Shab-e Yalda: A Warm Welcome to Winter, Felicitous Farewell to Fall

The article Shab-e Yalda: A warm welcome to winter, felicitous farewell to fall” was originally posted by the Tehran Times on December 20, 2016. Kindly note that two of the images and accompanying captions do not appear in the original Tehran Times report. In addition, one of the points made by the article is disputed, and this is entered into the text for the benefit of readers.

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Once again, Iranians from all walks of life and all around the globe are arranging to celebrate Shab-e Yalda (Yalda Night), which falls on December 20.

The auspicious yet thousands-year-old occasion, known as the longest and darkest night of the year, marks the last eve of autumn and the beginning of winter.

Shab-e Yalda is also called Shab-e Chelleh that literally meaning the night of the forty. One of the dominant features of the feast is Chelleh Neshini (sitting for Chelleh), a social context during which families and friends usually gather in the cozy ambiance of home of an elder such as grandparents, aunts or uncles to rejoice in warmth of one another’s company.

Some opt for making phone calls to friends and close relatives or send text messages to congratulate them on this night.

Guests are served with fresh fruits and colorful Ajil (a mixture of dry fruits, seeds and nuts) in bowls. To Iranians however, the dry fruits are somehow a reminiscence of the abundance of summer and the fresh fruits are an invocation for food during winter.

A marquetry work by artist Qumars Sayyad depicts a rural Iranian family reunion celebrating the Yalda Night (Source: Tehran Times).

All food items are arranged on a spread known as Sofreh (traditional table cloth available in various materials and patterns), usually by women of the house.

Following a fresh and hot dinner, people recite poetry, narrate stories, chant, play musical instruments or just chat in the coziness of their company until midnight or so.

Of all ancient rituals, there are mostly two festivals that are unanimously celebrated by Iranians today, Yalda Night and the Persian New Year or Nowruz that means the birth of a new day.

From a wider point of view, human beings often mourn some endings and celebrate most beginnings. The Iranian nation has strong social and historical fibers to celebrate when it comes to the death of a season that gives birth to another.

Welcome to winter varies region to region

Yalda Night is celebrated in different parts of the country traditionally as a welcome to winter, though it encompasses regional variations and themes. In what follows some of them have been given:

Natives to the northwestern Azarbaijan region believe that eating watermelon will not let the cold of winter into their bones. Also, on this night, new brides carry gifts to brides-to-be of the family.

In Tabriz, the capital of East Azarbaijan Province, local musicians known as ‘Aashigh’ play traditional instruments and sing songs from ancient Persian legends on Yalda. Aashighs are local artists who play a great role in preserving oral culture and they can recite poetry spontaneously.

In the northwestern Ardabil Province, people ask the Chelleh Bozorg (first forty days of winter) to promise them to be moderate as they wish for a good winter time.

Watermelon and pomegranates as symbols of bounty are the traditional fresh fruits of this night. It is believed that eating watermelon before the arrival of winter can immunize one against cold and illness (Source: Tehran Times).

Families in the southern city of Shiraz, Fars Province, spread a Sofreh (Persian table cloth, mostly spread on the floor) which is not very different from the Persian New Year spread. They normally place a mirror and an artistic depiction of Imam Ali (AS), the first Shia Imam, on the spread. In addition to typical Yalda food items, Halva Shekari (a kind of paste made of sugar, butter and sesame seeds) and Ranginak (Persian date cakes) are also served.

In the northern province of Gilan, however, Yalda is never complete without watermelons. It is assumed that anyone who eats watermelons on this day would not be thirsty in summer and cold in winter. Aoknous is a tempting and indispensable Gilani dish on Yalda Night.

People in the southeastern Kerman Province stay up most part of the night to welcome the arrival of the legendary Gharoun (Croesus) who is believed to bring wood for poor families in the disguise of a woodcutter. The wood logs would then turn into gold and bring prosperity and luck to the house. The ritual is of course a symbolic one.

One of the oldest Yalda rituals in the western Lorestan Province was when a group of small and teenage boys would go to the rooftops of houses and throw down their bags tied to the end of a long scarf from the chimney holes. They would sing songs, wishing prosperity and happiness for the owner who would fill their bag with Yalda treats. The children would state their gratitude accordingly by singing songs of merriment.

