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Sakastan & the Saka - an Introduction
Sakastan, meaning the land of the Saka, features prominently in Zoroastrian texts. Sakastan is otherwise known as Sagastan or Sigistan - even Sejestan - in Middle Persian texts. The land and its people are part of the very early history of the Aryans, Aryana* (ancient Iran) and Zoroastrianism. They also feature prominently in Zoroastrian eschatology - the end times of Fresho-kereti - when the world will be renovated and evil vanquished forever. Indeed, its stalwarts will be central to the defeat of evil and its famed lake will be the place where the final saviour - of a world beset by greed, violence and evil - will be conceived.(*Aryana is the modern version of Airyana Vaeja in the Avesta.)
We know this land today as Sistan and Zabulistan - the land that forms the basin of the Helmand River - Sistan being the western district and Zabulistan the eastern district. If any land has seen its share of the scourge of evil, then it is this land that was once home to the champions of grace and glory - the Khvarenah, the farr of Aryana, ancient Iran. The Helmand River runs east to west through today's southern Afghanistan ending in eastern Iran. The river is to southern Afghanistan, what the Nile is to Egypt. Without its nourishing waters, the basin would be desert.
We read an insightful comment in the Autobiography of Tamerlane/Timur/Timour where Timur quotes the Chief of Zabulistan as telling him, "This is Iran, and from the time of Rustam until now, the men of Iran are accustomed to becoming soldiers only in Iran's army, and they will not take part in any foreign armies." Earlier, Timur had met an old man from Zabulistan who had remarked "Everyone is tall in Zabulistan (like Rustam). It is the country of Iranian men." Timur went on to note, "...since I had entered Khurasan, I hadn't heard anyone mention the name Iran until that day."
The Saka were an Aryan group who developed autonomously. They were at one time found inhabiting land further to the north and east of Sakastan, that is, to the east of the Syr Darya (Jaxartes River) and around the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Strabo (c. 63/64 BCE - 24 CE), in his Geography at 11.8.2, mentions a people called the Sacae (Sakae) and Sacarauli (likely from Saka-rauli, the Saka of Sarikol/Tashkurgan) who lived in the far east of Greater Aryana . Strabo goes on to say that the Sacarauli (together with the Asii, Pasiani, Tochari) "originally came from the country on the other side (east) of the Jaxartes River (Syr Darya) - a country that adjoins that of the Sacae and the Sogdiani and which was occupied by the Sacae." When Strabo states that the Sacarauli originally came from a country occupied by the Sacae, he effectively means the Sacarauli were a Saka group and further that Saka lands extended east from the Jaxartes River (Syr Darya) - perhaps as far east as the Lake Issykol in Kyrgyzstan, Kashgar and Tashkurgan (lands once part of eastern Greater Aryana). There is yet a further implication in Strabo's statement - and one which we find supported in the writings of other classical authors - that the Saka in time moved westward, west of the Jaxartes.
Achaemenid Persian inscriptions mention the Saka - apparently meaning the Saka of Central Asia. The inscriptions separately mention another land commonly understood to mean the Sistan of today: Zraka - a name that seems to have evolved to Zari and Zaranka. Zaranka then appears to have transformed to the English Drangiana via the Greek version of the name. There is a town called Zarang in the Sistan region.
George Curzon in Persia and the Persian Question, Vol. 1 (1892), writes, "The derivation of the name Seistan or Sejestan from Sagastan, the country of the Sagan, or Sacae, has, says Sir H. Rawlinson, never been doubted by any writer of credit, either Arab or Persian." Not every writer shares Curzon's certitude. In this set of articles, we will not be discussing the Central Asian lands or another branch of the Saka, the Parthians* - those are subjects that can each occupy a book by themselves. (*The word pahlavan meaning champions is related to Pahlavi or Pahlav which is in turn derived from Parthav or Parthava, known to the West as Parthia. For further details, please see our page on the Parthians.)
Our interest here is the Saka of Sakastan and the record they left behind in the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, other Zoroastrian texts, the epic Shahnameh written by the poet Ferdowsi and even in the Rig Veda, a part of the Hindu scriptures.
