The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
IRANIAN HISTORY: THE SASANIAN DYNASTY
An Introduction to the Sasanian Dynasty
By Dr. Gianpaolo Savoia-Vizzini
a. Origins and Early History (203-310 CE)
b. First Golden Era (309–379 CE)
c. Intermediate Era (379–498 CE)
Second Golden Era (498–622)
Decline and fall (622–651)
Relations with China
Expansion to India
forget that as a king you are the protector of your religion and your
country....You should be an example of piety and virtue, but without pride
Ardashir's advice to son, Shapour
The Sasanian Empire is the name used for the fourth Iranian dynasty and the second Persian Empire (224 - 651 CE). The Sasanian dynasty was founded by Ardashir I after defeating the last Arsacid king of kings, Artabanus IV and ended when the last Sasanian the King of Kings (Shahanshah), Yazdegerd III (632–651), lost a 14-year struggle to drive out the Arab invaders from his Empire.
The empire's territory encompassed all of today's mainland Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Arran (also known as the republic of Azerbaijan), Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan Tajikistan, Afghanistan, UAE, Oman, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, we well as eastern parts of Turkey, and parts of Syria and Pakistan. During Khosrow II, Parviz' (r. 590–628) Egypt, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon were also annexed to the Empire.
Sasanians called their empire Erānshahr (Iranshæhr)
"Dominion of the Iranians (Aryans)."
The Sasanian dynastic era, encompassing the length of the Late Antiquity period, is considered to be one of the most important and influential historical periods in Iran. In many ways the Sasanian period witnessed the highest achievement of Iranian civilization, and constituted the last great Iranian Empire before the Muslim conquest and adoption of Islam.
Iran influenced Roman civilization
considerably; their cultural influence extending far
beyond the empire's territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe,
Africa, China and India and also playing a prominent role in the
formation of both European and Asiatic medieval art. This influence carried
forward to the early Islamic world. The dynastic empire's unique and aristocratic
culture transformed the Islamic conquest of Iran into a Renaissance.
Much of what later became known as Islamic art, architecture, culture, writing and
other skills, were taken mainly from the Iranians into the broader
and Early History (205-310 CE)
The Sasanian Dynasty was established by Ardashir I (d. 241), a descendant of a line of the priests of goddess Anahita at Istakhar, in Fars province, who at the beginning of the 3rd century had acquired the governorship of Persis, as a vassal king to the Arsacid dynasty (248 BCE-224 CE).
father Papag (Pāpak, NPers.Bābak), was originally the ruler of a
small town today known as called Khair, but had managed, in 205, to depose
Gocihr, the last
vassal king of the Bazrangids (the local rulers of Persis as a client of the
Arsacids) and appointed himself as the new ruler. His mother, Rodhagh (rūdg), was the
daughter of the provincial governor of Peris. The eponymous founder of the line
was Ardashir I's paternal grandfather, Sasan (Sāsān), the great priest of the Temple of
efforts in gaining local power at the time escaped the attention of Artabanus
IV, the Arsacid dynastic Emperor of the time who was involved in a struggle with
his brother Vologases (Valakhsh -NPer. Balāš) VI in Mesopotamia. Using the
relief offered by this problems among the Arsacids, Pabag and his eldest son
Shapur managed to expand their power over all of Persis. The subsequent events
are highly doubtful, due to the sketchy nature of the sources. It is however
certain following the death of Pabag around 220, Ardashir who at the time was
the governor of Darabgird (dārābgīrd), got involved in a power struggle of his own with his
elder brother Shapur. The sources tell us that in 222, Shapur, leaving for a
meeting with his brother, was killed when the roof of a building collapsed on
this point, Ardashir moved his capital further to the south of Persis and
founded a capital at Ardashir-Khwarrah (the Glory of Ardeshir - formerly Gur, modern day Fīruzābād). The circular city, well supported by high mountains and easily
defendable through narrow passes, became the center of Ardashir's efforts to
gain more power. The city was surrounded by a high, circular wall, probably
copied from that of Darabgird, and on the north-side included a large palace,
remains of which still survive.
