The Fezana Journal has published an article by Kaveh Farrokh on the ancient women of Iran:
Farrokh, K. (2014). Gender Equality in Ancient Iran (Persia). Fezana Journal (Publication of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America), Vol. 28, No.1, March/Spring, pp. 105-107.
A reconstruction by Cernenko and Gorelik of the north-Iranian Saka or Scythians in battle (Cernenko & Gorelik, 1989, Plate F). The ancient Iranians (those in ancient Persia and the ones in ancient Eastern Europe) often had women warriors and chieftains, a practice not unlike those of the contemporary ancient Celts in ancient Central and Western Europe. What is also notable is the costume of the Iranian female warrior – this type of dress continues to appear in parts of Luristan in Western Iran.
As noted in the beginning of the article: “One topic that has received little attention in academia is ancient Iranian warrior women. There are in fact numerous references to ancient Iranian female warriors, from classical sources to post-Islamic Iranian literature.”
A reconstruction of a female Achaemenid cavalry unit by Shapur Suren-Pahlav.
It is further averred in the article that: “The rights of women in Achaemenid Persia were remarkably “modern” by today’s standards: women worked in many “male” professions (e.g. carpentry, masonry, treasury clerks, artisans, winery working), enjoyed payment equity with men, attained high-level management positions supervising male and female teams, owned and controlled property, were eligible for “maternity leave,” and received equitable treatment relative to men in inheritance“.
Iranian women from Malayer (near Hamedan in the northwest) engaged in target practice in the Malayer city limits in the late 1950s. The association between weapons and women is nothing new in Iran; Roman references for example note of Iranian women armed as regular troops in the armies of the Sassanians (224-651 AD).
The legacy of the status of the women of Iran is emphasized in the article as thus: “To this day, women in Iran’s tribal regions continue to be seen wielding their weapons“.
Iranian tribal woman in shooting competition on horseback at the 2011 Fereydanshahr Olympiad in Iran.
Experts share a general consensus that this region was inhabited from the second millennium BCE until the Timurid era (1370-1507).
[Click to Enlarge] Stucco from the Zahak castle housed in the antiquities museum in Azarbaijan. The above depicts a large bird of prey digging its claws onto the back of a bull. There are striking parallels between this stucco and the depictions of the sacred bull in ancient Mithraic temples. Interestingly the depiction of the bull (especially its lifted and exposed neck) is strikingly similar to the image of Mithras slaying the bull in Romano-European Mithraism (Photo sources: Images forwarded to Kavehfarrokh.com by Ms. Tara Farhid-Gallo in the article -گردایه (مجموعه) باستانی آژدهاک ( ضحاک ) آذرآبادگان- and in Darvakeran Blogspot).
The site was first excavated by British archeologists in the 19th century. Iran’s Cultural Heritage Organization has been researching the structure in a methodical six-phase study.
The site has also yielded a very rare visual glimpse of what the Mede infantry of the Parthian era may have appeared during the invasion of Marc Antony in 37 BCE. Marc Antony was defeated, in large part due to the actions of the local Median infantry who supported the Parthian armored cavalry and horse archers.
[Click to Enlarge] Another stucco discovered at the Zahak site, now housed in the Museum of Azarbaijan in Iran. The image depicts a Mede infantryman of the Parthian era. It was Mede infantry such as these who defeated the invading troops of Roman general Marc Antony in 37 BCE (Photo sources: Images forwarded to Kavehfarrokh.com by Ms. Tara Farhid-Gallo in the article -گردایه (مجموعه) باستانی آژدهاک ( ضحاک ) آذرآبادگان- and in Darvakeran Blogspot).
There have also been interesting discoveries of stucco from the site, with some traces of coloring still visible.
[Click to Enlarge] Display of artifacts discovered at the Zahhak castle, at the Azarbaijan Museum in Tabriz. Note that the left petal-type stucco still has visible traces of red and yellow color with the right facial-flower stucco still bearing traces of yellow upon it (Picture Source: Public Domain).
