Hyrcania or Verkâna was the name of a satrapy located in the territories of the present day Gilan, Mazandaran and Golestan provinces of Iran and part of Turkmenistan, lands south of the Caspian Sea. To the Greeks, the Caspian Sea was the "Hyrcanian Sea".
Hyrcania (Ὑρκανία) is the Greek name for the region in historiographic accounts. It is a calque of the Old Persian Verkâna as recorded in Darius the Great's Behistun Inscription, as well as in other Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions. Verkā means "wolf" in Old Iranian, cf. Avestan vəhrkō, Gilaki and Mazandarani Verk, Modern Persian gorg, and Sanskrit Vŗka (वृक). See also Warg. Consequently, Hyrcania means "Wolf-land". The name was extended to the Caspian Sea and underlie the name of the city Sari (Zadracarta), the first and then-largest city in northern Iran ( Mazandaran, Golestan and Gilan ) and the capital of ancient Hyrcania.
Hyrcania, comprehends the largest and widest portion of the low plain along the shores of the Caspian Sea. It is one of the most fertile provinces of the Persian empire, considering both the mountains and the plains. Travelers passing through the forests of Mazandaran pass through thickets of sweetbriar and honeysuckle and are surrounded with acacias, oaks, lindens, and chestnut trees. The summits of the mountains are crowned with cedars, cypresses, and various species of pines. This district is so beautiful that it is called, Belad-al-Irem, or the Land of the Terrestrial Paradise. Sir W. Ouseley relates that Kaikus, the Persian king, was fired with ambition to conquer so fine a country, through the influence of a minstrel, who exhausted all his powers of music and poetry in the praise of its beauties. His strains read thus:
"Let the king consider the delights of Mazandaran , and may that country flourish during all eternity, for in its gardens roses ever blow, and even its mountains are covered with hyacinths and tulips. Its land abounds in all the beauties of nature; its climate is salubrious and temperate, neither too warm nor too cold, a region of perpetual spring; there, in shady bowers, the nightingale ever sings. There the fawn and antelope incessantly wander among the valleys; every spot, throughout the whole year, is embellished and perfumed with flowers. The very brooks of that country seem to be rivulets of rose water, so much does this exquisite fragrance delight the soul. During the winter months, as at all other seasons, the ground is enamelled, and the banks of murmuring streams smile with variegated flowers; everywhere the pleasures of the chase may be enjoyed. All places abound with money, fine stuffs for garments, and every other article necessary for comfort or luxury; there all the attendants are lovely damsels, wearing golden coronets; and all the men illustrious warriors, whose girdles are studded with gold; and nothing but a wilful perversity of mind, or corporeal infirmity, can hinder a person from being cheerful and happy in Mazanderan."
So the poet described to his rulers Mazandaran, and may have exaggerated. The province of Hyrcania or Mazanderan was doubtless a delightful province, but there appear to have been some drawbacks upon its loveliness. Strictly speaking, Hyrcania comprehended the small tract denominated Sari ( Zadracarta ) in ancient Persia, which signifies "the land of wolves," from the superabundance of these animals. Thus finds D'Anville the Greek origins of the name Hyrcania. Sir W. Ouseley states that on entering Mazanderan, he was informed that he would find a babr, tiger; a guraz, boar; rubah, foxes; shegkal, jackals; and a gurg, or wolf. Accordingly, the very first thing that he saw, on entering a village of Hyrcania, was the carcasse of a large wolf, which had been shot just half an hour before his arrival, and which "grinned horribly a ghastly grin"; thus confirming the mistrel's claim that "everywhere the pleasures of the chase may be enjoyed." In antiquity, Hyrcania was infested with panthers and tigers so fierce and cruel as to give rise to a proverb concerning fierce and unrelenting men: that they had suckled from Hyrcanian tigers. The poet Virgil refers to this in his Aenead. Representing Dido chiding Aeneas, he states:
"False as thou art, and more than false, forsworn, Not sprung from noble blood, nor goddess born, But hewn from harden'd entrails of a rock! And rough Hyrcanian tigers gave thee suck!"
Strabo, who extends Hyrcania as far north as the river Ochus, says from Aristobulus that Hyrcania was a woody region, producing oaks and pines, but not the pitch pine, which abounded in India. It has been mentioned as curious that in Mazanderan an axe used for cutting is called tabr. Now the Tapyri, or Tabari, inhabited a district in Hyrcania, and if this name derives from tabr, an axe, Tabari would mean hatchet-men, or wood-cutters, a name very appropriate to the inhabitants of a country covered with forests like Hyrcania, and, though restricted by the Greeks to the western inhabitants of that province, is equally applicable to those of the eastern part. According to Sir W. Ouseley, the name of the part in which the Tabari lived, namely, Tabristan, or Tabaristan, signifies the country of wood.
