|Mt. Elbrus/Elburz, Russia. Image credit: northcaucasusland.wordpress.com|
|Physical map of Caucasia & its modern political divisions. Image credit: Wikipedia|
Caucasia is the region in which the Caucasus Mountains are located. There are two branches of the Caucasus Mountains: the Greater Caucasus in the north and the Lesser Caucasus in the south. The region along the northern slopes and north of the Greater Caucasus is called Northern Caucasia. The region along the southern slopes and south of the Greater Caucasus is called Southern Caucasia.
Ciscaucasia and Transcaucasia are Russian-based names for Northern and Southern Caucasia respectively. Northern Caucasia/Ciscaucasia includes various Russia republics while Southern Caucasia/Transcaucasia includes modern Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Archaeological findings in South Caucasia/Transcaucasia dating to 1500 BCE (see below) indicate Aryan (Iranian) influence in Transcaucasia even before the rise of the Aryan Medes as a dominant regional power during say, the 8th century BCE. Media (Mada) and Persia (Parsa) were sister Aryan nations and neighbours, Media to the northwest of the Iranian plateau and Persia to the southeast. We call the collection of old Aryan nations, Aryana. Aryana was known as Airyana Dakhyunam in the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta.
After the rise of the Medes as the dominant Aryan and regional nation, say 2,700 years ago, Southern Caucasia/Transcaucasia was largely governed by the dominant Aryan nation of the time: After the Medes, it was the Achaemenid Persians (c.550-330 BCE), then after a gap the Parthians (c.250 BCE to c.225 CE), followed by the Sasanid Persians (c.225 to 649 CE). [There was fluidity in the line of control Aryan control in Transcaucasia depending on the strength of the central Aryan government and because of invasions by other nations.] The history and political divisions we discuss in the page end with the defeat of the Zoroastrian Sasanids by the Arabs in the mid-seventh century CE.
Roughly speaking, from the time the Medes rose to regional dominance to the fall of the Sasanids - for nearly a thousand years - the Greater Caucasus Mountains formed a northern border of the Greater Aryan Empire (Aryan countries plus regional countries historically under Aryan influence), but not necessarily Aryana itself (see below). Today, a more precise border along the highest elevations in the Greater Caucasus Mountains separates Russia in the north from the Transcaucasian nations of Georgia and Azerbaijan in the south.
There is one notable difference in where the Aryan Empire's Caucasian border would have run then as it does today. In eastern Caucasia, the city of Derbent / Darband and its environs are part of Russia today. Then, it was part of the Aryan Empire. The eastern Caucasian border near the Caspian Sea would have skirted the habitable regions of Greater Caucasus' southern slopes turning north-eastward and running just past where Darband/Derbent is today. Darband/Derbent was home to a substantial Aryan (Iranian) border fortification, and its name - 'door closed' - implies that the narrow piece of land between the mountains and the higher Caspian coast, was closed to hostile incursions from the north.
In the nineteenth century CE, some Western authors associated the southern Caucasus/Azerbaijan region with the birth land of Zarathushtra and therefore with the Aryan homeland, Airyana Vaeja. Cloaked with the authority of scholarship, they speculated freely. Their speculations led to the racialization of the Aryans and the unfortunate construct of the racial group "Caucasians" - an identifier used by white Europeans to describe themselves to this day.
While Azerbaijan has always been considered a part of Greater Aryana, in his inscription on the walls of the so-called Kaba-e Zartosht at Naqsh-e Rustam in Pars Province, Iran, early Sasanid Era High Priest Kartir/Kerder specifically places Arman (Armenia), Virzan (Iberia), Aran/Ardan (Albania) and Balasagan in An-Iran (Outside Iran), a term that can be used as a pejorative. By inference, these nations - which include the whole of Caucasus Mountains in their territories - are also not part of ancient Zoroastrian-Aryan Iran i.e. Aryana, the Aryan countries. (Also see below.)
