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Author:Laxman Burdak, IFS (R)

Map of Tigris River across Iraq

Ctesiphon (टेसिफोन) was an ancient city, located on the eastern bank of the Tigris, about 35 kilometres southeast of present-day Baghdad. Ctesiphon served as a royal capital of the empires in the Parthian and Sasanian eras for over eight hundred years.[1] Ctesiphon was capital of the Sasanian Empire from 226–637 until the Muslim conquest of Persia in 651 AD.


Jat Gotras Namesake


Ctesiphon is located approximately at Al-Mada'in, 35 km southeast of the modern city of Baghdad, Iraq, along the river Tigris. Ctesiphon measured 30 square kilometers, more than twice the surface of 13.7-square-kilometer fourth-century imperial Rome.

The archway of Chosroes (Taq Kasra) was once a part of the royal palace in Ctesiphon and is estimated to date between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD.[5] It is located in what is now the Iraqi town of Salman Pak.


Al-Mada'in (Arabic: المدائن, al-Madāʾin, lit. 'The Cities'; Aramaic: Māḥozē or Medinātā)[6] was an ancient metropolis situated on the Tigris River in modern-day Iraq. It was located between the ancient royal centers of Ctesiphon and Seleucia, and was founded by the Sassanid Empire. The city's name was used by Arabs as a synonym for the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon, in a tradition that continued after the Arab conquest of Iran.[7]


The Latin name Ctesiphon derives from Ancient Greek Ktēsiphôn (Κτησιφῶν). This is ostensibly a Greek toponym based on a personal name, although it may be a Hellenized form of a local name, reconstructed as Tisfōn or Tisbōn.[8] In Iranian-language texts of the Sasanian era, it is spelled as tyspwn, which can be read as Tīsfōn, Tēsifōn, etc. in Manichaean Parthian 𐫤𐫏𐫘𐫛𐫇𐫗, in Middle Persian 𐭲𐭩𐭮𐭯𐭥𐭭 and in Christian Sogdian (in Syriac alphabet) languages. The New Persian form is Tisfun (تیسفون).

Texts from the Church of the East's synods referred to the city as Qṭēspōn (Syriac: ܩܛܝܣܦܘܢ)[9] or some times Māḥôzē (Syriac: ܡܚܘܙ̈ܐ) when referring to the metropolis of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.

In modern Arabic, the name is usually Ṭaysafūn (طيسفون) or Qaṭaysfūn (قطيسفون) or as al-Mada'in (المدائن "The Cities", referring to Greater Ctesiphon). "According to Yāqūt [...], quoting Ḥamza, the original form was Ṭūsfūn or Tūsfūn, which was arabicized as Ṭaysafūn."[10] The Armenian name of the city was Tizbon (Տիզբոն). Ctesiphon is first mentioned in the Book of Ezra[11] of the Old Testament as Kasfia/Casphia (a derivative of the ethnic name Cas, and a cognate of Caspian and Qazvin). It is also mentioned in the Talmud as Aktisfon.[12] In another Talmudic reference it is written as Akistfon, located across the Tigris River from the city of Ardashir.[13]


Parthian period

Ctesiphon was founded in the late 120s BC. It was built on the site of a military camp established across from Seleucia by Mithridates I of Parthia. The reign of Gotarzes I saw Ctesiphon reach a peak as a political and commercial center. The city became the Empire's capital circa 58 BC during the reign of Orodes II. Gradually, the city merged with the old Hellenistic capital of Seleucia and other nearby settlements to form a cosmopolitan metropolis.[14]

The reason for this westward relocation of the capital could have been in part due to the proximity of the previous capitals (Mithradatkirt, and Hecatompylos at Hyrcania) to the Scythian incursions.[15]

Strabo abundantly describes the foundation of Ctesiphon:

