The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism
Origin of the Pre-Imperial Iranian Peoples
By: Dr Oric Basirov
Two Ancient Iranian-Scythian Priest Warriors
Two Ancient Iranian-Scythian Priest Warriors
As late as the closing decades of the 4th century B.C., the Iranian
peoples were still the largest and the most widespread group within the great
Indo-European family; this position must have been held for thousands of years
by their nomadic ancestors, and was not relinquished until well into the Roman
period; during those distant millennia, they roamed the vast, limitless Eurasian
steppes as pastoralist riders and charioteers; towards the end of the second
millennium B.C., some of them, lured by the great civilisations of the Indus
vally, Elam, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor, moved southwards and made permanent
settlements; it didn't take very long for one group of these settled people, the
Medes, to form the first of the four Iranian empires, and less than 500 years
for the Persians, to become the absolute masters of the known world; their
nomadic ancestors, however, continued to roam the steppes, unopposed, for a very
long time; it was not until the 5th century A.D. that the invading Turkic tribes
pushed them out of their homelands into central Europe and further west; by
then, of course, vast numbers of them had merged with eastern Europeans to form
the core of the modern Slavs ; the rest
were eventually assimilated in western Europe, especially in France; the
intention of this paper is to give a broad outline of the history and the
culture of these fascinating warriors, who for many thousands of years remained
the indisputed masters of the steppes; throughout their long nomadic history,
they are known to us by a variety of names, both native and foreign.
We meet this
word again in Pahlavi literature, and in many Sasanian inscriptions, coins,
seals and other documents; it is attested in Pahlavi as _r, meaning noble or
hero; as Īrān, Iran; as Īrān-Shahr, meaning the Iranian Empire; as Īrān-vez,
meaning the mythical original land of the Aryans; as an‘r, meaning non-Aryan,
barbarian; and as anīrān, i.e., barbarity and ignobility.
reference to this word in an Iranian context, however, predates Zoroaster and is
attested in non-Gathic Avesta; it appears as airya, meaning noble; as airya
dainhava (Yt.8.36, 52) meaning the land of the Aryans; and as airyana vaejah,
the original land of the Aryans; this term, it seems, was adopted in remote
antiquity by Iranians as their national identity ; hence
other peoples were called Anairya, meaning non-Aryan, probably a derogatory
racial designation like the other, more familiar, similar terms, such as, Greeks
& barbarians, Jews & Goyim, Arabs & Ajams and Germans & Welsch.
that Iranians, Indians, and probably some Europeans also called themselves by
this name, suggests that the word Airya may have been an old native designation
for the racial group now called Indo-European, Indo-Germanic, European,
Caucasian, or simply, White; it was indeed adopted in the middle of the 19th
century as a collective designation for the above racial group and their
that both nomadic and sedentary Iranians referred to themselves as Airyas;
gradually, however, this word became a self-imposed designation for the settled
Iranians only, who began to refer to their nomadic cousins in the East, i.e.,
Zoroaster's people, as the Saka, and some of those further west as SKUDRA ; the Saka
probably did not call themselves exclusively by this name, some may have
retained the use of the term Airya.
tribes left the northern steppes intermittently to settle permanently in Central
Asia, modern Afghanistan, and Persia; these tribes are the direct forebears of
the imperial Western Iranians, the Medes, Persians and lastly, the Parthians;
converted to Zoroastrianism, however, such became their religious significance,
that by the middle of the 1st millennium B.C., the centre of the faith was
neither in the homeland of its founder, nor in any of the adjoining Eastern
Iranian regions; it was firmly established on the western side of the great salt
desert, amongst the people now called Western Iranians; from then onwards,
Eastern Iran fades into the background; we now deal almost exclusively with
Western Iran, and until very recently, were not even aware of the fact that
Eastern Iran had played such a vital part in the genesis of the Iranian empires,
and their great national faith; most scientific facts, such as, the recorded
history and Near Eastern archaeological data, especially a large volume of
deciphered inscriptions, relate to the four great Western Iranian empires of the
Medes, Persians, Parthians & Sasanians; there is only a small volume of
classical sources, and more recent archaeological data, which also deal with the
nomadic Iranians of the northeast, i.e., those Saka warriors who remained in the
steppes, and were never completely subdued by the settled Iranians of the
imperial period; these warriors remained, nonetheless, a very formidable enemy
of their settled cousins; not only did they conquer and rule the Median Empire
for 28 years in the 7th century B.C., but they also defeated and killed Cyrus
the Great, founder of the Achaemenian Empire, in the following century; a
generation later, they were still engaging Darius the Great in many hard-fought
battles; two hundred and fifty years later, however, they became the saviours of
the Iranian culture and religion, and political integrity; they gradually pushed
the Macedonians out of the Iranian homeland, and formed the Parthian Empire,
which lasted for another 500 years.
