26 November 2007

Zenobia's Haka

Scary faces, lots of thigh-slapping and loud chanting.

Slap the hands against the thighs

Puff out the chest
Bend the knees
Let the hip follow
Stamp the feet as hard as you can
It is death! It is death!
It is life! It is life!

No, not Zenobia in ecstasy (as she might have been at one of Astarte's feasts) , but rugby!

The Damascus Rugby Seven gets pride of place on my blog today. They are named the Zenobians. After the queen of Palmyra -- and wouldn't she have enjoyed the scrum: "There's a lot of passion," said the team captain. "It’s a battle, just without any weapons,” he added with glee.

Sevens is a particularly fast version of rugby, where teams of seven players compete on a full-size field and play seven-minute halves (rather than 15 players and 80 minutes in the regular game). Rugby is renowned for its exhausting play and rough, often bloody contact. Lightning-fast backs, 300-pound forwards, huge hits, and bone-crunching tackles -- with no sissy-like pads or helmets-- the game taps into a deep well of Syrian pride. Hence, the anomaly of an all-male club named after a female. In a sport not known for gentlemanly attitudes to women ("the position of women in this game is prone", comes to mind), the rebel queen still has a lot of clout.

The Syrian players (left, © 2007 The NY Times) are preparing for the sport's big contest: the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, a tournament scheduled from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 that will draw teams from around the world.

Dubai Sevens 2007

Over 160 teams and 1,750 players will strap on their boots for this rugby extravaganza. Featuring 16 of the best Sevens nations in the world, the Dubai Rugby Sevens has grown into a magical sporting week that attracts fans from every rugby-loving country.

Last year, South Africa took the trophy honours by beating the All Blacks 31-12 in a thrilling final (but thank you, All Blacks, for your scary Haka war chant: Zenobia would have loved it). As well as the international action, more than 1,500 players take part in club invitation competitions. The Zenobians will compete in the Gulf Mens RoundRobin, and, in a series dominated largely by expatriate rugby teams, the Zenobians are special because they are mostly Syrian players.

There is also, to my amazement, a women's rugby event at Dubai, with two dozen teams competing for an International Ladies Plate. But no ladies' team from Syria. Now that would be a club to be named after Zenobia! [Zenobia versus the Roman Baba's, Round II].

But, this week, good luck Zenobian guys!

And after you have beaten the likes of Kuwaiti Nomads and Dubai Hurricanes, and begin the rugby songs -- Oh the Ball, the Ball! -- with beer in hand (Dubai is not dry), I propose as a Zenobian anthem the after-the-match classic, The Camel. I'm sorry, it's a bit too rude for this blog: you'll only have yourself to blame if you click on it. But it's the bawdy songs that bring out the true rugby spirit.

Update (3/12/07): "It is life! It is life!"

New Zealand Take Out 2007 Emirates International Trophy

New Zealand secured the 2007 trophy with a blistering 31-21 win over Fiji. The All Black captain said afterwards (with a sporting allowance of mixed metaphors), “We had to open up and fire on all engines and we did that right from the very beginning. You can never write the Fijians off and we had to stick to our guns right to the very end. They are a very physical team and they had a lot of flair but we really dug deep.”

And the women? The International Ladies Plate went to the Pink Ba-bas who clobbered the Moody Cows 36-10.

Alas, Zenobians, Alas!

20 November 2007

Sassanian Stuff III

Were the Sassanians post-Achaemenids?

One of the most interesting questions about the early Sassanians (if only to a classical archaeologist) -- and perhaps the most unanswerable -- is whether they were related in any real sense to the kings of the earlier Persian dynasty of the Achaemenids. Ardashir (according to a very late source) claimed that they were direct descendants, which justified his rebellion against the Parthians. He was only doing his duty:

He rose to avenge the blood of his cousin Dara (Darius III) ... whom Alexander had fought and whom his two chamberlains had murdered. As he declared, he wanted to bring back the reign to the legitimate family, to restore it the way it had always been at the time his forefathers who had lived before the petty [Parthian] kings and to reunite the empire under one head and one king.

