An Iranian King in Service in Siberia
A few years ago during the field trip among the Khanty near the river of Synia, a left tributary of the Malaya Ob, the author of this article was lucky enough to see the work of ancient art - silver dish which was found by local Khanty reindeer breeders sometime long ago and was passed on from generation to generation. The present dish can be dated by the late 4th or early 5th c. Iranian shah of that time riding odd-looking bull was depicted on it. These dishes are considered to have been intended for coronation, they are believed to have been cast when a new ruler ascended to the throne. Museums all around the world have no more 35 silver Sassanid dishes. It is the first Sassanid dish discovered in West Siberia
A few years ago we were on a field trip among the Khanty near the river of Synia, a left tributary of the Malaya Ob. The nearest town, Salekhard, was 300 km away. The Synia flows from the eastern slopes of the Urals; the river itself is one of the best-known routes that were taken by people and trade caravans traveling from Europe to the north of Siberia.
In the settlement of Ovgort, they promised me to show a men’s hunting belt: among the pendants suspended from it was a medieval silver figurine of a bird. The present owner of the belt inherited it from his father. A reindeer herder, he spent most of his time on the North Urals pastures and was not a frequent visitor to the settlement. In his new, spacious home we were given tea and talked unhurriedly about this and that, drifting little by little towards the thing that interested me.
– And your belt, is it at home or did you leave it in the Urals?
– At home, I bring it with me wherever I go. How can I do otherwise? It’s my father’s…so I carry it together with other sacred things. They should be with me. Our spirit, Kurpat-iki, who helps us from diseases; the sacred cover for the deer; scarves and fox hides – they are all in the bag. My father put them there, and I carry them. It’s five years since he died. There’s an old plate there, too.
On hearing this I did not feel like having any more tea, but I knew I couldn’t hurry. I was dying to see the dish and was afraid they wouldn’t show it to me; it was prohibited to show sacred things to strangers.
– And where’s the bag?
– In the mud room, there’s a shelf there made for it.
And back to the tea party and talking about deer though I could think of nothing but the plate.
The tea is drunk at last; we stand up and go to the mud room. Its right part is screened off – women are not allowed here. Attached to the back wall is a broad shelf with family cult things displayed on it. A large figure in black clothes is sitting in the middle – it is Kurpat-iki, whose functions are close to these of the Russian domovoi (hobgoblin). To the right of it is a canvas bag.
Without haste (he is deadly slow I think), the host takes out of the bag a figurine of the female guardian spirit (the god of the host’s mother), then a sacrificial cover depicting seven horse-riders, and at last the ritual belt with seven bird figurines… That’s it, the bag seems empty – what a disappointment! No, he dives his hand deep into the bag again, reaches to the very bottom, and here comes a flat package, you can see that it’s heavy; seven scarves are unwrapped one by one, with dried biscuits and coins falling out of them onto the floor… The dish is big and heavy, there’s little light behind the screen – the bulb is low; I take it in my hands and can see by weight that this is silver – quite heavy. And there’s a horseman riding an odd-looking bull…
It’s the twenty-first century, a dreary settlement, standard two-family houses, building of the club, wellingtons and cardboard boxes in the corner of the mud room… And here is a horseman, a gloomy king wearing a crown and an apezak, ancient gilt with biscuit crumbs stuck to it. Somebody of the Iranian shahs, Sassanids, a powerful nation that defeated the troops of the Roman Empire.
And here goes the belt with a bird figurine – medieval silver indeed, for all I care…
THE SILVER SASSANID DISH DEPICTING THE SHAH YAZDEGERD I. TURN OF 5TH C.On the reverse side of the dish, the inscription jâ-m- i fizzah (“a silver dish”) is scratched. It is made in Arabic letters of the 9th and 10th c. in the New Persian language spoken by one of the latest dish owners.
“J. Orbeli, and then many after him, wrote many times that the Sassanid “dishes” were in fact wine-drinking cups. The word ‘dzham’ stands for a ‘cup’ but the traditional museum word for the flat Sassanid cup is a ‘dish’. The absence of uniform gilt can be attributed to regular cleanings – in the Middle East, the dish was used and cleaned for many ages after it had left the Sassanid kings’ treasury. In the 9th c., the Arab poet Abu Nuwas wrote about the Sassanid dish in a Baghdad tavern. Does the dish seem dark? It may have been so dark some time back that somebody decided to confirm in writing the material it was made of. On the other hand, inscriptions like “This is a lion and not a dog” on a lion cage were popular from of old: in the Sogdian art of the 9th and 10th cc. one can see inscriptions like “leg” on a painted leg, “bird” on a bird, and so on.”
