how the Paykan was celebrated as Iran’s national car upon its production in 1967. Can you tell us why this car was seemingly chosen as the ‘national’ one to begin with?

Sohrab – As far as I know, the Paykan was never officially regarded as a ‘national’ car by any authorities; the Iranian people gave it this title. I like to think this happened after many years, and not during the first few ones. The Shah’s government did a lot of manoeuvring, but they never called it that. Technically, our national car is now Iran Khodro’s Samand (introduced in 2000), [according to] government officials; but then again, it seems the people have not accepted the Samand as their national car.

5-Paykan-4A 1971 advertisement for the Paykan Kar (‘Work’ model) (Source: courtesy PaykanHunter.com for Reorient).

Shahin – There were government backings for the Paykan, but the most important thing is that it came out at the right time with the right price – so it became popular. Its simple mechanics and the wide dealership network that Iran National created through Iran really formed a foundation for creating and training mechanics and [producing] body shop careers. People learned the basics of car repair work with the Paykan, and now, Iran is the biggest car producer in the Middle East. It all really started with the Paykan.

In the film, the Paykan appears as a silent and humble servant, adapting to the conflicting conditions of its times from 1967 – 2005. Can you talk about how the Paykan’s character developed and transformed throughout this time?

Sohrab – The story of the Paykan can be divided into three sections: the first is when it was brought to Iran in 1967; at that point, it was like a new bride. It was a new car with up-to-date technology, and it became very popular very fast. After a while, it turned into a hard-working mule. It was abused, while [serving as] as source of income and a reliable walking stick; but, at the end of that period, people started to get tired of it. The situation had lingered for too long, and people wondered when they would see the end of [the Paykan].

6-PaykanAlways buy Kodacolor, and always drive … a Paykan (Source: courtesy PaykanHunter.com for Reorient).

‘Salar’ is another title that Iranians gave to the Paykan; it’s difficult to find a proper translation for it. If you look in the dictionary, ‘salar’ means ‘lord’ or ‘king’, as in ‘king of the road’. I think this title was [bestowed upon] it towards the end of its journey. A few years after production stopped, many Iranians looked back and started to develop nostalgic feelings towards it. I think, in the end, most people decided to [regard it] as the walking stick rather than the never-ending nightmare. Later, it found its way to the worlds of art, design, and fashion.

The relationship [Iranians have had] with this car reminds me of a very severe form of addiction … It seems this car and its industry acted like a very potent drug for our economy and culture

Shahin – The Paykan was a symbol of consumerism, the middle class, and the ‘good life’ before the Revolution. Then, the Iran-Iraq War happened, and this car became the breadwinner of many families. A lot of people turned towards ‘mosafer-keshi’ (unofficial taxi driving) with their Paykans. There is this irony in calling it ‘salar’: it doesn’t look or perform anything like a ‘king of the road’, but this relatively unknown British sedan played such an important role in Iran [nonetheless].

7-PaykanA 1967 Paykan advertisement (courtesy PaykanHunter.com for Reorient).

Your investigation of what the Paykan has meant to different people in the film is interesting. Some have gone as far as personifying the car, giving it a name as if part of their family, while others have wished the car never existed. What’s going on here? Why is there this love-hate relationship towards the Paykan amongst Iranians?

Shahin – Any object that can survive for 48 years will create [such a] love-hate relationship. It was important to not only show the love and nostalgia, but also that the Paykan really had some negative [thoughts surrounding it] – e.g., the lingering feeling that it would be with us forever with its outdated technology. This was a 1960s British sedan: it wasn’t the most comfortable car out there, nor was it easy to drive; and, after being in Iran for almost four decades, Iranians started to get tired of it.

Sohrab – The relationship with this car reminds me of a very severe form of addiction. To me, it seems this car and its industry acted like a very potent drug for our economy and culture.

8-Tarlan-RafieeIranian icons: the Shahyad (post-Revolution: Azadi) Tower, the poet Hafez, Mount Damavand, pop singer Dariush, the rose, and … the Paykan! (from Tarlan Rafiee’s Once Upon a Time series) (Source: courtesy the artist for Reorient).

