Sightseeing, History Guide



Parthian Empire History Facts

Parthian coinage

Nisa- Mithridatkirt Excavations

Architecture planning and colors in Old Nisa





Parthian Empire (Start – Arsaces I 248-247 – 211 B.C. and the last Artabanus IV until 224 A.D)


From the Parni nomadic tribe to the Parthia region of the Seleucid Empire, and the foundation of Parthian Empire. Nisa Fortress:


               The nomadic tribe - the Parni, in third century B.C to settle to the east from Caspian Sea known as Hyrcania – present day western Turkmenistan. Parni later known as Parthians founded the Empire of Parthia.

               The start date of Parthian period foundation is the subject of discussions between the scholars. Some refer that the Parthian state started circa 248-247 B.C with Arsacid (Parthian) era beginning. Jeffrey Lerner argues convincingly that the Parthian era corresponds to the Parni’s seizure of the Seleucid satrapy of Parthia in northeastern Iran (originally, Parthians were an ancient Iranian people, speaking the Parthian language who were different from Parni nomadic people). Instead, he uses coinage and Justin’s account of events to establish the independent reign of a rebellious Seleucid satrap named Andragoras over Parthia from circa 245-238 B.C, at which point Parni invaded and claimed the region. Thus, Lerner maintains that Parthian era established 10 years prior to the invasion of Parthia, with the coronation of Arsaces I as king of the Parni. With this new understanding, the expansion of the Parni into Parthia occurred after the Third Syrian War and during the first phase of the civil war of Seleucus II and Antiochus Hierax, and it corresponds directly with the power transition crisis of the 240- 230s in the Hellenistic Midlle East.

                The ancient Central Asia nomadic people were the continual threat to the stability and security of polities in the Middle East throughout the pre-modern period, making incursions into Persia and Bactria. The Parni had been one of the many aggressive tribes in the region, in the Hellenistic period. The military and violent lifestyles of the tribes were a product of the environment in the region and systemic dangers where the life was implacable and tribal warfare endemic. Justin records the precariousness of life on the steppe and the long history of the tribe. He states: the Parni, being forced to quit Scythia by discord at home, gradually settled in the desert between Hyrcania (east from Caspian) and the lands of the Dahae, the Arei, the Sparni and the Margiani. They advanced their borders, through their neighbors, who at first made no opposition, at length endeavored to prevent them, to such extent, that they not only got possession of the vast levels plains, but also steep hills, and heights of the mountains.

               Here, he show the volatility of life in the steppe. Thus sometimes led to the organization of the tribal unions – confederations like the Dahae confederacy (Parni, Xanthii, Pissuri), in an attempt to create greater strength and security against neighboring tribes on the steppe and against the Persian and Hellenistic kingdoms on the Iranian plateau. The Parni established the secure power base despite the growing opposition of their competing neighbors, what was their political and military success. The Parni came to live directly on the periphery of the Seleucid Empire. This led to the mounting tension along the frontier and made conflict between the Parni and the Seleucids inevitable.

                Alexander the Great had left a large force to occupy Bactria and the surrounding territories, the restlessness of these Greek solders and Alexander’s sudden death in 323 severely disrupted the region, forcing Seleucus I to campaign there between 308 – 305. In the middle 290- 280, Seleucus commited himself to establishing Bactria as a strong frontier region, appointing his son – Antiochus I, as viceroy in the east to supervise the development of firm Seleucid control over the new frontier. The efforts of Seleucus and Antiochus had been considerable and created a prosperous and strong eastern frontier, but the defensive stance of these efforts encouraged aggression from the Central Asian tribes, especially the Parni. First, because attacking these prosperous frontier regions gave opportunities to gain important status and wealth. Secondly, the increasingly defensive stance of the Seleucis in the east generated doubt about their might and intentions in these regions. The Parni tribe in the region, after settling in the area, looked for the options and their subsequent invasion of neighboring Seleucid held Margiana was a result of the opportunities and uncertainties of the moment.

                Margiana was a wealthy and urbanized region – present day eastern Turkmenistan. Alexander the Great had settled the region with Greek colonies and fortification, including the prosperous oasis city of Alexandria-in-Margiana (later known as Merv – Maru- Mary, an important eastern city until Mongol invasion in the 13th century CE). The gain of Margiana to the holdings of the Parni would be a great boon to their regional power and security. Meanwhile, the loss of Margiana would have undermined Seleucid authority in the region severely and compromised the eastern frontier of the Seleucids.

                The Parni attacked on Margiana in the late 280 and challenged the regional standing of the Seleucid state and the integrity of its border. The Seleucids quickly dispatched an army to neutralize the Parni threat. This was the most noticeable difference in the capabilities of the Seleucid state between the 280 and 240s, when the Seleucids still had the ability to respond to eastern threat to their hegemony with decisive force. The Parni invasion failed this time and the Seleucid general – Demodamas counterattacked against the Parni in around 280. This campaign have been successful enough to tamper the expansion capabilities of the Parni for a few decades. However, the domination of the tribes of the Central Asia steppe was not a strategic goal for Seleucids. Once Demodamas had retaliated against the Parni and restored the strength of the Seleucid frontier, he ended his campaign abruptly. He did not completely remove the threat of the Parni and therefore by 248-247 a new king – Arsaces I, came to lead a resurgent Parni tribe, introducing the Parthian era.

                The first three years of his reign, Arsaces I appears to have led a new Parni invasion of Margiana, fighting unsuccessful campaign against the Seleucid satrap of Bactria, Diodotus. At this time Diodotus’s responsibilities have included administrative and military command over Bactria, Sogdiana, Margiana and Aria. This was an enormous command with wide ranging responsibilities, and threats to the northeastern frontier of the Seleucid Empire were considerable. This showed Diodotus isolation from central government and their distraction with the western wars. Although Diodotus was successful in repulsing Arsaces invasion of Margiana in around 256-245 BE, this time Seleucus II did not send an army to punish the Parni and quash their military ambitions as his predecessors had done. Seleucus II was too involved in the dynastic conflicts of the west.