establishing his rule over Persis, Ardashir I rapidly extended his territory,
demanding fealty from the local princes of Fars, and gaining control over the neighbouring
provinces of Kerman, Esfahan, Susiana, and Mesene. This expansion
quickly came to the attention of Artabanus IV (216–224), Ardashir I's
overlord. Artabanus IV initially ordered the governor of Khuzestan to march
against Ardashir in 224, but this ended up in a major victory for Ardashir.
Artabanus himself marched a second time against Ardashir I in 224. Their armies
clashed at Hormizdeghan, where Artabanus IV was killed. Ardashir I went on to
invade the western provinces of the now defunct Parthian (Arsacid) dynastic Empire.
Crowned in 226 at Ctesiphon as the sole ruler of Persia, he took the title
Shahanshah, or "King of Kings" (the inscriptions mention Adhur-Anahita
(Nper. Azar-Anahid) as his "Queen of Queens", but her relationship
with Ardashir is not established), bringing the 400-year-old Parthian dynasty to
an end and beginning four centuries of Sasanian rule.
the next few years, following local rebellions around the empire, Ardashir I
managed to further expanded his new empire to the east and northwest, taking
over the provinces of Sistan, Gorgan, Khorasan, Margiana (modern Merv in nowadays
Turkmenistan), Bactria, and Chorasmia from the Parthians. Later Sasanid inscriptions also
claim the submission of the Kings of Kushan, Turan (northern India), and Mekran
to Ardashir, although based on numismatic evidence, it is more likely that these
actually submitted to Ardashir's son, the future Shapur I, the Great. In the west, assaults
against Hatra, Armenia, and Adiabene met with less success.
He also added Mosul and Mishmahig Island (modern
Bahrain) to Sasanian possessions. Mishmahig later was governed by the crown
prince Shapur who was deployed to oversee the empire's territories located on
the western and the southern sections of the Persian Gulf (nowadays Kuwait,
Qatar and Bahrain), accompanied with three cavalry regiments in March 29, 231
CE. The southern territories particularly the Aswaran Province (nowadays UAE)
were favoured by the the Sasanian emperors to send the exiled Persian Christians.
He also added Mosul and Mishmahig Island (modern Bahrain) to Sasanian possessions. Mishmahig later was governed by the crown prince Shapur who was deployed to oversee the empire's territories located on the western and the southern sections of the Persian Gulf (nowadays Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain), accompanied with three cavalry regiments in March 29, 231 CE. The southern territories particularly the Aswaran Province (nowadays UAE) were favoured by the the Sasanian emperors to send the exiled Persian Christians.
Ardashir I's son Shapur I (241–272) whose his mother was daughter of a Parthian monarch, possibly Ardavan IV or one of the members of Suren-Pahlav Clan, continued this expansion, conquering Bactria and Kushan, while leading several campaigns against Rome. Penetrating deep into Eastern-Roman territory, Shapur I conquered Antiochia (253 or 256) and finally defeated the Roman emperors Gordian III (238–244), Philip the Arab (244–249), and Valerian (253–260). The latter was taken (259) into captivity after the Battle of Edessa, a tremendous and hitherto unknown disgrace for the Romans. Shapur I celebrated his victory by carving the impressive rock reliefs in Naqsh-e Rostam.
I had indeed intensive development plans. He founded many cities, some settled in part
by Roman emigrants. These included Christians who could
exercise their faith freely under Sasanian rule. Two cities of Bishapur in Fars,
and Nishapur in Khorasan Province, are named after him. Shapur I particularly favoured
Manichaeism. He protected Mani and sent many Manichaean missionaries
abroad. Shapur I also befriended a Babylonian rabbi called Shmuel. This
friendship was advantageous for the Jewish community and gave them a respite
from the oppressive laws enacted against them.
