Archive for the 'Persia' Category

The fancy price

September 28 2015

Justinian’s Solomonian glory was a luxury out of season which had to be paid for at a fancy price; and, forty-five years after Justinian’s death, a bill of a staggering magnitude was duly presented to the magnificent emperor’s devoted successor Heraclius when he was summoned from Carthage to defend Constantinople against a Persian invader whose advance-guard had by then already pushed its way unhindered right across the Asiatic torso of Justinian’s Mediterranean empire – from the banks of the Khabūr to the shores of the Bosphorus. Heraclius, with his ominous name, is a typical representative of the saviour with the sword in his final appearance on the stage, when the tragic actor once for all lays aside a Jovian mask that has now become utterly incongruous, and once more plays Hêraklês in the only scene that it is any longer possible for even a Hêraklês to play. This scene is the death of a “Die-Hard”; a “Die-Hard” is a soldier who offers up his life for a cause when he is convinced that all but Honour is already lost; and, as a classic example of the type, the Roman Emperor Heraclius is worthy to rank with the British Colonel Inglis whose call to his men first put the phrase into currency.

The Khabūr is the largest perennial tributary to the Euphrates in Syrian territory. Its source, like that of the Euphrates, is in Turkey.

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939


June 26 2015

The sovereign of the Achaemenian Empire, which served as a universal state for the Syriac World, asserted the oecumenical range of his rule by styling himself “King of the Lands” or “King of Kings” [footnote: Meyer, E.: Geschichte des Altertums, vol. iii (Stuttgart 1901, Cotta), pp. 24-6.] – a title which was laconically translated into Greek in the one word βασιλεύς without even an introductory definite article. [Footnote: This verbal recognition of the uniqueness of the status and office of the Achaemenian Great King was a striking act of homage on the lips of Hellenes who were defying his efforts to extend his oecumenical authority over their own city-states.]

Caricaturing Persia (old post).

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

Sufis and Shiites 2

May 21 2015

Ismail I and the Safaviyya order of Sufis were Shiite long before he took power: I have corrected the last post but one.

The Safavi were descended from Safi al-Din (1253-1334) of Ardabil in Azeri-dominated north-western Iran, the head and founder of the Safaviyya. About 1399 the order exchanged its Sunni affiliation for Shia.

Qizilbash anti-Ottoman Shiite militant groups, named after their red headgear, flourished in Azerbaijan, Anatolia and Kurdistan (from when?) and, as members of the order (were all Qizilbash members?), contributed to the foundation of the Safavid dynasty.

Ismail’s father was their leader. He died in battle against Sunni forces when Ismail was a year old.

Ismail emerged to take his father’s position as head of the Qizilbash. In 1501 he took Tabriz and proclaimed himself Shah. He brought all of modern Iran and parts of Iraq and Turkey under his rule.

The non-Osmanli Türkmen tribes in Asia Minor had resented being conquered by the Osmanlis in the fourteenth century and being reconquered by them after having been temporarily liberated by Timur. In 1511 the Ottoman Empire was nearly overthrown once again by a widespread revolt in Asia Minor of Twelve-Imam Shiʿi Türkmen partisans of Shah Ismaʿil, the founder of the Safavi Empire. This revolt was repressed savagely by Selim I in 1512-13. The original Safavi army was composed of corps of Shiʿi emigres from the Türkmen principalities in Asia Minor that had fallen under Ottoman rule. After Shah Ismaʿil’s death in 1524, the turbulence of these Qizilbash (“Red-heads”, so-called from the colour of their headgear) became a plague for Ismaʿil’s successors, though the Shahs of the Safavi Empire were ex officio the spiritual heads of the Sufi religious order in which the tribal regiments of Qizilbash soldiers were enrolled.

So Iranian Shiism was forged partly in opposition to the Ottoman Turks. Turkish, Mongol and Persian ethnicities, languages, cultures and polities meet and overlap: it is easy to distort matters when one applies labels. Toynbee, below, in an early book, calls the Timurids Turkish, but Timur is usually described as Turco-Mongol. He is a successor of the Mongols, but came from a Turkicised Mongol federation, the Barlas.

The “native Persian” Shah Ismail unified Persia through the intolerant imposition of Shiism and a renaissance of Persian culture followed, but, coming from Azerbaijan, he is usually described as being of Turkic stock (though the point is disputed). “Native Persian” is the kind of imprecise nationalistic term Toynbee would have dropped in later books.

“Turco-Mongol” can also be used in a broader sense, to describe the hypothetical common origin of both the Turkic and Mongol peoples which can be found in their common Altaic languages, culture and, to a lesser degree, ethnic and genetic origins.

In the sixteenth century A.D. a native Persian dynasty, the Sufi, which adhered to [the Shiite] sect, swept away the Turkish [Timurid and sub-Timurid] princelings who had divided Iran between them since the Mongol [Il Khan] era. The plateau was united once more in a national state, and once more again the renaissance of Iran expressed itself in religion. The heresy of its kings became the belief of the nation, and under the banner of “Shiism,” Persia kept at bay the hated Turkish powers which hemmed her in on every side and uniformly professed the orthodox “Sunni” faith: Ottoman Turks on the West, Uzbeg Khans upon the Oxus in the North, and the Uzbegs’ Mogul [sic] cousins, who had carved themselves a mighty empire in India upon Persia’s Eastern flank.

I assume that there is an etymological connection between Sufi and Safaviyya or Safavid.

Toynbee does have throughout this book, and with a respectable publisher in 1915, “century A.D.”.

Old post: Osmanli, Safavi, Timurid.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Nationality and the War, with maps, Dent, 1915

Sufis and Shiites

May 20 2015

or, Sasanians, Safavis and Sikhs

The history of the Safawis is one example of the historical phenomenon of a would-be universal church becoming militant and paying the penalty of military success by turning into a local state. Other examples are the transformation of the Zoroastrian Church into the Sasanian Empire, and the history of the Sikhs.

The Sufi mystical orders of Islam are mainly Sunni, but some have been influenced by, and adopted by, Ismailis and Twelvers (and Zaidis?). The founder of the Safavid dynasty in Persia, Shah Ismail I, came out of the Iranian Shiite Sufi order of Safaviyya. When he took power, Twelver Shiism became the Persian state religion.

But did Iranian Shiism carry any signs of its founder’s background? Sufism is not popular with the religious authorities in Iran today. For how long did the original order, which had become militant, survive Ismail?

The Sufi challenge to Iran’s clergy, at

Posts on Sufism at On an Overgrown Path, sorted by date and not only about music.

Perhaps Sufis will be leaders in the coming reform of Islam.

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934 (footnote)

Sunni and Shia in India

May 19 2015

The survival of relatively good relations between the Sunnīs and Shīʿīis of India [which he takes as a fact], in contrast to the violent recrudescence of the feud between the two sects throughout the rest of the Iranic World since the generation of Ismāʿīl Shāh Safawī and the Ottoman Sultan Selīm I, is probably due to a combination of factors. For one thing, the subversive effect of Shāh Ismaʿīl’s career upon the life of the other Iranic countries did not extend to Hindustan; for although Ismāʿīl’s career affected Indian history indirectly by leading […] to the invasion of India by Bābur, Bābur […] was a Laodicean in his attitude towards the Sunnī-Shīʿī quarrel. Another manifest ground for the relative tolerance shown by Shīʿīs and Sunnīs towards each other in India is the common consciousness of being members of an Islamic diaspora among a numerically overwhelming majority of Hindus to whom both forms of Islam are equally anathema. Though Bābur reverted to Sunnism after his final expulsion [by Uzbeks] from Transoxania […] [he had flirted with Shiism during his partnership with Safavid Iran], and though his descendants in India remained Sunnīs thereafter, the paramount concern of the Mughals, as of all other Islamic Powers in India, was to maintain as large as possible an inflow of Muslim recruits from Dār-al-Islām to sustain the Islamic ascendancy in Hindustan; and they did not inquire too narrowly into the religious views of the Muslims who responded to their call. Since Iran was the nearest part of Dār-al-Islām to India, and since Iran had become an exclusively Shīʿī country in consequence of the Safawī conquests and the Safawī policy, the Shīʿī contingent in the Muslim immigration into India was considerable. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that although the Muslim masters of Orthodox Christendom were likewise a small minority dispersed among a numerically stronger non-Muslim subject population, this state of affairs did not here deter the Sunnīs from extirpating their Shīʿī coreligionists. The reason for this Ottoman ruthlessness towards the Shīʿah in Anatolia was that Anatolia was far more dangerously exposed than India was to attack by Shāh Ismāʿīl and his successors.

Though Muslims were surely not a minority in Anatolia in 1500.

Post on the arrival of Islam in India (in a wider historical context).

There have been some Indian Shiite dynasties.

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934 (footnote)

The archaeologists

April 18 2015

Some archaeologists from Winckelmann onwards: those who entered the popular imagination, or were known to non-specialists, in the UK.

No earlier antiquarians, no current names: these are from the great age of the profession, when the big discoveries were made, with some perhaps marginal inclusions. Equally or more important discoveries were made by less famous people. We remember the excavator of Knossos, but not the excavators of Hattusa or Anyang.

Thomas Ashby

Gertrude Bell

Frank Calvert

Howard Carter

Vere Gordon Childe (last post)

Jacques Cousteau

Glyn Daniel (last post)

Wilhelm Dörpfeld

Arthur Evans

Jacquetta Hawkes

TE Lawrence

Austen Henry Layard

Louis and Mary Leakey

John Lubbock

Max Mallowan

Prosper Mérimée

Theodor Mommsen

Stewart Perowne

William Matthew Flinders Petrie

Stuart Piggott

Augustus Pitt Rivers

Michael Rostovtzeff

Heinrich Schliemann

Lady Hester Stanhope

Marc Aurel Stein

Mortimer Wheeler (last post)

Johann Joachim Winckelmann

Leonard Woolley

Yigael Yadin

Archaeology, it is often pointed out, reflected colonialism and its attitudes, not least because it sometimes operated as organised looting (Wikipedia on repatriation demands: it doesn’t refer to Schliemann’s exports), but it was not automatically true that the white archaeologist organised “native” diggers: it was only under Sir John Hubert Marshall, Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to ’28, that Indians were first allowed to participate in excavations. The Survey had been launched in 1861; the first Indian Director-General was Daya Ram Sahni, from 1931 to ’35. The last white Director-General was Mortimer Wheeler, from 1944 to ’48.

It was, nevertheless, usually Europeans who started the work outside Europe, or professionalised the methods. China had Johan Gunnar Andersson.

The French invasion of Egypt in 1798 led to the birth of modern Egyptology.

Ruins can serve modern regimes: Yigael Yadin made archaeology support Zionism, Shah Reza glorified his rule at the ruins of Persepolis, Saddam Hussein his at the ruins of Babylon, ISIS tried to bolster its legitimacy by destroying Nimrud and Hatra.

In a way, the rise of the modern archaeologist paralleled the rise of the orchestral conductor. Both were conjurers and became stars in consequence. Their gestures from the podium and in the field were not so dissimilar.

Romancing Schliemann (old post).

Defeat in the west

March 21 2015

The Achaemenian Rāj in South-Western Asia was no more seriously shaken by the disastrous failure of the Persian invasion of European Greece in 480-479 B.C. than the British Rāj in India was by the even more disastrous failure of the British invasion of Afghanistan in A.D. 1838-42.

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

Bitter Lake

February 16 2015

Adam Curtis’s extraordinary documentary is here on the BBC website. It was produced for iPlayer because of the “rigid formats and schedules of network television”. In other words, it was deemed too long or demanding. Here on YouTube.

The jury is out for me on this: I need to watch it more carefully. An introduction on Curtis’s blog is here. Extract (edited):

“Journalism – that used to tell a grand, unfurling narrative – now […] just relays disjointed and often wildly contradictory fragments of information. Events come and go like waves of a fever. We […] live in a state of continual delirium, constantly waiting for the next news event to loom out of the fog – and then disappear again, unexplained. And the formats – in news and documentaries – have become so rigid and repetitive that the audiences never really look at them. In the face of this people retreat from journalism and politics. They turn away into their own worlds, and the stories they and their friends tell each other. I think this is wrong, sad, and bad for democracy – because it means the politicians become more and more unaccountable.

“I have made a film that tries to respond to this in two ways. It tells a big story about why the stories we are told today have stopped making sense. But it is also an experiment in a new way of reporting the world. To do this I’ve used techniques that you wouldn’t normally associate with TV journalism. My aim is to make something more emotional and involving […].

“The film is called Bitter Lake. […] It tells a big historical narrative that interweaves America, Britain, Russia and Saudi Arabia. It shows how politicians in the west lost confidence – and began to simplify the stories they told. It explains why this happened – because they increasingly gave their power away to other forces, above all global finance.

“But there is one other country at the centre of the film. Afghanistan. This is because Afghanistan is the place that has repeatedly confronted politicians, as their power declines, with the terrible truth – that they cannot understand what is going on any longer. Let alone control it. The film shows in detail how all the foreigners who went to Afghanistan created an almost totally fictional version of the country in their minds. They couldn’t see the complex reality that was in front of them – because the stories they had been told about the world had become so simplified that they lacked the perceptual apparatus to see reality any longer. And this blindness led to a terrible disaster – support for a blatantly undemocratic government, wholesale financial corruption and thousands of needless deaths. A horrific scandal that we, […] here in Britain, seem hardly aware of. And even if we are – it is dismissed as being just too complex to understand.

“I have got hold of the unedited rushes of almost everything the BBC has ever shot in Afghanistan. It is thousands of hours – some of it is very dull, but large parts of it are extraordinary. Shots that record amazing moments, but also others that are touching, funny and sometimes very odd. These complicated, fragmentary and emotional images evoke the chaos of real experience. And out of them I have tried to build a different and more emotional way of depicting what really happened in Afghanistan.”

His statements about politicians may explain why they all (certainly in Britain, except for Farage) wear such puzzled expressions on their faces now. They are no longer sure what to say to us.

The Bitter Lake is a saltwater lake through which the Suez Canal flows. On Valentine’s Day 1945, after Yalta, President Roosevelt met King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia on board a warship there. A remarkable photograph was taken, which I saw consciously for the first time last year in the King Abdulaziz Memorial Hall in Riyad. The kneeling figure is the ambassador to the Kingdom, William Eddy. It’s hardly less historically important than the Yalta photograph.

