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.

M. T. Dalby, “Court Politics in late Tang Times,” in The Cambridge History of China, vol. III: Sui and T’ang China, 589-906, pt. 1, ed. D. Twitchett, Cambridge, 1979, pp. 561-681.

F. S. Drake, “Mohammedanism in the Tang Dynasty,” Monumenta Serica 8, 1943, pp. 1-40.

A. Forte, “Il persiano Aluohan (616-710) nella capitale cinese Luoyang, sede del Cakravartin,” in Incontro di religioni in Asia tra il III e il X secolo d. C., ed. L. Lanciotti, Florence, 1984, pp. 169-98.

Idem, “The Edict of 638 Allowing the Diffusion of Christianity in China,” in P. Pelliot, L’inscription nestorienne de Si-Ngan-Fou, ed. A. Forte, Kyoto and Paris, 1996a, pp. 349-74.

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.

Idem, “Iraniens en Chine. Buddhisme, mazdéisme, bureaux de commerce,” in La Sérinde terre d’échanges, ed. J.-P. Drège, Paris, 2000, pp. 181-90.

Ge Chenyong and M. Nicolini-Zani, “The Christian Faith of a Sogdian Family in Chang-an during the Tang Dynasty,” AIUON 64, 2004, pp. 181-96.

F. Gurnet, “Une drachme sassanide de Pērōz II,” Stud. Ir. 24/2, 1995, pp. 291-94.

J. Harmatta, “The Middle Persian-Chinese Bilingual Inscription from Hsian and the Chinese-Sāsānian Relations,” in La Persia nel Medioevo, Rome, 1971, pp. 363-76.

E. Herzfeld, “Khusrau Parwēz und der Tāq i Vastān,” AMI 9, 1938, pp. 91-158.

P. K. Hitti, The Origins of the Islamic State. Being a Translation from Arabic Accompanied with Annotations Geographic and Historic Notes of the Kitâb Futûh al-Buldân of al-Imâm abu-l ‘Abbâs Ahmad ibn-Jâbir al-Balâdhuri, vol. I, New York, 1916, repr. in 1968.

G. Itō, “Zoroastrians’ Arrival in Japan (Pahlavica I),” Orient 15, 1979, pp. 55-63.

Jiang Boqin, Dunhuang and Turfan Documents Concerning the Silk Road, Beijing, 1994 (in Chinese).

D. D. Leslie, “Persian Temples in T’ang China,” Monumenta Serica 35, 1981-83, pp. 275-303.

E. I. Lubo-Lesnichenko, “Svedeniya kitaĭskikh pis’mennykh istochnikov o Suyabe (gorodishche Ak-Beshim)” (Data in Chinese Written Sources on Suyab [Settlement of Ak-Beshim]), in Suyab Ak-Bešim, St. Petersburg, 2002, pp. 115-27.

Maçoudi. Les prairies d’or, ed. and tr. C. Barbier de Meynard and P. de Courteille, 9 vols., Paris, 1861-77.

C. Mango, “Deux études sur Byzance et la Perse sassanide. I. Héraclius, Šahrvaraz et la Vraie Croix,” Travaux et Mémoires 9, 1985, pp. 91-118.

H. Maspero, Des documents chinois de la troisième expédition de Sir Aurel Stein en Asie Centrale, London, 1953.

A. Palumbo, “Mani in Cina,” in Il Manicheismo, vol. I: Mani e il Manicheismo, ed. G. Gnoli, Roma, 2003, pp. 279-316.

A. Panaino, “La chiesa di Persia e l’impero sasanide. Conflitto e integrazione,” in Cristianità d’Occidente e Cristianità d’Oriente (secoli VI-XI), Spoleto, 2004, pp. 765-863.

L. Petech, “Le ambasciate arabe in Cina,” in Studi in onore di Francesco Gabrieli nel suo ottantesimo compleanno, ed. R. Traini, vol. II, Rome, 1984, pp. 619-30.

G. Scarcia, “Cosroe Secondo, San Sergio e il Sade,” Studi sull’Oriente Cristiano 4/2, 2000, pp. 171-227.

Idem, “La «sposa bizantina» di Khosrow Parviz,” in La Persia e Bisanzio, Rome, 2004, pp. 115-35.