In ancient times Babylon was the metropolis of Assyria; but now Seleucia is the metropolis, I mean the Seleucia on the Tigris, as it is called. Nearby is situated a village called Ctesiphon, a large village. This village the kings of the Parthians were wont to make their winter residence, thus sparing the Seleucians, in order that the Seleucians might not be oppressed by having the Scythian folk or soldiery quartered amongst them. Because of the Parthian power, therefore, Ctesiphon is a city rather than a village; its size is such that it lodges a great number of people, and it has been equipped with buildings by the Parthians themselves; and it has been provided by the Parthians with wares for sale and with the arts that are pleasing to the Parthians; for the Parthian kings are accustomed to spend the winter there because of the salubrity of the air, but they summer at Ecbatana and in Hyrcania because of the prevalence of their ancient renown.[16]

Because of its importance, Ctesiphon was a major military objective for the leaders of the Roman Empire in their eastern wars. The city was captured by Rome five times in its history – three times in the 2nd century alone. The emperor Trajan captured Ctesiphon in 116, but his successor, Hadrian, decided to willingly return Ctesiphon in 117 as part of a peace settlement. The Roman general Avidius Cassius captured Ctesiphon in 164 during another Parthian war, but abandoned it when peace was concluded. In 197, the emperor Septimius Severus sacked Ctesiphon and carried off thousands of its inhabitants, whom he sold into slavery.

Sasanian period

By 226, Ctesiphon was in the hands of the Sasanian Empire, who also made it their capital and had laid an end to the Parthian dynasty of Iran. Ctesiphon was greatly enlarged and flourished during their rule, thus turning into a metropolis, which was known by in Arabic as al-Mada'in, and in Aramaic as Mahoze.[17] The oldest inhabited places of Ctesiphon were on its eastern side, which in Islamic Arabic sources is called "the Old City" (مدينة العتيقة Madīnah al-'Atīqah), where the residence of the Sasanians, known as the White Palace (قصر الأبيض), was located. The southern side of Ctesiphon was known as Asbānbar or Aspānbar, which was known by its prominent halls, riches, games, stables, and baths. Taq Kasra was located in the latter.[18]

The western side was known as Veh-Ardashir (meaning "the good city of Ardashir" in Middle Persian), known as Mahoza by the Jews, Kokhe by the Christians, and Behrasir by the Arabs. Veh-Ardashir was populated by many wealthy Jews, and was the seat of the church of the Nestorian patriarch. To the south of Veh-Ardashir was Valashabad.[14] Ctesiphon had several other districts which were named Hanbu Shapur, Darzanidan, Veh Jondiu-Khosrow, Nawinabad and Kardakadh.[19]

Severus Alexander advanced towards Ctesiphon in 233, but as corroborated by Herodian, his armies suffered a humiliating defeat against Ardashir I.[20] In 283, emperor Carus sacked the city uncontested during a period of civil upheaval. In 295, emperor Galerius was defeated outside the city. However, he returned a year later with a vengeance and won a victory which ended in the fifth and final capture of the city by the Romans in 299. He returned it to the Persian king Narses in exchange for Armenia and western Mesopotamia. In c. 325 and again in 410, the city, or the Greek colony directly across the river, was the site of church councils for the Church of the East.

After the conquest of Antioch in 541, Khosrau I built a new city near Ctesiphon for the inhabitants he captured. He called this new city Weh Antiok Khusrau, or literally, "better than Antioch Khosrau built this".[21] Local inhabitants of the area called the new city Rumagan, meaning "town of the Romans" and Arabs called the city al-Rumiyya. Along with Weh Antiok, Khosrau built a number of fortified cities.[22] Khosrau I deported 292,000 citizens, slaves, and conquered people to this new city in 542.[23]

In 590, a member of the House of Mihran, Bahram Chobin repelled the newly ascended Sasanian ruler Khosrau II from Iraq, and conquered the region. One year later, Khosrau II, with aid from the Byzantine Empire, reconquered his domains. During his reign, some of the great fame of al-Mada'in decreased, due to the popularity of Khosrau's new winter residence, Dastagerd.[24] In 627, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius surrounded the city, the capital of the Sassanid Empire, leaving it after the Persians accepted his peace terms. In 628, a deadly plague hit Ctesiphon, al-Mada'in and the rest of the western part of the Sasanian Empire, which even killed Khosrau's son and successor, Kavadh II.[25]

