Being a historian, I have always been curious about my ancestors. Unfortunately, however, archives and baptismal registers only go back a few hunderd years. One of my paternal uncles has traced the Nijssen family line back to the sixteenth century, but so far all of my paternal ancestors seem to have lived in a small area on the border between Noord-Brabant and Limburg. On my maternal side, too, all of my ancestors up to the third generation are from that specific region. So far, no exotic influences have been detected and no connections to great historical events can be made.
Since I am especially interested in ancient history, I have always been a bit disappointed that I would never know to which ancient peoples I was related. That is, until I discovered genetic DNA testing. Over the past few years I have read a lot about genetic genealogy and a few weeks ago I decided to order a DNA test of my own, at 23andme. At 23andme professional geneticists investigate your DNA and try to trace the origins of your genetic material back to specific regions. They can also identify both your paternal (Y-DNA) and maternal (mitochrondrial DNA) haplogroups, which allows you to trace the migration routes of your ancestors took back to East Africa. A few days ago the results came in…
The first time I heard of Touraj Daryaee was in 2012. I was about to go to the TOPOI workshop Imperial Space and Daryaee was listed aa one of the speakers. Daryaee, professor at the University of California, Irving, is an American Iranologist of Persian descent specialized in the Sasanid period. The Sasanid period has often been neglected, but in recent years Daryaee has popularized it and became one of the leading authorities in the field. Since the subject of my Master thesis was interconnected with Sasanid history, I was very interested to hear him speak. Unfortunately, however, Daryaee himself couldn’t make it to Berlin. He sent a representative who nevertheless gave a fascinating lecture. During the years that followed I read many of Daryaee’s books and articles. He has an accessible and engaging writing style that is ideal for introducing laypeople to a complex topic. When I received an email from Rolf Strootman about a week ago that Daryaee was about to give a lecture at the University of Utrecht on April 19th, I didn’t hesitate one moment.
Once upon a time, in faraway India, lived a king named Abenner. Abenner was a stubborn idolater who severly persecuted the Christians in his realm. One day he begat a son. He asked the court astrologers to predict the course of his life, but their answer didn’t please him. They said that the boy, named Josaphat, would one day become a Christian himself and convert the entire realm to this religion. Alarmed by this prophecy Abenner had his son locked up in a palace and isolated from the outside world. Despite these precautions, however, Josaphat meets a hermit named Barlaam, who introduces him to the Christian faith. Abenner, noticing the young prince’s change of heart, tries to corrupt him by offering him all kinds of luxuries and beautiful women, but Josaphat remains firm in his faith. Eventually Abenner, impressed by his son’s morality, decides to hand over the government of his kingdom to him and before his death he himself converts to Christianity. Soon after Abenner’s death, however, Josaphat abdicates and decides to live out his days as a hermit in the desert, along with his old teacher Barlaam.
After spending a great final day in Shiraz on April 8th, we headed back to Baharestan in a comfortable (yet slow!) bus on the 9th. We spent our final evening at Mehdi’s house, where we watched a Bollywood movie, a martial arts film in which Jackie Chan practised Drunken Fist kung fu and an episode of the popular Iranian series Yusarsif, about the life of the prophet Joseph; all of which on Iranian national television. Mehdi, Ali and I had a final nightly walk in which Mehdi told us about his encounters with Jinns. After stating that I didn’t believe in Jinns, Mehdi offered to show me a picture. Considering the fact that I still wanted to get some sleep that night, however, I decided that I did not want to see it. Mehdi and Ali brought me to Isfahan Airport early in the morning, so I could catch my pre-planned flight to Istanbul at 6:55 PM. That’s where the trouble started…
After spending another night at Mehdi’s home in Baharestan, we departed for Persepolis on April 6th. This time Mehdi had arranged a taxi driver for us, whom he gave detailed instructions about the route and the prize. We left early and spent most of the morning riding through the endless plains of Fars province. As we went south the ground became more arid and the terrain more rugged. Rocky hills covered in isolated bushes and clumps of low grass arose around us. This truly was a barren wasteland and it was hard to imagine that the two most important Iranian empires – the Achaemenid and the Sasanid – had arisen from this province.
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.
On March 31th we left Isfahan for Tehran. After sleeping in until the early afternoon we caught the 2 PM bus, where we slept some more. The jet lag had really hit hard. As an evening person I already have trouble waking up early and in Iran it was two-and-a-half hours later than in the Netherlands. In addition, daylight saving time had just started the weekend before my departure. Long story short, we arrived in Tehran late in the evening where we booked a room for three nights at the prestigious Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel. This hotel, named after the famous Persian poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi (940-1020), was decorated in Neo-Achaemenid style. Fun fact: Ferdowsi hardly mentions the Achaemenids in his epic, the Shahnameh. It was good to stay in such a luxurious hotel for a while. As someone who lives in a social housing appartment and has little money to spend on anything other than the bare necessities, it was a great experience.
It was six in the morning when I landed at Isfahan International Airport. I was exhausted because of my lack of sleep, but I was excited to finally set foot on Iranian soil. After years of studying the history and culture of Iran I would now finally see the country that I loved so much. Outside my good friend Ali Abroo was waiting for me, along with his cousin Mehdi. Both were eager to carry my luggage for me, even though I repeatedly told them that I could carry the luggage myself. A taxi brought us to the home Mehdi in Baharestan, a relatively wealthy suburb of Isfahan, where a bed had been prepared for me.
Somewhere around AD 30 Jesus, a Jewish wisdom teacher from Nazareth, was crucified by the Romans. According to Christians this Jesus was the Messiah predicted in earlier Jewish scriptures. All Jews agreed that this Messiah would come to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, but the opinions on how this would come to pass differed greatly from sect to sect. Many Jews believed that the Messiah would establish a wordly kingdom and overthrow all wicked rulers, but there was also a minority that believed that the Messiah had to suffer greatly and even die to save his people. Early Christians adhered to this minority view and thus believed that Jesus’s death on the cross served a special divine purpose. For this reason, about a third of every Gospel is dedicated to the final 24 hours of Jesus’s life. These Gospels contain detailed information on Jesus’s death, but how much of it can be used for historical reconstruction?
Ex Oriente Lux is a society that seeks to educate people about the importance of the Ancient Near East. Despite numerous research projects in this field, little information reaches the public. Besides, Near Eastern studies are not very well integrated with other fields of Ancient History, like Classics. Ex Oriente Lux seeks to change all that. On March 19th they organized a seminar where four Dutch scholars shared their insights. The seminar revolved around Herodotus and his descriptions of the Persian Empire. Herodotus, who in many cases is our only source on Persian history, is extremely important but also highly contested. To illustrate the problems that come with interpreting Herodotus, the four speakers each focused on one anecdote from Herodotus’s Histories.