Persian Roots of Puccini’s Opera Turandot (Turandokht)

The article “Persian roots of Puccini’s opera Turandot” (posted 29 November 2019) on Leiden University’s Leiden Medievalists Blog has been penned by Dr. Asghar Seyed Gohrab, Senior University Lecturer at Leiden University. who has dedicated this article to his friend Dr. Rokus de Groot (University of Amsterdam). The article was bought to the attention of Kavehfarrokh.com by Anosh Tozie through the Facebook venue.

Readers further interested in Europa-Iran ties can access more resources on this domain in the below links:

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What is the place on earth that saw the sun only once? What is it that all beings have, human beings, angels, fairies, demons, anything that grazes and flies, heaven and earth, anything that God has created? How did a Persian story grow to a world opera?

Bahram Gur in the Room of the Seven Portraits (Leiden Medievalists Blog & Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon).

Europeans inspired by Persian culture

Persian culture has captured the attention of European artists from antiquity. Persian imperial history, myths and legends, religions, and poetry have all in one way or another enticed European artists, musicians and scholars. European composers were inspired by Persian subjects creating artistic works. Johann Strauss’s Persische March (1864), Thomas Arne’s (1710-1778) opera Artaxerxes, George Friedrich Handel’s Serse (1738), Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, are famous examples, which are inspired by Persian culture and history.

Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot in 1926 (Leiden Medievalists Blog & Public Domain).

Turan’s daughter

But how did a medieval Persian anecdote inspire Puccini’s opera Turandot? The name derives from the Persian compound name Turan and dokht, meaning the daughter of Turan. Dokht is a shortened form of dokhtar or ‘daughter,’ ‘girl.’ As Persian belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, the word dokhtar has cognates in European languages. Turan refers to the north eastern borders Persia. Turandot recounts the story of a Chinese princess who kills her suitors when they fail to decipher riddles.

Puccini: Nessun Dorma from ‘Turandot’ – BBC Proms

Seven Beauties

As a recent investigation has shown (Mogtader & Schoeler, 2019), this story appears in anecdotal form in twelfth century Persia in at least two different sources.

Scene from the opera Turan Dokht by Miranda Lakerveld (Leiden Medievalists Blog & Copyright: Nichon Glerum).

The first source is the Persian masterpiece Seven Beauties, by the Persian poet Nezami (d. 1209) who recounts the romantic history of the pre-Islamic Persian king Bahram. The plot of this story is very complex, filled with mathematical, astronomical, cosmogonic, medical and mystical symbolism. A simplified plot runs as follows. In his early years, Bahram is sent away for education. During a hunting expedition, he comes across a temple. He goes inside the building and sees portraits of seven princesses from the Seven Regions of the world. He instantly falls in love with all of them. As soon as he comes back to Persia, he builds seven pavilions and invites the brides to his palace complex. From Saturday to Friday he visits each night one princess, telling him erotic and didactic stories. Each of these princesses teaches him a lesson and is instrumental in his development as a human being. He starts with the Indian princess in the black pavilion, and then on Sunday, the day of the Sun, goes to the Byzantine princess Humay, till he visits the Persian princess in the White pavilion on Friday, the day of Venus. The colour symbolism, from black to white (leading finally to radiance and colourlessness) is based on astronomical/astrological, mathematical and spiritual symbolism. This journey from black to white also refers to Bahram’s spiritual development from darkness and ignorance to light and illumination, uniting himself with the source of light. He grows to a Perfect Man and an ideal king.

Bahram Gur in the Room of the Seven Portraits (Leiden Medievalists Blog & Collection Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon).

The Ruthless Princess

The plot of a cruel princess who asks riddles from her suitors appears in the red pavilion. It takes place on Tuesday, the day of Mars. Dressed all in red, King Bahram visits the princess Nasrin, who wears crimson robes with hair like the colour of fire and skin whiter than snow. The whole interior of the pavilion is decorated in red, red carpets, roses, and serving red wine. The princess tells a story of a princess in a far-off place in Russia. She is beautiful, skilful in bow and arrow, and is more learned than any men. Her father begs her to marry one of the suitors but she declines. Eventually she leaves the palace and let a palace be built high on a mountain. Hidden swords are placed on the passageway leading to the palace so that they decapitate anyone walking on the road.

