FROM A NON CHAUVINISTIC VIEW POINT
Alexander’s empire, by linking directly India with the Mediterranean, created a “bridge” between cities thousands of miles away from each other, such as Samarkand, Alexandria and Hippo. By virtue of the spread of Aramaic (the language of Syria) as the language of administration and Parthian and Sassanian trade, cultural contacts were established between all the civilizations of Eurasia, such as China, India, Persia, Greece and Egypt.
These contacts generated considerabale scientific and economic dynamism through the whole area especially at Alexandria, but also to Petra in Arabia, in Cyrenaica and Hippo in Africa.
In Persia (present day Iran) and Pakistan, Greek culture lingered in the schools founded by Alexander, while in the Greek-Roman world Emperor Justinian closed the Hellenistic Academies since “pagan.” In the sixth century A. D. in Merv, Bukhara, Samarkand, Balkh, Hellenistic culture continued to thrive blending with the Persian, Indian and Chinese.
When Islam entered the heart of Asia and triggering conflicts with the Turanian world, many scholars in these cities move West: to Baghdad, Aleppo, Alexandria, Cairo, Cordoba, Seville. Among these scholars are: Al Kwarizmi, a native of Korasmia, a scholar of Indian numbering systems and the first to use zero, he was the father of the “algorithms” that in fact he named. Al Biruni of Samarkand, was a student of mathematics, astronomy, physics, medicine. Al Farabi, born in Sogdiana in 870, was an Aristotelian philosophy teacher in Baghdad and Aleppo.
Avicenna, born in Bukhara in 980, was a teacher of medicine, science and philosophy, the man who more than any other influenced popular culture in the Arab and Persian worlds, as well as in medieval Europe. Averroes and other Muslim and Jewish scholars such as Maimonides, who, though born in Spain, were carriers of Hellenism in the same interpretation of their Persian teachers and predecessors. We shall look into this subject in a special paragraph of this book below.
In Castille, Catalunia, Provence and Sicily, even before the reign of Frederick II, the culture begins to take shape that we Europeans have called “Medieval”, the result of cultural synthesis between the Greek-Roman and Indo-Iranian worlds.
Persian literary styles and genders, hitherto unknown in the West, reached Syria and Spain.
Texts from the Avesta, the book of Persian religion, reached the cities of southern Europe, translated into Arabic, and Latin and Greek, to inspire Catalan, Provencal and Italian, writers who very often were themselves of more or less distant Levantine origins. All this brings to Europe common forms of the ancient oriental culture such as foir example the novel, the romance, the love poem, which in the following centuries will benefit the poets of Dolce Stil Novo, among them Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch. Indeed, their tutors had had direct relations with the Islamic world in Castille, Catalunia and Provence.
Europe was then reached, along the same avenues, by new musical instruments such as the guitar, the game of chess, the practice of falconry, of tournaments, of new accounting systems, as the bill of exchange, and the double entry book, which were long in use in eastern Iran, among the Sogdians, the Silk Road traders by excellence.
The spread of Persian storytelling tradition of the bards (singers and musicians of the court of the East Persian world), in Sicily, Catalonia and Provence, gave impetus to the interest for the language, literature and poetry, which spread throughout France and Italy.
It was, in fact, a compendium of short stories titled “Syntipas” to provide Boccaccio with material for the “Decameron”, while the book of “Arda Viraf” of the Avesta provided Dante with documentation of the afterworld, with its clear descriptions of punishments of Hell and Purgatory and the joys of Paradise, which were faithfully reproduced by Dante in his Divine Comedy.
THE ROOTS OF CHRISTENDOM
In the first century BC Persian influence in Syria and throughout the East reached great intensity. In India and in eastern Persia, Buddhism had been active for centuries and there were at this time many mystics and ascetics that people held in great veneration for their impeccable moral conduct, for their sacrifices and their bodily powers that seemed superhuman, especially when it came to work miraculous cures.
Aramaic, the language of the Syrians and Jews had, for at least 6 centuries, been the lingua franca or a shared regional language of people in all countries between the Mediterranean and the Ganges in India. Not only the merchants and their goods moved continuously through this vast territory, but also men of culture, who were interested, often out of curiosity, in discovering the meaning of life through the consultation of Oriental scholars and wise men. And it is only within the context of such cultural exchanges, which we may justify the appearance, in this perion in the Levant, of a number of “messiahs” and, among these, Apollonius of Thiana and Jesus of Nazareth.
Initially Christianity was, to the Romans, one religion among many. There was already, especially among the Sarmatian auxiliary troops and East Germany, widespread, Mithraism, whose followers gathered in underground temples, involving themselves in mysterious liturgical practices which included the Eucharist, forecasting the Resurrection, the glory of Heaven or the pains of Hell out in the Beyond. Christ was accepted as a god among others, a god worshiped especially in the Jewish ghettos of many cities around the Mediterranean and Roman Europe. Jewish ghettos already existed in the early Christian period.
Jews viewed Jesus as yet another prophet, not as a deity, it was excluded among them that he was God. Initially Christ was worshiped by people of Palestine and by Jews who had become Christians and went to Europe to announce “the news” to other Levantines. The problem arose when Christians claimed that their god was the only one worthy of worship and claimed that they would only obey by his morality and by his laws, rather than adhering to the laws and morality of the Empire.
Peter, chosen by Christ as his successor in the world, went to Rome to convert the Romans themselves, while Paul of Tarsus, a former tax collector for the Romans, began his work of “evangelization” in the East and reached Peter in Italy, to be later martyred with him. The foundations of the dogma of Christian belief were thus established, also upon the martyrdom of the two creators and emblems of Christianity: Peter and Paul.
In the first three centuries after Christ, Christians, Jews almost exclusively immigrants, Syrians and Armenians, are persecuted by the imperial power and must hide. The Roman emperors produced many martyrs, venerated wherever you are in the Empire, the eastern community. Persecution then encouraged and strengthened the faith of Christians.
At that time Constantine came to be emperor, a man whose culture and whose imaginations are strongly influenced by the East. Christianity became the imperial religion, and the persecution of the Christian cult cesed. Churches came to be founded where were once the “mithraea” or temples tu the cult of Mithras. With the conversion of many followers of Mithras , a synthesis of the Mithraic and Christian cults developed into what we know as Christianity which acquired a liturgy from Mithraism, starting to celebrate solemnly the mystery of the Eucharist.
This synthesis between Mithraism and Christianity is symbolized by the appearance of the Magi in Christian art. The Magi, in fact, originally the priests of Mitra, turned to Christ and from that moment on both Levantines and the Aryans or, in other words, Germans and Sarmatians, came to increasing the ranks of Christians. Only in the countryside paganism lingered, and in fact “pagan” came to signify the inhabitants of “pages”, the rural villages.
The Roman general Theodosius, a fervent Catholic, was proclaimed Augustus by Gratian Caesar in 379 and settled in Thessaloniki from where he waged war against the barbarians, which from now on will not have interruptions. Under the emperors Gratian and Theodosius, Christianity becomes established over the whole empire. On 3 August of that year 379 the two emperors proclaim an edict prohibiting all heresies and the following year launched another edict that unifies the Church under the dictates of the Council of Nicaea, and which reads as follows:
“We want all people ruled by our clemency to follow the religion which the holy Apostle Peter revealed to the Romans and which Pontiff Damasus and Peter of Alexandria Bishop profess. We believe that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit form a single deity in equal majesty and a pious Trinity. Therefore we order that all those who follow this faith be called Catholic Christians, and because we believe that others are demented and insane, we want them to suffer the stigma of heresy, and their clandestine meetings will no longer have the name of churches. Besides the condemnation of divine justice, they will receive severe penalties which our authority, guided by heavenly wisdom, wants to impose upon them. “(Edict of the Faith of Theodosius and Gratian)
In May 381 a council of 150 bishops met, which assigns, to the Church of Rome the first place and second, to the Church of Constantinople. At the end of 381 severe punishments were promised to all those who professed pagan cults, and the year after the altar of Victory was removed from the Senate of Rome. Privileges were suppressed, the assets confiscated along with the revenues of the pagan temples. Finally, the emperors of Rome abandoned the title of “Pontifex Maximus” by passin it on to the Catholic bishop of Rome.
These are the inglorious foundations of the Roman Catholic Church.
FROM AL FARABI TO COPERNICUS
In the early 90’s I happened to take up a book from one of the shelves of my library, which I bought in London during my first stay in the British capital in November 1963. It was a small masterpiece by the great Arnold J. Toynbee: “Between Oxus and Jumna” (Oxford Univeristy Press, 1963), where the historian recounted impressions of a journey made in 1960 through the vast territory which stretches between the two rivers of the title, from Afghanistan to New Delhi. With an engaging narrative style and certainly not academic, Toynbee put forward a new starting point for the historiography of the third millennium in a series of paragraphs which, I imagine, escaped even his most distinguished colleagus, and perhaps even the author himself in their full extent.
The area described by Toynbee is traversed from north to south by one of the largest natural barriers of the world, the Hindu Kush. This impressive mountain range seemingly impassable, which I saw flying at low altitude on a Chinese airline for its entire length in 1990, marks the limit between the eastern distribution of the trout and of many other biological species, but it did not stop the human species.
The fact that the mountain ranges, natural barriers, by definition, have never stopped man, seems to have escaped more than a geographer. Such barriers have perhapos cpresented a challenge and thus have induced man to cross them. No mountain range in the world is, or was, until the imposition of insurmountable political borders, a cultural border.
The Hindu Kush geographically divides the Eurasian continent from the Indian subcontinent, “… however- writes Toynbee – since mankind has spread on earth, the people of these two great regions have insisted on communicating with one another, braving the rigors imposed by nature on the few existing gaps. Even today, thousands of nomads cross the mountain range twice a year, with family, lambs, sheep, goats, chickens, donkeys and camels. ”
The Hindu Kush, which has never been a political barrier, is now in the middle of Afghanistan, while in the first centuries of our era was in the middle of the Kushan Empire, an empire that stretched, in fact, from the river Oxus to the river Jumna, a tributary of the Ganges. The civilization of the Kushan empire, a name that says nothing to the vast the majority of medieval historians in Europe, was at the time (1st to 3rd century AD) one of the four great powers that divided the Ecumene – i.e. the civilized world. This empire, bordering on the west with Persia and east with China, traded with the Roman Empire tacross the Indian Ocean, via the Red Sea and Egypt.
Toynbee says that “… the territory situated between the Oxus and Jumna was the scene of crucial events in human history and constantly demanded the attention of the historian …”, and for this reason he visited it. Toynbee’s observation still remains a dead letter, but not for me, and it is for this reason that my story upturns history as told by those historians who know nothing of the area called by Toynbee “The Roundabout of Civilizations” or a “Crossroads of Civilizations.”
I will discuss the crucial role of this mysterious empire in a later chapter. Now I would like to investigate a concept disregarded by traditional historiography, but essential in my opinion. The question that arises is in my opinion this one: what is it that turns the seemingly static and sedentary culture of the southern margin of Eurasia in a dynamic civilization? To answer this question we must look to the north, to the horsemen of the steppes.
Ever since I arrived in England I studied cultural anthropology focusing on “peasant culture”, a theme that in the days of the extinction of this culture in Italy, was fashionable among anthropologists, historians and sociologists who only by hearsay knew the peasant world. I was in fact the only researcher who knew personally the world of the peasant, and who was aware of the imminent demise of this culture, and its significance.
