Historians and archaeologists are entrusted with the task of examining and narrating the past. These tasks require the historian to be as balanced and neutral as possible in his or her writings.
This article aims to highlight the importance, leadership and deeply rooted courage of Iranian women throughout the history of Iran since ancient times. The women of Iran have been participants and engines of civil and political change throughout Iran’s ancient history. Below are a few examples that highlight the role that Iranian women have played in the history of Iran.
The ancient Burnt City (3000 BC): The Status of Women.
Archaeological evidence at the Burnt city near Zabol (in the province of Sistan-Baluchistan in southeast Iran) dated to 2000-3000 BC has revealed dramatic proof of the status and power enjoyed by the women of ancient Persia.
Although much of western scholarship has been primarily focused on investigating the rise of urban civilizations in ancient Mesopotamia, it is now acknowledged that the Iranian plateau has had an ancient urban tradition of its own.
The Burnt City (which encompasses 300,000 hectares) was a thriving and highly developed metropolis and host to four distinct civilizations. The site has yielded remarkable finds with respect to pottery and jewellery. In November 2004, archaeologists discovered the world’s most ancient backgammon game set (alongside its 60 related game pieces, dice, etc). Other discoveries at the site include the most ancient artificial eyeball, caraway seed and animated picture or “film”.
A report on the Burnt City was provided by the Cultural Heritage News (CHN) Agency of Iran by late December 2004.
One of the most interesting finds was the discovery of a large number of seals in the graves of women. Seals in antiquity were often symbols of power and authority. The Burnt City seals are of two kinds: governmental and personal.
An ancient seal from the Burnt City.
Mansour Sajjadi the Iranian archeologist supervising the Burnt City excavations, reported to CHN that:
“In the ancient world, there were tools used as a means of economic control. Whoever had these tools at his disposal was among the most powerful people in the society…“
Another remarkable series of discoveries at the cemetery of the Burnt City by the Sajjadi team was that 90% of the graves in which the seals were discovered belonged to women. Conversely, only a miniscule 5% of the seals belonged to men. Sajjadi further avers that:
“Since we know that seals were buried with their owners 5000 years ago, it is reasonable to think the most important seals for the economic activities in the burnt city belonged to women. As the men worked as farmers and craftsmen away from the city, they reasonably had to give the seals to women who were always in the city, so that they were able to solve the problems of the city immediately.”
More recent discoveries at the site indicate that the women of the Burnt City lived longer than the men. This was reported on June 22, 2009 by Iran’s PressTV News Service. The leader of these particular excavations at the Burnt City was Farzad Forouzanfar.
Forouzanfar has noted that men only lived to the age ranges of 35-45, while women survived as late as their 80s. His team also found that the number of inhabitants at the site stood at 6,000, revising the previously estimated number of 5000.
Noting that the area saw a number of population drops over time, Forouzanfar also stated that:
“…the number of the female inhabitants of the area was more than the males… The team also found that the remains of nearly 30,000 burials exist in Burnt City“.
Ancient Iranian women at War: The “Amazons” and the Achaemenids (5th century BC – 333 BC).
One of the areas that have received the least amount of attention by scholarship is the role women warriors of ancient Persia. The role of ancient Iranian female warriors can be traced back at least 2000 years, to the time of the Parthians (250 BC – 224 AD).
A Reuters newscast from Tehran in December 4, 2004 reported on the findings of an archaeologist who had been engaged in excavations near Tabriz, in Iran’s northwest province of Azarbaijan. A series of DNA tests revealed that the 2,000 year old bones of an entombed warrior and accompanying sword belonged to a woman. As noted by Alireza Hojabri-Nobari to the Iran-based Hambastegi Newspaper:
“Despite earlier comments that the warrior was a man because of the metal sword, DNA tests showed the skeleton inside the tomb belonged to a female warrior…”
According to Nobari, there were 109 such warrior tombs, and plans were in place to conduct DNA tests on the skeletons of the other ancient warriors of those sites as well.
The women warriors, known as “Amazons” by the ancient Greeks, were typical of such fighters who prevailed in Iran’s north (modern Gilan, Mazandaran, Gorgan) and northwest (modern Azarbaijan in Iran) as early as the 5th century BC or earlier. There have been numerous finds in the gravesites of ancient North-Iranic warriors known as the Scythians (Saka in Iranian) and their Sarmatian (or Ard-Alan) successors.
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.
As noted by Mallory (1989, pp. 48-56, 78) these ancient north Iranian peoples were predominant in much of what is now known as the Ukraine, the northern Black Sea region in general and parts of Bulgaria and Rumania at the time of the Achaemenids.
An ancient Greek vase depicting an Amazon female warrior (mounted on horse at left). Note the ancient Iranian dress, such as Medo-Persian style trousers, tunic, footwear, etc. The Greek warrior to the right appears with weapons and shields but no attire.
The burial mounds of the ancient Scythians/Saka known as “Kurgans” have often yielded the remains of women warriors who were buried alongside their swords. These Kurgan mounds have been discovered in various forms from the southern Ukraine all the way into the Caucasus and Iran (to the north and northwest).
By the time of the Achaemenids, women were also seen in positions of military leadership in the imperial armies of ancient Persia.
A reconstruction Artemesia of Halicarnassius (now in modern western Turkey) one of Xerxes’ most capable admirals during the failed invasions of Greece in 480 BC. The daring naval exploits of Artemesia reputedly led Xerxes to state that “…my men have become women and my women have become men”. Artemesia was also one of Xerxes’ chief military advisors.
A reconstruction of a female Achaemenid cavalry unit by Shapur Suren-Pahlav. Many of the tribal elements in Iran, such as the Kurds and Lurs have been reported as fighting from horseback as late as the early twentieth century.
Iranian women in the Sassanian Era (224-651 AD)
Roman historical sources have reported on the exploits of the women warriors of the Sassanian Empire (224-651 AD). Zonaras (XII, 23, 595, 7-596, 9) states in reference to the forces of Shapur I that:
“…in the Persian army…there are said to have been found women also, dressed and armed like men…”
Emperor Valerian (r. 253-260 AD) (kneeling) and a Roman Senator (with Roman Toga at right) surrender to the army of Shapur in 260 AD. The Emperor and the Senator are escorted by an Iranian female warrior (left) and an officer of the Suren clan (with beaked red hat). Iranian women are reported by Roman sources as having fought alongside the ranks of the Sassanian cavalry (Farrokh, 2005, Plate A).
A priestess from the Temple of Anahita bestows the “”Farr” or divine glory upon Bahram Chobin after his spectacular victories against the Huns in the late 580s AD. Women play a crucial role in ancient Iranian theology and Zoroastrianism. (Farrokh, 2005, Plate E).
Princess Shireen (who was Christian) beside her husband and monarch, Khosrow II Parveez. Though Zoroastrian, Khosrow respected the Christian faith of his wife Shireen. In addition to Zoroastrians, Sassanian Persia had a large Christian as well as Buddhist population (Farrokh, 2005, Plate F).
Princess Boran (lit. beautiful woman) at the site of Shiz in Azarbaijan. Boran was one of the last rulers of Sassanian Persia before the Arabo-Islamic invasions of 637-651 AD (Farrokh, 2005, Plate G).
As the Sassanian Empire collapsed to the invading forces of Islam from Arabia, a number of female resistance fighters rose to prominence, examples being Apranik (the daughter of General Piran), Negan, and Azadeh (who did much to prevent the invaders from entering northern Persia). As noted by Overlaet