It is the season to roll up the sleeves and commune with the yellow clayish mud that passes for cultivable soil in my garden. I am a few weeks away from installing the vegetable patch but the hoeing has begun in earnest to break the winter’s crust and prepare the beds. My shovel grown old and rusty sits idle on this April morning as the sky pisses away on the tulips and crocuses.
This is also the season that I blend the sublime with the ridiculous, from the philosopher’s admonition to cultivate our garden, ways and souls, to the courageous people of southeast Khorasan who fought with shovels (bil) and how the “bil” in Ardebil is related to the Latin “ville.” Let me explain.
A few years ago, my friend Sabatico, of whom I have written before, mused that his acquaintance from Khorasan believed that the fort-city of Birjand received its name from the fact that its inhabitants used to go to war (jang) with shovels (bil) and so eventually the “l” became “r” and “jang” became “jand” and so we have Birjand. Every spring I rethink this anecdote and laugh myself silly at the sight of my countrymen marching in line with shovels resting on their weary shoulders answering the call to arms by another megalomaniac leader. Would it not be a hoot, I say to myself, if in reality the city contributed to the army it served a corps of gravediggers to bury the fallen — and so it got its name.
I thought this was the only “bil” story that I could savor in a lifetime until last winter when I was reading the 10th century geographical work known as Hudud al-Alam. The Iranian editor of this 1933 edition, Seyyed Jalaledin Tehrani, queried if the name of the city of Ardavil (now Ardebil) was not the town founded by Orod, the Ashkanian (Parthian) king that the Greeks named for us as Orodville.
Neither the Encyclopaedia Iranica nor Dehkhoda’s Loghatnameh provides an answer to the etymological origin of the names Birjand and Ardebil, other than to say that these names go as far back as the Middle Ages. Therefore, I feel free to pontificate on the matter without hesitation.
The clue to unraveling the mystery of Birjand is the meaning of the word “jand” or “jond.” Dehkhoda (vol. 16, p. 119) gives for it the meaning “army” and “town” and I happen to think that the meaning of “jand” is a synthesis of both meanings and it applied to a military encampment or fortress-town. We know this to be the characteristic of places named “kand” in Persian and Turkic, such as in Samarkand and other towns in Afghanistan and Central Asia. By the same token, Jondishahpour of the Sasanian period meant City of Shahpour.
The authorities agree that the first mention of Birjand occurred in the 13th century work by Yaqut as a happening place, which meant that it was around a lot earlier. An earlier geography seems to have identified it as Pirchand (see entry Birjand in Encyclopaedia Iranica). While Yaqut’s “Bir” was the Arabicized version of the Persian “Pir,” the meaning of “pir” may well have denoted the old town portion of the double fortress-town setting that was Birjand.
Of course, I know better to fall into this trap of “bir” for “pir” because “pir” may well be a corruption of “pil” such as I discovered a few year back when reading about Piri Bazar in Rasht that had been in reality Pileh Bazar, where silk was landed for trade. Every Iranian knows that “Pil” is also the brother “Fil” and this, as my contemporaries remember from the pictorial in our history book, is the animal the Sasanian king Qobad (Kovad) rode into battle to face the enemy in the northeast provinces. Not to belabor the obvious, Birjand well may have served as the emporium of elephant trade that fitted out the Sasanian army.
Ardebil on the other hand has a tamer origin. Many think that its name derived from one Ardebil bin Armanayn bin Nati bin Yunan. Okay. Ferdowsi however thought it was built by the Sasanian king Pirouz and he called it Pirouzram, City of Pirouz. I think neither is correct, as convenient as they may be.
Ardebil (read Ard-bil) was by all accounts an emporium of trade, where trade to and from the Caucasus and Caspian has been landing since time immemorial and I think the place got is name from this distinction. I begin with the first morpheme “ard” which I think is a Persianized form of “aard,” with “ain,” that meant donkey (see Dehkhoda, vol. 34, p. 157). The second morpheme “bil” was in essence “bal” (see Dehkhoda, vol. 11 583) and it was probably a form of “bar” meaning “load.” Together (aard+bal) they denoted a loading place where trade was mounted on donkey back. If that is outlandish, then perhaps it bears reminding that another ancient emporium of trade in northern Iran presently called Babol was known as Barforoush (literally where loads were traded, market).
There is a slim possibility that the morpheme “bil” may have referred to wild pig or boar (goraz), which is also a meaning for the word (see Dehkhoda, vol. 11, p. 583). In which case combined with “aard” that can also mean “standing erect” (see Dehkhoda, vol. 34, p. 157) Aardbil could have signified a place where one had seen the menacing sight of a boar on its hind legs. Is that not the motif of many a Parthian and Sasanian hunt scenes?
I close this early spring rumination with the observation by Dehkhoda (vol. 11, p. 584) that “bil” is apparently like “ville” meaning city and is used as a suffix for name of towns; it has a common origin with “pol” and “pala.” I do not know about “pol” other than its Persian meaning for “bridge.” As for “pala” the only place that I have experienced with it is Shirpala and that was a valley in the Alborz Mountains were angelica (golpar) grew.
This spring I will plant my different varieties of parsley, mints, basil and tarragon but all the while I shall pine for the golpar of my birthland.
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)