An Overview of the History of Mithraism

The article belowA History of the worship of Mithras, and Mithraism as a Mystery Religion” was originally published in the mithraeum.info website. Kindly note that the images and accompanying inserted below do not appear in the original article posting in the mithraeum.info website.

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Mithraism is the worship of the god Mithras, best known as an ancient Roman Mystery Religion. Mithras is the Roman name for the Indo-Iranian deity Mitra or Mithra, and it is by that name that he was known the Persians. Mithra was one of the minor deities under Ahura-Mazda in the Zoroastrian pantheon, from 1,500 BCE onward. Since the beginning, Mithra, or Mithras has been associated with the Light of the Sun, Truthfulness, and Mediation.

Roman worship of Mithras began sometime during the 1st century CE and continued to the end of the 4th Century CE.  During this time the worship of Mithras spread throughout the ancient world. Mithraeums, Roman temples of the Mithraic Mysteries, are found in almost every ancient European country; Britain, Spain, Germany and the rest of Western and Eastern Europe, and even into Aftrica.    It is believed that the Romans first encountered the worship of Mithras  within the religion of Zoroastrianism in the Eastern provinces of the Empire, near the Persian border.  There are various theories as to the beginnings of Roman Mithraism, and exactly how much Persian information was incorporated in the Roman Mysteries.  Today most of what is known about Mithrasim comes from archaeological remains from Mithraeums, dedicatory inscriptions, iconography, and a small amount of literary evidence from the Classical world. 

Aspects of Mithras the God

Mitra, or Mithra  is the Indo-Iranian name for the Roman god Mithras. Mitra is known from the ancient  Hindu pantheon, and Mithra is a name known from the Zoroastrian pantheon. In Zoroastrianism, Mithra is one of the “yazatas”, or minor deities under Ahura-Mazda. In Zoroastrianism Mithra is a god of Light that mediates between heaven and earth. Mithra also presides over honorable contracts and mediation.

Magi

Zoroastrian magi from Kerman during the Jashne Sadeh ceremonies (Source: Heritage Institute).

Mithras is mentioned both in the Vedas, the ancient holy books of Hindusim, and he is also named in the hymns of the Zoroastrian Avesta, which was written between 224-640 CE as a compilation of older religious oral traditions.

The Mysteries of Mithras

The Roman cult of Mithras is known as a “mystery cult.” A Mystery Cult is  an organized,  secret system of learning and worship through which participants undergo ritual  ritual initiations to confirm various stages of knowledge and inner development. Worship took place in a temple, called a mithraeum, which was made to resemble a natural cave. Sometimes temples were built specifically for the purpose, but often they were single rooms in larger buildings which usually had another purpose (for example, a bath house, or a private home). There are over a hundred mithraea preserved in the empire. Mithraea were longer than they were wide, usually around 10-12m long and 4-6m wide, and were entered from one of the short sides. Roman dining couches, called klinai or podia, lined the long sides of the mithraeum, leaving a narrow aisle in between. At the end of this aisle, opposite the entrance, was the Tauroctony,  the cult image showing Mithras sacrificing a bull. The ceiling of the mithraeum was often painted with stars to symbolize the dome of heaven, or the cosmos.

Bible_museum_-_Mithrasheiligtum

A reconstruction of a Mithraeum (Darb-e Mehr) depicting the stages of ascension on the floor as alluded to in the previous photo this posting (Source:Wolfgang Sauber for Public Domain). Note the placing of grapes (right side); grapes continue to signify vitality and renewal in Iran, Italy, Anatolia and the Caucasus.

Very little Mithraic liturgical text has survived, but much is known from temple imagery and inscription. It is known that in certain rites mithraists gathered for a common meal, initiation of members, and other ceremonies. It is also known that the  structure of Mithraism was hierarchical. Members went through a series of seven grades, each of which had a special symbol and a ruling planet. From lowest to highest these grades were Corax (raven, under Mercury), Nymphus (a made-up word meaning male bride, under Venus), Miles (the soldier, under Mars), Leo (the lion, under Jupiter), Perses (the Persian, under Luna, the moon), Heliodromus (Sun-Runner, under the sun), and finally Pater (father, under Saturn). Those who reached the highest grade, Pater, could become the head of a congregation. Because mithraea were so small, new congregations were probably founded on a regular basis when one or more members reached the highest grade. It is known that it was possible for Mithraic initiates to be members of more than one cult, as inscriptions from various Mithraists have shown.