Charlie Beckett presented a programme on our bad news diet (Good News Is No News) on BBC Radio 4 recently (producer Simon Hollis), asking, intelligently, what sort of reality modern journalism is presenting. It plays into Curtis’s points. Listen here. (BBC iPlayer Radio must be the worst-designed site on the web.)

Great Bitter Lake


Mongols of the sea

January 19 2015

Rambling piece by Paul Krugman on the “gunpowder empires” and the Atlantic seaboard. And what European sailors had in common with Asian nomads. The New York Times, January 18.

The failure of the League

January 14 2015

An international political order was offered, ready-made, to the Greek city-states of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. by the Lydian and Persian and Carthaginian Empires. The Persian Empire systematically imposed orderly political relations upon the Greek city-states which it subjugated; and Xerxes attempted to complete this work by proceeding to subjugate the still independent remnant of the Greek world. These still unconquered Greek city-states resisted Xerxes desperately – and successfully – because they rightly believed that a Persian conquest would take the life out of their civilization. They not only saved their own independence but they also liberated the previously subjugated city-states of the Archipelago and the Asiatic mainland. But, having rejected the Persian solution to a Greek political problem, the Greek victors were confronted with the task of finding some other solution. And it was here that they failed. Having defeated Xerxes in the years 480 and 479 B.C, they were defeated between 478 and 431 B.C. by themselves.

The Greeks’ attempt at an international political order was the so-called Delian League founded in 478 B.C. by Athens and her allies under Athenian leadership. And it is worth noticing, in passing, that the Delian League was modelled on a Persian pattern. One sees this if one compares the accounts of the system which the Athenian statesman Aristeides induced the liberated cities to accept in 478 B.C. with the account – in Herodotus Book vi, chapter 42 – of the system which had been imposed upon these self-same cities by the Persian authorities after the suppression of the so-called “Ionian Revolt” some fifteen years before. But the Delian League failed to achieve its purpose. And the old political anarchy in the relations between the sovereign independent Greek city-states broke out again under new economic conditions which made this anarchy not merely harmful but deadly.

The destruction of the Graeco-Roman civilization through the failure to replace an international anarchy by some kind of international law and order occupies the history of the four hundred years from 431 to 31 B.C. [outbreak of Peloponnesian War to Battle of Actium]. After these four centuries of failure and misery there came, in the generation of Augustus, a partial and temporary rally. The Roman Empire – which was really an international league of Greek and other, culturally related, city-states – may be regarded as a tardy solution of the problem which the Delian League had failed to solve. But the epitaph of the Roman Empire is “too late.” The Graeco-Roman society did not repent until it had inflicted mortal wounds on itself with its own hands. The Pax Romana was a peace of exhaustion, a peace which was not creative and therefore not permanent. It was a peace and an order that came four centuries after its due time. One has to study the history of those four melancholy intervening centuries in order to understand what the Roman Empire was and why it failed.

Toynbee could not help seeing Rome in this way. Did the Pax Romana not last longer than most?

The League had its headquarters on the island of Delos until 454 BC, when Pericles moved it to Athens. It was dissolved on the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War in 404.

Civilization on Trial, OUP, 1948

Achaemenid mnemonic

January 13 2015

Early (559-424) Achaemenids: Costly campaigns divide xenophobic Americans.

Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius I, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I.

The crucible of the Mahayana

December 28 2014

I  Alexander

Gautama Buddha and the founder of Jainism, Mahavira, both lived in a period of wars between local states in northern India in the 6th century BC. Gautama was born in what is now Nepal, Mahavira in Bihar.

What was the extent of Buddhism’s early influence in the Afghan or other domains of Achaemenid Persia?

In 326 BC Alexander the Great crossed the Indus (which the Persians had never done) and then the Jhelum or Hydaspes, the most western of the five rivers of the Punjab. At the Hydaspes Alexander defeated King Porus of Pauravas, an ancient country that soon afterwards fell to the Mauryans.

Another ruler, King Ambhi of Taxila, surrendered his city, already a Buddhist centre.

Alexander’s troops refused to advance further than the Beas, a tributary of the Sutlej, the easternmost of the five rivers.

II  Chandragupta

A Buddhist great power, the Mauryan Empire, emerged in India as the Achaemenid Empire fell.

After Alexander’s death in 323, Chandragupta Maurya (ruled 322-298) conquered Alexander’s briefly-held east-of-Indus satrapies with the help of a largely Persian army. Bactria, between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus, and Transoxiana, remained Greek. Both had belonged to the Achaemenids.

Chandragupta’s capital: Pataliputra (Patna).

III  Seleucus

Seleucus I Nicator, a Macedonian satrap of Alexander, established his authority as far as Bactria and the Indus and in 305 BC he fought Chandragupta. Seleucus appears to have fared poorly, ceding large territories west of the Indus to Chandragupta: Arachosia (Kandahar), Gedrosia (Baluchistan), the Paropamisadae (Hindu Kush), but not Bactria or Transoxiana. Post here on the Paropamisadae.

Chandragupta then sold Seleucus 500 war-elephants (who used them to fight Antigonus I) and married Seleucus’s daughter to formalise an alliance. Seleucus sent an ambassador, Megasthenes, to Chandragupta’s court. Relations continued between their successors.

Chandragupta was Jain. His successor Bindusara belonged to the Ajivika sect.

IV  Ashoka

Bindusara’s successor, Ashoka (reigned 269-32), embraced Buddhism and became a proselytiser of the traditional Theravada Pali canon.

His edicts, carved on pillars and rocks in various places in his empire, in the Kharoshti, Greek, Aramaic (Achaemenid) and Brahmi scripts, record the missions which he sent to Greeks and others.

V  Greek Bactrians

Meanwhile, the Seleucids were losing control of Bactria. It became the centre of an independent Greco-Bactrian kingdom c 256 BC, which extended into Transoxiana.

Capitals: Bactra (Balkh), Alexandria-on-the-Oxus (possibly Ai-Khanoum).

After the Brahmanical Sunga dynasty overthrew the Mauryans in 185 BC, the Greco-Bactrians invaded and conquered northwestern India with an army led by Demetrius.

VI  Indo-Greeks

The resulting Indo-Greek Kingdom lasted until AD 10 and was opposed in the east for its first century by the Sunga. Buddhism prospered, and it has been suggested that the Greek invasion of India was intended to protect the Buddhist faith from the persecutions of the Sunga.

Capitals: Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus (Kapisa or Bagram, Hindu Kush, north of Kabul), Sirkap (Taxila, Punjab), Sagala (Sialkot, Punjab), Pushkalavati (Charsadda, NWFP).

King Menander (reigned c 160-130 BC) became a student and patron of Buddhism. Were any Greco-Bactrian or Indo-Greek kings before him personally sympathetic to Buddhism?

VII  Greeks and Buddhism

The philosophers Pyrrho, Anaxarchus and Onesicritus are said to have accompanied Alexander. During the eighteen months they were in India, they were able to interact with Indian ascetics, described as Gymnosophists, naked philosophers.

At Sirkap, Buddhist stupas stand side-by-side with Hindu and Greek temples, suggesting religious tolerance and syncretism.

Early Mahayana theories of reality and knowledge may be related to Greek philosophical schools of thought.

The Milinda Panha is a Buddhist discourse in the platonic style, held between Menander and the Buddhist sage Nagasena.

The Mahavamsa records that during Menander’s reign, a Greek Buddhist abbot named Mahadharmaraksita led 30,000 monks from Alexandria (possibly in-the-Caucasus) to Sri Lanka for the dedication of a stupa.

There are Buddhist inscriptions by Greeks in India, such as that of the provincial governor Theodorus, describing in the Kharoshti script (and Pali language?) how he enshrined relics of the Buddha.

Coins of Menander and some of his successors show Buddhist symbols.

Buddhist tradition recognises Menander as one of the benefactors of the faith, together with Ashoka and Kanishka (below).

The first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha are often considered a result of Greco-Buddhist interaction. The earliest Buddhist art was aniconic: the Buddha was only represented through his symbols (an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, his footprints, the Dharma wheel, the triratna).

It was natural for the Greeks also to create a single common divinity by combining the image of a Greek God-King (Apollo, or possibly the deified founder of the Indo-Greek Kingdom, Demetrius) with the attributes of the Buddha.

Stylistic elements in these representations point to Greek influence: the Greco-Roman toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulders (more exactly, its lighter version, the Greek himation), the contrapposto stance of the upright figures, the stylised curly hair and topknot (ushnisha) apparently derived from the Apollo of the Belvedere (c 335 BC), the measured quality of the faces.

During the following centuries, this anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha evolved to incorporate more Indian and Asian elements.

Several Buddhist deities may have been influenced by Greek gods. There are links between Greco-Persian and Buddhist cosmology.

The Buddha was known to the Church fathers. Buddhist gravestones from the Ptolemaic period have been found in Alexandria in Egypt, decorated with depictions of the Dharma wheel. The presence of Buddhists in Alexandria at this time is important, since it was to be an intellectual centre of Christianity.

VIII  Successors of the Indo-Greeks

Greek rule in Bactria was extinguished c 125 BC by southward-migrating Sakas or Scythians and Yuezhi, both Indo-European speaking. The Yuezhi are later called Kushan.

At the beginning of the first century, the Yuezhi invaded the northern parts of Pakistan and India and founded the Kushan Empire, a contemporary of the Roman Empire.

The Kushan rulers (30-375) displaced the Indo-Greek kings, but their culture was Greek-influenced. They used the Greek script to write their Indo-European language. Their absorption of Greek historical and mythological culture is suggested by Kushan sculptures representing Dionysiac scenes and even the story of the Trojan horse and it is likely that Greek communities remained in India under Kushan rule. Capitals: Purushpura (Peshawar, main capital), Bagram, Taxila, Mathura.

The Greek-influenced Indo-European-speaking successors of the Indo-Greeks:

Indo-Scythian/Saka kingdoms, 110 BC-400 (final extinction)

Indo-Parthian Kingdom, 12 BC-before 100

Yuezhi/Kushan Empire, 30-375

Indo-Sasanians, 3rd century-410

Ephthalite or White Hun Empire, 5th-7th century; they belonged to the Central Asian Xionite hordes and were enemies of the Gupta and of the Sasanians

The Ephthalites controlled present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and territories to the north and are probably the ancestors of modern Pashtuns. Their power was broken by the Sasanians (Khosrau I) in and after 557 and by the Turkic steppe-dwellers.

The full religious mix before Islam has to take account of Buddhism, Greek paganism, Hinduism, Jainism, Manichaeism, Shamanism, Zoroastrianism. Even Judaism and Nestorianism.

IX  The Mahayana

The Kushan king Kanishka was famous for his religious syncretism and honoured Zoroastrian, Greek and Brahmanic deities as well as the Buddha. He convened the Fourth Buddhist Council c AD 100 in Kashmir. His reign sees the earliest representations of the Buddha on a coin (c AD 120), and in a Hellenistic style. Kanishka also had the earliest Gandhari vernacular, or Prakrit, Mahayana Buddhist texts translated into the literary language of Sanskrit.

The sacred texts of Theravada Buddhism are written in Pali, a Prakrit or vernacular which is closely related to Sanskrit and to the language the Buddha spoke. The sacred texts of the Mahayana were translated from Sanskrit into local languages.

Buddhism expanded into East Asia soon after this. The Kushan monk Lokaksema visited the Han Chinese court at Luoyang in AD 178, and worked there for ten years to make the first known translations of Mahayana texts into Chinese. This was also the great age of Gandharan art (area around Taxila, northern Pakistan): subjects Buddhist, motifs Hellenistic. (Gandhara was originally the name of an ancient Vedic kingdom.)

Buddhism probably reached China from the Kushan Empire in the first century CE: from north India via the Punjab, Gandhara, the Hindu Kush, Bactria, Transoxiana/Sogdiana, and the Fergana valley (Kokand, Anijan). Then across the Tien Shan and into the Tarim basin (Kashgar, Khotan, Turfan). In other words, by linking to the Silk Road. A minority view is that it came to China by sea, entering by the Yellow and Huai rivers.

It entered by land via a region which had been partly hellenised. The interaction of Greek culture with Buddhism may have helped to determine the forms which Buddhism took in China. The Mahayana was eventually adopted in China, Siberia, Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The Mahayana goes beyond (or does it retreat from?) the ideal of the release from suffering, and the Nirvaṇa of the arhats, to elevate the Buddha to a God-like status and to create a pantheon of quasi-divine bodhisattvas devoting themselves to the salvation of their fellow human beings.

X  Decline of Buddhism

The interaction of Greek and Buddhist cultures operated over several centuries until it ended in the 5th century with the invasions of the anti-Buddhist Ephthalite or White Huns and later the expansion of Islam. In the Ephthalite empire Buddhism and Hinduism were still widespread, over a layer of Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism.

In India proper, the decline of Buddhism is usually attributed to a steady Brahmanical reaction, which gathered pace late in the Gupta era. Invasions by Ephthalites and later by Muslims must have hastened it.

Has the Greek influence been exaggerated by western historians? Have they shown undue interest in it because it is easier for them to understand than complicated autochthonous Buddhist movements and schools?

XI  Arrival of Islam

The Arabs completed their conquest of Persia in 651. In Persia and up to the Indus, the Caliphs’ power was gradually lost to local rulers, mainly Sunni, who distantly acknowledged the Caliphate until the fall of Baghdad.

In 661-71 the Arab armies conquered Bactria (by now called Tokharistan), which had passed from the Greeks to the Scythians, Yuezhi (Kushans), Sasanians, Ephthalite Huns and Sasanians again (or had the post-Ephthalite settlement there been Turkish rather than Persian?). 

Transoxiana, where the post-Ephthalite settlement had been Turkish, followed in 706-15; here they suffered a setback, but in 739-41 they conquered Transoxiana definitively.

This put the Islamic state astride the overland route between India and China via the Oxus-Jaxartes basin.

The Arabs conquered, further

Baluchistan after Persia

Sindh and the Indus valley in 711 (Muhammad bin Qasim); capital: Mansura; Sindh later came under local dynasties (Habbari, then Soomro)

Southern Punjab from a base in Sindh, occupying Multan in 712.