The Saka are better known in legend through the exploits of their stalwarts, the great Iranian heroes or pahlavans: Feridoon, Garshasp, Saam, Zal, Rustam and Sohrab - champions of Iran (Aryana) and defenders of the Iranian (Aryan) throne - who we briefly introduce after the section on the Land of Sakastan below.
The Land of Sakastan
|Helmand River Basin. Image Credit: Wikipedia.|
The Helmand River is the longest river in Afghanistan. Originating about 40 km west of Kabul in the Koh-e Baba heights of the Hindu Kush mountain range, the Helmand is joined by five tributaries — the Kajrud (Kudrud), Arghandab, Terin, Argastan, and Tarnakit. The river flows for approximately 1,300 km before terminating in the Hamun-e Helmand, a lake in present day Iran. Along the way, it passes through the provinces of Wardak, Oruzgan, Helmand, and Nimruz. Before arriving at the Iran-Afghanistan border, the river passes through the Dasht-e Margo or Margo Desert where it splits into two streams. One continues to be called the Helmand and is known locally as Darya-ye Sistan meaning the Sistan River. It flows through the Sistan plains where it is used to irrigate fields. The second stream which is called the Siksar or the Parian, forms the Afghan-Persian border and the two border villages of Naru'i and Miankangi lie on its banks. The river has been known to have changed its course over the centuries especially in the lower plains.
The Hamun Lakes - Daryachehye Hamun
A thousand years ago and more, what are now three lakes and a marshland was the great inland sea called the Daryacheh-e Hamun in which the mighty Helmand - the Nile of Southern Afghanistan - discharged its waters. What remains today are three Hamun lakes:
- Hamun-e Helmand also called Sistan Lake (Iran) is the southernmost. The only hill in the region, Kuh-e Khajeh (see below) used to lie within the lake but it now located on the lake's mid-eastern shore.
- Hamun-e Saban/Saberi (divided between Iran and Afghanistan) to the north of the Hamun-e Helmand/Sistan Lake and north-north-west of Zabul, and
- Hamun-e Puzak, to the east of Lake Saban and which lies in Afghanistan.
|The three principle Hamun lakes. Clockwise from the bottom are Hamun-e Helmand, Hamun-e Saban and Hamun-e Puzak (top right). Zabul/Zabol is located midway between the lakes. Image credit: Wikimapia.|
The Hamun is connected with both the early history of the Aryans and with the end times in Zoroastrian eschatology, when a third and final saviour (named the Saoshyant in the Avesta and Soshyans in Middle Persian texts) will appear to lead the world to a time of renovation when evil will be vanquished forever.
Sistani Lakes in Zoroastrian Texts
In the Avesta we have mention of one body of water in lands determined to be Sistan, while in the Bundahishn we have mention of two.
In the Avesta we have a Kasaem Haetumatem in Zamyad Yasht at 19.66 which states: Lake Kasava (Kasaoya) of the Haetumant (River) lies where Mount Ushidhau-Ushidarena (see Kuh-e Khajeh/Khvajeh below) stands surrounded by waters flowing down from the mountain ranges.
The Middle Persian texts, the Bundahishns, have a Frazdan Lake and a Kyanish Sea located in Sagastan. This suggests one small and one large body of water. Statements in these texts regarding the two bodies of water are as follows:
The Lesser Bundahishn (LB) at 22.5 and the Greater Bundahishn (GB) have a Lake Frazdan in Sagastan/Sigistan "where (when) a generous righteous man (a person) throws anything into the lake, the lake accepts it (perhaps as an offering). However, if (a person) is not righteous, the lake throws it out again. (The lake's) source also is connected with the wide-formed ocean." (All natural waters were considered connected in some fashion.)
The Bahman Yasht in its description of end times states at 3.13: "When the demon with dishevelled hair of the race of Wrath comes into notice in the eastern quarter, first a black token becomes manifest, and then (the saviour) Ushedar/Hushedar (or Khushedar)*, son of Zartosht, will be born at Lake Frazdan." [Middle Persian versions of the first saviour's name, the others being (H)usherdar-mah and Soshyans.]