A more sober analysis of the history and geography of the Avesta shows that Zarathustra's and the Aryans' mountainous homeland was located further east in what is north-eastern Afghanistan and south-western Tajikistan today. Further, the term 'Aryan' is nothing more than a more ancient form of the name 'Iranian' - a national or ethnic term that has nothing to do with the artificial construct of a so-called "race" - or for that matter with any European peoples. The only connections in ethnicity between the Europeans and the Aryans are the global connections that can be theorized for the entire human family - the human race. (Also see Who were the Aryans?)
We use the 'Aryan' to mean 'ancient Iranian'.
One legacy of the Aryan (Iranian) influence in Caucasia is the various Aryan place names throughout Transcaucasia. An example is the name of the highest peak (5,642 m/18,510 ft above sea level) in the Greater Caucasus Mountains, Mount Elburz or Alborz - otherwise called 'Elbrus'.
The name 'Elbrus'/'Elburz' is derived from the Avestan root word Hara Berezaiti which evolved to the Middle Persian/Pahlavi 'Harborz'. The name 'Elburz' has off and on been assigned to portions the mountains that stretch from the Black Sea to the Pamirs. There are at least two peaks with the name 'Elburz' in Afghanistan. The principal northern mountain range in Iran is also called Elburz or Alborz.
In Persian, the Caucasus Mountains are called Qafqaz/Ghafghaz. This may be derived from the Sasanid Middle Persian Kafkof (Qafqof or Ghafghof).
F. Jorat in 'Zoroastrianism in Northern Shirvan' notes that Adam Olearius (1599 – 1671) called the Caucasus Mountains "Elburs" and wrote about sacred fires on Shah-dagh Mountain as follows: "Elburs is the part of Caucasus, bordered by Georgia and the area of Tabesseran... Earlier Persians kept their ever-burning fire on Elburs and worshiped there. Now such fires and the worshippers (as reported Teixera and others)... fled to India...."
|Caucasia according to Ptolemy (100-168 CE) as drawn in 1535.|
|Caucasia according to Classical Greco-Roman authors as drawn in 1706 by Cellarius.|
Note: Caucasian Iberia and Albania have no relationship with their European namesakes.
During the first millennium BCE when the Medes (Mada) and then Persians (Parsa) were the dominant Aryan kingdoms in the region, Greco-Roman writers divided the nations south of the Greater Caucasus Mountains into:
- Colchis in the west bordering the Black Sea,
- Iberia in the west-centre, and
- Albania from the centre to the east bordering the Caspian Sea.
While the extent of territory assigned by Western writers to each of the three nations varies considerably, the writers generally group and sandwich the three between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains. The map drawn according to Ptolemy's coordinates (see above) allows us to place the three ancient nations in the context of modern nations. The three together would have occupied about the same territory as today's Georgia in the west and the Azerbaijan Republic in the east.
According the the Ptolemaic map, Iberia (locally Virka?), would have been a relatively narrow country based around the upper Cyrus/Kura valley. Today's Georgian city of Tbilisi would be near its eastern border while the Georgian town of Khashuri would be near the western border. The short range of mountains that connects the Greater and Lesser Caucasus would have been on the border between Iberia with Colchis to the west. In the east, the high ground between the Georgian towns of Tbilisi and Rustavi would have been on the border between Iberia and Albania to the east. Albania was the largest nation of the three and would have occupied all of today's Republic of Azerbaijan plus eastern Georgia up to Rustavi.
1st century CE Latin writer Pliny in his Natural History at 6.11, states the capital of Albania was Cabalaca. Modern Gabala (also spelt Qambala/Gebele) in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus not too far from Khinalig and its Atashgah, is claimed to have been that capital.
A multitude of artifacts with Aryan/Iranian elements dating back to the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE have been discovered throughout the Southern Caucasus region. Books and papers have been written about them. We will profile a small sample.
Some of the artifacts include a bronze rhyton from eastern Georgia assessed to have been imported from ancient Iran; bronze animal- and disc-headed pins, pendant bells and openwork birds derived from ancient Iranian styles, as well as Iranian styled daggers, swords, axes, adzes, pick-axes and bidents. [For information sources, see the bottom of the page.]