She would only marry the strongest and the most intelligent man who could enter this new palace, escaping the swords, and opening the locked door of the palace. Once in the palace, they had to answer four riddles asked by the princess. Would the suitor fail, he was immediately put to death. The princess orders to put her portrait on the city gate, challenging young men to suit her. Many suitors come but lose their lives. While her father weeps and shows pity on their deaths, the princess is cold and laughs, ordering to put the severed heads on the city gate. One day, a prince who is on a hunting expedition, arrives and falls deeply in love with the portrait of the princess. Realizing that this princess is ruthless, he goes to a sage, and asks him how to overcome the invisible swords, how to unlock the palace’s door, and how to answer the riddles. The wise sage says that death comes to everyone but love does not, so the prince should pursue his quest. The sage teaches him how to escape the swords, unlock the door, and answer the four riddles, giving him equipment. The prince succeeds to come into the palace’s garden, a desolate court without any trees and flowers. After long waiting, a maiden comes to him and asks him to go back to her father’s palace and wait for the princess to come and ask him the riddles. The prince goes back. At seeing the prince, people rejoice and remove the portrait of the princess and the skulls of suitors from the city gate. People prepare a feast, drink wine, dance and play music. After waiting for two days, on the third day the princess comes. While smiling, she removes two pearls from her ears and gives them to the prince, asking him what these gifts mean. The prince gives her three pearls that the wise sage had given him. Then he orders courtiers to bring a scale and puts these three pearls on one side and the two pearls on the other. They were equal in weight. The prince answers: “if, as the scholars say, life is but two days long, here is your life and mine. And here is yet another life, which is our life together, when we are made one by love.” (Chelkowski, 1975: 93) Afterwards, the princess calls for a mortar, grinding the pearls and adding sugar to them. She then throws them into a cup and gives them to the prince, asking him what he thinks of such a gift. He brings forth a flask of milk that the sage had given him and pours it to the cup and asks the princess to drink. The powdered pearls remain in the bottom of the cup. Afterwards, the princess gives the prince her precious ring and asks him what he thinks of the gift. The prince gives her a luminous perfect pearl. Finally, the princess unfastens her necklace and gives the prince a pearl exactly the same as the one the prince had given her, asking him what he thinks of the gift. The prince brings forth a glass bead and a string and puts the bead between the pearls, saying to the princess, may our love guard us against evil spirit. In this way he answers all questions.

Rehearsal footage of Turan Dokht, created by director Miranda Lakerveld and composer Aftab Darvishi. 

In Nezami’s account, the prince does not ask riddles, and the riddles asked by the princess are not verbal questions. But in a second source of the story, we find several verbal riddles asked by both the prince and the princess. This second source is Javāmiʿ al-hekāyāt (‘Collection of Stories’) by Mohammad ʿAufi (ca. 1170-1232). ʿAufi’s story is short and it mostly concentrates on ten riddles presented by the princess. ʿAufi places the story in the Roman empire and emphasizes the cruelty of the princess as she kills 42 suitors who failed to answer the riddles. Here a prince falls in love with the cruel Roman princess by hearsay. He goes to her palace and challenges her. The princess’s father shows big sympathy with him. The majority of the riddles are related to cosmogony, religion and ethics. These are riddles to test the intelligence of a young person, which often appear in Persian epic poetry. After answering all of these questions, the prince asks a riddle from the princess, and gives her one day to solve it. In ʿAufi’s retelling, the princess goes to her mother for advice. She convinces her to marry the prince. Several of the motifs Nezami used also appear in ʿAufi’s story such as putting severed heads on the city gate, the king who deeply sympathizes with the young men vising his daughter, and falling in love either through hearsay or portrait.

Bahram vising the red pavilion (Leiden Medievalists Blog).

Another source of the story, which is written much later, is a longer story based on ʿAufi’s narrative. It is here that we see the setting is changed to China. In Persian romantic tradition, including folklore, China is famous for handsome girls, and a Persian prince often goes in quest of finding his marriage partner in China. In this quest story, after much hardship the prince arrives in China and falls in love with a princess through hearsay. An old woman tells him about the cruel behaviour of the princess, imploring him to forget her. The prince goes to the princess’s palace, and she asks him riddles in four consecutive days. The prince answers them all. On the last day, the prince presents a riddle to the princess and gives her one day to guess an answer. Unable to solve the riddle, she sends beautiful maidens to the prince to make him drunk, and to seduce him to dig out the answers. One of the maidens brings the drunken prince to bed and discovers the answer to the riddle. Before making love, the maiden tricks him, running away while leaving behind her cloths. When the next day, the prince comes to the palace to receive the answer from the cruel princess, who haughtily says to the prince that she will kill him, he says, “last night I was on a hunting expedition. I chased a bird. I caught her, prepared her for consummation, but she flew away, yet I have her wings and feathers still with me.” This answer convinces the princess of his intelligence and agrees to marry him.

This longer version of the story was translated into Turkish under the title of Ferec baʿd al-shedda (‘Relief after Hardship’). In the Persian stories, the actual names of the prince and the princess are not mentioned, but in this Turkish translation, Calaf appears, which is a corruption of Khalaf meaning ‘successor,’ ‘child,’ or ‘offspring.’