The Afdih va Sahikih-i Sagastan (Wonders of the Land of Sagastan mentions the lake Frazdan, the Kyansih/Kiyansah Lake/Sea as well as the Aushdashtar Mountain as being in Sistan. Given that we have both a lake and a sea mention in Medieval texts, either the Hamun had by this time divided itself or the two are separate, unrelated bodies of water. of these, it is the Frazdan that is mention in texts concerning end times.
Contemporary authors commonly identify Frazdan Lake with Lake Hamun-e Helmand - given that it is the only lake with a 'mountain'. This identification, however, is not unanimous. Authors, Justi, West and Jackson identify the Frazdan with the Ab-istadah/Abe-Istada Lake, south of Ghazni. Ghazni, which is part of the upper Helmand basin, is over 600 km north-east of Zabul. As such, it can at a stretch still be considered a part of eastern Sistan at its border with Kabul.
Ab-istadah/Abe-Istada Lake, Ghazni, Zabulistan
The Ab-istadah/Abe-Istada (meaning standing water) is a salt lake that lies some 130 km SSE of Ghazni city and 200 km south of the Helmand River (just south of the Kuh-e Baba range). It has no outlet. It is some 27,000-13,000 ha in area. The bed has been known to be about 20 km wide though or average it shrinks to about 15 km, becoming completely dry by October in some years. The lake sits on a rolling plateau at a height of 2,100 m. The lake is fed by a river entering in the north-east and formed by a confluence of the Gardez, Ghazni and Nahara rivers. Semi-desert grasslands and mudflats surround the lake - the mudflats extending for 7 km on the east side and about 0.5 km on the west. At times, three islands appear within the lake. The lake and the region around it are important historically and archaeologically. Several mounds have been excavated and artifacts discovered.
The lake is closer both to Kabul and Balkh, bringing it more towards the centre of Kayanian Aryana. If Zarathushtra was at one time located at Balkh, King Vishtasp's capital, and if that Balkh is the same as the one today, then it is in closer proximity to Zarathushtra's centre of activity than Lake Hamun, which, as we had noted is come 600 km to the west.
There is little direct connection between the Ab-istadah Lake and the Helmand River (other than being at the very edge of the Helmand basin). Indirect connections include the Tarnak/Tarnakit River, a tributary of the Helmand, that flows past the lake at a distance of about 20 km. In addition, Ghazni borders present-day Zabul province, a province that is otherwise called Zabulistan. The names can be confusing. While Sistan has a city called Zabul, Zabulistan is a separate district. The ancient times, the districts were much larger and joined together to form Sistan-Zabulistan.
LB 13.16-17. Of all the small seas, the one which was most wholesome was the Kyansih (Kayanian) Sea in Sagastan (Sakastan/Sistan). At first, noxious creatures, snakes, and lizards (vazagh) were not found in the sea and its water was sweeter than that of any other seas. Later, it became salty. Now, on account of a stench, it is not possible to go near the sea - one league at the closest. The stench, saltness and violence of the hot wind are now so very great. When the renovation (Frasho-kereti) of the universe occurs, the sea will become sweet again. [Today, if there is a singular identifying feature of the Hamun Lake region, it is the fierce (70-100 mph) hot winds (known as the winds of 120 days) that blow for three months in summer when temperatures rise to 50ºC . Echoing the description in the Bundahishn above, one 19th century author called the Hamun Lake district "the most odious place on earth."]
GB 10.16-18: Of the small seas the twentieth is the Kyansah Sea in Sigistan. At first, there were no noxious creatures, snakes, and frogs in it and its water was sweet. (Then, the sea became salty and) it was not proper to go near (this) salt sea up to a hathra (a league) owing to the stench in the vicinity (as well as) the blowing hot wind. When the renovation of the universe takes place, the sea will become sweet again.
Diversion of the Rivers by Frasiyav (Afrasiab)
The Frasiyav mentioned in the Bundahishns is the Turanian adversary of the Kayanian kings known as Afrasiab in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh and Frangrasyn/Frangrasin in the Avesta (cf. Y 9.21; Aban Yt 41; Gosh Yt 18,22; Ashi Yt 38, 42; Zamyad Yt 56-63, 82, 93. The genealogy of Frasiyav can be found at LB 31.14.)
