Article on Persian Heritage journal publishes article on links between Germania and ancient Iranian Peoples

The Persian Heritage has published the following article by Kaveh Farrokh which can be downloaded in full, from Academia.edu:

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

Below is a select excerpts from the above article:

“Professor Christopher I. Beckwith (Professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University): “The first-century AD Germania by the Roman historian Tacitus gives the earliest detailed description of the Germanic peoples…The account of Tacitus and other early records reveal very clearly that the early Germanic peoples, including the ancestors of the Franks, belonged to the Central Eurasian Culture complex which they had maintained since Proto-Indo-European times, just as the Alans and other Central Asian Iranians had done. This signifies in turn that ancient Germania was culturally a part of Central Eurasia and had been so ever since the Germanic migration there more than a millennium earlier” (Empires of the Silk Route, Princeton University Press, 2009, pages 80-81).”

The Iranian Kandys cape and its legacy in Europe (click to enlarge). (A) Medo-Persian nobleman from Persepolis wearing the Iranian Kandys cape of the nobility 2500 years past (B) figure of Paul dressed in North Iranian/Germanic dress from a 5th century ivory plaque depicting the life of Saint-Paul (C) reconstruction by Daniel Peterson (The Roman Legions, published by Windrow & Greene in 1992, p.84) of a 4th-5th century Germanic warrior wearing Iranian style dress and the Kandys. The Iranian Persepolis styles of arts and architecture continued to exert a profound influence far beyond its borders for centuries after its destruction by Alexander (Pictures used in Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

As noted further in the article (geopolitically rationalized) terms such as “Middle East”, “Islamic Civilization”, etc. have served to distort historical connections between not just Germanic and Iranian peoples but the broader links between Europa and Iranian peoples across the millennia (download the 2017 article Farrokh and Vasseqhi in the Persian Heritage journal). As noted Dr Sheda Vasseghi a document written by a well-informed CIA official (whose name has now been redacted from the original document):

“… the CIA tends to be “alert and responsive to official changes in the names of individual political entities.”  However, when it comes to geographic terms, the CIA adheres “to usages that are imprecise, egocentric, and anachronistic“. … According to the CIA Memo, terms such as “the Middle East” are, and always were, imprecise and egocentric given they reflect “the world as viewed from London and western Europe.”  The [CIA] author is alarmed at how widespread the usage of these imprecise terms among the intellectual circles were, including as part of titles for respected publications such as The Middle East Journal.”

To read more of the above article click here … As noted by Dr. Vasseghi in the abstract of her 2017 Dissertation (for more click here…):

“Western Civilization history marginalizes, misrepresents, misappropriates, and/or omits Iran’s positioning. Further, the mainstream approach to teaching Western Civilization history includes the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman narrative.”

A depiction of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d”Arthur. Note the windsock carried by the horseman (Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 2007, pp.171) – this item was bought from the wider Iranian realm (Persia, Sarmatians, etc) into Europe by the Iranian-speaking Alans. The inset depicts a reconstruction of a 3rd century CE Partho-Sassanian banner by Peter Wilcox (1986).

As noted further in the Persian Heritage journal (links also inserted in below paragraph for further reference):

“The links between Europa and the ancient Iranians have been extensive in history. It was during the Partho-Sassanian era where Europe experienced direct interactions with Iran, a process in place since the Achaemenids (see for example Farrokh, K. An Overview of the Artistic, Architectural, Engineering and Culinary exchanges between Ancient Iran and the Greco-Roman World. AGON: Rivista Internazionale di Studi Culturali, Linguistici e Letterari, No.7, pp.64-124, 2016) [Download in full from Academia.edu]. It was also during the reign of the Parthian and Sassanian dynasties in Persia when several waves of Iranian speakers migrated into Europe. These are known variously in history as Sarmatians, Alans, Roxolani, Yas, etc. Put simply, the influence of ancient Iranian civilization came through two general channels: the Partho-Sassanian empires and fellow Iranian peoples who lived in Eurasia and Eastern Europe at the time. Many of these tribes were to successfully migrate into Central, Northern and Western Europe.”

The Oseberg longship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo (Picture source: Heritage Trust). Viking ships like these sailed to northern Persia in search of trade.

