The Sassanian Game-board of ‘Hashtpay’

The article below is written by Antonio Panaino and originally posted in the CAIS website hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav in London, England. Readers are also encouraged to consult/click the link “The Sassanian Era” (or click image below …)

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Name of a game from the Sassanian era which has not been precisely identified. The haštpay [hštp’y] “eight feet” (more likely than aštapad) is mentioned together with other games in chapter 15 of the Xusraw ud Redag (ud pad Chatrang ud new-ardaxšî r ud haštpay kardan az hamahlan fraztar hom “and in playing chess, backgammon and the haštpay I am superior to my comrades” (Unvala, p. 16; Monchi-Zadeh, 1982, p. 65; Panaino, 1999, p. 51). Its name, as in the case of chess (Pahl. Ch < Skt. caturanµga-), is an Indian borrowing; it derives from Sanskrit astapada- (cf. pali atthapada), originally referring to a game-board of 8 x 8 little squares. Such a board was used for various games (Murray, 1913, pp. 35-40; 1952, pp. 129-36), one of them played, according to the Balabharata (II, 5, pp. 10-13), with red and white pieces and a pair of dice. In many other sources the astapada- was doubtless the chessboard and its name strictly associated with this game (MacDonell, p. 122; Jacobi, p. 228; Thomas, 1898, pp. 272; 1899, pp. 365; Thieme, 1984, p. 208).

A conjectural drawing by Ashkan H. (اشکان.ح) of a possible configuration of the Hashtpay game-board (Source: Public Domain).

From the Xusraw ud Redag it is clear that the Sassanian haštpay was distinguished from other popular games like chess and the variety of backgammon represented by new-ardaxšî r. The haštpay could perhaps be associated, according to Semenov (pp. 16-20, 131; but see Panaino, 1999, pp. 153-56, 189), with a game-board (with three lines of eight squares) recently discovered in Paikend and with another one represented on a later Sassanian silver cup with a different but apparently comparable form.

An Indian manuscript depicting Krishna and Radha playing chaturanga on an 8×8 Ashtāpada (Source: CAIS). For more see “Chess: An Indian or Iranian invention” …

Bibliography

Jacobi, “Über zwei ältere Erwähn-ungen des Schachspiels in der Sanskrit-Litteratur,” ZDMG 50, 1896, pp. 227-33.

A. MacDonell, “The Origin and Early History of Chess,” JRAS, 1898, pp. 117-41.

Monchi-Zadeh, “Xus-rôv i Kavâtân ut Rêtak,” in Monumentum Georg Morgenstierne, vol. II. Acta Iranica 22, Leiden, 1982, pp. 47-91.

J. R. Murray, A History of Chess, Oxford 1913. Idem, A History of Board-Games other than Chess, Oxford 1952.Panaino, La novella degli Scacchi e della Tavola Reale. Un’antica fonte orientale sui due gixochi da tavoliere piuà diffusi nel mondo euroasiatico tra Tardoantico e Medioevo e sulla loro simbologia militare e astrale. Testo pahlavi, traduzione e commento al Wiz-arišn î Chatrang ud nihišn î  new-ardaxšî r “La spiegazione degli scacchi e la disposizione della tavola reale,” Milano, 1999.

L. Semenov, Studien zur sogdischen Kultur an der Seidenstrasse, Wiesbaden, 1996.

Thieme, “Chess and Backgammon (Tric-Trac) in Sanskrit Literature,” in E. Bender, Indological Studies in Honor of W. Norman Brown, New Haven, 1962, pp. 204-16, reprinted in Kleine Schriften, Wiesbaden, 1984, pp. 413-25.

W. Thomas, “The Indian Game of Chess,” ZDMG, 52, 1898, pp. 271-72; 53, 1899, pp. 364-65.

M. Unvala, The Pahlavi Text “King Husrav and his Boy,” published with its Transcription, translation and copious notes, Paris, n.d.

