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Under the arch
Good reasons for feelings of closeness between Iranians and Iraqis

By Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian
April 29, 2003
The Iranian

Part II of "Did anyone care?"

Remember Khaghani, the poet from Shirvan? Remember his lament Aivan-e Mada'en, which, in Arabized form (Mada'en standing for the cities that composed the Sasanian capital at Ctesiphon-on-Tigris) denotes Taq-e Kasra, the main portico of the imperial palace. A poignant expression of regret at the loss of Sasanian Iran, with a heartrending 'Aaah', as though words, no matter how rich and expressive – and he had a great store of vocabulary -, could never be enough to express what he felt. Those of us old enough to have studied his verse, in our early schooldays, would have learnt it by heart. So then why do we not see a word written by Iranians in Iran or outside to express any concern about what might have befallen the one remaining arch (and a slice of façade) of this symbolic site?

The muted reaction to the war on Iraq amongst the Iranians is understandable to a certain degree, since the memory of the long war with Iraq is still painfully fresh. Still, many Iranians are distressed by the pain inflicted on Iraq. Just last night in London I heard a poetess rededicate the verses composed during the war, to the sufferings of Iraqis as well as to those of Iranians. Such a schizophrenia is not unnatural with respect to Iraq, for brotherhood there is, most of all with the Kurds, but also with others. This may be partly due to Shiism, but that is just part of the story. Their Christians, like our own, are mainly Nestorian, the Eastern church that goes back to the early days of Christianity, and there are sects in the north of Iraq whose beliefs reflect pre-Zoroastrian creeds like Mithraism, while others in the south are Mandean Baptists, like the father of Mani. Above all it is due to a shared history.

Towards the end of the war with Iraq, my son had introduced his girlfriend, a lovely Iraqi. I never felt she was any different from us. There were no hard feelings despite the raging war. Then last year I met an Iraqi in London, a lady of culture and of fine character, who told me that she feels closer to Iranians than she does to Arabs. "A cliff separates us from Iran," I tell them, "but a vast stretch of sand separates us from you." And in fact some Arabs criticize Iraqis for speaking Arabic with a Persian accent. There is a good reason for feelings of closeness.

Ever since the conquest of Nineveh by the Medes and some decades later, of Babylon by Cyrus, our destinies have been linked in a number of ways throughout the centuries. Babylon was in fact one of the capitals of the Achaemenids, which is one reason why it was important to Alexander who wished to emulate the empire he had just defeated. His Seleucid successors, who ruled Western Asia, including the heartland of Iran, did it from their capital, Seleucia, on the Tigris River. The Parthian Arsacids (Ashkani in Persian), once they got rid of the Seleucids, chose to build another capital on the opposite bank. They built it according to a well-established Iranian tradition, within circular walls, circular like the sun.

The arch of Ctesiphon, or Taq-e Kasra, is now all that remains of a city that was, for seven centuries, the main capital of the successor dynasties of the Achaemenids, Parthians and Sasanians. The structure left today was the main portico of the audience hall of the Sasanians who maintained the same site chosen by the Parthians and for the same reason, namely proximity to the Roman Empire whose expansionist aims could be better contained at the point of contact. The arch of Ctesiphon, with its impressive span, is therefore important to our whole history. No wonder Khaghani lamented its demise at the hands of Arabs, whose sack and plunder of the city were described in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh. To Saddam, who called his palace Qadessia, after the battle that put an end to Iran's Zoroastrian past, Ctesiphon was not much of a priority. But to us it should be.

To those who disapprove of empires and any imperial excesses, let it also be said that Taq-e Kasra means much more than just the last vestige of empire. For, together with more substantial leftovers of palaces and temples in the north of Iraq, at Assur and Hatra, it represents a major Parthian innovation in the architecture of the form called aivan, which consists basically of a great arched portal that leads on to a large vaulted reception hall, which, in turn, opens up into a vast courtyard faced with smaller aivans on each of its fours sides. This structure was copied everywhere in Iraq by local dynasties, whether they submitted to Iran or to Rome, and in fact was even adapted by Romans. Which is why Hatra, built just before the turn of the Christian era should also matter to us. For, apart from statues and reliefs showing the local gods and nobles in full Parthian dress (now shattered and destroyed), it has one of the few surviving monuments in which Parthian aivans and great vaulted chambers are visible today, even though, at first site, Ionic capitals and Hellenistic motifs may suggest otherwise to an uninformed eye.