Click to Enlarge] The stages of Roman Mithraism: Stage 1: Cerax (Raven); – Stage 2-Nymphos (Bride); Stage 3-Miles (Soldier); Stage 4-Leo (Lion); Stage 5-Perses (Persian); Stage 6- Heliodrommus (Sun-Runner); Stage 7-Pater (Father) (Picture sources: Hinnels, 1988). Note that term “Bride” often used to denote “Nymphos” for the second stage is simplistic at best. The Latin term should actually be in the feminine “Nymphe” and not the masculine “Nymphos” or a male bride which possibly may suggest something of a mystical male-female fusion. The reasons for this are not as yet clear, but it seems consistent with Roman or Western (as opposed to the original Iranian) Mithraism which is believed to have excluded women from its rituals and membership. Note that in the final grade (Stage VII-Father) there is a distinct Persian cap symbolizing the cap of Mithras (Picture sources: Cerax, Nymphos, Miles from Hinnels, 1985; Leo, Persian, and Heliodrommus, and Pater in Public Domain).

Mithraic Iconography

There is a rich and cohesive body of iconography which has survived within the various Mithraeum temples. Central to each mithraeum there was the tauroctony, the image of the bull slaying which was shown at the main altar.  In the tauroctony Mithras is clad in a tunic, trousers, cloak, and a pointed cap usually called a Phrygian cap. He looks away from the bull while  half-straddling its back, and pulling  the bull’s head back by its nostrils with his left hand. Mithras is plunging a dagger into the bull’s shoulder with his right hand.  Various figures surround this dramatic event. Under the bull a dog laps at the blood dripping from the wound and a scorpion attacks the bull’s testicles. Often the bull’s tail ends in wheat ears and a raven is perched on the bull’s back. The scene is bracketed at the sides by the two smaller figures of Cautes and Cautopates, both of whom wear costume similar to that of Mithras. Cautes is to the right, holding an upraised and burning torch. Above him, in the upper left corner, is the sun god, Sol, in his chariot. On the viewer’s left there is  Cautopates, who holds a torch that points downards and is sometimes, but not always, burning. Above Cautopates in the upper right corner is the moon, Luna. This group of figures is almost always present, but there are variations, of which the most common is an added line of the signs of the zodiac over the top of the bull-sacrificing scene.

Another depiction of Mithras with Persian dress slaying the sacred bull at the Vatican Museum in Rome (Source: Eskipaper.com). Note the dog and serpent heading towards the gushing blood pouring down from the bull’s neck as the the scorpion heads towards the dying bull’s testicles.

In addition to this central scene there can be numerous smaller scenes which seem to represent episodes from Mithras’ life. The most common scenes show Mithras being born from a rock, Mithras dragging the bull to a cave, plants springing from the blood and semen of the sacrificed bull, Mithras and the sun god, Sol, banqueting on the flesh of the bull while sitting on its skin, Sol investing Mithras with the power of the sun, and Mithras and Sol shaking hands over a burning altar, among others. These scenes are the basis for knowledge of mithraic cosmology. There is no supporting textual evidence.

Mithraism and the Ancient World

The archaeological evidence for Mithraism, consisting mostly of monuments, inscribed dedications, and the remains of mithraea, indicates that the cult was widely practiced among the Roman Legions legions stationed in frontier areas. The Danube and Rhine river frontier has the highest concentration of evidence, but a significant quantity of evidence amply demonstrates that Mithraism was also popular among the troops stationed in the province of Numidia in North Africa and along Hadrian’s wall in England. The inscriptions on dedications found in all these areas show s Mithraism was most popular among legionaries (of all ranks), government officials, and even also merchants and even slaves.

-Mithraeum Rome San Clemente

The Mithraeum located under Rome’s Basilica of San Clemente (Source: Public Domain).

The area where the concentration of evidence for Mithraism is the most dense is the capital, Rome, and her port city, Ostia. There are eight extant mithraea in Rome of as many as seven hundred (Coarelli 1979) and eighteen in Ostia. In addition to the actual mithraea, there are approximately three hundred other mithraic monuments from Rome and about one hundred from Ostia. This body of evidence reveals that Mithraism in Rome and Ostia originally appealed to the same social strata as it did in the frontier regions. The evidence also indicates that at least some inhabitants knew about Mithraism as early as the late first century CE, but that the cult did not enjoy a wide membership in either location until the middle of the second century CE.

Entrance to the Temple of Hatra in Iraq, possibly dedicated to Mithras (Source: Public Domain).

