How Marijuana Became a Part of Thriving Cultures: Part 4 – Ancient Persia

In the previous articles, I looked at marijuana use by the Scythians, and in ancient China and Japan. Today it is the turn of the ancient Persians. Not to be confused with the negative connotations surrounding the ‘Aryan Race,’ the real Aryans were nomadic cattle herders from Central Asia who crossed the legendary Hindu Kush Mountains. Ultimately, they settled in the Indus Valley.

While legend has it that the Aryans were an unstoppable horde of barbarians who devastated the Indian subcontinent, it is more likely that civilization in the Indus Valley had already collapsed, and the Aryans merely filled a void. There isn’t an enormous amount of information about the Kingdom of Aryan. However, we do know that they settled in Iran and separated into two kingdoms; Parsa (Persia) and Medea.

The legendary Cyrus the Great founded the Achaemenid Empire in approximately 550 BC. It became the largest in history at the time and survived until Alexander the Great invaded and destroyed the Persians in 330 BC. Cyrus was initially the leader of Parsa but took Medea and Babylon amongst other territories.

What About Weed?

Ah yes! The Zend-Avesta was one of the most important texts in early Persian literature and is believed to have been written by Zoroaster, probably in the 7th century BC, although it could be a century or two later. Unfortunately, a large proportion of the collection no longer exists. When it was completed, the Zend-Avesta was apparently transcribed on around 1,200 cowhides containing up to two million verses.

In any case, marijuana is mentioned in the collection. Bang, bhanga (the Sanskrit word for marijuana) or banj applied to three different plants in ancient Arabic and Persian sources: Jimsonweed, henbane, and hemp. In modern Persian, the term bang means ‘hashish.’ In Middle Persian texts, bang is sometimes called mang and is occasionally described as a hallucinogenic drug that was potentially lethal.

In one of the stories, someone called Ahriman attacked a bull and wounded it. Someone named Ohrmazd gave the bull mang to help heal the injury, but the herb caused the bull to become feeble and die. Yet in another story, bang was classified as an ‘illuminating drink’ that enabled a man named Wistasp to see the great xwarrah and the great mystery. This suggests that the herb caused a psychoactive high and resulted in hallucinations.

Marijuana is also called the ‘good narcotic’ in the Zend-Avesta. There is a likely reason for this inclusion. According to Professor Mirceau Eliade, a global authority on the history of religions, Zoroaster himself may have used bhanga to help bridge the ‘metaphysical gap’ between the Earth and heaven. In other words, Zoroaster was probably as high as a kite while writing some of the Zend.

It is in the Vendidad, ‘The Law Against Demons,’ one of the few surviving works of the Zend, that bhanga is labeled as a good narcotic. According to a story in the Vendidad, two humans found themselves transported in soul to the heavens. When they drank from a cup of bhanga, they were told the world’s greatest mysteries. There is also a brief, yet cryptic, mention of how bhanga was used to induce abortions. However, it is highly unlikely that weed was used as an abortion aid; primarily because the book called the person carrying out the abortion an ‘old hag’ rather than a doctor.

Whether or not Persian commanders used bhang before the battle, it is clear that the herb was used in the empire. It certainly didn’t hinder expansion, and it was only when Darius III foolishly underestimated Alexander and was defeated at Granicus, Issus, and Gaugamela, that the Achaemenid Empire came to an end. The Greek conquest and ensuing Seleucid Empire didn’t even last a century.

The Parthian Empire, formed in 248 BC, lasted for almost 500 years until the Sasanians took control in 224 AD. The Sassanid Empire was one of the most advanced in the world and is usually deemed to be the greatest achievement of Persian civilization, and the last great Iranian Empire before the Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD.

It isn’t known whether the empires that succeeded the Achaemenids used marijuana, but when it comes to the Arab conquerors, their attitudes toward weed were not what you think.

