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Charax or Charax Spasinu was an ancient port at the head of the Persian Gulf in modern day Iraq, and the capital of the ancient kingdom of Characene.


Jat Gotras Namesake


The name Charax, probably from Greek Χάραξ,[1] literally means "palisaded fort", and was applied to several fortified Seleucid towns. Charax was originally named Alexandria, after Alexander the Great, and was perhaps even personally founded by him. After destruction by floods, it was rebuilt by Antiochus IV (175-164 BC) and renamed Antiochia. It was at this time provided with a massive antiflood embankment almost 4½ km long by Antiochus's governor, Hyspaosines, and renamed "Charax of Hyspaosines."

There is a theory that Charax derives from the Aramaic word Karkâ meaning 'castle', but Charax often attested at several other Seleucid towns with the meaning palisade.

Location of Charax

Charax was located on a large mound known as Jabal Khuyabir at Naysān near the confluence of the Eulaios/Karkheh and the Tigris as recorded by Pliny the Elder.[2]

According to Pliny the Elder:

The town of Charax is situated in the innermost recess of the Persian Gulf, from which projects the country called Arabia Felix. It stands on an artificial elevation between the Tigris on the right and the Karún on the left, at the point where these two rivers unite, and the site measures two [Roman] miles [3 km] in breadth... It was originally at a distance of 1¼ miles [1.9 km] from the coast, and had a harbour of its own, but when Juba [Juba II, c. 50 BC—c. AD 24] published his work it was 50 miles [74 km] inland; its present distance from the coast is stated by Arab envoys and our own traders who have come from the place to be 120 miles [178 km]. There is no part of the world where earth carried down by rivers has encroached on the sea further or more rapidly...[3]

The Description of Pliny matches the depiction on the Tabula Peutingeriana.

The Jabal Khuyabir tell is now 1km south of the confluence of the Eulaios/Karkheh and the Tigris; the river shifted course during a well-documented storm event in 1837.[4]

Naysān could be a colloquial Arabic corruption of Maysān, the name of Characene during the early Islamic era.[5] First excavations and research started in 2016.[6]


Excavations on the site started in 2016, which revealed that the city was laid out on a grid pattern with housing block 185 by 85 m square. These belong to the largest blocks in the ancient world. Two large public buildings were detected, but are not yet excavated.[7]


A history of the city of Charax can be distilled only from ancient texts and numismatic sources,[8] as the city itself has never been properly excavated.

The city was established by Alexander the Great in 324 BC, replacing a small Persian settlement, Durine.[9]This was one of Alexander's last cities before his death in 323 BC. Here he established a quarter (dēmē) of the port called Pella, named after Alexander’s own town of birth, where he settled Macedonian veterans.[10] The city passed to the Seleucid Empire after Alexander's death, until it was destroyed at some point by flooding.[11]

The city was rebuilt c. 166 BC by order of Antiochus VI Dionysus, who appointed Hyspaosines as satrap to oversee the work.[12] The political instability that followed the Parthian conquest of most of the Seleucid Empire allowed Hyspaosines to establish an independent state, Characene, in 127 BC. He renamed the city after himself.

Charax remained the capital of the small state for 282 years, with the numismatic evidence suggesting it was a multi-ethnic Hellenised city with extensive trading links. The Romans under Trajan annexed the city in AD 116.[13] Characene independence was re-established 15 years later under the rule of Mithridates, a son of the Parthian King Pacoros, during the civil war for the Parthian throne. From this time the coinage from Charax indicates a more Parthian culture.

In AD 221–222, an ethnic Persian, Ardašēr, who was satrap of Fars, led a revolt against the Parthians, establishing the Sasanian Empire. According to later Arab histories he defeated Characene forces, killed its last ruler, rebuilt the town and renamed it Astarābād-Ardašīr.[14] The area around Charax that had been the Characene state was thereon known by the Aramaic/Syriac name, Maysān, which was later adapted by the Arab conquerors.[15]

Charax continued, under the name Maysan, with Persian texts making various mention of governors through the fifth century and there is mention of a Nestorian Church here in the sixth century. The Charax mint appears to have continued through the Sassanid Empire and into the Umayyad empire, minting coin as late as AD 715.[16]

Charax was finally abandoned during the 9th century because of persistent flooding and a dramatic decrease in trade with the west.

Mention by Pliny

Pliny[17] mentions Voyages to India.....They then arrived at the mouth of the Euphrates, and from thence passed into a lake which is formed by the rivers Eulæus18 and Tigris, in the vicinity of Charax19 after which they arrived at Susa20 on the river Tigris.

18 A river of ancient Susiana, the present name of which is Karun. Pliny states, in c. 31 of the present Book, that the Eulæus flowed round the citadel of Susa; he mistakes it, however, for the Coprates, or, more strictly speaking, for a small stream now called the Shapúr river, the ancient name of which has not been preserved. He is also in error, most probably, in making the river Eulæus flow through Messabatene, it being most likely the present Mah-Sabaden, in Laristan, which is drained by the Kerkbah, the ancient Choaspes, and not by the Eulæus.

