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.

Pirooz in China: Defeated Persian army takes Refuge

The article below “Pirooz in China: Defeated Persian army takes Refuge” was originally written by Frank Wong in August 11, 2000 and posted in the CAIS venue hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav in London. Kindly note that the images and accompanying descriptions below do not appear in the original posting in CAIS.


I read the story of Pirooz written in a formal and ancient aristocratic Chinese language. It was quite tough, but with the help of my Chinese friends and associates I got through it. It was written by Prince Nah-shieh (Narseh), who was the son of Prince Pirooz, who was the son of King Yazdgerd III– the last Sasanid king of Persia. Narseh was a Chinese general stationed in the Tang Chinese military garrisons.

Visitors to the tomb of Emperor Gaozong (r. 649-683 CE) of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) will see that one of the statues guarding the emperor as depicted above has the name of Sassanian prince Peroz (d. 679 CE) (Picture source: Tour Beijing). Peroz was crowned in China after the Arab invasion which toppled the Sassanian Empire in 637-651 CE. There is a tomb and statue in China which bears this inscription: Peroz, Shah of Iran, crowned in Tang dynasty court: Commander-in-chief of Iranian Army, Martial General of the Right [Flank] Guards, Awe-inspiring General of the Left [Flank] Guards. Peroz asked for Chinese military assistance in 661 CE against the Arabs occupying Iran. Peroz’s descendants in China adopted the Tang dynasty’s Imperial Family Name of Li.

In 751 A.D., the Chinese lost a decisive battle to the Arabs at Talas (now in Uzbekistan), and they retreated from their colonies in Central Asia. All the garrisons shut down, and the armies fled back into China. Many Persians and Sogdians followed the Chinese back into China and abandoned their homes in Central Asia in wake of the Muslim Arabic invasions. Some Sogdians came as widows who then married Chinese soldiers along with their orphaned children.

The above figure is from a Tang dynasty burial site, now housed now at the museum at Turin, Italy. Curators and scholars continue to debate the figure’s origins; one possibility is that he was of Iranian descent (Picture source: The Wall Street Journal).

Narseh recounts in his diary of how his father set foot in China around the 660s A.D. Pirooz was only a little boy when the Arabs beheaded his father. Pirooz, scared and was awaiting the help of Chinese armies. He had written to his sister who was the wife of the Chinese emperor. With the Arab armies in sight, he waited no longer. They decided to cross the Pamirs. Their families along with other noble Persian clans and the soldiers crossed the treacherous snowy mountains. Many of the imperial treasures were either abandoned or lost. Recently, Chinese research teams recovered some of the lost items. They are now housed in various museums in Beijing or Taiwan.

Pirooz finally made it to China. In the Chinese capital, he encountered long-established Persian, Sogdian, and Bactrian merchant communities in China. He was accompanied into the imperial palace. Going through the long and beautiful halls. At last, he saw the Chinese emperor seated on a high golden throne wearing golden boots and robes. The little boy Pirooz knelt and prostrated before the emperor. The emperor then picked up the boy Pirooz and embraced and kissed him on the cheeks. He said: “You’ve come a long way. Have no more fears. For you are my brother and this is your new home.” With tears in his eyes, Pirooz knelt again and thanked the emperor. The emperor then allowed Pirooz and his people to settle in 38 villages and rebuild their communities. They were allowed to set up a mini royal court in exile.

As noted in the above Google Maps description: “Shahyar is a place with a very small population in the province of Xinjiang, China which is located in the continent/region of Asia”. Cities, townships and locales close to Shahyar include ShorYar, Xayar, Schahjar and Chahyar. The closest major cities include Aksu, Yining, Shihezi and Urumqi (Urumchi).

Pirooz learned Kung Fu (martial arts) and grew up to be a general in the emperor’s court. Chinese armies still held military garrisons in areas of what are today’s Tajikistan, Afghanistan and parts of Uzbekistan. The Chinese emperor never allowed Pirooz to be stationed there because he knew that he would immediately cause trouble with the Arabs. However, Pirooz financed most of the garrisons there with his own money. When the Chinese emperor died, Pirooz and his son Narseh were allowed to be stationed on western border garrisons by the new Chinese emperor. Immediately, they started to clash with the Umayyad Arabs. They solicited the aid of Turkish tribes and fought border skirmishes against the Arabs.

Pirooz died sometime around 700 A.D. He was buried facing west. People in China today still don’t know where his resting place is located. Some say that he was buried atop the Pamir mountains so that he could be close to the spirit of his father and where he got killed by the Arabs. But, in the diary, Narseh says:

“Pirooz requested only a simple burial and the Chinese emperor approved. The entire exiled court was in attendance along with the Chinese emperor. The Chinese emperor held Peroz’s shaking hands. Pirooz looked west and said: “I have done what I could for my homeland (Persia) and I have no regrets.” Then, he looked east and said: “I am grateful to China, my new homeland.” Then he looked at his immediate family and all the Persians in attendance and said: “Contribute your talents and devote it to the emperor. We are no longer Persians. We are now Chinese.”

Then, he died peacefully. A beautiful horse was made to gallop around his coffin 33 times before burial, because this was the number of military victories he had during his lifetime. Pirooz was a great Chinese general and great Persian prince devoted and loyal to his people.

A rectangular piece of tapestry coming from the Xingjian Ughur Autonomous Region of China clearly showing Sasanian Persian influences in design and artwork. The physiognomy of the person drawn in the tapestry is Caucasoid as opposed to Asiatic, indicative of the strong Indo-European presence in the region since proto Indo-Europeans (i.e. the Tocharians) first entered the region thousands of years ago (Picture source: Houston Museum of Natural Science). Several Western researchers however suggest that the person depicted above is a Greek.

Narseh’s daughters and sons all married into Chinese royalty and aristocracy. This was the case with all the noble Persian exiles in China. The great spirit of Persia is now in China, and all the Chinese people appreciate it. This was the story of Pirooz, and how he ended up in China.

