i. In pre-Islamic Persia
There is no information about correspondence in Median times, except for a fictitiously paraphrased letter from Cyrus to Cyaxares that began “Cyrus to Cyaxares, greeting!” (Xenophon, Cyropœdia 4.5.27). All surviving evidence for pre-Islamic Iran is from the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian periods up to the early Islamic centuries, when the older tradition continued (see ii below).
The earliest surviving evidence of official correspondence in pre-Islamic Persia is a collection of thirteen almost complete letters and some damaged fragments, all written on leather (see čarm) in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Achaemenid period (Driver). They include official and semiofficial letters written by skilled scribes at the order of Aršāma, the Persian satrap of Egypt, or of high-ranking Persian officers to subordinate Persian administrative officers in Egypt (Driver, p. 4). The stereotyped mode of address is “from Aršāma to X” (mn ʾršm ʿl X) followed by the greeting formula: “I send thee much (greetings of) peace and prosperity” (šlm wšrrt šgyʾ hwšrt lk). In some letters the titles of sender and recipient follow their respective names. The content of each letter is introduced by the phrase “and now” (wkʿt). The address was repeated on the outside of the sealed letter. A similar mode of address can be observed in the letters sent by or addressed to the Achaemenid kings reproduced in the Old Testament (cf. Ezra 4:11, 4:17, 5.6-7). The king’s letters were sealed with his ring (cf. Esther 8:10). Dīnavarī (ed. Guirgass, pp. 31, 34) quoted the form of address for Darius III (r. 336-31 b.c.e.) as “from Dārā son of Dārā, who shines on the people of his kingdom like the sun, to X.” This Aramaic epistolary style was later adopted for various Middle Iranian languages (see below).
The Achaemenids are known to have had a highly developed postal service, and their couriers were famous for their swiftness (Herodotus, 8.98; Esther 8:10, 8:14). According to Herodotus, riders were stationed at intervals of a day’s journey along the roads. No natural hindrance prevented these couriers from fulfilling their duties. The first rider passed the dispatch to the second, the second to the third, and so on. The same author gave the Persian word for this form of post as angaros (see Schmitt, pp. 97-100). The Achaemenids’ rapid postal system was also known to Islamic authors, who attributed its establishment to Dārā son of Bahman (i.e., Darius the Great; Ḥamza, p. 38; Ṯaʿālebī, Ḡorar, p. 398; Ṭabarī, I, p. 692; Gardīzī, ed. Ḥabībī, p. 16). Letters were usually written on leather, except in Egypt, where papyrus was more often used (for texts, see Cowley).
Although the evidence surviving from this period is scant, later documents written in the Parthian language appear to represent an earlier tradition. Ṭabarī (I, p. 704) related that, after Ašk (Arsaces), founder of the Arsacid dynasty (see arsacid i), came to power, his name was always placed before that of other rulers with whom he corresponded, whether he was writing to them or they to him. When the logographic Parthian system was introduced, probably in the first half of the 2nd century b.c.e., it was used in correspondence. Among the Parthian ostraca from Nisa there are some writing exercises that include the introductory formulas of letters (Harmatta). The text of one ostracon, probably to be read in Aramaic, begins “To my brother Mithradates [I, r. ca. 171-39 b.c.e.]. Peace (should) be with you” (ʿl ʾḥy mtrdt šlm ʿlyk). The name of the sender (almost certainly Phraates I, r. ca. 176-71 b.c.e.) is not mentioned, perhaps because he was higher in rank or older than Mithradates (Harmatta, p. 223). On other Nisa ostraca the introductory formula “from Mithradates to his brother Phraates” (MN mtrdt ʿL ʾḤY prḥt) appears to have been written in Parthian (Harmatta, pp. 220ff.).
