The Sassanian Game-board of ‘Hashtpay’

The article below is written by Antonio Panaino and originally posted in the CAIS website hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav in London, England. Readers are also encouraged to consult/click the link “The Sassanian Era” (or click image below …)


Name of a game from the Sassanian era which has not been precisely identified. The haštpay [hštp’y] “eight feet” (more likely than aštapad) is mentioned together with other games in chapter 15 of the Xusraw ud Redag (ud pad Chatrang ud new-ardaxšî r ud haštpay kardan az hamahlan fraztar hom “and in playing chess, backgammon and the haštpay I am superior to my comrades” (Unvala, p. 16; Monchi-Zadeh, 1982, p. 65; Panaino, 1999, p. 51). Its name, as in the case of chess (Pahl. Ch < Skt. caturanµga-), is an Indian borrowing; it derives from Sanskrit astapada- (cf. pali atthapada), originally referring to a game-board of 8 x 8 little squares. Such a board was used for various games (Murray, 1913, pp. 35-40; 1952, pp. 129-36), one of them played, according to the Balabharata (II, 5, pp. 10-13), with red and white pieces and a pair of dice. In many other sources the astapada- was doubtless the chessboard and its name strictly associated with this game (MacDonell, p. 122; Jacobi, p. 228; Thomas, 1898, pp. 272; 1899, pp. 365; Thieme, 1984, p. 208).

A conjectural drawing by Ashkan H. (اشکان.ح) of a possible configuration of the Hashtpay game-board (Source: Public Domain).

From the Xusraw ud Redag it is clear that the Sassanian haštpay was distinguished from other popular games like chess and the variety of backgammon represented by new-ardaxšî r. The haštpay could perhaps be associated, according to Semenov (pp. 16-20, 131; but see Panaino, 1999, pp. 153-56, 189), with a game-board (with three lines of eight squares) recently discovered in Paikend and with another one represented on a later Sassanian silver cup with a different but apparently comparable form.

An Indian manuscript depicting Krishna and Radha playing chaturanga on an 8×8 Ashtāpada (Source: CAIS). For more see “Chess: An Indian or Iranian invention” …


Jacobi, “Über zwei ältere Erwähn-ungen des Schachspiels in der Sanskrit-Litteratur,” ZDMG 50, 1896, pp. 227-33.

A. MacDonell, “The Origin and Early History of Chess,” JRAS, 1898, pp. 117-41.

Monchi-Zadeh, “Xus-rôv i Kavâtân ut Rêtak,” in Monumentum Georg Morgenstierne, vol. II. Acta Iranica 22, Leiden, 1982, pp. 47-91.

J. R. Murray, A History of Chess, Oxford 1913. Idem, A History of Board-Games other than Chess, Oxford 1952.Panaino, La novella degli Scacchi e della Tavola Reale. Un’antica fonte orientale sui due gixochi da tavoliere piuà diffusi nel mondo euroasiatico tra Tardoantico e Medioevo e sulla loro simbologia militare e astrale. Testo pahlavi, traduzione e commento al Wiz-arišn î Chatrang ud nihišn î  new-ardaxšî r “La spiegazione degli scacchi e la disposizione della tavola reale,” Milano, 1999.

L. Semenov, Studien zur sogdischen Kultur an der Seidenstrasse, Wiesbaden, 1996.

Thieme, “Chess and Backgammon (Tric-Trac) in Sanskrit Literature,” in E. Bender, Indological Studies in Honor of W. Norman Brown, New Haven, 1962, pp. 204-16, reprinted in Kleine Schriften, Wiesbaden, 1984, pp. 413-25.

W. Thomas, “The Indian Game of Chess,” ZDMG, 52, 1898, pp. 271-72; 53, 1899, pp. 364-65.

M. Unvala, The Pahlavi Text “King Husrav and his Boy,” published with its Transcription, translation and copious notes, Paris, n.d.

The Rich History of the Persian Language in India

The article written by Maryam Papi entitled “The Persian language has a rich history in India, but it’s slowly dying out” appeared in Quart India on September 7, 2017. It was first posted  on The article published in has been slightly edited. Prior to reading the article printed below, readers are also directed to the Persian Heritage journal’s 2019 publication of a two-part article on Persephobia written by Kaveh Farrokh, Sheda Vasseghi and Javier Sánchez-Gracia:

Note the following excerpt from the above article(s) with respect to British rule:

From the outset of the establishment of their rule in India, the British attitude towards Iran was ambivalent at best, and unfavorable towards the Persian language in particular. The English Education Act of 1835 essentially banned the teaching of Persian in India and its official use in Indian courts. Up to this time, Indians of diverse backgrounds (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, etc.) were able to rely on Persian as a common Lingua Franca. Eliminating Persian was instrumental for the solidification of British rule over the Indian subcontinent. India’s large and diverse population was now also cut off from a wide swathe of Persian-speakers in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran. To further weaken the bonds between India’s Hindus, Muslim, Sikhs, etc. the British East Company also supported the promotion of extremist Islamist cults seeking to eliminate Persian and Indian cultural influences.