Signage in Azarbaijan province in Iran at the Zahak site (Picture Source: in Darvakeran Blogspot).
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).
A 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 theVoice 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.
Coin 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.
Sixteenth 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”.
“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.
Emperor 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.
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).
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 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.
A 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.
Medieval 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“.
Paulicians 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.
The 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.
Kulin 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.
The 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: Surva.org).
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.
Kaveh Farrokh has been interviewed by the Persian Heritage Magazine (published March 31, 2014) and Voice of America (published April 1, 2014) regarding the 300 sequel and Noah (starring Russell Crowe).
Kaveh Farrokh was also interviewed with other participants in the Voice of American Persian program entitled [صدای امریکا -برنامه افق-با میزبانی سیامک دهقانپور-تاریخ و سینما: از ۳۰۰ تا نوح] “Voice of America – The Horizon – Hosted by Siamak Dehghanpur – Date Cinema: From 300 to Noah“:
صدای امریکا -برنامه افق-با میزبانی سیامک دهقانپور-تاریخ و سینما: از ۳۰۰ تا نوح-Voice of America – The Horizon – Hosted by Siamak Dehghanpur – Date Cinema: From 300 to Noah. Note that Farrokh had already published an extensive retort against the first “300″ movie (2007) entitled: The 300 Movie: separating fact from Fiction.
The program produced a lively discussion, but unfortunately the shortage of time prevented the full exploration of a number of points, namely whether (1) the movie is political in nature and (2) Zoroastrianism and the Achaemenids. Five more topics also need to be discussed in two more follow-up postings, but for now, topics (1) and (2) are discussed below:
(1) The proposal that the new “300″ movie does not serve any particular political and especially anti-Iranian agenda
It was suggested (not by Kaveh Farrokh) that the movie is entertainment cinematography and not intended to be an anti-Iranian picture. This notion is challenged by a number of prominent Western professors and journalists. Professor John Trikeriotis (himself of Greek ancestry) has begun a petition entitled: Adding a disclaimer or explanatory message to “300: Rise of an Empire”. Readers are strongly encouraged to sign the petition and support Professor Trikeriortis’ initiative.
Akbar Montaser, one of the regular readers of Kavehfarrokh.com noted the following on April 7, 2013: “I still believe there is a tendency to demean Iran. This is done “cleverly”, not intelligently. If one does not see the Truth, the same disasters will be repeated based on history“. It is in this light that readers are introduced to the excellent article by Jehanzeb Dar in Racialicious: intersection of racism and Pop Culture:”Frank Miller’s “300′′ and the persistence of accepted Racism“. Below are some quotes from Jehanzeb Dar’s article:
“I was absolutely outraged by the racist content of the film and more so at the insensitivity of movie-goers who simply argued “it’s just a movie.” Later on, I would hear these same individuals say, “The movie makes you want to slice up some Persians”…“300”…represents the ever-growing trend of accepted racism towards Middle-Easterners in mainstream media and society, but also the reinforcement of Samuel P. Huntington’s overly clichéd, yet persisting, theory of “The Clash of Civilizations” which proposes that cultural and religious differences are the primary sources for war and conflict rather than political, ideological, and/or economic differences. …“300” grossed nearly $500 million worldwide in the box office…suggest that movie-goers share the film’s racist and jingoistic views…”
The late Samuel Huntington’s Eurocentric (if not racist) formula is unhelpful as it diverts the discussion away from the real causes of contemporary military conflicts, which are for the main part based on economics and geopolitical factors.
Revisiting the notion of “300″ being “harmless entertainment”, let us return to Jehanzeb Dar’s article cited earlier. The movie clearly attempts a Eurocentric-style “East = backwardness and oppression” versus “West=Freedom and Democracy“. This is again overly simplistic, as Demos (People) Kratus (rule) or Democracy in Athens did not apply to the entirety of society, especially to women. This is exemplified by Greek philosophers such as Socrates (d. 399 BCE) who stated in his Book 8 that “…one sign of democracy’s moral failure is the sexual equality it promotes” (563b; consult Nickolas Pappas, 2003, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the Republic, New York: Routledge). The topic of women’s rights in ancient Achaemenid Persia, and the views of women by contemporary Greek philosophers shall be addressed in ensuing postings.
The Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (established in the 1940s) was tasked to promote inter-American cooperation during the 1940s in the distribution of news, films and advertising, to counter the propaganda of World War Two fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
“…300 is arguably the most racially charged movie since D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. In true post-9/11 form, Zack Snyder’s film turns Brown into the new Black; Persians are depicted as bloodthirsty savages thwarted … by a small contingent of freedom fighters – with noticeably paler skin – looking to preserve democracy at all costs. This eerily resembles Birth of a Nation, the 1915 epic celebrating the Ku Klux Klan’s rise … to defend Southern whites’ dignity and honor against what were then seen as recently liberated Black insurgents. Like Griffith’s film, this mixture of race, racism, sex… racialized depiction of freedom, nation, and democracy becomes central to 300′s … message. But closer inspection reveals a subtler, yet similarly troubling idea that has gone largely unnoticed: 300′s unapologetic glorification of eugenics.”
Whether one chooses to agree or not with Osagie K. Obasogie or Jehanzeb Dar, serious questions may be raised as to the picture’s true intentions. By the same token, profound political and ideological divisiveness has prevented the Iranian community (diaspora and inside Iran) from coalescing towards a concerted approach. There is for example no real “Iranian anti-defamation League” to protest against Hollywood producers and international cultural venues in general for presenting Iranians as propaganda targets.
Towards the end of the program one of the participants asserted that there is “no absolute proof that Achaemenids were Zoroastrian“. Farrokh only had a few minutes to respond adequacy and in full, which is why this complex topic, which is why it needs to be re-addressed. In principle, yes, the Achaemenids were not Zoroastrian in the sense of an institutionalized religious system during the Sassanian era (like Papacy of Rome), however the notion that they (Achaemenids) were “not Zoroastrian” is highly misleading.
First, the doctrine of Zoroastrianism versus the religious institution of Zoroastrianism cannot be so simplistically equated. The Achaemenids did know of Zoroaster’s teachings, however these were yet be institutionalized into a complex state religious system, as occurred (in its finalized form) during the Sassanian era (224-651 CE).
There is clear proof that Zoroaster and his teachings were known in the ancient world. Xanthus of Lydia for example, who was a contemporary of Herodotus (5th century BCE), is the first westerner to mention Zoroaster by name (Yamauchi, 1990, p.400). Herodotus (like Plutarch later in the 2nd century CE) does not mention Zoroaster by name, but his descriptions of the tribe of the Magi priesthood and Persian customs clearly point to Zoroastrian beliefs (in Chapter XIII of Herodotus’ The Histories, Penguin Classics, London: England, 1972). Similar classical descriptions are found in Strabo (63 BCE-19 CE) where references are made to the Magus, worship practices and the god Mithras (passage 15.3.13-14 of Strabo, Geography, translated by H. L. Jones (ed.), Perseus project, Tufts University, 2000). For more on this subject, a list of readings are provided at the conclusion of this section.
A detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy. Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans.
If Greco-Roman sources are so clear about Zoroaster’s doctrines, then how can the Achaemenids not have known of Zoroaster, or respected his teachings?
Much like later Christianity, when the early doctrines of Christ predated the religious institution of Christinaity, so too did the doctrines of Zoroaster precede the religious institution of Sassanian Zoroastrianism. A (broadly-speaking) similar process occurred with respect to Christ’s early teachings when Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 CE) declared Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
The question is how were Zoroastrian doctrines practiced during the Achaemenid era as ancient Iranian theology was invariably complex (as attested to in Zoroastrian documents). Zoroaster was, in a sense, a reformer of the more ancient Iranian cults, perhaps he was at first one of the followers of the cult of Mithras, but direct evidence is certainly lacking for this suggestion. What is clear is that there is solid proof of Achaemenid respect for Zoroaster’s teachings, as seen with the Zoroastrian Fravahar symbol depicted at Persepolis:
Depiction of the Zoroastrian Fravahar at Persepolis (Photo source: Mani Moradi, 2012). This indicates that the doctrines of Zoroaster were known by the Achaemenids, and they clearly respected these, as indicated by the depiction of this symbol at their regal locale of imperial power.
