Bukhara in Pre-Islamic Times

The article below by the late Harvard Professor Emeritus Professor Richard N. Nelson Frye (1920-2014) on Bukhara in Pre-Islamic Times was originally posted in the Encyclopedia Iranica.

Kindly note that a number of pictures displayed in the article below are from 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 and Farrokh’s textbook  Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-).


The site or town of Bukhara was one of many settlements in the large oasis formed by the mouths of the Zarafshan (Zarafšān) river in ancient Sogdiana. Since there is no evidence that the river reached the Oxus in historic times, it is a reasonable assumption that in the first millennium B.C. irrigation, using the water of the river, enabled an ever-growing population to expand the arable land of the oasis. At the time of Alexander the Great no city is reported to have existed in this area, and the history of Bukhara cannot be traced before the 4th or 5th century of our era, which is the probable date of the first coins with indigenous Bu­kharan Sogdian writing on them. The alphabet used is one derived from Aramaic.

Ancient Bukhara Ark[Click to Enlarge] The ancient Ark of Bukhara dated to a settlement dated to 500 BCE or (approx.) 2500 years ago. The bulk of the present brickwork is believed to be dated to 850 CE and its repairs and re-building ever since, however elements of the original thousands year-old foundation remains visible. Note the Zindon (Persian; Zendan = prison) pit is seen constructed behind the walls (Picture Source: Megalithic UK).

The name Bukhara may be derived either from a Sogdian word *βuxārak, whence Old Turkish Buqaraq, meaning “fortunate place” (cf. Christian So. fwxʾr) or, less likely, from a local form of vihāra, a Buddhist monastery (see buddhism ii). Naršaḵī seems to favor the former, citing an Arabic word fāḵera with the same meaning, whereas Jovaynī (I, p. 76; tr. p. 98) supports the derivation from vihāra. The name is spelled pwxʾr in a Sogdian manuscript in Sogdian script of uncertain date (Henning, 1940, pp. 8-9).

On the obverse of the coins from Bukhara appears the bust of a ruler facing right and wearing a crown copied from the crown of the Sasanian Bahrām V (r. 420-­38). This gives the earliest date for the coinage, but it is unknown how much later than the time of Bahrām that the coinage actually began (see Frye, 1949, p. 26). The earliest coins have the legend βwγʾr γwβ ʾšδʾδʾ “King Ašδāδ of Bukhara”? (Smirnova, 1970, p. 56). Later kings have a legend reading βwγʾr γwβ kʾwʾ (or kʾnʾ) “king of Bukhara, the hero” (or: “Kā¦nā¦,” a personal name). On still later coins the third word of the legend is shortened to kʾw (So. “giant”) or kʾy, which Henning (apud Frye, 1949, p. 28) suggested was a Sogdian calque on the Middle Persian Kay (written kdy), a title first found on legends of the coins of Pērōz (r. 459-84). After the Arab conquest Arabic words were added to the coins, and gradually the Bukharan legend, no longer understood, degenerated to illegibility. Finally only Arabic legends appear, which for the most part are only pious formulae. The data of the coins with Arabic legends is from early ʿAbbasid times, for standard Islamic coins with only Arabic legends ousted the Bukharan coins by the time of the Samanids, although local issues of the Bukharan coins continued for several centuries. The long series of coins, however, reveals the conservatism of the people of the Bukharan oasis, and perhaps a longer usage of a local written form of Sogdian than hitherto assumed.

Simurgh-Bird MotifPost-Sassanian style decoration motifs common in Iranian architecture adorn this mosque archway in Bukhara; note large bird or Simurgh (Persian Phoenix – Turkic: Ertugrul), a dog reminiscent of Sassanian arts and the floral-arboreal patterns (Picture source: Natasha von Geldern in World Wandering Kiwi).

Although the coins reveal the existence of a pre-­Islamic government in the oasis, undoubtedly the area was settled before the beginning of the coinage. Naršaḵī’s assertion (pp. 7-8; tr. p. 6) that the site of Bukhara had been a swamp in ancient times but that the river brought silt that filled the lowlands and enabled people to live there probably is correct. There may even have been an Oxian lake there in very early times according to Ptolemy (4.12.3).

The Tārīḵ-e Boḵārā mentions several pre-Islamic rulers, but their names are uncertain, and we know nothing about them. The first ruler of Bukhara men­tioned by Naršaḵī (p. 8; tr. p. 7) is Abrūʾī or Abarzī. He became tyrannical and was overthrown by a Turkish ruler called Qarā Jūrjīn. Unfortunately neither person can be identified from other sources. Another ruler mentioned by Naršaḵī (p. 49; tr. p. 35) is Kānā, who is credited with introducing coinage into Bukhara of the time of Abū Bakr, the first caliph. This is hardly acceptable, but whether this is a misreading of the word kʾwʾ on the coins (see above) is uncertain. Another ruler is called Māḵ (p. 29; tr. p. 19), who is said to have built the bāzār in Bukhara called after his name, and still another king of Bukhara called Dīzoʾī is mentioned on a silver vessel (see Frye, 1950, p. 110). Again nothing is known about these rulers.

Suzani Robe-Bukhara-Central AsiaA Suzani Robe from Ancient Bukhara, a mutli-colored style of silk embroidery from Central Asia’s Ferghana valley (Picture Source: Suzanis Blog).

It would seem that there were several local lords in the oasis of Bukhara, especially in the towns of Paykand, Vardana, and Varaḵša. Both Paykand and Varaḵša are mentioned as residences of the rulers by Naršaḵī, but it is unknown whether they were local rulers or rulers of the entire oasis. Some kind of unity in the oasis is implied by the coinage, by the extensive irrigation system, and by the long walls around the settled and cultivated areas. The wall, called kampīrak or kampīr dovāl “old lady’s wall,” probably existed in pre-Islamic times although it may not have been completed (or extended) until the early ʿAbbasid period. In spite of an apparent unity of the oasis the success of the Arab conquest suggests there was little more unity in the oasis than between oases.

With a ruler of Bukhara called Bīdūn (or Bandūn) we reach the time just before the Arab conquest, for he is mentioned by a number of Arabic sources, although with several variant readings of his name. It is uncertain whether he was killed in battle with Salm b. Zīād, the first Arab commander to cross the Oxus in 681, or whether he was already dead and his widow, called Ḵātūn in the sources, was regent for their son Ṭoḡšāda. Under Ṭoḡšāda the Arab conquest of Bukhara was accomplished. It should be noted that in the Arabic sources the rulers of Bukhara were called Boḵār-ḵodāt, where the last word is Sogdian γwtʾw, used for the nobility or aristocracy of the Sogdian oases.

Figure-2-Bukhara Jew[Click to Enlarge] Image of a Bukhara Jew in Central Asia at the turn of the 19th century. The Jews of Bukhara are located in not just in the city of Bukhara but also in other cities of Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Bukhara Jews speak a Jewish vernacular of the Samarkand-Bukhara dialect of the Perso-Tajik language (Photo Source: The Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center).