                The Third Syrian War had begun because of these conflicts in 246, initiating the power transition crisis of the 240-230 throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, and the subsequent civil war between Seleucus II and Antiochus Hierax perpetuated that crisis. The eastern satraps of the Seleucid Empire had already endured years of neglect and isolation. This lack of support from the central government, along with Seleucus’ contested succession to the throne, the destructive war against Ptolemy III, and the growing threat of Arsaces I, led the two major satraps along the eastern frontier of the Seleucid Empire, Diodotus and Andragoras, to rebel in 245 BE.

               Ptolemy III invaded Syria and advanced as far as Babylon. The people of the satrapy of Parthia under Andragoras began their revolt, taking advantage of the confusion in the house of the Seleucid. The dispute between the brothers Seleucus II and Antiochus Hierax procured Parthians impunity. While the brothers sought to wrest the throne from one another, they neglected to suppress the rebellion. At the same period, also, Diodotus, governor of the thousand cities of Bactria revolted and assumed the title of king and all the other people of the east, influenced by his example, fell away from the Seleucids.

               After the secession of Parthia from Seleucid Empire and as result, the loss of military support, Andragoras had difficulty in protecting his borders. About, in 238 BC the Arsaces I took this opportunity and invaded the Parthia, starting the Parthian era in the region. The Parni took control of Astabene (Astawa), the northern region of Parthia – present day Kuchan area. Continued successful expansion for all Parthia, eliminated Andragoras.


               Between 230-227 B.C, the Seleucus II led the campaign to return his Eastern Satrapies (provinces). The Parni backed by the nomadic tribes Apasiacae (Scythians of the Waters – one of nomadic tribes of Massagetae), managed to calm the revolts broken out in the regions to the west of the Seleucid Empire preventing Seleucus II to continue the war. However, his successor Antiochus III, in 209 BC started his eastern campaign and defeated the Arsaces, forcing the Artabanus to recognize Seleucid supremacy. Then, when the Romans defeated the Seleucids in the battle of Magnesia 192 BC, the Arsaces were able to take advantage and reconquered the provinces south of the Caspian Sea. The Arsaces made again Parthia independent and resumed its expansion both eastward and westward. The Graeco-Bactrian and Seleucid kingdoms lacked political stability and were open to internal strife. The Arsaces dynasty ruler – Mithradates I (171-139 BC) made use of these favorable circumstances. He attacked Bactria in the east and took there the number of regions, then he took Media what opened the way to west and south, to Mesopotamia, Susiana and Elymais. The instability in these regions enabled the Parthians invade central Mesopotamia in 141 BC and seize the major centre of the Hellenistic east, Seleucia on the Tigris. Next, Susa fell under their suzerainty.

               However, these conquests  showed the Parthians a complex problem of empire building. The people on new territories had the important communities of Greek and Hellenized inhabitants who enjoyed privileged position in the Seleucid Empire. For the next two centuries, these Greek cities had been the main opposing force within Parthian Empire. In 141 BC, the Seleucid ruler Demetrius II unsuccessfully attempted to recover Mesopotamia. In 131-130 BC, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus VII Sidetes inflicted severe defeats on the Parthians and penetrated into the innermost regions of Parthia but finally in 129 BC the Seleucid forces were routed and Antiochus VII himself killed in the battle. This was the turning point in the History of Hellenistic Central Asia. The Seleucids stopped to exist as world power, becoming petty rulers of rival warring states in northern Syria.

               The Parthians recovered all the lands they had earlier lost the way westward into Syria now lay open. However, the situation was once more aggravated on its eastern frontier. The new movement of the nomadic tribes in Central Asia what brought the downfall of the Graeco- Bactrian kingdom between 140-130 BC was bound to affect Parthia as well. In 130 BC the Saka tribes invaded the eastern regions of Parthia and some detachments penetrated as far as Mesopotamia. The Parthian king Phraates II lost his life in the struggle against nomads in 129 BC, and his successor and uncle – Artabanus I in 123 BC. Parthia also faced substantial problems in the west where Hyspaosines, King of Characene (a small region on the northern shore of the Persian Gulf), had seized most of Mesopotamia. Thus after a period of resounding success against the Seleucids, Parthia found itself on the verge of collapse.

               Mithridates II 123- 87 BC, managed to stabilize the situation. He subjugated Characene and reestablished calm in Greek cities. Parthia followed moderate policy towards Greeks and they became more reconciled to Parthian rule.

               The problem of the nomads on eastern front was solved by means of diplomacy and military force. They were displaced from Parthian territory proper and settled around Lake Hamun on the lands of Arachosia and Drangiana – the region later named Sakastan – the land of Sakas (Sistan – parts of Iran and Afghanistan around Helmand river). The emerging state formations under nomadic leaders mainly remained within Parthian influence, and some becoming vassal small states. Parthian influence in the east considerably extended and came to include the greater part of modern western Afghanistan.

               The beginning of the first century BC, Parthian state had achieved the unprecedented strength and had become the foremost power in Western Asia. However, the latter years of the reign of Mithridates II marked by new complications: the internal struggle for power in Arsacid house; the interference of Armenian kings in Parthian affairs; the relentless eastward expansion of Rome. This led to further troubles in the first centuries A.D. Parthia’s northern provinces suffered from incursions from Alani tribes. The emergence and growth of the powerful Kushan empire created a permanent danger in the East. The exhaustion from the internecine wars with Rome. Parthia sought to minimize the tension in the East

 In 53 BC, the Parthian ruler Orodes II sent his cavalry under command of Surena to combat the Romans (under command of Marcus Licinius Crassus). The two armies met at the Battle of Carrhae (present day Turkey – Haran). The Parthians lured the Romans out into the middle of the desert and defeated the numerically outstanding Romans. The Romans lost 20,000 as dead and another 10,000 as prisoners, this “produced a mighty echo amongst the peoples of the East”, but did not brought any decisive shift in the balance of power or gain of the territory.