(from the letter of Prof. B. I. Marshak to the author of the find)
The dish, or rather the bowl from which Iranian noblemen drank wine, was found long ago – as far back as in the second half of the 19th c., judging by the stories told. The mother of the great grandmother of the present owner of the silver dish was going in a boat from one settlement to another, together with her husband. On their way, they stopped to rest and came onto the bank. The woman saw something glitter in the grass. They dug around and unearthed a big treasure trove: a copper cauldron with the dish and cast silver and bronze animal figurines. Since the Ob Ugrians believe that anything found has been “sent from above,” the new owners put the find together with their family ritual attributes. The dish, among other things, descended through the youngest sons, who weren’t allowed to see it while the father was alive. Nor can the older brothers of the dish’s owner see it today. Ancient attributes are put in the mud room because, by local tradition, a thing found outside the living space (the dish was part of a treasure trove, so it was “out of home”) cannot be kept inside.
Yazdegerd I, a “sinner”…
The dish is 22.2 centimeters in diameter, 4.8 centimeters high, and weighs 864 grams. Riding on the galloping zebu-like bull is a king. With his left hand, he is holding on to the bull’s horn, and with a spear held in his right hand he is hitting another zebu-like bull depicted in the lower part of the dish.
His crown has three teeth, a crescent and a relief ball (some researchers believe that the lobed shape of the ball could give the impression of a flower-bud). The outer garments are made of a thin, folding fabric; on the chest is an apezak with a round medallion; a double-buckled belt; the loose trousers forming multiple folds are gathered at the ankles by two plates and a ribbon. Behind the king’s back one can see the sword handle with a straight hand guard; a quiver is suspended to the sword-belt. The lower bull is in death throes, its head dangling limply.
The top right part of the dish shows a winged nude young man, a “genius,” who is offering a ribbon to the king. At the bottom, there are four hills and a bush with three leaves.
The high relief of the main details of the figures depicted on the dish is highlighted by the application of cover plates.
The dish shows traces of engravings made later, in the Urals or in Siberia: a long figurine of a bird is cut above the sword handle, and a two deer are depicted in front of the “genius.”
On the reverse side of the dish there is a signature scratched in Arabic letters “a silver cup.” It is made in the 9th or 10th-century italics, in the New Persian language spoken by one of the late Middle Asian or Iranian owners of the vessel. Hence, the dish could not have made it to Siberia earlier than the 9th century.
Who was this enigmatic king? The researchers distinguish Sassanid shahs primarily by their crowns. The figure we see on the dish is most likely the Iranian shah Yazdegerd I (399—421). He ruled in the time of trouble for the state, when struggle between the central authority and large landowners was getting violent. In his search of supporters, the shah decided to lean upon the Christians. They got the right to build churches, move freely across the country, and worship. The king was striving for peace with Byzantium and counted on Iranian Christians as the link between the two countries. As a result, Yazdegerd was praised by Christian writers as a fair king whereas the official Sassanid tradition gave him the nickname of a “sinner.” Only by the end of his rule, Yazdegerd changed his attitude to the Christians and conducted a few purges against them.
The shah’s death during his visit to a north-eastern province is wrapped in mystery: according to the legend, a horse of breathtaking beauty came out of a spring and would not let anyone approach it. As the shah came near it, the horse smote him on the chest with its hoof. There is a hypothesis that the legend was invented by the noblemen to hide the king’s murder they had committed.
Interestingly, this is only the second known dish bearing the depiction of Yazdegerd I; the first showing the shah killing a deer is kept at the Metropolitan Museum (USA). Museums all around the world have no more 35 silver Sassanid dishes with the largest collection being in the State Hermitage (St Petersburg, Russia). These dishes are considered to have been intended for coronation, they are believed to have been cast when a new ruler ascended to the throne. The present dish can be dated by the late 4th or early 5th c. It is the first Sassanid dish discovered in West Siberia.