Modern scholars generally pooh-pooh this claim, and when they do have to mention it, usually put "forefathers" within dubiety quotes. Obviously, since almost 500 years of Parthian sovereignty separated the Old from the Middle Persian dynasties, there was more than enough time for memories to fade, or be fabricated. Oral traditions are anyway always shifting and changing according to circumstances -- and who will ever know the motives of the teller of tales or his patron? Yet, I think it's fair to say, that Ardashir really had the idea, however distorted, that the kings of Pars [Persis] were true heirs of the Achaemenids.

Plenty of Casus belli.

That's also what contemporary Romans thought. Herodian said as much, writing at about the time that Ardashir seized power:
Ardashir overran Mesopotamia and threatened Syria. Believing these regions to be his by inheritance, he declared that all the countries in that area, including Ionia and Caria [in Anatolia], had been ruled by Persian governors, from the time of Cyrus .... He asserted that it was therefore proper for him to recover for the Persians the kingdom which they formally possessed.
And Cassius Dio agreed: Ardashir boasted that he would win back everything that the ancient Persians had once held as far as the Grecian Sea. It was, he said, his rightful inheritance from his forefathers.

Of course, they might simply have interpreted current Persian intentions in the light of their traditional Graeco-Roman history, imagining that the first Persian wars were about to be replayed. But it's also possible that they were reporting rightly -- that the Sassanians did consider themselves heirs of the earlier kings.

Even if they did, of course, that doesn't make it true.

Suppose for a moment, though, that they had kept alive such a story all through the Parthian period. What kind of evidence should we be looking for? Here's a question we might ask as a start:

Did they know that the Achaemenids built Persepolis?

Just down the road from their own capital, Istakhr, were the ruins of Persepolis. If they didn't know who built it, then they really were making it up. But if they knew, the city burnt by Alexander must have been an ever-present reminder to them of the lost power and magnificence of their ancestors.

Among the most intriguing finds of the post-Achaemenid age at Persepolis are a few figural graffiti engraved with very thin lines on the limestone blocks of the Harem of Xerxes and the palace of Darius the Great.* At first, only isolated images of princely figures were recognised, but a more accurate survey now shows that the parts of one of the Harem graffiti (at least) can be combined into a more complex scene, which is very similar to some images on later Sassanian rock-reliefs.

Since their discovery, the images have been compared with those on coins issued by the vassal kings of Pars. Three princes were tentatively identified: 1. a local dynast of Pars immediately preceding the Sassanians; 2. Pâpak (the father of Ardashir I); and 3. Ardashir's older brother Shapur, "who reigned for three months and was killed by a falling stone when visiting Persepolis" .**

None of these identifications are secure. The only sure information is that their headdresses are very similar to those of the rulers of Pars: a high tiara (as worn by the mounted figures illustrated on this page), bordered with pearls and with a "coat-of-arms" at the middle, a crescent or a crescent with disc. The same type of tiara, in fact, appears on their coins from the first half of the 1C BC to the first quarter of the 3rd C AD. The peculiar headdress worn by the standing man (above left) -- a seven-pointed fan-like element apparently made by tying a large cloth onto the head -- is similar to a fan-shaped object which also appears on coins on the head of the penultimate kinglet of Pars.

Four princes are mounted on horseback -- and note the elaborate trappings of the horses, as lovingly detailed as the richly intricate costumes of the riders. One can imagine the terrific effect of those embossed metal discs (almost certainly of gold) when shaken by the rapid motion of the horse.

Two of the horsemen hold in their extended right arm the ribboned diadem that is the symbol of the royal divine radiance, the xvarrah, given by the god Hormizd to each Sassanian king (scroll down to the previous post, Sassanian Stuff II to see the god put the diadem in Ardashir's right hand). This is the visual sign of the king's divine election: whoever possesses the xvarrah is the rightful ruler, and any rebellion against him is doomed to fail. It seems impossible for any two princes to have split up the divine grace -- a good argument, I would think, for the graffiti to have been drawn at different times.