M. Sprengling, “From Persian to Arabic,” AJSLL 56/2, 1939, pp. 175-213.

N. Tajadod, À l’est du Christ. Vie et mort des chrétiens dans la Chine des Tang (VIIᵉ-IXᵉ siècle), Paris, 2000.

J. Tubach, M. Arafa, and G. S. Vashalomidze, Die Inkulturation des Christentums im Sasanidenreich, Wiesbaden, 2006.

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 The Farrokh text was also nominated as one of three finalists for the 2008 Benjamin Franklin Awards by the Independent Book Publisher’s Association.

Christopher I. Beckwith: Empires of the Silk Road

Readers are introduced to Professor Christopher I. Beckwith’s text: “Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Asia from the Bronze Age to the Present” (available on


  • Author: Christopher I. Beckwith
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Date: Reprinted in 2011
  • ISBN-10: 0691150346; ISBN-13: 978-0691150345

This book is recommended reading for Kaveh Farrokh’s Fall 2014 course “The Silk Route Origins and History“. Readers interested in the history of the Silk Route are also referred to the “Soghdian-Turkish Relations Symposium” (21-23 November, 2014) being held in Istanbul, Turkey (for brochure of conference, list of participants, etc., kindly click on images below to enlarge): Sogut_Program


Christopher I. Beckwith’s text provides a comprehensive history of Central Eurasia from antiquity to the current era. This is an excellent text that provides a critical analysis of the Empires of the Silk Road by analyzing the true origins and history of this critical region of Eurasia.


Statue of a foreigner holding a wineskin, Tang Dynasty (618-907) (Photo source: Public Domain).

Beckwith examines the history of the great and forgotten Central Eurasian empires, notably those of the Iranic peoples such as the Scythians, the Hsiang-Nou peoples (e.g. Attila the Hun, Turks, Mongols, etc.) and their interaction with China, Tibet and Persia.


One of the critical land bridges of the Silk Route: the Pamir Mountains which as a 2-way gigantic connector between the civilizations of the east and West (Photo source: Public Domain).

Beckwith outlines the scientific, artistic and economic impacts of Central Asia upon world civilization. Beckwith also tabulates the history of the Indo-European migrations out of Central Eurasia, and their admixture with several settled peoples, resulting in the great (Indo-European) civilizations of India, Persia, Greece and Rome. The impact of these peoples upon China is also examined.


Italian pottery of the 1450s influenced by Chinese ceramic arts; housed at the Louvre Museum, Paris (Photo source: Public Domain).

This is a book that has been long overdue: Empires of the Silk Road places Central Eurasia within the major framework of world history and civilization. It is perhaps this quote by Beckwith which demonstrates his acumen on the subject:

The dynamic, restless Proto-Indo-Europeans whose culture was born there [Eurasia] migrated across and discovered the Old World, mixing with the local peoples and founding the Classical civilizations of the Greeks and Romans, Iranians, Indians, and ChineseCentral Eurasians – not the Egyptians, Sumerians, and so on– are our ancestors. Central Eurasia is our homeland, the place where our civilization started” (2009, p.319).


Second century CE Kushan ceramic vase from Begram with a “Western” motif: a Greco-Roman gladiator (Photo source: Public Domain). The Silk Route challenges the fallacy of a so-called “Clash of Civilizations” – to the contrary, East and West have had extensive adaptive contacts since the dawn of history.

New Course: The Silk Route-Origins and History

A new course by Kaveh Farrokh entitled “The Silk Route-Origins and History” is being offered at the University of British Columbia (final lecture on December 16, 2014):


The lectures will be delivered at the Tapestry Center in the University of British Columbia’s Wesbrook Village. For information on registration, etc., kindly contact the University of British Columbia-Continuing Studies Division.


Tajik girls celebrate the Iranian Nowruz (New Year) on March 21, 2014 in Dushanbe, Tajikestan.

Below is a synopsis of the course as delivered in the Class syllabus:

The origins and history of the east-west Silk Route that connected the empires of Asia, Central Asia, Persia and the Romano-Byzantine West, as well as the lesser-known north-south route that connected Persia, the Caucasus and East- Central Europe. Emphasis will be placed on the development and transfer of the arts, music, culture, mythology, cuisine, and militaria. The peoples of the Silk Route from China across Eurasia, Central Asia, Persia to Europe are also examined


The curriculum and impetus of this course is the direct outcome of meetings with the Cultural Diplomacy’s Department of Traditions & Cultural History of the WAALM Academy based in London, England. WAALM is affiliated with the Academic Council On The United Nations System (ACUNS) and The International Peace Bureau. WAALM was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Kaveh Farrokh has been featured in WAALM’s Tribune Magazine (click here…).

silk painting

Chinese painting of Leizu (Xi Ling Shi) the ancient Chinese empress credited with inventing silk in c. 2700 BCE; she was the teenage wife of the Yellow Emperor Huangdi.


