ROM Alfred Wirth Gallery of the Middle East: Stronghold of an Iranian Warlord on the Silk Road

Posted: July 24, 2015 - 16:17 , by Diana Lu
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By Ed Keall


The temporary exhibit space in the Wirth galleries of the Middle East and the Ondaatje gallery of Asia is designed to keep the galleries alive by encouraging visitors to repeat their visits because there is something new to see.

The space is intended to feature research conducted by ROM curators, with a chance to spell out a topic with a little more background detail about a topic than is possible with a standard gallery presentation.

Most of the story presented here reflects research either conducted years ago (beginning in the 1960s), or artifacts purchased in the art market, equally years ago (in the 1930s). But the story is still current because Curator Ed Keall (beginning in 2013) hosted at the ROM for two years an Iranian archaeologist – Yousef Moradi  – who was assigned in the 2000s by the Iranian Heritage Organization the task of re-activating the excavation project that Ed Keall had pioneered in western Iran, beginning in 1964.

Arrow indicating excavation project in Western Iran


As a result of the dialogues with Moradi, it has been possible for Keall to refine positions that he formulated some years ago. This exhibit attempts to present in a graphic way, how the story unfolded over the years. The accompanying video attempts the same challenge.  (see below)



The time the story starts is 1964. Ed Keall describes himself as a “lonely Brit”, having gone on a solitary adventure to Iran as a novice archaeologist in 1962. By focusing on the era of the Sasanian kings – that is, the last four centuries before the coming of Islam to Iran, meaning roughly 225-625 CE – Keall hoped to make a contribution to the understanding of this pre-Islamic Iranian heritage. There were very few archaeologists anywhere in the world at that time specializing in this culture. Archaeologists tended to prefer either ancient prehistory (with the sense of “older is better”), or Islamic times (because of the quality of the artwork and the extensive written texts that allowed one to provide a context for it all). The Sasanians sat in an academic void, though deserving to be brought out into the light.

The British Academy rewarded Keall for his initiative with a Fellowship at the British Institute of Persian Studies in Tehran. He started his quest to bring the Sasanians into the limelight by targeting the legendary site of Qaleh-i Yazdigird in western Iran. It is an impressively fortified tableland, not far from the modern border between Iraq and Iran.

Satellite image of the fortified tableland of Qaleh-i-Yazdigird


The heartland of the site sketched in 1965


In the Persian language, “Qaleh” means “castle”; Yazdigird is the name of the last of the Sasanian Kings of Kings who has the disgraceful reputation for having failed to stem the inexorable tide of the Arab armies of Islam that were spreading relentlessly across the Middle East in the early 7th century. Yazdigird’s army made yet another unsuccessful, and last-but-one, stance against the Arabs in Iraq, not far from the site that bears the king’s name.

The upper castle of Qaleh-i Yazdigird on the high edge of the tableland


The modern village of Ban Zardeh in the heart of the tableland


Pursuing Yazdigird

As a novice archaeologist, Ed Keall largely bought at face value the local legends that attributed the ruins to the Sasanians, although uncomfortable with the fact that the ruins were far too extensive to have feasibly been fortifications erected by the hurriedly retreating Sasanian army. But there were Arabic texts that spoke of a palace in the area in earlier Sasanian times.  When fragments of architectural ornament were unearthed in 1965, there were pieces that had a definite Sasanian look. Other pieces seemed more ancient in terms of their style.

First exposure of a decorated wall in 1965


These were originally explained away as being “archaizing”, in other words being used deliberately as old-fashioned Parthian elements. 

Workman Dust Ali with a fragment of wall decoration depicting a winged cupid


The Parthians were the predecessors of the Sasanians, ruling Iran from roughly 150 BCE to 225 CE. In time it would emerge that the “archaizing” elements were genuinely Parthian, and the Sasanian-looking elements were “futuristic”.

In hindsight, it is easy to see how local legends have distorted the truth about the ruins.  Many Iranians to this day, even though Muslim, revere their pre-Islamic ancient Persian cultural past. The villagers in the area of Qaleh-i Yazdigird – characterized as Ahl Haqq (so-called “People of the Truth”) have particularly strong connections in their beliefs with this pre-Islamic past.