This innovation was due for a long career, as the main feature of the Iranian mosque, in Iran proper and in Central Asia, but also wherever Iranian artistic influence would become a dominant feature of local architecture, as in Mughal India, and of course in the shrines of Karbala and Najaf. And it still has untapped potential to inspire new interpretations. Nor is architecture the only importance associated with the arch. For Taq-e Kasra was also the model that inspired the concept of rarefied access to the source of power. Hence the term 'Sublime Porte' (Lofty Gate) used for the Empire of Byzantium, and later extended to the seat of power of the Ottoman Empire. No wonder the Caliph al-Mansur had wanted to transfer elements from Taq-e Kasra for reuse in Baghdad.

Luckily, even though the distance was not great, it turned out to be too difficult and costly.
And thus the ruins remained, neglected, uncared for, but impressive enough to inspire Khaghani and later, visitors from European lands. One side of the façade, with niches and engaged columns decorating the two long extensions from the main arched portal, finally disappeared in a flood that ate at its very foundations in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Yet sturdy and stubborn, the main arch and one side refused to cede to time and stood up valiantly. Given that the structure had been cracked by aircraft vibrations during the 1991 war, the question is how long it can last without care, indeed if it still stands. Nobody seems to know if it does or does not, and noone seems to care, except for some scholars who are truly concerned, but whose voice does not reach the decision-makers. Noone even recalled the cry of Khaghani which was uttered with pain fully six-hundred years after Arabs conquered the Sasanian Empire.

Iranian relations with Iraq did not stop with Islamization. After a century of rule from Damascus, the caliphate was moved, thanks to Abu Moslem and his legendary Khorassani army, from Damascus to Baghdad, under the Abbasids who relied mostly on their Persian ministers for administration, for court ceremonial, and much else adopted from the Sasanians; and on Persian scholars, too many to be named, for the cultural life and intellectual activity which earned the early part of their reign the well-earned sobriquet 'Golden Age of Islam'. Not to mention a host of philosophers and the earliesr Sufis, who integrated a great many ideas from previous religions, and of whom many are not only remembered, but studied, even read. Baghdad itself was built, in the original, with the circular plan that Iranians favoured, and its very name means 'God-given' in older Iranian languages.

But as the caliphate lost power and prestige due to habitual factors of decadence, it was an Iranian dynasty, the Buyids, who, conquering Baghdad, ruled in their feeble stead. Before them, a king of the Caspian Ziarid dynasty had even intended to revive both Taq-e Kasra and the Kiani Crown for his own enthronement. An impossible dream, more in tune with his own megalomania than with reality which had changed over time. Then, under the Saljuks, the mighty dynasty of Turkic origin, their Persian minister, the great Nezam-ol-molk, established in Baghdad the first of several Nezamiyyas, which were schools, not merely devoted to pure theology, as too often supposed, but covered many fields (scholars were multi-disciplinarian in those days).

After the destruction and the massacres wrought by Hulagu Khan, the Mongol, and later by Timur, Baghdad, like other that suffered from the same double plight, seemed to have gone into a termianl decline. But when the Timurids of Samarkand and Herat were in turn defeated by Sheibani Uzbeks, a Turkmen dynasty, the Black Sheep, took over in the west of Iran. Jahan Shah of this same dynasty then moved his capital to Baghdad, complete with patronage of the arts, to which end he brought there some of the great artists of Herat and Tabriz to paint in Persian style. Finally, under the earlier Safavids, the city of Baghdad and its periphery still remained Iranian, until a peace treaty with the Ottomans who, as as the new self-proclaimed caliphate of Islam, wanted Baghdad badly, and obtained it by treaty in exchange for regions of the Transcaucausus, including Erivan (the Armenian Holy See and now the capital of the Armenian Republic).

This is significant, because it demonstrates that most Iranians, being upland people, prefer the high plateaus to the low-lying plains. Indeed, even today, relations are closer to the Armenians than to any Arabs, except the Lebanese. In the final analysis, though, language and a shared literature are much more important than a shared religion, as proven by the fact that Iraqi Shiites did not side with Iran during the eight-year war. The loss of Baghdad was never a big issue, whereas that of Herat is still well remembered and indeed, keenly felt.

Once again, however, relations with Iran did not come to an end, despite Ottoman rule, especially with the Kurds, more specifically those of Solaimaniya who still paid their tribute to the early Qajars rather than to sultans in distant Istanbul. And to rule from far off is never viable, not in the longer term. The same situation still prevailed in 1839 when the first son of Fathali Shah, Mohammad Ali Mirza Dowlatshah succumbed to cholera at the gates of Baghdad which he had intended to retake with the help of the Kurds. But it all came to nought. Not altogether though. Soon after, because of Wahhabites emerging from the Najd, the fiefdom of the clan of Saud, to raid the 'heretics' (i.e. the Shiites) and to plunder their rich shrines, the Qajars were able to obtain 'special rights' over the shrine cities, including Samarra, from the Ottomans in order to protect them.