Sasanian kings reversed Shapur I's policy of religious tolerance. Succeeding Shapur I,
Bahram I (273–276) persecuted Mani and his followers under pressure from
Bahram I imprisoned Mani and ordered him killed; Mani died, according to the
legend, in jail awaiting his execution.
II (276–293) followed his father's religious policy. He was an irresolute ruler and
lost several western provinces to the Roman Emperor Carus (282–283). During
his rule most of Armenia, after half a century of Persian rule, was ceded to
Bahram III (who ruled briefly in 293), Narseh (293–302) embarked on another
war with the Romans. After an early success against the Emperor Galerius
(305–311) near Callinicum on the Euphrates in 296, Narseh was decisively
defeated in an ambush while he was with his harem in Armenia in 297. In the
treaty that concluded this war, the Sasanians ceded all lands west of the Tigris
and agreed not to interfere in the affairs of Armenia and Georgia. Following
this crushing defeat, Narseh resigned in 301 and died in grief a year later.
Narseh's son Hormizd II (302–309) assumed the throne. Although he suppressed
revolts in Sistan and Kushan, Hormizd II was another weak ruler, unable to
control the nobles. He was killed by Bedouins while hunting in 309.
b. First Golden Era (309–379)
Hormizd II's death, Arab subjects from the south started to ravage and plunder the
southern cities of the empire, even attacking the province of Fars, the
birthplace of the Sasanian kings. Meanwhile, Persian nobles killed Hormizd II's
eldest son, blinded the second, and imprisoned the third (who later escaped to
Roman territory). The throne was reserved for the unborn child of one of Hormizd
II's wives. It is said that Shapur II (309–379) may have been the only king in
history to be crowned in uterus: the crown was placed upon his mother's belly.
This child, named Shapur, was therefore born king. During his youth the empire
was controlled by his mother and the nobles. Upon Shapur II's coming of age, he
assumed power and quickly proved to be an active and effective ruler.
II first led his small but disciplined army south against the Arabs, whom he
defeated, securing the southern areas of the empire. He then started his first
campaign against Romans in the west, experiencing early success. After the Siege
of Singara, however, his conquests were halted by nomadic raids along the
eastern borders of the empire. These raids threatened Transoxiana, a
strategically critical area for control of the Silk Road. In addition, Shapur
II's military forces were not sufficient to hold the territory he had taken in
the west. He therefore signed a peace treaty with Constantius II (353–361) in
which both sides agreed not to attack each other's territory for a limited
period of time.
II then marched east toward Transoxiana to meet the eastern nomads. He crushed
the Central Asian tribes, and annexed the area as a new province. He completed
the conquest of the area now known as Afghanistan. Cultural expansion followed
this victory, and Sasanian art penetrated Turkistan, reaching as far as China.
Shapur II, along with the nomad King Grumbates, started his second campaign
against the Romans in 359, this time with his full military force and support
from the nomads. The campaign was overwhelmingly successful; a total of five
Roman provinces were ceded to the Persians after its completion.
II pursued a harsh religious policy. Under his reign the collection of the
Avesta, the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, was completed, heresy and apostasy
were punished, and Christians were persecuted. The latter was a reaction against
the Christianization of the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great (324–337).
Shapur II, like Shapur I, was amicable towards Jews, who lived in relative
freedom and gained many advantages in his period.
the time of Shapur's death, the Persian Empire was stronger than ever, with its
enemies to the east pacified and Armenia under Persian control.
Intermediate Era (379–498)
Shapur II's death until Kavadh I's (488–531) first coronation, Persia was
largely stable with few wars against the Byzantines. Throughout this era
Sasanian religious policy differed dramatically from king to king. Despite a
series of weak leaders, the administrative system established during Shapur II's
reign remained strong, and the empire continued to function effectively.
