Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

The article below is the Introduction section of the textbook “Warriors of Ancient Siberia” (edited by St John Simpson of the British Museum and Svetlana Pankova of the State Hermitage Museum) written for the BP Exhibition organized with the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia, the British Museum and Thames & Hudson. The Introduction is also available for download at … For more information on this book consult: and Thames & Hudson.


The Scythian nomads controlled a vast area stretching from the edge of northern China to the northern Black Sea region. Originating in southern Siberia, they dominated the Eurasian steppe for centuries until they were displaced by other Eurasian nomad tribes at the beginning of the second century bc. Although the Greeks referred to them as ‘barbarians’, this term was applied to all non-Greeks, and the nomads developed a rich material culture with a strong visual language involving fierce contorted animal designs known as ‘Animal Style’ art. This is found on the decorated ends of torcs, bangles and dagger pommels, gold and bronze belt buckles, saddle covers and even body tattoos. The Scythians were skilled at working metals and softer materials such as bone, horn and wood, which were sometimes highlighted with paint, appliqués or colourful sheet-metal overlays; this allowed sparing use of precious metal yet the appearance was spectacularly like solid metal. As pastoral nomads they kept large herds and had plentiful supplies of leather, wool and hair, which not only provided the basis for clothing and soft furnishings but were also easily traded resources in constant demand from their sedentary neighbours. There was regular contact with these: the fifth-century bc historian Herodotus met Scythians in Greek colonies on the northern Black Sea coast; Greek and Assyrian histories record that they fought their way into Anatolia; and they proved a constant threat to the Achaemenid Persian Empire on its eastern frontier in Central Asia. These contacts, whether through conflict, trade or marriage, explain why Achaemenid silver, gold and even carpets ended up in nomad tombs, how Scythian-related goldwork forms part of the Oxus Treasure found near the river Amu darya (Oxus) in its eastern province of Bactria, and why many design motifs are shared by both the Scythian and Achaemenid worlds.

Ancient authors described these peoples where they encountered them at the fringes, but one of the regions where this early nomadic lifestyle first developed was Tuva (fig. 1), at the junction of the Siberian taiga and the Altai-Sayan mountains. It is here that the earliest manifestations of the so-called ‘Scythian triad’ of weapons, horse harness and Animal Style art emerges in the ninth and eighth centuries bc, and archaeological excavations at Arzhan reveal burials of elite individuals interred with their wives or concubines, attendants, and horses. This area is at the heart of southern Siberia and connected by a continuous corridor of grassy pasture to northern China and the Black Sea region. This biome (ecological area) is wider than the vast empire of the Achaemenids, which united the Near East between the sixth and fourth centuries bc, and the Scythians outlasted them, as they had their Late Assyrian and Median predecessors. The Scythians were finally overwhelmed and dissipated by later tribal groups. Roman and Byzantine authors continued to refer to their nomad successors in the Black Sea region and Central Asia as Scythians, but the cultures were changing, and Iranian was replaced by Turkic languages. China was now the dominant political power and there were stronger links with that culture than previously. Deep in the resource-rich but isolated Minusinsk basin, the so-called Tashtyk culture developed during the early centuries ad; this is the focus of the conclusion to the exhibition.

The story behind the objects presented here begins with chance finds made deep in southern Siberia during the eighteenth century. The Russian conquest of Siberia had begun in 1581/82 during the reign of Ivan IV, ‘the Terrible’ (1530–1584), with the defeat of the Tatar khan, Khimchum, by the Cossack commander Yermak. The numerous local tribes were required to pay heavy tribute in furs, a process known as the yassak.

Fig. 1: Landscape view showing Scythian burial mounds in Tuva, southern Siberia.

Tsar Peter I, ‘the Great’ (1672–1725), began sending scientific expeditions to the region; it was during one of these that the strait separating Siberia from Alaska was discovered in 1728 and named after its finder, Vitus Bering (1681–1741). The exploration of Siberia was marked by amazing antiquarian discoveries as large burial mounds (kurgans) attracted the attention of engineers and grave robbers (bugrovshchiki). News of the discovery of fantastic gold ornaments in completely unfamiliar styles soon reached St Petersburg as a collection formed by one Demidov was presented to Peter in 1715. The Tsar issued an edict that any such finds, especially those ‘that are very old and uncommon’, should be sent to St Petersburg, and ordered that drawings be made ‘of everything that is found’. After his death they were transferred to the Kunstkamera (‘Cabinet of Curiosities’), which he had founded in 1714, the first museum in the country. In 1690 the Dutchman Nicolaas Witsen published the first map of Siberia, and two years later the first edition of his account entitled Noord en Oost Tartarye. In the same year one Andrei Lyzlov, said to be either a priest from Smolensk or a courtier from Moscow, wrote an account entitled History of the Scythians, and there was considerable academic interest in Russia into how these finds connected with the ancestral origins of the Slavs and other peoples, and therefore with the early formation of Russia itself (fig. 2).

Fig.2: Frontispiece of the History of the Scythians by A. Lyzlov. London Library.

During the second half of the eighteenth century, in the reign of Catherine II, ‘the Great’ (1729–1796), Russia occupied the northern coast of the Black Sea from the mouth of the river Dniester to the area around Kuban, and achieved its aim of obtaining a warm-water port with access to the Mediterranean (fig. 3).

Fig.3: Print showing the advance of Russia towards the Black Sea during the reign of Catherine II.
Simon François Ravenet I after Nicholas Blakey, 1753 (H. 22.4, W. 17.1 cm, British Museum, London, 1978, U.1663).

As part of its so-called Greek Project – according to which Russia intended to oust the Turks from Europe and as self-styled heirs of the Byzantine Empire found an Empire of Constantinople – cities were given Greek names. In 1787 Catherine visited the area, and antiquarian travellers began to record sites and note the presence of ancient Greek inscriptions. The first kurgan was excavated in 1763 by General Alexey Melgunov (1722–1788), the governor of the Novorossiisk province. It was found to be a seventh- century bc Scythian tomb and proved accounts that the Scythians were active in this region from this early date. Within a year Herodotus’ Histories were translated into Russian for the first time, and a copy of a gold scabbard found by Melgunov was presented to the British Museum (fig. 4).

Fig.4: The Scythian gold scabbard known as the Melgunov scabbard. Seventh century BC (L. 60 cm, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Dn 1763 1-19, 20).

Other generals excavated a burial mound near the Black Sea port of Phanagoria, and initiated excavations at Olbia and Kerch at the eastern end of the Crimean peninsula. In 1830 a large kurgan at Kul’ Oba, near Kerch, began to be quarried for construction. Excavations immediately followed under the direction of Paul Du Brux, a French antiquarian who owned a private museum and was the chief customs officer in Kerch, and Ivan Stempkovsky, the governor of Kerch. An intact stone tomb measuring 20 sq. m was found to contain the bodies of what are believed to be a Scythian king and queen with numerous gold objects, a groom with a horse, armour, cauldrons, amphorae and drinking vessels. These objects were immediately acquired by the Imperial Hermitage and formed the beginning of the museum’s archaeological collection. On 3 June 1837 an imperial decree stated that the Ministry of Internal Affairs be informed with ‘the appropriate accuracy and detail’ of all architectural finds, and the minister of internal affairs, Count Lev Perovsky, directed the first excavations of royal Scythian burial mounds in this region during the early 1850s. Further excavations, mainly on the Kerch and Taman peninsulas, were generously funded by the Ministry of the Imperial Court, and the finds inspired arts and crafts (fig. 5) and even the interior decor of the New Hermitage, which was intended as a museum and completed in 1851. The collection from the Kunstkamera was transferred to the Hermitage, where it was, and still is, known as ‘Peter I’s Siberian Collection’. In 1854 an album was published containing the most important finds and an Archaeological Commission was founded in 1859 with the following remit:

(1) the search for antiquities, primarily those relating to Russian history and the life of the peoples who once inhabited the territory that is now occupied by Russia; (2) the collection of information on national and other antiquities located within the state; (3) the scientific study and evaluation of the antiquities discovered.1

Fig.5: A gold Scythian bracelet found in 1869 in the fourth-century bc burial mound of Temir-Gora, near Kerch in the northern Black Sea region. Bracelets like this inspired Russian jewelers to make and exhibit copies, and these were copied again by continental European and English firms (State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, TG-6).

Royal burial mounds and major sites continued to be the focus in the northern Black Sea region, and large numbers were explored (figs 6–7). The 20-m-high Alexandropol burial mound (also known as the Meadow Grave) was the first to be completely excavated, though most of the finds were lost during bombing in 1941. Other mounds were excavated between 1859 and 1863 by the historian Ivan Zabelin (1820–1908), including the Great Twin Barrow on the Taman peninsula and the famous burial mound of Chertomlyk. The latter stood 20 m high and up to 120 m across, with a massive outer stone wall and a complex tomb with side chambers at the centre: although the central chamber had been robbed in antiquity, valuable finds had been overlooked, and the side rooms still contained the remains of female and warrior burials with rich grave goods.

