Where Was Madīnat al-Khaṭṭ, The Sasanid Stronghold In North-Eastern Arabia?

Publication type Article
Status Published
Occupation: Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
Affiliation: Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Journal nameVostok. Afro-Aziatskie obshchestva: istoriia i sovremennost
EditionIssue 1

This study is an attempt to ascertain the geographical position of Punyāt Ardashir, the Sasanid stronghold in North-Eastern Arabia, identifiable with Madīnat al-Khaṭṭ of al-Ṭabarī’s history. To do that, it is necessary to understand, what the names al-Khaṭṭ and Madīnat al-Khaṭṭ applied to. In mediaeval Islamic literature the name al-Khaṭṭ had different meanings and was used to denote a settlement in the region then called al-Baḥrayn and embracing the territory from Basra to Oman, an island in the Persian Gulf, and the coastal zone of the region of Baḥrayn. The word ‘madīna’ denoted a town when preceding the town’s name, and a capital when followed by the name of the region. Therefore, it should not be assumed that Madīnat al-Khaṭṭ meant ‘the town of al-Khaṭṭ’. The lack of references to Madīnat al-Khaṭṭ in the extant sources, including when such references would be expected, suggests that Madīnat al-Khaṭṭ was the capital of the region of al-Khaṭṭ, which had a distinct name. That regional capital is not necessarily identical with the settlement of al-Khaṭṭ. This means that the only firm basis for any tentative localization of Madīnat al-Khaṭṭ is its status of the regional capital. Madīnal al-Khaṭṭ is to be expected to have been the residence of the Sasanid marzbān, and to have been sharply defended by Persians during the Islamic conquest. The place which best fits to that description appears to be the fortress of al-Zāra situated in the territory of present-day al-Ḳaṭīf. Therefore, Madīnat al-Khaṭṭ is probably identical with al-Zāra.

