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Free Thoughts on Iran
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August 03, 2004

A Brief History of the Iranics
Guest Author: Eswin Oakman

Part III: Survival of the Persian Culture
[continued from part 2 ]

Historically, the resistance against the invading Greeks, Arabs, Turks and Mongols, etc. came from the non-Persian Iranics, in some cases being liberators. In the post-Islamic period, the non-Persian Iranics staged most of the resistance: Papak of Aturpatkan, Abu-Moslem of Khorasan, Maziar of Tabarestan, and the Safarids of Seistan. The Persians of the south and their aristocracy remained neutral. Some of them, like the Barmakids, in fact joined the Arab Caliphate as chancellors. Barmakids, for instance, were apparently the descendents of Hormoz son of Khorow I and they became the Chancellor of Haroon'a'Rashid.

Considering culture, for example, "Firdowsi of Tus" played a great role, in the survival of the Persian language. Firdowsi who came from a Parthian district, revived the Persian language in his great epic work, Shahnama (the Book of Kings). One should remember that many of the "Persian" poets were from the ethnically non-Persian territories. Poets like Firdowsi, Rumi, Khayyam, Naser Khosrow, Fakhrodin Asad Gorgani (from Hirkania who wrote the beatiful Vis [or Veys] and Ramin) and Attar are all actually natives of the Parthian territories. The same goes for scientific and cultural figures like Khwarazmi, Tusi and Ibn-e-Sina. One should also mention of the efforts of Khayyam of Nishapour in restoring the Iranian calendar system. The whole idea that Mohammad's migration from Mecca to Medina "had in fact taken place" on the first day of the Iranian solar calendar (Spring Equinox), separated Iranian chronology and subsequently history (under King Jalloldin Malekshah ) from the rest of the Islamic civilization. Contribution achieved by a man from Nishapour, a non-Persian territory. Such a conclusion that the Iranics outside Persia had developed a strong sense of freedom that resorted to combat if necessary can be seen in the Shiite Movement of Sarbedaran [The Hanged] that overthrew the Mongolian dynasty of Khorasan. According to Mir-Khand and a few other historians of the time, and as Abd-orafi Haghighat (a modern expert in this area show), the Sarbedaran movement paid a lot of attention to Shahnameh mythologies, despite the Shiite pretentions of their religious leaders. Names such as Pahlevan Efandiar Basthini appear besides Hassan and Hosseineh Hamzeh, while historians report that Sarbedaraans were reciting Shahnaameh poetry on the day that they defeated three Mongolian armies separately.

Being dominated culturally by Persians for centuries and afterwards politically by the Arabs, Turks, and the Mongols, the Iranic Persian culture was still closer to the heart of these other Iranics and they would naturally use it to reach their compatriots and try to preserve what was left to preserve from the Iranic culture. It must be mentioned that even under the Sassanid-Persians many Medo-Parthians continued to co-exist and endured extinction in different forms until the plague-like Mongolian invasion physically eradicated many of their speakers. So why all these poets, not speaking Persian as their mother tongues, did not write their poetry in their own local dialects? Maybe the earlier poets just wanted to reach as many souls by preserving at least the global Iranic cultural item (the Persian language, due to the ruthless efforts of the Sassanids), which otherwise would die out and be replaced by Arabic or even Turkish.

The Persians, (1) absorbing many elements from Elamites, Semites, Dravidians, and other non-Indo-Europeans, and by conquering many nations, created the first global indo-european imperialism, which survived for 250 years and then (2) incorporating too many foreign elements in their culture including the style of oriental despotism (that clearly lacked the tribal consensual system of the Sakas/Scythians). The Persian monarchs (Sassanid and Achamendis) eventually lost many of their Iranic traits of culture and their empires along with it.

The legacy of the Persians was to basically (though probably not intentionally) work towards the replacement of the Iranic culture in their country by a cosmopolitan culture which people still call the Persian. This Persian culture now is a mix of all possible cultures that got a chance to cross the borders of the Iranian Plateau but were inevitably shaped by the local Iranics selectivity. At the same time the Persian "globalism" created a united culture and system that enjoyed a strong unique identity of its own, which after the invasions of the Arabs, and later that of the Turks and the Mongols, prevented the total annihilation of the Iranic language (Persian) and culture in Iran. Looking back, what was the impact of the Persian culture on the culture of the Medes and Scythians? Well, those remote enough, had no direct contact with the Persians but how about those who did have direct contact with Persians? How much is left from their culture? How much is left from the cultures of the people of northern Iran, from the culture of the Medo-Schythian people of Hamadan and Kermanshah, from the once repure Medean culture of Aturpakan(Azerbaijan) in which the inhabitants nowadays for sometimes, claim their "pure Turkish heritage"? And how much is remaining from the Medean culture of the heartland of Kurdistan, of the Scythian culture of Tabarestan, Deilaman, Gilan and Talish and the Parthian culture of Khorasan? Are the names like Daiauku, Fravartish, Wlog, Surena, Blash and Tiridad as common in Iran as "Kuros", "Darius", and "Khosrow"?

Different foreign tribes have culturally and militarily "transformed" the Iranic people repeatedly, since Iran unfotunately has always enjoyed a great strategic situation. Still, many Iranic groups were assaulted repeatedly by their compatriots, the Persians, at the extremes of their power.

