In Persian (Farsi), "khor" means "sun" and "san" means "the place", "the dwelling". Khorasan being situated in the East of Iran, is the "place where the sun rises". Historical Khorasan, also known as "Great Khorasan" included present day Khorasan as well as Transoxiana and Afghanistan. It was in the 19th century, during the reign of the Qajars, that the frontiers as we know them today, were established.

This region has always occupied a strategic position in this part of the world. It forms a natural fortress in the heart of Central Asia while forming a corridor of communication between the steppes and the civilized populated regions of the Near East. Nomads have been attracted to this place, since time immemorial until the end of 19th century when the more or less impenetrable frontiers put an end to this migratory flux.

Until the advent of Islam, Khorasan was one of the four largest satrapies of the Sassanid empire. It then became the doorway through which Turkic people - the Ghaznavids (end of 10th century), the Seljuqs (11th century) and then the Mongols (13th century), and the Timurids (14th-15th centuries) penetrated Iran. At the beginning of the 16th century, Khorasan was invaded by the Uzbeks, who in turn got chased out by the Safavids, a dynasty of Turkish origin. After the fall of the Safavids, Khorasan went through a period of total anarchy and order was only reestablished in the 18th century under Nader Shah Afshar who turned Mashhad into his capital. Under the Qajars, Northern Khorasan was constantly raided by neighboring Turkmen tribes. When part of Turkmenistan was turned over to Russia, the imperial armies put an end to these raids.

Present day Khorasan is the largest province (313,000 km2, some 115,830 square miles) and one of the most populated regions of Iran. Its capital, Mashhad is also a holy city of Shi'ite Islam (it houses the shrine of the eighth Imam, Reza). Its northern mountainous region lives off a relatively flourishing agricultural and pastoral economy. The South is mostly enclosed deserts and salt plains; however, there is an enclave of highlands around Birjand and Qa'in where life is centered around oases.

The people of Khorasan

Khorasan, especially in the north, is characterized by a large ethnic diversity. Over a surface of 15,444 square miles, all the ethnic groups that compose the population of contemporary Iran can be found: Kurds, Balouchis, Lors, Turks, Turkmens, Sistanis, Afghanis, Arabs, etc... The existence of this mosaic of people is due to historical reasons. The presence of several of these ethnic groups such as the Turks goes far back in time. On the other hand, others, like the Kurds, have been forcefully settled. The Kurds were deported from their homeland during the reign of the Safavids in order to reinforce the defense line of the north eastern border. The other ethnic groups are the Lors, Arabs, Balouchis and certain groups of Turkmen. Because of its climate and the superior quality of its pastures, Northern Khorasan has attracted many nomads and semi-nomads of neighboring Balouchistan and Sistan.

Music in the culture of Khorasan

Due to its ethnic diversity and the existence of different languages and religious observations (Sunni and Shi'a), the musical tradition of Khorasan is very rich. From the north to the south, the music scene varies greatly. In the north of Khorasan, one can find the bakhshi narrating and singing, among other things, "dastans" (stories in Turkish), although they can also sing in Kurdish about the historical deeds of local figures. They accompany themselves on the dotar. One can also find in the north, the Asheq who play "dohol" (double-faced drum), the "sorna" (a kind of oboe-like reed instrument) and the "qoshme" (double clarinet made of the central nervure of the plumage of birds tied together). The Asheq are specifically associated with the Kurds and play at wedding dances and village feasts. In the East of Khorasan, near Torbat and Jam, the main instrument is the dotar (with some modifications), but there are no Bakhshi and the music is different. Here, the music takes the form of "ghazal khani'" and is performed by singers of quatrains and "ghazals" - lyric poems based on the invocations of mystic poets like Rumi, Attar and Sheikh Ahmad Jami. Purely instrumental pieces also figure in the repertoire.

More towards the south, in the regions of Birjand and Qa'in, the musical culture changes again: the dotar is no longer present (although it seems that in the past, it was played). The songs are called "sotak" and are accompanied on the "dayereh" (tambourine).

Ameneh Yousefzadeh, August 1995