Another quote from the article is as follows (links also inserted in below paragraph for further reference):

“Contacts between the Germanic peoples and the Iranian world were especially among the North Germanic Nordic peoples and their Viking successors in the post-Islamic era of Persia. The famous Viking Ulfbehrt sword has in fact a Persian connection. Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist of Stockholm University has researched the Volga trade route of the Vikings and their ships between Lake Malaren in Sweden to the ports of Northern Iran between the early 800s to mid-1000s where: “…it is very likely that the steel that you find in the Ulfberht swords originated from Iran…I would guess that they bought it [Persian steel] from friendly trading connections in Iran paid with furs and other Nordic commodities and took it back on the small ships that they used on the rivers” [see full article here …]. While Sassanian Persia had fallen to the Arabo-Muslim invasions of the 7th century CE, Northern Persia remained defiant with its metallurgical technology continued persisting after the fall of the Sassanians, a factor that benefited Viking traders who sailed with ships to Northern Iran along the Volga trade route. The Vikings however, were already well already in contact with Iran during the Sassanian era.”

Viking Helmet (Right; Picture Source: English Monarchs) and reconstruction of earlier Sassanian helmet at Taghe Bostan, Kermanshah, Iran (Left; Picture Source: Close up of Angus Mcbride painting of Sassanian knight at Taghe Bostan, Wilcox, P. (1999). Rome’s Enemies: Parthians and Sasanid Persians. Osprey Publishing, p.47, Plate H1).

Two New courses for Fall 2018

Kaveh Farrokh is offering two new courses for the of Fall 2018 at the Paris-based Methodologica Universitas at the Départment de Méthodologie des Sciences Historiques.  See also the Institution’s Encyclopedic project:

Analytica Iranica: The Multidisciplinary Journal of Iranian Studies … Kaveh Farrokh is one of the Academic Advisors of this Encyclopedia project …

The first of these is the first course offered on the military history of ancient Iran or Persia:

Course HIS/CP/202: The Military History of Ancient Iran: 559 BCE-651 CE [Fall 2018, Methodologica Universitas, Départment de Méthodologie des Sciences Historiques]Click here for Registration Information

The course description for the above is as follows (HIS/SP/202):

This course examines Iran’s pre-Islamic military history with respect to political relations, wars, battles with Greece, Rome, Central Asia. These topics are examined in the Achaemenid (559-333 BCE), Parthian (250 BCE-224 CE) and Sassanian (224-651 CE) epochs. Methodology of the course utilizes scientific methodology in archival analysis (primary and secondary sources), numismatics (study of coins), archaeological analysis (analysis of equipment and technology), and statistical methodology (e.g. compiling data for analysis, factor analysis, etc.). The strengths and weaknesses (military, political and social) of each dynasty is examined up to the downfall of ancient Iran to the Arab conquests of Iran (637-651 CE). Detailed analysis is made of developments from the early Achaemenid era to the end of the Sassanian era with respect to equipment, technology, military architecture, military doctrine, and martial culture. Influences upon and from Greece, Rome, Central Asia and Eastern Europe are also examined. The course concludes with a survey of post-Islamic sources reporting of the extensive military literature pertaining to Sassanian weapons and tactics (battlefield tactics, siege craft, etc.) and its influence upon Islamic warfare.

Kaveh Farrokh meeting the late Professor Ehsan Yarshater (1920-2018) during the Honoring ceremony for the late Professor Emeritus Richard Nelson Frye (1920-2014) in the Greater San Francisco area in 2008.

The second is a comprehensive course on the History of ancient Iran or Persia, which will incorporate modern research and academic methodologies incorporating anthropology, archaeology, the study of sources, numismatics, etc:

Course HIS/CP/203: The History of Ancient Iran: 559 BCE-651 CE [Fall 2018, Methodologica Universitas, Départment de Méthodologie des Sciences Historiques]Click here for Registration Information

Three Books published in 2017-2018 on the military history of Ancient Iran or Persia (from left to right): The Armies of Ancient Persia: the Sassanians (2017; see book review by the Military History Journal in 2018); A Synopsis of Sassanian Military Organization and Combat Units (Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Gholamreza Karamian, 2018); and The Siege of Amida (Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Javier Sánchez-Gracia, 2018).

