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In search of lost meanings
Part 1: Mountain majesties of Iran


May 9, 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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“In many ways,” I concluded the piece on [When "kaboud" is not], “the richness of the Persian language is not in how many words can exist to signify a single meaning, but rather how many different meanings can a single word express.” On this occasion, I shall set out to ponder the opposite proposition and would like to discuss the matter in the context of Iran's splendiferous mountains.

The mountains on the Iranian landscape today are known primarily by the Persian kuh, Turkic dagh and, to a much lesser extent, Arabic jabal. Lost among these are the less known but ancient words for “mountain.” To paraphrase a reader, who kindly pointed out in a letter about Kaboud, I seek order in words and am prepared to go a fantastic long way to explain the glorious connection among “gar or jar,” “ostan,” “fand,” “band” and “vand.”

First -- a word about the sacred place mountains occupy in Iranian cultural history.

In the Avesta, the Hymn to the Earth spoke of two thousand, two hundred and forty-four mountains created by Ahuramazda. The first of these was Haraiti Barez, present-day Alborz, which name is the re-Persianized form of the Arabicized Al-Barez. The Haraiti Barez of the Avesta stretched eastward along the shores of the land that was washed by waters, above which stars revolved and where Ahuramazda built a dwelling for Mithra, the lord of wide pastures.

In the legends of Iran's kings and heroes, as described in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, the Alborz Mountain played an important point of reference. Sam sent his albino son Zal to Alborz to be rid of the evil that had afflicted him; Alborz was King Manouchehr's retreat and the scene of many a battle fought by Rostam; the villain Zahak was imprisoned at Mount Damavand; and the hero Arash Kamangheer (the Archer) flung his arrow from Mount Damavand to mark the eastward frontier of Manouchehr's kingdom.

The sacred libation hom grew in the mountains. On Mount Asnavand, Keikhosro, the mythical Kyanian king, built the first of the three celebrated fire-temples. Another Kyanian king, Gashtasp, built the temple Azar Barzin Mehr at Navand, a mountain in the northwest of present-day Sabzevar in Kohrasan.

The Greek historian Herodotus said it best when he noted about the ancient Persians (Histories, Rawlinson's edition, Book I:131): “They have no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, and consider the use of them a sign of folly... Their wont, however, is to ascend the summits of the loftiest mountains, and there to offer sacrifice to Jupiter which is the name they give to the whole circuit of firmament,” Jupiter referring to Ahuramazda.

The mountains also drew one closer to the heavens, and in most instances they were the source of water, afforded dorsal protection, dominated the plains, roads and settlements, and served as watchtowers. It would have been quite a thing to rule one.

The principal Avetsan word (Yasht 19, section 1) for mountain was “gar.” The first of Iran's legendary kings was Kyoumars, who was known also as Garshah, which meant according to Dehkhoda “mountain king.” The name of another king, Garshasp, too embodied an association with mountains. The title of a Sasanian prince, Hormuz son of Bahram, was Kuhbod, which meant commander of the mountain.

The Arabicized form of “gar” was “jar” and this latter, according to Ibn Esfandiyar Kateb (ca. 1226), in the Tabari tongue of northern Iran had come to mean a mountain that bore trees and bushes and on which one could farm. Not unexpectedly among the mountain majesties of northern Iran we encounter the titles Jar-Shah and Malek al-Jebal borne by the Karanvand dynasts who ruled in the mountains of Tabarestan from 570-839 AD. Of these titles, the first was a variation of Garshah (mountain king) and the second appellation was a construction meaning “lord of mountains.” According to Abu-Ali Mohammad Balami (flourished: 946-973), in the area ruled by Karan “there are many villages and there the people are kuhyar [mountain-folk] and ... all the mountains there were named for him and to this day are named after his descendents.”

The Padusban dynasts governed the region from Gilan to Amol from 665 to 1596. Initially they bore the tile “Ostandar” but later opted for the more regal title “Malek” that meant “lord.” In the Tabari dialect “ostan” meant “mountain” and “dar” by itself or from “dara,” meaning “king” meant “one who has/holds/rules” and so “ostandar” was one who governed a mountain. The term “Ostandari,” as in Ruyan Ostandari (Ibn Esfandiyar) denoted an administrative office/title or seat of the mountain governorate.