The same system continued in Parthian letters written in the early Sasanian period. One fragmentary letter in Parthian on parchment dating to the end of the 2nd or the early 3rd century c.e., with administrative or commercial contents, was discovered at Dura Europus (Henning, 1959, p. 414). The mode of address is simple and resembles that of the Aršāma letters (see above), opening with the name of the sender, followed by that of the addressee: “from X to Y” (MN snysrk(n) ʿL (ḥ)wsrw). Next is the greeting, containing words like “health” (ŠLM) and “prosperity” (ŠRRT). In the Pahlavi treatise Ayādgār ī Zarērān (Pahlavi Texts, ed. Jamasp-Asana, p. 2 par. 17), which is of Parthian origin, there is a quotation of a letter (frawardag) from Wištāsp to Arǰāsp: “From king Wištāsp, the sovereign of Ērān, to Arǰāsp, the king of the Xyons, greetings” (az wištāsp šāh ērān dahibed ō areāsp i xyōnān šāh drōd).
Further information can be gleaned from the Parthian romance Vīs o Rāmīn, which survives only in an 11th-century Persian verse translation. It contains a number of letters, said to have been written on parchment or silk (ḥarīr) with musky ink, rolled, and fastened with strings (band; ed. Mīnovī, pp. 329, 346, 482, 486). The address formula is simple and sentimental.
Among the Manichean texts from Chinese Turkestan there are two Parthian letters (Boyce, Reader, pp. 48, 50); one is probably from Sisinnius to Mār Ammō, thus from the end of the 3rd century c.e.; the second is a fictitious letter, probably originating among the schismatic Dēnāvarīya (6-7th century c.e.), alleged to have been written by Mani to Mār Ammō (see Sundermann, 1986, p. 59 and n. 61). The beginnings of both letters, with the address formula, are missing, but in the latter two previously unattested epistolary terms are present, ēdar-nām “sender” (lit. “the name of [the one] here”) and abardar-nām “addressee” (lit. “the name of [the one] above”; Boyce, Reader, p. 51 par. 6).
Aside from the late documents in Parthian (see above), there is abundant evidence for correspondence from the Sasanian period and the first three or four centuries of the Islamic era, when the Middle Iranian languages were still in use. A number of letters survive in Middle Persian (Pahlavi), Sogdian, and Khotanese.
Middle Persian (Pahlavi). The oldest surviving specimen of a letter written in Middle Persian can he dated to shortly after 253 c.e.; it is among the documents excavated at Dura Europus (Henning, 1959, pp. 415-17), a fragmentary parchment with economic content, written on both sides. The name of the sender is mentioned first; the recipient’s name is damaged, though parts of the greeting formula, including the words “health” (ŠRM) and “reverence” (ʿSGDE), are preserved. The text of the letter begins “and now” (WKʿN; cf. the Aršāma letters, above). There are also a number of Middle Persian letters on papyrus and parchment surviving from the late Sasanian period. The most important collection, dealing with the short-lived Persian occupation of Egypt in 619, is preserved in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin (Hansen, pp. 9-22). Others are scattered among museums and private collections in various countries (Weber, pp. 25-43). The mode of address is usually simple, consisting only of the name and title of the addressee (e.g., ʿL hwtʾkˈ yẕdʾnkrtˈ ṇč “reverence to the lord Yazdānkard”), followed by a benedictory formula containing the words “greetings” (ŠRM), “health” (drwstyh), “happiness” (lʾmšn), and “every joy” (KLʾ plhwyh; Hansen, p. 23). In a few the names of the recipients are preceded by stereotyped epithets or phrases (e.g., ʿL yẕdʾn hmʾy plhwtl krtˈ yẕdʾnkrtˈ ṇč “reverence to him whom the gods have made to be always the most fortunate one, Yazdānkard,” ʿL yẕdʾn ʾbydʾt yẕdʾnkrtˈ ṇč “reverence to the one who is remembered by the gods, Yazdānkard” (Hansen, pp. 29, 33; Weber, pp. 36, 37).