I have studied another topic regarding the similar features often seen in both Persian and Chinese art. I know that the style was brought into Persia by Chinese artisans during Mongol (Ilkhan Period) in the 13th cent. A.D. When Kublai Khan conquered China, he “kicked out” and sent away all the former army, government officials, tax collectors, engineers, scientists, artisans, musicians and court doctors of the defeated Chinese Sung Dynasty. All these Chinese were sent to Hulagu Khan’s (Kublai’s brother) court in Persia. Kublai didn’t trust the native Chinese, so he eliminated the elite and sent them away to distant parts of the Mongol empire. In return, he transported many soldiers from Turkestan (Central Asia), tax collectors, scientists and government officials (from both Turkestan and Persia), Armenian and Jewish merchants all into China to serve his court. The story of Marco Polo is a vivid example.

Chinese Admiral Zheng He who was of Persian descent. Zheng He is recognized for having sailed with his giant fleet to Europe and Africa. (Source: Chris Heller/CORBIS & The Mail).

While in Persia, the Chinese officials and soldiers served their Mongol masters well. The Ismaili castles were very well fortified and the Mongol horsemen did not know how to break through the thick walls. They were only accustomed to lightning sieges and quick attack. Thus, they had to use Chinese siege machines and engineers along with Chinese foot infantrymen. The Chinese general Kuo Kan helped the Mongols very much in Persia. He then went to put down rebellions in Georgia. Then, his armies were crucial for the Mongol destruction in Syria and Iraq. Only recently, they found the grave of General Kuo Kan in Azerbaijan where his armies reportedly retired and settled.

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 Chinese had intimate relations with Persia since the Arsacid Dynasty in Iran. Camel and donkey caravans travel back and forth both directions for almost a thousand year before the coming of Islam to this region. People mixed with each other without regards to race and color. The Chinese have a prevalence of the hereditary thalassemia disease also common throughout the Middle East and India. Other Asians such as Japanese and Koreans don’t have much occurrence of this blood disease.

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 CE (Slide 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).

This demonstrates that color did not have meaning in the past. There is even a tradition in Armenia, that says one of their lordly families (the Mamikonians) were originally descended from Chinese princes who fled to Persia and sought refuge after an unsuccessful rebellion in China. I am still doing some research on this. In fact, it was common in the past for both Chinese and Persian aristocracy to intermarry. The sister of Pirooz was married to the Chinese emperor as an example. Unfortunately, Arsacid and Sasanid records are scarce because the rulers of Persia never have the habit of keeping track records. After the Arab invasions and Islam, the trade ceased. It was revived a little bit during the Mongol period, but it was never the same.

Chinese girls of ancient Iranian descent (Source: Iranian People Of China (中国的伊朗人) ).

Well, this much I can say. I just wanted to give a description of what happened in the past. Back then, China and Persia were the dominant civilizations on earth. Children should know about this and be proud.

The Windmill and the Contribution of Persia

The article below is based on an excerpt from Kaveh Farrokh’s second text “Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War” (2007, Chapter 19: The Legacy of Persia after the Islamic Conquests, pages 280-281). For more on these topics, readers may consult the following link: Learning, Science, Knowledge, technology and Medicine


The first water pumps and grain mills powered by wind-sails originated in modern northwest Iran in (circa) 6th -7th centuries CE during the late Sassanian era.

Model of an Iranian windmill housed in the German Museum in Munich (Source: Saupreiß in Allaboutlean.com).

The origins of the first wind-powered machine concept is attributed to Heron (10-70 CE), a Greek inventor who first built this device in his workshop in Roman-ruled Egypt. Heron’s design of the shaft and rotating blades were placed at the horizontal position.

Portrait of Heron as he appears in a 1688 German book translation of Heron’s “Pneumatics” (Source: Public Domain).

The Heron machine however never advanced beyond the prototype he had designed, as the Romans never exploited this for generating power or for agriculture. The Iranians however knew of this technology, thanks in part to the Sassanian Empire’s efforts to protect and preserve Greek scholarship and knowledge (see Jundishapur University)

Short video of an ancient windmill in Iran that remains operational to this day (Source: Youtube).

By the late Sassanian era the first true windmill had appeared in the northeastern regions of the Sassanian Empire (modern Khorasan and west Afghanistan). Modern scholarship is in agreement that Iranian engineers had completely re-designed Heron’s original machine for applied purposes. They had achieved this by inverting the shaft that held the blades, toward an upright position. The re-designed shaft and rotating blades were installed inside a mud-brick encased tower. This structure in turn had “air ducts” allowing for the air to enter and rotate the blades housed inside of it. The “sails” or “blades” were built of a very strong fabric – there were up to twelve of these inside each of these “towers” or structures. This new technology had been initially designed as a corn-mill.

Drawing of a Chinese windmill based on technology imported from Persia (Source: Carl von Canstein in GNU.org).

The Arabian conquests of the Sassanian Empire soon led the Caliphates to adopt the new windmill technology from the Iranians. By the 9th century CE, this technology had spread throughout the Caliphate’s realms and also eastwards into India, reaching China by the 13th century CE.

The Bidston windmill in Great Britain (Source: Fractal Angel in Geograph.org).

The Iranian windmill design appears to have reached Arab-ruled Spain as well, and later the British Isles by 1137 CE. It was the British (not the Dutch as is conventionally assumed), who effected significant changes to the original Iranian design. The British genius was in their combination of both the Greek (Heron) and Iranian (late Sassanian) technologies. The British post-mill had two axes of rotation:

(1) A vertical shaft for horizontal rotation allowing for the entire structure to be now rotated for harnessing the wind

(2) A horizontal shaft for vertical rotation of the sails (based on Heron’s original concept)

A Dutch windmill overlooking tulips (Source: win4000.com).