It is difficult to think of Persian as an Indian language today. Yet for hundreds of years, Farsi held sway as a language of administration and high culture across the subcontinent. It was brought in by Persophile central Asians during the 12th century, and played a role very similar to the one English does in modern India. So, in the 17th century, when the Marathi Shivaji wanted to communicate with Rajasthani Jai Singh, the general of the Mughal army in the Deccan, they used Farsi.

The elite of 19th century Bengal were bilingual in Farsi (Persian in English) and Bangla. Raja Rammohan Roy edited and wrote in a Farsi newspaper, and the favorite poet of Debendranath Tagore, Rabindranth’s father, was Hafez, a 14th century poet from Iran. So impactful was Farsi’s role that India’s largest language today, Hindi, takes its name from a Farsi word meaning “Indian.” With the coming of the Raj, English replaced Farsi, but pockets of the language still survive in India. This is an extract from the diary of a Persian teacher in Kolkata …

Kolkata Diary

This is my third visit to Kolkata and I am still overwhelmed with joy to see the city flourishing culturally. Kolkata’s extreme paradoxes, an intellectual environment existing alongside deprivation, create a combination of joy and struggle. My most educated Indian friends are from Bengal. I can see many similarly educated people on the streets of Kolkata. Every day, on their way to work, these intellectuals walk past crowds of hawkers and people washing themselves under the municipal water taps. Everything is wet in the monsoon, yet water is still a relief for people who live in the street.

A view provided by Maryam Papi of a student writing in Persian on a whiteboard (Source: Maryam Papi).

Kolkata does not show its reality to a tourist who only goes to the Victoria Memorial or Birla Mandir—the real Kolkata is on its streets. Part of this reality is also buried in the South Park Street Cemetery. This is where people like Sir William Jones (1746-1794), the founder of the Asiatic Society and the father of Orientalism, and Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-1831) have been laid to rest.

I went to this cemetery in the heart of the city, on a weekend, along with a group of Farsi language students who were attending the summer school held in Lady Brabourne College. The students gathered next to Sir William Jones’s tomb and listened to their professor, who was explaining how Jones had served oriental studies during his short life in the city.

Persian and Bengali

Looking for the city’s Persian legacies, the same group of students found their way to St John’s Church, where Farsi inscriptions are engraved upon the structure. They recount the life and death of people like William Hamilton, the surgeon who served the Mughal emperor Farrukh Siyar in Delhi. Farsi was a major language in the subcontinent for several hundred years. Despite Bengali having many words in common with Farsi, in Bengal, there are no longer any native speakers of Farsi.

It is still taught in a few schools of Kolkata as an optional subject. Some colleges, such as Lady Brabourne and Maulana Azad, have Farsi departments. Hearing the Farsi words coming out of their classrooms, it seems as though the Bengali tongue has forgotten how to pronounce Farsi words. The students could not read the inscriptions on St John’s Church, even though most were Muslims, familiar with Urdu.

At a two-week summer school in Lady Brabourne College, organized by the Institute of Indo-Persian Studies, 54 students from various colleges in Kolkata had the chance to learn Farsi from native speakers for the first time. Some students could recite Farsi poems but as a native Farsi speaker, I could not grasp anything they said. The students in the Bachelor’s program as well as some completing their Master’s had to go back to the Farsi alphabet, to learn its correct sound and to distinguish letters like “f” and “p,” which were being pronounced in a similar way due to their vernacular accent.

Next, they moved on to the formation and usage of simple and complex Farsi words, and reading out Farsi text in a proper Farsi accent. On the fourth day, they began memorizing the ghazals of Hafez and Khusro and Iqbal. They also glimpsed the magnificent worlds of Firdausi, Rumi, Hafiz, Khusro, and others.

Considering things from a wider perspective, I wondered how this poetry might change their lives. Would an understanding of Sufism in Farsi poetry create better human beings? The literature may change their world outlook. But what is more solid? The grammar of a language or the rules of a society?

A view provided by Maryam Papi of Bengali students of the Persian language (Source: Maryam Papi).

Tagore connection

I was teaching Farsi through films to familiarize students with the everyday life of Iran, and to improve their listening skills. To my surprise, I realised that the Farsi studies students did not know much about Iranian culture. They were not even familiar with well-known film directors from the country.

Some of my questions were answered at Rabindranath Tagore’s house, another location the Farsi students visited as a part of the extracurricular program provided by the summer school. The house has been turned into a museum, and certain rooms have been used to depict the cultural interaction between Tagore’s home country and some of those he visited. Each of these rooms serves as a reflection on the cultural connections between India and the country visited by him. There is no room dedicated, however, to the Indo-Iranian cultural connections of Tagore—despite his having traveled to Iran twice in a two-year period. Considering such negligence of Indo-Iranian heritage, it is no wonder that the Iranian Embassy and the Iranian Cultural Center in New Delhi made a minimal financial contribution to Kolkata’s Farsi summer school.

