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In search of lost meanings
Part 2: The riddle of Abvand


May 10, 2005

In my prepubescent years I roamed Darband, Pasqaleh, Abshar Dogolou and Shirpala in the company of my father, to whom on the anniversary of his passing this May I dedicate this piece. Thank you, sir, also for patiently breaking your stride mid-mountain so that I can savor the cherries at Haft Hoz, the hot potato with salt at the river's edge in Pasqaleh and clip golpar at Shirpala. I also dedicate this essay to Bahman Khan Nassehi whose scientific training as a mountaineer taught us to look less than roaming goats and more like seasoned hikers.

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My earliest recollection of an etymological inquiry about mountain words came in the summer of sixth grade, when I asked about the meaning of Tochal, a lofty destination in the Alborz Mountains. I have lived since with the explanation that “To-”was “Do-” meaning “two” and “chal” in mountain-talk referred to a nook that is semi-enclosed by the high rising wall-like mountains. It somehow connoted more an enclosure than the depth that is implied by the word hollow or valley, or the familiar word “chaleh,” meaning a pit or pothole.

What I refuse to live with any longer is the explanation that in the name Mount Damavand, “avand” meant “vessel” and “dam” was “steam,” so Damavand signified “vessel of steam,” no doubt an apt name for a volcanic mountain (Dehkhoda’s Loghatnameh). While this is a convenient interpretation, it is incorrect. If Damavand was a vessel of steam, I ask, what is “Al” in the name of the majestic Mount Alvand (also Arvand) that overlooks Hamadan? And what is the significance of “avand” in Nahavand, a city-district in the Malayer region of Kermanshahan in west-central Iran? I was not surprised then to read in Dehkhoda’s Loghatnameh (vol. 2, p. 209) that as a suffix in place-names like Damavand, Nahvand and Alvand the meaning of “avand” (and its contraction “vand”) is unknown.

In the 10th century Persian geographical work entitled Hudud al-Alam (Limits of the World) I found the rule that applied to naming mountains. A mountain derived its name from the name of the settlement or region that abutted it. No better example of this is offered by the etymology of Damavand itself. In Hudud reference was made to the village called Dainah near the mountain called Dainavand, which Yaqut al-Rumi (13th century) gave as Donbavand and Dabavand, and Abulfeda (14th century) as Damavand for both the village and mountain.

The connection between the village Dainah and Dainavand was established by the possessive suffix “-vand,” defining the mountain in relation to the village of the same name. It is already understood that “-vand,” like in Ferdowsi’s “pouladvand,” meaning “like steel,” is a suffix of possession or attribution like “mand” in Persian or “-ian” in other languages, for example.

In light of Mount Damavand’s physical and historical statures one may conclude, albeit erroneously, that it was the mountain that in the first instance gave its name (Damavand) to the village. This then has misled philologists to seek the meaning of the place-name Damavand independent of Daimah by treating the noun Damavand as a self-contained aboriginal or sui generic noun, with a self-contained meaning.

By the rule set forth in Hudud, it is more likely that Mount Alvand received its name from a settlement between Hamadan and Baghdad called Halvan. In the 10th century (Jaihani), Halvan was described as a city that, unlike other cities in Iraq was located at a mountain that overlooked Iraq and whose summit was always covered in snow. It was already in ruins in the 13th century (Mahmud al-Qazvini). Alvand was the only mountain that fit the description of one near Halvan and therefore the connection between Halvan and Alvand must be deemed as geographical. In the mountain’s own lore, however, according to Dehkhoda, it received its name from one Arvand (Alvand) who was laid to rest there.

What of Nahavand? A city south of Hamadan and seventy-five miles east-southeast of the city of Kermanshah, it is situated between two mountains and has been identified in Persian and Arab geographies as a place in the land of the mountains. In the 10th century (Jaihani), Nahvand was a city near a mountain and was so described in the 14th century (Abulfeda). By the rule laid out in Hudud, therefore, the settlement would have been called Nah or Naha or like and Nahvand would have been the name of a mountain proper abutting it.

Nahavand has its share of theories seeking to explain its name. On a purely etymological basis, the name can be said to consist of “nah” and “avand,” in which “nah” like “nai” of Naishahpur is a locative prefix meaning “town” in Persian (Dehkhoda, vol. 48, p. 923). Relying on the meaning of “avand” as “vessel” in Persian, according to one source, the name Nahavand therefore referred to a town where pots were manufactured. Because the place produced saffron (Jaihani, Estakhri), one as well may have called it Saffron City!

A more exotic explanation of the name Nahavand has attributed the origin of the town and its name to Noah. The 19th century Frenchman Joseph Toussaint Reinaud and editor of the geographical works of Abulfeda went so far as to state that Nahavand was the vulgar form of Nohavand because the ancient name of the city was Nouh-Avand (Noe-ville). The equating of “avand” with “ville” is an easy conjecture because after all a suffix at the end of a place-name with human habitation may well mean a form of settlement.

Could “avand” be the same as the ubiquitous term “abad” that means “a happening place, a place in good stead?” There are a few place-names in Iran by which one may easily conclude that “avand “ and “abad” must be the same. One example is the mountainous village district called Barzavand, which was mentioned as a place as far back as the 10th century (Ibn al-Faqih). Presently in the Isfahan Province, Barzavand is located thirty miles south of Ardestan and is bound by Nain in the west, and Kuhpayeh (mountain foothills) in the east and south. In nearby Nain, one finds the remains of a village called Barzabad. Another example of the seeming synonymy of “avand” and “abad” is provided by the place-name mentioned by Yaqut (13th century) as Ostanavand, a famed fortress in the Damavand area of Tabarestan, also known as Ostanabad.

I am inclined to believe that etymologically and phonetically “avand” and “abad” derive from the master-word “abvand” which Dehkhoda (vol. 2, p. 34) defined as “holder of water,” of which “avand” is a contraction. The word “avand” then could have evolved from “aband” in which “b” replaced “v” and the “n” sound was dropped. The dropping of the “n” sound does occur in Persian, example in word “kad” from “kand” that refers to village or town in Persian and Turkic (see Dehkhoda, vol. 39, p. 386; vol. 40, p. 239). Regardless, both “abvand” and “abad” contain “ab” (from the Avestan “ap” and Pahlavi “av” for water), a prerequisite to any human habitat that is in good stead.

I conclusion here I conjecture that before “ab-vand” became “a-vand” or was sounded like “abad,” there would have been the word “ab-band” and in this I find the ancient root of the word “band” for “mountain,” first as a “holder of water,” of streams, springs and aquifers, and later as a word for a dam and barrier.
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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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