Fig.6: The interior of a large burial mound known as the ‘Tomb of Mithridates’ near the Lazaretto of Kerch;  Edmund Walker in 1856, after a view by Carlo Bossoli, H. 18.4, W. 28.5 cm; British Museum, London, 1982,U.687 Donated by Westminster City Council)

The exact find-spots of the earliest discoveries made during Peter’s reign remain unclear but are known to have been at different sites between the Ural and Altai mountain ranges in southern Siberia; this was supported by the discovery of typical Scythian objects during excavations in 1865 by academician V. V. Radlov at two large burial mounds (Berel, Katanda) in the Altai region. In 1889 the Archaeological Commission was given exclusive excavation rights and it was agreed that, while the most important finds should be sent to the Hermitage, other pieces could be distributed to local museums. The academician and professor at St Petersburg University Nikolai Veselovsky (1848–1918) led a series of highly successful expeditions to the northern Caucasus and Black Sea region, where he excavated the major burial mounds Oguz (1891–4), Kostromskaya (1897), Kelermes (1904, 1908), Ulsky (1908–10) and Solokha (1912–13); it was in this last mound that he found some of the most spectacular examples of Greco-Scythian goldworking, including a comb topped with a battle scene, a golden phiale (a shallow drinking vessel) with animal designs, an overlay for a bow case with a scene from a Scythian epic and a silver cup depicting a Scythian hunting scene (see Chapter 1).2

Fig.7: Ruins of ancient Chersonesos. Jonathan Needham in 1856, after a view by Carlo Bossoli H. 18.8, W. 28.3 cm (British Museum, London, 1982,U.699 Donated by Westminster City Council).

In October 1917 Russia was convulsed by revolution and the Hermitage was stormed. Huge social changes began to be implemented, and in the first few months the Soviet authorities established a Committee of

the North in order to protect twenty-six ethnic groups in Siberia who were considered at greatest risk: they were exempted from military conscription and taxation, offered basic social amenities, and an attempt was made to teach in native tongues, acknowledging their nomadic existence by schooling in tents. There was also a huge increase in the number of local history societies and museums across the country. However, these measures were short-lived and the individuals concerned were soon accused of supporting local patriotism over national interests.3 In 1929/30 communist collectivization of food production began to be imposed across Russia, nomads were settled, owners of large herds were deported, shamans were outlawed and children were put into Russian boarding schools. It was immediately afterwards, in 1931,

that a detailed census was carried out, which formed the basis for a landmark study by S. Vainshtein of the disappearing nomad economy of the Tuva region.4 During the 1960s local collective farms reorganized into larger enterprises, and the integration of local and Russian populations increased.

In the meantime, on 18 April 1919 the Imperial Archaeological Commission had been dissolved and replaced by the Institute for the History of Material Culture (Lenin personally added the word ‘history’ to its founding edict), and money poured into archaeological projects from the 1930s onwards.5

The Hermitage created three new departments – one that became the Oriental Department in 1920, the Department of Prehistoric Societies (now the Department of the Archaeology of Eastern Europe and Siberia) in 1931, and the Department of the History of Russian Culture in 1941 – and it enjoyed an almost unbroken sequence of directors who were themselves archaeologists. During this period archaeology became politicized and seen as an opportunity for the Soviet authorities to find evidence for Marx’s classification of society into developmental stages, beginning from a pre-class stage through stages of slave-owning, feudalism and capitalism before attaining a classless society with communism as its climax. The superiority of Slavs over Germanic peoples was emphasized while Russia and Germany were at war; cases of ethnogenesis, or the emergence of ethnic groups, were sought within the Soviet Union, and the definition of archaeological cultures and their relationship to linguistic boundaries and peoples were debated.

The origins of the Scythians continued to attract different views. Some Russian scholars saw them as originating in the northern Black Sea region, in the area where they were described by Herodotus. Academician Mikhail Rostovtzeff (1870–1952) interpreted them as a feudal military power, and was the first to begin defining them as an archaeological culture on the grounds of the standard appearance of their burial mounds and other features.6 The Moscow professor Boris Grakov (1899–1970) was the first to excavate large numbers of simple burial mounds belonging to ‘the common people’, in contrast with the previous focus on ‘royal’ mounds; he also thoroughly explored a hill fort at Kamenka, interpreted the Scythians’ social development in Marxist terms as a stage of transition from military democracy to a slave-owning society, and saw the spread of the so-called ‘Scythian triad’ as evidence for the Scythianization of the indigenous forest-steppe population.7 The coexistence of two different Scythian cultures, on the steppe and in the forest-steppe, was instead advocated by Mikhail Artamonov (1898–1972), who later became director of the Hermitage. He wrote extensively on how much Scythian art showed Near Eastern inspiration and emphasized that the Scythians were Iranians rather than Slavs.8 His successor, B. B. Piotrovsky (1908–1990), went on to find dramatic evidence for Scythian military activity in the Caucasus during his excavations of an Urartian fortress at Karmir Blur in Armenia, which had been violently sacked, but distinguishing between objects made by Scythians and the Cimmerians, their early northern rivals in the northern Black Sea region, proved to be a long-running issue.

These and other debates rumbled on for decades, and as late as 1979 the head of Soviet archaeology for thirty years, Boris Rybakov (1908–2001), stated in a book entitled The Scythians of Herodotus that the land- tilling Scythian tribes in the northern Black Sea region were the possible ancestors of later Slav tribes, making a tenuous philological link between the Skolotoi (a name given by Herodotus for other Scythian tribes) and the Sklavins (the Greek for Slavs). However, during the 1920s an ethnological expedition began work in Altai and had already challenged the idea that Scythians originated in the Black Sea region. In 1927 the Russian Museum in Leningrad excavated another burial mound in the central Altai region at Shibe and found it to be very similar to those previously excavated by Radlov. Three years earlier Sergey Rudenko (1885–1969), head of the ethnography section of the Russian Museum in Leningrad, had discovered a group of burial mounds at Pazyryk, and he excavated the first in 1929 with his Siberian-born student Mikhail Gryaznov (1902–1984). Conditions were tough. There were no roads or nearby food supplies, the team had to employ children as labourers, horses were used to drag away the heaviest boulders and water had to be boiled by the side of the trench to melt the permafrost (pp. 98–99; fig. 8).

Fig 8: Excavations in progress at the burial mound of Pazyryk-2 in 1948 (Archive of the Institute for the History of Material Culture, St Petersburg, I-32719).

In the meantime there were serious political problems in Leningrad as Stalin began the ‘Great Terror’ in 1934 with a purge of the intelligentsia as well as the political and military command. A witch-hunt was instigated against individuals who had used ‘bourgeois’ classifications, such as Bronze or Iron Age; ‘archaeology’ was replaced by ‘Marxist history of material culture’; over fifty curators at the Hermitage were deported or executed; and the leading Leningrad archaeologist Aleksandr Miller (1875–1935) was sent to Siberia for ‘writing long drawn-out reports on things he had excavated’, as this was condemned as ‘empiricism’.9 Moreover, collaboration with Russians working abroad, particularly in Germany, was banned and scholars were arrested as spies. Rudenko himself was arrested in 1933, accused of pointless investigations and ethnographic idealism, and spent years working in the northern labour camps (although ironically he was promoted because of his knowledge of hydrology and proved invaluable for his ‘ice forecasts’ during the Soviet supply of the besieged city of Leningrad across the frozen Lake Ladoga in the Second World War). His colleague Gryaznov was also charged with being an underground fascist working with Ukrainian and Russian nationalists, and was exiled internally for three years. In 1941 the Pazyryk collection was transferred from the Russian Museum to the Hermitage, but from September that year until January 1944 Leningrad was besieged by the German army, and it was not until 1947 that Rudenko and Gryaznov returned to Pazyryk, where over three more seasons they excavated the four remaining mounds under the auspices of the Institute of the History of Material Culture, which retains the archives, and the Hermitage, where the finds were deposited.

Although all the tombs had been robbed and there was therefore virtually nothing of intrinsic value remaining, the frozen conditions stemming from the percolation of water into the tomb promoted exceptional preservation of the organic remains, which revolutionized the appreciation of Scythian everyday life.10

Rudenko and Gryaznov shared the same building but parted academic ways and never spoke to each other again. Rudenko established a laboratory of archaeological technology in his institute and championed the application of natural sciences in archaeology. Gryaznov went on to head the Central Asia and Caucasus section: he maintained that archaeological cultures were stages or phases in local development rather than evidence of separate cultures, but his excavations at the early Scythian burial mound at Arzhan-1 overturned earlier views and showed that what was now known as the ‘Scythian triad’ already existed in the Tuva region by the late ninth or early eighth century bc, and that this was not a development of the Black Sea or Iran.11 Although there are similarities in the material culture and pastoral economy, there are also differences in detail of dress, burial customs, pottery and other aspects of lifestyle, and it is better to regard these as evidence for a shifting confederation of powerful tribes united within a Scythian cultural world.

