Dr. Ken R. Vincent: Zoroaster – The First Universalist

The article below by Dr. Ken R. Vincent discusses the ancient prophet Zoroaster and his impact on human theology and the world’s major religions.

Dr Ken R VincentDr. Ken R. Vincent’s writings all contain a strong undercurrent of Universalist thought. In his book The Magi: From Zoroaster to the Three Wise Men, he compares the religion of the Magi (Zoroastrianism) to Christianity and shows the parallels of Universal Restoration in both faiths. 

Kindly note that the article below contains pictures and captions that do not appear in Dr. Vincent’s original posting of the article.


1. Zoroaster, the Prophet of the Magi

Once upon a time, before wisdom was confined to books, Shamans of the “Great Spirit’ anticipated an afterlife for their peoples. But the earliest existing expression of the Universalist idea of an afterlife where God saves ALL people can be found in the revelation of Zoroaster, Prophet of the Magi. Truly, it is one of many profound influences that Zoroaster’s new religion had on the subsequent development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Known as Zoroaster by the Greeks and Zardust by the Arabs, he is properly called Zarathustra by the followers of the religion he founded. (Since he is best known in the West by the Greek name Zoroaster, that name will be used in this paper; interestingly, the Greek name “Jesus” also became favored over the Hebrew “Yeshua.”)

According to the Holy Book of the Magi, Zoroaster was born in eastern Iran and lived from about 660 BCE to 583 BCE. Like Moses (who is thought to have lived between 1600 and 1200 BCE), there is virtually no corroborative historical evidence for his life outside the religious writings. Most scholars place Zoroaster’s life earlier in history (as long ago as 1200 – 1800 BCE), mainly due to the ancient Eastern Persian language he used to compose his Hymns (Gathas).

Zoroaster’s parents were middle-class, and his father was probably a horse or camel trader as well as a priest.  He was married and had children. His major revelations occurred at age 30 after he, like Jesus, went into the wilderness to seek God. After this experience, he was inspired to say that:

God declared to me that silent meditation is the best for attaining spiritual enlightenment” (Y43.15).

The Holy Book of the Magi relates how Satan tempted him in the wilderness with a promise of a 1,000-year rule. He preached for ten years without success, after which he converted his cousin, the rest of his family, and King Vishtaspa.

The School of Athens by Raphael 1509- Zoroaster left, with star-studded globeA detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy.  Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans.
2. An Introduction to Zoroastrianism

Once Zoroastrianism was adopted by the kings of Persia, the religion spread throughout the Persian Empire. The Magi, who at that time were priests of the old pagan religion in western Iran, accepted and taught the new religion of Zoroaster; some believe that Zoroaster himself was a Magus of the old religion prior to his divine revelations. His Hymns to God (Gathas), about the length of the Gospel of Matthew, were first recited orally and eventually written into the Holy Book of the Magi (Avesta). We know that he was assassinated by a rival priest at the age of 77 years. While Zoroaster claimed no divinity for himself, later traditions created miraculous stories that were characteristically attached to persons held in high esteem in the ancient world. A fond tradition claims that Zoroaster laughed (instead of crying) at birth!

In the religion of the Magi, humanity has free will to choose between good and evil, and we are required to be active participants with God in the eventual defeat of evil. The core beliefs are often summarized succinctly in the phrase:

Good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.”

Zoroaster’s name for God is “Ahura Mazda” which means, “Lord of Life and Wisdom” or simply “Wise Lord.” This can be compared to the literal translations of the names for God in Hebrew Scriptures: “Yahweh” which means “I AM” and “Elohim” which means “God“. For Zoroaster, God is wholly good; God unconditionally and totally loves all his Creation and all humanity – always. God is not angry, jealous, or vengeful; God would never tempt humans into doing evil. We are made of the essence of God and are cherished by God. Fasting, celibacy, and the austere life have no place in the religion of the Magi; one is simply directed to BE LIKE GOD – Do Good and Oppose Evil. (Christians may recall that in Matthew 5:48, Jesus also commands us to be like our heavenly Father.) Because all creation is sacred, it is also humanity’s duty to protect creation and not defile it or pollute it. (In a very real way, Zoroaster was the first environmentalist!)

