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Unveiling Ashuradeh and Absukun
Searching for the origins of names off the southeast corner of the Caspian Sea


July 15, 2005

On any given day, the quaint porch of Whole Foods provides an adequate vantage point for watching the bustle along Main Street in Orleans, Cape Cod. On this 4th of July the deck of the grocery store served us as an observation post for a very folksy parade celebrating the declaration of independence, crass commercialism and individual liberty. Half-hour into the proceeding, I began to muse involuntarily about the etymological origin of the word "parade." The word has a significant meaning for boys of my generation who paced up and down Shah Reza Avenue waiting for the right moment to buy a censored copy of a girly magazine called "Parade."

I digress. This 4th July I thought in an equally uncontrollable fashion about the procession of delegates that depicted in graphic detail along the stairway at Apadana, where the Persian king received on the occasion of the Norouz delegates from the nations and territories that constituted his realm. Representative groups of people led by a Pars or a Mede were ushered before the king, bearing native products and animals as gifts. If I had at the moment any predisposition to believe that the word "parade" was of Persian origin it was solely on the basis of an impression.

The Achaemenians who governed the world's first empire must have seen their share of parades and processions of prisoners, laborers and troops and yet there is not a one word in Old Persian and Farsi that captures the notion of a "parade." I want to believe that therefore the word "parade" is from Old Persian "para" (beyond) and "ta" (near or here), maybe meaning a procession to hither by people from afar. If I am wrong then I will be corrected and I welcome that if not for information then for a useful conversation that it engenders.

What I have found increasingly annoying is that as Iranian-speakers we seem to have defaulted to foreigner's interpretation of our language and culture, far too many times and systematically. In the past year, I have tried to do my share of reclaiming some of our heritage by toying with word formations that allow a plausible and likely Persian explanation for words and place-names.

One example of this is the name "Homavarka" which the conventional wisdom of the Iranist Ilya Gershevitch in particular interpreted as "consumer of hom," the medicinal and narcotic plant of ancient Iran and the Avesta. The crux of that interpretation relied on the word varka or varga as meaning "consume" or "eat" or "take" as in ingesting. In a presentation that I intended to make to an audience in London this September, I was going to propose that in Achaemenian place-names like Zraka, Maka, Saka and others, the sound ka was a locative suffix denoting the "land of." When published, the research will explain the meaning of Homavarka as a toponym, in which the place-name means the "land where homa grows." In this formulation "ka" is the locative suffix; hom is hom; and avar or var refers to bringing, producing or bearing as in khay-var (caviar) [More caviar, please].

I digress. Back to "parade." If you have followed me so far, you have no doubt come up with a bunch of Persian words that mean "parade" in some aspect. I want to focus on the word reje largely because it sounds so French and yet it is so very Persian. The term "reje raftan" in Farsi means a military or precision procession. Its etymological origin derives from the "noun rejeh" (with "j" as in "Jaleh") and its variant is "rezeh" and "reje" (with "j" as in Dejleh). In Persian the word means a string or cord used for a variety of purposes but especially used by masons and engineers like a plumb line. It is not difficult to see how and why the Iranian wordsmith would adopt this word for the earlier French-origin defileh that was used in Farsi to describe the march of troops a few generations ago (see Dehkhoda, vol. 25, pp. 380, 382-83). An Iranian pupil who is accused of "raj-zadan" may discern the etymology of this heinous classroom crime in "rezeh". This means instead of repeatedly writing from left to right in line-long sentences, one copies the header word in columns, column by column to save time!

I now come to the real reason for this essay -- which is to lay bare the etymology of Ashuradeh Islands once located off the southeast corner of the Caspian Sea but presently fused to a peninsula called Miyankala. Not every student of Iranian geography knows Ashuradeh by name but they all recognize the wiggly land formation (Miyankala) that flips back out into the sea away from the old Bandar Shah (presently Bandar Torkaman).

In Farsi the name Ashuradeh appears usually in two forms, the beginning "a" is either an "alef ba kolah" or "ain". The first one is seen in the orthography of the place-name in English works (Holmes, Rabino) and the second one is seen in the Russian work of one Gregorii Melgunov and its 19th century German and Persian translations. Needless to say, either form was a representation of a local name as appeared or sounded to the English and Russian ears. "My investigation of the origin of the name Aashura-deh," wrote Melgunov (1860), "has revealed that the Persians apply this Arabicized term in order to show the islands' appurtenance to them." Golzari's edition, Tehran, p. 256. In the point of fact, according to Melgunov, the English were the first to use the name Ashuradeh in maps.

The suffix "ada" is a Turkic word that means island and there is no doubt that its appearance in works like Holmes' Arshourada (1845) and Rabino's Ashur-ada (1928) was intended to convey the meaning that Ashur-ada meant Ashur Island (Rabino, p. 67). A variety of reasons may explain why the suffix ada was adopted readily by the English. First the word ada was a familiar one to Englishmen whose itinerary into Persia usually attained from the Ottoman Empire and Turkic-speaking regions of southern Russia and Persia. There are Buyuk Ada and Kuchuk Ada off Istanbul and one Uzun Ada off Baku.

Second, Ashuradeh was located in the Turkmen region of Persia. Third, with Persians and Russians in competition for influence among the unruly Turkmen in the southeastern Caspian region, the Englishman's preference for the use of ada better served the nascent English influence among the tribesmen. Lastly, the Turkmen dominance of the coast and waters in southeastern Caspian since the Middle Ages may well be that ada was used by the Turkmen when referring to Ashuradeh. The Persian either turned "ada" into "deh" (village) or indeed simply referred to the village on Ashuradeh as such.

