We don’t know if we’ll make it to Armenia later this year, but it’s been fascinating to see how far and wide outside of Armenia Armenians have settled. Stuck in a corner of the world among greater powers (Iran, Russia and Turkey), Armenians have by choice and by force scattered widely across the world. Despite their turbulent history, many of these Armenian communities have survived, and the extent to which they have preserved their culture and prospered is truly impressive (the Jews are the only other people I can compare them to).


In their easternmost reaches, Armenian communities represented the success of Armenians in the business of trade. Armenians were among the first (though possibly not the very first–see my post of 3.5) Christians to settle in India, wher they took an active role in international comerce. One of the British Hong Kong’s foremost residents, Sir Paul Chater, for whom is still named so many things in Hong Kong, was an Armenian of Indian birth. Few Armenians remain in India today.

Madras, India, has several Armenian sites, including 18th century St. Mary’s Church (building closed when we visited). Armenians were some of the first Christians in India

Armenian gravestone, Luz Church (itself originally Portuguese), Madras


Outside Vank Cathedral, Esfahan

The Armenians of the city of Jolfa on what is now Iran’s border with Azerbaijan were forced to move to Esfahan in 1603 during the reign of Safavid Shah Abbas the Great, who wanted to enhance his new capital with the Armenians’ talents and commercial skills. While the move itself was forced, the Armenians were granted substantial land in Esfahan (in a neighborhood named New Jolfa, or now just Jolfa) and enjoyed certain freedoms and autonomy, protected by the power of the Shahs. These protections were not always continued by later rulers.

Vank Cathedral, Esfahan (note the use of Iranian architectural styles)

Brick and tilework detail

Inside Vank Cathedral

Like many Armenian communities around the world, the Armenians of Iran have been quite successful, now based largely in Tehran and Esfahan. In Tehran tourists are welcome to dine at the peaceful Armenian Club, located near the French and Italian Embassies, where non-Muslim women need not follow the hejab (Islamic dress code). The Armenian population increased during World War I as Armenians fled now Turkey (see also below, under “Syria”), but has steadily decreased since then as Armenians have left Iran for Armenia, the U.S. and Europe. There are some 20,000 Armenians left in Iran, about a tenth of the historical population.

Armenian church service

Recording of music from mass

In Jolfa, Esfahan, there are twelve Armenian churches, but there are only enough worshippers and clergy to celebrate mass in one or two, the churches rotating on a weekly basis. Following the historical precedent of Islam, the Iranian government seems to let Christians worship freely, at least within their churches. However, an Armenian that I spoke to said that the situation was peaceful “especially under [former president] Khatami,” implying that conditions for the Armenians have deteriorated under Ahmedinejad. Asked further, the Armenian mentioned that the greatest problems were judicial (presumably meaning that Armenians have limited access to justice in the courts) and discrimination for government posts.

Inside Bethlehem Church


Marco Polo noted that now Turkey was populated by three peoples: Turks (“a rude people with an uncouth language of their own” [!]), and Armenians and Greeks (“who live mixt with the former in the towns and villages, occupying themselves with trade and handicrafts”). During what is now called the Armenian Genocide around the time of World War I, hundreds of thousands of Armenians died and were killed in now Turkey with survivors fleeing to areas outside now Turkey, including Iran but especially Syria.

In Syria, Armenians were first taken to the middle of the desert, at Deir ez-Zur near Dura Europos (cf. post of 4.24), and then joined other Christians already settled in Syria, including in the Christian district of Aleppo. Currently Armenians make up a substantial portion of the population of central Aleppo, where they are prosperous and live among Arab Christians. We were told that flights between Aleppo and Yerevan are always full, reflecting the strong link between the Armenian communities in Syria and Armenia.

Street in Christian district of Aleppo, Armenian orphanage on right

Syrian-style inlay in Armenian, Armenian church, Aleppo

Armenian mass, Aleppo


Religion is a central aspect of human culture, and religious worship and religious edifices make up some of the most interesting and important sights for a traveler to a foreign land. In truth, however, the number of distinct, well-developed religious traditions is limited. As one becomes familiar with the basics of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, travel offers the opportunity to discover greater details, distinctions among the various subfaiths of these religions, but not the original sense of wonder that is afforded to a Western traveler first encountering Islam in the domes and minarets of Istanbul or an Eastern traveler’s first sight of the great European churches such as St. Peter’s Basilica or Notre Dame Cathedral.