19 Called, for the sake of distinction, Charax Spasinu, originally founded by Alexander the Great. It was afterwards destroyed by a flood, and rebuilt by Antiochus Epiphanes, under the name of Antiochia. It is mentioned in c. 31.

20 The Shushan of Scripture, now called Shu. It was the winter residence of the kings of Persia, and stood in the district Cersia of the province Susiana, on the eastern bank of the river Choaspes. The site of Sisa is now marked by extensive mounds.

Mention by Pliny

Pliny[18] mentions Tigris....After this (Pasitigris), it receives the Choaspes17, which comes from Media; and then, as we have already stated,18 flowing between Seleucia and Ctesiphon, discharges itself into the Chaldæan Lakes, which it supplies for a distance of seventy miles. Escaping from them by a vast channel, it passes the city of Charax to the right, and empties itself into the Persian Sea, being ten miles in width at the mouth.

17 A river of Susiana, which, after passing Susa, flowed into the Tigris, below its junction with the Euphrates. The indistinctness of the ancient accounts has caused it to be confused with the Eulæus, which flows nearly parallel with it into the Tigris. It is pretty clear that they were not identical. Pliny here states that they were different rivers, but makes the mistake below, of saying that Susa was situate upon the Eulæus, instead of the Choaspes. These errors may be accounted for, it has been suggested, by the fact that there are two considerable rivers which unite at Bund-i- Kir, a little above Ahwaz, and form the ancient Pasitigris or modern Karun. It is supposed that the Karun represents the ancient Eulæus, and the Kerkhah the Choaspes.

18 In c. 26 of the present Book. The custom of the Persian kings drinking only of the waters of the Eulæus and Choaspes, is mentioned in B. xxxi. c. 21.

Mention by Pliny

Pliny[19] mentions Tigris....That part of it which is the most inaccessible of all, bears the name of Characene, from Charax,49 the frontier city of the kingdoms of Arabia. Of this place we will now make mention, after first stating the opinions of M. Agrippa in relation to this subject. That author informs us that Media, Parthia, and Persis, are bounded on the east by the Indus, on the west by the Tigris, on the north by Taurus and Caucasus, and on the south by the Red Sea; that the length of these countries is thirteen hundred and twenty miles, and the breadth eight hundred and forty; and that, in addition to these, there is Mesopotamia, which, taken by itself, is bounded on the east by the Tigris, on the west by the Euphrates, on the north by the chain of Taurus, and on the south by the Persian Sea, being eight hundred miles in length, and three hundred and sixty in breadth.

Charax is a city situate at the furthest extremity of the Arabian Gulf, at which begins the more prominent portion of Arabia Felix:50 it is built on an artificial elevation, having the Tigris on the right, and the Eulæus on the left, and lies on a piece of ground three miles in extent, just between the confluence of those streams. It was first founded by Alexander the Great, with colonists from the royal city of Durine, which was then destroyed, and such of his soldiers as were invalided and left behind. By his order it was to be called Alexandria, and a borough called Pella, from his native place, was to be peopled solely by Macedonians; the city, however, was destroyed by inundations of the rivers. Antiochus51, the fifth king of Syria, afterwards rebuilt this place and called it by his own name; and on its being again destroyed, Pasines, the son of Saggonadacus, and king of the neighbouring Arabians, whom Juba has incorrectly described as a satrap of king Antiochus, restored it, and raised embankments for its protection, calling it after himself. These embankments extended in length a distance of nearly three miles, in breadth a little less. It stood at first at a distance of ten stadia from the shore, and even had a harbour52 of its own. But according to Juba, it is fifty miles from the sea; and at the present day, the ambassadors from Arabia, and our own merchants who have visited the place, say that it stands at a distance of one hundred and twenty miles from the sea-shore. Indeed, in no part of the world have alluvial deposits been formed more rapidly by the rivers, and to a greater extent than here; and it is only a matter of surprise that the tides, which run to a considerable distance beyond this city, do not carry them back again. At this place was born Dionysius53, the most recent author of a description of the world; he was sent by the late emperor Augustus to gather all necessary information in the East, when his eldest54 son was about to set out for Armenia to take the command against the Parthians and Arabians.

49 Charax Spasinu, or Pasinu, previously mentioned in c. 26 (see p. 62). The name Charax applied to a town, seems to have meant a fortified place.

50 Called "Eudemon" by Pliny.

51 The Great, the father of Antiochus Epiphanes.

52 Though this passage is probably corrupt, the reading employed by Sillig is inadmissible, as it makes nothing but nonsense. "Et jam Vip sanda porticus habet;" "and even now, Vipsanda has its porticos."