They failed to occupy the Kandahar-Ghazni-Kabul route to the Khyber Pass. Two small Hindu states in southern Afghanistan, mentioned below, stubbornly defended the approach to the Hindu Kush.

Their foothold even in the Punjab was precarious. A number of Hindu powers resisted them there. The area was eventually controlled by the Turkic Mamluk Ghaznavids and Persian Ghorids.

They tried to invade India, but were defeated by a coalition of post-Gupta Rajput dynasties in 738.

At the Talas River in 751 the newly-installed Abbasids came head to head with the Tang Chinese. If the Chinese had won the battle, they might have captured the Oxus-Jaxartes basin and reclaimed it from Islam or Zoroastrianism for Buddhism. But they lost, and their influence this far west subsided. They did not return to the Tarim basin until the Qing or Manchu; not even the Yuan governed it.

Before the Islamic conquest, Afghanistan was a religious mixture of Zoroastrianism, paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism (near Kabul) and others. There is no reliable information on when Hinduism began in Afghanistan, but the territory south of the Hindu Kush was probably culturally connected with the Indus Valley civilisation in ancient times.

Herat province, near Persia, was Islamised early on, but the Arabs dealt with a number of post-Sasanian, post-Ephthalite rulers who resisted them. South of the Hindu Kush were the Hindu Zunbil and Buddhist (later Hindu) Kabul Shahi dynasties.

We don’t know how much of the Afghan population accepted Islam immediately, but the Shahi rulers remained non-Muslim until they lost Kabul in 870 to the Persianate (old post) Saffarid Muslims of Sistan, capital: Zaranj. Later, the Persian Samanids (old post) from Bukhara in Transoxiana extended their Islamic influence into Afghanistan. Muslims and non-Muslims still lived side by side in Kabul before the arrival of Ghaznavids from Ghazni in the late 10th century.

The Persian Samanids (819-999) presided over a revival of Persian civilisation in Samarkand and later Bukhara. They sponsored the first complete translation of the Quran into Persian.

The Persian Saffarids ruled in Persia and Afghanistan from 891 to 1003. Capital: Zaranj in Sistan, Persia/Afghanistan. They were eventually reduced to vassals of the Samanids.

By the 11th century, the entire population of Afghanistan was Muslim, except in Kafiristan, or Nuristan, in the east, whose inhabitants continued to practise an ancient form of Hinduism until Nuristan was conquered by the Emirate of Afghanistan in 1895.

The Turkic Ghaznavids controlled large parts of Persia, much of Transoxania, and the northern parts of India from 977 to 1186. Capitals: Ghazni in Afghanistan, Lahore in Pakistan. Their most famous ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni (reigned 998-1002), invaded and plundered India east of the Indus seventeen times. Capitals: Ghazni in Afghanistan, then Lahore.

They and the Muslim rulers in India mentioned in the rest of this note were mostly Sunni.

The Tajik Ghorids (before 879-1215), originally central Afghanistan pagan, Sunni from 1011, were later the first Muslim power in Delhi and further east as far as Bengal: Muhammad of Ghor invaded the Indo-Gangetic plain in 1194, conquering in succession Ghazni, Multan, Sindh, Lahore, Delhi. Ghorid capitals: Firozkoh, Herat, Ghazni, those three now in Afghanistan, Lahore as winter capital.

In 1206 a former slave of Muhammad established the Sultanate of Delhi. His Mamluk (slave) dynasty was the first there. The Sultanate ended with the accession of the Timurid Babur, the first Mughal, in 1526. When the Mughals first arrived in India, they spoke a Turkic language. In adopting Persian, they inherited the language of the Perso-Turkic Delhi Sultanate.

Genghis Khan invaded Transoxiana and Bactria in 1219-20. Before his death in 1227, he assigned the lands of western central Asia to his second son Chagatai, and this region became known as the Chagatai Khanate. In 1369 Timur, of the Barlas tribe, became the effective ruler while continuing the ceremonial authority of Chagatai Khan’s dynasty, and made Samarkand the capital of his empire (1370-1507).

The first independent Islamic Kingdom in South India was the Bahmanid Sultanate (1347-1527). It broke up into five states known as the Deccan Sultanates.

The Arab conquests brought the demise of Buddhism in eastern Persia and greater Afghanistan, but in some places in Afghanistan, such as Bamiyan (Bamiyan province) and Hadda (site near Jalalabad), it survived until the 8th or 9th century. The Taliban dynamited two monumental Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley (6th and 7th centuries) in March 2001.

XII  Old posts:

Persian capitals before Islam

Transoxiana and Bactria

Indic and Hindu

Buddhism and Persia

Persia, 651-present

Toynbee and Ikeda 3

The Old World’s eastern roundabout

The Silk Road

NWFP, 1901-2010


Maps of Central Asia

Near Jalalabad

Picture credit: AfghaniDan; near Jalalabad

Silk Road

Picture credit: Luciana Di Floriano; Silk Road, probably Tien Shan mountains

Osmanli, Safavi, Timurid

December 27 2014

In 1555 [conclusion of the Ottoman-Safavid war] the Islamic World was larger than it had been in 1291 [siege of Acre and expulsion by the Mamluks of the last Crusaders from the Levant], and the greater part of it was now embraced politically in three large empires: the Osmanli (Ottoman) Turkish Empire in the Levant, the Safavi Empire in Iran, and the Timurid (mis-named Mughal) Empire in India. This was a remarkable sequel to the tribulations that the Islamic World had suffered between the year 1220 (the date of Genghis Khan’s invasion of Transoxania) and 1405 (the date of Timur Lenk’s death).

Mankind and Mother Earth, A Narrative History of the World, OUP, 1976, posthumous

The four khanates

December 13 2014

Four Mongol khanates

The four khanates into which the Mongol Empire split after the death of Genghis Khan. Karakorum is the original Mongol capital. Shangdu is Xanadu. Dadu or Khanbaliq is Beijing. The Khanate of Persia is the Ilkhanate.

Buddhism in Persia

December 13 2014

Buddhism may have reached Balkh, now in Afghanistan, then under the Achaemenids, during or soon after the lifetime of the Buddha.

From the 2nd century Parthians such as An Shigao, were active in spreading Buddhism in China. Some of the earliest translators of Buddhist literature into Chinese were from Parthia.

The Sasanids persecuted the Buddhists when they came to power in AD 224 and promoted Zoroastrianism.

Surviving Buddhist sites were raided by the Ephthalites or White Huns, the nomadic confederation which at the height of its power (first half of 6th century) controlled territories in Transoxiana, Bactria, India, China.

Nevertheless, at the time of the Arab conquests, much of the eastern Iranian world was mainly Buddhist.

The Arab conquests brought the demise of Buddhism in eastern Persia and Afghanistan, but in some places, such as Bamiyan and Hadda (both Afghanistan), it survived until the 8th or 9th century.

In 1295 the Mongol ruler in Persia, Ghazan, was converted from Buddhism to Islam and made it the state religion of the Ilkhanate. He prohibited the practice of Buddhism, but allowed monks to go into exile in neighbouring Buddhist regions.

Persia, 651-present

December 13 2014

The Arabs complete their conquest of Persia in 651. Umayyad, Abbasid.

Abbasid power there is lost, except in name, to local kingdoms, some of Persian, some of non-Persian origin. Persianisation a reaction to Arabisation. “Persianate” rulers may or may not have been ethnically Persian.

Samarkand and later Bukhara played a role in a revival of Persian civilisation under the native Persian Samanid dynasty (Sunni, ruled Persia 819-999). The Samanids sponsored the first complete translation of the Quran into Persian.

Mongol invasion. The Mongol House of Hulagu sets up the Ilkhanate. Tabriz is one of its capitals.

Ilkhans are followed by the Turco-Mongol Timurids from Transoxiana (Tamerlane). Capital Samarkand, now in Uzbekistan. (It is a Timurid prince, Babur, who, pursued by a west-Siberian section of the Golden Horde, the Uzbeks, founds the Mughal dynasty in India.)

Then a Persian renaissance (though Shah Ismail I spoke a Turkish language). The Ilkhans and Timurids had been Sunni. The Safavis are Twelver Shiite.

For four years (1511-14) the founder of the Safavi Empire, Shah Ismaʿil, threatened the Ottoman Empire with a repetition of the disaster that had been inflicted on it by Timur in 1402.

In 1598, the fifth Safavi, Shah Abbas I, moves his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan.

Afsharid, Zand, Qajar, Pahlavi dynasties follow. Allegiance to the Shia continues, but the Afshar make compromises with Sunni Islam.

The Afshar capital is Mashhad, Zand capitals Shiraz and Tehran. Tehran becomes sole capital in 1796 under Mohammad Khan Qajar. Persia is bled dry by Britain and Russia, but not officially colonised.

Then the revolution, violently Islamic: but Islam has never owned the whole of the Persian soul. Persia is a continuum under successive waves of Greek, Buddhist, Arab, Islamic (Arab and Islamic are not always the same thing), Turkic, Mongol and western culture.

Persia was also connected with China via the Silk Road. The Parthian and Sasanian empires had been in touch with the Han and Tang dynasties.



Mankind and Mother Earth, A Narrative History of the World, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Persian capitals before Islam

December 13 2014

Elamites. Susa.

Medes. Ecbatana.

Achaemenids. Their real capital was Susa, their ceremonial capital Persepolis, their summer capital Ecbatana (the old Median capital).

Seleucids. The first Seleucid Greek capital was Seleucia-on-Tigris. It was superseded by Antioch.

Parthians. The joint capitals were Ctesiphon-on-Tigris and Susa. Seleucia and Ctesiphon are now in Iraq, south of Baghdad on opposite sides of the Tigris. Susa was briefly taken by Trajan and was the easternmost point reached by the Romans.

Sasanians. Ctesiphon was also the Sasanian capital. It fell to the Arabs.

The ruins of Ctesiphon were the site of a major battle in 1915 between the British and Ottoman empires. The ruins of Persepolis were the site of the monstrous celebration of 2,500 years of Iran’s monarchy staged by the Shah in 1971.

The five cities are all on this map of the Parthian Empire (Encyclopaedia Britannica, low resolution):

Parthia map

Ctesiphon ruin, 1864

Remains of the Sasanian White Palace, Ctesiphon, 1864

Post on Dura-Europos on the Euphrates.

Summer capitals, summer palaces

December 10 2014

The Sarawat mountains run down the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia. Sarat al-Hejaz, Sarat Asir, Sarat al-Yemen.

Taʿif is in the Hejaz section, 100 km southeast of Mecca. The ruling family and much of the government are said to go there during the summer to escape the heat of Riyad. Taʿif is cool. Coastal Jeddah, on nearly the same latitude, hot and humid. Inland Riyad is hot and dry.

Taʿif is known for grapes, pomegranates, figs, roses, honey. The family of Hani Hanjour, the 9/11 hijacker-pilot who crashed into the Pentagon, ran a lemon and date farm there.

There are more grapes at Hofuf in the Eastern Province.

Taʿif, like Mecca and like Al-Qullays, was a religious centre which attracted pilgrims before the Prophet: it housed the idol of Allat, the lady of Taʿif, who was also one of the trinity of goddesses worshipped in Mecca.

It was near the site of Muhammad’s victory at the battle of Hunayn in 630. The Sharif of Mecca capitulated to Selim I at Taʿif in 1517, a surrender undone by the British four hundred years later.


Ecbatana. The Achaemenids had the old Median capital as their summer capital. Their real capital was Susa, their ceremonial capital Persepolis. (Seleucia-on-Tigris was the first capital of the Seleucid Empire, though it was officially superseded by Antioch. Ctesiphon-on-Tigris, opposite Seleucia, and Susa were the joint capitals of Parthia. Susa was briefly taken by Trajan and was the easternmost point reached by the Romans. Ctesiphon was also the Sasanian capital, and fell to the Arabs.)

Xanadu. The summer capital (1271-94) of Kublai Khan, the Mongol founder of the Yuan dynasty in China, after he moved his permanent capital from Xanadu (Shangdu) to Khanbaliq (Dadu), present Beijing. Destroyed by the Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming, in 1369. Old posts: Xanadu and Jehol and Foreigners in Cathay.

Simla. The summer capital (1864-1939), in the Himalayan foothills, of the British in India. Over a thousand miles away from Calcutta. (Much nearer to Delhi.) Old post. Wikipedia says that before 1864 the summer capital was even further away, at Murree, a pleasant, often snowy, spot in the Margalla Hills, near Rawalpindi, and now in Pakistan. But wasn’t it the regional government of the Punjab province that moved there in the summer? A cool retreat much closer to Calcutta would have been Darjeeling. Was that too inaccessible?

In the middle of the 19th century, San Sebastián, near Biarritz, became a summer capital for the Spanish monarchy. Franco spent his summers there.

The hill station of Baguio in the northern mountains of Luzon was the summer capital of the Philippines during the American occupation (1898-1946).

Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley is still the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The winter capital is Jammu.

Sochi, on the Black Sea, is described as the summer capital of Russia. Before 1991, resorts in the Crimea could play that role. Now they can presumably play it again.


Murree beer was made in Murree when the Murree Brewery was founded in 1860. In (I believe) 1910, the plant was moved to Rawalpindi. There is also one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP), which I thought was too strict nowadays to allow this kind of thing. It was Bhutto, in 1977, not Zia, who made Pakistan dry. The Christian, Hindu, and Parsi communities were not large enough to support the Murree enterprise, and production had to be cut back.

But the laws are not very strictly enforced. The last few times I was in Pakistan (2004-06), I had to sign a declaration in hotels that I required the beer (or the local whisky, also made by Murree Brewery) for medicinal purposes. It was then handed over in a black bag. I don’t recall the form requiring me to state that I was a non-Muslim. The medical ruse, I suppose, allowed it to be sold to anyone, irrespective of religion.

Of course, part of the moneyed middle class, especially in Karachi, and of the military class and the “feudal” class, drinks quite a lot and gets its hands on foreign liquor. Musharraf’s two loves, it has been said, are dogs and whisky.

