Lee. Hee Soo
Professor, Dept. of Cultural Anthropology
Hanyang University, Seoul, Korea

1. Preface

This paper is designed to discuss new facts on ancient Silla-T’ang-Sassanid Persia relations based on Kushnameh, an ancient Persian epic compiled in the 11th century. Kushnameh gives us significant and remarkable description on Silla Kingdom of the 7th century. Among total 10,129 couples, 3,914 couples(No.2011~5925) deal with such Silla country as its society, Iran-China-Korea relations, military cooperation between Silla and Iran, Iranian settlement in Silla society, marriage of Iranian prince with Silla princess, and excellent living condition of Silla.

Of course, long before the advent of Islam, China and Iran Relations were widely connected, diplomatically, economically and culturally along the Silk Road for many centuries. According to Chinese records, the Sassanian embassies sent to China more than 13 times, particularly to promote mutual commercial benefits. The discovery of large number of Sassanid coins in southern China confirms the maritime trade. Together with diplomats and commercial delegations, Sassanid court frequently sent talented musicians(胡樂) and dancers(胡姬) to Chinese imperial court.

At the same time, Korea and the West Asia were trading actively by sea and by such overland routes as the Silk Road. Documented references are few and far between, but sufficient remain to give proof of substantial commerce between Korea and the West Asia through China.

One example is the glass cups excavated from ancient tombs in Silla Kingdom. Most of the glass cups unearthed from the tombs were either from Roman territories in the West Asia and the Sassanid Persia in the 5-6th century. In addition, silver bowl on which the Persian goddess Anahita was inscribed, clay busts and figures representing Sogdian merchants, Persian styled golden dagger were excavated. Moreover, the Samguksagi(三國史記), an official chronicle of the Three Kingdoms of Korea compiled in 1145, has a detailed account of commercial items including Persian carpets which were mainly transacted by the Iranian merchants and widely used in the upper class of Silla society.

With advent of Islam, Korean-Muslim cultural contacts are more accelerated as an outcome of ancient China-West Asian commercial relations via the Silk Roads. The contacts are believed to be initiated as early as the middle of the 7th century. The direct contacts between Muslims and Koreans in the Korean peninsula can be borne out by references to Korea found in 23 Islamic sources written between the 9-16th century by 18 Muslim scholars such as Ibn Khurdadbih, Sulaiman al-Tajir, Mas’udi, etc. Ibn Khurdadbih was the first Arab scholar who informed of Muslims’ residence in the Unified Silla Kingdom(661-935CE).

But till now, no documents or epic are found to show ancient relations between Iran and Silla. In this sense, the finding of Kushnameh and its re-interpretation shall contribute a lot to Korean academic society and the Silk Road studies to open new dimension in making research for Silla’s foreign relations and more vivid understanding on Silla society. Kushnameh is basically Persian epic based on oral tradition following Shahnameh style and it is compiled in the form of manuscript later. It seems that some historical events mingled with mythological beliefs of ancient Persia. To what extent we can accept it as the reliable historical facts from the Kushnameh contents of more than 10,000 couples, is the key task in Kushnameh studies. By more systemic and long term research project, we hope that the wide range of new contents on cultural and political relations on Silla-T’ang-Sassanid Persia described in Kushnameh can be steadily enlightened.

2. The significance of Kushnameh and current research status.

It seems that Kushnameh epic has extraordinary meaning in the Silk Road studies to upgrade current Korea-Iranian cultural history. According to recent researches by the joint academic team headed by Prof. Lee, Hee-Soo at Hanyang University of Korea and Dr. Daryoosh Akbarzade, former Director at the National Museum of Iran, a Persian prince Abtin together with his peoples immigrated to Silla under sincere patronage of Silla king, Tayhur. The Sassanid prince got married Frarang, a Silla princess and contribute a lot to Silla society. In these points, it is not at all surprising that the Koreans were in close contact with Iranians and the Sassanid. Two different cultures thus naturally met and blended with each other.

The Kushnameh manuscripts contain historical facts and traditional Iranian legends, and sometimes mingle each other. During the war between the Arabs and the Sassanid Persia, Yazdegird III, the last king of the Sassanid sent his prince Piruz to Ch’ang-an to demand China’s aid against the attacks of the Arabs. This occurred in 650. No doubt, however, Chinese emperor Kao-tsung(唐高宗) was already fully apprised that the Arabs would constitute formidable adversaries, so he replied that Persia was too far away for the required troops to be sent. At the same time, with formal diplomatic establishment between T’ang and Arabia in 651, the Chinese emperor was forced to expel Prince Piruz and his followers from official protection. We know that many artisans accompanied Piruz when he took refuge in China. Both Piruz and his son Narsieh were protected and given high titles at the Chinese court. However, history preserves no memory of what happen to them exactlyand then the existence and fate of Narsieh and his descendant was gradually forgotten and disappeared in history.