53 Dionysius of Charax. No particulars of him are known beyond those mentioned by Pliny.

54 Caius, the son of Marcus Agrippa and Julia, the daughter of Augustus. He was the adopted son of Augustus.

Mention by Pliny

Pliny[20] mentions Arabia.... On leaving Petra we come to the Omani11, who dwell as far as Charax, with their once famous cities which were built by Semiramis, Besannisa and Soractia by name; at the present day they are wildernesses.

We next come to a city situate on the banks of the Pasitigris, Fora by name, and subject to the king of Charax: to this place people resort on their road from Petra, and sail thence to Charax, twelve miles distant, with the tide. If you are proceeding by water from the Parthian territories, you come to a village known as Teredon; and below the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris, you have the Chaldæi dwelling on the left side of the river, and the Nomadic tribes of the Scenitæ on the right.

11 Omana or Omanum was their chief place, a port on the north-east coast of Arabia Felix, a little above the promontory of Syagros, now Ras el Had, on a large gulf of the same name. The name is still preserved in the modern name Oman.

Mention by Pliny

Pliny[21] mentions....We will now proceed to describe the coast after leaving Charax13, which was first explored by order of king Epiphanes. We first come to the place where the mouth of Euphrates formerly existed, the river Salsus14, and the Promontory of Chaldone15, from which spot, the sea along the coast, for an extent of fifty miles,16 bears more the aspect of a series of whirlpools than of ordinary sea; the river Achenus, and then a desert tract for a space of one hundred miles, until we come to the island of Ichara; the gulf of Capeus, on the shores of which dwell the Gaulopes and the Chateni, and then the gulf of Gerra17. Here we find the city of Gerra, five miles in circumference, with towers built of square blocks of salt.

13 Or rather, as Hardouin says, the shore opposite to Charax, and on the western bank of the river.

14 Called Core Boobian, a narrow salt-water channel, laid down for the first time in the East India Company's chart, and separating a large low island, off the mouth of the old bed of the Euphrates, from the mainland.

15 The great headland on the coast of Arabia, at the entrance of the bay of Doat-al-Kusma from the south, opposite to Pheleche Island.

16 This is the line of coast extending from the great headland last mentioned to the river Khadema, the ancient Achenus.

17 So called from the city of Arabia Felix, built on its shores. Strabo says of this city "The city of Gerra lies in a deep gulf, where Chaldæan exiles from Babylon inhabit a salt country, having houses built of salt, the walls of which, when they are wasted by the heat of the sun, are repaired by copious applications of sea-water." D'Anville first identified this place with the modern El Khatiff. Niebuhr finds its site on the modern Koneit of the Arabs, called "Gran" by the Persians; but Foster is of opinion that he discovered its ruins in the East India Company's Chart, situate where all the ancient authorities had placed it, at the end of the deep and narrow bay at the mouth of which are situated the islands of Bahrein. The gulf mentioned by Pliny is identified by Foster with that of Bahrein.


  1. "JSONpedia - Charax Spasinu".
  2. Pliny VI 39
  3. Pliny the Elder (AD 77). Natural History. Book VI. xxxi. 138-140. Translation by W. H. S. Jones, Loeb Classical Library, London/Cambridge, Mass. (1961).
  4. Vanessa M.A. Heyvaert, Jan Walstra, Peter Verkinderen, Henk J.T. Weerts, Bart Ooghe, The role of human interference on the channel shifting of the Karkheh Riverin the Lower Khuzestan plain (Mesopotamia, SW Iran), Quaternary International 251 (2012) 52.
  5. Characene and Charax,Characene and Charax Encyclopaedia Iranica
  6. Moon, Jane; Campbell, Stuart; Killick, Robert (2016). Charax Spasinou: Alexander's Lost City in Iraq (PDF) (Report). University of Manchester.
  7. Moon, Jane; Campbell, Stuart; Killick, Robert (2016). Charax Spasinou: Alexander's Lost City in Iraq (PDF) (Report). University of Manchester.
  8. O. Mørkholm, "A Greek coin hoard from Susiana", in Acta Archæologica, 1965, vol. 36, p. 127-156.
  9. Jona Lendering, Charax at
  10. Pliny, 6.31.138
  11. Pliny, 6.31.138
  12. Pliny, 6.31.139
  13. Dio Cassius, 78.28
  14. Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Ṭabarī I
  15. Yāqūt, Kitab mu'jam al-buldan IV and III
  16. Characene and Charax,Characene and Charax Encyclopaedia Iranica
  17. Natural History by Pliny Book VI/Chapter 26
  18. Natural History by Pliny Book VI/Chapter 31
  19. Natural History by Pliny Book VI/Chapter 31
  20. Natural History by Pliny Book VI/Chapter 32
  21. Natural History by Pliny Book VI/Chapter 32

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