I am convinced that Murree is how beer used to taste. At least the Murree that I remember (there has been some product diversification). It’s the subaltern’s beer, still being made. But one bottle could (it must be said) taste and look disconcertingly different from another.

It isn’t exported, which doesn’t stop them from producing an Export Pils, but in 2013, Murree Brewery opened a franchise, run by a Bangalore-based entrepreneur, which allows its brewing, bottling and marketing in India.


A family and a few courtiers might go to a summer palace. A large part of a civil service might migrate to a summer capital. This is what I understand happened with Simla and Baguio and happens with Srinagar. What about Sochi? Does it really still happen with Taʿif? Why migrate when there is air conditioning?

Roman and Byzantine emperors had summer palaces. The pope has Castel Gandolfo.

Peter the Great built one in St Petersburg, and Elizabeth of Russia another – and the Winter Palace.

There were two summer palaces at Tsarskoye Selo. Catherine I built the Catherine Palace, Catherine the Great the Alexander Palace.

Frederick the Great built Sanssouci in Potsdam. Maria Theresa was given Schönbrunn.


Construction of the complex of gardens and palaces in Beijing known as the Old Summer Palace began in 1707 under the Kangxi Emperor (Qing). He intended it as a gift for his fourth son, the future Yongzheng Emperor, who would expand it in 1725. The Qianlong Emperor (same generation as Elizabeth and Frederick) did further work.

The Old Summer Palace, with its many ancient books and works of art, was destroyed by the British and French in the Second Opium War, causing the Imperial Court to relocate to the Forbidden City.

The vast nearby Summer Palace, also in Beijing, had its origin in a palace built by the Jurchen (Jin dynasty) emperor Wanyan Liang in the 12th century. It remained in use under the Yuan. (What did the Ming do with it?) The Qianlong Emperor built much of what we see now. The Old Summer Palace had been built by his grandfather the Kangxi Emperor (hence, I suppose, “Old”). The Summer Palace was badly damaged by the British and French, but not completely destroyed.

Both of these were outside the walls of the Inner City. Did Summer Palace connote “without the walls”? The Forbidden City was within the walls.

On the history of Peking, its walls, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, see posts here and here.


Essences from damask roses grown in Taʿif can cost thousands of pounds a bottle. I was with a friend in a perfumery in Jeddah in summer 2009. I couldn’t understand the Arabic courtesies and chatter exchanged between him and the owner, his friend, and not since childhood have I felt so trapped in a conversation that I could neither follow, nor contribute to, nor end. The light turned rosy as the evening approached, and a few miles away my friend’s plane waited for us on the tarmac at the airport like a patient camel.

A perfect Taʿif rose (image).

Historians of the Ilkhanate

October 8 2014

One of the incidental and undesigned effects of the overthrow of the ʿAbbasids and devastation of ʿIrāq was, as we have noticed already in an earlier context, the birth, in a ci-devant Syriac World’s now derelict north-eastern provinces, of an Iranic Muslim Civilization, affiliated to the Syriac, in which, for most purposes other than the exposition of Islamic theology, a New Persian language and literature were to supplant the Arabic language and literature that had been dominant in all provinces of Dār-al-Islām during the six centuries intervening between the overthrow of the Sasanids by the Primitive Muslim Arab ghāzis and the overthrow of the ʿAbbasids by the pagan Mongols. When a previously oecumenical Arabic culture retreated westwards before the face of the oncoming Mongols into a fastness in Egypt with a glacis in Syria and an eastern frontier at the western elbow of the River Euphrates, a New Persian literature that, by this time, had been on the rise for some three hundred years now at last came fully into its own; and this was perhaps the only creative cultural activity in the conquered and devastated half of Dār-al-Islām that benefited from the disaster on the very morrow of it. During the lifetime of the survivors of a generation in Dār-al-Islām that was old enough to have completed its education in a classical Arabic language and literature before the catastrophe of A.D. 1258, the cultivation of the New Persian language and literature was already relieved of the incubus of the cultural ascendancy of Arabic without being yet impoverished by being cut off from the living sources of Arabic literary inspiration. The period of Mongol domination in Iran and ʿIrāq (currebat A.D. 1258-1337) was an age in which the leading Persian men of letters were still bilingual in the full sense of still being able not merely to read Arabic but also to write in it, as well as in their native Persian tongue; [footnote] and it was also an age which produced incomparably eminent Persian historians, in contrast to both the previous and the subsequent age, in which the brightest stars in the firmament of a New Persian literature were, not historians, but poets. [Footnote.]

[First footnote in last paragraph: This point is made by Browne in op. cit. [Browne, E. G.: A Literary History of Persia […] (Cambridge 1928, University Press)], vol. iii, pp. 62-65. The historian Rashīd-ad-Dīn (vivebat circa A.D. 1247-1318), for example, made it his practice to arrange for the translation of his Persian works into Arabic and the translation of his Arabic works into Persian. Rashīd-ad-Dīn’s own account of these arrangements of his is quoted verbatim, from man. arabe No. 356, foll. 1 et seqq. in the Bibliothèque Nationale [ci-devant Royale] in Paris, by E. M. Quatremère in his life of Rashīd-ad-Dīn prefixed to his edition of part of Rashīd-ad-Dīn’s Jāmiʿ-al-Tawārīkh (“A Comprehensive Collection of Histories”), Histoire des Mongols de la Perse, vol. i (Paris 1836, Imprimerie Royale), pp. cxxxiv-cxxxvi. A student of History will be reminded of the cultural situation in Italy under an Ostrogoth domination (durabat A.D. 493-535), when the leading Italian men of letters were still conversant with Greek as well as with their native Latin.]

[Second footnote: The pre-Mongol age of New Persian literary history had been made illustrious by Firdawsī (vivebat circa A.D. 932-1020/1) and by Saʿdi (vivebat circa A.D. 1184-1292); the post-Mongol [Timurid] age was to be made illustrious by Hāfiz (obiit A.D. 1389) and by Jāmi (vivebat A.D. 1414-92). […]]

Saadi was probably born a little later than Toynbee states and was surely not pre-Mongol: “the unsettled conditions following the Mongol invasion of Khwarezm and Iran led him to wander for thirty years abroad through Anatolia, Syria, Egypt and Iraq” (Wikipedia). And if he mentions Saadi, why not his contemporary Rumi, the most famous of all Persian poets in the West, who settled in Anatolia?

Later in the same volume he calls a Time of Troubles “an historian’s golden age”.

The ascendancy of the historians in the intervening Il-Khānī Age is significant; and it is no less significant that the two greatest members of this pleiad – ʿAlā-ad-Dīn ʿAtā Malik-i-Juwaynī (vivebat A.D. 1226-83) and Rashīd-ad-Dīn Fadlallāh Tabīb al-Hamadāni (vivebat circa A.D. 1247-1318) – were also eminent civil servants in the Mongol Il-Khāns’ service, and that two of the lesser lights, Wassāf-i-Hadrat ʿAbdallāh b. Fadlallāh of Shirāz and Hamdallāh Mustawfī of Qazwīn, both of whom were protégés of Rashīd-ad-Dīn’s, were officials of the Il-Khānī Government’s Internal Revenue Department.

The pagan barbarian conquerors of Iran and ʿIrāq, who held out for thirty-seven years (A.D. 1258-95) after their conquest of Baghdad before succumbing to Islam themselves, had found themselves from the outset unable to dispense with the services of their newly acquired Muslim subjects; for the conquerors’ purpose in invading Dār-al-Islām and overthrowing the Caliphate had been to step into the Caliph’s shoes; and the only means by which these interloping barbarians could ensure that, after they had extinguished the Caliphate, the Caliph’s government should be carried on for their benefit was by drawing upon an existing panel of native Persian Muslim professional administrators. The historian ʿAlā-ad-Dīn ʿAtā Malik-i-Juwaynī’s brother, Shams-ad-Dīn Muhammad Juwaynī, managed the administration of Hūlāgū’s appanage for the conqueror and for his first two successors during twenty-one years (A.D. 1263-84) of the Il-Khānī regime as their sāhib-dīwān, and the two brothers were the sons of a mustawfi’l-mamālik (minister of finance) and the grandsons of a prime minister of a by then already fainéant ʿAbbasid Caliphate’s Khwārizmian successor-state in the north-eastern marches of Dār-al-Islām, over against the Eurasian Steppe, on which the Mongol storm had broken in its full fury in A.D. 1220 at the fiat of a world-conquering Chingis.

A discussion of Rashid-al-Din and Juvayni follows.

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

Indian churches

August 10 2014

There is no direct contemporary evidence for St Thomas the Apostle coming to Kerala, but such a trip would have been possible for a Roman Jew in the first century. Jews lived in India then. The earliest text connecting him to India is the Acts of Thomas, one of the New Testament Apocrypha, written in Edessa early in the third century.

The word Malankara in the name of several south Indian churches derives from the name of the island of Maliankara near Muziris, where Thomas first landed.

According to tradition, he established Seven Churches, the Ezharapallikal: Cranganore (Malayalam: കൊടുങ്ങല്ലൂര്‍), Paravur (Kottakavu) (കോട്ടക്കാവ്), Palayoor (പാലയൂര്‍), Kokkamangalam (കൊക്കമംഗലം), Niranam (നിരണം), Chayal (Nilackal) (നിലക്കല്‍), Kollam (Quilon) (കൊല്ലം).

Thomas of Cana, a Syrian, arrived in Kerala in the fourth century or later. The subgroup of Thomas Christians known as the Southists trace their lineage to him and his followers. The Northists claim descent from Thomas the Apostle’s converts.

Settlers and missionaries from Persia, members of the Church of the East (East Syrian rite), or Nestorian Church (last post), which was centred in the Sasanian capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, started to establish themselves in Kerala.

Nestorianism, which insists on the dual nature of Christ, had been condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Many of Nestorius’s supporters moved to Sasanid Persia, from where they spread into Central Asia and China.

Circa 650 Patriarch Ishoyahb III solidified the Church of the East’s jurisdiction over the Thomas Christians. In the late eighth century Patriarch Timothy I organised the community as the Ecclesiastical Province of India, one of the Nestorian church’s illustrious Provinces of the Exterior.

After this point the Province of India was headed by a metropolitan bishop provided by Persia, the Metropolitan-Bishop of the Seat of St Thomas and the Whole Christian Church of India. His metropolitan see was probably in Cranganore, or (perhaps nominally) in Mylapore, the original burial site of St Thomas, before his body was moved to Edessa. Under him were bishops, and a native Archdeacon, who had authority over the clergy and who wielded a great amount of secular power.

For a time the archidiaconate was hereditary in the Pakalomattam family, who claimed a connection with Thomas the Apostle. In the broader Church of the East, each bishop was attended by an archdeacon, but in India, there was only ever one archdeacon, even when the province had several bishops serving it.

The blame for the destruction of the Nestorian communities east of Iraq has often been thrown upon the Turco-Mongol leader Timur, whose campaigns during the 1390s spread havoc in Persia and Central Asia. But in many parts of Central Asia Christianity had died out decades before Timur’s campaigns. The evidence from Central Asia, including a large number of dated graves, indicates that the crisis for the Church of the East occurred in the 1340s rather than the 1390s.

In China, the last references to Nestorian and Latin Christians date from the 1350s. It is likely that all foreign Christians were expelled from China soon after the revolution of 1368, which replaced the Mongol Yuan dynasty with the xenophobic Ming.

India was cut off from the Church’s new heartland in northern Mesopotamia. Nestorian Christianity was now mainly confined to the triangle formed by Mosul and Lakes Van and Urmia. There were small Nestorian communities further west, notably in Jerusalem and Cyprus, but the Malabar Christians of India represented the only significant survival of the once-thriving exterior provinces of the Church of the East.

By the late fifteenth century India had had no metropolitan for several generations, and the authority traditionally associated with him had been vested in the Archdeacon.

In 1491 the Archdeacon sent envoys to the Patriarch of the Church of the East, as well as to the Oriental Orthodox Coptic Pope of Alexandria and the Syriac Oriental Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, requesting a new bishop for India.

The Patriarch of the Church of the East Shemʿon IV Basidi responded by consecrating two bishops and dispatching them to India. These bishops helped to reestablish fraternal ties with the patriarchate, but the years of separation had changed the structure of the Indian church. The Archdeacon was firmly established as the real power in the Malankara community.

When the Portuguese arrived in 1498, the Thomas Christians were in a difficult position. Though prosperous owing to their large stake in the spice trade and protected by a formidable militia, the small community had come under pressure from the forces of the powerful rajas of Calicut, Cochin and various smaller kingdoms. When the Vasco da Gama arrived on the Malabar coast, the leaders of the St Thomas community proffered a formal alliance to their fellow Christians. The Portuguese, keen to implant themselves in the spice trade and to expand Latin Christianity, jumped at the opportunity.

Facilitating the objective, the Padroado Real: the treaties and decrees in which the Pope conferred authority in ecclesiastical matters on the Portuguese secular authorities in territories they conquered. The Portuguese organised themselves in Goa, established a church hierarchy, and set themselves to bringing the native Christians into conformity with Latin church customs and subjecting them to the authority of the Archbishop of Goa.

After the death of Metropolitan Mar Jacob in 1552, the Portuguese became more aggressive in their efforts to subjugate the Thomas Christians. Protests on the part of the natives were frustrated by events in the Church of the East’s Mesopotamian heartland, which left them devoid of consistent leadership. In 1552, a schism there resulted in there being two rival patriarchates, one of which entered into communion with the Catholic Church (was that the Chaldean Catholic Church?) and the other of which remained independent. At different times both patriarchs sent bishops to India, but the Portuguese were able to outmanœuvre the newcomers or convert them to Latin rite Catholicism outright. In 1575 the Padroado declared that neither patriarch could appoint prelates to the community without Portuguese consent, thereby cutting the Thomas Christians off from their own hierarchy.

In 1599 the last Metropolitan, Abraham, died. The Archbishop of Goa, Aleixo de Menezes, secured the submission of the young Archdeacon George, the highest remaining representative of the native church hierarchy. Menezes convened the Synod of Diamper, which instituted a number of structural and liturgical reforms to the Indian church. The parishes were brought directly under the Archbishop’s authority, certain “superstitious” customs were anathematised, and the indigenous liturgy, the East Syrian Malabar rite, was purged of elements unacceptable by the Latin standards. Though the Thomas Christians were now formally part of the Catholic Church, the conduct of the Portuguese over the next decades fuelled resentment in parts of the community, ultimately leading to open resistance.