As the cult in Rome became more popular, it seems to have “trickled up” the social ladder, with the result that Mithraism could count several senators from prominent aristocratic families among its adherents by the fourth century CE. Some of these men were initiates in several cults imported from the eastern empire (including those of Magna Mater and Attis, Isis, Serapis, Jupiter Dolichenus, Hecate, and Liber Pater, among others), and most had held priesthoods in official Roman cults. The devotion of these men to Mithraism reflects a fourth-century “resurgence of paganism,” when many of these imported cults and even official Roman state religion experienced a surge in popularity although, and perhaps because, their very existence was increasingly threatened by the rapid spread of Christianity after the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 313 CE.

kurd-engaged-in-worship-of-mithras

Kurdish man engaged in the worship of Mithras in a Pir’s (mystical leader/master) sanctuary which acts as a Mithraic temple (Source: Kasraian & Arshi, 1993, Plate 80). Note how he stands below an opening allowing for the “shining of the light”, almost exactly as seen with the statue in Ostia, Italy. These particular Kurds are said to pay homage to Mithras three times a day.

Mithraism had a wide following from the middle of the second century to the late fourth century CE.  Although Christianity and Mithraism were rival cults Mithraism was at a serious disadvantage right from the start because it allowed only male initiates. What is more, Mithraism was only one of several cults imported from the eastern empire that enjoyed a large membership in Rome and elsewhere. It was these groups as a combined whole that were the greatest competition to Christianity.

The End of Ancient Mithraism

Mithraism as an organized religion seems to have been in trouble almost immediately after about 313 CE, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. The power centers of Mithraism were in Rome, the area closest to the newly Christian state. A great number of its adherents were part of the government and the Legions. In order to maintain the good graces of the Emperor many Mithraists seem to have left or even turned against the worship of Mithras. From this time onward there is archaeological evidence of Mithraeums being abandoned and even desecrated and destroyed. This was certainly encouraged by the early Church.  Christians saw Mithraism as a devilish imitation of what they believed to be the one true religion, and they frequently broke into and destroyed Mithraic temples with “official” approval.

Mithradates as Magus

An interesting relief at the ruins of Arsameia, the capital of the kingdom of Commagene in 1st century BC. King Mithradates I Kallinikos of Commagene (100–70 BC) dressed as the Zoroastrian Magi (left) shakes hands with the Greek god Hercules (Source:Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at The University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division; Photo originally by Mani Moradi). Note that Hercules in Commagene also represented the Persian god Artagnes. Commagene like the Pontus was a small post-Achaemenid Iranian kingdom in Anatolia situated squeezed between Parthia to its east and the expanding Roman Empire to its west. Various versions of Mithradates’ crown continue to appear among various mystical sects of Western Iran, notably Kurdistan.

Although evidence is not conclusive it is thought that Mithraism may have lacked a clear and cohesive organization and hierarchy between individual groups, as Christianity was to have later. If this is the case,  then an already depleted Mithraic cult must have found it difficult indeed to stem a rising tide of official opposition. Individual Mithraeums and groups seem to have fallen one by one without a system of mutual support.

The last known archaeological dating from a Mithraeum is from 408 CE. It is entirely possible that pockets of Mithraism survived later than that, but it is certain that there was in essence no public Mithraic cult in the Roman world after that time.

The Modern Rediscovery of Mithraism

Very little popular knowledge of Mithraism survived the ancient world until the 20th century. There were a few literary references to a cult known as Mithraism which survived through the Middle Ages in literature, and there were even a very few bits of iconography to attest that the cult did indeed exist. However, no in-depth study of Mithraism was attempted until the work of Franz Cumont, (1868-1947). Cumont participated in a great amount of new archaeology and research into Mithraism, and formulated the theory that that Roman Mithraism had its roots in Zoroastrianism. He wrote two books, ” Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra” in 1896 and 1899. Cumont compiled a catalogue of every known mithraic temple, monument, inscription, and literary passage relating to Mithras and claimed on the basis of his study of this body of evidence that Roman Mithras was, ultimately, Zoroastrian Mithra. Cumont argued by extension that if Roman Mithras had Iranian roots, the cult of Mithraism must have originated in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire and spread westward with legionaries in the Roman army, merchants from eastern provinces (often lumped under the broad misnomer “Syrians”), freedmen in the imperial bureaucracy, and slaves.

Mithras-Legacy

Mithras’ Enduring Legacy? (Left) Mithras at Taghe Bostan, Western Iran; (Middle) Deo Sol Invictus, Italy; (Right) The Statue of Liberty, Staten Island, New York.

Cumont’s large scholarly corpus and his opinions dominated Mithraic studies for decades. A series of conferences on Mithraism beginning in 1970 and an enormous quantity of scholarship by numerous individuals in the last quarter century has demonstrated that many of Cumont’s theories were incorrect (see especially Hinnells 1975 and Beck 1984). At the same time this recent work has greatly increased modern understanding of Mithraism, and it has opened up new areas of inquiry. Many questions, particularly those concerning the origins of the Roman cult of Mithras, are still unresolved and may always remain so. Even so, recent studies such as Mary Boyce’s and Frantz Grenet’s History of Zoroastrianism (1991) approach the relationship between Zoroastrianism and Mithraism in an entirely new light. Iconographic studies, especially those focused on the astrological aspects of the cult, abound, while other scholars examine the philosophical and soteriological nature of the cult (Turcan 1975 and Bianchi 1982). The field of mithraic studies is one which remains active and dynamic and one for which serious attention to the recent work greatly repays the effort to tackle this vast body of exciting new work.