François Pétis de La Croix (1653-1713) translated the story very freely into French and added Chinese colouring to it. The European versions of the riddle princess starts from this period. Carlo Graf Gozzi (1720-1806) had adapted several oriental stories, among which this particular narrative. Puccini’s libretto is written by Giuseppe Adami (1878-1946) and Renato Simoni (1875-1952). Puccini knew the story already through the play written by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), which was based on Gozzi’s version.

Riddles asked by Puccini’s Turandot.

            It is fascinating to see how an anecdote, which comes probably from an oral Persian background, developed to several complex stories which all emphasize the riddling elements through a powerful, handsome and cruel princess, who tests the intelligence and physical prowess of her suitors.

Answers to riddles:

  • the Red Sea
  • a name

Literature

Chelkowski, P., “Āyā operā-ye Turandot-e Puccini bar asās-e kushk-e sorkh-e Haft Peykar- e Nezāmi ast?” (Is Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ based on the Red Pavilion of Nezami’s Haft Peykar?), in Iranshenasi, 1991, pp. 715–721.

Dabashi, H., Persophilia: Persian Culture on the Global Scene, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Marzolph, U. & R. van Leeuwen, The Arabian Nights: Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara: ABC CLIO, 2004.

Marzolph, U., Relief after Hardship: The Ottoman Turkish Model for The Thousand and One Days, Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2017 (I had no access to this book).

Mogtader, Y. & G. Schoeler, Turandot: Die persische Märchenerzählung, Edition, Űbersetzung, Kommentar, Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2019.

Seyed-Gohrab, A.A., Courtly Riddles: Enigmatic Embellishments in Early Persian Poetry, Amsterdam, Rozenberg Publishers / West Lafayette, Indiana, Purdue University press, 2008. (republished in 2010 at Leiden University Press)

Seyed-Gohrab, A.A., Laylī and Majn‎ūn: Love, Madness and Mystic Longing in Nezāmi’s Epic Romance, Leiden / Boston: E.J. Brill, 2003.

Yohannan, J.D., Persian Poetry in England and America: a 200-Year History, New York: Caravan Books, 1977.

UBC Lecture (November 29, 2019): Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe

Kaveh Farrokh will be providing a comprehensive lecture on November 29, 2019 at the University of British Columbia:

“Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe”

Lecture Time & Location: 29 November 2019 6:30-8:30 pm – Room 120, CK Choi Building – For details view below poster – and also click here …). The lecture is free, however due to limited seating interested participants are encouraged to obtain their (Free) tickets (for details view below poster – and also click here …)

This lecture will be hosted by the Alireza Ahmadian Lectures in Persian and Iranian Studies, Persian Language and Iranian Studies Initiative at UBC (University of British Columbia), UBC Asian Studies, UBC Persian Club and the UBC Zoroastrian Student Association.

Abstract & Overview of Lecture

This lecture provides a synoptic overview of the civilizational relations between Greater ancient Iran and Europa (Greco-Roman civilization as well continental Europe). The discussion is initiated with an examination of the conduits of exchange between Greater ancient Iran (the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian dynasties of Iran as well as the role of Northern Iranian peoples), the Caucasus and Europa. The lecture then provides an overview of learning exchanges between east and west spanning the time era from the Achaemenids into the Post-Sassanian eras, followed by examples of artistic, architectural, and engineering exchanges between Greco-Roman and Iranian civilizations. Select examples of the ancient Iranian legacy influence upon the European continent are also discussed, followed (time permitting) by examples of the musical legacy of ancient Iran as well as Iranian-European exchanges in the culinary domain.

Select References & Readings

Ahmed, A. & Zaman, O. (eds.) (2018). Dialogue Between Cultures & Exchange of Knowledge And Cultural Ideas between Iran, Turkey & Central Asia With Special reference to the Sasanian & Gupta Dynasty, Proceedings of Conference 8-10 February, 2018. Assam, India: Department of Persian Guawahati University.

Akhvledinai & Khimshiasvili, (2003). Impact of the Achaemenian architecture on Iberian kingdom: Fourth-first centuries BC. The First International Conference on the Ancient Cultural Relations Between Iran and Western Asia, Abstracts of Papers, Tehran, Iran, August 16-18, 2003, Tehran: Iran Cultural Fairs Institute.

Angelakis, A.N., Mays, L.W., Koutsoyiannis, D., Mamassis, N. (2012). Evolution of Water Supply through the Millennia. London & New York: IWA Publishing.

Asutay-Effenberger, N. & Daim, F. (eds.) (2019). Sasanidische Spuren in der Byzantinischen, Kaukasischen und Islamischen Kunst und Kultur [Sasanian Elements in Byzantine, Caucasian and Islamic Art and Culture]. Mainz, Germany: Verlag des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums.