A view provided by Maryam Papi of students learning the Persian language (Source: Maryam Papi).

Promotion versus Preservation

Iran might be the home of the Farsi language, but it is also spoken in countries like Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Despite having a claim over Farsi, the Iranian government does little to promote the language abroad. In a place like India, Farsi does not need to be promoted—it merely needs to be preserved. Most Farsi manuscripts lie unused and locked in Indian libraries and archives. The task of documenting, digitizing, and preserving these manuscripts is beyond the capabilities of Persian Studies Centers in India.

A view provided by Maryam Papi of an Indian enthusiast of the Persian language applying ink on Persian poetry that has been etched upon a stone stand (Source: Maryam Papi).

The future of the Farsi language in India is ambiguous. Efforts are underway by the president of IIPS, professor Syed Akhtar Husain, to revitalize the language as well as Indo-Persian culture. Husain refers to the glorious era of Persian in the subcontinent, during which valuable books, records, and documents were produced. He said:

It is a pity that the current generations have kept themselves away from the vast treasure troves of Persian literature preserved in various libraries and archives in Bengal.

The 1,500-Year-Old Love Story Between a Persian Prince and a Korean Princess that Could Rewrite History

The article The 1,500-Year-Old Love Story Between a Persian Prince and a Korean Princess that Could Rewrite History” written by Mark Oliver was originally posted in Ancient Origins on May 8, 2018. The version printed below has been slightly edited from the original version that appeared in the Ancient Origins venue.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

More than a thousand years before the first European explorer reached Korea’s shores, the Persian Empire was writing love stories about Korean princesses.

It’s a little-known story that could change the way we see our history. Recently, historians took a second look an old Persian epic written around 500 CE (during the time of the Sassanians) and realized that, at the center of the tale, was the unusual story of a Persian prince marrying a Korean princess.

It’s an incredible discovery. Up until recently, we weren’t sure that the Persians of that time even knew Korea existed. This new revelation shows Persia didn’t just make contact with Korea – these countries were intimately connected. And it might just call for a total rewrite of history.

The Kushnameh: A 1,500-Year-Old Persian Epic About Korea

The story is called the Kushnameh, and, in itself, it’s hardly a new discovery. It’s one of the most popular stories to come out of the Persian Empire, one that’s been told and retold countless times in the 1,500 years since it was written.

The Kushmaneh is a massive, epic poem about an evil creature with elephant tusks named Kus who terrorizes a Persian family throughout the generations. The whole story spans across hundreds of years and thousands of lines of poetry – but the really interesting part is somewhere around the middle. There, the author sat down and dedicated an incredible 1,000 lines of poetic verse to describing life in Korea during the Silla dynasty.

King and Queen of Silla. South Korea, Seoul National Folk Museum – Traditional Korean Costumes of Silla Kingdom (57 BC – 935 AD) (Source: Ancient Origins).

A Love Letter to Korea

Korea comes into play when the story starts to focus on a young, noble prince of Persia named Abtin. For his whole life, Abtin has been forced to live in the woods, hiding from the evil Kus the Tusked. He has only one thing to keep him safe: a magic book that tells him his future.

It’s almost like breaking the fourth wall – Abtin has a copy of the book we’re reading, and he’s not above flipping ahead a few pages to see how it all ends. In fact, that’s just what he does. He reads the next chapter and finds out that he’s supposed to go to the Silla kingdom of Korea, and – after briefly getting confused and going to China – he winds up being welcomed with open arms by the king of Silla.

From here, the story is just page after page of lavish descriptions of how beautiful Korea is. Admittedly, some of it seems a little over-the-top. It says, for example, that Korea is so overflowing with gold that even the dogs are kept on golden leashes. But on the whole, the description is so accurate that modern historians are sure the author must have visited it himself .

Abtin is mesmerized by the beauty of the country, and, soon after, by the beauty of its princess Frarang. He falls madly in love with Korean princess, begs the king for her hand in marriage, and she soon becomes his wife and the mother of his firstborn son.

Marriage of Abtin and Frarang (Source: Ancient Origins).

The Story of a Korean Hero

It’s unlikely that any of this really happened, of course. For one thing, there’s limited evidence that Persia spent 1,500 years being terrorized by an immortal monster with elephant tusks, and even less that any early Persian princes had magic books that could tell them the future.

But the symbolism of having a Persian prince taking refuge in Korea and falling in love with a Korean princess is undeniable. This is hard proof that Persians didn’t just know about Korea 1,500 years ago; they had a deep, profound admiration for their nation.

What happens next, though, is what makes it a really big deal. Frarang’s son isn’t just a minor character. His birth is a turning point in the whole story.

The fully Persian prince spends his whole life in hiding and, when he finally returns to his homeland, ends up getting killed by Kus’s men. But it’s his half-Korean son who turns things around.