Can you tell me a bit about the Paykan’s role in relation to the roots of the Happy Birthday song (Tavalodet Mobarak) becoming the standard one in Iran?

Shahin – This is one of the most important stories about this car, [yet] very few people know about it. Iran’s national birthday song was created for the Paykan. This was originally the idea of a very prominent filmmaker, Mr. Kamran Shirdel, who asked the famous [composer] Anoushiravan Rohani to make the song for a Paykan advertisement. We are very proud to have [Mr. Shirdel] explain the story in our film.

Sohrab – I just want to add that unlike in many other cases, the Khayyami brothers – and probably their advertising agency, Fakopa (managed by Farhad Hormozi) – were very smart and brave to choose Mr. Shirdel for that job. I think whoever made those choices was very clever; they made an unusual choice, and it paid off. Anoushiravan Rohani was a great choice, too. He was probably the one person who should have done this.

You’ve also showed the Paykan as being the subject of contemporary art exhibitions in Tehran. What is the significance of this? 

Sohrab – The Paykan has become a point of interest amongst Iranian artists for different reasons. The term ‘Paykan art’ kept popping up in our conversations. We interviewed some artists about the aesthetics of the Paykan; I expected they would be able to draw a picture of the philosophy and implications of the car’s design, but no one came up with a good analysis.

What do you mean by ‘Paykan art’?

Sohrab – Have you heard of the [term] ‘chador art’? The way I see it, that term is an insult. It means the artist has viewed the chador as a sign of backwardness, misery, and oppression, and implies the artist is trying to profit from selling this idea to western markets. The chador is just a garment; it makes no sense to depict the women who wear it as miserable or backwards. It’s twisting the chador into an offensive concept.

9-Iman-SafaeiIman Safaei – Elahi Chap Konam (Oh God, May I Roll Over) (Source: courtesy the artist and Shirin Art Gallery for Reorient).

I think ‘Paykan art’ is a little different, even though it resembles chador art; maybe it’s not as offensive. I also believe Iran’s Arrow somehow falls in that category itself. The difference to me is that I don’t see a sense of betrayal to our cultural atmosphere in Paykan art. For me, it’s a more organic reaction to life in Iran.

Shahin – I think it’s too early to call it ‘Pakyan art’; we shouldn’t rush to call it that. We have to wait and see if it really stays in the art scene for a longer period of time. I doubt it, but let’s see what happens. I believe our film doesn’t fall under the label, as it’s not trying to tap into a trend; it’s simply trying to fill the gap. We both thought that this film was [needed]. Hopefully, it will create a foundation for this subject that others can use or get inspired by.

What were some of the challenges you faced while shooting the film?

Sohrab – The first problem was that we were single-handed, so to say. Two people had to do the job of maybe five or six. A lot of stuff tended to slip through our fingers because of this. Shahin did a great job with the production, and really worked like a tireless machine! As well, it was hard to convince people that a film about a modest car could be interesting. Most of the time, people told me I was crazy to take on this project. Even some of our own friends didn’t feel very enthusiastic about it during the first stages of our work, and we struggled to push forward. But I was happy to see that most of these people changed their minds at some point.

10-Adel-Hosseini-NikAdel Hosseini-Nik – Untitled (Source: courtesy the artist and Shirin Art Gallery for Reorient).

We also predicted some materials would be easy to obtain. We thought there would be loads of images and resources for research and use in the film, but this was not so. We could both go on for hours about how hard it was to make this film. Very small things turned into huge problems.

Shahin – Finding archival material inside Iran was difficult; archiving is vital. This is something that hasn’t been taken seriously enough in Iran – not until recently, at least. Logistics was also a major headache. Arranging interviews, convincing some people to appear in front of our cameras, and finding good locations were really a nightmare in Tehran. Tehran’s traffic and unreliable Internet [also] added lots of complications.

Where do you plan to show your film?

Shahin – We are applying to as many festivals as we can. I am really hoping that a lot of people get a chance to see this film. Hopefully Iranians will be able to dive back into their memories, future generations will learn about the past, and foreign audiences will learn a great deal about Iran and Iranians … and the Paykan, of course!