The type of artifacts discovered to date, do not give us sufficient information on the nature of Aryan influence in Caucasia during the 2nd millennium BCE. However, artifacts and buildings dated to the 1st millennium BCE tell us a different story.
|5-4th cent. BCE Median style Farohar/Fravahar gold pendants found at Sairkhe, Georgia|
Gocha Tsetskhladze at Encyclopedia Iranica (see sources below), writing about artifacts discovered in Georgia (ancient Colchis), states, "Iranian elements continued to appear in weapons, horse harnesses, and bronze ornaments until the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE. However, the vast majority of objects date from the 8th-7th centuries BCE when the influence of the Lorestan bronzes is clearly noticeable." "In this period a very distinctive shape of pottery, namely jugs with tubular handles, which is well-known from northwestern Iran (Media), appeared in Colchis (western Georgia). Another type of pottery, legged pots with wave ornament, must also have come to Colchis from Iran."
The artifacts discovered around the village of Sairkhe in NW Georgia, included gold pendants with Median style Farohars/Fravahars dated to the 5-4th cent. BCE. While Median-Aryan influence in the region had existed from at least the 8th-7th cent. BCE, by the 5th cent. BCE., Sairkhe appears to have become a regional administrative centre for Colchis (roughly Georgia today). The gold pendants were found in the graves of wealthy individuals - perhaps even Median or Persian nobility.
|7-6th cent. BCE Median style Farohar/Fravahar found at Qyzqapan tomb, Sulaymanieh, Iraqi Kurdistan.|
The site would have been part of ancient Media (Mada).
After the interregnum in Aryan history following the close of the Avestan canon, the Aryans reasserted themselves on the regional stage with the rise of the Medians (Mada), say, from about 750 to 550 BCE. The Medes were followed by their Persian cousins when Cyrus the Great displaced the Medians as the dominant Aryan nation around 550 BCE. George Rawlinson in his History of Herodotus (at p. 180) notes that Median and then Persian power extended "over the whole tract within the Caucasus."
Aryan control over the Transcaucasian nations included Armenia. Xenophon in Book 3 of his Cyropaedia states that Cyrus brought Armenia (Armina in Old Persian) under his control. Later, at 8.7.11, Xenophon assigns Armenia to the Persian satrapy of Media.
|Shamkir excavations of Achaemenid era city-palace complex - column bases. Credit: shamkir-archeo.az|
The ruins of an Achaemenid era town and palace complex that thrived between 550 and 330 BCE have been discovered in Azerbaijan at Garajamirli village near Shamkir town. [Shamkir is also spelt Shamkhir.] In ancient times, This region was part of ancient Iberia (see above).
According to the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, in extent, the ruins are comparable with those in the ancient Persian cities of Pasargadae and Persepolis. The archeological team that excavated the ruins believe the complex was an administrative centre from which the Achaemenids governed the entire Transcaucasian region. [For further details, see our page on Shamkir Achaemenid Era Ruins.] The site is strategically placed beside the Kura (Cyrus) River giving it access to Iberia and Colchis (Georgia).
Similar structures with Achaemenid style column bases have been found at Kavtiskhevi (Zikhia Gora) and Gumbati in Georgia, Sari Tepe in Azerbaijan and at Benjamin in Armenia. (See below: Achaemenid Persian Architectural Elements in Caucasian Buildings.)
|Achaemenid bell-shaped column base found at Shamkir. Credit: Achaemenid Culture and Local traditions in Anatolia, Southern Caucasus etc. ed. V. L. Ivantchik.|
|Bull proteomes (paired animal shaped figures) on both sides of an Achaemenid column capital. Credit: top image: F. Knauss in Iranica|
Pervasive Achaemenid architectural elements native to Persia found in the ruins of administrative style buildings and palaces across Caucasia. They stand as testimony to Achaemenid Persian governance in regions. Examples are the buildings excavated as Shamkir, Azerbaijan (see above), Sari/Sary Tepe in Azerbaijan, Benjamin (10 km SW of Kumairi) in Armenia and Gumbati in Georgia. The column bases in all the buildings at these sites is similar to those found in the Persian administrative capitals of Persepolis and Susa.