This is confirmed by my bibliography, and by those of other researchers. My interest in the subject had nothing to do with fashion, or nostalgia, but rather with the fact that something very significant about the cultural roots of Italy and Tuscany in particular, was vanishing before our eyes without having ever been adequately recorded.
Unrecorded was not so much folklore, widely covered by many ethnologists including eminent folklorist as Ernesto De Martino, and not even the so-called “peasant civilization “, then studied by all Marxist economists and anthropologists, but rather “peasant culture” as a paradigmatic root of Italian culture. This was a construct alien to current thought.
In England I was discussing my reflections with George Bankes, curator of the ethnographic gallery of the museum in Brighton, with George Diamond of Baltimore, a doctoral student in Prehistory at the Institute of Archaeology in London and Dr. John Nandris, lecturer in prehistoric archeology at the same Institute .
It was then in vogue among archaeologists, the use of “ethnographic parallel”, i.e. the study of existing populations at a supposed equivalent cultural level of a prehistoric population under scritiny. I redressed the method by arguing that anywhere material behavioural “archaic” elements survive in all populations, and in order to interpret the past these should be studied, but only in the area where excavation takes place, not elsewhere. The current method instead made use of information coming from Australia or New Guinea, to interpret the finds of Paleolithic Europe, which to a certain extent might also be useful, but does not offers the necessary guarantees of reliability.
In order to understand who the nomads of the Eurasian steppes – in my opinion the drivers of change in the sedentary civilizations – actually were, it was necessary to study first and foremost the spread of agriculture across the Eurasian continent from the centers of origin along the so-called “Fertile Crescent” that spans the north of Mesopotamia from the north, forming an arc from Jordan to Turkey to Iraq and Iran.
To speak of “dissemination” and “migration” was absolutely forbidden in the archaeological world of the ’70s. This methodological error has delayed for at least two decades, the understanding of basic facts about the past, with the unfair dismissal of great scholars dear to me, nowadays fully reasserted.
This foothills bounding the Mesopotamian desert, where not only wheat and barley are endemic but also goat and sheep existed in the wild, agriculture developed and spread to the north, west and east in particular, but that is not all. Archaeologists of the ’70s almost exclusively concerned themselves with the spread of agriculture into Europe, via Turkey and the Balkans, but not to the north and east, where it was, mainly for political reasons, difficult to conduct field research or access publications , generally written in languages known to very few. This resulted in a distorted view of the cultural landscape of Eurasian of the 7th – 6th millennium BC
It would have been a Czech researcher, Marek Zvelebil, in the 1990s, the first of a new generation of prehistorians, to look eastward and shed light on what had happened there in prehistory. At the time I became involved in Neolithic Europe, all that had happened beyond the Dnieper was shrouded in mystery. Since 1972, geneticists from Stanford University: Albert J. Ammerman and Luigi L. Cavalli-Sforza, began the publication of scientific articles showing that the genetic study of the current populations could provide useful data to archaeologists, regarding the movements of peoples. However, the work of the two geneticists was published by Princeton University Press only in 1984.
It is a philologist, Carlo Forin, with a newsletter to remind me, as I write, that the Greeks put a dividing line in the middle of Eurasia around 500 BC, culturally ‘inventing’ the continent of Europe.
The prevailing assuption of the past existence of an Indo-European language and culture, which the Italian philologist Giovanni Semerano called “a fairy tale” denied the direct origin of Western culture from the Near East, creating a psychological barrier between European and Middle Eastern, which is still one of the causes today’s conflicts.
Directly or indirectly, as we shall see, Western culture owes much to largely unknown, or poorly known, developments, that took place in central Asia and thus to their impact on the Middle East, especially from the fourth century BC the Renaissance. .
Going back to the ’70s, however, when I matured the suspicion that Europe was an artificial, I read three books containing information that I could not find anywhere else. Yet the authors had been well-known scholars and lacked no credibility. Nevertheless, all the younger scholars, in the same sector, seemed to ignore contents that were objectively crucial for obtaining any understanding of the cultural development of the West and beyond.
These authors are Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Arnold J. Toynbee, William McNeill, a British Canadian, and Roman Ghirshman the French Iranologist of Yiddish background.
Picking up these books, now yellowed, I find my emphasis on various pages whose content struck me as immensely relevant. In Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers, Wheeler, Penguin edition 1955, I outlined a few paragraphs concerning Pakistan and Afghanistan, a chapter on the Silk Road and the ramifications that this network of trade routes was in the Indus. The discussion focuses on the Western nature of the finds of Taxila and the North West Frontier. Wheeler argues that at Charsada, in the plain of Peshawar, terracotta versions were found of the Apollo di Belvedere and of the Laocoon in bas-relief, depicting also an Indian version a Cassandra.
And yet, a warrior’s head in plaster from the area of Peshawar, in a style which curiously recalls the typical Gallo Roman art, likewise a stucco Antinoos from Hadda in Afghanistan, now in the Musée Guimet in in Paris. Wheeler then refers to excavations conducted by the French, J. Hackin and R: Ghirshman 1936 to 1942, north of Kabul near the Hindu Kush, where lie the remains of the ancient Kapisa, now known as Begram.
The site was visited and described by Hiuan Tsang the famous Chinese pilgrim, in 644 AD The city controlled the caravan route between Bactria and India and judging by the structure of its walls it could be argued that they had been built by greek-Bactrian kings of the second century BC . The Sassanian King of Kings, Shapur I, conquered the city in 250 AD during his race to the Indus, where he established the boundary of his empire.
The city was entirely destroyed by the Hephtalites, otherwise known as the White Huns, in 450 AD It must be said in passing that these were only the latest Tocharians to be pushed out of China. The last Caucasians, Indo-European speakers, blond and blue-eyed to be pushed over the Pamirs by Turanian hordes moving into China from the north.
From the excavations of the royal palace came out of a wealth of pottery and objects of all kinds Oriental and Mediterranean which, as Wheeler writes, he never found the likes of them elsewhere in Asia. These had been walled up in special rooms open only by archaeologists. It was thanks to the discovery of such time capsule that we managed to rebuild the commercial network, but I would rather say cultural network, of this area with the rest of Eurasia.
In one corner, vases and glass containers from Syria and Egypt were found, while at the center were boxes and plates of bone and ivory of Indian manufacture. He then found bronze paterae of Western manufacture along with a series of scales and weights depicting Mars and Minerva. Further along Chinese lacquer bowls were found. Coins with te effigy of Kushan King Kanishka allowed us to date the materials to the second century AD, but the findings were accumulated in this sort of royal treasury in the course of 150 years, during which the Kushans ruled, who, like the aforementioned White Turks, were Caucasian, speaking an Indo-European language, driven out by the Chinese before them.
The Kushan empire controlled all trade and exchages between China, India, Persia and the West, accumulating not only material culture from each of these centres of civilization, but most of all cultural traits or in other words ‘immaterial’ culture.
Sir Mortimer Wheeler, as an archaeologist, was an object hunter and as such he examined in detail the objects found, he noticed for example a small statue of Harpocrates (a Graeco-Egyptian deity) similar to another found at Taxila and with all probability coming, along with a Hercules and knight in Greek armour, frm Alexandria. Also a grottesque figurine representing a comedian dressed up as a philosopher, typical of Roman folk art, drew his attention. The bronze paterae found by Wheeler were identical to others found in Germany beyond the Imperial frontiers, whereas colour decorated glass beakers were found to come from Egypt. What struck the archaeologist’s attention most was a series of plaster medalions – which for many years were kept in the Kabul Museum. These had delicate, elegand figures in low relief worthy of the gratest artistic achievents of Hellenism, superior in taste to their Western models. They represented Athena-Minerva and other classical figures such as Eros and Psyche.
It is clear that Buddhist art in North West Afghanistan had absorbed Western styles and tastes, but as to when and how, has been a question which has challenged all art historians to date. However, Sir Mortimer Wheeler boldly declared that these are not mere forml resemblances between East and West; religious thought was at the time going through a period of changes which present analogies in both regions, such as for example the development of metaphisics.
The Western Imperialist idea and Eurasian misticism which nourished it had, according to wheeler, similar counterparts in the East. In conclusion, in Kushan times, East and West were moving in a similar direction, and seem to pursue similar aesthetic and spiruitual aims. Nearly three hundred years after Graeco-Indian Emperor Ashoka had published his edicts in Greek, Aramaic and Hindi throughout the Indian subcontinent, and it is worth noticing that at this time, spiritual voyages, in both directions, were taking place between Syria and the Indus area, involving numerous ascetics and holy men. We know for example of a Graeco-Syrian preachers and healers: Apollonius of Thiana, a contemporary of Christ. and shown in terracotta figurines in Kabul museum, which represent Buddhist holy ascetics with resemblance with the image of Christ, along with figures of pilgrims, carrying the same attributes as the pilgrims of Compostella. Travels to the Indus are mentioned, for later centuries, by Pseudo Palladius (4th century),
It needs remembering – and I shall go back on this crucial point – that the Aramaic language was first adopted by the Assyrians then by the Achemenids and later by the Parthians and the Sassanians as the “lingua franca” for their empires and for trade purposes in Asia and Africa. Later, the Nestorian missionaries spread this language, along with the Syrian script, all over Central Asia, up to Manchuria, as observed, among others, by Toynbee.
If archaeologists find material culture, tangible, solid objects, immaterial culture, less obvious, may be even more significant for those capable of preciving it. This to demonstrate that researchers in the field of culture – prehistoric, classical, medieval, who don’t search beyond the traditional borders of Europe, are destined to miss crucial information, and with their papers will continue accumulate great piles of…nonsense, and not surprisingly, regarding my material as nonsense.
Returning to archaeology in the heart of Eurasia, Wheeler, adpted the term Roman-Indian art with reference to the art of Gadhara, which was entirely a Buddhist art. Not only buddhism provided the canons and the contents, but also the financers for the execution of works of art. During the Kushan period and after, with the White Huns or Hephtalites – as I have already remarked- both these Caucasian peoples coming from across the Pamirs, lasting from the age of Christ to the times of the Hunninc invasion of Attila, Buddhism experiences a Golden Age, monasteries spread everywhere, along the Silk Road network, producing an art only equalled by Christian Europe centuries after.
At the time of Emperor Kanishka, the Kushan king of the age of the Flavians, Buddhism entered its second stage, from a philosophy it became a religion. The Buddha became a divine figure. Whereas earlier, the ascetic Buddha was never represented, his presence being symbolized by a footprint, a chair, a horse, now the divine Buddha was a seated man in a meditative position, at the centre of any imagery. Wheeler sees in this change a revolution. Kanishka, the liberal, became the first patron of the arts, which fluorish everywhere by virtue of the opulence of his empire.
Only Western art was able to satisfy the demands of such exuberant civilization, by providing the necessary canons for the naturalistic representation of man. Wheeler believed that Western artists were called up to set up schools of sculpture and painting whose masterpiece scattered across the cold deserts of Central Asia.