The British adaptation of the Iranian windmill soon spread across continental Europe all the way to Greece and the Aegean Sea. Europeans made other designs such as the smock mill and tower mill. The famous modern-day Dutch windmill can trace its ancestry to English, Iranian and Greek origins.

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 Academia.edu …)

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 Academia.edu 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.

Pierfrancesco Callieri: At the Roots of the Sasanian Royal Imagery – The Persepolis Graffiti

The article below by Pierfrancesco Callieri, At the Roots of the Sasanian Royal Imagery – The Persepolis Graffiti” was originally posted in the CAIS website.


Introductory Summary

Among the most interesting evidence of post-Achaemenid age at Persepolis are a few graffiti, engraved with very thin lines on the limestone blocks of the Harem of Xerxes and of the Tacara.

While initially only isolated images of princely figures were recognised, a more accurate survey has shown that at least in two instances we have evidence of more complex scenes and perhaps of different “layers”.

By comparison with coins of the rulers of Persis, some of these figures have been identified as the immediate predecessors of the Sasanian kings.

In the light of the recent reassessment of the coinage of Fars and of the post-Achemenid epigraphical evidence, the author examines again the problem of the identification of the figures. Besides, the author proposes some reflections on the nature and function of these graffiti, investigating their link on one side with parallel production of graffiti, on the other with the few extant traces of Parthian and Sasanian painting.

This study is offered to Boris Marshak as a token of gratitude for his illuminating contributions to the understanding of the figural world of the Sasanians.

Main Article

Among the most interesting evidence of post-Achaemenid age at Persepolis are a few graffiti, engraved with very thin lines on the limestone blocks of the Harem of Xerxes and of the Tacara.

While initially only isolated images of princely figures were recognised, a more accurate survey has shown that at least in two instances we have evidence of more complex scenes and perhaps of different “layers”.

By comparison with coins of the rulers of Persis, some of these figures have been identified as the immediate predecessors of the Sasanian kings.

In the light of the recent reassessment of the coinage of Fars and of the post-Achemenid epigraphical evidence, the author examines again the problem of the identification of the figures. Besides, the author proposes some reflections on the nature and function of these graffiti, investigating their link on one side with parallel production of graffiti, on the other with the few extant traces of Parthian and Sasanian painting.

This study is offered to Boris Marshak as a token of gratitude for his illuminating contributions to the understanding of the figural world of the Sasanians.

Among the most interesting findings of the post-Achaemenid age at Persepolis are a few figural graffiti, engraved with very thin lines on the limestone blocks of the Harem of Xerxes, now the Persepolis Museum, and of the Tacara. They are only one aspect of the extremely abundant material engraved on the limestone blocks of the Achaemenid complex (see Curtis and Finkel 1999), prevailingly of epigraphical character and currently being investigated (S. Razmjou, personal communication).

While initially only isolated images of princely figures were recognised (Allotte de la Füye 1928; Herzfeld 1935, 1941; Schmidt 1953), a more accurate survey has shown that at least in two instances we have evidence of more complex scenes (Calmeyer 1976: 65-67; Abka’i Khavari 2000: 31, 37), which are extremely similar to some images on the rock-reliefs of the Sasanians. Despite the patent importance of this evidence for the study of the birth of the official art of the Sasanian dynasty, until now an overall view of the different figural graffiti has never been proposed (cf. Faccenna 1997: 89, fn. 30).

The main aim of the present contribution, which is offered to Boris Marshak as a humble token of gratitude for his illuminating contributions to the understanding of the figural world of the Sasanians, is the edition of a “catalogue raisonné” of the Persepolis figural graffiti, which must be considered preliminary due to a lack of adequate documentation which only new field-work will be able to produce.

At Persepolis, figural graffiti recorded to date are concentrated in two buildings: the Harem of Xerxes and the Tacara of Darius I.

As mentioned above, the available documentation on them is uncertain, not only because there has been some uncertainty in the description of the graffiti, but particularly because the graphic rendering of the same graffito in different publications is not always uniform, both in what concerns the isolated figures and the scene as a complex composition. In the absence of a new direct documentation, the only drawing which seems sufficiently reliable is that of Graffito no. 2 by B. Grunewald, published in Calmeyer 1976, which seems to be more accurate in the composition of the scenes and scale as compared to the drawings by Taghi Assafi published in Sami 1338 (see Calmeyer 1976: 65, fn. 132). Moreover, in some points near the principle scenes we find graffiti of isolated parts of figures, which may pertain to different chronological layers of graffiti, or instead, represent engraved patches which were then completed by painting (see below).

Here follows a brief description of the graffiti.

Graffito no. 1 (Sami 1338: fig. on p. 274) (Fig. 1) – A lion in full profile to left, sitting on his hind legs: a mane covers the entire upper part of the body up to the ears and neck, while a long thin tail with tuft of hair at the end is turned up parallel to the back. In the open jaws, its fangs are visible.

 Fig-1-callieri_01Fig. 1 – Graffito no. 1 (after Sami 1338: fig. On p. 274). Not to scale.

The heraldic pose of the animal is rendered with a certain plasticity of volumes. Given the uniqueness of this graffito, we will only mention here that the posture of the animal has an illustrious antecedent in the stone sculpture of a lion in the tomb of Antiochus I’s at Nemrud Dagh in Commagene (Ghirshman 1962: fig. 18), whereas the rendering of the head and tail is not dissimilar from that on some Sasanian silver vessels (e.g. Harper 1981: pl. 14). The attribution of the graffito, therefore, remains problematic.

Graffito no. 2 (Sami 1338: fig. after p. 274; Calmeyer 1976: fig. 3) (Fig. 2) – One scene composed by more figures, of which the two available illustrations give a different composition. In Calmeyer 1976, the long scene is basically centered on two princely mounted figures, one to the extreme left and the other to the extreme right, with isolated elements of other figures in between the two, whereas Sami’s version of the drawing gives a very different composition of the figures, and even the rendering of many details differs a lot.