Frarang and Abtin’s son ends up raising up an army and leading the revolt against Kus. For centuries, in this story, Persia gets tormented by an evil, tusked monster. It’s only under the command of a half-Korean boy and his mother that Persia finally wins its freedom.

This 14th-century Persian painting portrays a scene from the Kushnameh in what scholars believe could be the betrothal of prince Abtin (kneeling) and Silla princess Frarang (sitting) (Source: Ancient Origins).

A Secret Hidden in Plain Sight

For 1,500 years, people have been reading this story without any idea what they were looking at. For a long time, we assumed that the story was just about China.

In the story, the Korean Silla kingdom is referred to as “Chin”, a name that could refer to either China or Korea. It’s even a plot point in the story, in fact. At first, Abtin, like most historians, misreads the “Chin” in his magic future-telling book and thinks he’s supposed to go to China. And, just like modern historians, it takes him years before he realizes that it’s actually talking about China.

Recently, though, historians have taken a look at those descriptions again and realized just how perfectly they really do match up with Korea . The descriptions in this book don’t sound anything like China, but they’re a perfect, vivid description of 6th-century Korea – a place where, believe it or not, they really did keep their dogs on leashes of pure gold.

A Total Rewrite of History

This really might completely change the way we see history. For a long time, Korea has seemed an isolated, distant place from the Western world; but this story suggests that the east and west may not have been so disconnected after all.

It took until 1653 before the first European explorer reached Korea. That’s more than 1,100 years after Kushnama was written.

We’ve always known that Persia had some kind of contact with Korea. They were both a part of the Silk Road, and we’ve known for some time that Persian goods somehow ended up in Korea. Generally, though, it was assumed that they were just part of a bigger trade network.

In this story, though, Korea isn’t a trade partner. They’re a trusted ally, and they’re so important to the Persians that they literally can’t overcome evil until they trust the leadership of a half-Korean, half-Persian prince. It’s an incredibly symbolic marriage of cultures.

It puts other relics under a new light, as well. In an ancient tomb in Gyeong-Ju, for example, there is an old monument to a Korean war hero who looks an awful lot more like a Persian soldier than a Korean one. Now, some people are starting to wonder if this might really be the monument to a forgotten Persian hero who fought for Korea.

There’s no telling how far this could go. It could change everything about how we see the history of these countries. After all, this is far more than a love story between two people. It’s a love story between two nations.

UBC Lecture (November 29, 2019): Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe

Kaveh Farrokh will be providing a comprehensive lecture on November 29, 2019 at the University of British Columbia:

“Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe”

Lecture Time & Location: 29 November 2019 6:30-8:30 pm – Room 120, CK Choi Building – For details view below poster – and also click here …). The lecture is free, however due to limited seating interested participants are encouraged to obtain their (Free) tickets (for details view below poster – and also click here …)

This lecture will be hosted by the Alireza Ahmadian Lectures in Persian and Iranian Studies, Persian Language and Iranian Studies Initiative at UBC (University of British Columbia), UBC Asian Studies, UBC Persian Club and the UBC Zoroastrian Student Association.

Abstract & Overview of Lecture

This lecture provides a synoptic overview of the civilizational relations between Greater ancient Iran and Europa (Greco-Roman civilization as well continental Europe). The discussion is initiated with an examination of the conduits of exchange between Greater ancient Iran (the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian dynasties of Iran as well as the role of Northern Iranian peoples), the Caucasus and Europa. The lecture then provides an overview of learning exchanges between east and west spanning the time era from the Achaemenids into the Post-Sassanian eras, followed by examples of artistic, architectural, and engineering exchanges between Greco-Roman and Iranian civilizations. Select examples of the ancient Iranian legacy influence upon the European continent are also discussed, followed (time permitting) by examples of the musical legacy of ancient Iran as well as Iranian-European exchanges in the culinary domain.

Select References & Readings

Ahmed, A. & Zaman, O. (eds.) (2018). Dialogue Between Cultures & Exchange of Knowledge And Cultural Ideas between Iran, Turkey & Central Asia With Special reference to the Sasanian & Gupta Dynasty, Proceedings of Conference 8-10 February, 2018. Assam, India: Department of Persian Guawahati University.

Akhvledinai & Khimshiasvili, (2003). Impact of the Achaemenian architecture on Iberian kingdom: Fourth-first centuries BC. The First International Conference on the Ancient Cultural Relations Between Iran and Western Asia, Abstracts of Papers, Tehran, Iran, August 16-18, 2003, Tehran: Iran Cultural Fairs Institute.

Angelakis, A.N., Mays, L.W., Koutsoyiannis, D., Mamassis, N. (2012). Evolution of Water Supply through the Millennia. London & New York: IWA Publishing.