LB 20.34. Regarding Frasiyav (Afrasiab the Turanian adversary of the Kayanian kings) they say, that he diverted a thousand springs into the sea Kyansih (making it) suitable for horses, camels, oxen and asses, both great and small. He also diverted the spring Zarinmand (or golden source), which is the Hetumand river, into the same sea; and he diverted the seven navigable waters of the source of the Vachaeni River into the same sea, and then made people settle there. [It appears that Frasiyav/Afrasiab engaged in a water diversion program, perhaps by digging canals, thus providing sufficient water to the 'sea' in order to keep the water sweet i.e. suitable for animals (as drinking water?).]
GB 11A.32. As regards Frasiyav they say, "He diverted a thousand springs to the Kyansah Sea.... He diverted, to this sea (the) golden spring which is called the river Helmand. Having diverted the source of the River Vataeni and six navigable waters to this sea, he made people settle there."
LB 20.17. The Hetumand River is in Sagastan, and its sources are in the Aparsen (Paropamisus & Western Hindu Kush) range, this being the distinct from that which Frasiyav diverted (the rivers).
LB 21.6-7. Regarding the River Nahvtak it says, that Frasiyav (Afrasiab) of Tur conducted it away; and when Ushedar (the saviour, see above) comes it will flow again (and become) suitable for horses, as also the fountains (springs?) of the Kyansih Sea. 7. Kyansih is the home (jinak) of the Kayanian race.
GB 11C.5. Regarding the River Kataeni, one says that the Turanian Frasiyav excavated it with a mace (or some type of excavating tools?). It will flow again as big (deep?) as a horse when Ushitar (Ushidar, the saviour, see above) arrives as will the springs of the sea Kyansah. It is called Kyansah because the seed of the Kays is deposited there.
Kuh-e Khajeh/Khvajeh Mountain
|Kuh-e Khajeh/Khvajeh as seen from the south-east during the wet season.|
Image credit: mmishmast at Panoramio
Kuh-e Khajeh/Khvajeh is a black basalt hill that is located 30 km SW of the town of Zabul in Iran's Sistan province. It is the only hill in the area and while it used to stand in the middle of Lake Hamun-e Helmand, it now stands on the diminishing lake's eastern shore.
The Names of the Mountain and their Meaning
Without the explanation we state next, the name Khajeh would likely be derived from 'khvajeh' meaning 'lord'. One of the few old references to the hill with it present name is in the twelfth century CE Tarikh-e Sistan (History of Sistan). This text states that the hill contains the shrine of Khawja Ali, a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. The shrine is located on a slope on the other side of the hill to where Zoroastrian-era ruins are located, though unfortunately, the only access to the shrine is through the ruins. As a result, the historic ruins have been greatly damaged by the traffic.
In Timur's account (next page) the hill is called Black Mountain.
We also find the hill currently referred to as Oshida Mountain which some people translate as 'Sacred Mountain'. Oshida is derived from Ushidhau-Ushidarena, a mountain mentioned in the Avesta's Zamyad Yasht at 19.0, 2, 97. The other Avestan references are at Yasna 1.14, 2.14, 3.16, 4.19, 6.13, 7.16, 17.14, 22.16, 25, 26, 25.7. Homorzd Yasht 28, 31. The name has evolved in several ways. The The Lesser Bundahishn at 12.15 says "Mount Ushdashtar/Aushdashtar lies in Sagastan." The Greater Bundahishn at 9.18 has "Mount Ushihdattar is in Sigistan." Darmesteter has the Pahlavi translation of the mountain's name as 'keeper of understanding'. Others have 'keeper of divine wisdom' or 'keeper of intelligence'. To us the name even sounds like 'keeper of the law'. The mountain's name also appears to be similar to the name of the second of two world saviours, Ushedarmah, in Middle Persian.
On the hill's eastern slopes stand the ruins of a fort-citadel complex known as the Kaleye Saam (Fort of Saam) or Kaleye Kafiroon (Fort of the Infidels/Unbelievers i.e. Zoroastrians). The complex includes ruins of two forts and a citadel known variously as Kok-e Zal (Zal's citadel), Chehel Dokhtaran (forty girls) and Ghagha Shahr. Within the Ghagha Shahr citadel are the ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple.
