Cartographic Curiosities of the Hyborian Age, part 3
By Dale E Rippke
This article originally appeared in REHupa # 201
THE BLUE EAST
researched and created by Dale E Rippke
Seventy odd years ago, author Robert E. Howard created a fantastic world that he termed the Hyborian Age. It was set in our world, thousands of millennia ago, before the last great ice-age. The hero of these Hyborian Age tales, Conan the Cimmerian, traveled far and wide across the lands of his age. Howard drew several maps showing the nations of the “European” region. He left the rest of the world to our imaginations.
Howard wrote a letter to P. Schuyler Miller on March 10, 1936 in which he explained his view of the regions south of Stygia and east of the Vilayet Sea: “I've never attempted to map the southern and eastern kingdoms, though I have a fairly clear outline of their geography in my mind. However, in writing about them I feel a certain amount of license, since the inhabitants of the western Hyborian nations were about as ignorant concerning the peoples and countries of the south and east as the people of medieval Europe were ignorant of Africa and Asia. In writing about the western Hyborian nations I feel confined within the limits of known and inflexible boundaries and territories, but in fictionizing the rest of the world, I feel able to give my imagination freer play. That is, having adopted a certain conception of geography and ethnology, I feel compelled to abide by it, in the interests of consistency. My conception of the east and south is not so definite or so arbitrary.”
Howard refused to pin himself down on the layout of the East during his lifetime, but after his death in 1936, this area became fair game to all. His imagination had become fixed, like a fly in amber.
The first map of the eastern regions that I recall was published in 1975 in a graphic magazine called the Savage Sword of Conan. In issue #9, artist Tim Conrad plotted out a new map of the Hyborian continent from its western to eastern edges. His black & white map was based on the Lancer/Ace version of the Conan saga, adding the material created by Lin Carter and L. Sprague DeCamp into the mix, which is a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view. He made a couple of deductive placements. All in all, it was a great, moody map.
This was quickly followed up by the stunningly beautiful Starmont House map of Hyboria a few years later. The full-color Starmont map showed the East in greater detail than the Conrad map. It followed Conrad’s lead by leaving his placements intact. Unfortunately, it was marred by a faulty placement; Howard’s Mu IS NOT the continent of Australia.
The next important Hyborian world map appeared in the GURPS Conan role-playing game. It was a black & white map like Conrad’s, and is, in all honesty, nothing really special. Its importance derives from it being the basis of every professional Hyborian map that has been produced since, from the map produced in Marvel Comic’s Handbook of the Conan Universe to the gorgeous Conan’s world gaming maps currently produced by Mongoose Publishing.
I decided a long time ago to break with tradition and produce a map of the East that corresponds only with Howard’s writings; no pastiche material need apply. An accurate map of the Hyborian world should really only reflect Howard’s agenda and intent. This requires an examination of the Conan material with an eye to determining what lands that lie within the “Asian” region of Howard’s continent. I figured, since there isn’t a great deal of information about this area, that it would be an easy exercise; treading ground already traversed by others.
Boy was I wrong…
The East, as described in Howard’s tales, is a somewhat different place than the recent maps of the area convey. Facts and clues, when placed in context, refused to neatly arrange themselves into the patterns determined by the prior cartographers. Amazingly, I found something wrong in nearly every single country that I examined.
THE BLUE EAST
The key to understanding the area is to try to see it as Howard imagined it. The Hyborian Age geography is extremely similar, and its climate doesn’t appear to be markedly different from that of today. From the few stories set in the eastern regions, it gives the impression of being a thinly disguised Asia; Khitai as China, Vendhya as India, etc. However it isn’t this simple, and this is where the previous cartographers went wrong.
In order to properly understand the area, the various relationships between the countries need to be ascertained and understood. These relationships, in several cases, are culturally and racially intertwined. The history of each country, where given, has to factor in. Another point to consider is that it all has to fit within the clues that Howard has provided. It needs to make sense in context.
From a plate-tectonics standpoint, the Eastern continent suffers from a complex series of interactions between it and the surrounding plates. It will be necessary to simplify this somewhat. From Howard’s writing we know there is pretty impressive uplift present in the lands to the southwest (the Red Sea and Persian Gulf are above sea level). The lands in the west and northwest are depressed and partially submerged (the Vilayet Sea). There are also signs of uplift in the southeast as a region to the south of Khitai is in evidence. So what can we deduce from this?
Assuming that the Eastern plate is fairly rigid, then the regions in opposition should reflect a positional opposition (in this simplified model). This means that the northeast should be depressed, while some uplift is present in the east. The only regions not accounted for are the north and south parts, and we can use logic to understand those parts. For instance, since the southwest and southeast are uplifted, then it stands to reason that the southern position should either be in uplift or at the least in a neutral position; it should not be depressed. That means the north region is either depressed or neutral. I’m going to average out those regions so that the south (Vendhya) is mildly uplifted, while the northlands are mildly depressed.
With that in mind, let’s proceed to map this out.
Turan and the Vilayet (Inland) Sea
The eastern sections of the 3 Hyborian Age maps drawn by Robert E. Howard
Left: 1932-rough map - Turan is shown in its correct position, although the Vilayet is enlarged.
Center: 1932-final map - Turan isn't shown, and the Vilayet is in its final configuration.
Right: 1936 map - Turan is shown in a different configuration than the actual stories suggest.
The first land that I’m exploring is the Hyrkanian kingdom of Turan. It is a nation with lands originally extending primarily along the southwestern reaches of the Vilayet Sea; imperial ambitions caused it to expand dramatically during Conan’s lifetime. Howard’s stories show it expanding as far west as the Zamoran border and the Shemitish city of Shushan, southward to the city of Zamboula, as far north as Hyperborea, and eastward into Hyrkania and Ghulistan. Turan was founded relatively recently, perhaps a thousand years or so prior to Conan’s reign. A Hyrkanian tribe skirted the southern edge of the Vilayet and established the new nation on the sea’s southwestern shore. The capital of the nation is the great port-city of Aghrapur. Other major cities of Turan include Sultanapur, Khawarizm, Shahpur, Khorusun (Khurusun), Zamboula, and purple-gardened Akif.
