Nik Spatari: Castle of Ardashir and Rome’s Basilica di Massenzio

The Basilica di Massenzio also known as Basilica of Maxentius after Emperor Maxentius (r. 306-312 CE) who initiated the building of this structure sometime in 308-310 CE. This was a religious site whose construction began sometime in 308-310 CE. Maxentius’ successor,  Emperor Constantine (r. 312-337 CE) completed the Basilica, but changed some of his predecessors’ designs prior to the project’s completion.

 Basilica of MaxentiusRome’s Basilica di Massenzio also known as Basilica of Maxentius (Picture Source: Public Domain).

Nik Spatari of the Musee di Santa Barbera in Calabria, Southern Italy and his archaeological teams have conducted a four-decade study outlining the artistic and architectural links between the ancient Near East, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Greece and Italy. Spatari has outlined the process of a long-standing Iranian Plateau-Anatolia-Mediterranean axis which has allowed for ingress of “Eastern” artistic-architectural influences upon Italy, especially through the southern Calabria region.

Spatari-Assitite Nik Sparati (Left) and his book “L’ enigma delle arti Asittite della Calabria Ultra-Mediterranea” (Published by: MuSaBa: Santa Barbera Art Foundation & Iiriti Editore, 2002). Note that the book jacket features the superimposed images of Darius the Great and Persephone (also known as Kore), the Mediterranean Goddess: Spatari has discovered Achaemenid-Persian artistic influences upon the Persephone (Kore) image. Among other ancient Iran-Italy ties, Spatari and his team have also discovered strong parallels between Sassanian architecture and the Basilica di Massenzio.

The decades-long studies have unveiled several remarkable finds: one of these pertains to the  strong parallels between the Basilica di Massenzio and the palace of Ardashir I (r. 224-242 CE) at Firuzabad.

Farrokh Lecture-UBC-Tirgan-YSUA lecture slide used in instruction for Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division (this was also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006, the annual Tirgan event at Toronto (June, 2013) and at Yerevan State University’s Iranian Studies Department (November, 2013) (Slide is Copyright of University of British Columbia and Kaveh Farrokh). The above slide discusses the parallels discovered by Professor Nik Spatari with respect to the “tri-chamber” design at Firuzabad and the Basilica di Massenzio. The floor plan of Ardashir’s palace and the “tri-chamber” (note yellow arrows) were outlined by Spatari and the Calabria Research Team who noted of the parallels with the Basilica in Rome.

Ardashir’s palace features three domes built along with large walls, characteristics evident at Rome’s Basilica di Massenzio. However, it must be noted that the structure is not strictly “Sassanian” in the overall sense, and seems to be characteristic of the architecture of the Fars region in the early 3rd century CE. One notable feature at the site are possible resonances of an earlier Achaemenid architectural tradition. Although difficult to discern at present, the walls of Ardashir’s palace were originally covered with stucco, and evidence of this remains to this day in some places in some parts of the domed halls and court. The niches were formed of a cavetto cornice reminiscent of the lintels of windows and doors of the ancient Persepolis city-palace of the Achaemenids. This suggests that the architects of Firuzabad may have been aware of the more ancient Achaemenid architectural tradition. There appear to also be parallels with respect to the interior design at Ardashir’s palace and that of the Tachara palace at Persepolis.

Ardeshir_Babakan_Palace_Firouzabad_Persis-01Frontal view of the tri-dome structure of Ardashir I ‘s (r. 224-242 CE) palace (also known as the Atash-kadeh) in late afternoon-early evening; note the “keyhole” design for the entrance doors (Picture source: Historical Iran Blog).

Ardashir’s palace is located around two kilometers (1.2 miles) north of Fars’ old city of Firuzabad.

GurAerial view of Ardeshir’e Babakan’s castle, also known as the Atash-kadeh. Note circular pattern for defense and town planning (Picture source: Historical Iran Blog).

Ardashir’s palace was constructed near a small body of water along the banks of the western branch of the Tangab River. This was connected to a natural spring, thus suggesting that this may have been due to Ardashir’s (and the Sassanians in general) reverence for Anahita, the Iranian Goddess of fertility and the waters.  in connection with the Persian goddess of water and growth, Anahita. The waters also suggest a possible connection to Cyrus the Great’s ancient Persian gardens, as there appear to be some technical parallels to Cyrus’ Royal Gardens at ancient Pasargadae. Ardashir’s pond had tiles built along the sides which was surrounded by pavement construction.

Location of Basilica[Click to Enlarge] Map showing location of Rome’s Basilica di Massenzio also known as Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum (Picture Source: Public Domain).

The balcony of Ardashir’s palace suggests a Parthian legacy as well, notably features evident at the Parthian palace of Ashur. Spatari has outlined the parallels between this Partho-Sassanian architectural feature in which rooms open onto an inner court much like Rome’s Basilica.

Roma_basilica-di-massenzio[Click to Enlarge] Another view of the tri-arch structure of Rome’s Basilica di Massenzio (Picture source: Roma Sito Turistico Ufficiale).

While much attention has been paid by historians to the battles that took place between Imperial Rome and Partho-Sassanian Persia, the strong (yet understated) cultural and artistic-architectural ties suggest a more complex history of relations between these superpowers of the past.

Maxentius-Constantine[Click to Enlarge] Emperors Maxentius (r. 306-312 CE) and Constantine (r. 312-337 CE) who constructed the Basilica at Rome (Photo Sources: Public Domain).

 As Spatari has noted, the Near Eastern world, especially the pre-Islamic empires of ancient Persia (Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian) have exerted a profound influence upon the architectural traditions of Rome, especially through Calabria in the south of modern Italy.

[Click to Enlarge] One of the understated contributors to the Western architectural tradition? Ardashir I (r. 224-242 CE) in a lance-joust scene at Firuzabad which commemorates the great battle in which the House of Sassan overthrew the Parthians in 224 CE. Note the large hair bundle (Korymbos) on top of Ardashir I’s head  (Picture source: Photo taken by Farrokh in August 2001 and shown in Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at The University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

Roger Beck: Mithraism

The article below by Roger Beck on Mithraism was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on July 20, 2002. The article below discusses the cult of Mithra as it developed in the West, its origins, its features, and its probable connection with Mithra worship in Iran.

Kindly note that all of pictures displayed in the article below are from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies DivisionStanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006 and Farrokh’s textbook  Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-).


Mithraism, the cult of Mithra as it developed in the West, its origins, its features, and its probable connection with Mithra worship in Iran

For most of the twentieth century the major problem addressed by scholarship on both Roman Mithraism and the Iranian god Mithra was the question of continuity. Did Mithra-worship migrate from Iran to the Roman Empire in some institutional form or was Mithraism invented in the West (with a few Iranian trappings) as a new institution altogether? At the start of the twenty first century, this issue appears to be less central to the concerns of scholarship on Western Mithraism, but it remains important nevertheless, and obviously it must be the lens through which Mithraism is examined in this article. The first task, though, is to describe the Mithras cult as it did in fact develop in the West, and in so far as we can reconstruct it objectively from its material remains. Reconstruction is not easy, since no ancient literary works about Mithraism and no substantial sacred texts from Mithraism have survived.

1-Taq-BostanInvestiture of Ardashir II (r. 379-383) (center) by the supreme God Ahuramazda (right) with Mithra (left) standing upon a lotus (Ghirshman, 1962 & Herrmann, 1977). Trampled beneath the feet of Ahura-Mazda and Ardashir II is an unidentified defeated enemy (possibly Roman Emperor Julian). Of interest are the emanating “Sun Rays”  from the head of Mithras.  Note the object being held by Mithras, which appears to be a barsum, or perhaps some sort of diadem or even a ceremonial broadsword, as Mithras appears to be engaged in some sort of “knighting” of Ardashir II as he receives the `Farr`(Divine Glory) diadem from Ahura-Mazda (Picture source: Shahyar Mahabadi, 2004).

Western Mithraism described

The term “Mithraism” is of course a modern coinage. In antiquity the cult was known as “the mysteries of Mithras”; alternatively, as “the mysteries of the Persians.” The latter designation is significant. The Mithraists, who were manifestly not Persians in any ethnic sense, thought of themselves as cultic “Persians.” Moreover, whatever moderns might think, the ancient Roman Mithraists themselves were convinced that their cult was founded by none other than Zoroaster, who “dedicated to Mithras, the creator and father of all, a cave in the mountains bordering Persia,” an idyllic setting “abounding in flowers and springs of water” (Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 6).

Persia (or Parthia) in those times was Rome’s great rival and frequently at war with her. Nonetheless, there is no indication that this antagonism was ever problematic for the Mithraists socially or politically. Clearly, their cultic “Persian” identity, which they made no attempt to hide, was acceptable to the authorities and their fellow citizens.

Ostia_Antica_TauroctonyA Roman version of the statue of Mithras “Bringer of Light” in a Mithraic temple in Ostia, Italy (Consult, Hinnels, 1988, pp.83). Note the opening on the ceiling just above Mithras, allowing the sun rays to “illuminate” the god. Mithras in Iranian mythology is the bringer of light and justice as well as a manifestation of the eternal sun (Picture source: Public Domain).

The socio-political acceptability of the Mithraists, despite their Perserie, can be explained largely by their social profile. They were the most conformist of men — and men indeed they were in the limited gender sense of the word, a factor which itself would add to their respectability or at least not detract from it (compare the charge against Christianity that it subverted the family by proselytizing the womenfolk). Mithraism drew its initiates disproportionately from the military, from the Empire’s petty bureaucracy, and from moderately successful freedmen (i.e. ex-slaves), in fact from theretainer classes, the very people who had a stake in the current sociopolitical dispensation. (On Mithraism’s social profile see Clauss 1992, Gordon 1972, Liebeschuetz 1994; Merkelbach 1984: pp. 153-88)

We noticed above that Mithraism’s original, archetypal sacred space was thought to be a cave. This perception, reported by an external source (the third-century CE philosopher Porphyry), is corroborated by internal data and the archaeological evidence. The Mithraists did indeed call their meeting places “caves,” whether they actually were or not. Natural caves were used where available; and where not, especially in urban settings (Rome, Ostia), a room or suite of rooms within some larger structure was used and sometimes decorated so as to resemble a natural cave. Mithraea (our modern term), like natural caves and unlike most constructed temples, had no elaborate or even recognizable exteriors. (On the structure of the mithraeum see White 1990: pp. 47-59.)