Modern Persian language, which is the official language of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been heavily influenced by Arabic and, to a lesser extent by Turkish, but its basic features, both grammatically and lexically, are still mainly Iranic and thereby Indo-European. In this respect, one may compare the Persian Language to English which although Germanic in its foundations has numerous loanwords from French and Latin, mostly because of the Roman and the Norman invasions. The other Iranic cultures in Iran are not totally extinct but are nonetheless heavily influenced by the Persian culture and are considered provincial and sometimes even reactionary. This is just very unfortunate.

As a conclusion and maybe as a descriptive note, let me humbly relate some personal experience as an individual with partly non-Iranic background who lived in Iran for sometime: Living in Tehran (originally in non-Persian territory) in which the so called "accent free" Persian is spoken, other ethnicities are the constant victims of abusive (and sometimes humourous) jokes and in real life are sometimes treated as second rate citizens. And having a so called "European" look, I myself was constantly referred to and harassed as khareji [foreigner]. I also had a chance to observe that this harassment extends to Iranians who naturally have a "European" look, and is doubled when they are heard to speak Persian with, say, a Kurdish accent. Whatever the root of this phenomena is, it is not limited to Iran and can only be called a social disease, one that many Iranians in the past and future have and will try to cure.

Eswin Oakman von Falkenhausen was born an orphan from a German, British, and Iranian background in 1971. He was raised in Iran and spent most of his childhood in North of Tehran. He later studied history in political science in England and is currently residing in Canada.

WhoMan at August 3, 2004 01:33 PM [permalink]:

Just a few random comments:
1- About your conclusion. It is true that many ethnicities are the butt of politically incorrect jokes in Iran. But that is also the case in many countries including Britain where stand-up comedians could tell jokes of that nature up until fairly recently. Germans also use the word 'foreigner' not less frequently than Iranians.

The political correctness that has prevailed in North America hasn't embraced much of the other side of the Atlantic.

2- You have referred to the Persian part and non-persian part of the country and then mentioned a few differences (e.g. preservation of the langugae and rising to the foreign aggressions).

Well I don't have anything about the instances you mentioned. They are all true. But I would assign them to living adjacent to the desert (the area where Persians happen to reside). It is a long discussion, but that kind of life-style backed by a long history has made people who live there conservative. I don't see that directly related to their 'Persianness'.

An Iranian Student (AIS) at August 3, 2004 02:22 PM [permalink]:

Dear Eswin,

"So why all these poets, not speaking Persian as their mother tongues, did not write their poetry in their own local dialects? Maybe the earlier poets just wanted to reach as many souls by preserving at least the global Iranic cultural item (the Persian language, due to the ruthless efforts of the Sassanids), which otherwise would die out and be replaced by Arabic or even Turkish."

hmmm....OR maybe they didn't feel that much difference or segregation and pain as you are inclined to think. Maybe they really did consider the whole global culture that of their own.

Dear Eswin, you sound a bit biased against the Persians. I hope I'm mistaken, for bias is not a good thing anywhere.

eswin at August 3, 2004 07:14 PM [permalink]:

my dear cousin, AIS:

"Being dominated culturally by Persians for centuries and afterwards politically by the Arabs, Turks, and the Mongols, 'the Iranic Persian culture was still closer to the heart of these other Iranics and they would naturally use it to reach their compatriots and try to preserve what was left to preserve from the Iranic culture.'"

Bamdad R.Y. at August 3, 2004 08:20 PM [permalink]:

[tcho baashad rooz, rooz-e garm-o baaraan
padid aayad neshaan az baamdaadaan! :-)
-Fakhrodin Asad Gorgani]

Eswin-e geraan-sang,

khosh naazokaaneh mitchami ey shaakh-e No-Bahaar
[k]aashoftegi mabaadat az aashoob-e baad-e Dey -Hafez

to aan daaneh raa maani,
keh az pas-e tondbaad-e havaades,
tchoon nahaali taazeh,
sar az khaak baraavardeh,
bozorg gashteh,
basi shekofteh,
derakht shodeh,
beh baar neshasteh,

aknoon to hamtchonaan,
bozorg mishavi,

aknoon baa kherad-o aagaahi yeki sho,
baa daanesh-o roshani yaar-o hamdel baash,
ghadam dar raah neh...
taa khod raah to-raa beh "mehr-o roshani" bebarad.

-khodam! baa elhaam az Baha Valad, pedar-e Molana

basi mehr, Bamdad (farzand-e Gorgan!).

Estakhr at August 3, 2004 11:38 PM [permalink]:

1- Dr. Zarrinkoob tells us that the Arab Caliphs were eager to hire experienced people from noble Iranic families because they (Arabs) never had the experience of rulling over such vast territories. Now what's wrong with that?

2- You said many Persian poets were ethnically non-Persian. I wonder how different were the Iranic language of Persians, Parthians, and Medes? They might have been very similar, so similar that would make them difficult to differentiate when formally written, unless you could pick specific words that belong to specific regions. Sort of like the similarity between "Old English" and "Scots", or even less than that. After all Persians and Parthians and Medes were ethnically very close, I would imagine them being perfectly able to understand each other's languages. Don't you think that Persian of the south, Parthian and Medean could be seen as dialects of one language, rather than totally different languages? In this way you could say that Roudaki's poems are written in his own mother tongue, which apart from some words, is understandable by speakers of other dialects of the Iranic language. Or our form of modern Persian might have been more influenced by Parthian dialect than any other language or dialect.