In 629, Ctesiphon was briefly under the control of Mihranid usurper Shahrbaraz, but the latter was shortly assassinated by the supporters of Khosrau II's daughter Borandukht. Ctesiphon then continued to be involved in constant fighting between two factions of the Sasanian Empire, the Pahlav (Parthian) faction under the House of Ispahbudhan and the Parsig (Persian) faction under Piruz Khosrow.

Downfall of the Sasanians and the Islamic conquests

In the mid-630s, the Muslim Arabs, who had invaded the territories of the Sasanian Empire, defeated them during a great battle known as the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah.[26] The Arabs then attacked Ctesiphon, and occupied it in early 637.

The Muslim military officer Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas quickly seized Valashabad and made a peace treaty with the inhabitants of Weh Antiok Khusrau and Veh-Ardashir. The terms of the treaty were that the inhabitants of Weh Antiok Khusrau were allowed to leave if they wanted to, but if they did not, they were forced to acknowledge Muslim authority, and also pay tribute (jizya). Later on, when the Muslims arrived at Ctesiphon, it was completely desolated, due to flight of the Sasanian royal family, nobles, and troops. However, the Muslims had managed to take some of troops captive, and many riches were seized from the Sasanian treasury and were given to the Muslim troops.[27] Furthermore, the throne hall in Taq Kasra was briefly used as a mosque.[28]

Still, as political and economic fortune had passed elsewhere, the city went into a rapid decline, especially after the founding of the Abbasid capital at Baghdad in the 760s, and soon became a ghost town. Caliph Al-Mansur took much of the required material for the construction of Baghdad from the ruins of Ctesiphon. He also attempted to demolish the palace and reuse its bricks for his own palace, but he desisted only when the undertaking proved too vast.[29] Al-Mansur also used the al-Rumiya town as the Abbasid capital city for a few months.[30]

It is believed to be the basis for the city of Isbanir in One Thousand and One Nights.

Mention by Pliny

Pliny[31] mentions....The Parthi again, in its turn, founded Ctesiphon21, for the purpose of drawing away the population of Seleucia, at a distance of nearly three miles, and in the district of Chalonitis; Ctesiphon is now the capital of all the Parthian kingdoms. Finding, however, that this city did not answer the intended purpose, king Vologesus22 has of late years founded another city in its vicinity, Vologesocerta23 by name.

21 Ammianus, like Pliny, has ascribed its foundation to the Parthians under Varanes, or Vardanes, of whom, however, nothing is known. It stood in the south of Assyria, on the eastern or left bank of the Tigris. Strabo speaks of it as being the winter residence of the Parthian kings, who lived there at that season, owing to the mildness of the climate. In modern times the site of this place has been identified with that called by the Arabs Al Madain, or the "two cities."

22 Or Vologeses. This was the name of five kings of Parthia, of the race of the Arsacidæ, Arsaces xxiii., xxvii., xxviii., xxix., xxx. It was the first of these monarchs who founded the place here mentioned by Pliny.

23 Or the "City of Vologesus;" certa being the Armenian for "city."

Mention by Pliny

Pliny[32] mentions The Tigris....The country on the banks of the Tigris is called Parapotamia19; we have already made mention of Mesene, one of its districts. Dabithac20 is a town there, adjoining to which is the district of Chalonitis, with the city of Ctesiphon21, famous, not only for its palm-groves, but for its olives, fruits, and other shrubs. Mount Zagrus22 reaches as far as this district, and extends from Armenia between the Medi and the Adiabeni, above Parætacene and Persis. Chalonitis23 is distant from Persis three hundred and eighty miles; some writers say that by the shortest route it is the same distance from Assyria and the Caspian Sea.

