I began this exploration into the origins of Fenderesk a few years ago in order to fill a nagging void left from my childhood. I had been fascinated with the name because it was an unusual-sounding name, one of a kind, and worse than sounding Russian no elder in the family could explain its meaning. We all knew there was a place called Fenderesk, located at the heart of a region northeast of Gorgan where the interplay among the plains, mountains and streams produced in the springtime an unrivalled floriferous scenery — so beautiful in fact that parts of this region had earned the name ‘plain of paradise’ and ‘king’s pleasure.’ On the occasion of this Norouz, I gift the fruits of my research to all who share my surname, regardless of spelling, and to three individuals whose insights illuminated my path: Khodadad Rezakhani (Los Angeles), Remy Viredaz (Lausanne) and Reza Ordoubadian (Murfreesboro).

Fenderesk is a rural district located sixty-seven kilometers northeast of Gorgan City, off the Gorgan-Bojnurd-Quchan road in northern Iran. To get there is not easy. The journey on the road known as rah-e velayat begins at the east gate of Gorgan and runs in a north-northeasterly direction for some forty-two kilometers through the Malak region before reaching Aliabad, the seat of the Aliabad-Katul district. Three kilometers thence, the road crosses the Sorkh-Mahaleh River and enters the Fenderesk district. Turning sharply northerly, the road continues for another nineteen kilometers before reaching the vicinity of Khan Babein, which is the main town of Fenderesk. From this point, the road continues for four kilometers to Galand and another three to Daland and another four before entering the Ramiyan region. Eight kilometers farther north is Zinababad, where three kilometers later the road forks, one turning sharply north in the direction of Gonbad Qabus and the other continuing easterly and then southeasterly in the direction of the Shahrud region.

Fenderesk possesses three subregions. The northern part consists of plains and prairies that roll out north in the direction of the Gorgan River. The middle section is marked by low elevations of Kuh Abr (Cloud Mountain) that seal the region's southern flank. From the Kuh Abr springs the Fenderesk River, which empties into the Gorgan River bound for the Caspian Sea. In an earlier epoch, the Fenderesk district (or buluk) consisted of four distinct sections — one region consisted of the collection of villages around its seat of government at Dar Kalateh. The Qanchi region lay in the northeast, which corresponded to the present-day Minou Dasht. The Kuhsar/Kuhsarat, literally the land of many mountains, was in the east and extended to the borders of Kohrasan. Ramiyan formed Fenderesk’s southern region. The topography of middle and southern regions of Fenderesk is predominantly hilly and mountainous.

Presently, Fenderesk is subsumed administratively in the Ramiyan District. Its traditional seat of power, Dar Kalateh is located six kilometers northeast of Aliabad and twelve kilometers southwest of Khan Babein. The city of Ramiyan itself which serves as the center of the Ramiyan District is located twelve kilometers directly due east of Khan Babein and six kilometers directly south of Zainababad, but the drive, first north from Khan Babein to Zainababad and then back south to Ramiyan is twenty-five kilometers long.

The earliest evidence of Fenderesk as a place-name (toponym) appeared in the form of a nisba (relational) for one Khajeh Ahmad Fendereski, who was ruling Astarabad in 1508-09. This reference predated the birth of the region’s preeminent son, Hakim Abulqasem Mir Fendereski (b. 1563) and this eliminates with certainty the Hakim as the source of the place-name.

Among Iranian scholars of northern Iran there is one Mohammad-Ali Saeedi (Ramiyan), who wrote a book about the history of Ramiyan and Fenderesk (1985), and Mohammad-Ebrahim Nazari (Shahi, now Qaem-Shahr), who wrote a book on the history of the neighboring Katul district (1996). The first one confessed not knowing of the origin of the name Fenderesk, and the latter has offered a tentative view of it. Nazari thinks that the naming of the region as Fenderesk may have been connected with the beginning of Safavid rule in 1501-1502.