Matters came to a head in 1641 with the appointments of Francis Garcia as Archbishop of Kodungalloor (pro-Portuguese) and of Archdeacon Thomas, the nephew and successor of Archdeacon George. In 1652, the situation was further complicated by the arrival in India of a mysterious figure named Ahatallah.

Ahatallah arrived in Mylapore in 1652, claiming to be the rightful Patriarch of Antioch who had been sent by the pope to serve as Patriarch of the Whole of India and of China. He appears to have been a Syriac Orthodox (Oriental Orthodox) Bishop of Damascus who was converted to Catholicism and travelled to Rome in 1632. He then returned to Syria in order to bring the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Hidayat Allah into communion with Rome. He had not accomplished this by the time Hidayat Allah died in 1639, after which point Ahatallah began claiming he was Hidayat Allah’s rightful successor. In 1646 he was in Egypt at the court of the Coptic Pope Mark VI, who dispatched him to India in 1652, evidently in response to a request for aid from Archdeacon Thomas. Reckoning him an impostor, the Portuguese arrested him, but allowed him to meet members of the St Thomas Christian clergy, whom he impressed. The Portuguese put him on a ship bound for Cochin and Goa. Archdeacon Thomas led a militia to Cochin demanding to meet him. The Portuguese refused, asserting that he was a dangerous invader and that his ship had already sailed on to Goa.

Ahatallah was never heard from again in India, and rumours spread that Archbishop Garcia had had him drowned in Cochin harbour before he reached Goa, or burned at the stake. In reality, it appears that Ahatallah did reach Goa, was sent on to Europe and died in Paris before reaching Rome, where his case was to be heard. In any event, Garcia’s dismissiveness towards the Thomas Christians’ appeals only embittered the community further.

The dismissal of Ahatallah was the last straw for the Thomas Christians, and in 1653 Thomas and representatives of the community met at the Church of Our Lady in Mattancherry. In a ceremony in the churchyard, before a crucifix and lighted candles, they swore an oath that they would never obey Garcia or the Portuguese or Jesuit missionaries again, and that they accepted only the Archdeacon as their shepherd. The Malankara Church and all its successor churches regard this declaration, known as the Coonan Cross Oath (Malayalam: Koonan Kurishu Satyam), as the moment when their church regained its independence.

In the same year, in Alangad, Archdeacon Thomas was ordained, by the laying on of hands of twelve priests, as the first known indigenous Metropolitan of Kerala, under the name Mar Thoma I. Pope Alexander VII sent a Syrian bishop, Joseph Sebastiani, at the head of a Carmelite delegation, to convince a majority of the Thomas Christians that the consecration of the Archdeacon as metropolitan was illegitimate. Palliveettil Chandy Kathanar was consecrated as bishop for the East Syrian rite Catholics with the title The Metropolitan and the Gate of all India, denoting a quasi-patriarchal status with all-India jurisdiction, in communion with Rome.

This led to the first permanent split in the St Thomas Christian community. Thereafter, the faction affiliated with the Catholic Church was designated the Pazhayakuttukar or Old Party, while the branch affiliated with Mar Thoma was called the Puthankuttukar or New Party. These appellations were controversial, as both groups considered themselves the heirs to the St Thomas tradition, and saw the other as heretical.

Initially the terms Malankara Christians or Malankara Nasranis were applied to all Thomas Christians, but following the split the term was usually restricted to the faction loyal to Mar Thoma, distinguishing them from the Syrian Catholic faction.

Out of 116 churches, the Catholics claimed eighty-four and the Archdeacon Mar Thoma I thirty-two. The eighty-four churches and their congregations were the body from which the Syro-Malabar (East Syrian rite) Catholic Church descended. The thirty-two churches and their congregations were the body from which the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Christian Church and its offshoots have descended.

An Oriental Orthodox affiliation now replaced the old Nestorian one. In 1665, Mar Gregorios Abdul Jaleel, a Bishop sent by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, arrived in India and the Thomas Christians under the leadership of the Archdeacon welcomed him. This visit resulted in the Mar Thoma party claiming the spiritual authority of the Antiochean Patriarchate and gradually introducing the West Syrian liturgy, customs and script to the Malabar Coast.

Jacobites or Syrian Jacobites is a reference to the Syriac Orthodox Church’s connections with a sixth-century bishop of Edessa, Jacob Baradaeus.

Over the next centuries this relationship strengthened, and the Malankara Church adopted a variant of the West Syrian rite known as the Malankara rite (as distinct from the previous East Syrian usage) and entered into full communion with the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. These affiliations seem to have been more matters of liturgy and hierarchy than Christology.

In 1912 a dispute over authority between supporters of the Metropolitan and supporters of the Patriarch divided the Malankara church, with the former group becoming the essentially independent Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church or Indian Orthodox Church under an autonomous Catholicos of the East, and the latter maintaining ties with the Patriarch as the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church.

Other groups that split from the main body of the Malankara Jacobite church:

The Thozhiyur Sabha, or Malabar Independent Syrian Church (1772). Independent. West Syrian rite.

The Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church (1835). Follows a variant of the West Syrian tradition.

The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church (1930). Re-entered into communion with the Catholic Church as an Eastern Catholic Church following the West Syrian liturgy. It and the larger Syro-Malabar Catholic Church (East Syrian rite) are among the 22 Eastern Catholic churches mentioned in the last post.

The St Thomas Evangelical Church of India (1961). Derives from a schism in the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church.

The Nestorian connection survives in the Chaldean Syrian Church, an Indian archbishopric in the Nestorian Assyrian Church of the East (last post).

Kanjirappally Bishop Mathew Arackal and Prasant Palakkappillil

Syro-Malabar Catholic bishop Mar Mathew Arackal, Bishop of Kanjirappally Eparchy, holding the Mar Thoma Cross, which symbolises the heritage of St Thomas Christians even for Catholics, and other priests, at the tomb of the beatified Varghese Payyappilly Palakkappilly, St John Nepumsian Syrian Catholic Church, Konthuruthy, via Wikimedia Commons

A few years ago, I was taken into the San Thome Basilica in Chennai by a Hindu friend who crossed himself as he entered. India has been notoriously slow at adopting positions on anything in international diplomacy, which is perhaps a legacy of its standing in the Non-Aligned Movement. If it is seeking a global role now, it should be as the most complex partially-successful multicultural society on earth.

Anyone who has read the last two posts and followed their few links should now be able to answer the trivia questions:

What are the differences between the

Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch
Assyrian Church of the East
Greek Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East and
Jacobite Syrian Christian Church?


What two churches are Chaldaean?

The age of Medina

July 31 2014

Thanks to the intuition of the discordant oligarchs of an oasis-state in the Hijāz, who had invited the rejected prophet of a rival community to make himself at home with them and try his hand at being their ruler, in the hope that he would bring them the concord which they had failed to attain by themselves, Yathrib became, within thirty years of the Hijrah, the capital of an empire embracing not only the former Roman dominions in Syria and Egypt but the entire domain of the former Sasanian Empire. [Footnote: Ibn Khaldūn suggests that the Primitive Muslim Arabs’ success in conquering the whole of the Sasanian Empire was a consequence of their conquest of the Sasanian imperial capital Ctesiphon, and that their contemporary failure to conquer more than a portion of the Roman Empire was a consequence of their inability to conquer the Roman imperial capital Constantinople (see the Muqaddamāt, translated by de Slane, Baron McG, (Paris 1863-8, Imprimerie Impériale, 3 vols.), vol. i, p. 333).] Yathrib’s title to remain the seat of government for this vast realm was indisputable on its juridical merits. This remote oasis-state was the territorial nucleus out of which the Muslim Arab world-empire had burgeoned in its miraculously rapid growth, and it was now also hallowed as Madīnat-an-Nabī, the City of the Prophet which had recognized his mission and had furnished him with home, throne, and sepulchre. This title was so impressive that de jure Medina remained the capital of the Caliphate at any rate until the foundation of Baghdad by the ʿAbbasid Caliph Mansūr in A.D. 762. Yet de facto the swiftly expanding dominions of the Prophet Muhammad and his successors were governed from Medina for no longer than thirty-four years; for the fact was that this oasis hidden away in the interior of the Arabian Plateau – a vaster, wilder, barer, emptier counterpart of the Plateau of Iran – had condemned itself to political nullity by the immensity of its political success.

Toynbee is referring to the thirty-four years from the Hijra (622) to the move to Kufa by the fourth Caliph Ali (regnabat 656-61) after the assassination of Uthman.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Islamic dynasties: 2, Umayyad Caliphs

July 12 2014

The Umayyad Caliphs, 661-750

Capital: Damascus

The dynasty starts with Muawiya (ruled 661-80), who had been governor of Syria. Uthman had also been an Umayyad, but is classed as one of the four Rightly-Guided caliphs. Shia Muslims believe that the succession should have gone through Ali.

Muawiya had fought against Byzantium and had a well-trained army to set against the anarchic Bedouin who had followed Ali.

The Shia vilify Muawiya. They believe that his conversion to Islam was superficial, that he was motivated by lust for power and that he secured it by force. They point out that he is the only Sahaba Caliph (companion of the Prophet) who was not regarded as righteously guided by the Sunni. (He was related to the Prophet, like the others.)

His son and heir Yazid I is hated for his actions towards the house of Ali, in particular for sending forces against Ali’s son Husayn ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala in 680.

The great administrators of the dynasty, Muawiya I, Abd al-Malik (ruled 685-705) and Hisham (ruled 724-43) took over many of the systems of the Greeks and Persians.

In 661-71 the Arabs conquered Tokharistan (Bactria), which the Persian Empire had won from the Ephthalite Hun Empire. This put the Islamic state astride the overland route between India and China via the Oxus-Jaxartes basin.

They had completed the conquest of North Africa by 698.

In 706-15 they conquered Transoxiana and Khwarezm, which had been the Turkish steppe-dwellers’ share of the Ephthalite Empire. They consolidated their position there in subsequent decades.

In 710-12 they extinguished the Visigothic Kingdom in Spain.

In 711 they conquered Sind and the southern Punjab, up to and including Multan.

On four fronts, they were defeated.

In order to conquer Asia Minor and take Constantinople, they needed naval command of the Mediterranean. In 669 Muawiya built a fleet. In 674-8 and in 717-18 the Arabs besieged Constantinople by sea and land and were defeated.

In 677 they gained a temporary foothold in the Lebanon. In 741 they were brought to a halt along the line of the Amanus range in southern Turkey. They did eventually carry their frontier beyond the Amanus to the Taurus.

In 732 they failed to conquer Carolingian France. Before reaching the Loire, they were checked at Poitiers.

In 737-38 they failed to conquer the empire of the Khazar nomads, between the Volga (which flows into the Caspian) and the Don (which flows into the Sea of Azov).

The Umayyad caliphs faced the opposition of Shiite Arab tribesmen of Iraq and that of pious elements in Medina who favoured the claims of Ali’s descendants, the Imams of the Shia (Shiʿat Ali or party of Ali).

The masses of non-Arab peoples in the conquered territories, the Mawali, began to stir and to resent their position as second-class citizens.

In 750 the Umayyads were overthrown by a revolution which began in Khurasan in eastern Persia, led by Abu Muslim Khorasani. One of the few members of the Umayyad family to survive was Hisham’s grandson, Abd al-Rahman, who escaped to North Africa and continued the Umayyad line in Spain.

See Clifford Edmund BosworthThe Islamic Dynasties, A Chronological and Genealogical Handbook, Edinburgh University Press, 1967, revised 1980. There have been subsequent revisions. It contains complete lists of rulers. I am partly following it in this series, but leaving out most diacritics used in romanisations of Arabic.


Umayyad Moque, Damascus, picture:

Islamic dynasties: 1, Orthodox Caliphs

July 11 2014

The Orthodox or Rightly Guided or Rashidun Caliphs, 632-61

The age of the pristine Islamic virtues.

Abu Bakr (Abdullah ibn Abi Quhafa)

Umar (Umar ibn al-Khattab)

Uthman (Uthman ibn Affan)

Ali (Ali ibn Abi Talib)

Mnemonic: Arab uniters underestimate adversity

Capitals: Medina, Kufa

The leaders of the Muslim umma or community, all related to the Prophet by blood or through marriage. I won’t go into relationships. Muslim Arabs had not yet moved outside the Arabian peninsula when Muhammad died. He himself had fought in military campaigns within Arabia.

But by 641 they had conquered Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt from the East Roman Empire. The southern part of Iraq was conquered from Persia.

By 651 they had conquered Persia, as far north-eastward as Merv inclusive, extinguishing the Sasanian Persian Empire. Merv is now in Turkmenistan (one of Iran’s three eastern neighbours, along with Afghanistan in the middle, and Pakistan in the south).

In 653 the Armenians and Georgians (both ex-Roman and ex-Persian Armenian and Georgian subjects) had surrendered.

Between 647 and 698 they conquered north west Africa from the East Romans – who under Justinian had reconquered it from the barbarians.

Khalifa means “he who follows behind”. The Orthodox Caliphs ruled from Medina, the city previously called Yathrib which Muhammad had renamed.

Abu Bakr imposed the authority of Medina over outlying parts of the peninsula after the Bedouin tribes had renounced their personal allegiance to Muhammad (the Ridda Wars, ridda meaning apostasy).

Umar attacked the Byzantine territories of Syria, Palestine and Egypt and the Sasanid territories of Persia and Iraq. He adopted the title Amir al-Muʿminin, Commander of the Faithful, implying a spiritual as well as political element in his leadership.

Uthman was assassinated.

Ali moved his capital to Kufa in Iraq in order to confront Muawiya, the recalcitrant governor of Syria, in battle at Siffin on the Upper Euphrates. He was later killed, and his son, al-Hasan, was persuaded by Muawiya to renounce all rights to the Caliphate. Ali had been the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad. Shia Muslims believe that the succession should have continued through him. The martyrdom of one of Ali’s other sons, Husayn, in 680 is taken as the beginning of the Shiite split.