That Mithraists met in “caves” which were distinctively designed and furnished has had important consequences for the archaeological record and thus for our ability to reconstruct the cult. In addition to their cave-like appearance, mithraea were designed with raised platforms on either side of a central aisle to serve as banqueting couches for the cult meal (on which see below). They were also filled with much sacred art – sculptures (mostly in relief), altars, ritual pottery vessels, frescos, etc. – often with their dedications extant in whole or in part. There is no mistaking a mithraeum when archaeology brings it to light, and the chances are good that it will also divulge something about its membership. (On the furnishings and equipment of the mithraeum see Clauss 2000: 42-59, 114-30.)

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

The scattering of mithraea, thus identified across the Roman Empire, is perhaps more informative about the cult’s spread and social composition than are the material remains of any of its peers, early Christianity included. We have already looked at Mithraism’s social catchment. As for its spread, though represented virtually everywhere in the Roman empire, it was much stronger in the Latin speaking West than in the (predominantly) Greek-speaking East. It flourished in particular in the city of Rome and its port, Ostia, and along the Rhine-Danube frontier — exactly where one would expect from its social profile. (For maps, see Clauss 1992, province by province).

Without doubt, an intentional concomitant of the “cave” was the small size of Mithraic groups or cells. The upper limit to the number of persons who can feast intimately on side platforms in a cave or a cave-like inner room is soon reached. Mithraism, then, was a religion of small communities. These communities, moreover, were self-sufficient. There is not a shred of evidence for any co-ordinating, let alone regulating, higher authority. There were no Mithraic bishops; the contrast with contemporaneous Christianity, or for that matter with the contemporaneous state Zoroastrianism of Kerdir, could not be more extreme.

As social institutions the Mithraic communities are classed among those groups termed (by moderns) “voluntary associations.” Not all voluntary associations served religious ends. Some were analogous to trade guilds; perhaps the most common form was the burial society, clubs which could assure their members funerals in a more ample and sociable style than they could individually command. In the religious sphere, it is the voluntary nature of membership that distinguishes these associations from other religious enterprises. One chose to be initiated into the Mysteries of Mithras, whereas one belonged (normally in an entirely passive way) to the public cults of city and empire simply by virtue of belonging at one level or another, from emperor to slave, to those socio-political units: to the public cults you could no more opt in than you could opt out. It follows that ancient mystery cults, Mithraism included, were non-exclusive: as a Mithraist, you would expect, and be expected, to continue your participation in the public cults (On Mithraism as a voluntary association, see Beck 1996.)

Garni Temple-Armenia[Click to Enlarge] The Temple of Garni in Armenia. An example of Classical Armenian architecture of Hellenic inspiration, this Temple was first ordered to be built in dedication to Mithras by Tiridates I in approximately 66 CE. The god Mithras in time became merged with the Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) of the Roman Empire (Picture Source: Skyscraper City).

The “Mysteries of Mithras,” to return to their ancient name, were one of a number of ancient religious “mysteries.” A “mystery,” in Greek, is something into which one is initiated. Modern connotations of the “mysterious” or the “mystical” are irrelevant, and although most ancient mysteries were in fact secret, secrecy was not always a requirement. Not all mysteries were transmitted in and by voluntary associations, and not all voluntary religious associations transmitted rites of initiation as their sole or even principal business. Indeed, Mithraism appears to be the only substantial pagan cult of which it can be said that initiation into its mysteries was both the necessary and the sufficient condition of membership. (On ancient mystery cults, see Burkert 1987.)

Organizationally, the Mithraic groups functioned much as other voluntary associations, but in addition there was an esoteric hierarchy of seven grades. Scholars disagree about the extent of this hierarchy. Was it universal, or normative, or a refinement limited to the relatively few mithraea where it is directly attested? Was it a priesthood? Most scholars would agree that it was not ubiquitous in the sense of being a requirement for all mithraea; also that the initiate of the highest grade, the Father, excercised leadership in all aspects of the mithraeum’s sacred business, and that virtually all mithraea would have had at least one Father (two are attested in some mithraea), regardless of the presence or absence of other grades. (On the grades see Clauss 2000: pp. 131-40; contra: Gordon 1994: pp. 465-7; on their esoteric significance, see Gordon 1980a: pp. 19-99.)

Into what was a Mithraist initiated? What, in other words, constituted the sacred business of a mithraeum? Scholarship is in broad agreement that the principal act was the cult meal, celebrated both as an actual feast by the initiates reclining opposite each other on the platforms which served as banqueting couches and as a ritual re-enactment of the feast of Mithras and the Sun god celebrated on the hide of a bull freshly slain by Mithras. (On the cult meal, see Kane 1975.)

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

That there was another purpose to the Mithraic mysteries and a corresponding ritual is attested in the same passage from Porphyry (On the Cave of the Nymphs 6), already cited above, which tells us that the Mithraists called their sacred places “caves” — and why. The intent of the Mithraists was to “induct the initiate into a mystery of the descent of souls and their exit back out again.” It was for this ritual purpose (which has been generally misconstrued as a didactic purpose) that the Mithraists made their sacred space cave-like, for the cave is “the symbol of the universe,” into which the soul enters for mortal existence and quits for immortality. Accordingly, Porphyry continues, the mithraeum is designed and furnished with “cosmic symbols appropriately arranged” so as to be an authentic microcosm. (On this ritual and the corresponding design function of the mithraeum, see Beck 2000: pp. 154-65; this article also describes and explicates the two previously unknown rituals depicted on opposite sides of the cult vessel discussed.)

For other initiatory rites we depend primarily on the fresco scenes in the mithraeum at S. Maria Capua Vetere. These depict usually a triad of figures: the initiates, small, naked, humiliated; and two initiators, one behind and the other in front of the initiates, manipulating the instruments of initiations. (For illustrations, see Vermaseren 1971: Plates 21-8.)

Mithraism was an astral religion. The perceivable heavens and the celestial bodies (sun, moon, the other five planets, stars) all played a part in the mysteries — the sun necessarily a very large part, since Mithras himself was the Sun god (see below). Astral symbolism (e.g. representations of the zodiac) was liberally deployed on the sculpted and painted monuments and in the design of the mithraeum in order to render it a true likeness of the cosmos “for induction into the mystery of the descent of souls and their exit back out again” (see above). Furthermore, each of the seven grades of the hierarchy was “under the tutelage of” one of the seven planets. Finally, in the principal cult icon, the representation of Mithras as bull-killer (see below), there is a remarkable correspondence between several of the standard elements of the composition and the constellations of a particular tract of the heavens (e.g. the raven and the constellation Corvus).

The astral symbolism incorporated into the mysteries stems of course from the ancient Graeco-Roman construction of the heavens and their denizens in the astronomy/astrology of the times. On the intent of the symbolism there is no scholarly consensus. Indeed, several influential scholars have treated it as superficial decoration without any profound intent at all. That is mistaken. Granted, it is difficult to prove a negative. Nevertheless, the arguments against deep intent have so far merely re-asserted their premise as conclusion: astral symbolism is without deep intent because it is superficial. Only Franz Cumont, the founder of modern Mithraic studies, avoided this petitio principii. He did so by postulating the imposition of an astrological layer by the Chaldeans and by “Hellenized Magi” during the transmission of Iranian Mithra-worship from Iran to the West (Cumont 1903: pp. 119-30). (For arguments for deep intent in the astral symbolism, see Merkelbach 1984: pp. 75-133, 193-244; Beck 1988; Beck 1994; Beck 2000: pp. 154-65; Ulansey 1989; Jacobs 1999. As superficial imagery, (e.g.) Clauss 2000: pp. 87, 89, 97.)

Roman Mithras

Since the function of its mysteries was to relate the initiate to Mithras, the cult was of course centred entirely on the person of the god. His cult title was “Deus Sol Invictus Mithras”: thus, he was “god,” he was “the Sun,” he was “unconquered,” he was “Mithras.” To his identity as the Sun and to his invincibility must be added his Persian-ness, a “fact” known to outsiders as well as to his initiates. Iconographically, he is depicted in exotic non-Roman, specifically oriental garb: trousers and the “Persian” cap. Gods have their personal histories. The story of Mithras survives not in written form derived from an oral narrative — if such there ever was, it has disappeared without trace — but as scenes preserved on what are collectively termed “the monuments,” for the most part as relief sculpture on icons, altars, etcetera, but also as statuary and in fresco on the walls of mithraea. In the frescos and on the great complex reliefs (the latter mostly from the Rhine and Danube frontier provinces) a selection of side-scenes representing various episodes surrounds the central scene, the god’s sacrificial killing of a bull. More often this “tauroctony” is a self-contained icon, and from its privileged location at the head of the central aisle we know that it was the cult’s principal icon; consequently, that the bull-killing was the main event in the Mithras myth. (The fundamental illustrated catalogue of Mithraic monuments is Vermaseren 1956-60. Merkelback 1984 and Clauss 2000 are also exceptionally well illustrated. On the iconography of Mithras, see Vollkommer 1992. On the myth of Mithras as inferred from the iconography, see Cumont 1903: pp. 104-49; Vermaseren 1960: pp. 56-88; Clauss 2000: pp. 62-101.)

Santa_Maria_Capua_Vetere_Mithraeum_Tauroctony[Click to Enlarge] Depiction of Mithras with Persian dress of the (Parthian and Early-Mid Sassanian era type) slaying the sacred bull at the Santa Maria Capua Vetere. Note the dog and serpent.