Zarathustra-Tomb-China-2Archaeologists in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region have discovered major Zoroastrian tombs, dated to over 2,500 years ago. (Caption and Photo Source: Chinanews.com). As noted in the China News report: “This is a typical wooden brazier found in the tombs. Zoroastrians would bury a burning brazier with the dead to show their worship of fire. The culture is unique to Zoroastrianism…This polished stoneware found in the tombs is an eyebrow pencil used by ordinary ladies. It does not just show the sophistication of craftsmanship here over 2,500 years ago, but also demonstrates the ancestors’ pursuit of beauty, creativity and better life, not just survival. It shows this place used to be highly civilized”. For more on this topic, see here…

God is opposed by an evil force called “The Demon of the Lie” which Zoroaster described as “that which is not and never was” — almost as if he saw the devil as a vacuum. Satan is responsible for all death, destruction, decay, and darkness. Satan has no physical presence on Earth but does have the ability to corrupt God’s creation. However, Satan is dim-witted and disorganized and can be defeated by the Good!

Pic2- ZoroasterA drawing of Zoroaster that was made by a Manichean initiate at Dura Europus (Source: Clioamuse); for more on the creed of Mani, see here…

Like Christianity, the religion of the Magi has a concept of the Holy Spirit as being the part of God that is present with us on the Earth. God is both immanent (present) and transcendent (other). It is the Holy Spirit or Mentality of God (Spenta Mainyu) that counters the Evil Spirit or Mentality (Angra Mainyu). In the words of Zoroaster:

Through his Holy Spirit
And his Sovereign mind,
Ahura Mazda will grant
Self-realization and immortality
To him whose words and deeds
Are inspired by righteousness,
Moral courage and Divine Wisdom.” (Y47.1)

3. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of God as Light

Both the ancient Magi and the modern followers of Zoroaster see God as Light, the oldest non-anthropomorphic conception of God. God is the light above us, around us, and within us. For Zoroaster, the contrast between light and darkness is always a metaphor for the conflict between Good and Evil. In speaking of the God of the Magi, the 3rd-century Greek philosopher Porphyry said:

God’s body is Light, and His Spirit Truth.”

In more modern times, Einstein saw all matter as frozen light, and physicist Stephen Hawking stated:

When you break subatomic particles down to their most elemental level, you are left with nothing but pure light.”

Sometimes observers of this religion from ancient to modern times have mistaken the Magi for fire worshippers because of the “eternal flame” present in all of their temples. However, the fire has never been worshiped; the flame of the fire represents LIGHT, their symbol for God.

Yazd-Tower of SilenceAn ancient Zoroastrian Tower of Silence in Yazd (Source: The Heritage Institute).

4. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of a Final Judgment

Concepts of the afterlife in the religion of the Magi are almost identical to those of Christianity. Joseph Campbell suspects direct borrowing of the ideas of the Magi by Dante in his vivid descriptions of a multi-layered Heaven and Hell. According to Zoroaster’s vision, each human soul is required to face judgment on the “Bridge of Judgment.” If there is a preponderance of good deeds, the soul is allowed to pass over a wide bridge to Heaven on which the good deeds meet him or her in the form of a beautiful 15-year-old girl. The soul of the saved asks:

Who are thou, for I have never seen a young girl on Earth more beautiful or fair than thee? In answer, the young girl replies, “I am no girl, but thy own good deeds.”

If the human soul contains a preponderance of evil deeds, a young girl “who has no semblance of a young girl” comes to meet it, and the soul of the damned says:

Who are thou? I have never seen a wench on Earth more ill-favored and hideous than thee.” In reply, the ill-favored wench says, “I am no wench, but I am thy deeds – hideous deeds – evil thoughts, evil words, evil deeds, and evil religion.”

Unlike Dante whose Limbo is for the righteous who are not Christians, Limbo in the religion of the Magi is for those whose good deeds and bad deeds are in equal balance. The Hell of the Magi is not eternal but only a temporary detour while you “shape up” and the evil in you is purified. Zoroastrians, like other Universalists, believe God is too good to sentence humans to Eternal Hell. Some modern minimalist scholars dispute the fact that Zoroaster was a Universalist and say that Universal Salvation came into Zoroastrianism later; however, as Mary Boyce points out in Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism, the religion was definitely Universalist many years before Christianity when the 4th century B.C. Greek, Theopompus stated that:

Zoroaster prophesies that some day there will be a resurrection of all the dead. In the end Hades shall perish and men (people) shall be happy …”

Baku Fire Temple-UNESCOThe main fire altar at the Atash-kade (Zoroastrian Fire-Temple) of Baku in the Republic of Azerbaijan (known as Arran and the Khanates until 1918) (Picture Source: Panoramio). This site is now registered with UNESCO as a world heritage site. For more on Zoroastrian and Mithraic temples in the Caucasus, see here…

5. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of Angelic Beings

In the religion of the Magi, the Archangels – called the “Bounteous Immortals” – are very powerful, as you can tell from their names: “The Good Mind“, “Righteousness“, “Divine Power“, “Universal Love“, “Perfection“, and “Immortality.” Interestingly, half are male and half are female. They were created by God and with the Angels serve as a link of communication between humanity and God. Additionally, they are manifestations of the characteristics present in men and women of good will – those that each of us needs to integrate into our lives in order to serve God. For instance, good men and women manifest the characteristics of the Archangel of the Good Mind, while evil people are beset with the Evil Mind. The Archangels have been called deities erroneously by some scholars. Some scholars maintain that Zoroaster’s original conception was that of highly abstract Archangels which represent mere aspects of God. Tradition and, more importantly, followers of the modern Zoroastrian religion interpret them literally as Archangels. The Magi also believed that there were Earth Angels of which the prophet Zoroaster was one. Dr. J. J. Modi sees parallels between the Christian angel Michael and the Zoroastrian angel Mithra, as well as between the Christian angel Gabriel and the Zoroastrian angel Sraosha.

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). For more on Mithras, see here…

The name of Mithra may sound familiar to Westerners because of a heretical cult during Roman times that extended as far west as England. This “mystery religion” (which allowed only men) worshipped Mithra as a god, and its popularity is said to have rivaled the early Christian movement. Curiously, Mithra’s birthday is December 25, a date adopted later by the Christian Church for Christmas in its effort to discourage participation in this pagan celebration. Mithra is still worshipped as a god in India. However, in the orthodox religion of the Magi, Zoroastrians consider Mithra “only” an Angel and not even an Archangel! Sophy Burnham, author of A Book of Angels, credits Zoroaster with the development of the concept of angels. Before their contact with the Magi, the Hebrews often refer to the messengers of God as simply men (as in Genesis 18 when three men, one of whom is God, appear to Abraham). After their contact with the Magi, Judaism and later Christianity and Islam have a well-developed system of Archangels and Angels.

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. For more on Mithras, see here…

6. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of Universalism

Both a spiritual afterlife of the soul and a physical resurrection at the end of time are concepts of Zoroaster. Humanity can fall prey to evil, but after “purification” in Hell, ALL are saved at the end of time. When the victory over evil is complete, the end of time will come where nothing ever dies or decays, and there is no darkness – only LIGHT.

In the spirit of Universalism, Zoroaster tells of future Saviors possibly coming from different nations:

Indeed such shall be the Saviors

Of the countries who follow

The call of Duty by good thoughts

Because of their deeds

Inspired by righteousness

In accord with your command

O Mazda, they certainly have been marked out

As smiters of wrath.” (Y48.12)

Historical JesusThe historical Jesus as reconstructed by modern anthropologists (see BBC Report…). 

7. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of Dualistic Good Versus Evil

One ongoing issue in Zoroastrianism present since antiquity is the debate between those who interpret Zoroaster’s understanding of God as “ethical dualism” (monotheism) and those who maintain the concept of “cosmic dualism” (God and Satan co-exist). Although Zoroaster was very sure that God is wholly good and that man is free to choose good or evil, his teachings were unclear about the source of evil in the world. That is, if God the Creator is all good, where does evil come from? Those supporting ethical dualism (monotheism) would answer that evil originates in the mind of humanity and is the byproduct of creation; because the Universe is incomplete and unfinished, there is a capacity to alter the status quo. That is why humanity must be active in helping God to overcome evil. The Zoroastrian scholar and modern-day believer, Prof. Farhang Mehr, sees Zoroaster as a pure monotheist who taught ethical dualism rather than cosmic dualism.

Throughout the long history of this religion, the concept of cosmic dualism has been more widely accepted; that is, a belief that good comes from God and that evil comes from Satan, although God is Eternal and Satan is not. Interestingly, this same concept of cosmic dualism is used throughout the New Testament by both Jesus and St. Paul, although the monotheism of Christianity is never doubted. Satan is a very real and powerful being to Jesus; he is tempted by Satan in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). He asks:

How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (Matthew 12:25-26, Mark 3:23-24, Luke 11:17-18).

In Ephesians 6:11, Paul writes:

Put on the whole armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil.” (Ephesians 6:11)

Ravenna3WiseMenThe Three Wise Men as depicted in Ravenna (Sant’Apollinare Nuovo), Italy (Source: Public Domain). Note the European depiction of Partho-Sassanian Iranian dress, caps and cloaks. 