The people of Turan are a Lemurian race of southern Hyrkanian ancestry. They are dark-complected, tall and slender, with dark hair, dark eyes, and straight features. Turan’s gilt-helmeted swordsmen and horsemen wear silvered chain mail and are considered by Howard to be the most skilled archers in the Hyborian world.
Turan is the only nation of the Blue East to be represented on Howard’s actual Hyborian Age maps. It first appears on his 1932-rough map, although it is depicted as a modestly-sized nation hugging a portion of the southwestern shore of a much enlarged Vilayet Sea. Turan doesn’t appear at all on Howard’s other 1932 map; instead the map just shows an undefined region under the catch-all name “Hyrkanians”. His third and final 1936 map depicts the standard Turanian nation that has appeared on every map until the late 70’s and on about half of the maps made since then. The 1938 LANY map produced by P. Schuyler Miller and John Clark is the first map to show several Turanian locations provided in the Howard stories, most notably Aghrapur, Khawarizm, and the Zaporoska River. Other maps since that time have added cities and rivers until we have reached the state of the current Hyborian-world maps.
Interestingly enough, the information that Howard relates about Turan in his The Hyborian Age (written in early 1932), Iron Shadows in the Moon (written late 1932) and The Devil in Iron (written early 1933) conforms far closer to his drawing of Turan on the 1932-rough map version than to the depiction on his later 1936 map. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise, since this map is what Howard had to work with at the time he wrote the stories. Examination of the inconsistencies between the stories and the two maps can be revealing. The Hyborian Age states that the Hyrkanians established the nation of Turan on the southwestern shore of the great inland sea. The 1932-rough map shows this to be true, while the 1936 map really stretches the meaning of southwest to depict a nation that covers the lower 2/3rds of the entire western coast of the Vilayet. In Iron Shadows in the Moon, Conan describes his plan to escape Turan by rowing a boat from a point near the mouth of the Ilbars River: “The southwestern shore is held by the Hyrkanians for hundreds of miles. We still have a long way to go before we pass beyond their northern boundaries. I intend to go northward, until I think we have passed them. Then we’ll turn westward, and try to land on the shore bordered by the uninhabited steppes.” This plan is perfectly reasonable the way the Turanian nation is drawn on the 1932-rough map. Using the national borders from the 1936 map makes Conan look like he’s ignorant of the geography, since he now needs to row his boat over TWICE AS FAR to clear the boundaries of Turan by going northward instead of southward. Finally, Howard’s physical description of the southern Vilayet Sea in The Devil in Iron shows that the nation of Turan does not appear to extend all the way to the southernmost point of the sea. This is exactly the way Turan is depicted on the 1932-rough map; the 1936 map shows the nation’s southern boundary extending to the southern tip of the Vilayet.
I’m torn between two positions on this issue. On one hand, Turan should be depicted on a map the way it’s described in the stories. On the other hand Turanian expansion during Conan’s lifetime makes Turan’s boundaries a moving target and in reality a moot point. The only real way I can reconcile the problems arising between stories and maps is to try to graft the 1932-rough map’s Turan onto the much smaller Vilayet Sea of the 1936 map. It’s not the perfect solution, but it’s the one that best serves the actual stories.
The next step in mapping Turan is to define the course of the two major Turanian rivers; the Ilbars River from Iron Shadows in the Moon and the Zaporoska River from The Devil in Iron. From the stories it appears that the Zaporoska is the southernmost river and the Ilbars lies to the north of it.
The Zaporoska River does not appear in its proper position on any map of the Hyborian world that I’ve ever seen. It was first depicted on the 1938 LANY map produced by P. Schuyler Miller and John Clark as being a Hyrkanian watercourse that drained into the extreme southern Vilayet Sea. Examining the internal evidence from The Devil in Iron does show the Zaporoska as emptying into the southern Vilayet, but from the Turanian side. This is how I see the case for a Turanian placement laying out.
The Devil in Iron shows that Howard placed the Yuetshi homeland as being "along the southern shore of the Sea of Vilayet since time immemorial". He also describes the area around Xapur; "The adjacent coast of the mainland was uninhabited, a reedy marsh given over to the grim beasts that haunted it. The (Yuetshi) fisher's village lay some distance to the south, on the mainland. A storm had blown his frail fishing craft far from his accustomed haunts, and wrecked it in a night of flaring lightning..." So what this tells me is that the isle of Xapur lies to the north of the southern edge of the Vilayet, adjacent to either the western or eastern coast. While it is described as laying "some distance" and "far" from Yuetshi lands, it can really only be as far away as a small boat can be blown over the course of a single night. So it possibly lies within a hundred miles of the northern end of the Yuetshi homeland, but it is much more realistic to place it within fifty miles. Howard describes the lower reaches of the Zaporoska River as a “wilderness of reeds” and a “swampy jungle”. The "reedy marsh" adjacent to Xapur is the same area as "the lower reaches of the Zaporoska", since Conan was set to flee from the isle "across the blue waters to the distant camp at the mouth of the Zaporoska".
Furthermore, The Devil in Iron relates that the role of the governor of Khawarizm is to "guard the frontier". This implies that the city is near the outer border of Turan, not near the heavily settled center of the nation. When Octavia escapes from Khawarizm, she steals a horse, rides all night to the edge of the sea, and swims out to Xapur. So Khawarizm isn't on the sea coast, and it isn't all that far from Conan's war camp on the Zaporoska River, either.
Howard describes the Kozaki raiders as a force that bedevils the western frontiers of Turan: "On the broad steppes between the Sea of Vilayet and borders of the easternmost Hyborian kingdoms, a new race had sprung up in the past half-century…” It is important to note that Howard describes the location of the Kozaki in two stories: The Devil in Iron and Iron Shadows in the Moon. Both stories place these brigands in the same location; along the western borders of Turan. There is not one mention of the Kozaki either to the south or the east of the Sea of Vilayet. The site of Conan’s war camp seems ideally placed as an interface between the Kozaki to the west and the Hyrkanian pirates he deals with on the sea to the east. Textually, it seems reasonably certain that the Zaporoska River empties into the southern reaches of the Vilayet that lies within the land of Turan. Why the 1938 LANY map doesn't reflect this I can only guess.