 Fig-2-callieri_02Fig. 2 – Graffito no. 2 (after Calmeyer 1976: fig. 3). Not to scale.

The main figure on the left part of the scene (Figs. 3, 4) is a male princely personage mounted on a horse, in profile to the left. The personage wears a tunic and trousers, each characterized by a different fabric rendered in detail, while the foot bears a plain shoe. Whereas the bust is frontally viewed, the head is in full profile to the left, with long rounded-tip beard; he wears a tall curved cap with ear-flaps and neck-shield, decorated with a crescent at the middle among embroidered (?) dots which form also a curved perimeter all around, and with what seems the indication of the scaled crest at the center of the tiara (cf. the heads from Hatra in Ghirshman 1962: figs. 100, 102), here seen in profile, with two long ribbons hanging down along the back. With the right hand extended before him he holds a ribboned ring-shaped diadem, while his left hand is placed on the hilt of the long sword, whose scabbard is decorated with pearls along the edges.

 Fig-3-callieri_03Fig. 3 – Graffito no. 2, left part (after Calmeyer 1976: fig. 3). Not to scale.

The horse, of a race with small head and powerful body, has a tuft of tied hair drawn up above the head, while the mane is trimmed regularly, and wears a short caparison along the neck and body; the tail is combed in a plait ending in two bifurcated points. The harness is elaborate: small plain phalerae decorate the muzzle harness, while across the chest and rump the straps carry elaborate circular phalerae; a larger oval ball of hair hangs from below the square saddle blanket, which is decorated with five-petalled flowers.

 Fig-4-callieri_04Fig. 4 – Graffito no. 2, left part (after Sami 1338: fig. following p. 274). Not to scale.

In Calmeyer’s version of the drawing, two oval balls of hair from the horses’ harness are represented at a certain distance behind the mounted figure (elements of figures rendered in painting? see below), whereas even further behind is the head in profile to the left of a male princely figure with beard and curved cap with ear-flaps and neck-shield, decorated with a crescent at the middle, dotted border and what seems to be the indication of the scaled central crest along the outer perimeter, with two long ribbons behind. To the right of the latter, we see a male bearded bust with head in profile to left, with tall curved cap with ear-flap and neck-shield and long ribbons from the nape, and above this bust are the faces in profile to left of two bearded figures. The row of personages is followed on the right by a group of four figures.

The main figure on the right is a male princely personage mounted on a horse, in profile to the left (Figs. 5, 6). The personage wears a tunic, trousers and cloak, each characterized by a different fabric rendered in detail; the cloak, tied on the chest, has two round epaulettes; two short ribbons hang from the dotted shoe. While the bust if frontally viewed, the head is in full profile to the left, with long pointed beard; he wears a tall curved cap with ear-flap and neck-shield, decorated with a crescent at the middle among embroidered (?) dots and with what seems the indication of the scaled central crest along the upper perimetre, with two long ribbons hanging down along the back. With the right hand, visible from across the horse’s neck, he holds the bridles, while his left hand is placed on the hilt of the long sword, whose scabbard is decorated with a row of stars.


Fig. 5 – Graffito no. 2, right part (after Calmeyer 1976: fig. 3). Not to scale.

The horse has a tuft of tied hair drawn up above the head, while the mane is trimmed regularly; the tail is tied at its top with a ribbon. The harness is elaborate: small phalerae decorate the muzzle harness, from which hangs a small oval ball of hair, while across the chest and rump the straps carry elaborate circular phalerae; a larger oval ball of hair hangs from below the square saddle blanket, which is decorated with rosettes and a tasseled border. Ribbons are tied on the four legs, above the heel.

 Fig-6-callieri_06Fig. 6 – Graffito no. 2, right part (after Sami 1338: fig. following p. 274). Not to scale.

A second figure is represented in the background, in the space between the princely figure and the neck of the horse: only his head in full profile to the left is visible, characterized by a long pointed beard and a high cap with ear-flaps and neck-shield and pointed top turned backwards (missing in Sami’s version).Two male figures standing almost frontally viewed, with head in profile to the left, wearing plain tunics tightened at the waist and trousers with the indication of their fabric, hold the reins of the horse: both the figures have long pointed beards and flimsy hair with no headdress.

Even though the rendering of the two main figures is somehow stiff and far from naturalistic, the richness and accuracy with which the details are depicted betray the hand of an artist with good drawing capacity. The side figures, instead, are rather summarily executed.

Graffito no. 3 (Allotte de la Fuÿe 1928: fig. on p. 168; Herzfeld 1941: 308, fig. 402; Sami 1338: fig. before p. 275) (Figs. 7-9) – A standing male figure with frontal body, head turned in profile to the right (but in Herzfeld’s drawing the figure is turned to left!) and feet seen from above turned three-quarters to right (?). He wears tunic at knee length, trousers and cloak, each made of different fabric schematically rendered: the tunic has a decorated border at the neck (different indications in the available drawings), the trousers have a long band decorated with chevron pattern along the vertical border of the right leg, while the cloak, tied on the chest, has two round epaulettes. The headdress consists in a plain hemispheric cap with plain neck-shield and long waved ribbon from the nape, surmounted by a seven-pointed fan-like element apparently obtained by tying a large cloth to the head. The figure, with a long beard including moustache, has the left hand (rendered as the right one) placed on the long sword hilt protruding from the waist, whereas the right arm is stretched forward toward a short incense-burner (?), the rendering of which is very different in the available drawings: the elongated ending appearing in Allotte’s version (Fig. 7), is missing in Herzfeld’s (Fig. 8) and Sami’s (Fig. 9) version; in the latter, we have instead the forepart of a caprid running towards the figure, missing in the other two versions.


