Of the three empires that dominated late antiquity, Rome, China and Iran, it is the last whose legacy we understand least. “Proportionally to its historical significance, Iranian Inner Asia in this period is probably the least known and most grossly understudied time and place in world history,” writes Minoru Inaba in the introductory essay to The History and Culture of Iran and Central Asia.
This is not because the Arabs conquered this land and converted it to their new religion of Islam. The Roman Empire, too, experienced invasion and underwent a religious conversion. China, it could be argued, saw both invasions and new religions. The legacy of Iran is simply harder to grasp because of its geographic sprawl. Both the Chinese and Roman empires occupied well-defined spaces: the Mediterranean basin and the Central Plains. Iran’s cultural influence, in contrast, once extended to the oases of Central Asia and the mountain valleys of the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs. One is reminded of a vanished glacier, whose traces still mark the landscape, after it long melted into the ground. This volume of papers by a collection of scholars from diverse fields examine the traces of that culture, and the reasons behind its sudden eclipse.
Archaeology uncovers more and more of these traces. Using arial photography and satellite imagery, Roco Rante and Frantz Geert reconstruct the forms of urban life that flourished in ancient Iran and Central Asia. These are quite different from the dense, labyrinth-like cities of later Islamic times. These ancient cities had much more public space, including extensive gardens. Gracious mansions catered to the needs of wealthy Soghdian merchants. They, unlike their Zoroastrian cousins in Iran, practiced a more syncretic religion, which reflected cults they picked up on their travels. Their temples show both Iranian and Chinese influences. They decorated their houses with brilliant murals of feasting, embassies and divinities. This art, called “Serindian” by Aurel Stein, has fascinated since its rediscovery at the turn of the last century.
Other traces include the extensive correspondence, written in Soghdian (an Eastern Iranic language) or Pahlavi (an older form of modern Persian), that document the life of the Silk Road merchants. Deciphering these texts is not always easy, and scholars attack them the way mountain climbers accept the challenge of a peak in the Pamirs. One text translated here contains a treaty between Soghdian merchants and nomads. Another inscription commemorates a Persian lady who died in the Tang capital of Chang’an. Papers by Inaba and Duturaeva show, in different eras, the difficulties these travelers encountered and the long detours they made to arrive safely, via Kashmir or even Tibet. Journeys often lasted decades, accounting for the funeral monuments left by foreigners at one end of the Silk Road or the other, and the plaintive letters of widows whose husbands disappeared in distant lands. From reconstructions of urban space, to fragments of inscriptions and writing on silk, the world of Iranian late antiquity in Central Asia comes back to life.
The old ways of life in Central Asia succumbed suddenly.
The Silk Road persisted even after the Arab invasion and their victory over Tang China in 751, but the old ways of life in Central Asia succumbed suddenly. The Soghdian language, religion and the art of Serindia all vanished. In Iran proper, the Persian language flourished and even the Zoroastrian faith survives to this day. Rocco Rante argues that the Soghdian religion practiced a household-centered cult, without an organized priesthood, practiced in the magnificent banqueting halls of Soghdian merchant princes. Once the Arabs took over, urban hierarchies changed. The large reception halls disappeared. Smaller, humbler dwellings began to fill in the spaces within the city walls, evolving into the typical mahalle (neighborhood) organization of medieval Muslim cities. New men replaced the old elite, Arabs colonists and Iranians in the service of the Caliphate. A new, Persian-speaking culture appeared.
The new culture built on the legacy of pre-Islamic Iran, but left no place for syncretism, perhaps the preferred approach of the worldly Soghdians. Narratives of the conversion to Islam remind us of how non-linear this process was, with many expedient conversions, apostasies, revolts and massacres. Sören Stark describes how the Samanids of Bukhara built new, Muslim suburbs in the city to get away from the pagan presence in the old neighborhoods. Between conversion and colonialization Islam took hold and became indigenized. Then, local intellectuals like Al-Tha’alabi, writes Louise Marlowe, memorialized the pre-Islamic past in measured tones, allowing neither nostalgia nor opprobrium to color his account of the old Shahs of Iran. Later the Ghaznavids celebrated Muslim and pre-Islamic feasts with an equal amount of enthusiasm. Once when the breaking of the Ramazan fast, Eid-e Fitr, occurred the day after the ancient festival of the wine harvest (Mehragan), the sultan ordered that his court get very drunk to make up for the lost feasting of the previous day. That may be a suitable metaphor for the way in which Eastern Iranians preserved the legacy of the old civilization under Islam, and helps explain the persistence of the new Persian culture in the immense space between Iran and China today.
This book of specialized essays, collected with scholars and students in mind, will nevertheless be of interest for readers exploring the Silk Road or traveling to the fascinating archaeological sites of Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, especially since the book is available via open access.
David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.