The Ilbars River is mentioned in Iron Shadows in the Moon, but the story doesn’t describe the course of the river at all. Its debut on a Hyborian map was on the modified David Kyle map that appeared in the Conan series published by Lancer Books. That map shows the Ilbars’ source lying far to the south in an Iranistani mountain range. Its course runs northward, paralleling the southeastern Vilayet for hundreds of miles before finally turning eastward and emptying into the sea near Aghrapur. Unfortunately, this placement conflicts with the details of Howard’s stories.
The Ilbars River watercourse can’t be the way it’s depicted on the Lancer map because it would run into the Zaporoska River long before it got far enough north to make its eastward turn toward the Vilayet. The source of the Ilbars can only be the uplands to the west of Turan; in “the mountains that fringe the eastern frontiers of Zamora”.
It seems fairly easy to reconstruct the nation of Turan using Howard’s descriptions. In a large part, its geography is defined by the western portion of the Vilayet Sea. The first thing I would do is draw Turan at the proper scale to the Sea of Vilayet. Turan is about a thousand miles long, according to the 1932-rough map, while Howard shows the Sea of Vilayet as being 2400 miles from its southernmost to northernmost points on his other two maps. The Turanian border would start around 300 miles from the southern tip of the Vilayet and extend in a rough arc northward, ending on the shore of the sea at a point 1,000 miles from where it began. This aligns it with the description given in the stories. In the far north of Turan, along the seacoast, would lie one of the nation’s major cities, which I believe would be Shahpur (if The Devil in Iron lists them in the order of importance). Along the coast to the southwest of that port-city would lie a huge swampland; the center of which is the estuary of the Ilbars River. The city of Akif would lie along the Ilbars River at the point where the fertile coastal plains turns into the western steppe. The source of the Ilbars would be the mountains to the west in Zamora. South of the swampland, on the westernmost bulge of the sea, would lie the second-greatest Turanian port, Sultanapur. South of that city would be the heartland of Turan; the fertile coastal plains between it and the opulent capital city of Aghrapur (the first city founded by the Hyrkanian settlers from the south). West of this heartland, on the boundary between the western steppes and the desert is the Turanian outpost of Vezek. I would make part of the southwestern shore of the Vilayet below Aghrapur another massive swampland; placing the estuary of the Zaporoska River in the center of it, adjacent to the Isle of Xapur and directly to the north of the city of Khawarizm. I would make its source be the eastern uplands of Koth (it’s the river that Conan observes while crucified on the cross that forms the southern boundary of Khauran) and its watercourse would roughly parallel the southern edge of the steppes, beyond which lies the southwestern desert lands. I would place Khawarizm on the coastal plains southwest of the swamp, near the edge of the desert. Fort Ghori lies to the northwest of the city, on the edge of the steppes. The Yuetshi homeland would lie to the south of the swamplands, in the coastal wastelands outside of Turan’s borders. The other two major Turanian cities lie outside of the nation’s official borders; Zamboula in the Kharamun Desert and Khorusun in Hyrkania.
Historically, Turan was the Old Persian name for Turkestan. The nation was featured in the Persian Book of Kings, the Shâhnâmeh. Turan was continually trying to conquer ancient Iran and was constantly thwarted in its attempts by the Iranian hero, Rustam.
THE SEA OF VILAYET
The Sea of Vilayet is a huge body of water that separate Howard’s Hyborian lands from the nations of the East. It is sometimes referred to as the Inland Sea and once as the Blue Sea. The sea is presumably a fresh-water sea, since it has no direct oceanic outlets (Hyrkanians rode around the north end as easily as the south end). The Sea has two rivers that are known to empty into it; the Ilbars and the Zaporoska. They are a myriad of uninhabited isles that dot the great Inland Sea. The southwestern (Turanian) coast is covered in reedy marshlands, while to the west lies grassland steppes and in the extreme north and south, deserts. The eastern coast is described as mountainous, with forested hills haunted by grey apes. The Sea was formed during the lesser cataclysm that shook the world five hundred years after the Great Cataclysm ended the Thurian world. The earliest known nation of the Vilayet was the city-state of Dagon on the isle of Dagonia (Xapur), destroyed, “lost and forgotten before the conquering Hyborians had ridden southward”. In Conan’s time the nation of Turan lies on its southwestern edge, while the land of Hyrkania lies to its east.
The first map to show the Vilayet (Inland) Sea is the 1932-rough map that Howard drew. It shows a Vilayet that is nearly twice the size of the ones drawn on Howard’s other two maps. It encompasses the basins of both the Caspian and Aral Seas and it southern region is part of the Persian Gulf. Its northern end lies at about the same latitude as the nation of Hyperborea. Howard’s other 1932 and his 1936 maps both show a much smaller Vilayet Sea. The sea is now just an enlarged version of the Caspian Sea, and it no longer encompasses the Aral Sea, or the Persian Gulf. This version of the Vilayet Sea is 2400 miles long north to south and 500 miles east/west at its widest point. It is depicted on pretty much every map of the Hyborian world drawn since 1936.
Historically, the Caspian (Mazandaran) Sea was also known as the Hyrcanium Mare. The closest approximation to the “Vilayet Sea” that I could discover was that it was called the Vaurukesh in Avesta (the old Persian language). The name Vilayet is the Turkish word for “province”.