As for the meaning of the place-name, he offers a few options: The term fend or fand in Arabic and Persian refers to mountain or a large piece of it, and so maybe the name related to the mountainous topography of the region. On the other hand, in the Gilaki tongue of northern Iran, the term fander signifies looking in a watchful or inquisitive fashion, which could have been the function of the area’s Maran fortress. Lastly, Nazari suggests that perhaps the place got its name from fend (Persian: trick, deceit) which in the language of the inhabitants of the region could have signified Maran watching over them on the sly.

The Maran fortress is located at Marankuh Mountain in the Takht-e Rustam area of Ramiyan halfway between the Asyman and Nilkuh mountains. The Englishman Percy Sykes believed that the fortress was the site of Dara or Dareion, the Parthians’ second capital after Quchan. Because mar means snake, the occurrence of Maran as a place-name in various parts of Iran cannot be given any special significance without supporting evidence. In the Tankabon (Shahsavar of the Pahlavi era) region, for example, we have the place-names Maran and Marankuh as well.

Mountain. I happen to believe that the term fand or fend is the Arabicization of the Persian word vand or vent which, in relation to band, referred to mountain settings, but that is a topic for another essay. For now, I begin with the word fand and learn from Yaqut al-Hamavi (d. 1229) that it meant “a section of a jabal [mountain], and [was] the name of a jabal located between Mecca and Madina toward the sea.” Yaqut also referred to a number of places whose name contained the morpheme /fnd/ such as Fendalau (in Sh_m, Syria), Fandavayn in Marv (Iran), and Fandisajan in Nehavand (Iran) and Sarfandeh, a village in the Sur region of Syria.

In the geographical work of Albufeda (d. 1331) I came across a place called Sarfandkar, which was also written as Sarvandkar. According to him, this was an important place in Sham: It was a citadel located on the southern bank of the Djaihan River east of Tell Hamoun, southeast of Ain Zarbah, and west of the Marra defile, one of the passes into the Almanus Mountains. Commanding the defile, the citadel was built atop a rock and it had no walls, as it was itself surrounded naturally by rocks. In light of its geographical description and a 10th century map of Sham in Ashkal al-Alam by Abulqasem bin Ahmad Jaihani (F. Mansouri edition, 1989-90), the place would have been in northwest corner of present-day Syria known as Kordagh [= Kord Mountain], northeast of Marash.

The structure of Sar.fand.kar offers a useful clue about the structure of Fenderesk. In Sumerian, the suffix kar meant “fortification,” a meaning that resonates in the Persian meaning for kar as “construction or building.” So, fand/mountain + kar/fortification= fandkar/mountain fortress. That Sarfandkar was situated at the Marra defile and the fort in Fenderesk is called Maran may be more than coincidence.

The noun sar in Persian meant “head” or “summit” but its occurrence in both Yaqut’s Sarfandeh and Abulfeda’s Sarfandkar would suggest that it was a part of a compound noun such as sarfand meaning “mountain chief,” an office. This would have had to be so because Sarfandkar was situated in a valley even though it was built on a rock, hardly a reason to call the place “mountain top,” for example.

Migration to Northern Iran
In the course of migration of the descendants and adherents of Imam Ali from Hejaz, Syria and Iraq to Mazandaran/Tabarestan in northern Iran, there was one Ebrahim (b. Madina after 765 AD) and his sister Bibi Sakineh, children of Imam Musa Kazem (d. Baghdad, 799). Ebrahim is cited as a direct ancestor in the genealogy of the Mousavi-Hosseini family that governed Fenderesk between 16th and early 19th centuries. Ebrahim settled in the present-day area of Babolsar at the mouth of the river that empties into the Caspian, fifteen kilometers north of Mamtir (later, Barforoush and now Babol). After Ebrahim’s death a sanctuary (imamzadeh) began around his tomb and for the sake of the prayers that were answered he received the name Abu Javab. The settlement became a town and took the name Mashad.sar, the rest place for Ebrahim’s martyred head.

The burial of Abu Javab in Babolsar connects the Mousavi-Hosseini family of later-day Fenderesk to the Babolsar region. I believe the name Fenderesk originated from this region and was transported to the area east of Gorgan at a later date. There is another reason to suppose that the name was a transplant. If we assume the stem in Fenderesk (fend) suggested a mountain connection, then one must account for the development of this anomalous word in a region where terms like kuh and teppeh were favored.