Keywordspre-Islamic Arabia, al-Khaṭṭ, Punyāt Ardashir, Sasanids, Dārīn
Publication date28.02.2020
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1 It is well-known that the name Madīnat al-Khaṭṭ appears in the monumental ‘History of Prophets and Kings’ by al-Ṭabarī (839–922/23). He states that Ardashir I (225–240), the founder of the Sasanid dynasty, built in the Baḥrayn region1 the town of F.sā Ardashīr alias Madīnat al-Khaṭṭ [al-Ṭabarī, 1881-1882, p. 821]. 1.  The mediaeval region of Baḥrayn was not identical with present-day Bahrain and was thought to comprise the coastal lands between Basra and Oman [al-Bakrī, 1983, p. 228; Yāḳūt, 1977, 1, p. 347].
2 That statement is reproduced by Ibn al-Athīr (1160–1233), who, so far as the Sasanid history is concerned, heavily depends on al-Ṭabarī. However, Ibn al-Athīr abridges the original text a little and only refers to Madīnat al-Khaṭṭ, without specifying its Persian name [Ibn al-Athīr, 1987, p. 296].
3 A town built by Ardashir in the Baḥrayn region is mentioned by several writers who do not follow al-Ṭabarī, but use information going back to his sources. The name of the town is written as:
4 F.w.rān Ardashīr, by Abū Ḥanīfa al-Dīnawarī (d. between 894 and 902/03) [al-Dīnawarī, 1960, p. 45],
5 B.w.rā Ardashīr, in an unknown writer’s treatise Nihāyat al-arab akhbār al-furs wa al-ʻarab [The Utmost of What May Be Desired in Exposition of the History of Persians and Arabs], which, for the Sasanid history, is in many respects an extended version of al-Dīnawarī’s book [Nihāyat ..., 1996/97, p. 200],
6 B.t.n Ardashīr, by Ḥamza al-Iṣfahānī (ca. 893/94–between 961/62 and 970/71) [Ḥamza al-Iṣfahānī, 1921/22, p. 34],
7 Beh-tan Ardashīr, in the Mudjmal al-tawārīkh wa-l-ḳiṣaṣ [Collection of Histories and Stories] written ca. 1126/27 by an unknown writer who, in his history of the Sasanids, closely follows Ḥamza al-Iṣfahānī [Muǧmal ... 2000, p. 51].
8 It is to be observed that all those writers are essentially in line with al-Ṭabarī’s statement, but never identify the town built by Ardashīr with Madīnat al-Ḳhaṭṭ.
9 References to al-Khaṭṭ also occur with writers belonging to Oriens Christianus. Eutychius of Alexandria (877–940), like al-Ṭabarī, devotes a special fragment to towns built by Ardashir I and mentions al-Khaṭṭ, yet without quoting its Persian name. But Eutychius provides a geographical localization of al-Khaṭṭ, stating that it was situated in the west (looking from Iraq which the information obviously comes from), behind the river which is to be identified with Tigris [Eutychius, 1906, p. 108]. The Synodicon orientale contains a reference to a local church synod held on the island of Dārīn in May 677, in which the bishop of of Khaṭṭā (this must be the Syriac equivalent of Arabic al-Khaṭṭ) took part, as well as the bishop of Hagar2 [Synodicon ..., 1902, p. 216, 482]. About a hundred years earlier, in February 576 another synod, of the Nestorian church of the Sasanid empire, was held, and the bishop of Hagar and P.y.ṭ Ardashīr gave a written approval to its decisions [Synodicon ..., 1902, p. 128, 387]. 2.  Hagar is the Syriac name of the fortress called in Islamic sources Hadjar. It was situated in present-day Ḳaryat al-Ḳāra, a few kilometres to the north-east from al-Hufūf [al-Djanabī, 2004, p. 238].
10 An interpretation of that evidence is provided by J. Marquart, who suggests that the names of the town quoted by Muslim writers and P.y.ṭ Ardashīr of the Synodicon orientale are connected to, and denote the same as, Panait, the name of a region in the southern quarter (kust-i-nēmrōz) of the Sasanid empire, which occurs in the geography of Ananias of Shirak (ca. 610–ca. 685).3 On the basis of that, Marquart reconstructs the initial name which, in his opinion, was Paniat-Ršīr. According to him, it was the official Sasanid name of the town of al-Khaṭṭ (die Stadt al Xaṭṭ) [Marquart, 1901, p. 42]. 3.  The name Panait is quoted after the Russian translation of Ananias’s geography by K. P. Patkanov [Armyanskaya geografiya ... 1877, p. 67]. It is used here as the first choice because it fits best to Marquart’s reconstruction of the name as presented above. A modern English translation by R. H. Hewsen has Anatršir [Hewsen, 1992, p. 72]. As for the Syriac name, it is reconstructed, by means of a slight conjecture, as P.n.y.ṭ Ardashīr.
11 An undoubted merit of Marquart’s work is that it allows to ascertain the common origin of the town’s different names occurring with Muslim writers. Marquart himself believes that it was F.n.yādh. By the time when al-Ṭabarī wrote, that form had long been forgotten. Ḥamza al-Iṣfahānī explains his B.t.n Ardashīr as Persian be-tan meaning ‘on the body’, telling that the town was built upon, and partially from, the bodies of those who had fought against Ardashīr I [Ḥamza al-Iṣfahānī, 1921/22, p. 34; cf. Muǧmal ... 2000, p. 51]. The fact that the original name was no longer used appears to explain of the variety of forms presented above.
12 Another important piece of evidence is signalled by E. Herzfeld, who points out to a seal kept in the British Museum. He transliterates the legend of the seal as darînîk u puny(â)t artaxšatr dar hamârk(â)re (the accountant of the Government of Darînîk and Punyât-Ardashîr) [Herzfeld, 1930, p. 32].4 Marquart’s reconstruction is, thus, supported by an original Sasanid artefact. Perhaps, the punyāt of the seal has developed into modern Persian bunyād in the sense of ‘foundation, basis’ or ‘wall’. 4.  The title is now read as āmārgar. Literally it means ‘a reckoner’, [MacKenzie, 1971, p. 7], but here the sense would be better rendered as ‘a financial officer’.
13 As to the geographical position of Punyāt Ardashir, Marquart places it, in his words, in der Landschaft Qaṭīf in Bahrain, or in the region of al-Ḳaṭīf in Baḥrayn [Marquart, 1901, p. 42]. He does not specify any grounds of that localization, but his view, supported by his undoubtedly correct and wise reconstruction of the name, has long been commonly accepted and not disputed by anyone. However, his theory has recently been challenged by Chr.-J. Robin, who suggests to identify al-Khaṭṭ with al-ʻUḳayr. Robin’s argument runs as follows:

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