The boundaries of the oasis of Bukhara on the whole have remained constant during the last millennium, but from pre-Islamic times mounds or remains of buildings are found in the desert to the west, outside the present-­day oasis, attesting a larger area of settlement in more ancient times (see Shishkin, p. 22). There were many canals in the oasis that utilized the water of the Zarafshan river, and three of the major canals men­tioned in Arabic or Persian sources can be identified today: Šāpūrkām (today Shafrikan/Šāfrekān), Ḵarḡ/qānrūd (Kalkan), and Ḵetfar or ʿĀv/Ḡāw-Ḵetfar (Babkent Darya/Bābkand Daryā), which divided into the Andāna and the Rāmīṯan-Sāmjan canals (Naršaḵī, pp. 44-45, tr. Frye, p. 32; Eṣṭaḵrī, pp. 310-11; Ebn Ḥawqal, pp. 486-87, tr. Kramers, II, pp. 466-67; Barthold, Turkestan, pp. 113-16).

The only extensive historical pre-Islamic excavations in the oasis were those of a palace complex in Varaḵša in 1938-39 and 1949-54, revealing traces of wall paintings as well as clay statuettes. In the city of Bukhara the site of the mosque of Magoki Attar was investigated by V. A. Shishkin in the 1950s, and pottery and other small objects from the earliest layer suggested a date as early as the beginning of our era. Other sites, such as that of Paykand, have only been surveyed (Shishkin, p. 16).


R. N. Frye, Notes on the Early Coinage of Transoxania, New York, 1949.

Idem, “Additional Notes on the Coinage of Transoxiana,” American Numismatic Society. Museum Notes (New York) 4, 1950, pp. 105-14.

W. B. Henning, Sogdica, James O. Forlong Fund 21, London, 1940.

Jovaynī, Tārīḵ-e jahāngošā, ed. Qazvīnī; tr. Boyle. Naršaḵī, Tārīḵ-e Boḵārā, ed. Rażawī; tr. Frye. O. I. Smirnova, Ocherki iz istorii Sogda, Moscow, 1970.

V. A. Shish­kin, Varakhsha, Moscow, 1963.

O. A. Sukhareva, K istorii gorodov Bukharskogo khanstva, Tashkent, 1958.

Mehrdad Shokoohy: Persian Influence on Kashmiri Art

The article below by Mehrdad Shokoohy on the Persian Influence on Kashmiri Art was originally Published on the Encyclopedia Iranica on May 1, 2012 and last updated on May 15, 2012; this article is also available in print (Vol. XVI, Fasc. 1, p. 61-64).

Kindly note that excepting two figures and accompanying captions, all other pictures/illustrations and accompanying descriptions do not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica posting.


The Iranian influence on the art and architecture of Kashmir is indirect, appearing in ancient times via Hellenistic and Kushan culture and later through Muslim India. Spread over the western Himalaya, the once relatively inaccessible region’s architecture still reflects Himalayan traditions in its extensive use of timber and the pitched and tiered roofs. Even as late as the 17th century, its people lived in rudimentary huts and tents; only palaces, mansions of the wealthy, and temples were constructed of timber, still a perishable and combustible material. As a result, little is preserved of the ancient monuments except in the ruins of a very few stone temples, which, to a great extent, reflect the style of the timber structures.

1-Kanishka the Great-1st Century CEStatue of King Kanishka I (c. AD 127–163) of the Kushan Empire (c. 30-375 CE)  (housed in the Mathura Government Museum, Source: Public Domain). The large broadsword was a powerful cultural symbol in the martial cultures of the Iranian kingdoms as exemplified by the “broadsword” of Khosrow II seen at the top panel inside the Iwan at Taghe Bostan near Kermanshah in Western Iran. Note also the “French” Fleur-de-lis symbols at the bottom end of Kanishka’s shorter sword. The origins of the Fleur-de-lis are in the ancient Iranian realms and had a powerful imprint on the Caucasus, notably Georgia and Armenia.

The earliest Iranian influence can be seen in a fragment of a 2nd-century statue of a Kushan ruler, carved in the Parthian style, found in the ancient site of Huvishkapura (modern Ushkar), and preserved in the Sri Partap Singh Museum at Srinagar. Huvishkapura, founded by Emperor Huvishka (see huviška) in the 2nd century CE, is one of the many towns built by the Kushan kings in Kashmir. Little survives of the town today, except for the remains of Huvishka’s stupa, which was reconstructed in the 8th century and later became a Vaishnavite Hindu site (Kak, 1933, p. 152).

Extensive Iranian influence impacted Kashmir after the disintegration of the Parthian empire in 227, when numerous artisans and stonemasons seem to have left the eastern borders of the empire for Kashmir and northwest India. As the Sasanian conquest of Kushan did not extend as far as Kashmir, the Parthian style continued to flourish in the Buddhist sites of the region, as presented in the stupas and monastery at Harwan, which preserve numerous figures in Parthian costume carved in the Parthian style (see figure below).

2-kashmir_5_fig1-Encyclopedia IranicaTerracotta bas relief with a horseman in Parthian posture and costume, with quiver and fluttering scarves in the Iranian style. At the base of the plaque are incised the Kharoshthi numerals 1, 4 and 10. Sri Partap Singh Museum, Srinagar (after R. C. Kak, 1933, pl. 23) (Source: Description and Picture from Encyclopedia Iranica).

Parthian traditions seem to have remained prevalent, as wherever Indians in Indian costumes are represented they are carved in a non-Indian manner. Nevertheless, the images show that Indians were indeed in the region, and when their art is reflected, it is in typically Gupta floral motifs. By the end of the 4th century, the Iranian influence started to decline, and Indian culture began to dominate. Later Buddhism, along with its arts, much related to Gandharan and Partho-Hellenistic culture, was replaced by Hinduism, and the Iranian influence would not be seen in Kashmir until the introduction of Islam into the region in the mid-14th century. But in the 9th-century temples of the Utpala dynasty at Avantipura, decorative motifs of Sasanian style are prevalent in the surface decoration, while the design principles relate to North India. It seems that, with the collapse of the Sasanian empire after the Muslim conquest, once again Iranian craftsmen together with others from the Near East moved to the relative safety of the mountains of Kashmir (Goetz, 1952, p. 81).

Kashmir was never conquered by a Muslim army, but Islam was introduced to the region by one Šāh Mirzā or Šāh Mir, a Muslim adventurer who entered the court of the local raja in 715/ 1315-16; subsequently, in 747/ 1346-47, he married the last Hindu ruler, Queen Kutāh Div (Kotā Devi), but killed her a day after their marriage (Ferešta, II, p. 338; Neẓām-al-Din Aḥmad Heravi, Ṭabaqāt-e akbari III, p. 425). The spread of Islam was slow but firm, and the sixth Šāh-Miri sultan, Sekandar b. Hindal, known as Botšekan “Idol-breaker” (r. ca. 796-819/ 1393-1417), converted the entire population. This was after the coming of the Kobrawi Sufi, Sayyed ʿAli Hamadāni, who resided in Srinagar and was instrumental in the spread of Islam in Kashmir. Among his many followers was the Kashmir Sultan Qoṭb-al-Din Ṭāher (ca. 772-88/1370-86; Aḏkāʾi, pp. 51-53). Sekandar expelled those who did not convert, although his son, the enlightened Sultan Zaynal- ʿĀbedin (r. 826-77/1422-73), allowed some Hindus to return.

5-zarrin-qalamA Double-sided Persian calligraphy manuscript on paper by Zarin Qalam, signed by Faqir-i Kashmiri, India, Mughal, circa 1590-1600 (Source: Pinterest).

