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11:00  Political Agency and the Metaphysical Transformation of Marginal Spaces: The Case of Sasanian Iran (AD 224–641)

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In the last fifty years, Ancient Near Eastern archaeologists have adapted modern sociologists like Weber and modern geographers such as Christaller to promulgate a model of ancient polities as centralized, bureaucratic states. In contrast, the peripheries of ancient states are often considered marginal both in space and in importance. The concept of liminality allows archaeologists to redress some of the imbalance by considering how contested peripheries can generate new forms of political experience. Through the act of contestation, these peripheries become liminal spaces and as such, these spaces become both destabilizing and potential arenas for transformative social movements or events. 

In particular, this paper will focus on three stages in the development of the Sasanian Empire (AD 224 - 641). During the formative stage of the empire, the Sasanian king of kings Shapur I (AD 240 - 272) evoked Anahita, a Zoroastrian goddess who blessed the heroes of Iran, through specifically created Anahita-inspired landscapes and ritual arenas that could function as recurring scenes for reaffirming the king as hero. In the fourth century AD, the Turanians change from being one of Iran's most important mythological enemies into powerful rivals who repeatedly break through the nominal northeastern frontier of Iran. Thus Shapur I's imagined Iran is literally and ideologically threatened. The final stage occurs in the late fifth century AD, when Kavad and his son Khosrau I Anushirvan (AD 490 - 521) attempt to revive a form of Shapur I's heroic kingship in defense of Iran. These two kings over a period of decades built a physical and metaphysical border against Turan. The border consists of both a wall and a diverted river which serves as the divine home of Anahita. Through a revival of the Anahita cult, these kings effectively ended a liminal temporality, transformed a liminal geography, and in turn transformed themselves into divinely sanctioned heroes. In contrast to van Gessen type rites of passage, the goal of this royal project was specifically to end these liminalities, thus creating a geography ordered like a Levi-Strauss dualism of good-evil and order-chaos. It does all of this in a place that remains physically marginal, while at the same time becoming metaphysically central to the successful functioning of the state. 

Ultimately, the Sasanian case is important because it provides an alternative to liminalities as discrete and constrained times and spaces controllable by a master of ceremonies, and instead it emphasizes liminalities as potentially contested spaces that provide opportunities for generating a new political order.

Tobin Hartnell


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