Iranians of the north western steppes, however, especially those settled in
Europe, are extensively covered by the classical writers; they are also attested
in a very large number of archaeological excavations in Eastern Europe; these
Iranian peoples are known in the West as Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians,
Alans, and finally Ossets; it must be emphasised that all these names refer to
the successive migratory waves of the same people, who probably called
themselves by a name derived from the word Airya, as the Alans did, and the
Ossets still do.
recorded nomadic western Iranians are the Cimmerians; they make their first
appearance in Assyrian annals at the beginning of the 8th century B.C., where
they are referred to as Gimmiri; they came down from modern Ukraine, and
conquered eastern Thrace, and most of modern Turkey, being pushed westwards by
another nomadic Iranian people, the Scythians (see below); they left behind a
wealth of archaeological material, including a vast number of mound-burials in
western Asia Minor; they later allied themselves with the Medes against the
Assyrian Empire; the word GIMMIRI is attested in the Old Testament (Genesis
I.x.12), as GOMER, the name given to one of Japhet's sons (see below, Scythian/Ashkenaz).
Iranians, these nomads probably called themselves by the generic term "Airya";
this is testified inter alia by the native name of their descendants in the
present day Europe (see below); it seems, however, that they, or at least some
of their powerful clans, also called themselves "SAKA" in the East,
and *SKUنA, SKUDA, or SKUDRA  in the
West. SKUDA is believed to be related to the German word "SACHS",
meaning a type of throwing-dagger which the eponymic Saxons used to carry and
shoot with; indeed, it
is possible that like the historical Saxons, the Skuda derived their name from
their ability to shoot. [cf. Franks].
appearance in recorded history is again in the Assyrian annals, where they chase
the Cimmerians, their own kinsmen, first out of Europe, then out of Asia Minor
into the Median territory; in the 7th century B.C. they allied themselves with
the Assyrians, and attacked the combined forces of the invading rebellious
Median vassal king, Khshathrita (Phraortes in Greek, Kashtariti in Akkadian) and
his Cimmerians allies; the Assyrians repelled the Medes, killing Phraortes, and
routed the Cimmerians; the real victors, however, were the Scythians; for the
next 28 years, now allied with their erstwhile enemy, the Cimmerians, they
ravaged most of the Ancient Near East, including Media; later they allied
themselves with Khshathrita's son, the Median emperor, Hvakhshathara II (Cyaxares
in Greek, Uaksatar II in Akkadian), and the Babylonian king, Nabopolassar,
taking Nineveh in 612 B.C. and destroying once and for all the mighty Assyrian
Empire. (beginning of the Kurdish calendar)
Scythians were called by the Assyrians Ashkuza or Ishkuza (A/Iڑ-k/gu-za-ai); as
with the Gimmiri, this word also appears to have found its way into the Old
Testament; one of Gomer's (Gimmiri) three sons, in Genesis I.x.12, is called
Ashkenaz, which has given us the modern Hebrew word, Ashkenazi.
Scythians were known by the Achaemenians, as SAKA and SKUDRA, by the Greeks, SKغTHIA
(سê?èéل), by the Romans, SCYTHIAE (pron. SKITYAI), which has given us the
English word SCYTHIAN; they lived in a wide area stretching from the south and
west of the River Danube to the eastern and northeastern edges of the Taklamakan
Desert in China; this vast territory includes now parts of Central Europe, the
eastern half of the Balkans, the Ukraine, northern Caucasus, southern Russia,
southern Siberia, Central Asia and western China.
We know a
great deal about their physical appearance; they were long-headed giants with
blond hair and blue eyes; this well-known fact is attested by various classical
sources , and by
their skeletal and other remains in numerous archaeological excavations, which
give a fairly detailed description of these ancient Iranians ; recently,
a large number of their mummified corpses were discovered in western China;
these mummies, which are extremely well-preserved in the arid conditions of the
Taklamakan desert, are now on display at the museums of khotan, Urumchi, and
Turfan in Sinkiang; they are dressed in Scythian costume, i.e., leather tunic
and trousers, and are usually displayed in the sitting position, exactly as
described by Herodotus; what is extra ordinary apart from their northern
European features, however, is their gigantic heights, well over two metres as
they are now, in spite of the natural shrinkage expected during the past
thousands of years.