See Clifford Edmund Bosworth, The Islamic Dynasties, A Chronological and Genealogical Handbook, Edinburgh University Press, 1967, revised 1980. There have been subsequent revisions. It contains complete lists of rulers. I will follow it in this series, but will leave out most diacritics used in romanisations of Arabic.


Kufa Great Mosque, 1915


July 11 2014

Some posts on the Caliphates in order of posting:


Sunni and Shia

The Indian merchant

Ghosts of universal states

A tea-party in Delhi

Roads to Mecca

Hashish 2

The end of the Abbasid Caliphate

The Arab Kingdom of Syria

The Indian summer of the Caliphate

The resilience of the Caliphate

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) declared a new Caliphate in Mosul on June 29 2014 (the first day of Ramadan) with its Sunni leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new Caliph.

Wikipedia article.

Cambyses and Carthage

November 24 2013

“Cambyses gave orders to his fleet to sail against Carthage, but the Phoenicians refused to obey. They submitted that they were bound by solemn engagements and that they would be guilty of a crime if they made war on a daughter-community. This unwillingness of the Phoenicians [to lend themselves to Cambyses’ designs against Carthage killed the project, since] [bracket in Toynbee] the remainder of the fleet was inadequate for the task. So, thanks to their Phoenician kinsmen, the Carthaginians escaped subjugation at Persian hands; for Cambyses felt it impolitic to try to coerce the Phoenicians, considering that they had come under Persian sovereignty voluntarily and that the naval power of the Persian Empire depended entirely on them” (Herodotus, Book III, chap. 19).

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)


September 10 2013

The Shah left Iran January 16 1979. Like the last Qajar in 1923, he said he was going on holiday.

He travelled to Egypt, Morocco, the Bahamas, Mexico, New YorkLackland Air Force Base, Panama and back to Cairo (Sadat). See Lyn Boyd, A King’s Exile, The Shah of Iran and Moral Considerations in US Foreign Policy, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, 2000. His father had spent his exile, from 1941 to ’44, in South Africa.

He had been diagnosed with cancer in 1974. His French doctors knew of his condition. The US government did not know of it until a few days before October 22 1979, when he left Mexico for New York for emergency care.

David Frost interviewed him in Panama, on Contadora Island, in January 1980. Shown US, ABC, January 17. Unlike Nixon, the Shah did not receive money (who negotiated the interview?). He died in Cairo on July 27.

The rise and fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi

September 9 2013

The Last Shah, Tim Kirby, producer and director; Ben Kingsley, narrator; documentary in Reputations series, BBC2, 1996.

The normality of Tehran

September 8 2013

Tehran is not a beautiful city. It isn’t old Europe. But it has a surprising (if you read the Western press) vitality and normality in the centre. I have mentioned them before. It isn’t Riyad, it’s more like Bangalore.

Are women more covered than when I was there in 1994?

Sections of the immensely long Valiasr Street (no obvious part of it in this clip), which was built on the orders of Reza Shah (last post), urban and with mountain views, are beautiful. Valiasr, demonstrator-thronged in 2009, has every possibility of becoming one of the world’s most fashionable or most political streets. It reminds one here of the Cours Mirabeau in Aix:

Valiasr St


The rise of Reza Pahlavi

September 7 2013

An account from 1926. Toynbee seems innocent of the idea that Britain had had a hand in the coup of 1921.

The Persian point of view (background in recent post).

Atatürk and Reza Shah

Atatürk and Reza Shah, Flickr credit: zenbuoyzenbuoy

On December 13, 1925, a Persian constituent assembly, sitting in Tehran, elected a King of Kings and made the crown of Persia hereditary in his family. The new shah was Reza Khan Pahlevi, a man of action who, starting from the rank of simple private soldier in a Persian force organized and officered by a foreign power, had risen during five years to be the real ruler of a genuinely independent Persia. The crown and the title that he received at the end of 1925 merely registered what was already the outstanding fact in the internal politics and the international relations of Persia, the personal ascendancy of Reza Pahlevi.

Meanwhile, on October 31, the ordinary Persian Madjless or Parliament had deposed the existing dynasty and its representative, Ahmed Shah, who for two years had been going the round of European watering-places in an indefinitely protracted foreign tour.

Thus Ahmed Shah gave place to Reza Shah, and the dynasty of the Kajars to the dynasty of the Pahlevis. In one sense this was a very old story; in another sense it was part of a new chapter in the history of the Islamic world.

The dramatic personal career of Reza Shah, though it naturally strikes the imagination of the Western public, is not a novelty in the Orient. The boy who mounts from the lowest rung of the social ladder to be a king in the literal sense of the word is as familiar a figure in the East as the self-made coal king, railway king, meat king, or oil king is in Europe or America. Men who have started as peasants or brigands, camel-drivers or coppersmiths, have repeatedly founded Oriental monarchies and handed them down to their heirs – or, rather, to a limited number of heirs, for in politics as in business, the work of the self-made man is likely to be undone by successors who reap where they have not sown.

The greatest of the Moslem political philosophers, Ibn Khaldun, lays down the general law that hereditary political power is invariably lost by the great-grandson of the founder. The deposed Ahmed Shah was the seventh sovereign of his line, but on the whole Ibn Khaldun’s law is as true for politics in Persia as the proverb, “It is three generations from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves,” is true for business in America.

At the same time, the rise of Reza Pahlevi is not altogether an old story, even from the Oriental point of view, for Reza Shah is one among a new group of leaders who have appeared simultaneously all over the Islamic world since the end of the World War. Reza Pahlevi in Persia is akin to Abd-el-Krim in Morocco, Mustafa Kemal Pasha in Turkey, and Amanullah (the present amir) in Afghanistan. They were all brought up under the shadow of foreign domination. They all, when they were still young and undistinguished, formed the resolve to save their country’s independence. And they all set about their task by deliberately learning from the foreigner in order to fight him with his own weapons. They have not fought Western civilization. They have realized that their countries have been suffering not so much from the immorality of the foreign aggressors as from the operation of a universal and inexorable social law, which decrees that the weak-kneed and incompetent must give place to the efficient and the strong.


Before reviewing Reza Shah’s career, it may be well to take a glance at the Persia in which he grew up and which formed his mental background. During Reza Shah’s childhood and youth (he was born about 1877) the outstanding institution in Persia was an irresponsible despotism. Before completing the cycle of its existence, the Kajar Dynasty had produced shahs of three out of the four recognized varieties: the vicious strong man, the amiable weak man, and the vicious weak man, who is the worst of all. This, though bad, could be borne, for it was a familiar evil; but during the last quarter of the nineteenth century the Kajar sovereigns of Persia discovered the West, a discovery which had always made Oriental despots intolerable to their subjects, sooner or later. The native traditions of Oriental life set a limit to the extortion and extravagance of Oriental rulers by circumscribing their possible self-indulgences, but as soon as they learn to use Western luxuries, and to pay for them by borrowing money in Western markets, there are no bounds to the ravages which they may commit, not only upon the wealth of their subjects but upon the political independence of their countries. An Oriental sovereign who is hopelessly in debt to private Western money-lenders soon finds himself in the political power of the government which claims these money-lenders as its nationals. If he cannot pay in cash, he must pay in concessions, tariff agreements, or leases of territory; and when his subjects become restive at the betrayal of the public interests, he is driven to commit himself still more deeply to the foreign power and to rely on foreign bayonets for protection against his own people. Reza Pahlevi learned his soldiering – and learned it most effectively – by enlisting in the Cossack Brigade which Russian officers were organizing for the reigning Kajar shah with the double object of keeping the shah on his throne by force and of bringing that throne under the shadow of the Russian Empire. The crisis began with the constitutional revolution of 1906, a Persian echo of the greater upheaval which had been convulsing Russia since the Japanese war. Losing their patience at last, the Persian people introduced a parliamentary régime and girded themselves for the task of placing their country on her feet.

The revolution of 1906, however, was only the first chapter. The Persian Cossack Brigade, under its Russian commander, soon found itself fighting to overthrow the Madjless and restore the absolute monarchy. The counter-revolution was foiled, and in 1909 the reactionary shah, Mohammad Ali, was forced to leave the country and find asylum in Russia; but this constitutional victory was bought at the price of a Russian military occupation of Tabriz, the second city of Persia and the citadel of the constitutional movement. Moreover in 1907 the prospects of Persian independence had received a blow through the reversal of British policy in the Middle East under the stress of the situation in Europe. Fear of Germany had induced the British government to go into partnership with Russia; and the price of Russian cooperation in Europe was that Russia should have things her own way in Persia. Under the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907, in the negotiation of which the Persian government was not consulted, Persia was divided into a Russian and a British zone with a neutral zone between them. The spirit of the Anglo-Russian Agreement was tested in 1911, when the Persian government engaged a private American citizen, Mr. W. Morgan Shuster, as its financial adviser, and the Russian government compelled the Persian government to dismiss Mr. Shuster as soon as it became apparent that he was making effective progress in putting Persian finances in order. Not content with Mr. Shuster’s dismissal, the Russian government sought to repress Persian nationalism by methods of barbarism in Tabriz and had the Cossack Brigade fall upon the Madjless at Tehran and disperse it by artillery-fire.

The climax of Persia’s humiliation was reached during the World War; for though Persia was not a belligerent, her territory was marched over and fought over by Russians, Turks, and British like a no-man’s-land. Meanwhile, in 1915, Great Britain had insisted that the neutral zone in Persia should be added to her zone in return for the acquisition of Constantinople by Russia; and Russia had consented on condition that in her own zone in Persia she should receive a free hand. Thus the partition of Persia between the Russian and the British empires was almost an accomplished fact when it was unexpectedly voided by the Russian Revolution. Yet this miraculous escape from one danger only exposed Persia to another. The temporary elimination of Russia left Great Britain in military and political control, not only of all Persia, but of the Russian border territories of Transcaspia and Transcaucasia; and the new situation was reflected in the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, which was negotiated by Lord Curzon – with a Persian government which was almost avowedly unrepresentative of the Persian people – while the Peace Conference was in session at Paris.

These were the sensational and distressing experiences in the midst of which Reza Pahlevi learned his trade. He showed that he had profited by them as soon as he found his opportunity to play an active part in his country’s affairs.

Reza’s opportunity presented itself because the various foreign aggressors successively canceled each other out, while the Persian nation’s power of passive endurance outstayed the active energy of her neighbors. The Russians and British turned the Turks out of western Persia; the Russian Revolution caused the Russians to withdraw; and the steady pressure of the British taxpayer combined with the sound strategic instinct of the British War Office (which desired, from the moment of the Armistice, to extricate itself from outlying military commitments), and with a well timed military stroke delivered by the Bolsheviki, to bring about the evacuation of Persia by the British forces in their turn. Once the British troops were withdrawn [late 1920?], the administrative, financial, and military advice which was to be furnished to the Persian government by British officials, under the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, was deprived of effective sanctions. Had the advisers got into the saddle at once, they might perhaps even so have held Persia under control; but here they were baffled by the Persian genius for passive resistance. The one point which was apparently overlooked by Lord Curzon and his Persian friends who signed the agreement of 1919 was that under Article 24 of the Persian Constitution of 1906 every public treaty, covenant, or concession negotiated by the Persian government had to be ratified by the Madjless; and the Madjless, like Humpty-Dumpty, proved easier to pull down than to set up again. Artillery can disperse a parliament in session by bringing down the roof about its ears, but it cannot conduct a general election and induce the deputies to assemble. The agreement hung fire while the Madjless omitted to reconstitute itself, and at this point the Bolsheviki gave Reza Pahlevi his opportunity by taking a hand in the game.

The departure of the British troops from Transcausasia [sic] in the summer of 1919, and the collapse of [the White Russian] General Denikin in the last months of the same year, reopened for the Red army the road to Persia. In the early summer of 1920 they landed in force on the Caspian coast, seized General Denikin’s fleet in the Persian port of Enzeli (since renamed Pahlevi in honor of the new shah), and pushed back the advanced detachments of the weak British army of occupation. The Persian government of the day, which was acting in the British interest, sent against the Red invaders the Persian Cossack Division, which was still officered by White Russians, though the force was now financed by a British subsidy. The Cossacks – among whom Reza Pahlevi had gradually risen to one of the highest positions open to a Persian member of the division – advanced against the Reds and gained some successes; but the attitude of the White Russian officers became so dubious that in the late autumn of 1920 the British military authorities in Persia removed them, and the Persian Cossack Division became a purely Persian force with British military instructors. Thus a trained and organized Persian corps, which had been created to serve Russian imperialist interests, passed in the end into Persian hands; and Reza Pahlevi, after serving his long apprenticeship under Russian teachers, found himself with an effective force at his back to be used for Persian national purposes.

The Cossacks now made common cause with the Constitutionalists, and in February, 1921, Reza Pahlevi marched from Kazvin, the Cossack headquarters, upon the capital. Tehran was occupied on February 21, the Anglophile government overthrown, and a nationalist government formed with Sayyid Zia ad Din as prime minister and Reza as commander-in-chief of the army. Zia ad Din’s term of office was signalized by the denunciation of the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 and by the signing of a treaty with the Soviet government on February 26.

From the moment when the Persian Cossacks escaped from both Russian and British control, it was evident that if they produced a strong man from among their Persian officers, he would have the government of Persia in his hands. The opportunity found Reza Pahlevi ready to seize it, and from February, 1921, he has gone from strength to strength. He was appointed minister of war as well as commander-in-chief a few weeks after Sayyid Zia ad Din became premier, and he held this post continuously until he chose to combine the premiership with it [1923]. Meanwhile successive premiers went and came at Reza Pahlevi’s dictation, the first to go (May, 1921) being the sayyid himself.

Reza assumed the premiership on October 28, 1923, and thereupon Shah Ahmed Kajar started on that foreign tour from which, as it has turned out, he has not returned. The day after Reza Pahlevi became prime minister of Persia, the National Assembly at Angora proclaimed Turkey a republic and elected Mustafa Kemal Pasha as her first president. Reza Pahlevi was naturally impressed by the career of a brilliant soldier who was the national hero of the leading country in the Islamic world, and it is almost certain that he intended to have himself elected first president of a Persian republic on the next Persian New Year’s day, which fell on March 21, 1924. In this regard he suffered the only serious rebuff he has encountered so far.

