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).


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Dura Europos: Its’ Archaeology & History

The article “Dura Europos: Its’ Archaeology & History” by Pierre Leriche was originally published in the CAIS venue hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav in London.



Dura Europos ruined city on the right bank of the Euphrates between Antioch and Seleucia on the Tigris, founded in 303 B.C.E. by Nicanor, a general of Seleucus I. It flourished under Parthian rule. The site is in modern Syria, on a plateau protected on the east by a citadel built on bluffs overlooking the river, on the north and south by wadis, and on the west by a strong rampart with powerful defensive towers. Its military function of the Greek period was abandoned under the Parthians, but at that time it was the administrative and economic center of the plain extending 100 km between the confluence of the Khâbûr and Euphrates rivers and the Abû Kamâl gorge to the south.


Initial archeological exploration of the city took place in 1920-22, under the direction of Franz Cumont and the sponsorship of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. From 1929 to 1937 Yale University and the Acade‚mie sponsored excavations under the initiative of M. I. Rostovtzeff, who published Dura-Europos and Its Art, a synthesis of the history of the town and of its civilization, formed from Greek, Semitic, and Iranian components. This work has served as the basis for all subsequent studies of the site. In fact, however, understanding of Dura Europos depended mainly on written materials (parchments, papyri, inscriptions, and grafitti; see ii, below), paintings, tombs, and portable objects (e.g., coins, bronzes, and lamps) from the excavations, and very little attention has been paid to the architectural remains. Although nearly a third of the town has been excavated, a large number of buildings have been published only summarily or not at all. It therefore became necessary to resume the work of publication, and for this reason the Mission Franco-Syrienne de Doura-Europos was formed in 1986 under the joint direction of the author and Assad Al-Mahmoud; the major objectives are to reexamine the archeological data, to make available the entire mass of documentation from previous excavations, as well as to save the monuments from destruction.

Fresco at Dura Europos (Source: CAIS).

Dura Europos was brought into the Iranian cultural sphere after the Parthian conquest in about 113 B.C.E. (Bellinger; Welles). This domination lasted three centuries, interrupted by a Roman occupation in 115-17 C.E., during Trajan’s expedition to Ctesiphon (q.v.). In 165 Dura was conquered by Avidius Cassius and became a stronghold in the Roman defensive system along the eastern frontier of the empire. Nevertheless, despite an impressive effort to reinforce its defenses, the town was unable to withstand the great offensive launched by the Sasanian Šâpûr I (240-70) in 256; it was taken after a bitter siege, and the population was deported, thus putting an end to the town’s existence.

The Parthian period

According to recent discoveries, Dura Europos, originally a fortress, was constituted as a city only in the late Hellenistic period and had been only sparsely populated throughout the Greek period. It was under the Parthians, however, that the city assumed its essential aspect, as revealed by the excavations, a configuration only partly modified by the Roman occupation, except for transformation of the northern sector into a Roman camp. Recent work by the Mission Franco-Syrienne has permitted some refinement of this picture; certain buildings that had formerly been attributed to the Parthians can now be dated to the Hellenistic period. For example, according to Armin von Gerkan, the cut-stone fortifications of Dura Europos had been built by the Parthians, fearful that the Greek wall of unbaked bricks would be insufficient against a Roman attack. Only the northern section of the original western wall survived, which he took as proof that the project had been rendered unnecessary by the peace concluded between the Parthians and Augustus in 20 B.C.E. (pp. 4-51). This conclusion was based more on probabilities extrapolated from the reports of ancient historians than on archeological discoveries and has been contradicted by the results of recent soundings and clearing of earlier trenches. It is now clear that it was the Greeks themselves who built the stone fortifications, in the second half of the 2nd century B.C.E., and that the use of mud bricks resulted from the imminent threat from the Parthians, which forced the builders to finish the wall with more easily obtained material (Leriche and Mahmoud, l990). Similarly, the reconstruction of the palace of the strategus (the redoubt palace; Figure 30/24) and its extension to the north, as well as construction of the second palace in the citadel, which shows a number of similarities, had been attributed to the Parthian period, but recent excavations in the interior and at the base of the facade of the former building have revealed that it belongs to the 2nd century B.C.E., that is, the Greek period. In a recent study Susan Downey (1988) has also called into question the restoration of one palace with an ayvân (q.v.), which was suggested in the Yale publications and would imply a Parthian construction.