I really wish we had another word than 'graffiti' to describe these drawings. They are far from hasty or unskilled scrawls. Rather, they are the work of several well-trained craftsmen (at least two or three different artists drew the larger figures). These are not casual doodles but works of art, commissioned by the personages who are represented.

Whoever these characters are, and whatever their poses and postures mean, they must be fathers, forefathers, sons, or crown princes of the vassal dynasty of the Kings of Pars.

Recently, the scholar Pierfrancesco Callieri noted that the engraved lines on the stones are so thin that the motifs are only visible in a certain glancing light. I have seen the same phenomenon on walls in Egypt: if the sun isn't exactly at the right height, you cannot see a thing of the decoration. That didn't matter to the ancient Egyptians because the images were originally painted in many colours -- so the pictures stood out whatever the angle of sunlight. Was this true at Persepolis as well?

Callieri thinks so. He proposes that the images were filled in with colour, long vanished, and that the incisions were only the preliminary phase of the painting. Now, in your mind's eye, picture the walls blazing with the vivid colours of the princes' cloaks and tunics - reds and blues, browns and purples and gold - such as we know from contemporary Palmyran costume. And imagine, too, that the isolated partial figures stuck by themselves on the walls (often just heads, with headdress and streaming ribbons) were not unfinished bits, but engraved patches of a larger scene that was originally finished by painting.

When Callieri applied this idea to the figures stretched out along one wall at the Harem of Xerxes, he came up with a procession, in which mounted princely figures line up with their horses, each guided by two standing figures. Something like this:

Now, mentally complete the picture, filling in the blanks with parading nobles and squires, ending up perhaps with something like this:

What, then, was the purpose of these paintings on the walls of important buildings of the Achaemenid era at Persepolis?

Homage to the Ancestors?

In the 4th C AD, Prince Shapur Sakanshah, brother of Shapur II, left two inscriptions at Persepolis near the main hall of Darius' palace. One reads: He [Shapur Sakanshah] came to Persepolis [såd-stŭn, the place of '100 columns'], and organized a great feast, and he had divine rituals performed, and he prayed for his father and his ancestors, and he prayed for Shapur, the king of kings, and he prayed for his own soul, and he also prayed for the one who had this building constructed.

It is not by chance that the prince chose the palace of Darius the Great at Persepolis to have a banquet, order rites for the gods, and give blessing to his father and grandfather -- and to those who built the city (though he didn't call it by its ancient name, Parsa, 'city of Pars'). This was homage due to his ancestors. Similarly, the images that the pre-Sassanian kings of Pars ordered to be painted on its walls may have been intended to demonstrate continuity with the great kings of the mythical past.

A mark of ownership, if you will.

The rulers of Pars thought that they derived their claims and titles from their forefathers (with or without quotation marks). They knew of Persia's special place within the empire, of the disastrous reign of Alexander, and all about the divine radiance of kings whose origin is from the gods. How did they remember this and pass it on to the Sassanians?

Surely, that was thanks to the Zoroastrian clergy, the subject of Zoroastrian Stuff I, coming soon.

* This post is deeply indebted to P. Callieri's discussion of the graffiti , At the roots of the Sasanian royal imagery.

** Cui bono? The younger son Ardashir certainly gained the most out of this 'accidental death', but he's innocent until proven guilty. More to our point today, what was the newly enthroned king doing at Persepolis? What was so important that he visited the ruins in the midst of an ongoing war against the Parthian king?

12 November 2007

Sassanian Stuff II

How It All Began

IN the province of Pars in Southwest Persia, the religion of Zoroaster was always observed. Here the priests attended to the sacred fires and the injunctions of the prophet were rigorously observed --no corpses were to pollute the earth, no flames were to be blown out, and the divine radiance must be worshipped. In Pars, too, where the tombs of the Achaemenid Kings and ruins of Persepolis remained to remind believers of the splendour of their past, men dreamt of a time when a Persian dynasty would again be on the throne.