UNESCO: Recognition of Polo (Chogan) as a Sport Originating In Iran

The report “UNESCO lists polo as Iran’s intangible cultural heritage” was announced in the Mehr News Agency (December, 7, 2017) and has been also reported on Iranian.com (December 7, 2017) and PressTV (December 11, 2017).

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As noted on December 7, 2017 in Mehr News: UNESCO has recognized the team sport of polo, played on horseback, as Iran’s intangible cultural heritage during a session held in South Korea on December 7.

After three years of extensive efforts, international negotiations, and close cooperation between Iran’s sports ministry and Cultural Heritage Organization, the team sport of polo (known as ‘chogan’ in Persian) has been added as Iran’s intangible cultural heritage to UNESCO list during the 12th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, taking place from December 4 to December 8 in the South Korean capital of Seoul.

Iran submitted a proposal for the inclusion of polo in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage to UNESCO on 30 March 2016. The dossier was reviewed and shortlisted for inclusion under the 2003 Convention on Nov. 7, 2017.

The polo dossier is the second of thirteen documented Iranian intangible cultural heritages that is related to the country’s traditional sports and ritual games.

The dossier was recognized as a masterpiece of heritage of humanity and inscribed in UNESCO’s list without any objections or provisions.

A Persian miniature made in 1546, during the reign of the Safavid dynasty of Iran (1501-1722). This artwork is of the Persian poem Guy-o Chawgân (“Ball and Polo-mallet”) depicting Iranian nobles engaged in the game of polo, which has been played in Iran for thousands of years (Picture Source: Public Domain).

The first recorded game of polo, in which players on horseback score by driving a small ball into the opposing team’s goal using a long-handled wooden mallet, reportedly took place in 600 BC in ancient Persia.

As noted further in Iranian.com (December 7, 2017):

Farhad Nazari who is the head of the Iranian Office for Registration of Historical Monuments confirmed the approval, which will officially be registered next month at the 12th meeting of the UNESCO committee in South Korea. Nazari added that the case titled “The art of making and playing the kamancheh” will also be reviewed and registered by UNESCO at next month’s meeting. Four days after the Mehr News report on December 11, 2017, PressTV announced the following:

“The Kamancheh and Polo and have been officially registered as an Iranian sport and a traditional Persian musical instrument on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.”

Polo was invented and reportedly first played in 600 BC in ancient Persia. The original name of polo is “Chogan” and in Iran the game is still referred to as “Chogan”. Throughout history, the game has been popular among warriors, generals, princes, and kings as a means of training cavalry for warfare. As noted by Hossein Jafari, head of Isfahan’s Chogan Office:

Chogan is our national sport and has its roots in ancient Iranian traditions…”

Sportsmen in Iran engage in a game of polo (Source: Iranian.com).

 

Ancient Zoroastrian Temple discovered in Northern Turkey

The News report Ancient Persian temple discovered in northern Turkey could rewrite Religious History” was originally provided on November 6, 2017 by the Daily Sabah News outlet based in Istanbul, Turkey. The text of the Daily Sabah report has been reproduced below with a number of edits. Included in the text below are also translated portions of the Turkish language Ana Haber Gazete News outlet. Kindly note that excepting one photo, all other images and captions do not appear in the original Daily Sabah report.

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Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient Persian temple from the fifth century B.C. in Turkey’s northern Amasya province that could rewrite the history of the region. Istanbul University Archaeology Professor Şevket Dönmez has noted that the discoveries at the ancient Persian Oluz Höyük settlement in Toklucak village have the potential to change long-held notions of religion and culture in Anatolia.

Artifacts uncovered at the ancient Persian Oluz Höyük settlement in Toklucak village, Amasya province, Turkey (Daily Sabah & AA Photo).