In the Kushnameh, surprisingly Piruz and the Iranian group appeared again in the form of different names and stories migrating to Silla to dream political asylum. The prince Piruz was replaced by Abitin who got married Frarang, a Silla princess. The Persian group contributed greatly to Silla society, in particular in the fields of weapon, polo sports, military equipment and daily life. After coming back home country under positive patronage of Silla king, Tayhur, Persians remembered and described beautiful Silla peoples and their society

The Kushname was handed down from generation to generation in the form of oral epic till 11thcentury when Iran-shan Ibn Abal Khayr, a great Iranian scholar, compiled the oral epic to manuscripts. Afterward, Jalal Matini, an Iranian historian re-edited Kushnameh and published in the form of modern book in 1998. Accordingly, Kushnameh can be valuable source material to reconstruct historical relation between Iran and Silla, i.e. a land near to China as found also in other Islamic texts.
In the 1985, Professor Matini published a papers in the journal “Irannameh” by title “Kush wa Kushe pilgush”. In the article, he introduced for the first time the historical relationship between Korea and Iran. According to the manuscript entitled Kushnameh, the sons of Jamshid the mythical king of Persia fled to Chin and Machin, and Abtin one of the sons of Jamshid conflicted with Kush, a son of Zahhak. Then Abtin sought asylum from the king of Silla. Based on Kushnameh stories, Matini has published many articles as “Kush or Gush”, “Different narrations about the infant of Faraidun”, “Another narration about the Zahhak”, “The another translation of the Yadegar-e Bozorgmehr”, “In search of Faraidun’s throne”, “Another narration about the divided of the world by Faraidun” and “Some tricks of war in the Kushnameh”. Finally he published the full text of Kushnameh with detailed preface in 1998.

The Kushnameh studies pushed the documented history of Iran-Korea relations back into the pre-Islamic mythological period, making clear that the origin of this international relationship is far older than the Islamic period. It also suggests that it was the Iranians who introduced Silla to the Islamic world, although it appears that the Kushnameh was originally written in Pahlavi(Middle Persian). The Pahlavi language was the more ancient version of Persian in use during the Parthian/Arsacid(247BCE-224CE) and the Sassanid(224~651) periods. Although it is still too early to decide the exact time and place the story is set, the text of the narrative may imply reference to certain real historical events. For example, certain goods traded by sea between Iran and Korea before the Islamic era are mentioned in the Kushnameh in the course of the narration of the story of Abtin’s return to Iran from Silla. Abtin, accompanied by a Korean prince, takes the maritime route back to Iran, guided by an experienced Korean navigator. Their route probably took them through the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and finally the Gulf. This point shows that maritime relations between Iran and Korea were probably quite well established in the pre-Islamic period. Further, the description of Silla’s climatic and geographical conditions in the Kushnameh is very similar to those that prevail in present day Korea, which suggests the story’s writer had a credible degree of knowledge about the peninsula.

One thing is still not clear why Kushnameh mentions Korea not as Silla but as Basilla(Besilla). In the Islamic texts, Korea is described as Silla, not as Basilla. Dr.Daryoosh explained that the name of Basilla is special to the Kushnameh and it definitely is not a kind of mistaken writing because this toponym is so written in all pages. He strongly believes that the first syllable <ba> is not to be preposition <be>. He believes it adjective to emphasize Silla’s beauty and utopian image.

3. Ancient Relations between Persian and Korea

Korea belonged to mainly the East Asian cultural sphere and thus external contacts were largely confined to China and other northern peoples. Consequently, historic inquiry has generally concentrated on those nations. Furthermore, frequent wars all but destroyed the ancient literature that might have shed light on early contact with West Asian regions and what little remains is very fragmentary. Nevertheless, it is believed that Islamic-Persian culture have had a significant influence on Korean culture since ancient times.
We already mentioned about unearthed glasscups from Silla tombs which are believed to be imported from the Sassanid period. Among specimen of typical cut glass, the glass bottle unearthed from a Silla tomb(No.98) shows same manufacturing technique of the Sassanid dynasty. Assuming that the tomb was constructed in the 5-6th century, it can be safely said that about that time Persian merchandise had already found its way into Korea and was being used by Koreans.

In the 5-6th century, the influence of Sassanid culture was very strong in Korea. The winds of Persian style blew forcefully on the cultural centers of China in that period. In the fields of music, art, literature and related disciplines, Iranian motifs came to Korea, stimulating imports and the subsequent popularity of designs and patterns initially inspired by the imported goods. These are represented by “the design of pearl-studded roundels” and symmetrical, zoomorphic patterns.