A brief manual on letter writing, Abar ēwēnag ī nāmag-nibēsišnīh (“How to write a letter”; Pahlavi Texts, ed. Jamasp-Asana, pp. 132-40; Zaehner), was probably compiled toward the end of the Sasanian period. It was intended to provide scribes with models of polite formulas for various occasions, including condolences (nāmag pad bēš-pursišnīh ud hunsandīh dādan; Pahlavi Texts, pp. 135-36 pars. 18-24) and letters to dignitaries, men of lower rank, and relatives and friends (p. 132 par. 1). If the letter was to be written in a hurry, the simplest mode of address could be used: “from X to Y much greetings” (az wāhmān *ō wāhmān drōd ī was; p. 136 par. 26), but most of the recommended models are composed of long, turgid phrases and sentences. They may be divided into several types, according to structure, each type consisting of several parts.
Type I consisted of the name and title(s), if any, of the addressee and a benedictory formula, often introduced with the relative pronoun kē (“who,” referring to the gods) and usually concluding with a subjunctive verb expressing wishes for the recipient, addressed politely in the second person plural pronoun -tān or ašmā (e.g., Pahlavi Texts, pp. 132-35, 139 pars. 2, 4, 13-14, 17, 36 and 3, 15-16 without the relative pronoun). The mode of address in the Epistles of Mānuščihr (Dhabhar, pp. 1, 53) is of this type. Another example occurs in a letter (Pahlavi Texts, pp. 137-38 pars. 30-33) asking for news about the addressee and his health; the body of this letter begins with the adverb “now” (KʿN/nūn, par. 32). Type II began with laudatory epithets, followed by a benedictory formula and the name of the addressee in the form “X son of Y” (Pahlavi Texts, p. 133 par. 5). Type III included only the initial laudatory epithets and the name of the addressee (Pahlavi Texts, pp. 133-34 pars. 6, 7, 10-12). In type IV the initial laudatory epithets were followed by the name of the addressee and then the benedictory formula (Pahlavi Texts, pp. 134, 138-40 pars. 8-9, 34-35, 38-39, 43). In type V the first element consisted of greetings to Zoroaster (namāz ō Zardušt), followed by laudatory epithets and the name of the addressee (Pahlavi Texts, p. 137 pars. 28-29). Finally, type VI began with a benedictory formula in which the recipient’s name and title were mentioned (e.g., hērbed xwadāy X; Pahlavi Texts, p. 139 par. 41).
In one model (Pahlavi Texts, p. 140 par. 44) the name of the sender appears at the end of the letter: “sent by X son of Y” (wāhmām ī wāhmānān frēstīd). The Epistles of Mānuščihr conclude with benedictions, the names and titles of the senders, and the dates (I, chap. 11, no. 12, II, chap. 9, nos. 12-15, III, no. 21).
Islamic sources, in which earlier letters were translated into Arabic or Persian, provide some additional information about correspondence in the Sasanian period. The mode of address may be discerned, for example, from a letter from Ḵosrow I Anōšīravān (r. 531-79; Ṭabarī, I, p. 981), beginning “from Kesrā [Ḵosrow], king of kings, to Noʿmān b. Monḏer,” and another from the same king (Ṭabarī, I, pp. 892-93), beginning “from the king Kesrā b. Qobāḏ [Kawād] to Zāḏūya (?) b. Naḵīrajān [Naxwēragān], the Fāḏūsbān (Pādōspān) of Azerbaijan.” Other examples were quoted by Masʿūdī (Morūj, ed. Pellat, I, pp. 289, 307-09) and Ebn al-Nadīm (ed. Tajaddod, p. 15). A number of letters about military affairs are contained in the Šāh-nāma; they include examples written by Persian kings to other rulers (Moscow, II, pp. 110, 113, VIII, p. 79), governors, and army commanders (II, p. 194, VII, p. 306), as well as the replies. There are also dispatches announcing victories (I, p. 124, VIII, p. 375) and letters of surrender (III, p. 74, IX, p. 184). They usually open with praise of the god, followed by greetings to the addressee, a formula recommended in the Nāmag-nibēsišnīh (Pahlavi Texts, pp. 133, 137 pars. 3, 30). The Nāma-ye Tansar (Letter of Tansar), of which both the original Pahlavi and its Arabic translation have been lost, has survived in a Persian translation by Ebn Esfandīār only. It was supposedly written in response to one from Gošnasp, king of Ṭabarestān. It begins “from Gošnasp [his titles] a letter reached Tansar [his titles],” followed by the greeting formula (ed. Mīnovī, 1932, p. 5; 1975, p. 49).