Sassanian Inscription Unearthed in Ancient Iran Necropolis Being Deciphered

The article Sassanian Inscription Unearthed In Ancient Iran Necropolis Being Deciphered” was posted on Radio Farda (as reported by British-Iranian journalist Maryam Sinaiee) on March 28, 2020.

Kindly note that the version printed below has been edited with two of the images (and accompanying captions) not appearing in the original Radio Farda report.

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Experts are working to decipher a newly discovered inscription unearthed in an ancient necropolis near Persepolis, an official of the Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran, said on Monday. The inscription which dates from the Sassanian period (224-651 CE) was found in Naqsh-e Rostam and is written in Pahlavi language (also known as Middle Persian) which was the official language of the Sassanian Empire.

Tomb of Darius the Great in Naqsh-e Rustam an ancient necropolis located about 12 km northwest of Persepolis, in Fars Province, Iran (Source: Radio Farda).

Naqsh-e Rostam, the site where the inscription was found, was a necropolis and religious center about 12 km northwest of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (550-300 BCE). However, some of the relics on the cliffs may date as far back as the Pre-Iranian Elamite Period (2700-539 BCE).

Four huge tombs from the Achaemenid era (550-300 BCE), including the tomb of King Darius the Great (550-486 BCE) hewn into the cliff face and a square-shaped building made with stone blocks from the Sassanian which may also have had a significance in burial rites are among the most important relics of the necropolis.

Several inscriptions and reliefs of Sassanian kings including a rock relief showing the Sassanian king Shapur I on horseback, with the Roman Emperor Valerian bowing to him in submission, are among the other significant surviving relics of Naqsh-e Rostam.

Emperor Valerian surrenders to Shapur I (241-272 CE) and Sassanian nobility at Edessa in 260 CE (Source: Kaveh Farrokh, 2005, Elite Sassanian Cavalry).

Despite the huge importance of the ancient necropolis, unlike Persepolis and Pasargadae, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire (550-300 BCE) under Cyrus the Great (559-530 BCE), Iran has not been able to list it as a UNESCO Heritage Site due to the failure to meet the requirements of UNESCO as to measures taken for the preservation of the site and documentation.

Officials say the inscription is being deciphered. But reading Pahlavi language texts is no easy task.

Inscription in Pahlavi from Pāikūlī (Image Source: Shapour Suren-Pahlav). The above Pāikūlī block appears as D3 in the academic publication by Dr. Helmut Humbach and Dr. Prods O. Skjaervo (The Sassanian Inscription of Paikuli: Restored text and Translation. Reichert Verlag, 1983). Note that five of the above lines are intact with the sixth line damaged. ... For more on this Click Here …

An Aramaic-derived alphabet was used for writing in Pahlavi. The script is very difficult to read due to the use of heterograms. The heterograms were words written in Aramaic but read as their Middle Persian equivalent. It is similar to writing eg in English and reading it “for example”.

In addition to the use of heterograms, the variations of the alphabet between the ordinary script used on parchment and the version used in inscriptions make reading Pahlavi inscriptions which are often badly damaged by exposure to the elements even more complex.

In the past couple of decades, the decline of groundwater tables which has resulted in sinking ground has seriously damaged the relics in  Naqsh-e Rostam or put them in danger of further deterioration. Critics of the Islamic Republic say the government does not put enough effort into the preservation of pre-Islamic relics.

Babak Khorramdin – The Freedom Fighter of Persia

The article “Babak Khorramdin – The Freedom Fighter of Persia” written by Mahbod Khanbolouki was originally published in the Ancient Origins venue on January 21, 2015. The version printed below has been slightly edited.

Readers interested in this topic can also read and download the below article as well:

Farrokh, K. (2014). An Overview of the Historical Circumstances that led to the Revolts of Babak Khorramdin. Persian Heritage, Volume XIX, No. 74, Summer, pp.21-23.

