Sunday, 30 October 2016

Zapotec Empire of Central America

The Zapotec civilization was an indigenous pre-Columbian civilization(700 BC - 1521 AD) that flourished in the Valley of Oaxaca in Central America in present day Mexico. Archaeological evidence shows that their culture goes back at least 2,500 years.

Monte Alban pyramid complex

The Zapotec left archaeological evidence at the ancient city of Monte Albán in the form of buildings, ball courts, magnificent tombs and grave goods including finely worked gold jewelry. Monte Albán was one of the first major cities in Mesoamerica and the center of a Zapotec state that dominated much of the territory that today belongs to the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Ballgame court at Monte Alban
The Mesoamerican ballgame was a sport with ritual associations played since 1,400 BC by the pre-Columbian peoples of Ancient Mesoamerica. The sport had different versions in different places during the millennia, and a newer more modern version of the game, ulama, is still played in a few places by the indigenous population.


The Zapotec languages belong to a language family called Oto-manguean, an ancient family of Mesoamerican languages. It is estimated that today's Oto-manguean languages branched off from a common root at around 1500 BC. Zapotec is a tone language, which means that the meaning of a word is often determined by voice pitch, essential for understanding the meaning of different words. The Zapotec languages features up to 4 distinct tonemes: high, low, rising and falling.

A funerary urn in the shape of a "bat god" or a jaguar, from Oaxaca, dated to AD 300–650.


The Central Valleys of Oaxaca, the cradle of Zapotec civilization, are three broad valleys (The Valley of Etla in the West, the Valley of Ocotlán in the South and the Valley of Mitla in the East) that join at an altitude of about 4500 feet above sea level in the center of what today is the state of Oaxaca. They are located about 200 km south of Mexico City


The Zapotecs were a sedentary culture living in villages and towns, in houses constructed with stone and mortar. They recorded the principal events in their history by means of hieroglyphics, and in warfare they made use of a cotton armour. The well-known ruins of Mitla have been attributed to them.

Palace of Columns, Mitla, Oaxaca

Like most Mesoamerican religious systems, the Zapotec religion was polytheistic. Two principal deities include Cocijo, the rain god (similar to the Aztec god Tlaloc), and Coquihani, the god of light. It is believed that the Zapotec sometimes used human sacrifice in their rituals. The Zapotecs had a predominance of deities associated with fertility and agriculture.

Painted ceramic funerary urn depicting a seated figure.

The Zapotecs developed a calendar and a logosyllabic system of writing that used a separate glyph to represent each of the syllables of the language. This writing system is thought to be one of the first writing systems of Mesoamerica and a predecessor of those developed by the MayaMixtec and Aztec civilizations.


The earliest known artifact with Zapotec writing is a "Danzante" (dancer) stone, officially known as Monument 3, found in San Jose Mogote, Oaxaca. It has a relief of what appears to be a dead and bloodied captive with two glyphic signs between his legs, possibly his name. First dated to 500–600 BC, this was initially considered to be the earliest writing in Mesoamerica. However, doubts have been expressed as to this dating as the monument may have been reused. The Zapotec script appears to have gone out of use in the late Classic period.

Historic Centre of Oaxaca, UNESCO world heritage site.

The Zapotec used dedication rituals to sanctify their living spaces and structures. Excavation of Mound III at the Cuilapan Temple Pyramid in Oaxaca revealed a dedication cache containing many jade beads, two jade earspools, three obsidian blades, shells, stones, a pearl, and small animal bones, likely from birds, dated to 700 A.D. Each of these materials symbolized different religious concepts. As it was not easily attainable, jade was considered of high value.

Jade Zapotec warrior's mask

The last battle between the Aztecs and the Zapotecs occurred between 1497 and 1502, under the Aztec ruler Ahuizotl. At the time of Spanish conquest of Mexico, when news arrived that the Aztecs were defeated by the Spaniards, King Cosijoeza ordered his people not to confront the Spaniards so they would avoid the same fate. They were defeated by the Spaniards only after several campaigns between 1522 and 1527.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Parthian Empire

The Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 AD), also known as the Arsacid Empire was a major Iranian political and cultural power in ancient Iran and Iraq. Its latter name comes from Arsaces I of Parthia who, as leader of the Parni tribe, founded it in the mid-3rd century BC when he conquered the region of Parthia in Iran's northeast, then a satrapy(province) in rebellion against the Seleucid Empire.