Sasanian kings and dignitaries seem to have been partial to laudatory epithets and lengthy benedictory formulas. According to early Arabic sources, which may have been based on the Pahlavi Xwadāy-nāmag, letters were short until the time of Goštāsp, the Kayanian king and contemporary of Zoroaster; he ordered that they should be lengthened through the addition of details (Ebn al-Nadīm, ed. Tajaddod, p. 15; Ebn al-Balḵī, p. 49). The simple style of the Achaemenid letter was thus gradually developed by the Sasanians into the pompous and somewhat bombastic style of the late Pahlavi parchments and papyri (see above), as prescribed in the Pahlavi treatise Nāmag-nibēsišnīh. Roman and Islamic sources support this conclusion. In a letter to the emperor Constantius, Šāpūr II (r. 309-79) called himself “king of kings, companion of the stars, brother of the sun and the moon” (Ammianus Marcellinus, 17.5.3). Two centuries later Ḵosrow I, writing to the emperor Justinian, also glorified himself with a number of such titles (Christensen, Iran Sass., p. 260).
The Sasanians mainly used parchment for correspondence, except in Egypt. Ebn al-Nadīm (ed. Tajaddod, p. 22) related that Persians had once written on the hides of buffaloes, cows, and sheep (see daftar). According to Balāḏorī (Fotūḥ, ed. Monajjed, p. 570), royal letters were written on white leather scented with saffron; in the Šāh-nāma they are said to have been written on silk or parchment (parnīān, ḥarīr), scented with ambergris (ʿanbar) and musk (mošk). Letters were sealed by the senders; Islamic sources relate that the Sasanian kings had various seals (ḵawātem, sing. ḵātam) for different purposes. The seal put on the letters was said to have the impression “fidelity” (wafāʾ) or “haste” (waḥāʾ; Balāḏorī, Fotūḥ, ed. Monajjed, p. 569; Jahšīārī, p. 2; Masʿūdī, Morūj, ed. Pellat, pp. 309, 320-21; Gardīzī, p. 37). The parchment was folded and tied with string, and a clay sealing (bulla) was attached to the knot (Frye, 1974, pp. 156-57). According to the Šāh-nāma (Moscow, IX, p. 184), however, the royal letters were wrapped in polychrome damask envelopes.
In the Sasanian period the correspondence was under the supervision of the royal scribe, the Ērān-dibīrbed or dibīrān mahist (Christensen, Iran Sass., p. 134; see DABĪR i). According to Islamic authors, Middle Persian letters were written in a special script called frwrdh dfyrh (i.e., frawardag-dibīrīh; see dabīrǰh; Ḥamza, Tanbīh, p. 64, cf. Ebn al-Nadīm, ed. Tajaddod, p. 16), almost certainly the cursive script known from the Pahlavi papyri, parchments, and ostraca.
Sogdian. The earliest surviving evidence for correspondence in Sogdian is a collection of five more or less complete private commercial letters and some smaller fragments written on paper, known collectively as the Ancient Letters (Reichelt, 1931, pp. 1-42), probably dating from the beginning of the 4th century (Henning, 1948; Grenet and Sims-Williams, pp. 101-22). Each letter was folded several times and bore the name of the sender and the addressee on the outside (“to X from Y,” ʿD X MN Y). Most were tied with string. Letters II and III begin with “to” (ʿD “to”; see Sims-Williams, pp. 134ff.) and the names and titles (xwtʾw “lord,” βγ- “sir”) of the addressees. Then comes the greeting, containing words like “blessing” (ʾʾpryw(n)), “reverence” (nmʾcyw), “a good day” (šyr YWM/my’). Next the names of the senders are given, followed by benedictory sentences addressed to the recipients. In letter IV the sender’s name comes immediately after that of the addressee, followed by the greeting formula. In letter I, however, the name of the sender is mentioned first, apparently because it is an informal letter from a woman to her mother. Some letters end with the dates.