The course description for the above is as follows (HIS/CP/203):

Course begins with the pre Indo-European era of ancient Iran and the rise of proto-Iranian peoples and arrivals onto the Iranian plateau. Recent archaeological works and research of pre Indo-European Iran, such as the Burnt City and Elam are surveyed. This is followed by detailed historical surveys of the three epochs of ancient Iran: Achaemenids (559-333 BCE), Parthians (250 BCE-224 CE) and Sassanians (224-651 CE). Course material is integrated with methodology utilizing scientific methodology in archival analysis (primary and secondary sources), numismatics (study of coins), archaeological analysis (analysis of equipment and technology), and statistical methodology (e.g. compiling data for analysis, factor analysis, etc.). The political relations and cultural exchanges of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian dynasties with the Greco-Roman, Central Asian, Indian subcontinent, Caucasian, European and Chinese realms are examined. Each epoch is also examined with respect to developments in legal systems, societal development and the role of women, the arts, architecture, learning, medicine, technology, theology and religious philosophy, communications, shipping, commerce and the Silk Route.

[Above] Kaveh Farrokh’s second textShadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-” cited by the BBC-Persian service as theBest History Book of 2007(November 5, 2008), as well as the by Kayhan News Service of London (November 12, 2008). The text was nominated by the Independent Book Publishers’ Association (Benjamin Franklin Award) among the top finalists for the Best textbooks of 2008. The book has been recognized by world-class scholars such as the late Professor Emeritus Richard Nelson Frye (1920-2014), Harvard University, Dr. Geoffrey Greatrex, Department of Classics and Religious Studies, University of Ottawa, Dr. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, School of HistoryUniversity of Edinburgh and Dr. Patrick Hunt. The book was reviewed in the world-class academic (peer-reviewed by top Iranian Studies scholars) Iranshenasi journal in 2010: Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, by Dr. Kaveh Farrokh. Iranshenasi, Volume XXII, No.1, Spring 2010, pp.1-5 (see document in pdf). [Below] Translations of Shadows in the Desert [A] Persian translation by Taghe Bostan Publishers (2009) [B] Persian translation by Qoqnoos Publishers (2009) [C] the original textbook (2008) and [D] Russian translation by EXMO Publishers.

A Map of the Voyages of Admiral Zheng He

Admiral Zheng He (1371–1433) was the famous Chinese admiral explorer and diplomat who was of Persian ancestry. His great great great grandfather was a Persian called Shams al-Din Omar, who was appointed as governor of Yunnan during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). His great grandfather’s name was Bayan.

Chinese Admiral Zheng He is recognized for having sailed with his giant fleet to Europe and Africa. Historian Gavin Menzies has proposed that Zheng He also reached the New World (Source: Chris Heller/CORBIS & The Mail). For more on the exploits of Admiral Zhang He, see here…

Below is a map of the expeditions of a Chinese admiral known as Zheng He (1371–1433):

Persian_GulfThe above map is based on a Chinese original drawn during the 15th century (Source: Ellis & Esler, World History: Connections to Today, Prentice Hall, 1999). Note that the body of water below Iran is clearly marked as “Persian Gulf” and not by any other terminology.

Zheng He is credited with having taught the Siamese water treatment and the fertilization of farmlands. It was in 1911, when the “Zheng He Stele” dated to 1409 was finally discovered in Sri Lanka. The stele not only cites of Zheng He’s generous  donations to the local Buddhist temple. Also, much like his Iranian ancestral spirit of tolerance, Zheng He and his crew paid respect to all of the local deities and customs.

The Zheng He stele which has inscriptions in Chinese, Tamil and Persian languages (Source: 4.bp.blogspot).  It is notable that Zheng He made a determined effort to pay equal homage to all of Sri Lanka’s religions. 

By the time of his passing, Zheng He had visited 38 countries in an epic 28 years. Ironically, in 1433, Zheng He died while returning from a trip to his ancestral homeland, Iran, specifically at the Kingdom of Hormuz within the Persian Gulf! As the case with many great admirals, Zheng He was to be buried at sea.