I believe that artists moved in both directions. I have seen works in Petra which aspper to have been executed according to Eastern canons, such ad figures in high relief whose busts is set within a circle. Kushan art seems the product of commerce and exchange between the Graeco-Roman world and Gandhara, as Sir Mortimer says. The art of Taxila expresses itself in stone, terracotta, painting, stucco and plaster. The majority of the sculptures and reliefs are in Gandaran green schist, a very durable stone. Along the Silk Road, well into Chinese Tarkestan, today’s Xinjiang, we find sculptures modelled in stucco, plaster and clay, all painted in bright colours. Stucco scuptures and reliefs are found, however, everywhere, even in Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus valley. Stucco, which in time will replace stone, favouring sometimes extreme stylizations, but which never greatly depart from a Western-Eastern double matrix, will by the 5th century have spead all over the area of Buddhism. Sir Mortimer asked himself how could Western elements have reached the workshops of Gandhara. In his opinion Alexandria was the Western centre of diffusion of cultural and artistic influences, which reached as far as the edge of the Gobi Desert. Such influences were first observed in 1907 by Sir Marc Aurel Stein at Miran, in the Lop Desert.
Wheeler noted that Alexandria was then the main center of sculptures in stucco in the West, and we today know now that the center of this art was and is still Eastern Iranian. Alexandria flourished as the Eastern terminus of the Silk Road, the growing demand for statues in Ptolemaic and Roman times and the relative scarcity of marble led to the use of local resources of stucco in imitation of what already was done in the East and not vice versa, as Wheeler suggests. Together with the stucco, and in both directions, also travelled men and ideas.
With the spread of Buddhist monasticism, the plastic art of stucco spread in all directions, including the West, where monastic life was adopted by Christians, retaining many original features, this appears particularly evident in the oldest monastic rules, such as Pachomius’.
The Roman-Buddhist art originated not only from trade and exchange of ideas, but above all by the exchange of people. Prior to 100 A. D. India held occasional diplomatic relations with the West and the famous Indian ivory statuette of a dancer found at Pompeii was produced for patrons of Gandhara, where there numerous identical works have been found. The complex art of Gandhara does not originate from a fortuitous and sporadic cultural contamination.
In the apocryphal Acts of St. Thomas says that the Indo-Greek king of Taxila, Gondoferne, called on St. Thomas to build for him a magnificent palace, if this story is a legend, but it has a basis of truth in the reputation that the Ionians (Yavanas in the Indian sagas) enjoyed in India as skilful carpenters.
The conquest of Persia by Alexander had far reaching consequences, both in the West and in the East, which just now some scholars begin to appreciate. These consequences have played a decisive role in the formation of the modern West, as we will observe below.
What was not yet clear in Wheeler’s mind is what had happened in the steppes and the northern deserts of Asia, and then the nature and origins of nomadic invaders, such as the Kushan, the White Huns, and before them the Parthians, the Massagetae, the Scythians, the Sauromatae or Sarmatians etc.
Wheeler, the discoverer of the fourth civilization: the Indus, did not know about the existence of a fifth civilization, similar to those of the Indus, Mesopotamia, Egypt and China: the Oxus civilization, still hidden, in his times, beneath the sands of Uzbekistan.
Arnold Toynbee in his book “Between Oxus and Jumna”, 1963, invited the reader to examine the history of Eurasia from another point of view. He argues that urban civilization, born some 5,000 years ago in Iraq, spread both westwards and eastwards. Therefore Iraq is the center of the civilized world. Eastward urban civilization has pervaded Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, Central Asia (Oxus) and the Far East (China and Japan). Westward the same spread to Egypt, Anatolia, the Aegean, north western Europe and then to Ireland.
Influenced by William McNeill, who had just come out with his bestseller “The Rise of the West,” Toynbee said that civilization has created the Ecumene making of it a house with many rooms. Civilization, which is one and born in Iraq, has spread to Japan on one side and to Ireland on the other, with its southern reaches in Java, basically forming an arc that spans the Eurasian steppes, leaving these unsettled nomadic peoples, in constant movement.
The younger provinces of the Ecumene, situated at the far East and far West of it, do not have an equal relationship with each other or with the entire Ecumene. Their geographical position would place them in two separate classes. Some of these provinces are ‘cul de sac’ and others are instead “hubs” (Toynbee’s roundabouts). The first being at the far ends of the Ecumene have been subject to subsequent influences coming from the center, but we can not go to these more distant regions. The ’roundabouts’ are regions on which routes converge from every quarter of the compass and from which they radiate the same way towards each cardinal point.
Examples of ‘cul de sac’ would be Japan, Java, Morocco, the British Isles and Scandinavia. The “hub”(roundabout) regions are located on the right and left of Iraq. Syria and neighboring countries, are the Western “hub”, northern and eastern Iran – Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and northern Pakistan-is the Eastern “hub”. Syria, or rather the Near East, was the crossroad between southwest Asia, Africa, Anatolia and Europe. Afghanistan, with the adjacent countries mentioned above, was the crossroad between southwest Asia, Indian subcontinent, Central Asia and East Asia.
Of course, through history a ‘cul de sac’ may become a hub and vice versa. Toynbee then speraks of the changing role of Western Europe which being a ‘dead end’ for 1700 years, ie from the third century BC when the Atlantic was an insurmountable barrier, became a “hub” by virtue of the adoption of the lateen sail by the Portuguese, who opened the oceans to the peoples of Western Europe transforming it into the greatest “hub“ in history.
After this mechanistic, but useful interpretation of history, Toynbee returns to Afghanistan considering the frequent migrations of nomad, or former nomad peoples of the steppe, who through time traversed the region to reach the Indian subcontinent. In the second half of the second millennium before our era, the Aryans were the first among all. They brought Sanskrit to India, marking the start of Hindu civilization, that supplanted the ancient Indus civilization, with its greatest cities at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa.
In the seventh century BC Indo-European-speaking nomadic invaders reached the Helmand River basin and the Punjab region. Among these invaders were the Pakhtun perhaps the ancestors of the Pathans. In the second century BC a second invasion occurred of Iranian-speaking nomads, the Sakas, some of them joined the Pakhtun in the Helmand River valley, others reached the region of Bombay. Following the Saka tribes nomads arrive so that the Chinese call Yuue-chi, from Xinjiang, who settled between the river Oxus and the Hindu Kush, i.e. in Bactria.
During the first century, continues Toynbee, one of the Yuue-chi hordes created an empire astride of the Hindu Kush, spanninf from the Oxus to the Jumna rivers. The Kushan empire, this is the name it took. The central area of this diverse empire, was later to become Afghanistan, which in the tenth century was dominated by the Turkish dynasty of Mahmud Ghazni and in the eighteenth century by Ahmad Shah Abdali.
In the fifth century A. D. a horde of Huns, instead of reaching Europe with Attila, went into the heart of the Indian subcontinent. In the thirteenth century these were surpassed in ferocity by other invaders, the Mongols, who fortunately did not reach the heart of India, nor that of Europe. The last invasion of nomadic horse was that of the Uzbeg, which in addition to naming the current Uzbekistan penetrated into the center of Afghanistan, against the Hindu Kush where they still are. The Turks (Timurids) that lived here, fled beyond the big ridge of the Hindu Kush and invaded India founding the Moghul dynasty.
These and other migrations that have occurred along the boundary between the steppe and the area of the great civilizations, stimulating the dynamics that make up history.
The Achaemenid empire which expanded up to the Indus, beginning from the sixth century BC, spread the Aramaic language throughout the conquered area, this languages was privileged since it was not only one of the official languages of the empire, but the language of civilized Syria, written with characters derived from the Phoenician.
Even though the conquest of Alexander destroyed the Achaemenid Empire, Aramaic was definitely in use there during the reign of Indo-Greek Emperor Asoka (3rd century BC) since three-lingual inscriptions: in Greek, Hindi and Aramaic, i.e. the “edicts of Ashoka”- were publicly displayed throughout the Indian subcontinent. In Central Asia the alphabet with which Aramaic was written, was adapted for writing languages so far unwritten, or written in cuneiform characters.
One of the Persian languages that acquired the Syrian alphabret was Pahlavi but even more surprising is that the same alphabet spread (around the 8th century) throughout Asia, up to northeastern Manchuria. In Central Asia this alphabet accompanied the Kharoshthi writing which was used to transcribe marginal languages deriving from Sanskrit.
Beyond the Oxus, writing was adopted first by the Iranian languages, like Sogdian, which is Iranian and not Turkish, as Toynbee believed. The same alphabet was adopted to write Uyghur a Turkish language, then Mongol and Manchu.
Who has visited the Temple of Heaven in Beijin, built by the Manchu dynasty, will see that Mongol and Manchu inscriptions written in Syriac alphabet. This crucial cultural aspect has gone unnoticed by Western Medieval historians.
When the armies of Alexander reached the land of Dionysus, or the Paropanisade, the land of vines, and wine, he felt at home. This was Bactria, where he established a lasting dynasty of Greek rulers. In 183 BC the King of Bactria, Demetrius, passed the Hindu Kush and conquered southern Afghanistan and the Punjab. Half a century later the kingdom of Bactria fell, but its rule continued to hold out for two centuries in the new territories. The reigh of Menander (Melinda for the Indians) that followed, included not only the entire Ganges valley but most of central India too.
We shall see later how crucial will be the survival of Greek civilization after the fall of the Hellenistic empire in this area, and its effects on the civilization of the Medieval West. The Kushans, who established one of the most powerful empires in Central Asia with Bactria at the centre, thanks to their king Kanishka, were “philhellenes” and looked westward to Greece and Rome as models of civilization. This Caucasian people from China, originally Zoroastrian in religion and Tocharian in language, adopted Bactrian greek for their trading empire.
The art of the Kushan, known as Gandhara art, is a mixture of Greek, Roman and Indian, and it has influenced Romanesque art in the medieval West, not by mere cultural transmission, but by direct intervention.
Western influences on the art of Gandhara, may have arrived there through two avenues: from Syria to Bactria through the Silk Road or via the Indian Ocean from Alexandria. The Greeks in Egypt had in fact discovered the monsoon, the seasonal winds that drove their ships from the Red Sea to the coasts of Arabia, Iran and Baluchistan to the mouth of the Indus.
We shall see later how the Islamic conquest of these regions, the syncretic culture – Hellenic Indo Iranian Chinese – which developed into what was the territory of the Kushan Empire, will reach and influence barbaric Europe.
In the seventh century Islam pervades Central Asia retracing the path of Alexander the Great, and for these same routes, the Kushan culture that had developed by acquiring the knowledge of the neighboring great civilizations, will be reaching the Middle East and Spain and pomote European civilization.
William Hardy McNeill, born in 1917 in Canada, is one of the most famous living historians, his most important work remains “The rise of the West” which he wrote in 1963. This work introduced a view of universal history in 800 pages, which examined the mutual influences between the great civilizations of the ancient world and their collective contribution to the formation of Western culture, especially during the last 500 years. McNeill, a true pioneer, speaks of “cultural fusion” in a time when most historians thought in terms of separate developments, or parallel developments, denying direct contacts between different cultures.
It is interesting to examine the ideas of McNeill on the role of the people of the steppes in the development of civilization of what he called the Ecumene. The place where the synthesis between the various cultural experiences manifess itself, and which tends to constantly move westward.
The invasions to which Toynbee refers when speaking of the area northwest of the Indian subcontinent, between the Oxus and Indus, are only the repercussions of a great movement of peoples which interest, especially between the first and sixth centuries AD, all the Eurasian steppes and plains, between Mongolia and the Roman limes of the Rhine and the Danube. In fact, both the Roman Empire and China were subject to simultaneous invasions by the same peoples.
While the Indian civilization -writes McNeill- spread northward, adding its cultural elements – especially maths, astronomy, sculpture and architecture and even religion-Iranian and Chinese traditions, the Sassanian Persia and the Romans in Europe, defended the Ecumene- as did other sedentary cultures to the east and west- from the incursions of hordes of northern horsemen. The assaults more or less effective of these norther horsemen stimulated advances in military technology, war machines and in particular in the development of armed cavalry corps.