Scythians, and other early steppe Iranians are believed to have been the first
Indo-Europeans to use domesticated horses for riding (as opposed to eating);
this theory has acquired fresh credibility after the recent discovery of horse
skeletons at the Sredny Stog archaeological culture, east of the River
Dniepr, a well-known pre-historical Scythian site in eastern Ukraine; these
bones were identified as belonging to bitted, therefore, ridden horses dating to
4000 B.C., at least 2500 years older than the previously known examples.
excavations east of the Ural Mountains credit them also with the invention of
the first two-wheeled chariot ; such
mobility, naturally, turned them into a formidable fighting force; they never
willingly fought on foot, and used armour both for themselves and their mounts;
they also developed the famous steppe tactic of faked retreat, and the
"Parthian shot", shooting backwards while on mounted retreat; this
tactic, named after their well-known descendants, the Parthians, requires an
amazing skill and balance in the saddle, and a dazzling co-ordination of eyes,
arms and breath without the support of stirrups.
unique pastoralist equestrian warrior society, women fought alongside their men;
not only they were held in an equal status with men, but also periodically they
actually ruled them;
called upside-down society both fascinated and horrified the male dominated
Greek culture; later, the Romans expressed the same horror, when they
encountered the Celtic and Germanic female warriors. Greek writers called the
fighting Iranian women they met in the Ukrainian steppes, the Amazons; later
Greek sources placed them further east, in northeastern parts of Iran.
incredible social equality, at such an early age, is irrefutably attested, not
only by a host of classical writers, but also by a wealth of archaeological
evidence; in many mound- burials in the former Soviet Union, it is by no means
unusual to find remains of women warriors dressed in full armour, lying on a war
chariot, surrounded by their weaponry, and significantly, accompanied by a host
of male subordinates specially sacrificed in their honour; nonetheless, these
young Iranian warriors, as evidenced by the archaeological remains of their
costumes and jewellery, do not seem
to have lost their femininity; they remained "feminine as well as
female" as a great contemporary German scholar puts it .
excavations also testify to the amazing skill of these people in making
jewellery; some of the finds are so dazzling in quality and advanced in
technique that it is hard to imagine that they are produced by an unsettled,
nomadic culture; we are indeed very fortunate that these early steppe Iranians
practised elaborate funerary rituals and interred their treasures with their
dead in huge impregnable burial mounds; hence, the vast majority of the steppe
Iranians' artifacts known to the learned world is attributed to the Scythians.
SARMATIANS AND ALANS
As it has
been emphasised throughout this paper these two names probably refer to the same
people, who, in all likelihood, called themselves by a name similar to the word
who has devoted most of his Book IV to Scythians, is the earliest source on
Sarmatians, whom he refers to as a branch of the Scythians; by the 3rd century
B.C., the Sarmatians (Greek SARMATAI [سلٌىلôله]), had replaced Scythians
in Europe, and settled in western Ukraine, the Danube Valley and Thrace.
known reference to the Alans (Greek ALANOI, Latin ALANI), however, is not until
the mid 1st century A.D ; it appears
that by then the Alans, in turn, had taken the place of the Sarmatians in
Eastern Europe; both these Iranian peoples are frequently mentioned in Greek,
Roman, and Byzantine sources as
late as the middle of the fifth century A.D.
an identical etymological origin with the word Iran, are extensively covered,
especially by Ammianus Marcellinus who states inter alia, that "Almost all
of the Alans are tall and good looking, their hair is generally blond" (AM,
once ruled a vast territory stretching from the Caucasus to the Danube, but
were gradually driven westwards by the invading Huns; however, unlike their
predecessors the Cimmerians, Scythians and the Sarmatians, the Alans did not
vanish from the history; indeed they settled in the Byzantine Empire and Western
Europe, playing a vital role in the subsequent European affairs; nonetheless,
one finds it very odd that they are not given the full credit they truly deserve
for being an important force in medieval Europe.
once ruled a vast territory stretching from the Caucasus to the Danube, but were gradually driven westwards by the invading Huns; however, unlike their predecessors the Cimmerians, Scythians and the Sarmatians, the Alans did not vanish from the history; indeed they settled in the Byzantine Empire and Western Europe, playing a vital role in the subsequent European affairs; nonetheless, one finds it very odd that they are not given the full credit they truly deserve for being an important force in medieval Europe.
the great Russian expert in Iranians of the steppes, once complained that
"In most of the work on the period of migrations, the part played by the
Sarmatians and especially by the Alans in conquest of Europe is almost ignored;
but we must never forget that the Alans long resided in Gaul, that they invaded
Italy, and that they came with the Vandals to Spain and conquered North
Africa" ; one can
easily sympathise with the frustration of the great Russian scholar; unlike
various German tribes and Slavs and hoards of Huns, Avars, Magyars and Bulgars,
who dominate the historical literature dealing with the early Middle Ages, the
Alans hardly receive a mention; yet, they were in fact the only non-Germanic
people of the migration period to make important settlements in Western Europe,
and for many years dominated the affairs of the late Roman Empire.