Such a man was Pâpak. He was the high priest (mobad) of the important fire temple of the goddess Anahita -- goddess of water, fertility, wisdom and war -- in the Persian capital of Istakhr, very near ancient Persepolis. As a vassal of the Parthians, he was also Commander of the Army in Pars. Around the year 200 AD, Pâpak married Princess Ram Behest, daughter of the Parthian Satrap of Pars. In 211, he succeeded his father-in-law and became Satrap. He now combined in his person the religious, military, and political power of Pars [ known as Persis to the Greeks (its modern name is Fars)].

If I had been his Parthian overlord, I would have been very worried.

And even more worried, I would think, when Pâpak began to trace his ancestry back to the founders of the Achaemenid dynasty. In a late genealogy, his father is named as Sasan (the eponymous hero of the Sassanians), who may himself have descended from an 'Elder Sasan', a 1st century vassal kinglet, and through him to the Achaemenids. That may or may not be history but suffices to establish connections with the previous dynasty; where such connections did not exist, they were fabricated. ... as in the "Pâpak Romance", if I may call it that, the stuff of legend, and much more fun: it tells quite another story about Sasan, and Pâpak's three dreams.

It goes like this.

Sasan worked for Pâpak as a lowly shepherd, always with the sheep and goats, but secretly he was descended from the line of Darius III, the last king of the Achaemenid empire, who was defeated by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. Alexander, by the way, was not so 'Great' to those he had conquered, and all his Persianizing habits didn't make him liked. On the contrary, even in Pâpak's time, 500 years later, the Persians remembered the evil he had done them and so Sasan's story begins with these words, During the evil reign of Alexander, the descendants of Darius privately lived in distant lands, wandering with Kurdish shepherds...

Because the Zoroastrian god Hormizd (aka Ahura Mazda), was on Sasan's side, the Satrap Pâpak had his dreams:
One night Pâpak saw in a dream as though the sun was shining from the head of Sasan and giving light to the whole world. Another night he dreamt that Sasan was seated on a richly adorned white elephant, and that all those that stood around him in the kingdom made obeisance to him, praised, and blessed him. The next third night he saw as if the [three] sacred fires were burning in the house of Sasan ....
Needless to say, Pâpak called in the interpreter of dreams, who told him what this meant:
The person that was seen in that dream, he or somebody from among the sons of that man will succeed to the sovereignty of this world, because the sun and the richly adorned white elephant that you observed represented vigor and the triumph of opulence; the [first] sacred fire, the religious intelligence of the great men among the priests ; and the [second] sacred fire, warriors and military chieftains; and the [third] sacred fire, the farmers and agriculturists of the world: and thus this sovereignty will fall to that man or the descendants of that man.
That's all Pâpak needed to hear. Whereas a lesser man would have topped Sasan and put a bloody end to any threat from that quarter, Pâpak (undoubtedly guided by his god) instead gave him his daughter in marriage: in a short time, Ardashir was born. When Pâpak saw that Ardashir was beautiful and clever, he said to himself, "The dream which I beheld was true." He regarded Ardashir as his own son, and brought him up as a dear child.

Meanwhile, the king of the Parthians , Artabanus V, finally woke up to what was going on in Pars. No dreams for him, but the night sky was ominous. He called in his astrologers who duly warned him that regicide was definitely on the cards:
The [Capricorn] is sunk below; the star Jupiter has returned to its culminating point and stands away from Mars and Venus, while [Ursa Major]and the constellation of Leo descend to the verge and give help to Jupiter; whereupon it seems clear that a new lord or king will appear, who will kill many potentates, and bring the world again under the sway of one sovereign.
To make a very long story short, war broke out between Pâpak and Artabanus, which went on for four or five years. Pâpak died before the savage contest was decided, and, in 216, his (adopted?) son Ardashir became king of the Persians and continued the campaign.

He came to battle twice and won twice, He killed the entire army of the [Parthians], seized their wealth, property, horses, and portable lodges. In the second battle, he sent Artabanus fleeing from the field.

