The foundation of Dehistan was attributed to the Parthians; European scholars usually connect the word Dehistan with the name of the Dahae, a nation that, according to the classical geographers, lived to the east of the Caspian Sea.
According to Tabari (a Muslim historian and scholar from Amol, Tabaristan), there was at a distance of five farsakhs (an old measure of length which is equal to about 5 to 5.5 kilometers) from Dehistan an island, or, more exactly, a peninsula (as in the work of the anonymous tenth-century Persian geographer) on which a certain Turkish prince lived.
Istakhri (a 10th-century travel author and Islamic geographer) and Ibn Hawqal (a 10th-century Arab Muslim writer) knew Dehistan only as a minor settlement on the seacoast inhabited by fishermen.
The center of this district or rustaq was the town of Akhur, situated on the right-hand side of a road that went toward the ribat at the frontier; the minaret of Akhur was visible from far away.
The ribat used to be surrounded by a wall, but even by Maqdisi’s (a medieval Arab geographer) time it had been demolished on the order of the government, and the former frontier outpost became a peaceful, flourishing settlement.
Many bazaars and mosques were to be found there; from among the latter, Maqdisi singles out the old mosque with wooden columns and another with a minaret; this mosque was, in contrast to the rest, not of the Hanafi but of the Shafie’ school. Until the question of how much the eastern shoreline of the Caspian Sea has changed in the course of the last millennium is answered, we shall not be able to pinpoint the whereabouts of this frontier outpost of Muslim territory.
Historical sources about this area are exceedingly scant; we do not know when Dehistan ceased to exist and when the last vestiges of Persian culture and urban civilization disappeared from here. There are traces along the Atrek (a fast-moving river which begins in the mountains of northeastern Iran) of an extensive irrigation system, but contemporary explorers such as Poslavskii admit the possibility of artificial irrigation here only under the condition that sometime in the past there used to be in the Atrek, Sumbar, and Chandyr rivers incomparably more water than today, and that the water did not have the bitter-salty taste it has now.
A change in the course of the Atrek is also assumed on the basis of the site of a city whose ruins are known by the name of Mashhad-e Misriyan, that is, “place of the martyrdom of the Egyptians” (on maps it often appears as Mastorian). These ruins were described at the beginning of the 1830s by the traveler A. Conolly, and in greater detail, together with a plan, by A. M. Konshin. The city occupied an area of 120 desiatinas [that is, 324 acres], and was surrounded by a pentagonal wall built from fired brick, with bastions on its southern side.
The above is a lightly edited version of chapter entitled ‘Qumis and Gurgan’, from a book entitled, ‘An Historical Geography of Iran’, written by W. Barthold and published by Princeton University Press, Princeton.