Some of the larger reliefs could be swiveled so as to display on their reverse the scene of Sol and Mithras feasting on the hide of the bull. The gods’ banquet, then, is the outcome of the sacrifice, and since it is replicated in the cult meal of the initiates (see above), it must be supposed that the mythic sacrifice performed by Mithras is the salvafic cause of whatever benefits accrue to his mortal initiates in replicating the banquet of the two gods. The side-scenes are numerous, and they represent many different episodes in the myth, e.g. the pursuit and capture of the bull, the ascent of Mithras in the Sun’s chariot, as well as occasional episodes which, as far as one can tell, do not include or concern Mithras at all. Moreover, there is no standard order or canon of scenes: only the internal logic of the narrative orders the episodes (e.g., bull-killing precedes banquet, because the bull’s hide serves as couch cover for the banqueters). (On the composition of complex monuments, see Gordon 1980b; Beck 1984: pp. 2075-8)

In addition to the bull-killing and the banquet, the scene of Mithras’ birth is manifestly important. He is shown rising upright from a rock, not as a baby but in the prime of youth, with extended arms holding torch and sword. He has, it seems, no father. It would be wrong to say that he has no mother, for the rock itself, identified explicitly as Petra Genetrix (“the rock that gives birth”) is his mother. Since the bull-killing was so obviously the god’s principal act, and since the icon which represents it was so clearly the cult’s primary locus of meaning, the scene as regularly represented (with remarkably few variations from the norm) must be described. At the mouth of a cave, Mithras straddles the bull, plunging a dagger into its heart. A dog and a snake dart up at the blood flowing from the wound. A scorpion fastens on the bull’s genitals, and a raven perches on the god’s billowing mantle. Miraculously, the tail of the dying bull has metamorphosed into an ear of wheat. On either side of the scene the twin gods Cautes and Cautopates are posed, the former holding a raised torch, the latter a lowered torch. Above and to the left is the Sun god, above and to the right the Moon goddess. Frequently in tauroctonies from the Rhine and Danube areas, a lion and a two-handled cup are added to the scene.

Finding the “meaning” of the scene has been, perhaps to excess, the Great Game of Roman Mithraic hermeneutics. Yet a simple narrative solution, that the bull-killing is just an episode — albeit the principal episode — in the Mithras myth lacks plausibility because of the unusual and ill-assorted assemblage of beings which surround the sacrificing god. As an event, even a supernatural event, in a story it strains one’s sense of narrative realism. So while the tauroctony does indeed represent an episode in a story, it represents, it evokes, it intimates something more; and it does so by means of the elements of the composition functioning as symbols, collectively or individually. Interpretations which look eastwards to Iran will be discussed in the next section. The other important modern interpretation looks upwards to the heavens and the notable correspondence between elements of the composition and the ancient constellations (see above, on Mithraism as an astral religion). The shortcoming of interpretations of this latter type is that they have tended to treat the tauroctony rather simplistically as a star chart from which one can decipher the celestial identity of the god as this or that constellation. (For a survey of interpretations of the tauroctony, see Beck 1984: pp. 2080-3; Martin 1994. For celestial interpretations, see Insler 1978; Ulansey 1989; Beck 1994; Jakobs 1999; Weiss 1998. For an important redirection of interpretation (the tauroctony as “cult scene” and “depiction of ritual sacrifice”), see Martin 1994. On the tauroctony in the context of Roman imperial art, see Zwirn 1989. Iranizing interpretations will be referenced in the next section.)

 Julian's failed invasion of Persia in 363 ADEmperor Julian is killed during his failed invasion of Sassanian Persia in June 26, 363 CE. Above is a recreation of  Sassanian Persia’s elite cavalry, the Savaran, and combat elephants as they would have appeared during Julian’s failed invasion.  Note the rider in Mithraic attire bearing an unknown Sassanian 3-pronged symbol  ( Picture source: Farrokh, Plate D, -اسواران ساسانی- Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005).

As one would expect in a relatively elaborate Roman cult, Mithras does not lack for divine company. The Graeco-Roman Sun god Helios/Sol has already been mentioned — that Mithras both is and is not the Sun, depending on context, is one of those paradoxes which religions take in their stride — as have the planetary gods. Various of the Olympian gods also play a role, though a minor and marginal one. Finally, there are three esoteric deities, two of whom are the twins Cautes and Cautopates, already mentioned as witnesses to the bull-killing. In appearance they are clones of Mithras, and they represent through their primary attributes of the raised and lowered torches paired opposites in nature and in the heavens (e.g. rising sun and setting sun, flanking Mithras as the midday sun). Within the mystery, they symbolize and, as agents, control the entry of the soul downward into mortality (Cautopates) and its exit upwards into immortality (Cautes). (On this pair of deities, see Hinnells 1976; Beck 1984: pp. 2084-6). The third esoteric deity is the enigmatic “lion-headed god.” Since his identification is bound up with the question of Mithraism’s eastern origins, he will be discussed in the next section.

From Iranian Mithra to Roman Mithras: Continuity versus re-invention

That Roman Mithras was a Persian god in more than just the perception and self-definition of his Roman initiates is indisputable. To say that he was “the same” god, or that he “came from” Iran is equally true, though it begs as many questions as it appears to answer. Did he emigrate together with his cult? Was institutionalized Mithra-worship transmitted from East to West? Likewise the Mithra myth(s) and the concepts of the god, his powers, and his functions? Was he “the same” god in that strong sense? Or was he re-invented in the West, perhaps by those with some knowledge of the East, as a new god for new mysteries in a new type of cult association appropriate to the different social and cultural environment of the Roman Empire? Was he “the same” merely in the weaker sense that he was re-outfitted with Iranian trappings sufficient to authenticate him as “Persian” in his new context?

Two statements at least may be made with some confidence about the century-long scholarly controversy over these questions: first, that at the beginning of the third millennium there is still no consensus; secondly, that in the last three decades the balance of opinion has shifted, rightly or wrongly, in favor of re-invention over continuity.

"Tauroctony" - Mithras slaying a bull [Click to Enlarge] Another depiction of Mithras with Persian dress slaying the sacred bull at the Vatican Museum in Rome. Note the dog and serpent heading towards the gushing blood pouring down from the bull’s neck as the the scorpion heads towards the dying bull’s testicles.

What one might call the “default” transmission scenario (at least for the first two thirds of the twentieth century) was propounded by the founder of modern Mithraic studies, Franz Cumont, in 1899 (see also Cumont 1903). For Cumont, Mithraism in the West was Romanized Mazdaism, thus still at its core a Persian religion, though one which had undergone extensive metamorphoses in its passage first through Chaldaea, where it acquired its astrological overlay and the syncretic assimilation to Mithra of the Babylonian Sun god Šamaš; and secondly through Anatolia and the culture of the Magusaeans, the Hellenized Magi of the Iranian diaspora (on whom see Bidez and Cumont 1938, Beck 1991), where it acquired a Stoic cosmology of sorts, especially in its eschatology (on which see Cumont 1931, Beck 1995).

In assessing Cumont’s and later scholars’ arguments for transmission, one must keep in mind the two types of evidence deployed: first, common traits, i.e. similarity of the features of Mithras and Mithras-worship in the West with those of Mithra and Mithra-worship in the East to the point that coincidental re-invention in the West would cease to be a credible hypothesis; secondly, evidence of actual intermediate stages in the East-West transfer. We begin here with the latter. It is the stronger of the two types of evidence, but in volume the more meager. The evidence, and some of the inferences drawn from them, are as follows. 1) Plutarch (late first century CE), in Life of Pompey 24, states that the Cilician pirates who were vanquished by Pompey in the mid 60’s BCE “celebrated certain secret rites of initiation (Greek teletas), of which those of Mithras have survived up to now” (or “as far as here,” i.e. Rome: his Greek phrase mechri deuro is ambiguous). It is possible, but not certain, that these ‘initiations’ were a prototype of the Roman mysteries of Mithras. (For contra, see Francis 1975.). 2) Mithras — moreover, a Mithras who was identified with the Greek Sun god Helios — was one of the deities of the syncretic Graeco-Iranian royal cult founded by Antiochus I (q.v.), king of the small but prosperous buffer state of Commagene (q.v.) in the mid first century BCE.

It is improbable in the extreme that this cult played no part in the transmission of Mithra-worship westwards, although nothing about it compels one to accept that it was a prototype of the Roman mysteries. So far, nothing about the recently discovered mithraeum at Doliche (see Schütte-Maischatz and Winter 2000) suggests that its cult relief is other than a product of second or third century CE Mithraism. (On the royal cult of Commagene and the role of Mithras therein, see Boyce 1991: pp. 309-51; Dörner 1975; 1978; Duchesne-Guillemin 1978a; Jacobs 2000; Merkelbach 1984: pp. 50-72; Schwertheim 1979; Wagner 1983; 2000; 2000a; Waldmann 1991. For a scenario of transmission incorporating the Commagenian royal cult and the royal family of subsequent generations, see Beck 1998.) 3) While archaeology has (as yet) unearthed no evidence in Anatolia for an intermediate form of Mithras-worship which is unambiguously the precursor of the Roman mystery cult, several atypical monuments and inscriptions from this area (as well as from Crimea to the north across the Black Sea) make it entirely plausible that such intermediate forms may well have existed, and hence that Anatolia in the larger sense, not just Commagene, played some part in Mithraism’s westward transmission. Cumont’s Magusaeans (see above), though real enough in their own right, are no longer regarded as the conduit for Mithraism. (The Cumontian scenario was first challenged by Wikander 1951; subsequently by Gordon 1975; Beck 1991: pp. 539-50.) There are however other plausible scenarios, some (e.g. Colpe 1975: pp. 390-9; Boyce 1991: pp. 468-90) involving the Iranian diaspora in Anatolia. (On Mithras-worship in Anatolia and its atypical remains, and for theories of transmission through Anatolia, see Beck 1984: pp. 2018-19, 2071-3; Boyce 1991: pp. 468-90; Colpe 1975: pp. 390-9; Cumont: 1939; Gordon 1978: pp. 159-64, 169-71; Gordon 1994: pp. 469-71; Schwertheim 1979; Will 1955: pp. 144-69; Will 1978: pp. 527-8.) 4) In Syria it is the absence of data on any intermediary form of Mithraism that is remarkable (a Chestertonian “dog which did not bark”).

