A non-partisan journal of the left.

Bosnia and Croatia: What is the tie with Iran?

Tue 24th Jul 2012

Back in the mid 1990’s, following the break up of Yugoslavia, when Serbian military forces were attacking innocent civilians in the independent states of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia, concerned citizens in the outside world followed the events with much trepidation. The mass migration of refugees across imaginary borders, the concentration camps full of innocent people and the ubiquitous unmarked mass graves near Zagreb, Sarajevo, Srebrenica were heart wrenching to witness and displayed a shamefully ambivalent global conscience that was satisfied to remain silent. If any lesson is to be learned from these tragic events, it is surely the need to ensure that these civilians did not die in vain and to do all we can to avoid similar atrocities occurring in the future. That said, we humans tend to have short memories when it comes to our history.

Having completed a three-year term as the science & technology advisor to Congresswoman Nita M. Lowey’s and whilst working at the IBM Research Division as well as at Pace University, I was befriended by a cadre of diehard American scholars of Croatian heritage who were desperately struggling to encourage the U.S. government to intervene militarily to stop the bloodshed in their motherland. Most striking of all was the education and understanding I gained about the history, culture and life stories of the noble people of the Balkans. I was baffled when one day I received an unsolicited email from an Australian of Croatian ancestry giving me 1001 reasons that the Croatians were originally from Persian descent. My first reaction was one of bewilderment.

After witnessing the constant stream of negativity aimed at Iran and the Iranian diaspora by the Western media, and in lieu of the fact that under such pressure most Iranian expatriates abroad have resorted to disguising themselves as Greek, Turkish, Italian, Jewish, Lebanese, Latinos etc, it was refreshing to hear that a blond young lad had the yearning to be Persian!

Noel Malcolm, the acclaimed British modern historian and author of the book Bosnia: A short history, provides the reader with the most comprehensive narrative of a multi-ethnic Bosnia and the many empires that had governed the region over the past two millennia. He specifically writes about the history of tribes that migrated into Bosnia from Iran 1,700 years ago. For example, the word Kravat, or Hravat whilst having no etymological roots in Slavic languages, can be traced back to ancient Persian. In fact, the word sounds familiar as it is engraved on a rock situated in the southwestern region of Russia inhabited by Greeks. Its root, Khoravat found in the Avesta the Zoroastrian holy book, means Friendship.

Historical evidence supports the migration of the Croats and other peoples who settled in today’s Balkans 1,700 years ago. This coincides with a period in the Sassanid Dynasty in Iran where the caste based hierarchical Zoroastrian religion, as spearheaded by the priests, the Mobad, had formed a strong alliance with the governing elites. After making Zoroastrianism the official state religion, state sponsored persecutions and heavy taxes were levied against other faiths. In addition to the future Croats, other groups who later became Bosnians, Serbs, Armenians and South Ossetians moved from Iran to Asia Minor and later to the Balkans circa 300-500 AD. Ironically, the Zoroastrians themselves had to flee Persia to India in three waves between in the 7th - 15th centuries due to Islamic persecution. A modern migration took place post 1979 and included millions of Iranians fleeing to the US and other Western nations. The Jews of Iran, having been assimilated for nearly three millennia, also migrated to the US and Israel. However, against all odds, a sizable Jewish community, alongside Zoroastrians, Armenians, Assyrians, and the Baha’i still remain in Iran.

Amongst those non-Zoroastrians persecuted in the Sassanid era of the 3rd - 6th centuries, the Christians and the believers of the Mazdakism and Manichaeism, (the latter most presumably becoming the Croatians), were especially targeted. In his book, Malcolm writes that these ethnicities later became part of the Slavic race. According to Malcolm, both the Serbians and the Croatians were of Iranian roots; however, only the Croats tied a handkerchief around their neck to distinguish themselves from other ethnicities. Coincidentally, the same handkerchief, called a Dastar, is still used by shepherds in Iran to prevent their necks from burning in the sun. At times they wrap bread and feta cheese in it and tie it to the tip of a stick held over the shoulder. Until recently, in Mazandaran, the groom would wrap a red or green handkerchief around his neck, symbolically equivalent to a wedding ring.

In 1656, Louis the 14th formed a Croat volunteer army whose distinction was the silk neck handkerchief with distinct ties. They even used the handkerchief for covering wounds in battles. At times, they attached the handkerchief to their body armor. The armored protection was historically made of leather, thus the phrase, ’a la croate’, entered the French language in the mid-17th century. One hundred and seventy years later, the tie became internationally accepted as a symbol of formal attire. Since the late 15th century, the French term, cuirasse or the Italian term, corazza was loosely used. Although both these names have Persian Avestan (Old Pahlavi) roots, some scholars have retroactively tried to fabricate an old Latin etymology for the word, coracea.

In the Avesta, (Vandidad, chapter 14, verse 9), twelve essential items are cited as a requirement for military personnel; the eighth item is the Konret, aka Grivpan in Old Pahlavi, which is a cloth attached to steel armor. On one of the major carvings in Persepolis, (and as illustrated in Figure 42 in Iran in the Ancient East written by Ernst Herzfeld), Ardeshir’s father (Artaxerxes) dressed in Median attire clearly has a tie around his neck.

To sum it all up, I suppose it depends who you hear the story from and who writes history. For me it conjures up memories of the Greek American restaurant owner in the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who claimed that culture originated in Greece. All other nations with ancient roots-- the Jews, the Persians, the Chinese, the Indians, the Egyptians—make the same claim. One can only surmise there is a degree of truth to each claim, with the understanding that all these civilizations exchanged, borrowed and lent ideas to one another. What ties us all together is humanity and humility, compassion and empathy, and the aspiration to safeguard and leave the world a better place for the generations that follow.
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