The Kingdom of Hormuz as depicted in a European map by Bellin in 1746 (Picture source: Map and Maps). Also known as Ohrmuzd, the term “Hormuz” is another variation of the Zoroastrian term “Ohrmazd” (the supreme monotheistic spiritual entity). By the 13th century Hormuz was under the rule of Persia. Zheng He made his final voyage to this island in the Persian Gulf.

Pearls of the Taklamakan

The article Pearls of the Taklamakan” was originally posted in the Tang Dynasty Times. Kindly note that the version below contains images and accompanying captions not included in the original Tang Dynasty posting.

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Samarkand and Bukhara– the names still evoke images of the great silk road. Part of the vast Persian empire, it was the Central Asian people of Sogdiana who monopolized these ancient trade routes connecting the East with the West. Known in Latin as “Transoxiana,” or “land beyond the Oxus River,” the place was made famous during Alexander the Great Times, during his great exploits East. During Alexander’s times in 4th century BC, Transoxiana was the northeastern-most point of Hellenistic culture.

Tajik girls celebrate the Iranian Nowruz (New Year) on March 21, 2014 in Dushanbe, Tajikestan... for more see “Course on Silk Road-Origins and History”

Populated by Iranian peoples, Transoxiana was incorporated into the Persian Empire first during the Achaemenid Empire. A colonial outpost of the Persian Empire during later Sassanid times, it became known as Sogdiana.

Map depicting Soghdia in the context of the Sassanian Empire, Central Asia and India and China in the mid-7th century CE (Source: All Empires).

With their “contemplative green eyes flashing” and their “purple beards flying in the wind,” the hardy Sogdian traders of Samarkand and Bukhara led caravans on camel-back and horseback over the treacherous mountain passes of the Roof of the World and across the endless stretches of sand of the Taklamakan Desert toward China. And, it was their language, Sogdian, which was the lingua franca of the East during Tang dynasty times.

 

The “Shir Dar” (Lion’s 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” (Source: Kriwaczek, 2002).

I can well imagine what the fine citizens of ancient Sogdiana were like having spent time in Kashmir. Another Central Asian Persian people, trade is in their blood. With its teeming markets and colorful bazaars, Alexis kept mumbling, “We’re in Central Asia. Finally, Central Asia.” Sultan kept repeating, “To make a sale is to make a friend.” Talking over unending cups of Kashmiri chai– cinnamon and cardamom, and a dash of milk– it was always how business was going, or talk about some purchase–buying a new silk carpet or a Pashima shawl– that dominated conversation. This is how I imagine the Sogdians.

A Tajik lady in a bazaar in Dushanbe displaying the local brand of Persian bread known as “Kulcha” (Photo: Travel Begins at 40). As noted in the article “Dushanbe Lost in Time”: Bar the cheap, Chinese electronics for sale in the ramshackle stalls, this walled-in, colour-soaked bazaar feels like an independent microcosm stuck in an aged Persian time warp”.

Starting at the eastern edge of the Persian empire, the Kingdom of Sogdiana reached almost to Kashgar. There, the Silk Road split into two routes: one north and one south of the desert of death. With a name which means “if you go in, you’ll never come back out,” the Taklamakan Desert is one of the largest sandy deserts on earth. With virtually no available water, it was extremely hazardous to try and cross the desert, and so the Silk Road split into two routes. And, it was along these two routes skirting the northern and southern edges of the Desert that a string of Buddhist Kingdoms dotted the oases.

The procession of the ambassadors painting at Afrasiab (Source: Faqsci in Public Domain); this painting is believed to have been commissioned sometime in 650 CE by Varkhuman, the king of Samarkand.

On the Southern Route, there was the Kingdom of Khotan–famous for its exquisite jade and felt carpets; and Kashgar– which has always been a city of legend. Of course, the world’s most famous Silk Road site, Dunhuang, was also located just west of where the Northern and Southern Routes met back up again. Famous for its library, Dunhuang is also the location of the Mogao Caves of A Thousand Buddhas. Located just West of the Jade Gate, Dunhuang was just West of China proper.

A Tajik woman in Ihkashim (Source: Nick & Dariece – Goats on the Road Travel Blog). While the notion that Tajiks are the direct descendants of the Soghdians remains researched, Tajiks are the descendants of peoples of Iranian stock who dominated much of Central Asia and Eurasia until the arrival of Turco-Hun peoples, especially from the 5th-6th centuries CE.

