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IRANIAN WORLD

HARÂT (HERAT)

Its Geography & History


 

 

I. Geography of Heart, by Arash Khazeni

II. Pre-Islamic History, by W. J. Vogelsang

 

 

I. Geography of Herat

by Arash Khazeni

 

The former Iranian province of Herat [1] constitutes roughly the northern one-third of the western lowlands of modern Afghanistan, bordering on Iran and comprising the eastern extensions of the province of Khorasan. 

 

Altitudes range from an average of 900 m in the west in the lower valleys of the Harirud River to an average of 1,300 m in the east in the upper valleys of this river. Data on climate and precipitation and climatic variation in the province are sparse and inconsistent. Freezing temperature is common in winter but rarely reaches -10° C. Early spring is marked by occasional freezing temperature, which rises to an average of 21° C in May. The average temperature in summer is about 30° C, but it occasionally reaches 45° C. Autumn ushers in increasingly cool temperature that ranges in average from 20° to 25° C. Annual precipitation for the province, mostly in the form of rain, during 1965-66 was 79.1 mm with 54.7 mm falling during the month of February and almost all of it from November to February (Akram, pp. 11-12). The peripheries of the Harirud valley have provided some of the best grasslands in all of Asia for pastoral nomads to graze their flocks and herds (Ferrier, p. 192). Ruins around Herat suggest that the valley used to be much more extensively cultivated and settled than it is today (Barthold, p. 49).

 

The town of Herat (34°-20' N, 62°-12' E) is situated in the west of the province in a fertile valley irrigated by the Harirud River, which springs from the Ghur (q.v.) mountains in the east and turns north along the border with Persia before turning west, vanishing in the sands of the desert on the Persian border with the Republic of Turkmenistan. The highland plain of Herat borders Bâdghis (q.v.) to the north, Safid Kuh (the Paropamisus Mountains) and Ghur to the east, Sistân to the south, and the Harirud to the west. The Harirud runs through its valley, bypassing the town, which lies about 5 km to the north at an altitude of 2,650. Herat has long been an oasis surrounded by pastoral hills and steppes (Malleson, p. 42).

 


 

II. Pre-Islamic History

by W. J. Vogelsang

 

 

The present town of Herat in western Afghanistan dates back to ancient times, but its exact age remains unknown. In the Zoroastrian (1700 B.C.E.) Avesta (Yašt 10.14; Vidêvdât 1.9), the district is mentioned as Harôiva. The name of the district and its main town is derived from that of the chief river of the region, the Hari Rud (Old Iranian *Harayu "with velocity"; compare Sanskrit Sara‚yu [Mayrhofer, Dictionary III, p. 443]), which traverses the district and passes just south (5 km) of modern Herat. In Achaemenid times (ca. 550-330 B.C.E.), the surrounding district was known as Haraiva (in Old Persian), and in classical sources the region was correspondingly known as Areia.

 

The naming of a region and its principal town after the main river is a common feature in this part of the world. (Compare the adjoining districts/rivers/towns of Arachosia and Bactria.)

 

The site of Herat dominates the productive part of ancient Iranian Areia, which was, and basically still is, a rather narrow stretch of land that extends for some 150 km along both banks of the Hari Rud, from near Obeh in the east to near Kuhsân in the west. At no point along its route is the valley more than 25 km wide. The city and district of Areia/Herat occupy an important strategic place along the age-old caravan routes across the Iranian Plateau.

 

The Achaemenid district of Areia is mentioned in the provincial lists that are included in various royal inscriptions, for instance, in the Bisotun inscription (q.v., DB 1.16) of Darius I, the Great (ca. 520 B.C.E.) in Fârs province. In the texts the name of Areia is grouped with Zranka (or Dranka), modern Sistân to the south; Parthava (Parthia) to the northwest, and Bâxtriš (Bactria) to the northeast. Representatives from the district are depicted in reliefs, e.g., at the royal Achaemenid tombs of Naqš-e Rostam and Persepolis. They are wearing Scythian-style dress (with a tunic and trousers tucked into high boots) and a twisted turban around the head. This costume is also worn by the representatives from nearby Sistân (to the south) and Arachosia (to the southeast) and is reminiscent of the dress worn by the representatives from almost all of the northern lands of the Achaemenid Empire, which were strongly influenced by the Scythic cultures from the Eurasian steppes. On the so-called Darius Statue that was discovered at Susa (Kervran, 1972), the representative from Areia is also shown wearing a long coat worn around the shoulders with empty sleeves. This type of coat is known from classical sources (Gk. kandys) and was sometimes also worn by the Persians and the Medes. The origin of this coat should be sought among the nomadic Scythians of Central Asia. (See further in Gervers-Molnar, 1973.)

 

Very little is known about Areia during the Achaemenid period. Herodotus (7.61 ff.) tells that Areians were included in Xerxes' army against Greece, around 480 B.C.E. In Herodotus's taxation list of the Achaemenid Empire (3.89 ff.), the Areians are listed together with the Parthians, Choresmians (from south of the Aral Sea), and Sogdians (from the valley of the Zarafshan River, around Bukhara and Samarkand). According to Herodotus, the Areians in Xerxes' army were dressed in the Bactrian fashion, which means that they were wearing a Scythian-type outfit.