All of which makes it so exciting, as a relatively seasoned traveler, to see an entirely different faith in the flesh. The world’s Zoroastrian population may be limited (at most, 200,000 people), but Zoroastrian communities are highly visible in parts of both India and Iran.

Estimates of the lifetime of Zoroaster (also called Zartosht and Zarathustra–as in Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame) vary, but many scholars currently believe that he lived in the eleventh or tenth century BC. He is regarded as the prophet of the religion named after him, which caught on especially as the dominant religion of the Persian Empire in the Achaemenid and Sassanid periods. The sacred texts, called the Gathas, which are part of the Avestas, are written in an ancient script and chanted by the priests as part of Zoroastrian worship.

audio clip of Zoroastrian chant

Most importantly, Zoroastrians believe in one god, Ahura Mazda, who created the universe and will prevail despite the presence of certain evil forces. It is often said that Zoroastrianism was the world’s first monotheistic religion.

The faravahar is the most important symbol of Zoroastrianism, seen here as carved at Persepolis. The man with his right hand shows obeisance to Ahura Mazda while he holds in his left hand a ring showing his promise to the god. The three layers of feathers in the wings represent good thought, good words and good deeds, while the three layers of feathers in the “tail” represent bad thoughts, bad words and bad deeds, which we should aim to put under us. The ring in the center represents the connectedness of the world and causality. The “leg” to the left represents evil spirits while the “leg” to the right represents good spirits.

We were told that people pray five times a day, oriented toward a light source if possible. The most important light source is the fire that burns at a Zoroastrian fire temple, but it is not considered essential for Zoroastrians to pray at the fire temple–any light suffices. Zoroastrians revere fire as one of the four sacred elements of creation (in addition to water, earth and air), but do not worship it–a common misconception in historical times.

Fire temple, Yazd, Iran

The fire inside the fire temple in Yazd. It is said that the fire, brought from older fire temples, has been burning without interruption since 470 AD.

A water, or Anahita, temple ruin at the city of Bishapur. When used, the central courtyard would have been flooded along with channels that run around an interior perimeter within the walls, on the other side of the doors that are visible.

Zoroastrianism became a state religion under the Sassanids (224-642 AD), who practiced a form of Zoroastrianism that is said to have been contaminated by Mithraism, another local faith. Since Islamic Arab conquest of now Iran in the seventh century, most of the population of Iran has converted to Islam, but around 40,000 Zoroastrians remain. It has been suggested that the decline of Zoroastrianism was due in part to its close association with the Sassanid state.

The Zoroastrian pilgrimage site of Chak Chak, to where it is believed that the last Sassanid princess fled. Low on water at this desert site, she is said to have thrown her staff at the mountain, at which a stream of water began to drip (“chak, chak, chak…”). The bronze doors depict Zoroaster.

At the time of the Arab conquest, a number of Iranians fled to India, where as a minority of around 70,000 centered around Bombay they retain their Zoroastrian faith. The Parsis, as the Zoroastrians of India are called, see themselves as Indians and not Iranians (they speak Gujarati, the language of Gujarat, India, where they first settled after leaving Iran), but maintain their historical and religious links to Iran. Parsis travel to Iran for pilgrimage and communicate with Iranian Zoroastrians on theological matters (although there is no central combined hierarchy), and there has also been intermarriage between the Zoroastrians of Iran and India. Parsis have been very successful, financially, and have provided material support to Zoroastrians in Iran.

A Parsi temple in Bombay, India

Tiled plaque inside the Chak Chak shrine, in Gujarati, the language of the Indian Parsis.

One of the most famous stories of Zoroastrians is that they do not bury the dead. Traditionally, Zoroastrians leave the bodies, which to them are meaningless vessels once the soul has departed, to decay and be eaten by scavenger birds in “towers of silence.” One Zoroastrian priest explained to us with unusually scientific vocabulary for a religious man that this allows the proteins of our bodies to be reincorporated as quickly as possible in another living animal. Towers of silence are no longer used in Iran, where they have been prohibited on health grounds since the Islamic Revolution, but are still used in India, with the help of chemical accelerants to promote decomposition, as the urbanization of Bombay has resulted in fewer and fewer scavengers.

A tower of silence outside Yazd. In the foreground is a cistern, with wind towers to cool the water.

Inside the tower. After the bones had been picked clean of flesh, they were deposited into the ossuary/well in the middle.

