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I still think the prettiest of all the different crowns we have encountered are the Iranian ones.  This is the Sunburst tiara of Princess Fatimeh, and, although there is not much to say about it (other than a physical description), it is certainly stunningly beautiful.  The centerpiece of the little crown is a 25-carat cushion shaped pink spinel, which is as lovely as any ruby, but you could probably buy the equivalent on ebay for less than a used Jeep. The spinel is surrounded diamond sunbursts which are surmounted by teardrop emeralds (the largest of which is 20 carats).

The dazzling pink, dark green, and white come together perfectly like a magical fountain made of otherworldly spring flowers.  The piece is a real triumph (which is good, since I am afraid this post is largely visual, and sadly devoid of meaningful historical context).

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Persepolis (pictured above) was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, the great Persian Empire which ruled the near east from around 550 BC to 330 BC (when Alexander the Great swept through and conquered it).  Persepolis was apparently a rather strange city—an imperial showplace of palaces, temples, and stately grandeur, but with very few inhabitants, at least compared to the thriving Persian cities of Babylon, Susa, and Ecbatana. Archaeologists are still arguing about whether it was a palace complex, an administrative center, or a seasonal city for high Zoroastrian festivals.  Whatever the case, Persepolis’ strange quasi-urban nature is a good segue to today’s featured location: Naqsh-e Rustam, a Persian necropolis which is located 12 km (7.5 miles) from the site of Persepolis (both locations are high in the mountains of what is today the Fars province of Iran).

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Naqsh-e Rustam, the cemetery of Persian emperors, had even fewer inhabitants than Persepolis, and mostly those inhabitants were (and still are!) deceased. The most important tombs are four large tombs cut high into the living rock of the cliff face.  These are the tombs of Darius I (c. 522-486 BC), Xerxes I (c. 486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I (c. 465-424 BC), and Darius II, the great emperors of ancient Persia. The facade to Xerxes tomb is pictured immediately below.

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Not many cities have only 4 long dead inhabitants. Indeed, the site of Naqsh-e Rustam was sacred long before the Achaemenids carved their unearthly mausoleums. The oldest carvings are dated to around 1000 BCE and thought to be from the Elamite kingdoms.  Later on, the monarchs of the Sassanid dynasty (the empire which stood in counterweight opposition to Imperial Rome) also carved great reliefs there.  These illustrate battles and victories.  In the middle of the complex is a mysterious cubic tower known as the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht.  It was made at the same time as the tombs and is presumably a Zoroastrian sacred building, but nobody really knows what is was originally for.

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I wrote about this astonishing place, because I was struck by the majesty and remoteness of the great tombs carved out of living rock, but now that I have started writing, I realize that Naqsh-e Rustam strains any definition of a city (other than as a place of great human-crafted edifices).  The urban culture, the political hegemony, and the sheer human labor required to craft such a site are obvious from the 2500 year old architecture, but the bigger questions about why humans make the things we make, or even about why the Persians organized their great civilization in this fashion are not answered by the haunting graves an monuments.

I am greatly enjoying watching the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea…although thus far I am a bit underwhelmed by the United States performance overall.  Is our precipitous national decline already reflected in international sports, or are the Norwegians, Austrians, Canadians, and other hearty winter folk just having a good Olympics?  Only time will tell.

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At any rate, to celebrate the Korean Olympics (and put the ups-and-downs of history in perspective) I would like to feature a great treasure of South Korea in today’s post.  This is the gold crown of Seobongchong Tumulus, a spectacular gold Silla crown now housed at the Gyeongju National Museum. Gyeongju was the royal capital of the Korean kingdom of Silla which flourished from the mid first century BC to the eight century AD.  These crowns date from the fifth through seventh centuries. The exact nature of the crowns is unknown: ethnographers believe the magnificent shamanistic forms reflect a steppe influence (perhaps from Persia/Iran) but much about these crowns remains a mystery.  We aren’t even sure if they were worn by the living or if they were solely exquisite grave goods.

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The Scilla crowns were discovered in huge, nigh impregnable barrows which were only excavated in the 1920s.  The coffins of the Silla nobles were placed in deep pits lined with wood.  These were covered with dense clay and then with giant river boulders and then with a huge burial mound.  This particular crown is 30.7 centimeters (one foot) in height and 18.4 centimeters  (7.25 inches) in diameter. The headband is decorated with lovely abstruse leaf-shapes and bent jade ornaments called “gogok” comma-shaped curved jewels which are believed to be tied to bear worship (perhaps reflecting Japanese of Iranian influence).

Wikipedia blithely states that the crown reflects no Chinese influence and yet, “the right and left most branches, along with the middle branches of the five branches, are composed of the Chinese character 出 in three prongs. The tips of the branches are decorated with a budding flower ornament.” Hmmm—you will have to make up your own mind on that score (although finding anything anywhere in East Asia without some sort of Chinese influence is rare).  Scholars who believe that the crowns reflect shamanistic influences see a tree in the gold shape (which seems like a bit of a stretch…but they do remind me a bit of Zhou Dynasty bronze work which was heavily influenced by animism/shamanism , so judge for yourself).