Along the Northern Route were the oasis cities of Gaochang, Turfan, Urumqi, and of course, Kucha. Gaochang was perhaps the most important Buddhist Kingdom. Built at the foot of the Flaming Mountains, the Bezeklik Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, located close to the ancient city, are renown for their dazzling murals. With paintings of Uighur princesses and Western traders, the place during Tang times was a magnet for people from the four corners of the civilized world.

To me, while I can imagine Sogdiana in all its Persian glory– that there existed flourishing Buddhist Kingdoms which were centers of great scholarship in this inhospitable desert– well, it actually boggles my mind. But, the cities located along the desert were, in fact, places of learning where the greatest minds of the Buddhist world gathered to discuss Buddhist doctrine.

A Chinese Qi depiction of Soghdians (Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

These cultural exchanges were conducted in the languages of scholarship of the day–Tibetan, Sanskrit, Chinese and various Prakrit. One of the most famous translators of Buddhism, Kumarjiva, was from Kucha (his mother was a Kuchan princess while his father was Kashmiri). So brilliant some legends have it that he was carried off by the Chinese. Dragged back to the capital he was made to translate the important Buddhist treatises of the time. Others say he went willingly. Whatever the case were it not for Kumarjiva, China and Japan would probably not have quite the same cast of Buddhism it has today– such was his influence.

The 3rd century CE Iranian prophet Mani as depicted in a Chinese temple carving in Dunhuang Picture and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Divisionand were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006). 

The great problem of the time: how to translate abstract philosophical terms from Sanskrit (a language with an extraordinarily rich philosophical lexicon that perhaps more then any language extinct or extant could express abstract concepts with specific vocabulary) into Chinese (a language poor in abstract vocabulary). Words had to be invented.

It was a huge linguistic gap that had to be overcome. Herculean. Kumarjiva, to get the closest Chinese approximation of the Sanskrit possible would engage in long discussions with a hundred students to try and fit a Sanskrit word to the Chinese mind before trying to come up with a new combination of characters.

Something very similar went on when China opened up to the west in more modern times. Both the Chinese and the Japanese had to think quick to come up with new vocabulary to express Western concepts of democracy or freedom (an entire lexicon, had to be come up with for terms used in discussing the fine arts before Japan could participate in one of the legendary World Exhibitions, for example).

Fresco along the Tarim Basin, China depicting an Iranian-speaking Buddhist monk (Kushan, Soghdian, Persian or Tocharian?) [at left] instructing a Chinese monk [at right] on philosophy (c. 9th-10th Century). Iranian peoples of Central Asia were the link between Asia as a whole and the civilizations of ancient Iran, notably Sassanian and post-Sassanian culture(s). Open and tolerant, the Soghdians, Kushans, Tocharians, etc. established a sophisticated literature and urban culture (Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

They call him the world’s greatest translator. A proponent of i-yaku 意訳 (meaning-oriented translation) over that of choku-yaku 直訳 (direct or literal translations), Kumarjiva is not only known for the tremendous breadth of his translations but also for the beautiful flowing smoothness of the language– which is to say it reads beautifully. And, it needs to be stated again that is is all the more of an achievement because of the fact that he was working in what is the most obtuse area of Buddhist philosophy.

Born a Theravada Buddhist, Kumarjiva converted to Mahayana Buddhism during his student days in Kashgar and spent much time working on advancing the ideas contained in the great Indian philosopher Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka theory.

“Form is void, void is form” — Heart Sutra

The philosophy is way too complicated for me to even attempt to think about, and due to its slippery slope vocabulary that attempts to explain a state of existence where “nothing comes into being independently” (got that?), the nature of the Chinese language just could not cope. Kumarjiva devoted the later years of his life with the task of translating this body of work, but many gnawing questions remained.

It was to this task that our hero, Xuanzang, the Tang period Buddhist monk who made his historic “Journey to the West” devoted his entire life. If you don’t know who he is– you should. In East Asia, he is a household name– and even in India, most educated people know of the great travels of Xuanzang.

A depiction Xuanzang made during Japan’s Kamakura period (12th– 14th century), currently housed in the Tokyo National Museum (Source: Alexcn in Public Domain).