Mithraic temple at Dura Europos (Source: CAIS).

The Parthian period thus appears to have been primarily a phase of expansion at Dura Europos, an expansion favored by abandonment of the town’s military function. All the space enclosed by the walls gradually became occupied, and the installation of new inhabitants with Semitic and Iranian names alongside descendants of the original Macedonian colonists contributed to an increase in the population (Welles et al.). In his celebrated Caravan Cities Rostovtzeff had argued that this prosperity could have resulted from the town’s position as a trading center and caravan halt, but this hypothesis has been abandoned, for nothing uncovered by the excavations has confirmed it. Instead, Dura Europos owed its development to its role as a regional capital, amply illustrated by the contents of inscriptions, parchments, and papyri.

In the Parthian period Greek institutions remained in place (Arnaud), and the property-zoning scheme established in the Hellenistic period was respected in new construction; that is, buildings were kept within the limits of pre-existing blocks 35 x 70 m laid out uniformly over the entire surface of the plateau, even to a large extent in the interior wadis. The only exceptions were the quarter of the town southeast of the citadel, which had apparently already been occupied before the division into lots, and a sector of the agora that had been invaded by domestic buildings. The ramparts were neglected: Domestic trash accumulated along the periphery, finally forming a mass so thick that it prevented access to certain towers on the western wall.

The architecture of the Parthian period was characterized by a progressive evolution of Greek concepts toward new formulas in which regional traditions, particularly those derived from Babylonia, played an increasing role. These innovations affected both religious and domestic buildings. No secular public building is known to have been built during the Parthian period, with the possible exception of a bath constructed of cut stone in the northeast sector of the town. The evolved Parthian forms generally persisted into the Roman period, except for buildings in the Roman camp in the northern third of the town, for example, the palace of the Dux Ripae and the praetorium.

Depiction of Iranian god Mithras slaying the sacred bull (Source: CAIS).

The architecture of private dwellings varied in detail according to the wealth of the owner. The systematic layout of the Greek city, in which each house was supposed to cover one-eighth of a block (ca. 300 m2), was abandoned or modified through subdivision and consolidation resulting from sales or inheritance (Saliou). The smallest houses covered one quarter or even less of a Greek lot, whereas other, more luxurious examples might cover up to half a block. But the organizing principle of the house remained fundamentally the same: The street door, often situated at a corner of the house, opened onto a corridor leading into a central courtyard, which provided access and light to the various rooms of the house. The principal room, the andro‚n, was usually situated on the south side, opening to the north, and was surrounded on all four walls by a masonry bench; it served as a reception room (Allara). Some houses incorporated columns, but gabled roofs disappeared in favor of terraces, rooms became irregular in shape, and several houses had second stories.

Religious architecture underwent a comparable evolution, traceable through numerous excavated buildings: the temples of Artemis Nanaïa II and Zeus Megistos II, the necropolis temple, and the temples of Artemis Azzanathkona, Zeus Kyrios, Atargatis, Bel, Aphlad, Zeus Theos, Gad, and Adonis. This architecture diverged more and more from the hypothetical Greek model, if in fact such a model had ever been introduced at Dura Europos (Downey, 1988, p. 176). All the temples of the Parthian period have the same basic plan, with variations in detail. A generally square temenos is enclosed by a blank wall; the naos stands at the back of the interior courtyard facing the entrance. Against the interior face of the enclosure wall are a series of rooms for service or secondary cults, usually built by donors. When the naos is set against the back wall of the temenos, a narrow space is left between them to provide a separation of the cella from the exterior world. The building is small, usually square in plan, and raised on a podium of two or three steps, with one or more altars in front. The interior is divided in two: the pronaos, which occupies the full width of the building and is sometimes furnished with tiers of benches on either side of the entrance, and the cella, usually flanked by two chapels or lateral sacristies. The cult image on the wall opposite the entrance, either mounted on a pedestal or painted directly on the surface. All that remains from the Greek tradition is the occasional presence of a columned facade in front of the temple or porticoes along the sides of the courtyard, as at the temple of Bel.