These two influences: that of the steppes especially military, the Indian especially scientific and religious, contributed to create the basic elements that would characterize the history of Eurasia until the Islamic conquest, first of all asceticism, monasticism and mathematical calculation.
Between 200 and 600 A. D. Mongolia was the center of the maximum dispersion of nomadic warriors. In this region a confederation of warriors called Juan – juan by the Chinese, extended its dominion from the borders of Manchuria to Lake Balkhash and beyond. Other hordes, with the name of Toba, had penetrated into the plains of northern China and held sway there between 386 and 534 AD. The Toba were Turkish-speaking nomads and their domain is identified as the Wei dynasty in Chinese history. The Toba Wei Dynasty were able to prevent the powerful Juan-juan from invading China, and blocking the path of the steppes to the west, halted for some time, further expansion of the nomads westward.
In Iran, the Parthian kingdom was fossilizing, and whenever a king showed aggressiveness towards his vassals, who felt they were in charge of their estates, they rebelled. In 224 A. D. Ardashir, one of the local kings, managed to oust king, Artabanus V, from the throne of the Parthians, becoming himself King of Kings and making Persia as cohesive and as strong as it had never been before. Ardashir strengthened the feudal state and enhanced the cohesion between the sovereigns of Persia and made the Zoroastrian religion the state religion. Ardashir installed himself in his palace of Firuzabad, in the province of Fars, initiating the Sassanian dynasty.
While the Sassanian dynasty gave conferred to the East, the Roman Empire was crumbling and falling into the hands of the military. From 197 A. D. on the throne of Rome had sat “barrack’s emperors”. Between 235 and 284 , 14 emperors had seated in Rome, all of them army generals. The continuous struggle for power between these opened the gates of the Germanic hordes, the westernost of the Eurasian hordes.
The invasion brought epidemics and devastation on a scale never seen before. Depopulation undermined the economic and defensive power of the empire, while the pressure of eastern German and northern Iranians hordes increased. Along the limes of the lower Danube, hordes of northern Iranians known as Sauromates to Herodotus and as Sarmatians to the Romans, were joined by the Goths, that with herds of camels, had moved from the Oxus to the Pontus. A relief on the Column of Arcadius in Constatinoples shows the Goths marching with camels loaded with their idols and wearing Central Asian costumes.
These were recruited as auxiliaries to the Empire and stationed on the borders, where the Zoroastrian Mithraic cult spread.
McNeill says, there was no cohesion among the hordes of the steppe nomads, they fought among themselves as they fought against the Romans. I hasten to add that the ethnic names of the various hordes were the only sign of cultural distinction, since every horde was made up of a mixture of Iranian, Germanic, Turkish, Mongolian and Tocharian speaking tribes, who followed a charismatic leader, giving rise to a horde. Cultural differences manifested only when these hordes settled in regions close to the Rhine-Danube line, were they sometimes consolidated into nations and adopted a single language.
Along the Rhine, these hordes blended with and eventually ruled over the Western Germans, as described by Tacitus, gradually switching over from nomadic stock rearing to settled agriculture. They established themselves as nations each with its ethnic name, as Walter Pohl writes (in The ethnic origins of Europe, Vienna, 2000), and finally defining approximate geographical boundaries. Thus we have: Vandals, Suebes, Alans, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Herules, Franks, Burgundi, Alamanni, Gepids, Ostrogoths, Saxons, Jutes, Angles, Frisians, Avars, Huns, etc. etc. different names but prtactically all the same mixture of races.
In the third century A. D. the Romans were able to contain the incursions of these people settled on the right bank of the Rhine and now devoted to agriculture. However, from the fourth century the cohesion of the Western Latin Empire begins to disintegrate, while the Eastern Greek Empire, with Constantine, is strengthened by establishing a new capital (377 AD) in the small Greek market town, a key point of transit between East and West: Byzantium .
The arrival of the Huns on the left bank of the Danube, which not accidentally coincides with the Hephtalite invasion (the White Huns) of Bactria, forced the Goths to cross the border and enter the territories of the Empire. The Huns created a vast empire with the Hungarian plain at its centre, and began to put pressure on the Gallic Latin West, as they had done earlier with the Balkans. After the defeat of the Huns at Chalons-en-Champagne in Gaul, and the death of Attila, which occurred in 453, the Turkish-Iranian hordes dispersed amalgamating with the Germans or returning to the East.
The Gallic-Latin pat of the Empire and the Latin North Africa had been depopulated and weakened to the point that Iranians and Germans began to cross the limes marking a crucial moment in the cultural history of Europe which, gradually, from Greek-Roman, will become “Aryan “. This term is understood in the linguistic sense and not in a racist sense as interpreted by the Third Reich. The “Aryans” are here intended as the nomadic Indo-European language speakers of Central Asia, and their neighbours.
The Germans, the Sarmatians, Huns, Alans belong in fact to the Iranian cultural sphere, as bearers of all the elements that characterize this culture, and which developed in Central Asia, among others, these are: monarchy as intended by the Frankish kings, the feudal system and customary law, all cultural traits that characterize medieval Europe, separating it radically from the Greek-Roman tradition.
There emerge initially Roman-barbarian kingdoms, with mixed cultural characteristics, typical of a period of transition. As William McNeill writes, the German-Iranian tended to maintain their tribal traditions and at the same time imitate the luxury and elegance of the Roman nobility. When the nomadic horseman had taken hold of the Roman slave-run villa, had to take the role of master towards the Roman slaves and peasants while maintaining his own style of a chief warrior in the eyes of his servants and vassals.
In ancient Bactria, the Hephtalites behaved, according to McNeill, in the same way as their peers in the West, giving rise to a “hybrid” society. They were “barbarians” who imposed themselves of a civilized society based on civil structures. They assumed these structures while maintaining their fierce martial discipline. So did the rough Toba hordes, who conquered civilized China.
All this happened in the mid-sixth century of our era. Over time, the atavistic instincts of the barbarian is attenuated, while a pride of belonging to the civilized imperial power manifests itself. It becomes customary to claim a Roman descent, all rulers will declare to be Romans, and will invent ancestors belonging to the Roman nobility. Here Greek-Roman tradition begins to merge, however misunderstood and mythologized, with the actual genuine and true “Aryan” tradition, upon which the future Europoe will be based.
The Franks were the first barbarians to want to restore the “classical” culture. Clovis, their leader (481-511) and his son, gave rise to a powerful military state based on farmer-warriors, all of whom lived in a “Court = a manorial estate”. Which had nothing “Roman” about it. Clovis was baptized Roman Catholic and not Aryan as most of the other Germanic leaders did. It must be borne in mind that the Aryan heresy has nothing to do with the ethnic term “Aryan” as used elsewhere above.
In northern France there survives today still intact the early Germanic settlement, characterized by regularly spaced villages (Courts) spread over an area of fields and forests denoting a society based on agriculture and hunting, with significant place names such as Beaudricourt, Blavincourt, Humbercourt, Warlincourt, Magnicourt, Bertancourt, Louvencourt , and thousands more. Yet, there are histoirians who disregard such evidenced and stress a non existen Frankish continuity of the Roman system of settlement, economy and culture in this part of France.
To the south, around the Mediterranean, Emperor Justinian (527 to 565) began, at the same time, a war for the restoration of the Roman Empire. Both, the Franks to the north, and Byzantines to the south, adopted war techniques learned from the Sassanians, fielding cataphracts cavalry corps armed to the teeth. In a curious parallel, China, with the help of a nomadic cavalry, defeated the Mongols (which they called Juan Juan) in 552.
Soon after, there emerge in the prairies of Bajkal, a new horde of confederated tribes with a strong Turkish genetic majority. This new power arose as a renewed threat to China, in a repeat of what had hapopened earlier with the confederation of the Juan Juan.
China decided to come to terms to prevent the war, and loaded the Turks with riches. In 567 the Western coalition of Turkish hordes formed a coalition with the Sassanians in an attempt to defeat the Hephtalites. China began to worry again when the Sassanians rewarded the Turks by giving them the oases to the east of the River Oxus.
These conflicts between civilized states, and barbarian kingdoms beginning after the mid-sixth century, were to continue unabated for the three centuries that followed. In 651 the Sassanian empire fell under the sword of Islam, exhausted by constant wars against the Byzantines; equally in the West, the Empire, newly reconquered by Justinian, began to collapse again under the sword of new barbarian hordes from the easternmost regions of Asia. Among the new hordes were, the Avars, the Bulgars and the Magyars.
In 567, the Avars, a predominantly Mongol horde, set up their yurts in the Hungarian plains, from where to make incursions against the West thus causing the invasion of the Peninsula by a horde of Germans related to the Saxons: the Lombards, who had settled earlier in Pannonia.
Finally the last hordes of Indo-European nomads will move west, these were the Slavs. These pushed westward Turkish Bulgarian hordes causing them to invade Greece down to the Peloponnese and whoiong out any genetic trace of Macedonians, Illyrians and Greeks.
While Islam was spreading all over the territories of Iranian influence, where Aramaic was the lingua franca for centuries and centuries, in Europe institutions quite different from those left by Rome and that historians will define as”feudal” will take root everywhere causing a real change of civilization all over the continent.
Throughout this tumultuous change, certainly the greatest revolution in history, we must not underestimate the role of religions.
Religion was primarily the instrument adopted by the civilized people to incorporate or dominate their neighbors, who were nomadic and generally referred to as “barbarians.” But religion is only one of the constituents of any culture, religion alone does not make a “culture”, not even if it brands with fire the individual or the community. Culture is many things together causing an individual world view.
The number of invaders that swept the West and Iran made it very difficult if not impossible, a complete absorption. The barbaric component, as McNeill notes, was dominant in both the West and in Central Asia. This invasion had an equal only in 1,500 BC and this caused such a revolution that upturned the entire Ecumene.
Coming, for the most part, from civilized Sogdiana, north of the river Oxus, the Goths had conquered the plains to the north and west of the Black Sea from the third century AD, being able to absorb, with more ease than the Germans of the Rhineland, civilized manners and elements of Roman civilization. They had already been converted to Arian Christianity before entering into the territories of the Empire and had developed their way of writing with a translation of the Bible into their language, which was made before Clovis, king of the Franks, convert to Christendom.
Like the barbarians of Europe they accepted Christianity, like the Hephtalites of Bactris accepted and promoted Buddhism, becoming patrons of the arts. The Turks, more numerous and primitive, were mainly a destructive force, but they too, over time, acquired elements of civilization from the Sassanians developing trade and a settled lifestyle.
Monasticism, which is of Zoroastrian and then of Buddhist origin, was acquired into the Christian religion by virtue of frequent cultural and commercial contacts between Egypt, Syria, Bactria and India. The spread monasticism meant the spread of literacy and of the classical tradition, in history and culture in every part of the West, contributing to the civilization of barbarian Europe. Jewish bankers, merchants and missionaries, Syrians, craftsmen, Greeks, Armenians and Copts were settled in every urban centre of Europe, laying the foundations for a new model of urban life. Bringing specialized workers from civilized East, they spread arts and crafts, and architectural styles which gradually supplanted, although not always, the simple timber and thatch buildings of the barbarians.
If the level of civilization had dropped with the invasions, it was now slowly ascending and transcending the old imperial borders, stretching from Ireland in the extreme West, in the North to Scandinavia and from Russia to the East. The Rhine was no longer a border, but the new center of European civilization.