The “Shir Dar” (Lion Gate/doorway) of the Islamic college at Samarkand built originally in 1627 (Nafīsī, 1949, p. 62). The sun motif is characterized by Kriwaczek (2002, picture Plate 1) as ”…the image of Mithra, the rising and unconquered sun, Zoroastrian intercessor between God and Humanity” (Courtesy of Kriwaczek, 2002).

Chinese women silk-12th century CE

Chinese women produce silk in the 12th century CE.

Kyrgiz MusiciansKyrgyz musicians performing with traditional instruments. Hsiang-Nou races replaced Iranian speaking peoples of Central Asia; Despite this: These greatly assimilated the cultural and mythological traditions of their Iranic predecessors.


One of ancient founding peoples of the Silk Route? Mummies bearing Caucasoid features uncovered in modern northwest China; these were either Iranic-speaking or fellow Indo-European Tocharian (proto-Celtic?). Archaeologists have found burials with similar Caucasoid peoples in ancient Eastern Europe. Much of the colors and clothing of the above mummies bear striking resemblance to the ancient dress of pre-Islamic Persia/Iran and modern-day Iranian speaking tribal and nomadic peoples seen among Kurds, Lurs, Persians, etc.  (Source: Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division – this was also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006, the annual Tirgan event at Toronto (June, 2013) and at Yerevan State University’s Iranian Studies Department (November, 2013) – Diagram is Copyright of University of British Columbia and Kaveh Farrokh). For more on this topic, see also here…

Mani: Forgotten Prophet of Ancient Persia

Mani was born in 216 CE near Ctesiphon (capital of the Sassanian Empire) either in the town of Abrumya or Mardinu in the Babylonian district of Nahr Kutha.  He was of Iranian Parthian origin, with his father Patik (Babak?) hailing originally from Hamedan before moving to the Mesopotamian plains. Mani’s mother Mariam may have been of the Kamsakaran Parthian clan of Armenia (see for example the Chinese Compendium, Henning, 1943, p.52; reprinted 1977, II, p.115).

Mani-PortraitA portrait of the prophet Mani (216-274 or 277 CE) (Source: Great Thoughts Treasury). Mani viewed himself as the final seal of the prophets, completing the previous religious messages of Zoroaster, Christ and the Buddha. His theological views, especially with respect to evil and its relation to material existence incurred the wrath of not only the Zoroastrian Magi of his Persian homeland but also that of the later Christians and Emperors of China.

Mani’s parents are believed to have been members of the Elcesaites (Jewish-Christian) sect (at least as reported in the Cologne Mani-Codex). Mani claimed to have received revelations by a “Twin Spirit” when he was first 12 years of age and then twelve years later at the age of 24. He was then inspired to travel and spread his Messianic vision throughout the world. It is believed that he traveled for four decades.

Kaveh Farrokh (کاوه فرخ) was interviewed on Monday April 14, 2014 along with Touraj Daryaee (تورج دریایی) and Zia Sadrolashrafi (ضیا صدرالاشرافی) in the Voice of America Persian Service – The Horizon – Hosted by Siamak Dehghanpur –”Mani: The Painter Prophet or the Last prophet?”: صدای امریکا -برنامه افق-با میزبانی سیامک دهقانپور-مانی- پیامبر نگارگر، پیامبر آخر؟-  (April 14, 2014).

The spread of Manichaeism was paralleled by the rise of the influence of Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Mani did win some support among the upper class nobles of the Sassanian nobles (Wuzurgan), but ultimately failed to win over Bahram I (r. 217-274 CE) who had the prophet enchained and imprisoned. Mani is believed to have died sometime in 274 or 277 CE. Undoubtedly the “orthodox” Magi, notably Grand Magus Kartir, were displeased with the theology of Mani’s messages.

Bahram ICoin depicting Sassanian king Bahram I (r. 271-274 CE) (Source: Public Domain). Reversing his late father Shapur I’s (r. 240-270 CE) tolerance toward Mani and his religion, Bahram shackled and imprisoned the prophet after he “lost” a theological debate with the Zoroastrian Magi in the royal court. Mani is believed to have passed away in 274 or later in 277.

What was the basis of Mani’s message? More precisely, what was in his message that inspired such repression in not only Persia, but also in Rome, China and later in the Balkans and France where Manichean ideas spread?