In 421, soon
after their arrival in Constantinople, the Alan general, Ardaburius (Ardapur),
fighting for the Byzantine emperor Theodosius, defeated the army of the Sasanian
Emperor, Bahram V (Gمr), and took the fortified frontier city of Nisibus; after
several more victorious campaigns in Italy he was made consul for the year 427;
his son, Asp~r (aspwar, Saw~r), in 431 commanded a large army against Vandals
and Alans in Africa, and was made consul for the year 434. Asp~r's son,
Ardaburius (named after his grandfather) was also made consul in 447; in 450
when the emperor Theodosius II died, Asp~r was offered the imperial throne by
the senate of Constantinople; he declined the throne, but gave it to his
Attila the Hun laid siege to Orleans the capital city of the Alans in central
Gaul; their new king, with the remarkably Modern Persian name of Sangiban,
successfully defended the city, and with the help of his Roman and Visigoth
allies pushed Attila to Chalons in eastern France; in the famous battle of
Chalons Western Europe was saved from the ravage of the Huns.
From the mid
fifth century A.D. onwards, Alans, now fully Christianised, gradually lost their
Iranian language, and were eventually absorbed into the population of medieval
Europe; as late as 575 one still comes across Iranian names, such as Gersasp in
southern France, and Aspidius (Aspapati, Asppat) in northern Spain, and of
course the word Alan itself, which is still a very popular name in western
credited for importing into western Europe their steppe tactics of warfare;
these include never fighting on foot out of choice, having armour both for men
and their mounts, and most significantly, the practice of tactical fake retreat;
these Iranian steppe tactics were passed on to the Bretons, Visigoths and later,
to the Normans, who used the fake retreat at many battles including the Battle
also credited with teaching western Europeans the still popular sport of hunting
on horseback with hunting dogs ;
breed of medieval hunting dogs was called Alan (med. Latin Alanus) which,
according to a 19th century authority on the history and origin of canine
breeds, "derived originally from the Caucasus, whence it accompanied the
fierce, fairhaired, and warlike Alani" ; the town
of Alano in Spain to this day bears two Alan dogs on its coat of arms.
mostly Christian, speaking Ossetic, or as they themselves call it "Ironig",
or "Ironski", which is classified as an Eastern Iranian language.
Ossetic maintains on the one hand, some remarkable features of the Gathic
Avestan, and possesses on the other, a number of words, such as, thau (tauen, to
thaw, as in snow) and gau (region, district) which are remarkably similar to
their modern Germanic equivalents.
Iranian nation, still provides a physical link between the Indo-Europeans of the
East, and those of the West, that is, most people of Europe; such a romantic
link, it will be remembered, had already been established thousands of years ago
by their blond and blue-eyed ancestors.
J., "History of Sarmatians", Budapest (1950), p.3.
are credited with being probably the first people to recognise the concept
of nationhood, and to assume a proper national identity, which incredibly,
has survived until the present day as Iran.
DSe29, Kent, R., "Old Persian", New Haven (1953), p.141.
Gardiner-Garden, J.R., "Ktesias on Early Central Asian History and
Ethnography", Bloomington (1987), p.9-10.
O., "Four Old Iranian Ethnic Names: SCYTHIAN - SKUDRA - SOGDIAN - SAKA",
 There is
also a wealth of familiar names in many different languages which owe their
origins to the word SKUDA; well known amongst them are USKUDAR in Istanbul,
SOGDIA in Central Asia, and SAKAVAND and SISTAN in modern Iran; see Zsemerényi,
 Believed to
have resulted from a misreading of an original Hebrew "waw" as a
"nun"; see n.4 above; it is noteworthy that the other Jewish
racial designation, Saphardic, has also a strong Iranian association; it
derives from the Lydio/Persian word Spherda/Sparda, i.e., the Greek Sardis.
Ammianus Marcellinus, XXX.2.21.
 Mair, V.H.,
"Mummies of the Tarim Basin", "Archaeology" vol.48,
no.2, Mar & Apr 1995, pp.28-35.
D.W., & Vinogradov, N.B., "Birth of the Chariot",
"Archaeology" op. cit., pp.36-41, esp. p.38. Litauer, M.A., &
Grouwel, J.H., "The Origin of the True Chariot",
"Antiquity" vol.70, No.270, Dec. 1996, pp.934-939.
Renate, "The world of the Scythians", London NY (1989).
M.I., "Iranians and Greeks in South Russia", Oxford (1922), p.237.
B.S., "A History of the Alans in the West", UMP (1973), pp. 92,
 op. cit.,
 op. cit.,
 Jesse, G.R., "Researches into the History of the British Dogs" II, (London 1886), pp.80-84, 116-118.
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