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Silla began as one small state in the Samhan confederacies (loosely allied with Imperial China), but subsequently spread through the middle of the peninsula.  During its heyday (around when these crowns were made) Silla succeeded in conquering the other two great kingdoms of Korea and briefly unifying the peninsula, but a parasitic entrenched aristocracy sapped it of its vitality and devoured it from within (a decline which was hastened by sectarianism, schism, and civil war).  We still have these splendid crowns though…

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It has been too long since we had a post about mollusks.  Am I running out of material about these exquisite invertebrates?  To make up for the absence here is a short sweet visual post.  This is the Empress Crown of Iran.  It was manufactured in 1967 by the French jewelers, Van Cleef & Arpels (who had to send a team to Iran to construct the piece).  The crown is made of jewels from the Iranian treasury (which was apparently full of exquisite Baroque pearls).  To my eye it may be the loveliest extant crown: apparently I am a Van Cleef & Arpels fan—an enthusiasm which has found little to no outlet in my life (Seriously, I thought that was the bad guy in Clint Eastwood moves).  The shapes and colors are exquisitely suited to each other in a way which echoes the best of ancient Persian art (more about Persian art shortly).  In a very real way, however, the crown does not echo ancient Persian thought. Consorts of the Iranian monarch were uncrowned throughout history—up until 1967.  The Shah wanted to make his marriage a part of the so-called “White Revolution”—a series of reforms to break the hold that reactionary clerics and nobles held on society.  One of the main aims of the White Revolution was to enfranchise women—and so the Shah wanted a bride who was more equal than were the wives of Qajar rulers.  Alas, the unexpected and unintended consequences of the White Revolution wound up casting long shadows over Iran.  Historians broadly assert that it upset the wealthy elites without greatly benefiting the poor or providing additional political freedoms and thus paved the way for the mullah’s revolution (as an aside, maybe we are lucky in America that Bernie Sander’s revolution crashed and berned, er, burned). Anyway whatever the case is about agrarian and business reforms, the Shah’s ideas at least led to the creation of this amazing crown for Farah Pahlavi, the first (and last) empress of Iran.

A silver gilt head of Shapur II (309 to 379 AD)

A silver gilt head of Shapur II (309 to 379 AD)

Because Greco/Roman civilization takes such a central place in the foundations of contemporary Western society, we tend to forget the true counterweight to Greece and Rome.  East of the Roman Empire lay the vast and powerful Persian Empire.  Western classicists tend to think of Persia monolithically—but it was actually three great empires: the  Achaemenid Empire (550 BC – 330 BC), the Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 AD), and finally the Sasanian dynasty (224 AD to 651 AD).

The Sassanid Empire in 570 AD

The Sassanid Empire in 570 AD

Today’s post features a peek into the last of these great Persian eras. The Sasanians were the antithetical power to the Roman/Byzantine Empire and much of the history of the two civilizations involved their struggle against each other.

A bust of a Sasanian King--probably Shapur II (AD 310-379), silver with mercury gilding, raised from a sheet of silver with chased and repousse details

A bust of a Sasanian King–probably Shapur II (AD 310-379), silver with mercury gilding, raised from a sheet of silver with chased and repousse details

Here is the bust of a great Sasanian King–Shapur II (AD 310-379) who was the tenth monarch of the dynasty. He is pictured wearing a typical crenelated crown topped with a striated orb and a crescent (which he is also wearing in the sculpture at the top of the post). The actual crown Shapur II wore is lost in the mists of history, but it was atypical in that he was literally crowned before his birth.  His predecessor Hormizd II, was unpopular with the Persian nobility.  When Hormizd died, scheming nobles killed his eldest son, blinded the second oldest, and imprisoned/exiled the youngest.  They chose to crown his unborn son as emperor, in order that the child could be brought up as an ideal pawn, and the Zoroastrian priests placed the crown on him while he was yet unborn (resting it on his mother’s gravid belly).

Silver plate with Shapur II hunting boars )ca. 4th century, silver with gold leaf)

Silver plate with Shapur II hunting boars )ca. 4th century, silver with gold leaf)

As often happens in such circumstances, Shapur II stymied his puppetmasters by growing wise in the ways of the court as a child and ruling as a powerful sovereign.  He defeated the greatest Roman attack against Persia in classical history (the all-out assault by Emperor Julian the apostate.  He left the Sasanian dynasty much stronger than it was under his father.

Gold Coin with Shapur II

Gold Coin with Shapur II

It is interesting to see how similar the idea of a Persian crown—a crenellated circlet topped with a scepter–was to the crowns which later became the norm in Christendom. The Byzantine emperors wore a diadem instead.  I wonder how the Persian ideal became the standard for Western Europe in the centuries that followed.