3- As far as I know, the names "Kurosh" and "Dariush" have become popular in the past century, after scientific research was done on the heritage of the first Persian empire and the ancient cuniform text was decoded. Do you have any evidence of these names being used 300 years ago? Instead, Shahnameh-based names such as Jamshid, Eskandar, Touraj, Soudabeh etc were quite popular, along with names used in other well-known masterpieces (e.g. Farhad, Bahram, Bijan ...)

4- Unlike English, Persian has enjoyed some kind of light but continuous "purification" which was started during the Shah (perhaps his father) and surprisingly continued during the Islamic republic. It is shocking when you read a typical book published in early 1340's in Iran, it's full of depricated Arabic phrases.

5- Finally, please don't take this personal, it's just curiosity: I want to know why sometimes you prefer to use the "proper" form of a word, such as Khwarazmi and Aturpatkan, and some time you write them in English such as "Safarid", and then some other time you use 'weird' spelling such as "Firdowsi" (for Ferdowsi) or "Ibn-e-Sina" (for Ebn-e-Sina), I mean I want to know when would you use the English form and when would you use "i" for "e"?

Kaveh Kh. at August 4, 2004 02:50 AM [permalink]:

I just have a couple of things to say on the 2nd point raised by Estakhr.

(a) The ancient language of Avestan, esp. that of Gatha Avestan is thought to be the closest to the Medean language. This language is very different from Ancient Persian, that itself very different from the Middle Persian. I am sure there are many among the readers who can make this more precise, as my readings in this subject is extremely limited.

(b) Obviously knowing only Persian will not help you read Ossetic, Pashtun, Kurdish, or even Gilaki poetry. Consider these as modern examples of non-Persian Iranic languages.

It will be fun to look at the following wikipedia links:

[Iranian Languages]
[Kurdish Language]

Hamed at August 4, 2004 07:38 AM [permalink]:

You didn't mention the extreme case of the harassments -the situation of Afghanies who live in Iran. I think it would be good if some one bring it up.

AmericanWoman at August 4, 2004 09:55 AM [permalink]:

Are you a Druid?

eswin at August 4, 2004 10:09 AM [permalink]:

American Woman,

Oh my goodness, your wit has always amazed me!

OK, well..., hmmm...., as an "Oak Tree", Yes, otherwise...I hope not(especially the judgeship aspect of it)!

There are other equivalents for that.....


Your point about Afghans is a great one. I really appreciate that.

eswin at August 4, 2004 01:18 PM [permalink]:
Estakhr: 1) There is nothing wrong with Persian families helping Arabs. It was costly for themselves. I should mention that the Iranian aristocracy was very inconsistent at that time. Some claim that Afshin was behind the failure of Papak’s rebellion. Barmakis were responsible for much of the oppression that was committed in Iran. Nobakhtis were no better, or some would say they were worse as the Sunni sources accuse some of them of having invented the Shiite Asna-Ashari sect of Shi'ism. A few non-Persian origin chacellors, however, proved to be very brave in the courts of the Turkish and Arab kings/caliphs. Hasanak from the House of Mikailian (they were probably from the Cauacasus) is one example. Khadjeh Ahamad Hassan Meimandi in the same court is noteworthy, he attempted to save Hasank’s life and failed. Chancellors from Tus were notorious in promoting pre-Islamic culture and system as well. Look at Khadjeh Nezam-olmolk’s Syasat-naameh or the contribution of Khadjeh Nassiro’din Tusi in ending the Abasi Caliphate, in addition to other contributions of his, or the Joveini family and their role in establishing the political organization of the Ilkhani dynasty, or in writing a history for Iran that was just recovering from the Mongolian invasion. None of these families were really Persian. 2) I cannot give you a better response than Kaveh at this time. Besides that Parthian and Sakan were never different dialects of Persian, your claim is basically wrong. 3) My reference to Kurosh and Dariush (if you like) relates to more modern times and Persian supramcism of the Pahlavis that went to the extreme of destroying many Iranic “languages” (they are not and have never been dialects, this was a Pahlavi policy that the Islamic Republic has been pursuing as well). Of course, I have to add that we have had draconian laws about naming children in Iran for quite some time now. Arabism reigns supreme. 4) I generally agree with you on that, but I think the Pahlavis had to promote Systani, Tabari, or Tipouri according to some (which is different from Mazani) and Deilami (which is different from Gilaki), and Kurdish. 5) Concerning the dictation and spelling, you are correct and right on the money! I have been writing in English and my spell checker, thanks to the wide use of Arabic spellings, has both of these spellings in English and it corrects things in a screwed up way; that way instead of Fedrdosi, I may happen to “type” Firdowsi and it may not pick it up. Forgive me Arabism has been so powerful that I too am defeated. Regarding Safarid or Sassanid or others the same fact applies, when others want ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
Mohammad at August 4, 2004 04:37 PM [permalink]:

