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Hyrcania was the name of a satrapy located in the territories of present day Golestanmarker, Mazandaranmarker, Gilanmarker and part of Turkmenistanmarker, lands south of the Caspian Seamarker. To the Greeks, the Caspian Seamarker was the "Hyrcanian Sea".


The name "Hyrcania" is the name attested in Greek historiographic accounts. This Greek name is a calque of Old Persian Verkâna, as it is recorded in Darius the Great's Behistun Inscriptionmarker, as well as in other inscriptions in Old Persian cuneiform. Verkā means "wolf" in Old Persian (New Persian gorg) and consequently, "Hyrcania" means the "Land of the Wolves". The city Gorganmarker, capital of the Golestan Provincemarker, takes its name from this.


Hyrcania was situated between the Caspian Seamarker, which was in ancient times called the Hyrcanian Ocean, in the north and the Alborzmarker mountains in the south and west. The country had a tropical climate and was very fertile. The Persiansmarker considered it one of "the good lands and countries" which their supreme god Ahura Mazda had created personally. To the northeast, Hyrcania was open to the Central Asian steppes, where nomadic tribes had been living for centuries.

Achaemenid era

Hyrcania became part of the Persian Empire during the reign of Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC) or Cambyses (530-522 BC). Under the Achaemenids, it seems to have been administered as a sub-province of Parthia and is not named separately in the provincial lists of Darius and Xerxes. The capital and also the largest city and site of the “royal palace” of Hyrcania was Zadracartamarker. From the Behistun inscriptionmarker we know that it was Persian by 522. The story is as follows: After the death of Cambyses, the Magian usurper Gaumâta, who did not belong to the Achaemenian dynasty, usurped the throne. The adherents of the Persian royal house, however, helped Darius to become king; he killed the usurper on September 29, 522 BC. Almost immediately, the subjects of the empire revolted. When Darius was suppressing these rebellions and stayed in Babylonmarker, the Median leader Phraortes made his bid for power (December 522). His revolt soon spread to Armeniamarker, Assyria, Parthia and Hyrcania. However the Persian garrison in Parthia still held out. It was commanded by Darius' father Hystaspes. On March 8, 521 BC, the Parthians and their allies, the Hyrcanians, attacked the Persian garrison, but they were defeated. Not much later, Darius was able to relieve his father. This was the first appearance in history of the Hyrcanians.

In the 5th century BC, the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus mentions them several times in his Histories. He has a confused report on irrigation (3.117), which may be compared to the statement of the second-century historian Polybius that the Persians had built large irrigation works (World history 10.28.3). Herodotus also tells us that Hyrcanian soldiers were part of the large army which king Xerxes I (486-465) commanded against the Greeks in 480. The historian notes that they carried the same arms as the Persians.

It is possible -but not proven- that during the Persian period, a wall was built to defend Hyrcania against the nomads of the Central Asian steppe. The ruins of the wall north of the river Gorgân, which are still visible today, called the Gates of Alexander, were built later, but they probably replaced a Persian defense work.

In the confused years after the death of king Artaxerxes I Makrocheir (465-434), three of his sons succeeded to the throne: Xerxes II, Sogdianus and Darius II. The latter was a satrap in Hyrcania and may have used troops from Hyrcania and the 'upper satrapies' - that is Aria, Parthia, Arachosia, Bactria, and Sogdiana.

Hyrcania makes its reappearance in history when the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (336-323) invaded Asia. Hyrcanians are mentioned during the battle of Gaugamela (October 1, 331), and in August 329, when the last Persian king, Darius III Codomannus, was dead, many Persian noblemen fled to Hyrcania, where they surrendered to Alexander (a.o. Artabazus).

Seleucid era

After Alexander's reign, his empire fell apart and Hyrcania became part of the new Seleucid Empire. At the end of the 3rd century BC, northeastern nomads belonging to the tribe of the Parni, invaded Parthia and Hyrcania. Although Parthia was forever lost to the Seleucids, Hyrcania was in the last decade of the third century reconquered by Antiochus III the Great (223-187). After a generation, however, Hyrcania was lost again.

Arsacid era

To the Arsacid Parthians - the new name of the Parni tribe - Hyrcania was an important part of the empire, situated between their Parthian territories and their homeland on the steppe. It is certain that the Parthian kings used a Hyrcanian town as their summer residence. They were also responsible for the 'Wall of Alexander', which is 180 km long and has forty castles. Nonetheless, it was not an uncontested part of their empire; for example, an uprising is known to have started in AD 58 and lasted at least until AD 61, ending with a compromise treaty.

Sassanid era

Hyrcania was a province of the Sassanid Empire until its conquest by the Arabs. It was an important territory in that it kept out inner Asian tribes from invading. Due to this, the Sassanids built many fortresses in the region.

Post-Sassanid era

After the fall of the Sassanian Empire to Muslim Arab invaders, many noblemen fled to Hyrcania, where they settled permanently.In the 8th century, the caliphate did not manage to conquer Hyrcania. This was mostly because of the geographical location but also due to significant resistance from notables such as Vandad Hormoz, Mâziar, and Babak Khorramdin. Under the leadership of a few remaining aristocratic families such as the Karens and the Bavands, Hyrcania remained independent or semi-independent for many years after the collapse of the Sassanids.

Literary references

In Latin literature, Hyrcania is often mentioned in relationship to tigers, which were apparently particularly abundant there during the Classical Age. Tigers have, however, become extinct in the area since the early 1970s.

Hyrcania is mentioned in the short story "Rinconete y Cortadillo" by Cervantes, and constitutes one of his exemplary stories which were published in 1613. Cervantes uses this reference to portray the illiteracy of Juliana la Cariharta, a member of Monipodio's guild. She is intending to make reference to Ocaña, a provincial town in Toledo, Spainmarker; but she has misheard it and does not realise the difference.

Shakespeare, relying on his Latin sources, makes repeated references in his plays to the "Hyrcan tiger" (Macbeth, III.iv.1281) or "th' Hyrcanian beast" (Hamlet, II.ii.447) as an emblem of bloodthirsty cruelty. In Henry VI, Part 3, the Duke of York compares Queen Margaret unfavorably to "Tygers of Hyrcania" (I.iv.622) for her inhumanity.

The comic book heroine Red Sonja is described as coming from Hyrkania.


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