Modern Zoroastrian cemetery, Yazd. The bodies are buried in inert cement containers so as to not pollute the earth, one of the four sacred elements.

It’s often possible to recognize Zoroastrians in Iran because though they are ethnically fairly similar to the Muslim Iranians (unlike the Christians, who are largely Armenian), they tend to dress more casually. While they are required to adhere to the Islamic dress code, it seems they take it less to heart. One Iranian Zoroastrian told us that it is a bad time in Iran, with the current Iranian government, and many Zoroastrians, who on average are relatively well off, are emigrating.

Due to strict rules regarding conversion (the Parsis do not permit non-Parsis to convert to Zoroastrianism and the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran forbid Muslims from converting to other faiths under penalty of death), it seems likely that the world’s Zoroastrian population will further dwindle. [One Parsi told us that complicating the matter is that a majority of Parsi men are gay!] Unless there is a renaissance in conversions to Zoroastrianism by Iranians seeking a return to their ancient religious roots (that is, after a change in Iranian law), it would seem likely that the religion will, eventually, die out.

An Iranian Zoroastrian man. [Note: Not the source of any information for this or any post.]

Iran and India

This post can be read as a follow-up to my post of 3.28.


When I first heard about the Zoroastrian Parsis of Bombay five years ago, I was surprised to learn that there was any connection at all between Iran and India. Of course, a quick look at a map shows that Iran borders the subcontinent (a fairly long frontier with Pakistan on both sides of which live the ethnic group of the Baluchis), but Iran in my mind was in the Middle East (together with the Arab world), while Pakistan, India and the rest of the subcontinent fell under the designation South Asia.

Being in Iran has helped me recognize that the historical and cultural connections between Iran and India are far more significant than I realized, even after my visit to Hyderabad. [Visiting Pakistan, no doubt, would further make clear the many links.] For ease of discussion, I will discuss the ties between Iran and India in categories.

Ethnic. Two peoples on the Earth (not counting Nazi Germany) are noted for having foundational myths that relate back to an “Aryan” people–Iran and India. In the case of Iran, ancient texts refer to the original Iranians as Aryans, coming from the Caucasus, and the name of the country itself means “land of the Aryans.” And as you may have learned in school, the basic ethnic history of India is that Aryan people entered the subcontinent from now Afghanistan, to displace and to some extent subjugate the preexisting Dravidian people, who now populate the darker-skin realms of South India.

According to these foundational legends, the Iranian and Indian peoples can be seen as brothers or cousins. And whether or not you believe these legends to be true, the physical similarity between some Iranians and Indians cannot be denied. Of course, many Indians and Iranians don’t look anything like each other–if you had to choose two nations that had similar looking people, these two would not be them–but there is definitely an overlap in the physical type that wasn’t apparent to me before visiting India and Iran in relatively close succession. Surprisingly many Iranians could easily pass for Indian (and vice versa, I suppose, although most people in the world are more familiar with what Indians look like than Iranians).

Historical/Linguistic. Farsi, the language spoken most widely in Iran, and northern Indian languages, such as Hindi, are the easternmost languages of the Indo-European language group and are said to comprise its “Indo-Iranian branch.” This hit me off-guard when, while looking at some tiles, I was told that “green” and “vegetable” in Farsi were “sabz” and “sabzi,” respectively, the latter of which I knew to the same word in Hindi from our Indian travels. No doubt there are many, many other common words given the linguistic closeness of the languages.

As I mentioned in my post of 3.28, many Muslim rulers of India, including the Mughals, were Farsi-speaking, and so Farsi was a court language in India for a fair amount of its history. These rulers came not only directly from now Iran, as the rulers of Golconda I described in my post of 3.28, but also from what may be called Greater Persia, which includes the parts of Afghanistan and Central Asia that were for much of history under the same control as now Iran and populated by people who speak Farsi or closely related languages. Until the nineteenth century, Farsi was in relatively common use in India, at least in certain circles, and many Iranians traveled to and lived in India to seek their fortunes.

Given this history, Farsi influence has great in Urdu, the language of Pakistan, which even uses, like Farsi, a modified Arabic script. I am told by an Iranian-American friend and reader of the blog that an Urdu speaker once told my friend that he could understand my friend’s Farsi. If so, it must be relatively easy for a Farsi speaker to learn Urdu and vice versa.