Archaeological research on Scythians is continuing, with excavations each year across the Eurasian steppe, extending from Mongolia through Kazakhstan and Russia to Ukraine. A Ukrainian–German expedition returned to Chertomlyk between 1979 and 1986 and added considerable new evidence for how the mound was built.12 Between 2001 and 2004 a Russian– German expedition directed by K. Chugunov, H. Parzinger and A. Nagler fully excavated another burial mound at Arzhan in Tuva, and proved that the Black Sea tradition of interring large quantities of gold did extend to this region.13 During the 1990s archaeologists from Novosibirsk excavated more ‘frozen mummies’ at unrobbed burial mounds on the Ukok plateau, next to the Chinese border (fig. 9), and in neighbouring Kazakhstan the burial mound of Berel-11 was explored by a Kazakh–French expedition and shown to belong to the same culture as Pazyryk (see pp. 100–103). Concerns that global warming will lead to the melting of the permafrost, which has been the sole reason why these tombs have yielded such exceptional finds, means that these excavations are as much rescue as research.14 Other expeditions are recording the rich rock art traditions, and large areas that include later period sites such as Oglakhty have been designated nature reserves (see p. 342).

Collaborative research and the use of scientific techniques are now common: dendrochronological and radiocarbon dates are refining the dating of sites,15 advances in bioarchaeology are adding information on the genetics, diet and health of both horse and human populations,16 and detailed analyses of metalwork and textiles are throwing new light on technologies.17 This book of the exhibition is intended to show some of these results and how far we have progressed beyond the writings of Herodotus and the first antiquarian discoveries during the reign of Peter the Great.18

Fig.9: Excavations of a ‘frozen mummy’ at Ak-Alakha-3 on the Ukok plateau.

Impact of Iranian Culture On East Asia

The article below “Impact of Iranian Culture on East Asia” published in The Iranian (Sept 10, 2017) is by Dr. Mohammad Ala, the recipient of the 2013 Grand Prix Film Italia Award for his documentary Immortality.


There are many examples of Iranian cultural influence on East Asia. In this article, several examples of this influence in Japan and China will be listed.

Iran is located in West Asia (wrongly known as the Middle East, even among Iranians). It has influenced many cultures throughout its rich history from music to food preparation, and even some imperial traditions were borrowed from the Iranian system of government.

According to the “Shiji”, a historical book written by Sima Qian, Iranians were known in China as An-XiAn-Xi means Arsak/Ashkanian and the Parthian Empire extended into to the Chinese language, including Pacoros and Emperor Zhangs letters. An-Xi (Parthia/Iran) Gao means high (i.e., from a noble background). Thus An-Xi Gao refers to a Parthian with noble background. Sima Qian and his associate An Xuan wrote about Wudi and Mihrdat and how they knew each other. Qian was the first person to translate Buddhist texts into Mandarin which had a major impact on Chinese history.

In countries across East Asia (not just China!), including Korea, Vietnam and Japan, these two individuals are considered holy. They were instrumental in Buddhism gaining popularity.

History teaches us that the Chinese were well informed about Iran. For example, after the overthrow of the Parthian Empire, they stopped calling Iran An-Xi and they started to call it Po-ssi or Bo-ssi which means Parsi in Chinese.

The Tang-Dynasty were close allies with the Sasanids. Some historians believe China tried to free Iran from the Arabs and some Iranians left to live in East Asia by way of the silk road.

An interesting story is that of An-Lu Shan a Sogdian-Iranian who became the Emperor of China. Iran was a part of the Chinese history, and later during the Islamic Period, many Hui-Chinese like Zheng He were of Iranian-Khwarezmian ancestry. Also the Barmakiyan-Family, a mixed Zoroastrian-Buddhist Iranian family, had important positions in India and East Asia.

The first mention of Iranians (Persians) coming to Japan can be found in the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan). One of the earliest Japanese historical sources, completed in 720 C.E. It records that in 654 C.E. several people arrived in Japan from Tokhārā (Aston, pp. 246, 251, 259). Though there is some controversy about the location of Tokhārā, some scholars have claimed the name to be a shortened version of Toḵārestān, which was part of the territory of Sasanian Persia (Itō, 1980, pp. 5-10).

Iranian people of Central Asia were the link between West and East Asia as a whole and the civilizations of ancient Iran, notably Sassanian and post-Sassanian culture(s). Open and tolerant, the Soghdians, Kushans, Tocharians, etc. established a sophisticated literature and urban culture (Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

Elsewhere in the Nihon Shoki, it is mentioned that in 660, when an Iranian (Persian), whose name was Dārā, returned to his country. He left his wife in Japan and promised the Emperor that he would come back and work for him again (Aston, p. 266; Imoto, 2002, pp. 58-60).

In the 7th to the 9th centuries, foreigners—then known in Japanese as toraijin—were coming to Japan mainly from Korea and China, bringing with them technology, culture, religion (Buddhism), and ideas. Eastern Asia, especially the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907), had socio-economic networks with many regions of the world, including southern and western Asia.

Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), the capital of the Tang Dynasty, was an international city with people from various countries, including Iranians (Persians). It should be noted that some even traveled further to Japan. Iranian names are to be met with in historical documents, and one can find some influence of Persian culture in the architecture, sculptures, and also in the customs and old East Asian rituals at that time. For example, some scholars have claimed that there is some influence of Persian culture in the Omizutori ritual held every February at Tōdaiji temple in Nara (Itō, 1980, pp. 125-33).

The oldest document in Parsi, which is preserved in Japan, was procured by the Japanese priest named Kyōsei (1189-1268) from Iranians (Persians) during his trip to southern Asia in 1217. Thinking they were Indians, the priest asked them to write something for him as a keepsake. However, after his return to Japan he found out that they were not Indians, because no one could understand what the writing meant. This document was discovered in the late 20th century, when it was established that it is written in Parsi and contains a line from Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma (qq.v.), a line from Faḵr-al-Din Gorgāni’s Vis o Rāmin (qq.v.), and a quatrain of unknown authorship (Okada, 1989).

Music has no boundaries, words from one language can be combined with musical tradition of another. The following is a beautiful singing.


In addition to public domain sources, the data were obtained from, Japan and Ancient Iran” , Christopher I. Beckwith: Empires of the Silk Road” and Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at USC and UBC were reviewed.

Mazda = Ahoora Mazda (God of light), the name Mazda came into being with the production of the company’s first trucks.

Nissan Qashqai: This name came from Qashqai tribe who live mostly in mountainous Southwestern region of Iran.  (Qashqai means “a horse with a white forehead”)

Chinese-Iranian Relations in Pre-Islamic Times

This article by Edwin G. Pulleyblank on Chinese-Iranian relations was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1991 and last updated on October 14, 2011. This article is also available in print (Vol. V, Fasc. 4, pp. 424-431).

The version printed below is different in that it has embedded photographs and captions used in Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006.


Contact between China and Iran was initiated toward the end of the 2nd century B.C.E. by the envoy Chang Ch’ien (Zhang Qian), who journeyed to the west in search of the Yüeh-chih (Yue-zhi), a people that had migrated from the borders of China after having been defeated by the Hsiung-nu (Xiongnu). The Chinese hoped to enlist the Yüeh-chih as allies against this common enemy. It is, of course, possible that there had been indirect contacts even earlier. Speculations about possible western influences on Chinese astronomy, geography, myth, and folklore in pre-Han times, presumably through Iranian intermediar­ies (see, e.g., Maspéro, 1955, pp. 505-15), remain unsubstantiated by firm evidence, however.

The Terracotta army In the north-west Chinese region of Xian (left) at the mausoleum of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang (right), who died more than 2,200 years ago. The tomb contains approximately 8,000 life-sized terracotta warriors and horses. Qin Shi Huang unified China, built China’s first Great Wall and constructed a city-sized mausoleum along with a massive Terracotta Army by utilizing 700,000 laborers.   Chinese archaeologists have unearthed evidence that a foreign worker helped build the Terracotta Army mausoleum. Remains of the worker, described as a “foreign man in his 20s”, found among 121 skeletons in workers’ tomb 500 meters from mausoleum (as reported by the State-run Xinhua news agency). DNA tests were used to identify the ethnicity of 15 workers  Tan Jingze, an anthropologist with Fudan University, told Xinhua that “One sample has typical DNA features commonly owned by the Parsi [Zoroastrians]… the Kurds…and the Persians in Iran,” [i.e. all from the Iranian stock] (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

It has long been recognized that the Yüeh-chih must correspond, wholly or in part, to the Tochari, Asii (or Asiani), and Sacaraucae, who, according to Strabo (11.8.2), overthrew the Greek kingdom of Bactria, thus providing the earliest synchronism between Chinese and western historical records. Chang Ch’ien found them on the northern bank of the Oxus, but they were already overlords of Ta-hsia (Daxia), the name by which he called Bactria­. He did not succeed in his mission to persuade them to return and join with the Chinese against the Hsiung-nu, but he brought back news not only of the countries that he had visited in person but also of more distant lands (see ch’ien han shu). His descriptions of these countries provide glimpses of contemporary life in the Iranian city­-states, some of which are mentioned by name. In western Turkestan the dominant powers were the Ta-yüan (Dayuan; transcription of *Taxwar?) in Sogdiana and the K’ang­chü (Kang-ju), with Tashkent as their capital. It is probable that, like the Yüeh-chih, both peoples were nomadic invaders from farther east who spoke languages related to Tokharian (Pulleyblank, 1966). The major power in Persia was Parthia, which Chang Ch’ien called An-hsi (q.v.; An-xi = Aršak).

