ECBATANA (Ekbātān, present-day Hamadān), capital of the Median empire, summer capital of the Achaemenids, and satrapal seat of the province of Media from Achaemenid to Sasanian times.
Location and environment. Ecbatana (48°31’ E, 34°48’ N; alt. 1,800 m) is in the Zagros mountains of central-west Persia at the base of the eastern slope of the Alvand range (the classical Mount Orontes; Diodorus Siculus, 2.13.7; Polybius, 10.27; “Iasonius mons” of Ammianus Marcellinus, 23.6.39). The city controls the major east-west route through the central Zagros, the so-called High Road. Average annual precipitation is about 385 mm and temperatures range from -25° C in winter to +35° C in summer. On the wide, well-watered, fertile plain to the east, fruits and vegetables were traditionally cultivated near the city, while cereal production predominated in the next zone and pastoralism in the extensive periphery. In antiquity, the area was famed for its horses and wheat (Polybius, 5.44.1). Nearby reserves of graphite, gold, platinum, antimony, iron, and various mineral salts were evidently not exploited in antiquity. Classical authors report oil seeps and flares near the city (Pliny, Naturalis Historia 31.17; Plutarch, Alexander 35.1). There are extensive limestone quarries from pre-Islamic times 6.5 km south-east of the city (Flandin, pp. 388-89).
The major topographical features of Hamadān are the three hills Moṣallā (place of prayer), Tell Hagmatana (Tappa-ye Hagmatāna), and Sang-e Šīr, and the Alūsjerd river, a tributary of the endoreic Qarasū, which bisects the city from south to north (see below; for photographs, see Lockhart, opposite p. 95; Schmidt, pls. 91-92; Moorey, p. 10, pl. 6; for a plan, see Geographical Division).
Name and etymology. In the inscription of Darius I at Bīsotūn the name of the city appears as Old Persian Hamgmatāna (DB 2.76 ff.; Kent, Old Persian, p. 122), Elamite Ag-ma-da-na; Akkadian A-ga-ma-ta-nu. It is usually interpreted as being derived from *han-gmata- “[place of] gathering” (Kent, Old Persian, pp. 183, 212) and the inference drawn that, prior to the formation of the Median state, some kind of popular assembly met there (Herodotus, 1.97, does mention a Median assembly that appointed Deioces king, but does not specify its location). The ingenious Elamite *hal.mata.na “land of the Medes” (Frye, 1979, p.105) is not probable since the Median capital city would not be called “land” or have an Elamite name. Curzon (Persian Question I, p. 567), noting that there were seven cities called Ecbatana, four of them in Persia, suggested that the name simply designated a capital or royal city.
In classical and other sources the name variously occurs: Gk: Ekbátana, Agbátana (the reading Apobátana in Isidore of Charax, 6, should be Agbátana), Lt. Ecbatana, Ecbatanas, Ecbatanis Partiorum (Tabula Peutingeriana), bibl. Aram. Aḥmeta, Arm. Aḥmatan, Hamatan, Ekbatan, Mid. Pers. Hamadān, etc. (Weissbach, col. 2155; Ezra 6.2).
On both historical and archeological grounds, the identification of Ecbatana with Hamadān is secure (Bücher; Frye, 1979; Hüsing; Weissbach). However, the scarcity of visible pre-Islamic remains led some early European visitors to suggest alternative locations such as Susa (Chardin, III, p. 15), Kangāvar (Ferrier, p. 32), and Taḵt-e Solaymān (Rawlinson).
Archeology. European visitors to Hamadān in the 19th century describe Persepolis-style column bases, fragments of ancient structures used in later buildings, and jumbles of stone blocks in the Alūsjerd river (Porter, II, p. 115; Morier, pp. 267-68; Flandin, p. 387). In the late 19th century, Jacques de Morgan (IV, pp. 235 ff.) collected numerous antiquities in Hamadān. The earliest archeological excavations were those conducted by Charles Fossey in 1913 (Chevalier). In 1956, road construction revealed Median and Achaemenid mudbrick walls in Tell Hagmatana (Dyson, pp. 31-33). An archeological survey of the Hamadān area was conducted in 1971 (Swiny, pp. 77 ff.), and a Parthian cemetery of the 1st century B.C.E. to the 1st century C.E. has been partially excavated in the southeast quadrant of the city near Sang-e Šīr (Azarnoush).
The summit of the Moṣallā, a steep 80 m high natural rock outcrop in the southeastern quarter, shows stone and brick remains of a rectangular citadel flanked by towers. In addition, several sections of stone columns have been found at the base of the outcrop. Though some have believed that the Moṣallā was the site of the Median citadel (e.g., Flandin, p. 390), the structure is to be dated apparently no earlier than the Parthian period. Fossey’s six-week excavation of the Moṣallā ruins yielded a large quantity of glazed bricks and faience tiles as well as a fragment of a column base decorated with arabesques and inscriptions (Chevalier, p. 248).