From Fenderis to Fenderisak
I believe the geographical point of origin for the name of Fenderesk is a rural district located forty kilometers south of Babolsar at the foot of the mountains thirty kilometers south of Babol and eight kilometers south-southwest of Aliabad (later Shahi) in the Bala Taijan area — called Fenderi. H.L. Rabino, the English historian of Mazandaran and Tabaretsan (1928), gives the name of this place as Fendar-i Namavar, which is shown in a 1720 Dutch map Nova Persiae (Amsterdam: R & I Ottens, 1720) as Panderis.

I believe that Fenderesk is a form of Fenderisak, which is a diminutive of Fenderis, taking the familiar suffix ~ ak when it was transplanted to the region east of Gorgan. Later it lost the a in ak. These examples of place-names from the Amol-Sari region illustrate the point. Farim is a rural district sixty kilometers south of Sari and Farimak is a village eighty kilometers east of Sari. In the next case we have a triple move: Lamar is a village fifty-four kilometers northeast of Sari and Lemrask is eighteen kilometers east of Behshahr on the road to Gorgan, and Lemesk is a village two kilometers north on the Gorgan-Bandar Shah (now Bandar Torkman) road — the name becoming progressively weirder as it moves away from the origin into Grogan region.

Origin of Fenderis
The place-name Fenderis itself requires an explanation. I believe the name is owed to the Arabic influence imported into the Amol-Shahi-Sari region of Mazandaran by the descendants of Imam Ali and adherents who immigrated to here from Hejaz, Syria and Iraq. When they arrived here in the 8th century, they became neighbors to the Padusban rulers of Mazandaran and emulated from them their administrative nomenclature of ostandariyya, which in the Tabari language meant “place of mountain lord,” from ostan/mountain, dar/holder and locative suffix ~iyya/place. In their vernacular the new arrivals devised fenderiyya, in which fend (mountain) substituted for the local ostan and this became the name of a place that Rabino identified as Fender-i Namavar, in which name Fender-i is clearly an administrative designation. The name Namavar itself was borne by many among the Padusban ruling-family of the Amol region (665-1596), first being Namavar ibn Shahriyar, the son of the fourth ruler Shahriyar ibn Padusban (762/63-793/94 AD).

Among the seyyeds who emigrated to the Amol region the Mar’ashi is one group that stands out as the probable originator of the term fenderiyya. Claiming descent from Imam Zayn al-Abedin (b. Madina 658-59, d. Madina 713-14 AD), it is not clear to me when they arrived in this region except that they first went from Madina to Marash, in Sham, where they were settled long enough to acquire the nisba Marashi. Marash lay south east of Sarfandkar. I should think that they would have been intimately acquainted with the term fand, and in absence of the Padusban influence, they could just the same transplanted a name like Sarfandkar to their new home where the topography mimicked the idyllic Almanus mountain setting. By 1359 the Marashi were sufficiently in favor among the Amol population that they rose against the established local order and assumed control of the region.

What explains the appearance of s in Fenderi? I believe this s is a residue of a longer suffix that attached to Fenderi. In the Fenderi region, the noun rustak referred to rural districts, like dehestan. One particular and rare form of it was reskat and an example of it appeared in the place-name Bala — reskat, upper village, in northern Shahi, where a domed brick-structure supported an inscription dating to 1009. At one point Fenderi-reskat (village) must have become Fenderiskat and later Fenderis, for short. The inversion of k and t in rustak/reskat would have been no less anomalous than when in current Farsi one hears ask for aks (picture) or in English one hears ax for ask (inquire).

Into Northeast of Gorgan Region
After the Mongol invasion of Persia, the government of Gorgan and Astarabad fell into the hands of a local chief named Mir-Vali, who ruled from 1353 to 1382. The rulers of the Amol-Sari region at this time were the Marashi and one among them, Seyyed Kamal ad-Din Marashi (r. 1361-1393), became a target for assassination plots hatched by Mir-Vali. In a battle fought at Tamisheh (probably Behshahr) east of Sari and on the border of Gorgan, the Marashi chief overcame his rival and sent him scurrying eastward into the mountains (Kuhsarat) and into Khorasan. This defeat placed Gorgan and Astarabad in the Marashi domains. I believe in connection with the aftermath of this event a group of immigrants from Fenderis settled the region to which they gave the name Fenderisak.