The land of Hyrkania is far and away the largest political entity of the blue east. Hyrkania isn’t a nation as much as it’s a cultural region of nomadic horse-warrior clans and small independent city-states scattered across the country. It stretches from the mountainous eastern coast of the Inland Sea of Vilayet eastward to “the very shores of the eastern ocean”. It lies to the north of Iranistan, Ghulistan, the Himelian Mountains and Khitai. It is a land of semiarid prairie, steppes, tundra, and deserts. Interestingly, nearly every physical description of the land by Howard mentions its mountainous terrain. The forested hills of the mountains along the Vilayet are haunted by carnivorous grey apes. Hyrkanian ports lie to the south of the mountains along the southeast coast of the Vilayet Sea. The Hyrkanians are the descendants of Lemurian refugees that were enslaved by a race called the Khari. After thousands of years of brutal servitude, and approximately one thousand years after the Lesser Cataclysm, the Lemurians overthrew the Khari. The slaves were “savages stalking among the ruins of a strange civilization.” Hordes of these savage, former slaves spread up onto the fertile plains to the north of the destroyed Khari nation, forming the hunter/gatherer style culture that eventually became known as Hyrkania. During this time they domesticated the horse, learned mastery of the recurved bow, and perfected metallurgy to the point where they could design intricate silvered chain mail armor. After a period of several millennia in the Far East, nomadic Hyrkanians tribes began spreading westward into the heart of the continent, a process that lasted over the next several centuries. Their westward expansion was briefly obstructed by the impediment of the Vilayet Sea. The Hyrkanians finally entered into the western lands with the founding of the Hyrkanian nation of Turan on the western shores of the Vilayet, a thousand or so years prior to the reign of King Conan. The nomadic nation flowered around five hundred years after the death of Conan, when the fractious Hyrkanian tribes were united by a great chief who came riding from the very shores of the eastern ocean, and joined with Turan in destroying the eastern Hyborian nations in an irresistible surge.
There are two types of Hyrkanian people described by Howard; “The Hyrkanians are dark and generally tall and slender, though a squat slant-eyed type is more and more common among them, resulting from mixture with a curious race of intelligent, though stunted, aborigines, conquered by them among the mountains east of Vilayet, on their westward drift.”
The only actual Hyrkanian city mentioned by Howard in the Conan texts was the city of Khorusun (Khurusun). Thought to lie on the southeastern coast of the Vilayet Sea, the city sent troops on an invasion of Vendhya. It is interesting to note that Khorusun is listed in The Devil in Iron as one of five major Turanian cities, since it lies outside of Turan proper. It is my belief that Khorusun is the original home city-state of the Hyrkanian tribe that founded Turan. Most Hyborian world-maps also show the cities of Secunderam and Bhalkhan as Hyrkanian, but this is in error as they are Turanian-controlled cities of Ghulistan.
Historical Hyrcania was the Greek name of Varkâna, a satrapy of Achaemenid Persia. The land lay on the southeastern coast of the Caspian (Hyrcanian) Sea.
Personal note: After I first posted this essay, I realized that the Hyrkanians had been living on the fertile plains of northern China for something like 2,000-2,500 years before expanding into western Hyrkania. This implies that if there is a heavily settled, cultural center to the Hyrkanian nation, an "Old Hyrkania" as it were, it is in the east, along the shore of the Eastern Ocean and not in the west along the eastern edge of the Vilayet Sea. Nearly all of the pastiche works about Hyrkania and even the Mongoose role-playing game present Hyrkania's cultural region as being centered around the Vilayet Sea and the east as relatively undeveloped. I think that's the wrong way to look at it.
I think a good model would be to view Hyrkania as something like the USA during the mid-19th century. Most of the US population lived along the eastern seaboard, and even though California and Oregon (think Turan) were settled in the west, nearly everything in between was lightly settled at best, with hunter-gatherer tribes roaming the wilder areas (though in this case they are nomadic Hyrkanian tribes).
Howard provided practically no information on the nation of Iranistan in his Conan tales. Basically, we are told that that the nation is a monarchy and that the Iranistani people are the root race for the people of Ghulistan. That means that the Iranistani are a dark-eyed, white-skinned race. They have a dark-complexion (swarthy) and are excessively hairy. This is important because of the way that it impacts the regions around the nation within a historical context.
The geography of Iranistan is completely unknown; Howard didn’t describe it at all. We can, however, make a few educated guesses based on what we know about how cultures evolve. Nearly every important ancient civilization makes its start along the floodplain of a permanent watercourse; Iranistan should be no different. The question is “Where does it start?” The regions lying to the west of Iranistan are for the most part desert. To the north lies the Sea of Vilayet and the lands surrounding it. If the river of Iranistan drained into the Vilayet Sea, then the nation would have eventually spread out along the Inland Sea. This would have seriously impacted the history of Turan as written by Howard. That means the river of Iranistan must drain into the ocean lying to its southeast. This implies that there needs to be a substantial mountain range lying to the north and possibly to the west of Iranistan to collect the moisture that serves as the source of the water for the river. These mountains are also important as they serve as a shield protecting Iranistan from the imperial ambitions of Turan.
The Iranistani race is apparently tribal in nature, and as population pressures grew along the river, migrating tribal groups would head out in search for a new place to call home. The most promising directions to travel were south and east along the coasts of the ocean. This worked out well, as the Iranistani race spread itself eastward as far as Vendhya, northeast into Ghulistan and southern Hyrkania, and southward onto the grasslands north of Zembabwei. Eventually, a great charismatic leader arose in one of the cities along the river and consolidated the tribes into the nation of Iranistan. Building a nation wouldn’t have been easy and there is evidence of prior inhabitants being displaced and moving away; the Sons of Shem early on and possibly the Tlazitlans much later.
The nation of Iranistan is an economical powerhouse. It acts as a crossroads, receiving trade from both the Black lands to the south and the nations of the East and channeling them to the west into Stygia and north to Turan. Turan has recently usurped Iranistan’s role by capturing the Stygian city of Zamboula; it now controls all major trade routes to the West.
There are no specific Iranistani locations mentioned in Howard’s Conan saga, however I believe it’s likely that Ghaza is located between the Iranistani river and the (possibly volcanic) western mountains. The Man-Eaters of Zamboula describes the selling of cheap Ghazan wine in the city of Zamboula, and it makes more sense that this cheap wine is produced locally instead of fifteen-hundred to the west in the meadowlands of Shem. According to apocryphal texts, the capital of Iranistan is called Anshan.
The only mention in Howard's corpus of stories of a possible Iranistani city appears in his oriental adventure story, The Blood of Belshazzar. In the tale, Howard describes a sunken city lying far below the surface of the Green Sea (the Persian Gulf). Since Howard's maps show the Persian Gulf region to be above sea level during the Hyborian Age, this sunken city most likely dates from that era. The unnamed city is described as being built of marble and lapis lazuli, and Iranistan was certainly advanced enough, and wealthy enough, to construct such a place. The pearl diver that discovered the lost city also found a huge ruby of rare beauty in the talons of a monstrous, mummified king sitting upon a jade throne. This implies that the Iranistani placed some import on publicly displaying the remains of their cultural leaders. What is interesting is that the dead king is described as being both monstrous and mummified; features that tenuously link Iranistan to Old Stygia, and its Giant-Kings. Food for thought, at least...
