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Done & buried
Saka tombs in Iran


May 31, 2005

In "The Saka Legacy" I explored the origin of place-names like Sakkiz, Arsaka (Quchan), Zadrakarta (Sa-karta, Gorgan), Sakastan (Sistan) and Sakavand (in Bamiyan/Sistan). That exercise relied in part on the geographical distribution of Saka in west-central, north-northeast and east-central Iran. In this essay, I exploit the same information in order to call attention to evidence of Saka burial grounds in Gorgan and Sistan.

As described in Herodotus (Histories, Rawlinson’s edition), the Saka who inhabited in the Balkan and Black Sea regions (Scythians) considered no cause greater than to put up a fight in defense of their ancestral burial mounds. A pastoral and nomadic population, they had on purpose no cities or cultivated lands to defend, and so these ancestral tombs were their only “structures.” Perhaps the elaboration and labor that went into their construction rendered their defense more than just a matter of spiritual call to arms (IV:71-75, 127). The gory details of the burial mound fit for a Saka king explains why such mounds took up considerable real estate. The Saka tombs that have been discovered from Central Asia to and beyond southeast Europe have provided much knowledge euro-centric information about the Scythians.

The Saka were a part of the Iranian scene form pre-Achaemenian through Parthian times. They inhabited primarily in west-central, north-central and east-central regions of ancient Iran. Therefore, if they died where they once had lived, some Saka legacy should be found in the form of burial grounds in these regions. This logic and other factors led the archeologist Roman Ghirshman to conjecture that the remains of a treasure discovered by two peasants near Sakkiz in 1940’s came from a tomb or cache belonging to the Saka leader Partatua or his son Madyes (Iran, p. 106).

Ghirshman was not the first to suspect some connection between antiquities finds in Iran and Saka. A thinly veiled suspicion of this nature is found in a statement by the English traveler William Holmes (Sketches on the Shores of the Caspian, 1845). On the road from Amol to Farahabad on the Caspian shore, Holmes (p. 224) saw a large grassy mound and wrote that this was the first he had seen of those tappeh (hill) that “frequently occur in Mauzunderoon, Astrabad, and the Toorcoman desert.”

Riding inland from Farahabad, Holmes (pp. 230-231) came upon Qara Tappeh and not far from it was a similar hillock rising abruptly from the plain but not surrounded by habitation. “The natives,” he wrote, “can give no satisfactory information with regards to these mounds. It is very evident that they are not natural elevations; and it is probable they may be the burial-places of the ancient Kings of Hyrcania.”

Here is the clincher -- “Herodotus,” Holmes noted, “details at full length the mode of sepulture of the ancient Kings of Scythia ... [which was] covered with a lofty mound of earth. The same custom may have prevailed here.” W. B. Fisher (“Physical Geography,” in Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 1, 1968) however believed that the feature recognized as tappeh were once settlements that fell into ruins.

The plains east and north of Gorgan from Qara Sue to Gorgan River (Dasht) and from Gorgan River to Atrak River (Torkaman-sahra) are punctuated by many “out-of-place looking hills. In Gorgan va Dasht (Tehran: Taab-e Ketab, 1344/1966), Asad-Allah Moini identified Qara Tappeh, Qizil Tappeh, Altun Tappeh and Tuqmaq Tappeh as examples of artificial hills.

In 1954 a researcher from northern Iran named Taheri Shahab described the tappeh as the handiwork of the Daha tribesmen of southeast corner of the Caspian Sea, who, in the words of Tamara Talbot Rice, were kin of the Saka. The Daha built these mounds in a parallel fashion and at irregular distances. These were of two types: One type served as household and the other housed the animals and belongings. To alert one another of danger of raids, the Daha used the mound-tops to signal by fire at night and by smoke at daytime. “Not much scientific study has been devotes to these tappeh” wrote Shahab, “and every now and then one comes upon a stoneware or metal artifact, skeletal remains and pottery.”

According to Seyyid Mohammad Kazem Maddah, these artificial dirt mounds or hills number 39 and support some 310 excavation sites, with some finds dating to 3000-1000 BC [“Turang Tappeh,” in Asad-Allah Imadi, ed., Bazkhani-i Tarikh-i Mazandaran (Sari: Farhangkhaneh Mazandaran, 1372/1994). The excavation of the tomb at Turang Tappeh however predated the arrival of foreign archeologists to the region in the 1950s and 1960s by a good one hundred years, when Mahmud Nasser Khan, the governor of Astarabad, opened the tomb and off-ed with its contents.

Not unexpectedly one should suspect the existence of Saka burial mounds in the Sistan-Hilmand region as well. The Saka presence there in antiquity is a matter of established historical record. In as late as the 10th century the Persian geographer Estakhri referred to a tribe named Khalj that was originally from Central Asia and who had arrived in ancient times and settled in the area between India and Sistan. There they built sepulcher (aramghah, mausoleum -- named after the Persian satrap Maosolus).

The word that Estakhri uses to describe the Khalj is Trkan, which we tend to pronounce as Torkan or Turkan. I tend to think that this combination of letters (trkan) probably sounded Tarkan and could have referred to one riding on horseback (viz. tark-e asp) regardless of a specific ethnic content -- applicable equally to Iranian and Turkic horsemen originating from Central Asia.

It is appropriate that this fourth in as many essays on the Saka be about their tombs, to signal an end of a long journey for me. I have in the works a fifth and final piece that I will offer in tribute to the Saka, as an epitaph, in which I shall pay homage to Saka Tigraxauda (Saka the Tall Caps) and state my reasons for why they were called Saka by the Achaemenians, indeed that the word “sa” in Old Persian meant pasture, grassland.

In the course of researching and reading about Saka, I also came to love them as who they were and what they did. In the process, I developed a whole new appreciation for what it must mean to be Iranian. That subject will be treated in my next essay.

Guive Mirfendereski is VP and GC at Virtual Telemetry Corporation since 2004 and is the artisan doing business as Guy vanDeresk ( Born in Tehran in 1952, he is a graduate of Georgetown University's College of Arts and Sciences (BA), Tufts University's Fletcher School (PhD, MALD, MA) and Boston College Law School (JD). He is the author of  A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea (2001) >>> Features in

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