The larger mystery surrounding this place-name is the significance of Ashur/Ashura. In the Turkic/English orthography the root name Ashur signifies very little other than a proper name. The Persian/Russian Ashuradeh on the other hand shows the root Ashura and suffix deh meaning village. In this case, Ashura (with "alef") is meaningless, but Ashura (with "ain") could be the 10th day of Moharram, which coincides with the martyrdom of Imam Hossein. This latter may have been dear to the Shiite population of Gorgan and vicinity, but not necessarily a term to which the Sunni Turkmen naturally would gravitate. Absent an explanation about Ashura as a significant date in the history of Ashuradeh Islands (arrival or expulsion of Russians off the coast in 18th century or later, for example), I tend to agree with Melgunov that Ashuradeh (with "ain") was probably a Persian governmental concoction to make a political point vis a vis the Sunni Turkmen, Brits and Russians.

The preferred Persian spelling for Ashuradeh is with "alef ba kolah" (see Petros' 19th century translation of Melgunov; Dehkhoda, vol. 2, p. 124), although Rabino seems to have given the name simply with "alef" (Rabino, p. 130). Regardless, each of the various permutations of the place-name begs the fundamental question as to the very root name that spun the 17th and 18th century Persian, Russian, English and Turkmen variations. Setting aside the notion of "ada" (island) and "deh" (village), I believe that the root or proto-name for the place was Abshur, consisting of the Persian "ab" (water) and "shur" (saline, bitter, brackish).

The toponym Abshur or Shur-ab is a familiar one -- there is Ab-e Shur, a branch of the Tab River in Fars (Dehkhoda, vol. 2, p. 28), Abshuran that is Apsheron Peninsula and island off southwestern Caspian (Dehkhoda, vol. 2, p. 28), and Ab-e Shur that is a tributary of Gorgan River (Rabino, p. 91). In the Tankbon district of Mazandaran there is a place-name called Shur-ab-sar (Petros/Melgunov, p. 168). However, nowhere does the name resonate best and appropriate than in the hamlet place-name Shur-ab-sar on Miyankala itself, which owes it name to the presence of a saline spring nearby (see Rabino, p. 62).

The reconstructed toponym either as Ab-e Shur-ada or Ab-e Shur-deh (island or village of brackish water) is in very good company when it comes to place-names of southeastern Caspian. In the 10th century geography Hudud al-Alam reference is made to a place on the Gorgan littoral called Ab-sekun, which was described as a principal maritime outlet for the Gorgan region, attracting ships from every part of the Caspian.

Various geographers have referred to Absekun as an island on the mouth of Abgun River or on Gorgan River and as a port on the coast itself (see Dehkhoda, vol. 2, p. 27; Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 2, p. 876-877, vol. 1, pp. 69-70). The name Absekun (English wrote it as Abasgun) has not attracted much debate because it seems so self-evident that "ab" meant water in Persian and "sekun" referred to the calmness/stillness of the waters at the mouth of the river or Bay of Gorgan/Astarabad itself. While "ab" is "ab", I am not satisfied with "sekun" being explained as a grammatical derivative of sakan that in Arabic and Farsi means settled or at rest.

The geography of Absekun suggests an alternative name-source for this place-name than the convenient hydrographical explanation as "still water." If today's topography were any indication, the prominent geographical feature of Absekun would have been the Miyankala Peninsula that curved back into the sea like a scorpion's tail or an indecisive alligator. The calm waters of the Bay of Gorgan/Astarabad owed much to the wind patterns of the area as did to the peninsula and its three offshore islands that were later known as Ashuradeh Islands. The geographical barrier would have been "Ab-shekan", which literally would have meant in Persian "break-water." Because the word for port is wanting in Old Persian and Middle Persian (see "Bandar" in Encylopaedia Iranica), I think Abshekan offers an attractive Persian word meaning "port" or "harbor."

Because Absekun was the only port of note in eastern Caspian in the 10th century, it may have been simply know as "Port" as the word "Bandar" is used regionally to refer to a place that actually has a longer name than just the prefix. The word "bandar" itself is the Arabicization of the Persian "boneh-dar" (bon-dar, bandar), which referred to a treasury official in charge of collecting revenues. The office or person of (Bandar) who did this job in the ports of the Islamic world simply passed the name as designation for a place on a river or lake or sea where boats landed.

Absekun met its doom in at the hands of an earthquake, epidemic, flames, flood or invaders or was sucked simply to the bottom of the Caspian Sea. The threesome Ashuradeh Islands have fused to Miyankala Peninsula and are no longer a geographical feature of southeastern Caspian coast, except in name. Their storied past however still provides a wave for the spirit to ride and a field for the mind to plough. Marine archeology, which is a very nascent filed in southern Caspian, may unveil one day the mysteries of Absekun and Ashuradeh in reference to what the Persian mud will yield -- more so than the conjurations stored in the marbled halls of foreign museums and libraries.

Guive Mirfendereski is VP and GC at Virtual Telemetry Corporation since 2004 and is the artisan doing business as Guy vanDeresk ( Born in Tehran in 1952, he is a graduate of Georgetown University's College of Arts and Sciences (BA), Tufts University's Fletcher School (PhD, MALD, MA) and Boston College Law School (JD). He is the author of  A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea (2001) >>> Features in

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