Ruins of Temple Complex at Hatra, Iraq

Mithridates I of Parthia (r. c. 171–138 BC) greatly expanded the empire by seizing Media and Mesopotamia from the Seleucids. At its height, the Parthian Empire stretched from the northern reaches of the Euphrates, in what is now central-eastern Turkey, to eastern Iran. The empire, located on the Silk Road trade route between the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Basin and the Han Empire of China, became a center of trade and commerce.


Relief of Mithridates I seen riding on horseback at Xong-e Ashdar in Izeh, Khuzestān


The Parthians largely adopted the art, architecture, religious beliefs, and royal insignia of their culturally heterogeneous empire, which encompassed Persian, Hellenistic, and regional cultures. For about the first half of its existence, the Arsacid court adopted elements of Greek culture, though it eventually saw a gradual revival of Iranian traditions.

Chinese silk

Chinese silk from Mawangdui Han tombs, 2nd century BC, silk from China was perhaps the most lucrative luxury item the Parthians traded at the western end of the Silk Road. The Arsacid rulers were titled the "King of Kings", as a claim to be the heirs to the Achaemenid Empire; indeed, they accepted many local kings as vassals where the Achaemenids would have had centrally appointed, albeit largely autonomous, satraps.



The earliest enemies of the Parthians were the Seleucids in the west and the Scythians in the east. However, as Parthia expanded westward, they came into conflict with the Kingdom of Armenia, and eventually the late Roman Republic. Rome and Parthia competed with each other to establish the kings of Armenia as their subordinate clients.


Various Roman emperors or their appointed generals invaded Mesopotamia in the course of the several Roman-Parthian Wars which ensued during the next few centuries. The Romans captured the cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon on multiple occasions during these conflicts, but were never able to hold on to them.

The battle between the Romans and the Parthians.
Frequent civil wars between Parthian contenders to the throne proved more dangerous to the Empire's stability than foreign invasion, and Parthian power evaporated when Ardashir I, ruler of Estakhr in Fars, revolted against the Arsacids and killed their last ruler, Artabanus V, in 224 AD. Ardashir established the Sassanid Empire, which ruled Iran and much of the Near East until the Muslim conquests of the 7th century AD.

Ardashir I


Native Parthian sources, written in Parthian, Greek and other languages, are scarce when compared to Sassanid and even earlier Achaemenid sources. Aside from scattered cuneiform tablets, fragmentary ostraca, rock inscriptions, drachma coins, and the chance survival of some parchment documents, much of Parthian history is only known through external sources. These include mainly Greek and Roman histories, but also Chinese histories, prompted by the Han Chinese desire to form alliances against the Xiongnu.



Compared with the earlier Achaemenid Empire, the Parthian government was notably decentralized. An indigenous historical source reveals that territories overseen by the central government were organized in a similar manner to the Seleucid Empire. They both had a threefold division for their provincial hierarchies: the Parthian marzbān, xšatrap, and dizpat, similar to the Seleucid satrapy, eparchy, and hyparchy.

A Parthian Nobleman from Khūzestān Province, Iran
By the 1st century AD, the Parthian nobility had assumed great power and influence in the succession and deposition of Arsacid kings. Some of the nobility functioned as court advisers to the king, as well as holy priests. Of the great noble Parthian families listed at the beginning of the Sasanian period, only two are explicitly mentioned in earlier Parthian documents: the House of Suren and the House of Karen.


Parthian art can be divided into three geo-historical phases: the art of Parthia proper; the art of the Iranian plateau; and the art of Parthian Mesopotamia. The first genuine Parthian art, found at Mithridatkert/Nisa, combined elements of Greek and Iranian art in line with Achaemenid and Seleucid traditions. In the second phase, Parthian art found inspiration in Achaemenid art, as exemplified by the investiture relief of Mithridates II at Mount Behistun. The third phase occurred gradually after the Parthian conquest of Mesopotamia.

Parthian relief 

Examples of clothing in Parthian inspired sculptures have been found in excavations at Hatra, in northwestern Iraq. Statues erected there feature the typical Parthian shirt (qamis), combined with trousers and made with fine, ornamented materials. The aristocratic elite of Hatra adopted the bobbed hairstyles, headdresses, and belted tunics worn by the nobility belonging to the central Arsacid court.