Marijuana Use in Islamic Persia

The Sassanid Empire had been critically weakened after a quarter-century war with the Byzantines in the early 7th century. It was no match for the marauding Arab invaders who began to expand westwards, and by 651, it had fallen to the Umayyad Caliphate. Indeed, only the extraordinary walls of Constantinople prevented the Byzantine Empire from falling into Arab hands some 800 years before the Ottomans finally seized the city in 1453.

It is a little odd that there are basically no mentions of marijuana in Persia or the Middle East from around the 4th or 5th century BC and the 9th century AD. Perhaps the reason why the Koran does not expressly ban marijuana is because it wasn’t available in the vast Islamic world at the time when the Prophet Mohammed lived (570 – 632). Had it been available, it is virtually certain that it would have joined alcoholic beverages on the list of prohibited items.

The lack of information has led to some colorful tales about the first Arab to discover weed. One of the most popular involves the founder of the religious order of Sufis, Haydar (or Haidar). The tale says he discovered hashish in the early 1200s after living in a monastery in the Persian mountains for ten years. One day, he fell into a deep depression and went to the fields to be alone.

Upon his return, the other monks noticed a marked change in Haydar’s behavior. He was normally sullen, moody and reclusive. In fact, he didn’t even let anyone enter his chamber. However, on this day, Haydar was extremely happy and whimsical. In other words, he was completely stoned. They quizzed him on his behavior, and Haydar confirmed that he ate the leaves of an unusual plant he saw dancing in the heat of the sun.

The monks in question were Haydar’s pupils, and they beseeched him to show them the magical plant. He agreed to do so on the condition that they did not reveal the secret to anyone other than the Sufis. Haydar lived for another decade, and upon his death, he asked for his tomb to be surrounded by cannabis seeds to allow his spirit to walk in the shade of the plant that had provided him with such joy in his life. In reality, hashish had been used by the Arabs several centuries beforehand.

The Arab world was probably the world’s most advanced location during the so-called Dark and early Middle Ages. In the 9th century, Arab scholars finally translated Greek texts from scholars such as Galen and learned about marijuana’s medicinal qualities. In the 10th century, a physician called Ibn Wahshiyah wrote On Poisons and warned that weed could kill humans when mixed with other drugs.

At around the same time, a Persian physician called al-Rhazes also stated that overprescribing weed was dangerous. In the 12th century, a Persian philosopher by the name of Ibn Sina wrote about how boiled marijuana root was an effective treatment for fever in the Canon of Medicine journal.

As it happens, the first members of the Islamic Empire to consume cannabis were members of Persian and Iraqui sects at the fringes of the empire in the 9th century.

There was little initial protest because it wasn’t banned by the Koran. Indeed, one monarch, King al-Hakim, banned the sale of alcohol in Egypt and Syria but did not prohibit cannabis. Eventually, there were efforts to ban weed but by the 14th century, the herb was still widely used across the Islamic Empire, including in Persia, and there were no major attempts at prohibition again until the 19th century.

Cannabis in Ancient Persia: Final Thoughts

A prime example of the surprising lax attitude towards narcotics came in Persia in 1524 under the rule of the Safavid Dynasty. The Safavids quickly moved to ban gambling, cannabis, prostitution, alcohol, and gambling. Despite harsh penalties, Persians continued to use marijuana. It is also worth noting that the Safavids didn’t ban opium. There were periods of draconian attitudes toward weed, and times when a blind eye was shown.

In the modern era, Iran has one of the strangest approaches to drug policy in the world. The nation has tried to implement sensible policies such as reducing the harm caused by opium and heroin. Iran has a major problem with both substances as they are cheap and widely available. Addicts are relatively well-treated and are even provided with access to clean needles and methadone.

Yet for drug dealers, it is a very different story. If you are caught selling weed in Iran, you could be executed! This is even though marijuana has been used in the country for well over 2,500 years; probably beginning with the Achaemenids although it may have been used long before Cyrus created his empire.