The proponents of cosmic dualism feel comfortable with modern-day “Process Theology” which expresses the idea that God cannot bestow free will and remain all powerful. A concept in modern physics that may reinforce the reality of cosmic dualism is that “a little chaos” is present in every atom of the Universe.

The God of the Magi is Universal, and Zoroaster was the first to proclaim this truth. In the words of the Persian (and Zoroastrian) King Darius:

I am King of all the Nations by the will of God.”

In the words of Zoroaster, God is supreme:

“When I held you in my very eyes

Then I realized you in my mind, O Mazda,

As the first and also the last for all Eternity,

As the Father of Good Thoughts,

As the Creator of Righteousness

And Lord over the actions of life.” (Y31.8)

Darius_In_ParseA relief of Darius I (r. 522–486 BCE) at Persepolis (Source: Public Domain); Darius was the third monarch of The Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE).

8. Zoroastrianism’s Influence on World Religions

Although the Persian Empire fell to Alexander (331 BCE), the Magi continued to be very influential throughout the Middle East and the Western World, and the religion of the Magi continued as the primary religion in the middle east until the Moslem conquest (642 CE). The Magi were prized as teachers of great wisdom and power, and Zoroaster remained a highly respected figure.

Of course, Zoroastrian ideas have been enormously important to subsequent religious thought. Many scholars contend that it was Zoroaster’s cursing of the Hindu gods that initiated the break between the religious approaches of the East (Hindu, Buddhism) and those of the West (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). In the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essenes, the imagery of the “Sons of Light” and “Sons of Darkness” is a direct borrowing from the Religion of the Magi. Six hundred years after the Moslem conquest, the Sufi Mystic, Attar of Nishapur, wrote:

We are the Eternal Magi, we are not Muslims.”

MagiZoroastrian magi from Kerman during the Jashne Sadeh ceremonies (Source: Heritage Institute).

The Cypress slender Minister of Wine in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a Magi. Omar Khayyam once said he wore the belt of a Magi because he was ashamed of his Islam.

Zoroaster taught that God loves us all and that, after evil is finally defeated, ALL humanity will be saved at the end of time, although those whose bad deeds outweigh their good deeds will need to be “purified” in Hell before joining God in Heaven.

The following example illustrates the views of Zoroaster concerning Universal Salvation:

If you understand these laws of happiness and pain

Which Mazda has ordained, O mortals,

(There is) a long period of punishment for the wicked

And reward for the pious

But thereafter eternal joy shall reign forever.” (Y30.11, emphasis added)

9. References

Boyce, M. (1984). Textual sources for the study of Zoroastrianism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 

Burnham, S. (1992). A book of angels: Reflections on angels past and present and true stories of how they touch our lives. Ballantine Books. 

Mehr, F. (2003). The Zoroastrian tradition: An introduction to the ancient wisdom of Zarathushtra. Mazda Pub.  

Modi, J. J. (2010). A catechism of the Zoroastrian religion. Nabu Press. 

Vincent, K. R. (1999). The Magi: From Zoroaster to the “Three Wise Men. North Richland Hills, TX: Bibal Press.

Tribute to the Late Iranian Actor Reza Beyk Imanverdi رضا بیک ایمانوردی

This article is a short tribute to the late Iranian actor رضا بیک ایمانوردی Reza Beyk Imanverdi  (1936-2003).

Beyk ImanverdiPortrait of the late Iranian actor رضا بیک ایمانوردی Reza Beyk Imanverdi (1936-2003) in the 1970s (Picture Source: WhatsUpIran). Imanverdi was an incredibly talented actor expressing his range from comedy all the way to drama, musicals and action pictures.

Imanverdi also starred in the 1960s Franco-Italian genre action movies and was popular among the European casting agencies. one notable picture was: Sedia Elettrica (The Electric Chair) (1969) – directed by Demofilo Fidani.

Imanverdi performs and sings with Jamileh in the movie Kaj Kolah Khan -كج كلاه خان- Jamileh was one of Iran’s most notable performers and dancers of the 1960s and 1970s; the song is actually sung by Iranian pop singer GooGoosh who remains a favorite in not only Iran but also in the Caucasus and Central Asia. (with special thanks to Video Markazi for originally posting this).

Imanverdi and acrtressUndated screenshot (1976?) of Imanverdi and Iranian actress (Source: Ghadimiha).

Imanverdi performs a traditional  song by Iranian singer Iraj (whose actual voice is dubbed on the above film). the song is of the shared Perso-Turkish or Persianate style in a movie entitled “معجزه” [Mojeze-Miracle]. This genre of  music can be heard not just in Iran but also in the streets of Istanbul, Turkey with Turkish lyrics.