Asutay-Effenberger, N. & Daim, F. (eds.) (2019). Sasanidische Spuren in der Byzantinischen, Kaukasischen und Islamischen Kunst und Kultur [Sasanian Elements in Byzantine, Caucasian and Islamic Art and Culture]. Mainz, Germany: Verlag des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums.

Azarpay, G. (2000). Sasanian art beyond the Persian world. In Mesopotamia and Iran in the Parthian and Sasanian periods: Rejection and Revival c.238 BC-AD 642, Proceedings of a Seminar in memory of Vladimir G. Lukonin (ed. J. Curtis), London: British Museum Press, pp.67-75.

Azkaei, P.S. (1383/2004). حکیم رازی (حکمت طبیعی و نظام فلسفی) [(The) Wise Razi (Natural Wisdom and System of Philosophy)]. Tehran, Iran. Entesharate Tarh-e Now.

Babaev, I., Gagoshidze, I., & Knauß, F. S. (2007). An Achaemenid “Palace” at Qarajamirli (Azerbaijan) Preliminary Report on the Excavations in 2006. Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia, Volume 13, Numbers 1-2, pp. 31-45.

Beckwith C.I. (2011). Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Asia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton University Press.

Canepa, M. P. (2010). Distant displays of power: understanding cross-cultural interaction interaction among the elites of Rome, Sasanian Iran and Sui-Tang China. Ars Orientalis, Vol. 38, Theorizing Cross-Cultural Interaction among the Ancient and Early Medieval Mediterranean, Near East and Asia, pp. 121-154.

Carduso, E.R.F. (2015). Diplomacy and oriental influence in the court of Cordoba (9th to 10th centuries). Dissertation, Department of History of Islamic Mediterranean Societies, University of Lisbon, Portugal.

Compareti, M. (2019). Assimilation and Adaptation of Foreign Elements in Late Sasanian Rock Reliefs at Taq-i Bustan. In Sasanidische Spuren in der Byzantinischen, Kaukasischen und Islamischen Kunst und Kultur [Sasanian Elements in Byzantine, Caucasian and Islamic Art and Culture] (eds. N. Asutay-Effenberger & F. Daim), Mainz, Germany: Verlag des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums, pp.19-36.

Curatola, G., & Scarcia, G. (Tr. M. Shore, 2007). The Art and Architecture of Persia. New York: Abbeville Press.

During J., Mirabdolbaghi, Z., & Safvat, D. (1991). The Art of Persian Music. Mage Publishers.

Farhat, H. (2004). The Dastgah Concept in Persian Music. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.

Farrokh, K. (2018). Germania, Vikings, Saxons and Ancient Iran. Persian Heritage, 90, pp.28-30.

Farrokh, K., Karamian, Gh., Kubic, A., & Oshterinani, M.T. (2017). An Examination of Parthian and Sasanian Military Helmets. In “Crowns, hats, turbans and helmets: Headgear in Iranian history volume I” (K. Maksymiuk & Gh. Karamian, Eds.), Siedlce University & Tehran Azad University, pp.121-163.

Farrokh, K. (2016). An Overview of the Artistic, Architectural, Engineering and Culinary exchanges between Ancient Iran and the Greco-Roman World. AGON: Rivista Internazionale di Studi Culturali, Linguistici e Letterari, No.7, pp.64-124.

Farrokh, K. (2009). The Winged Lion of Meskheti: a pre- or post-Islamic Iranian Legacy in Georgia? Scientific Paradigms. Studies in Honour of Professor Natela Vachnadze. St. Andrew the First-Called Georgian University of the Patriarchy of Georgia. Tbilisi, pp. 455-492.

Farrokh, K. (2007). Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. Oxford: Osprey Publishing-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا/کویر (انتشارات ققنوس ۱۳۹۰ و انتشارات طاق بستان ۱۳۹۰) – see Book review from peer-reviewed Iranshenasi Journal

Feltham, H. (2010). Lions, Silks and Silver: the Influence of Sassanian Persia. Sino-Platonic Papers, 206, pp. 1-51.

Freely, J. (2009). Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Gagoshidze, Y. M. (1992). The Temples at Dedoplis Mindori. East and West, 42, pp. 27-48.

Garsoïan, N. (1985). Byzantium and the Sassanians. In The Cambridge History of Iran Volume 3: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanid Periods, Part 1 (ed. E. Yarshater), Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, pp. 568-592.

Gheverghese, J.G. (1991). The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics. London: I.B. Tauris.

Gnoli, G. & Panaino, A. (eds.) (2009). Studies in History of Mathematics, Astronomy and Astrology in Memory of David Pingree – Serie Orientale Roma CII. Rome: Italy: Istituto Italiano per L’Africa e L’Oriente.

Kayser, P., & Waringo, G. (2003). L’aqueduc souterrain des Raschpëtzer: un monument Antique de l’art de l’ingénieur au Luxembourg [The underground aqueduct of Raschpëtzer: an ancient monument of the art of engineering in Luxembourg]. Revue Archéologique de l’Est, vol. 52, pp. 429-444.