To further consult this topic, readers are referred to:
Nigosian, S.A. (1993). The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research. Montreal & Kingston: Mcgill-Queen’s University Press.
Yamauchi, E.M. (1990). Persia and the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House; see especially chapters 12 (Zoroastrianism), 13 (The Magi) and 14 (Mithraism).
Boyce, M. (2001; first published in 1979). Zoroastrians: Their Religious beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge Taylor & Frances Group.
Kriwaczek, P. (2003). In Search of Zarathustra: The First prophet and the Ideas that Changed the World. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Future postings will further discuss topics related to the “300″ sequel movie discussed in the Voice of America interview:
A little research shows that the person behind this agenda is Professor Dimitri Gutas of Yale, who invented the term Greco-Arabian for scholars such as Farabi, Khwarazmi, Ebne Sina etc. to deny their Persianness. Van Bladel happens to have studied with him. The agenda behind this nomination is not known.- – petrodollars, lobby group(s), or self-promotion, but we must prevent not only this nomination, but the very idea of ‘Greco-Arabian’ which is not related to us (Iranians).
Kindly note that the pictures and captions below did not appear in the original Princetonian report.
A petition organized by Columbia professor Ehsan Yarshater surfaced challenging the University’s current candidate for the position of the Ibrahim Pourdavoud Professorship in Persian Studies.
The petition, which has been taken down, argued that having the name of Pourdavoud, a pioneer in the field of pre-Islamic Iranian studies, meant that the professor who occupies the Pourdavoud Chair should continue his work in the field of pre-Islamic studies. But the current candidate suggested by the search committee, according to the petition, was a Greco-Arabic scholar who has not specialized in pre-Islamic culture and who would thus not exemplify the memory of Pourdavoud.
The petition was taken down the week of Dec. 22 for unknown reasons. Yarshater did not respond to a further request for comment as to why the petition had been taken down.
Professor Ehsan Yarshater (Picture Source: NPR.org)
The petition, which was addressed to University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, copied Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani ’80 and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani ’74, whose $10 million donation to the University in 2012 will help establish a Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies. The Mossavar-Rahmanis did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
However, the Pourdavoud Chair was not established by the Mossavar-Rahmani family. It was separately established by Dr. Anahita Naficy Lovelace ’75 and her husband Jim Lovelace. Dr. Lovelace said they were aware of the petition and declined to comment until after an appointment has been made.
According to Yarshater, the candidate being considered was Kevin van Bladel, a current history professor at Ohio State University. Van Bladel declined to comment for this article and said he had not received any formal offer from Princeton University.
“To allow a chair named after Pourdavoud, who spent all his life teaching and writing about Zoroastrianism and the pre-Islamic culture of Iran,” the petition read, “to be held by someone whose formal academic training has been in Arabic, Syriac, and Greek, and who by and large is unknown in the field, is considered a slap in the face of Iranian Studies, the community at large, and the memory of Pourdavoud.”
Van Bladel has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Yale University and was previously an assistant professor of classics at the University of Southern California. He specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of the Near East in the first millennium CE, focusing on the translation of works between Arabic, Greek, Syriac, Latin, Sanskrit and various Iranian languages such as Middle Persian and Arabic. His teaching also focuses on the ancient Mediterranean and Near East.
“In the perspective of my research, the advent of Islam is not the beginning or end of a period; it can be understood only by reference to what came before as much as to what came after,”van Bladel’s OSU biography states.