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The Umayyad- and Abbasid Caliphate of the Arabs had invaded and occupied the Sassanid Persian empire for 144 years when in 10 July 795 CE, a child was born in a village called Balal Abad situated near modern day Ardabil in northwestern Iran. This child would grow up to become the most prominent rebel leader of the Persians and he would create the largest rebel force the Arabs had ever faced anywhere in the Islamic Caliphate. He fought the invading Arabs for regaining control over Persian territories in order to liberate the Persian people and to restore Persian culture. He would be known as Babak Khorramdin.

Babak lost his father Merdas in his early childhood which resulted in him taking on the responsibility of his family, including his mother and his two younger brothers. His mother Mahrou worked as a nurse for infants while Babak himself worked as a cowherd until he was twelve years old. By the age of eighteen he was already involved in arms trade and business. He enjoyed music and singing and learned to play the Persian string instrument called tambour. A number of stories have been told about him. One story says that Babak was sleeping under a tree during an afternoon when his mother saw his hair and chest drenched in blood. But when his mother quickly woke him up and he stood on his feet, all blood had vanished and he was unharmed. Based on what she had witnessed, she told Babak that he had a great task ahead of him.

A conjectural image Babak Khorramdin (Source: Ancient Origins). Note the Bazz castle in the mountainous background.

The Khorramian sect

One winter day, a wealthy man named Javidan Shahrak was on the way home from the city of Zanjan where he had gained the leadership of a Persian rebel group called the Khorramian sect established in the nearby highlands. Due to a violent snow storm, Javidan couldn’t continue his journey and had to find shelter. By chance, he found the home of Babak and knocked on the door. His mother welcomed him into their home and lit a fire for him. During his stay, Babak took care of Javidan’s horses and showed good manners towards the guest. His level of intelligence impressed Javidan and when the time had come for Javidan to leave, he asked Mahrou whether he could take Babak with him to work in his farms. Javidan also promised her that he would send plenty of money. She accepted his request and by this event, Babak joined the Khorramian rebel group and Javidan became Babak’s role model and teacher. After some time, Babak gained the name Khorramdin, meaning of the delightful faith referring to the pre-islamic religion Zoroastrianism which is the ancient native religion of Persia.

As the leader of the Khorramian rebel group, Javidan fought the Arabs alongside Babak Khorramdin around their strong hold in northwestern Persian between the years 807-817 CE until Javidan became wounded in a battle and died in 817 CE. By the time Javidan died, Babak had learnt how to use geostrategic locations, to apply various military tactics and to lead troops. Javidan had chosen Babak as his successor and leader of the Khorramian sect before he died. Multiple rebel groups were scattered throughout the cities of Persia by the time Babak became a leader. Eventually Babak married Banu Khorramdin, the former wife of Javidan who was a female warrior and who fought side by side Babak and his men. Members of the Khorramian group wore red clothes and therefore they were known as sorkh jamegan among people, meaning the red clothed ones .

Beginning of the Rebellion

The same year as Javidan died, Babak started to motivate his followers to come together and to start a rebellion against the Arab Caliphate, and so the rebellion of the Persians begun. Babak started to recruit farmers and rebel leaders from all around Persia and ordered them to go to arms and to spread fear in the eyes of the Arabs. Babak’s popularity increased rapidly and thousands of people joined his movement. There are different accounts of the number of people who joined his rebel army but the number is estimated to be between 100 000 – 300 000 people strong. The army mainly consisted of farmers and when Babak recruited these men, he also trained them for battles. He ordered his men to raid caravans along the Silk Road, to destroy Arab strongholds and to seize villages, which in turn contributed to loss of control in many provinces ruled by the Arabs.

Statue of Babak Khorramdin the Nakhchevan region of the Republic of Azerbaijan in the southern Caucasus (Wikimedia Commons). Kindly note that the Caucasian Republic with the name “Azerbaijan” was not known by this name until May 1918 – the historical Azerbaijan is located in southwest of Iran. The region of the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan was known as Arran and the Khanates and also as Albania in pre-Islamic times.

