BESṬĀM (or Bestām), an Iranian man’s name, now obsolete, which as a result of its popularity in past centuries has become a fairly commonplace name or component of place names.

Presumably the name is derived from Old Iranian *vistaxma, though no such word is found in the Avesta and the Old Persian inscriptions, or apparently in the Sasanian inscriptions. There is general agreement with Justi’s interpretation of it (Namenbuch, p. 372b) as roughly “wielder of far-reaching power” (New Pers. setam). In Armenian it appears both as Vstam (Hübsch­mann, Armenische Grammatik, p. 85 no. 189) and Vēstam (probably < *Vaistaxma); in Greek as Bestám and Bestán (perhaps also earlier, in Aeschylus, as Hystáichmas); in New Persian either as Gostah(a)m with the usual change of the initial consonant (Šāh-nāma) or as Bestām, most often written Besṭām.

The name was borne by a considerable number of historical personalities (partial list in Justi’s Namenbuch, pp. 371f.), including even some Arabs. In the Šāh-nāma, Gostah(a)m is the name of the sons of the Pishdadid kings Nowḏar and Gaždaham, of King Bahrām Gōr’s dastūr (minister), and of King Ḵosrow II Parvēz’s uncle; the latter is called Besṭām in Arabic sources and in some verses of the Šāh-nāma (see bestṟām o bendōy). Also mentioned in the Šāh-nāma is the city of Basṭām.

The former popularity of the personal name is reflected in its continued toponymic use today. Places called Besṭām or Basṭām are found mainly in western and northwestern Iran (see Razmārā, Farhang I, III-VI, VIII, s.v.). The name occurs in compound toponyms such as Māh-Besṭām, which apparently used to mean the entire region around Qūmes (Schwarz, Iran, pp. 445 n. 5, 821 n. 12); Basṭāmābād, a village in the district, now province, of Īlām (Razmārā, Farhang V, p. 53); Basṭām Beyg, a village near the Kurdish town of Mahābād, the former Sāʾūj Bolāq (Razmārā, Farhang IV, p. 91). Particularly famous in the Middle Ages was the city of Besṭām (also vocalized Bosṭām) in the Qūmes region, now the province of Semnān and Dāmḡān (Schwarz, pp. 820ff.); poets and writers spoke of it as the “spreading (city of) Besṭām”—a play on words as­sociating the name with the Arabic root basaṭa “to spread.”

In some cases there has been an obvious confusion of Besṭām with bostān “garden,” another word that occurs quite frequently in toponyms (see Schwarz, p. 820 n. 8), and this has sometimes caused vowel change from e or a to o (Bosṭām). Ṭāq-e Bostān, the name of the famous grotto with rock reliefs near Kermānšāh, is undoubtedly such a case. The early geographer Ebn al-Faqīh (p. 216.2, quoted by Schwarz, pp. 487f.) gives the name as Vastān, and this old form has been more or less preserved by the local Kurds who call the place Ṭāq-e Vasān (with the normal change of st to s or ss). The endings ān and ām are interchangeable (New Pers. normally ām to ān), but the initial v has been retained by the Kurds, whereas the arabicized bostān (from būstān “fragrant garden” < Mid. Pers. bō’astān, Arm. burastan) always had the initial b, (see W. Eilers, Geographische Namengebung in und um Iran, Munich, 1982, p. 16).

The identity of the Sasanian prince or nobleman who gave his name to Ṭāq-e Bostān, in view of the number of recorded bearers of the name, probably will never be known for sure. The corruption of the original place name to bostān by folk etymology is readily intelligible, as a large and copiously watered garden adjoins the grotto. Ṭāq-e Bostān is a fountainhead (sarāb, ābsar).

Bibliography: Given in the text.

(Wilhelm Eilers)

Originally Published: December 15, 1989

Last Updated: December 15, 1989

This article is available in print.
Vol. IV, Fasc. 2, p. 175

Cite this entry:

Wilhelm Eilers, “BESṬĀM (1),” Encyclopædia Iranica, IV/2, p. 175, available online at (accessed on 30 December 2012).