Names of the Caspian Sea
By: Mohammad Ajam
Abstract: Unlike Iran's southern waterway (Pars Sea), about which there has never been any ambiguity and which has been referred to by various names synonymous to that of the Persian Gulf throughout the course of the written history, in particular since 600 BC, the waterway in northern Iran currently known as the Caspian or Mazandaran Sea is called by different names.
Arab-Islamic literature refers to it as
Bahr-e Qazvin (Qazvin Sea) or Caspian, while the Turks, Europeans and
other nations refer to it as the Caspian Sea. Meanwhile, a variety of
other names by which the waterway has been called since 500 years ago have
tourist attractions and presence of various tribes in the surrounding
areas are among the reasons accounting for it. Even today 50 tribes with
various dialects reside in the area. The names of the sea have been
derived from five roots, which also designate the tribes residing in the
vicinity, the surrounding towns and port cities as well as a few
equivalents of the word `Sea' in other dialects and others which have been
used to refer to the waterway without any
The toponymy of the waterway in northern Iran comprises the names of continents, oceans, seas, lakes, countries, forests, mountains and deserts which are part of the history, geography, mythology, culture and customs of various nations and tribes. In other words, they are the national identity of various tribes, which should be safeguarded as material and spiritual treasures, similar to ancient objects and documents. Such geographical names also designate the sovereignty, precinct of the government as well as the administrative, political and ideological system of the countries. That's why respect for the history and geographical facts have priority to tribal and racial sentiments. Meanwhile, historical names should not be abused as political tools to achieve tribal and racial objectives, humiliate other ethnic tribes or contradict the national interests and values of others. Obviously, changing the name of any geographical venue which has been representing a particular area throughout the centuries is a threat to its national security and historical identity. Among all such historical names, the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea are chosen to be examined from various aspects. The name of Persian Gulf has been recorded in more than 300 historical, literary and geographical sources as well as 2,000 ancient maps dating back to the 19th century. Those who changed the historical names mainly aimed to raise doubt about Iran's sovereignty upon some of the Persian Gulf islands.
There are at least 500 ancient geographical names in Iran, a number of which have been passed on by one generation to the next in the stories narrated. They actually show part of our culture of the prehistoric era. Most of them have been recorded on tablets as well as in holy books, texts of the Zoroastrian's holy book of Avesta and Ferdowsi's Book of Kings (Shahnameh).
At times, debate on a historical name may even lead to bloody clashes. We have witnessed many sensitive occasions in the country on account of historical names. The citizens of various cities and residents of rural areas have been seen to protest to changing the names according to new classifications, which may even end up in clashes. In 1918, Iran protested the change of the name of her former province of Aran (Arran) to Azerbaijan Republic as a contradiction to the historical facts taken place with a political motive. In the 70s, the Chinese showed harsh reaction to the name of the National China and managed to cancel the new name, which contradicted China's national sovereignty and history. Meanwhile, a harsh clash is currently going on between the leaders of Japan and Korea on account of the name of the Oriental Sea (or Japan Sea). Given the Greeks special sense of protection to the name of Macedonia, they are reluctant to let the Yugoslav Macedonia's government to use the name. Also the Europeans highly respect the name of the ancient city of Alexandria due to its historical background and have not let it be changed. Arabs and Israeli have many differences of idea about geographical names. That's why such names are known as the `Heritage of Mankind' and the United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names (UNCSGN) has called upon its members to avoid politicizing those names.
Caspian Sea Names
The Caspian Sea is the world largest lake over 30 million years old. Some day it was connected to the Black Sea and was the residence of the first civilized men. The evidence of such residence along the southern coasts of the lake dates back to the Paleolithic era. The discovery of the skeleton of three men at Huto cave near the city of Behshahr proves that man has been residing in the area for the past 75,000 years ago. Therefore, the civilized man has been residing there not less than 10,000 years. Given the background of man's residence at the Caspian Sea coast, it is natural for various tribes to have resided there. This makes us to take on an unbiased approach towards the names of this vast waterway -- which is the cultural heritage of several tribes -- and the geographical and historical facts about it. During the visit of the late Azeri President Haydar Aliyev to Tehran, the Caspian or Mazandaran Sea was one of the subjects discussed by him and President Mohammad Khatami, which was a major motive for writing the report on the names of the Caspian Sea and sending it to UNCSGN to call for designating a single name for this waterway. The report served as one of the documents used by the conference to ratify the name of Caspian in 2002.Iran has 5,434 km of inland border and 2,410 water border, of which more than 500 km are located along the Caspian Sea and 1,900 km along the Persian Sea (Houman Sea). The water border extending from Guatr Gulf to Bandar Abbas is 784 km long, while part of it extending between Bandar Abbas and Arvandroud river at the end of the Persian Gulf is about 1,295 km long.Unlike Iran's southern waterway (Pars Sea), about which there has never been any ambiguity and which has been referred to by various names synonymous to that of the Persian Gulf throughout the course of the written history, in particular since 600 BC, the waterway in northern Iran currently known as the Caspian or Mazandaran Sea is called by different names. Arabs call it Bahr-e Qazvin (Qazvin Sea) or Caspian, while the Turks, Europeans and other nations refer to it as the Caspian Sea. Meanwhile, a variety of other names by which the waterway has been called since 500 years ago have been recorded. The diversity of names recorded with their different pronunciations call for their examination from various dimensions. One of the reasons for the multiplicity of the names of this waterway is its tourist attractions, on account of which its coasts has become the habitat of various tribes, cultures and dialects. Besides many towns and townships have been constructed in the vicinity. Thus, every area near the Caspian coast has been named either after the name of the tribe residing there or that of a nearby town, so that currently 50 ethnic groups with their own particular dialects including Altai Turks, Indo-Europeans and Iber Caucasians are coexisting along the Caspian coast.