A statue of a young Palmyran in fine Parthian trousers

Usually made of silver, the Greek drachma coin, including the tetradrachm, was the standard currency used throughout the Parthian Empire. The Arsacids maintained royal mints at the cities of Hecatompylos, Seleucia, and Ecbatana. They most likely operated a mint at Mithridatkert/Nisa as well. From the empire's inception until its collapse, drachmas produced throughout the Parthian period rarely weighed less than 3.5 g or more than 4.2 g.

Parthian Coin

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Silk Road

The Silk Road or Silk Route was an ancient network of trade routes that for centuries were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting the East and West from China to the Mediterranean Sea.

Map of Eurasia with drawn lines for overland and maritime routes

While the term is of modern coinage, the Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk carried out along its length, beginning during the Han dynasty (207 BCE – 220 CE). The Han dynasty expanded Central Asian sections of the trade routes around 114 BCE, largely through missions and explorations of the Chinese imperial envoy, Zhang Qian. The Chinese took great interest in the safety of their trade products and extended the Great Wall of China to ensure the protection of the trade route.


The Han army regularly policed the trade route against nomadic bandit forces generally identified as Xiongnu. Han general Ban Chao led an army of 70,000 mounted infantry and light cavalry troops in the 1st century CE to secure the trade routes, reaching far west to the Tarim basin. Ban Chao expanded his conquests across the Pamirs to the shores of the Caspian Sea and the borders of Parthia. It was from here that the Han general dispatched envoy Gan Ying to Daqin (Rome).

A caravan using Bactrian camels

Trade on the Silk Road played a significant role in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe, the Horn of Africa and Arabia, opening long-distance political and economic relations between the civilizations. Though silk was certainly the major trade item exported from China, many other goods were traded, and religions, syncretic philosophies, and various technologies, as well as diseases, also spread along the Silk Routes.


The main traders during antiquity included the Chinese, Arabs, Turks, Indians, Persians, Somalis, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Georgians, Armenians, Bactrians, and (from the 5th to the 8th century) the Sogdians. In June 2014 UNESCO designated the Chang'an-Tianshan corridor of the Silk Road as a World Heritage Site.


Silk Road, Sikkim, India

Soon after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE, regular communications and trade between China, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe blossomed on an unprecedented scale. The eastern trade routes from the earlier Hellenistic powers and the Arabs that were part of the Silk Road were inherited by the Roman Empire. With control of these trade routes, citizens of the Roman Empire would receive new luxuries and greater prosperity for the Empire as a whole.

The Silk Route In Kyrgyzstan

Byzantine Greek historian Procopius stated that two Nestorian Christian monks eventually uncovered the way of how silk was made. From this revelation monks were sent by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (ruled 527 - 565) as spies on the Silk Road from Constantinople to China and back to steal the silkworm eggs, resulting in silk production in the Mediterranean, particularly in Thrace in northern Greece, and giving the Byzantine Empire a monopoly on silk production in medieval Europe.


Although the Silk Road from China to the West was initially formulated during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (141 – 87 BCE), it was reopened by the Tang Empire in 639 when Hou Junji conquered the Western Regions, and remained open for almost four decades. It was closed after the Tibetans captured it in 678, but in 699, during Empress Wu's period.


The Silk Road reopened when the Tang reconquered the Four Garrisons of Anxi originally installed in 640, once again connecting China directly to the West for land-based trade. The Tang captured the vital route through the Gilgit Valley from Tibet in 722, lost it to the Tibetans in 737, and regained it under the command of the Goguryeo-Korean General Gao Xianzhi.

Gilgit Valley, now in Pakistan

A caravanserai was a roadside inn where travelers (Caravaners) could rest and recover from the day's journey. In the Middle-East, it is often called by its Turko-Mongolian name khan. In Bengal, it is known by the term katra. Caravanserais supported the flow of commerce, information, and people across the network of trade routes covering Asia, North Africa, and southeastern Europe, especially along the Silk Road.