Mithraism as a Modern Religion

As modern scholars have continued to research and rebuild the basics of Mithraism, there has been a corresponding rise of contemporary active Religious interest in the Mithraic Mysteries. In the last two decades the number of people actively aspiring to worship Mithras, (and to become initiated in his Mysteries) has grown exponentially. Mithraism has come from being a forgotten, dead ancient cult remembered only by specialized academics to a path often mentioned among modern Pagans, occultists, reconstructionists and reenactors.

Modern scholarship has made more Mithraic knowledge available to the world than has been available for many centuries. Such information is crucial, yet it is perhaps not the entire reason why the idea of Mithraism as a living path has been gaining popular interest.

-mithraeum

The Mithraeum of Seven Gates, Ostia (Source: Philip Coppens). As noted by Philip Coppens: “The Cult of Mithras, rather than Christianity, almost became the religion that dominated Western Europe. It failed, but intriguingly, we now hardly know anything about it”.

The rediscovery of Mithraism has shown the Mithraic Mysteries to be a religious path amazingly well suited to the modern world. It is an organized, honorable path of Virtue, yet one that accepts and even incorporates other religions. It is a path presided over by a guiding Savior God – but yet one that demands that practitioners learn, grow and become powerful spiritual beings in their own right. It is a path where belief is honored . Yet it is also a path where knowledge and direct experience are considered to be crucial to spiritual understanding.

Mithraism may well become a much-needed bridge between various religions and faiths that exist in the world of today. To those from Christian and other monotheistic backgrounds, Mithraism offers a positive religion of the Light that is presided over by a strong Savior God. To those practicing various Pagan or New Age paths, Mithraism offers organization, systematic knowledge and growth, and a path that historically respects a wide variety of other religious paths and world cultures.

The Future of Mithraism

While the future of Mithraism is of course uncertain, it is still possible to focus on specific facts that are likely to continue. Firstly, it is very unlikely that Mithraism will “slip back into the shadows” to become obscure once again. Mithraic information recovered over the past several decades will continue to be available, and new Mithraic sites, artifacts and inscriptions will continue to be recovered.

It is also likely that a general religious interest in Mithraism will continue to rise. One by one the religions of the ancient world are being reclaimed. It is impossible to say if Mithraism will ever again regain the world position it held during the Roman Empire, it is possible to say that from this point onward there will always be at least a few people who honor Mithras in a religious manner.

Whether organized groups take hold and and organized group Mysteries are rebuilt in the future will be very much determined by what takes place in the present and near future. Mithraeum has been formed to help this possibility become reality.

Persian Roots of Puccini’s Opera Turandot (Turandokht)

The article “Persian roots of Puccini’s opera Turandot” (posted 29 November 2019) on Leiden University’s Leiden Medievalists Blog has been penned by Dr. Asghar Seyed Gohrab, Senior University Lecturer at Leiden University. who has dedicated this article to his friend Dr. Rokus de Groot (University of Amsterdam). The article was bought to the attention of Kavehfarrokh.com by Anosh Tozie through the Facebook venue.

Readers further interested in Europa-Iran ties can access more resources on this domain in the below links:

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What is the place on earth that saw the sun only once? What is it that all beings have, human beings, angels, fairies, demons, anything that grazes and flies, heaven and earth, anything that God has created? How did a Persian story grow to a world opera?

Bahram Gur in the Room of the Seven Portraits (Leiden Medievalists Blog & Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon).

Europeans inspired by Persian culture

Persian culture has captured the attention of European artists from antiquity. Persian imperial history, myths and legends, religions, and poetry have all in one way or another enticed European artists, musicians and scholars. European composers were inspired by Persian subjects creating artistic works. Johann Strauss’s Persische March (1864), Thomas Arne’s (1710-1778) opera Artaxerxes, George Friedrich Handel’s Serse (1738), Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, are famous examples, which are inspired by Persian culture and history.

Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot in 1926 (Leiden Medievalists Blog & Public Domain).

Turan’s daughter

But how did a medieval Persian anecdote inspire Puccini’s opera Turandot? The name derives from the Persian compound name Turan and dokht, meaning the daughter of Turan. Dokht is a shortened form of dokhtar or ‘daughter,’ ‘girl.’ As Persian belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, the word dokhtar has cognates in European languages. Turan refers to the north eastern borders Persia. Turandot recounts the story of a Chinese princess who kills her suitors when they fail to decipher riddles.

