The Persian captivity

By Razib Khan 45 Comments

I have long suggested to readers of this weblog to inform themselves of the histories of peoples outside of the Indian subcontinent to understand better broader human dynamics and get out of the box of parochialism. But, the comments of this weblog don’t suggest that many are taking me up that advice.

Let’s start with the depredations of nomadic Central Asian peoples that the Indian subcontinent has been subject to, starting with the Indo-Aryans, down to the Afghan invasions of the 19th century. There is an attitude that this is sui generis in some fashion. But it’s not. Most of Eurasia has been subject to the predations of the pastoralist peoples. In Strange Parallels: Volume 2, Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800–1830, the author argues that Southeast Asia, Japan, and Western Europe were protected from these incursions due to their geography, and so were allowed a cultural continuity which was ideal for the formation of nation-states.

This is in sharp contrast with the Islamic world. Though I am skeptical of the idea that the first Arabs conquerors of the Near East were nomads (I think they were residents of the cities of the Levantine liminal fringe), the Turks definitely were. Arriving as slave soldiers in the 9th century, after 1000 AD Turkic dynasties were dominant through the Muslim world for nearly 1,000 years. Reza Shah Pahlavi’s ascension in the 20th century broke the long history of the rule of Iran by men who were not Iranians of Iran.

And yet the spread of rule by Turkic dynasties was associated with the spread of Persian high culture, not its diminishment. As outlined in The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca, the three early modern Muslim polities of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals, were ethnically Turkic in their self-conception but patronized and facilitated Farsi as a language of administration and culture.

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45 Replies to “The Persian captivity”

  1. I’m sure this is going to get hated on but

    Turks get credit for things they shouldn’t though. The majority of Mughal chefs were probably Iranian or Pashtun. The architects of the Red Fort, Taj Mahal and Registan were also Iranian.
    And its real cute to say Turks spread Iranian culture but that was after destroying much of it so forgive me If I’m not a fan of praising Turks for slightly building up something they destroyed. Literally wiping out the Iranian languages from Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, much of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iranian Azerbaijan and the republic of Azerbajjan. Even today the Iranian language of Persian speakers from Uzbekistan is being wiped out.
    There’s also a difference between the Safavids and Mughals. The former are basically Iranians with minor Turkic input. The latter have significant Turkic input.

  2. There’s also a difference between the Safavids and Mughals. The former are basically Iranians with minor Turkic input. The latter have significant Turkic input.

    the safavids came out of a kurdish-greek-turkic milieu. but they were speaking turkic by the time they conquered Iran and were based out of the NW azeri regions. shah ismail had ambitions of conquering anatolia, and eastern anatolia was their initial base.

    what’s your argument? if you don’t care to make it that’s fine.

    And its real cute to say Turks spread Iranian culture but that was after destroying much of it so forgive me If I’m not a fan of praising Turks for slightly building up something they destroyed.

    how destroyed? the qanat system was destroyed by the mongols. mahmud of ghanzi was the patron of ferdowsi.

  3. My argument is that the Safavids were not ethnically distinct from Persians whereas Mughals were. The ancestors of the Safavids were not responsible for replacing the native population.

    Destroyed in the sense of replaced.

    1. what does ethnically distinct mean for you?

      they spoke azeri Turk as their mother tongue. they were agro-pastoralist in orientation originally. they were originally a very different religion, ghulat, and eventually forced the persians to convert to shia Islam.

      the people they conquered were different in terms of mode of production (persian elites were city people), language, religion (persia was mostly Sunni, with Shia mostly around old arab-cities like qom).

      The ancestors of the Safavids were not responsible for replacing the native population.

      how is that a contrast with the mughals? like are you saying that because a lot of the ancestors were turkified it doesn’t count, like there is some blood lineage or something? the same is true of the mughals. i mean there was a period when you have “3/4th Hindu” shah jahan.

  4. Wouldn;t Safavids be far too west to Iranian proper as Mughals were to the East.

    In my view both Mughals and Safavids were “persian-ized” to the same extent.