With the fall of Sassanian Persia, Byzantium, like Islam, gathered its military and administrative legacy placing itself as the champion of Roman civilization against the barbarians.
The Parthians, before the Sassanians, had developed a cataphracts cavalry able to cope with the cavalry of the nomads. The small Mongolian horses were ridden by
acrobatic archers who hit the enemy with back darts after inducing him to a chase. But the cataphracts cavalry was very expensive, both horse and rider needed expensive armour and long training. The Partians resolved the problem by creating a society of knights, the idea will travel to the West centuries later.
The “knights” formed a landed gentry, rich enough to afford horses, weapons and armor, grooms, guards, and vassals, ready at any moment for the call to arms. They were also able to coordinate their armies through a hierarchical structure. The only weakness of this social system, and the cause of the collapse of the Parthian, was the spirit of independence of these knights of high rank, who were not always willing to obey the king or higher knight. The Sassanians, were able to give more cohesion to the Empire by reforming the cavalry.
However, there were mercenary knights both in Parthia and in the vassal states, wherever there were many cities from which the king could demand taxes and with the money hire mercenaries. These mercenary forces were more reliable than those made of noble and semi-independent princes. And these could also be used by the king to deter any rebel lords.
The Sassanian Empire, that Islam was facing, was also organized in this way. Having the Sassanian adopted Zoroastrianism as the religion of the Empire, they had returned to their ancient Magi the role of administrators of the law and knowledge, but this time all over the Empire, giving more stability to the Empire itself.
Numerous Western scholars have refused to call the social structure of the Parthians and Sassanians “feudal”, although the similarities with European feudalism go far beyond a mere coincidence. We now know with certainty that this is not a casual cultural convergence, but a true “cultural transfer”, which took place a) by direct migration of Sarmatian knights and others of Iranian culture to Western Europe; b) through the spread of Islam into Spain and Portugal; c) through the Crusades.
It is today very difficult to deny the legitimacy of the definition “feudal” which also has a very vague meaning in Europe. This has been exhaustively debated by scholars at the University of Halle in November 2003 (“Arms and Armour as Indicators of Cultural Transfer The Steppes and the Ancient World from Hellenistic Times to the Early Middle Ages” – Wittenberg, Germany, November 25 – 27, 2003 – at The Leucorea Foundation – The Proceedings are still unpublished)
The Persian influence of Byzantium by no means limited to military technology. From Diocletian onwards, Rome and Byzantium, deliberately imitate Persia in manners, customs, court rituals and in the composition of armies. From the obligation to prostrate before the Emperor to the use of diadems, of sceptres, of crowns, banners etc. Everything will be from Persia. Even in developing the relations between Church and State in the Christian era the Romans referred to the Sassanians.
I should at least mention the basic fact – which we will more extensively discuss elsewhere – o the survival of Greek schools and academies in the East, in Persia and Iran, after the butning of the Libray of Alexandria, and the closing of the Academy of Athens by Justinian in 529.
Not only that, but the Emperor Chosroe I (531-579) received at court several Greek philosophers on the run. These were active at Ctesiphon, and other cities of Iran. When Islam conquered Central Asia, Bactria, Samarkand, Bukhara, scholars from these academies could move to Baghdad, Aleppo, Alexandria, Spain, Languedoc and to Sicily without difficulties, and so many of them, Jews and Muslims, did.
The spread of Iranian culture in the classical and post-classical West was largely and expertly illustrated by the greatest scholar of Persian culture of the twentieth century: Roman Ghirshman, or to be more exact: Roman Mikhailovich Giršman, Roman Mychajlovyč Hyrshman; (1895 – 1979) famous Franco-Ukrainian- Jewish-born archaeologist.
It is not known whether the fall from grace of the great iranologist, especially in France during the ’70s, along with a total rejection of diffusionism, which made of the Middle Ages a French private matter, is sheer chance or something contrived.
The extraordinary fact is that neither Jacques Le Goff, (Les traits originaux de l’identité européenne, 1996) or Michel Banniard (Genèse culturelle de l’Europe, 1989) only to mention just two important authors, spend one word on Iran, nor do they acknowledge Roman Ghirshman!
On the other hand, not even the British philosopher Ernest Gellner (Plough, Sword and Book. 1988) makes mention of Iran and the contribution of the culture in which he discussed the matter in an otherwise brilliant book.
In 1963 the Centre for Medieval Studies in Spoleto held a symposium on “Centri e vie di irradiazione della civiltà nell’alto Medioevo”which was attended by many scholars to medievalists from all over Europe, and the USA. The most controversial of these scholars, a supporter of diffusionism, Augostino Pertusi, challenged his colleagues on the issue of Greek Syriac Christians mass immigration in the fifth-sixth century Italy.
Only Giovanni Tabacco, among scholars active in recent times, dares making some concessions to cultural dissemination, for the rest of European scholars, Europe ends at the former Iron Curtain, the reast of Europe as well as Asia, is of little or no interest to them.
It seems superfluous to refer to Iranian influences on Classical culture in this book- since these are widely discussed and accepted by all- the facts are, as pointed out by Riccardo Francovich, that there was a clear break between the Roman and post Roman period. As the archaeologist emphasizes, this break occurs between the 5th and the 8th century, a period during which the “barbarian” states, as mentioned above, are formed.
In 1954 a Penguin Books edition was published in a Pelican volume of “Iran, the expansion of Iranian Civilization” by Roman Ghirshman, originally published by Payot in France in 1951.
In 1962, the same author, came out with “Iran, Parthes et Sassanianes” published by Gallimard the same year. These two works, remarkable from every point of view, seem to have now fallen into disgrace. I do not believe in conspiracies, but I believe in the blindness caused by prejudice, and manifest ignorance caused by nationalism and chauvinism.
In Chapter 7 of the book “Iran,” “The expansion of Iranian Civilization,” the author declares that the Sassanians considered themselves the descendants not so much of the Parthians, that they ousted, but of the ancient Achaemenids. They founded a nation state with a religion, the Zoroastrian, and a civilization, far more Iranian than those of the Parthians before them. Their centralized power was able to hold off the separatist pulses of the feudal lords of the provinces, and initially formed a strong bulwark against Rome in the west, and the Kushans and Hephtalites nomads of the steppes to the east and north.
In the third century, the world seemed divided between Persia and Rome, two opposing powers of equal caliber. Internal strife, especially among urban populations, from Syria to the borders of India, slowed the initial impetus of the Sassanian Empire. The “feudal” state as Ghirshman calls it with no metaphors, it was later subject to court intrigues capable of undermining the imperial authority. In addition, a revolt that many define as “communist”, came to shake Sassanian society to its foundations, spilling blood in every corner of the empire at a time when the country was at the height of worldwide reputation. The coup de grace was finally given by Islam, that fuelled by religious fanaticism, will swallow up that vast empire in its own culture.
Shapur, the first Sassanian king of kings, had crossed the Hindu Kush and conquered Bactria, a Kushan territory, making it a vassal state. Beyond the Oxus he also conquered Sogdiana and the cities of Samarkand and Tashkent, while to the west, Shapur reached Antioch, albeit at high cost. However, with the killing of the Roman Emperor Gordian, he got a favorable deal with his successor, Philip the Arab. In 224, he obtained Mesopotamia and Armenia.
In the battle of Edessa of 260, between the Romans and the Sassanians, Shapur I conquered Syria, capturing the Emperor Valerian, along with 70,000 Roman soldiers were taken prisoners in Iran. The Roman deportees settled in a city they themselves built modeled on the pattern of a Roman military camp. Among the captives were architects, engineers and technicians from all disciplines, and they were wisely used by the empire in public works such as roads, bridges and dams. This synthesis of Sassanian and Roman art and techniques created hybrid and dynamic art from which the whole Ecumene benefited.
Shapur, the enlightened, translated into Parsi, Greek and Indian scientific books covering every branch of knowledge: medicine, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. He became interested in Mani, the prophet of religious syncretism between Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, therefore Manichaeism spread throughout the Sassanian sphere of influence, including North Africa.
In the West Manichaeism had its last stronghold in the Languedoc, where the Cathars had imported it – we don’t know how – along with many other Iranian cultural traits, as Simone Weil intelligently observed.
The priests of Mazda convinced King Vahram II (276-293) to condemn Mani to death. In the early fourth century, the war with Rome ended in disaster for the Sassanians, it deprived them of Armenia and of other provinces east of the Tigris, fortunately, 40 years of peace followed. To the east the Kushans regained vigor, but a marriage between two offispring of the rulers of these two empires caused a perod of peace.
Under Peroz in the mid-fifth century, the empire fell into an inexorable decline. In addition to food shortages the country was plagued by religious strife. The king persecuted the Jews while the Christians, divided between Nestorians- supporting the dual nature of Christ – and Monophysites who supported his unity had no trouble.
The war undertaken by Peroz against the Hephtalites ended in disaster. The king was taken prisoner to be released he had to leave his son hostage, then appeal to Rome. At this point emerged, and spread throughout Iran, the Mazdakite movement, based on a set of religious principles chiefly deriving from Manichaeism.
Its followers abhorred violence and hatred, preaching equality. The wealth of the rich had to go to the poor, among these chattles were also women. In a society based on money and the acquisition of goods, rigidly divided into classes, the boundaries of which were impassable, the movement took on the character of a revolution.
Mazdakism, a sort of communism before its time, but Iranian in style, as Ghirshman says. It was a revolt of peasants and servants who were protesting against their conditions more and more like those of slaves. Not only that, popular anger was fuelled by the large number of captive women held in harems which the nobles possessed.
King Kavad, who supported this movement, probably for fear, passed several reforms, but was imprisoned and then sent into exile among the Hephtalites. He returned from Bactria in 499 at the head of an army of Hephtalites and regained power. Khavad retook Mesopotamia and made war on the Huns who threatened him from the north.
Meanwhile, the Mazdakite revolution had broken out, and the nobility that did not adhere to the movement, suffered attacks from the angry mob. The Christian and Zoroastrian clergy decided to oppose the revolution that was in fact bloodily repressed the Mazdakism became an underground movement that then spread to Sogdiana, beyond the Oxus.
Khavad intended to defend the revolutionary movement by means of tax reforms that an unexpected death prevented him from implementing. During his reign, Nestorianism became the only Christian religion of Iran once again spreading the use of Aramaic as the international language.
Under Khosroe I, son of Khavad, (531-579) the monarchy consolidated again. Khosroe adopted orphaned children of nobles lost during the revolution, creating a new aristocracy closely tied to the throne. Radical reforms brought peace back to the country torn by the Mazdakite revolution.
These reforms were bound to create economic and administrative models which later influenced Islam and the young European kingdoms. Military service was compulsory and the army was divided into four divisions with as many general. The warriors of the neighboring nations became allies, as was the case in Byzantium and China. Mountain passes were fortified to keep out the invaders from the steppes; a Great Wall was erected near the Caspian Sea to defend the plain og Gurgan.
In 540, breaking the peace agreement with Byzantium, Khosroe invaded Syria, destroyed Antioch and deported the inhabitants transferring them to a new city near Ctesiphon. However, it was agreed, in exchange for money, a more durable peace with Byzantium and freedom of worship was guaranteed for the Christians in Iran. Chosroe made alliance with the Western Turks, fatally undermining the power of the Hephtalites.