Sekandar earned his epithet by destroying whatever temples were left from earlier eras. Little remains of his own edifices, but the buildings of the time of Zaynal- ʿĀbedin leave the impression that the early mosques and tombs would either be built over the remains of the sanctum of an earlier temple or be erected on a square plan following the traditional style. They were often made entirely in timber or with brick or stone walls and Islamic arches, but with a timber pitched roof surmounted by a square canopy with an elongated pitched roof—similar in form to the pinnacle (chattrāvali) of a Himalayan stupa— used as a minaret for the call to prayer. The style appears in many buildings, such as the shrine of Madani or Mādin Šāh at Zadibal and the mosque of Šāh Ḥamdān (the local name for Sayyed ʿAli Hamadāni) in Srinagar, both originally founded at the time of Sultan Zayn-al-ʿĀbedin but many times rebuilt.

The exception is the tomb of Zayn-al- ʿAbedin’s mother, which is a brick structure consisting of an octagonal, double-shelled domed chamber with four smaller double-shelled domes over three square chambers and the entrances at the cardinal points. The building, and particularly its domes, seems to have been inspired by the grand monuments of Samarqand, but executed on a modest scale (see below).

3-kashmirfig2-Encyclopedia IranicaSrinagar, the tomb of Sultan Zayn-al-ʿĀbedin’s mother with Central-Asian style domes (after Tadgel, 1990, p. 182, pl. 208) (Source: Description and Picture from Encyclopedia Iranica).

An example representing all aspects of traditional Kashmiri architecture is the mosque at Avantipura, erected near the ruins of the ancient site, but, unlike the earlier mosques and shrines, not incorporating spoil of ancient monuments. The most outstanding monument of the sultanate of Kashmir, however, is the Jāmeʿ Mosque of Srinagar, which has an Iranian and Central Asian four-ayvān plan built with brick walls and grand arches for the ayvāns, but with wooden columns supporting a traditional, Kashmiri-style timber superstructure. In his memoirs, the Mughal emperor Nur-al-Din Moḥammad Jahāngir (p. 338) describes this mosque:

In the town there is an extremely elegant mosque of the edifices of Sultan Sekandar, which was founded in 795 [1392-93] but after some time it burnt, and Sultan Ḥasan reconstructed it; but before its completion the mansion of his life collapsed on its foundations and in 909 [1503] Ebrāhim Bākari, the vizier of Sultan Moḥammad completed the mosque with auspicious ending. . . . It has four ayvāns and the surfaces of the ayvāns and columns are covered with paintings executed with elegant motifs. Truly, no monument better than this has survived from the time of the rulers of Kashmir.”

Elsewhere (p. 340) he notes that the roofs of the mosque, as with those of other buildings, were covered with soil and planted with tulips (also see Lāhuri, I/2, p. 23). The mosque was, however, rebuilt at the end of the reign of Jahāngir (r. 1605-27) and was completed in 1637 at the time of Šāh-Jahān (r. 1628-57), apparently without much alteration to its original layout and appearance, but the tradition of planting tulips on the roof has long been abandoned.

4-Jamia Masjid Kashmir Srinagar-Pic-Bilal-BahadurThe Grand Mosque of Kashmir (known locally as “Jamia Masjid”) of the city of Srinagar, bears strong Persian architectural influences (Source: Photograph by Bilal Bahadur in Kashmirlife.net).

Kashmir was taken by the army of the Mughal emperor Akbar in 994/ 1585-86 (ʿAllāmi, III, p. 474; Jahāngir, p. 338), who himself visited the region three years later  (ʿAllāmi, III, pp. 542-52), constructed a fort in Srinagar, and established a garden known as Bāḡ-e Nurafzā (Jahāngir, p. 343). The garden may be the same as what is now known as Nasim Bāḡ, a sizeable but dilapidated garden on a Persian čahārbāḡ layout, the avenues of which are lined with lofty plane trees and said to date from the time of Akbar (r. 1556-1605). Whether or not the two gardens are the same, there is little doubt that Akbar’s gardens would have been on a čahārbāḡ layout, as the form was introduced to India by Bābor in his garden at Agra, and subsequent Mughal gardens were laid out on similar principles. Akbar also introduced a number of fruit trees native to Khorasan and Badakhshan, including sweet cherries and an early fruiting morrello cherry called aškan (Jahāngir, p. 348). Akbar’s fort, completed by Jahāngir, has, however, survived and, as with other Mughal monuments of the period, the Persian influence is apparent in the profile of the arches, which follow closely the style of late Timurid and Safavid four-centered arches.

Persian Gardens in Kashmir

Although only a few of the many Mughal gardens in and around Srinagar have survived, the remaining ones are the main attraction of the town. Two such gardens established by Jahāngir in 1029/ 1619-20 are Šālimār (called Šālmāl by Jahāngir, pp. 343-44, and Šālmār by Kanbō, II, p. 28), a rectangular čahārbāḡ by the Dal Lake in Srinagar, laid out on three ascending platforms, each with stylish pavilions, and the Vērnāg garden (Jahāngir, p. 356) with a large, octagonal pool at the source of the river Jhelam, which was favored particularly by Nur Jahān, Jahāngir’s influential Persian queen. On her order a mosque called Patthar Masjid was built of stone in Srinagar, following the traditional Indian plan but with a wooden pitched roof. In the vicinity of Srinagar Jahāngir established other gardens, including one in Achhabal (Jahāngir, p. 355).

6-Shalimar Persian gardenThe Shalimar Bagh (Garden) of Srinagar, Kashmir constructed in the Mughal-era Persian architectural style featuring fountains, canals, pools, patterned flower works, grasses, trees, etc. (Source: Tripadikberadik).

Jahāngir also notes the shawls of Kashmir (pp. 341- 42):

Kashmir’s shawls . . . are so famous that they need no words of admiration; another type is therma which is thicker than shawl and is a twill weave (mowjdār) and soft . . . The wool of the shawl is from a type of goat, which is specific to Tibet.

Whatever the patterns of the pre-Mughal shawls might have been, the motifs of surviving Mughal and later examples are closely comparable to traditional Islamic and Iranian designs. A fashionable article in 19th-century Europe, Kashmir shawls became a victim of their own success when machine-made imitations from centers such as Paisley in Scotland gradually took over their market in the 1870s. The Mughals also introduced carpet weaving with traditional Persian knots and patterns, and even today some of the best carpets of India are produced in Kashmir.

Šāh-Jahān also spent many summers in Kashmir, where he established new gardens, improved the older ones, and at Vērnāg garden added an arcade around the pool (Lāhuri, I/2, pp. 23-29, 47; Kanbō, II, pp. 28-31, 276). His daughter, Jahān Ārā Begom, built a stone mosque with a grand arched portal for her spiritual leader, Mollā Šāh Badaḵši, in Srinagar; and near Šālimār his minister, Āṣaf Khan, a brother of Nur Jahān, established Nešāt Bāḡ (Lāhuri, I/2, p. 47; Kanbō, II, p. 355), a grand garden, again on several platforms. Some suggest (Agrawal, p. 181) that the platform arrangement seen in the gardens of Kashmir follows the concept of palaces and houses with a forecourt at the lower platform, leading to a middle platform as the public area (biruni) with the highest platform acting as the private quarters (andaruni), but the more likely reason for terracing is to bring out the potential of the sloping terrain while resolving its problems in a pragmatic way. The last of the Mughal gardens of Kashmir is the Pari Maḥal or Pir-e Maḥal, built by Dārā Šokuh in 1644 as his residence on the side of the steep hill with a commanding view over Srinagar and the Dal Lake. The terraces and structures of the garden have survived, but little remains of the garden and its trees. Most of the gardens of Kashmir have been restored in recent years and have been replanted with flowering shrubs and ornamental trees, but the many varieties of fruit trees, a prime feature of these gardens described by Jahāngir in detail, are missing.

