Through the land of the Medes (April 3-5 2016)

On April 3rd we left Tehran for Hamadan. Of all the cities and sights that we had planned for our trip, Hamadan is probably the least well known. Today Hamadan is little more than a medium sized mountain town. It has a relatively modern city center, few monumental buildings and almost no attractions. In Antiquity, however, the city was called Ecbatana and was universally known as the capital of the Medes (678-550 BC). I had studied the Medes during my Research Master, so to me Hamadan was of special significance. The Medes allegedly founded the first Iranian empire and laid the basis for the later Achaemenid Empire. However, over the last few decades the idea that there had been a true Median Empire has been called into doubt. Instead, it has been proposed that the Median Empire was more like a loose tribal federation. Because of my research I am familiar with most publications and field reports on this region in pre-Achaemenid times. I was therefore very excited to finally see the region with my own eyes.

The Median Empire according to Diakonoff.
The Median Empire according to Diakonoff.

Was there ever a Median Empire?
Greek historians like Herodotus, Ctesias and Xenophon all refer to a Median Empire that ruled most of Asia before the Persians came to power under Cyrus. However, neither contemporary Babylonian sources nor archaeological data have provided evidence for the existence of this empire. No traces of a state apparatus have been found on Median territory in pre-Achaemenid times. For this reason some scholars, most noticeably Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, have called into doubt the notion of a Median Empire. Instead it has been proposed that the Median Empire was more like a loose tribal federation, like the Huns or the Mongols. Although I tend to agree with the tribal federation hypothesis, this hypothesis should not be seen as a conclusion but rather as a starting point for further research. One should ask questions like: How did this tribal federation function? Who led the federation? Was there a hierarchy among the chiefs? Did the tribes only work together occasionally, or did the tribal federation have a continuous existence? On which fields did the tribes work together and on which fields not? One solid argument for the notion that there was at least some centralization among the Medes is that all sources – Babylonian, Hebrew and Greek – identify Ecbatana as the Median capital.

Ecbatana hill
Ecbatana hill

Ecbatana
To the north of the city center of Hamadan lies a prominent hill that is believed to be the location of ancient Ecbatana. Traces of residential quarters dating to the Parthian period have been found. The houses of this period have thick walls and the house blocks are separated by broad streets. The Achaemenid and Median layers underneath the Parthian layer have not yet been excavated. Maximalists believe that the fabled city described by Herodotus will one day be found, but minimalists argue that Herodotus’s description of Ecbatana is mostly fictional. I agree that Herodotus’s account is at least partly fictional, because the seven long walls made of precious materials should have been found a long time if they were really as magnificent as Herodotus makes them out to be. Moreover, the motif of a king who builds a mountain citadel with seven beautifully adorned concentric walls also appears elsewhere in Persian literature, most noticeably in the story of the legendary king Kay Kavus. However, it may still be possible that this motif is ultimately of Median origin, since other Median forts (like Tepe Nush-i Jan) do have multiple concentric walls and store rooms that may have functioned as treasuries. In fact, forts with concentric walls already existed in the (possibly) proto-Indo-Aryan BMAC culture (2000-1600 BC).

Mount Alvand
Mount Alvand

The surroundings of Hamadan
Although we did not see many remains from the Median period, it felt good to stand on top of the hill where old Ecbatana was located and to view the surroundings of the city. To the east I could see the Hamadan plain, made up of dry ground dotted with clumps of low grass. On my way to Hamadan I had seen many shepherds grazing their flocks, like they had done for thousands of years. To the west I saw the snowcapped Alvand mountain. The snow covered almost the entire mountain and looked like a sheet of silk that had been draped over the rocks. I could see the pass over the Alvand where trade caravans traveling from Mesopotamia to Khorasan and back used to travel. Ecbatana was indeed located on a nice spot. The hill itself was steep and high, like an acropolis, and was therefore perfectly suitable as a citadel. I could envision Cyaxares and his men preparing for their campaigns against Assyria (615-609 BC), or Cyrus assaulting the acropolis, where Astyages watched more and more of his men deserting to the Persians (550 BC).

Tepe Nush-i Jan
Tepe Nush-i Jan: The fortress, with thick walls, buttresses and elongated storerooms inside.