Fig. 7 – Graffito no. 3 (after Allotte la Fuÿe 1928: fig. on p. 168). Not to scale.


Fig. 8 – Graffito no. 3 (after Herzfeld 1941: fig. 402). Not to scale.

The rendering of the image is rather schematic and simplified, despite the detailed indication of the clothes fabric and of the physiognomic traits.


Fig. 9 – Graffito no. 3 (after Sami 1338: fig. preceding p. 275). Not to scale.

Graffito no. 4 (Schmidt 1953: pl. 199A; Calmeyer 1976: 67, fn. 134, fig. 4; Harper 1981: fig. 19) (Fig. 10, top left) – A male princely figure mounted on a horse, in profile to the left. The personage wears tunic and trousers, each characterized by a different fabric rendered in detail, while the foot has a plain shoe with a ribbon. While the bust if frontally viewed, the head is in full profile to the left, with long rounded-tip beard; he wears a tall curved cap with ear-flaps and neck-shield, decorated with a crescent at the middle and bordered by a dotted perimeter all around, and with what seems to be the indication of the scaled central crest along the upper perimeter, with four long ribbons hanging down along the back. A fan-like element above the head visibly represents a later addition (see below). With the right hand extended before him he holds a ribboned ring-shaped diadem, while his left hand is placed on the hilt of the long sword, whose scabbard is decorated with pearls along the edges.


Fig. 10 – Graffiti nos. 4, 5 (after Calmeyer 1976: fig. 4). Not to scale.

The horse, with a very small head, has a tuft of tied hair drawn up above the head, while the mane is trimmed regularly; the tail is tied by a ribbon at its top. The harness is elaborate: small plain phalerae decorate the muzzle harness, while across the chest and rump the straps carries plain circular phalerae; a larger oval ball of hair hangs from then harness below the horseman.

Even though the scene is less rich in detail as compared to Graffito no. 2, and despite the dis-proportion of the horse’s head, its rendering is less rigid, and betrays the hand of an artist with good drawing capacity.

Graffito no. 5 (Calmeyer 1976: 67, fn. 134, fig. 4) (Fig. 10, bottom right) – A male princely figure mounted on a horse, in profile to the left. The personage wears tunic and trousers, with no indication of the fabric, while the foot appears covered by the trousers. While the bust if frontally viewed, the head is in full profile to the left, with long rounded-tip beard and long hair flowing from the nape of the neck. He wears a tall curved cap with ear-flaps and neck-shield, decorated with a crescent and disk at the middle and with a border all along the perimeter, with two (?) long ribbons hanging down the back. With the right hand extended before him he holds the bridle, while his left hand is placed on the hilt of the long sword.

The horse, with a very small head, has a tuft of tied hair drawn up above the head (?), while the mane is trimmed regularly; the tail is tied by a ribbon at the top. Across the chest and rump the straps carry plain circular phalerae, while a large oval ball of hair hangs from the harness below the horseman.

Despite the dis-proportion of the horse’s head and legs, the rendering of the scene is not rigid, and betrays the hand of an artist with good drawing capacity.but remarkably different from the author of the other graffiti (cf. also Calmeyer 1976: 66, caption to fig. 4).

Graffito no. 6 (Herzfeld 1935: 80 ff., fig. 10; 1941: 308, fig. 401; Sami 1338: fig. after p. 273) (Figs. 11, 12) – A standing male figure with frontal body, head turned in profile to the left and feet seen from above turned three-quarters to right. He wears a tunic at knee length, with decorated border, tightened with a belt at waist, and trousers; the headdress consists in a plain hemispheric cap with two (?) long ribbons from the nape, but the presence of an element of some sort above it is indicated both by a few ondulated strokes in the available drawings and by a specific statement by Herzfeld, according to whom this element was “shaped as on [Shabuhr’s] coins, like a huge egg” (Herzfeld 1941: 308). Ears are not visible, but it is unclear whether they are covered by an earflap or by the hairline. The figure, with a long square-pointed beard, has the left hand placed on the sword hilt at waist, whereas the right arm is raised to the side.

Fig-11-callieri_11Fig. 11 – Graffito no. 6 (after Herzfeld 1941: fig. 401). Not to scale.

The rendering of the image is extremely schematic and simplified, despite the detailed indication of the trousers’ fabric and the tunic’s border.


Fig. 12 – Graffito no. 6 (after Sami 1338: fig. following p. 273). Not to scale.

As concerns the localization of the graffiti, which as we shall see may have been of some importance for their comprehensive understanding, our information is not uniformly detailed (Fig. 13). Thanks to the accurate recording of E.F. Schmidt, we know precisely that in the Harem of Xerxes, now the Persepolis Museum, Graffito no. 2 is engraved on the S wall of the portico of the Central Section, below the sill of the W window, and Graffito no. 4 is engraved on the S wall of the Main Hall of the Central Section, west of the doorway to the inner court (or, in Calmeyer’s words, ‘rechts neben der westlichen Südtür: see caption to fig. 4). Graffito no. 5 has also the same location as no. 4 (cf. Calmeyer 1976: 66, caption to fig. 4). Two more graffiti are in the some building, even though other authors have not indicated their position in the same detail: Graffito no. 3 is engraved on the S wall of the portico of the Central Section (we do not know the exact point, while this information would be extremely important in order to confirm the hypothesis by Lukonin see below that graffiti nos. 2 and 3 are part of a same investiture scene: see below). Graffito no. 1 is said to be engraved in the Main Hall (Sami 1338: 274; here Graffito no. 6 is also said to be found in the same location: see 275-76).


Fig. 13 – Map showing the localization of the graffiti as can be understood from the bibliography (map after A. Sami, Persepolis, seventh Edition, Shiraz 1970).

In the Tacara of Darius I, Graffito no. 6 is described as being on a side-door of the side apartments (Herzfeld 1935: 80 ff.; 1941: 308; Schmidt 1953: 227, fn. 40).