Passing through the Jade Gate, Xuanzang traveled through all the Buddhist Kingdoms along the Northern and Southern Route before turning south to India. He almost didn’t make it to India, though, so intent was the devout Buddhist King of the Kingdom of Gaochang to keep the pilgrim there that the King tried to hold him there hostage. Rather than from any ill-will, the King quite simply could not bear to let such a stimulating conversationalist and brilliant debater leave his realm.

You can hardly blame him, actually.

Some people consider Xuanzang to be the greatest traveler of all time. Marco Polo perhaps traveled further in terms of distance– but well, that was about 450 years later (and things were more comfortable then). More importantly, though, while Polo traveled for personal reasons of wealth and fame, our man from Chang-an traveled to find the Truth– to understand the nature of reality, not just for himself but for the sake of all sentient beings. His great journey took him first across the desert Kingdoms and then to Kashmir, which was a great center of Buddhist learning at the time. He continued South where he ended up at Nalanda University. There he studied Buddhist philosophy, logic and Sanskrit. Returning to China, he hauled a library of books back with him and spent the remainder of his days teaching and translating.

The Persian Prince Pirooz (Pirouz)

The article The Persian prince Pirooz by Yang Guifei was originally printed in the Tang Dynasty Times.

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Sometime around the year 670, a shining prince– the son of the last Sassanid King– arrived in the Tang capital. He was there to beg for protection from the Arab invaders who now occupied his country. Exhausted and covered in dust from the journey, the young prince– who was barely out of boyhood–was led into the Great Hall. It had taken him the best part of a decade to arrive. In fact, he never believed he would actually make it; imagining instead being murdered or perhaps dying from cold and exhaustion somewhere en route over the towering mountains and terrifying deserts through which he had passed on his way East.

A rectangular piece of tapestry coming from the Xingjian Ughur Autonomous Region of China clearly showing Sasanian Persian influences in design and artwork. The physiognomy of the person drawn in the tapestry is Caucasoid as opposed to Asiatic, indicative of the strong Indo-European presence in the region since proto Indo-Europeans (i.e. the Tocharians) first entered the region thousands of years ago (Picture source: Houston Museum of Natural Science). Several Western researchers however suggest that the person depicted above is a Greek.

Somehow, though, he did make it, and arriving at dusk, just before the gates of the great city were secured shut for the night, a regiment of guards from the Chinese Emperor’s Palace arrived to escort him through the city.

And what a city it was.

When he was a child, his father had told him much about the great capital to the East– larger and richer than even Rome or Byzantium. Rome, of course, had been sacked two centuries before, and Byzantium was itself in decline. And then there was his own glorious empire– it still brought tears to his eyes just thinking of it. The Sassanid Empire had been the greatest empire on earth– rivaled only by Byzantium to the West and China to the East, but it now lay in ruins. His family all dead, his heritage scattered like the sands of the desert blown here and there in the wind.

Fresco along the Tarim Basin, China depicting an Iranian-speaking Buddhist monk (Kushan, Soghdian, Persian or Tocharian?) [at left] instructing a Chinese monk [at right] on philosophy (c. 9th-10th Century). Iranian peoples of Central Asia were the link between Asia as a whole and the civilizations of ancient Iran, notably Sassanian and post-Sassanian culture(s). Open and tolerant, the Soghdians, Kushans, Tocharians, etc. established a sophisticated literature and urban culture (Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

When the Arabs had invaded, he and his family– along with a great entourage of supporters– had fled eastward. Born in 226 a.d. the ancient Persian Sassanid Empire had once stretched from the Levant and Constantinople in the West to the Indian subcontinent in the East and had encompassed all of present-day Iraq, Armenia and Afghanistan; as well as much of Turkey, Syria, Arabia and Pakistan. These lands– as well as the Persian colonies in Central Asia– were all part of the great Persian sphere of influence; whose emperors were held as equals by both the Roman  and the Chinese emperors.

Chinese 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).

For 400 years, they had been called Shahanshah– or, the “King of Kings.” And, theirs was the last great Persian empire prior to the invasion of the Arabs and the beginnings of Islam. Zoorastrians by religion, it was a Kingdom ruled by a federation of aristocratic families whose splendid cultural achievements would be taken up by their Arab conquerers with gusto. In fact, much of what later came to be known as Islamic culture– from calligraphy and poetry to garden design and architecture– was borrowed largely from the Sassanian empire.