               In the period of Vologases IV and his successors there was bitter clash between Parthian and Romans, in 161-163 A.D. The northern flank of the Roman defense collapsed and Parthian troops invaded Syria. Rome launched the counter-offensive. The peace treaty was harsh for the Parthians, since the whole of Mesopotamia as far as the Tiver Khabur was ceded to Rome. The next war in 195 A.D. had even harsher consequences for the Parthians, in the period of Vologases V. The Roman military expedition dealt a heavy blow to Parthia: the richest parts of the country were devastated and some 100,000 inhabitants taken to Syria and sold into slavery. The last war between Rome and Parthia began in 216 -217 AD and it was the last success for Parthians. After decisive battle at Nisibis the Romans had to sue for peace.

               Arsacid dynasty had their power base in Parthia, relying on the local Parthian aristocracy families, who supported them military and financially, receiving in return the lands of conquered adjacent territories, where they ruled as provincial rulers. The biggest of these cities controlled by Parthian nobility were Kuchan, Semnan, Gorgan, Merv, Zabol, and Yazd. The power of these Parthian families increased after centuries, allowing them to play important role in Parthian empire and was one of controbutary factor to fall of Arsacid Empire.

               From Parthia, Arsacid dynasty started the extension to Eastern Europe, South Caucasus, Western Asia, Central Asia and South Asia. Soon, they started to establish the branches of Parthian thrones of Armenia, Iberia (eastern Georgia), Caucasian Albania (western Azerbaijan and southern Dagestan) what lasted even after their fall.

               Starting 130 BC onwards, Arsacids waged wars against the nomadic tribes –  various tribal confederations of the Sakas, the Massagetae and the Greater Yuezhi (Kushans) from one side and against the Seleucids and the Romans from other side. By the second century AD, the frequent wars with neighboring Rome Empire and with the nomads, the internal squabbling within Parthian nobility led to weaken the Arsacids to the point when they could no longer defend their enormous empire. This led to fragmentation of the empire, some claiming independence, some subjugated by other forces. Finally, the Arsacids vanquished by the Sassanids, who emerged from minor vassal to new Persian power in 224 AD. After the battle of Hormizdagan, the entire territory of the Arsacids fell into the hands of new dynasty of the Sasanians, Ardashir. Under Sassanian rule, Parthia transformed into a newly formed Khorasan province and Parthian nobility formed the new Sassanian institution known as seven Parthian clans (Seven Houses). Parthia stopped its existence as a political entity.




Parthian coinage


               The Parthian monetary system was based on the silver drachm, weighing about 4 gm. Coins first struck in the reign of Arsaces I, the founder of the state. The main denominations were the tetradrachm – struck in quantity by Western mints and the drachm – typical of the Eastern mints. Small bronze coins were also issued as a change. The obverse side of the drachm usually carried the bust of the king facing left (or right as per certain period), while the reverse bore Greek lettering around the edge and portrayed a seated figure in nomadic attire with a bow held at arm’s length. The tetradrachms and in particular, the bronze coins were more varied in type. From the reign of Vologases I onwards the drachm also bore Parthian letters. Starting in seventies of the first century B.C the reverse side of coins regularly carried monograms which are abbreviations for the names of mints. Coins struck by the Merv mint were marked with the Greek letter ‘pi’.




Parthian State Capitals:




Mithridatkirt (Mithradatkert) – Nisa      





               The Parthian archeological mission of the Institute of History of Academy of Sciences of Turkmeniya has been working at the Old and new Nisa and in its neighborhood since early 1960s. The expedition revealed many important details and was the continuation of works done by YuTAKE (South Turkmenistan Archaeological Complex Expedition 1946-1991). The monumental complex was revealed as result of the works:  Round Hall, Square Ceremonial Hall, Tower Temple Complex, Square Treasury House, the network of the inner and exterior corridors, columned porticoes.

               Further excavations can be referred to the Italian archaeological Missions 2000- 2010 seasons (University of Turin) added to the Topographical map of Old Nisa and revealed new details on the sites. Here are some details:

               The Round Hall, the west and northern corridors of the Round Hall (in western part found in 1996 and removed in 2002 - a face in clay representing a head of Mithridates I – now, it is in the museum of history of Turkmenistan.

                Northwest area of the Round Hall revealed older constructions than the Round Hall and Tower Temple and found the Parthian and Sasanian walls and pottery.

                The northern part of the Round Hall revealed the medieval structure (35 X 35 meters) of Islamic period and the found ceramics proved that it was occupied this period. Construction composed of a central court with three iwans; at the north, at west and at south. East of the court had rooms and corridor. This based on construction that is more ancient.  

                The Red Building to the north of the Round Hall. Part of the eastern sector of the building – three rooms in a row, has been excavated down to the floor level. In one of the rooms were revealed: gypsum votive balls, arrow heads, slingshots, a hundred of iron plaques  – may belong to armature. Fragments of architectural decorations (metopes, merlons, baked bricks) and traces of rooftrees also revealed there. In the northern sector, the excavations revealed the presence of a wall of façade articulated by niches and pilasters. The remains of a colored plaster show that the façade of the building was partially painted in red. The excavations in the big central area. The soundings undertaken nearby the northern and southern entrances . The discovery of colored plaster of blue, red, black and white colors, small fragments of golden sheets and remains of architectural decorations.

               The monumental façade, at northern side, decorated to the base with a stone socle with ovuli and grooves colored in red and yellow on green stone. The walls of the façade articulated in niches and pillars, part of which appear to have been closed during a second phase of the complex’s use. In the central part of the façade’s wall was an opening, which functioned as the main entry of the Square Building. The building was preceded from a terrace whose anterior side (80-90 cm high) decorated by slabs of stone with the same motifs as the façade. In the middle of the terrace, in its anterior part, there was a stairway of three steps to access the existing level (around 1 meter) among the floor level of the inner rooms of building and that of the central courtyard of the citadel (that on which based out all the buildings of the central complex). On the terrace, about 8 meters from the line of façade of the building, are the bases of 4 columns which had a base and the convex molding (torus). The columns 75-80 cm in diameter had to be wooden and they probably supported a portico in front of the façade. The sides of the façade constituted the side scenes of the terrace, two rooms projected from the line of the façade, accessible only from the terrace of façade; inside walls plastered in white and red.

