The Parthian Empire

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Geography of Parthia Proper, Character of the Region, Climate, Character of the Surrounding Countries.

The broad tract of desert which, eastward of the Caspian Sea, extends from the Mougbojar hills to the Indian Ocean, a distance of above 1500 miles, is interrupted about midway by a strip of territory possessing features of much beauty and attraction. This strip, narrow compared to the desert on either side of it, is yet, looked at by itself, a region of no inconsiderable dimensions, extending, as it does from east to west, a distance of 320, and from north to south of nearly 200 miles. The mountain chain, which running southward of the Caspian, skirts the great plateau of Iran, or Persia, on the north, broadens out, after it passes the south-eastern corner of the sea, into a valuable and productive mountain-region. Four or five distinct ranges here run parallel to one another, having between them latitudinal valleys, with glens transverse to their courses. The sides of the valleys are often well wooded; the flat ground at the foot of the hills is fertile; water abounds; and the streams gradually collect into rivers of a considerable size.

The fertile territory in this quarter is further increased by the extension of cultivation to a considerable distance from the base of the most southern of the ranges, in the direction of the Great Iranic desert. The mountains send down a number of small streams towards the south; and the water of these, judiciously husbanded by means of reservoirs and kanats, is capable of spreading fertility over a broad belt at the foot of the hills; which, left to nature, would be almost as barren as the desert itself, into which it would, in fact, be absorbed.

It was undoubtedly in the region which has been thus briefly described that the ancient home of the Parthians lay. In this neighborhood alone are found the geographic names which the most ancient writers who mention the Parthians connect with them. Here evidently the Parthians were settled at the time when Alexander the Great overran the East, and first made the Greeks thoroughly familiar with the Parthian name and territory. Here, lastly, in the time of the highest Parthian splendor and prosperity, did a province of the Empire retain the name of Parthyene, or Parthia Proper; and here, also, in their palmiest days, did the Parthian kings continue to have a capital and a residence.

Parthia Proper, however, was at no time coextensive with the region described. A portion of that region formed the district called Hyrcania; and it is not altogether easy to determine what were the limits between the two. The evidence goes, on the whole, to show that, while Hyrcania lay towards the west and north, the Parthian country was that towards the south and east, the valleys of the Ettrek and Gurghan constituting the main portions of the former, while the tracts east and south of those valleys, as far as the sixty-first degree of E. longitude, constituted the latter.

If the limits of Parthia Proper be thus defined, it will have nearly corresponded to the modern Persian province of Khorasan. It will have extended from about Damaghan (long. 54 10') upon the west, to the Heri-rud upon the east, and have comprised the modern districts of Damaghan, Shah-rud, Sebzawar, Nishapur, Meshed, Shebri-No, and Tersheez. Its length from east to west will have been about 300 miles, and its average width about 100 or 120. It will have contained an area of about 33,000 square miles, being thus about equal in size to Ireland, Bavaria, or St. Domingo.

The character of the district has been already stated in general terms; but some further particulars may now be added. It consists, in the first place, of a mountain and a plain region—the mountain region lying towards the north and the plain region towards the south. The mountain region is composed of three main ranges, the Daman-i-Koh, or Hills of the Kurds, upon the north, skirting the great desert of Rharaem, the Alatagh and Meerabee mountains in the centre; and the Jaghetai or Djuvein range, upon the south, which may be regarded as continued in the hills above Tersheez and Khaff. The three ranges are parallel, running east and west, but with an inclination, more or less strong, to the north of west and the south of east. The northern and central ranges are connected by a water-shed, which runs nearly east and west, a little to the south of Kooshan, and separates the head streams of the Ettrek from those of the Meshed river. The central and southern ranges are connected by a more decided, mountain line, a transverse ridge which runs nearly north and south, dividing between the waters that flow westward into the Gurghan, and those which form the river of Nishapur. This conformation of the mountains leaves between the ranges three principal valleys, the valley of Meshed towards the south-east, between the Kurdish range and the Alatagh and Meerabee; that of Miyanabad towards the west, between the Alatagh and the Jaghetai; and that of Nishapur towards the south, between the eastern end of the Jaghetai and the western flank of the Meerabee. As the valleys are three in number, so likewise are the rivers, which are known respectively as the Tejend, or river of Meshed, the river of Nishapur, and the river of Miyanabad.

The Tejend, which is the principal stream of the three, rises from several sources in the hills south of Kooshan, and flows with a south-easterly course down the valley of Meshed, receiving numerous tributaries from both sides, until it reaches that city, when it bends eastward, and, finding a way through the Kurdish range, joins the course of the Heri-rud, about long. 01 10'. Here its direction is completely changed. Turning at an angle, which is slightly acute, it proceeds to flow to the west of north, along the northern base of the Kurdish range, from which it receives numerous small streams, till it ends finally in a large swamp or marsh, in lat. 39, long. 57, nearly. The entire length of the stream, including only main windings, is about 475 miles. In its later course, however, it is often almost dry, the greater portion of the water being consumed in irrigation in the neighborhood of Meshed.