Then, after World War I, when Britain was planning to create a new state in Mesopotamia, the Shiite hierarchy in Najaf had approached another Qajar prince who had spent some three years of exile in Baghdad in the first years of the twentieth century, and asked him to be king of this new state-to-be. He refused on the grounds that an Iranian prince would not be accepted by the majority of Iraqi Arabs. (This should calm suspicions of Iranian plans to take over Iraq.) Even the kingmaker, Gertrude Bell, who chose a Hashemite Arab prince from the Prophet's own clan to rule over Iraq, had first fallen in love with the East while staying with her uncle, Lascelles, British ambassador to Iran at the end of the nineteenth century. It gave her the subject of a delightful book called 'Persian Pictures' and translations of Hafez. Yet, despite the choice of a full-blooded Arab at the helm of the state, Persian was still spoken by many Iraqis, so that the wife of an Iranian diplomat on mission in Baghdad around 1950, rememberd that she had, in four years, never had to speak a single word of Arabic in Baghdad.

The arch of Ctesiphon, as well as other sites and countless manuscripts (some of which have turned up in Tehran and Paris) had remained the symbol of those close relations. The government in Iran keeps silent about it, while dispatching pilgrims to Karbela and Najaf. That is their right, of course. To refuse them that right would be equivalent to telling Catholics not to travel to Rome. But it should not preclude concern for Ctesiphon or for other treasures. Not that the mollarchy does not appreciate pre-Islamic culture, if only for the sake of promoting tourism and filling their pockets. Indeed, for some two years, the exhibition of '7000 years of Persian Art' has been on a grand tour of Europe (now showing in Basel) and includes some unseen objects excavated since the revolution. It has been attracting record crowds everywhere. The credit goes, of course, to the dedicated experts who have strived hard to keep our heritage alive and in good shape with limited funding, but without the support and financing given by the authorities, two full years of touring would not be feasible.

That does not mean that the mollarchy comes out clean. It would be a surprise, given their poor record of integrity and financial honesty. But not, as often said, that they sold off treasures from Iran's museums. That would be difficult, except for pieces that are not inventoried, some of which may well have disappeared in the heat of the revolution. But the fact that a lot of recent material has turned up at auctions in Europe proves that they seem to know their value, and may in fact be engaged in smuggling artefacts. Much of it may be the work of illegal rings, of whose sad existence everyone is aware since the tragic looting in Baghdad and Mosul. On the other hand, there have been some cases of smugglers arrested. In one recorded case, the regime even imprisoned two known dealers who had planned to saw off parts of the monumental pillars and capitals from Persepolis and truck them off to clients. They were caught in good time, even though some damage had already occurred.

The looting in Iran is not from museums, but mainly from new digs, mainly unsupervised. But that is not specific to Iran, it occurs just about everywhere, from Turkey to China, at increasing levels for a growing number of collectors worldwide. It is impossible to trace all the smuggling, but some flagrant cases cannot be written off as the work of looters, given that the objects are in good condition. Such is the case with some rare items that have been turning up at auctions. Complaints lodged to the Iranian delegation at UNESCO about their having been taken out without due permission were seemingly ignored. The latest series of such items were not your habitual auction fare, they came from a culture which is the hottest thing in archeology now.

Recent excavations on the site of Margush in the province of Marv, now in Turkmenistan (Margiana to the Greeks), and finds from Bactria (Balkh in Afghanistan) all the way to Kerman in Iran, have revealed a culture, already suspected from earlier fieldwork, that combines, as of the second millennium BCE, the earlier influence of Elam and Mesopotamia on material culture in the Oxus basin (such as on pottery and on irrigation methods that had given a boost to the oases of Transoxiana), with rituals associated with Indo-Iranians. These were the beginnings of a crucial meeting that was destined to change the course of history.

This meeting of cultures has now come to be known as the BMAC (short for the mouthful of Bactrian-Margian Archeological Complex) and attracts a lot of scholarly attention. All the relevant sites are on or very near the trade routes from Sumer in Mesopotamia to the urban centres of the Indus Valley in the third and second millennia BCE. And Elamite Iran was right in the middle, the transmission centre at the central crossroads. On a trip that I made to Ashkabad recentlly, I noticed the statue of a female goddess in a wide pleated robe similar to some known from earlier Sumer, therefore indicating that trade brought an exchange of ideas and forms, beliefs and rituals in the early Bronze Age. Similar statues, marked 'Bactrian', and superb bronzes of the third millennium BCE from Jiroft near Kerman have turned up at auctions in Europe, some in good condition. Some of them are in fact like nothing I have seen, very special indeed, others seem to recall Scythian 'animal art' - only much earlier.