Azarpay, G. (2000). Sasanian art beyond the Persian world. In Mesopotamia and Iran in the Parthian and Sasanian periods: Rejection and Revival c.238 BC-AD 642, Proceedings of a Seminar in memory of Vladimir G. Lukonin (ed. J. Curtis), London: British Museum Press, pp.67-75.

Azkaei, P.S. (1383/2004). حکیم رازی (حکمت طبیعی و نظام فلسفی) [(The) Wise Razi (Natural Wisdom and System of Philosophy)]. Tehran, Iran. Entesharate Tarh-e Now.

Babaev, I., Gagoshidze, I., & Knauß, F. S. (2007). An Achaemenid “Palace” at Qarajamirli (Azerbaijan) Preliminary Report on the Excavations in 2006. Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia, Volume 13, Numbers 1-2, pp. 31-45.

Beckwith C.I. (2011). Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Asia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton University Press.

Canepa, M. P. (2010). Distant displays of power: understanding cross-cultural interaction interaction among the elites of Rome, Sasanian Iran and Sui-Tang China. Ars Orientalis, Vol. 38, Theorizing Cross-Cultural Interaction among the Ancient and Early Medieval Mediterranean, Near East and Asia, pp. 121-154.

Carduso, E.R.F. (2015). Diplomacy and oriental influence in the court of Cordoba (9th to 10th centuries). Dissertation, Department of History of Islamic Mediterranean Societies, University of Lisbon, Portugal.

Compareti, M. (2019). Assimilation and Adaptation of Foreign Elements in Late Sasanian Rock Reliefs at Taq-i Bustan. In Sasanidische Spuren in der Byzantinischen, Kaukasischen und Islamischen Kunst und Kultur [Sasanian Elements in Byzantine, Caucasian and Islamic Art and Culture] (eds. N. Asutay-Effenberger & F. Daim), Mainz, Germany: Verlag des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums, pp.19-36.

Curatola, G., & Scarcia, G. (Tr. M. Shore, 2007). The Art and Architecture of Persia. New York: Abbeville Press.

During J., Mirabdolbaghi, Z., & Safvat, D. (1991). The Art of Persian Music. Mage Publishers.

Farhat, H. (2004). The Dastgah Concept in Persian Music. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.

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

Farrokh, K., Karamian, Gh., Kubic, A., & Oshterinani, M.T. (2017). An Examination of Parthian and Sasanian Military Helmets. In “Crowns, hats, turbans and helmets: Headgear in Iranian history volume I” (K. Maksymiuk & Gh. Karamian, Eds.), Siedlce University & Tehran Azad University, pp.121-163.

Farrokh, K. (2016). An Overview of the Artistic, Architectural, Engineering and Culinary exchanges between Ancient Iran and the Greco-Roman World. AGON: Rivista Internazionale di Studi Culturali, Linguistici e Letterari, No.7, pp.64-124.

Farrokh, K. (2009). The Winged Lion of Meskheti: a pre- or post-Islamic Iranian Legacy in Georgia? Scientific Paradigms. Studies in Honour of Professor Natela Vachnadze. St. Andrew the First-Called Georgian University of the Patriarchy of Georgia. Tbilisi, pp. 455-492.

Farrokh, K. (2007). Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. Oxford: Osprey Publishing-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا/کویر (انتشارات ققنوس ۱۳۹۰ و انتشارات طاق بستان ۱۳۹۰) – see Book review from peer-reviewed Iranshenasi Journal

Feltham, H. (2010). Lions, Silks and Silver: the Influence of Sassanian Persia. Sino-Platonic Papers, 206, pp. 1-51.

Freely, J. (2009). Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Gagoshidze, Y. M. (1992). The Temples at Dedoplis Mindori. East and West, 42, pp. 27-48.

Garsoïan, N. (1985). Byzantium and the Sassanians. In The Cambridge History of Iran Volume 3: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanid Periods, Part 1 (ed. E. Yarshater), Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, pp. 568-592.

Gheverghese, J.G. (1991). The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics. London: I.B. Tauris.

Gnoli, G. & Panaino, A. (eds.) (2009). Studies in History of Mathematics, Astronomy and Astrology in Memory of David Pingree – Serie Orientale Roma CII. Rome: Italy: Istituto Italiano per L’Africa e L’Oriente.

Kayser, P., & Waringo, G. (2003). L’aqueduc souterrain des Raschpëtzer: un monument Antique de l’art de l’ingénieur au Luxembourg [The underground aqueduct of Raschpëtzer: an ancient monument of the art of engineering in Luxembourg]. Revue Archéologique de l’Est, vol. 52, pp. 429-444.

Kurz, O. (1985). Cultural relations between Parthia and Rome. In The Cambridge History of Iran Volume 3: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanid Periods, Part 1 (ed. E. Yarshater), Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, pp. 559-567.