فاتحین صحرا-Film Release.jpgImanverdi in one of his action roles in the movie«فاتحین صحرا»[Victors of the Desert] in 1971 which was later dubbed into English and released in the early 1980s as “Treasure of the Lost Desert” (Sources: Public Domain & Facebook).

Excellent documentary video by Sohrab Akhavan on Imanverdi (see Sohrab Akhavan’s works at FilmeXmedia). Note the powerful sense of optimism displayed by the man even into his later years. This clip had been produced by Sohrab Akhavan in 2002, just one year before Beyk Imanverdi passed away.

Imanverdi in later yearsImanverdi in his later years (Picture source: ActorsBiography).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe late Imanverdi’s resting place (Picture source: Elizabeth Fox).

Kate Ravilious: World’s Oldest Leather Shoe

The article below by Kate Ravilious, “World’s Oldest Leather Shoe Found—Stunningly Preserved“, was reported originally by the National geographic Daily News on June 9, 2010.  about the world’s oldest leather shoe discovered in Armenia. The discovery of the world’s oldest known leather shoe was funded by the National Geographic Society, the Chitjian Foundation (Los Angeles), and Joe Gfoeller of the Gfoeller Foundation, the Steinmetz Family Foundation, the Boochever Foundation, and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

Kindly note that a number of photos and the video did not appear in the original National geographic report.


A Manolo Blahnik it isn’t.

Still, the world’s oldest known leather shoe, revealed Wednesday, struck one of the world’s best known shoe designers as shockingly au courant.

It is astonishing,” Blahnik said via email, “how much this shoe resembles a modern shoe!

Stuffed with grass, perhaps as an insulator or an early shoe tree, the 5,500-year-old moccasin-like shoe was found exceptionally well preserved—thanks to a surfeit of sheep dung—during a recent dig in an Armenian cave.

About as big as a current women’s size seven (U.S.), the shoe was likely tailor-made for the right foot of its owner, who could have been a man or a woman—not enough is known about Armenian feet of the era to say for sure.

oldest-leather-shoe-armenia_21449_600x450The world’s oldest known leather shoe (pictured) has been found in an Armenian cave, archaeologists say (Photo Source: Gregory Areshian & National Geographic Daily News).

Made from a single piece of cowhide—a technique that draws premium prices for modern shoes under the designation “whole cut”—the shoe is laced along seams at the front and back, with a leather cord.

Ron Pinhasi, co-director of the dig, from the University College Cork in Ireland, explains:

The hide had been cut into two layers and tanned, which was probably quite a new technology,” .

Yvette Worrall, a shoemaker for the Conker handmade-shoe company in the U.K., added:

I’d imagine the leather was wetted first and then cut and fitted around the foot, using the foot as a last [mold] to stitch it up there and then.”

The end result looks surprisingly familiar for something so ancient—and not just to Blahnik.

Shoe-Armenia-Excavation Team-UCLAA member of the research team at the excavation site in Armenia; the actual cave is situated in the Vayotz Dzor province of Armenia, on the Armenian, Iranian, Nakhichevanian and Turkish borders (Photo Source: GoodNews).

“It immediately struck me as very similar to a traditional form of Balkan footwear known as the opanke, which is still worn as a part of regional dress at festivals today,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, a curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada.

I thought, Wow, not so much has changed.”


Oldest Leather Shoe Shows Stunning Preservation

Radiocarbon dated to about 3500 B.C., during Armenia’s Copper Age, the prehistoric shoe is compressed in the heel and toe area, likely due to miles upon miles of walking. But the shoe is by no means worn out.

Shoes of this age are incredibly rare, because leather and plant materials normally degrade very quickly.

But in this case the contents of a pit in the cave, dubbed Areni-1, had been sealed in by several layers of sheep dung, which accumulated in the cave after its Copper Age human inhabitants had gone.

The cave environment kept it cool and dry, while the dung cemented the finds in,” said Pinhasi, lead author of the new study, published by the journal PLoS ONE Wednesday.

Details of the Leather shoe-Armenia

[Click to Enlarge] Close-up details of the leather shoe discovered in a cave in Armenia (Photo Source: GoodNews). The 5,500 year old (perfectly preserved) shoe, the oldest leather shoe of its type in the world, dates back to approx. 3,500 BC (Chalcolithic period). It was made of a single piece of leather and  shaped to fit the wearer’s foot. The shoe is 1,000 years older than Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza.

Why Was Oldest Leather Shoe Made?

Protecting the foot was probably one of the main reasons people started wearing shoes, and certainly this seems the case for the world’s oldest leather shoe.