Kurz, O. (1985). Cultural relations between Parthia and Rome. In The Cambridge History of Iran Volume 3: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanid Periods, Part 1 (ed. E. Yarshater), Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, pp. 559-567.

Miller, A.C. (2006). Jundi-Shapur, bimaristans, and the rise of academic medical centres. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99 (12), pp. 615–617.

Miller, L.C. (1999). Music and Song in Persia (RLE Iran B): The Art of Avaz. Great Britain: Routledge.

Overlaet, B. (2018). Sasanian, Central Asian and Byzantine Iconography – Patterned Silks and Cross-Cultural Exchange. In B. Bühler & V. Freiberger (eds.), Der Goldschatz von Sânnicolau Mare [The Gold Treasure of Sânnicolau Mare]. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, pp. 139-152.

Roberts, A.M. (2013). The Crossing Paths of Greek and Persian Knowledge in the 9th-century Arabic ‘Book of Degrees’. Orientalia Christiana Analecta, 293, pp.279-303.

Silva, J.A.M. (2019). The Influence of Gondeshapur Medicine during the Sassanid Dynasty and the Early Islamic Period. Archives of Iranian Medicine, 22 (9), pp. 531-540.

Sparati N. (2002).  L’ enigma delle arti Asittite della Calabria Ultra-Mediterranea [The enigma of the Asittite arts of Calabria Ultra-Mediterranean]. Mammola, Italy: MuSaBa – Santa Barbera Art Foundation & Iiriti Editore.

Ward. P. (1968). The Origin and Spread of Qanats in the Old World. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 112, No. 3, pp. 170-181.

Wulff, H. (1968). The Qanats of Iran. Scientific American, Vol. 218, No. 4, pp. 94–105.

Select Major Reference Resources in Kaveh

Select Articles in

When Roman “Barbarians” Met the Asian Enlightenment

The article When Roman “Barbarians” Met the Asian Enlightenmentwas first published by The Strange A portion of that article has been printed below which has been edited. Commentaries have also been inserted for reference. Kindly note that the article printed below features a number of additional images and accompanying captions that do not appear in the original article in The Strange Continent.

Consistent with this topic, a lecture entitled Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe during the Classical Era will be offered by Kaveh Farrokh at the University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies Alireza Ahmadian Lectures in Persian and Iranian Studies (November 29, 2019, 6:30-8:30, Room 120, CK Choi Building) … for further details kindly click the image below …


This week, the BBC announced the discovery of two “ethnically Chinese” skeletons at an ancient Roman burial site in England. Who were they? What drove them to the far end of the world? We don’t know, yet.

But for once, an article’s clickbait headline may not be exaggerating. If the genetic identity of these skeletons can be confirmed, it could indeed “rewrite Roman history” — or at least, a whole lot of long-held assumptions about who was in contact with whom in the days of the Roman Empire.

Oh, we’ve known for a long time the ancient Romans were aware of China’s existence — in fact, Chinese silk was such a drain on the Roman economy that the senate tried to outlaw it in the year 14 CE. And the Chinese emperors of the Han dynasty were certainly aware of Rome — they called it Da Qin and repeatedly tried to reach it with envoys and missionaries.

No one disputes the fact that these two cultures had centuries of indirect contact, via trade routes through India and Persia. Roman coins have been found as far east as Japan where Persians were teaching mathematics to the locals.

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).

DNA evidence seems to suggest that Europeans settled on the western fringes of China as early as the 200s BCE.

COMMENT BY The sentence “Europeans settled on the western fringes of China as early as the 200s BCE”  is somewhat misleading. First, there are common Indo-European ancestors for the Europeans, Indians and Iranians. The peoples the writer is referring to may have been variously proto-Iranian or Tocharian – the dress found among their mummies in Urumchi for example bear striking resemblance to the later attire of the Medes, Achaemenids, Scythians, Sarmatians, Parthians and Sassanians. Second, these settlements in northwest China appear to have taken place earlier before the reign of the Medes and the succeeding Medo-Achaemenids.

What’s much less clear, though, is whether Chinese or Roman diplomats ever managed to achieve direct contact on each others’ native soil.

Until these Chinese skeletons were unearthed in England — at the far-western end of the Roman Empire, no less — no one had ever found any proof that a single Chinese envoy ever made it to Rome; or that a Roman envoy reached China. Which would mean…Romans were largely locked out of the civilized world. But wait… wasn’t Rome “the civilized world?”

That’s certainly what most of us (in the West, anyway) are taught in school. Back in my school days, I was taught a fair amount about Rome, a tiny bit about China, even less about Persia, and nothing at all about the Kushans, or the Axumites, or any of the other powerful empires that controlled large chunks of the globe — and often helped shape the cultures and fortunes of European nations. Maybe you can relate.