               Entry of façade led through corridor to main entry of the main square hall of the complex. Square hall over 13 m per side (inside courtyard), has revealed the bases of four columns that supported the roof. Used for particular ceremonies. The western wall of the hall articulated in three niches. At southern side, a passage allowed access from the external corridor of the building, through corridor coming from the Round Hall. The northern side opened onto a room whose walls plastered in white and red. Western wall opened a fanlight niche that perhaps contained a cult image, led to the specific room, the only room communicating with the Square hall (besides the entrance- corridor). To west and east of the room, two rows of three rooms communicate only with the external corridors of the building. Some revealed traces of decoration, consisting in color plaster – red, black, white, yellow and green. The building had the important decorative organization – the friezes in stone, the colored plaster of the environment, the stone base and torus of the columns, the decoration of the wooden parts with gold leaf and colors, the decorative elements of terracotta or clay.

               The substantial independence of the Square building complex, from the Round Hall and Tower, provided by outside access to the southern corridor through the opening in the middle, leading directly into central columned hall. The western and eastern corridors connected to the southern corridor, were even accessible from the portico façade and from the courtyard in the front of the building, from the north. Side corridors connected to the different size rooms, surrounding the central columned hall without access inside. One of these rooms along western corridor, quadrangular in plan, revealed the traces of a painted decorative plaster on the walls and white and red vertical colored bands on the door jambs of its entrance from the corridor, puzzled the archeologists what the special purpose it had.

               The existing material from the corridors and floor level corresponds to the material found inside of the room, suggest the different phases of use (two or three) of a certain importance. The later connected to the revealed gypsum spheroids, placed as offering or ex voto, against the wall or in the corner of the room. The carried excavations make the Italian archaeologists suggest this complex is one of ancient monumental activities in Old Nisa; the employment of wood for the shaft of the columns and stone in decorative friezes date this building as the most ancient construction phase.

               Italian archeologists undertook a 7X5 m sounding in the northeastern corner of the main façade of the building to understand its connection to the Tower building. The side walls of the façade and the corridors are perfectly lined up with the outer stone slab-frieze line of the central portico and aligned with the façade of the northwestern projection of the Tower Building to the east. Also revealed – the ancient restoration works of the façade.

               On the opposite northwestern side of the building, a 2X 9.5 m trench opened – it is likely that a wide space passageway, 6 m in width, was between the Red Building and the external walls of the citadel, later in Islamic times. This was partly filled up to a height of 1.6- 2 m above the ancient floor with beaten clay, straw and pebbles to strengthen the defense.

               The another sector 4X6 m opened on the eastern wall of the building, where it joins the external wall of the Tower Building – the large opening was a passageway to the Tower Building, closed in the latest Arsacid period. Masonry preserved to considerable height, but there is still difficulty to establish chronological relationship between Red and Tower buildings. It is interesting to observe that the western wall of the Towere projection is set against that of the Red Building with brick rows posed vertically and not on the usual horizontal courses.

               Excavation of a large area 6 X 17 m, opened on the south façade to locate the main entrance from this side. The doorway, was closed in the late phase with bricks and earth, opened slightly displaced to the west, not axially with the entrance of the central hall. The fragments of red plaster on the external floor, allow thinking that this side of the building was also painted in red. However, the soundings in its central and eastern parts revealed well-preserved lower courses of bricks, finished in white plaster. In central part of the corridor found – a gypsum ball and a mud bullet for a slingshot. The level of the ancient floor of the corridor has a slight descent, following the natural slope of the ground.

               Further excavations in the western corridor of the building confirmed four occupational levels: two of them close to each other – Parthian period, a third level dates to the late Parthian period, and upper level is probably Islamic. A few pottery sherds and fragments of baked brick or terracotta pipelines found on Arsacid levels, while burnt traces and ashes come from the upper layers, surely to be related to the Islamic occupation of Old Nisa. The opening of the whole corridor allowed to ascertain the presence of passageways on the western and eastern wall, giving access to the inner rooms of the building or on the western side to the fortification wall area.

               The northern main façade of the building knew different restoration and consolidation works during the Arsacid period. A series of pole holes, in front of the external wall of the eastern projecting room of the façade, goes to the first phase of the building, and are sealed by the ancient floor.

               Some medieval layers recognized immediately above two beaten clay floors along the northern façade. Common and glazed pottery date from XII to XVI century A.D found at the site, in front of the western projection of the old façade building.

               In front of the southern façade, excavations opened a large uncovered area, from the fortification walls of the citadel to the west and the neighboring Round Hall to the east. The only two masonries, revealed in previous campaigns, are structures in beaten clay to the west and east sides of the area. The excavations did not reveal the presence of significant Islamic building, even though Islamic pottery shards are quite common in the upper layers. Islamic layers cover a thick deposit of fine clay lying on the two floors in beaten clay with straw, dated to Arsacid times. From here, it comes an ostracon inscribed in Pahlavi and some stucco fragments of an eagle that probably belonged to the inner decoration of the Red Building. The area has also returned a notable quantity of fragments of architectural decoration in terracotta – acanthus leaves, metope, merlons, baked bricks.

               Another survey opened in the area between the Red and Tower Buildings, where the Tower seems to set against the eastern wall of red Building. The structural relation and inner characteristics between the mud bricks of the walls seem to evidence that the two structures are of Parthian period.

               Invernizzi, Lippolis in 2008, gives the description of the Red Building as made off of a façade portico between projecting wings and a quanrangular tetrastyle hall in the middle, surrounded by rooms and U-shape corridors on three sides. The corridors were planned to divide the central block and, at the same time, to connect all the sectors of the building with internal and external areas. The tetrasyle square hall layout is not exclusive of the religious architecture, but it could be found also in the residential and palatial architectonical tradition of Iran and Central Asia. A similar scheme, although varied and different in size, is known in the Tower Building. A portico façade between lateral wings and corridors with openings on each side that served likely as a processional way, connecting the interior and the exterior of the building and at the same time isolating its inner sacral core (the inner block may be containing funerary chambers???). Although different in their very purpose and destination, or in size and decorative details, the Red Building and the Tower Building show similar principles of planning.