Around the Armenian cave, “the terrain is very rugged, and there are many sharp stones and prickly bushes,” said University of California archaeologist and study co-author Gregory Areshian, who was partly funded by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Furthermore, shoes like this would have enabled people to cope with extremes of temperature in the region—up to 113°F (45°C) in summer and below freezing in winter—and to travel farther.

These people were walking long distances. We have found obsidian in the cave, which came from at least 75 miles [120 kilometers] away,” he said.

Blahnik, the shoe designer, speculates that even this simple design was worn for style as well as substance.


The leather shoe hand-held by a researcher at the excavation site. As noted in the UCLA Asia Institute report, the Armenian leather shoe was a European size 37 or women’s size 7. As noted Dr Ron Pinhasi, University College Cork, Cork, “as while small (European size 37; US size 7 women), the shoe could well have fitted a man from that era.” The shoe was found stuffed with grass (Photo Source: UCLA Asia Institute).

The shoe’s function was obviously to protect the foot, but I am in no doubt that a certain appearance of a shoe meant belonging to a particular tribe,” said Blahnik, who knows a thing or two about expressing identity through attire. “I am sure it was part of the outfit which a specific tribe wore to distinguish their identity from another.”


Not the World’s Oldest Shoe

Previously, the oldest known closed-toe shoes were those belonging to Ötzi, the “Iceman” found in the Austrian Alps in 1991, who died around 5,300 years ago. (See “Iceman Wore Cattle, Sheep Hides; May Have Been a Herder.”)

Sandals meanwhile, have an even longer history, with the oldest specimens, dated to more than 7,000 years ago, discovered in the Arnold Research Cave in central Missouri.

The wearing of shoes, though, is almost certainly older than the oldest known shoes. For example, a weakening of small toe bones found in 40,000-year-old human fossils has been cited as evidence of the advent of shoes.

Compared to Ötzi’s shoes, the world’s oldest leather shoe is strictly bare-bones, according to Jacqui Wood, an independent archaeologist based in the U.K., who studied Ötzi’s shoes and who said the new study’s science is sound.

The Iceman’s shoe was in another league altogether,” Wood said. “Each base was made from brown bearskin; the side panels were deerskin; and inside was a bark-string net, which pulled tight around the footBy contrast, the Armenian shoe is the most basic of shoes and was probably made worldwide once people decided not to walk about in bare feet.” (See pictures of the Iceman.)

It’s true that similar shoes have been found at other sites and from other times, but study co-authors Pinhasi and Areshian think it’s plausible that the style originated in Armenia.

Pinhasi notes:

Many other inventions, such as wheel-thrown pottery, cuneiform writing, and wool production evolved in the ancient Near East…And so Armenia may give us the earliest clues to a ‘prototype’ shoe, which later spread to Europe“.

Rebecca Shawcross, a shoe historian at the Northampton Museums & Art Gallery in the U.K., said:

You can certainly make a case for this shoe [design] being a forerunner to the North American moccasin, which has gone on to be a popular shoe style, whose influences can be seen in shoes of today—deck shoes; soft, slipper-style shoes for men; and so on.”

The “Astonishingly modern” shoe has been preserved by sheep dung, dryness and stable temperatures of the Armenian cave in which it was discovered. This invention of the shoe allowed humans to better protect their feet over rough terrain, against extreme heat and cold and to travel over longer distances.

Beyond the World’s Oldest Leather Shoe

With the moccasin mystery largely solved, the study team has plenty more puzzles to solve in Areni-1.

Along with the shoe, the ancient sheep dung had sealed in the horns of a wild goat, bones of red deer, and an upside-down broken pot.

Pinhsi said:

It is a strange assortment of items…and I wouldn’t be surprised if they have some symbolic meaning“—a meaning that could be revealed as summer, and a new dig season, dawns at Areni-1.

Dmitri Ermakov: Chronicler of the Caucasus

The article below and its pictures on Georgia in the 19th century Caucasus was originally written and posted in the Poemas del Rio wang Website.

Kavkaz-13-Kafkaz MapMap of the Caucasus dated to 1856 by cartographer J. Grassl: “Karte des Kaukasischen Isthmus” (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang). Note that the region of the southwest Caucasus above the Araxes River known as “Azerbaijan” since May 1918 was not identified as “Azerbaijan” in historical records or maps. Instead, there are various khnates in the region, identified as Sheki, Lenkoran, Shirwan, etc. The historical Azarbaijan (or Azerbaijan) is located to the south of the Araxes River in northwest Iran.