Puccini: Nessun Dorma from ‘Turandot’ – BBC Proms

Seven Beauties

As a recent investigation has shown (Mogtader & Schoeler, 2019), this story appears in anecdotal form in twelfth century Persia in at least two different sources.

Scene from the opera Turan Dokht by Miranda Lakerveld (Leiden Medievalists Blog & Copyright: Nichon Glerum).

The first source is the Persian masterpiece Seven Beauties, by the Persian poet Nezami (d. 1209) who recounts the romantic history of the pre-Islamic Persian king Bahram. The plot of this story is very complex, filled with mathematical, astronomical, cosmogonic, medical and mystical symbolism. A simplified plot runs as follows. In his early years, Bahram is sent away for education. During a hunting expedition, he comes across a temple. He goes inside the building and sees portraits of seven princesses from the Seven Regions of the world. He instantly falls in love with all of them. As soon as he comes back to Persia, he builds seven pavilions and invites the brides to his palace complex. From Saturday to Friday he visits each night one princess, telling him erotic and didactic stories. Each of these princesses teaches him a lesson and is instrumental in his development as a human being. He starts with the Indian princess in the black pavilion, and then on Sunday, the day of the Sun, goes to the Byzantine princess Humay, till he visits the Persian princess in the White pavilion on Friday, the day of Venus. The colour symbolism, from black to white (leading finally to radiance and colourlessness) is based on astronomical/astrological, mathematical and spiritual symbolism. This journey from black to white also refers to Bahram’s spiritual development from darkness and ignorance to light and illumination, uniting himself with the source of light. He grows to a Perfect Man and an ideal king.

Bahram Gur in the Room of the Seven Portraits (Leiden Medievalists Blog & Collection Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon).

The Ruthless Princess

The plot of a cruel princess who asks riddles from her suitors appears in the red pavilion. It takes place on Tuesday, the day of Mars. Dressed all in red, King Bahram visits the princess Nasrin, who wears crimson robes with hair like the colour of fire and skin whiter than snow. The whole interior of the pavilion is decorated in red, red carpets, roses, and serving red wine. The princess tells a story of a princess in a far-off place in Russia. She is beautiful, skilful in bow and arrow, and is more learned than any men. Her father begs her to marry one of the suitors but she declines. Eventually she leaves the palace and let a palace be built high on a mountain. Hidden swords are placed on the passageway leading to the palace so that they decapitate anyone walking on the road.

She would only marry the strongest and the most intelligent man who could enter this new palace, escaping the swords, and opening the locked door of the palace. Once in the palace, they had to answer four riddles asked by the princess. Would the suitor fail, he was immediately put to death. The princess orders to put her portrait on the city gate, challenging young men to suit her. Many suitors come but lose their lives. While her father weeps and shows pity on their deaths, the princess is cold and laughs, ordering to put the severed heads on the city gate. One day, a prince who is on a hunting expedition, arrives and falls deeply in love with the portrait of the princess. Realizing that this princess is ruthless, he goes to a sage, and asks him how to overcome the invisible swords, how to unlock the palace’s door, and how to answer the riddles. The wise sage says that death comes to everyone but love does not, so the prince should pursue his quest. The sage teaches him how to escape the swords, unlock the door, and answer the four riddles, giving him equipment. The prince succeeds to come into the palace’s garden, a desolate court without any trees and flowers. After long waiting, a maiden comes to him and asks him to go back to her father’s palace and wait for the princess to come and ask him the riddles. The prince goes back. At seeing the prince, people rejoice and remove the portrait of the princess and the skulls of suitors from the city gate. People prepare a feast, drink wine, dance and play music. After waiting for two days, on the third day the princess comes. While smiling, she removes two pearls from her ears and gives them to the prince, asking him what these gifts mean. The prince gives her three pearls that the wise sage had given him. Then he orders courtiers to bring a scale and puts these three pearls on one side and the two pearls on the other. They were equal in weight. The prince answers: “if, as the scholars say, life is but two days long, here is your life and mine. And here is yet another life, which is our life together, when we are made one by love.” (Chelkowski, 1975: 93) Afterwards, the princess calls for a mortar, grinding the pearls and adding sugar to them. She then throws them into a cup and gives them to the prince, asking him what he thinks of such a gift. He brings forth a flask of milk that the sage had given him and pours it to the cup and asks the princess to drink. The powdered pearls remain in the bottom of the cup. Afterwards, the princess gives the prince her precious ring and asks him what he thinks of the gift. The prince gives her a luminous perfect pearl. Finally, the princess unfastens her necklace and gives the prince a pearl exactly the same as the one the prince had given her, asking him what he thinks of the gift. The prince brings forth a glass bead and a string and puts the bead between the pearls, saying to the princess, may our love guard us against evil spirit. In this way he answers all questions.