               In 2007, Italo - Turkmen team conducted the excavations in the southern part of the Old Nisa. In the southeast area, two soundings opened. In the first one, near the eastern fortification wall, the excavations revealed an area in which food commodities were stored, attested by 20 large fragmented jars (khums) on the ground. The entire area had been prepared by leveling the natural soil and depositing of prepasred earth, gypsum and stones that served as a base for the compacted clay floor. Apart from very small piece of wall in rammed earth (pakhsa), no traces of masonry structures discovered in this area.  

               Further to the west (near the old trench, left by YuTAKE expedition in 1966), an area 20X13 meters opened: Four, 1.4-2 m thick cultural layers opened. The upper layer have seven fragmented jars (khums) for storage. To the earlier layers belong badly preserved structures with walls of rammed earth or walls made with a thick stratum of mortar and a filling of clay, pottery shards, pebbles and fragments of mud bricks. These constructions used long time and undertook the various restorations. These walls could not bear a heavy roof, perhaps these structures just delimited open spaces (whose purpose not clear).

               At the southwestern corner of the citadel, 40 m from the Round Hall, new sounding 70X70 m was open (2007-2010). The excavations revealed wall masonries of a domestic- residential building!?; the plan of building is irregular with a double row of small rooms,  oriented north- south; to the west and east other rooms and courtyards identified but the room walls are very poor preserved. At least three phases confirmed; two  are Arsacid period and late one probably come to the Islamic period. The walls done of standard mud brick of the Parthian period, 40-42 cm each side and 12 cm thick. The terrain here is quite irregular, sloping towards the north where the walls preserved only for two – three courses of bricks on the original floor level. This natural slope of the soil was generally maintained without relevant leveling works, while Arsacid floors and walls were usually founded directly on it. The further plan of the building may reach the fortification walls to the south and to the west; it reaches the area immediately before the southern façade of the Round Hall; to the east, the terrain slopes down and the walls preserved only for the minimal height. Further excavations are difficult due to the precarious state of preservation of the building. Old trench discovered at its northwestern part what had not been published before. The details of building plan: from south to north run two parallel walls of considerable thickness, beyond 2 meters, made of Parthian mud bricks. Beside them, open rooms of different size, some of them narrowed by building intermediate walls of bricks or pakhsa, in late Arsacid phase of occupation. Inside the rooms, some devices suggest their purpose during the last two periods of functioning of the building – fireplaces, ovens, benches discovered on the second and third floor of the rooms. The courtyard and uncovered areas were probably opened to the east and to the west. Two courtyards recognized on the western side of the excavated structures. In the northern one, some jars were sunken in the ancient floor level during the second phase of utilization. At least, two Parthian phases of use are recognizable and were probably close chronologically. A third phase, only some rooms may be perhaps dated to a late Arsacid phase in Old Nisa. Islamic levels partially cut the ancient levels – these structures generally made in beaten clay and are too fragmentary, not possible to predict the precise character of this occupation. The archeologists still need more data to confirm the specific identification of the southwestern building: military, handicraft or residential.

               Further excavations  (up to 2009) revealed six main walls, disposed two by two parallels, at right angles on the southern, western and eastern borders, two similar may be supposed to run on the northern border, thus closing a big square open court. Between the southern walls, two long and narrow rooms opened. Seven big jars (khums) found in the rooms, most of it lying on the two superimposed floors of Parthian period, while two jars sunk directly into the virgin soil bellow. Found also around khums - 60 clay sealing objects bearing the impressions of coins and seals, only limited part can be recognizable.


               In 2008, the excavations continued in all directions, except westward. Sector F in the middle of the southern part of Old Nisa, revealed two buildings.

               Building A consists at least of 11 rooms and extends northeastward. Two different building techniques recognized. The perimeter walls made in rammed earth Pakhsa, the inner walls built with mixture of loose earth, pottery shards, rubble and fragments of mud bricks or baked bricks, covered by a thick layer of mortar. No binding material added for compacting the mixture. The building plan composed by rectangular rooms of about 4,5X2,5 m; 2,5X 3 m; 4X6 m; 2X6 m. Pottery shards found in the building date to the Islamic period 9-12th centuries A.D.

               Building B located to the south of Building A, composed by one rectangular room 8,5 X 6 m, built in rammed earth pakhsa.

               In 2009, it done also a deep sounding in the middle of the major basin, and a stratigraphic sequence reaching the virgin ground, 10 meters below the topsoil, has been reached. Still, there is not clear understanding of the nature and function of this and the other depressions that appear to be aligned on an approximately south-north axis.

               A typical decoration on the monumental buildings of Old Nisa is the terracotta metope (borrowing the Greek term). Nisa metopes represent a hybrid both in form and decoration, include design elements of western origin such as a lion head image, club of Hercules, anchor (a dynastic symbol of the Seleucids) and the typically local gorytos (quiver).

               In 2010 archeological season focused on the Southwestern corner and basins (depressions) area in the Old Nisa. Four new rooms excavated in the southwestern building. Every room showed two or three phases of occupation, proved by superimposed floors in beaten clay. The north- south wall made in mud bricks – pebbles and clay bricks type, poor quality. The west – east walls in rammed earth pakhsa erected in the second period of the buildings occupation. The rooms used for storage, as prove the remains of several jars khums inside. In one of the rooms, revealed 25 ostraca. The citadel fortification walls to the west had been repaired many times in antiquity as show the superimposed layers of rammed earth pakhsa and plaster. The works at this place show that there was long corridor between the wall and the southwestern building. The northern wall is  badly preserved, cut in with medieval walls in pakhsa and some old trenches made earlier. This side composed of two main parallel rows of rooms of different size, ancient floors lie on the different layers, following the natural down slope of the terrain to the north. Two levels are dated to the Parthian period, some were cut later by deep holes, 40 cm and filled with fragments of metopes and other architectural details. Second north row of rooms, walls preserved only for 30-40 cm. The excavations of the eastern side of the building revealed that it continues to the east. Revealed a long north-south wall in mud brick, together with two orthogonal wall with east- west orientation. The fortification walls at the south from the building; composed of the three main levels, preserved for 6 meters in height. Inside is made of pakhsa and exterior part was of mud brick, at the top, a thick layer of plaster spread several times. The long corridor separated the walls of the citadel from the building. At some point accessible from the rooms of the building, where some clay sealing found. Later in the Parthian times, four rectangular trenches and circular pit dug in the corridor, what cut through a terracotta drain lying under the most ancient floor, running west to east.