I think instead of asking whether Sakan and Parthian were dialects of Persian, we should ask the following: Was Sassanid Pahlavic a dialect of Parthian Pahlavic or not?
Both Middle and Modern Persian have very strong roots and ties to what is now Central Asia and northern Afghanistan. Both languages were born and flourished in greater Khorasan and then spread to Iran's interior (the first with Parthians and the second with Samanids).
Actually, the link between middle and ancient Persian is not very strong. For sure they are closely related languages, but the development of the former is not linearly linked to the latter. The same is true regarding modern Persian.
After the fall of Sassanid empire, several local languages flourished in Iran. By a long process, Dari became the administrative and literary language of the lands of old Sassanid empire. Some of the local languages survived (like Kurdish, Gilaki, Mazani, Luri and Baluchi) and some went extinct (like Azari, and Farsi (I know this one may come as a surprize for many, but the local language of Persis after Sassanids had nothing to do with the modern Persian, there is even texts of this language available!)), and transformed into modern Persian between 10th and 11th centuries CE.
I think importance of eastern languages like Tuchari and Sogdian is generally understated in studies of Modern Persian.
Regarding Avestan, it is generally considered an Eastern Iranian language, thus I don't think you can safely say that it is related to Medic or it is the proto-Medic language.
There has been some recent findings in Hamadan (1999) and it seems that they have found Median tablets. We have to see how their reading pans out.

eswin at August 5, 2004 12:05 PM [permalink]:


I really appreciate your comments, I really do not have anything to add to your informative inputs.

eswin at August 5, 2004 12:06 PM [permalink]:

Wow, what did I do!

I am sorry, I meant Mohammad!

Fravartish at August 5, 2004 04:01 PM [permalink]:

This is just to clarify once and for all the situation of the Indo-Iranic language family and the languages known as Iranic languages, in a short and concise way. This was partly inspired by Mohammad's comment "I think importance of eastern languages like Tuchari and Sogdian is generally understated in studies of Modern Persian."

1) The "Aryan" language family consists of 3 subfamilies:
a) Indic
b) Iranic
c) Kafiristani (Nuristani), though some scholars believe that this branch derives from the Iranic languages.

The Tokharian (Mohammad's Tuchari) is NOT an Indo-Iranic language. It belongs to its own branch of the indo-european family.

The Old Iranic languages include: Gatha Avestan, Old Persian, Median, Scythian and Soghdian.

Middle Iranic languages include: Parthian (Pahlavi), Karduchi, Avestan (The language of the rest of Avesta), Middle Persian, Middle Soghdian, Bactrian and Khotanese.

The New Iranic languages include: Modern Persian, Pashto, Ossetic, Baluchi, Kurdish, Tajik, The Pamir dialects, The Caspian dialects and Yaghnobi.

Pouria at August 5, 2004 06:28 PM [permalink]:
Eswin, I would say that one of the main assumptions of your article is wrong. Namely, the distinction you make between "Persians" and other Iranians. This distinction was more or less blurred by the end of the Sassanian period. They, (sassanians) pursued a policy of Iranianization - not Persianization or some sort of cosmopolitanism. The Sassanians saw themselves as rulers of Iran and non-Iran, not Persia and non-Persia. The two main ethnic groups of the Iranian plateau, the Parthians and Persians, had more or less unified through intermarriage, etc. Thus even as early as Ardeshir's (Papakan) reign the seven Parthian noble families were not subjugated. Had there been tension between the Persian royal authority and the Parthian nobility, the latter would surely have been crushed (sooner or later) by the former. Granted, there was massive centralization during Khosrow Anoshravan's reign, but this had nothing to do with ethnic differences. Outside the bounderies, or rather on the north-eastern periphery of Eranshahr there lived the more distinct Iranians such as the Bactrians, Soghdians and Khwarazmians. Out of all those distinguished figures, only Khwarazmi has any extant literature in a non-Persian Iranian language. All the others had Persian as a native tongue. Furthermore, keep in mind that 900AD is almost 700 years after the Sassanians came to power. That's seven centuries for the peoples of Eranshahr to become more homogenous. Also, most of the people who matter (i.e., the elites) had the capacity to see beyond their village and imagine an Iran. Instead of arguing that they lived in ethnically non-Persian regions (and therefore, if I understand your implicit argument, that they were more "Iranic"), it would be more logically to argue that they were better able to exert their ethnic identity because they lived in areas from from the centre of the Caliph's exertable power. Your point about "oriental despotism" is also flawed. The Persians could not possible have retained the "tribal consensual system" of their ancestors, precisely because they were no longer in a tribal setting. The parthians did try, to an extent, and remained a second class power throughout their rule. The Sassanids once again developed a centralized rule and the results are hewn in stone at Naqsh'e Rostam. One more point: you write "The legacy of the Persians was to basically (though probably not intentionally) work towards the replacement of the Iranic culture in their country by a cosmopolitan culture which people still call the Persian." They replaced "Iranic" culture? Since when? If that were the case we would not be spea ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
Eswin at August 5, 2004 06:52 PM [permalink]:

Dear Pouria,

I do not need to go at length to show you how wrong you are in reading my "reading". Actually, you are wrong in assuming what I assumed.

I assumed that the Sassanids propagated their Persianism as Iranian and whatever that did not accord with their conception of Persian, which was their own culture, as AnEran!

