Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Peoples of the empire: The Chorasmians

I'm skipping the Caspians because too little is known about them, in my estimation, to put on an effective historical impression.  They're not even attested in Old Persian, even though they are (in Western languages) the namesake of the Caspian Sea.

The next people on my list are the Chorasmians, the subjects of this week's installment.

Geographic definition
Chorasmia (O.P. Uvârazmiya, known in later periods as Khwarezm) lay far to the north and slightly east of Persia, just south of the Aral Sea in modern Uzbekistan, and watered by the Amu Darya, which flows north from the mountains of Afghanistan.  Owing to this, Chorasmia was a fertile land, even more so in antiquity than today because the Amu Darya is believed to have carried more water then.

The country first appears in the Behistun inscription (520 BC) among Darius the Great's list of countries of which he was king.  He does not mention it among the rebellious nations and it may have already been part of the empire when he ascended the throne.  A fortress at the modern site of Kyuzeli-gyr was burned down in this period and may represent an incident during the Persian conquest.  At this time, the historical Chorasmian culture was entering its formative "archaic" phase with the construction of large canals and mud-brick buildings and the use of pottery wheels.

Herodotus states that the Chorasmians were grouped with the Parthians, Sogdians and Arians as the sixteenth tax district of the empire, which paid a yearly tribute of 300 talents.  For this reason, Jona Lendering suggests that Chorasmia was governed by the satrap of Parthia.  They appear in his list of infantry units in Xerxes' invasion of Greece together with the Parthians under the command of Artabazus son of Pharnaces, later to become satrap of Phrygia.

After the defeat at Salamis, Artabazus escorted Xerxes back to Asia in 479, then killed the Thracian Bottiaeans who ruled Olynthus on suspicious of plotting revolt.  He also besieged the rebellious city of Potidaea, but a large part of his army died when attempting to cross the exposed seabed just before what appears to have been a tsunami.  The survivors rejoined Mardonius in Thessaly.  Following the Battle of Plataea, Artabazus led the remaining Persian army home by way of Thessaly.  I can find no word on whether his Chorasmian or Parthian troops took part in most of these deeds, though Dandamaev and Lukonin (Kul’tyra i èkonomika drevnego Irana) claim that they did not fight in the Battle of Plataea.

It appears that in the early 4th century, the Persians lost control over Chorasmia.  While a Chorasmian still appears on the table of nations on Artaxerxes II's tomb, the grand Achaemenid palace at Kalaly-gur was left unfinished and seemingly abandoned in this period.  No Chorasmians fought for Darius III against Alexander the Great, and though they supported the satrap Bessus during his bid for kingship, the country concluded an independent peace treaty with Alexander under a King Phrataphernes (or, per Arrian, Pharasmanes, whom Yuri Aleksandrovich Rapoport concludes was a son sent by Phrataphernes) in the winter of 328-27.

Chorasmia remained independent of the Seleucid and Arsacid dynasties.  A native dynasty, the Afrighids, emerged in the 4th century and ruled as clients of the Sassanids and the Arab Ummayads, but it was under a series of rulers of Turkic mamluk origin that the Khwarezmian empire would come to rule all of Greater Iran by the turn of the 13th century, only to fall spectacularly after Shah Muhammed II provoked Genghis Khan to war.  Predictably, Khwarezm thereafter ceased to exist as a distinct culture, though the name lingers, and today the region is a complex mixture of various Turkic peoples and Persians.

Chorasmian was an Eastern Iranian language and thus related most closely to Avestan, Bactrian, Pashto and Sogdian.  It is not attested from the Achaemenid period (and not all that well-attested after, though the Iranica has some analysis of its morphology as it stood during the Islamic period), but I surmise if we could see Achaemenid Avestan we would recognize it as bearing some resemblance to Avestan.  During early Islamic period, it began to be overtaken by Persian and Turkic languages, and ceased to be spoken around the High Middle Ages.


Certain Zoroastrian traditions link Chorasmia with Airyanəm Vaējah, the homeland of Zarathuštra.  The Bundahišn, a post-Sassanid compendium of Zoroastrian cosmology, states that the sacred fire of Yima (Jamshid) was located at Chorasmia.  Legend identifies the kingdom of Vištâspa, Zarathuštra's patron in the Avesta, as either Chorasmia or Aria.  While these much later traditions don't necessarily tell us anything reliable about the state of Chorasmian religion more than a thousand years earlier, it is likely that early forms of Mazdaism were at least as well-established in the Eastern Iranian cultural region where Zoroastrianism originated as it was in Persia by the Achaemenid period.  Another clue is the lack of graves in the archaic period, which would fit with the Zoroastrian tradition of not burying corpses.

Chorasmian male clothing is well-illustrated at Naqš-e Rostam and a bit less clearly but in general agreement at Persepolis as consisting of a slightly wrapped-around, belted coat with bordered edges, loose-fitting trousers, ankle shoes and a tiara or kidaris with a low peak.

It is identical to the clothing of the Scythians and Sogdians in Persian art, being a variant of the "cavalry costume" or equestrian clothing worn by most Iranian peoples, related to but markedly different from the "Median costume," and might be analogously termed "Scythian costume."

Herodotus states that Chorasmian weapons were like those of the Bactrians, which raises the same issues in reconstruction with regards to the reed bows.  Chorasmians at Persepolis and Naqš-e Rostam are equipped with an akinakes.

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