The river of Nishapur is formed by numerous small streams, which descend from the mountains that on three sides inclose that city. Its water is at times wholly consumed in the cultivation of the plain; but the natural course may be traced, running in a southerly and south-westerly direction, until it debouches from the hills in the vicinity of Tersheez. The Miyanabad stream is believed to be a tributary of the Gurghan. It rises from several sources in the transverse range joining the Alatagh to the Jaghetai, the streams from which all flow westward in narrow valleys, uniting about long. 57 35'. The course of the river from this point to Piperne has not been traced, but it is believed to run in a general westerly direction along the southern base of the Alatagh, and to form a junction with the Gurghan a little below the ruins of the same name. Its length to this point is probably about 200 miles.

The elevation of the mountain chains is not great. No very remarkable peaks occur in them; and it may be doubted whether they anywhere attain a height of above 6000 feet. They are for the most part barren and rugged, very scantily supplied with timber, and only in places capable of furnishing a tolerable pasturage to flocks and herds. The valleys, on the other hand, are rich and fertile in the extreme; that of Meshed, which extends a distance of above a hundred miles from north-west to south-east, and is from twenty to thirty miles broad, has almost everywhere a good and deep soil, is abundantly supplied with water, and yields a plentiful return even to the simplest and most primitive cultivation. The plain about Nishapur, which is in length from eighty to ninety miles, and in width from forty to sixty, boasts a still greater fertility.

The flat country along the southern base of the mountains, which ancient writers regard as Parthia, par excellence, is A strip of territory about 300 miles long, varying in width ac cording to the labor and the skill applied by its inhabitants to the perfecting of a system of irrigation. At present the kanats, or underground water-courses, are seldom carried to a distance of more than a mile or two from the foot of the hills; but it is thought that anciently the cultivation was extended considerably further. Ruined cities dispersed throughout the tract sufficiently indicate its capabilities, and in a few places where much attention is paid to agriculture the results are such as to imply that the soil is more than ordinarily productive. The salt desert lies, however, in most places within ten or fifteen miles of the hills; and beyond this distance it is obviously impossible that the "Atak" or "Skirt" should at any time have been inhabited.

It is evident that the entire tract above described must have been at all times a valuable and much coveted region. Compared with the arid and inhospitable deserts which adjoin it upon the north and south, Khorasan, the ancient Parthia and Hyrcania, is a terrestrial Paradise. Parthia, though scantily wooded, still produces in places the pine, the walnut, the sycamore, the ash, the poplar, the willow, the vine, the mulberry, the apricot, and numerous other fruit trees. Saffron, asafoetida, and the gum ammoniac plant, are indigenous in parts of it. Much of the soil is suited for the cultivation of wheat, barley, and cotton. The ordinary return upon wheat and barley is reckoned at ten for one. Game abounds in the mountains, and fish in the underground water-courses. Among the mineral treasures of the region may be enumerated copper, lead, iron, salt, and one of the most exquisite of gems, the turquoise. This gem does not appear to be mentioned by ancient writers; but it is so easily obtainable that we can scarcely suppose it was not known from very ancient times.

The severity of the climate of Parthia is strongly stated by Justin. According to modern travellers, the winters, though protracted, are not very inclement, the thermometer rarely sinking below ten or eleven degrees of Fahrenheit during the nights, and during the daytime rising, even in December and January, to 40 or 50. The cold weather, however, which commences about October, continues till nearly the end of March, when storms of sleet and hail are common. Much snow falls in the earlier portion of the winter, and the valleys are scarcely clear of it till March. On the mountains it remains much longer, and forms the chief source of supply to the rivers during the spring and the early summer time. In summer the heat is considerable, more especially in the region known as the "Atak;" and here, too, the unwholesome wind, which blows from the southern desert, is felt from, time to time as a terrible scourge. But in the upland country the heat is at no time very intense, and the natives boast that they are not compelled by it to sleep on their house-tops during more than one month in the year.

The countries by which Parthia Proper was bounded were the following: Chorasmia, Margiana, Aria, Sarangia, Sagartia, and Hyrcania.

Chorasmia lay upon the north, consisting of the low tract between the most northerly of the Parthian mountain chains and the old course of the Oxus. This region, which is for the most part an arid and inhospitable desert, can at no time have maintained more than a sparse and scanty population. The Turkoman tribes which at the present day roam over the waste, feeding their flocks and herds alternately on the banks of the Oxus and the Tejend, or finding a bare subsistence for them about the ponds and pools left by the winter rains, represent, it is probable, with sufficient faithfulness, the ancient inhabitants, who, whatever their race, must always have been nomads, and can never have exceeded a few hundred thousands. On this side Parthia must always have been tolerably safe from attacks, unless the Cis-Oxianian tribes were reinforced, as they sometimes were, by hordes from beyond the river.