Among the Sogdian documents discovered at Mount Mug in northern Tajikistan is a collection of letters written on Chinese paper and parchment, dating to the 8th century. They came from the archives of the Sogdian chieftain Dēwāštīč, the last ruler of Panjīkant, and the contents are administrative and commercial (Livshits; Bogolyubov and Smirnova). The mode of address in some letters is very simple, beginning with the names and titles of the senders followed by those of the recipients: “from X to Y greetings” (e.g., MN sγw’yk MLKʾ ‘ywʾštyc ʾt prmʾnδʾr ʾwttw ‘rwth “from Dēwāštīč, the sovereign of Sogdiana, to Utt, the administrator, greetings” (Livshits, p. 132 A 18; Bogolyubov and Smirnova, p. 69). If the sender was of lower rank than the addressee, his own name came second, and he designated himself the servant of the addressee (γyp’ βntk), often using a lengthy formula with laudatory epithets: “addressed to Afrun, the lord, the sovereign, the great support, the greatest of all supports, sovereign of Ḵāḵsar (region), sent by Rīwāk, who is his least (and) millionth servant. Much reverence to the glorious lord” (ʾt βγw xwβw RBch ʾnwth MN wyspnʾcy ʾnwty ʾmsyʾtr xʾxsrcw xwβw ʾprʾwn pyšt MN xyp’ kstr 100 RYPWmyk βntk rywʾkk ptškwʾnh ZY βγy ZKn RB-prn γṛβy nmʾcyw; Livshits, p. 126 B 16.1-4, cf. p. 129 B 14). In some letters the address formula is repeated at the end (e.g., Livshits, pp. 78 A 14, 117 B 17, 138 A 3).
There are also some fragmentary Sogdian letters in the collection of documents found at Turfan in Central Asia; they are of a private religious nature and were written from an unknown community to a Manichean teacher (perhaps a bishop) who resided in Qočo (Kucha). They belong to the period between 763 and 880 (Henning, 1936, pp. 14-18; Sundermann, 1980). Unfortunately, the beginnings and ends of these letters are missing, so that the mode of address is unknown.
Khotanese. There are a large number of Khotanese private and business letters on paper surviving from the 8th-10th centuries. Some begin with names and titles or laudatory epithets of the addressees; the senders use the first person singular pronoun “I,” as in “to the Prior dvipiṭa teacher Prajñendrabhadra then I make report” (Bailey, 1963, V, p. 386 no. 18; idem, 1968, p. 77). The courtesy formula in a private letter written by an estate owner to his wife is “I the official Īramaña bow down before my wife” (spāta Īramaña neri śaṃdā haṃbajai hų@nūṃ). It is followed by stereotyped inquiries after his relatives’ health; the letter concludes with the date (Bailey, 1969, II, p. 71 no. 42; idem, 1968, p. 73; cf. a similar letter in idem, 1963, V, p. 217 no. 455; idem, 1968, p. 90). A private letter from a Buddhist doctor to a colleague opens with an inquiry after the recipient’s health (Bailey, 1963, V, p. 216 no. 454; idem, 1968, p. 82). Many Khotanese letters bear dates at the ends, and on the versos the names of the recipients are mentioned: “to be given to X” (e.g., Bailey, 1968, p. 82).
Choresmian. No letter has survived in Choresmian, but the 11th-century historian Bayhaqī (ed. Fayyāż, p. 912) mentioned a letter in Choresmian addressed to the ruler of Choresmia.
