ABARSĒN, Middle Persian form of the Avestan name Upāiri.saēna, designating the Hindu Kush mountains (Average. iškata; Mid. Pers. kōf, gar) of central and eastern Afghanistan. Yašt 19.3 lists it as one of the ranges envisaged as spurs of the High Harā (see Alborz), which, as the mythical world-encircling range, is the source of the mountains. The divine Hōm is said in Yasna 10.11 to have been carried to the Upāiri.saēna range by birds (the Pahlavi version says “Powers” in the shape of birds). Thus already appears an association between the mountains and a bird motif. This is already implicit in their name, “Above the eagle[’s flight].” (Cf. similar Avestan compounds, upairiazəma-, “above-ground,” and upairi.dahyu-, “above the country.”) A parallel Sanskrit form occurs in the “Upariśyena heaven” of the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa. (See J. Wackernagel, “Altindische und Mittelindische Miszellen,” BSOS 8, 1935-37, p. 830; he corrects Bartholomae’s attribution, in AirWb., col. 398, of the long vowel in upāiri- to vṛddhi). The archaic character of the name is indicated by the apparently “realistic” sense of saēna as an actual bird, which can not mount to a heroic height such as might be appropriate to the sēnmurw (q.v.) and other mythical birds of Zoroastrian tradition. (Saēna/OInd. śyena will be discussed under sēnmurw. For literature, see M. Mayrhofer, Kurzgefasstes etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindischen III/22, Wiesbaden, 1970, p. 385. See also Mēnōg ī xrad 62.37-39; Bundahišn 24.24ff./p. 154 on the mythical birds).
The Bundahišn repeats the information of Yt. 19.3 (9.3/p. 76.14) and adds further particulars. The Abarsēn are the mountains of greatest value next to the Harzburg; from them originate the Harī Rōd, Hilmand, Marw Rōd (the modern Morḡāb), and Baxl Rōd (the modern Balḵāb; 11.A.11-12, 16-17/pp. 87.11-88.3). The mountains are even glossed as “Kōh ī Bāmyān;” thus the Kūh-e Bābā is explicitly included in the chain, but clearly forms only a part of the whole Abarsēn (cf. note in Avesta [Darmesteter] I, p. 102). The Bundahišn ms. TD2 is to be emended where it states that the base of the chain is in Sagistān and the head in Xūzistān (17.A.1/p. 122.10-12, thus identifying the Abarsēn with the southern Zagros). Zātspram 3.22, more correctly, places its head “at the border of Čīnistān.” The same passage gives a popular etymology of Abarsēn as abar-sahm, “frightful.” Whether or not the concept of Abarsēn is here intended to include the Pamirs generally, this epithet is suitable; the rigors of the Hindu Kush (“Snowy Mountains”) for the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims may be recalled (see below).
The early Old Iranian toponymy of Afghanistan apparently contrasted the region of *Uparisaina with that of *Para-uparisaina (“in front,” i. e. to the south of *Uparisaina). The two regions may have been delimited by the Ḡorband and Panǰšīr valleys, so that *Para-uparisaina would especially designate the area of Parwān, Kabul, and Laḡmān. The latter region was regarded as an extension of India, not only in classical geography (Strabo 15.1.11) but by the Achaemenids. The Akkadian and Elamite versions of Darius I’s Bīstūn (Behistun) inscription cite the name of the northwest Indian province not as Gandhāra but as Akkadian Pa-ar-ú-pa-ra-e-sa-an-na (sec. 6; F. H. Weissbach, Die Keilschriften der Achämeniden, Leipzig, 1911, pp. 12-13). This name *Para-uparisaina was transmitted in Greek as, ultimately, Paropámisos. (For the process of distortion of the word in Greek, see J. Markwart, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte von Eran II, Leipzig, 1905, pp. 75-76; summary in I. Gerchevitch, The Avestan Hymn to Mithra, Cambridge, 1959, p. 174). Apparently already in Achaemenid times the name Paropamisus tended to include the Hindu Kush mountains as well. The historians of Alexander’s campaign follow this usage, terming the mountains themselves Paropamisus. The combined area of *Uparisaina and *Para-uparisaina, as distinct from the mountain range alone, could be referred to as the country of the Paropamisadae (as in Ptolemy 6.18; cf. Strabo 15.2.9). When Alexander marched north from the Kabul valley to Bactria, he probably traversed the Paropamisus (which the Macedonians nicknamed the “Caucasus;” see Arrian Indica 2.3, 5.10) by the Ḵāwāk pass. In crossing the pass a mountain was pointed out to him as containing the cave of Prometheus and the eyrie of the eagle which tormented him (Arrian Anabasis 5.3.1-4, Quintus Curtius 7.3.22, Diodorus Siculus 17.83.1). The eagle theme occurs again in Alexander’s journey south through Swat; reaching the Indus, he came to a rock called áornos (“Avernus,” i.e., “birdless;” see Arrian Anabasis 4.28; and M. A. Stein, On Alexander’s Track to the Indus, London, 1929, pp. 120-48).
The name Abarsēn for the Hindu Kush (or a part of it) apparently persisted through the Sasanian period. In A.D. 644 the Chinese pilgrim Hüan Tsang returned north, proceeding up the Panǰšīr valley from the Kapiśa country. He made a difficult crossing to the Andarāb valley, necessarily by the Ḵāwāk pass. He gives the name of the pass as P’o-lo-si-na, *Parasena/*Varasena, a sanskritized form of Abarsēn (Markwart, Untersuchungen, pp. 74-75, and his Ērānšahr, p. 286). The bird motif reappears; he remarks that birds could not fly over the top of the pass but had to walk (S. Beal, Buddhist Records of the WesternWorld, London, 1884, pp. 285-86).
See also HINDU KUSH, PAMIR, PAROPAMISUS.
See also W. Geiger in Geiger and Kuhn, Grundriss II, p. 393.
(C. J. Brunner)
Originally Published: December 15, 1982
Last Updated: July 13, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 1, pp. 68-69
C. J. Brunner, “Abarsen,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/1, pp. 68-69; available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abarsen (accessed on 10 January 2014).