Bibliography: Primary sources

Abu’l-Fażl ʿAllāmi, Akbar-nāma, ed. Āqā Aḥmad-ʿAli and Mawlawi ʿAbd-al- Raḥim, Bibliotheca Indica 79, 3 vols., Calcutta, 1878-86, III, pp. 542-52; tr. H. Beveridge as The Akbarnāma . . . , 3 vols., Calcutta, 1897-1921.

Moḥammad- Qāsem b. Hendušāh Estarābādi Ferešta, Golšan-e ebrāhimi, known as Tāriḵ-e Ferešta, 2 vols (with addenda), Lucknow, 1864, I, pp. 266-67; II, pp. 333-73; tr. John Briggs as History of the Rise of the Mohamedan Power in India till the Year A.D. 1612, 4 vols., Calcutta, 1966.

Nur-al-din Moḥammad Jahāngir Gurkāni, Jahāngir-nāma: Tuzoke Jahāngiri, ed. Moḥammad Hāšem, Tehran, 1980; tr. Alexander Rogers as The Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri: Memoirs of Jahangir, ed. Henry Beveridge, Delhi, 1968.

Moḥammad- Ṣāleḥ Kanbō, ʿAmal-e Ṣāleḥ, al-mawsum be Šāhjahān- nāma, ed. Ḡolām Yazdāni and Waḥid Qorayši, 3 vols., Calcutta, 1923-39; repr., Lahore, 1960-67.

ʿAbdal- Ḥamid Lāhuri, Bādšāh-nāma, ed. Mawlawi Kabiral- Din Aḥmad and ʿAbd-al-Raḥim, Bibliotheca Indica 56, 2 vols. in 3, Calcutta, 1867-68.

Ḵᵛāja Neẓām-al-Din Aḥmad b. Moḥammad Moqim Heravi, Ṭabaqāt-e akbari, ed. Brajendranath De and Hedayat Husain, Bibliotheca Indica 223, 3 vols., Calcutta, 1927-35, II, pp. 407-10; III, pp. 424-500; tr. Brajendranath De as The Tabaqat-i- Akbari  . . . : A History of India from the Early Musalman Invasions to the Thirty-sixth Year of the Reign of Akbar, 3 vols., Calcutta, 1927-39.

Bibliography: Studies

Ramesh C. Agrawal, Kashmir and Its Monumental Glory, New Delhi, 1998.

Parviz Aḏkāʾi, “Sargoẕašt-nāma-ye ʿAli Hamadāni,” Farhang-e Irān zamin 28, 1988, pp. 9-69.

Afshan Bukhari, “The “Light” of the Timuria: Jahan Ara Begum’s Patronage, Piety and Poetry in the Seventeenth Century Mughal India,” Marg 60/1, 2008, pp. 52-61.

Percy Brown, Indian Architecture (Islamic Period), Bombay 1942; rev. ed., 7th repr. with additional illustrations, Bombay, 1981, Chap. 15, “Kashmir,” pp. 80-83.

W. G. Cowie, “Notes on Some of the Temples of Kashmir,” JRASB 35, 1866, pp. 91-122.

Hermann Goetz; “The Beginnings of Mediaeval Art in Kashmir,” Journal of the University of Bombay 21/2, 1952, pp. 63-106.

Idem, “The Sun Temple of Mārtānd and the Art of Lalitāditya-Muktāpida,” Indian Art and Letters 27, 1953, pp. 1-11.

Idem, “Mediaeval Sculpture of Kasmir,” Marg 8/2, 1955, pp. 67-74.

Ram Chandra Kak, Antiquities of Bhimbar and Rajauri, Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India 14, Calcutta, 1923, pp. 9-11, pl. 11.

Idem, Ancient Monuments of Kashmir, London, 1933.

John Marshall, “The Monuments of Muslim India,” in Wolseley Haig, ed., The Cambridge History of India III: Turks and Afghans, Cambridge, 1928, pp. 568–663, esp. pp. 637-39, pls. 50–51.

W. H. Nicholls, Report of the Mughal Gardens at Srinagar, Shalimar Bagh, Atthibal and Chashma Shahi, Allahabad, 1906.

Idem, “Muhammadan Architecture in Kashmir,” Archaeological Survey of India: Annual Reports, 1906-07, pp. 161-70.

Sunil Chandra Ray, Early History and Culture of Kashmir, Calcutta, 1958, pp. 190-205.

Shyam L. Sadhu, ed., Mediaeval Kashmir, New Delhi, 1993, a reprint of Kings of Kashmira III, Jogesh Chandra Dutt’s tr. of the Rājataraṅgiṇīs of Jonaraja, Shrivara, and Shuka, Calcutta, 1898.

D. R. Sahni, “Excavations at Avantipur,” Archaeological Survey of India: Annual Reports, 1913-14, pp. 40-62.

Idem, “Pre-Muhammadan Monuments of Kashmir,” Archaeological Survey of India: Annual Reports, 1915- 16, pp. 49-78.

Christopher Tadgel, The History of Architecture in India, London, 1990.

Constance M. Villiers Stuart, Gardens of the Great Mughals, London, 1913.

James L. Wescoat, Jr. and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn, eds., Mughal Gardens: Sources, Places, Representations, and Prospects, Washington, D.C., 1996.

Chess: Iranian or Indian Invention?

The article below has been edited by Shapour Suren-Pahlav of the CAIS website in London. As noted by Suren-Pahlav: “Large portion of this essay has been excerpted from “The Origin of Chess; Some Facts to Think About” by Ricardo Calvo, 1996.”


The Origin of Chess

Chess is one of humanities popular pastimes and has been described not only as a game, but also as an art, a science and a sport. Chess is sometimes seen as an abstract war-game and a ‘mental martial art. And teaching and playing chess have been advocated as a way of enhancing mental prowess.


Seven piece ivory set (7th century CE) (Source: CAIS).

It is very unlikely that Chess, almost as it is played today suddenly came into existence or invented by one person. The idea of it being a combination of elements from other board-games has merit. Since almost all known board games have religious backgrounds the astrological component is entirely possible, even though one prefers the version that all elements come from other games, as the basis for the counters. Iran as the area of origin is highly possible, especially because of the two excavated debated pieces from the second century CE, which were found in the area of Iranian cultural domination.


chess is an ancient game which is first mentioned in documents dating back to the early years of the 7th century CE. and associated with North West India and Iran. Before the 7th century the existence of chess in any land is not demonstrable by a single shred of contemporary evidence” (Fiske, the Nation).

Claiming the glory

Various scholars have proposed various origins for chess: Bidev states that “chess comes from China”, while Samsin suggests that there was hybridisation of Eastern and Western games in the post Alexander kingdom of Bactria in c180-50BCE. Josten is geographically between the two of them, favoring the Kushan empire in ca. 50BCE – 200CE.


A Knight chess-piece (7th c. CE) from Afrasiab (Source: CAIS).

However, possibly the strongest – or perhaps most vociferous – arguments have come from those who consider that chess originated in the Indian subcontinent in around 600CE. This view was propagated by Murray and van der Linde in the late 19th – early 20th centuries, and has subsequently been supported by Averbak.