The ruins were first excavated by Marc Aurel Stein in 1915-1916, then again by Ernst Herzfeld from 1925 to 1929, and briefly by Giorgio Gullini in 1960. Herzfeld initially dated the palace complex to the Parthian/Arsacid period i.e 248 BCE to 224 CE. He later revised his dating to the Sassanid period i.e. 224 to 651 CE. Stein discovered numerous murals in what was later identified as the fire temple and which he had removed and housed in a New Delhi museum.
|Overview of the ruins.|
Image credit: Mohamad Reza Zare at Panoramio
|Black Mountain or Kuh-e Khajeh near Zabol in Sistan, Iran|
Fire Temple Courtyard
Image Credit: Hamid-Golpesar at Flickr
Zabul & Trade
The main modern town in the western Helmand basin is Zabul (or Zabol), currently in eastern Iran. The city of Zabul is not to be confused with the district of Zabulistan. Zabul city lies close to where the Helmand River enters the Hamun Lakes. Zabulistan district lies about 600 km east along the Helmand River and in the past, it would have bordered the kingdom of Kabul. Zabul city was a hub on the Aryan trade roads that radiated to Khorasan, Kerman, Yazd, Kabul, Baluchistan and India. The Central Asian Mongol-Turk conqueror of the Indian sub-continent Timurlane in his autobiography which we quote in the next page, mentions witnessing several trade caravans from Yazd and Kerman as well as goods he saw in Zabul's bazaar and which had been imported from Hind (India). The goods in Zabul's bazaar (and those that passed through Zabul on their way to other markets) included Chinese raw silk as well as Indian precious stones, perfumes, opium and spices. From lands to the south and west of Zabul came pearls from the Persian Gulf, wheat, barley, turmeric, asafoetida and medicinal herbs.
|Aerial view of the Shahr-e Sukhteh site.|
Image credit: Wikimapia
The ruins lies about 50 km south of Zabul and are located on the banks of a dried river that was likely part of the Helmand River complex.
|Skull of a woman with an artificial eye.|
Image credit: Wikimapia
One of the bodies uncovered was that of a 6 foot tall woman who had an artificial eye made from a light material thought to be bitumen covered with a thin gold film engraved with a central circle (likely the outline of an iris) with gold lines emanating like rays of the sun. On both sides of the eye tiny holes were drilled into the socket through which a golden thread was passed to hold the eyeball in place. These were the conclusions of Lorenzo Costantini, an Italian scientist after examining the skeleton discovered by archaeologist Mansour Sajjadi. Using dating techniques, the scientists have determined that the woman lived between 2900 and 2800 BCE.
Also uncovered at the site was the skull of a thirteen year old girl which shows signs of cranial surgery. The girl was determined to have been suffering from hydrocephalus, a condition of increased fluid accumulation in the brain that results in the enlargement of the head of the patient. (Other examples of cranial surgery called trepanation have been in Indus Valley ruins. Example of dental drilling have been discovered in Mehrgarh.)
Image credit: Wikimapia
|Painted pottery with an animated goat sequence.|
Image Credit: Tehran Times
The various artifacts discovered indicate that the people had developed a range of skilled professions including those of jewellers, artists, weavers and carpenters. These professions were in addition to the usual professions found in any settled and organized community - professions such as agriculturalists and animal livestock keepers.
The artifacts include items that are determined to have originated first (3,200-2,800 BCE) in eastern Baluchistan (perhaps in Mehrgarh on the edge of the Indus Valley) and throughout Aryana including Central Asia. Then from 2,800 to 2,500 BCE trade with western lands such as Khuzestan developed. From 2,500 BCE trade extended to Mishmahig (Bahrain), Kuwait, and southern Khvarvaran (Iraq). Persian Gulf trade would have required the development of maritime trade.
Nimruz is the Afghani province that borders the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan. Its present day capital is Zaranj. However, a city named Nimruz was the capital of Zal and his progeny.