I had learned from prior research that “biryani” (as in the Indian rice dish) was derived from the Farsi word for frying or roasting, and so got my hopes up that there would be a Persian equivalent of the dish–a sort of ur-biryani that was transported to India. Ordering a beriani in Esfahan, I received something like a fried hamburger patty, and so learned that given the extensive use of Farsi in India, there must be many things that have Farsi names but are purely from the subcontinent. [Post on Iranian food to come.]

Modern Cultural. Iranian people may to a certain extent look down on India today, and to a certain extent Iran and Iranian culture have held the position of a superior to India over history, but there are still many contemporary connections between Iran and India. Indian movies are popular in Iran, although perhaps not as popular as American movies. We’ve spoken to and heard of Iranians who have either studied in India or plan to study in India for its relatively low cost and high quality of education. In addition to its well-established universities, India is of course a free society and affords many opportunities to learn about the world not available in Iran.

Zoroastrians. Deserving its own category is the Zoroastrian connection. At the time of the Arab conquest of the Sassanid Empire in the seventh century, a significant population of Iranians fled Iran for India. Known as Parsis, they retain their Zoroastrian faith and form a discrete minority population in India, centered around Bombay. The Parsis of India today see themselves as Indians and not Iranians (they speak Gujarati, the language of Gujarat, India, where they first settled after leaving Iran), but maintain their historical and religious links to Iran. Parsis travel to Iran for pilgrimage and communicate with Iranian Zoroastrians on theological matters, and there has also been intermarriage between the Zoroastrians of Iran and India (perhaps helpful, given their limited populations in both places–perhaps 70,000 in India and 40,000 in Iran). We have been told that there has been some financial support from India to Iran (the Indian Parsis have been very successful, financially), and a Indian Parsi community exists in Yazd, Iran, a center of Iranian Zoroastrians. [Post on Zoroastrianism to come.]

History of Iran: Sassanids

This is part of a series of an overview of Iranian history–please refer to my post of 5.10.


With no clear successor to Alexander the Great following his early death, now Iran became part of a dynasty founded by one of his generals, Seleucus. Around 250 BC, the Seleucid empire was largely conquered by the Parthians (of Central Asian Turkic origin). Parthian rule of now Iran, characterized in part by a rivalry with Rome, lasted from 250 BC to 224 AD. A brief post on the Seleucids and Parthians perhaps to come.

The Sassanid dynasty was founded in 226 AD, when Ardeshir defeated the Parthian Emperor Artabanus IV.

A bas relief, showing the victory of Ardeshir over Artabanus IV. On the right is an anthropomophized Ahura Mazda, the god of Zoroastrianism, handing a ring of royal authority to Ardeshir. Under Ardeshir’s horse is Artabanus, while the God of Evil lies under Ahura Mazda’s horse.

Ruins of Gur, the first capital of the Sassanids, located about an hour and a half southwest of Shiraz

Ardeshir’s palace. This building is notable in particular for its great domes, said to be the first to be built over a square base by use of the squinch.

Zoroastrianism became an orthodox state religion under the Sassanids, led largely by the priest Kartir, who served six different Sassanid emperors over a period of fifty years. The Sassanid Empire practiced a form of Zoroastrianism that is said to have been contaminated by Mithraism, another local faith. Also, gone was the religious tolerance of the Achaemenids–at times, violence toward those of other religions (especially Christians, who were seen as favorably disposed to the Christian Byzantine Empire) was promoted by the state. In one inscription, Kartir speaks proudly of his destruction of the temples of Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Greeks throughout the Sassanid Empire. It has been suggested that the decline of Zoroastrianism was due in part to its close association with the Sassanid state. [Post on Zoroastrianism to come.]

A water, or Anahita, temple at the city of Bishapur. When used, the central courtyard would have been flooded along with channels that run around an interior perimeter within the walls, on the other side of the doors that are visible.

On and off for almost its entire duration, the Sassanid Empire fought with the Roman/Byzantine Empire (first based in Rome, and then Constantinople). Earlier on our trip, we visited the site of one Sassanid victory, the city of Dura Europos, described in my post of 4.24. One ally of the Romans against the Sassanids was the city-state of Palmyra, described in my post of 5.2.

In AD 256, Sassanid Emperor Shapur I captured Roman Emperor Valerian following a battle at Edessa (in now Turkey). In this bas relief, Roman Emperors Philip the Arab (kneeling) and Valerian are shown defeated by Shapur. [Philip founded Philippopolis, now Shahba, Syria, one of the “dead cities” of the Hauran.] Emperor Valerian is said to have been held captive in the city of Bishapur until his death.