The article below by the Poemas del Rio wang Website pertains to the works of Dmitri Ermakov (1846-1916) in the Caucasus during the 19th century.

Kafkaz-3Dmitri Ermakov (1846-1916) (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).


This story usually starts being told where some other great stories begin: along the Nile and in the Holy Land, with the photographers who from 1840 onwards provided from here, the most popular East the European audience with albums, and later the participants in the Victorian Grand Tour with post cards representing the local attractions. We will also tell about them later. For now, however, we start the story along the less known Russian thread, with the masters who started taking pictures in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and also reached Persia and Anatolia. Among them, if not the earliest, but one of the most influential photographers was Dmitri Ermakov from Tiflis (1846-1916).

Kafkaz-1-Tiflis-Shiite MosqueErmakov’s Tiflis: The market place (Maidan) of the old town with the Shiite mosque and the old bridge over Kura (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

Tiflis (from 1936 Tbilisi), “the jewel of the Caucasus” which had belonged for centuries to the sphere of Persian culture and came under Russian suzerainty only in 1801, with its mixed Armenian, Azeri, Georgian, Persian, Russian, German, French population – of which we will write more later – was a unique cultural, political and commercial bridge until as far as 1917 between Russia, Western Europe and the Middle East.

Kafkaz-2-Tiflis-Shiite MosqueAnother (closer) view of the market place (Maidan) of the old town with the Shiite mosque and the old bridge over Kura (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

We have mentioned, that the satirical journal Molla Nasreddin which inspired a large number of similar publications from Tehran to Bucharest, was founded by an Iranian Azeri editor-in-chief, illustrated by two local German cartoonists and edited by an international board in Turkish (Azerbaijani) and sometimes even in Russian in Tiflis between 1906 and 1917. The roots of Ermakov were similarly complex. His father, Luigi Cambaggio was an Italian architect, and his mother a well-known pianist from an Austrian-Georgian family who later adopted, together with her son Dmitri, the name of her second, Russian husband.

Kafkaz-4Water mills along the Kura at the time of the flood of 1893 (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

Ermakov graduated from the military topographic academy in Ananuri, a hundred kilometers north from Tiflis. There he got his first introduction into photography which in the 1860s was already a regular part of the curriculum at military academies. Shortly afterwards, in the early 70s he opened his own photographic studio in Tiflis, on the Dvortsovaya which by this time had become the street of photographers. It was here that in 1846, only seven years after the invention of photography, Henrik Haupt opened the first studio of Georgia, and here worked the “Rembrandt” studio of the greatest contemporary Georgian photographer A. Roinashvili as well. Most probably Ermakov also took over an already working studio, that of Ivanitsky, opened in 1863.

Kafkaz-5The Dvortsovaya in the 1870s (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

Shortly after the opening of the studio Ermakov already became a member of the Société française de photographie, the most prestigious European society of photography. We do not know who nominated him for membership into this society which operated with a strict admission policy. What is certain is that for the 1874 Paris Biennale he already sent 17 pictures, all of them from the Black Sea coast city of Trebizond (Trabzon) in Turkey. By that time he probably also had a studio there, as a lot of photos of him have survived from this region and period.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAZeli-Sultan, son of the Shah of Persia in Austro-Hungarian military uniform (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

By the end of the 70s he was widely considered as a renowned photographer. He won awards in many exhibitions in Moscow, Italy, Turkey and Persia. He regularly took photos in the Persian court and of many Persian aristocratic families, and he was awarded the title of the court photographer of the Shah of Persia.

In the court gallery of the Shah of Persia there are a large number of paintings representing the Shah himself: in their majority, mediocre works. In these days, however, we had occasion to see a large half-length portrait of the Shah, painted by the Tiflis artist Mr. Kolchin on the basis of the photography by Mr. Ermakov. Whoever previously saw any portrait by Mr. Kolchin, Shishkov, Korganov or Penchinsky, will not be surprised by the brilliant quality of this portrait. Soon, this picture will be delivered to the Court of Tehran where, it seems, this will be the first Russian piece of art.”

– wrote in 1884 the Tiflis newspaper Kavkaz. This news sheds an interesting light on a typical application of late 19th-century photography: that it served as a model for portrait paintings, thus saving long hours of sitting for the model of the portrait. Ermakov even had a common atelier with Pyotr Kolchin for a while in Tiflis, just as one of the greatest Istanbul photographers, Pascal Sébah made model photos for the fashionable Ottoman painter Osman Hamdi Bey.