Caravanserai of Qalaat al-Madiq, in northern Syria

Richard Foltz, Xinru Liu, and others have described how trading activities along the Silk Road over many centuries facilitated the transmission not just of goods but also ideas and culture, notably in the area of religions. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam all spread across Eurasia through trade networks that were tied to specific religious communities and their institutions. Notably, established Buddhist monasteries along the Silk Road offered a haven, as well as a new religion for foreigners.



Many artistic influences were transmitted via the Silk Road, particularly through Central Asia, where Hellenistic, Iranian, Indian and Chinese influences could intermix. Greco-Buddhist art represents one of the most vivid examples of this interaction. Silk was also a representation of art, serving as a religious symbol. Most importantly, silk was used as currency for trade along the Silk Road.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Aksumite Empire of Ethiopia

The Kingdom of Aksum or Axum, also known as the Aksumite Empire, was a trading nation in Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia. It existed from approximately 100–940 CE. It grew from the proto-Aksumite Iron Age period c. 4th century BCE to achieve prominence by the 1st century CE, and was a major player in the commercial route between the Roman Empire and Ancient India.



The Aksumite rulers facilitated trade by minting their own Aksumite currency, the state established its hegemony over the declining Kingdom of Kush(now Republic of Sudan) and regularly entered the politics of the kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, eventually extending its rule over the region with the conquest of the Himyarite Kingdom(kingdom in ancient Yemen). 



Aksumite currency

The Persian Prophet Mani regarded Axum as third of the four greatest powers of his time after Persia and Rome, with China being the fourth.

Persian Prophet Mani

The Axumites erected a number of large stelae, which served a religious purpose in pre-Christian times. These stone towers served to mark graves and represent a magnificent multi-storied palace. The largest of these towering obelisks would measure 33 meters high had it not fallen. The Stelae have most of their mass out of the ground, but are stabilized by massive underground counter-weights. The stone was often engraved with a pattern or emblem denoting the king's or the noble's rank.

Aksum obelisk

Under Ezana (fl. 320–360) Aksum adopted Christianity. The Ezana Stone records negus Ezana's conversion to Christianity and his subjugation of various neighboring peoples, including Meroë. In the 7th century, early Muslims from Mecca also sought refuge from Quraysh persecution by travelling to the kingdom, a journey known in Islamic history as the First Hijra.


The Ezana Stone

Its ancient capital, also called Aksum, was in northern Ethiopia Tigray as early as the 4th century. It is also the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant in Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion and the purported home of the Queen of Sheba. The Ark of the Covenant is a gold-covered wooden chest described in the Book of Exodus as containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. According to various texts within the Hebrew Bible, it also contained Aaron's rod and a pot of manna. 

Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, Ethiopia

The Queen of Sheba is a Biblical figure. The tale of her visit to King Solomon has undergone extensive Jewish, Arabian, and Ethiopian elaborations, and has become the subject of one of the most widespread and fertile cycles of legends in the Orient.


Queen of Sheeba

Aksum was deeply involved in the trade network between India and the Mediterranean(Rome, later Byzantium), exporting ivory, tortoise shell, gold and emeralds, and importing silk and spices. Aksum's access to both the Red Sea and the Upper Nile enabled its strong navy to profit in trade between various African (Nubia), Arabian (Yemen), and Indian states.


The Aksumite population consisted of Semitic-speaking people (collectively known as Habeshas), Cushitic-speaking people, and Nilo-Saharan-speaking people (the Kunama and Nara). Aksumites did own slaves, and a modified feudal system was in place to farm the land.

Axumite Menhir in Balaw Kalaw (Metera) near Senafe

In general, elite Aksumite buildings such as palaces were constructed atop podia built of loose stones held together with mud-mortar, with carefully cut granite corner blocks which rebated back a few centimeters at regular intervals as the wall got higher, so the walls narrowed as they rose higher. Palaces usually consisted of a central pavilion surrounded by subsidiary structures pierced by doors and gates that provided some privacy (see Dungur for an example). The largest of these structures now known is the Ta'akha Maryam. 


Aksum remained a strong, though weakened, empire and trading power until the rise of Islam in the 7th century. Eventually, the Islamic Empire took control of the Red Sea and most of the Nile, forcing Aksum into economic isolation. Northwest of Aksum, in modern-day Sudan, the Christian states of Makuria and Alodia lasted till the 13th century before becoming Islamic. Aksum, isolated, nonetheless still remained Christian.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Qin Dynasty of China

The Qin dynasty was the first dynasty of Imperial China, lasting from 221 to 206 BC. Named for its heartland of Qin, in modern-day Gansu and Shaanxi, the dynasty was formed after the conquest of six other states by the Qin state, and its founding emperor named Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of Qin. 


