i. The Name
The more ancient name of the range is not known; perhaps, however, the Assyrian name Bikni designated Mt. Damāvand, the volcanic cone (5,600 m) northeast of Tehran. In the Sasanian period part of the region may have been known by the Middle Persian Padišxwār-gar (F. Spiegel, Erânische Alterthumskunde I, Leipzig, 1871, p. 61.1.). Ferdowsī in the Šāh-nāma refers to the Alborz mountains as though they lay in India.
The earliest form of the name (Av. Harā bərəzaitī, Mid. Pers. Harborz) denotes in the Avesta and in Zoroastrian writings not the existing range, but a mythological mountain chain fulfilling a cosmological function at either end of the world. Through it the sun enters and departs each day; around its highest peak (taēra-, tērag) circle the stars (Yt. 12.25). In Yt. 10.50 and Yt. 12.23 the towering, luminous Harā mountains and their many outcrops are the abode of Mithra, “where neither night nor darkness, neither a cold nor a hot wind, neither harmful pestilence nor the daēva-created pox (rules);” while the Haraitī range is described as the place “where no mists rise.” The Harā appears in Yt. 15.7 in the image of a fortress “held together by iron clamps.” At what point the name of this mythic primeval range came to be applied to the mountains we nowadays know as Alborz is an open question. To begin with, any huge chain of mountains was probably given the name “Alborz.” In the work of Ḥamdallāh Mostawfī (8th/14th century) the name is already established. The highest (volcanic) peak of the Caucasus is also called (with a sound metathesis) Elbrus (5,600 m., the same height as Damāvand). An obviously secondary derivation is found in the mountain name Alborz, near the village Pāznūya (from pā-zīnūya “at the foot of the pass”) in Jahrom, Fārs (see Razmārā, Farhang VII, p. 45).
The name of the range probably means “high watch/guard,” a common designation all over the world for mountains and high places. Av. harā- (fem. “watch, guard, defence,” not attested as an appellative) is from the OIr. har- “to pay attention to, watch over, protect” (AirWb, col. 1787), I.E. 2ser- (Lat. ser-v-are; see J. Pokorny, Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, Berne and Munich, 1959, p. 910). The epithet bərəzaitī is *bṛzatī, feminine from OIr. *bṛzant- “high;” the equivalent in southwest Iranian is *bṛdant-, which in New Persian produces boland after regular sound changes. Cf. NPers. bālā (“high”) from bālā’ (“height”) from *bard-; NPers. barz/borz, “mound” (frequent in toponymy); further OInd. bṛhant- (“high, majestic”), German Berg, Burg, Burgund (IE. bheregh-, Pokorny, pp. 140f.).
The feminine gender is surprising, for it does not occur in other mountain names among the Indians and Iranians; these are normally masculine. Linguistically too, then, the name Alborz is unusual. The Pahlavi orthography hlbwlṣ (with ṣ for the phoneme č/`) demonstrates a secondary back-formation (z to `) such as often happens phonetically in the northwest (e.g., Kurdish dialects; cf. NPers. dež “castle,” side by side with dez, from *dizā-). Haraitī denotes the same mountain range and is either an abbreviation of Hara bərəzaitī or represents straightforwardly “the one who keeps watch” (fem. of harant-, active present participle). The name of the Hamadān massif Alvand (Elvend, etc.) may well contain the same element harā/ă-, i.e., *haravant-, “furnished with watchers” in the sense of “protecting.” But Alvand as a name given to several rivers (see Orontes) is derived from arvant- (Av. aurvant- with epenthesis), “quickly (flowing);” note ašta-aurvantō (“the eight runners”) in Yt. 19.3 (horses or river sources?).
See also AirWb, cols. 200-01, 959-60, 1788.
W. Eilers, “Der Name Demawend,” Archiv Orientální 22, 1954, pp. 313.23, 324.72, 326.79, 374.72.
Unacceptable is the comparison with Av. harəta-, “well nourished, thick” made in W. Brandenstein, “Bemerkungen zur Völkertafel in der Genesis,” Sprachgeschichte und Wortbedeutung; Festschrift Albert Debrunner, Berne, 1954, p. 64.
Originally Published: December 15, 1985
Last Updated: July 29, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 8, pp. 810-811
W. Eilers, “ALBORZ i. The Name,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/8, pp. 810-811; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/alborz-name (accessed on 17 May 2014).