               The excavations of the basins (depressions) of the Old Nisa; the original trench 10 X 5 meters inside, a deep sounding 5 X 5 meters opened up to 5 meters in depth from the top soil surface. Results: no significant cultural levels nor structures have been recognized in the zone. The circular depressions seems to be natural and no anthropic interventions recognized there.




Architecture planning and colors in Old Nisa:


               Planning in the Old Nisa have the local traditions and connected to Iranian or Central Asian style of that period. The availability of the craftsmen and material in the area influenced this choice. The most used material for the construction was the mud brick, 40 X 42 X13 cm in dimensions what had some variations in different buildings of the citadel. The beaten clay used for masonries or minor details, in particular in the late Parthian period. Initially, stone and wood employed and respectively used for column bases and shafts. Gypsum and stucco elements used to fix the decorative elements in terracotta - merlons, assembled capitals, metopes or slabs and shaped bricks fixed on cornices and friezes on the walls.  

               The decorative apparatus is a synthesis of western and eastern traditions. The decorative schemes affected by western influences (Greek- Seleucids) constitute the same form but lost in substance. These are usually stripped of their original practical function and becoming purely decorative modules. For example, the assembled capitals made with terracotta leaves, in line with Arsacid court taste. It is a refined taste, characteristic of an official and ceremonial architecture in the context of a royal foundation. Misunderstood substance in adopted elements, as happened with the astragalo in the stone socle of the Red Building, revealed by Italian expedition. Reinvented elements; in the case of some metopes with figured elements and the dynastic symbols.

               The Parthian period left small number of written sources about its empire and about Nisa in particular and the excavation of the site are still problematic to untie the puzzles. It is not yet clear the foundation date of the Nisa or when it was abandoned. The universally used mud brick architecture (except – terracotta for baked bricks in the bases and shafts for columns in one building or decorative slabs and merlons) at the site, requires continuous labor force to maintain the buildings during the very long span of time, in the extremely variable atmospheric conditions during the year and the high seismicity of the region. This presents additional difficulty for the archeologists for the punctual reconstruction of the sequence of the different building phases.

               Given the three main phases, none of the buildings can be chronologically related with precision to the erection of the complexes of the monumental sector in the middle part of the tell. In the northern sector of the hill, the Square House probably remained in use throughout the whole Arsacid period, though changing its function during the three main building phases. While the destination of the Square House in its first building phase has been debated for long and still today remains not univocal between the scholars, almost everyone agrees on the fact that in a second phase, the building became a sort of treasury or storehouse for royal furnishings and objects. The Square House planning includes that of functional buildings of eastern Iran and Central Asia, rather than the palatial tradition of the Achaemenid architecture. Italian archeologist Invernizzi has shown that Square House is probably the one that is most closely linked to the formal principles of the Central Asian architectural tradition, both in its plan and in its decoration.  The southwestern complex planning seems generally based on similar principles.  The complex also includes storerooms and rooms with functional facilities as low benches, small basins (plastered or in baked bricks), grindstones and fireplaces. The planning made up of a central quadrangular open space surrounded by rows of rooms on each side. The dimensions of the excavated area are now close to those of the Square House, but the plan show the different modularity; there are not any columns or any particular decoration as in the monumental complexes of the site, the use of terracotta architectural details is minimum and only some for the north side, as attested until now. The rooms are clearly functional structures whose orthogonal plan is mainly aligned with the defensive walls of the citadel, to the south and west, forming unusual parallelogram: the scheme belong to a purely Central Asian tradition. Of course, this reconstruction is a conjecture until the very end of the excavations (Italian archeologists suppose the existence of an entire block or district along the southwestern part of the fortified curtain). None of the architectural decorative elements (metopes, terracotta, plaques…) has even been recovered in situ, in its original place on the walls. Almost all the fragments coming from the structures in the southwestern corner originate from the northern rooms.

               Since 1960 excavations, the central sector is well known. In the same time, it is the one with the most complex and uncertain chronology. In general, Red Building and some walls bellow the Square Hall attributed to a first building phase or possibly to more than one Parthian building phase. V.N. Pilipko (worked in Nisa 2001-2008) attributes the Round Hall, the Tower Building and the Square Hall to the second great building phase, which later underwent various modifications. However, there is uncertainty; the oblique alignment of the Square Hall with respect to the Tower and the Red Buildings. This irregular axis is not recorded in the first plans of YuTAKE expedition, which showed a strictly orthogonal alignment between the buildings. The eastern side of the Square Hall follows the natural slope, with a progressive rotation of the south- north axis towards the west, following the contours of the terrain. However, the form and structure of the terrain and the pre-existence of earlier structures in the sector are not the factors explaining the different orientation of the buildings themselves, since the preparation of the foundation terrace of the Square Hall intended to regularize the area and to incorporate the remains of pre-existing structures. Therefore, it is still not clear why the ancient architects, after massive work of substructure, did not proceed in line with the buildings to the south, especially when Square Hall was one of the most important architectural spaces, the great central courtyard. The further observations determine that the façade of the Square Hall stick out about 0,6-0,9 m from the mud brick platform. Moreover, the two blocks of buildings (in the south and the north-east) organized according to different topographical and planning principles: the southern block is compact, rigorously orientated and aligned with respect to the defensive walls and contains buildings which are interconnected by roofed internal corridors. This progressive rotation of axis towards the west continues in the northern sector of the hill, where the western and eastern walls of the Square House run parallel to the fortification walls.

               The façade of the Tower Building, built at some stage against the Red Building, is perfectly aligned with this. The two buildings seem to be planned on the similar distributional principles, although their functions were likely different. Even the adjacent porticoes of the Tower and the Red Buildings formed a harmonious whole. The Round Hall despite its unique plan and the fact that it breaks the regularity in the succession of the corner projection with the Red Building, fits harmoniously into the juxtaposition with the Red Building.  On the contrary, the Square Hall presents an architectural conception based on different criteria, though the presence of the great tetrastyle Square Hall at first sight recalls some schemes of the sector to the south. It has a less compact conception, that is not based on orthogonal axes, it is without great façade porticoes and the covered corridor which link the various buildings. This requires further research to confirm the theory of the absolute contemporaneity of the Square Hall and the Tower Building, what have not direct connection between.