The strength of the Qin state was greatly increased by the Legalist reforms of Shang Yang in the fourth century BC, during the Warring States period. In the mid and late third century BC, the Qin accomplished a series of swift conquests, first ending the powerless Zhou dynasty, and eventually conquering the other six of the Seven Warring States to gain control over the whole of China.


Qin warriors of the Terracotta Army, Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California.

The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE and whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. The figures, dating from approximately the late third century BCE, were discovered in 1974 by local farmers in Lintong District, Shaanxi province. The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots and horses. 


The Qin central government sought to minimize the role of aristocrats and landowners and have direct administrative control over the peasantry, who comprised the overwhelming majority of the population, and control over whom would grant the Qin access to a large labor force. This allowed for the construction of ambitious projects, such as a wall on the northern border, now known as the Great Wall of China.

An area of the sections of the Great Wall at Jinshanling

The First Emperor developed plans to fortify his northern border, to protect against nomadic invasions. The result was the initial construction of what later became the Great Wall of China, which was built by joining and strengthening the walls made by the feudal lords, which would be expanded and rebuilt multiple times by later dynasties, also in response to threats from the north.


The Qin's military was also revolutionary in that it used the most recently developed weaponry, transportation, and tactics, though the government was heavy-handed and bureaucratic. It introduced several reforms: currency, weights and measures were standardized, and a uniform system of writing was established. 

Qin Shi Huang

The Emperor died during one of his tours of Eastern China, on September 10, 210 BC (Julian Calendar) at the palace in Shaqiu prefecture, about two months away by road from the capital Xianyang. Reportedly, he died due to ingesting mercury pills, made by his alchemists and court physicians. Ironically, these pills were meant to make Qin Shi Huang immortal. His mausoleum is located in Lintong District, Xi'an, Shaanxi province of China. This mausoleum was constructed over 38 years, from 246 to 208 BCE, and is situated underneath a 76-meter-tall tomb mound shaped like a truncated pyramid.

Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor

Despite its military strength, the Qin dynasty did not last long. When the first emperor died, his son was placed on the throne by two of the previous emperor's advisers, in an attempt to influence and control the administration of the entire dynasty through him. The advisors squabbled among themselves, however, which resulted in both their deaths and that of the second Qin emperor. 



Popular revolt broke out a few years later, and the weakened empire soon fell to a Chu lieutenant, who went on to found the Han dynasty. Despite its rapid end, the Qin dynasty influenced future Chinese empires, particularly the Han, and the European name for China is thought to be derived from it.


The aristocracy of the Qin were largely similar in their culture and daily life. Regional variations in culture were considered a symbol of the lower classes. This stemmed from the Zhou and was seized upon by the Qin, as such variations were seen as contrary to the unification that the government strove to achieve. Commoners and rural villagers, who made up over 90% of the population, very rarely left the villages or farmsteads where they were born. 

Dujiangyan

Dujiangyan, an irrigation project completed in 256 BC during the Warring States period of China by the State of Qin. It is located on the Min River in Sichuan, China, near the capital Chengdu. Although a reinforced concrete weir has replaced Li Bing's original weighted bamboo baskets, the layout of the infrastructure remains the same and is still in use today to irrigate over 5,300 square kilometers of land in the region.


An edict in bronze from the reign of the Second Qin Emperor

The dominant religious belief in China during the reign of the Qin, and, in fact, during much of early imperial China, was focused on the shen (roughly translating to "spirits"), yin ("shadows"), and the realm they were said to live in. The Chinese offered animal sacrifices in an attempt to contact this other world, which they believed to be parallel to the earthly one.

Stone slab with twelve small seal characters.
The 12 characters on this slab of floor brick affirm that it is an auspicious moment for the First Emperor to ascend the throne, as the country is united and no men will be dying along the road. Small seal scripts were standardized by the First Emperor of China after he gained control of the country, and evolved from the larger seal scripts of previous dynasties.
Follow me on Blogarama