Under the arch
Good reasons for feelings of closeness between Iranians
By Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian
April 29, 2003
Part II of "Did
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
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
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
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
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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