Iranian engineers supervising the construction of the Persepolis palace circa 2400-2500 years ago. A number of Chinese archaeologists now state that contacts between Iranian peoples and Far East began a century earlier than believed.  Iranian craftsmen of the Persepolis tradition were present in Qin China; earlier studies suggested first contact occurring later during Han dynasty (206 BC-220 CE) (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Divisionand were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

Chang Ch’ien’s report inaugurated a period of intense diplomatic activity and the development of trade relations via the so-called Silk Road across Inner Asia, which in succeeding centuries had a profound impact on both China and the Iranian peoples, unfortunately too little documented in written records. Under the Han dynasty (Former, or Western, Han, 206 b.c.e.-23 c.e.; Later, or Eastern, Han, 25-220 c.e.) embassies were exchanged with Parthia around 106 b.c.e. and again at the end of the 1st century c.e. In the 1st century b.c.e., after the Chinese had succeeded in displacing the nomadic Hsiung-­nu as overlords of the Tarim basin, the easternmost Iranian city-states, Khotan (Yü-t’ien/Yu-tian), Kashgar (Shu-le/Shu-le), and Yarkand (So-chü/Suo-ju; see chinese turkestan i. in pre-islamic times), enjoyed particularly close contacts with China. These relations were inter­rupted during the civil wars toward the end of the Former Han Dynasty, at the beginning of the 1st century c.e., but were restored a few years later; they then lasted more or less unbroken until the renewed civil war and Chinese withdrawal from the west after the Taoist Yellow Turban uprising of 184, which helped to bring down the Later Han dynasty (see, e.g., Mansvelt Beck, pp. 317-57).

The Yüeh-chih and the Kushans

Shortly after Chang Ch’ien’s visit the Yüeh-chih crossed the Oxus and carved out a kingdom for themselves in Bactria (q.v.). In the 1st-2nd centuries c.e., under the rule of the Kushan dynasty, they extended their power south across the Hindu Kush and east into Gandhara and northern India. In the process they gave up their nomadic way of life and adopted the mixed Hellenized Iranian and Buddhist Indian civiliza­tion of their settled subjects (see, e.g., Bivar, pp. 191-94; Frye, pp. 191-95); in fact, the Kushan empire became the main center from which Buddhism (q.v.) was introduced to the Far East (see below). There is also evidence that toward the end of the 2nd century the Kushans extended their power north of the Oxus and east into the Tarim basin as far as Lou-lan, near the area from which they had migrated westward nearly 400 years before. Although there is no explicit record of such a Kushan occupation in Chinese sources, presumably because the Chinese were preoccupied with their own internal troubles, it left traces in the use of Gandhari Prakrit written in Kharoṣṭhī script, which remained the administrative language in the local kingdom of Lou-lan in the following century (Brough). An independent embassy from Khotan visited the Han court in 202, which suggests that by then the Kushans had withdrawn west of the Pamirs (Pulleyblank, 1969). In 230 an embassy was sent by the Kushan king Po-t’iao (Bo-tiao = Vāsudeva) to the court of Wei (220-65), which had replaced the Han dynasty in northern China (Pulleyblank, 1969). There is no further Chinese reference to the Kushans after this embassy, presumably because their territory was conquered shortly afterward by the Sasanian dynasty of Persia, an event that went unnoticed in Chinese sources (Brough; Pulleyblank, 1969).

At the state level Chinese contacts with western countries in the next three and a half centuries were sporadic. After the Western Chin (Jin) dynasty (265-317) had succeeded the Wei in northern China embassies arrived from the K’ang-chü and the Ta-yüan in the period 265-74 and in 285 respectively, but the accounts of their lands in the Chin shu, which was compiled only much later, merely repeated information from earlier sources. Shortly afterward, in 304, non-Chinese tribesmen who had been allowed to settle inside the northern frontier during the Later Han period forced the Chin to withdraw south of the Yangtze river; according to the evidence from Chinese records, there were no further diplomatic missions to and from western countries until the mid-5th century, after the T’o-pa (To-ba, or Northern) Wei (386-535) had managed to reunite northern China. Contacts were made with the outer Iranian states in the Tarim basin, Sogdiana, and Afghanistan, which by that time had come under the domination of new nomadic powers, the Chionites (q.v.) and the Hephthalites (see, e.g., Frye, pp. 346-51).

Embassies from Po-ssu (Bo-si; Mathews, nos. 5314, 5574), the name by which the Chinese referred to Sasa­nian Persia, arrived at the Northern Wei court ten times between 455 and 522 (Ecsedy). The embassy of 518 brought a letter from the Persian king Chü-he-to (Ju-he­-duo; Mathews, nos. 1535, 2115, 6416; Early Middle Chinese kɨa-γwa-ta), that is, Kavād I (488-96, 498-531). The contemporary southern dynasty, Liang (502-57), received Persian embassies in 533 and 535. Western Wei (535-57), which succeeded to one part of the territory of Northern Wei, received a Persian embassy in 555 (Ecsedy). The reunification of the whole of China by Yang Chien in 589 led to renewed diplomatic initiatives under the Sui dynasty (581-618). The second emperor, Yang-ti (605­-17), sent an embassy to Ḵosrow II (590, 591-628), which elicited a reciprocal embassy from Persia to China (Sui shu 83). The accounts of Persia in several pre-T’ang dynastic histories, the Wei shu (history of the Wei dynasty), Liang shu (history of the Liang dynasty), Pei Chou shu (history of the Northern Chou dynasty), Sui shu (history of the Sui dynasty), Nan shih (history of the southern dynasties), and Pei shih (history of the northern dynasties), contain in­formation that had no doubt been gained from these embassies. Unfortunately, the textual relationships among these various sources, which, except for the Wei shu, were all compiled in the early T’ang period (618-907) from earlier materials, pose a complex problem (see Miller, pp. 47ff.). The original account in the Wei shu has been lost, though at least part of it was copied into the Pei shih, from which the extant text of the Wei shu has been restored. A later encyclopedic work, the T’ung-tien, also contains versions of the same information, and some of it is repeated in the Chiu T’ang shu and Hsin T’ang shu (old and new (histories of the T’ang dynasty; translations of the relevant passages are found in Chavannes, 1903; see pp. 99-100 on the sources).

More intimate relations between China and the Persian kings came about in the early years of the T’ang dynasty (618-907). The last Sasanian ruler, Yazdegerd III (632-­51; Yi-si-si, Chavannes, index, p. 331), who was hard pressed first by the western Turks on his eastern flank and then by the Arabs in the west, sent an embassy to China in 638. After he was killed in 31/651 his son Pērōz (Bi-lu-­si, Chavannes, index, p. 353) took refuge in Ṭoḵārestān, where he obtained the support of the local Turkish ruler and sent an embassy to China asking for assistance. No help was forthcoming, but after the Chinese defeat of the western Turks in 659, when a short-lived administration was set up in the conquered territory, Pērōz was recog­nized as governor of Po-ssu, with his capital at Ji-ling (Zarang, in Sīstān). He was unable to hold out against the advancing Arabs, however, and took refuge at the T’ang court between 670 and 673. After the death of Pērōz his son, called Ni-nie-shih (Chavannes, index, p. 349) in Chinese, was escorted to the west by Chinese troops and remained there under the protection of the Turkish ruler of Ṭoḵārestān for about twenty years before returning to die in the Chinese capital sometime between 707 and 709. From then until the battle of Talas (Ṭarāz) in 751, which established Arab dominance in Transoxania (Ebn al-Aṯīr, V, p. 449; Chavannes, 1903, pp. 143, 152-53; Barthold, pp. 195-96; see chinese turkestan ii. in pre-islamic times), regular embassies from Po-ssu to the T’ang court were recorded (Chavannes, 1903, pp. 171-73). Presum­ably at that period the name Po-ssu referred to a puppet kingdom on the eastern borders of Afghanistan, maintained by the Turkish rulers of Ṭoḵārestān. All trace of this kingdom disappeared after the battle of Talas and the An Lu-shan rebellion in China in 755, though there is evi­dence that descendants of refugees from the Sasanian empire were still serving as soldiers at Ch’ang-an, the Chinese capital, in the 9th century (Harmatta, 1971).

Trade relations

Even less well documented than offi­cial diplomatic contacts between China and Iran are the trade relations that developed between these two great civilizations after the Chinese opening to the west in the 2nd century b.c.e. The diplomatic missions actually played an integral part in these trade relations, not only because of the “tribute” that they brought to the Chinese court and the “gifts” that were bestowed in exchange, but also because of the private trade that was permitted after the formal courtesies had been exchanged. On the Chi­nese side profitable trade with the newly discovered west was an important stimulus for diplomatic activities. In the first flush of enthusiasm that followed Chang Ch’ien’s return from Sogdiana there was eager competition among “sons of poor families” to take part in missions to the west for the sake of the trading opportunities that they afforded, and under the Han Chinese merchants were at times directly involved in military operations to gain control of the Western Regions of the country (Yü, 1967, pp. 137­-38). In the end, however, foreigners, especially Iranians, were predominant in promoting and controlling the overland trade from China across Central Asia.