Who had exported them? Who had been allowing the flight of such rare and very precious items? Having made inquiries, I was told that no less than the very brother of the Supreme Leader is in charge of all digs. And since the rare bronzes were said to have been found in Jiroft near Kerman, the Rafsanjani fief, suspicions do arise. The perfect condition of some of the items points to a controlled dig. Even if the leaders of the country were not directly in the know, they must be considered guilty of negligence towards the heritage of all the Iranians. Whoever sent them out was doing the country a terrible disservice. As a consolation, one might say that at least the objects were intact and not shattered to bits as in Afghanistan or as now in Baghdad.

What happened in Baghdad has elicited a reaction of outrage and as a consequence, should hopefully impact the lucrative market for illegal exports of cultural heritage, but unless the measures envisioned are enforced over a long period, and unless the countries suffering from bleeding of their past history, step up their vigilance and show greater respect for the cumulative culture of their people, more of this will occur, and the world as a whole will be much the poorer for having allowed it. While putting a market value on artefacts helps their preservation, it is equally true that items that retrace the course of history belong to the nation on whose soil they are found. The surplus, however, may go to collectors – with authorization.

As for illegal digs, the collateral loss to knowledge can be all the greater that history in our part of the world is complex and crucial to the evolution of civilization. The continuity of the BMAC both in time and in space, is representative of the fluidity of movements of people, ideas and new skills in a part of the world whose ancient history can hardly be ignored by the rest of the world.

When I was taken for questioning on a trip to the United States, I was asked about where my father had been born. I wrote down 'Ashkabad'. Where is that, I was asked, in what country is it? It depends, I replied. The officer in charge did not understand me. I told him, it had been Iranian for at least two or three millennia (Ashk derives from the name of the eponymous founder of the Ashkani or Parthian dynasty, and not from the word 'love' as too often supposed); it was part of Russia by the time my father and uncles were born there; then later, when they fled, it became the Soviet Socialist Republic of Turkmenistan, and now, the capital of a Turkmenistan ruled by an eccentric dangerous dictator. Luckily I was not asked to give any details about my grandmother, for it so happens that her family had fled Qarabagh when Russia conquered it, had moved on for a while to Baghdad, where she herself was born, then gone back to Baku and thence to Ashkabad with its population of Iranians, Russians, Armenians, and no Turkmen who were still nomadic.

It was a fluid world, and culture was fluid, mostly dominated by the stronger Persian throughout much of Asia to the west of Bengal. It goes back to trade routes in the third millennium BCE, and although the picture did evolve over that long period, the overall give-and-take remained the main feature of all such frontier towns which had a major role in transmitting culture (and as concomitant, sporadic destruction), even when the Russians of the Tsar took large chunks to add to their empire. When Stalin ghettoized people within frontiers, and gave them the labels that negate history, it implied tearing out a page to paste on to new identities, without much coherence within the greater whole. Fluidity is lost, yet the process of loss and erosion goes on.

So is it and will be if we tend to forget the landmarks that pinpoint the stages of history. For only by knowing who we are can we find the strength to recover from the tribulations that recent history has visited upon us. If the mollas cannot or will not do their job of defending culture as an integral whole and not as what suits them - if only for fear of of losing the ticket that has brought them to power, the onus is on us Iranians everywhere.

Of the many landmarks of our long history, the arch of Ctesiphon and the BMAC are two reference points that cannot be ignored. Not the least of the great monuments is, of course, our beaturiful language. It has been suffering from lack of attention, both in Afghanistan, the land of Maulana, and in Uzbekistan, the land of Rudaki, in favour of two less developed languages, the Pashto which belongs to the large family of Iranian languages and the Uzbek, which, although a late form of Turkic, is full of borrowings from Persian. While these languages are also historical and deserve promotion, this should never be done at the cost of Persian, the unifiying link that once brought together all regional nations, regardless of frontiers, ethnic identity and local dialects. A language so valued by those who have learnt to appreciate its richness and tremendous beauty is a monument too.


Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian was born in Tehran in 1940 and studied in Iran and Switzerland. In Iran she was on the committe of a number of organizations, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Women's University. She also did volunteer work for the Deparment of the Environment, where she planned education for schools and TV on environmental subjects. Since the Revolution she has been focusing on research and writing. Her latest appeared in The Journal of the Society for Iranian Studies (Summer/Fall 2000) called "Haft Qalam Arayish: Cosmetics int he Iranian World".

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By Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian




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