This brief paper examines some etymological, literary and archaeological evidence for the Iranian origin of chess – and so suggests that the question of the origin of the famous game is still unanswered.

Etymological evidence

Various names have been, and are now, used for chess-like games. Indian Chaturanga, for example, is a chess-like game, but it is played on an eight by eight board (rather than the modern chess twelve by twelve board) and it uses slightly different pieces and rules to those in the modern game. It has been suggested to be a proto-game for chess, of Indian origin.

The word chaturanga means ‘quadripartite’ or ‘army’ which reflects the four components in Vedic army platoons, which are themselves reflected in the types of pieces used in the game. Ricardo Calvo notes that the first unmistakable reference to the game of chaturanga is in the Harschascharita by the court poet Bina, writing between 625 and 640CE. The word’s early literary use and its origin in the ancient language of Sanskrit have been suggested to provide supporting evidence for the Indian origin of chess. Murray specifically suggested that the Sasanian-Pahlavi word chatrang – used for a game equivalent to the current chess – was derived from chaturanga. However, one of the most etymological evidences can be identified in the terminology of chess pieces which are Persian such as Rook.

Rook which is a Western derivative of Rukh is another term for Iranian mythical bird Sên-Murv, and Simurgh in New Persian. In ancient Iranian literature (Avestan) Sên-Murv identified as Homâ and in Arabic introduced as Rukh. The Simurgh or Rukh, was depicted as a winged gigantic creature in the shape of a bird, that could carry an elephant or a camel. The functionality of the Rook piece in game of chess and its iconography in Iranian world is quite significant. The bird which Iranian believed imparted fertility to the land and the union between the earth and the sky. In India, the piece is more popularly called haathi, meaning “elephant“.

Chess-4-rukh-ferghana A Rukh piece found in Ferghana 8th to 10th centuries CE (Source: CAIS).

Another hint is the nomenclature of the pieces, persistently related to different sorts of animals rather than to components of an army: In the “Grande Acedrex” of King Alfonso of Castile (1283) lions, crocodiles, giraffes etc. play over a board of 12×12 cases with peculiar jumping moves, and the invention of it is connected to the same remote period in India as normal chess. They are very atypical in any context referring to India (see De Gruyter in bibliography).

Other chess terminologies are also deeply rooted in Persian language, such as “checkmate” (the English rendition of shāh māt, which is Persian for “the king is frozen“) as well as “bishop” and “queen” pieces.

Bishop” chess piece which is a western innovation, derived from the elephant, most likely in the 15th century – it is from the Persian pīl meaning “the elephant”. In Europe and the western part of the Islamic world people knew little or nothing about elephants, and the name of the chessman entered Western Europe as Latin alfinus and similar, a word with no other meaning.

 Chess-12-Vizier-BishopVazir (Bishop), found in Saqqizabad, Iran 7th to 8th centuries CE (Source: CAIS).

This word “alfil” is in fact is an Arabic loanword from Persian pīl < fil , and in turn the Spanish word alfil would most certainly have been taken from Arabic. Chess was introduced into Spain by Ali ibn-Nafi the famous Persian poet, musician and singer (also known as Zaryāb or Ziryab, “gold finder”) in the 9th century – it is described in a famous Libro de los juegos the 13th century manuscript covering chess, backgammon, and dice


Elephant in carved dolomite-stone circa 7th century CE (Source: CAIS).

Some argue that since one of the pieces are being referred to as “elephant”, must of an Indian origin – on the other hand, elephants are not at all exclusive to India (Gowers, p.173 ff; Walbank, p. 205-6.). However, Iranians were the first nation that introduced cavalry and they had also foot-soldiers, chariots and elephants as well as river and battle-ships. In Egypt, the Ptolemaic Kings obtained elephants regularly from Somalia. Strabo (16,4,5) mentions the foundation of several cities in Africa with the main purpose of hunting elephants (Gowers, p.173 ff; Walbank, p. 205-6.). The English name “bishop” is a rename inspired by the conventional shape of the piece.

 Chess-10-Krishna and Radha playing chaturangaAn Indian manuscript depicting Krishna and Radha playing chaturanga on an 8×8 Ashtāpada (Source: CAIS).

The chess piece known as “queen” is (Persian) farzīn also vizier. It became (Arabic) firzān, which entered western European languages as forms such as alfferza, fers, etc – then later it was replaced by “queen” – possibly brought to West by British during the British rule of India; the Indian equivalent of “queen” is rani.

Historical and Literary Evidence

Pre-Islamic written references to Chess or its development have all point out to it Iranian origin, in particular to two Persian records of about 600CE.  These documents have solidly connected chess with the last period of the Sasanian rulers in Iran (224-651 CE).

The “Karnamak-ī Ardeshīr-ī Pāpakān” (the Book of Deeds of Ardeshir-e Pāpakān), a treatise about the founder of Sasanian dynasty, mentions the game of “chatrang” as one of the cultural accomplishments of the Ardeshir as a young prince. It has a proving force that a game under this name was popular in the period of redaction of the text, supposedly during the reign of Khosrow II, Parviz (r. 590-628 CE) – the work could have been composed as early as 260 CE.

The third and final Pahlavi text is known as Khūsraw ud Rēdag (Khosrow and the Page). It mentiones together with other games in chapter 15 of the (ud pad Čatrang ud new-ardaxšî r ud haštpay kardan az hamahlan fraztar hom “and in playing Chess, backgammon and the hashtpay, I am superior to my comrades” (Unvala, p. 16; Monchi-Zadeh, 1982, p. 65; Panaino, 1999, p. 51). It seems the story was taken place at the court of Khosrow I, Anūshakrūwān (Immortal Soul – r. 488–531 CE) and states that chess is one of the cultural disciplines that a noble should learn.

Chess-7-afrasiab Chess pieces found at Afrasiab, ivory 7th-8th centuries CE (Source: CAIS).

Ferdowsi the greatest of Iranian epic-poets wrote also about it in the 10th century, but his sources are solid and form a continuous chain of witnesses going back to the middle of the 6th Century in Iran. He describes chess as arriving from Hind. According to Iranian historical sources this name “Hind” was not used for India until after the 11th century. Here “Hind” means Eastern-Province of Iranian Empire including modern Sistan va Baluchestan province, and while during the Achaemenid dynastic era it was extended to Khuzestan province.

As Bidev, the Russian chess historian pointed out, nobody could possibly generate the rules of chess only by studying the array position at the beginning of a game. On the other hand, such an achievement might be made by looking at Takht-ī Nard (backgammon), which is another Iranian game-invention – the use of dice also favors its Iranian origin. The world oldest pair of dice was discovered in Dahān-e Gholāmān located in in southeastern Iranian province of Sistan, which date back to the Achaemenid dynastic period or possibly even earlier (see below).

dice-burnt-cityAncient dices discovered at the Burnt-City. At present experts are (a) attempting to determine why the game was played with sixty pieces and (b) working to decode the rules of the game. Iranians call Backgammon “Takht-e Nard”. For more see here…

Archaeological Evidence

The oldest clearly recognisable chessmen have been excavated in ancient Afrasiyab (ancient Samarqand), in Iranian cultural domains contrasts with the absence of such items in India. Afrasiab was under thy Islamic rule since 712, but were essential a Persianate land and society by origin. Some other old pieces, possibly Chess pieces, are the occasionally named chess pieces of an elephant and a zebu bull kept in Tashkent. They were excavated in 1972 at Dalverzin-Tepe (see figure below following this paragraph), an ancient citadel nowadays in Southern Uzbekistan, and stem from the 2nd century. The Russian Chess history expert Linder feels that they are not Chess pieces, but belonged to a forerunner of Chess. They could mean an earlier than previously assumed existence of Chess.