An Iranian lady recites poetry with the Book of Hafez during the night of Yalda; note the pomegranate and melon on the table spread (Source: Public Domain).

In the villages of northeastern Khorasan Province the groom’s family sends out gifts with a group of musical instrument players to the bride-to-be’s house. In this province, after dinner and festivities, people read out verses from the Shahnameh, a long epic poem by illustrious Persian poet Ferdowsi.

In one of the villages of Garmsar, north-central Semnan Province, people of one family or clan get together over a meal of khorous polo (cockcrow meat and rice dish), after which they chitchat with jokes, anecdotes and short stories.

It is customary for people in the western province of Kermanshah that they stay up most of the night by eating, singing and telling stories to abide with the mother of the world in giving birth to her daughter, the sun.

Mosaic of Christ as Sol in Mausoleum M in the pre-4th-century necropolis located below the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica (Source: Public Domain). While commonly interpreted as representing Christ, the figure is virtually identical to the pre-Christian representations of Mithra (note fluttering Iranian-style cloak on the mosaic figure).

Good to know

  • Yalda Night is celebrated on the last day of Azar (the last month of autumn) and before the first day of Dey (the first month of winter).
  • Watermelon and pomegranate are amongst the most distinguished features of Yalda Night, though a few days before Yalda, the fruits’ prices may soar.
  • Yalda, though not very common, is a female Persian name.
  • In ancient Iranian calendar, winter is divided into two parts, Chelleh Bozorg (the bigger forty) from 22nd of December to 30th of January and Chelleh Koochak (the smaller forty) from 30th January to 10th of March.
  • The word Yalda, meaning birth, was imported from Syriac into the Persian language by the Syriac Christians. NOTE BY Kaveh Farrokh.com – the claim of Syriac origins can be disputed – the following observation is made with respect to the linguistic roots of the term /Yalda/:

The term /da/ in Yalda is not of the Hamito-Semetic linguistic family, but instead belongs to the wider Indo-European language families. In Avestan, the term /Daēva/ is broadly defined as “divine being” (Herrenschmidt & Kellens, 1993, pp. 599-602) (in Old Iranian: /Daiva/), which is derived from older Indo-Iranian /Daivá/ (God), which in turn is traced to (undifferentiated) Proto Indo-European (PIE) /Deiu̯ó/ (God). According to Pokorny’s Master PIE lexicon the /Da/ or /Daē/ affix in /Daēva/ is defined as: “day, sun, glitter, to shine, deity, god” (Pokorny, 1959-1969 & 1989, pp.183-187). The legacy of Yalda is an essence rooted in the ancient Indo-European mythological tradition.“ [This excerpt has been published in the Fezana journal: Farrokh, K. (2015). Yalda: an enduring legacy from ancient Persia. Fezana Journal (Publication of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America), Vol. 29, No.3, Fall/September, pp. 30-33.]

  • Narratives say that Yalda Night marks the birth of winter and the triumph of the sun as the days grow longer and colder.
  • Ancient Iranians assumed Naneh Sarma begins to descend on earth by Yalda Night. Literally meaning coldness grandma, Naneh Sarma is a folklore Persian character who brings in the coldness during the wintertime.

Presentation on Parthian-era Warrior Women in Eleventh Annual ASMEA Conference Nov 1-3, 2018

ASMEA (Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa) held its Eleventh Annual Conference entitled “Tradition, Evolution, and Revolution in the Middle East and Africa” on November 1-3, 2018 in Washington, D.C. at the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel. For a full list of the academics and experts at this conference see here … or click on icon below …

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

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

Kaveh Farrokh’s presentation at the Conference was:

Parthian era Amazons? Placing the Weapons finds at Vestemin in Historical Context

This presentation provided an overview of the role of warrior women in the pre-Islamic era among the Achaemenids, Parthians and Sassanians. The presentation was provided within the context of archaeological finds of weapons in the tombs and graves of Parthian women in the site of Vestemin in northern Iran. The abstract of the presentation/article is as follows:

This article presents the archaeological findings of weapons in the graves of Parthian-era women Vestemin, northern Iran. These finds are discussed in the historical, archaeological and literary contexts of warrior women among the Parthians, Achaemenids, northern Iranians (Scythians and Sarmatians), and Sassanians. Following a synopsis of Iranian warrior women from the early Islamic era to the 20th century, this article provides suggestions for further research.

