19 January 2011

Speak, Sasanian Memory

In 293 CE, Prince Narseh of Persia overthrew his grand-nephew, Bahram III, who had recently been crowned King of Kings.  Narseh claimed that Bahram III had been illegally elevated while he himself -- the true heir -- was away running the imperial show in Armenia.  He assembled an army to right this grievous wrong.  When Narseh met up with the "princes and grandees and nobles and satraps" who supported him,
then in the name of Hormizd and all the gods and Anahita, the Lady, we moved from Armenia towards [Persia]. 
Anahita never backs a loser so, of course, Narseh won!

With exactly the results you might expect for poor Bahram III. 


This giant rock relief from Bishapur very possibly records the presentation of Bahram's severed head and helmet to the victorious Narseh.  A victory to savour, certainly ... and to remember.  So, not very far away, on a great bluff of yellow rock, now called Naqsh-e Rostam -- near Persepolis -- the moment of delicious victory is further commemorated: Narseh receives the ribboned royal diadem --the visual symbol of the king's divine election -- from the hand of Anahita herself.


The new king is wearing a royal crown (topped with a globe, called the korymbos, with its bulbous central element made of silk).  Below the globe is a gold diadem decorated with a very special motif: this is a design of repeating concave shapes, the so-called 'cavetto cornice' motif.  The same motif is reflected in the goddess's mural crown.  This is the pattern that I mean:


While a small detail, it is a telling one.  The 'cavetto cornice' pattern was considered worthy of serving as the symbol of the king and of his divine patroness.  It must have carried some highly charged meaning.

But what exactly did it mean? 

Therein lies a tale.

In fact, both as ornament and as architectural decoration, we can trace the motif back to the Achaemenid Persians, from the earliest days of their empire.  And that's exactly why Narseh chose to use it.  It would remind everyone who saw  his coronation scene of his links to the glorious Persian past.


Here is the design, much larger, of course, on a door frame (left) from the Palace of Darius the Great -- the most glorious structure at Persepolis -- built around 486 BCE.  For the Persians, Persepolis was the symbolic core of the empire and its ruins were powerful reminders of the glory of their predecessors. True, the 'cavetto cornice' motif does not appear on any Achaemenid royal crown, but it does adorn the next best thing: the crowns of two colossal bull-men (above right) guarding the 'Gate of the Nations' at Persepolis -- built and named by Xerxes I, 485-465 BCE -- through which all visitors had to pass on their way to the throne room to pay homage to the king. 

The awe-inspiring ruins of Persepolis were just down the road from the original Sasanian capital and religious centre, Istakhr, and were at least as visible then as they are now.

The first Sasanian kings believed that they derived their claims and titles from their forefathers -- who were thought to be, or purported to be, the kings of the Achaemenid dynasty (see my post 'Were the Sassanians post-Achaemenids?' in Sassanian Stuff III*). The new royals knew of Persia's special place within the earlier empire, of their disastrous conquest by Alexander (330 BEC), and all about the divine radiance of kings whose origin is from the gods.

The monuments of Persepolis must have seemed to them as a stunning display of the power and renown of their ancestors.  And so they copied images and styles from the still-standing structures. They imagined that a meaningful, even lineal, relationship existed between the earlier empire and the new rulers.  That's why Achaemenid-inspired 'cavetto cornices' reappear on religious buildings (such as the temple of Anahita in Bishapur) and on such secular structures (above left), as the central chamber of the Great Palace of Ardashir I, founder of the dynasty, at his new city of Ardashir-Xwarrah, Glory of Ardashir (
ca. 224 CE). 

(Recovered) Memory Syndrome

These links with the past gave substance to the new dynasty's political claims. Simply put, it connected the dots.  And provided solid physical evidence for the antiquity and lineage of the Sasanian dynasty.  It did not matter that the claims were exiguous (to say the least) and the lineage dubious.  What mattered was that it established them as part of the natural order: the King of Kings now boasted of a royal line that went back hundreds, if not thousands of years (later Sasanian kings claimed descent from the entirely mythical Kayanid dynasty of Persian epic tradition; thus, effectively, having been kings forever).  This powerful and politically useful vision of the past lent legitimacy to what was, in fact, a fairly nouveau line.  In sum,
it was -- at least in part -- the manufacture of Sasanian memory.