Villagers from Ban Zardeh on their way to a festival


For instance, there is a cave in the valley named after Bibi Shahrbanou, a daughter of Sasanian King Yazdigird, whom some Shiites believe married Hasan, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad. This conceptual arrangement helps some Iranians deal with the fact that they had adopted the religion of the Arabs. But the reality is that the artwork being unearthed was from centuries before Sasanian times, from the Parthian era.


Parthian shot

The Parthians (as the predecessors of the Sasanians) were even lesser known to the academic world than the Sasanians.

Parthian figure from a wall decoration of the Qaleh-i Yazdigird palace


"In time, the Parthians were to become my favourite ancient people. The British declined to fund anymore my Sasanian studies after my 1965 program, so I signed up with the Americans in Iraq, specifically with the University of Chicago project at Nippur in 1966. Through this work I came to appreciate that the Parthians lacked the rigid authoritarianism of the Sasanians and had no religious standards to impose on their populaces. This is why academics have tended to avoid them, because it is very difficult to know what they stood for. They appealed to my anti-establishment spirit. But they also must have done something right to have maintained a state in Iran for over three centuries, much longer than many empires."

Beside the Sasanians, the greatest enemies of the Parthians were the Romans. The Romans in turn feared the brilliance of the Parthian horse-riding archers who had the ability to ride towards an infantry contingent and fire arrows while turning in the saddle to ride away without meeting hand-to-hand. Victorian literature give us the term “Parthian shot” for the embittered words delivered by an estranged lover on parting company for the last time. Despite their record of a long-lived regime, the Parthians do not have a reputation for a strong empire. The 2nd century CE was a particularly chaotic time when rival kings vied with one another to claim the title “King of Kings”. 

Yet at the same time there was enormous commercial activity in the Middle East as a result of the contact that has been made between the Mediterranean and China, by both land and sea. Use of the inter-continental land routes has given rise to the term “Silk Roads” to reflect the value of the luxury goods being transported along them at that time. Mercantile centres that flourished entirely because of this trade are known as “Caravan Cities”.


Caravan Cities

The main overland routes ran through Parthian Iran. The most logical pass down onto the plains of Mesopotamia from the high plateau of Iran through the Zagros mountains lies just a short distance from the fortified tableland of Qaleh-i Yazdigird. 

The tableland of Qaleh-i Yazdigird as seen from the Zagros Gates


Presented in the exhibit are two themes relating to the phenomenon of the Silk Road commercial traffic.

Alfred Wirth and Edward Keall survey the ruins f Palmyra in the ROM Gallery


Featured are the cities of Palmyra and Dura Europos, both in the modern country of Syria. Palmyra was an Arab city in the desert that provided a convenient way station for the transfer of luxury goods from Asia to the Mediterranean.

Colonnade in the main street of Palmyra


Merchants based there became immensely rich. Their lavish family tombs attest to this wealth. Featured in the exhibit is a funerary bust of Tiklak, daughter of 'Aphshi.                   

Funerary bust of Tiklak, daughter of 'Aphshi


Dura-Europos was originally a settlement for retired veterans of Alexander the Great’s army in the late 4th century BCE. The presence of these veterans would have helped police the Euphrates region on behalf of the Macedonian occupying forces. As an Iranian renaissance emerged in the 2nd century BCE (in the guise of the Parthians) Dura Europos fell into Iranian hands.

Graffiti of a Parthian cavalryman at Dura


As Parthian imperial strength declined in the 2nd century CE, the Romans in turn took over administration of the city. But in the early 3rd century CE the Sasanians successfully besieged the city, using sappers (tunnelers) to undermine the walls and breach the defences.

CIty wall of Dura undermined by the Sasanians


The exhibit presents pieces of armour worn by the Roman defenders of the city, as excavated by the University of Yale expedition to Dura in the 1930s. A more recent British expedition to the site has concluded that the defending soldiers, who were digging their own tunnel to counter the Sasanian sappers were asphyxiated by chlorine gas, one of the first documented evidences of the use of poison gas in warfare. 