Chess-3-chess_piecElephant and Bull (or Knight or Vizier ?), ivory , dated as early as 2nd c., found at Dalverzin-Tepe. Their use is unknown, some scholars think they can be game pieces (Source: CAIS).

However, there are no chessmen there from early times in India, and only in the 10th century appears an indirect mention from Mas’udi: “The use of ivory [in India] is mainly directed to the carving of chess – and nard pieces“. Some experts believe that old Indian chess pieces may be discovered one day. So far, this is mere speculation.

Next group of chess pieces (three chessmen) comes from Nishapur (see below), and another ivory set was discovered though belonging to later times, 9th or 10th century. These are not idols anymore and are carved following the abstract pattern which has been characterised as “Arabic“.

Chess-6-Rukh-Nishabur.A Rukh from Nishapur, 9th century CE (Source: CAIS). 

Introduction of Chess into India by Muslims

Games upon the “ashtapada” board of 8×8, with dice and with two or more players may have served as “proto-chess“, but the two types of games already differ too strongly in their nature and philosophy to make the evolution of “Chaturanga” into “Shatransh” a simple question of direct parentage via the Persian “Chatrang“.

Muslim writers stated quite frequently that they took the game of “shatranj/sh” from the Iranians, who called it “chatrang“. This happens in the middle of a political-cultural revolution, which has been analyzed in historical texts.

Chess-9-Players_of_Haft_AwrangJami’s 15th century Persian manuscript of Haft Awrang depicting two Persian chess players (Source: CAIS).

The ruling Umayyads were overthrown by a certain Abul-Abbas, who initiated a new era around the year 750 – transferring the Islamic political centre from Damascus to former Iranian territory and Baghdad, which still was under Iranian cultural influence. The Abbasid caliphs culturally and quasi ethnically of Iranian origin – so Iranian dominance became clearly the focal point in the cultural renaissance which took place inside the Arabic trunk. Large number of the previous knowledge from ancient Iran, Greece, Byzantium, Egyptian and Middle East civilizations was compiled and translated into Arabic. The new information absorbed in a scientific body which followed its further path towards the West. Chess was only a part of this knowledge, packaged together with earlier mathematical, astronomical, philosophical or medical achievements.

Chess-8-Basra_chessRock crystal CE 800 (possibly chess pieces) found at Basra (Source: CAIS).

However, we know that while chess flourished in Baghdad in the 9th century, the earliest reliable account of chess-playing in India date only from the 11th century.


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

Ricardo Calvo; Origin of Chess (http://www.mynetcologne.de/~nc-jostenge/calvo.htm).

De Gruyter, “Hasb” in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Leyden-New York (1967).

William Gowers, “African Elephants and Ancient Authors”, African Affairs, 47 (1948) p.173 ff.

D. W. Fiske, The Nation, 1900.

Frank W. Walbank, “Die Hellenistische Welt”, DTV 1983 p. 205-6.

Harold J.R. Murray, A History of Board-games Other Than Chess, Oxford University Press Reprints (1952).

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

H. J. R. Murray, A History of Chess, Oxford University Press Reprints (1913).

N. Bland, On the Persian Game of Chess, JRAS 13, 1852, pp. 1-69

Henry A. Davidson, A Short History of Chess, David Mckay Co (1980)

Abu Rayhan Biruni, Ketāb tahqīq mā le’l-Hend, Alberuni’s India, 2 vols., London 1888-1910, I, pp.183-85

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

Harry Golombek, Chess: A History, Putnam Pub Group (1976).

Ann C. Gunter, Art from Wisdom: The Invention of Chess and Backgammon, Oxford University Press (1991)

Thieme, “Chess and Backgammon (Tric-Trac) in Sanskrit Literature,” Indological Studies in Honor of W. Norman Brown, ed. E. Bender, New Haven Connecticut (1962)

Raymond D. Keene, Chess: An Illustrated History, Simon & Schuster (1990).

David H. Li, Who? Where? When? Why? How? The Genealogy of Chess (http://www.mynetcologne.de/~nc-jostenge/index.htm).

Abul Qasem Ferdowsi, The Shahnameh: (The Book of Kings): 5 (Vol 5) (Persian Text Series. New Series, No 1), Edited by Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh, Mazda Publisher (1997).

I. M. Linder, The Art of Chess Pieces, Moscow, 1994.

Alfred L. Paul, “The Origin of Chess”, Western Chess Chronicle Vol. 1 July, 1936 No. 9 (http://www.chessdryad.com/articles/wcc/transcribed/origin.htm)

Sam Sloan, The Origin of Chess, Sloan Publishers (1985)

C.J. Brunner, “The Middle Persian Explanation of Chess and Invention of Backgammon,” The Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University, Vol. 10 (1978)

A. van der Linde,  Geschichte und Literatur des Schachpiels (1874)

David Levy, Oxford Encyclopaedia of Chess Games, Oxford University Press (1981)

David Smith, Ratnakara’s “Haravijaya” (Oxford University South Asian Studies Series), OUP India (1986)

Matteo Compareti: The last Sassanians in China

The posting below is from Matteo Compareti’s article “The last Sassanians in China” which was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on July 20, 2009.

Kindly note that a number of pictures displayed in the Compareti article below are from 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 and Farrokh’s textbook  Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-).

Readers are also referred to the following resources:


Information on those Sasanians who avoided the submission to the Arabs and lived in Central Asia or at the Tang court can be found in the works of Muslim authors and in Chinese sources. According to Masʿudi, Yazdegerd III (r. 632-51) had two sons, Wahrām and Peroz, and three daughters, Adrag, Šahrbānu, and Mardāwand (Maçoudi, II, p. 241; see also Christensen, p. 508; Amir-Moezzi, pp. 255-56). As Balāḏori recorded, Peroz settled among the Turks of Ṭoḵārestān and even married a noble Turkish woman (Hitti, p. 493).

Qianling Tomb3Visitors to the tomb of Emperor Gaozong (r. 649-683 CE) of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) will see that one of the statues guarding the emperor as depicted above has the name of Sassanian prince Peroz (d. 679 CE) (Picture source: Tour Beijing). Peroz was crowned in China after the Arab invasion which toppled the Sassanian Empire in 637-651 CE. There is a tomb and statue in China which bears this inscription: Peroz, Shah of Iran, crowned in Tang dynasty court: Commander-in-chief of Iranian Army, Martial General of the Right [Flank] Guards, Awe-inspiring General of the Left [Flank] Guards. Peroz asked for Chinese military assistance in 661 CE against the Arabs occupying Iran. Peroz’s descendants in China adopted the Tang dynasty’s Imperial Family Name of Li.