The first stages went well. The Madjless assembled on March 13; a meeting of forty ex-premiers, cabinet ministers, and other notables called upon Reza to declare in favor of a republic and to make arrangements with the Madjless for the election of a president; pro-republican demonstrations were made in Tehran; pro-republican telegrams poured in from the provinces. Meanwhile, however, there had been fresh developments in Turkey which again influenced the course of events in Persia, though this time in a contrary sense. On March 3 the Turkish National Assembly had not only abolished the caliphate but had secularized the Turkish state and had drastically disestablished the Islamic ecclesiastical organization. Persia and Turkey belong to different sects; but the Persian ecclesiastics argued nevertheless that the proclamation of a republic in Persia would involve them In the same fate as had overtaken their Turkish confrères. They therefore threw the whole weight of their influence into the anti-republican scales; anti-republican counter-demonstrations began; and before the Persian New Year’s day arrived, Reza felt it advisable to beat a retreat. He went off to confer with the leading religious jurisconsults in the holy city of Kum, and he proclaimed at the beginning of April that the establishment of a republic was contrary to religion and that all further mention of the subject was prohibited.

Superficially, at any rate, Reza’s position was weakened by this fiasco, and he had to demonstrate that he was indispensable by resigning office on April 7 and resuming it with some show of reluctance at the pressing entreaty of his countrymen. If Reza Pahlevi had failed to become the first president of a new Persian republic, he might still become the first shah of a new dynasty on the ancient throne of the Persian Empire.

The first step in this new move was taken on February 14, 1925, when the Madjless passed a bill appointing Reza generalissimo of all the armed forces of Persia and making him irremovable except by the same body. The next step was the deposition, by another vote of the Madjless on October 31, 1925, of the reigning Shah Ahmed and the whole Kajar Dynasty into the bargain. By the same resolution, the maintenance of a provisional government was intrusted to Reza Pahlevi, pending the election of a constituent assembly.

The final inevitable step occurred on December 12, when the constituent assembly, duly meeting, conferred the crown of Persia upon Reza Pahlevi and his heirs forever. The new shah took the oath on the fifteenth of the same month.


What is the secret of this meteoric career, and what has Reza Shah Pahlevi done to deserve so well of his fellow-countrymen? To these two questions there is a single answer. He has built up a national army which, though small in numbers (it probably does not exceed forty thousand men all told), has nevertheless proved itself an efficient fighting force and, almost for the first time in history, has established the effective authority of the central government over all the territories and populations within the Persian frontiers.

How has he achieved this? At first sight it seems miraculous, considering the poor reputation of the Persian as a fighting man. Yet this miracle, if it is a miracle, has been performed by the same simple means that have enabled a number of modern Western powers to acquire vast Oriental empires.

How did the English make themselves masters of India? Not by importing legions of Nordic supermen, but by turning a small select body of Indian troops into better soldiers than their fellow-countrymen. And how did they endow their Indian troops with this military superiority? Simply by making sure that they should be properly and regularly fed, clothed, and housed and properly and regularly paid; in other words, by the prosaic but fundamental Western virtues of business honesty and efficiency, by superiority in the arts of the caterer and the accountant rather than by superiority in physique and valor. From 1921 onward, Reza has systematically asserted the authority of the central government in one sector of the country after another, his crowning triumph being the unconditional surrender, at the end of 1924, of Sheikh Khaz’al, the Arab ruler of Mohammerah on the Persian bank of the Shat-el-Arab, who, since before the World War, had been virtually a sovereign prince with a private agreement of his own with the British government.

It must not be supposed, however, that, because his policy is simple, it is also crude. When Dr. Millspaugh arrived at Tehran in the autumn of 1922, he found that certain revenues had been deflected from the Ministry of Finance and were being paid direct into the coffers of the Ministry of War; but Reza’s vision was not bounded by this provisional solution of his financial problem. He realized that if the general public finance and administration of the country remained unsound, the exaction of his pound of flesh would only hasten the hour of death and dissolution, and that then, in the general ruin of Persia, the Persian new-model army would perish irretrievably.

Having grasped this simple but fundamental truth, Reza Pahlevi gave his hearty support to the policy of engaging private American citizens as financial experts. It is interesting to observe the difference in his attitudes toward the unfortunate British financial adviser who was attempting to establish control when Reza made the coup d’état of February, 1921, and toward the American advisers who arrived at Tehran the next year on the invitation of the Persian government with no political ax to grind. Reza kept the Englishman’s hands off the finances of the Persian army by that kind of stolid passive resistance at which Persians are adepts; but the sequel showed that he was pursuing a patriotic and legitimate aim in thus concentrating as much power as possible in his own hands. Less than two years later, when Dr. Millspaugh asked him to restore to the Ministry of Finance those revenues which he had diverted in the meanwhile to the Ministry of War as security for the army budget, he agreed without demur, because he understood that Dr. Millspaugh’s sole object was to restore Persian finance without any thought of simultaneously establishing an American political ascendancy, and because he perceived that if Dr. Millspaugh succeeded in his endeavor, this would enable Reza himself to increase the efficiency of the army proportionately. Evidently Dr. Millspaugh acted with great tact in this delicate negotiation; nevertheless the transaction, which has been the foundation of Persia’s remarkable recovery during the last few years, could hardly have been concluded satisfactorily if the Persian soldier of fortune had not shown the same breadth of view as the American financial expert.

Enough has now been said to demonstrate that Reza Shah Pahlevi is a remarkable man, but what about the Pahlevi Dynasty? How many generations, the skeptical reader will ask, is it to be this time from shirtsleeves to shirt-sleeves? Is Ibn Khaldun’s law of dynastic cycles destined to be repeated again? Certainly there is no reason to suppose that the descendants of Reza Shah Pahlevi will maintain his level of character and ability any better than the nephews and great-nephews of Agha Muhammad Khan Kajar; yet there is one fresh factor which must be taken into account. The new dynasty has been founded in a new Persia, a Persia with a national consciousness and a national parliament, and if Reza Shah’s heirs turn out to be lesser men than he, they are less likely to be overthrown as incompetent despots than to survive as harmless constitutional monarchs. It may be, therefore, that the old series of dynastic cycles has been broken and that Persia’s feet are now securely set upon a westward road. The new national consciousness is very much alive, and Reza Shah Pahlevi, the self-made man, is a true representative of his nation, for, in spite of the foreign quality of his Parthian surname, he comes from the province of Mazandaran, which in times of adversity has often been the citadel of Persian national independence. The only condition which the constituent assembly attached to the hereditary principle was that Reza Shah’s successors on the throne must be born of Persian mothers, and this was a deliberate reversal of the law of the Kajar Dynasty, which was that successors to the throne must be born of Kajar princesses. The strange fact was that the Kajars were not Persians at all but a Turkish clan, speaking a Turkish dialect as their household language. Thus, until last year, a necessary qualification for succeeding to the Persian throne was that the candidate should be of non-Persian descent on both sides! In this as in other respects the Kajar Dynasty stood for a dispensation under which Oriental peoples existed for the benefit of their rulers, whereas Reza Shah Pahlevi has been elected to the Persian throne by the chosen representatives of the Persian people because he has served the nation well in the past and is expected to serve it no less faithfully hereafter.

He writes in his usual tone of jaunty optimism about rulers emerging in a post- or neo-colonial age.

Reza Shah was anti-British, anti-Russian (despite the friendship treaty with Russia) and pro-German in his sympathies and was forced to abdicate by the Anglo-Soviet invasion of 1941. His son took over and reigned until deservedly overthrown by the Islamic revolution of 1979.

The Strong Man of Persia: Reza Shah Has a Firm Grip on the Reins, The Century Magazine, Vol 112, No 5, September 1926

The Persian point of view

September 5 2013

We may also reflect upon a conversation which took place between a British statesman and a Persian visitor some time after the peace-settlement which followed the General War of 1914-18. The Persian was saying that he could not understand how the British Government, which he acknowledged to be intrinsically honourable and liberal-minded, had brought itself to pursue in Persia, from A.D. 1907 onwards, a policy which he could only describe as a cynical sacrifice of the rights and welfare of an innocent, friendly, and defenceless country on the altar of the Anglo-Russian entente. The British statesman, who had been largely responsible for the policy and who was of a frank, straightforward disposition, admitted to his visitor that Persia had been deliberately sacrificed; “but”, he added, “the British policy which you criticize was not pursued by us in a cynical frame of mind. In matters of statesmanship, choices are usually limited; and in this case, with only two alternatives before us, we were simply choosing the lesser of two evils: the risk of allowing Russia to destroy the independence of Persia rather than the risk of seeing Russia remain neutral or even take the German side in the then imminent event of a European War. If, seven years later, Germany had started the Great War with Russia as an ally or indeed as a neutral, she would certainly have won the War; and that would not only have been the end of the British Empire. It would have been the end of Civilization. When Civilization was at stake, how could we act otherwise than we did? Put yourself in our place, and answer me with your hand on your heart.”

At this the Persian, who had at first been mildly puzzled and aggrieved, completely lost his temper. His heart burnt within him and a torrent of denunciation issued from his lips: “Your policy was infinitely more wicked than I had suspected! The cynicism of it is beyond imagination! You have the effrontery to look me in the face and tell me complacently that you have deliberately sacrificed the unique treasure which Persia preserves for Humanity – the priceless jewel of Civilization – on the off-chance of saving your worthless Western Society from the catastrophe which its own greed and pugnacity were inevitably bringing upon its head! Put myself in your place, indeed! What should I have cared, and what do I care now, if Europe perish so long as Persia lives!” Therewith, he indignantly took his leave; and the British statesman found himself unable to feel certain that his visitor’s indignation was unjustified or his point of view unreasonable. Was it Europe or Persia that held the seed from which the life of the future was to spring? Perhaps the answer to that question could not, after all, be taken for granted. Perhaps it could only be given by Time and only be read correctly by some historian looking back upon the year 1907 of the Christian Era from a distance of many centuries.

In the nineteenth century, Britain’s policy had been to prop up Turkey as a bulwark against Russia. Now it made plans for the Ottoman Empire’s dismemberment. I’ll write about Greek and Russian relations with Turkey, and with Britain in relation to Turkey, from 1907 to ’23 in another post.

The Russian revolution gave the British a free hand in Persia for three years. Then, in 1920, the Red Army invaded. The British removed them and then withdrew their own forces.

Having beaten Germany and retreated from the Russian Civil War, they continued to interfere with Persia’s internal affairs, as they had done long before 1907. In the nineteenth century, Persia had been a pawn in the Great Game (main phase 1813-1907). Now, whatever its traditional concerns about Russia, Britain had oil interests to defend. Oil had been discovered in Masjed Soleiman in 1908, leading to the formation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the antecedent of BP.

Britain played a part in the coup of Reza Khan in 1921: he had helped to expel the Red Army. But as commander-in-chief, then prime minister, then Shah (from 1925, when the Qajar dynasty fell), he was anti-British before he was anti-Russian. It was anti-British, not pro-Russian, sentiment which had caused the Persian parliament to accept the 1921 Russo-Persian Treaty. In 1935 he renamed the country Iran.

Britain and Russia invaded Iran in 1941, again partly to forestall Germany.

Britain and the US jointly organised the coup against Mossadegh in 1953. The US had had advisers in Persia before the First World War, but was the Shah’s main prop from 1953 until the revolution of 1979.

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934

Hashish 2

August 30 2013

The Assassins were a militant branch of the Ismāʿīlīs [Shiites who seceded from the main group in the eighth century because of their belief that Ismail, the son of the sixth Shiite imam, should have become the seventh imam, hence Seveners] who were organized by Hasan-i-Sabbāh about A.D. 1090. Their method of action was the assassination of princes; and they did their work impartially, for the list of their victims includes their fellow-Ismāʿīlī the Fātimid Caliph al-Āmir [the Ismaili Shia Fatimid Caliphs ruled from the Atlantic to the Red Sea 909-1171], whom they assassinated in A.D. 1130, as well as a host of Sunnīs and Christians. The word “assassinate” itself is derived from the name of the Assassins, and their name is derived in turn from the hashīsh or hemp-fumes with which their desperadoes used to intoxicate themselves before making their attentats. For Hasan-i-Sabbāh and the Assassins, see Browne, E. G.: A Literary History of Persia, vol. ii (London 1906, Fisher Unwin), pp. 201-11, and Yule, Sir Henry: The Book of Ser Marco Polo, 3rd edition (London 1903, Murray, 2 vols.), vol. i, pp. 139-48.)

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934 (footnote)


August 29 2013

Sergei Lyapunov (1859-1924), Hashish, Oriental Symphonic Poem, opus 53, 1913. State Academic Symphony Orchestra, Evgeny Svetlanov. Echoes of Scheherezade.

After poem by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov, whom Mussorgsky had set in Sunless and Songs and Dances of Death, descendant of the Kutuzov of 1812. Painting by Frederick Arthur Bridgman.


August 22 2013

The choice of Ecbatana [modern Hamadan, western Iran] for the summer residence of the Achaemenian Court was doubtless partly due to the coolness of its climate and partly to its historic prestige as the former capital of the Median Power which the Achaemenian Empire had supplanted. Under the Achaemenian régime, even after its reorganization by Darius I on a narrower political basis, the Medes were second only to the Persians in the hierarchy of imperial peoples.

Ecbatana was also on the road which linked the Tigris-Euphrates basin with the Oxus-Jaxartes basin, passing across the northern part of the Iranian plateau. In other words, the part of the Silk Road connecting Mesopotamia with Sogdiana or Transoxiana.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)


August 15 2013


Chinatowns in Africa

Chinatowns in Asia

Chinatowns in Australia

Chinatowns in Canada

Chinatowns in Europe

Chinatowns in Latin America

Chinatowns in the Middle East, but are any real?

Chinatowns in Oceania

Chinatowns in the United States

Oldest. Anywhere: Manila. In Japan: Nagasaki. In Americas: Mexico City. In US: San Francisco. In Canada: Victoria. In Australia: Melbourne. In Europe: Liverpool. The oldest are never the largest.

Largest. In US: New York, followed by San Francisco. In Canada: Vancouver, followed by Toronto. In Japan: Yokohama, followed by Kobe, followed by Nagasaki (the three official Chinatowns). In Australia: Sydney, followed by Melbourne. In Britain: London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle.