With the single exception of the recently discovered Huwarti mithraeum, the few actual mithraea and the monuments lacking known provenance which have been recovered there exemplify either the norms of western Mithraism or minor variations on those norms. The Huwarti mithraeum, moreover, dates to the final decades of the fourth century CE. Accordingly, it speaks of the local redefinition of a religion in its final years, not of “a road not taken” in its formative years. Mithraism in Syria was not a transitional phase intermediate between East and West, but a back-formation from the West in the East. Even the mithraeum at Dura Europos on the Euphrates, at the easternmost margins of the Roman empire, proved no exception. Arguably, its only significant Iranian feature is the fresco of a pair of enthroned elders in local ceremonial garb with scrolls and canes. These Cumont identified as Zoroaster and Ostanes; but they could as well be the Fathers of this particular Mithraic community at the time. (On Mithraism in Syria, see Roll 1977; Downey 1978; also the proceedings of the Colloquium “Mithra en Syrie,” Lyon, November 2000, forthcoming in Topoi, which will include discussion of the Huwarti mithraeum. On the Dura mithraeum, see Cumont 1975; Beck 1984: pp. 214-17.) 5) In a description of Zoroastrian dualism which he inserted into his important essay On Isis and Isiris (46-7), Plutarch speaks of Mithras as “in the middle” (meson) between the good Horomazes and the evil Areimanius, adding “and this is why the Persians call the Mediator Mithras.”

This, it is generally agreed, does not ascribe moral neutrality to Mithras; rather he is the referee, arbiter, or judge between the two warring parties. However, even if the clause is more than Plutarch’s own gloss, it speaks not of transitional Mithraism but of Mithra in the context of a collateral form of Zoroastrianism known to that learned Greek author. (On the passage and its interpretation, see de Jong 1997: pp. 171-7; on Mithra as judge, see Shaked 1980.) 6) The final piece of evidence which speaks directly to the question of transfer is the report of the state visit of Tiridates of Armenia to Rome to be crowned by Nero. At the coronation Tiridates declared that he had come “in order to revere you [Nero] as Mithras” (Dio Cassius 63.5.2). In the same visit, according to Pliny (Natural History 30.1.6), Tiridates “initiated him [Nero] into magical feasts” (magicis cenis). Since Tiridates had brought Magi in his retinue, it is likely that the “feasts” were “Magian” rather than “magical” in the contemporary Roman sense. In the Cumontian scenario this episode cannot mark the definitive moment of transfer, for Mithraism in that scenario was already established in Rome, albeit on a scale too small to have left any trace in the historical or archaeological record. Nevertheless, it could have been a spur to Mithraism’s emergence on to the larger stage of popular appeal. Perhaps, too, it affected in some way the development of Mithraism’s central rite, the cult meal (see above). (On the episode and its implications for Mithraism, see Cumont 1933; for an alternative scenario which places the cult’s institution after this episode, Beck 2002.)

Bible_museum_-_Mithrasheiligtum[Click to Enlarge] A reconstruction of a Mithraeum (Darb-e Mehr)  depicting the stages of ascension on the floor as alluded to in an earlier figure in this posting. Note the placing of grapes (right side); grapes continue to signify vitality and renewal in Iran, Italy, Anatolia and the Caucasus.

When we turn to the much ampler dossier of similarities between Iranian Mithra-worship and the Mithras-worship of the Roman mystery cult, we must keep in mind that arguments for continuity based on these similarities all imply that the similarities are so systematic and so detailed that a non-causal relationship is untenable. Necessarily, therefore, they entail some transfer scenario, whether or not they expound one explicitly. Arguments for Mithraism’s invention or re-invention in the West, on the contrary, imply that the similarities are too slight and too haphazard to warrant a causal explanation. Accordingly, no transfer scenario is required beyond a certain awareness of “oriental” wisdom among Mithraism’s founders.

Of the latter position there is a strong and a weak form. The strong form, having noted the undeniable similarities, then describes the cult, its origins, and its early development entirely in terms of the socio-religious culture(s) of the Roman empire. A typical proponent of this strong form is M. Clauss (2000: pp. 3-8, 21-2), who locates the cult’s origins and point of departure firmly in late first-century CE Rome. Not because it is wrong, but solely because it is not germane to the mandate of Encyclopaedia Iranica, there is no need to explore this version of Mithraic origins further.

Discontinuity’s weaker form of argument postulates re-invention among and for the denizens of the Roman empire (or certain sections thereof), but re-invention by a person or persons of some familiarity with Iranian religion in a form current on its western margins in the first century CE. Merkelbach (1984: pp. 75-7), expanding on a suggestion of M.P. Nilsson, proposes such a founder from eastern Anatolia, working in court circles in Rome. So does Beck 1998, with special focus on the dynasty of Commagene (see above). Jakobs 1999 proposes a similar scenario.

MegreganShooshtarNiknam3Zoroastrians engage in the celebration of Mehregan or festival of Mithras in Shushtar, Iran (Picture source: Kouroush Niknam). For more see article by Massoume Price entitled “Mehregan”

We may now turn finally to the similarities between western Mithraism and Iranian Mithra-worship and to the scholarship which has argued, in the Cumontian tradition, for significant continuity. (The scholarship up to the time of writing is surveyed in Beck 1984: pp. 2059-75).

Predictably, the similarities mostly cluster around the person of Mithra/Mithras (remarkably, the second two of the three given here are not so much similarities as inversions): (1) Roman Mithras was identified with the Sun (see above); Iranian Mithra was a god of the dawn light. When and how the Iranian god became the Sun, as eventually he did, has been much debated (Lommel 1962; Gershevitch 1975, Gnoli 1979, Lincoln 1982; see above on the solar Mithras of Commagene; see below on M. Weiss’s theory of the non-solarity of Mithra/Mithras both East and West). (2) Iranian Mithra was a god of cattle and pastures; Roman Mithras was a “cattle-thief” (explicitly so called, e.g. Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 40), all the more outrageous an inversion because Iranian Mithra was a god of righteousness whose very name means “contract.” (3) Most importantly, Roman Mithras, as his mightiest and most beneficent deed, sacrifices a bull (see above); while Iranian Mithra was not himself a bull-killer, the act of bull-killing does figure prominently in the Zoroastrian cosmological narratives. In the first instance it was an act of evil: Ahriman slew the primal Bull of creation. However, the destructive act was turned to good, when from the bull’s sperm, purified in the moon, sprang the domestic animals. The second and future event is entirely beneficial. A savior figure, Sošyant, will sacrifice a bull from whose fat, mixed with hôm, the drink of corporal immortality will be prepared. The bull-killing of Mithras can be construed as the Roman translation of either — or indeed of both — of the Iranian cosmogonic and eschatological myths. Certain of the compositional details of the tauroctony resonate with the former: the bull’s tail metamorphosed into the wheat ear, the scorpion at the bull’s genitals, the presence of the Moon as well as the Sun.

The Pahlavi texts, notably the Bundahišn, which carry the Zoroastrian cosmological accounts are several centuries later than the Roman-era artifacts, i.e. the tauroctonies, which carry the western representation of the bull-killing. Accordingly, Iranizing interpretations of the tauroctony (for a survey of these, see Hinnells 1975a; Beck 1984: pp. 2068-9, 2080-1) imply one of two scenarios, whether or not they make the choice explicitly. Either those who constructed the western Mysteries consciously altered the Zoroastrian cosmological myths which were already current in the form later attested by the Pahlavi sources; or they took over and reproduced a collateral, non-Zoroastrian form of Iranian religion (Mazdaist or otherwise), current at the time but subsequently extinguished without trace, in which Mithra was the bull-killer. A version of the latter argues that what the western mysteries adopted was an offshoot of the Vedic tradition in which Mitra reluctantly slays the Soma (= Iranian Haoma) god (Lommel 1949). More persuasive, perhaps, than postulating a precise Iranian/Vedic genealogy for the tauroctonous Mithras is the argument that the Mithraic bull-killing, both as concept and as image, reflects a peculiarly Iranian ideology of sacrifice as a creative act undertaken by god, not man (Hinnells 1975a; Turcan 1981; Turcan 2000: pp. 102-5) — with the implication, presumably, that it is so because those who first imagined the icon in the West had at least something of that ideology in mind. (On a fascinating continuity into modern Zoroastrianism in Iran, see Boyce 1975.)

Mehregan-North Shore News-NV-2003[Click to Enlarge] The Mehregan Persian Music festival as reported in the North Shore News of North Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada) on October 17, 2003.