Samples of slides provided during Kaveh Farrokh’s presentation “Parthian era Amazons? Placing the Weapons finds at Vestemin in Historical Context” at ASMEA in 2018.

This presentation was provided within Panel 35 (Unearthing the Roots of Middle East Combat). Note that the findings of Parthian weaponry at Vestemin were published this year by Gholamreza Karamian, Kaveh Farrokh, Mohammad Fallah Kiapi and Hossein Nemati Lojandi in the SWIAT HISTORIA academic journal of Siedlce University in Poland in 2018 (click link below to download from Academia.edu):

Karamian, Gh., Farrokh, K., Kiapi, M.F., Nemati, H. (2018). Graves, crypts and Parthian weapons excavated from the gravesites of Vestemin. HISTORIA I SWIAT, No.7, pp. 35-70.

Samples of slides provided during Kaveh Farrokh’s presentation “Parthian era Amazons? Placing the Weapons finds at Vestemin in Historical Context” at ASMEA in 2018.

Dr. Ilkka Syvanne (Affiliated Professor of the University of Haifa; Finnish Society for Byzantine Studies) provided the presentation “The Capture of Jerusalem by the Muslims:  A Military Conquest or a Gift of Allah?” within Panel 27 (Contesting Jerusalem in the Middle Ages) in which Kaveh Farrokh was the discussant.

The Library of Social Science (LSS) Book Exhibits also displayed two books published by Kaveh Farrokh co-authored with scholars Katarzyna Maksymiuk, Gholamreza Karamian and Javier Sánchez-Gracia:

The Library of Social Sciences Book Exhibit displayed the following textbooks during the Eleventh Annual ASMEA Conference in November 2018: (Left) A Synopsis of Sassanian Military Organization and Combat Units (Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Gholamreza Karamian, 2018) – click here to download in pdf from Academia.edu...  and (Right) The Siege of Amida (Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Javier Sánchez-Gracia, 2018) – click here to download in pdf from Academia.edu…

The LSS display has been reported also in Poland’s Siedlce University News page – click here (Siedlce University displayed the below picture of Kaveh Farrokh with one of the above textbooks …)

Kaveh Farrokh at the Eleventh ASMEA Conference in November 2018.

Article on Persian Heritage journal publishes article on links between Germania and ancient Iranian Peoples

The Persian Heritage has published the following article by Kaveh Farrokh which can be downloaded in full, from Academia.edu:

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

Below is a select excerpts from the above article:

“Professor Christopher I. Beckwith (Professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University): “The first-century AD Germania by the Roman historian Tacitus gives the earliest detailed description of the Germanic peoples…The account of Tacitus and other early records reveal very clearly that the early Germanic peoples, including the ancestors of the Franks, belonged to the Central Eurasian Culture complex which they had maintained since Proto-Indo-European times, just as the Alans and other Central Asian Iranians had done. This signifies in turn that ancient Germania was culturally a part of Central Eurasia and had been so ever since the Germanic migration there more than a millennium earlier” (Empires of the Silk Route, Princeton University Press, 2009, pages 80-81).”

The Iranian Kandys cape and its legacy in Europe (click to enlarge). (A) Medo-Persian nobleman from Persepolis wearing the Iranian Kandys cape of the nobility 2500 years past (B) figure of Paul dressed in North Iranian/Germanic dress from a 5th century ivory plaque depicting the life of Saint-Paul (C) reconstruction by Daniel Peterson (The Roman Legions, published by Windrow & Greene in 1992, p.84) of a 4th-5th century Germanic warrior wearing Iranian style dress and the Kandys. The Iranian Persepolis styles of arts and architecture continued to exert a profound influence far beyond its borders for centuries after its destruction by Alexander (Pictures used in Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

As noted further in the article (geopolitically rationalized) terms such as “Middle East”, “Islamic Civilization”, etc. have served to distort historical connections between not just Germanic and Iranian peoples but the broader links between Europa and Iranian peoples across the millennia (download the 2017 article Farrokh and Vasseqhi in the Persian Heritage journal). As noted Dr Sheda Vasseghi a document written by a well-informed CIA official (whose name has now been redacted from the original document):

“… the CIA tends to be “alert and responsive to official changes in the names of individual political entities.”  However, when it comes to geographic terms, the CIA adheres “to usages that are imprecise, egocentric, and anachronistic“. … According to the CIA Memo, terms such as “the Middle East” are, and always were, imprecise and egocentric given they reflect “the world as viewed from London and western Europe.”  The [CIA] author is alarmed at how widespread the usage of these imprecise terms among the intellectual circles were, including as part of titles for respected publications such as The Middle East Journal.”