Kavkaz-9Georgian officers in Tsikhisdzhiri take a pause during the Russo-Turkish war (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

Ermakov’s reputation and military training gained him the appointment of the official photographer of the Caucasian front in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. As his photos were considered military documentation, they have not been available for more than a century. The National Archives of Georgia published a few of them only in the late 90s. Ermakov’s passion and specialty, however, was ethnographic photography. He made long trips to the most remote valleys of the Caucasus, in Central Asia and Anatolia where he was the first to take photos of the inhabitants of villages of different nationalities.

Kavkaz-10Men from the Georgian mountains (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

Taking into account the needs of contemporary technology, the huge camera, the large – usually 50×60 cm sized – glass negatives preferably used by Ermakov and the mobile dark room, these excursions were veritable expeditions with mule caravans and tent camps, and moreover mostly in mountainous terrain where it was not a simple task to organize a military expedition either.

Kafkaz-10Women from the Georgian mountains (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

Ethnographic photography was not only a passion, but also a good business investment for Ermakov. For the St. Petersburg and Moscow social circles the Caucasus was since Pushkin and Lermontov the exotic East, the land of unspoiled, noble simplicity and mysterious strangeness, just as Northern Africa was for the contemporary Western European artist. The unimaginable ethnic diversity of the Caucasus was illustrated from the beginning of the century in a large number of engraved and lithographic albums for the educated audience. Over the years, Ermakov published a hundred and ninety two similar albums with his own photos about the ethnic groups, villages and towns, roads and monuments of the Caucasus. In his printed catalog he advertised himself, as early as the turn of the century, with an astonishing photo stock of 25 thousand items.

Kavkaz-11A photo of the military road in Georgia (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

However, what captures today’s viewer the most in the photos of Ermakov is his attention to the model not as an ethnographic curiosity, but as a person; an attention that suspends the distance in time and culture and creates a relationship between us and the model; a sensitivity which has been the privilege of only a few photographers, then like now.

Kavkaz-14Fur hat traders in a Tiflis bazaar (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

After the death of Ermakov in 1916 his complete huge photographic material was purchased by the University of Tiflis, from where later it got to the Tbilisi State Museum. The following decades were not favorable to their publication. No album, monograph or important exhibition has been made of them, as far as I could investigate. Some of the photos sold by him to the West were eventually exhibited in the 1990s, but I know of no catalog of them. His original albums are a rarity even in the large libraries. We only know some hundreds from his legacy of several thousand photos. Once it will be made public, it will be a huge sensation.

Kavkaz-12A Turkish man from Georgia (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

The son of Ermakov, the first Russian psychoanalyst died in 1941 in prison as a victim of the Stalinist purges. Ermakov’s great-grandson lives today in Moscow. He is a designer and photographer, and a good photographer at that. In his blog he occasionally publishes some scanned photos from the heritage of his great-grandfather. This is one of the most important source of the pictures shown here.

Kavkaz-15An Iranian man from Georgia (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

Another important source is the collection of the New York Public Library, more precisely the legacy of George Kennan digitized by them. George Kennan was the first American in the 1870s to travel across the Caucasus, where he purchased lots of pictures from local photographers. They include some from Ermakov as well, sometimes marked with his name by Kennan, while in other cases their provenience is attested only by the characteristic captions printed in small Cyrillic. Most probably a number of other contemporary legacies also include photos purchased from Ermakov.

Kavkaz-16Princess Lazareva (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

A third source is the site of Rolf Gross who in the 1980s lectured in Tbilisi. Having made friends with the director of the museum, he received some test prints of Ermakov’s photos made for local exhibitions and calendars, which otherwise would have finished in the waste-paper basket. Now, after twenty years he published them on the internet. A part of them is known from elsewhere, but about twenty pictures were published by him for the first time.

Kavkaz-17A Jewish man from the Southern Georgian Akhaltsikhe region (Source: Poemas del Rio Wang).

We tried to place on the following map of the Caucasus the almost three hundred photos by Ermakov that we managed to collect, but this is an evocative background rather than a precise localization, for most of the available pictures are from Tiflis. And even the scenes represented on the majority of them do not exist any more. The bazaar, the Shiite mosque, the famous bridge of the Maidan, the most beautiful and most characteristic buildings of old Tiflis were all destroyed. Today you can find the atmosphere of Ermakov’s photos only in the Avlabari neighborhood, from where we have not many photos by him. Of old Tiflis, however, we have a large collection of photos both by him and by others. We would like to publish them by linking each to the respective point of a fin-de-siècle map of the city, in this way reconstructing the old Tiflis that has gone.