  5. Razib
    Wouldn’t the people they Turkified (Old Azari speakers- a NW Iranian language) have been rural pastoralists like Kurds? Even today the West Azerbaijan province is ethnically Kurdish. I doubt people on east side of Lake Urmia were different than those on the West.
    You’re right on the second point. I should have differentiated between Mughals and Central Asian Turks. You win.

    I guess part of my point was that even though the rulers were Turkic the accomplishments mostly belonged to ethnic Iranians not ethnic Turks who adopted Persian culture. I think you agree as your example of Ferdowsi is my point exactly.

    Shaurav-
    How are they too far West to be Iranian proper? Kurds were more Western than Azeris (either the Turkic speakers or their NW Iranian speaking ancestors).

  6. Wouldn’t the people they Turkified (Old Azari speakers- a NW Iranian language) have been rural pastoralists like Kurds? Even today the West Azerbaijan province is ethnically Kurdish. I doubt people on east side of Lake Urmia were different than those on the West.

    remember there used to be lots of armenians around there too!

    there are lots of Iranian pastoralist people obviously. they’re not persian though. remember that there are lots of Iranian languages in modern Iran today which are not Persian. like the Arabs, persian high culture is a product of the cities. the safavids didn’t patronize the culture the Lurs. it was the people of the cities, who had previously influenced the Arab empires.

    1. I don’t think Iranian Azeris trace their ancestry to Turkified Armenians. Iranian Azerbaijan is contained by the Zagros and Araxes River. Those have been pretty sound borders. Iranian speakers expanded west beyond these borders but rarely did non Iranians expanded east of this border. Armenians are definitely not native to this region south of the Araxes and East of the Zagros. Even when they ruled this area it was always because of an Iranian dynasty. Some Azeris in the Republic of Azerbaijan might trace their ancestry to Armenians but even the majority of them are Turkified Alabanians and Tats.

    2. I don’t think Iranian Azeris trace their ancestry to Turkified Armenians. Iranian Azerbaijan is contained by the Zagros and Araxes River. Those have been pretty sound borders. Iranian speakers expanded west beyond these borders but rarely did non Iranians expanded east of this border. Armenians are definitely not native to this region south of the Araxes and East of the Zagros (West Azerbaijan , East Azerbaijan and Ardabil provinces). Even when they temporarily ruled this area it was always because of an Iranian dynasty. Some Azeris in the Republic of Azerbaijan might trace their ancestry to Armenians but even the majority of them are Turkified Alabanians and Tats.

  7. The funny thing is for all this spread of Persian by Turkic vectors and Persian empires etc, the total number of Persian speakers – both L1 and L2 – are roughly the population of just Bihar. And I am not even including Jharkhand, lol.

    Gangetic plains FTW!

    1. Well I can understand that about local dialects like Bhojpuri etc but Biharis also speak Hindi in a sprachbund with the rest of N India (and Pakistan).

      I doubt Farsi has even the same order of magnitude impact as Hindi has on the world economy or produces as much literature / newspapers / TV coverage / cultural output like movies etc.

      Eg just the re-run of Ramayan alone (an old 80s Indian tv series in Hindi on the eponymous Epic)had viewership numbers roughly equal to the population of Iran.

  8. I get it Slapstik we are the best

    I mean what is India without us N-Indians anyways.

    1. North India isn’t the best . The overpopulation is killing it right know. The rivers are getting worse and some have dried up. The waste management is shit. The weather is like living in a glass chamber no fucking breeze only hot winds , occasional rain helps. Clearly south India has done a better job in education, health and safety etc.
      That is true that India without the people in indo gangetic plains is nothing . They are the heart of India. The driving force of India’s agticultural output.
      Slapstik should come to India sometimes.

      1. We gave this land its name, its religion, its gods, its culture , its literature and its languages.

        Pretty sure its time the others can pick up and contribute somewhat.Yeah perhaps in 1000 years they came come close to our output.