Chance finds and archeological investigations point to the 30m high mound, Tell Hagmatana, in the northeastern Sar-qalʿa quarter (fortress quarter), as the site of the Median citadel and Achaemenid royal construction. Fossey spent three months excavating on the eastern slopes of the mound, prompted in part by the earlier find there of the sculptured head of a prince (Chevalier, p. 248). The excavations were limited by existing structures, an Islamic cemetery, and brickworks which had robbed out much of the area. Surface finds included the base of a rectangular schist pillar. The excavations yielded a Greco-Parthian limestone capital and, in one trench, a series of column bases and foundation stones, all in great disorder. In another trench, Fossey located a stone capital, a piece of fluted column, and the base of an altar or statue.
In 1920 and 1923, two large treasure troves were said to have been found in Hamadān. If so, they were probably from Tell Hagmatana. Both must date from the reign of Artaxerxes II (404-359) or later. The 1920 trove included two gold tablets with Old Persian inscriptions by Aršāma and Artaxerxes II (Kent, Old Persian, pp. 107, 114, 116, 155) along with sumptuary and furniture ornaments. The 1923 trove included two small foundation tablets, one silver and the other gold, belonging to Darius I (521-485 B.C.E.) with trilingual inscriptions recording the construction of palaces in Ecbatana (Kent, Old Persian, pp. 111-12, 147). The same inscription appears on larger tablets subsequently found at Persepolis. Other finds included a small gold tablet with an inscription of Ariyāramna, an inscription of Xerxes I (486-65 B.C.E.), and an inscribed column base of Artaxerxes II (Kent, Old Persian, pp. 107, 113-14, 116, 153, 155; Geographical Division, pp. 9-10). All of these finds are preserved in the Iran Bastan Museum. In the two small gold tablet inscriptions, both Arsames and Ariyāramna, respectively the grandfather and great-grandfather of Darius I, take the royal title of “Great King, King of Kings, King in Parsa.” The paleography of the texts is 4th century B.C.E., and both are forgeries, probably from the reign of Artaxerxes II.
In the mid-1950s, a major avenue, the Ḵīābān-e Ekbātān, was cut through the Sar-qalʿa quarter in a straight line north-northeast from the central Meydān-e Pahlavī across the west slope of Tell Hagmatana. Roadbed excavation cut down through some 7 m of the ancient mound revealed a section of massive zig-zagging outer defensive mudbrick wall. The wall is preserved to a height of 2.5 m, and its width was traced inwards for 13.7 m. Brick size and proportions are similar to those used in the Median levels at Tepe Nush-i Jan (Nūš-e Jān) and Godin Tepe (Gowdīn Tappa). The defensive wall sits on a platform excavated out of the natural rock slope. Its exterior shows evidence of at least one rebuilding phase followed by a burned level and an hiatus marked by erosion. A second phase of wall construction survives in places to a height of 3 m. A third phase is marked by a leveling of the entire area and the construction of cobbled streets and small houses (Dyson, pp. 31-33; Stronach, personal communication). It is reported that a stretch of the wall of Darius’ palace has long been exposed on the northern side of the Tell in the present Qalʿa-ye Šāh Dārāb quarter (Geographical Division, p. 7). Further finds made in 1963 remain unpublished. Two Achaemenid column bases were accidentally discovered at Tell Hagmatana in the early 1970s (Kleiss, 1972, p. 197, fig. 72; 1975, pp. 76-77, fig. 3). In the mid-1970s, the Persian government purchased part of the Tell for future excavation (Mehryār, pp. 41-50).
Sang-ē Šīr. Flandin (p. 389) observed that the area around the colossal stone lion on top of the hill of Sang-e Šīr was covered with small fragments of limestone, basalt, marble, and granite, suggesting the possibility of further remains at the spot. However, excavations in front of the statue by Fossey (Chevalier, p. 247) were fruitless. The statue is badly damaged, at least in part because it has been moved from another location. In the Parthian period, it is supposed to have been located near the western gateway to the city, later known as Bāb-al-Asad (The Gate of the Lion), which was destroyed by the Mardāvīj b. Zīār in 319/931 (Masʿūdī, Morūj, ed. Pellat, V, pp. 267-68; Ebn al-Faqīh, pp. 240-43). The lion is variously attributed to the Achaemenids or the Parthians (Nadjamabadi and Gropp, pp. 123 ff.). Luschey (pp. 121-22) suggests that it was erected by Alexander the Great as a memorial to Hephaestion (cf. Masʿūdī, loc. cit.).