A Chinese Ewer of Sassanian inspiration (6th-7th Centuries CE) (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

From the beginning Chinese silk was the most impor­tant commodity in this trade, so much so that Seres, “the silk (people),” was the name by which the Chinese were first known to the Greeks. Silk was much sought after both in the Roman empire and in India and presumably also in Iran. The importance of Iranians in the silk trade, how­ever, lay more in their role as middlemen than as consum­ers. When Kan Ying (Gan Ying) was sent by Pan Ch’ao (Ban Chao), protector-general of the Western Regions, as envoy to Ta Ch’in (Da-qin, i.e., the Roman empire) in 97 c.e., he went only as far as the Persian Gulf, where he was induced to turn back by sailors from Parthia, who told exaggerated stories about the length and difficulty of the journey (Chavannes, 1907, pp. 177-78). Possibly local merchants viewed the establishment of direct contacts between China and Rome as a threat to their own mo­nopoly. The wish to circumvent this Parthian monopoly may also have been a factor encouraging the opening of a sea route between China and India; such sea trade had already begun by the end of the 1st century b.c.e. and gradually increased during the next few centuries (see below).

The large quantities of Sasanian coins discovered on Chinese territory are evidence of the continued impor­tance of Iran in China’s western trade after the Sasanians had supplanted the Parthians in Persia. The coins of twelve different rulers, from Šāpūr II (310-79) to Yazdegerd III have been recovered, some along the Silk Road in Sinkiang (Xin-jiang) but others at Hsi-an, Lo-­yang, and many other places in China proper (Hsia, 1974).

It was not the inhabitants of Persia, however, but rather the Sogdians who played the key role in the overland trade between China and the west in pre-Islamic times. A cache of manuscripts in Sogdian language discovered by M. A. Stein at a post on the Chinese northwestern frontier near Tun-huang (Dun-huang) has provided striking evidence of Sogdian preeminence at an early date. The letters turned out to have been written by Sogdian merchants to their home bases (See ancient letters). Beside personal news of family and friends, the letters include information about the latest commodity prices and rates of exchange for silver, as well as about difficulties in postal communications. One of them also tells of recent sensational events in China: the departure of the emperor from his capital at Lo-yang because of famine, the subsequent burning of the palace and abandonment of the city, and the capture of the cities of Yeh and Ch’ang-an by hostile forces that in­cluded Xwn (i.e., Hūn = Hsiung-nu). W. B. Henning (1948) concluded that the letter referred to events of 311­-13 that were connected with the fall of the Western Chin. J. Harmatta (1979) argued, on the contrary, that the report corresponds better to events of the years 190-93, during the civil wars at the end of Eastern Han. His specific dating to the year 196 depends, however, on a highly questionable interpretation of the date formula at the end of the letter, and the new identifications of place names that he proposed are also in doubt. Recently Frantz Grenet and Nicholas Sims-Williams have proved Henning’s date correct, thus providing incontrovertible evidence that in the early 4th century Sogdian merchant houses had agents at Tun-huang on the western frontier of China, as well as at the capital, Lo-yang, and other cities in the interior.

A map of ancient Chang’An in northern China (left) and the remains of that city (right). This ancient Chinese metropolis boasted up to a million residents. Iranian refugees from post-Sassanian Iran were often settled in the Western Market area southwest of the imperial palace. The city also boasted a  Sassanian Zoroastrian temple at Hsien-tz’u: a, a Manichean church at Ta-yun Kuang-ming Ssu and a Nestorian church at Ta-ch’in Ssu (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006). 

Although silk was the most important commodity in the trade between China and the west, many other products were also exchanged. The Sogdian letters mention, in addition to various kinds of silk, textiles of hemp, blankets or carpets, perfumes, musk, rice wine, camphor, fragrant resins, drugs, and similar items (Harmatta, 1979, p. 165). The many western products, especially plants, that were introduced to China from Iran or through Iranian intermediaries were the subject of a classic study by Berthold Laufer (Sino-Iranica).

Although no later records comparable to the Sogdian letters have so far been discovered, there is abundant evidence of other kinds that Sogdian involvement in the China trade continued unabated in the following centu­ries. In Sui and T’ang times the Hu, or Sogdian, merchant not only was mentioned frequently in official historical sources but also had become a commonplace figure in popular literature, most often as a connoisseur of precious gems (Schafer, 1951, pp. 414-15). There were sizable colonies of these foreigners not only in the oases of Kansu, along the western part of the trade route, and at the capital cities of Ch’ang-an and Lo-yang but also at major inland centers like Yang Chou, the entrepôt at the southern end of the transport canal joining the Yellow river to the Yangtze, where several thousand merchant Hu were massacred by rebel soldiers in 760 (Schafer, 1963, p. 18).

Sogdians who settled in China or had dealings with China are recognizable from the characteristic Chinese surnames that they adopted. For example, K’ang was abbreviated from K’ang-chü (attested, e.g., in Jiu Tang shu, tr. Chavannes, 1903, p. 26), though it referred in Sui and T’ang times to Samarkand, rather than Tashkent (e.g., in Tang shu, tr. Chavannes,1903, p. 132 and n. 5). An was originally an abbreviation of An-hsi (i.e., Aršak), the Chinese name for Parthia, but was later applied to Bukhara; Shih (Early Middle Chinese dźiajk) “stone” (Mathews, no. 5813) referred to Tashkent, lit. “stone city,” which was probably a translation into Turkish of a much earlier name (Pulleyblank, 1962, pp. 246-48; Aalto, 1977). Shih (lit. “history,” Mathews, no. 5769; Early Middle Chinese ṣɨʾ) referred to Kish (Šahr-e Sabz, modern Shahr in Uzbekistan), Mi (lit. “rice,” Mathews, no. 4446) to Māymarḡ, Ts’ao (Mathews, no. 6733) to Kabūdan, Ho (Mathews, no. 2109) to Kūšānīya, and Huo-xün (Mathews, no. 2395, 2744) to Ḵᵛārazm (cf. Chavannes, pp. 132-49). These surnames were particularly common in the T’ang period, sometimes clearly referring to recent arrivals from Cen­tral Asia, sometimes to families that had been living as foreigners in China for some time, sometimes to people who had become fully assimilated and indistinguishable from the rest of the population.

Tse-Niao (Bird) motif mural painting in Kizil, Sinkiang, 6-7th Centuries AD. (left) and a Pheasant as depicted in late Sassanian arts 6-7th Centuries AD (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

There was a great vogue, especially in the first half of the eighth century, for Iranian objects and customs of all kinds: foodstuffs, clothing, furniture, music, and dancing (Hsiang). Although Iranian influence on the Chinese visual arts lies outside the scope of this article (see xi, xii, below), representations of Central Asians among the T’ang tomb figurines should be mentioned as vivid illustrations of the cosmopolitan character of Chinese culture at that period.

Sogdians among the nomads

The word hu, which under the Han had been a general term for the nomadic horse­men of the north, especially the Hsiung-nu, came to refer to westerners from Central Asia, especially Sogdians, somewhat later. This change poses an interesting prob­lem that has never been clearly explained. Probably it occurred during the 4th century, when northern China was overrun by the so-called Five Barbarians (wu hu), a conventional list comprising Hsiung-nu, Chieh, Hsien-pei, Ti, and Ch’iang peoples, from which arose one or more of the short-lived dynasties known as the Sixteen Kingdoms. The second of these peoples, the Chieh, were considered a branch of the Hsiung-nu, but, though they had entered China as subjects of the Hsiung-nu, they were racially distinct and had connections with K’ang-chü, that is, the Tashkent region (Pulleyblank, 1962, pp. 246-48). The Chieh or Chieh-hu were known for their “high noses and deep eyes,” which set them apart not only from the Chinese but also from other non-Chinese, and it was perhaps these features, often mentioned, that led to the specialized application of the more general term hu to the Iranians of western Turkestan. At least two of the typical Sogdian surnames were already found among the Chieh or Chieh-hu who participated in the barbarian uprisings of the 4th century. The more prominent was Shih, the surname of Shih Le, who founded the Later Chao king­dom in 319. K’ang, which in one document was explicitly qualified as Su-t’e (< *Soγ’ak), was the name of a prominent clan at Lan-t’ien in present Shensi province and was attested elsewhere as well (T’ang, p. 421).

The procession of the ambassadors painting at Afrasiab (Source: Faqsci in Public Domain); this painting is believed to have been commissioned sometime in 650 CE by Varkhuman, the king of Samarkand.

