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Zagros


The Zagros, NW of Hamadan. Photo Jona Lendering.
Zagros: mountain range in eastern Iran.

The Zagros mountains can be found in western Iran and separate the alluvial plains of Assyria and Babylonia from the Iranian highland. The snowy mountains on the first photo are between Qazvin (west of Tehran) and Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana, the capital of Media). The picture was taken in February; there's not always snow.

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The Nesaean plain. Photo Marco Prins.

The northeastern Zagros mountains are intersected by large, fertile plains, which made Media one of the richest parts of the region. Rainfall is about 800 mm/year. The fertile valleys - or one of these valleys - were known as the Nisaean plain, which was well-known for its horses and clover (medicago sativa, "purple medic"; alternatively, alvalva).

It was an important part of the road from Central-Iraq (Opis, Baghdad) to Central Iran (Rhagae, near Tehran) and beyond (Maracanda, Samarkand). This road was part of the famous Silk road, which connected China with Sogdia, Media, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean. 

The rock of Behistun. Photo Jona Lendering.
The country of the Cossaeans in the Zagros, NW of modern Khorramabad. Photo Jona Lendering.
Mighty geological stratums in the souther Zagros. Photo Marco Prins.
The Zagros between Hamadan and Behistun. Photo Jona Lendering.
Behistun; the relief is to the left One of the fertile plains Tectonic plates One of the fertile plains
A Nisaean horse is brought to the king of Persia. Relief from Persepolis.
Nisaean horse (Persepolis)
Along the road was the rock of Behistun, which dominated the road from Hamadan to Kermanshah. On the southern slope, the Achaemenid king Darius I the Great created his famous victory monument, a long inscription and a relief (more...).

In the western Zagros, this is the country of the Cossaeans, a nomadic tribe near modern Khorammabad, which is still the capital of a nomadic tribe, the Luris. Another historical tribe that has been connected to the Zagros is that of the Sagartians, whose name may or may not be related to the word "Zagros". As said, the country is fertile. It has been maintained that the neolithic revolution, i.e., the invention of agriculture, started in the Zagros.

Babylonian map of the western Zagros. A road, mountain, and river are indicated. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Jona Lendering.
Babylonian map of the western Zagros. A road, mountain, and river are indicated (Louvre)

The horses of the Niseaean plain, the Nisaean steeds, were so famous in the ancient world, that c.130 BCE, the Chinese emperor Han Wu-ti (141-87) sent an important courtier named Chang Ch'ien to buy them. Although he failed in his mission, the result of his voyage was the opening of the Silk road.

Centuries later, the Persian king Shapur I (241-272 CE) offered the Jews in the Sasanian empire a white Nisaean stallion, just in case that the Messiah, who was thought to ride a donkey or a mule, would come.

The last picture was taken in the southern Zagros, east of Ahvaz. In the central Zagros, there is sufficient rain to create rivers (more then 220 mm/year), but not enough to create forests. As a result, the rivers, full of mud, can cut deep into the landscape and create deep canyons. Here, the layers of the earth are clearly visible.


The Zagros is a geologist's paradise. Especially the valley of the Karkheh river, the ancient Choaspes, is famous for its rough scenery. Other rivers that have their sources in the Zagros are the Dez (Eulaeus), Karun (Pasitigris), and Marun. The sediments they take away from the Zagros are deposited in the plain of Khuzestan (ancient Elam).
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2006
Revision: 8 Nov. 2009
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