Rehearsal footage of Turan Dokht, created by director Miranda Lakerveld and composer Aftab Darvishi. 

In Nezami’s account, the prince does not ask riddles, and the riddles asked by the princess are not verbal questions. But in a second source of the story, we find several verbal riddles asked by both the prince and the princess. This second source is Javāmiʿ al-hekāyāt (‘Collection of Stories’) by Mohammad ʿAufi (ca. 1170-1232). ʿAufi’s story is short and it mostly concentrates on ten riddles presented by the princess. ʿAufi places the story in the Roman empire and emphasizes the cruelty of the princess as she kills 42 suitors who failed to answer the riddles. Here a prince falls in love with the cruel Roman princess by hearsay. He goes to her palace and challenges her. The princess’s father shows big sympathy with him. The majority of the riddles are related to cosmogony, religion and ethics. These are riddles to test the intelligence of a young person, which often appear in Persian epic poetry. After answering all of these questions, the prince asks a riddle from the princess, and gives her one day to solve it. In ʿAufi’s retelling, the princess goes to her mother for advice. She convinces her to marry the prince. Several of the motifs Nezami used also appear in ʿAufi’s story such as putting severed heads on the city gate, the king who deeply sympathizes with the young men vising his daughter, and falling in love either through hearsay or portrait.

Bahram vising the red pavilion (Leiden Medievalists Blog).

Another source of the story, which is written much later, is a longer story based on ʿAufi’s narrative. It is here that we see the setting is changed to China. In Persian romantic tradition, including folklore, China is famous for handsome girls, and a Persian prince often goes in quest of finding his marriage partner in China. In this quest story, after much hardship the prince arrives in China and falls in love with a princess through hearsay. An old woman tells him about the cruel behaviour of the princess, imploring him to forget her. The prince goes to the princess’s palace, and she asks him riddles in four consecutive days. The prince answers them all. On the last day, the prince presents a riddle to the princess and gives her one day to guess an answer. Unable to solve the riddle, she sends beautiful maidens to the prince to make him drunk, and to seduce him to dig out the answers. One of the maidens brings the drunken prince to bed and discovers the answer to the riddle. Before making love, the maiden tricks him, running away while leaving behind her cloths. When the next day, the prince comes to the palace to receive the answer from the cruel princess, who haughtily says to the prince that she will kill him, he says, “last night I was on a hunting expedition. I chased a bird. I caught her, prepared her for consummation, but she flew away, yet I have her wings and feathers still with me.” This answer convinces the princess of his intelligence and agrees to marry him.

This longer version of the story was translated into Turkish under the title of Ferec baʿd al-shedda (‘Relief after Hardship’). In the Persian stories, the actual names of the prince and the princess are not mentioned, but in this Turkish translation, Calaf appears, which is a corruption of Khalaf meaning ‘successor,’ ‘child,’ or ‘offspring.’

François Pétis de La Croix (1653-1713) translated the story very freely into French and added Chinese colouring to it. The European versions of the riddle princess starts from this period. Carlo Graf Gozzi (1720-1806) had adapted several oriental stories, among which this particular narrative. Puccini’s libretto is written by Giuseppe Adami (1878-1946) and Renato Simoni (1875-1952). Puccini knew the story already through the play written by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), which was based on Gozzi’s version.

Riddles asked by Puccini’s Turandot.

            It is fascinating to see how an anecdote, which comes probably from an oral Persian background, developed to several complex stories which all emphasize the riddling elements through a powerful, handsome and cruel princess, who tests the intelligence and physical prowess of her suitors.

Answers to riddles:

  • the Red Sea
  • a name

Literature

Chelkowski, P., “Āyā operā-ye Turandot-e Puccini bar asās-e kushk-e sorkh-e Haft Peykar- e Nezāmi ast?” (Is Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ based on the Red Pavilion of Nezami’s Haft Peykar?), in Iranshenasi, 1991, pp. 715–721.

Dabashi, H., Persophilia: Persian Culture on the Global Scene, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Marzolph, U. & R. van Leeuwen, The Arabian Nights: Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara: ABC CLIO, 2004.

Marzolph, U., Relief after Hardship: The Ottoman Turkish Model for The Thousand and One Days, Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2017 (I had no access to this book).

Mogtader, Y. & G. Schoeler, Turandot: Die persische Märchenerzählung, Edition, Űbersetzung, Kommentar, Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2019.

Seyed-Gohrab, A.A., Courtly Riddles: Enigmatic Embellishments in Early Persian Poetry, Amsterdam, Rozenberg Publishers / West Lafayette, Indiana, Purdue University press, 2008. (republished in 2010 at Leiden University Press)

Seyed-Gohrab, A.A., Laylī and Majn‎ūn: Love, Madness and Mystic Longing in Nezāmi’s Epic Romance, Leiden / Boston: E.J. Brill, 2003.