The river Oxus once again became the dividing line between Iran and Turan, or between Iranians and Turanians (Persians and Turks). While Chosroe contained Hunnic pressures from the north, he went on to conquer South Yemen. Meanwhile, Byzantium, concerned about the growing threat of Persian tried to make alliances against it appealing to the Turks, Arabs and even the Abyssinians. However, after almost 50 years of the reign,the King of Kings died leaving only the memory of the last golden age of Persia.
During the 50-year reign of Chosroe, Iran had acquired all those cultural traits which were passed on to the Arabs and Europe, perhaps through different channels and at different times.
The successor of the great Chosroe was his son Hormizd IV,(579-590), an intelligent and cultured prince, as Ghirshman says, who intended to continue his father’s work, holding off both the clergy and the nobility. He failed, since he antagonized both . The nobility defeated and massacred him, putting his son Chosroe II (590-628) on the throne.
The new King of Kings, breaking agreements of friendship with Byzantium, took over Armenia, Edessa and Cappadocia, conq uering Caesarea until in 610 he reached the Bosphorus. The following year he captured Damascus, Antioch and finally Jerusalem. Jerusalem was sacked and 50,000 of its inhabitants were massacred. Chosroe II looting the holy city bringing to Iran, many sacred relics, among which the wood of the True Cross of Christ.
In 616 the Persian army entered Egypt conquering “Babylon of Egypt” (Cairo) and Alexandria, then marching along the Nile he reached the borders with Ethiopia, regaining the territories once ruled by the Achaemenid. After taking Ankara, the army besieged Constantinople, while on the eastern front regained Bactria. This was the greatest and the last military campaign of Persia.
Making alliance with the Central Asian Jewish trading empire of the Khazars, the emperor Heraclius counterattacked by conquering Trans-Caucasia, he reached Mesopotamia and besieged Ctesiphon. Chosroe, puzzled by these defeats, tried to escape but was murdered by his own. Despite the extraordinary military successes Chosroe was hated for his cruelty and for having oppressed his people with exorbitant levies.
Within a few years there followed numerous King while Persia fell into disorder. The Empire was fragmented and the estates of the feudal nobles became small kingdoms listed carefully by Arab historians. The great empire, weakly reacting to the avalanche of Ilam finally collapsed. The last Sassanian king was killed under the walls of Merv in 651.
Ghirshman analyzes the history of Persia, its culture, art and institutions, in order to show how much the West owes to Iranian culture and how this, only after its fall, in fact, conquered the whole of the Ecumene.
The structure of Persian society was strictly pyramidal. It is almost impossible for any individual to reach beyond the confines of his own social group and class.
At the tip of the pyramid is the King of Kings (Shahanshah or Shah of Shah) below are four layers of ancient noble families, decreasing in number from bottom to top. These classes were the pillars of the state, its “feudal” foundation, which held the administration in its hand. Above are the vassals, i.e. the Shahs (King), while recognizing the power of the Shahanshah (King of Kings) remained on their thrones, governing their states.
They defend their territories and provide military army of the sovereign. In second place are the leaders of the “seven great families,” an institution that existed since the time of the Achaemenid. These land-owning dynasties, which exercised power over the agricultural provinces, demanded taxes from the farmers, who also paid taxes to the central government. These noble landowners provided military support to the King of Kings who enlisted their peasants in the army. The true function of this noble class is to closely monitor the princely class which is above it.
At the bottom of the pyramid were the “free men”, the small rural aristocracy who, with the viziers of the villages formed a buffer between peasants and power. These knights vassals administered the tax levied from farmers, the great mass of people who were serfs tied to the land, bought or sold along with it.
The Sassanian administration stood at the apex of a different pyramid which with the “grand vizier,” a sort of prime minister, responding to the sovereign acting as his deputy and who was in charge of political diplomatic affairs.
The grand vizier may also be placed in command of the army. He was in charge of ministries, diplomatic correspondence, chancelery, dispatches the tasks of assignments, the administration of justice, war and finance. This office relied on an army of accountants, tax collectors and agents.
In the provinces priests were in charge of these functions along with the vizier of the villages and small land owners.
To the lack of written codes compensates the Avesta, the Zoroastrian compendium of books, containing, like the Koran, religious beliefs and rules together with articles of the law. The law severely punished transgressors. The Sassanian strengthened the system by creating a network of further obligations and responsibilities that gave cohesion to the State.
Sassanian court life styled that of the medieval courts of Europe of centuries after. The members of the royal family and high-ranking knights led a life of sophisticated luxury and refinement. The royal palace was teeming with court jesters, clowns, jugglers and musicians, the latter divided into three general categories.
The royal court employed thousands of people, all paid for by revenue from taxes, duties, rents from crown lands, bonds and taxes, exploitation of mines, and finally the spoils of war.
The Sassanian army relied primarily on the heavy cavalry with cataphract knights provided by the high nobility. This is protected by a light cavalry of bowmen caming from the minor nobility. Behind the two bodies of cavalry were the elephants, which the Parthians had never used. The rear guard was made up of infantry, drawn from the large mass of the peasants.
Finally, there are auxiliary troops from the borders of the vassal states from which originally the cavalry derived. Among these were men of Seistan, Caucasian Albania, Bactria (Chionites-Hephtalites) and the famous Armenian cavalry from which the Crusaders were to acquire elements of the chivalric tradition bringing it to France.
The religion of Zoroaster, the oldest monotheistic religion, to which owe a great deal Judaism, Christianity and Islam, remained intact in the heart of Persia, in the province of Fars. Zoroastrianism became the state religion of the Sassanians, but it is true that the oldest religion in Iran, Mazdaism, was preserved intact in Fars even after the reforms of Zoroaster or Zarathustra.
Zoroastrianism, according to some, goes back to the second millennium BC and it is true that in Central Asia buildings that may be called “monasteries” have been excavated, dating back to the second millennium BC, where communities of men only who used Soma for religious rites and probably magic, lived in isolation.
However, it is only in the fifth century BC that Herodotus described Iranian society attributing to it Central Asian cultural elements recognizable as Zoroastrian, among whom the tradition of the exposure of the dead to birds of prey.
Zoroastrians, called Mazdayasna by his followers, consited of the worship of Mazda, and defined the Creator Ahura Mazda the only god by good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Ahura Mazda was the god of the ancient Proto-Indo-Iranian religion that Zoroaster defined uncreated creator. According to this religion the aim of mankind is to assist Ahura Mazda in maintaining the order. This is the first religion that recognizes the free will of man, who is free to choose between good and evil thoughts, between good and bad words, and between good and bad deeds.
There are many Zoroastrian deities, among them is Anahita, the goddess of water, Mithras, the sun god who, in time, will become more important than the other deities, but all the gods are creations of Ahura Mazda.
It is in northern Iran that we find Indo-Iranian deities and the oldest rituals of this religion. Here are the Magi or Mobad, with a similar to that of the Druids in Celtic society, on account of, according to Elizabet Wayland Barber, a common root in the north Caucasus. These were both priest-monks who had accepted Zoroastrian ideas.
Mani, a Syrian born preacher from Babylon, of the third century AD, was the founder of Manichaeism, a universal gnostic religion that accepted people of every culture and condition. It was derived from Babylonian cults, Iranian-influenced Buddhist and Christian.
Mani proclaimed himself the saviour, the apostle of Jesus Christ, and believed that salvation depended on a life of chastity, fasting and privation, as well as by education and vegetarian diet. He claimed to be the last of the prophets, preceded by Seth, Noah, Abraham, Shem, Nicotheos, Enoch, Zoroaster, Hermes, Plato, Buddha, and finally Jesus.
The “Manichean” cult (of which St Augustine was originally a follower) is based on the contrast of light and darkness of good and evil. The world exists by virtue of the contrast between the two. Manichean ethics is based on the emancipation of the soul from the body. When all light and all the souls trapped in matter are released and will have ascended to the sun, the sky and earth will disappear, leaving only the eternal light. Anyone can see that there is an element of Manichaeanism in Christianity.
The followers of Manichaeism were divided into Chosen and Listeners. The first were the clergy, who was unmarried and vegetarian abhorred falsehood and envy. The Listeners, who could marry and work, were virtuous and did not pursue material wealth.
Manichaeism required prayer and fasting, but did not provide for sacrifice or worship of images. However, it contemplated baptism and communion, absolution and remission of sins on his deathbed, passed these liturgical elements to Christendom from the fourth century onwards. Mani also influenced Christianity, introducing the concepts of good and evil and of Satan.
This religion, now extinct, was practiced and espoused by St. Augustine. Still exercised, in the High Middle Ages, a strong influence on the Cathars of the of Languedoc.
Shapur intended to make it the state religion, but the opposition of the Magi, members of the North Iranian religion of Mazdaism, led to the collapse of the cult of Mani and his martyrdom. The persecuted Manichaean, fled in part to Central Asia where the cult flourished, and in part moved to Syria and Egypt. The Arabs in the regions bordering Iran had converted to Manichaeism, which, as we know, had also spread throughout North Africa and the south of France.
Whereas in Iran, Christianity was seen as the long arm of Rome, Manichaeism in the Roman Empire was seen as the long arm of Persia, and the adherents of the religion of the enemy were persecuted in both empires.
Mazdaism also felt the need to have a “book”, as all the Mediterranean monoteistic religions had, thus the Avesta was born. The Avesta, a compendium of very ancient oral traditions which had strongly influenced the Bible, was actually written down between the fourth and the sixth century AD, becaming the “bible” of Sassanian Persia; it served to eliminate Manichaeism and to keep abay Christianity beyond the Euphrates, while Buddhism was held at bay beyond the borders of the eastern provinces. Persian “nationalism” failed to contain Western influence and prevent the spread of Iranian culture in the West.
The exuberance of Sassanian art, which summarized all the previous Iranian traditions, meant that at a time of cultural confusion in the West it came to affect radically the art of the new hub of the Ecumene, which was forming in Europe.
Sassanian art is the synthesis and the culmination of four thousand years of Oriental art, it followed Parthian art, and was capable of assimilating foreign influences absorbing them in its own sphere. Abandoning the tradition of Parthian, Shapur I, turned to Hippodamian canons when building his capital at Bishapur, which was based on a cardium and a decumanum. This canon spread throughout the Sassanian world and its sphere of influence, which reached far beyond the political boundaries.
Even though stone remained the building material of large buildings, until the third century AD, lime and debris will be the most common materials used, and with these the magnificent palaces Firuzabad and Bishapur were built.
With these materials, and with wooden frames then removed, giant vaults and domes were erected. The old system of building with bricks of clay in the area that remains in use to this day, was not always adopted for smaller buildings only. The walls of these large buildings were usually decorated with stucco reliefs according to the Eastern Iranian tradition, still living in Central Asia, while the stone walls were carved with reliefs in the western manner.
The Sassanian kings reinstated the technique, which existed since the third millennium BC, for the great heraldic commemorative reliefs carved on natural rock cliffs. These reliefs are found mainly in Fars, and illustrate investitures, triumphs, military victories, hunting, the king and the royal family, scenes with jousting knights equipped with long spears, and knights in full armor ready for duel.
The Sassanian art of metals had, between the third and fourth centuries, its heyday, is mainly expressed on embossed plates, bowls, trays and jars, often with the figure of the King of Kings on his horse while hunting deer, wild boars and lions, or while killing the enemy. There appear real or fantastic animals, often deriving from the tradition of the “animal art” of the steppes and Siberia. Even rock crystal and semiprecious stones were engraved with similar figures.