Since the very first discovery, by comparing them with coins of the ruler of Persis, some of these figures have been identified respectively as “one Manuchihr of Stakhr”, i.e. one of the local dynasts of Fars immediately preceding the Sasanians, as Pabag [Papak], the father of Shabuhr and Ardashir I, and as Shabuhr, the brother of Ardashir I, “who reigned for three months and was killed by a falling stone when visiting Persepolis” (Herzfeld 1941: 308).

Namely, Manuchihr would be one of the figures on the S wall of the Main Hall of Xerxes’ Harem, our no. 4 or 5 (Herzfeld 1935: 81); Pabag would be another figure of the same scene as well as the figure represented in the S wall of the Portico of Xerxes’ Harem, our no. 3 (Allotte de la Füye 1928: 165; Herzfeld 1941: 308, fig. 402; Lukonin 1969: 30, fig. 25.1); Shabuhr would finally be the figure represented on the Tacara, our no. 6 (Herzfeld 1935: 80; 1941: 308, fig. 401) but also the horseman on the left on no. 2. (Lukonin 1969: 30, fig. 25.2)

However, the comparison with the coinage is not so useful in specifically identifying the figures, as has been believed till now on Herzfeld’s footsteps (se also Calmeyer 1976: 65, fn. 131).

Even though the figures bear distinctive marks of their high status, indicated by the diadem which in Arsacid period still represented a kingly prerogative, their identification remains difficult.

The only sure information is that most of the figures have their head in profile to the left, as we see in the coinage of the sub-Arsacid kings of Persis, and that also their headdresses are extremely similar to those of the same dynasty: a high tiara, borded with pearls and with a scaled central crest, with the indication of a specific coat-of-arms at the middle of the side: a crescent or a crescent with disc.

The same type of tiara, in fact, appears on the coins of several kings of Persis, where the main difference between one king and the other is the presence of the crescent alone or of the crescent and dot or of the crescent surrounded by three dots, where the dot can be a representation of a star (see Soudavar 2003: 62).

The first type is found on the coinage of Dare-v/Darayan II, first half of 1st century BC (Alram 1986: 173, pl. 19, no. 564; for the new reading of the name, see Skjærvø 1997: 94). The second type characterizes the images of Napad (Alram 1986: 178, pl. 20, 615), Mantchihr I (Alram 1986: 180, pl. 21, 627), Mantchihr II (Alram 1986: 182, pl. 21, 634), Mantchihr III (Alram 1986: 183, pl. 21, 642), Shabuhr (Alram 1986: 185, pl. 22, 653) and Ardaxshir V (Alram 1986: 186, pl. 22, 656), kings reigning from the second half of the 1st century AD to the first quarter of the 3rd century AD; the third type belongs to the Unknown King II (Alram 1986: 179, pl. 21, 618) and Vadfradad IV (Alram 1986: 180, pl. 21, 623), dated between the end of the 1st and the beginning of the 2nd century AD. The busts attributed to the Unknown King III, second half of the 2nd century AD, have the crescent sometimes with three dots (Alram 1986: 183, pl. 21, 641).

However, the presence of the dot or dots is not so clear neither on the graffiti nor on the coinage, so that we would refrain from relying on this aspect for an identification of the king of Graffito no. 3 with Darayan II.

V.G. Lukonin has also suggested that the tiara, wore by Shabuhr in one of the graffiti (our no. 2, left) is a possible distinctive mark of Shabuhr being a priest of Anahita (Lukonin 1968: 113): but this remark appears contradicted by the other interpretation by the same author, according to which graffiti nos. 2 and 3 are part of a single scene of investiture, in which Shabuhr, dressed as a king (no. 2, left), would receive the investiture from his father Pabag, dressed as a priest (no. 3) (Lukonin 1969: 30).

Apart from the tiaras, other headdresses appear on the graffiti.

One particular case is that of the head of the figure on Graffito no. 4. P.O. Harper interprets the “huge fan-shaped object projecting above the head” of our figure 6, perhaps illustrating “Shapur, son of Papak” (Harper 1981: 53, fn. 71, fig. 19) as part of the headdress, similar to the headdress appearing on a plate from Sari (ibid.: pl. 10) dated between the third and the early fourth century A.D.: a headdress which “is not a royal Sasanian crown type”, but belongs to a “crown prince” (ibid;: 55). However, the remarkable difference between the engraving of all the figure and that of this object, well noticeable in the photograph published by Harper and confirmed by the absence of this detail in the drawing published by Sami, can be explained by the fact that the latter belongs apparently to a second layer of graffiti, intended to render the head similar to that of a Sasanian king.

A second peculiar headdress is the one worn by the standing personage of Graffito no. 3, a seven-pointed fan-like element apparently obtained by tying a large cloth onto the head. This is extremely similar in shape to the five-pointed fan-like element which appears on the head of the figure represented on the reverse of some coin types (Alram 1986: 185, nos. 653-655) of Shabuhr, the predecessor of the last king of Persis and first king of the Sasanians, interpreted subjectively by some scholars as the image of the father Pabag (see below).

Of the other standing figures, the one of Graffito no. 6 has the plain hemispherical cap which, as we have seen, was perhaps surmounted by a further element. If, on the basis of the existing incisions, we can exclude that this element was similar to the fan-like element of Graffito no. 3, we think that the interpretation proposed by Herzfeld as a “huge egg” (v. supra) is only hypothetical. At any rate, even if this should prove correct, the fact cannot be taken as a proof for the identification of the personage as Shabuhr, as Herzfeld does, because the figure wearing this “egg-shaped” headdress – which will then be adopted by Ardashir I in his new role of founder of the Sasanian dynasty (Lukonin 1969: pl. XV, types V-VI) – on one of Shabuhr’s types (Alram 1986: 185, no. 656), is that on the reverse: his identification is doubtful, but in any case different from the king himself (see infra).