19 Or the country "by the river."

20 Pliny is the only writer who makes mention of this place. Parisot is of opinion that it is represented by the modern Digil-Ab, on the Tigris, and suggests that Digilath may be the correct reading.

21 Mentioned in the last Chapter.

22 Now called the Mountains of Luristan.

23 The name of the district of Chalonitis is supposed to be still preserved in that of the river of Holwan. Pliny is thought, however, to have been mistaken in placing the district on the river Tigris, as it lay to the east of it, and close to the mountains.


  1. "Ctesiphon: An Ancient Royal Capital in Context". Smithsonian. September 15, 2018.
  2. Morony, Michael (2009). "MADĀʾEN". Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  3. Kröger, Jens. "Ctesiphon". Encyclopædia Iranica.
  4. Thomas A. Carlson et al., “Ctesiphon — ܩܛܝܣܦܘܢ ” in The Syriac Gazetteer last modified July 28, 2014, http://syriaca.org/place/58.
  5. Farrokh, K. (2007). "The rise of Ctesiphon and the Silk Route". In Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, p. 240.
  6. Morony, Michael (2009). "MADĀʾEN". Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  7. Kröger, Jens (1993). "CTESIPHON". Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. IV, Fasc. 4. pp. 446–448.
  8. E.J. Brill's First Encyclopaedia of Islam 1913–1936, Vol. 2 (Brill, 1987: ISBN 90-04-08265-4), p. 75.
  9. Thomas A. Carlson et al., “Ctesiphon — ܩܛܝܣܦܘܢ ” in The Syriac Gazetteer last modified July 28, 2014, http://syriaca.org/place/58.
  10. Kröger, Jens (1993), "Ctesiphon", Encyclopedia Iranica, vol. 6, Costa Mesa: Mazda, archived from the original on 2009-01-16
  11. Ezra 8:17
  12. Talmud Bavli Tractate Gittin. pp. 6A.
  13. Talmud Bavli Tractate Eruvin. pp. 57b.
  14. Farrokh, K. (2007). "The rise of Ctesiphon and the Silk Route". In Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, p. 125.
  15. Farrokh, K. (2007). "The rise of Ctesiphon and the Silk Route". In Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, p. 125.
  16. "LacusCurtius • Strabo's Geography — Book XVI Chapter 1, 16". penelope.uchicago.edu.
  17. Morony, Michael (2009). "MADĀʾEN". Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  18. Houtsma, M. Th. (1993). E. J. Brill's First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913–1936. BRILL. p. 76a. ISBN 9789004097919.
  19. Morony, Michael (2009). "MADĀʾEN". Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  20. Farrokh, K. (2007). "The rise of Ctesiphon and the Silk Route". In Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, p. 185.
  21. Dingas, Winter 2007, 109
  22. Frye 1993, 259
  23. Christensen (1993). The Decline of Iranshahr: Irrigation and Environments in the History of the Middle East, 500 B.C. to A.D. 1500. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. ISBN 87-7289-259-5.
  24. Shapur Shahbazi, A. (2005). "SASANIAN DYNASTY". Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition. Retrieved 30 March 2014.
  25. Shapur Shahbazi, A. (2005). "SASANIAN DYNASTY". Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition. Retrieved 30 March 2014.
  26. Morony, Michael (2009). "MADĀʾEN". Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  27. Morony, Michael (2009). "MADĀʾEN". Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  28. Reade, Julian (1999). Scarre, Chris, ed. The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World: The Great Monuments and How they were Built. Thames & Hudson. pp. 185–186. ISBN 0-500-05096-1
  29. Bier, L. (1993). "The Sassanian Palaces and their Influence in Early Islam". Ars Orientalis, 23, 62–62.
  30. Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1895). Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland. Cambridge University Press for the Royal Asiatic Society. p. 40.
  31. Natural History by Pliny Book VI/Chapter 30
  32. Natural History by Pliny Book VI/Chapter 31

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