The undermined defenses at Tower 19 (background), where many of the finest military artefacts were preserved (Source: CAIS).

It is thus clear that at Dura Europos entirely original architectural formulas were perfected during the Parthian period, in both religious and domestic constructions; the Babylonian element predominated, though with a certain Greek dressing, but no unequivocal Iranian influence appears. The formula for religious buildings was followed in all temples, whatever the form of worship to which they were consecrated, Greek or Semitic.

The only Iranian cult known at Dura Europos was that of Mithra, which paradoxically had been introduced into the city by Roman troops in 168. The mithraeum, located near the western wall in the Roman camp (Figure 307), belongs to the type dedicated to the cult throughout the Roman world and has no features in common with the other religious buildings at Dura Europos, except that it stands on a podium. It appears to have been a single room of modest dimensions with a bench on each of the longer sides; above the central aisle there was a raised ceiling with a clerestory. At the end of the room was a niche containing two cultic bas-reliefs with an altar before them. The entire surface of the room was covered with painted decoration: scenes from the life of Mithra, representations of magi and the zodiac around the bas-reliefs in the niche, and mounted hunting scenes on the side walls.

Although Iranian influence is difficult to find in the architecture of Dura Europos, in figurative art it is much more pronounced. In fact, owing to landfill that preserved religious buildings along the western wall (see below), Dura has provided the main evidence of a decorative art that seems to have developed in Parthian domains, reflecting a synthesis of the traditions of the ancient Near East (linear drawing, two-dimensional forms, stiff poses) and the Hellenic world (the use of architectural decoration and friezes, types of dress). Furthermore, in religious settings, those most fully represented, the principle of “Parthian frontality” prevailed. This convention, according to which all figures, human or divine, face directly forward, with eyes fixed on the spectator, made its appearance at Dura very early, in the oldest painting, of the sacrifice of Conon, in the temple of Bel (probably 1st century C.E.; Figure 30/8). It persisted until the destruction of the city, as attested in the frescoes of the synagogue, dating from 245 (Figure 30/5). It was equally apparent in sculpture and terra-cottas (except for a statue of Artemis with the tortoise, which comes from a Hellenistic center) and, for example, in two reliefs of the Gads of Dura and Palmyra. On the other hand, in frequent narrative scenes of combat and hunting on horseback, like those in the mithraeum (Figure 30/7), the horses and wild beasts are portrayed in a flying gallop, a characteristic that was to be developed in Sasanian art.

The Siege of Dura Europos

The Sasanian siege of Dura Europos in 256 brought an end to the town’s existence and immobilized Šâpûr’s army for several months. The determined resistance put up by the inhabitants forced the assailants to adopt various siege tactics, which eventually resulted in conquest of the city; the defensive system, the mines, and the assault ramp were left in place after the deportation of the population, which permits modern investigators to gain an exact idea of the military techniques of the Sasanians and the Romans in the mid-3rd century.

A Sasanian helmet from the siege mines beneath Tower 19, Dura-Europos. It is a rare find of Sasanian military archaeology, and also clearly a prototype for Roman helmets of the 3rd century CE (Source: CAIS).

It is not known where the Sasanians located their camp, but traces of their operations against the city wall still survive (du Mesnil du Buisson). To guard against the attack, which was clearly expected from the time that the Sasanian empire was established, the Romans had heightened and reinforced the external faces of the western and northern ramparts by masking them with thick layers of fill covered by a mud-brick glacis and thus burying the buildings along the inside of the wall. The Persians undermined towers 19 and 14 (Figure 30) on the western wall in order to bring them down, but, owing to the filling and the glacis, the towers were not really destroyed. At the southeast corner of the town they built an assault ramp 40 m long and 10 m high against the wall to permit troops to enter; it consisted of a mass of fill packed between two walls of brick and paved with baked bricks, which made it possible to move a siege machine close to the wall. Two tunnels, each wide enough to permit several men to advance abreast, were dug near the body of the ramp. There is no surviving textual description of the siege of Dura Europos, but Ammianus Marcellinus’ account of the siege of Amida (q.v.) a century later, in which the same techniques were used, permits reconstruction of the operations at Dura; the main siege weapons were catapults, movable towers, and even elephants. Clearly the Sasanian armies had a sophisticated knowledge of siege techniques.