This “mobile art” reached the East and West along with silk ivory and other luxury goods. Craftsmen copied the designs, the decorations and the compositions, applying them, in China as well as in Europe, to any type of material, from the walls of buildings , to carpets, silks, and clothes.
Ghirshman states that Sassanian Art radiated over a wide area stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and providing tangible evidence of such “cultural transfer” – because this in his opinion is what it amounts to. Sassanian art was particularly influential in the West where it provided the foundations of medieval art, says Ghirshman.
One wonders why such evidence provided and guaranteed by a great scholar, has been totally ignored especially by French medieval historians. Only chauvinism, ignorance and “scientific sectarianism” can answer this obvious question.
In 1991, during my trip along the Loire my attention was attracted by the church of Germigny-des-Pres, near Orleans, I wondered how it was possible that in a region so remote from Armenia and Syria there could be churches of a similar in type.
Ghirshman states that the plan of Germigny-des-Pres is that of a Zoroastrian fire temple and that the murals inside show the Tree of Life as seen in the cave of Taq-i-Bustan. To make matters worse, in this same cave, the King of Kings is seen on horseback in full armor, very curiously recalling medieval knights of the fourteenth century, but we will return to this elsewhere.
The reliefs on the tomb of Abbess Teodechilda, who died in 665, and was buried in the crypt of the abbey church of Jouarre, between Paris and Chateau-Thierry, offer another example of Sassanian art. In Sassanian iconography the king, as God on earth, sits on the throne in glory, surrounded by his court; this convention passed directly into Christian Byzantine conventions for the representation of Christ in triumph, surrounded by a cohort of angels, apostles, prophets and evangelists.
Ghirshman goes on to point out that in the sculptures and paintings of the oldest French churches, artists reproduced figures of saints and bishops, probably without being aware of it, with the gesture of the raised right hand with the index finger bent forward, a sign of respect among the Sassanian nobles.
The goldsmiths of Central Europe imitated the decoration of Sassanian metalwork, even when they did not understand the symbology. Even the painters of the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang and other Central Asian hermit sites were Sassanian inspired artists, as were Coptic and Byzantine artists, embroiderers and weavers. Ghirshman finds an identity of procedure between the narrative art of the Sassanian rock cliff monuments and frescoes of Syrian origin. The products of “a spirit, totally at variance with that of classical art.” This art was to affect the art of Roman bas-relief towards the end of the classical period. From the fourth century, and during the Christian era, Oriental elements already assimilated on the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, converged into Christian art. A meeting point for art and architecture, between East and West is Syria which alternately shows now Roman, now Sassanian influences.
During the reign of Balash (484-488) the Synod of Seleucia decreed that Nestorianism must be the only form of Christianity in Persia. Nestorian churches, monasteries and other monuments of the third and eighth century survive, albeit in ruins, in Iran. There are among these, churches with three naves and a dome over the choir which unquestionably served, much later, as models for buildings in the West.
These churches illustrate the transition between the Roman basilica with trusses and the longitudinal vaulted building of undoubted Eastern origin. The enlargement of the dome obtained by four half-domes on the sides – as observed for the first time in Sarvistan – is another Sassanian invention that leads to inscribe the dome within the basilica, an invention that passed into the architecture of Byzantium and then reached Romanesque Europe.
The cross plan and central dome scheme is observed for the first time in building “A” of Bishapur, from there it spread to Mesopotamia and Syria, then into Europe.
From Armenia to Spain, to the Loire, inventions of Sassanian architecture spread by virtue of actual migration of both workers and patronage.
Ghirshman shows this migration, also supported by Pertusi, as we shall see elsewhere, with examples from both the palace of Diocletian in Split and from the Loire, the Rhone Valley, from Catalonia and Val d’Isere, from Ravenna and from Milan.
Decorations appearing in Ctesiphon are also found in Milan, ” the pole to which Eastern influences seem to converge” … the decorations do not imitate the contemporary Byzantine style, “but Syriac and ancient Persian typologies” writes Ghirshman.
Diocletian’s Palace in Split (fourth century) built by Eastern workers, documents the “penetration of the Baroque styles in the West.”
In the Rhone valley these forms had penetrated everywhere probably coming from Marseille where immigrant Greek and Syrians, bearers of Christianity, were constantly arriving. The Syrians were in good numbers, writes Emile Male, and “their presence no doubt explains the original character of some churches still standing in Provence and nearby regions.”
The Eastern Greek and Sassanian art “helped create the plastic expression of Christianity.” On one hand, Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, on the other Jerusalem and other regions of Syria, spread evangelical biblical themes and iconography belonging to an Asian tradition. Culture travelled with actual migrations of people and not by hearsay or imitation, as racists would like to think.
The synthesis between Mithraism and Christianity led to Mythraic liturgy to become Christian liturgy. Although no western scholar seem to have noticed, the “surrender” to Christ of the priests of Mithra is symbolized by miriads of depictions of the Magi paying homage to Christ on the day of the Epiphany, which proliferate from the fourth century onwards. The Magi are depicted in their Persian costume, with a Phrygian cap and anassiridae.
The typical Sassanian signs of respect of pointing the index finger towards the king or a deity, or hiding the hand under a flap of the tunic, are present in depictions of the Magi of various pre Romanesque churches in France, Indre, in Saint-Omer and Saint Denis and the portal of Moissac.
The iconography of the Holy Face, a symbol of Eastern Christianity, which originated in Edessa among the Iranian Christians, it is found wherever they migrated, in Italy as elsewhere.
Iranian influences are found everywhere in the iconography of illuminated manuscripts of the first Bibles in Europe. And the bestiary of Romanesque sculpture has its antecedents in Sarmatian and Scytho-Siberian art. North Asian animal art that had previously penetrated into Etruscan art from Luristan and from Asia Minor. The griffin, the dragon, the lion, the bull, the deer with one head and two bodies are even found in 1500 BC Chinese bronzes.
Ghirshman finally declares that the greatest heir of Sassanian Iran was Islam, which wherever it reached it carried along figurative art, clothing, musical instruments, luxury items, and especially architectures clearly originated in Merv in Pendjikent, in Samarkand, Bukhara in Isfahan, Shiraz, in Baghdad, rather than in South Arabia.
We will return elsewhere on the question of the influence of Persian literature on the West, which, curiously, is ignored even by those who have made literature their profession. These blatant influences are instead used to emphasize non existent “classic” roots of medieval literature, delaying by decades the understanding of facts.
However, the influences were mutual, as always influeces are. Ghirshman, talking about the influence of Greek literature on the Avesta, pointed out Hippocratic elements in the great Zoroasatrian book. Shapur I ordered the translation texts in Greek, Latin, Parsi and Hindu, and these translations increased in number under Chosroe I, the king presented himself as a tolerant monarch, in opposition to the cultural and religious intolerance of Byzantine monarchs and of the Popes the Catholic Church.
The pagan Greek philosophers who were victims of persecution in Greece were attracted by Chosroe I’s Persia, where the king received them at the court of Ctesiphon. Thus the ideas of Greece, India and China crossed into Persia inspiring most enlightened minds of that era, among them was Burzoe (Bozorgmehr), Prime Minister pf Chosroe do I, who in his writings is concerned with society, ethics and religion.
These books, only fragments of which survive, speak of wisdom, charity, goodness, the duties of the rich towards the poor, the advantage of honesty against poverty, selfishness and undeserved wealth. All echoes of the Edicts of Ashoka of the 3rd C. BC.
Freedom of thought penetrated from the “liberal” West, belittled the hard lessons of Zoroastrian priests, who fought a losing battle against it.
The Sassanian empire was primarily based on an agricultural economy, but trade flourished inevitably given that Persia was criss-crossed by indirect routes that connect China with India, Transoxiana with Rome. The state held the monopoly of Chinese silk, which was woven in the Syro-Phoenician workshops, in Susa, Gundeshapur, and Shushtar.
In the Sassanian period the Jewish banking circles of Babylon spread the use of the bill of exchange, which became an act recognized by law. In Iran, the credit title (or in other words the checque) was in use since the second millennium BC. but I will return to this sensitive issue elsewhere.
The banks of the Empire, controlled by Jews and Persians, developed an advanced method of monetary exchange. Few know that the terms “allowance” and “avaliser” come from the Pahlavi and is an invention of Persian bankers.
The Christian Greek-Syrian merchants adopted the bill of exchange, of Iranian origin spreading it in the West through their migration into the major European cities where they settled as bankers in the Merovingian era.
Little money circulating in agricultural areas because “sharecropping” was the predominant system of land tenure, a system in which the farmer paid taxes and rent in kind and not in cash. The soldier and the rural magistrate too received their pay in kind. In fact, the government accumulated massive amounts of food that were redistributed mainly in the cities.
The network of trade routes was very well organised, there were post stations, caravanserais, public fountains, navigable rivers and canals. Persia imported luxury ceramics and glass from Syria, Palestine, Alexandria, while in the opposite directions travelled beautiful fabrics and brocades.
The spice trade between Arabia, Iran and China was very important and this was to interest Europe after the migrations that brought Levantine tastes in food that supplanted the Roman.
Colonies of traders, merchants and bankers, proliferated throughout the Ecumene. Mostly Syrians and Jews, but also Khazar, Sogdian and Bactrian, which had trading posts in India in Turkestan, in China, on the Black Sea, on the Volga as well as in Britain in Orleans and Milan.
The state also was a business and produced the most profitable goods such as glass and silk monopolizing the markets. Corporations of arts and crafts thus formed which spread to Byzantium and the Byzantine colony of Venice, then throughout Europe.
The manorial estate was rationally organized with labourers, farm hands, carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers, bakers and millers. There were mills for olives, water mills, which appearing in the fourth century AD, they spread into Europe, while the highly efficient vertical Pesian windmill Iranian never crossed the Iranian frontiers.
During the Sassanian period the plantation of Chinese mulberry was introduced for silkworm, Nestorian missionaries had smuggled the silkworm from China. The most advanced and efficient farms were State farms, since private businesses suffered from numerous restrictions on private enterprise.
The feudal lords who had a certain independence flourished over vast regions and over time, their power grew to the point of undermining the central government.
The feudal lords were often moving from the cities to the countryside where they lived in castles -or manors- from which administered their estates. Their residences were luxurious mansions, where the lord was holding a garrison of soldiers to defend himself and his family from possible attacks of workers and peasants in revolt.
Ghirshman says that the enslavement of free farmers was compensated by the emergence of a feudal elite. This “feudal revolution” was, for centuries to come, spread to Islam and across Europe, replacing the institutions of the classical world.
With feudalism taxation became exorbitant and widespread, spreading the obligations on fatigues. The farmers had to contribute to the construction of buildings, provide materials, graze royal herds, provide horses for the post, gear for the mule train, the carter, and boatmen for boat transport.
The landed gentry, enjoyed hereditary rights and elected the king. The day of these nobles was spent hunting, in banquets and the special delights of the hareem, polygamy was permitted even if women enjoyed some right.
The knight and the foot-soldier, also developed an interest in literature and writing.
They enjoyed the game of chess, tennis and polo, they cultivated the arts such as music, song and poetry. The court dictated the fashion in clothing, jewelery and gastronomy. It was refined civilization albeit with insurmountable class barriers. The citizens: cradtsmen and merchants who had no political power, fared well, whereas the mass consisting of the serfs and peasants was often starving.