Two additional excavations by Fossey, one close to the so-called tomb of Esther and Mordechai and the other at an unspecified location in the city, yielded nothing of note. Despite long tradition associating the tomb with Esther, the Jewish bride of Ahasuerus, and her uncle Mordechai, and the alternative suggestion of Herzfeld (p. 106) that the tomb was probably the sepulchre of Šūšandoḵt, the Jewish consort of Yazdegerd I (399-420), the precise date and original function of the oldest part of the structure remain to be determined.
History. Given its strategic location and resources, the site of Ecbatana was probably occupied before the 1st millennium B.C.E., although there is no historical or archeological evidence of this. According to Herodotus (1.98), Ecbatana was chosen as the Median capital in the late 8th century B.C.E. by Deioces, founder of the Median dynasty which ruled Media for one and a half centuries. Herodotus describes the royal complex as a palace, treasury, and military quarters built on a hill and encircled by seven rings of walls so that each out-topped the one beyond it by the height of the battlements. Such a citadel on a prominence surrounded by concentric rings of walls corresponds to representations of Median strongholds in Neo-Assyrian reliefs (Gunter, pp. 103 ff., and pls. II-III, IVa). Despite two centuries of involvement in Median areas of the central Zagros, the Neo-Assyrians make no obvious reference to Ecbatana, and it is possible that they never penetrated east of the Alvand (Brown, p. 116).
Alternative foundation traditions attribute the origins of the city to the mythical Semiramis (Ctesias apud Diodorus Siculus, 2.13) or Jamšīd (Yāqūt, Boldān IV, p. 983, who added that the citadel was fortified by Darius and completed by Bahman, ancestor of the Sasanians).
The Achaemenid period. The entry for the 6th year (550/549 B.C.E.) of the Nabonidus Chronicle records that Cyrus II defeated Astyages, captured Ecbatana, and removed its treasury to Anshan (Grayson, p. 106, 2.1-4). Cyrus and his successors used Ecbatana as a summer capital and as a treasury (Weissbach, cols. 2156-57; Herodotus 3.64). It is frequently assumed that the city was also a royal archive because Cyrus’ order for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple was found there (Ezra 6.2; Josephus, Antiquitates 11.99; but cf. Frye, 1962, p. 99), but in fact neither source actually mentions an archive. Little can be made of Pliny’s claim that Ecbatana belonged to the Magi (Naturalis Historia 6.116).
In 521 B.C.E., Darius I remained there until the Median pretender Fravartiš (Phraortes) was captured and returned to the city for mutilation and execution (DB 2.76 ff.). Achaemenid expansion of the royal complex is attested by the foundation tablets of Darius I and the inscribed column base of Artaxerxes II; the latter recapitulates the description of his palace at Susa, but it is thought to refer to some building activity in Ecbatana (Stronach, 1985, p. 437). Berossus (Burstein, p. 29) states that Artaxerxes, presumably Artaxerxes II, also erected a statue of Anāhitā (see ANĀHĪD) in Ecbatana as he did in several other of the major cities of the empire.
In the ancient world Ecbatana had a reputation for vast wealth and splendid royal architecture that encouraged exaggeration (Judith, 1:1-4; Diodorus, 17.6; Pseudo-Aristotle, De mundo 6), though according to Aelian (De natura animalium 13.18) Indian palaces were more splendid. The most detailed and probably the most reliable ancient description of the city comes from Polybius (10.27.1-13), who described the palace area as having a circumference of nearly seven stades (1.4 km), a measurement corresponding to that of Tell Hagmatana. The imported cedar and cypress woodwork was covered with plates of silver and gold, and the roofs were laid with silver tiles. Josephus’ claim (Antiquitates 10.264) that the prophet Daniel built a magnificent palace in Ecbatana and that it contained the tombs of Median, Achaemenid, and Parthian kings, all guarded by Jewish priests, is total fantasy.
Alexander the Great visited the city twice. In the spring of 330 B.C.E., following the conquest of Persepolis and Pasargadae, he marched in pursuit of Darius to Ecbatana, where he captured the Persian treasury (Diodorus Siculus, 17.64; Strabo, 15.3.9; Justin, 7.1.3). Parmenio, Alexander’s second-in-command, was left there to oversee communications but was assassinated shortly afterwards on Alexander’s orders (Arrian, Anabasis 3.19; Strabo, 15.2.10). Before continuing east, Alexander stored the captured Persian treasure in Ecbatana and looted much of the gold and silver decoration of the palace (Polybius, 10.27.11). During Alexander’s second visit in the autumn of 324 B.C.E., his closest friend, Hephaestion, died there (Arrian, Anabasis 7.14.1, 5; Diodorus Siculus, 17.110.6). Arrian records, though with skepticism, that Alexander in his sorrow had the Temple of Asclepius torn down. Aelian (Varia Historia 7.8) claims that the city and its walls were pulled down. The reference may be to the citadel walls since Polybius (10.27.6) explicitly asserts that the city itself had no walls.