According to the records and maps left behind by European tourists, historians and geographers, at least six names have been mentioned for this northern Iranian waterway. In addition, around 35 various names have been listed in Arabic, Islamic and Iranian sources. Explanations about the two northern and southern Iranian seas are included in more than 30 books written on various subjects including geography, history, literature, ethics as well as Islamic jurisprudence and interpretation by Iranian and Islamic writers. Various names listed in those books for the waterway in northern Iran include: the Caspian Sea, Tabarestan, Bahr-e (sea) Qazvin, Jorjan (Gorgan), Abskoun-e Deilam, Bahr-e (sea) A'ajem, Jilan (Gilan), Astarabad, Sari, shirvan, Mazandaran, Moghan, Badkoubeh, Haji Tarkhan, Gol-o- Galan, Talisan, Kamroud, Zereh Ojestan, Akfoudeh Darya (Dera Akfoudeh), Kharazm, Khorassan, Jili, Bahr-ol-Ajam, Jebal and Bab-ol-Abvab. An Arab geographist, Naviri, called it Fars Bahr or Hoz (Persian Sea). Besides he referred to Kor (Kourosh) river flowing through Armina, Abkhaz and Tbilisi as the major river flowing into it. In Avesta (the old Persian language) it is called Vaurukesh and Farakhkart (the big sea), while in Pahlavi (the middle Persian) it is called Zarayeh and Rokasha.
Besides the famous names of Caspian and Hirkanium, the Europeans call it by other names such as Morgan, Philip, William, Jackson and Dern. The waterway has also been called by the following names: Khvalinsk, Astrakhan, Saraie, Dra-Akfou (Badkoubeh Sea), Sari, Zarayeh and Pahlavi. The names of the waterway have been derived from the following five origins:
- The names of various tribes and nationalities residing in the surrounding areas such as Albanium Mareh, Caspian, Deylam, Ghaz, Gilan, Hirkan, Khazar, Ajam, Fars, Sit, Tipr, Khvlinsk
- The names of the surrounding towns and areas such as Astarabad, Shirvan, Jebal, Khorassan, Mazandaran and Moghan
- The names attributed to the coastal towns including Abskoun, Astrakhan, Bab Bab-ol-Abvav (Darband), Gorgan (Jorjan), Sari, Saraie, Vaurukesh, Farakhkart, Gil, Galan (Gilan), Talisan (Talesh)
- The equivalent words for "Sea" such as Deniz, Darah, Darya, Sala, Sihaie, Zarayeh, Voroushka
- The names of other seas wrongly used to designate this waterway such as Qalzam Sea, Kharazm Sea, Bahr-e Hoz-e Fars (Persian Sea) Two of the mentioned names became more famous: Khazar Sea mostly used by the Turks, Arabs and Iranians as well as the Caspian Sea often used by the Greek and Europeans. Khazar and Caspian -- also pronounced by Arabs as Qazvin -- were used more frequently. The two were also used by the Iranian and Russian governments in the mutual and international contracts signed in the past 250 years.
According to the 2,500-year records available on the Caspian Sea, it has been dominated by the most ancient Persian emperors. Darioush and his substitutes ruled the Caspian coastal areas for two decades. The area was also in Iran's territory during the Sassanids. After the attack of Arabs on Iran and the rule of Saljuqids in the 5th century AH and the complete influence of Turkmens before Shah Ismail I took reign of Iran in early 10th century AH, western Caspian was always in turmoil. Since the rule of Shah Tahmasb up to signing of the 1813 and 1828 contracts the western and northern parts of the Caspian Sea were dominated by Iran. Then in early 16th century, the Russians further influenced the northwestern Caspian coasts. In 1723, the first Iran-Russia contract on ceding a number of the western Caspian coastal cities to Russia was signed by Shah Tahmasb's Ambassador to Saint Petersburg Ismail Beig. Though Ismail Beig was removed from office for such a treacherous measure and the contract was cancelled, the Russians continued their rule over the waterway up to 1813.