The Coat of Arms of Modern Georgia

The Coat of Arms of Modern Georgia

Let’s return once more to the Caucasus region and explore the region’s tumultuous political history—this time through the opulent window of crown jewels.  Regular readers will know that I am fascinated by crowns—which are constantly being crafted for the whims of various sovereigns and then stolen/usurped/destroyed as nations fight for political hegemony.  The Caucasus, which lies between East and West–and at the crossroads of multiple religions and empires—has been particularly susceptible to dynastic turnover.  The Kingdom of Georgia was created in the 10th century AD and burgeoned during the 11th–12th centuries but disintegrated completely at the end of the 15th century due to Turco-Mongol incursions.  In the late eighteenth century two of the smaller kingdoms left over from the wreck of old Georgia came together to form the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti.

Crown of George XII of the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti

Crown of George XII of the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti

The kings of the new kingdom aspired to create a powerful European state of the modern style, but the new realm soon came under attack from the marauding Qajar Dynasty of Persia (lead by the insatiable Shah Agha Muḥammad Khān Qājār.  The ancient crowns of old Georgia vanished in 1795 (apparently looted by the Persians).  King George XII of Georgia ordered a new crown of suitable modern design for his 1798 coronation.  The crown was crafted in Russia and was encrusted in cut jewels (including 145 diamonds, 58 rubies, 24 emeralds and 16 amethysts). The crown was a circlet surmounted by eight arches which supported a globe (with a red cross on top).  Ironically George XII had little time to enjoy his new crown: he petitioned the czar for assistance in squelching internal strife and Persian invasions—Czar Paul I acceded to his request by annexing Georgia as part of the Russian Empire.

As Explained in this Simple Map...

As Explained in this Simple Map…

In 1800, following the death of George XII, the crown was sent to Moscow and deposited in the Kremlin among Russian imperial crowns. In 1923 the Bolsheviks presented the crown to the National Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi, but the communists could not keep their hands off the monarchist relic. In 1930 the crown of George XII was again sent to Moscow where it was broken apart and plundered—much like Georgia itself.

A Pistachio Tree Beside Ancient Ruins in Turkey (photo by cemalsepici)

Only two nuts are mentioned in the Bible.  The almond is referred to frequently, but the pistachio (Pistacia vera) is mentioned only once, in Genesis (when Joseph’s starving brothers are trying to curry favor with an Egyptian official, not knowing that they are dealing with the brother they wronged).  It is appropriate that pistachios are in the first book of the Bible, the nuts have been eaten by humankind since the depths of prehistory (and they were probably eaten by near-relatives among the hominids before our turn on the scene).   Pistachio is a desert tree which is highly tolerant of drought and saline soil.  The deciduous trees grow up to 10 meters (33 feet) tall. They are wild throughout the Middle East from Syria to the Indus valley–but their original range has been blurred by their popularity as a cultivated plant.  Since they are one of humankind’s wild foodstuffs from before the invention of agriculture, human dissemination of pistachio seeds is a “natural” vector (although the very nature of that sentence casts the meaning of some of our implicit assumptions concerning nature into question).

An Iranian Merchant with his Pistachios

The route which Pistachios took into Western Europe is reflected in the etymology of the English word.  The Online Etymology Dictionary summarizes it thus:  “pistachio: 1590s, from It. pistacchio, from L. pistacium “pistachio nut,” from Gk. pistakion, from pistake “pistachio tree,” from Pers. pista “pistachio tree.”  It seems Greeks first brought the seed westward, and its subsequent progress across Europe can actually be traced from classical history sources. At the same time, the nuts were also heading east along the Silk Road: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China are all major producers today.  Pistachios originated somewhere in Persia, and Iran remains the largest producer and exporter of the nut. Speaking of exports, pistachios can be dangerous to transport in bulk containers. Because of their high fat and low water content, large quantities of the nuts can sometimes self-combust!

Its long, long history as a human food aside, pistachios are delicious.  The clam-like seeds pop open when they are ripe (although that is a human-selected trait) and the exposed seed has a brownish pink skin–which in turn reveals a pale creamy green flesh inside. Pistachios are members of the Anacardiaceae family, which includes sumacs and poison ivy.  Like these scary relatives, pistachio plants (and seeds) can contain the oily irritant urushiol—so pistachios sometimes trigger allergies and rashes, however, dieticians assert that the seed is one of the healthier sources of protein and oils.

Dyed and Undyed Pistachios


Traditionally pistachio nuts were dyed red to hide the blemishes made by handpicking, however such false color is no longer necessary (except to placate traditional markets).  The pistachio seed  has given its name to an especially pretty pastel green with pastel yellow undertones (the same hue found inside the nut). Pistachio green is one of my favorite hues.  There is something calm, refreshing, and languorous about the green which speaks to leisurely mild summer afternoons.  I hope you will excuse me, I would like to write more but I am going to go get a pistachio gelato!

A Pistachio-colored Pistachio Gelato

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