The discovery of the body of a Sasanian soldier in one of the trenches has also yielded precious information. He was equipped with a coat of mail, a sword ornamented with a jade disk of Central Asian type, and an iron helmet (left figure) made in two halves with an iron crest running vertically down the center of the front, of clearly Mesopotamian and Iranian origin. This type of helmet served as a model for those adopted in the Roman empire in the 3rd century (James).

The chronology of the siege operations has given rise to a debate that is still far from having been resolved. The discovery of Pahlavi inscriptions on the frescoes of the synagogue does not prove that the town had first been occupied by the Sasanians during a campaign in 253, three years before the final siege. It is also improbable that a house near the triumphal arch on the main street, in which there was a fresco of Sasanian type showing a fight between cavalrymen, belongs to this putative first occupation. It seems now that this fresco, several ostraca in Pahlavi found in the palace of the Dux Ripae (Figure 30/13), and the tombs discovered in the town and along the river resulted from temporary installation of a small Persian detachment in the town after the victory of 256 (MacDonald; Leriche and Al Mahmoud, 1994).


he results of the French-Syrian campaigns have been published in P. Leriche, ed., Doura-Europos. Études I-III (DEE), published in Syria, 1986, 1988, 1992. The fourth volume is forthcoming in the series Bibliotheàque Arche‚o-logique et Historique, Beirut.

A. Allara, “Les maisons de Doura-Europos. Questions de typologie,” in DEE I, pp. 39-60.
P. Arnaud, “Doura-Europos. Microcosme grec ou rouage de l’administration arsacide?” in DEE I, pp. 135-55.

A. R. Bellinger, “The Evidence of the Coins,” Berytus 9, 1948, pp. 51-67.
A. Bounni, “Un nouveau bas-relief palmyrênien de Doura-Europos,” Comptes Rendus de l’Acade‚mie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 1994, pp. 11-18.

F. Cumont, Fouilles de Doura-Europos (1922-1926), Paris, 1926. S. B. Downey, “The Citadel Palace at Dura-Europos,” in DEE I, pp. 28-37.
Idem, Mesopotamian Religious Architecture. Alexander through the Parthians, Princeton, N.J., 1988.
A. von Gerkan, “The Fortifications,” in M. I. Rostovtzeff, ed., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Preliminary Reports VII-VIII, New Haven, Conn., 1939, pp. 4-61.

R. Ghirshman, Iran. Parthians and Sasanians, tr. S. Gilbert and J. Emmons, London, 1962 (for illustrations).
C. Hopkins, The Discovery of Dura-Europos, New Haven, Conn., 1979 (with an almost complete bibliography on the site up to that time).
S. James, “Evidence from Dura Europos for the Origins of Late Roman Helmets,” in DEE I, pp. 107-34.
P. Leriche, “Chronologie du rempart de briques crues,” in DEE I, pp. 61-82. Idem, “Techniques de guerre sassanides et romaines aà Doura-Europos,” in F. Vallet and M. Kazanski eds., L’arme‚e romaine et les Barbares du IIIe au VIIIe sieàcle, Paris, 1993, pp. 83-100.
Idem and A. Al Mahmoud, “Bilan des campagnes de 1986 et 1987 de la mission franco-syrienne aà Doura-Europos,” in DEE II, 1988, pp. 3-24.
Idem, “Bilan des campagnes de 1989 et 1990 à Doura-Europos,” in DEE III, pp. 3-28.
Idem, “Doura-Europos. Bilan des recherches re‚centes,” Comptes- Rendus de l’Acade‚mie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 1994, pp. 395-420.
D. MacDonald, “Dating the Fall of Dura-Europos,” Historia 35, 1986, pp. 45-68.
S. Matheson, Dura Europos, New Haven, Conn., 1982.
R. du Mesnil du Buisson, “Les ouvrages du sieàge de Doura- Europos,” Me‚moires de la Socie‚te‚ nationale des antiquaires de France 81, 1944, pp. 5-60.
A. Perkins, The Art of Dura-Europos. Oxford, 1973.
M. I. Rostovtzeff, ed., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Preliminary Reports, 9 vols., New Haven, Conn., 1929-52.
Idem, Caravan Cities, Oxford, 1932.
Idem, “Dura and the Problem of Parthian Art,” Yale Classical Studies 5, 1935, pp. 157-304.
Idem, Dura-Europos and Its Art, Oxford, 1938.
Idem, and A. Perkins, eds., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Reports,, 11 vols., New Haven, Conn., 1943-77.
C. Saliou, “Les quatre fils de Pole‚mocrateàs,” in DEE III, Paris, 1990, pp. 65-100.
D. Schlumberger, L’Orient helle‚nise‚, Paris, 1970.
C. B. Welles, “The Chronology of Dura-Europos,” Eos 48, 1957, pp. 467-74.
Idem, The Parchments and Papyri, The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report 5/1. New Haven, Conn., 1959.