There is a further problem that complicates all transmission scenarios: how to accommodate the twin deities Cautes and Cautopates and the lion-headed god (both mentioned above). Are they part of the theological baggage transferred from Iran? The names of the twins may well be of Iranian origin (see Schwartz 1975; contra: Schmeja 1975: p. 20), for Roman Mithraism did in fact occasionally borrow genuinely Iranian words (see Gray 1926: pp. 89-99; Schmeja 1975), notably nama (= “hail!”) and nabarzes (precise etymology disputed, see Schwartz 1975: pp. 422-3). That, however, does not extend to their functions in the theology of the western mysteries, which can be fully accounted for in solely western terms (Beck 1984: pp. 2084-6). The lion-headed god is more problematic, partly because his eventual place in the western cult’s theology is as opaque as his provenance. (On the extant exemplars and their iconography, see Hinnells 1975b; on the various interpretations and identifications, see Beck 1984: pp. 2086-9). Of the several identities proposed for the lion-headed god, two link him unambiguously with Iran. The first, propounded by Cumont (1899: p. 78; 1903: pp. 107-10), identifies him as Zurvān, the god of infinite Time and the father and arbiter between the good Ohrmazd and the evil Ahriman. This would of course make Roman Mithraism the descendant of a Zurvanite branch of Mazdaism. Around this Iranian core accumulated the personae and attributes of various Egyptian and Hellenistic Greek deities, for the most part gods of Time (Pettazzoni 1954). The second Iranian identity, first proposed by I.F. Legge (1912-15), is Ahriman — an outrageous choice were it not that the name Arimanius is attested in Mithraic epigraphy, although never in a context which makes it more than a possibility that the Mithraic lion-headed god was Ahriman (Duchesne-Guillemin 1955; idem, 1958-62; on discussions of the epigraphy and the relevant monuments, see Beck 1984: pp. 2034-5). If the Mithraic lion-headed god was indeed a descendant of the Iranian Ahriman, there is no need to assume, for that reason alone, that he retained an exclusively negative and evil nature, or that, in consequence, the Roman Mithraists were devil-worshippers on the side.

It would be impractical in a work of this scope to discuss every minute similarity which has been demonstrated or claimed between western Mithraism and Iranian Mithra-worship. (For a fuller summary, see Beck 1984: pp. 2056-89; for arguments stressing dissimilarities and discontinuities, see Colpe 1975; Drijvers 1978.) The time has come to review the principal scholarship which has argued for transmission and continuity based on the postulated similarities. The Cumontian “default” scenario has already been described. Of the post-Cumontian scenarios, three argue for continuity in the strongest terms. A.D.H. Bivar (1998, and earlier studies mentioned there) argues that western Mithraism was but one of several manifestations of Mithra-worship current in antiquity across a wide swathe of Asia and Europe. L.A. Campbell (1968) argues in the Cumontian tradition that western Mithraism replicated, through a thin disguise and with certain Graeco-Roman admixtures, a sometimes extraordinarily detailed and learned form of Zoroastrian Mazdaism. A continuity as thoroughgoing, though not quite so systematic ideologically, was proposed in several studies by G. Widengren (1965: pp. 222-32; 1966; 1980).

Nik Spatari-Mithras[Click to Enlarge] Professor Nik Spatari’s drawing of the site of Eski Kale in Turkey (dated to circa 300 BCE) showing  Mithras at left in Iranian attire shaking hands with the Hellenic God Zeus at right. This may be one of the first artistic depictions of the  handshake symbolizing the “Payman” (pact).

Starting from the dissimilarities between Roman Mithraism and Zoroastrian Mazdaism, the most obvious of which are of course the different supreme deities in the two systems and the different agents and intents of the bull-killing (discussed above), scholarship on Iranian Mithra-worship has also looked for and found closer analogies with Mithraism in pre-Zoroastrian and non-Zoroastrian Iranian religion — and beyond that in Vedic religion. The strength of hypotheses based on the analogies with pre-/non-Zoroastrian systems is that they do not need to postulate a deliberate adaptation of Zoroastrianism into western Mithraism; their weakness is that they have to postulate instead the persistence in western Iran of an early collateral Indo-European form of Mithra-worship, ready for easy translation into Roman Mithraism, for which there is no direct evidence. P.G. Kreyenbroek (1994), by comparing cosmogonies (Mithraic similar to non/pre-Zoroastrian; both of these dissimilar to Zoroastrian), has advanced perhaps the most persuasive transmission scenario of this type to date. M. Weiss (1996, 1998) argues that Roman Mithras continues a very early Iranian and Vedic conception of Mithra/Mitra as the Nachthimmel, the starry heavens, an hypothesis entailing the awkward conception of a Mithras who is wholly distinct from the Sun god.

Lastly, there are certain works specifically on Iranian religion, in addition to those of Widengren (1960, 1965) already mentioned, which discuss aspects of western Mithras or Mithraism in terms which assert or imply a fair measure of continuity: Gray 1926: pp. 89-99; Gershevitch 1959: pp. 61-72; Zaehner 1961: pp. 97-144; Duchesne-Guillemin 1962: pp. 248-57.

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


Bibliographic note: The foundational study of Roman Mithraism is Cumont 1899 and Cumont 1903. Short general studies: Vermaseren 1963; Turcan 2000; Clauss 2000. Merkelbach 1984 is a fuller comprehensive study. On Mithraism as a mystery cult among other mysteries, Bianchi 1979a; Sfameni Gasparro 1979. There are four volumes of conference papers devoted both to Iranian Mithra and to Roman Mithras and Mithraism: Hinnells 1975; Duchesne-Guillemin 1978; Bianchi 1979; Hinnells 1994. Bibliographic survey: Beck 1984; Gordon in Clauss 2000: pp. 183-90.

(abbreviation, JMS = Journal of Mithraic Studies). R.L. Beck, “Mithraism since Franz Cumont,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.17.4, 1984, pp. 2002-115.

Idem, Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders in the Mysteries of Mithras, Leiden, 1988.

Idem, “Thus Spake Not Zarathuštra: Zoroastrian Pseudepigrapha of the Greco-Roman World,” in Boyce and Grenet 1991 (see below), pp. 491-565.

Idem “In the Place of the Lion: Mithras in the Tauroctony,” in Hinnells 1994 (see below), pp. 29-50.

Idem, “Dio Cocceianus,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. 7, 1995, p. 421.

Idem, “The Mysteries of Mithras,” in J.S. Kloppenborg and S.G. Wilson (eds), Voluntary Associations in the Ancient World, London, 1996, pp. 176-85.

Idem, “The Mysteries of Mithras: A new account of their genesis,” Journal of Roman Studies 88, 1998, pp. 115-28.

Idem, “Ritual, Myth, Doctrine, and Initiation in the Mysteries of Mithras: New evidence from a cult vessel,” JRS 90, 2000, pp. 145-80.

Idem, “History into Fiction: The metamorphoses of the Mithras myths,” Ancient Narrative 1, 2001-02, pp. 283-300.

U. Bianchi ed., Mysteria Mithrae, Leiden, 1979.

Bianchi 1979a “The Religio-Historical Question of the Mysteries of Mithra,” in Bianchi ed. 1979, pp. 3-60.

J. Bidez and F. Cumont, Les Mages hellénisés, 2 vols, Paris, 1938 (repr. 1973).

A.D.H. Bivar, The Personalities of Mithra in Archaeology and Literature, New York, 1998.

M. Boyce, “Mihragān among the Irani Zoroastrians,” in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 106-18.

M. Boyce and F. Grenet, A History of Zoroastrianism , Vol. 3, Leiden, 1991.

W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, Cambridge MA, 1987.

L.A. Campbell, Mithraic Iconography and Ideology, Leiden, 1968.

M. Clauss, Cultores Mithrae: Die Anhängerschaft des Mithras-Kultes, Stuttgart, 1992.

Idem, The Roman Cult of Mithras, trans. R.L. Gordon, Edinburgh and New York, 2000.

C. Colpe, “Mithra-Verehrung, Mithras-Kult und die Existenz iranischer Mysterien,” in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 378-405.

F. Cumont, Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra, Vol. 1, Brussels, 1899.

Idem, The Mysteries of Mithra, trans. T.J. McCormack, London, 1903 (repr. New York, 1956).

Idem, “La fin du monde selon les mages occidentaux,” Revue de l’Histoire des Religions, 103, 1931, pp. 29-96.

Idem, “L’iniziazione di Nerone da parte di Tiridate d’Armenia,” Rivista di Filologia, NS 11, 1933, pp. 145-54.

Idem, “Mithra en Asie Mineure,” in Anatolian Studies in Honour of W.H. Buckler, Manchester, 1939, pp. 67-76.

Idem, “The Dura Mithraeum,” ed. and trans. E.D. Francis, in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 151-214.

A. de Jong, Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature, Leiden, 1997.

F.K. Dörner, Kommagene, Antike Welt Sondernummer 1975.

Idem, “Mithras in Kommagene,” in Duchesne-Guillemin, ed. 1978 (see below), pp. 123-33.

S.B. Downey, “Syrian Images of Mithras Tauroctonos,” in Duchesne-Guillemin ed. 1978, pp. 135-49.

H.J.W. Drijvers, “Mithra at Hatra?” in Duchesne-Guillemin, ed., 1978, pp. 151-86.

J. Duchesne-Guillemin, “Ahriman et le dieu suprême dans les mystères de Mithra,” Numen 2, 1955, pp. 190-5.

Idem, “Aion et le léontocéphalique, Mithra et Ahriman,” La Nouvelle Klio 10-12, 1958-62, pp. 91-8.

Idem, La religion de l’Iran ancien, Paris, 1962.

J. Duchesne-Guillemin ed., Études Mithiaques, Leiden, 1978.

Idem, 1978a “Iran and Greece in Commagene,” in Duchesne-Guillemin ed. 1978, pp. 187-99.

E.D. Francis, “Plutarch’s Mithraic Pirates,” in Cumont 1975, pp. 207-10.

I. Gershevitch, The Avestan Hymn to Mithra, Cambridge, 1959.

Idem, Die Sonne das Beste,” in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 68-89.

G. Gnoli, “Sol Persice Mithra,” in Bianchi ed. 1979, pp. 725-40.

R.L. Gordon, “Mithraism and Roman Society: Social factors in the explanation of religious change in the Roman empire,” Religion 2, 1972, pp. 92-121.

Idem, “Franz Cumont and the Doctrines of Mithraism,” in Hinnells, ed., 1975, pp. 215-48.