According to Morier, Mazandaran is a modern Persian phrase, signifying, "Within the boundary or limit of the mountain." This is confirmed by Sir W. Ouseley, who quotes from Hamdallah, an eminent Persian geographer, that Mazandaran was originally named Mawz-anderan, or within the mountain Mawz. He says, "The Coh-Alburz is an immense mountain adjacent to Bab-al-abwab (Derbend), and many mountains are connected with Alburz, so that from Turkestan to Hejas, it forms a range extending in length 1000 farsangs, about 130 miles, more or less, and on this account some regard it as the mountain of Kaf [Caucasus]. Its western side, connected with the mountains of Gurjestan (Georgia), is called the Coh Lagzi (Daghestan), and the Sur a lakaeim relates, that in the Coh Lagzi there are various races of people, so that about seventy different languages or dialects are used among them. In that mountain are many wonderful objects, and when [the range] reaches Shemshat and Malatiah (Samosata Melitene), it is called Kali Kala. At Antakia and Sakeliah ( Antioch and Seleucia), it is called Lekam; there it divides Sham (Syria) from Room (Asia Minor). When it reaches between Hems (Emesa) and Demishk (Damascus), it is called Lebnan (Lebanon), and near Mecca and Medina it is called Arish. Its eastern side, connected with the mountains of Arran (Eastern Armenia) and Aderbijan, it is called Keik, and when it reaches to Ghilan (the Gelae and Cadusians), and Iraq (Media), it takes the name of Terkel-diz-cuh; it is called Mauz when it reaches Kurnish and Mazandaran, and originally Mazandaran was named Mawz-andaran , and when Alburz reaches Khorassan, it is called Lurry." From this it appears that Mazandaran signifies all the region within the mountain Mawz and the Caspian Sea, which lies east of Gilan and the Kizil Ozan.
Unlike the rest of Persia, Mazandaran is watered by numerous rivers, all running from the mountains to the sea. The German traveller Gmelin, who visited in 1771, says that in the space of eight miles, on the road from Sari to Rasht, 250 of such streams are to be seen, many of them being so exceedingly broad and deep, that the passage across is sometimes impracticable for weeks together. In this respect Mazanderan furnishes a striking contrast to the waste and barren shores of southern Persia, where for many hundred miles there is not a stream to be met with deep enough to take a horse above the knee. Hence arises the fertility of Mazandaran. So mild and humid, indeed, is the climate of Mazandaran, that it permits the growth of the sugar cane, and the production of good sugar, four months quicker than in the West Indies. From the lack of art and care, however, this gift of nature is not turned to account by the inhabitants of that province.
Hyrcania was situated between the Caspian Sea, which was in ancient times called the Hyrcanian Ocean, in the north and the Alborz mountains in the south and west. The country had a tropical climate and was very fertile. The Persians considered it one of "the good lands and countries" which their supreme god Ahura Mazda had created personally. To the northeast, Hyrcania was open to the Central Asian steppes, where nomadic tribes had been living for centuries.
Hyrcania became part of the Persian Empire during the reign of Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC) or Cambyses (530-522 BC). Under the Achaemenids, it seems to have been administered as a sub-province of Parthia and is not named separately in the provincial lists of Darius and Xerxes. The capital and also the largest city and site of the “royal palace” of Hyrcania was Zadracarta. From the Behistun inscription we know that it was Persian by 522. The story is as follows: After the death of Cambyses, the Magian usurper Gaumâta, who did not belong to the Achaemenian dynasty, usurped the throne. The adherents of the Persian royal house, however, helped Darius to become king; he killed the usurper on September 29, 522 BC. Almost immediately, the subjects of the empire revolted. When Darius was suppressing these rebellions and stayed in Babylon, the Median leader Phraortes made his bid for power (December 522). His revolt soon spread to Armenia, Assyria, Parthia and Hyrcania. However the Persian garrison in Parthia still held out. It was commanded by Darius' father Hystaspes. On March 8, 521 BC, the Parthians and their allies, the Hyrcanians, attacked the Persian garrison, but they were defeated. Not much later, Darius was able to relieve his father. This was the first appearance in history of the Hyrcanians.