        1. yeah you could be true but now is the time the north isn’t doing any good than the south. I am from the North and i agree on language,cultures etc are somethings northerners have dominated.

      2. @Harshavardhan
        I think his comment was sarcastic.

        As Razib said, people need to get out of subcontinent (mentally) once in a while.

        1. Idk sometimes i take things as sarcasm and sometimes not. In that moment i was just tired and this comment came and i replied.

    2. @Saurav

      Lol. Not sure about best. My point is we are too many and even if much of what we do individually is junk (which is probably true) the purchase of so many people is a gestaltist value-add on that junk.

      I don’t want to make this thread about the subcontinent (due apologies to Razib) but just to emphasize that point: I find much of Indian culture to be rank stupidity and pointless mind-f***ery, sometimes enough to question the point of it all. Now others may debate that or call me a cynical arsehole or whatever but that’s just my opinion.

      However, what I also realise is that my POV is well nigh useless. When a human culture has as much purchase as the Indian one does, what even the worst of its cynics say is nearly always false. This is because human capacity to innovate is boundless and the more copies a culture-plex contains the better the redundancy in the system. There is a mathematical safety in large numbers.

      [Apologies again to Razib. My last post on this thread/topic.]

  9. India isn’t North India. In fact, the areas where Mughals had the least imprint in terms of admin and direct rule is the most dynamic engine in South Asia today. Consider this land mass that is contiguous and equivalent in area to roughly Germany, France and Italy put together – Tamilnadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

    – roughly home to 375 million Indians, it accounts for 1.5 trillion USD GDP (50% of Indian GDP)

    -this area is the physical administrative successor to the Vijayanagara, Maratha and Chola empires from the last millennium

    – the minority in these areas is a Christian, not a Muslim

    – IT, petrochemicals, tourism, automobiles are the biggest contributors to GDP, not agriculture

    – 75% of surviving Indian temples and heritage from the last millennium are in these areas

    – These areas host some of the biggest names in Indian cultural and philosophical thought production in the last 100 years – Ambedkar, Gandhi, Savarkar, Periyar, Kamaraj, Bollywood/Tollywood, RSS, Left etc.

    Many people from these areas do not have Persian/Mughal esotericism in their worldview. I do think that it is only natural that an ideology like Golwalkar’s could sprout in the soil of this geography. Many South Indians do not share the reflexive Hindu-Muslim dynamics of North India, not because they are liberal or forward looking, but more in the style of “I do not even think about you, who are you?”.

    1. Good comment. I agree with you. I’d rather be proud of modern development than the fucking Taj Mahal.

    2. maharastra and karnataka have quite some persian influence.

      south karnataka: tippu had made persian his court language, and as such there are many persian words in kannada. many kannada elite were literate in persian .

      north karnataka: this was even more persianised due to bahamani and hyderbad rulers.

      maharastra: marathi today has a large percentage of persian. infact many marathi surnames such as fayade, hazare, nazare sound persian.

      1. True enough, but Tipu Sultan’s and Hyder Aliś reign lasted for mere decades, not centuries. Central Maharasthra and North Karnataka were, exactly for a century and ten years, under the Deccan Sultanates – but contemporary with Vijayanagara and ultimately succeeded by the Marathas. The syncretism produced wasn’t Persian but distinctly Carnatic, unlike North India. A lot of Muslims in this region today are crypto-Hindus, preferring to worship Shirdi Sai Baba – a fully Advaitic figure.

        Telangana and Andhra have much more Persian influence owing to the Shia dynasties that ruled Golconda and its surroundings than the rest, so I left them out.

        1. There are regions of N Karnataka and MH that were under the Tughluqs —>Bahmanis —-> Adil Shahis—->Mughals for a cumulative 400 years at least. Taking 1300-1700 as bookends. Some areas would become under maratha/peshwa administration following that, and other areas would be with the asaf jahi/ hyd nizams until independence..another 250 years. It was not uncommon in such places for hindus to be literate in urdu and not kannada or marathi. The colloquial kannada of gulbarga and bidar regions is replete with persian words to the confusion of people from bangalore/mysore.