Idem, “The Date and Significance of CIMRM 593,” JMS 2, 1978, pp. 148-74* (* = reprinted in Gordon 1996). Gordon 1980a, “Reality, Evocation, and Boundary in the Mysteries of Mithras,” JMS 3, 1980 pp. 19-99*. Gordon 1980b, “Panelled Complications,” JMS 3, 1980, pp. 200-27*.

Idem, “Who worshipped Mithras?” Journal of Roman Archaeology 7, 1994, pp. 459-74.

R. L. Gordon, Image and Value in the Graeco-Roman World: Studies in Mithraism and religious art, Aldershot UK, 1996.

L.H. Gray, The Foundations of the Iranian Religions, Bombay, 1926.

J.R. Hinnells, ed., Mithraic Studies, 2 vols (consecutive pagination), Manchester, 1975.

Idem, 1975a, “Reflections on the Bull-Slaying Scene,” in Hinnells, ed., 1975, pp. 290-312.

Idem, 1975b, “Reflections on the Lion-Headed Figure in Mithraism,” in Monumentum H.S. Nyberg, Acta Iranica, Ser. 2, Vol. 1, Leiden, pp. 333-69.

Idem, “The Iconography of Cautes and Cautopates,” JMS 1, 1976, pp. 36-67.

J.R. Hinnells ed., Studies in Mithraism, Rome, 1994.

S. Insler, “A New Interpretation of the Bull-Slaying Motif,” in M.B. de Boer and T.A. Edridge eds, Hommages à Maarten J. Vermaseren, Leiden, 1978, pp. 519-38.

B. Jacobs, Die Herkunft und Entstehung der römischen Mithrasmysterien: Überlegungen zur Rolle des Stifters und zu den astronomischen Hintergründen der Kultlegende, Konstanz, 1999.

Idem, “Die Religionspolitik des Antiochus I. von Kommagene,” in Wagner ed. 2000, pp. 45-9.

J.P. Kane, “The Mithraic Cult Meal in its Greek and Roman Environment,” in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 313-51.

P.G. Kreyenbroek, “Mithra and Ahreman in Iranian Cosmogonies,” in Hinnells ed. 1994, pp. 175-82.

I.F. Legge, “The Lion-Headed God of the Mithraic Mysteries,” Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, 34, 1912, pp. 125-42; 37, 1915, 151-62.

W. Liebeschuetz, “The Expansion of Mithraism among the Religious Cults of the Second Century,” in Hinnells ed. 1994, pp. 195-216.

B. Lincoln, “Mithra(s) as Sun and Savior,” in U. Bianchi and M.J. Vermaseren eds., La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell’Impero Romano, Leiden, 1982, pp. 505-26.

H. Lommel, “Mithra und das Stieropfer,” Paideuma 3, 1949, pp. 207-18.

Idem, “Die Sonne das Schlechteste?” Oriens 15, 1962, pp. 360-73.

L.H. Martin, “Reflections on the Mithraic Tauroctony as Cult Scene,” in Hinnells ed. 1994, pp. 217-228.

R. Merkelbach, Mithras, Königstein/Ts., 1984.

R. Pettazzoni, “The Monstrous Figure of Time in Mithraism,” in Essays in the History of Religions, trans. H.J. Rose, Leiden, 1954.

I. Roll, “The Mysteries of Mithras in the Roman Orient,” JMS 2, 1977, pp. 18-52.

H. Schmeja, Iranisches und Griechisches in den Mithrasmysterien, Innsbruck, 1975.

A. Schütte-Maischatz and E. Winter, “Kultstätten der Mithrasmysterien in Doliche,” in Wagner ed. 2000, pp. 93-99.

M. Schwartz, “Cautes and Cautopates, the Mithraic Torchbearers,” in Hinnells ed. 1975, pp. 406-23.

E. Schwertheim, Mithras: Seine Denkmäler und sein Kult, Antike Welt Sondernummer 1979.

G. Sfameni Gasparro, “Il mitraismo …,” in Bianchi ed. 1979, pp. 299-384.

S. Shaked, “Mihr the Judge,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 2, 1980, pp. 1-31.

R. Turcan, “Le sacrifice mithriaque: innovations de sens et de modalités,” Entretiens sur l’antiquité classique (Fondation Hardt) 27, 1981, pp. 341-80.

Idem, Mithra et le mithriacisme, Paris, 2000.

D. Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, New York, 1989.

M. J. Vermaseren, Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae, 2 vols, The Hague, 1956-60.

Idem, Mithra, ce dieu mystérieux., trans. M. Léman and L. Gilbert, Paris, 1960 (English translation by T. and V. Megaw, Mithras, the Secret God, London, 1963).

Idem, Mithriaca I: The Mithraeum at S. Maria Capua Vetere, Leiden, 1971.

R. Vollkommer, “Mithras,” Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae 6.1, pp. 583-626 (text), 6.2, pp. 325-68 (plates), 1992.

J. Wagner, “Dynastie und Herrscherkult in Kommagene,” Istanbuler Mitteilungen 33, 1983, pp. 177-224.

J. Wagner ed., Gottkönige am Euphrat: Neue Ausgrabungen und Forschungen in Kommagene, Mainz, 2000.

Wagner 2000a = “Die Könige von Kommagene und ihr Herrscherkult,” in Wagner ed. 2000, pp. 11-25.

H. Waldmann, Der Kommagenische Mazdaismus, Tübingen, 1991.

M. Weiss, Als Sonne Verkant — Mithras, Osterburken, 1996.

Idem, “Mithras, der Nachthimmel: Eine Dekodierung der römischen Mithras-Kultbilder nit Hilfe des Awesta,” Traditio, 53, 1998, pp. 1-36.

L.M. White, Building God’s House in the Roman World: Architectural Adaptation among Pagans, Jews, and Christians, Baltimore, 1990.

G. Widengren, Die Religionen Irans, Stuttgart, 1965.

Idem, “The Mithraic Mysteries in the Greco-Roman World, with special regard to their Iranian background,” Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Anno 363, Quad. 76, 1966, pp. 433-55.

Idem, “Reflections on the Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries,” in Perennitas: Studi in honore di Angelo Brelich, Rome, 1980.

S. Wikander, “Études sur les mystères de Mithras,” Vetenskapssocieteten i Lund, Årsbok 1951, pp. 5-56.

E. Will, Le relief cultuel gréco-romain, Paris, 1955.

Idem, “Origine et nature du Mithriacisme,” in Duchesne-Guillemin ed. 1978, pp. 527-36.

R.C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, London, 1961.

S. Zwirn, “The Intention of Biographical Narration on Mithraic Cult Images,” Word and Image 5, 1989, pp. 2-18.




Ehsan Yarshater Petition: Objection to Princeton’s selection of “Pourdavoud Chair in pre-modern Persia”

Professor Ehsan Yarshater has initiated a petition in objection to Princeton University’s selection of “Pourdavoud Chair in pre-modern Persia”. The news items below was posted by Payvand News.  Kindly note that excepting the first photo, the other three pictures and captions did not appear in the original Payvand News report.

Dr. Mohamad Ala (Recipient of Grand Prix Film Italia Award) has made the following revelation on December 14, 2013:


A little research shows that the person behind this agenda is Professor Dimitri Gutas of Yale, who invented the term Greco-Arabian for scholars such as Farabi, Khwarazmi, Ebne Sina etc. to deny their Persianness. Van Bladel happens to have studied with him.


To be delivered to Christopher L. Eisgruber, President, Princeton University, David P. Dobkin, Dean of the Faculty, Princeton University, Mrs. Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani, and Marc Beissinger, Professor of Politics; Chair of the Search Committee for the Pourdavoud Chair in Pre-Modern Persia, Princeton University

Bijan-and-Sharmin-Mossavar-RahmaniPrinceton alumni Bijan and Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani created a center for Iran and Persian Gulf studies with a $10 million gift to the University (Photo by Steve Freeman – posted in Payvand News).

Objection by the International community of Iranian Studies to the selection of a scholar of Greco-Arabic, to the Pourdavoud Chair in pre-modern Persia at Princeton University.


President Christopher L. Eisgruber

Office of the President

1 Nassau Hall Princeton University

Princeton, NJ 08544

December 3, 2013

Dear President Eisgruber,

The community of scholars in Iranian Studies was delighted when Mr. and Mrs. Mossavar-Rahmani endowed a chair for Iranian Studies at Princeton University. Their delight was increased by the chair being named after Ebrahim Pourdavoud, a great Iranian scholar who pioneered Zoroastrian Studies in that country and translated the entire Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians, into Persian, while providing ample commentaries for it. He was an outstanding patriot dedicated to reviving the ancient heritage of Iran.

The hope of scholars of Iranian Studies had been that the chair’s naming would be indicative of its focusing on the pre-Islamic culture and history of Iran, when Iranians gave rise to the Zoroastrian religion, and three major dynasties, namely, the Achaemenian, the Parthian, and the Sasanian, emerged. The study of this period has been recently weakened by the demise of several scholars who were regretfully not replaced in the same field. It was thus greatly hoped that the chair named after Pourdavoud, who personified the Iranian pre-Islamic history and culture more than anyone else, would help restore the balance, and the Pourdavoud Chair would be held by a scholar specializing in ancient Iran.

The scholar who has been suggested by the Selection Committee, good scholar as he may be, has been trained in Greco-Arabic and the great majority of his publications concern these two fields rather than Iranian languages and culture. To allow a chair named after Pourdavoud, who spent all his life teaching and writing about Zoroastrianism and the pre-Islamic culture of Iran, to be held by someone whose formal academic training has been in Arabic, Syriac, and Greek, and who by and large is unknown in the field, is considered a slap in the face of Iranian Studies, the community at large, and the memory of Pourdavoud.

We hope that a careful consideration of the purpose of the Chair and its name would persuade the Selection Committee to make a choice that would not contradict the aims of the endowed position, weaken the field of Iranian Studies, and discredit the legacy of Ebrahim Pourdavoud.