Historically, the ancient country of Aryānām was renamed Persia until recently, when it became known as Iran.
GHULISTAN AND THE HIMELIAN MOUNTAINS
Ghulistan is a mountainous land that lies to the southeast of Turan and to the northwest of Verndhya. According to Howard’s synopsis of The People of the Black Circle, Ghulistan isn’t just a wilderness region as most people believe, but an actual nation. His synopsis states that “The armies of Turan had marched through their valleys but had not conquered the hill tribes. The chief cities, Hirut, Secunderam, Bhalkhan, were in the hands of the Turanians but Khahabhul, where dwelt the king of Ghulistan, whose rule the tribes seldom acknowledge, was free, and the Turanians made no attempt to tax or otherwise oppress the mountain tribes”.
As far as I can determine, Howard’s depiction of Ghulistan in The People of the Black Circle isn’t far removed from the description in the synopsis. Ghulistan in the actual story is presented as a nation that has been torn asunder. The governor of Peshkhauri relates that the Turanians are stirring up the Ghulistani hill-tribes into raiding the borders of Vendhya and have “established themselves in Secunderam and the other northern cities, though the hill tribes remain unconquered”. The synopsis shows that Secunderam and Bhalkhan are cities of Ghulistan, not Hyrkanian cities as they are usually depicted on most other maps. There is even evidence that Ghulistan has a capital. The synopsis states that the capital is named Khahabhul. When Howard wrote The People of the Black Circle, he apparently changed the name from Khahabhul to Khorbhul, since it is obvious that both names are phonetic variants of Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul. It is interesting that the city of Khorbhul is not specifically named as being Ghulistan’s capital in The People of the Black Circle, but rather is supposed to become the capital of the Himelian empire that Gitara fantasizes about. The city is firmly located in Ghulistan, however, since Khemsa’s hired army was supposed to capture the city, drive the Turanians out of the surrounding hills, and then turn and conquer the kingdoms to the south. This makes for a reasonable assumption that Khorbhul is the capital of Ghulistan.
It’s actually pretty easy to reconstruct the nation of Ghulistan. In a large part, its geography is defined by the western portion of the Himelian Mountains. Westward from the Zhiabar region the massive ramparts break into two long ranges, although both are still identified as being part of the Himelians. The southern range (proto-Karakorum range) runs to the southwest and is the western border of the land of Vendhya and possibly the northern border of other unidentified nations. The higher northern range (proto-Hindu Kush range) runs nearly straight west, bisecting the nation of Ghulistan. North of the northern range is the region where the Turanian-controlled cities of Hirut, Secunderam, and Bhalkhan lie. There are two accessible passes across the northern range. The easternmost one is called the Shalizah Pass and it lies nearly directly north of the Zhiabar region of Ghulistan. The westernmost pass is called the Amir Jehun Pass and it lies high on the south end of the Gurashah valley astride the main road from Secunderam to the Afghulistani region of Ghulistan. The bulk of southern Ghulistan lies between the two arms of the Himelian Mountains; a western lowland region known as Afghulistan that contains the capital city of Khorbhul and a broken, untamed eastern region populated by fractious hill tribes. The main part of The People of the Black Circle is set in the eastern hill region where men lived by the law of the knife. The northeastern tribes are the Dagozai, who abide in the area around Shalizah Pass. The southeast is home to the Zhiabari hill tribes, who naturally live in the region on the north side of Zhiabar Pass. In the valleys to the west of the Zhiabari live the Wazuli tribes of Khurum, Khojur, and Jugra. North of the Wazuli region lies the tribes of the Galzai, who live within sight of Mount Yimsha to the northwest in the northern range. The westernmost part of this hill-country is dominated north to south by the fierce Afghuli tribes. Conan’s base of operation is in the Afghuli hill-country at a place called Ghor. A final tribe of Ghulistan is mentioned in the story called the Khurakzai. Their location is not specifically given, although they live near the Afghuli tribes. I believe that they abide in the hills to the west of Amir Jehun Pass on the south side the northern range.
The inhabitants of Ghulistan are derived from the same racial stock as the people of Iranistan. They are hairy, swarthy-skinned white people with dark eyes. I believe that the first Iranistani migrants into the Ghulistan region founded a nation called Afghulistan in the southwest. The nation eventually expanded, incorporating the unaffiliated tribes to the east as well as moving onto the plains north of the Himelians. They renamed their country Ghulistan to reflect the mixed tribal status.
In historical Asia, this area would be considered Afghanistan, with its capital of Kabul and the Khyber Pass. Interestingly enough, a real-world version of Mount Yimsha exists; Tirich Mir, the highest mountain in the Hindu Kush range. The inhabitants used to avoid it because of all the Jinns, demons, witches and fairies who lived up there.
Vendhya is the wealthiest of the “golden kingdoms” that lie to the south of the Himelian Mountains. It figures quite prominently in the Howard tale, The People of the Black Circle. Vendhyans wear distinctive robes made of filmy, gossamer silk, and their religion involves the worship of their principle deity, the god Asura.
The best described part of the nation is the northern province around the city of Peshkhauri. According to Howard, Peshkhauri is located where “the hot Vendhyan plains meet the crags of the Himelians”. The foothills of the Himelian Mountains, an hour’s ride to the north and west of the city, are cleft by the famed Zhiabar Pass, beyond which lies the land of Ghulistan. Hill-tribes of the Irakzai make their abode in the lower Himelian foothills and the river valleys to the south of the Zhiabar Pass. The area to the south of Peshkhauri is where the geology of Vendhya created by Howard seems somewhat at variance with the way that the previous cartographers have presented it. All of the prior map-makers have shown the nation of Vendhya as encompassing the entire Indian sub-continent. That doesn’t track with the way Howard presents Vendhya. First of all is the location of the Jhumda River. Most cartographers show it as a proto-Indus River, running from Peshkhauri along the western border of Vendhya to the sea. Howard’s synopsis of The People of the Black Circle, describes the Jhumda River as lying somewhere to the south of Peshkhauri. Beyond the river, further south, lies Ayodhya, the capital of Vendhya. Ayodhya, according to Howard, lies within the nation’s “southern provinces”. Combine this with Howard’s description of Yasmina as having been “born in the hot, luxuriant southern plains”, and it becomes apparent that the southernmost provinces of Vendhya are located on the plains of the northern Indian sub-continent. It certainly isn’t described as extending very far into the jungle regions of the southern sub-continent, if at all. One further location is mentioned in The People of the Black Circle; Jhelai, a place in Vendhya with caves beneath it. Its location isn’t certain, however it most likely lies in the south since Yasmina visited the place prior to her journey to Peshkhauri.