In Georgia's Zichia* Gora archaeological site at Kawtischevi/Kavtiskhevi, in addition to finding a Achaemenid bell-shaped column base, an accompanying column capital (top) with bull proteomes** were found. One of the buildings at the site might have served as a Zoroastrian Fire Temple and the square might have been used for official or public ceremonies and gatherings. [*Also spelt Zikhia/Chihia/Tsikha. **Proteomes are paired animal shaped figures on both sides of the capital reminiscent of those found in Persepolis.]
The ruins of a building discovered in Samadlo (Former Shua Kharaba/Safar Kharaba/Bayburt), Georgia is said to resemble the cube-shaped buildings at Naqsh-e Rustam (Kabaye Zarthosht) and Persepolis.
The discovery of five Transcaucasian sites with Achaemenid official buildings and royal palaces located in a cluster is quite amazing, given that only six or so such sites have been discovered in Iran itself. The cluster of sites may indicate a special importance of the south Caucasus region to the Persian Aryans.
|Achaemenid column base find locations -- notice the grouping in S. Caucasia.|
Key: Dark red - S. Caucasian sites; Blue - Persia & environs; Green & Orange - Other sites.
Modifications by K. E. Eduljee based on Frutwängler & Knauβ
|Seal of Zarrbed of Armin (Armenia), Aran/Ardan,|
Sisagan, Virozan & March of Nesavan/Nesun.
Credit: Gyselen-Sasanian Seals etc.
|Seal of Amargar of Aran/Ardan & Virozan|
Credit: Gyselen-Sasanian Seals etc.
If we leap ahead to time to the Sasanid era (3rd to 7th cent. CE), we begin to find Iranian names for the Transcaucasian nations that by then were Sasanid provinces.
One source is the trilingual inscription of Sasanid King Shapur I (r. 241-272 CE) along the walls of the so-called Kaba-e Zarthosht at Naqsh-e Rostam in Iran's Pars Province. The relevant portion of the inscription in Sasanid Middle Persian (SMP) lists: "...Adu[r]badegan, Armin, Virzan/Virozan/Viruchan, Sigan, Aran, Balasagan yad frakhsh o Kaf Kof ud Alanan bar/dar...." The inscribed Parthian (Parth.) and Greek (Gk.) translations help us greatly in the identification of the more obscure names though regrettably some portions are damaged and unreadable. Sometimes the script is vague and allows for different transliterations:
- Adu[r]badegan = Azerbaijan
- Armin = Armenia
- Virzan/Virozan/Viruchan/Vircan = Iberia (Gk.) [Sprengling concludes Georgia]
- Sigan/Sisagan/Sisakan/Siwinik/Sigan = Makhelonia (Gk.). Makhelonia = Mingrelia and Abasgia/Abkhazia now in W. Georgia = Colchis
- Aran (SMP) = Ardan (Parth.) = Albania (Gk.)
- Balasagan/Balaskan yad/ta frakhsh/fraz o Kaf Kof ud Alanan bar/dar = Balasagan up to the Caucasus Mts. and the Gate of the Alans. Byrasagene(? unreadable) (Gk.) [cf. Balaxani/Balakhani people in Baku, Azerbaijan - a Tat/Tati prople.]
Scholars do not agree on the location of the Gate of Alans. By one reckoning, it may have been the city now called Derbent or Darband. Darband means closed door or closed gate in Persian - a gate that barred the marauding northern tribe of Alans from raiding Aryan lands to the south. If so, the Alans would have occupied central and northern Dagestan (now a Russian republic) minus the land around and south of Derbent/Darband, Iran-Shahr's (Aryana's) northern border town. Other theories place the land of the Alans around the present Republic of Alania, north of Georgia and the Gate of Alans in a mountain pass between the two - the Darial Pass that they say is derived from Dar-e Alan, a plausible explanation. Others translate 'Alanan' as Albania.
Another source that gives us an understanding of the proximity or grouping of these Sasanid provinces are the seals of the regions' amargars or revenue/tax collectors and zarrbeds, treasurers (from zarr = gold). An amargar's seal for Adurbadagan (Azerbaijan), has no other province listed possibly indicating that Azerbaijan was large or populated enough for one tax collector. We feature two such seals:
1. A seal of a zarrbed groups Armin (Armenia), Aran/Ardan, Virozan (Iberia), Sisagan & Marz-i Nesavan/Nesawan/Nesun (Border area of Nesavan) .