               The Parthian architects in Old Nisa, had a practical imagination that aims at the simple and the functional. The main features of the planning- constant repetition, symmetry and orthogonal axes, it lead to a dominance of centric layouts, rigorously squared and compact.  Even the unique planning of the Round Hall, with its central circular hall covered with an elliptical mud brick dome, confined within a square perimeter.

               The secondary entrances or accesses usually lead at the back or at the side. The main entrances are generally placed on the axis of the geometrical center of the building. This is correct in the Round Hall, the Tower Building and the Square Hall. In the Red Building, the axis of the portico is only slightly off the center line with respect to the main entrance. The entrance is off centre position also in Northeastern building (so called Palace) and in the Square House in the northern part of the hill.

               The central planning – in some cases the geometrical center – are predominant. It roughly coincides with the central hall, the main space of the building, whose importance emphasized by its being in the centre of the composition and served by several passageways. The architectural layout made up of a number of juxtaposed and independent buildings, differentiated in their functions and sometimes belonging to different Arsacid building phases. They are closely connected by passages which run along perimeter lines of the corridors and which are the principal means of communication, since the inner rooms are often not interconnected. Then, these corridors served to connect and at the same time to isolate the central spaces of the buildings, through which it is not necessary to pass in order to move from one sector to another of the building or from one building to another. The Red Building, the Round Hall and the Tower Building have long passageways running along perimetral corridors giving access to the central spaces, which usually have a more direct entrance. These passageways closely link the three buildings, what confirm that they were in use during the same period, even though the Red Building belongs to an earlier building phase. In this complex design of internal passageways, the southern block is therefore an autonomous sector. As there are not passageways providing a direct link with the Square Hall and the structures further to the northeast.

               The buildings of central ensemble of Old Nisa seem to be based on common principles and the main halls have similar dimensions, though they are different. The proportions and measurements are never equal. The Round Hall about 17 m in diameter, the tetrastyle hall of the Square Hall is about 19 m, the central square block of the Tower Building is about 20 m, the central rectangular tetrastyle hall of the Red Building measures about 15 X 17 m. Even the intercolumniations of the porticoes on the facades or of the internal rooms are never constant.  There is not also a clear basic module in Nisa. G.A. Pugachenkova found a basic module of 228 cm for the Square House and a second basic module of about 15,5 cm in the diameter of the outer columns of the Necropolis Temple of New Nisa. However further excavations showed no single module seems to be adopted for all buildings of Parthian Nisa. Nisean architecture strives for harmony of proportions and spaces are always rhythmically distributed, scholars can not recognize here an order, in the sense of a canon of fixed numerical relationships.

               In the central ensemble of Old Nisa the inner walls of the buildings preserved to 3-4 meters height. If the reconstruction of the roofing of the main buildings still remain conjectural, the elevation of the walls can therefore be assumed with a certain reliability, at least to the considerable height. YuTAKE reconstructive models based on the first analyses of the site. However further excavations raised new questions with respect to the first reconstructive drawings, since 1960. For example, recent Italian research at the Round Hall demonstrate that a semi-elliptical mud brick dome was plausible and Yutake expedition showed a wooden roofing. However, V.N Pilipko still support Pugachenkova version of roofing’s reconstruction.

               Having the old and new data, the general characteristics of the Nisean buildings show the functional criteria, proportions and consistence.  

               The Tower and the Red Buildings, which gave onto the central courtyard, must have formed a continuous façade, alternating the gaps of the porticoes with the solid masses of the projecting avant-corps, to the eyes of anyone approaching the main entrance of the complex. The Round Hall may have had a portico (half columns!!?) on the upper level of the façade, which recalls the columned façade which archeologists have reconstructed for the second floor of the Tower and the entrance portico on its southern side. The rear facades of some buildings reserved on a less monumental scale with columns framing the entrances or using colored plaster. The lateral wings of the building are often built against each other, and where they are free standing, they do not have any particular subdivisions.  

               The use of the order at Nisa has mainly decorative aims, especially on the facades: the porticoes and colored surfaces create chromatic effects which underline the latitudinal development and vertical subdivision of the architectures, rather than servicing for an architectural and functional organization of the spaces. The interior and exterior of the Nisa, have a division of the facades into two or more registers or bands, which are clearly distinguished by the decoration, where sculpture and wall painting play an important role. Colour serve to highlight the subdivision of the architectures and the presence of their various constituent (not structural) elements.

               In the buildings of Nisa prevails a sense of frontality of the facades, which are rarely plain, usually enriched by porticoes between projecting foreparts or rooms, emphasized by the color. Then, the sense of frontality heightened by the predominantly lateral development of the building, enhanced by a decoration organized in horizontal bands. At the same time, however, the chromatic subdivision into horizontal registers, which is also emphasized by the arrangement of friezes made of terracotta elements, serves to create a rhythmic vertical development of the wall, by identifying the different sections of the masonries with different meanings: socle, dado, portico-façade and roofing.

               This increased especially in the interiors, where the height of the columns, supporting the roof and the presence of a rich figured decoration on the upper part of the masonries, focused attention on the vertical development of the surfaces of the walls. The Square Hall in its final stage, had the white lower part and above part rhythmically interrupted by half-columns and the gallery of statues, the painted decorations which crowned them and the colors of the roof beams supported by quarter-foil powerful columns attracted attention to where the profusion of elements and colors was the greatest. This organization of the decoration in the interiors seems to be reversed with respect to what happens on the facades. The outer façade gives greater prominence to a latitudinal development, albeit subdivided into superimposed registers or orders, whereas the architecture of the interior alternates the perception of horizontal space with a strong ascensional impulse, up the walls of the rooms to the ceiling. One of the main factors in the definition of the façade and the perception of the interior spaces of the building of Nisa was the use of color, both on the walls and on some floors.