Tang dynasty depiction of foreign merchant in northern China, (7th century CE) housed at Paris’ Musee Guimet (Source: Per Honor et Gloria in Public Domain).

When the Arab conquerers stormed the Persian capital of Ctesiphon in 637, such were their numbers that his Father’s only choice had been to flee. From Ctesiphon, located on the Tigris, just a bit downstream from Baghdad (founded about 150 years later), on horseback they had raced East in the hope of gathering support for their cause. None of the great families, however, had agreed to help them mount an army to oust the Arab invaders, and by the time they had reached Merv, on the Eastern edge of their empire, they were spent.

Tse-Niao (Bird) motif mural painting in Kizil, Sinkiang, 6-7th Centuries AD. (left) and a Pheasant as depicted in late Sassanian arts 6-7th Centuries CE (Slide and caption from Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and were also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

It was there that the greatest tragedy of all happened. His Father had been murdered– right in front of his own eyes. And what had been perhaps the greatest blow was that he had been murdered by a commoner. Robbed and murdered for his purse, the great Shahanshah, Yazdgerd III, had been killed by a miller. It was 651, and they had been in flight for some 14 years.

So, that had been that. With their cause now dead, the aristocratic and ruling families who had followed them East decided to stay and put down roots in Merv, as well as in the nearby Persian areas of Sogdiana, Tashkent and Khotan. Our young Prince, however, would always live with a price on his head. He, therefore, required protection. He thought and thought, but there seemed nowhere to turn– until he remembered his sister. Before he was born, she had already been married off to the great Tang Emperor to the East. And, so he had set out East–to China.

It was the heyday of the Silk Road, so he had just followed the well-worn path of other Persians before him. First into Sogdiana and then crossing the Pamirs, he had had to make it across the unending stretch of sand of the deserts of inner Asia. Skirting the southern edges of the Taklamakan Desert, first he traveled to Kashgar; then on to Yarkand, Khotan, and all the way to Dunhuang. From there, it had just been a matter of descending down off the plateau and heading East, toward the capital.

Chinese girls of ancient Iranian descent (Source: Iranian People Of China (中国的伊朗人) ).

Persian peoples dominated the entire route. The great middle men of the Silk Road, Persian communities (and most notably the Sogdians) had greeted him in every town he passed through along the way. From Merv to Chang’an, whenever he stopped, he had stayed in Persian inns, eaten Persian foods and had spoken in the refined Persian language of the Court– and he was, for the most part– understood.

He would be further stunned to see of his country’s influence in China proper as well. It gave him heart. Yes, theirs had been the greatest civilization of the world– for even the Chinese thought so.

The Chinese capital, though, he had to admit, had surpassed even the Persian capital during its height. As French scholar Michel Beurdeley has noted, “the title of Middle Kingdom was richly deserved by China during the Tang dynasty,” as the high civilization and celebrated cosmopolitanism of the Tang dynasty truly had no precedent anywhere on earth prior to that time– not even Byzantium saw such a rich display of goods and peoples.

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).

While the Tang capital of Chang’an was the largest, most international city in the world of the time, the Second Capital of Loyang was no less impressive. Both cities were inhabited by traders, entertainers and religious teachers and students from places as far-flung as Syria, Oman, Iran, Khotan, Sogdiana, Turkestan, Tibet, India, Champa, Funan, Korea, and Japan, just to name a few. There were Mosques, Jewish, Manichean and Zoroastrian temples, Nestorian churches, as well as Buddhist monasteries of all sects, some of which were great centers of scholarship. Most surprising (considering the inward turn China would take in the coming centuries) was how stunningly exotic and open the city was.

It was a city where wealthy ladies adorned their cheeks with crimson laq from Vietnam and anointed their bodies with perfumed oils of Cambodia; where aristocrats kept falcons from Korea, parrots from the jungles of Java and lapdogs from Samarkand. Sleeping in Turkish felt tents was the latest fashion as were the dance moves from Sogdiana. And, the music. The capital saw glorious performances by dancers from Central Asia and India showing dances of such beauty that the famed Tang poets of the time composed poem after poem about them. Grape wine had also come into fashion and was served in glass ewers from Persia. There were lychees from Canton and those oh-so famous peaches of Samarkand.