The Iranians present among the subject peoples of the Hsiung-nu who settled in Han China must have been slaves taken by the nomads through conquest, but it is not clear whether at this early date there was already a desire to make use of the skills of oasis dwellers in order to profit from the trade between China and the west. Nor is it clear whether these Iranians maintained contact with their original homeland or with the Sogdian merchants who came to China independently, seeking profits, or whether the Sogdian merchants themselves sought to influence their nomadic overlords to protect the trade routes. There is, however, good evidence of a kind of symbiosis be­tween Sogdians and Turks after the latter had become masters of the steppe in the 6th century. Soon after the Turkish overthrow of the Hephthalites a Sogdian named Maniach was sent first to Persia and then to Byzantium to open up the silk trade, and other Sogdians played a prominent role in diplomatic relations between the Turks and the Chinese (Chavannes, 1903, pp. 234-35).

Sogdians connected with the Turks were influential during the transition between Sui and T’ang. In one Chinese source (T’ung-tien 197.6a, cited in Pulleyblank, 1952, pp. 347-54) a group associated with the northern Turks was identified as che-chieh (zhe-jie), probably a transcription of Persian čākar (q.v.) “servant,” a term that also had the special sense “warrior” because of its application to elite troops employed as a ruler’s bodyguard; this group established itself at Hami and Lop Nor, straddling the eastern ends of both branches of the Silk Road. It maintained a semi-independent status until its surrender to T’ang in 630 (Chavannes, 1903, p. 313; Pulleyblank, 1952, pp. 347-54). There are also approximately contemporary references to a distinct Hu, that is, Sogdian, “tribe” that wielded great influence at the court of the northern Turkish ruler Hsieh-li Qaghan in Mongolia. These Hu were said to be “grasping and presumptuous, and vacillat­ing by nature” and were accused of inducing the ruler to multiply laws and regulations and to engage in constant warfare, which caused disaffection among his own Turkish subjects and contributed to his overthrow by T’ang in 630 (Pulleyblank, 1952, p. 323). The Sogdian component among the northern Turks did not disappear after this event. It settled in the Ordos region, within the bend of the Yellow river, where in 679 a special administrative ar­rangement, Six Hu Prefectures, was established by the T’ang government. This name continued to refer to the descendants of these Sogdians for the next hundred years, long after the specific administrative unit had disappeared. Members of this group, recognizable by their “Sogdian” surnames, were mentioned frequently, both collectively and as individuals, in historical sources and sometimes played important roles in historical events (Onogawa; Pulleyblank, 1952). An Lu-shan, who rose through service in the Chinese army to become military governor of a large sector of the northern frontier and in 755 led a revolt that nearly overthrew the dynasty (Pulleyblank, 1955, passim), was the son of a Sogdian father and a Turkish mother and probably came from this group. His name can be identified as Iranian *Rōxšan (Pulleyblank, 1955, p. 15).

A Chinese Qi depiction of Soghdians (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

The descendants of the Hu of the Six Prefectures can be traced even later in history (Pulleyblank, 1952, pp. 341ff.; Onogawa). In 786 a Tibetan invasion of the Ordos region forced them to move to northern Shansi, where they were joined by the Sha-t’o (Shatuo) Turks. In the last quarter of the 9th century they formed a distinct component of the Three Tribes of the Sha-t’o, which played an important part in the civil wars at the end of the T’ang dynasty and in the following Five Dynasties period (907-60). The surname of the founder of Later Chin (936-41), Shih Ching-t’ang (Shi Jingtang), who came from the Sha-t’o confederacy, reveals his Sogdian ancestry; several of his female ancestors also had Sogdian surnames (Pulleyblank, 1952, pp. 341ff.; Onogawa, pp. 979-80).

It must be acknowledged that in the long history of the Hu of the Six Prefectures there is little evidence of direct connections with their Sogdian homeland or with mercantile activities. Living in the grasslands of the northern Chinese frontier, they seem to have adopted the way of life of their Turkish neighbors, with whom they frequently intermarried, and it is as mounted warriors that they are usually mentioned in the sources. The role of Sogdians as cultural intermediaries between the nomads and their settled neighbors and promoters of mercantile interests among the nomads became prominent once more, how­ever, when the Uighurs succeeded the T’u-chüeh Turks as masters of the steppe in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Uighurs’ adoption of the Manichean religion (see below) and the privileged position that they enjoyed because of their assistance in restoring the T’ang dynasty after the An Lu-shan rebellion (Mackerras, 1972, p. 37) provided distinct advantages for Sogdian merchants under their protection. It is reasonable to assume, too, that the Uighurs’ gradual acculturation to their Sogdian subjects during this period had much to do with their adoption of settled life in the oases of Kansu and Sinkiang after the collapse of their steppe empire.

Persians in the China Sea trade

Although details re­main controversial, there is clear evidence that sea trade between China and India and points farther west began about the end of the 1st century b.c.e. The arrival by sea of envoys to the Later Han dynasty from India was recorded in 159 and 161; in 166 an envoy was reported to have come from “King An-tun (An-dun) of Ta-ch’in (Da­-qin),” that is, presumably, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (Chavannes, 1907, p. 185). The claim of this “envoy” to such credentials is unlikely to have been genuine, but his arrival is evidence that by 166 the sea route was known as an alternative to the overland route through Parthia. In 226 a merchant from Ta-ch’in arrived in Tongking and was sent to the court of Wu, then an independent kingdom with its capital at Nanking (222-­58), where he was questioned by the ruler (Wolters, p. 42). Wu, like later Chinese kingdoms south of the Yangtze, had a special interest in maritime communications with the south and west and dispatched a mission that brought back valuable information about India and Ta-ch’in, as well as Southeast Asia. One of these envoys was K’ang T’ai (Kang Tai), very likely a Sogdian expert on foreign trade who had come to Wu from northern China. Un­fortunately, only fragments of the written records that he left survive (Wolters, pp. 42, 271 n. 63, with references to discussion of the date by Pelliot, Hsiang Ta, and Sugimoto).

Persia is not mentioned directly in these sporadic early Chinese references to sea trade with the west. In the 5th and 6th centuries, for which evidence of regular commerce via the south China Sea is more abundant, Persian goods played a major role, and the epithet Po-ssu (Persian) was even sometimes applied to non-Persian products that came to China from the west. Opinions have differed, however, about whether or to what extent Persian traders came to Chinese ports (Wang, pp. 59-61; Wolters, pp. 139ff.). There is good evidence that in the T’ang period Persian, and later Arab, ships frequently visited Hanoi and Canton and that many Persians and Arabs were settled in those cities (Wang, pp. 79-80; Schafer, 1963, p. 15). Before the T’ang period, however, it seems that the eastern end of the trade was in the hands of Indonesians and that Ceylon was the point at which Chinese products destined for the west and Persian products destined for China were exchanged (Wang, pp. 60-61; Wolters. pp. 146ff.).

Iranians and religion in China: Buddhism

In the 2nd century c.e. the Kushan empire was the main center from which missionaries carried Buddhism to China, and naturally Iranians played a notable part in this activity. An Shih-kao (q.v.; An Shi-gao), who arrived in China in 148 c.e. and became the first translator of Buddhist sutras into Chinese, was a Parthian prince. Another early translator, An Hsüan (Xuan), was originally a Parthian merchant who arrived and settled in Lo-yang in 181 (Zürcher, I, p. 23). The surnames Chih (from Yüeh-chih) and K’ang (see above) were especially frequent among westerners in­volved in translation activities in the 2nd and 3rd centu­ries. It is probable that by that time they no longer referred to specific nomadic groups but more generally to the predominantly Iranian populations of Afghanistan and western Turkestan respectively. Beside first-generation immigrants like An Shih-kao and An Hsüan, Iranian Buddhists included men like K’ang Seng-hui, the son of a Sogdian merchant living at Chiao-chih (Jiao-zhi; Hanoi) in the extreme south of China, and Chih Ch’ien, whose grandfather had come to China with several hundred fellow countrymen in the time of the Han emperor Ling (168-90; Zürcher, I, p. 23). Indians, who bore the surname Chu (Zhu), from T’ien-chu (Tian-zhu, Mathews, nos. 6361, 1374, the name for India in the Han period, based on a transcription of Old Iranian *Hinduka; Pulleyblank, 1962, p. 117), very likely also traveled primarily from or by way of the Kushan empire.

Probably at the same period missionaries from Kushan established Buddhism in the oases of the Tarim basin, providing a congenial corridor of communication for Buddhist pilgrims going from China to India “in search of the law” (Brough; Zürcher, I, pp. 59ff.). The first known example of such a quest is that of the Chinese monk Chu Shih-hsing (Zhu Shi-xing, written with a character [Mathews, no. 1346] different from that in T’ien-chu), who set out in 260 or a few years later and traveled as far as Khotan, where he succeeded in obtaining the particular text that he sought (Zürcher, I, pp. 61-63). Khotan remained a flourishing Buddhist center and an important way station on the route to India until the Muslim con­quest (ca. 1006).