Hence, they destroy the cosmopolitanism of the Parthians in doing so and replaced it with a universalist Persianism that disguised itself in Iranianism!

Read all the posts together once more!

eswin at August 5, 2004 06:58 PM [permalink]:

Dear Pouria:

Furthermore, it is also correct that their demise allowed some of the Iranic languages and heritage that in my opinion had survived Sassanid assimilation to reassert themselves.

As a result, I do not credit Sassanids for being tolerant, but would conclude that they failed to realize their assimilationist tendencies in full!

I definitely appreciate that we may end up agreeing to disagree, mainly because while I am no apologist of Parthian failures, I am no apologist of Sassanid assimilationist tendencies either.

eswin at August 5, 2004 06:58 PM [permalink]:

Dear Pouria:

Furthermore, it is also correct that their demise allowed some of the Iranic languages and heritage that in my opinion had survived Sassanid assimilation to reassert themselves.

As a result, I do not credit Sassanids for being tolerant, but would conclude that they failed to realize their assimilationist tendencies in full!

I definitely appreciate that we may end up agreeing to disagree, mainly because while I am no apologist of Parthian failures, I am no apologist of Sassanid assimilationist tendencies either.

pouria at August 5, 2004 08:40 PM [permalink]:

Dear Eswin,
You write:

"I assumed that the Sassanids propagated their Persianism as Iranian and whatever that did not accord with their conception of Persian, which was their own culture, as AnEran!"

As you said, you have assumed this - but your assumption is not based on any evidence. The concept of Eran was not in any way purely Persian. It was Iranian or as you like to call it "Iranic". The evidence for this lies in the fact that: 1)the Sassanians acknowldged other Iranians as part of Eran. See Shapur the first's inscriptions (SKZ), and Shahrestaniha-i Eranshahr; 2) That the Sassanians took much of their culture from their Parthian predecessors in the areas of architecture, art, and literature(i.e. Vis o Ramin).


"Hence, they destroy the cosmopolitanism of the Parthians in doing so and replaced it with a universalist Persianism that disguised itself in Iranianism!"

The Parthians were not any more cosmopolitan than the Sassanians. The difference between the two is that the Parthians tolerated a fuedal system of government while the Sassanids established a centralised one. You also contradict yourself here. Note in the main article you write "The legacy of the Persians was to... work towards the replacement of the Iranic culture in their country by a cosmopolitan culture which people still call the Persian." Here however, you write that it was the Parthians who were cosmopolitan and the Persians pursued a (Perso-centric) Iranianism. Which one is it?

Pouria at August 5, 2004 08:45 PM [permalink]:

One more point.

The Sassanians did not actively assimilate other groups. Again, the evidence for this is in the fact that many official inscriptions are written in Parthian alongside Persian.
Secondly, consider how difficult an assimilationist policy would have been to carry out without: 1)modern media/communication; 2)vast Persian emigration to other parts of Eranshahr, like the turkish migrations in the 12th century AD.

eswin at August 5, 2004 09:06 PM [permalink]:

Dear Pouria:

Since you are a historian in this regard, I would like you to cite an evidence that shows the Parthians tolerated "a feudal" system of government.

Second, Is not the vast Persian imposition of the system of government enough to make sure that this is the " Persian" language that everyone should aspire to, and those who do not are deemed, as less favourable citizens?

Moreover, is just a coincidence that Ferdosi says not much is known about the Parthians, or is that true that the Sassanids systematically attempted to destroy the Parthian heritage (this thesis was not mine, but that of Jaleh Amouzgar and Ahmad Tafazoli, that was partly relayed to me through a student of theirs Mehdi Baghi).

Should we consider the massive attempts to build big cities as innocent attempts to civilize other peoples of Iran?

It could be possible that we may have to conclude that they were just trying to find a way of using the Roman captives, and they did not intend to tighten their grip over the nomadic peoples who spread around.

Civilization building in its own right is definitely a geat thing, but other evidence shows that the Sassanids were very concerned about the restructuring of the Iranian Army, don't you think that such attempts had a great deal of impact on the Freedom and Autonomy of other Iranians?

I beleive reducing Iran to a country with a large peasant population helped creating an army that did not have any interest in professional combat. It is like the reliace of the Pahlavi dynasty on a "CONSCRIPT" Imperial Guard.

Where was the Parthian Cavalry to stop the Arabic invasion when Rostam Farrokhzad was in "Ghadessiyeh"?

Don't get me wrong, I insist that I am no historian like yourself, but I offered a "reading" according to my own. If I am wrong, I will stand corrected.

eswin at August 5, 2004 09:55 PM [permalink]:

Dear Pouria,

I also would like to add that the rise and fall of Khosrow Parviz is another example of how disastrous any centralization of this kind can become.

When the state consumes much of its "restructured army" in a massive campaign, as opposed to relying on a confederation of tribesmen whose concerns about the defence of the empire is defined by their understanding of the natural borders, you develop two possibilities:

1) Tragedies such as what happened to Khosrow Parviz (and Napoleon) happens;

2) The peasants and disenchanted aristocracy revolt or withdraw for as long as possible;

This last idea of course is not mine again, but the theory offered by a graduate of the French Military Academy and an officer of the Iranian Army, who became an expert of the Iranian military history at the time. He wrote his book when we did not enjoy the amount of historical evidence that we have today, his name?