We know that human statues of Iranians with deep socketed eyes and a high nose(深目高鼻) were produced in quantity as earthen burial figurines in Korea. It is possible that the military guardians at Gwaerung tomb of Korea might have been modeled on Iranian earthen figurines. On the other hand, the head bands, characteristic of Iranian or Muslims, are minutely depicted in the stone statues at Gwaerung tomb. This leads us to presume that there must have been some direct contact with Iranians.

As Iranian items, the Persian carpets and wool fabrics were imported and widely used among Silla aristocrats. The floral-designed seating mattress in Persian style was quite popular in daily life in the ancient Korea. It is also of interest to note that alfalfa or ‘medicago lentilata’, a plant which is native to Caucasus or Persia, was transplanted to the Korean peninsula. According to the Samguksagi(三國史記), there were four state-run farms in Silla, where alfalfa or moksuk as it is called in Korea was grown. However, glassware and alfalfa are not the only things to have reached the Korean peninsula in ancient times. According to the “Sino-Iranica” of Berthold Laufer, some of Iranian products such as Persian emerald called “Se-se(瑟瑟)”, aloe, ambergris, pomegranate and sesame, and such products as grape, peppermint and walnut were transplanted to Korea. According to the chronicles of Korea, they have a detailed account on the items of peculiar musical instruments and trading products representing Persian culture.

The introduction of Persian culture and its products into Korea before the advent of Islam, was largely a result of indirect contact between Korea and Persia via China. But direct contacts of Persians and Central Asians to the Korean peninsula were also achieved from time to time. Moreover recently during the archaeological digs carried out in Korea, several clay busts were revealed whose shape resembled Persian merchants with beards and moustaches. Furthermore in comprehensive researches carried out recently by several Korean scholars, they postulates that the hero of the Ch’o-yong mask dance was a real human being who might have originated an Indo-Arian tribe that came to Silla in 880.

4. The Korea-Muslim Relations based on Islamic Texts

Muslim merchants from Iran may have extended their own trade routes to the Korean peninsula. While trade was the primary reason for their contacts, it seems that many elements of Islamic culture were introduced to Korean peninsula as well. This development is well supported by accounts on Korea called ‘Silla’ ‘found in 23 Islamic books of geography, history and travel written by eighteen Muslim scholars ranging from Ibn Khurdādbih of the mid-9th century to A’bul Fazl of the early sixteenth century.

Interestingly, Silla appears in Islamic texts not as a trading land like China, but mainly as a “land of dream”. Islamic texts hardly pay attention to the economical relation between Persia and Silla. In particular, the writings of Dimashqi, Al-Nuwairi and Al-Maqrizi are worth extraordinary attention. To our surprise, they recorded that part of the Alawis(the followers of Ali) took refuge on the Korean peninsula, fleeing persecution from the Arab Ummaiya Dynasty(661-750).
The fourth Caliph, Al(r.656~661) was killed and the power of Alawis, the followers of Ali, quickly waned. Ali’s rival, Muawiya(r.661-680) put an end to the Orthodox Caliphate, and set up the Ummaiya Dynasty in Damascus. In order to survive, Ali’s factions(Alawis) dispersed, seeking political asylum in many regions. The Alawi was known to have gone as far as the south-eastern coast of China. According to writing of Nureddin Muhammad al-Awfi, at the time of the inauguration of the Ummaiya Dynasty, a great number of Muslim Shiites, in allegiance to Ali, formed their own community and lived collectively on Hainan Island, south of China. We have no way of knowing how accurate or how credible the writing of Dimashqi may be. Nevertheless the fact that Shiite tribes in allegiance to Ali were living en masse on Hainan Island and in the south-eastern part of China, around the 7th century, raises a possibility that some of Ali’s followers could have advanced as far as the Korean peninsula in search of ‘Utopia’.

The structure of Kushnameh story is strongly connected to Islamic texts that mentioned the Alawis(mostly Persian Shia) refugees in Silla. With collapse of the Sassanid by the Arabs, some of Persians were forced to flee to neighbor countries while absolute majority of Persian accepted Arab dominance and embraced Islam from Zoroaster. It is clear that under Arab Ummaiya regime Shia Muslims(mostly Persians) were severely persecuted. It seems that the common suffering of Persians was well described in Kushnameh and Islamic texts in respective. ,

5. Conclusion

Unfortunately in studying of Korean history, little attentions have been paid to wide range of cross cultural aspects along the Silk Road mainly due to lack of experts and shortage of reliable materials. Reflecting this asymmetric trend prevalent in the today’s historical approaches, it is very time to dig out some illuminating facts on Korea-West Asian cultural exchange during 5~10th centuries along the Silk Road. These historical relations are supported by the first-hand materials and other essential historical references written in Persian or Arabic languages. In this sense newly discovered Persian epic Kushnameh and other Persian manuscripts which contain many informative contents on Silla shall be the pivotal source materials for further Silk Road studies in the East Asia.


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