Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.09.51

David Whitehouse, Siraf: History, Topography and Environment. British Institute of Persian Studies Archaeological Monographs Series 1.   Oxford/Oakville, CT:  Oxbow Books, 2009.  Pp. vi, 118.  ISBN 9781842173947.  $76.00.  

Reviewed by M. Weiskopf (

Whitehouse, with co-authors Whitcomb and Wilkinson, publish here the results of their inquiries into the medieval Islamic city of Siraf, “one of the largest archaeological sites of any period on the Iranian coast of the Persian Gulf” (p. 113), conducted from 1966-1973. The findings on the history, topography and environment were readied for publication during the first half of 2008. Although Siraf (pp. 1-8) played its leading role in the maritime trade network between c. 800-1050 A.D., the site should be of interest to those examining international trade in the Sasanian and Islamic periods.

Although written sources (pp. 9-16) remain silent about the city before the ninth century A.D., Whitehouse and his colleagues found Sasanian-era material in widely dispersed areas. Beneath the medieval Congregational Mosque were the remains of a Sasanian fort (figs. 4-7 for plan and reconstruction). It is likely that Siraf, terminus for caravan routes and one of the preferred anchorages on the eastern shore of the Persian Gulf, served both military and economic needs for the Sasanians. By the late 700s Chinese bronze and ceramics were reaching the port and its environs. A detailed account of Sirafi merchants during ninth to eleventh centuries AD is provided by Islamic-era sources, especially Ibn Haugal (p. 13) and Buzurg ibn[?] Shahriyar (p. 111).1

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 cover the excavation and survey results as one moves outward from the urban core to the surrounding regions. Chapter 3 (pp. 17-53) focuses on Siraf’s urban topography (ca. 800-1050) and offers exemplary maps and photos. The accompanying CD (363 MB) is duplicable and was able to be viewed using Adobe Photoshop 6 under Windows Server 2003 (Window 7’s built-in picture viewer was not strong enough). The major features of western Siraf receive the most attention. Sites J and L, located in the southwest corner of the city (figs. 12, 13), preserve fortifications and parts of the city wall: one should note the juxtaposition of a bathhouse and a warehouse immediately between the Gulf shore and the city wall. As befits an international port, Siraf, in addition to the large Congregational Mosque located in the middle of the city's southern coast (Site B, fig. 16; fig. 25 for the adjoining shops), possessed at least 10 additional mosques, some located in the surrounding suburbs. Many of them had adjoining cemeteries, calling to my mind the disposition of earlier Zoroastrian funerary structures (cemeteries: figs. 45-48, note astodans in fig. 47). Other areas excavated included a bazaar, a palace-like structure, and residential quarters. Site D’s “potters’ quarter” at the western edge of Siraf possessed workshops the size of a city block. The state of preservation might encourage comparisons with Mediterranean sites plus investigation into the persistence of technology.

Wilkinson (Chapter 4, pp. 54-76) reports on Siraf’s hinterland. Those interested in Achaemenid studies might note the continued presence of qanats (fig. 59 and p. 67). But of particular value are Wilkinson’s comparison between modern and ancient land usage and the distribution of cultivated land (see pp. 70-71 for maps). Land appears to have been best used during the early Islamic period.

Chapter 5 (pp. 77-97), Whitcomb’s contribution, outlines the survey of the high valleys (1973 survey, p. 78, fig. 68). He presents a gazetteer of sites, with preliminary plans of noted structures (table 3a and 3b for site list and chronology). North of modern Bid-i Khar in the Jam Valley (p.83) is the “Mound of Glass”, a post-9th century AD glass factory near to which were found scraps of Ming porcelains (ceramics and glass “profiles” are found in figs. 74, 75, 76). The overall settlement pattern parallels Siraf’s: traces of the Sasanian occupation remain “nebulous” (p. 94).

Of great interest to ancient historians will be Whitehouse’s placing of Siraf into a wider context (300-600, 800-1050 A.D., pp. 98-113). The merchants of Siraf, beginning in the Sasanian period, seem to have reached into Sri Lanka and beyond (pp. 98-101), evidenced by the Chinese ware illustrated in photos (figs. 79, 81-84, pp. 104-107). Apparently Muslim traders commissioned some pieces while in China: their names were inscribed before the firing. Those who have studied early contact with the coast of East Africa will find a summation of evidence from the later, Muslim-era “Siraf period” (pp. 109-110).

What, then, will be the effect of the published report? According to the Editor’s preface (p. vii, September 2009 date): “The importance of Siraf is emphasized by the fact that the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research recommenced excavations at the site in 2007.” At the present time (July 2010) I have not detected any published results of those inquiries. The report will prove of greatest value to those investigating Siraf as a port and its role in international trade. The recently published proceedings of a February 2004 conference on the Maritime Silk Road (preface, p. 2, October 2009 date) suggests, for example, that future work on the relations between Iran and China (see especially the essay by Ye Yiliang, pp. 3-6) will be enhanced by the Whitehouse publication.2 Whitehouse’s reference to the importance of Nestorian Church records for the Sasanian period (pp.100-101, fig. 78) is now complemented by Klaus Koschorke’s examination of that church as a continental network.3 When new Sasanian-era (or earlier) data are revealed they will fill out the existing picture.


1.   Both are available in European translations. Ibn Hauqal Configuration de la terre (Kitab Surat al-ard). tr. J. H. Kramers and G. Wiet. Paris, 1964. Buzurg ibn Shahriyar. Captain Burzurg ibn Shahriyar of Ramhormuz, The Book of the Wonders of India: Mainland, Sea and Islands. ed. And tr, G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville. London and the Hague, 1981.
2.   Ralf Kauz, ed. Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea. East Asian Maritime History, 10. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010.
3.   Klaus Korschorke “Die ostsyrische-nestorianische ‘Kirche des Ostens’ als kontinentales Netzwerk im Asien der Vormoderne,” Jahrbuch für Europäische Überseegeschichte 9 (2009) 9-35. I recommend future examination of this journal for progress reports and reviews of the topics mentioned above.

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