Haj-Ali Razm-Ara

It is possible that I am relying on very rusty ideas! For that matter, forgive me please!

Pouria at August 5, 2004 11:29 PM [permalink]:
Dear Eswin, The evidence for the decentralized Parthian system of government is commonplace. One only has to read a book on that period for reference. Of course feudal may not be the proper term since it brings to mind the middle ages of western Europe, but I'm sure you get the idea. Unfortunately, most of my books are still confined to boxes, but offhand, i can refer you to R.N. Frye's "The Heritage of Persia" wherein you'll find a chapter on Parthian government. You write: Is not the vast Persian imposition of the system of government enough to make sure that this is the " Persian" language that everyone should aspire to, and those who do not are deemed, as less favourable citizens? No this is not true. We are talking about an era where mass media is non-existant. The Sassanians would not be able to effectively impose Persian outside of the court circles. Secondly, whatever language they spoke, people who were not of the nobility would be considered less favourably. The concept of citizenship did not exist at that time. Frankly, I'm surprised you even mentioned it. About the Sassanian destruction of Parthian heritage, this is only partly true. The argument of Tafazolli and others is more about the number of years the Parthians reigned according to the Shahnameh, i.e. 200 as opposed to 400 years in reality (roughly). The theory is that the Sassanians wanted to coincide their own rise to power with some Zoroastrian prophesies. There is also the theory, put forward by Yarshater (in CHI, vol.3) that, basically, the history of the Parthians is mixed into the Shahnameh in the form of the noble families such as those of Gudarz et al. Why is there such a lack of information about the Parthians? That's mostly their own fault. They were tribal and not very interested in intellectual pursuits. You cannot blame the Sassanians alone for destroying their heritage. They left very little of it around to be destroyed. We should consider the attempts at building large cities as attempts at urbanization. This is a sign of an advancing civilization. Would you rather the people living in small villages or roaming about in tribes? You write, "other evidence shows that the Sassanids were very concerned about the restructuring of the Iranian Army, don't you think that such attempts had a great deal of impact on the Freedom and Autonomy of other Iranians?" And so they should have been concerned. It was this restructured army that was able to raise Iran to the level of a world power. You are using terms such as "freedom" and "autonomy" as if we are talking about the 20th century. The other Iranians were hardly free, wh ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
eswin at August 6, 2004 12:45 AM [permalink]:
First of all, From the end, well, if you think Arabs were as organized as the Roman armies under the Parthians that is definitely very enlightening. I have to look at that more in details. As to Frye, I have read the book, incidently, and as far as I recall Parthian system by no means looks like the Sassanid's strictly taxed feudal system. In fact, as you have mentioned in your comment, Parthians feudalims was a system of tribal confederation, not a country of peasants. Moreover, most of the city building of the Sassanids was to accomodate a system of taxation along the Silk Road to the hear of the Empire, back and forth, connecting both ends. It was a good idea as long as you do not go crazy on massive campaigns. Taxation cannot be always successful, especially when wars are run by an extremely centralized government. Indeed, the so-called Tribal chivalry that ancient tribes of Iran had was tantamount to a sense of confederal citizenship that could not be undermined by heavy taxation, but could be undermined by massive unnecessary campaigns or patricide. Moreover, the concept of loyalty and unity amongst ancient Iranic tribes was based upon a combination of depending on the land and on the blood, which were rather different from modern ones and a few like the Lors (if you know anything about them) have kept some of those tradition. That kind of mentality could not be “easily” bought by Roman, or say British and Russian support (I will get to this point later). So your comparison with the Qajar tribal system is rather misplaced. I will get to why I do not think my comparison with the Imperial Guard system of the Pahlavi II is correct later, for now I suffice to say that if you have a professional imperial guard people “May” stick to their allegiance tighter! Indeed, I have no problem with the fact that Iran was not a Roman style civilization under the Parthians. The problem was that, as you have mentioned before, their confederation was too loose. So let us not lose sight of the fact that Parthian federalism worked, but failed because of the failure to maintain those institutions that promoted the confederation. The Sassanid system however was willing to destroy everything that was on its way "to centralize", and to centralize it manage to destroy itself. First of all, you are contradicting yourself, not to mention history, when you say Parthians were feudal (then you add not like Western Europe...) and so they were no different from Sassanids, and then you say "well actually" because they were nomadic they did not produce any intellectual products! Really!? So are you saying that it is a ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
eswin at August 6, 2004 02:18 AM [permalink]:

one last thing, for clarification, the Safavid example is a mixed one (a combination of Parthian system, although they did not know about it, and the official religion system of the Sasanids).

I referred to it to respond to you that the Sassanids did not need to restructure the army heavily and could have maintained a centralist state without taking too much away from the freedom of movement of the tribes and at the same time use people who had a strong spirit of chivelary as their loyal army. They simply did not want to do that and that was deliberate.

As to the Arabs, I just disagree, the Parthians would have done a better job than the Sassanid did, and this is too much counterfactualism already so forgive me, because of their style of combat.