Beginning in the 8th century one finds among the Karanvand and Padusban dynasts the use of the name Vandad (variation: Vanda). The fourth Karanvand ruler bore the name Vandad Hormoz son of Neda (died between 813-833 AD). Among the Padusban rulers one was called Vanda Omid son of Shahriyar (ruled: 791-823). Among the Bavand dynasts, who ruled in the Mazandaran region of Tabarestan as “kings of mountains” from 665 AD to 1006 AD, one finds Vanda son of Bavand (ca. late 10th century). Meanwhile in Fandavayn, located in Khorasan's highly mountainous Marv region, one Behzadan was born to Bandad Hormoz. He became known as Abu Moslem Khorasani and led in the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate in 750 AD.

Vandad or Bandad occurred in many exotic forms: By the 10th century variations such as Bandad , Bandaz, Bondaz, and Bandar were noted in Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadhani's Kitab al-Buldan (ca. 902 AD). There is little doubt that Vandad and Bandad were related, phonetically, as “b” is an accepted substitute for the older “v” in Persian -- such as darvand/darband, according to Dehkhoda (vol. 22, p. 353). These names were related also in that they sprang in regions that were mountainous: Because they sounded more like titles than proper names then the question arises what office they may have signified?

According to Seyyed Zahir al-Din Mar'ashi, a 15th century Persian historian, in 838-839 AD the lieutenant of the Abbasid Caliphate in Tabarestan delegated the governorship of Kuhestan, land of many mountains, bordering Khorassan, to one called Bandar. Because the reference to this individual contained no eponymous designation one should conclude that Bandar [read Band+dar, like Ostan+dar or Vand+dar] was a title or office, and it would have been an apt one for one destined to govern a mountainous region, if only “band” had meant mountain. It did.

In Steingass' Persian Dictionary (1892) the noun “band” is noted, among other things to mean “mound.” Its popular and familiar usage as “dam” is obvious in Band-e Amir near Shiraz and its meaning as “obstacle or road block” is evident in the word “rah-bandan.” Band-e Amir was built in the 10th century on the order of the Buyeh ruler Azod-Dowleh Dailami, whose dynasty originated from the Dailam mountain region in Gilan in north-central Iran. By “north-central Iran” I mean the Caspian Provinces of Gilan, Mazandaran and Golestan (formerly Gorgan, Astarabad).

That word “band” in Gilaki and Tabari dialects of north-central Iran meant “mountain.” Here is the evidence of that word in use as I have been able to cull from H.L. Rabino's work entitled “Mazandaran and Astarabad.” The Langa region of Tankabon district is divided into Jurband (or Balaband:upper-band) and Jirband (Zir-band or Payin-band: lower-band) and the low wooded hills that separate the plain from the summer camps are known as Miyanband (middle-band). The meaning of “band” as “mountain” in Miyanband is supported further by the example of Siyahband (Black Mountain) and Giyabandan (Kiya Mountains) as the unambiguous names of two mountains so-named and located in the Larijan area near Amol.

The use of the word “band” for mountain is also in evidence in Kerman and eastern Iran. In Kerman, where the Buyeh also ruled from 945 to1055, the mountain chain known as Jebal al-Barez is called by the locals Band-e Jebal Barez, in which name multiple linguistic influences created a redundancy, which then was explained locally by the myth that there was built in antiquity a dam or wall in order to fend off flashfloods and mudslides. A similar redundancy occurs with respect to the name of the mountain range called Kuhbandan (kuh plus bandan, mountain mountain!) west of the Sistan basin, where Kuh Khajeh and Nhbandan are prominent. Because the region's river system is known as Dahshakh (ten branches/channels), I am inclined to interpret the toponym Nhbanadan as Nohbandan, a plural reference to nine (noh) mountains.

In Kerman there is also a mountain called simply Darband (Bafq) and another called Band-e-Goudar. Band-e Torkestan is a mountain range in Afghanistan.

The tradition of mountain majesties was not confined to the lush mountain sites of Tabarestan. There is evidence in “Hudud al-Alam” that the practice already existed in the 10th century Kerman. The Kufaj, an inaccessible mountain range impervious to military conquest that extended from the sea to near Jiroft, had seven mountains and each mountain had an independent guardian (mehtar) who, at the exclusion of king's own agents, collected and remitted annually the mountain's taxes (moqateh).

In the universe of band as a name for mountain, the most obvious combination occurs with the prefix “dar,” taken to mean door, gateway. In the north of Tehran, a popular place named Darband serves as the entryway into the Alburz Mountains. On the western shores of the Caspian Sea, the town of Darband is at the entrance to the Caucasian Mountains. Near Sakkiz, in western Iran, the village of Seyranband is a mountainous location, as is Darband in the Sanandaj area of Kordestan.
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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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