I have spoken to several colleagues in the field of Iranian Studies and I may report that they all agree with me. Some of them will be writing to you, others will be endorsing this letter.

With kind regards,

Ehsan Yarshater

Director, Center for Iranian Studies, Columbia University;

Hagop Kevorkian Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies;

Editor, Encyclopaedia Iranica;

Editor, A History of Persian Literature

Center for Iranian Studies

Columbia University in the City of New York

450 Riverside Drive, No. 4

New York, N.Y. 10027-6821

Tel: (212) 851-9161

Fax: (212) 749-9524


Cc: Mr. and Mrs. Mossavar-Rahmani;

Professor David P. Dobkin, Dean of the Faculty.

SIGN PETITION HERE (over 1500 have signed the petition and the list is growing)

Azerbaijan Republic acknowledges Historical Legacy of Polo Game

One enduring legacy of the former Soviet Union is its school of falsifying history. That same school of historical falsification now continues to endure in one the former Soviet Union’s satellite regions, the modern Republic of Azerbaijan (known as Arran and the Khanates until 1918). Nazrin Mehdiyeva, a historian from the Republic of Azerbaijan, has noted that:

“…the myth [of a North versus South Azerbaijan] was invented under the Soviets for the purpose of breaking Azerbaijan’s historical links with Iran. To make this historical revisionism more acceptable, the Soviet authorities falsified documents and re-wrote history books. As a result, the myth became deeply ingrained in the population [of the Republic of Azerbaijan-known as Arran and the Khanates until 1918] … as part of the rhetoric” (Mehdiyeva, N.,2003, Azerbaijan and its foreign policy dilemma. Asian Affairs, 34, pp. 271-285, cited from p.280).

A post-Soviet era propaganda map produced in Baku. The above map promotes the false notion that a “Greater Azerbaijan” was divided in two by Russia and Iran in 1828 [Click above map to view the official Baku establishment narrative]. Historically false claims such as these were first promoted by the pan-Turkists of the early 20th century which were then propagated by the former Soviet Union and the Communists, notably Joseph Stalin and Mirjaafar Baguirov. Unfortunately the legacy of historical amnesia has continued to persist at the official level in the Caucasian state.

The Baku administration has based its falsification of history by appropriating the historical legacy of its neighbors, especially Iran as well as Armenia. In mid-September 2013 for example, the Baku establishment replaced the Persian-inscribed tiles at Nezami mausoleum – for more on this topic consult: Lornejad, S., & Doostzadeh, A. (2012). On the Modern Politicization of the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. Yerevan Series for Oriental Studies (Volume I), Edited by Garnik S. Asatrian. Yerevan: Caucasian Center for Iranian Studies. (pdf) – NOTE: This is the Official Digitized Version by Victoria Arakelova; with errata fixed from the print edition. False Statue in RomeBaku Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov at Nizami Ganjavi monument at Rome’s Villa Borghese park in early February 2013. The Aliev Foundation  funded the installation of this statue as part of the initiative of falsifying Iranian historical icons (see Petition to correct the historical identity of the statue in Rome). Ganjavi composed his poetry in Persian and wrote extensively on the Iranian cultural realm.

The very name “Azerbaijan” had never been applied to the region of the modern-day Republic – this was first proposed by pan-Turkist elements of the Musavat movement on May, 28, 1918 – prior to that date, the only historical reference to Az/a/rbaijan was to the historical province located in northwest Iran. The succeeding Soviets who followed the Musavat regime in Baku retained that incorrect name for the region. As noted by Barthold:

The name “Azerbaijan” for the Republic of Azarbaijan (Soviet Azerbaijan) was selected on the assumption that the stationing of such a republic would lead to that entity and its Iranian counterpart to become one…this is the reason why the name “Az/a/rbaijan” was selected (for Arran)…anytime when it is necessary to select a name that refers to the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan, we should/can select the name Arran …” (Quote from Bartold, Soviet academic, politician and foreign office official. See Bartold, V.V., Sochineniia, Tom II, Chast I, Izdatelstvo Vostochnoi Literary, p.217, 1963).

Ata Yurduتبلیغات ضد ایرانی در کتابهای درسی رژیم حاکم بر باکو!-[Anti-Iranian propaganda in school textbooks printed by the current regime of Baku]. History books are being re-written in Baku and exported to major Western libraries and universities in the effort to undermine Iranian history.

Most recently the Baku establishment had contacted UNESCO to consider the game of polo as an “Azerbaiiani” sport. For more see: Fars News (October 28, 2013): Iran urges UNESCO to reject Republic of Azerbaijan’s claim on ancient Polo game. Polo is the one of the world’s oldest known competitive team sports, in which players use mallets on horseback to shoot a ball through the opposing team’s goal post. The game continues to be intensely popular in modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In fact, as noted by Mehdi Hojjat (Deputy Director ICHHTO) Afghanistan, Pakistan and India who have claims to the legacy of Polo, have also objected against the Republic of Azerbaijan’s application to UNESCO. As noted by Hojjat:

 “We will tell UNESCO that the traditional game is a common element that should be not registered exclusively in the name of a single country.”

Polo_game_from_poem_Guy_u_ChawganA Persian miniature made in 1546, during the reign of the Safavid dynasty of Iran (1501-1722). This artwork is of the Persian poem Guy-o Chawgân (“Ball and Polo-mallet”) depicting Iranian nobles engaged in the game of polo, which has been played in Iran for thousands of years (Picture Source: Public Domain).

The efforts of Mehdi Hojjat have borne success and the truth of history has prevailed – see Tehran Times based report Payvand News Report (December 5, 2013): below:

Azerbaijan concedes chogan is not an Azeri game: Iranian official

Below is the full report provided by Payvand News – readers are encouraged to read further comments further below after the Payvand News report:


An official of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Organization (CHTHO) has said that Azerbaijan has officially accepted the fact that chogan (polo) is not an Azeri game.

ICHTHO’s Department for Registration of Natural, Historical and Intangible Heritage Director Farhad Nazari made the remarks on Tuesday after UNESCO registered chovqan (the Azeri word for chogan) as a traditional Karabakh horse-riding game for the Republic of Azerbaijan on its List of Intangible Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding during the 8th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The efforts made by the Iranian delegation at the meeting convinced Azerbaijan to officially acknowledge verbally and in writing the fact that chogan is not an Azeri game,” he said.

He added that the efforts also led to the modification of Azerbaijan’s file on chogan in the meeting.

In the file, Iran’s West Azarbaijan Province and East Azarbaijan Province had been referred to as “south Azerbaijan”, but this reference was removed when, during the meeting, it faced opposition from the Iranian delegation.

As a result, Iran also can to apply for registration of the Iranian chogan on the list. In addition, UNESCO experts in the meeting agreed that chogan would be registered as a multinational element on the UNESCO list,” Nazari stated.

ICHTHO Director Mohammad-Ali Najafi asked UNESCO in October to register chogan as a multinational element on its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

ICHTHO Deputy Director Mehdi Hojjat previously said that Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, along with Iran, have a claim on the game.

The 8th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage will continue in Baku until December 7.

The Paach ceremony, a corn-veneration ritual celebrated in San Pedro Sacatepequez in Guatemala was also on the List of Intangible Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

The Committee is also scheduled to review four other nominations for the list and 30 nominations for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.


In summary, this has been a very positive development and shows once again that with reference to proper historical sources combined with an academic and objective approach, the truth of history is safeguarded.

So what about the origins of Polo? There certainly is diversity of opinion, however reputable mainstream academia simply does not place the origin and invention of polo in the southeastern Caucasian territory north of the Araxes River (known as “Azerbaijan” since 1918). There are suggestions that this was invented in Iran and/or by Iranian peoples in antiquity, examples being:

  • Goel and Goel (1988, p. 318) who attribute this to the Persians in 2000 BCE (Goel, R. G. & Goel, V., 1988. Encyclopaedia of Sports and Games. Vikas Publishing House).
  • Craig (2002, p.157) who attributes the origins of polo to the Medes in the 100s CE (Craig, S., 2002. Sports and Games of the Ancients. Greenwood Publishing Group)

Singh (2007, p. 10) however challenges the Iranian origin thesis by highlighting Polo’s possible origins in China and India for example (Singh, J., 2002. Polo in India. London: New Holland).

Meydan Naghshe Jahan-Isfahan-Iran[Click to Enlarge] The Safavid era Meydan e Nagshe Jahan in modern-day isfahan which was a major venue for the game of polo in Iran (Picture Source: Public Domain).

Polo is indeed an international sport, whose origins overlap several modern nations in Western and Central Asia. The Republic of Azerbaijan is one of the heirs to this tradition, especially given its long-standing cultural and historical ties to Iran until 1828.  The south Caucasus region such as Armenia and modern-day Azerbaijan Republic (known as Arran and the Khanates until 1918) were introduced to Polo and equestrian sports by  thousands of years of cultural interaction with the Iranian realms.

Polo is referred to as “Chovgun” in the Republic of Azarbaijan – this term is actually derived from the Persian word “Chowgan” which means polo stick. It is possible that the term “Chowgan“, may have entered Western lore as “Chicane” (French), “Choca” (Spanish and Portuguese), “Schaggun” (German) or “Chekan” (Russian). On the other hand, the name of “Polo” is believed to have been derived from the Tibetan word “Puulu” which means ball (Crego, 2003, p.23 – Crego, R., 2003, Sports and Games of the 18th and 19th centuries, Greenwood Publishing Group). Etymology however is  insufficient at academically “proving” a Tibetan, Iranian or other (Indian, Chinese, etc.) origin for Polo – but it certainly is suggestive of an east-west cultural dynamic.