Some further data can be deduced from Chinese sources, especially the Jiu Tangshu (‘Old History of the Tang,’ completed in 945) and the Xin Tangshu (‘New History of the Tang,’ composed in 1060). The two chronicles are roughly the same, although some details can vary: the section regarding the history of Peroz (called Bilusi) is quite different in them. According to the Jiu Tangshu, Peroz was captured by the Turkish prince of Ṭoḵārestān while escaping from the Arabs. Later he could elude his Turkish warders and, in the years 661-62, he sent an embassy to the Tang emperor Gaozong (r. 650-83), asking for military support against the Arabs. After the defeat of the Western Turks between 657 and 659, the Chinese were organizing their protectorate in the territories just conquered. The city of Zaranj in Sistān became the capital of that province, and Peroz was recognized as its governor. Peroz sent several embassies to China, and during 670-74 he personally arrived at the Tang court. Gaozong received him warmly and accorded to him the title of ‘General of the Right Militant Guard.’ In 678-9 he ordered Pei Xingjian to take Peroz back to Persia with the support of a military contingent. However, upon arriving at Suyāb/Ak Beshim, Pei Xingjian remained there and abandoned Peroz. The latter could stay for approximately twenty years in Ṭoḵārestān fighting the Arabs but, later, “the people of his tribe got dispersed” (Daffinà, p. 133). In 708-9 Peroz went back to the Tang capital and was proclaimed ‘General of the Left Majestic Guard.’ Eventually, he died from a disease, and his reign finished, although Chinese chronicles reported the arrival of Persian embassies for a while.

Tang Vase-Sassanian influence[Click to Enlarge] A well-preserved Tang vase (8-9th century CE)housed at the Guimet Museum. This bears distinct Sassanian artistic influences.

The information of the Xin Tangshu appears more reliable. This source states that Peroz found shelter in Ṭoḵārestān, but he did not receive any support from Gaozong. He established himself in Sistān with the help of the rulers of Ṭoḵārestān during a temporary slowdown in the Arab advance. In 661-64 Peroz sent several embassies to the Chinese court requesting Tang intervention against the Arabs, but he could only manage to be recognized in 661 as the head of the ‘Persian Area Command’ (Bosi dudufu), whose capital was Zaranj. In 662 Gaozong accorded to him the title of ‘King of Persia’ (Bosi wang), so for this reason he should be regarded as Peroz III, since Peroz II ascended the Sasanian throne for a very short time after Khosrow II (r. 591-628) and even struck his own coins (Gurnet, pp. 291-94; Bosworth, pp. 408, 411). Later, around 663, the Arabs could defeat him, and Peroz III himself arrived at the Chinese capital Chang’an between 673 and 674, and then again in 675, being warmly received by Gaozong on both occasions. He also got the title of ‘General of the Right Militant Guard.’ It is further recorded that, in 677, Peroz asked permission from Gaozong to build a “Persian temple” (Bosi si) which should be considered a Christian church (Leslie, pp. 283, 286-88; Forte, 1996a, pp. 355, 364). Syro-Oriental Christians were particularly numerous within the domains of the late Sasanians, and it is worth noting that Yazdegerd III’s funeral service would have been accomplished by the bishop of Merv. Moreover, according to a later tradition, his wife would have been Christian (Scarcia, 2004, p. 121). One should also mention Aluoben (Abraham?), a man of Persia who introduced Christianity into China and built the first church at Chang’an (Forte, 1996a, pp. 349-74; Idem, 1996b, pp. 375-428; Tajadod, pp. 43-45). According to an inscription on a Christian stele from Xi-an, another Persian named Li Su (he died in 817) was a clergyman and a member of the Sasanian family (Ge and Nicolini-Zani, p. 181).


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

Now it is a well-known fact that there were very strong connections between the late Sasanian rulers and the Christians, whose status was definitely better than during the early Sasanian period (Mango, pp. 111, 115-18; Scarcia, 2000, p. 190; Idem, 2004, pp. 117-35; Panaino, pp. 843-62; Tubach, Arafa, and Vashalomidze). Peroz died possibly around 679, and his statue—unfortunately beheaded but recognizable by a Chinese inscription on the back of its pedestal—still embellishes the monumental tomb of Gaozong and his wife at Qiangling near Xi’an. At the same site, according to a Chinese inscription on its back, there is also the mutilated statue of Nanmei, the ‘Grand Head of Persia’ (Bosi da shouling), but nothing precise is known about him. Possibly, he was one of those Persian aristocrats who followed Peroz in China and held important positions at his court and, so, he could have been a member of the Sasanian family too (Forte, 1996b, p. 404; Idem, 1996c, pp. 191-92).

Parthian-influnece-on-China2[Click Picture to Enlarge] Chinese noblemen engaged in horse-archery during the hunt against lions. Parthian horses and cavalry styles profoundly affected China (see Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-, 2007, pp. 170-171).

The same Chinese chronicle also informs about Peroz’s son, Narseh (called in Chinese sources Ninieshi, Ninieshishi, Nihuanshi, Nilishishi, Nihuangshishi, Nimishi, or Nilishishi), who was a hostage at the Tang court. He is said to have accompanied the Chinese general Pei Xingjian in order to rescue Persia from the Arabs around 679. However, during the crossing of the Turkish territory, in nowadays Kirghizstan, the Chinese general conquered the city of Suyāb/Ak Beshim, taking the Turks and their Tibetan allies by surprise. So, Pei Xingjian left Narseh to regain the throne of Ctesiphon alone, since his true mission had been accomplished. Recent archaeological investigations at Ak Beshim confirmed some of the information in the Chinese sources (Lubo-Lesnichenko, p. 117). The true intentions of the Chinese general could be considered as accurate planning by the Tang court, because the Chinese had had diplomatic exchanges with the Arabs too at least since 651 (Petech, pp. 621-22). In fact, Narseh could never reach proper Persia and fought for twenty years against the Arabs being supported by Turkish lords of Ṭoḵārestān, like his father. A Chinese document discovered in the beginning of 20th century at Astana, near Turfan, makes mention of a so-called ‘Persian army’ (Bosi jun), which crossed the territory of Chinese Turkistan between 677 and 681 (Maspero, pp. 95-97). Possibly, this event could be identified with the passage of Narseh on his way to reestablish the Sasanian dynasty (Jiang, pp. 38-45).

tajiks-of-chinaIranian-speaking Tajik women from China. These are mainly clustered in the Karakorum region.

After the failure of his attempt to re-conquer Persia, Narseh went back to China around 707-9, to live the rest of his days as a respected member of the Tang court, and died from a disease. The Tang emperor accorded to him the title of ‘General of the Left Majestic Guard.’ The Xin Tangshu reports (see Chavannes, p. 173; Daffinà, p. 135) that only the western part of his territory was not invaded by the Arabs (even though this looks rather enigmatic, since the Arabs were coming from the west). The same source also says that embassies coming from a country considered by the Chinese to be Persia continued to arrive at Chang’an until 755. It was proposed to recognize this country as Māzandarān or, most likely, Ṭoḵārestān, where the Arabs arrived later (Chavannes, pp. 173-4; Daffinà, p. 139; Compareti, p. 211), although at least on one occasion, an embassy reached Chang’an in 751 from a kingdom to be likely identified with Surestān in southern Mesopotamia (Daffinà, p. 138). This was actually a territory in the western part of Persia, and Mani too was said to be originally from Surestān, although on this point the Chinese sources are enigmatic (Palumbo, pp. 307-10). In the Jiu Tangshu there is a considerable confusion between the figures of Peroz and Narseh, while in the Xin Tangshu it is clearly stated that after 679 it was Narseh who fought in Ṭoḵārestān against the Arabs, as already argued by some scholars on the basis of the age of Peroz (Drake, pp. 6-7). According to Herzfeld (p. 94), Peroz was born in 636, a date which could be considered well-fitting for the general history of late Sasanians and for the events narrated in the Chinese chronicles. There then arises another question regarding the military position of Peroz as described in the Jiu Tangshu: why, in fact, should Gaozong have accorded to him two different titles?