Plates of bronze amour worn by a Roman soldier defending the city


Canadian Archaeological Mission

"With major funding for a ROM mission to the site of Qaleh-i Yazdigird in 1975, it required a whole lot more of logistical support than when I had pioneered the site as a lonely Brit in 1965. We were a team of mixed but unrelated males and females, needing work and storage space and privacy."

The ROM team of 1975


"I didn’t want to intrude on the lives of the locals, and there was no space big enough to rent in the village anyway. There were also no toilet facilities in the village, and no suitable opportunities for bathing according to western standards. I opted to buy a patch of land on the hillside, to build a dig-house away from the village."

Ed Keall celebrates purchase of a plot of land for the dig house

Start of house building


"Around Christmastime in 1978, I felt that my Canadian team would appreciate some sense at least of something of the survival of their own traditions. I went in pursuit of a turkey, to have for our Christmas dinner. I actually found two that a farmer was willing to sell, and brought them back to the ROM compound, to let them graze for a couple of days before their sacrificial slaughter. Of course these were genuine “free-range” turkeys, not the hybridized and totally steroid-fed versions that we buy in our supermarkets. The two turkeys I brought back to the compound took one look at out low wall surrounding it, jumped onto it, and flew down the mountainside. A real turkey hunt ensued, but we did ultimately dine on roast turkey as the Shah’s government was collapsing around us."

The ROM compound in autumn 1978


Thanks to loyal support from the villagers of Ban Zardeh, the ROM expedition survived the difficulties of 1978 unscathed by the revolution. Unique discoveries continued to be made. But February 1979 marked the end of the Canadian fieldwork. Luckily the  project was revived by Iranian archaeology authorities in the years 2002 to 2010, under the direction of Yousef Moradi. It is hoped that the Cultural Heritage Organizaton  of Iran will be able to pick up the story again in the foreseeable future.


Parthian Warlord

In the exhibit, the main presentation features the story of how an understanding of the ruins of Qaleh-i Yazdigird unfolded, from inception of the project in 1964 to its abrupt termination in 1979 when the Iranian Revolution prevented the ROM from continuing its work, but with continuation of the project by the Iranian authorities years later. 

The main theme of the exhibit is the attempt to arrive at the idea that site of Qaleh-i Yazdigird represents the stronghold of a Parthian warlord of the 2nd century CE.

The wealth generated from this extortion racket allowed him to build a lavish lifestyle until the more authoritarian Sasanian authorities were able to put him out of business.

Lavish art work from the Parthian palace (ROM reproduction pieces)


It is argued that in a time of weak Parthian government, but at a time when caravans were carrying rich cargoes through the so-called “Zagros Gates”, a warlord controlled traffic on the highway and built up for himself a rich lifestyle because the government authorities were powerless to dislodge him.  When the more authoritarian Sasanians came to power in the 3rd century, the warlord’s role was terminated.

Commanding view from the tableland towards the Zagros Gates


The exposure of a Sasanian Zoroastrian fire-temple at Qaleh-i Yazdigird attests to this Sasanian presence.

Start of work exposing the Sasanian fire temple

Workman inside the fire temple


Zoroastrianism was adopted as the state religion of Sasanian Iran, as opposed to the laissez-faire doctrinal attitudes of their Parthian predecessors, and it makes sense that its construction marks the imposition of the more authoritarian regime.

Conceivably, our warlord is represented in portrait busts that were part of the decorative scheme of the palace.

Artist's rendering of the warlord from the palace decorations


Conceivably he is reflected in a silver coin found at the site that can be classified in terms of Parthian coins as representing “The Unknown King”. Our warlord may have been able to mint coins in the royal mode, as a Parthian dissident.

Coin found on the site portraying the so-called Unknown King


The ROM gallery vitrines


Expeditions to Qaleh-i Yazdigird


Warlord on the Silk Road


Caravan cities: the story of Palmyra and Dura Europos


Ed Keall, Toronto - 2015