It was administered by a satrap, called Satibarzanes, who was one of the three main Persian officials in the East of the Empire, together with the General Bessus, satrap of Bactria and Barsaentes of Arachosia. This would mean that the capital of Satibarzanes, which may have been Herat, was one of the three main Achaemenid centers in this part of the world, together with ancient Bactra (modern Balkh, the Iranian capital of ancient Bactria), and Old Kandahâr, the Iranian capital of ancient Arachosia.

 

In late 330 B.C. Alexander, according to his biographers, invaded the Areian capital that was called Artacoana (Arrian, Anab. Alex. 3.25.2-6; Curtius 6. 6.33 [Artacana]; Diodorus 17.78.1 [Chortacana]; Pliny, Nat. hist. 6.61.93; Strabo 11.10.1 [Artacaena]). The etymology of this name remains unknown, and whether this place should be identified with the modern city of Herat is also uncertain, although the strategic position of modern Herat would suggest its great antiquity; and thus the possibility remains that they are one and the same place. In the early nineteenth century a Persian Achaemenid cuneiform cylinder seal was found in or near Herat (Torrens, 1842).

 

Soon after the death of Alexander, Areia was briefly attacked by Scythic, the Iranian nomads from the far north (Pliny, Nat. hist. 6.47). In the following years, Areia became a frontier area between the empire of the Parthians to the west and that of the so-called Greco-Bactrians to the east. In the late second century B.C.E. the Greco-Bactrians were defeated by northern tribes, and Scythians (or Sakas) traversed the district of Areia; perhaps under pressure from the Parthians, they finally settled in nearby Sistân (Mid. Pers. skstn "Sakastân"), farther to the south. In the Parthian Stations (14-16) by Isidore of Charax, an itinerary composed in the Augustan era, the district of Areia is placed between Margiana (in the vicinity of modern Marv to the north), and Anauon (around modern Farâh) to the south. At that time the district was clearly regarded as forming part of the Parthian realm.

 

In the Sasanian period (226-652 C.E.), "Harêv" (hryw) is listed in Šâpûr I's Ka'ba-ye Zardošt inscription; and "Hariy" (hr'y) is mentioned in the Pahlavi catalogue of the provincial capitals of the empire (Markwart, Provincial Capitals, pp. 11, 46). Ca. 430 C.E., the town is also listed as having a Christian community. Sasanian seals and engraved gemstones were reported to have been found in or around Herat (Torrens, 1842). The city served as a Sasanian mint, its name being recorded as hr, hry, and hrydw. Additionally, gold and copper coins have been found that are clearly Sasanian in inspiration, although the Sasanians in Iran generally did not strike gold coins but preferred silver issues. The gold coins from the Herat area show a fire altar on the reverse and the portrait of the ruler on the obverse. The name of the ruler is often identical to one of those listed on the so-called Kushano-Sasanian coins from Bactria, and this would indicate that the Sasanian governor in the northeast of the Sasanian Empire at times also controlled the Herat district. (For the coin evidence, see Dani and Litvinsky, 1996.)

 

In the last two centuries of Sasanian rule, the area and town of Areia/Herat had great strategic importance in the endless wars between the Sasanian Iranians and the Chionites and Hephthalites (qq.v.), of Hunnish origin, who had been settled in modern northern Afghanistan since the late fourth century; but exact information is scarce. The city of Herat, however, became well known with the advent of the Arabs in the middle of the seventh century.

 

 

Bibliography

F. R. Allchin and N. Hammond, The Archaeology of Afghanistan. From Earliest Times to the Timurid Period, London , 1978.

Warwick Ball, Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan / Catalogue des sites arche‚ologiques d'Afghanistan, Paris, 1982. 

A. H. Dani and B. A. Litvinsky, "The Kushano-Sasanian Kingdom," in History of Civilizations of Central Asia III. The cross-roads of civilizations, A.D. 250 to 750, Paris, 1996, pp. 103-18. 

Veronika Gervers-Molna‚r, The Hungarian Szür. An Archaic Mantle of Eurasian Origin, Toronto, 1973. 

Ph. Gignoux, Glossaire des Inscriptions Pehlevies et Parthes (Corpus Inscr. Iran., Supplementary Series, Vol. I), London, 1972, p. 52. 

Robert Göbl, Sasanian Numismatics, Braunschweig, 1971. 

Kent, Old Persian, p. 213. M. Kervran et al., "Une statue de Darius decouvert aà Suse," JA 260, 1972, pp. 235-66. 

H. Torrens, Õn a Cylinder and certain Gems, collected in the neighbourhood of Herat, by Major Pottinger," Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 11, 1842, pp. 316-21. 

W. J. Vogelsang, The Rise and Organisation of the Achaemenid Empire. The Eastern Iranian Evidence, Leiden, 1992. 

Idem, The Afghans, Oxford, 2002.

 

 

[1] Herat was separated from Iran on 4th March 1857, by British [see "Herat Question" how Herat separated from Iran]

 

 

 

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Source/Extracted From: Encyclopaedia Iranica

 

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