Photo by Solivagant.

Hegmataneh is part of the Tentative list of Iran in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

Hegmataneh or Ecbatana comprises the ruins of the capital of the Medes. Later it became the (summer) capital of Achaemenids and Parthians as well. Excavations so far have been limited, but have revealed a massive defensive wall made of mud-bricks and a checkerboard urban plan.

Map of Hegmataneh

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The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

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UK - 27-Jan-23 -

Hegmataneh (T) by Solivagant

This site’s current UNESCO T List description confidently asserts that “Hegmataneh is universally well known because Median Dynasty was established over there” (sic) and adds, for good measure; “There exists no comparable instance”. Bold claims! The “Medes” are, indeed, one of a number of “ancient peoples” from Asia of whom we have probably all “heard” but without knowing much, or even anything, more about them. So, how did they and their "capital" enter our “common knowledge base”?

It seems that we owe our earliest “knowledge” to a handful of historical references in “Classical” literature ;

a. In the 5th C BCE Herodotus, wrote in his “Histories” (1.78) that; “The Medes built the city now called Ecbatana, the walls of which are of great size and strength rising in circles one within the other. The plan of the place is that each of the walls should out-top the one beyond it by the battlements. The nature of the ground, which is a gentle hill, favors this arrangement in some degree but it is mainly effected by art. The number of the circles is seven, the royal palace and the treasuries standing within the last ………..All these fortifications Deioces had caused to be raised for himself and his own palace."

b. A 5th C BCE Babylonian clay text known as the Nabonidas Chronicle (now in the British Museum) describes how Cyrus defeated the last Median King and took much wealth from Ecbatana “The army of Astyages revolted against him and delivered him in fetters to Cyrus. Cyrus marched against the country of Ecbatana; the royal residence he seized; silver, gold, other valuables of the country Ecbatana he took as booty and brought to Anšan

c. Finally, the “Medes” and Ecbatana played a role in the Old Testament stories of Daniel and the subsequent release of the Jews from Babylon by Cyrus. In particular they gained an iconic reputation via the Biblical phrase “Medes and Persians”. It was in Daniel 5 that Belshazzar, King of Babylon, held his “feast”, couldn’t read the “writing on the wall” and was told by Daniel that it said “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting”. The prophesy concluded that his kingdom was to be “divided and given to the Medes and Persians” and indeed, “That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans was slain, and Darius the Mede received the kingdom..” The biblical story progresses with Daniel, working honourably for “Darius” before falling foul of the inexorable “Law of the Medes and Persians” enacted by him. This required “Darius”, unwillingly, to put Daniel into the lion’s den because he had prayed to God…who of course “saved” him, such that “Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian” (Daniel 6:28)! Finally, Ezra 6 tells how Darius “proved” that the Jews, already returned to Jerusalem by Cyrus (Ezra 1), had, via a scroll found at “Achmetha" (= Ecbatana), also been given the right to rebuild the temple.

And that’s about “it” for the early recorded place of the Medes and Ecbatana! Later Historians writing after the conquests of Alexander (c330BCE) e,g Berosus (“History of Babylon” c290 BCE) and Polybius (“Histories” C170 BCE) describe Ecbatana’s great wealth at the time of Alexander’s conquest – which was long after the Achaemenids had themselves conquered the “Medes”. The very earliest sources have their “problems”. Herodotus was writing about events around 2 Centuries earlier and the Medes left no written records of their own. Their “first king”, Deioces, may be partly mythological and Herodotus’ chronology etc is suspect . Cyrus was undoubtedly “Persian” but there seems to be no reason why the “Medes” should have been treated as “equals” with them in the same phrase as is the case in the Book of Daniel which must relate to the time at which the Persians were conquering Babylon (539BCE) having already conquered the Medes and taken over their capital! Criticising the veracity of Biblical books is of course problematic to many people. Anyone who is interested can make their own investigations and judgements, but the modern, non-religiously inspired, view seems to be that the book of Daniel got its dates and persons wrong, that there was NO such person as “Darius the Mede”  and that the Biblical phrase “Medes and Persians” as if they were equals has no justification….. but others disagree! 

Whatever, it would seem that a “group” of late Bronze-Age people in NW Iran, now known generically as the “Medes”, were a significant “entity” in the 8th/7th C BCE and were instrumental in bringing about the dissolution of the Assyrian Empire around the time of Ecbatana’s foundation (say 670BCE?). Whether they really did have an “empire” is disputed. In any case, their “peak” didn’t last that long and they themselves were conquered by Cyrus and the Achaemenids around 550 BCE, who then sited their own summer palace in the former Median city whilst ruling from Susa. The Achaemenid inscriptions at Bisotun, on the “highway” between Babylon and Ecbatana even refer to it - “Hagmatāna or Haŋmatāna, literally "the place of gathering" according to Darius I's inscription at Bisotun” (Wiki). The Achaemenids (and other later rulers such as the Parthians) also "recognised" the earlier history by titling their "Satrapy" (i.e Vice-royalty) of the area as "Media".