To read more of the above article click here … As noted by Dr. Vasseghi in the abstract of her 2017 Dissertation (for more click here…):

“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.”

A depiction of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d”Arthur. Note the windsock carried by the horseman (Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 2007, pp.171) – this item was bought from the wider Iranian realm (Persia, Sarmatians, etc) into Europe by the Iranian-speaking Alans. The inset depicts a reconstruction of a 3rd century CE Partho-Sassanian banner by Peter Wilcox (1986).

As noted further in the Persian Heritage journal (links also inserted in below paragraph for further reference):

“The links between Europa and the ancient Iranians have been extensive in history. It was during the Partho-Sassanian era where Europe experienced direct interactions with Iran, a process in place since the Achaemenids (see for example Farrokh, K. 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, 2016) [Download in full from Academia.edu]. It was also during the reign of the Parthian and Sassanian dynasties in Persia when several waves of Iranian speakers migrated into Europe. These are known variously in history as Sarmatians, Alans, Roxolani, Yas, etc. Put simply, the influence of ancient Iranian civilization came through two general channels: the Partho-Sassanian empires and fellow Iranian peoples who lived in Eurasia and Eastern Europe at the time. Many of these tribes were to successfully migrate into Central, Northern and Western Europe.”

The Oseberg longship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo (Picture source: Heritage Trust). Viking ships like these sailed to northern Persia in search of trade.

Another quote from the article is as follows (links also inserted in below paragraph for further reference):

“Contacts between the Germanic peoples and the Iranian world were especially among the North Germanic Nordic peoples and their Viking successors in the post-Islamic era of Persia. The famous Viking Ulfbehrt sword has in fact a Persian connection. Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist of Stockholm University has researched the Volga trade route of the Vikings and their ships between Lake Malaren in Sweden to the ports of Northern Iran between the early 800s to mid-1000s where: “…it is very likely that the steel that you find in the Ulfberht swords originated from Iran…I would guess that they bought it [Persian steel] from friendly trading connections in Iran paid with furs and other Nordic commodities and took it back on the small ships that they used on the rivers” [see full article here …]. While Sassanian Persia had fallen to the Arabo-Muslim invasions of the 7th century CE, Northern Persia remained defiant with its metallurgical technology continued persisting after the fall of the Sassanians, a factor that benefited Viking traders who sailed with ships to Northern Iran along the Volga trade route. The Vikings however, were already well already in contact with Iran during the Sassanian era.”

Viking Helmet (Right; Picture Source: English Monarchs) and reconstruction of earlier Sassanian helmet at Taghe Bostan, Kermanshah, Iran (Left; Picture Source: Close up of Angus Mcbride painting of Sassanian knight at Taghe Bostan, Wilcox, P. (1999). Rome’s Enemies: Parthians and Sasanid Persians. Osprey Publishing, p.47, Plate H1).

Two New courses for Fall 2018

Kaveh Farrokh is offering two new courses for the of Fall 2018 at the Paris-based Methodologica Universitas at the Départment de Méthodologie des Sciences Historiques.  See also the Institution’s Encyclopedic project:

Analytica Iranica: The Multidisciplinary Journal of Iranian Studies … Kaveh Farrokh is one of the Academic Advisors of this Encyclopedia project …

The first of these is the first course offered on the military history of ancient Iran or Persia:

Course HIS/CP/202: The Military History of Ancient Iran: 559 BCE-651 CE [Fall 2018, Methodologica Universitas, Départment de Méthodologie des Sciences Historiques]Click here for Registration Information

The course description for the above is as follows (HIS/SP/202):