In the Netherlands: Amsterdam, followed by The Hague, followed by Rotterdam. In Belgium: Antwerp (the only official one). In France: Paris, the main one in the 13th arrondissement.

The only official Chinatown in Korea is in Incheon. There are Chinatowns in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Jakarta’s is in a district called Glodok. The only real Chinatown in India is in Kolkata.

It is odd, in the case of Singapore, to have a Chinatown in a country that is ethnically Chinese. The word at least pays lip service to Singapore’s multiculturalism. There is no Chinatown in Tokyo.

Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo do not have well-defined areas. Buenos Aires has a small Chinatown. Moscow and Berlin do not have historic Chinatowns.

Many Chinatowns are in decline or are being replaced by China-themed malls. Flight of upwardly-mobile Chinese in US to the suburbs.

Chinese laundries in North America.


Chinatown cooks

Manhattan, Wikimedia Commons

Lenin’s withdrawal and return

July 21 2013

Withdrawal-and-Return is […] the key to the career of Lenin: [footnote: See Mirsky, D. S.: Lenin (London 1932, Holme Press).] the second Russian “Antichrist” whose intention it was to undo, and whose achievement it has been to consummate, the work of Westernization which was originally initiated by Peter. Born in 1870, Lenin entered, in 1893, upon the conventional revolutionary career of the Russian intellectual of his generation: an abortive agitation which ended in 1897 in banishment to Siberia. It was after his withdrawal from Russia to Switzerland in 1900, after his Siberian sentence had been served out, that Lenin came to know his own mind and began to impose his will upon the minds of his fellow revolutionaries. He came to the front in 1903, when a conference of Russian Marxian Socialists in exile, which was held that year in Brussels and London, resulted, by reason of Lenin’s masterful intransigence, in the historic split of the Russian Marxian Socialist Party into the two sects of Minoritarians (Mensheviki) and Majoritarians (Bolsheviki). From that time onwards Lenin, as leader of the “majoritarian” Bolshevik faction in the Russian Marxian Socialist camp, continued to gain in authority and prestige through the long course of an absence from Russia which extended, from first to last, from 1900 to 1917. And though this potent exile’s first return missed fire in the failure of the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905-7, [footnote: On this occasion, Lenin returned to Russia in November 1905 and withdrew again in December 1907.] his second return, when he appeared again in Russia from the West on the 4th April, 1917, will assuredly rank as one of the decisive events in the history of our Western Civilization and perhaps in the history of Mankind, as well as in the history of Russia. After twenty-four years of revolutionary work, of which some eighteen years had been spent at work in exile in Siberia and Europe, Lenin now returned, with seven more years of life before him, to carry out his tremendous life-work. Before he died in 1924 he had made himself master of the territory and population and resources of the ci-devant Russian Empire; and he had turned this mastery to account in order to put in hand – with a ruthlessness equal to Peter’s – the great experiment of translating the Marxian Utopia into real life on the grand scale.

Compare Khomeini’s exile in Turkey, Iraq and France, 1965-79.

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934


July 14 2013

The Greek word παράδεισος [paradeisos], […] is the transliteration of a Persian word signifying a stretch of savannah – a mixture of grassland and woodland abounding in game – which was artificially preserved in its virgin state in order to enable the dominant minority in an agrarian and urban society to enjoy, as a sport, the primitive occupation of hunting.

… a kind of royal park.

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934 (footnote)

Mystery religions

July 9 2013

Mystery religions – cults reserved to initiates – formed one of three types of Greco-Roman religion, the others being the imperial cult or ethnic religion particular to a nation or state, and the philosophic religions such as Neoplatonism. Mysteries supplemented rather than competed with civil religion. One could observe the rites of a state cult, be an initiate in one or several mysteries, and at the same time follow a philosophical school. In contrast to the compulsory public rituals of civil religion, initiation to a mystery was optional. The same gods could be worshipped inside and outside a mystery. Was Mithras mystery-only?

The Roman establishment objected to Christianity not on grounds of its tenets or practices, but because, unlike adherents of the mystery religions with which it was competing, Christians considered their faith as precluding their participation in the imperial cult.


Of the Eleusinian MysteriesDionysian Mysteries, Samothracian Mysteries and Orphic Mysteries, the first three may have been influenced by Thracian or Phrygian cults, but lasted, with whatever gaps in the Dark Age or at other stages, from the Mycenaean period until the end of paganism.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were annual initiation ceremonies held at Eleusis in Attica for the cults of Demeter and Persephone (Proserpina). Of all the ancient mysteries, they were held to be the ones of greatest importance.

The Dionysian (Bacchic) Mysteries were not connected with a particular place.

The mysteries on Samothrace in the northern Aegean predate Greek colonisation in the seventh century BC. The pantheon there included the Cabeiri and a Great Mother who is often identified with Demeter. Both may have originally been Phrygian. Samothrace formed a Macedonian national sanctuary during the Hellenistic period and remained an important site under Rome.

The Greek Orphic Mysteries (Orpheus) go back at least to the fifth century BC. When did they die out?


Some of the gods that the Romans adopted from other cultures came to be worshipped in mysteries – the Phrygian Cybele, the Thracian/Phrygian Sabazius, the Egyptian Isis, the Zoroastrian Persian Mithras. So did Adonis, who is related to the Mesopotamian Tammuz and the Egyptian Osiris.

The originally Phrygian cult of Cybele reached mainland Greece in the sixth century BC and, as a cult of Magna Mater, was officially adopted during the Second Punic War and again by Augustus.

The Phrygian cult of Attis, the consort of Cybele, reached the Greek world in the fourth century BC, if not earlier, and Rome in the first century CE.

The Phrygian cult of Sabazius entered the classical Greek world at an early stage and survived into the Roman Empire.

The ancient pharaonic gods Isis and her consort Osiris joined the Greek pantheon when Egypt was hellenised. The cult of Isis spread through the Roman Empire during the formative centuries of Christianity.

The Persian cult of Mithras entered the Roman world in the first century and was popular in the army. Wikipedia, citing Clauss, M., The Roman Cult of Mithras: “Soldiers were strongly represented amongst Mithraists; and also merchants, customs officials and minor bureaucrats. Few, if any, initiates came from leading aristocratic or senatorial families until the pagan revival of the mid 4th century [Julian]; but there were always considerable numbers of freedmen and slaves.”


Were Serapis and Sol Invictus ever worshipped as mysteries by initiates? Serapis was a god invented by Ptolemy I as a means of unifying the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm. Ptolemy failed in his objective, but Serapis grew in popularity throughout the Roman period and often replaced Osiris as the consort of Isis in temples outside Egypt.

The cult of Sol Invictus from Aurelian to Constantine and beyond was perhaps a revival of the emperor Elagabalus’s cult of the Syrian sun-god from whom he took his name. What were the “oriental” and what were the “indigenous” elements in the Sol Invictus cult?

Caricaturing Persia

June 25 2013

In the hostile caricature which had been the convention in Hellas during the interval of 146 years by which Alexander’s passage of the Hellespont was separated from Xerxes’ unluckier crossing of the same straits in the opposite direction, the Persian grandees had been held up to odium as monsters of luxury, tyranny, cruelty, and cowardice; and now, when Xerxes’ abortive aggression had been avenged at last up to the hilt by Alexander’s victorious riposte, the Macedonian champion of Hellas learnt, through the intimate and illuminating intercourse of warfare, that these arch-barbarians were in reality men capable of showing a bravery in battle and a dignity in defeat which even a Spartan might envy.

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

The malleus presbyterorum

June 7 2013

If the formidable authority conferred on the priests by their custody of tradition is to be challenged, the challenge can be delivered only by the word of God Himself as revealed in His prophet’s message; for, if that message is once recognized to be authentic, it must override the rulings of priests who are not God’s spokesmen but merely His ministers; and, though the winged words of God’s living human spokesman will be likely to have both a greater virtue and a greater effect than any written testament, dumb scripture has one decisive posthumous advantage over the living voice. Scripture can attain a longevity which, at second hand, will multiply a hundredfold the brief life-span of the prophet whose message this frozen echo perpetuates. Holy Writ that purports to enshrine prophetic revelation is thus a malleus presbyterorum that is a literal godsend to rebels against sacerdotal authority. The followers of the Prophets of Israel and Judah and of Zarathustra made effective use of this weapon against the priests of their day; the Scribes and Pharisees used it against the Sadducees; the Protestant Reformers used it against the Papal Church.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

The Swahili coast 2

April 4 2013

This is from Basil Davidson’s 1984 sweeping Channel 4 television series Africa: A Voyage of Discovery (from the third of its eight one-hour parts).

Davidson put African history on the map for laymen, including Africans. Is he still regarded highly? If not, is that because he has been superseded or because he was self-taught and a journalist and lacked any academic qualifications? Or is it a residue from a time when he must have seemed unsettlingly left-wing and when African history was not considered a real subject?

This blog should have recorded his death in 2010 at the age of ninety-five. Guardian obituary. Telegraph. Independent.

The Channel 4 series is all on YouTube, but not in one place and not in good recordings. There is no decent bibliography of him online. Many people will know his Lost Cities of Africa (1959), African Slave Trade (1961), Africa: History of a Continent (1966) and Time-Life book African Kingdoms (1966).

Swahili, or Kiswahili, is a Bantu language of the East African coast. It became the tongue of the urban class in the Great Lakes region and went on to serve as a post-colonial lingua franca in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Romans visited the coast in the first century. Arab traders had contact with the black coastal peoples from the sixth century CE or earlier. Islam reached the coast in the ninth century or earlier. There is cultural evidence of early Persian (or Arabo-Persian) settlement on Zanzibar from Shiraz. Swahili contains many Arabic and Persian loan words.

City-states – Muslim, cosmopolitan, and politically independent of each other – began to flourish along the coast and on the islands: Kilwa, Malindi, Gedi, Pate, Comoros, Zanzibar. They depended on trade from the Indian Ocean.

The Swahili acted as middlemen between Africa and the outside world. Slaves, ebony, gold, ivory and sandalwood were brought to the coasts and sold to Arab, Indian and Portuguese traders, who carried them to Arabia, Persia, Madagascar, India, China, Europe. Many slaves sold in Zanzibar ended up in Brazil.

Zanzibar grew spices: cinnamon and cardamom were introduced from Asia (when?), chilli and cacao were brought by the Portuguese from South America. When were cloves introduced? Were spices sent mainly to Europe or also to Asia?

How Arab were the ruling classes? How much of the Indian Ocean sailing was done by black Africans? Is there evidence for the arrival of black traders in China? Wikipedia on Chinese in the Indian Ocean and in Africa.

The sultanates began to decline in the sixteenth century, as Portuguese influence grew. The Portuguese in turn were threatened by Omanis, who controlled Zanzibar from 1698 until the middle of the nineteenth century, when the British started to interfere. They were in turn followed by Germans.

Commerce between Africa and Asia via the Indian Ocean declined, but some of the dhow trade survived when Davidson made his film. Swahili fishermen still sell fish to their inland neighbours in exchange for products of the interior.

The earliest known documents written in Swahili are letters written in Kilwa in 1711 in the Arabic script. They were sent to the Portuguese of Mozambique and their local allies. They are preserved in the Historical Archives of Goa. Another document in Arabic script is Utendi wa Tambuka (The History of Tambuka), an epic poem from 1728, written in Pate, about wars between Byzantium and Muslims from 628 to 1453. The Latin script was used later, under the influence of European colonial powers.

A Roman cold war

March 16 2013

Professor William McNeill comments [circa 1952]: “I feel that the Rome-Carthage relationship is a far more convincing parallel to contemporary conditions than the Rome-Parthia relationship. In the relations between Rome and Parthia mortal fear and the density of contact were, I believe, absent.” The present writer’s comment on this comment is that it was not too much to expect of American and Russian statesmanship in the sixth decade of the twentieth century of the Christian Era that it should stabilize the relation between the United States and the Soviet Union on a Romano-Parthian basis and save it from degenerating into a Romano-Carthaginian “irrepressible conflict”. […]

Or a Romano-Sasanid, I suppose.

The phrase “irrepressible conflict” was used by William H Seward at Rochester, NY on October 25 1858.

Seward was a US senator who had served as Governor of New York and would serve as Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. He argued that the political and economic systems of North and South were incompatible, and that, due to this “irrepressible conflict,” the “inevitable collision” of the two systems would eventually result in the nation becoming “either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free-labor nation”. He hoped that this would be by the operation of natural forces over time, not by war.

Carthage was probably founded in the second half of the ninth century BC and was destroyed in the Third Punic War, 149-146 BC. Rome was founded in the middle of the eighth.

The Arsacid Parthian Empire lasted from 247 BC to AD 224. It replaced the Seleucid and was replaced, in the reign of Alexander Severus, by the Sasanid.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

The rout of Pan-Islamism by Nationalism

November 21 2012

The apparent triumph of our Western Political Nationalism in the Islamic World since the beginning of the twentieth century of our era – and, conspicuously, since the outbreak of the general war of A.D. 1914-18 – is a remarkable testimony to the assimilative power of our Western Civilization and to the inability of the Islamic Civilization to hold its own against it. For the Pan-Islamic Movement, which was set in motion under the patronage of the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph ʿAbd-al-Hamīd (imperabat A.D. 1876-1909) as an attempt to enable the Islamic World to repel the Western offensive, was not only good strategy on its merits (on the principle that “union is strength”); it was also in the true line of the Islamic tradition; for, from the time of the Hijrah, which was the crucial event in the career of Muhammad and in the history of the institution that he founded, Islam had been a unitary society which embraced both the two Western social fields of Church and State; and, after the founder’s death, the unity of Islam in its political aspect had been incarnated in the Arab Caliphate […]. Thus the Pan-Islamic attempt to restore the political unity of Islam, under the historic aegis of a Caliphate, in face of a formidable external menace to the Islamic Society’s very existence, might have seemed a promising stroke of statesmanship; and the rapid rout of Pan-Islamism by an irresistible outbreak of Nationalism in the Muslim ranks is a surprising denouement.


A Study of HIstory, Vol IV, OUP, 1939 (footnote)