Associate Professor & Chair Kevin van Bladel of Ohio State University (Picture source: OSU).
Ibrahim Pourdavoud, for whom the chair is named, was a Persian scholar who studied pre-Islamic Iranian history, focusing particularly on Zoroastrianism and Zoroastrian culture. He is perhaps most well known for translating the Avesta, the primary collection of Zoroastrian sacred texts, into Persian and providing explanatory commentary.
Dr. Lovelace said in an email that by naming the chair after Pourdavoud, they intended to “honor him and his life’s work on the occasion of his 125th birthday in 2011, which happened to coincide with [her] mother’s 90th birthday.”
In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Yarshater acknowledged that although van Bladel has many strengths, they do not lie in the same field Pourdavoud spearheaded.
“The one scholar that Princeton University was thinking to appoint — although they haven’t appointed yet — was not an expert on any of those things that are Persian history, Persian culture or Iranian language. Even though under other standards he is a very good scholar, he would be more appropriate for chairs in Arabic or Greek,” Yarshater said.
Changing the Selection Process
Yarshater also suggested that the selection process be altered so as to better represent the intentions of a chair named for Pourdavoud.
“In order to do justice to the chair, to the donors and to the name of Pourdavoud, the selection committee should include several people of expertise in Iranian studies,” Yarshater said. “Ideally they would advertise the chair, a number of people would apply, and they will then decide who is the best choice for the chair … The committee would compose of people specialized in Iranian studies, not people in Arabic or Greek or Syriac.”
Dean of Faculty David Dobkin, who was also copied on the petition, said in an email that the selection committee for a chair position is typically made of faculty from the relevant department, or of faculty whose departments overlap with the area of the chair. Often, other faculty with broader interests are also included. Then, the search committee will begin placing ads and sending out requests for nominations to leading scholars in the field.
Once the search committee has found a potential candidate, Dobkin said, he or she is proposed to the Advisory Committee on Appointments and Advancements, which solicits input from leading scholars in the field as to the candidate’s suitability for the position.
According to Dobkin, the donor and the University will come to a consensus on a description for a position, and the search committee will begin the selection process from there. Donors are not involved in the identification nor selection of candidates to occupy the chair.
Dobkin declined to comment on the search committee organized for the Pourdavoud Chair, citing the need to uphold the integrity and confidentiality of the selection process.
Greco-Arabic vs. Pre-Islamic
Dariush Borbor, Director of the Research Institute and Library of Iranian Studies in Tehran, signed the petition, citing his personal and academic belief that the current candidate does not meet the ideals of a Pourdavoud Chair.
“My personal feeling, as many other scholars, most of us agree with what Professor Yarshater has written in his letter that this endowment for the professorship at Princeton was made by two Iranians and they wanted to concentrate on Iranian studies,” Borbor said. “The chair which is named after [Pourdavoud] should be occupied by a person who specialized either in the languages of ancient Iran or the religion or generally the culture of ancient Iran.”
Like Yarshater, Borbor acknowledged that van Bladel has many strengths in other fields, but that he may not be suited for this position.
“He may be a very good scholar as well, of his own right, but if he is a scholar specialized on Arabic, Syriac and Greek, I don’t think it’s a very suitable choice … Especially the Greek side, because with most of the scholars who were specialized in Greek studies and on the history or culture of Greece, their interpretation of Iranian studies was often very one-sided and sometimes quite wrong,” Borbor said. “I have, myself, written and lectured in many universities about the misconceptions that Greek scholarship has given to Iranian studies.”
Hosi Mehta, president of the Zoroastrian Association of Chicago, signed the petition as well, also citing a concern for the potential misrepresentation of Iranian history.
“Persian history is really rich, and I was surprised that they could not find somebody who would be into that than finding someone who has the Arabic background,” Mehta said. “I read his qualifications, that he was an Arabic scholar, and the concern was that sometimes things get misrepresented … the winner usually writes the history, so it could be changed in different ways. There are people who say the Holocaust never happened.”