Tepe Nush-i Jan
The next day we took a taxi to Tepe Nush-i Jan, a modest but well-preserved Median fort just west of the Alvand mountain. Since I had read the entire excavation report of this site, I could give Ali detailed information on every square meter of the site. Tepe Nush-i Jan is important because the site gives us a good impression of what a Median hill fort may have looked like. Tepe Nush-i Jan was located far enough to the west to have fallen under Assyrian domination. The Assyrians never penetrated further into Iran than Mount Alvand. During the Assyrian occupation (744-678 BC) the Median warlords of the region were forced to pay tribute to the Assyrian king, but in return the Assyrian king would protect them and guarantee their place as chief of the tribe. The Median warlords profited from this situation. Because of their increased power they could task workers to build monumental citadels for them. At Tepe Nush-i Jan a fort with thick walls, arrow slots and elongated store rooms, a temple decorated with dented niches and possibly a fire altar, and a ceremonial columned hall have been found. All of these buildings are packed tightly together. The hill may have been a military, adminstrative, religious, ceremonial and political center where the local warlord could exert his power over the surrounding plains. Eventually, probably after the withdrawal of the Assyrians during the 670s BC, the hill was abandoned. The loss of Assyrian support must have made the position of the Median warlords less secure, which may have resulted in a civil war from which Ecbatana eventually emerged victorious. The Medes of Tepe Nush-i Jan did not leave their fort in a hurry, however, as they took great care to fill up the buildings with shale – probably in a (successful) attempt to preserve them – and to bury their treasures. After the site was abandoned it was occasionally occupied by shepherds traveling through the region, who for unknown reasons dug a long tunnel underneath the former columned hall.

Tepe Nush-i Jan: Dented niche inside the temple
Tepe Nush-i Jan: Dented niche inside the temple

Bisotun
We traveled further to Bisotun, the holy mountain decorated with many carvings and inscriptions. As a giant ironing bolt the mountain arose from the plain. The sight of Bisotun itself was probably more beautiful than all the words and images carved into it. My main priority was to see the famous Bisotun Inscription of Darius the Great. In this inscription, dating to 520 BC, Darius introduces himself as a king of many lands who had won authority over all peoples through the support of his personal god Ahura Mazda. He then justifies his coup by claiming to be related to Cyrus and stating that the former king, Smerdis, a son of Cyrus and a brother of Cambyses, was in fact an imposter, a Magus who looked exactly like the real Smerdis. According to Darius the real Smerdis had been killed in secret by Cambyses years before. Darius then goes on to describe how he subdued all secessionist rebels within one year through the help of Ahura Mazda. Darius’s narrative has increasingly been called into doubt by modern scholars, who find the story implausible and consider is more likely that Darius lied about both his ancestry and the identity of Smerdis. Nevertheless, the idea that Darius lied also meets with a lot of resistance, since this would imply that he was not only a usurper, but also an imposter, a liar and a blasphemer, since he had sworn by his god Ahura Mazda, who hated ‘the Lie’, that he had not lied. Ali and I spent a lot of time looking for the inscription. I naively expected it to be huge and easily visible from a distance, but it wasn’t. We did find an unfinished rock relief commissioned by the Sasanian king Khosrow II and a Seleucid carving of Heracles, but not the inscription of Darius. We were already on our way back to the taxi when I saw the inscription, written on a shiny white piece of rock located dozens of meters above ground level. There was a scaffold leading up to the inscription, but unfortunately it was closed. To make things worse, the scaffold blocked our view. The picture below is the best view that I could get of the Bisotun Inscription.

Bisotun Inscription
My best view of the Bisotun Inscription

Taxi troubles
On our trip through the land of the Medes Ali and I had been using taxi’s. At the beginning of our trip Ali was certain that Iranian were trustworthy people who would never lie about the prices. However, as we repeatedly had to pay large amounts of cash to the taxi drivers and some of them even accompanied us to the hotel lobby, where they received a commission from the hotel staff, he started to doubt this notion. After visiting Bisotun we spent the night at Kermanshah. The next day we again had to travel by taxi. This time we had to travel over 600 kilometers to get back to Isfahan. Again, the taxi driver did not know any English and hassled about the price for quite some time, because Ali didn’t want to get ripped off again. From Isfahan to Baharestan we again had to hire a taxi. Tired as we were, more trouble was awaiting us. The taxi driver who would take us to Baharestan got into a fight with another taxi driver, who believed that we had chosen him earlier. Our taxi driver remained calm, even though the other driver started assaulting him physically. Luckily we could get away eventually. We arrived at Baharestan in the evening, where Mehdi and his family were waiting for us. We again had a good meal and took our rest. The day ended on a positive note when Ali discovered that the bag that he thought had been left in the bus from Isfahan to Tehran was still at Mehdi’s home. To avoid further troubles Mehdi called a taxi driver that he knew and trusted well to take us to Persepolis the next day.

To be continued…
Tomorrow I will tell you about our journey through Fars province, the core of ancient Persia, where we visited the ruins of Persepolis, Naqsh-e Rustam and Pasargadae, and where we enjoyed the serene atmosphere of the green city of Shiraz. Stay tuned…