Kor and Pulvar river valleys

© Bob Denton, 2016
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We saw that the Mesopotamian civilization began in the Zagros mountains and once irrigation and agricultural techniques had been learned they moved westward down into the Tigris and Euphrates valleys (today’s Iraq). But rivers also flowed eastward (today’s Iran) supplying a collection of ancient peoples that through history have variously been referred to as Alans, Aryas, Avestans, Bactrians, Medes, Parthians, Sarmatians and Scythians.

As the Mesopotamian, Nile and Indus civilizations went into decline the Persian or Acharmenid empire expanded to fill the gap.


There were Neolithic settlements around Susa from as early as 7,000 BCE. Susa was originally independent but fell under the control of the nearby city of Uruk. By 6,000 BCE it had a temple built on a monumental platform. The modern Iranian city of Shush is in approximately the same location.

Greek mythology says the city was founded by king Mnemon of Aethiopia (Ethiopia), a character who featured in The Iliad bringing an army to the aid of Troy. Susa is also mentioned in the Bible during the Jewish Babylonian exile of the 6th century BCE. There was certainly a painted pottery civilization here from around 5,000 BCE, known as Proto-Elamites. Thousands of graves and some 2,000 pots were discovered here (most now in the Louvre, Paris).

Shustar Waterfalls at Susa, dated 3,000 BCE
Source: www.english-test.net

The city was formed by unifying two distinct settlements, named as Acroplis and Apadana by archaeologists, the latter featuring a six metre thick wall of earth. It revealed all the familiar Mesopotamian features of writing cylinders, architectural monuments…

Susa’s location is between three rivers descending from the Zagros mountains, the Kārun, Karkheh and Dez, the latter two rivers are mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Daniel by different names, Choaspes and Eulaeus. The prophet Daniel lived in this city it was where he had his Biblical vision and his tomb has been located here.

In 430 BCE the Greek historian Herodotus described Persian customs at Susa. He talks of their religion, their fondness for wine, large coteries of concubines, and their ready adoption of others’ customs, the costumes of the Medes, Egyptian breastplates worn to battle…

He also mentioned that the Persians were precocious in terms of their understanding of the need to keep rivers clean, Herodotus reported that

they never defile a river with the secretions of their bodies, nor even wash their hands in one; nor will they allow others to do so, as they have a great reverence for rivers.



The Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex is a much overlooked early Bronze Age civilization. Bactria and Margiana were the Greek names for two parts of this area, the latter once part of Persia.  Bactria developed along the Amu Dar’ya river (or Oxus river) in north Afghanistan and north-east Iran, while Margiana is along the Murgab river in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Bactria-Margiana region
Source: www.discovermagazine.com

As much of the early exploration was carried out by Russians and published only in Russian journals this gained little western attention before the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The recent history of Iran has also made follow-up investigation difficult.

There were Russian finds of mud-brick houses here dating back to 6,000 BCE. The settlements were populated by farmers who kept goats and sheep, grew barley and some wheat. Their communities grew and were swelled by migrations from other areas of today’s Iran, the new immigrants bringing for example a knowledge of metallurgy with them.

There appears to have been two distinct cultures in the region, suggested by two different pottery styles. It appears that Indo-Iranian migration pressures from the north pushed the region into a decline. But not before these communities developed a distinctive architecture and a strong material culture with wheel-turned pottery and ceramics. They also produced jewellery using semiprecious stones like turquoise and lapis lazuli. It was the attractiveness of lapis lazuli, the chief source being in nearby north-eastern Afghanistan, which created their non-agricultural success as they traded it throughout the ancient east.

Notable from this period is the Geokisur Oasis within the Tedzhen delta, here a mound was found to include houses and burial chambers that contained ceramics and painted female terracotta figures as fertility symbols. The inhabitants appear to have worshipped two separate deities – fire and water.

The area is notable from our perspective for its early building of an artificial reservoir. The analysis of barley seeds found here also indicate that there was a system of multiple field irrigation being operated. Near the oasis the archaeologists discovered three kilometre long channels up to five metres wide, serving a series of irrigation ditches. Following a familiar pattern these settlements grew into proto-cities reaching a peak by 2,300 BCE.