Miller, A.C. (2006). Jundi-Shapur, bimaristans, and the rise of academic medical centres. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99 (12), pp. 615–617.

Miller, L.C. (1999). Music and Song in Persia (RLE Iran B): The Art of Avaz. Great Britain: Routledge.

Overlaet, B. (2018). Sasanian, Central Asian and Byzantine Iconography – Patterned Silks and Cross-Cultural Exchange. In B. Bühler & V. Freiberger (eds.), Der Goldschatz von Sânnicolau Mare [The Gold Treasure of Sânnicolau Mare]. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, pp. 139-152.

Roberts, A.M. (2013). The Crossing Paths of Greek and Persian Knowledge in the 9th-century Arabic ‘Book of Degrees’. Orientalia Christiana Analecta, 293, pp.279-303.

Silva, J.A.M. (2019). The Influence of Gondeshapur Medicine during the Sassanid Dynasty and the Early Islamic Period. Archives of Iranian Medicine, 22 (9), pp. 531-540.

Sparati N. (2002).  L’ enigma delle arti Asittite della Calabria Ultra-Mediterranea [The enigma of the Asittite arts of Calabria Ultra-Mediterranean]. Mammola, Italy: MuSaBa – Santa Barbera Art Foundation & Iiriti Editore.

Ward. P. (1968). The Origin and Spread of Qanats in the Old World. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 112, No. 3, pp. 170-181.

Wulff, H. (1968). The Qanats of Iran. Scientific American, Vol. 218, No. 4, pp. 94–105.

Select Major Reference Resources in Kaveh Farrokh.com

Select Articles in Kavehfarrokh.com

When Roman “Barbarians” Met the Asian Enlightenment

The article When Roman “Barbarians” Met the Asian Enlightenmentwas first published by The Strange Continent.com. A portion of that article has been printed below which has been edited. Commentaries have also been inserted for reference. Kindly note that the article printed below features a number of additional images and accompanying captions that do not appear in the original article in The Strange Continent.

Consistent with this topic, a lecture entitled Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe during the Classical Era will be offered by Kaveh Farrokh at the University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies Alireza Ahmadian Lectures in Persian and Iranian Studies (November 29, 2019, 6:30-8:30, Room 120, CK Choi Building) … for further details kindly click the image below …

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This week, the BBC announced the discovery of two “ethnically Chinese” skeletons at an ancient Roman burial site in England. Who were they? What drove them to the far end of the world? We don’t know, yet.

But for once, an article’s clickbait headline may not be exaggerating. If the genetic identity of these skeletons can be confirmed, it could indeed “rewrite Roman history” — or at least, a whole lot of long-held assumptions about who was in contact with whom in the days of the Roman Empire.

Oh, we’ve known for a long time the ancient Romans were aware of China’s existence — in fact, Chinese silk was such a drain on the Roman economy that the senate tried to outlaw it in the year 14 CE. And the Chinese emperors of the Han dynasty were certainly aware of Rome — they called it Da Qin and repeatedly tried to reach it with envoys and missionaries.

No one disputes the fact that these two cultures had centuries of indirect contact, via trade routes through India and Persia. Roman coins have been found as far east as Japan where Persians were teaching mathematics to the locals.

Sassanian influences upon Japanese arts: the case of the metalwork plate of Shapur II hunting lions (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg – Inv. S-253) and motif-parallels in Japanese textile arts (Source: Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia).

DNA evidence seems to suggest that Europeans settled on the western fringes of China as early as the 200s BCE.

COMMENT BY Kavehfarrokh.com: The sentence “Europeans settled on the western fringes of China as early as the 200s BCE”  is somewhat misleading. First, there are common Indo-European ancestors for the Europeans, Indians and Iranians. The peoples the writer is referring to may have been variously proto-Iranian or Tocharian – the dress found among their mummies in Urumchi for example bear striking resemblance to the later attire of the Medes, Achaemenids, Scythians, Sarmatians, Parthians and Sassanians. Second, these settlements in northwest China appear to have taken place earlier before the reign of the Medes and the succeeding Medo-Achaemenids.

What’s much less clear, though, is whether Chinese or Roman diplomats ever managed to achieve direct contact on each others’ native soil.

Until these Chinese skeletons were unearthed in England — at the far-western end of the Roman Empire, no less — no one had ever found any proof that a single Chinese envoy ever made it to Rome; or that a Roman envoy reached China. Which would mean…Romans were largely locked out of the civilized world. But wait… wasn’t Rome “the civilized world?”

That’s certainly what most of us (in the West, anyway) are taught in school. Back in my school days, I was taught a fair amount about Rome, a tiny bit about China, even less about Persia, and nothing at all about the Kushans, or the Axumites, or any of the other powerful empires that controlled large chunks of the globe — and often helped shape the cultures and fortunes of European nations. Maybe you can relate.