Narseh, King of Kings

So, why did Narseh put the 'cavetto cornice' on his (and Anahita's) crown?  It's complicated, but bear with me.


Poor Bahram III had a first-rate pedigree.  He was the son of Bahram II (ruled 276-293), son of Bahram I (r. 273-276), son of Hormizd I (r. 272-273), son of the great Shapur I (r. 239/40-272).**  Although Bahram I is thought to be Shapur's eldest son, the old king chose Hormizd to be his successor.  Hormizd survived only a short time so Bahram came to the throne after all.  His reign, too, was brief and he was succeeded in turn by his son, Bahram II.  A brother now rose in revolt but Bahram managed to keep his throne.  He was the first Sasanian ruler to have a family portrait struck on his coins (left): he is shown with his queen Shabuhrdukhtag, who was his cousin, and his son, Bahram III.  So, there can be no doubt that Bahram III was a legitimate Sasanian scion and presumably the rightful king.

And who was Narseh? 

Yet another son of Shapur I, he was older than Hormizd but probably younger than Bahram -- so, when Bahram became King of Kings, he had no choice but to swallow his chagrin at having been pipped at the post once again.  I can well imagine, however, that he was more than peeved when Bahram II succeeded his father and his claims were bypassed  for the third time.  With the succession of Bahram III -- who might not have been much over sixteen years old -- he saw his chance:
And [as for] the glory and the realm and his own throne [and] honour, which (his) ancestors received from the gods, may he [take them back from] the evil[doers  against] gods and men.
He took it, and finally became the King of Kings.

I leave it to you, dear reader, to consider who had the better title.  

But I am left wondering if the 'cavetto cornice' images on Narseh's crown betrays a certain insecurity.  That, perhaps, he uses this ancient symbol to display his legitimacy to one and all.  It's a small thing but it now sticks out like a sore thumb.

This is the kind of question provoked by a fascinating new study, 'Technologies of Memory in Early Sasanian Iran: Achaemenid Sites and Sasanian Identity' by Matthew P. Canepa, University of Minnesota.***  How did the early Sasanians begin to fuse their fledgling dynasty to the remains of the ancient Persian past, until, in a sense, they blurred them completely?  We'll have a look at Prof. Canepa's article and examine the  monumental legacy of Sasanian (Recovered) Memory in our next post.



* I've given up the struggle to maintain the old spelling 'Sassanian' and have dropped the extra and obsolete 's' as my New Year's resolution for 2011.

** In one of his inscriptions, Bahram I describes himself as the son of Shapur; other sources have him as son of Hormizd.

*** American Journal of Archaeology, 114 (October 2010) 563-596.

Besides the study by Prof. Canepa, I've made use of R. Gyselen, 'Bahram III (293) and the Rock Relief of Naqsh-i Rustam II'-- and I am most grateful to her for having sent me a pre-publication copy of this article; Narseh's self-justifying text is from the translation by H. Humbach and P.O. Skjaervo, 'The Sassanian Inscription of Paikuli'.

Illustrations

Top Middle: Rock relief, Bishapur VI, drawing by Rosalind Howell (via R. Gyselen, reference above).

Right: Coin of Bahram II. Photo credit: Iranian Historical Photographs Gallery.

Lowest left: Coin of Narseh I. Photo credit: grifterrec.com

All other photographs from M. Canepa's article in the AJA.
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1 comment:

Glenn said...

Judith,
I have been away from your blog for a year as life had its way with me. Now I'm back and find that it is better than ever. I love the stories that you are able to research and share. Some pretty obscure but interesting stuff. As the Australians say, "Good on 'ya mate"!
Glenn

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