Iranian-speaking Tajik women from China. These are mainly clustered in the Karakorum region.

Of all the foreign fashions, the influence of Iran was without a doubt most significant of all. During the Tang, anything Persian– from music and dancing, to clothes, hairstyles and the game of Polo– enjoyed huge popularity at Court and among the aristocracy– indeed, they were considered to be the very height of fashion. This surprising turn in history came about as part of the Tang Dynasty’s political and military incursions further and further West, into Central Asia (to the land of their prized “blood sweating” stallions and jade) as well as into the Middle East (where beautiful glass and the mineral cobalt was secured).

It was the Iranian Sogdian peoples who held the greatest influence. They were the great merchants, traders and entertainers of the legendary silk road. Known in Chinese as hu jen 胡人, their cultural influence among the Chinese aristocrats was remarkable. It is written in the Tang histories that “the food of the aristocrats was hu food, their music hu music, and their women clothed in the most exotic hu robes that money could buy.” Indeed, in the words of one Japanese scholar, the Tang capital of Chang’an was “painted entirely in the colors of hu.”

And so our Persian Prince was pleasantly surprised. Such was the Chinese Emperor’s great appreciation of the accomplishments of the Persian civilization that upon their first meeting they declared themselves brothers. Born and raised the song of a King, the Prince knew not to make eye-contact with the Son of Heaven, and instead fell to his knees. The great Emperor rose to his feet and stepping off his dais, he bent down to bid the young Prince to his feet.

“You’ve come a long way. Have no more fears. For you are my brother and this is your new home.”

Prince Pirooz was to spend the rest of his days within China. He is said to have learned Kung Fu and then went on to become a general in the army. Sent West to fight their mutual enemies the Arabs, the Persian Prince used his remaining money and resources to make whatever trouble he could. He had probably given up all hope of re-taking his empire– still it must have felt good to win a battle or two. The Tang chronicles state that when the Chinese emperor died, Pirooz and his son Narseh were allowed to be stationed along the western border garrisons by the new Chinese emperor. Immediately, they started clashes against the Umayyad Arabs. Soliciting the aid of Turkish tribes, Prince Pirooz spent the rest of his days fighting the Arabs along China’s Western corridor.

A well-preserved Tang vase (8-9th century CE) housed at the Guimet Museum. This bears distinct Sassanian artistic influences.

He died around 700 in the West, still fighting the Arabs wherever he could. His son– who also became a respected general in the Chinese army, wrote this in his diary (from Frank Wong’s article which is pretty much the only thing around online about Prince Pirooz):

Pirooz requested only a simple burial and the Chinese emperor approved. The entire exiled court was in attendance along with the Chinese emperor. The Chinese emperor held Pirooz’s shaking hands. Pirooz looked west and said: “I have done what I could for my homeland (Persia) and I have no regrets.” Then, he looked east and said: “I am grateful to China, my new homeland.” Then he looked at his immediate family and all the Persians in attendance and said: “Contribute your talents and devote it to the emperor. We are no longer Persians. We are now Chinese.” Then, he died peacefully. A beautiful horse was made to gallop around his coffin 33 times before burial, because this was the number of military victories he had during his lifetime. Pirooz was a great Chinese general and great Persian prince devoted and loyal to his people.

And so our Prince died in one of the most remote regions on earth; fighting his enemies till the very end. He was buried facing West.

Visitors 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.

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One of Iran’s great contemporary playwrights, Bahram Beyzaie, wrote a very popular play about the murder of the last Sassanian King (Pirooz’s father) called the Death of Yazdgard. Put on just after the Revolution in Iran, it was not well-received by the authorities. Still it was made into a film and has been staged several times outside Iran (as recently as 2006, in fact). The play, which is compared to in significance to that of A Streetcar Named Desire or Death of a Salesman, basically explores issues of invasion (on many levels) and good kingship. This article about the Darvag performance in Berkeley and San Francisco is really interesting, especially about how they had to purge the play for any references about the ancient Arab invasion, because “we didn’t want to cause any misunderstandings– especially after 9-11.