  10. \get out of the box of parochialism. \
    True. Best antidote to parochialism is reading universalist histories by Toynbee or Spengler. Both Toynbee and Spengler were railing against the parochialism of the West. Another underrated historian is Vico. Having read them in my 20s, I have gotten out of parochialism long time ago

  11. it was said that ghazni mohammed was an equal opportunity offender. he would sack india and iran alternatively!!.

  12. Can someone confirm if my statement that the Registan was designed by Persians and mostly housed Persian scholars is true? Same with the Red Fort and Taj Mahal?

    Also I often see dishes like aushak, biryani and dalut ki chaat given a Mughal origin but the chefs were most likely Persian no?

    1. All the above dishes have persian influences but spices used are Indian hence i would consider them as Indian dishes On wikipedia its written that the people who created biryani were Indian muslims ( could be a native could have foreign an ancestry).
      Daulat ki chaat is indian creation during Mughal era.
      The more you go to Old delhi, Nizammuddin the more you see middle East/persian influences in the dishes.
      Weird like Indian vegetarians eat vegetables that only can be eaten beacuse of spices and curry. No body can eat tinda,kaddu ,tori without spices . You’ll vomit.

  13. harsh, the history of biryani is outlined in the book *curry* basically, it’s a modification of a central asian/afghan pilaf, and indianized.

    1. Basically whole of the Eurasia excluding central and western europe eat a variety of pilaf or pulao as known in India.
      I have also seen halwa made on a Russian food channel.
      Also the vegitarian dishes are eaten because of mix of spices in them. If there were no spices in India then probably people would’ve been eating more meat.

    2. Afghan as in Pashtun/Tajik or Turko-Mongols (Uzbeks-Hazaras etc)? Its kind of ridiculous with the wealth of South Asia they couldn’t figure out to create biryani by themselves (given the early age of rice in the Ganges Valley), couldn’t use their excessive, native, water buffalo populations to create any sort of unique cheese, couldn’t figure out how to create dairy dishes without Afghan help (Dalut ki chaat is said to have Afghan origins).

      1. You are kidding right?

        There a numerous rice preparations especially as you go south that are not biryani. I like biryani but its not like that people are eating it everyday or something.
        Similarly for sweets produced from dairy products (from Basundi to Shrikhand) and there are also some which are made after ‘breaking’ milk.

        I might be ignorant but I have not even heard of Dalut ki chaat before. Congrats to people who made those nice dishes but I think the discussion is generalizing food eaten in north for entire India.

        1. Preservation is a really important part of the food security toolbox, and it may not have been taste-driven to begin with. There might be some limitations on ageing/curing dairy and meat successfully as you go into tropics. That said, salt dried fish and prawns are ubiquitous all around coastal peninsular india,. And in interior deccan i’ve seen meat salt-cured in earthen pots and traditional blood sausage preparations. I’d expect these recipes to surface to a wider audience given the energy that the younger gen has in pursuit of authenticity.

          1. Oh man i ate liver once and then i vomitted i was so bad.
            I also ate fish first time in Calcutta.

          2. That’s cool. I’ve never herd about cured meat in South Asia.

            Water buffalo cheeses alos should have been something that seems natural to the SOuth Asian diet but was never really invented there too.

          3. Jatt_Scythian, the salt-dried thing was fatty sheep meat as was the blood sausage. Apart from that, beef, pork, and prawn achaar is common enough. The goan catholics have pork choriso which i’m not counting because that can be attributed to portugal.
            I think a number of himalayan people have cheeses, from bhutan to himachal. Maybe northern, colder places have shorter/fewer growing seasons and preservation matters more. The Nagas and other NE tribes do a lot of smoked and fermented foods. In the south there are communities that do interesting vinegars, from palm, coconut, and different fruits. Sometimes its reduced and caramelized in a way thats quite a bit like balsamic vinegar. The Kodava people make a nice thick pork masala with it. Theres a lot to the subcontinent to explore.