This course examines Iran’s pre-Islamic military history with respect to political relations, wars, battles with Greece, Rome, Central Asia. These topics are examined in the Achaemenid (559-333 BCE), Parthian (250 BCE-224 CE) and Sassanian (224-651 CE) epochs. Methodology of the course utilizes scientific methodology in archival analysis (primary and secondary sources), numismatics (study of coins), archaeological analysis (analysis of equipment and technology), and statistical methodology (e.g. compiling data for analysis, factor analysis, etc.). The strengths and weaknesses (military, political and social) of each dynasty is examined up to the downfall of ancient Iran to the Arab conquests of Iran (637-651 CE). Detailed analysis is made of developments from the early Achaemenid era to the end of the Sassanian era with respect to equipment, technology, military architecture, military doctrine, and martial culture. Influences upon and from Greece, Rome, Central Asia and Eastern Europe are also examined. The course concludes with a survey of post-Islamic sources reporting of the extensive military literature pertaining to Sassanian weapons and tactics (battlefield tactics, siege craft, etc.) and its influence upon Islamic warfare.

Kaveh Farrokh meeting the late Professor Ehsan Yarshater (1920-2018) during the Honoring ceremony for the late Professor Emeritus Richard Nelson Frye (1920-2014) in the Greater San Francisco area in 2008.

The second is a comprehensive course on the History of ancient Iran or Persia, which will incorporate modern research and academic methodologies incorporating anthropology, archaeology, the study of sources, numismatics, etc:

Course HIS/CP/203: The History of Ancient Iran: 559 BCE-651 CE [Fall 2018, Methodologica Universitas, Départment de Méthodologie des Sciences Historiques]Click here for Registration Information

Three Books published in 2017-2018 on the military history of Ancient Iran or Persia (from left to right): The Armies of Ancient Persia: the Sassanians (2017; see book review by the Military History Journal in 2018); A Synopsis of Sassanian Military Organization and Combat Units (Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Gholamreza Karamian, 2018); and The Siege of Amida (Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Javier Sánchez-Gracia, 2018).

The course description for the above is as follows (HIS/CP/203):

Course begins with the pre Indo-European era of ancient Iran and the rise of proto-Iranian peoples and arrivals onto the Iranian plateau. Recent archaeological works and research of pre Indo-European Iran, such as the Burnt City and Elam are surveyed. This is followed by detailed historical surveys of the three epochs of ancient Iran: Achaemenids (559-333 BCE), Parthians (250 BCE-224 CE) and Sassanians (224-651 CE). Course material is integrated with methodology utilizing scientific methodology in archival analysis (primary and secondary sources), numismatics (study of coins), archaeological analysis (analysis of equipment and technology), and statistical methodology (e.g. compiling data for analysis, factor analysis, etc.). The political relations and cultural exchanges of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian dynasties with the Greco-Roman, Central Asian, Indian subcontinent, Caucasian, European and Chinese realms are examined. Each epoch is also examined with respect to developments in legal systems, societal development and the role of women, the arts, architecture, learning, medicine, technology, theology and religious philosophy, communications, shipping, commerce and the Silk Route.

[Above] Kaveh Farrokh’s second textShadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-” cited by the BBC-Persian service as theBest History Book of 2007(November 5, 2008), as well as the by Kayhan News Service of London (November 12, 2008). The text was nominated by the Independent Book Publishers’ Association (Benjamin Franklin Award) among the top finalists for the Best textbooks of 2008. The book has been recognized by world-class scholars such as the late Professor Emeritus Richard Nelson Frye (1920-2014), Harvard University, Dr. Geoffrey Greatrex, Department of Classics and Religious Studies, University of Ottawa, Dr. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, School of HistoryUniversity of Edinburgh and Dr. Patrick Hunt. The book was reviewed in the world-class academic (peer-reviewed by top Iranian Studies scholars) Iranshenasi journal in 2010: Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, by Dr. Kaveh Farrokh. Iranshenasi, Volume XXII, No.1, Spring 2010, pp.1-5 (see document in pdf). [Below] Translations of Shadows in the Desert [A] Persian translation by Taghe Bostan Publishers (2009) [B] Persian translation by Qoqnoos Publishers (2009) [C] the original textbook (2008) and [D] Russian translation by EXMO Publishers.

Pearls of the Taklamakan

The article Pearls of the Taklamakan” was originally posted in the Tang Dynasty Times. Kindly note that the version below contains images and accompanying captions not included in the original Tang Dynasty posting.