In 328 B.C.E., Alexander replaced Oxydates with Atropates as satrap of Media. At Alexander’s death in 323, Perdiccas assigned the satrapy of southern Media, including Ecbatana, to the Macedonian Peithon, who was later executed by Antigonus and replaced by Orontobates, an Iranian. Cook (p. 259, n. 2) suggests that the satrap’s seat, rather than being in Ecbatana itself, may have been the palace in which Antigonus wintered in 316 (Diodorus, 19.44.4) and infers from Isidore of Charax that the palace was in the Asadābād valley immediately west of Mount Alvand. This, however, may have simply been a winter residence preserving communications to the west when the Alvand passes were snowbound.
The city later fell to Seleucus I Nicator (305-281 B.C.E.), who followed the example of Antigonus in plundering the city’s gold and silver. However, according to Pliny (Naturalis Historia 6.17), he also did much to restore its former importance, and in the time of Antiochus III (222-187 B.C.E.), the temple of Anāhitā still had gilded pillars, some silver tiles piled up inside, a few gold bricks and many silver bricks (Polybius, 10.27.11). Out of this material, Antiochus minted royal coinage to the value of nearly 4,000 talents to fill his depleted treasury. In the course of his program to hellenize the kingdom, Antiochus IV Epiphanius (175-64 B.C.E.) renamed the city Epiphania after himself (Stephanus Byzantinus, De urbibus, s.v. Agbatana; Morkholm, pp. 117, 171-72. n. 22). This may be the Seleucid refounding of the city to which Pliny (Naturalis Historia 6.43) refers. Timarchus, the Milesian satrap of Media named as “King of Media” in the prologue to Pompeius Trogus (lib. 34), rebelled against Demetrius I (161-50 B.C.E.) and minted coins in Ecbatana (Le Rider, pp. 332), as did Demetrius I (161-50 B.C.E.) and his successor, Alexander Balas (150-48).
The Parthian Period. The Greek inscription on the statue of Herakles at Bīsotūn dated 149/48 B.C.E. still refers to Cleomenes as satrap of the “upper provinces” (Media); it would appear that Media and Ecbatana did not fall to the Parthian king Mithridates I until 147. The attempt by Antiochus VII in 130 to restore Seleucid power in Persia probably stopped short of Ecbatana, as did the invasion by Tigranes II of Armenia in the later years of Mithridates II (123-87; Frye, 1984, pp. 212, 215). The Parthians continued to use Ecbatana as a royal summer residence (Strabo, 11.13.1, 16.1.16; Curtius Rufus, 5.8.1; Tacitus, Annales 15.31) and as a royal mint. Parthian buildings in the city included the citadel on the Moṣallā.
The Sasanian Period. Ecbatana remained subject to the Parthians until 226 C.E. when, along with Atropatene (Azerbaijan) to the north, it was captured by Ardašīr I (224-41). There is conflicting evidence as to whether it continued to be used as a summer palace. According to Ebn al-Faqīh (p. 229, tr. p. 277), Sasanian constructions were strung out between their capital at Ctesiphon and Mount Alvand but not beyond this, not even in Hamadān. The city fell to the Muslims shortly after the battle of Nehāvand in 23/642 and became a provincial capital.
Objects. A provenance in or near Hamadān is claimed for a number of pre-Islamic objects. These include cylinder seals, various bronze objects such as figurines, heads, and the Abdadana inscribed plaque, as well as various items in gold including a figurine, appliqué, a rhyton, a dagger, and the Cincinnati bowl. Most are attributed to either the Median or Achaemenid periods; few, if any, of these claims can be validated (Calmeyer, pp. 65-66; Muscarella, 1980, pp. 31-35; idem, 1987, pp. 109ff.). Apart from coins, few objects ascribed to the Hellenistic, Parthian, or Sasanian periods have been reported. It should be noted that both Brügsch (I, p. 364) and Flandin (p. 383) refer to a thriving trade in the production of fake antiquities for the European market, especially Hellenistic and Sasanian coins bearing the effigies of Alexander or Ardašīr. In the late 19th century, the excavation for antiquities in large areas in and around the city was “a systematic industry, farmed out by the government for revenue” (Wilson, p. 156).
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(Stuart C. Brown)
Originally Published: December 15, 1997
Last Updated: December 8, 2011
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