In subsequent centuries, all the many later tribes and peoples who invaded “Persia” included this attractive spot in the foothills of the Zagros mountains in their conquests – Macedonians, Parthians, Sassanians, Arabs, Seljuks etc. The Mongols in 1220 and Timur in 1386 destroyed whatever was then present, but a city survived in the area through to the present even if not in exactly the same place - Indeed you will note if visiting or looking at Google Maps, that “Modern Hamadan” follows a city plan from 1929 (by a German architect), based on a circular design with avenues radiating from a central point. This main circle only deviates to avoid the Tell which would seem likely to constitute the heart of the earlier ancient city! But anything else will have been overbuilt. 

Given all this semi-mythology, it is hardly surprising that archaeologists have wanted to excavate “Ecbatana” and uncover tangible evidence of those times. One might have thought that the linked etymology of Hamadan/Haŋgmetana (old Persian) would be enough to connect the remains at the Tell irrevocably to the Median “Ecbatana” but this, apparently hasn’t always been the case. The Wiki article certainly concludes that “Historians and archaeologists now believe the identification of Ecbatana with Hamadān is secure” but also mentions “Earlier, a lack of significant archaeological remains from the Median and Achaemenid periods had prompted suggestions of other sites for Ecbatana”. Among these was the British archaeologist, Rawlinson  who deciphered the Bisotun script and thought that there might even have been 2 “Ecbatanas” with the other being at Takht-i-Suleiman (but, given the basic meaning of the word as "Meeting Place" that was, perhaps, not so unreasonable).

The current situation is that excavations concentrating on a part of the Tell by various teams through to today have still found disappointingly little from the supposed Median “peak”, nor even from the subsequent Achaemenid period. This article from Jun 2020, sets out the current view. The archaeologist in charge asserts that “Hegmataneh hill is one of the most important archeological sites [of the ancient times] such as Rome, Athens, Alexandria and Babylon.” but has little justification as yet. It may be elsewhere on the Tell….. or even elsewhere under built up modern Hamadan!

When one visits an archaeological site one accepts of course that many of the finds will have been removed to museums but one still hopes for a few memorable highlights – carved pillars, statues, preserved plasterwork even pottery and skeletons etc. Hegmataneh fails to provide any of those, consisting instead visibly of a jumble of mud walls. My photo (from May 2016) of an excavated area under protected roofing gives I feel a fair impression of what is “on show”!! The on-site museum has some interesting exhibits - but the “best stuff” is in Tehran (or even scattered around the World). e.g Its most famous piece - the Achaemenid Gold Ryton . This link provides a video and photos which give good idea of parts of the site and its museum. I guess we spent about 1 hour.

Whilst the “official” T List entry continues to be for “Hegmataneh” alone, it appears that Iran recognizes that its tangible excavated remains are probably not strong enough for a nomination on their own, despite those claims about its importance in the T List description referred to above! It can’t yet point to any significant excavated evidence of Median origins and its Achaemenid remains are not that special in comparison with others from the same period. This article from Feb 2022 suggested that, instead, it intended trying to develop a proposal for “Hamadan and its Cultural Landscape” taking in a wider range of sites than simply Hegmataneh. 2 further articles Nov 19 2022  and Jan 25 2023 indicate that a nomination progressed significantly during 2022, such that the latter even suggests that a file will be ready for sending to UNESCO for Feb 2023 (we will see!!) with a new title “Urban Landscape of Hegmatane to Hamadan”. This would seem to indicate the intention to major on the claim that Hamedan is “among the World’s oldest continuously inhabited cities” either via a single site encompassing much of the modern city, or the selection of significant historical sites within it, possibly all the way through to aspects of its 20th C town planning?  

We didn’t visit enough of the potential elements beyond the Tell to make a solid judgement about their value and whether they told a coherent story. They include the normal bazaar, a number of 12th/13th C “Tower Tombs”, Qajar houses and a mosque, an Achaemenid bas relief (8 kms from the centre) and a few mausolea (including 1 built in 1954 commemorating Avicenna and modelled on Gonbad-e Qabus!). But, whilst obviously “seeing” the new city en passant, our only “other” visited site was the (traditional) 14th C Tomb of Esther & Mordecai. This continues the city’s biblical connections and is interesting enough in opening up another strand of its history - which includes a long term Jewish community. IMO, none of this really places Hamedan as a “must see” city, especially given the multitude of sites across Iran. It is, however, a convenient stop/transport hub along a western route down from N.W Iran to Susa etc via Bisotun - so you may well pass through, whether or not it has achieved WHS status, and, if so, should certainly stop long enough to take in "incomparable" Hegmataneh"!

A post script about "the Medes"! Iraq's T List includes "Amedy City" and, in its UNESCO description, states that "The Medes were the first to concentrate on the city who adapted it as a capital for their Kingdom". Now - what is this "capital" of the Medes doing situated in Iraqi Kurdistan c700kms NW of the more famous Median "capital" in Hamadan? The whole subject is mired in the uncertainty/varied definitions as to who exactly the "Medes" were and also in a political desire to culturally appropriate their reputation - in this case by the Kurds. If you are interested, then this article  might be a useful starting point (But be aware that its author, of part Kurdish heritage, isn't immune from criticism when writing on "matters Kurdish").

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Archaeological site - Near Eastern
2008 Added to Tentative List

Unesco Website: Hegmataneh

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Hegmataneh (T)
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