The name Nimruz, which means mid-day, is thought by some to reflect a belief that the prime meridian of the then known world (stretching from Europe and Africa in the west to Japan in the east) ran through Nimruz-Sistan. One tradition has Zarathushtra first locating the meridian and then building on observatory close to the present city of Zabul.
The Stalwarts from Amongst the Pahlavans
Thraetaona (who the Bundahishn and the poet Ferdowsi called Feridoon) rescued and liberated Iran (Aryana) from the clutches of the evil demon-king Azi Dahak (Zahhak in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh), from whose shoulders grew two snakes making him look like a three-headed, six-eyed snake-dragon. The Afdih va Sahikih-i Sagastan (Wonders of the Land of Sagastan) notes that Iraj, the son of Feridoon, took refuge in Sistan (likely when his brothers launched an internecine war to kill him and seize the Iranian throne).
Garshasp can be thought of as the Hercules of the Aryans - a smiter of fiends, giants and monsters who would otherwise destroy the world. The name Garshasp evolved from the Avestan Keresaspa.
Sam was a champion and defender of the Iranian/Aryan throne. A king in his own right, Sam's kingdom together with the kingdoms of other Aryan kings, formed the confederation of Aryana under the king-of-kings. During Saam's time, Feridoon followed by his grandson Minoochehr were the king-of-kings of Aryana. According to the Middle Persian text the Greater Bundahishn at 36.7, "When the rule of the millennium came to Sagittarius (see our page on zodiacal dating* and the note on millennia at the bottom of the page), Feridoon (reigned) for five hundred years (these are legendary periods of time). In these five hundred years of Feridoon, Airij (Iraj, Feridoon's son to whom Feridoon delegated vice-regal authority over central Iran/Aryana) governed for twelve years, (and was succeeded by his son, Manushchihr (Minuchehr) who governed for a hundred and twenty years. During this reign of Manushchihr (Minuchehr), when he (retreated to) Mount Patashkhvar (the Alburz Mountains south of the Caspian Sea), Frasiyav (Afrasiab the Turanian) reigned (over Iran) twelve years. Then, Uzob son of Tuhmasp reigned for five years, and (the Kayanian) Kay Kobad reigned for fifteen years. Saam ruled his kingdom (of Sistan) during the reigns of Uzob, Kobad, and Manushchihr (Minuchehr)." The Shahnameh has Saam assisting Feridoon in the last years of the latter's life. (*The page on zodiacal dating is part of zoroastrianastrology.blogspot.ca.)
Zal, Rustam & Sohrab
It is with Saam's son Zal (pronounced Zaal), that the exploits of the pahlavans pick up in the poet Ferdowsi's Shahnameh. The stories involving Zal's son Rustam occupy the longest part of the Shahnameh. The exploits end tragically when Rustam unknowingly kills his son Sohrab. The reader will find a synopsis of these stories in our page: The Heroes - Their Story in Brief.
The Pahlavan's Creed
The creed of the Pahlavans is first to be pure, truthful, unpretentious, good tempered and only then strong in body. Pahlavans seek to develop mind, body and spirit. They engage in learning as well as physical strength. The pursuit of both must however be preceded by modesty. "Learn modesty if you desire knowledge," goes the saying, "for a highland cannot be irrigated by a river" [from the Kanz ol-Haghayegh (Treasure of the Truths) by Pahlavan Khvarazmi].
Today, wrestlers in Iran, Pakistan and northern India are called pehlvans. They train with maces and clubs in Mithraeum-like (i.e. windowless Mithra temples) gymnasiums called zurkhanes (houses of strength). During their meditative exercises that have spiritual overtones, a musician plays a drum while reciting Shahnameh verses that recount the heroic deeds of Rustam and other champions of Iran. The epic itself sits in a place of special reverence within the zurkhane.
Pahlavans & Sakastan pages:
» 1. Introduction
» 2. Timur's Account
» 3. Lineage & Nation
» 4. Thraetaona & Thrita. Keresaspa & Urvakhshaya. Varena, Rangha & Patashkhvargar
» 5. Trita, Visvarupa & Ahi in the Vedas
» 6. Battles with Dragon-Snakes
» 7. Garshasp, Saam & Zal in the Shahnameh
» 8. End Times. The Renovation of the World
» 9. Religion in Sakastan