The truth is, though, that Rome’s Asian contemporaries completely dwarfed Rome in many respects: heritage, population density, cultural diversity, technology, architecture, medicine, philosophy, poetry… I could go on, but you get the idea. During the Roman period, the Asian continent was by far the wealthiest, most advanced, most culturally diverse place on earth. Imperial Rome was a dim backwater by comparison.

Ever since I’ve learned that fact, it’s always made me sad to think of the Romans being largely cut off from the main action on the world stage.

If researchers can verify the ancestry of these skeletons in England, maybe Rome wasn’t quite as cut off as we always believed. It’s an exciting thought. But it doesn’t change the fact that, on the whole, contact between Rome and the East — and thus, between Eastern and Western cultural legacies — was mostly indirect, mediated by third (and often fourth and fifth) parties.

Who were these vast empires of Asia? What was it like to live in them? Where did they come from, and what legacies did they leave?

I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a journey to the East.

Before we begin our tale, we first need to briefly set our stage, and make sure all our actors are on their marks.

In the 200s to 400s CE (the range of dates during which the owners of those Chinese skeletons made their way to Roman Britain) the map looked something like this:

A map of the Three Great Empires of Antiquity in c. 200 CE: Rome, Persia (Parthians followed by Sassanians) and China (Source: The Strange Continent).

I say “something like this” because a lot was going on during those centuries:

  • Rome’s legions were fighting fiercely for control of Gaul (modern France and Germany), Britain, Egypt, and various parts of the Balkans; while a succession of (often unfairly maligned) emperors scrambled to hold Rome together through an endless series of famines, wars with the East, coups d’état, refugee crises, and revolts.
  • The steppe horsemen known as the Parthians lost control of Persia, which entered a great classical age under the Sassanian dynasty.
  • The Han dynasty lost its grip on China, which split into three powerful warring kingdoms.
  • Vast tracts of southern Asia were changing hands among a dozen or more competing empires, each with its own rich culture.

Since we don’t know exactly when those Chinese travelers (whoever they were) left China and arrived in Roman Britain, it’s hard to say exactly what kind of “China” they left, what kind of “Rome” they arrived in, or what kind of “Persia” — or what other empires, exactly — they had to pass through.

With that in mind, let’s spend some time in a few of those Asian empires, and get to know their people a little better.

The Sassanians

The Sassanians could trace their cultural ancestry all the way back to the primordial mists of recorded history, to the dawn of civilization itself.

Ancient Persian traditional music as posted by The Strange Continent.

They had taken Persia from the Parthians, who’d taken it from the Seleucids — descendants of Alexander; an infamous villain in Persian eyes to this day — who’d ripped it from the hands of the glorious Achaemenid dynasty, who’d freed Mesopotamia from the brutal yoke of the Assyrian Empire, back when Rome was an unknown village.

The Assyrians, of course, had been just the latest in a line of conquerors reaching back through the Babylonians, though many long centuries, to the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great — the first documented multi-ethnic empire in world history, which owed its own cultural legacy, in large part, to the Sumerians.

Sargon of Akkad, circa 2250 BCE  (The Strange Continent).

By the time they met Rome, the Sasanians could look back through no less than 3,000 years of literate, urban society. The oldest works of poetry and sculpture in their treasure-houses were as ancient, for them, as the Iliad and the Odyssey, or the Old Testament, are for us today.

In fact, Babylon had long ago been ruled by yet another dynasty from the Persian region. The Elamite people, whose own literate culture was as ancient and venerable as that of the Sumerians, had conquered large swathes of Mesopotamia in the 1800s BCE, holding dominion until they were thrown out by an invading king called Hammurabi.

A bust of Sassanian Shahanshah Shapur II (The Strange Continent).

At its height, the Sassanian Empire spanned all of today’s Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatif, Qatar, UAE, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Egypt, large parts of Turkey, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Yemen and Pakistan. It was geographically smaller than the peak-size Roman Empire— but it was more urban, and far more densely populated.

The Sassanian Empire at its greatest extent c. 620 CE, under Shahanshah Khosrau II (The Strange Continent).

The Sassanian Empire’s subjects hailed from uncounted hundreds of tribes and peoples. They practiced at least ten different major religions, including Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism; along with a late, decadent form of the religion of ancient Babylon.

The state religion, however, was Zoroastrianism — as it had been since the Achaemenid dynasty, five centuries before, and would remain until the coming of Islam (while many practicing Zoroastrians still live in the region, and around the world, today).

Though the empire’s people spoke dozens of languages, the tongues of the court were Greek and Aramaic, along with an ancestor of the Farsi language now spoken in Iran.