               The most data concerning facades, revealed for the Temple at New Nisa and the Red Building in Old Nisa. The significant data on the interior rooms collected from the Square Hall, the Tower Building and the Red Building. The Tower Building had the complex cycle of paintings, yielded during the excavations, but the final report is not yet ready for clear reconstructive model of the building. The Round Hall lower part was certainly white, but small fragments of purple plaster found in the lower floor levels suggest a plausible bipartition of the wall of the circular hall. What not illustrated in the YuTAKE reconstructions of the interior: Puganchenkova reconstructive models; the reconstructive drawing in 1958 showed that statues not colored; the drawing in 1967 showed the niches on the upper gallery as plastered in purple red and the same color applied on the wooden ceiling of the hall).

               The building of New Nisa clearly presents the horizontal partition of the facades, typical for the architecture of Nisa in whole. The purple color of the back wall of the portico, alternating with the black of the stylobates and of the half columns, accentuates the clear separation between the lower part, rhythmically broken up by the free supports and a plain upper part of the building, which to imagine to have been interrupted solely by the window openings.

               The Red Building opens the same scheme in its façade portico, where the colors are even more accentuated, with use of wood to stone, terracotta, mud brick and gypsum. The stone socle running along the front of the raised portico and the base of its back wall is decorated with typically western motifs (bead-reel-flutings), albeit in a new position: instead of upper parts of brick work as in normal frieze, but low like a dado. The wooden columns of the portico rested on stone bases of the Achaemenid type, colored red, while their shafts were decorated by a lively polychromy (red, ochre, gold leaves and black) related to the Iranian model. For the capitals of the columns should be mentioned some fragments of polychrome terracotta leaves found in the area of the portico, which here as elsewhere in Nisa have formed Corinthian capitals (may be second building phase???)

               The strongly pictorial effect and lively polychromy of the façade give unity to the different materials used in the composite architecture. The sequence of colors on the façade wall was a polychrome dado- the naturally greyish green stone colored in red, ochre and black. Then purple or ochre plaster. Finally blue color on the top of the walls or more likely, on the roof beams of the portico (the same as in the Hellenistic Mediterranean world, for example reconstructed house in the site museum of Pella).

               Large monochromatic surfaces were reserved for the rear (south) façade of the building and for the interior, where at least four rooms had purple plaster on the lower part of the walls or purple and ochre on the floor surface. Colored plasters on the floors and walls are well known in the architecture of the Achaemenid epoch. At Nisa, the coloured plasters are executed with great care. They are tough but also delicate, especially in the case of the floors. Red plasters recur at New Nisa Necropolis and in the Square Hall. The fine and fragile decorations suggest that this kind of finishing was intended for particular rooms, whose use was reserved to a few people. The purple color related with the strong significance, linking to royalty from Achaemenid period. The other aspects of the color are debated between the use to a sacral, a funerary or a secular sphere.

               The central tetrastyle of the Red Building had white walls, interrupted only by niches with a red background on the western wall. The chromatism was accentuated in the columns and in the roof beams. One of the room of the Red Building, being in the exceptional state of conservation, gives the idea of reconstructive model of decorative schemes used at Nisa. Here, the walls preserved to the height of 4 m, the plaster of the lower wall still visible to 2.20 m high. The upper section of the painted decoration, organized in bands, collapsed on floor retaining the original sequence of colors. The reconstruction is therefore reliable up to 4 m, it remains hypothetical for the top of the walls that were probably just finished with a white plastering. The walls of the room subdivided into coloured horizontal bands, of varying widths, often crowned by narrower pictorial strips which alternate geometric motifs of obvious western derivation.

               The most complex and varied case is that of the Square Hall, as is known for the final phase of building. Here the polychrome decoration of the tetrasyle hall is on the upper level of the walls and includes monochrome plasters crowned by bands with geometric motifs, as well as statues, columns and architectural elements partly or wholly covered with color.

               Nisa planning has the functionality following the Iranian and Central Asia traditions of architecture. However, there is new solution as the Round Hall. At the decorative level of the architectural elements, there is visible side of borrowed elements from the west and other side is the autonomous, independent part of the Parthians (the local region and style of life). Order, the applied elements and colors used exclusively for decorative purpose to create the virtual partition of the facades. Structurally united superimposed levels have only superficial distinction. The decoration has the main purpose to enrich the architecture, to highlight the frontality of the structure or to accentuate the visual effect of the interior spaces.

               Nisa being one of the first capitals of the young Parthian state, remains the important point at the later stages of Parthian empire. Due to the geopolitical development around its borders, it remains the communication center with the nomadic confederations of Central Asia for security of its borders and the secure trade routes passing the Parthian controlled lands. On the other hand, this region was still important to withstand the threat of Rome from the west and new threats of big nomads groups from the east.






(known also as Arshak in Astuene, supposed the crowning place of Arsaces I. Present day Iran – Kuchan area)





(known also as Apavartene – rosewater, present day Dargaz area in Iran. Other names – Bavard or Abivard/ not mistaken with the site in Turkmenistan. It had rich bazaar and access to fertile lands, the city was considerably more prosperous than neighboring cities and it was the largest and most affluent city of the Great Khorasan area, in the Sasanian period)






(it was founded by Mithridates I in 120 B.C, Parthian period, around 32 km from Baghdad, Mesopotamia region. City construction started in the village near the Seleucia on the Tigris. In 58 B.C it became the capital of Parthian Empire. Captured by Rome at least three times in Parthian period. It continued to be the capital of Sasanian empire. In 637 it was taken by Muslim Arabs and after the center moved in Baghdad, it became depopulated in the 8th century)




(The ancient city, since Media times, located in Hamadan province in Iran, Zagros mountains)





(Persian name Qumis, One Hunderd Gates, Parthian capital since 237 B.C, location Semnan province in Iran. Destroyed by earthquake in 856 AD)




(The Ancient city of Near East, served as capital of Elam, Achaemenid and Parthian Empires, one of Sasanian centers. Abandoned in 1218, location , Zagros mountains, near Shush twon, Khuzestan province, Iran.)





(Also known as Ray or Arsacia, modern Tehran.The ancient city from Media times.)