Yohannan, J.D., Persian Poetry in England and America: a 200-Year History, New York: Caravan Books, 1977.

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

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

“Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe”

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

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

Abstract & Overview of Lecture

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

Select References & Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Select Major Reference Resources in Kaveh Farrokh.com

Select Articles in Kavehfarrokh.com

The First Airplane Flight over the skies of Tehran

Mankind’s first aerial flight was to take place on December 17, 1903 by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, USA. With this technological leap, the world was to rapidly enter the domain of aviation.

On January 4, 1914, just over ten years after the flight at Kitty Hawk, the citizenry of Tehran witnessed the first flight of the airplane over Tehran. Caught unawares and never having seen an airplane before, many citizens rushed out of their houses and workplaces into the streets as they heard the roar of the aircraft’s engines as it flew at low level over Tehran’s rooftops. Tehran curious citizenry were struck with amazement as they witnessed what probably resembled a metallic bird in flight.

The first aerial photo taken of Tehran by a balloon approximately 90 years ago (Photo: Bartarinha) (for more on this see “First Balloon Flight over Tehran”). The pilot of the Berliot 1 that first took flight over Tehran on January 4, 1914 most likely witnessed a similar panorama as he flew over the city.

The pilot circled the city environs and soon decided to land his airplane.

While the nationality of the pilot is identified as “Russian” (Babaie, Gh. [1385/2006], “History of the Iranian Air Force”, 1383/2004, Tehran: Entesharat Ashian, page 20), he was in fact an ethnic Pole by the name of “Kuzminskii”. Kuzminskii had already made exhibition flights in other countries before arriving in Iran. The airplane itself is often identified by Iranian military historians as the “Blériot” but in practice this was actually a Russian copy of the French designed Blériot XI which was to also see action in World War One.

A Russian copy of the French-designed Blériot XI known as the “Rossiya-B” (Source: Copycats Work). This Blériot XI was produced under license in Czarist Russia where it was Christened as the “Rossiya-B”. It was one of the Russian-manufactured Blériot’s that flew over Tehran.

As Tehran did not yet have an airfield per se, he decided to land his plane in the military grounds of the local barracks of the Meydan Masqh (میدان مشق) of the Persian Cossack Division (this was to subsequently become the location of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as it remains to the present). However, as the plane landed it collided with the barrel of an artillery piece parked in the grounds, damaging the aircraft. The pilot himself was unharmed. By this time, large crowds of excited and curious citizens forced themselves into the barracks, in hopes of getting a glimpse of this strange flying machine.

A color graphic of the Meydan Masqh (میدان مشق) as it would have appeared in the early twentieth century (Source: gt724).

The plane was actually unable to take off for a number of days as crowds from all across Tehran began pouring into the barracks. Equally of interest is arrival of the Blériot into Iran. Kuzminskii had bought this over into Iran in parts from Czarist Russia by way of the Caspian Sea into the northern Iranian port city of Bandar Anzali. From there, the plane was transported in kits (or sections) by automobile from northern Iran to Tehran. Once Kuzminskii arrived in Tehran, he re-assembled the airplane and took off to the city’s skies on January 4, 1914. The flight certainly did not go unnoticed by Iran’s ruling class. The very next day, the Qajar monarch, Ahmad Shah (r. 1909-1925) alongside his retinue, various government officials and high-ranking military personnel arrived at the barracks to inspect the plane and welcome its pilot.

Ahmad Shah (r. 1909-1925) (2nd from left), the last Qajar monarch of Iran, poses in front of the Blériot aircraft and its Polish pilot identified as “Kuzminskii” (at left with white Persian cap) on January 5th, 1914 (Source: Maboubeh Pouryusefi [محبوبه پوریوسفی] in Fararu). Note the attendance of Ahmad Shah’s retinue alongside members of the Persian Cossack Division (Source: Fararu). The photo, according to Maboubeh Pouryusefi of the Fararu outlet, was first published in the French “L’Illustration” newspaper. Just over seven months after the Berliot 1’s flight over Tehran, the world would be plunged into the First World War on July 28, 1914.

