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Iranian Diaspora Pre-Islamic

By Mary Boyce
Encyclopaedia Iranica

DIASPORA, IRANIAN, IN PRE-ISLAMIC TIMES. The Achaemenid empire attained its fullest extent under its first three kings; and for the next two centuries or so Iranians colonized in numbers the most attractive of its non-Iranian territories. Alexander's conquest of the empire in the 4th century B.C.E. led, under his successors, to those colonists being cut off from Persia, but they proved generally able to maintain their ethnic and cultural identity under alien rule for many generations.

Information about the original colonists is meager, but at its best for Egypt (largely from Aramaic papyri) and Asia Minor (from notices by Greek writers, a small number of tomb-carvings, Aramaic inscriptions, and significant devices on satrapal coins). There is also the evidence of personal and place names. That of personal names can only be safely used, however, to identify Iranians where there is additional information, or when such names occur in groups, or in significant associations and settings, because during the Achaemenid period Persian names were sometimes adopted quite extensively by their non-Iranian subjects.

Even in post-Achaemenid times some Persian names (notably Mitradata/Mithradates, and other Mithra-names) were used by non-Iranians in western regions. Conversely, some individuals of Persian descent under Macedonian rule are known to have adopted Greek names. The hereditary high priests of the temple of Anaitis at Hypaipa in Lydia provide a striking instance. For all regions except Egypt most of the evidence for the Iranian diaspora comes from post-Achaemenid times.

Most satrapies of the empire were governed by Persians, the wealthier and most important ones being generally entrusted to royal princes; but some of the minor non-Iranian satrapies became hereditary fiefs in the families of Persian nobles, who settled permanently there. Damascus may have been one instance, but the certain examples are Dascylium and Eastern Armenia.

All satrapal courts would have been frequented by the local Iranian nobility, and, reflecting the customs and manners of the imperial court, would have been centers of Persian culture. In foreign parts which were attractive to Iranians many Persian landowners received their estates from the king with the duty of rendering military service when called on. Many of these fiefdoms were probably granted as a result of confiscations after conquest, but the smaller populations of those days would also have allowed for new estates to be created in fertile areas.

The Iranians were not an urban people, and the way of life which these expatriates followed appears to have reflected that of Iran itself, with the nobles living for much of the year on their estates. In Cappadocia, with important highroads and passes that needed guarding, many hilltop fortresses are recorded, a number of which were presumably from Achaemenid times the seats of Persian nobles.

In Lydia, with its fertile river-valleys, the only dwelling of a Persian landowner to be described was a fortified manor house on his own estate. He had armed retainers in his service, as well as slaves to work the land; and when the house was attacked by Greek raiders, a beacon was lit which brought a Persian neighbor to his aid, with his own body of fighting men. Some official forces also responded to the alarm, and the marauders were driven off. The incident suggests a number of Persian estates in this, and doubtless other, fertile regions of western Asia Minor, with mutual support among the landowners and in general effective Persian vigilance and control.

The royal road which led from Sardis, Lydia's capital, east to Susa and Persepolis was said to pass for its whole length "through country that is inhabited and safe." This great highway made much of central Asia Minor accessible to Iranian colonists, who were attracted by its valleys and wide plains. Noble fiefholders naturally had an interest in developing their estates, and this interest was quickened in them as Zoroastrians, for whom good cultivation of the land is a religious duty.

Cyrus the Younger, when satrap in Asia Minor, is reported to have given incentives to "anyone that was a skillful manager,... stocking the land of which he had the direction and securing income from it" and to have been ready himself to labor on his own estates, planting for instance fruit trees with his own hands. It seems that nobles must have brought skilled farmworkers with them from Iran, for in the 4th century C.E. many villages scattered about Cappadocia were entirely inhabited by Iranians, descendants of the original colonists. A satrapal coin from Level Cilicia (a rich and favored area for Iranian settlement) shows on the reverse a ploughman in Iranian clothes, driving a team of oxen. Such country people, living in small, culturally unified communities, appear to have been among the most stable and conservative groups in the Iranian diaspora.

Among them were to be found ex-soldiers. Great centers of imperial power, such as Memphis or Sardis, and important frontier posts were garrisoned by imperial troops, Iranians among them, whose Persian officers formed another element in the provincial aristocracy. Sometimes groups of Iranian soldiers were given grants of land with the obligation to serve again if called on. Achaemenid armies were generally accompanied by women, and the long survival of some of these settlements must owe much to their being, like those of the peasant farmers, ethnically and culturally homogeneous, founded by Iranian families.

There are records of Persians as members of Babylonian judicial panels. In a trilingual inscription at Xanthos, capital of Lycia (where there is abundant evidence from monuments and personal names of an Iranian presence), the Aramaic text has a sprinkling of Persian words. Recording a religious foundation, it sheds light by its choice of terms on the local Zoroastrianism. In the first century C.E. an inscription from near Amorion in Phrygia (by then, at that place, in Greek) records the endowment by a local landowner of an annual soul-ceremony (a characteristic Zoroastrian observance) during the festival of Mehragan.