The truth is, though, that Rome’s Asian contemporaries completely dwarfed Rome in many respects: heritage, population density, cultural diversity, technology, architecture, medicine, philosophy, poetry… I could go on, but you get the idea. During the Roman period, the Asian continent was by far the wealthiest, most advanced, most culturally diverse place on earth. Imperial Rome was a dim backwater by comparison.

Ever since I’ve learned that fact, it’s always made me sad to think of the Romans being largely cut off from the main action on the world stage.

If researchers can verify the ancestry of these skeletons in England, maybe Rome wasn’t quite as cut off as we always believed. It’s an exciting thought. But it doesn’t change the fact that, on the whole, contact between Rome and the East — and thus, between Eastern and Western cultural legacies — was mostly indirect, mediated by third (and often fourth and fifth) parties.

Who were these vast empires of Asia? What was it like to live in them? Where did they come from, and what legacies did they leave?

I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a journey to the East.

Before we begin our tale, we first need to briefly set our stage, and make sure all our actors are on their marks.

In the 200s to 400s CE (the range of dates during which the owners of those Chinese skeletons made their way to Roman Britain) the map looked something like this:

A map of the Three Great Empires of Antiquity in c. 200 CE: Rome, Persia (Parthians followed by Sassanians) and China (Source: The Strange Continent).

I say “something like this” because a lot was going on during those centuries:

  • Rome’s legions were fighting fiercely for control of Gaul (modern France and Germany), Britain, Egypt, and various parts of the Balkans; while a succession of (often unfairly maligned) emperors scrambled to hold Rome together through an endless series of famines, wars with the East, coups d’état, refugee crises, and revolts.
  • The steppe horsemen known as the Parthians lost control of Persia, which entered a great classical age under the Sassanian dynasty.
  • The Han dynasty lost its grip on China, which split into three powerful warring kingdoms.
  • Vast tracts of southern Asia were changing hands among a dozen or more competing empires, each with its own rich culture.

Since we don’t know exactly when those Chinese travelers (whoever they were) left China and arrived in Roman Britain, it’s hard to say exactly what kind of “China” they left, what kind of “Rome” they arrived in, or what kind of “Persia” — or what other empires, exactly — they had to pass through.

With that in mind, let’s spend some time in a few of those Asian empires, and get to know their people a little better.

The Sassanians

The Sassanians could trace their cultural ancestry all the way back to the primordial mists of recorded history, to the dawn of civilization itself.

Ancient Persian traditional music as posted by The Strange Continent.

They had taken Persia from the Parthians, who’d taken it from the Seleucids — descendants of Alexander; an infamous villain in Persian eyes to this day — who’d ripped it from the hands of the glorious Achaemenid dynasty, who’d freed Mesopotamia from the brutal yoke of the Assyrian Empire, back when Rome was an unknown village.

The Assyrians, of course, had been just the latest in a line of conquerors reaching back through the Babylonians, though many long centuries, to the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great — the first documented multi-ethnic empire in world history, which owed its own cultural legacy, in large part, to the Sumerians.

Sargon of Akkad, circa 2250 BCE  (The Strange Continent).

By the time they met Rome, the Sasanians could look back through no less than 3,000 years of literate, urban society. The oldest works of poetry and sculpture in their treasure-houses were as ancient, for them, as the Iliad and the Odyssey, or the Old Testament, are for us today.

In fact, Babylon had long ago been ruled by yet another dynasty from the Persian region. The Elamite people, whose own literate culture was as ancient and venerable as that of the Sumerians, had conquered large swathes of Mesopotamia in the 1800s BCE, holding dominion until they were thrown out by an invading king called Hammurabi.

A bust of Sassanian Shahanshah Shapur II (The Strange Continent).

At its height, the Sassanian Empire spanned all of today’s Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatif, Qatar, UAE, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Egypt, large parts of Turkey, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Yemen and Pakistan. It was geographically smaller than the peak-size Roman Empire— but it was more urban, and far more densely populated.

The Sassanian Empire at its greatest extent c. 620 CE, under Shahanshah Khosrau II (The Strange Continent).

The Sassanian Empire’s subjects hailed from uncounted hundreds of tribes and peoples. They practiced at least ten different major religions, including Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism; along with a late, decadent form of the religion of ancient Babylon.

The state religion, however, was Zoroastrianism — as it had been since the Achaemenid dynasty, five centuries before, and would remain until the coming of Islam (while many practicing Zoroastrians still live in the region, and around the world, today).

Though the empire’s people spoke dozens of languages, the tongues of the court were Greek and Aramaic, along with an ancestor of the Farsi language now spoken in Iran.

At the head of the Sassanian state sat the shah-en-shah — the King of Kings, a title borrowed from the Achaemenid Persian emperors like Darius and Xerxes.

Below the shah-en-shah, a meticulously organized pyramid of governors and viziers extended down to the powerful nobility of land-holding feudal aristocrats, who oversaw the middle castes of priests, warriors, commoners, and artisans.