Local hucksters were quick to seize the aircraft’s presence to sell tickets at exorbitant prices. However, as the plane was damaged it was unable to take off. Assisted by Iranian military personnel, Kuzminskii succeeded in transporting the aircraft to Tehran’s military repair headquarters which often overhauled and rebuilt military hardware such as artillery, etc. The location of this repair depot has been identified as Third Esfand street (خیابان سوم اسفند). Kuzminskki, who had engineering training, was assisted by an Iranian officer identified as Oshtodagh (اشتوداخ) who was the father of Major-General Issa Oshtodagh (تیمسار سرلشکر عیسی اشتوداخ). With the plane repaired, Kuzminskii then transferred this back to Meydan Masqh (میدان مشق). However, he subsequently decided that it was too dangerous to attempt a take-off from Meydan Masqh (میدان مشق). As a result, he decided to relocate the plane by land transport to a locale known as the “Qajar Palace” (قصر قاجار). This area featured a level ground which was suitable for take-off and landings. From this area Kuzminskii made a number of other flights over Tehran.

Maboubeh Pouryusefi [محبوبه پوریوسفی] however notes in the Fararu outlet that the plane crashed and that parts of this soon appeared on a horse-drawn wagon as it ambled down Tehran’s Ala-Dowleh street (خیابان علاءالدوله), which is present-day Firdowsi street (خیابان فردوسی). Pouryusefi notes that the wagon traveled towards Tehran’s Meydan Toopkhaneh (میدان توپخانه) district. This version of events however is not corroborated by Iranian aviation historian Babaie (Babaie, Gh. [1383/2004, Tehran: Entesharat Ashian], “History of the Iranian Air Force”).

It would not be until 1922 when Iran’s first airfields were to be developed. The first airfield was to be built in the south of Tehran. Just two years later in 1924, the foundations of Iran’s civil and military aviation would be established.

Journal Article: Caucasian Albanian warriors in the armies of pre-Islamic Iran

The HISTORIA I ŚWIAT academic journal has published the following article by Kaveh Farrokh, Javier Sánchez-Gracia (HRM Ediciones, Zaragoza, Spain), and Katarzyna Maksymiuk (Siedlce University, Poland):

Farrokh, K., Sánchez-Gracia, J., & Maksymiuk, K. (2019). Caucasian Albanian warriors in the armies of pre-Islamic Iran. HISTORIA I ŚWIAT, 8, pp.21-46.

The article discusses the important role of ancient Albania, an ancient country in the Caucasus (in the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan, first labelled with this appellation in May 1918) in the history of Iran. Albanian cavalry was serving with the later Achaemenid armies of Darius III (r. 336–330 BCE) at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE).

An Albanian-Scythian cavalry commander from the late Achaemenid era (Source: Pinterest). Cavalry of this type from Albania fought for Darius III against Alexander at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE).

Albania was transformed into a Sassanian province by Šāpūr I (c. 253) with the Albanians (notably their cavalry) becoming increasingly integrated into the battle order of the Sassanian Spah (army).

Book cover of “The Siege of Amida” authored by Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Javier Sánchez-Gracia (2018) DC – click here to download in pdf from Academia.edu … The above image is a recreation by Ardashir Radpour of a Sassanian Savaran knight of the Hamharzan who were often supplied with the highest quality weaponry. Elite Albanian knights fighting alongside the Savaran would have resembled their comrade in arms with respect to attire, equipment and battle tactics. The above book was displayed at the 2018 ASMEA (Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa) Conference’s LSS (Library of Social Sciences) display in Washington DC.

All along the Caspian coast the Sassanians built powerful defense works, designed to bar the way to invaders from the north. The most celebrated of these fortifications are those of Darband in Caucasian Albania.

A view of the Darband Wall (known commonly as Derbent; cited as Krevar in local dialects) in Daghestan, Northern Caucasus (Courtesy of Associates of Eduard Enfiajyan).  The origins of the wall of Darband are generally attributed to Kavad I (r. 488-496, 498-530 CE) who after a two-year war (489-490 CE) ejected Khazar invaders rampaging Armenia and Caucasian Albania (modern Republic of Azerbaijan). Construction of the wall was continued by Khosrow I (r. 530-579 CE) and by the late 6th century CE, this had become a system of walls connecting a series of fortresses. Total length of the Darband wall is nearly 70 km, spanning the territory from the Caucasus Mountains to the Caspian Sea. The Wall of Darband or Derbent became a major military fortress shielding Iranian territories in the Caucasus and the historical Azarbaijan below the Araxes River from nomadic attackers along the northern Caucasus, most notably the Khazars.

Albania remained an integral part of the Sasanian army well into the empire’s final days as evidenced by the military exploits of Albanian regal prince Javanshir (Persian: Young Lion) and his cavalry who fought against the Arabo-Islamic invaders at the Battle of Qadissiya (637 CE) and after. Javanshir was a member of the Iranian Mehranid family related to the Parthian clans.

A copy of the 7th century CE statue of the Caucasian Albanian Prince Javanshir (Persian: Young Lion) discovered in Nakhchevan, southern Caucasus (the original statue is housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg – the above copy of the original is in the Republic of Azerbaijan History Museum) (Source: Urek Meniashvili in Public Domain).