And yes, I do not think Arabs were as organized as the Romans but it were the Sassanids whose centralist system was a failure in many respects, it was not the first time that Arabs were
successfully" ravaging Iran, but it was the only time that they did it successfully and it was mainly because of Khosrow Parviz's specific approach to the organization of the Army and the administration of the Emprie, which was just a much harsher version of irrational centralism.

Mohammad at August 6, 2004 10:43 AM [permalink]:

Dear Farvartish,

I stand corrected. Tucharian is not Iranian. Thank you. Do you know how influential it was in formation of later Sogdian and early modern Persian?


Mohammad at August 6, 2004 11:03 AM [permalink]:

Dear Eswin,

I have to say this: I think you should admit your pro-parthian bias ;) I have read the comments, and you sure have some points. But the truth is that you do not hide your disdain for the two persian dynasties.
I think the basic argument here is who identifies with "the vision" of these empires.
Persian empires (both of them) were to a large extent centralized and beuraucratic. Parthians were less centralized and had kept some of their tribal traits. It may sound that they were more freedom loving, although I doubt this assertion.
Some people like the idea of the more centralized and civilized Sassanids, and some like the idea of free-spirited and swashbuckling parthians.
I think both visions deserve sentimental and personal merit, but they hardly make a foundation for historical research.
I enjoy reading these comments. Keep on the good work!

Pouria at August 6, 2004 01:02 PM [permalink]:

Thsi debate is getting rather tedious, but I will make two more short points.
First, Khosrow Parviz was not the one who did the major restructuring, it was Anoshravan. Note that I said major, there were gradual changes throughout throughout teh over 800 years of combined Parthian and Sassanian rule. As civilization advanced, tribes became settled, urban centres grew and so on. The Sassanians had to make those restructurings based on the conditions of the time, not necessarily visa versa. You have assumed that throughout this period everything remained static and the Parthians for example were still nomadic. This was obviously not the case.

Yes, had the Parthians existed, they may have done better against the Arabs. But 1)they did not so the point is irrelevant and 2) the arab invasion was an a special case that also occured at the worst possible time. Iran was weak at that time, not because of Anoshravan's restructuring, but because of the prolonged war with Byzantium. Indeed, if it was not so centralized it probably would have fallen apart long before the Arabs came.

Also, you assume that there existed no sense of chivalry in the Sassanian standing army. That's completely untrue. For one thing there is the evidence of the continued tradition of one on one combat (Phl. tan o tan). Second even the Roman and Byzantine sources talk of this chivalry, not only among the Parthians but also among the Sassanians.

Yes, I can see how the Parthian era may seem romantic, and it was at some level. However, it was not sustainable.

And I'll end with that note. We'll just have to agree to disagree on some points and agree on others.


PS. My mother's family is from Damghan, formerly capital of formerly Parthia, so I have nothing against them!

eswin at August 6, 2004 02:31 PM [permalink]:
Dear Pouria, I still appreciate your comment, and more than that the fact that you are part-Parthian, You are certainly correct with respect to Khosrow I's restructuring initiative, I definitely am aware of that and it is clear that I can be understood otherwise in what I have written. However, according to our mutual friend, Frye, Mr. Khorow Parviz had his rather awkward way of handling the army and administering the state. I honestly would prefer an Iran with two kings under the Parthians than a maniac like Khosrow Parviz (perhaps that is why I never liked either of the names). That type of administration with all those idiosyncrasies was already a system of constant and arbitrary changes. Just look at how the objectives for the defence of the state change rapidly, and the foreign policy along with it, leading to poor logistics and putting in jeopardy the southern and eastern borders of the Empire. This was no better than the murder of Suren(a) (Orod’s orders!) or Farhad IV’s destruction of the system under the Parthians. I further insist that the Parthians were more civilized than nomadic, according to the examples that I have presented. At the same time, they were less feudal and more tribal than they have been understood. Dear Mohammad, I think you are academically correct. I appreciate your intellectual sympathy with my approach. I should add that all of us form their ideas in interaction with others. Hence, my ideas are equally the emergent property of no one but epistemic reality that I. I thought I have so far acknowledged my pro-Parthian approach. I reiterate that again, and find it more “Iranic”, as well as (if some do not find it offensive) a missing link to our relatives who are a bit far way and “Nordic”. I think suggesting that Parthians were so nomadic that they brought no significant intellectual or civilization-al contributions to Iran is, first, false, and second, it is like the argument of the Islamists that pre-Islamic Iran, Sassanid Iran, was less of a civilization than the Iranian Intermezzo, which was Islamic. The lack of enough evidence does not mean that it could not have ever existed! Moreover, I think pro-Persian readings of the Iranian history have heavily undermined the claims of our Kurdish, Deilami, Tabari, Gorgani, Semnani/Damghani, and Seistani cousins (to name a few) to Iran as a historical and cultural civilization. I think promoting such an approach may help dealing with some of the false Baluchi and Kurdish nationalist claims or the false Pure Turkish heritage of some Azeri nationalists. It may help promote a degree of understanding that autonomy doe ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
Fravartish at August 6, 2004 03:33 PM [permalink]:

Dear Mohammad,

The influence of Tokharian in formation of Persian is almost negligible. On the other hand the Tokharian's influence on Soghdian is a matter of discussion as it is not clear whether Soghdian influenced Tokharian or the other way around. One thing is certain though, and that is, among all INDO-EUROPEAN languages
(or dialects if you wish) the one that influenced Old Persian most (as it is evident from the cuniform inscriptions) was Median. This is a very well established theory.