The city of Gonur-tepe, capital of Margiana, contained five altars apparently pursuing the Zoroastrian faith. The archaeologists discovered dishes with traces of cannabis, ephedrine (a stimulant) and poppy. The city built water cisterns to counter droughts and it had two separate sewerage systems. Its homes and streets had a drainage network but evidently the latter proved inadequate because it was overwhelmed when the Murgab moved its course.

There is evidence that the city’s progress was heavily influenced by trading contacts with the Indus Valley based upon analysis of its artefacts and architecture. A 2,300 BCE stone seal found at Anau was stamped with an elephant and also bore an Indus script. These trade routes carried ideas and technologies and handled the high-demand products of its age – gold, ivory, silver… They were early in domesticating the camel and had the wheel too. Some authorities claim that these communities also developed a form of writing.

Gonur-Tappeh pipes
Source: www.cais-soas.com

Cyrus and Darius

It was the 6th century BCE that proved to be a busy period for the Persians as they built a formidable empire. Cyrus the Great succeeded his father as King of Anshan in 559 BCE, and in less than a decade had overthrown his overlords, the Medes. This automatically vested him the control of Assyria too. His son made advances in to Egypt and his successor Darius the Great placed his capital at Susa and set about building Persepolis. He continued this expansion so that it became the largest empire in the then known world. By the end of the century they had advanced in to Greece and razed Athens in 480 BCE.

Early Persian water management included āb anbār cisterns, literally meaning water reservoir. They were built below ground level and capped with a roof. One concern in this regions was earthquakes and a subterranean location helped stability. They also used a strong mortar called sarooj, which added egg whites and goat hairs to the more common ingredients of ash, clay, lime and sand. These often included above-ground elements, wind-catchers that funnelled the breeze and kept the water cool. The structures also proved useful as navigation aids for trade-route travellers.

Darius the Great
Source: britannica.com

Their third king, Darius the Great (6th/5th century BCE), expanded the realm and was something of an organiser, he divided the Empire into provinces run by satraps or governors.

He sought to punish Athens following a revolt but was famously defeated at the Battle of Marathon. He was responsible for a number of major building works around his empire. Intriguingly he completed work that had been started by the Pharaohs in Egypt and commissioned an ancient Suez Canal, it followed a different course to the modern version. The ancient one did have one of the earliest canal lock systems, though their design was credited to Greek engineers.

Ab anbar at Seyyed Baghar
Source: Wikimedia Commons

By 500 BCE the Persians were using sakia, or water wheels, using an endless series of pots on a rope which ran through pulleys. These turned a cogged wheel to lower the pots into the water and then raised them to be emptied at the surface. The sakia was similar to the noria except that it was powered by oxen rather than the flow of water.

BRIEFER: The Persians also first developed the water clock perhaps as early as 500 BCE. In 328 BCE, Callisthenes, a Greek historian and great-nephew of Aristotle accompanied Alexander the Great on his expeditions in to Asia. Callisthenes reported seeing water clocks in Persia that were used to control a fair distribution of water from the qanats to user landowners. Water clocks were later used to establish the equinoxes and holy days.

Persian fenjaan water clock
Source: Wikimedia Commons

They called their water clock a ‘fenjaan’ which consisted of a pot that was filled with water, then a bowl was placed on the water surface. It had a small hole that allowed water to leak in to it, the weight of water would cause the bowl to sink into the water-filled pot until it reached the bottom. An operator would put a stone into a jar to mark the passage of a unit of time then empty the water into the pot and replace the empty bowl onto the surface.

In 331 BCE the Macedonian general, Alexander the Great, conquered the Persians. After his death his generals shared out parts of his empire. Selecus I Nicator succeeded him in Persia and Mesopotamia and later added Syria to his domain. It was during this Seleucid Dynasty that the Greek language became the standard for diplomacy and literature and Greek thinking, architecture and art became adopted broadly across the region.

© Bob Denton, 2016
Advance to Yangtse and Yellow rivers   –  Back to The Nile Valley
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