In 819 CE, full scale battles between Persians and Arabs were initiated. The Caliphate continuously ordered Arab generals to fight Babak. An Arab general named Yahya ibn Mu’adh was sent to fight the Khorramian rebel group, but failed to defeat Babak. During two years time, armies under the command of Isa ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Khalid continuously attacked Babak’s forces with no success. In 824 CE, Ahmad ibn al Junayd attacked the Khorramian rebel group but ended up captured by Babak. In 827 CE, the Arabs under the command of Muhammad ibn Humayd Tusi attacked and became victorious but could not capture Babak and his closest men. In 829 CE, Babak returned to restore his strongholds and defeated Muhammad ibn Humayd Tusi who ended up getting killed while his Arab army suffered heavy losses.

An image of Babak Khorramdin (Source: Ancient Origins).

The stronghold of the Khorramian rebel group was the Castle of Babak which is situated on an altitude of 2600 metres on the mountain Badd (also known as Bazz). The castle is surrounded by mountains and ravines which during ancient times provided protection from invading troops. A handful of Khorramian soldiers could easily wipe out thousands of enemies and the castle was impossible to invade during winter seasons. It was built during the Sassanid dynasty (224-651 CE) with foundations built during the Parthian dynasty (247 BC-224 CE). As the brilliant war lord that he was, Babak Khorramdin took full advantage of the strategic location of the castle which had an important role in the numerous victories he had against the Arab generals.

The remains of the Castle of Babak which are visited by Iranians and tourists all year round (Source: Iran Tour Center).

In 835 CE, the caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate named al Mu’tasim ordered his best general to confront Babak Khorramdin and to capture him. His name was Haydar ibn Kavus Afshin and was chosen as the governor of the area where Babak was active. He had been a former compatriot of Babak. In the early days of the Persian rebellion, Afshin made an oath together with Babak to cooperate and defeat the Arab armies and to bring back the power of Persia to the hands of the former Sassanid monarchs. By this time, after 18 years of Persian revolts, Afshin had treacherously started to cooperate with the Arabs in exchange for excessive riches, benefits and to be the head general of the Caliphate army. With the help and resources provided by the caliph, Afshin ordered Arab strongholds, which had been destroyed by Babak and his men, to be rebuilt and reinforced. Al Mu’tasim on the other hand managed to capture one of Babak’s men which by torture was forced to exploit information about Babak’s tactics, territorial strategies and about hidden pathways. Shortly before Afshin attacked the Castle of Babak, Babak had sent a letter to the Byzantine emperor Theophilus in request for military reinforcements but the letter did not reach the emperor in time. Babak and his men had to evacuate the castle and flee. Babak himself together with his wife and a few soldiers fled to Armenia while Afshin plundered and thereafter demolished the castle. While Babak was in the custody of the Armenian prince Sahl ibn Sonbāt, the prince was informed about the large reward for finding Babak. Afshin was informed about Babak’s presence in Armenia and he sent a large army to Sahl ibn Sonbāt’s residence and captured Babak.

A 2009 canvas oil painting produced in Tehran by Shahab Mousavizadeh depicting the arrest of Babak Khorramdin (in c. 800 CE) by the Caliphate (Source: Shahab Mousavizadeh).

Babak Khorramdin was held in the presence of the caliph in the city of Samarra and was sentenced to death in 838 CE. Before he was executed, his hands and feet were cut off and it is said that in his agony, Babak washed his face with blood pouring out of his cuts. When the caliph asked him what he was doing, Babak answered that he wouldn’t let the Arabs see his pale face when he was dead so that they wouldn’t think he died with fear of the Arabs. He was decapitated and his head was later sent around the cities of Persia in order to spread fear among Iranians. His body was hanged on the walls of Samarra.

For 21 years, Babak Khorramdin successfully lead a major rebellion which brought the Arabs to their knees one battle after another. Ultimately, he wasn’t defeated by the Caliphate but by treacherous allies. He will always be remembered as the Persian hero who sacrificed his life for freedom and his cultural heritage. He was a brilliant leader and is very much alive today in the minds of Iranians just as he was back in time. Today Iranians visit the ruins of his castle 10 July every year to honor the great legend and his men.