First, Mani was in a sense, the bringer of an international religion, one that was meant not just for Persia, but for all of humanity. He believed that the original teachings of Zoroaster, Buddha and Christ were incomplete (see Coyle, J.K. (2009). Manichaeism and Its Legacy, Brill, p. 13). Mani viewed his creed as the “Religion of Light” for the entire world (Coyle, 2009, p.13). He also claimed that the original teachings of Judeo-Christian religions (esp. Jesus Christ), Zoroaster and the Buddha had been corrupted.

Mani and Bahram GurSixteenth century painting by Ali Shir-Navai of Mani the painter presenting one of his drawings to Bahram Gur (Source: Voice of America).

The second theological aspect of Mani was in his dissection of the origin of evil. Mani denied the Omnipotence of God; he viewed two equal but opposing powers locked in conflict. The notion of opposing powers is reminiscent of the “Good versus Evil” dualism of  Zoroastrianism. In this dynamic, each individual is a battleground between good and evil. But Mani’s version of evil diverges widely from Zoroastrianism, which views the good as superior to evil. Mani, also in contrast to Zoroastrianism, believed that the world had been created by a Satanic demiurge. Therefore, all material existence is seen as evil, such that salvation entails one’s complete liberation from material existence. This is not the case with Zoroastrianism where creation and material existence are not seen as “evil“. Mani, however believed that “particles of light” from the “Kingdom of Light” had been trapped in material form. Thus, in Mani’s view, even marriage and the birth of children was considered “evil“. Mani explained the birth of children as the process in which “particles of light” were bought down into “evil” material existence as the result of the union between men and women. Mani’s views of marriage and children were of course anathema to the doctrines of the Christian Church and Zoroastrianism.

Manicheans in Rome

Manichaism reached Rome by 280 CE through Mani’s Apostle Psattiq. The movement had already made inroads in Roman-ruled Egypt four decades earlier (in the 240s CE), and by the 290s CE, the Fayumm region of Egypt was heavily influenced by Manicheans. Manichean monasteries were in existence in Rome by the early 4th century CE, during the time of the Christian Pope Miltiades. Emperor Diolectian (284-305 CE) had already issued an edict, stating that the Manicheans be “condemned to the fire with their abominable scriptures”.

Saint_Augustine_Portrait“St. Augustine of Hippo in his Study” as portrayed in 1480 by Sandro Botticelli  (Source: Public Domain). Interestingly, St. Augustine had been a Manichean for 9 years until his conversion to Christianity in the aftermath of Emperor Diolectian’s edict (284-305 CE) condemning the Manicheans. Despite his conversion, it is believed that St. Augustine’s Manichean past influenced his later Christian writings.

Apparently, Diolectian did not succeed in stamping out the Manicheans. Over eight decades after Diolectian, Rome’s Christian community demanded that Emperor Theodosius I (379-395 CE) strip the Manichaeans of all their civil liberties. Theodosius obliged by going further: he issued a decree for the death of Manichaean monks (382 CE). Interestingly, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) converted to Christianity from Manichaeism shortly after Theodosius’ declaration. In the same declaration, Theodosius had made the “official” proclamation that Christianity was the only legitimate religion of the Roman Empire.

DiolectianEmperor Theodosius I (379-395 CE) (Source: Annoyzview) issued a harsh edict ordering Manichean monks to be put to death. Despite such stern measures, Rome’s Christian religion failed to completely stamp out the followers of Mani who apparently gave rise to a number of “heresies”, one of these having been the later Cathars of southern France. 

Creeds influenced by Manicheaism maintained a sporadic existence in Northern Italy, Spain, France, the Balkans, Mesopotamia, Central Asia, Western China, Tibet, India and North Africa, centuries after the death of Mani in Persia.

Map of ManicheaismMap detailing the spread of Manicheaism (Source: Voice of America).

Manicheans in China

It is believed that the Manichean creed had arrived in China by the late 600s CE, however recent archaeological discoveries indicate that Mani’s followers had already arrived by the 550s CE (La Vaissière, Etienne de, “Mani en Chine au VIe siècle.” Journal Asiatique, 293–1, 2005, p. 357–378). Manichaeism adapted to Chinese Buddhism to win over converts. For example the Aramaic Karia (the “call” from world of light to world of darkness to those needing rescue) was equated to the Chinese Guan Yin and Buddhism’s Sanskrit term Avalokitesvara (watching/recognizing worldly wounds).

Mnai-ChinaA depiction of Mani in the Duhuang caves of China; note the “Buddha-like” appearance of this statue (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). Mani’s followers often adapted to the local beliefs and traditions of the regions they traveled to in order to win over converts to their religion.