Sheda Vasseqhi PhD Study: Positioning of Iran And Iranians In Origins Of Western Civilization

Sheda Vasseghi has completed her PhD Dissertation at the University of New England entitled:

Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In Origins of Western Civilization. PhD Dissertation, University of New England (download this at …)

Sheda Vasseqhi

Vasseghi’s PhD academic advising team were composed of the following members: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi and Kaveh Farrokh.

Her study explored a number of widely taught college-level history textbooks in order to examine how these positioned Iran and Iranian peoples in the origins of Western Civilization. As noted by Vasseghi in her abstract:

“Western Civilization history marginalizes, misrepresents, misappropriates, and/or omits Iran’s positioning. Further, the mainstream approach to teaching Western Civilization history includes the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman narrative.”

Vasseghi used a multi-faceted theoretical approach—decolonization, critical pedagogy, and Western Civilization History dilemma—since her study transcended historical revisionism. This collective case study involved eleven Western Civilization history textbooks that, according to the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), are most popular among American college faculty. Vasseghi reviewed and collected expert opinion on the following five themes:

(1) terminology and definition of Iran, Iranians, and Iranian languages

(2) roots and origins of Iranian peoples

(3) which Iranian peoples are noted in general

(4) which Iranian peoples in ancient Europe are specifically noted

(5) Iranians in connection with six unique Western Civilization attributes.

Vasseghi selected experts specializing in Iranian, Western Civilization, and Indo-European studies in formulating a consensus on each theme. She then compared expert opinion to content in surveyed textbooks. Vasseghi discovered that the surveyed textbooks in her study overwhelmingly omitted, ill-defined, misrepresented, or marginalized Iran and Iranians in the origins of Western Civilization.

Readers are encouraged to visit Kaveh Farrokh’s profile cited in the introduction of this post to download Sheda Vasseghi’s Dissertation. Here is one of the quotes from her study:

“The researcher recommends that textbook authors and publishers engage experts in the field of Iranian studies in formulating content. A caveat for engaging those in the field of Iranian studies when writing Western Civilization history textbooks involves making a distinction between a native Iran and post-Islamic invasion and colonization of Iran in early Middle Ages (7th century onwards). That is, in the Age of Antiquity, Iran was under an Iranian governance and ancestral beliefs such as Zoroastrianism and Mithraism.”

This is an important observation given Western Media and academic outlets using sweeping (if not simplistic) terms such as “Middle East”, “Muslims”, etc. without acknowledging the context of Iran’s unique background, ancient history and language(s). Put simply, terms such as “Middle East” are not scientific but geopolitical in origin. The term “Muslim Civilization” for example serves to dilute (or even blur) the critical role of Iranian and Indian scholars in the preservation and promotion of learning, sciences and medicine. Arab historians such as Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) who in his Muqaddimah (translated by F. Rosenthal (III, pp. 311-15, 271-4 [Arabic]; R.N. Frye (p.91) has acknowledged the role of the Iranians in the promotion of scholarship:

“…It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars…in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs…thus the founders of grammar were Sibawaih and after him, al-Farisi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent…they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar…great jurists were Persians… only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the prophet becomes apparent, ‘If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven the Persians would attain it”…The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them…as was the case with all crafts…This situation continued in the cities as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxiana (modern Central Asia), retained their sedentary culture.”