        2. Its popular during winter times in Delhi and preparation can take long time i have a youtube video on how its prepared and all

          1. Pulao is vegetarian acc to majority view and biryani is non vegetarian acc to majority.

            Also some caste/tribe eat pork and muslims definitely eat beef in north india hindus as well but muslims more so. I get weirded out if i eat any meat.

          2. In Tamilnadu, there is a festival ” Aadi perukku ” in July-August – month of Aadi is known as Shravana in other states- there 18 rice preparations, all vegetarian . This festival celebrates rivers . In Indian railway canteens , you used to get ‘curd rice’ tamarind rice’ ‘coconut rice’ , etc ; don’t know whether these packets are still sold in trains

            Pulao/biryani is a late import in south India. Having said that, Hyderabadi Muslims make excellent pulao, both veg and meat varieties. Communities of Muslims and Christians make lot of meat-in-rice preps . These are many times below the radar of culinary cognoscenti.

            I

  14. Jatt_Scythian
    couldn’t use their excessive, native, water buffalo populations to create any sort of unique cheese, couldn’t figure out how to create dairy dishes without Afghan help

    I’ll start with the easy one first. Sri Lankan have only one (yes just one) traditional cheese made of buffalo milk. Proper buffalo curd, will keep for a month or two without refrigeration. If turned up side down will not fall from the pots.
    In general it is eaten as a desert, with coconut or kitul palm syrup.
    Seller on wayside road
    https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-woman-selling-curd-tangalla-market-sri-lanka-image21587674

    Like I said absolutely no dairy used in traditional cooking in Sri Lanka. We have something else all over the place, coconut milk. Used in almost everything.

    Its kind of ridiculous with the wealth of South Asia they couldn’t figure out to create biryani by themselves (given the early age of rice in the Ganges Valley),

    Biriyani (called Buriyani here) introduced around the time we were growing up in early 70’s is not made in Sinhalese Tamil home (muslims make it). The whole concept of meat and veggies cooked with the rice is considered icky.

    Its shop food here and mostly made in Muslim Shops. So even they make it to suit the tastes of the population. The rice is cooked with spices (very little) and some oil (not stock). Then served with a boiled egg and piece of meat.

    I assume you dont know of the many things made with rice*.
    String hopper (Indi Appa) Rice Noodles
    Hoppers (Appa) Coconut milk and Rice flour Crepe with soft middle
    Coconut Roti Traditional Rice or Kurrakan (finger millet) flour with shredded coconut. Now mainly wheat flour as it is cheaper and easier.

    *Traditionally Sri lankans used unmilled red rices (again Muslim ate white rice). Much more healthier.

  15. ” There is an attitude that this is sui generis in some fashion. But it’s not.”

    i can attest to that. in my interaction with fellow hindu nationalists, i am always struck with the impression that most of them think india had the unique misfortune of being pillaged by turks and mongols. i always tell them to read the history of iran and iraq, just to feel better. armies of three formidable steppe warlords (chinggis, hulagu and timur) passed thru these regions within couple of centuries, and left mountains of skulls in their wake. and baghadad must be the most massacred city in the world. the qatl-e-aam s of delhi pale in comparison to the ravages suffered by this city. the destruction of knowledge was equally great. when hulagu captured baghadad, the waters of tigris ran black from the ink of the books tossed into it…

    1. Good post. I have no respect for anyone who idolizes Turko-Mongols especially Pakistanis. (And the racial aspect makes it even worse). Arabs and Persians are one thing but even they despise what Turko-Mongols did to their nation. For the most part Arabs/Iranians (minus later Afghans who probably learned how to kill for no purpose from their Turkic overloads) killed to build empires but Turko-Mongols killed just for the sake of killing. Arabs/Persians also contributed to math, science, literature, food culture, architecture. Unfortunately Turko-Mongols were able to destroy Iranian and Greek heritage from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan to Thrace.

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