The inhabitants of Vendhya are a race that resembles the olive-skinned people of old Kosala, according to the Conan story, Red Nails. The rulers of Vendhya are the Kshatriyas, the dark-eyed, white-skinned race that make up the warrior nobility. The Kshatriyan rule of Vendhya extends back into antiquity, since the traditions of “a thousand generations of sovereignship” were the heritage of the Devi Yasmina, described by Howard as being the “daughter of a thousand proud emperors”. It seems fairly obvious that the Kshatriyas are another branch of white-skinned Iranistani stock, although far removed by time. The Devi Yasmina was effectively disguised as a Ghulistani hill-woman by replacing her distinctive Vendhyan robes with simple Galzai garments. Also, part of the Devi’s royal education was learning the language of Iranistan and the kindred tongues of Ghulistan, which implies that those people hold some import to the Kshatriyan nobility.
Howard’s Vendhya seems to call to mind on an ancient Hindu text, the Ramayana and its legends of the empire of Rama and his glittering capital city of Ayodhya in an archaic India long since vanished.
Historically, the name Vendhya comes from the Vindhya Mountains of India. Howard’s fictional nation seems to parallel the ancient Indus-valley civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, which covered all of Pakistan and much of northern India. First discovered in 1856 and finally excavated starting in the 1920’s, almost no information about this civilization existed in Howard’s day.
The nation of Kosala is one of the kingdoms that lie to the south of the Himelian Mountains. Howard never actually showed Conan visiting the country; most of what we know is second-hand information. A short description of the people and history of Kosala is given in Red Nails. The original inhabitants of Old Kosala apparently have “Lemurian” roots, since they were “slender, olive-skinned men and women with finely chiseled, exotic features”. They wore filmy robes and many delicate jeweled ornaments. The powerful nobility of Old Kosala included wizards, steeped in the necromantic arts, wielding powerful magical weapons. Even so, the people of Old Kosala seem to prize peace greatly. A number of them were eventually driven into exile when the present-day inhabitants came up from the south and took over the nation. The exiles wandered westward into the black kingdoms, founding the city of Xuchotl. While Red Nails doesn’t tell us what these present-day inhabitants of Kosala look like, a description of one can be found in The Man-Eaters of Zamboula. A Kosalan, Baal-Pteor, is described as being brown-skinned, with black hair and black eyes. He was a Strangler of Yajur, a priest in the Kosalan city of Yota-pong. Thus, it’s logical to assume that Kosala is racially diverse; brown-skinned people from the south mixing with the olive-skinned “Lemurian” stock.
The first map to show the location of Kosala was Tim Conrad’s back in 1975. His map placed Kosala west of Vendhya, south of Ghulistan, and east of Iranistan. While I don’t know what his actual reasoning was for this placement, I imagine it had to do with Conan claiming that his familiarity with Kosalan physiology occurred during his stint as an Afghuli war-chief. The Cimmerian planned to raise a horde to plunder the kingdoms to the south. So Conrad decided that Kosala must be one of those kingdoms south of Ghulistan. Even though his placement of Kosala seems reasonable, it is hardly compelling. Conan’s familiarity with the Kosalan people could be due to his looting of their caravans instead of his pillaging the nation’s villages. Even so, every single Hyborian world-map from 1975 to present mirrors Tim Conrad’s placement of Kosala.
The Conrad placement is troublesome because it is inconsistent with what little we know about the nation from Howard’s descriptions. Red Nails states Kosala was invaded by a race from the south, but Conrad’s placement shows an un-named sea to the south. Assuming that the invasion came from the southwest or the southeast also presents problems. An invasion from the southwest would be from Iranistan, a desert nation of swarthy-skinned white people. An invasion from the southeast would have to come from Vendhya, a land with two racial components as described by Howard; the white-skinned Kshatriyans and a race resembling the olive-skinned people of old Kosala. Any invasion by Vendhya would be a Kshatriyan invasion, since they constitute the warrior caste. Which means that, from either direction, the new Kosalan overlords would be white, not the brown-skinned race described in The Man-Eaters of Zamboula. It’s also troubling that Kosala isn’t described by Howard as having a white-skinned racial component, since Conrad has it surrounded by nations that are either completely (Ghulistan, Iranistan) or partially (Vendhya) white.
The Kosalan invasion was described by Howard in his final Conan story, Red Nails. He had to have known where Vendhya and Kosala lay in relation to each other, since both nations had been previously mentioned in several earlier tales. If Vendhya was the invading nation, why didn’t Howard just say so? If he intended for Kosala to be one of the “golden kingdoms” south of Ghulistan, and to use an un-named Vendhya as the invasion source, why didn’t he state that the invasion came from the east instead of the south? Another point to consider is that an invasion of Kosala from southland nations beyond either Iranistan or Vendhya would pose the problem of why neither nation was overthrown by the brown-skinned invaders prior to their settling in Kosala. A successful large-scale invasion by sea, while not impossible, seems rather unlikely. All of these irksome problems do nothing to recommend Kosala being one of those kingdoms south of Ghulistan. So where is it?