[For more see: Farrokh, K. (2015). Pan-Arabism and Iran. In “The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism” (Immanuel Ness & Zak Cope, Eds.), Palgrave-Macmillan, pp.915-923.]

Sources such as Ibn Khaldun are now rarely mentioned in many modern-day “Islamic Studies” in Western history textbooks which may explain in part the numerous errors uncovered in Vasseghi’s study. She further avers:

“Critical pedagogy is important in transformational leadership in education. Educators are obligated to point out errors or problems in content and mainstream narratives. In regards to teaching history of Western Civilization, one should recall the warnings of its looming demotion by Ricketts et al. (2011) because unfortunately teaching it “had come to be seen as a form of apologetics for racism, imperialism, sexism, and colonialism” (p. 14). It appears that in perceiving that something is missing from or fragmented in Western Civilization history content, educational institutions are now marginalizing and omitting it from their curriculum in America, a Western nation. Therefore, the significance of this study is the need for authors and educators to shift the currently flawed narrative on the history of the West. Iran’s positioning is a key component in the study of Western Civilization. The researcher argues that Iran and Iranians not only influenced the making of the West; they are part of the West. By placing Iran and Iranians where they belong, historians may also address concerns about teaching the history of the West (Ricketts et al., 2011).”

In her final PhD defense session with her research committee (Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi and Kaveh Farrokh) on Monday, March 20, 2017, Vasseghi noted that she plans to author books tailored to Western audiences to help educate with respect to the role of Iranians in the formation of European civilization. Vasseghi’s books would also be geared towards a lay (non-academic) audience.

Giusto Traina: Carrhes-Anatomie d’une Défaite (Carrhae-Anatomy of a Defeat)

Italian historian and professor Dr. Giusto Traina has written a seminal academic textbook entitled:

Carrhes-Anatomie d’une Défaite: Quand L’Orient humilia Rome (Carrhae-Anatomy of a Defeat: When the Orient humiliates Rome)

This book was published September 15th 2011 by Les Belles Lettres (first published 2010); the Preface of the book by Giovanni Brizzi.

For more regarding the textbook and means of obtaining this, consult the Les Belles lettres website here …

Dr. Giusto Traina is a professor of Roman history at Sorbonne University in Paris. Dr. Traina is also a senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France. His academic profile also includes authorship of  numerous books and articles.

Dr. Giusto Traina brings to life one of the most important battles in the military history of antiquity, one which marks the beginning of incessant warfare between Rome and Iran. In an alert and exciting narrative, Dr. Traina describes how Rome was blocked by the Parthian army whose competence, power and above all its ability in resisting the formidable military machine of Rome had been greatly underestimated.

In was in the Plains of Carrhae (modern Harran) on June 9, 53 BC, where an all-cavalry Parthian force barred the fifty thousand Roman army led by General Marcus Licinius Crassus to conquer the rival empire of the Parthians. Overwhelmed by the arrows of the Parthians, the Romans were reduced to military impotence: more than half of the legionaries were killed, with many others  captured and deported. The Romans were also subjected to the dishonor of having the Parthians seize their military insignia and place these in their Mithraic temples. It would take many years for Rome to erase the consequences of this defeat.

Parthian Horse archers engage the Roman legions of Marcus Lucinius Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Unlike the Achamenid-Greek wars where Achaemenid arrows were unable to penetrate Hellenic shields and armor, Parthian archery was now able to penetrate the armor and shields of their Roman opponents (Picture Source: Antony Karasulas & Angus McBride).

General Marcus Licinius Crassus, the same man who eighteen years earlier had defeated Spartacus and his six thousand rebellious slaves and gladiators, was to make his final mark with his death at Parthian hands at Carrhae.

Reconstruction by Peter Wilcox and the late historical artist, Angus McBride of Parthian armored knights as they would have appeared in 54 BCE (Picture Source: Osprey Publishing).