Ardashir1[Click to Enlarge] The founder of the Sassanian dynasty (224-651 CE) Ardashir I (180-242 CE) depicted in a lance-joust scene at Firuzabad. Ardashir and the Sassanians in general, were greatly fond of Polo (Picture source: Photo taken by Farrokh in August 2001 and shown in Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at The University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

While the questions of origins remained debated, it is generally agreed that Polo has been an integral aspect of the culture and history of Iran since pre-Islamic times. Below are some excerpts from the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

A game of Central Asian origin, polo was first played in Persia (Iran) at dates given from the 6th century bc to the 1st century ad. Polo was at first a training game for cavalry units, usually the king’s guard or other elite troops. To the warlike tribesmen, who played it with as many as 100 to a side, it was a miniature battle. In time polo became a Persian national sport played extensively by the nobility. Women as well as men played the game, as indicated by references to the queen and her ladies engaging King Khosrow II Parvīz and his courtiers in the 6th century ad. From Persia the game spread to Arabia, then to Tibet (the English word polo is the Balti word meaning “ball”), to China, and to Japan. In China (910) the death of a favoured relative in a game prompted Emperor A-pao-chi to order the beheading of all surviving players. Polo was introduced into India by the Muslim conquerors in the 13th century…

Polo-Tang Dynasty[Click to Enlarge] Chinese Polo players of the 8th century CE during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) (Picture Source:

Despite the aforementioned official efforts with UNESCO and negotiations with the Republic of Azerbaijan by Iranian authorities, Dr. Mohammad Reza Said-Abadi (دکترمحمدرضا سعیدآبادی), the chair of Iran’s commission to UNESCO ( دبیرکل کمیسیون ملی یونسکو ) has contradicted his Iranian colleagues by stating:

مهم این نیست که قدمت و ریشه چوگان در کجای این منطقه است و توسط کجا به ثبت رسیده است بلکه مهم این نکته است که این بازی و مهارت در کجا فعال و به خطر افتاده است ،بنابراین اگر بخواهیم در چارچوب حقوقی صحبت کنیم با وجود اینکه قدمت چوگان در ایران است اما این اشتباه است که بگوییم آذربایجان نباید آن را به ثبت برساند و چوگان مال ماست! درباره اینکه ما زودتر باید این را به ثبت می‌رساندیم سؤال دیگری است

Dr Said-AbadiTranslation: It is not important which region of this locale is identified with the antiquity and roots of Chowgan [Polo] or who has registered this [with UNESCO] – what is important is where this game and its skills/expertise have been endangered, therefore if we wish to speak in legal terms even-though the antiquity of Chowgan [Polo] is in Iran, it is wrong to say that [Republic of Azerbaijan] should not register Chowgan [Polo], because Chowgan [Polo] belongs to us! As to whether we should have registered this sooner is another question…(Picture Source:

First, as noted previously by Mehdi Hojjat (Deputy Director ICHHTO, Iran’s official position is not that Polo is exclusively Iranian. Instead Hojjat’s argument is that Polo is a shared heritage not exclusive to just one country. Second, Mr. Said-Reza appears to be stating that “it’s ok” to distort history and register this with UNESCO.   Perhaps it may be conjectured that Dr. Mohammad Reza Said-Abadi is speaking from an ideological standpoint  consistent with pan-Islamism which downplays the history and legacy of Iran in favor of the wider pan-Muslim dynamic. Much like the former “pan-internationalist” Communists of the Soviet Union, all forms of “national” history are dismissed as “bourgeois”.

Jamal Abdul Nasser’s reference to the Persian Gulf on August 30, 1951

The Breibart news network provided the following report on November 25, 2013: Arab parliamentarians collectively withdraw from NATO PA session in protest of use of ‘Persian Gulf’. The report stated the following:

The delegations of the U.A.E. Federal National Council (FNC) and the parliaments of Arab and Gulf countries on Monday withdrew from the second session of a joint seminar organized by Parliamentary Assembly of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO PA) in protest of the organizers’ designation of the ‘Persian Gulf’ instead of ‘Arabian Gulf’…In response to the collective withdrawal of Arab delegations, the organizers of the NATO PA meeting had to change the name to ‘Arabian Gulf’ and to apologize to the Arab delegations for using the other name.”

This is a notable event as the distinguished Arab statesmen (and their equally distinguished Western hosts) are in contradiction of historical facts and international legal agreements:

1) The United Nations has twice recognized the legality of the historical name “Persian Gulf” (UNAD 311/March 5, 1971 and UNLA 45.8.2 (c) on August 10, 1984)

2) Arab countries (including the countries at the NATO conference on November 25, 2013) have signed both of the UN documents.

UN Editorial Directive 1994[Click to Enlarge] United Nations Editorial Directive issued on August 18, 1994 which clearly notes of the legality and correct use of the name “Persian Gulf”.

3) There are historical maps and primary references from antiquity well into the 20th century (especially Arabian sources) that attest to the historically correct name of the Persian Gulf (see also Persian Gulf On-line).

Equally notable is the fact that the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser (1918-1970) himself referred to the Persian Gulf by its correct name as seen below…

استفاده جمال عبدالناصر از واژه «خلیج فارس » در یک نامه

Below is a document (originally appeared in the Iraqi Al_Jewar website) forwarded to which shows that the late pan-Arabist, Jamal Abdul Nasser (1918-1970), referred to the Persian Gulf by its correct name on August 30, 1951:

Telegram-Nasser-PGNote by written  by the late President of Egypt, jamal Abdul Nasser (1918-1970) – this was transmitted by Egypt’s Cable and Wireless Company Limited on August 30, 1951.

Known for his honesty, humility, courage and integrity of character, Nasser was a tragic victim of the ideology of pan-Arabism by his advocacy of changing the historical name of the  Persian Gulf. Some have speculated that Nasser may have been partly motivated to do so due to his dislike of the late Shah of Iran.

gamal-abdul-nasserGamal Abdul Nasser (1918-1970) (Source: Famous People).

Ironically, despite decades of ideology and the re-writing of textbooks (not to mention to participation of select Western academics in historical rewriting), changing history has proven to be an exceedingly difficult task, as seen in the image below.

Cairo-StreetThe street plaque “Sharraa Khalij al-Faris” (Persian Gulf Street) in Cairo, Egypt (Source: posted in Persian Gulf On-line).

Below is a map published by the Saudi Arabian government in 1952 which clearly indicates the body of water known historically as the Persian Gulf by its correct name. Arabian and Islamic historical sources consistently attest to to the correct appellation of the body of water known as the Persian Gulf in history.

Saudi Arabian map of the Persian Gulf in 1952 (Source: posted in Persian Gulf On-line).

The map is all the more remarkable as it was published at the time of the coup d’etat of pan-Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdul Nasser, who at the beginning of his career, always referred to the Persian Gulf by its correct name.

Nasser however became wholly enthused with pan-Arabist philosophy and began to apply the term “Arabian Gulf” from the mid-late 1950s onward. It is worth noting that it was Sir Charles Belgrave who first invented the term “Arab Gulf” and attempted to change the name of the Persian Gulf. Belgrave was the British advisor to the Arab leadership of Bahrain in the 1930s. Belgrave proposed his “Arabian Gulf” invention to the British Foreign and Colonial offices in London, where the project was quietly dropped. Belgrave however had succeeded in a way; he had set the stage for future Iranian and Arab friction.

Sir Charles BelgraveShaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa (at left) and Sir Charles Belgrave (right) (Picture Source: Flicker) who was England’s Government Advisor to Bahrain. It was Belgrave who first pioneered the concept of changing the name of the Persian Gulf. The motives for such revisionist schemes are not clear, but it is possible that Belgrave was calculating that such actions would create frictions between the Iranians and the Arabs.

The British themselves soon began to see the benefits of propagating the “Arab Gulf” project, especially after Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh took control of Iran’s oil industry from the British in the 1951.

Different name – same management: Anglo-Iranian Oil Company or AIOC (Anglo-Persian Oil Company until 1935) changes its title to British Petroleum (BP) in 1954 (at left).  One year before its name change (1953) the petroleum company had been instrumental in cooperating with the CIA to topple Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh (1882-1967) (at right) – for more information consult Iran at War: 1500-1988, 2011, pp. 297-303. At present, BP has major oil interests in the Caucasus to the north of Iran.

Furious at this perceived outrage, Roderic Fenwich Owen, a British secret agent linked to British Petroleum (originally Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) saw the potential of using “Arab Gulf” as a weapon against Iran. Owen eventually published and promoted a book called “The Golden Bubble of the Arabian Gulf: A Documentary” (London: Collins, 1957). The British were not going to be ejected from the Persian Gulf without a fight – and what better way than the famous “Parthian shot” of attacking the heritage, history and civilization legacy of Persia herself. In a sense, the usage of “Arab Gulf” for the body of war known historically as Persian Gulf was first successfully popularized by Owen, two decades after Belgrave tried (unsuccessfully) to do so.

Owen and SheikhRoderick Fenwich Owen (right) and the Sheikh of Ras al-Kheima (left) circa late 1950s (Source: Daily Mail). Owen’s application of “Arab Gulf” to the historical Persian Gulf was not protested by the British and Western academics/historians. There are in fact Western professors active within Iranian Studies programs who have written books in support of the Arab Gulf thesis (see Daniel Potts further below). Similarly, when Spiegel magazine and the Daily Telegraph attacked the legacy of Cyrus the Great and even insulted the people of Iran, no professors of Achaemenid studies raised any protests (see for example

There are a select number of professors within Iranian Studies who have assisted the name change of the Persian Gulf (see for example below):

Potts-Arabian GulfIranian Studies Professor Daniel Potts of the University of Sydney (top left) and his textbook “The Arabian Gulf in Antiquity” (top right) which is being used as a standard reference in Arabian universities such as the University of Sharjah (bottom image).  In the above book, Potts argues that the Persian Gulf was known as Arab Gulf since pre-Islamic times. To his credit, Potts has seemingly retracted from this and now acknowledges that the Persian Gulf is the correct historical name. However his book continues to be distributed.