H. W. Bailey, Khotanese Texts, 5 vols., Cambridge, 1945-63; repr. I-III, Cambridge, 1969.
Idem, Saka Documents. Text Volume, Corpus Inscr. Iran. V/2, London, 1968.
M. N. Bogolyubov and O. I. Smirnova, Sogdiĭskie dokumenty s gory Mug III, Moscow, 1963.
A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C., Oxford, 1923.
B. N. Dhabhar, ed., The Epistles of Mānūshchihar, Bombay, 1912.
G. R. Driver, Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century B.C., Oxford, 1957.
R. Frye, “Sasanian Seals and Sealings,” in P. Gignoux and A. Tafazzoli, eds., Mémorial Jean de Menasce, Tehran and Louvain, 1974, pp. 155-61.
J. C. Greenfield, “Some Notes on the Arsham Letters,” in S. Shaked, ed., Irano-Judaica, Jerusalem, 1982, pp. 4-11.
Faḵr-al-Dīn Asʿad Gorgānī, Vīs o Rāmīn, ed. M. Mīnovī, Tehran, 1314 Š./1935.
F. Grenet and N. Sims-Williams, “The Historical Context of the Sogdian Ancient Letters,” in Transition Periods in Iranian History, Studia Iranica, Cahier 5, Louvain, 1987, pp. 101-22.
Ḥamza Eṣfahānī, al-Tanbīh ʿalā ḥodūṯ al-taṣḥīf, ed. M.-H. Āl-e Yāsīn, Baghdad, 1389/1967.
O. Hansen, “Die mittelpersischen Papyri der Papyrussammlung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin,” APAW 1937/9, Berlin, 1938.
J. Harmatta, “Mithridates I and the Rise of the Parthian Writing System,” AAASH 29, 1984, pp. 219-25.
W. B. Henning, “Neue Materialien zur Geschichte des Manichäismus,” ZDMG 90, 1936, pp. 1-18; repr. in Selected Papers I, Acta Iranica 14,1977, pp. 379-96.
Idem, “The Date of the Sogdian Ancient Letters,” BSOAS 12, 1948, pp. 601-15; repr. in Selected Papers II, Acta Iranica 15, 1977, pp. 315-29.
Idem, “Iranian Documents,” in A. Perkins, ed., The Excavations at Dura-Europos. Final Report V/1, New Haven, Conn., 1959.
Abū ʿAbd-Allāh Moḥammad Jahšīārī, Ketāb al-wozarāʾ wa’l-kottāb, ed. M. Saqqāʾ et al., Cairo, 1357/1938.
V. A. Livshits, Sogdiĭskie dokumenty s gory Mug II, Moscow, 1962.
Nāma-ye Tansar, ed. M. Mīnovī, Tehran, 1311 Š./1932; 2nd ed., Tehran, 1354 Š./1975.
H. Reichelt, Die sogdischen Handschriftenreste des Britischen Museums II, Heidelberg, 1931.
N. Sims-Williams, “Notes on Sogdian Palaeography,” BSOAS 38, 1975, pp. 132-39.
R. Schmitt, “"Méconnaissance" altiranischen Sprachgutes im Griechischen,” Glotta 49, 1971, pp. 95-110.
W. Sundermann, “Probleme der Interpretation manichäisch-soghdischer Briefe,” AAASH 28, 1980, pp. 289-316.
Idem, “Studien zur kirchengeschichtlichen Literatur der iranischen Manichäer I,” AoF 13, 1986, pp. 40-92.
D. Weber, “Pahlavi Papyri and Ostraca (Stand der Forschung),” in W. Skalmowski and A. Van Tongerloo, eds., Middle Iranian Studies, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 16, Leuven, 1984, pp. 25-43.
R. Z. Zaehner, “Nāmak-nipesišnīh,” BSOS 9, 1937-39, pp. 93-109.
Originally Published: December 15, 1993
Last Updated: October 31, 2011
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