The 1,500-Year-Old Love Story Between a Persian Prince and a Korean Princess that Could Rewrite History

The article The 1,500-Year-Old Love Story Between a Persian Prince and a Korean Princess that Could Rewrite History” written by Mark Oliver was originally posted in Ancient Origins on May 8, 2018. The version printed below has been slightly edited from the original version that appeared in the Ancient Origins venue.

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More than a thousand years before the first European explorer reached Korea’s shores, the Persian Empire was writing love stories about Korean princesses.

It’s a little-known story that could change the way we see our history. Recently, historians took a second look an old Persian epic written around 500 CE (during the time of the Sassanians) and realized that, at the center of the tale, was the unusual story of a Persian prince marrying a Korean princess.

It’s an incredible discovery. Up until recently, we weren’t sure that the Persians of that time even knew Korea existed. This new revelation shows Persia didn’t just make contact with Korea – these countries were intimately connected. And it might just call for a total rewrite of history.

The Kushnameh: A 1,500-Year-Old Persian Epic About Korea

The story is called the Kushnameh, and, in itself, it’s hardly a new discovery. It’s one of the most popular stories to come out of the Persian Empire, one that’s been told and retold countless times in the 1,500 years since it was written.

The Kushmaneh is a massive, epic poem about an evil creature with elephant tusks named Kus who terrorizes a Persian family throughout the generations. The whole story spans across hundreds of years and thousands of lines of poetry – but the really interesting part is somewhere around the middle. There, the author sat down and dedicated an incredible 1,000 lines of poetic verse to describing life in Korea during the Silla dynasty.

King and Queen of Silla. South Korea, Seoul National Folk Museum – Traditional Korean Costumes of Silla Kingdom (57 BC – 935 AD) (Source: Ancient Origins).

A Love Letter to Korea

Korea comes into play when the story starts to focus on a young, noble prince of Persia named Abtin. For his whole life, Abtin has been forced to live in the woods, hiding from the evil Kus the Tusked. He has only one thing to keep him safe: a magic book that tells him his future.

It’s almost like breaking the fourth wall – Abtin has a copy of the book we’re reading, and he’s not above flipping ahead a few pages to see how it all ends. In fact, that’s just what he does. He reads the next chapter and finds out that he’s supposed to go to the Silla kingdom of Korea, and – after briefly getting confused and going to China – he winds up being welcomed with open arms by the king of Silla.

From here, the story is just page after page of lavish descriptions of how beautiful Korea is. Admittedly, some of it seems a little over-the-top. It says, for example, that Korea is so overflowing with gold that even the dogs are kept on golden leashes. But on the whole, the description is so accurate that modern historians are sure the author must have visited it himself .

Abtin is mesmerized by the beauty of the country, and, soon after, by the beauty of its princess Frarang. He falls madly in love with Korean princess, begs the king for her hand in marriage, and she soon becomes his wife and the mother of his firstborn son.

Marriage of Abtin and Frarang (Source: Ancient Origins).

The Story of a Korean Hero

It’s unlikely that any of this really happened, of course. For one thing, there’s limited evidence that Persia spent 1,500 years being terrorized by an immortal monster with elephant tusks, and even less that any early Persian princes had magic books that could tell them the future.

But the symbolism of having a Persian prince taking refuge in Korea and falling in love with a Korean princess is undeniable. This is hard proof that Persians didn’t just know about Korea 1,500 years ago; they had a deep, profound admiration for their nation.

What happens next, though, is what makes it a really big deal. Frarang’s son isn’t just a minor character. His birth is a turning point in the whole story.

The fully Persian prince spends his whole life in hiding and, when he finally returns to his homeland, ends up getting killed by Kus’s men. But it’s his half-Korean son who turns things around.

Frarang and Abtin’s son ends up raising up an army and leading the revolt against Kus. For centuries, in this story, Persia gets tormented by an evil, tusked monster. It’s only under the command of a half-Korean boy and his mother that Persia finally wins its freedom.