In Red Nails, Conan comments that the friezes of Xuchotl resemble Easterners; either Vendhyans or Kosalans. This suggests that the land’s original populations derived from a common source and that the two nations border on each other. The geography of The People of the Black Circle makes it clear that Kosala doesn’t lie to the north of Vendhya, and the evidence of Howard’s own writings pretty much discounts that it could lie to the west, either. There is quite a bit of circumstantial evidence to support a placement to the east of Vendhya. First of all, the name of the Kosalan city of Yota-pong sounds far-eastern, almost as if it were from the Indo-China region (like Hong Kong or Ha Long Bay, or the Mekong River, for examples) of Asia. Another point of evidence revolves around the use of the mineral jade. In Red Nails, Conan speaks of looting Khitaian caravans of their jade, so it seems reasonable that the use of jade is a unique part of the Khitaian cultural landscape. Yet, the Kosalans also show the same affinity toward jade, since the exiles from Old Kosala used jade as the primary building material when building Xuchotl. Both of these examples show the effect of cultural cross-pollination between Old Kosala and Khitai.
One subtle point of evidence revolves around the king of Vendhya’s relationship with the Kosalan princess. In The People of the Black Circle, Howard writes that the princess of Khosala loved Bhunda Chand vainly. She asks him for a lock of his hair as a token of remembrance, which he provides. Agents for the Black Seers steal the lock of hair. Howard writes: “Then the genuine lock travelled by camel-caravan up the long, long road to Peshkhauri, thence up the Zhaibar Pass, until it reached the hands of those for whom it was intended.” A trip from the capital of Kosala to Mount Yimsha really isn’t much more than a couple of hundred miles, if the country was located as per Tim Conrad. However, a trip from the eastern part of the Vendhyan sub-continent to Mount Yimsha covers nearly a thousand miles and would definitely qualify as a “long, long” journey. Finally, there is the historical location of Kosala.
In historical India, the land of Kosala existed as part of King Asoka’s empire in the time of the Buddha (circa 500 B.C.). It was located on the fertile plains of the Ganges River on the East Indian subcontinent and its capital was the city of Ayodhya (Saketa).
It seems fairly obvious that Kosala must lie to the east between Vendhya and Khitai. This leaves the southern jungles of the Vendhyan subcontinent free to be the homeland of the brown-skinned race that invaded Kosala and aligns the region with Howard’s imagination. It resolves all of the niggling inconsistencies.
Personal note: In my essay, The Mystery of the Green-stone Cities, I speculated that Old Kosala was founded by migrants from the dissolution of the empire called “Lemuria of the East”. My moving Kosala from the west of Vendhya to the east has no real effect on my theory. If anything, it’s made it more interesting, since a case can be made that conflict between Old Kosala and the Khari nation may have weakened the Khari to the point that a successful Lemurian slave rebellion was inevitable. I also like the notion that the archaic magical traditions of “Lemuria of the East” were the building blocks for the wizards of the East becoming more powerful than those in the West. It seems a reasonable assumption that Kosala is the foundation of Eastern magical practices, since a Kosalan, Baal-Pteor, attempts to use mesmerism magic against Conan in The Man-Eaters of Zamboula and The People of the Black Circle has Howard stating that most Eastern magic is illusion based on hypnotism (mesmerism).
Khitai is a mysterious Far-Eastern nation referred to in several of Howard’s stories. Khitians are an ancient yellow-skinned race, ranging from powerful wizards plumbing the “deeper gulfs of cosmic sorcery”, to kindly jungle-folk. The people wear colorful robes made of silk. The history of Khitai is complex and intriguing. Originally, this region was inhabited by the Khari, a dusky-skinned race from across the sea. When the Great Cataclysm occurred, yellow-skinned refugees from the island nation of Lemuria fled to the lands of the Khari hoping to find shelter. Instead, they were enslaved by the ancient race and forced into brutal servitude that lasted for millennia. Eventually, the Lemurians, who had been reduced to a brutish level by the harshness of their slavery, rebelled and completely destroyed the Khari civilization. Howard wrote that the Lemurian slaves were “savages stalking among the ruins of a strange civilization.” It is at this point where Howard leaves a large gap in the history of these people; further history requires a bit of extrapolation. Apparently some of the yellow-skinned savages settled in the jungles while a large number spread up onto the fertile plains to the north, forming a hunter/gatherer style culture that eventually became known as Hyrkania. The brutishness of their slavery had eradicated all trace of their own Lemurian culture; they were a people who had lost their past. Fortunately, an ancient civilization espousing Lemurian values existed to their immediate west; the land of Old Kosala. They raised the jungle-folk up from their ignorance and reminded them what it was to be Lemurian. The newly formed nation of Khitai owed a great deal to their western partner. They regained their culture, their style of magic, even their love of jade - the revered mineral that reminded them of their oceanic origins. Unfortunately they also inherited the propensity for devil-worship, “owning no gods save the demons of the Outer Gulfs”. This is how Yag-kosha came to dwell as a god among the ruined temples of jungle-lost Khitai, “where the grey apes danced to the pipes of the yellow-skinned priests”. Another interesting point is that Khitaian galleys were visiting the lands of the Unknown West approximately 1500 years prior to Conan’s reign, according to Marchers of Valhalla. Khitai must be a pretty robust maritime nation; understandable given its Lemurian origins.
Every single Hyborian world-map portrays the nation of Khitai as occupying the entire land of China, starting with the 1975 Tim Conrad map. This is a bit at variance with the way that Howard describes the county in his Conan stories. Every single description shows Khitai to be a “jungle-lost” land; a place of “haunted, forbidden jungles”. Some understandably exotic foliage grows in those Khitaian jungles; black lotus and a living Tree of Death. Even the nation’s capital lies amid the jungle, since the wizard that rescued Salome took her to “purple-towered Paikang, its minarets rising amid the vine-festooned jungles of bamboo”. I determined in an earlier essay that the earth’s climate during the Hyborian Age isn’t really much different from our present climate. For Khitai to exist as a jungle land, it needs to lie much farther to the south, in the present day regions of Southern China and Indo-China (South East Asia).
Historically, Khitai was the Tartar name for China.