For the third battle, Ardashir collected soldiers in large numbers from Kerman, Mokristan, Spahan, and different districts of Pars, and came to fight with Artabanus himself. So Artabanus sent for soldiers and provisions from different frontiers, such as Rai [near Tehran], Demavand [the mountain range near Tehran], Delman [modern Gilan], and Patash-khvargar [an offshoot of the Aparsen Range].

The last engagement took place in April 224 on the plain of Hormuz, the Battle of Hormizdgan, where Ardashir won a decisive victory over Artabanus who was killed. The story goes that his death was the result of hand-to-hand single combat while their troops looked on, the outcome to decide who would rule. A dubious story, but a chivalrous one, which was much applauded in medieval Persia.

Chivalry is not dead: a view from the 14th century

Ardashir now gave himself the title of "King of Kings," and not far from Persepolis, on a great bluff of yellow rock, at a place now called Naqsh-i-Rustam, he ordered a memorial of his triumph to be carved in the rock, so that his name and his victory should never be forgotten.

The bluff stands at the entrance of a majestic valley, the sanctity of which was stressed by the fire temple of Anahita (left*), where the Sassanian kings were crowned (and where Pâpak may have been mobad) and the tombs of the first Achaemenid kings. The site had surely been chosen by Ardashir to unite the divine beneficial radiance of the Achaemenids with his own person and with his family. The carving remains, fresh and glowing in the sunlight, three times larger than life.

The rock relief at the top of this post shows his Coronation scene. Ardashir receives the ribboned diadem (cydaris), the symbol of kingship, from the great god Hormizd. Ardashir takes the diadem with his right hand, and salutes the god with his left fist and pointed index finger as a token of respect and obedience (a gesture repeated on many Sassanian rock reliefs). Both king and god are on horseback and are of equal size. Under the horse of the King lies the last of the Parthian Kings, Artabanus. Under the horse of Hormizd lies "the one who lies," the devil Ahriman. The relief of Ardashir is, therefore, the legitimization of the new Sassanian dynasty.

When Pâpak and his son revolted against Parthian rule, they more or less admitted that they had been rebels and had betrayed their master Artabanus V, but they had done so because the supreme god Hormizd had wanted them to do so. [Now, where have I recently heard that justification for war? God talks to me] The inscription in Persian, Parthian, and Greek, reads:
This is the image of the Hormizd-worshipping Majesty Ardashir, whose origin is of the gods
Ardashir's distinctive crown illustrates a remarkable idiosyncracy of the Sassanian kings: each emperor will wear a different personal crown, and these become successively more elaborate. The constant element is the rather unusual globe, called the korymbos, the bulbous central element of which was made of silk and designed to contain the hair. Additionally a diadem was worn, with pointed, sometimes wing-like elements and pleated ribbons falling on either side.

Ardashir's rule was absolute and god-given. And his to give on. Before his death in 241, he abdicated his throne to his favourite son Shapur.

This rock relief at Taq-i-Bostram (above) may represent Ardashir handing over the diadem of power to Shapur.** The god Hormizd (on the left, marked by his customary bundle of sacred twigs and with a crown of sun rays around his head), looks on approvingly. The 10th C. Arab writer, Macoudi, declares that, sated with glory and with power, Ardashir withdrew altogether from the government, and, making over the administration of affairs to his son, devoted himself to religious contemplation.

It was a smart move. By the end of his reign, the Sassanian Empire stretched from Sogdiana in the north to the Mazun in the Arabian south, from the Indus River Valley in the east to the borders of Roman Syria in the west. The stage was set for a monumental clash with imperial Rome. In the East, the one chief of chiefs who is the king of kings, the ruler of the world. In the West, the ruler of all mankind. And Palmyra caught in the middle.

More on that in Sassanian Stuff III.

* photograph from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, with thanks.

** But the relief could also picture the coronation of Shapur II (ca. 364 AD). And the god could be Mithra, not Hormizd, which perhaps better explains the lotus under the god's feet, and that would certainly support the later date ; see Mithra: dieu iranien.

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