A few words about the meaning of the plot the work giver asked to depict on the dish. Firstly, this can be just a hunting scene: the daring king has mounted a bull to smite another bull. Or this can be not a depiction of a hunting but the king’s fight against two bulls, similarly to Roman circus battles.
Secondly, Zoroastrian symbols can be discerned: king’s hunting embodies high divine merits of the king of the kings. By hunting an animal, a king was considered to acquire some qualities of the latter. The tangible image of the deity had to be “taken,” captured. The zebu-like bull was the guise of the “primeval bull,” a Zoroastrian deity. The king on the Synia dish can be fighting for the qualities of this mythological creature.
Thirdly, the dish could have been ordered by the shah himself. Depicting himself fighting animals, he aligned his image with that of a god (for example, the scene in which Mitra kills the primeval bull), a fighter for the light and good against the dark and evil.
And finally, the scene depicted on the dish can be an illustration of a calendar rite. According to B.I. Marshak, hunting a festively ornamented bull may refer to Nowrūz, the Iranian holiday that at the time of Yazdegerd I was observed in the fall (in the modern Muslim world, Nowrūz is celebrated on the day of vernal equinox, on March 21). The calendar symbol of Nowrūz was a lion defeating a bull. It is known that in the third-century Iran the image of a rider (Mitra) and of a lion were considered compositionally equivalent.
Shamans in a “dark yurt”
Because of their high value, the dishes that made it to the north of Siberia in the late 1st and early 2nd century must have been possessed by a clan rather than by a single family, and as such could only be used, for rites and prayers, by clan priests at the settlement’s holy place.
Until recently, the owner of the Sassanid dish was a shaman well-known on the Synia, so the dish was inaccessible to strangers. It is known nevertheless that in certain years the shamans of the three settlements – Loragort, Ovolyngort and Vytvozhgort – gathered together at the holy place situated not far from the latter settlement. For a week, they performed kamlaniye (shamanistic ritual) at night in a “dark yurt.” The center of the camp was a tall cedar with the face of a mythical bogatyr ancestor carved on its trunk. Up to 49 deer were sacrificed to it. The guardian of this place was the owner of the Sassanid dish. Supposedly, it was used both for kamlaniye in a “dark yurt” and for sacrificial offerings. During the ritual ceremony, the dish served as a vessel into which sacrificial bread, biscuits, and sweets were put.
Having got to Siberia in the 9th c. at the earliest, as it was mentioned above, the dish found its place in the religious and ritual practices of the Ob Ugrics, which by that time could have incorporated beliefs about the celestial rider Mir-susne-khum, the younger son of the supreme god Numi-torum. The figure of the Iranian shah must have been recognized as Mir-susne-khum, who flies above the sinful earth day and night (the bull is flying over mountains and trees); next to him the priests depicted a flying bird. Another similarity can be pointed out, this time between the plot shown on the dish and a Mansi rite. Most Sassanid dishes portray a king hunting, with two animals. Some researchers believe that, in fact, a single animal is meant but at different hunting stages – alive and killed. The northern Mansi sacrifice a white horse to Mir-susne-khum, and the god is supposed to be invisibly present at the ceremony. The Mansi believe that the moment the animal is falling, in agony, on the ground, Mir-susne-khum is ascending into the sky riding the sacrificed horse. In a sense, the scene depicted on the dish and the Mansi sacrificial ritual share the plot: the bull (horse) is killed; the god on the bull (horse) is ascending into the sky.
We are leaving the settlement; in winter, a deer caravan will take the ancient dish to the Polar Urals. Shall we see it again? Only the Khanty god (even if he is depicted as an Iranian shah) knows the answer…
Baulo A. V. The Sassanid silver dish from the Synia River//Archaeology, Ethnology, and Anthropology of Eurasia. 2002. # 1. P. 142—148.
Harper P. O., Meyers P. Silver vessels of the Sasanian period. N.Y.: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Princeton University Press. 1981. V. 1. 256 pp.
Lukonin V. G. Ancient Iranian art. Мoscow: Iskusstvo, 1977. 232 p.
Trever K. V., Lukonin V. G. The Sassanid silver. State Hermitage Collection. Artistic Culture of Iran in the 3rd – 8th cc. M.: Iskusstvo, 1987. 157 p., 124 illustrations.
Photographs are the courtesy of the author