In the late 1370s Seyyed Kamal ad-Din returned the government of Gorgan and Astarabad to Mir-Vali in the hopes of the two making common cause against Timur Lang. In 1381 Timur secured Mir-Vali’s submission. Ten years later, Timur sacked Amol and captured Seyyed Kamal ad-Din and sent him to Kashgar in southwest China to die.

Fenderesk was already named as such by the time the 27th in line from Abu Javab, Khajeh Ahmad Fendereski, held sway over Gorgan in 1508. In May/June 1522, his son, Mir Kamal ad-Din, received from Shah Ismail Safavi a grant for Chupalani village to which more places were added as the family was favored. In a firman (edict) dated August 1591, Shah Abbas I the Great confirmed the land grant of Fenderesk, Ramiyan and Abr to Mirza Beik Fendereski (d. 1601). The grants of Astarabad are collected in the sixth volume of Az Astara ta Astarabad (Masih Zabihi and Manuchehr Sodtudeh, 1975).

The Pesky ~sk Suffix
Much of the lure of Fenderesk for me had come came from its rather interesting ending ~sk. My research in the past two-three years, however, indicates that this ending is not as rare as I had thought initially. In Iran’s present-day Sistan-o-Baluchistan Province, for example, one finds Barisk, Bidtesk, Bumesk, Darvask, Desk, Gask, Gesk and Rask. Near Gorgan we have Lemrask west of Behshahr on the Behshahr-Gorgan line, and Lemesk east of Gorgan. Tamosk is a village west of Amol and Pelesk is a village southwest of Sari. In Fars we have Ask from mid-10th century, Fusk and Gisk.

This brings me to an interesting discovery, about what to make of these ~sk endings. In the case of Fenderesk I have settled on the Fenderis+ak. In the case of many others, however, one could consider exciting the ~sakk with a vowel and sound it as ~sak. I say this because there is evidence that it used to be so before the emergence of ~sak in contemporary Persian geographical dictionaries, where the lexicologist simply may have not know better. Here are a few examples: Veresk, as we call it now, is a mountainous train stop on the Firuzkuh-Shahi line, where a 328-foot high bridge spans the gorge at Savadkuh. At one time the place boasted a far larger railroad personnel than natives, if any. In the first decade of the turn of the 20th twentieth century, however, according to Rabino, the place was called Varsak. In the same vein I note the lexicologist F. Steingass’ entry for Fenderesk as Fandarsag (1892).

Another anomaly in this regard is the conversion of a to e in many place-names in contemporary Persian. One example involves Ask, a mid-10th century place in Fars. Near the end of the 10th century, it became represented as Asak and also as simply Sk. Accompanied with a lament about its confused orthography, a 13th century geographer gave it as Asek. A similar diversity, probably dialectic, is observed with respect to the famous spa Ask near Amol, which is written also as Esk Assak and even Aask. Then there is the celebrated fortress-town of Rask in Sistan. In the 13th century, however, the place-name appeared as Rasak.

In view of the two examples (Ask/Asak and Rask/Rasak), it ought to be permissible today, as it was in earlier times, to excite an ~sk ending. This will promote the cause of pronunciation as well as discernment of a rational significance of the place-name. The German Iranist and Avesta scholar Wilhem Geiger believed that in Avestan language the word asagh [var. asak] meant district. In my opinion, if he were correct, then the ~sak endings in Iranian place-names should be considered in the first instance to refer to the notion of a “district.”

May all your seasons be sabz and your labors sabzvar.
[This essay in Word format with Persian words and accents]

Guive Mirfendereski practices law in Massachusetts (JD, Boston College Law School, 1988). His latest book is A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries, and Other Stories (New York and London: Palgrave 2001)

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