2. A seal of an Amargan that groups Aran/Ardan & Virozan (Iberia).
Farroukh Jorat in his paper 'Zoroastrianism in Northern Shirvan'
notes a passage from the Middle Persian (Pahlavi) inscription of Head Priest Kartir/Kerder found on the walls of the so-called Kabeye Zathosht at Naqsh-e Rostam. Our translation is as follows:
"...By the command of the King of Kings, I instituted Mobeds (Zoroastrian priests) and fires in countries outside Iran (Aneran = Not-Iran) ...(including) Arman (Armenia), Virzan (Iberia) and Aran/Ardan (Albania) as well as from Balasagan up to the Caucasus Mts. and the Gate of the Alans."
Jorat in 'Zoroastrianism in Northern Shirvan' further informs us that Sassanian soldiers settled in Darband and the medieval province of Shirvan (say, parts of old Aran/Ardan and Balasagan). Their descendants who call themselves "Tat", "Tati" or "Parsi" (meaning Persian) are found in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Dagestan (Russia). Their language, which is derived from Middle Persian (Pahlavi), is somewhat different from modern Farsi.
According to Wikipedia, at the turn of the 20th century, the Tati made up about 11% of eastern Azerbaijan's population. However, they are fast disappearing as an identifiable ethnic group.
Cited by F. Jorat, V. Minorsky's translation of Arabic writer Ebn Khordadbeh (at pp. 17-18) mentions the (Shirvan?) Shah as a local ruler appointed by Sasanid founder Ardashir I, son of Papak (r. 224/6-241 CE), founder of the Sasanid dynasty. Wikipedia's page of the Tati cites al-Baladhuri's Book of the Conquests of Lands (Kitab Futuh al-Buldan) as stating that Sasanid King Khosrau I (531–579 CE), popularly called Anushirvan the Just, appointed a family member as regent of Shirvan and that it was this regent who founded Shirvanshah dynasty of local kings who ruled from about 510-1538 CE. Wikipedia places the Shirvanshahs under their description of the Tati.
As such, at some point during Sasanid rule, the province or sub-kingdom of Shirvan was carved out of the Aran/Ardan and Balasagan. According to one 1804 map, Shirvan would have spread over what are today's Azerbaijani regions of Baku & Absheron, Quba and Shirvan. Jorat's map in 'Zoroastrianism in Northern Shirvan' does not include the region around Baku as part of medieval Shirvan.
- Sources for c.1500 BCE & 1000-400 BCE artifacts: Gocha R. Tsetskhladze at Iranica citing A. Miron and W. Orthmann, eds. Unterwegs zum goldenen Vlies: Archäologische Funde aus Georgien (Saarbrücken, 1995) pp. 243-5, 248, 264-66 & 322-24; P. R. S. Moorey in Catalogue of the Ancient Persian Bronzes in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford, 1971) pl. 1-7; E. Haerinck's 'The Iron Age in Guilan: Proposal for a Chronology,' in J. Curtis, ed., Bronzeworking Centres of Western Asia c. 1000-539 BC, (London, 1988) pp. 63-78 pl. 65.
- 'Ancient Persia and the Caucasus' by Florian Knauss (Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek München), Iranica Antiqua, vol. XLI, 2006.
- 'Medes and Persians in Transcaucasia: Archaeological Horizons in Northwestern-Iran and Transcaucasia' by Stephan Kroll in Continuity of Empire. Assyria, Media, Persia ed. G.B. Lanfranchi, M. Roaf, R. Rollinger (Padova 2003) pp 282-288.
- Acta Iranica, Sasanian Seals and Sealings in the A. Saeedi Collection by By Rika Gyselen (Peeters, 2007).
- V. Minorsky's Studies in Caucasian History (London, 1953 & Iranica)
- Zoroastrianism in Northern Shirvan (Baku, 2017) .