Tang Chinese nobles engaged in the Iranian game of polo (right). Interestingly a Chinese princess by the name of Yang Kwei-Fei popularized the game among Chinese women after her contacts and friendship with Iranian noblewomen who had settled in the Chinese metropolis of Chang’ An (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

Chinese Buddhist pilgrims were, of course, primarily interested in the Indian sources of their religion, rather than in the Iranian lands through which they passed, but their travel accounts nevertheless contain much inciden­tal information about the eastern portion of the Iranian world. The most important from this point of view are the reports of Fa-hsien (Fa-xian, 399-412), who spent some time in Khotan before traveling south to India; Sung Yün (Song-yun, 518-22), who, accompanied by the monk Hui-sheng, undertook a mission to the Hephthalite capital in Bactria; and Hsüan Tsang, who traveled through the Tarim basin by the northern route to the territory of the western Turks, then south through Afghanistan to India, and returned via Khotan on the southern route. His Ta T’ang Hsi-yü chi (Da Tang Xi-yu ji (record of the western re­gions in Great T’ang) is a valuable firsthand account of conditions in those regions in the first half of the 7th century (Beal; Waley, pp. 23-29).


Mazdaism, or Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the Sasanian empire, seems to have arrived in China early in the 6th century, probably as a result of diplomatic contacts with Persia. In China it came to be known as Hsien (Xian; Mathews, no. 2657, Early Middle Chinese xen), written with a graph that is rarely found in any other context and has given rise to a good deal of puzzlement (cf. Pulleyblank, 1962, p. 117); it is, in fact, simply a way of writing an old dialect pronunciation of Chinese t’ien (tian; Mathews, no. 6361) “heaven.” T’ien “heaven” or t’ien-shen “heaven god” was the Chinese Buddhist equivalent for Sanskrit deva “god,” and there is also evidence for the variant pronunciation hsien in Buddhist usage. Application of the Buddhist term deva to the god of the Persians was a natural extension. The more specific terms huo-shen “fire god” and huo-hsien “fire deva” are also found. In the Shih ming (written ca. 200 c.e.) the pronunciation of the word for “heaven” with initial x, rather than t’, was said to be characteristic of the central provinces, including the two Han capitals, Ch’ang­-an and Lo-yang, whereas the pronunciation with was associated with the eastern seaboard (Bodman, p. 28). In the 6th century it seems that pronunciation with x was confined to the “land within the passes” (Dien, citing Hui-­lin, p. 550c), that is, the Ch’ang-an region, which by then had declined to a provincial backwater. What is not clear is why the word was always pronounced in this special way when applied to Zoroastrianism, even after Ch’ang­-an had once again become the capital, under the Sui and T’ang dynasties, and had lost this local peculiarity.

In the later 6th century Zoroastrianism attained a degree of official recognition in northern China, a status that it retained in the Sui and T’ang periods. There are known to have been four temples in Ch’ang-an, two in Lo-yang, and others in K’ai-feng and in cities along the road to the northwest (Ch’en). The foreigners in charge of them, known by the non-Chinese term sa-fu or sa-pao (sabao), had Chinese official rank (Pelliot,1903). In Northern Ch’i and Sui they were subordinate to the hung-lu-ssu (honglusi), the office in charge of receiving foreign tributary missions, but in T’ang they were attached to the bureau of sacrifices, a division of the board of rites. It is likely that the worshipers were all or mainly foreigners resident in China. Anecdotal literature reveals that the Chinese were interested in the ritual dancing that took place (see dance i) and associated the temples with feats of conjuring. Mazdaism was one of the foreign religions proscribed in 845, but there are a few references to Zoroastrian temples as late as the 12th century.

Nestorian Christianity

Christianity (q.v.) in its Nestorian form was officially introduced in China in 638, when a Persian monk, A-lo-pen (Aluoben), presented scriptures to the T’ang court; as a consequence the government issued a decree ordering construction of a monastery for twenty-one monks in the I-ning (Yi-ning) ward in northwestern Ch’ang-an (Moule, pp. 39ff.). It seems that at first it was called Po-ssu (Persian) monastery, for, according to another decree, issued in 745 (Moule, p. 67), it had been learned that Christianity had originated, not in Po-ssu, but in Ta-ch’in (the Roman empire); the name was thus changed to Ta-ch’in monastery. A corresponding name change was ordered for a similar monastery in Lo-yang and for others in prefectural cities throughout the empire. In addition to these brief data from T’ang historical sources, the famous Nestorian stone inscription in Chinese and Syriac, dated 781 and probably from one of the monasteries in or near Ch’ang-an, was rediscovered early in the 17th century; it had probably lain buried since the suppression of foreign religions in 845 (Moule, pp. 27-­52). Further evidence for the existence of Christianity with an Iranian background in T’ang China can be found in Christian texts discovered at Tun-huang, as well as in scattered references in other sources. It seems likely that, like Mazdaism, Nestorian Christianity was largely con­fined to the foreign community and had little impact on the general population. Christians were among the foreigners massacred when the Huang Ch’ao rebels sacked Canton in 878 (Moule, p. 76). Thereafter Christianity disap­peared from China until it was reintroduced under the Mongols.


Manicheism (See chinese turkestan ix. manicheism in central asia and chinese turkestan) was mentioned by Hsüan-tsang in his account of Persia (Ta T’ang hsi-yü chi 11.938a; Chavannes and Pelliot, 1913, p. 150). It, too, arrived in China in the 7th century. In 694 a Persian, Fu-to-tan Fu-duo-dan = Aftādān “episcopus”), was received by Empress Wu and presented her with a Manichean treatise (Chavannes and Pelliot, 1913, pp. 152-53; Lieu, p. 189); in 719 a Manichean astronomer arrived with a letter of recommendation from a local ruler in Ṭoḵārestān and a request to be allowed to found a church (Lieu, p. 188). Manicheans may have had more interest than Mazdeans (and perhaps also Persian Nestorians) in propagating their faith, for in 732 it was deemed necessary to issue a decree declaring that, though Manicheism was a false doctrine masquerading as Bud­dhism, it was permissible for Iranians (Hu) from the west to continue to practice it (Lieu, p. 190). That some Manicheans were astronomers is of particular interest because the Iranian seven-day week, with days named after planets, became known in China at about the same time (see viii, below; calendars i). The Chinese Manichean name for Sunday, Mi (< Middle Chinese Mjit < Sogdian Mīr), is marked in red on a Chinese calendar from Tun­-huang (facs. in Pelliot and Haneda), a practice that sur­vived in popular almanacs in southern China at least until the end of the 19th century (Chavannes and Pelliot, pp. 158-77).

Manichean Painting (9th century CE) at the Shotcho Cave (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006)

The great opportunity for Manicheism in China came in 762, when the Uighur qaḡan became a convert at Lo­-yang, which he had captured and sacked during the restoration of the T’ang dynasty after An Lu-shan’s rebellion. When he returned to Mongolia the qaḡan made Manicheism the state religion. As the T’ang were indebted to the Uighurs, the latter were able to demand the estab­lishment of Manichean temples not only in Ch’ang-an and Lo-yang but also in T’ai-yüan and various localities in the Yangtze region (Chavannes and Pelliot, pp. 261-62; Lieu, p. 194). Uighur support for Manicheism in such places was no doubt for the sake of the Sogdian (Hu) merchants settled there and in contact with Manichean Sogdians at the Uighur court.

The collapse of the Uighur empire after the defeat by the Kirghiz in 840 deprived the Manicheans of their protec­tion (Chavannes and Pelliot, pp. 284ff.). In China the first attack came in 842, when temples in the Yangtze region were abolished (Chavannes and Pelliot, p. 293). In the following year the Manichean religion was proscribed throughout the empire (Chavannes and Pelliot, pp. 293­-95; Lieu, p. 196). The temples and all their property were confiscated, scriptures were publicly burned, and the clergy were ordered to return to lay life and, in some instances at least, executed or exiled to the frontiers with other Uighurs. This sequence of events was followed two years later by a more general persecution of foreign religions, including Buddhism (Lieu, p. 198), though by that time it had become so thoroughly assimilated into Chinese life that it eventually recovered its former position.

The 3rd century CE Iranian prophet Mani as depcited in a Chinese temple carving in Dunhuang Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Divisionand were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006). 

Although Manicheism disappeared as an officially recognized cult, it must, unlike Nestorianism and Mazdaism, have struck roots among the Chinese population, for it survived as an underground sect for nearly 800 years in the southeast coastal region of Fukien. The hostility of both the government, which looked with suspicion on all popular religious movements as seedbeds of subversion, and the Buddhists, who regarded Manicheism as a per­nicious heresy, dominates the scant Chinese literary ref­erences to the “religion of light” and has sometimes unduly influenced modern scholars. Manicheism has thus been counted as one of the sects involved in popular uprisings under the Sung (960-1127) and at the end of the Yüan (1206-1368; see iii, below). The modern historian Wu Han even developed the theory, which has been quite widely accepted, that there was a Manichean element in the ideology of the Red Turban rebels, a Buddhist Maitreya sect to which Chu Yüan-chang (Zhu Yuan-zhang), the founder of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), originally belonged (Wu Han). More recent scholarship has shown, however, that the ascetic and peaceful Manicheans of Fukien had nothing to do with the Red Turbans (cf. Lieu, pp. 259-61). The coincidence in name between the “religion of light” and the Ming dynasty (“dynasty of light”) had unfortunate consequences for the Manicheans, however; having allegedly usurped the dynastic title, they became a special target for persecution (Pelliot, 1923, pp. 206-07). Nevertheless, small pockets survived to around 1600, after which the records are silent (Lieu, p. 263).