GOLDEN KINGDOMS SOUTH OF THE HIMELIANS
The Conan story The People of the Black Circle implies that a number of “golden kingdoms” lie on the plains to the south of the Himelian Mountains of Ghulistan. The size and number of these nations are unknown, however the easternmost one was Vendhya and Iranistan is probably the westernmost. A small amount of information can be inferred about homogeneous nature of this region from the clues Howard gives us. Howard claims that the rulers of these kingdoms were considered little short of divine. This implies that the nations share a very similar set of religious values, if not a common religion. Part of the Vendhyan Devi’s royal education was learning the language of Iranistan and the kindred tongues of Ghulistan. There is no mention of the languages spoken in these southern kingdoms, which implies that they probably speak Iranistani. Since Iranistani settlers populated this region, it’s a fairly safe theory that the “golden kingdoms” were once provinces and/or city-states that broke away from their motherland. The southern kingdoms figured prominently in the plans of several characters in The People of the Black Circle. Conan came into Ghulistan with the express purpose of raising a horde to plunder the kingdoms to the south. The same nations, situated to the south of Khorbhul, were to be the building blocks in Gitara’s fantasy of empire. Conan makes reference to the political nature of these lands when he speculates that Yasmina’s fate is to “marry some withered old king of the plains”.
From a purely speculative standpoint, I imagine that the names of these small kingdoms reflect their Iranistani heritage; they would most likely be “Howardized” versions of actual historical Persian provinces. One example would be Bakhtrish (Bactria), because its capital could be Bakhaurus, a city that Howard refers to in a couple of stories; it makes those impressive Bakhauriot (Bakhariot) belts and girdles. Another interesting name would be Kherdistan.
There is mention of one of these “golden kingdoms” in one of the apocryphal writings. According to the text in question, there is a small nation named Venji that lies directly to the east of Iranistan, to the south of a mountain range. Its capital of Tarqheba lay on the county’s seacoast. The text stated that the Turanians invaded the country and renamed it Venjipur. The text also states that the land is a rainy, jungle country, which really isn’t possible for this region.
REGION SOUTH OF VENDHYA/KOSALA
There is a region that lies to the south of the hot Vendhyan plains; the rain-forested part of the subcontinent. In the tale Red Nails, Howard explains that the ancestors of the people dwelling in present-day Kosala came up from the south and drove the original inhabitants of Old Kosala into exile. The Old Kosalans were olive-skinned people, while The Man-Eaters of Zamboula describes a different ethnic type of Kosalan; one having a dark brown-skin tone. It seems logical to conclude that the southern part of the Vendhyan subcontinent is inhabited by a brown-skinned folk.
It is unknown whether there are nations, city-states, or unaffiliated tribes inhabiting the area. It could be some of them; it could be all of them. While Howard doesn’t actually place a specific group of people into this area, he does describe a member of a group that may fit the bill nicely. In the city of Zamboula, Conan ogled a handsome, brown-skinned woman at the Sword-Maker’s Bazaar. Howard called the woman a Ghanara. Several of the Conan gazetteers tend to equate the Ghanara with another people called the Ghanata; treating the name as a variant spelling. This is wrong for two reasons: Ghanara have brown-skin and Ghanatas are described as black-skinned. Also, she is referred to as a Ghanara, which means that she’s a member of the Ghanar tribe. Ghanatas are members of the Ghanata tribe. They are two different peoples. Since there is no mention of where the brown-skinned Ghanara make their home, I think that it is perfectly reasonable to assume that they live in the jungle region to the south of Vendhya and Kosala – in the land of brown-skinned people.
Another group of people presumably living in this area are a small enclave of Picts. According to Marchers of Valhalla, the Picts were living “among the jungle-clad hills of a far land that marked the easternmost drift of his race…” and were discovered by a wandering horde of Æsir. The trail of the Æsir led to a land whose description sounds very much like the Vendhyan subcontinent; “the land of palm trees and elephants”. From Vendhya, their travels led to the eastern coast of ancient Asia and then northward toward Beringia. The only jungles that the Æsir would have traversed would have been on the Vendhyan subcontinent and in the lands of Kosala and Khitai. Since the Picts are so irrepressible, it seems less than likely that Kosala and Khitai would have tolerated them in their countries; thus a placement in the jungles south of Vendhya.
REGION NORTH OF HYRKANIA
Howard, in a 1936 letter to P. Schuyler Miller wrote about a land that lay north of Hyrkania: “(Conan) travelled widely, not only before his kingship, but after he was king. He travelled to Khitai and Hyrkania, and to the even less known regions north of the latter and south of the former.” While we will never know exactly what Howard meant for this region to entail, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s a different cultural milieu than that of Hyrkania. If I were to hazard a guess, I believe that the people of this region are probably related to the intelligent, slant-eyed aborigines of the western Hyrkanian mountains, most likely the ancestors of present-day East Asians. The region would be located somewhere to the north of either central or eastern Hyrkania, since northwestern Hyrkania stretches to the northern tip of the Sea of Vilayet. Howard never placed anything in this region, although the apocryphal texts claimed that the land of Pathenia lay far to the north of Khitai.
REGION SOUTH OF KHITAI
In the same statement referenced in the previous entry, Howard wrote about a little known land that lay to the south of the nation of Khitai. Intriguingly enough, the most likely candidate for this region would be the long-lost Southeast Asian subcontinent of Sundaland. Due to tectonic activity and rising sea-levels, Sundaland broke up shortly after the end of the Ice Age into the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Sumatra, Java, and Borneo. An area larger than India, Sundaland is considered by experts to be the homeland of the Austronesian peoples. One thing is certain; the region would have provided unique challenges to anyone making his home there. Sundaland’s coastlines were extremely low-lying and prone to frequent flooding and the lands would have been racked by violent volcanic and seismic events.
Unfortunately, we have no real way of knowing what Howard’s conception of the region would have actually entailed; whether there were civilized kingdoms or a wilderness area. The only location in this area that he mentions is from Rogues in the House. The story describes a place lying beyond the land of Khitai called the Swamps of the Dead. The insanity-inducing gray lotus grows in this swamp. It makes sense to place it here since Sundaland would, in large parts, be a swampy, tropical rainforest.
My map is going to follow in the tradition of my Stygia/Black nations map and appear in much the same way that Howard’s handmade maps appeared. It won’t be all-inclusive and show every point of interest; only the nations and a few land formations are shown. I will save the more inclusive map for a later time. All in all, I think that this exercise worked out really well; I really feel that the most accurate cartographic excursion of the region that I’ve seen. It fits with literally everything that Howard wrote on the subject of the “Blue East”. That was, after all, the entire reason for doing it.
The Blue East essay and map, Copyright 2006-2010 Dale E. Rippke
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