On the north-east was Margiana, sometimes regarded as a country by itself, sometimes reckoned a mere district of Bactria. This was the tract of fertile land upon the Murg-ab, or ancient Margus river, which is known among moderns as the district of Merv. The Murg-ab is a stream flowing from the range of the Paropamisus, in a direction which is a little east of north; it debouches from the mountains in about lat. 36 25', and thence makes its way through the desert. Before it reaches Merv, it is eighty yards wide and five feet deep, thus carrying a vast body of water. By a judicious use of dykes and canals, this fertilizing fluid was in ancient times carried to a distance of more than twenty-five miles from the natural course of the river; and by these means an oasis was created with a circumference of above 170, and consequently a diameter of above fifty miles. This tract, inclosed on every side by deserts, was among the most fertile of all known regions; it was especially famous for its vines, which grew to such a size that a single man could not encircle their stems with his two arms, and bore clusters that were a yard long. Margiana possessed, however, as a separate country, little military strength, and it was only as a portion of some larger and more populous territory that it could become formidable to the Parthians.

South of Margiana, and adjoining upon Parthia toward the east, was Aria, the tract which lies about the modern Herat. This was for the most part a mountain region, very similar in its general character to the mountainous portion of Parthia, but of much smaller dimensions. Its people were fairly warlike; but the Parthian population was probably double or triple their number, and Parthia consequently had but little to fear in this quarter.

Upon the south-east Parthia was bordered by Sarangia, the country of the Sarangae, or Drangae. This appears to have been the district south of the Herat valley, reaching thence as far as the Hamoon, or Sea of Seistan. It is a country of hills and downs, watered by a number of somewhat scanty streams, which flow south-westward from the Paropamisus to the Hamoon. Its population can never have been great, and they were at no time aggressive or enterprising, so that on this side also the Parthians were secure, and had to deal with no formidable neighbor.

Sagartia succeeded to Sarangia towards the west, and bordered Parthia along almost the whole of its southern frontier. Excepting in the vicinity of Tebbes and Toun (lat. 34, long. 56 to 58), this district is an absolute desert, the haunt of the gazelle and the wild ass, dry, saline, and totally devoid of vegetation. The wild nomads, who wandered over its wastes, obtaining a scanty subsistence by means of the lasso, were few in number, scattered, and probably divided by feuds. Southern Parthia might occasionally suffer from their raids; but they were far too weak to constitute a serious danger to the mountain country.

Lastly, towards the west and the north-west, Parthia was bordered by Hyrcania, a region geographically in the closest connection with it, very similar in general character, but richer, warmer, and altogether more desirable. Hyrcania was, as already observed, the western and north-western portion of that broad mountain region which has been described as intervening between the eastern shores of the Caspian and the river Arius, or Heri-rud. It consisted mainly of the two rich valleys of the Gurghan and Ettrek, with the mountain chains inclosing or dividing them. Here on the slopes of the hills grow the oak, the beech, the elm, the alder, the wild cherry; here luxuriant vines spring from the soil on every side, raising themselves aloft by the aid of their stronger sisters, and hanging in wild festoons from tree to tree; beneath their shade the ground is covered with flowers-of various kinds, primroses, violets, lilies, hyacinths, and others of unknown species; while in the flat land at the bottom of the valleys are meadows of the softest and the tenderest grass, capable of affording to numerous flocks and herds an excellent and unfailing pasture. Abundant game finds shelter in the forests, while towards the mouths of the rivers, where the ground is for the most part marshy, large herds of wild boars are frequent; a single herd sometimes containing hundreds. Altogether Hyrcania was a most productive and desirable country, capable of sustaining a dense population, and well deserving Strabo's description of it as "highly favored of Heaven." The area of the country was, however, small, probably not much exceeding one half that of Parthia Proper; and thus the people were not sufficiently numerous to cause the Parthians much apprehension.

The situation and character of Parthia thus, on the whole, favored her becoming an imperial power. She had abundant resources within herself; she had a territory apt for the production of a hardy race of men; and she had no neighbors of sufficient strength to keep her down, when she once developed the desire to become dominant. Surprise has been expressed at her rise. But it is perhaps more astonishing that she passed so many centuries in obscurity before she became an important state, than that she raised herself at last to the first position among the Oriental nations. Her ambition and her material strength were plants of slow growth; it took several hundreds of years for them to attain maturity: when, however, this point was reached, the circumstances of her geographical position stood her in good stead, and enabled her rapidly to extend her way over the greater portion of Western Asia.














ancient civilizations