As noted by Dönmez during a press conference regarding his excavations at Amasya (as cited/translated from the Turkish language Ana Haber News outlet):

“The excavations proceeded to explore the Persian (Achaemenid) time period (c. 425-300 BCE) at Asmaya… Oluz tumulus, where cella with sacred fire burned, living quarters, stone pavilions, and potholes where unusable temple goods were buried were discovered … the history of Anatolian religion now has to be revised … Portable fire burning vessels (fire) and skulls used in the temples were destroyed in the course of Alexander the Great’s Asian campaign (300 BCE). Shovels and pots pointing to Haoma (holy drink) were discovered. It is the first time that the ruins of Oluz mound, which reflects the formation and development periods of the Zoroastrian religion which are understood to have come to Anatolia with the Medes and the Persians. these finds are notably unique as he richness of these finds have yet to be found in Iran itself which is the Zoroastrian religion‘s  geographical source.”

 Professor Şevket Dönmez of Istanbul University presents his findings at Asmaya, Turkey in a news conference followed by questions by Turkish academics and reporters (Source: Ana Haber). Note the Zoroastrian artifacts also on display at the lower right of the photo.

In 11 seasons of excavations, the team uncovered thousands of artifacts, as well as temple structure. In respone to questions by the Anadolu news agency Dönmez noted:

“In this settlement from the fifth century B.C., we discovered a temple complex which is related to a fire culture, more precisely to the early Zoroastrian religion, or to the very original religious life of Anatolian people … They built a massive religion system here [Asmaya]… No 2,500-year-old artifacts have been found in Iran, yet they appeared in Anatolia. [With this discovery] Anatolia has entered the sacred geography of today’s Zoroastrians” 

Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest extant religions, is believed to have originated from the prophet Zoroaster in present-day Iran. The discovery of a temple for fire worship suggests the religion may also have had roots in Anatolia, as well.

Professor Şevket Dönmez of Istanbul University provides the architectural layout of the Zoroastrian temple that he and his archaeological team have excavated at Asmaya (Source: Ana Haber),

Describing the temple, Dönmez said it includes a holy room for burning fires and other stone-paved areas with many goods used in worship practices. Dönmez also said Oluz Höyük is the only known Persian settlement in the region.

Excavations at Oluz Höyük started in 2007, after the site was first discovered during surface research near Tokluca village in 1999.

Dönmez and his team plan to continue research work at the site, possibly working on restoring the temple area in the future.

Remains of ancient Zoroastrian urns at Gonnur Tappeh which were once filled with the sacred drink known as “Soma/Haoma” (Source: Balkh and Shambhala). Gonnur Tappeh is situated  at approximately  sixty kilometers north of Mary in modern-day Turkmenistan.

The Tenth Annual ASMEA Conference October 19-21

ASMEA (Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa) held its Tenth Annual Conference entitled “The Middle East and Africa: Assessing the Regions Ten Years On” on October 19-21, 2017 in Washington, D.C. at the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel… for more information see here … or click on icon below …

Official flyer from the 10th ASMEA Conference of 2017 (see pdf version here …)

The Library of Social Science (LSS) Book Exhibits was also  present during the ASMEA Conference. The LSS presented the latest academic textbooks for the purpose of promoting these to academic researchers and experts as well as for university coursework, diplomatic delegations, etc.

Photo of the Library of Social Sciences Book Exhibit during the 9th ASMEA Conference in 2016 (Photo: Mei Ha Chan, Associate Director, Library of Social Science Book Exhibits).

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, delivered the keynote address at the Tenth Annual ASMEA Conference … for more information see here…

For a full list of the academics and experts at this conference see here … or click on icon below …

Kaveh Farrokh’s presentation at the Conference was: A Synopsis of Sassanian Military Organization and Combat Units which will be within the panel of “Strategies and Armies of Sasanian Persia and Rome“, with Dr. Ilkka Syvanne (Affiliated Professor of the University of Haifa; Finnish Society for Byzantine Studies) as the Discussant. Kaveh Farrokh’s article provided an overview of the organizational structure and military units of the Sassanian army (Spah) of 224-651 CE.

The  Library of Social Sciences Book Exhibit displayed Kaveh Farrokh’s latest comprehensive textbook on the Sassanian army (Spah) to be released on November 14, 2017, during the Tenth Annual ASMEA Conference in October 2017.

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:

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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: Sunrisefilmco.com 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.

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