Zoroastrian priests themselves were an important element in the Iranian diaspora. Armies would have been accompanied by many priests, some ministering to officers, others to men, and when ex-soldiers were settled on the land, their priests with their families presumably remained with them. Other priests are likely to have come out with the peasant farmers, and more exalted ones with the nobility. Originally they were known collectively in eastern Mediterranean lands as magousaioi, a Greco-Semitic plural for Persian magu "Mage, priest"; but in time, locally at least, this term came to be used for Persian colonists generally, with Greek magoi used for the priests themselves. As these usages suggest, to outside observers all Iranians were Zoroastrians, ethnic and religious labels being used interchangeably, and this probably reflects the broad reality.

As in Persia, so in the diaspora, in addition to priests who ministered to lay families in the traditional way, there were temple priests. There is a fair amount of information about Zoroastrian sanctuaries in Asia Minor, the oldest according to tradition being at Zela in Pontic Cappadocia, founded in the 6th century B.C.E. by Cyrus II the Great himself or his generals. According to the Iranian custom of worshipping in high places, the sanctuary was established on a hill, banked up yet higher and encircled by a wall. Later this hill bore one of the imposing temples to Anahid, by which the presence of Iranians is strikingly attested in Asia Minor.

Temples were clearly important in enabling expatriate Iranian communities to maintain their identity by providing them with centers for religious and social life, while the great holy places, by attracting pilgrims for their annual feast-days, would have brought together Iranians from wide areas. In western Asia Minor records of "Persian" temples cease from the 3rd century C.E. when they were suppressed by Christian edict, but still in the 6th century Khosrow I Anushirvan negotiated with a Byzantine emperor to have fire temples rebuilt in his domains, most probably in Cappadocia.

In the 2nd-3rd centuries C.E. Bardesanes wrote of "the descendants of Persians who lived out of Persia" as being still numerous in Egypt, Phrygia, and Galatia, and maintaining their traditional customs there. Traces of them in Egypt generally amount to little more than proper names, but from the 3rd century B.C.E. there is reference to a mithraion - presumably a Zoroastrian sanctuary - in Fayoum, and there is record from the 4th century C.E. of "Basilios the Persian" practicing, presumably as a member of a community, what appears to have been a popular form of Zoroastrianism.

The use of Greek by educated Persians of the western diaspora made possible the circulation of Zoroastrian ideas in the eastern Mediterranean world in Greco-Roman times. Persian poets, may have helped, descendants of the minstrel-poets who undoubtedly found a living among Iranian expatriates of earlier times. The existence has been traced of Persian Sibyllists oracles, probably the first non-Greeks to adopt the genre of Sibylline oracles, through which they conveyed Persian prophecies and expectations. In time such oracles grew generally into longer poems, through which doctrine could be conveyed. It thus appears to have been through Persians of the western diaspora that Zoroastrianism made a powerful contribution to religion and thought in the Hellenistic world.

In the east Iran lost Arachosia and Gandhara under Seleucus I to the Mauryan empire. These were lands of ancient Iranian settlement, which received new colonists in Achaemenid times. Light is shed on the Iranians there chiefly by inscriptions of the 3rd century B.C.E. These were written in good Persian chancellery Aramaic, with some local usages. They evidently had a good knowledge of Northwestern Prakrit; and these eastern Iranians are the likely agents for the postulated contribution of Zoroastrianism to Mahayana Buddhism. Later, under Muslim rule, Zoroastrians of this eastern diaspora are known to have maintained themselves in some numbers locally, but in ever-increasing poverty, down to at least the 17th century C.E.

Trade took some Iranians further east in the Sasanian period, and small Zoroastrian communities existed in China down into medieval times. Their numbers appear to have been increased by fugitives after the Arab conquest of Persia, but little is known of them.

Other Iranica articles

Persians in the Russian empire: 74,000 Persian subjects in Russia in 1897. (THE IRANIAN, Dec96/Jan97)

The Qajar class structure: The privileged included princes, governors and prominent descendents of the prophet. (THE IRANIAN, Dec96/Jan97)

Divination: Art of gaining knowledge by observing and interpreting signs.(THE IRANIAN, Sept/Oct 1996)

Zoroastrian Divorce: From ancient to contemporary times.(THE IRANIAN, Sept/Oct 1996)

The Dog: The love-hate relationship with man's best friend. (THE IRANIAN, Sept/Oct 1996)

Sabt-e ... Ma: An interview with Ehsan Yarshater, editor of the Iranica, in Persian. (THE IRANIAN, Sept/Oct 1996)

Sharh-e Hal: An autobiography by Ehsan Yarshater, editor of the Iranica, in Persian. (THE IRANIAN, May/June 1996)


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