Other two in Graffito no. 2 are bare-headed, and have large and full hair. They preceed the mounted figure and keep the reins of his horse, therefore they may represent squires.

An interesting observation is that each of the mounted figures, which seem to enact the main role in the scenes, have a custom slightly differing from the other. Only the figure on Graffito no. 2 wears a cloak over the tunic, of the same shape as the cloak worn by the standing figure of Graffito no. 3. The other three horsemen have only tunic and trousers. Also, the decoration of the fabric in which the costumes have been cut is different from character to character, although it does not appear to be linked to any difference of rank between them: one can only note that the figure of Graffito no. 2 is without doubt the figure which carries the richest decoration, along with the most elaborated horse harness.

The main difference, however, lies in the fact that of the four mounted figures, only two keep, with their extended right arm, the ribboned ring-shaped diadem which in the Sasanian investiture scenes will become the standard symbol of the royal khwarrah. Now, the most richly decorated horseman, the one from Graffito no. 2, is not one of these, and yet seems to have the honour of being led step by step by one or two squires: even more enigmatic is the head with pointed cap turned backwards which appears in the background behind him.

As concerns the horses and their elaborate trappings, the large circular phalerae on the harness straps and the balls of hair hanging from chains occur in Sasanian metalwork and rock reliefs, as well as in Parthian and Palmyrene art (see Harper 1981: 51, and fn. 66 with bibliography).

A striking difference is the one between the tail of the horse of the prince on the left side of Graffito no. 2 and the tails of the other horse figures: whereas the latter are tied with a ribbon at their upper end, near the horse body, as in most of Sasanian reliefs, the tail of that horse is combed in a plait ending in two bifurcated points, such as in the Ardashir I rock reliefs at Firuzabad I celebrating the victory over the Arsacid king, or in the Naqsh-e Rostam reliefs IV and VII: a difference whose significance still eludes us.

As we mentioned before, all the figures are in profile to the left, and the only head in profile to the right could be that of Graffito no. 3, which we have seen similarly on the reverse of the Shabuhr coinage.

If we consider that one of the distinctive changes of the coinage of the Sasanians as compared to the previous Iranian coinages is the change of the profile’s direction, we can perhaps suggests that almost all the figures on the graffiti are not Sasanian princes but rather belong to the kings of Persis.

At the same time, the fact that the only right-facing bust is the one similar to the reverse of the coinage of Shabuhr, might suggest that Graffito no. 3 is the latest in the series. Given that we are not sure about the identity of the personage represented on the reverse of many of the coin types of the kings of Fars, either the father, or the forefather, or even the son or the throne heir (cf. Alram 1986: 164; contra, Lukonin 1969: 29, on the basis of the legend BRH bgy X MLK’, interprets the images on the reverse as those of the father of the king), we cannot use the similarity between Graffito no. 3 and the bust on the reverse of the Shabuhr coinage to prove that the figure on Graffito no. 3 is Pabag: particularly if we keep present that the image represented on the reverse of one of the earliest coin types of Ardashir I, and bearing the same legend as the one of the coins of Shabuhr, wears the typical tiara of the ruler of Persis (Alram 1986: 186, no. 657). We therefore prefer to abstain from a precise identification of the figure, but rather point to its being near in time to the Sasanian period, both for the right-facing profile and the similarity in headdress with the figure on the reverse of the last but one king of Persis.

If, as we have seen, it is more than likely that the figurative characters on the graffiti belong to the sub-Arsacid dynasty of the Kings of Fars, we naturally must ask ourselves what could have been the the purpose of these graffiti, inscribed and perhaps painted on the walls of important edifices of the Achaemenid epoch.

Regarding this, an epigraphic testimony, even if it dates back one to two centuries from the graffiti, seems to be particularly pertinent, providing a key to the reading. These are the two Middle Persian inscriptions, dated to the fourth century A.D., engraved at Persepolis, (Henning 1963: pls. 85 and 87; Frye 1966, with bibliography; Lukonin 1969: 128-29; Azarnoush 1986: 223, 228). Both of them were ordered by a Shabuhr Sakanshah who calls himself a son of Hormozd King of King, and has been differently identified with a son of Hormozd I or a son of Hormozd II and brother of Shabuhr II. Leaving aside the problem of the true identity of the personage, what is interesting for us is what is recorded in one of the two inscriptions, the longest one, engraved on a door-jamb to the S of the main hall of the Tacara: V.G. Lukonin translate it as thus: “He [i.e. Shabuhr Sakanshah] arrived in Persepolis [st stwny, “hundred columns”], and had wine near this building. He made great rejoicing and ordered to perform service for the Gods [yzd’n]. He proclaimed praise to his father and grandfather. He proclaimed praise to Shabuhr, King of Kings. And proclaimed praise to himself. He lauded those who built this palace” (Lukonin 1969: 129).

It is not by chance that just in Persepolis Shabuhr Sakanshah had a banquet, ordered rites for Gods, and gave blessing to his father and grandfather. In the long debate about the continuity between the Achaemenid and the Sasanian dynasts, it is now every day clearer that the Sasanians considered themselves heirs of the Achaemenians, whom they knew in a distorted way (cf. Roaf 1998) nevertheless correctly as the authors of Persepolis imposing buildings. This process is not new to the Sasanian dynasty, since it is probably already present in the Fratarakas of Hellenistic Fars: in the coinage of their first series, in fact, the link with the Achaemenid dynasty is stressed both by the legend and particularly by the iconographic elements of the standard and of the building appearing on the reverse (Chaumont 1959: 179; Callieri 1998: 36; for a different interpretation, see Panaino 2003; on this question, see also Skjærvø 1997: 102).