Emperor Xuanzong (712-756) of the Tang dynasty banned local conversions to Manicheanism in 732 CE , but this apparently failed to stem the spread of the creed. Over one century later for example, the Ta-yun Kuang-ming Su region of the metropolis of Chang’An featured a Manichean church as late as the 850s CE. This would helped explain Emperor Wuzong’s (840-846 CE) harsh official edict to slay all Manichean priests (it is is believed that over half of these were killed).

Tang_XianZongTang Chinese Emperor Xuanzong (712-756) (Source: Public Domain) issued a decree banning conversions to Manicheanism, but this did little to curb the spread of the religion in China.  This resulted in much harsher measures after Xuanzong, but elements of the movements resurfaced in later Medieval times, notably the Red Turban rebellion in 1351-1368.

Manicheans in Central Asia: Soghdians and Uighur Turks

As the Manicheans spread into Central Asia, they soon adapted to the ideas of the region’s local Iranian-speakers. Manichean deities now morphed into the distinctly Zoroastrian Yazatas such as Pid e Wuzurgih. The spread of Manicheaism in Central Asia was thus also facilitated by numbers of local (Iranian-speaking) Soghdians who had adopted the faith. These most likely played a key role in spreading Manichaeism among Central Asia’s Turkic peoples.

Uighur-ManicheansA Kocho manuscript (Source: Voice of America) showing Uighur Manichean priests engaged in writing.

Manicheaism made major inroads among the Uighur Turks. The Uighur ruler, Khagan Boku Tekin (759–780 CE), commissioned a three-day discussion with Manichean preachers in 763 CE. This resulted in the Khagan’s conversion to Manicheaism. Shortly thereafter, high ranking priests were dispatched from the Babylonian headquarters to the Uighur Empire. Manichaeism remained as the Uighur state religion for nearly a century before the collapse of the empire in 840 CE.

The Cathars of Southern France

Manicheaism is believed to have had strong links to the Cathar movement of southern France. The Cathars are known from their presence in the 12-13th centuries CE, however the creed of Mani had arrived into Southern France centuries earlier. Hilary of Poitiers wrote in 354 CE (during Roman rule) that the Manichaean faith had already become a powerful force in Southern Gaul. True or not, the Christian Church would often accuse the Cathars of ”Manichean heresies”. While the Cathars denied charges of Manicheanism, their beliefs indicated otherwise.

Mani-CatharsMedieval depiction of a dispute between Saint Dominic and the Cathars, also known as the Albigensians (Source: Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at The University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division). Interestingly, the Cathars denied charges of being Manicheans, yet their belief systems were wholly consistent with Mani’s teachings.

Like Mani, the Cathars Believed that the world had been created by a Satanic demiurge. The Cathars also viewed material existence as evil therefore one must strive to liberate oneself from it to achieve salvation. They also believed in re-incarnation and were vegetarian. The Cathars also believed in the equality of men and women. However (again like Mani) the Cathars rejected the notion of producing children and thus shunned the institution of marriage and family in favor of “living together”.  Cathar Church organization also appears to have had Manichean influence. Persecutions of the Cathars began from 1184, and shortly after they were condemned as heretics by Pope Innocent III (papacy: 1198-1216). The Cathars were completely crushed by the 1260s.

The Paulicians of Armenia

Another sect believed to have had Manichean influence were the Paulicians. This began as a Christian breakaway sect in Armenia and the eastern parts of Byzantine Empire (650-844 CE). The movement was founded by an Armenian named Constantine, who hailed from Paytakaran. The movement was named after a Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata. The first official Paulician church sprung in Kibossa, Armenia in 660 CE.

Constantine’s studies of the Gospels and the Epistles, resulted in him combining dualistic and Christian beliefs. He believed that the contemporary Church misled the people. Constantine’s solution was to have the Christians return to the “original” Church of Paul. Interestingly, Constantine adopted the name “Silvanus“.

Persecution_of_PauliciansPaulicians being subjected to massacres, as depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes (Source: Public Domain). Armenian Paulicians were transferred in the hundreds of thousands to Eastern Europe by the Byzantines, a factor which appears to have contributed to the rise of the Bogomils in Bulgaria.