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

Some other Persians are recorded in Chinese sources as military or relevant people well received at the court, but their affiliation to the Sasanian family is not proved (Harmatta, pp. 375-76; Daffinà, pp. 136-39; Forte, 2000, pp. 183-85). It was argued that some of the men from Ṭoḵārestān, who arrived in Japan between 654 and 660, could have been members of the Sasanian family, but, once again, this is just a hypothesis (Itō, pp. 60-62). A funerary stele, which was recovered near Luoyang (not far from Xi’an), revealed important information regarding the career of Aluohan, a man of Persia highly esteemed by Gaozong and a contemporary of Peroz, who was even sent to Byzantium as a Chinese envoy and died in 710. Suggestions have been made to identify him with Peroz’s brother, Wahrām, with good argumentation from the point of view of both the Chinese sources (Forte, 1984, pp. 174-80; Idem, 1996c, pp. 193-94) and the Mazdean apocalyptic texts, where he was celebrated in a small poem entitled ‘On the Coming of the Miraculous Wahrām’ (Abar Madan ī Wahrām ī Warzāwand; see Cereti, pp. 635-38; cf. Sprengling, pp. 175-76). His son’s name, Ju Luo, could be probably reconstructed as Khosrow according to the pronunciation of the Tang period. For this reason, he was associated with a certain Khosrow, a descendant of Yazdegerd III, who tried to re-conquer the Sasanian empire in 728-29 with the support of Turkic contingents (Forte, 1996c, pp. 193-94; cf. Harmatta, p. 375), as recorded in the Chinese and Muslim sources (Chavannes, pp. 173, 258; Christensen, p. 509).

Many Persians lived undisturbed in China due to the attitude of the first Tang emperors, but the situation changed after the An Lushan rebellion in 755-6 and, especially, with the edicts issued by the Taoist minister Li Mi (722-89) aimed to stop the monetary support granted to foreign nobles living at Chang’an (Dalby, p. 593).

kashgar-2Shop with modified Persian script in Kashgar, northwest China. This is one of the legacies of the historical silk route straddling between ancient Iran and China, having its origins in the pre-Islamic era and enduring well into the post-Islamic era. The shop sign reads “Jaanan Zaaferan”  or Jaanan’s saffron.


M. A. Amir-Moezzi, “Shahrbānū, princesse sassanide et épouse de l’Imam Husayn. De l’Iran préislamique à l’Islam shiite,” Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres 1, 2002, pp. 255-85.

C. E. Bosworth, The History of al-Tabarī (Ta’rīkh al-rusul wa’l-mulūk), vol. V: The Sāsānids, the Byzantines, the Lakhmids, and Yemen, tr. and annot. C. E. Bosworth, New York, 1999.

C. G. Cereti, “Again on Wahrām ī Warzāwand,” in La Persia e l’Asia Centrale da Alessandro al X secolo, Rome, 1996, pp. 629-39.

E. Chavannes, Documents sur les Tou-Kieu (Turks) Occidentaux, Paris, 1903.

A. Christensen, L’Iran sous les Sassanides, Copenhagen, 1944.

M. Compareti, “The Last Sasanians in China,” Eurasian Studies 2/2, 2003, pp. 197-213.

P. Daffinà, “La Persia sassanide secondo le fonti cinesi,” Rivista degli Studi Orientali 57, 1983, pp. 121-70.

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Idem, “On the So-Called Abraham from Persia. A Case of Mistaken Identity,” in P. Pelliot, L’inscription nestorienne de Si-Ngan-Fou, ed. A. Forte, Kyoto and Paris, 1996b, pp. 375-428.

Idem, “On the Identity of Aluohan (616-710). A Persian Aristocrat at the Chinese Court,” in La Persia e l’Asia Centrale da Alessandro al X secolo, Rome, 1996c, pp. 187-97.

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Second Farrokh Book translated by Taghe Bostan Publishers into Persian

Kaveh Farrokh’s second text, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایههای صحرا (April 2007; 320 pages; ISBN: 9781846031083; Osprey Publishing) is the first text to specifically outline the military history of ancient Iran from the bronze age to the end of the Sassanian era. This book was recently translated for the second time into Persian by Taghe Bostan publishing which is affiliated with The University of Kermanshah:

Shadows in the Desert-Taghe Bostan Publishers-3

Farrokh’s second text translated into Persian for the second time. This version was translated by Bahram Khozai and published in Iran by the -طاق بستان- Taghe-Bastan company on January 21, 2012 (01 بهمن، 1390).

The second translation of the book into Persian cited above is independent of the first Persian translation by Shahrbanu Saremi (entitled -سایههایی در بیابان: ایران باستان در زمان جنگ-) which appeared through  Qoqnoos Publishers in 2011.


Shadows in the Desert Ancient Persia at War – The first Persian translation by Qoqnoos Publishers with the English to Persian translation having been done by Shahrbanu Saremi (LEFT),  The original publication by Osprey Publishing (CENTER) the Farrokh text  translated  into Russian (consult the Russian EXMO Publishers website) (RIGHT).

The Tehran Times on July 4, 2011 as well as The Times of Iran (July 4, 2011) announced the first translation of Farrokh’s book into Persian by Qoqnoos Publishers with the final report on this made by the official Mehr News Agency of Iran on September, 24, 2011 (see also earlier report by Mehr News in Persian –ناگفته‌هایی از قدرت سپاهیان ایران باستان در «سایه‌های صحرا» بازگو شد-). This has also been reported in Press TVKhabar Farsi,  Balatarin and the official Iran Book News Association (IBNA-سايه‌هاي صحرا؛ ايران باستان در جنگ منتشر شد -) on September 28, 2011.

Frye and Farrokh
Meeting his mentors: Farrokh greets the late Professor Emeritus Richard Nelson Frye of Harvard University in march 2008 (shaking hands with Farrokh) and world-renowned Iranologist, Dr. Farhang Mehr (at center), winner of the 2010 Merit and Scholarship award (photo from Persian American Society,March 1, 2008).  As noted by Mafie, Professor Frye of Harvard University wrote the foreword of Farrokh’s text stating that “…Dr. Kaveh Farrokh has given us the Persian side of the picture as opposed to the Greek and Roman viewpoint …it is refreshing to see the other perspective, and Dr. Farrokh sheds light on many Persian institutions in this history…” (consult Mafie, 2010, p.2).

Below are a number of reviews of the text:

The Persian translation has been very well-received in Iran as indicated by the November 2011 newspaper clip below:

Page 52 of hashahri javan vol 335-2011
 [CLICK TO ENLARGE] Page 52 of Hamshahri newspaper, volume 335, November 17, 2011. The article in Persian by Ehsan Rezai reads “History as narrated by the Sword”.
Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War has been awarded with the Persian Golden Lioness Award by the WAALM Society in London as the “Best History Book of 2008” on October 31st 2008. This was reported by major media outlets such as the BBC, Iran’s equivalent of the New York Times, The Kayhan Newspaper (the Iranian equivalent of the New York Times) and the widely Iranian.com. The Farrokh text was also nominated as one of three finalists for the 2008 Benjamin Franklin Awards by the Independent Book Publisher’s Association.