The Sassanid Empire ended with the Arab (Islamic) conquest of now Iran in the seventh century. While in the ninth and tenth centuries there were smaller dynasties, especially in the eastern part of now Iran, that at times claimed independence from the Islamic Caliph, first based in Damascus and then Baghdad, the next truly great empire to incorporate all of now Iran would be the Seljuk Turks’, itself followed by the coming of the Mongols.

History of Iran: Achaemenids

Iranian history, to many of us in the West, is something of an unknown. We know that the civilization of Iran is an ancient one, and that various Persian Empires have contested the great powers of European history, but beyond that–nothing (or worse than nothing, in the case of the recent movie “300”). In a series of posts, I hope to acquaint you with some basic information about some of the dynasties that have controlled what is now Iran over the past 2500 years, with some context to show their relevance to world history.

While it would be ideal to proceed chronologically, I will instead be working in the order of sites we visit. Fortunately, we started our trip in Shiraz, nearby some of the greatest relics of the Achaemenid and Sassanid Empires, which come fairly early in Persian history, and it is those two periods I wish to cover in this and the next post.


The Achaemenids came to power around 550 BC, when Cyrus the Great consolidated rule over now Iran. Cyrus was able to extend his empire as far east as Pakistan and Central Asia and as far west as Egypt and the Greek cities of Asia Minor (now Turkey). Soon after Cyrus’s reign was Darius the Great’s, who was in turn followed by his son Xerxes–all names familiar to Western readers as the foes of the Greeks. The Achaemenid Persian Empire was arguably the first great empire of the world, incorporating many nations in a wide stretch of the Near East.

Perhaps the greatest construction of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, and a great source of pride for Iranian people of today, was Persepolis, which lies approximately an hour from the modern city of Shiraz. Not a true city, but more a religious or festival complex, the site was constructed for the celebration of Nowruz, or the Persian New Year, which is still celebrated around the time of the Spring Equinox in Iran and Central Asia. [All of the pictures in this post are from Persepolis and nearby tombs.]

Gate of All Nations, Persepolis

A symbol of Nowruz–a lion attacking a bull

During the Nowruz celebrations, representatives of all of the nations within the Persian Empire would come to Persepolis to pay tribute to the Persian emperor. Our guide noted that the gifts brought were not necessarily the most valuable items from a given region but the items that were most locally distinctive. The procession of the nations is recorded in reliefs that have survived in near pristine condition.

Note how each delegation is led (on left), hand in hand, by a Mede or Persian–the two “home” nations of the Persian Empire.

The Lydian delegation, carrying bowls and vases

The Achaemenids were followers of Zoroastrianism, said by some to be the world’s first monotheistic religion. [Post on Zoroastrianism (including its survival in modern Iran) to come.] However, the Achaemenids permitted freedom of worship within the empire, and Persians proudly state that Cyrus “invented” human rights in a famous charter known as the Cyrus Cylinder. The Achaemenid rulers called themselves Kings of Kings, and recognized that they were rulers over a multiethnic and multilingual domain.

The faravahar, a symbol of Zoroastrianism

Inscriptions at Persepolis and other Achaemenid sites are in three languages, Elamite, Neo-Babylonian and Old Persian, all written in cuneiform.

The Greeks were among the Persians’ greatest foes, and the Achaemenids suffered famous defeats at Marathon in 490 BC and at Salamis in 480 BC. The Empire persisted, however, until the rise of Macedonian Alexander the Great, whose armies swept over Asia as far as now Pakistan. Alexander defeated the Persian Empire around 330 BC, commencing a period of Greek control of now Iran that lasted through around 250 BC. Persepolis was destroyed by a fire at the time of Alexander’s conquest, although it is not known whether this was deliberate (as revenge for Xerxes’ destruction of Athens) or accidental.

The acinaces, a dagger used by Persian soldiers. We were told that the length of these daggers was a great strategic disadvantage relative to the Greeks’ longer swords. Note at the bottom the row of twelve-petaled flowers, a symbol representing the twelve months of the year that is repeated everywhere in Persepolis.

Four of the Achaemenid emperors were buried near Persepolis, at a site now called Naqst-e Rostam. The tomb on the right belongs to Darius the Great.

Detail of carvings above tomb. Note the emperor above being supported by the 28 nations of the Persian Empire while paying respect toward the faravahar and another symbol of Zoroastrianism, the fire of the fire temple.