Court of Khosrow II and his queen Shirin – Smbat Bagratuini (Figure 4) was to replicate the spectacular successes of the Sassanian military against a renewed Turco-Hephthalite invasion of the Sassanian empire from the northeast in 618-619 CE (For more information on color plates and sources consult: Plate F, pp.53-54, 62, Elite Sassanian Cavalry-اسواران ساسانی-).

The upper classes enjoyed the first recognizably “Persian” culture: brocaded silks, floral tapestries, ornate goblets, sumptuous carpets, intricate mosaics, and the styles of music, food and poetry that would so captivate their Islamic conquerors a few centuries hence — just as they would later captivate the Seljuks, the Mongols and the Ottomans; and that continue to lend their distinct influences to Turkish and Iranian culture, even today. Any time you savor a bite of baklava or sip a glass of dark tea, thank the Sassanians.

Sassanian influence remains strong in this painting of King Bahram V Gur, from the mid-16th-century Safavid era (The Strange Continent).

You can also thank the Sassanian aristocracy for much of (what would later become) the medieval European aesthetic. Look at this Sasanian rock engraving, for example, and you’re essentially looking at a medieval European king …

Rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rustam of Sassanian emperor Shapur I (on horseback) capturing Roman emperor Valerian (standing) and Philip the Arab (kneeling), suing for peace, following the victory at Edessa (The Strange Continent).

…except that this engraving depicts the Sassanian shah-en-shah Shapur I, and dates from around 260 CE — a full thousand years before the European medieval period, when the height of Roman fashion was still togas and sandals. It’s like Shapur time-traveled to Rome from the future.

Regal Sassanian figures (middle and right) with the ray-headed Mithras holding a ceremonial sword or barsom at Taghe Bostan (The Strange Continent).

The Sassanian aristocracy, like their later medieval imitators, wore ankle-length robes and pointed slippers, tunics and trousers— more borrowings from the Achaemenids, Assyrians and Babylonians before them.

They rode into battle on famously enormous horses, outfitted in full suits of chain-mail armor, wielding broadswords and longbows, carrying jousting lances. For more see:

Ever wondered how Roman legions would fare against medieval knights? You don’t have to wonder — the Romans fought hundreds of battles against the Sassanians, and the Sassanians often beat the Roman legions to a bloody pulp; especially when fighting on the defensive.

When the Roman army started incorporating their own armored heavy cavalry, they got better at fighting back against the feudal knights of the Sassanian aristocracy — but the Romans never made any permanent incursions into Sassanian territory, or inflicted many serious defeats. The Sassanians never made it very far into Roman territory, either. For hundreds of years, the two armies held each other, in large part, at a stalemate.

Sassanian forces counterattack the invading Turco-Hephthalites in the Sassanian Empire’s northeast; the figures in the above plate (1-late Sassanian Savar-Framandar, 2-Kanarang, 3-Paygospan and 4-Turkic Gok warriors) are based on reconstructions from Sassanian archaeological data such as the grotto of the armored knight inside the vault or Iwan at Taghe Bostan, the (post-Sassanian) metalwork work plate of Pur-e Vahman as well as East Iranian sources (For more information consult: Plate C, pp.53-54, 60-61, Elite Sassanian Cavalry-اسواران ساسانی-).

It wasn’t only in military matters that the  were centuries ahead of their time. Their scholars translated the works of Plato and Aristotle — preserving many books that were later lost to the West — and organized debates between sages and scholars of dozens of philosophies and religions, from all across Asia.

The shah established a “Grand School” at the capital city of Ctesiphon (in modern Iraq), where more than 30,000 pupils studied astronomy, architecture, medicine and literature. In fact, a few centuries later, when the Roman emperor Justinian forcibly closed all the Greek schools, the Sassanians would welcome the fleeing Greek philosophers with open arms.

A detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy.  Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans. For more see Ken R. Vincent: Zoroaster-the First Universalist 

Long after the Western Roman Empire fell beneath waves of attack from the Huns and Goths, the Sassanian emperors continued to hold their own against the Eastern Roman Empire, slowly growing weaker under relentless losses against the Byzantines, the Turks, the Khazars, and hordes of other enemies.

By the time the armies of Islam rode out of Arabia, the once-great Sassanian Empire was fragmented and exhausted. An army led by Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattāb captured city after Sassanian city throughout the mid-600s; and by 651, the remains of the knightly and priestly aristocracy fled, in despair, into the vastness of the Central Asian steppe-land.

The remains of the Sassanian royal palace at Ctesiphon, in modern Iraq (The Strange Continent).

It’s often been said, though, that no one truly captures Persia. Instead, Persia captures her conquerors. There’s no doubt that she captured the Arabs. Much of what we think of as “Arabian culture” today — the distinctive styles of art, food, architecture and music; the tales of The 1,001 Nights; the wealth and opulence of Middle-Eastern monarchs— owes far more, in fact, to the Sassanian palace gardens than to the deserts of Arabia.

To read more on this topic, consult The Strange Continent …