Ghirshman concludes that Manichaeism, expelled from the Sassanians, spread to
Turkestan, China and, through Syria and Egypt, to North Africa. Between the tenth and the eleventh century it reached Asia Minor, Armenia and Thrace. The trade with the Levant brought it to the Languedoc where it influeced the Christian Cathars. Nestorian Christianity, the only permissible form of Christianity in Iran, reached China in the east and France to the West.
The conquests of Alexander had brought not only Greek civilization into the Iranian world, but also Greek academies, in the civilian regions near the Indus, the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs and beyond the Oxus, creating a network of knowledge communications between China, India , Persia and Greece, which enrichened Europe, the new hub of the Ecumene.
In this region of Central Asia, Toynbee’s Roundabout of Civilizations, now a disaster area, a unique cultural melting pot, spawned with Islam in particular, with an East to West migration of persecuted peoples, as well as with the Crusades, put in direct relationship with Europe triggering Western civilization as we know it.
Already in 1955 Alexander Lvovich Mongait, of Moscow University published an account of the state of archaeological research in the Soviet Union, which came out in English in a Penguin Book, revealing interesting findings in Soviet Turkestan, and especially in Transoxiana, the northernmost part of Toynbee’s “Roundabout”.
In the ’70s the Anglo-American Orientalist Richard N. Frye summed up the Soviet revelations in archeology, in that area, in a popular but authoritative and highly informative book titled “The Golden Age of Persia” (Butler & Tanner Ltd. London, 1975). This time it was discovered that adding a new civilization to those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus and China, became the fifth and the only ancient civilization in the Indo-European world.
The significance of this discovery – practically ignored in the West – is, in my opinion, greatly underestimated even by those who are still digging in Taransoxiana. However, Fry did not underestimate it at all since he claimed that the most important archaeological discoveries of the post war period are those carried out by Soviet archaeologists in Turkestan, and this he said in 1975!
The vast region of Central Asia that stretches north and east of present-day Iran up to the Indus, including the former Soviet republics of Turkestan, Xinjiang in China and southern Siberia to Lake Baikal, was at the time of Alexander, Iranian or Indo-Iranian in language and culture, and perhaps it was even more extensive at the time of Herodotus.
However, this Iran extérieur, as the French call it, was different from Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian Persia. In the early centuries of our era the Iranian area had shrunk losing part of Siberia and Xinjiang to Mongolian and Turkish peoples.
Among such major discoveries there are two new Iranian languages: the Chorasmian and the Bactrian-Kushan Corasma, making what was a terra incognita for Wheeler, Toynbee, McNeill and Ghirshman, the location of a major Indo-European cultural area, with a long history of civilisation.
To be more specific, I refer to a region that Frye divided into three parts: Xinjiang, the former Soviet Turkestan (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkemenistan, Kyrgyzstan and eastern Iran), which is the central desert area east and south of the Amu Darya (ancient Oxus). These three regions were originally part of the Iranian culture and language, whereas now only Tajikistan is Iranian.
The first region, Xinjiang (former Chinese Turkestan), originally of Iranian culture was, at the time of Islamic conquest, already Turkicized, as indeed happened over the Pamirs, where the Uzbeks are culturally identical to the Uighurs of Xinjiang. In fact, even the roof of the world has never been a cultural barrier.
The current political boundaries of this region are totally illogical, because first of all inhabited by nomadic nations who have no boundaries; second, because the larger oases located along the foothills where seasonal rivers desappear in the desert, have always been independent khanates. The nations of the Kirghiz, Kazakhs, Turkmen, Uzbeks and Uighurs, are actually “hordes” of Turkish-speaking nomads who have linguistically assimilated the Iranian inhabitants of the oases. The languages of these peoples are merely Turkish dialects.
The region’s cultural hub of this vast area was without doubt Sogdiana (ancient Persian Sugda) consisting of the oases of the Zarafshan river: Bukhara, Samarkand and Pendjikent. The first two are now in Uzbekistan, and the third in Tajikistan. The Sogdian empire had expanded to include the oases of Tashkent, now the capital of Uzbekistan, and the region of Semirechiye in Kazakhstan. Its colonies stretched along the Silk Road beyond Kashgar, in Xinjiang, and in Mongolia.
The Sogdians were an Iranian people who, before the Islamic conquest had developed their own artistic tradition, characterized by influences from Persia, China and India. It seems obvious to me that this art has spread throughout Islam and has become known as Islamic art as it is familiar to everyone, and experts do not give me wrong, even if you do not even dare to spread this great discovery.
The religion of the Sogdians was originally Zoroastrian, the arrival of Islam they were mainly Mazdaist, with minorities of Manichaean, Nestorian Christians and Buddhists, but still survived the ancient national cult of Siyavush, a sort of Greek Adonis in Oriental version.
Excavations in Soviet Varakhsha in Bukhara in Pendjikent, Afrasiab (Samarkand), Dzhar-tepa, Kalai-Kakhkakha, and in the Ferghana Valley (Ustrushana in the Middle Ages), now also conducted by Italian and French schools, have brought to light a wealth of written documents, objects of daily life and art of the highest artistic level. These materials enable us to penetrate this culture of which the world has not heard yet.
In the valley of the river Amu Darya (the Oxus) and around the Aral Sea was Chorasmia populated by people speaking one of the Sogdian languages. These, like their akin neighbours controlled the Silk Road traffic and enriched by virtue of the trade between China and the West. While Sogdiana was looking East, Chorasmia was looking North-West since its caravans reached the cities of the Jewish Khazars on the Volga, where with their gold they bought furs, narwhal ivory, amber and honey.
The history of Chorasmia begins in the first century AD, at the end of the Parthians dominance of the region and continuing to the end of the Islamic conquest which here occurred in the ninth century. Then it became known as Khwrazm.
The Chorasmians were Mazdaists, although in a different version from that of the Sogdians and also their art differs in several respects from that of their neighbors.
The third focus of the Iranian culture in Central Asia was Bactria, also called Tocharistan. Bactria extended on both sides of the river Oxus or Amu Darya. The ruins and perhaps the treasures of his capital, Bactra, lying under the current Afghan city of, which still remains – parhaps luckily – unknown to archaeologists. The city where lived and preached Zoroaster himseld, which the Arabs called “The mother of all cities” for its antiquity and extension.
Alexander the Great’s Bactria, was called Tocharistan after the invasion of nomads from Xinjiang which occurred in the second century BC. The Chinese called these nomads Xiung-Nu or “red-haired devils” and were called Tocharians by Westerners. These nomads, speaking an Indo-Iranian language, which put an end to Greek Bactria, had entered China from the north between the second and first millennium BC. with the Neolithic and Chalcolithic expansion of both agriculturalists and nomads on horseback coming from the regions north of the Caucasus.
The Tocharians spoke a (Centum) Indo-European language of two different types, of which Sir Aurel Stein found and siezed numerous written documents in Turfan and in other ruined cities of the Taklamakan desert. After the invasion of Sogdiana these blond, blue-eyed sand tall nomads adopted the local Iranian language, and continued to monopolize the trade between China, Persia, India and the West.
Archaeological excavations that took place at Airtam, Kara Tepe in Termez, near the present Adjina Dushambe, and finally at Surkh Kotal in the south of the country, have brought to light an extraordinary phenomenon of artistic syncretism that produced an Greek-Indo-Iranian art parallel in what will be in later centuries in the West, Romanesque art.
For the peoples of Greece and Rome, the vast regions of Central Asia was a world full of dangers and of unknown people who they designated by one name: Cimmerians.
American archaeologist Elizabeth Wayland Barber has written at length on the nature and origins of the ancient Caucasian inhabitants of Western China, and the same has been done by Prof. Victor Mair of Pennsylvania University
THE IRANIAN CONTRIBUTION TO OUR CIVILISATION
The Academy of Gondishapur
The Academy of Gondishapur (in Persian: Dânešgâh e Gondišâpur), also Jondishapur, was a renowned academy of learning in the city of Gundeshapur during late antiquity, the intellectual center of the Sassanian empire. It offered courses in medicine, philosophy, theology and science. The faculty were versed not only in the Zoroastrian and Persian traditions, but in Greek and Indian learning as well. According to The Cambridge History of Iran, it was the most important medical center of the ancient world (defined as Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Near East) during the 6th and 7th centuries.
In 489 AD, the Nestorian theological and scientific center in Edessa was closed down by the Byzantine emperor Zeno, and so it transferred itself to Nisbis, in Persia, becoming famous st “the School of Nisibis”, then under Persian rule with its secular faculties at Gundishapur, Khuzestan. Here, Persian, Sogdians, and Central Asian scholars, together with Greek philosophers banished from Athens by Justinian in 529, carried out important research in Medicine, Astronomy, and Mathematics”. However, it was under the rule of the Sassanian emperor Khosroe I (531-579 AD), addressed as Anushiravan literally “Immortal Soul” and known to the Greeks and Romans as Chosroes, that Gondeshapur became known for medicine and scientific erudition. Khosroe I gave refuge to various Greek philosophers, Aramaic-speaking Syrians :Christians and Nestorians fleeing religious persecution by the Byzantine empire. The Sassanians had long battled the Romans and Byzantines for control of present day Iraq and Syria and were naturally disposed to welcome the refugees.
The king commissioned thescholars to translate Greek and Aramaic texts into Pahlavi. They, in fact, translated various works on medicine, astronomy, philosophy, and mathemetics.
Anushirava thought of the East, and through the famous physician Borzouye invited Indian and Chinese scholars to Gondeshapur. These guests translated Indian texts on astronomy, astrology, mathematics and medicine and Chinese texts on herbal medicine and religion.
Significance of Gondeshapur
To a very large extent, the credit for the invention of the hospital as we know it must be given to Persia. In addition to systemizing medical treatment and knowledge, the scholars of the academy also transformed medical education; rather than apprenticing with just one physician, medical students were required to work in the hospital under the supervision of the whole medical faculty. There is even evidence that graduates had to pass exams in order to practice as accredited Gondeshapur physicians. George Ghevarghese Joseph, in his Crest of the Peacock confirms that Gondeshapur also had a pivotal role in the history of mathematics.
The Sassanian dynasty fell to Muslim Arab armies in 638 AD. In 832 AD, Caliph al-Ma’mūn founded the famous Baytu l-Hikma, the House of Wisdom. There the methods of Gundishapur were emulated; indeed, the House of Wisdom was staffed with graduates of the older Academy of Gondeshapur. It is believed that the House of Wisdom was disbanded under Al-Mutawakkil, Al-Ma’mūn’s successor. However, by that time the intellectual center of the Abbasid Caliphate had definitively shifted to Baghdad, as henceforth there are few references in contemporary literature to universities or hospitals at Gondeshapur.
The importance of the Accademy gradually declined. The Lands of the Eastern Caliphate, reported the 10th century writer Muqaddasi, that Gondeshapur as falling into ruins.
The most famous physicians of Gondeshapur
Borzoye, chief physician of Khusraw I
Bukhtishu, a Nestorian Persian Christian of Assyrian origin
Masawaiyh, a Nestorian Persian Christian of Assyrian origin
Sarakhsi, Ahmad Tayyeb (died 900 AD)
Sahl, Shapur ibn, a Nestorian Persian Christian of Assyrian origin
Nafi ibn al-Harith chief physician of the Academy and teacher of Arab origin .Wrote the first medical book Dialog in Medicine
Ancient Gondeshapur is also slated for an archaeological investigation. Experts from the Archaeological Research Center of Iran’s Cultural Heritage Organization and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago planned to start excavations in early 2006.
A VAST BIBLIOGRAPHY IS AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST TO THE AUTHOR.