Fravartish at August 6, 2004 04:20 PM [permalink]:

Eswin is single handedly fighting a battle against folks who are primarily , although not entirely, "Persofiles" and of course they will all accuse him justly to be biased. Yes, he is probably PROUDLY biased and he is trying hard to defend his standpoint at any cost.
In this respect he walks in the footsteps of his Medo-Scythian forfathers and as a fellow Medo-Scythian I have to give him my reverence!

Mohammad at August 6, 2004 05:40 PM [permalink]:

Dear Eswin,

I was purely referring to academic realm.
What you mention about ethnic nationalism in Iran is a political issue with tangential historic context. As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, we should open this debate (if I was not so busy now, I would have written a piece myself).

Very breifly, this is what I think:

National cohesion and identity depends on many factors among them sharing political and economic gains and pains, shared historical background, some sense of cultural shared values, and most important of them all, a sense of fairness and belonging in the nation-state system.

I get the sense that this last issue has weakened a great deal. Iranians don't feel empowered in making decisions that pertain to their future (making historical analogies here does not work. We are in the age of informatics and what was true even 30 years ago does not apply now. People can see what's happening in other places and make comparisons.)
Also there is a general feeling of inherent unfairness in the society and the system. The economic situation has not helped. Iranians on average are 30% poorer today than in 1978. Also the social structures are badly danaged.

Many people are venting their frustration through escapegoating, hence all these anti-xxxx sentiments.

I think the main reason is different readings of history. The reason seems more economic and social and closer to home. If being a member does not have benefits, you start thinking about opting out.

I suggest discussing this issue in more detail very soon.

Thank you again.

Mohammad at August 6, 2004 05:42 PM [permalink]:


I meant " I don't think the main reason is different readings of history."

eswin at August 7, 2004 12:06 AM [permalink]:

Dear Mohammad,

I really look forward to seeing a post by you in this regard. I understand that in addition to history, you know something about economy and politics of it, so do us a favour and put it on the table.

Thank you for your comments, and for your understanding.

Pouria at August 8, 2004 12:27 PM [permalink]:

I said i wouldn't post anymore, but I found this interesting quote that supports my point on Sasanian chivalry and also the point that sasanians were had an Iranian perspective rather than a ethnic or tribal one, which the Parthians *likely* had. It is from the Pahlavi Rivayats, quoted by Tafazzoli in "Sasanian Society". The origical Pahlavi is quite nice, but i figured there would be no point in posting it.

"It is revealed in the Avesta: if Non-Iranian enemies come to the land of Iran and want to take hostages and to much damage in order to restrain them the warriors go towards them. It often happens that they kill (our) warriors, and even then, because of (their) greater violence, the non-Iranians come and destroy the Wahram Fire and (kill) the righteous men (i.e. priests), and they take captives and do much damage in the country of Iran. The warrior who does not do battle and (who) flees is margarzan; he who does (battle) and whom they kill in battle is blessed."

Also, my point about Parthian intellectual activity stands. I did not say that they did not enjoy the (literary) arts, my point is that they were consumers first and foremost, not producers of literature (of whatever sort).

eswin at August 8, 2004 01:32 PM [permalink]:
Dear Pouria, I think I generally agree with your points. As I have said before there were aristorcratic families of Parthia at the Sassanid court and in fact many of them, like the Surens and Karens, were allowed to keep their respective territories. I think the only point of difference that we have is on the degree of certain approaches. One of the major points of these posts is that Parthian traditions managed to survive and became a strong component of post-Islamic resistance in Iran. Your argument can definitely moderate the argument presented in my pieces that if the Sassanids were "that" assimilationist those Parthians families and their traditions and contributions could not be seen until after the conquest of Islam. There is no doubt that the Sassanids, especially in the first 150 years relied a great deal on the Parthian tribes and their ability to defend the country. Hence, we should not forget that both Iranic people constantly influenced each other. The only problem is that I, perhaps more than you and others, insist that the Parthian confederal approach would allow a flow of influence from the provinces to the Imperial court, while under the Sassanids such a flow was very controlled by a massive organization of Zoroastrian clerics and bureaucrats. This argument, if that is what you mean by your latest post, I agree with completely and I stand corrected if the tone of the argument depicts the Sassanids as the Borg in Star Treck Next Generation. The question now is whether we should credit Sassanids for being so tolerant, when there is evidence that they had a lot of fanatic elements amongst themselves, or was it the Parthians’ cultural resistance. For neither I think we have conclusive evidence, and that is where we disagree. One more thing that we missed during our back and forth is the less discussed influence that the Persian families exerted in the Parthian courts. This was of course even more vivid because of the confederal nature of Parthian governance, but since Persia was one of the biggest provinces of the Empire, located strategically in the southern middle, they should have had a great deal of impact on many of the political processes in the Parthian Empire. As to Parthians being consumerist, from "the evidence" that is available to us, I think your point is correct. I would add that Parthians should be credited for not destroying many of what the Greek occupation had built in Iran. This could be a very political decision, but they had also allowed the practices of certain Greek traditions and customs.(some argue that Mahestan was hybrid creature of Parthian tribal ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
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