At the head of the Sassanian state sat the shah-en-shah — the King of Kings, a title borrowed from the Achaemenid Persian emperors like Darius and Xerxes.

Below the shah-en-shah, a meticulously organized pyramid of governors and viziers extended down to the powerful nobility of land-holding feudal aristocrats, who oversaw the middle castes of priests, warriors, commoners, and artisans.

Court of Khosrow II and his queen Shirin – Smbat Bagratuini (Figure 4) was to replicate the spectacular successes of the Sassanian military against a renewed Turco-Hephthalite invasion of the Sassanian empire from the northeast in 618-619 CE (For more information on color plates and sources consult: Plate F, pp.53-54, 62, Elite Sassanian Cavalry-اسواران ساسانی-).

The upper classes enjoyed the first recognizably “Persian” culture: brocaded silks, floral tapestries, ornate goblets, sumptuous carpets, intricate mosaics, and the styles of music, food and poetry that would so captivate their Islamic conquerors a few centuries hence — just as they would later captivate the Seljuks, the Mongols and the Ottomans; and that continue to lend their distinct influences to Turkish and Iranian culture, even today. Any time you savor a bite of baklava or sip a glass of dark tea, thank the Sassanians.

Sassanian influence remains strong in this painting of King Bahram V Gur, from the mid-16th-century Safavid era (The Strange Continent).

You can also thank the Sassanian aristocracy for much of (what would later become) the medieval European aesthetic. Look at this Sasanian rock engraving, for example, and you’re essentially looking at a medieval European king …

Rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rustam of Sassanian emperor Shapur I (on horseback) capturing Roman emperor Valerian (standing) and Philip the Arab (kneeling), suing for peace, following the victory at Edessa (The Strange Continent).

…except that this engraving depicts the Sassanian shah-en-shah Shapur I, and dates from around 260 CE — a full thousand years before the European medieval period, when the height of Roman fashion was still togas and sandals. It’s like Shapur time-traveled to Rome from the future.

Regal Sassanian figures (middle and right) with the ray-headed Mithras holding a ceremonial sword or barsom at Taghe Bostan (The Strange Continent).

The Sassanian aristocracy, like their later medieval imitators, wore ankle-length robes and pointed slippers, tunics and trousers— more borrowings from the Achaemenids, Assyrians and Babylonians before them.

They rode into battle on famously enormous horses, outfitted in full suits of chain-mail armor, wielding broadswords and longbows, carrying jousting lances. For more see:

Ever wondered how Roman legions would fare against medieval knights? You don’t have to wonder — the Romans fought hundreds of battles against the Sassanians, and the Sassanians often beat the Roman legions to a bloody pulp; especially when fighting on the defensive.

When the Roman army started incorporating their own armored heavy cavalry, they got better at fighting back against the feudal knights of the Sassanian aristocracy — but the Romans never made any permanent incursions into Sassanian territory, or inflicted many serious defeats. The Sassanians never made it very far into Roman territory, either. For hundreds of years, the two armies held each other, in large part, at a stalemate.

Sassanian forces counterattack the invading Turco-Hephthalites in the Sassanian Empire’s northeast; the figures in the above plate (1-late Sassanian Savar-Framandar, 2-Kanarang, 3-Paygospan and 4-Turkic Gok warriors) are based on reconstructions from Sassanian archaeological data such as the grotto of the armored knight inside the vault or Iwan at Taghe Bostan, the (post-Sassanian) metalwork work plate of Pur-e Vahman as well as East Iranian sources (For more information consult: Plate C, pp.53-54, 60-61, Elite Sassanian Cavalry-اسواران ساسانی-).

It wasn’t only in military matters that the  were centuries ahead of their time. Their scholars translated the works of Plato and Aristotle — preserving many books that were later lost to the West — and organized debates between sages and scholars of dozens of philosophies and religions, from all across Asia.

The shah established a “Grand School” at the capital city of Ctesiphon (in modern Iraq), where more than 30,000 pupils studied astronomy, architecture, medicine and literature. In fact, a few centuries later, when the Roman emperor Justinian forcibly closed all the Greek schools, the Sassanians would welcome the fleeing Greek philosophers with open arms.

A 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. For more see Ken R. Vincent: Zoroaster-the First Universalist 

Long after the Western Roman Empire fell beneath waves of attack from the Huns and Goths, the Sassanian emperors continued to hold their own against the Eastern Roman Empire, slowly growing weaker under relentless losses against the Byzantines, the Turks, the Khazars, and hordes of other enemies.

By the time the armies of Islam rode out of Arabia, the once-great Sassanian Empire was fragmented and exhausted. An army led by Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattāb captured city after Sassanian city throughout the mid-600s; and by 651, the remains of the knightly and priestly aristocracy fled, in despair, into the vastness of the Central Asian steppe-land.