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Samarkand and Bukhara– the names still evoke images of the great silk road. Part of the vast Persian empire, it was the Central Asian people of Sogdiana who monopolized these ancient trade routes connecting the East with the West. Known in Latin as “Transoxiana,” or “land beyond the Oxus River,” the place was made famous during Alexander the Great Times, during his great exploits East. During Alexander’s times in 4th century BC, Transoxiana was the northeastern-most point of Hellenistic culture.

Tajik girls celebrate the Iranian Nowruz (New Year) on March 21, 2014 in Dushanbe, Tajikestan... for more see “Course on Silk Road-Origins and History”

Populated by Iranian peoples, Transoxiana was incorporated into the Persian Empire first during the Achaemenid Empire. A colonial outpost of the Persian Empire during later Sassanid times, it became known as Sogdiana.

Map depicting Soghdia in the context of the Sassanian Empire, Central Asia and India and China in the mid-7th century CE (Source: All Empires).

With their “contemplative green eyes flashing” and their “purple beards flying in the wind,” the hardy Sogdian traders of Samarkand and Bukhara led caravans on camel-back and horseback over the treacherous mountain passes of the Roof of the World and across the endless stretches of sand of the Taklamakan Desert toward China. And, it was their language, Sogdian, which was the lingua franca of the East during Tang dynasty times.

 

The “Shir Dar” (Lion’s gate/doorway) of the Islamic college at Samarkand built originally in 1627 (Nafīsī, 1949, p. 62). The sun motif is characterized by Kriwaczek (2002, picture Plate 1) as ”…the image of Mithra, the rising and unconquered sun, Zoroastrian intercessor between God and Humanity” (Source: Kriwaczek, 2002).

I can well imagine what the fine citizens of ancient Sogdiana were like having spent time in Kashmir. Another Central Asian Persian people, trade is in their blood. With its teeming markets and colorful bazaars, Alexis kept mumbling, “We’re in Central Asia. Finally, Central Asia.” Sultan kept repeating, “To make a sale is to make a friend.” Talking over unending cups of Kashmiri chai– cinnamon and cardamom, and a dash of milk– it was always how business was going, or talk about some purchase–buying a new silk carpet or a Pashima shawl– that dominated conversation. This is how I imagine the Sogdians.

A Tajik lady in a bazaar in Dushanbe displaying the local brand of Persian bread known as “Kulcha” (Photo: Travel Begins at 40). As noted in the article “Dushanbe Lost in Time”: Bar the cheap, Chinese electronics for sale in the ramshackle stalls, this walled-in, colour-soaked bazaar feels like an independent microcosm stuck in an aged Persian time warp”.

Starting at the eastern edge of the Persian empire, the Kingdom of Sogdiana reached almost to Kashgar. There, the Silk Road split into two routes: one north and one south of the desert of death. With a name which means “if you go in, you’ll never come back out,” the Taklamakan Desert is one of the largest sandy deserts on earth. With virtually no available water, it was extremely hazardous to try and cross the desert, and so the Silk Road split into two routes. And, it was along these two routes skirting the northern and southern edges of the Desert that a string of Buddhist Kingdoms dotted the oases.

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.

On the Southern Route, there was the Kingdom of Khotan–famous for its exquisite jade and felt carpets; and Kashgar– which has always been a city of legend. Of course, the world’s most famous Silk Road site, Dunhuang, was also located just west of where the Northern and Southern Routes met back up again. Famous for its library, Dunhuang is also the location of the Mogao Caves of A Thousand Buddhas. Located just West of the Jade Gate, Dunhuang was just West of China proper.

A Tajik woman in Ihkashim (Source: Nick & Dariece – Goats on the Road Travel Blog). While the notion that Tajiks are the direct descendants of the Soghdians remains researched, Tajiks are the descendants of peoples of Iranian stock who dominated much of Central Asia and Eurasia until the arrival of Turco-Hun peoples, especially from the 5th-6th centuries CE.

Along the Northern Route were the oasis cities of Gaochang, Turfan, Urumqi, and of course, Kucha. Gaochang was perhaps the most important Buddhist Kingdom. Built at the foot of the Flaming Mountains, the Bezeklik Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, located close to the ancient city, are renown for their dazzling murals. With paintings of Uighur princesses and Western traders, the place during Tang times was a magnet for people from the four corners of the civilized world.