This 14th-century Persian painting portrays a scene from the Kushnameh in what scholars believe could be the betrothal of prince Abtin (kneeling) and Silla princess Frarang (sitting) (Source: Ancient Origins).

A Secret Hidden in Plain Sight

For 1,500 years, people have been reading this story without any idea what they were looking at. For a long time, we assumed that the story was just about China.

In the story, the Korean Silla kingdom is referred to as “Chin”, a name that could refer to either China or Korea. It’s even a plot point in the story, in fact. At first, Abtin, like most historians, misreads the “Chin” in his magic future-telling book and thinks he’s supposed to go to China. And, just like modern historians, it takes him years before he realizes that it’s actually talking about China.

Recently, though, historians have taken a look at those descriptions again and realized just how perfectly they really do match up with Korea . The descriptions in this book don’t sound anything like China, but they’re a perfect, vivid description of 6th-century Korea – a place where, believe it or not, they really did keep their dogs on leashes of pure gold.

A Total Rewrite of History

This really might completely change the way we see history. For a long time, Korea has seemed an isolated, distant place from the Western world; but this story suggests that the east and west may not have been so disconnected after all.

It took until 1653 before the first European explorer reached Korea. That’s more than 1,100 years after Kushnama was written.

We’ve always known that Persia had some kind of contact with Korea. They were both a part of the Silk Road, and we’ve known for some time that Persian goods somehow ended up in Korea. Generally, though, it was assumed that they were just part of a bigger trade network.

In this story, though, Korea isn’t a trade partner. They’re a trusted ally, and they’re so important to the Persians that they literally can’t overcome evil until they trust the leadership of a half-Korean, half-Persian prince. It’s an incredibly symbolic marriage of cultures.

It puts other relics under a new light, as well. In an ancient tomb in Gyeong-Ju, for example, there is an old monument to a Korean war hero who looks an awful lot more like a Persian soldier than a Korean one. Now, some people are starting to wonder if this might really be the monument to a forgotten Persian hero who fought for Korea.

There’s no telling how far this could go. It could change everything about how we see the history of these countries. After all, this is far more than a love story between two people. It’s a love story between two nations.

Translation of Professor Katarzyna Maskymiuk’s Sassanian Military History Book into Persian

A seminal textbook on Sassanian military history by Professor Katarzyna Maksymiuk (University of Natural Sciences and Humanities, Siedlce, Poland) entitled “Geography of Roman-Iranian Wars: Military Operations of Rome and Sasanian Iran” (2015, Scientific Publishing House of Siedlce University of Natural Sciences and Humanities, Poland) has been translated in 2019 by Parviz Hossein Talaee into Persian “جغرافیای جنگ‌های ایران و روم [Joqrafiya-ye Jang-ha-ye Iran va Rom: Amaliyat-ha-ye Nezami-ye Iran va Rom dar Dore-ye Sasani]” by a major Persian-language academic publishing house, Amir Kabir Publishing (موسسه انتشارات امیرکبیر):

Prof. Katarzyna’s textbook is a major contribution to Sassanian military studies as it has, for the first time in the academic mileau, provided full and comprehensive maps of the battles between the Sassanian Spah (army) and the Romans (later Romano-Byzantines). The maps of this textbook were displayed by permission of Professor Maksymiuk in the 2017 textbook by Kaveh Farrokh on the Sassanian army entitled “Armies of Ancient Persia: the Sassanians” (Pen & Sword Publishing).

Professor Maksymiuk has published an impressive array of publications on Sassanian military history as posted in Academia.edu. Professor Maskymiuk has also published articles and textbooks on Sassanian military history with Illka Syvänne, Gholamreza Karamian, Kaveh Farrokh and Javier Sánchez-Gracia:

For recent advances in Sassanian Studies as well as Sassanian military history see Review of Sassanian Studies by Dr. Matthew G. Marsh.