Despite persecutions by the Byzantines and breaking into sectarian rivalry, the Paulicians actually succeeded in establishing an independent state in Tephrike (modern Sivas province, Turkey) by 844 CE. Byzantine Emperor Michael III (r. 842-867 CE) persecuted the Paulicians and killed their leader Karbeas in 863 CE. Persistent Byzantine persecutions of the Paulicians resulted in the latter often siding with the Caliphates. Paulicians for example appear to have fought alongside the Arabs against the Byzantines in the Battle of Lalakon (863 CE). The Byzantine Emperor Constantine V (741–775) finally transferred large numbers of Paulicians to Thrace. Byzantine Emperor Basil I (867–886) abolished the Paulician state of Tephrike in 871 CE, forcing its survivors to flee to Syria and Armenia. The Byzantine transfer of Armenians into Europe continued. Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976 CE) settled 200,000 Armenian Paulicians in Philipopolis, Thrace (970 CE).

Paulicians who remained in Anatolia were to experience Ottoman persecution in the late 1600s, forcing its survivors to flee into Europe and even across the Danube. Pockets of Paulician communities survived in Eastern Europe as late as the 1870s, notably in Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania. After Russia conquered the Caucasus from Iran (finalized by the Treat of Turkmenchai 1828), Russian troops entering Armenia discovered numbers of Paulicians still practicing their faith in the region.

The Bogomils of Eastern Europe

Another movement believed to be linked to the Manicheans were the Bogomils of the Balkans. As noted previously, Byzantine Emperors Constantine V (741–775) and John I Tzimiskes (969-976 CE) had transferred large numbers of Paulicians to Thrace (recall 200,000 Armenian Paulicians settled in Philipopolis, Thrace in 970 CE). These became Bulgarian speaking, and were known by the Bulgars as the Pavlikiani. It is possible that these same Paulicians became one of the roots of the ensuing Bogomil movement.

The Bogomil movement is generally traced to the time of Peter I of Bulgaria (927-969). The Bogomils themselves are generally described as a Gnostic movement which arose as a reaction against the state-clerical repression of the Byzantine Church. Slavonic sources however claim Bogomil doctrines as Manichean.

SvsimeonThe famous fresco of Saint Simeon, same as Serbian Prince Stephan Nemanja (r. 1166-1196) at King’s Church in the Studenica monastery (Source: Public Domain).

Bogomilism was essentially (like the creed of Mani) a dualistic doctrine in which the world is seen as divided by God (Good) and Satan (Evil). God is seen as ruling the Spiritual world with Satan ruling the material world. Like Manicheaism, every material being and manifestation is seen as the work of Satan. The Bogomils were also, in a sense, “anarchists” in that they opposed established government and church, making them somewhat like modern-day anarchists.

The Bogomil movement gained momentum in Eastern Europe by the 1220s, but the creed had already been introduced into the Kievan Rus in 1004, just 25 years after Christianity had been introduced into the region. There are citations of a certain Bishop “Adrian” (1004) followed by Bishop “Dmitri” preaching about the Bogomils (1125). Both the Kiev Rus and Bulgarian churches attempted to repress the Bogomils, but pockets of these may have survived as late as the 16th Century.

PlocakulinabanaKulin Ban’s plate discovered in Biskupići, near Visoko (Source: Public Domain). Kulin Ban welcomed the Bogomils into Bosnia.

The Bogomils also spread westward from Bulgaria into Serbia, especially in 12th century, where they became known as the Babuni. Serbian prince Stephan Nemanja and the Serbian council were quick to declare declare the Babuni as heretics, and expelled them from Serbia in the 12th century.

Surva-Bulgaria-5The celebration of “Surva” in modern-day Bulgaria. Local lore traces this festival to the Iranian God Zurvan. This folklore system appears to be linked to the Bogomil movement. Interestingly, much of the Surva theology bears parallels with elements of Zurvanism and Zoroastrianism (Picture Source:

The Serbian expulsions however did little to stem the westward spread of the Bogomils. These arrived from Serbia (from where they had been recently expelled) into Bosnia and Dalmatia, where they became known as the Pataranes. The Bosnian King Kulin Ban (1180-1204) welcomed the Pataranes, incurring deep suspicions from the Catholic Church.  Pope Innocent III (papacy: 1198-1216) was especially wary of these Balkan developments from at least 1199. More “converts” into Bogomilism continued, notably the Prince of Herzegovina and the Roman Bishop of Bosnia. Altars and crosses were removed with distinctions between the clergy and Congregation becoming negligible. Alms were also set aside by the followers to support the evangelistic cause of the Bogomils. The successes of the Bogomils in the Balkans may be partly attributed to the local populations’ reaction to the excesses of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.