Carrhae halted Rome’s seemingly unstoppable conquest of the Classical world. Rome had learned that the Parthian Spada (army) of Persia was more than capable of blocking the Romans from expanding eastwards to India and China.

Javier Sánchez Gracia: Roma y Persia Frente a Frente (Rome and Persia Face to Face)

Dr. Javier Sánchez Gracia has written the first ever book in Spanish on the conflicts between Rome and Persia:

Imperios de las Arenas: Roma y Persia Frente a Frente (Empires at the sand: Rome and Persia Face to Face). Readers can obtain a copy by visiting this link here …

Dr. Gracia has a degree in Classical Philology from the University of Zaragoza (Spain) and is a doctor of Sciences of Antiquity from the same university. He has participated in several congresses of Classical Philology in Spain and published scientific papers and articles. His research topics are the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus; the history of pre-Islamic Persia, and the image of Persia among classical Greco-Roman authors. In this endeavor, Dr. Gracia has also recently co-authored an article with Kaveh Farrokh in the Persian Heritage Journal entitled:

Farrokh, K., & Gracia, J.S. (2017). The “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm and the portrayal of the “Other”. Persian Heritage, 85, pp.12-14.

Dr. Javier Sánchez Gracia of the University of Zaragoza (seated) during the book signing of his recent text “Imperios de las Arenas: Roma y Persia Frente a Frente” (Empires at the sand: Rome and Persia Face to Face). The book signing above occurred during the “Feria del Libro de Zaragoza” book fair in Zaragoza, Spain on April 23, 2017. Standing next to Dr. Gracia is his friend and colleague Dr. Manuel Ferrando, also an accomplished historian from the University of Zaragoza, Spain.

Dr. Gracia’s book consists of the following chapters:

  • The Seleucid Empire
  • The Roman Republican Army
  • The Parthian Empire
  • Mithridates
  • The Battle of Carrhae
  • Marcus Antonius
  • The Parthians: from Carrhae to the Sassanian uprising
  • The Sassanian Empire: Rome vs Ctesiphon

Although Gracia’s textbook has a military focus, the rest of the subjects in his work also provide detailed analyses on the political and religious life of both empires. We are provided with exhaustive notes on the religion and the politics of the Parthians and Sassanians, even as the book focuses on an academic military analysis of the Romano-Persian conflicts, with particular attention paid to the structure of the armies of the ancient superpower rivals.

The book has done an excellent work in avoiding the pitfalls of (all too familiar) stereotyping and value judgements. This has resulted in Dr. Gracia’s objective analysis of each empire. Interestingly, Dr. Gracia also works to point out the contradictions, errors and falsehoods created by Greco-Roman authors. For this reason, Gracia has not just relied on classic scholarship (e.g. Polybius, Plutarchus, Tacitus, Ammianus…) but also on archaeology and modern historians.

Gracia’s central chapter is the battle of Carrhae, because it is a turning point for Roman expansionism and, with the defeat of Crassus, the political “propaganda” against Persia takes strength.

Parthian Horse archers engage the Roman legions of Marcus Lucinius Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Unlike the Achamenid-Greek wars where Achaemenid arrows were unable to penetrate Hellenic shields and armor, Parthian archery was now able to penetrate the armor and shields of their Roman opponents (Picture Source: Antony Karasulas & Angus McBride).

After examining the fall of the Parthians and the rise of the Sassanians, the book dedicates its last two chapters to Sassanian Persia. In one of these chapters, the history, politics and economy of Sassanian Persia, the primary “enemy” of Rome, is examined in academic detail. Gracia’s final chapter focuses on the struggles between the Romans and Sassanians, until the death of Julian “The apostate” in his failed invasion of Persia in 363 CE.

Emperor Julian 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 (Picture source: Farrokh, Plate D, Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005).

In summary, Gracia’s book is the first Spanish language academic textbook on the military history of the Romans and Partho-Sassanians. As with a new generation of Western historians, Gracia avoids classical prejudices and clichés to arrive at a balanced and objective standard of scholarship. This sets a new approach in the study of the history of the ancient world beyond Rome: the realm of pre-Islamic Persia.