In the 5th century BC, the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus mentions them several times in his Histories. He has a confused report on irrigation (3.117), which may be compared to the statement of the second-century historian Polybius that the Persians had built large irrigation works (World history 10.28.3). Herodotus also tells us that Hyrcanian soldiers were part of the large army which king Xerxes I (486-465) commanded against the Greeks in 480. The historian notes that they carried the same arms as the Persians.
In the confused years after the death of king Artaxerxes I Makrocheir (465-434), three of his sons succeeded to the throne: Xerxes II, Sogdianus and Darius II. The latter was a satrap in Hyrcania and may have used troops from Hyrcania and the 'upper satrapies' - that is Aria, Parthia, Arachosia, Bactria, and Sogdiana.
Hyrcania makes its reappearance in history when the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (336-323) invaded Asia. Hyrcanians are mentioned during the battle of Gaugamela (October 1, 331), and in August 329, when the last Persian king, Darius III Codomannus, was dead, many Persian noblemen fled to Hyrcania, where they surrendered to Alexander (a.o. Artabazus).
After Alexander's reign, his empire fell apart and Hyrcania became part of the new Seleucid Empire. At the end of the 3rd century BC, northeastern nomads belonging to the tribe of the Parni, invaded Parthia and Hyrcania. Although Parthia was forever lost to the Seleucids, Hyrcania was in the last decade of the third century reconquered by Antiochus III the Great (223-187). After a generation, however, Hyrcania was lost again.
To the Arsacid Parthians - the new name of the Parni tribe - Hyrcania was an important part of the empire, situated between their Parthian territories and their homeland on the steppe. It is certain that the Parthian kings used a Hyrcanian town as their summer residence. They were also responsible for the 'Wall of Alexander', which is 180 km long and has forty castles. Nonetheless, it was not an uncontested part of their empire; for example, an uprising is known to have started in AD 58 and lasted at least until AD 61, ending with a compromise treaty.
Hyrcania was a province of the Sassanid Empire until its conquest by the Arabs. It was an important territory in that it kept out inner Asian tribes from invading. Due to this, the Sassanids built many fortresses in the region.
After the fall of the Sassanian Empire to Muslim Arab invaders, many noblemen fled to Hyrcania, where they settled permanently. In the 8th century, the caliphate did not manage to conquer Hyrcania. This was mostly because of the geographical location but also due to significant resistance from notables such as Vandad Hormoz, Mâziar, and Babak Khorramdin. Under the leadership of a few remaining aristocratic families such as the Karens and the Bavands, Hyrcania remained independent or semi-independent for many years after the collapse of the Sassanids.
In Latin literature, Hyrcania is often mentioned in relationship to tigers, which were apparently particularly abundant there during the Classical Age (though extinct in the area since the early 1970s). Virgil, in the Aeneid, had the abandoned Dido accuse Aeneas:
Nec tibi diva parens generis nec Dardanus auctor,
perfide, sed duris genuit te cautibus horrens
Caucasus Hyrcanaeque admorunt ubera tigres. (IV.365-7)
"You had neither a goddess for a parent, nor was Dardanus the author of your race, faithless one, but the horrible Caucasus produced you from hard crags, and Hyrcanian tigers nursed you."
Following its geographical listing by Isidore of Seville in the early 7th century Etymologiae (a standard Mediaeval textbook), the name of Hyrcania became known and taught as far off as Ireland, where it was included in poems such as Cú-cen-máthair by Luccreth moccu Chiara (665 AD), the Auraicept na n-Éces, and Lebor Gabála Érenn (11th century).
Hyrcania is mentioned in the short story "Rinconete y Cortadillo" by Cervantes, and constitutes one of his exemplary stories which were published in 1613. Cervantes uses this reference to portray the illiteracy of Juliana la Cariharta, a member of Monipodio's guild. She is intending to make reference to Ocaña, a provincial town in Toledo, Spain; but she has misheard it and does not realise the difference.
Shakespeare, relying on his Latin sources, makes repeated references in his plays to the "Hyrcan tiger" (Macbeth, III.iv.1281) or "th' Hyrcanian beast" (Hamlet, II.ii.447) as an emblem of bloodthirsty cruelty. In Henry VI, Part 3, the Duke of York compares Queen Margaret unfavorably to "Tygers of Hyrcania" (I.iv.622) for her inhumanity.
Even in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, the Prince of Morocco also made references to Hyrcania. He said (an excerpt), "The Hyrcanian deserts and the vasty wilds/Of wild Arabia are as throughfares now."