The remains of the Sassanian royal palace at Ctesiphon, in modern Iraq (The Strange Continent).

It’s often been said, though, that no one truly captures Persia. Instead, Persia captures her conquerors. There’s no doubt that she captured the Arabs. Much of what we think of as “Arabian culture” today — the distinctive styles of art, food, architecture and music; the tales of The 1,001 Nights; the wealth and opulence of Middle-Eastern monarchs— owes far more, in fact, to the Sassanian palace gardens than to the deserts of Arabia.

To read more on this topic, consult The Strange Continent …

Documentary Film Production: the UNESCO Sassanian Fortress in Darband

Pejman Akbarzadeh is making a new documentary about the Sassanian fortress Darband in Daghestan, which is the largest known (pre-Islamic) Iranian defensive structure in Caucasus. Despite being registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the latter remains (excepting among specialized scholars) remarkably unknown internationally, even among contemporary Iranians.

A view of a section of Darband in winter season (Source: Public Domain).

The Persian Heritage Foundation, founded in the 1980s by the late Ehsan Yarshater (1920-2018; one of the primary editors of the Encyclopedia Iranica) has agreed to cover 50% of the production costs. Pejman will be traveling to Daghestan in October 2019 in order to film the fortress and to interview Murtazali Gadjiev (The Institute of History, Archeology and Ethnography of the Daghestan Scientific Centre of Russian Academy of Sciences).

More support however is needed in order to sustain the remaining costs of this important project. For more information on supporting this project on Crowdfunding, click here …

A view of a section of Darband in the summertime (Source: Public Domain).

Pejman’s previous project, was the successful documentary on the Sassanian archway of Taghe Kasra (Taq Kasra) and its critical situation in Iraq. The film has been screened at various museums, universities and international conventions around the world. This documentary film has been cited as an “impressive film” by the BBC.

Fall 2019 Iranian Studies Initiative Lectures at the University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia’s Persian and Iranian Studies Initiative of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia will be providing a series of lectures by prominent Iranian Studies scholars in the Fall of 2019. All of these lectures will be Free and open to the general public. As seen further below, the lecturers shall be Mahsa Rad, Dominic P. Brookshaw, Shahzad Bashir, Farzan Kermani, Morteza Asadi and Kaveh Farrokh.

The planned lectures and specific dates for these are as follows:

Mahsa Rad, Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology, Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran; Visiting International Research Student at UBC: Loneliness and  Struggle: Self-Narratives of Iranian Trans People’s Livesروایت  زندگی ترنس های ایرانی (in Persian)[13 Sept. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Dominic P. Brookshaw, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Persian Literature at The Oriental Institute, Oxford Semi-Annual Lecture in Persian/Iranian Studies: One Poet Among Many: Hafez and the Transregional Literary Networks of 14th-Century Iran (in English) – [Sept. 27, 2019, lecture hall to be announced]

Shahzad Bashir, Ph.D., Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Humanities, Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University: Imagining Time in India: Persian Chroniclers and their Interpreters (in English) – [11 Oct. 2019, 6-7:30 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Farzan Kermani, Ph.D. in Design, IIT Bombay: Iranian Art After Islam: With a Look at Some Renowned Iranian Calligraphersهنر ایران پس از اسلام: با نگاهی به سرگذشت چند خوشنویس بلندآوازه – (in Persian) – [25 Oct. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Morteza Asadi, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar at the School of International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC; former Assistant Professor of Economy at Kharazmi University, Tehran: Political Economy of Oil Curse: The Case of Post-Revolutionary Iran (in English) – [8 Nov. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Kaveh Farrokh, Ph.D., Professor of History & Academic Advisor for Analytica Iranica, Methodolgica Governance University, Paris, France: Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europa during the Classical Era (in English) – [29 Nov. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Readers further interested in Kaveh Farrokh’s upcoming lecture are encouraged to download two of his peer-reviewed articles as well as the Dissertation of Sheda Vasseqhi below:

Farrokh, K. (2016). An Overview of the Artistic, Architectural, Engineering and Culinary exchanges between Ancient Iran and the Greco-Roman World. AGON: Rivista Internazionale di Studi Culturali, Linguistici e Letterari, No.7, pp.64-124.

Farrokh, K. (2009). The Winged Lion of Meskheti: a pre- or post-Islamic Iranian Legacy in Georgia? Scientific Paradigms. Studies in Honour of Professor Natela Vachnadze. St. Andrew the First-Called Georgian University of the Patriarchy of Georgia. Tbilisi, pp. 455-492.

PhD Dissertation by Sheda Vasseqhi (University of New England; academic supervision team Academic advising Team: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi, Kaveh Farrokh): Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In  the Origins Of Western Civilization.

See also:

A 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.