P. Aalto, “The Name of Tashkent,” Central Asiatic Journal 21, 1977, pp. 193-98.

S. Beal, Si-yu-ki. Buddhist Records of the Western World. Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang (A.D. 629), 2 vols. in 1, London, n.d. (contains translations of the accounts of Fa-hsien and Sung Yün).

A. D. H. Bivar, “The History of Eastern Iran,” in Camb. Hist. Iran III/1, pp. 181-231.

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J. Brough, “Comments on Third-Century Shan-shan and the History of Buddhism,” BSOAS 28, 1965, pp. 582-612.

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Ch’en Yüan, “Huo-hsien chiao ju Chung-kuo k’ao,” Kuo-hsüeh chi-k’an 1, 1923, pp. 27-46. Chiu T’ang shu, compiled by Liu Hsü (887-946), Peking, 1975.

A. E. Dien, “A Note on Hsien “Zoroas­trianism,”” Oriens 10, 1957, pp. 284-88. I. Ecsedy, “Early Persian Envoys in Chinese Courts,” in J. Harmatta, ed., Studies in the Sources on the History of Pre-Islamic Central Asia, Budapest, 1979, pp. 153-62 (= Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientarum Hungaricae 25, 1977, pp. 227­-36).

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J. Harmatta, “Sino­-Iranica,” Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientarum Hungaricae 19, 1971, pp. 113-43.

Idem, “Sogdian Sources for the History of Pre-Islamic Central Asia,” in J. Harmatta, ed., Prolegomena to the Sources on the History of Pre-Islamic Central Asia, Budapest, 1979, pp. 153-55.

W. B. Henning, “The Date of the Sogdian Ancient Letters,” BSOAS 12, 1948, pp. 601-15.

Hsia Nai, “Tsung-shu Chung-kuo ch’u-t’u ti Po-ssu Sa-san ch’ao yin-pi” (A survey of Sasanian silver coins found in China), K’ao-ku hsüeh-pao, 1974, pp. 91-110 (with English summary).

Hsiang Ta, T’ang tai Ch’ang-an yü hsi-yü wen-ming (Ch’ang-an of the T’ang dynasty and the culture of the western regions), enl. ed., Peking, 1957. Hsin T’ang shu, compiled by Ou-yang Hsiu (1007-­72), Peking, 1975.

Hui-lin (comp. 810), Yi-ch’ieh-ching yin-i (Sounds and meanings of the complete canon), in Taishō shinshu daizōkyō LIV, Tokyo, 1928.

S. N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China. A Historical Survey, Manchester, 1985.

Liu Ts’un-Yan, “Traces of Zoroastrian and Manichaean Activities in Pre-T’ang China,” in P. Demiéville,Selected Papers from the Hall of Harmonious Wind, Leiden, 1976, pp. 3-55.

C. Mackerras, The Uighur Empire According to the T’ang Dynastic Histories, Canberra, 1972.

B. J. Mansvelt Beck, “The Fall of Han,” in D. Twitchett and M. Loewe, eds., The Cambridge History of ChinaI: The Chin and Han Empires 221 B.C.-A.D. 220, Cambridge, 1986, pp. 317-76.

H. Maspéro, La Chine antique, new ed., Paris, 1955. R. H. Mathews, Mathews’ Chinese­ English Dictionary, rev. ed., Cambridge Mass., 1943.

R. A. Miller, Accounts of Western Nations in the History of the Northern Chou Dynasty, Chinese Dynastic His­tories Translations 6, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1959.

A. C. Moule, Christians in China before the Year 1550, London, 1930.

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P. Pelliot, “Le Sa-pao,” Bulletin de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient 3, 1903, pp. 665-71.

Idem, “Les influences iraniennes en Asie centrale et en Extrême-Orient,” Revue d’histoire et de littérature religieuses, N.S. 3, 1912, pp. 97-119.

Idem, “Les traditions manichéennes au Foukien,” T’oung Pao 22, 1923, pp. 193-208. Idem and T. Haneda, eds., Tun-huang i-shu, Shanghai, 1926.

E. G. Pulleyblank, “A Sogdian Colony in Inner Mongolia,” T’oung Pao 41, 1952, pp. 319-52.

Idem, The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-shan, London, 1955.

Idem, “The Consonantal System of Old Chinese,” Asia Major 9, 1962, pp. 58-144, 206-65.

Idem, “Chinese and Indo-Europeans,” JRAS, 1966, pp. 9-39.

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E. H. Schafer, “Iranian Merchants in T’ang Dynasty Tales,” in Semitic and Oriental Studies Presented to William Popper, Uni­versity of California Publications in Semitic Philology 11, 1951, pp. 403-22.

Idem, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, Berkeley, 1963. Sui shu, compiled by Wei Ch’eng (580-643), Peking, 1973.

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O. W. Wolters, Early Indonesian Commerce, Ithaca, N.Y., 1967.

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Toyoko Morita: Iranian arrivals to ancient Japan

The article below is by Toyoko Morita and originally appeared in the Encyclopedia Iranica. Morita’s article was originally published in print on December 15, 2008 and last updated on April 10, 2012. This article is also accessible in print Vol. XIV, Fasc. 5, pp. 558-560 and Vol. XIV, Fasc. 6, p. 561). The version published below has embedded photographs, paintings and accompanying captions that did not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica publication/posting. these a combination of lecture slides from Kaveh Farrokh’s Fall 2014 course at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies course entitled: “The Silk Route: origins & History“, previous postings as well as a single image from the public domain.


The first mention of Iranians (Persians) coming to Japan can be found in the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), one of the earliest Japanese historical sources, completed in 720 C.E. It records that in 654 C.E. several people arrived in Japan from Tokhārā (Aston, pp. 246, 251, 259). Though there is some controversy about the location of Tokhārā, some scholars have claimed the name to be a shortened version of Toḵārestān, which was part of the territory of Sasanian Persia (Itō, 1980, pp. 5-10).

Fresco along the Tarim Basin, China depicting an Iranian-speaking Buddhist monk (Kushan, Soghdian, Persian or Tocharian?) [at left] instructing a Chinese monk [at right] on philosophy (c. 9th-10th Century). Iranian peoples of Central Asia were the link between Asia as a whole and the civilizations of ancient Iran, notably Sassanian and post-Sassanian culture(s). Open and tolerant, the Soghdians, Kushans, Tocharians, etc. established a sophisticated literature and urban culture (Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

Elsewhere in the Nihon Shoki, it is mentioned that in 660, when an Iranian (Persian), whose name was Dārā, returned to his country, he left his wife in Japan and promised the Emperor that he would come back and work for him again (Aston, p. 266; Imoto, 2002, pp. 58-60).

One of Kaveh Farrokh’s  lecture slides at UBC (University of British Columbia) outlining the influence of Sassanian arts on Japan (Source: Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

In the 7th to the 9th centuries, foreigners—then known in Japanese as toraijin—were coming to Japan mainly from Korea and China, bringing with them technology, culture, religion (Buddhism), and ideas. Eastern Asia, especially the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907), had socio-economic networks with many regions of the world, including southern and western Asia.

An enduring Sassanian legacy in Japan: the Biwa and its ancient Iranian ancestor, the Barbat (Source: Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), the capital of the Tang Dynasty, was an international city with people from various countries, including Iranians (Persians), some of whom traveled further to Japan. Iranian names are to be met with in historical documents, and one can find some influence of Persian culture in the architecture, sculptures, and also in the customs and old Japanese rituals at that time. For example, some scholars have claimed that there is some influence of Persian culture in the Omizutori ritual held every February at Tōdaiji temple in Nara (Itō, 1980, pp. 125-33).

A photo of the Omizutori ritual held on March 9, 2007 in Nara, Japan (Source: “ignis” in public domain). Note that these are monks carrying torches across the balcony of the structure. This may perhaps bear echoes of ancient Zoroastrian or related mythological influences bought over by Iranian-speaking arrivals to ancient Japan.

The oldest document in Persian, which is preserved in Japan, was procured by the Japanese priest named Kyōsei (1189-1268) from Iranians (Persians) during his trip to southern Asia in 1217. Thinking they were Indians, the priest asked them to write something for him as a keepsake. However, after his return to Japan he found out that they were not Indians, because no one could understand what the writing meant. This document—a single page—was discovered in the late 20th century, when it was established that it is written in Persian and contains a line from Abu’l-Qāsem Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma (qq.v.), a line from Faḵr-al-Din Gorgāni’s Vis o Rāmin (qq.v.), and a quatrain of unknown authorship (Okada, 1989).

Scientists have used infrared imaging technology to analyze carvings on a piece of wood from – century Japan. The writings on the wood appears to name a Persian mathematics lecturer who worked at a facility in a millennium ago Japan where government ministers were trained in the former Japanese capital of Nara for more on this click here

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.


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