To me, while I can imagine Sogdiana in all its Persian glory– that there existed flourishing Buddhist Kingdoms which were centers of great scholarship in this inhospitable desert– well, it actually boggles my mind. But, the cities located along the desert were, in fact, places of learning where the greatest minds of the Buddhist world gathered to discuss Buddhist doctrine.

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).

These cultural exchanges were conducted in the languages of scholarship of the day–Tibetan, Sanskrit, Chinese and various Prakrit. One of the most famous translators of Buddhism, Kumarjiva, was from Kucha (his mother was a Kuchan princess while his father was Kashmiri). So brilliant some legends have it that he was carried off by the Chinese. Dragged back to the capital he was made to translate the important Buddhist treatises of the time. Others say he went willingly. Whatever the case were it not for Kumarjiva, China and Japan would probably not have quite the same cast of Buddhism it has today– such was his influence.

The 3rd century CE Iranian prophet Mani as depicted 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). 

The great problem of the time: how to translate abstract philosophical terms from Sanskrit (a language with an extraordinarily rich philosophical lexicon that perhaps more then any language extinct or extant could express abstract concepts with specific vocabulary) into Chinese (a language poor in abstract vocabulary). Words had to be invented.

It was a huge linguistic gap that had to be overcome. Herculean. Kumarjiva, to get the closest Chinese approximation of the Sanskrit possible would engage in long discussions with a hundred students to try and fit a Sanskrit word to the Chinese mind before trying to come up with a new combination of characters.

Something very similar went on when China opened up to the west in more modern times. Both the Chinese and the Japanese had to think quick to come up with new vocabulary to express Western concepts of democracy or freedom (an entire lexicon, had to be come up with for terms used in discussing the fine arts before Japan could participate in one of the legendary World Exhibitions, for example).

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

They call him the world’s greatest translator. A proponent of i-yaku 意訳 (meaning-oriented translation) over that of choku-yaku 直訳 (direct or literal translations), Kumarjiva is not only known for the tremendous breadth of his translations but also for the beautiful flowing smoothness of the language– which is to say it reads beautifully. And, it needs to be stated again that is is all the more of an achievement because of the fact that he was working in what is the most obtuse area of Buddhist philosophy.

Born a Theravada Buddhist, Kumarjiva converted to Mahayana Buddhism during his student days in Kashgar and spent much time working on advancing the ideas contained in the great Indian philosopher Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka theory.

“Form is void, void is form” — Heart Sutra

The philosophy is way too complicated for me to even attempt to think about, and due to its slippery slope vocabulary that attempts to explain a state of existence where “nothing comes into being independently” (got that?), the nature of the Chinese language just could not cope. Kumarjiva devoted the later years of his life with the task of translating this body of work, but many gnawing questions remained.

It was to this task that our hero, Xuanzang, the Tang period Buddhist monk who made his historic “Journey to the West” devoted his entire life. If you don’t know who he is– you should. In East Asia, he is a household name– and even in India, most educated people know of the great travels of Xuanzang.

A depiction Xuanzang made during Japan’s Kamakura period (12th– 14th century), currently housed in the Tokyo National Museum (Source: Alexcn in Public Domain).

Passing through the Jade Gate, Xuanzang traveled through all the Buddhist Kingdoms along the Northern and Southern Route before turning south to India. He almost didn’t make it to India, though, so intent was the devout Buddhist King of the Kingdom of Gaochang to keep the pilgrim there that the King tried to hold him there hostage. Rather than from any ill-will, the King quite simply could not bear to let such a stimulating conversationalist and brilliant debater leave his realm.

You can hardly blame him, actually.

Some people consider Xuanzang to be the greatest traveler of all time. Marco Polo perhaps traveled further in terms of distance– but well, that was about 450 years later (and things were more comfortable then). More importantly, though, while Polo traveled for personal reasons of wealth and fame, our man from Chang-an traveled to find the Truth– to understand the nature of reality, not just for himself but for the sake of all sentient beings. His great journey took him first across the desert Kingdoms and then to Kashmir, which was a great center of Buddhist learning at the time. He continued South where he ended up at Nalanda University. There he studied Buddhist philosophy, logic and Sanskrit. Returning to China, he hauled a library of books back with him and spent the remainder of his days teaching and translating.