As R.N. Frye has recalled in a paper on the rise of the Sasanians, even during the time of the Fratarakas “the ruins of Persepolis were present, however, to remind the people of the power and magnificence of their ancestors” (Frye 1975: 238).

There seems to be a continuity from the Fratarakas to the early Sasanians in the privileged relationships with these ruins, lasting at least to the fourth century, when Shabuhr Sakanshah had his inscriptions engraved there (cf. also Wiesehöfer 1994: 139, fn. 4).

The act of incising (and painting) on the walls of these ancient monuments would therefore represent an homage to the ancestors, and at the same time a mark of ownership of the ruins and a way to point out the continuity between those kings of the mythical past and the kings of the present time.

This connection with the Sasanian period leads us to examine one last important aspect of the graffiti, which the remarkable iconographic similarities with some of the themes of the Sasanian rock reliefs immediately recall: the role that they have carried out in the development of Sasanian Art.

E. Herzfeld, with his usual insight, comparing the Persepolis graffiti with the graffiti from Dura Europos, underlines their importance to show that “even before the Sasanian period the repertory of motifs that were typical of Sasanian sculpture existed in painting”: “we may assert that a traditional painting was from the beginning the constituent factor also of Sasanian rock-sculpture” (Herzfeld 1941: 308). At the same time, the graffiti “reveal the artistic conception behind the conventionalized forms of the large rock-sculptures” (ibid.): the graffiti would in this way be really the starting point of Sasanian rock-sculpture.

Herzfeld’s view is fully shared by K. Erdmann, who recalls them among the art production which has influenced the birth of Sasanian art (Erdmann 1969: 55-56). The opinion of the two scholars can still be considered still valid, given the deep similarity between the graffiti and the Sasanian rock reliefs.

However, Herzfeld’s observations on the connection of these graffiti with painting seems particularly fitting also. When visiting the site of Persepolis some years ago, the present author was impressed by the fact that the signs incised on the stone are so thin, that the motifs are barely visible, only with a grazing light. Therefore, it is likely that the graffiti were originally painted with colour, and that the incisions were only the preliminary phase of the painting.

Indeed, if we examine the whole of Graffito no. 2, we can really consider the possibility that the minor figures, or better the figures of which only parts are represented in the different modern drawings, are not parts of an unfinished scene (Calmeyer 1976: 65), but may represent engraved patches of a larger scene which were originally painted. If we try to complete all the engraved figures with painted ones, now vanished, we have the representation of a procession, in which mounted princely figures line up with their horses each guided by two standing figures (rather than an investiture on horse with the omission of the god as suggested by Abka’i-Khavari 2000: 37).

This hypothesis will be verified when it is hopefully possible to examine the graffito with infra-red techniques in order to detect the original presence of colour.

However, coming back to Herzfeld’s observations, there is a remarkable difference with the graffiti from Dura-Europos, now available in a comprehensive publication (Goldman 1999). Whereas Dura graffiti are real “occasional” graffiti, incised by common persons not always having a professional training in drawing, Persepolis graffiti show to be the work of well-trained craftsmen. Herzfeld himself recognizes that “the picture of Papak is a work of amazing technical skill” (Herzfeld 1941: 308). Therefore, they are not extemporary traces but works of art, commissioned by the personages which are represented.

Pictorial graffiti are quite rare in Iran. The only area where this form of art has been extensively recorded is that of Birjand, in Southern Khorasan. Here in the 1950s a Persian student identified on the rock-walls of the gorge known as Kal-e Jangal several rock drawings, i.e. drawing in which the line was obtained by simply skratching the surface of the stone without incision, and therefore different from graffiti: “a rock drawing of a man and a lion”, accompanied by a Parthian inscription, “a rock drawing of a male bust (bearded head, with helmet and diadem, in profile turned to the left), with a damaged Parthian inscription,” as well as fragments of seven other inscriptions, all apparently in Parthian, belonging to different periods (Henning 1953: 132-33). On the basis of the reading of the inscription, mentioning the name of a city named after Ardashir (the Sasanian king), Henning is inclined to date the first image also to the early Sasanian period, whereas as regards the male bust (the photo of which, published in an Iranian volume, is not available to the present author), he stresses the fact that it is “reminiscent of the representations of the Parthian kings on their coins”, and therefore “somewhat older” (Henning 1953: 135). Indeed, the motif of the foot combat with the lion is represented once on Sasanian rock reliefs (Barham II at Sar Mashhad) whereas on Sasanian silver vessels the combat with the lion is generally on horse; the rendering of the trousers and foot is not dissimilar to that on several mounted king images on Sasanian vessels (e.g. Harper 1981: pls. 9, 10).

However, in recent times the area of Birjand has been the object of a thorough campaign of surveying rock drawings, graffiti and inscriptions, which has located a new and rich rock-wall at the site of Lâkh Mazâr, near the village of Kutch (Labbâf Khâniki & Bashâsh 1994). Apart from the inscriptions, several human heads, all in profile (ibid.: figs. 13-14), as well as images of lions and caprids (ibid.: figs. 15-16) have been recorded, plus a large number of very poor graffiti which are likely to belong to recent times. Particularly noteworthy as regards the high craft level is the image of a lion with an extremely elaborate rendering of mane and paws (ibid.: fig. 15, D2). While the epigraphical study has suggested a date to the Sasanian period, and particularly to the reign of Kawad, a similarity of some of the busts with Hephthalite busts on engraved gems and coins confirms, at least for a part of the images, a date to the 5th century AD, whereas for some images of lion, a date in the Parthian period has been proposed on rather weak grounds (ibid.: 29-30). It is therefore likely that the rock-wall was sited in such a position that it was used for graffiti for some time during the Sasanian period, while the existence of pre-Sasanian material is still to be proven.

The testimony of Birjand, therefore, although of great interest as far as concerns the common choice to use graffiti as the technical means, is, as comparative material, of secondary importance due to its placement in time which surely comes after that of Persepolis.


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