Shapur II died in 379, he left a powerful empire to his half-brother Ardashir II
(379–383; son of Vahram of Kushan) and his son Shapur III (383–388), neither
of whom demonstrated their predecessor's talent. Ardashir II, who was raised as
the "half-brother" of the emperor, failed to fill his brother's shoes,
and Shapur III was too much of a melancholy character to achieve anything.
Bahram IV (388–399), although not as inactive as his father, still failed to
achieve anything important for the empire. During this time Armenia was divided
by treaty between the Roman and Sasanian empires. The Sasanians reestablished
their rule over Greater Armenia, while the Byzantine Empire held a small portion
of western Armenia.
Bahram IV's son Yazdegerd I (399–421), was powerful both physically and diplomatically. Much like his Roman counterpart, Yazdegerd I was opportunistic. He practiced religious tolerance and provided freedom for the rise of religious minorities. He stopped the persecution against the Christians and even punished nobles and priests who persecuted them. His reign marked a relatively peaceful era. He made lasting peace with the Romans and even took the young Theodosius II (408–450) under his guardianship. He also married a Jewish princess who bore him a son called Narsi.
I's successor was his son Bahram V (421–438), one of the most well-known
Sasanian kings and the hero of many myths. These myths persisted even after the
destruction of the Sasanian empire by the Arabs. Bahram V, better known as Bahram-e
Gur, gained the crown after Yazdgerd I's sudden death (or assassination)
against the opposition of the grandees with the help of al-Mundhir, the Arabic
dynast of al-Hirah. Bahram V's mother was Soshandukht, the daughter of
the Jewish Exilarch. In 427 he crushed an invasion in the east by the nomadic
Hephthalites, extending his influence into Central Asia, where his portrait
survived for centuries on the coinage of Bukhara (in modern Uzbekistan). Bahram
V deposed the vassal King of the Persian part of Armenia and made it a province.
V is a great favorite in Persian tradition, which relates many stories of his
valor and beauty, of his victories over the Romans, Turks, Indians and Africans,
and of his adventures in hunting and in love; he is called Bahram-e Gur, Gur
meaning Zebra, on account of his love for hunting and, in particular, hunting
zebras. He symbolized a king in the height of a golden age. He had won his crown
by competing with his brother and spent time fighting foreign enemies, but
mostly kept himself amused by hunting and court parties with his famous band of
ladies and courtiers. He embodied royal prosperity. During his time the best
pieces of Sasanian literature were written, notable pieces of Sasanian music
were composed, and sports such as polo
became royal pastimes, a tradition that continues to this day in many kingdoms.
V's son Yazdegerd II (438–457) was a just, moderate ruler but, in contrast to
Yazdegerd I, practiced a harsh policy towards minority religions, particularly
the beginning of his reign, Yazdegerd II gathered a mixed army of various
nations, including his Indian allies, and attacked the Eastern Roman Empire,
which was building fortifications (a trick used by Romans for subsequent
expeditions) in Persian territory nearby Carrhae. The Romans were taken by
surprise, and if it were not for a heavy flood, Yazdegerd could have advanced
greatly in Roman territory. Byzantine emperor Theodosius II asked for peace,
sending his commander to Yazdegerd II's camp. In the pursued negotiation in 441,
both empires promised not to build any new fortifications on their borders.
Yazdegerd II, however, had the upper hand and did not demand more because of
Kidarite incursions in Parthia and Khwarezmia. He gathered his forces in
Neishabur in 443 and launched a prolonged campaign against the Kidarites.
Finally after a number of battles, he crushed the Kidarites and drove them out
beyond Oxus river in 450.
his eastern campaign, Yazdegerd II grew suspicious of the Christians in the army
and expelled them all from the governing body and army. He then persecuted the
Christians and, to a much lesser extent, the Jews. In order to reestablish Zoroastrianism in Armenia,
he crushed an uprising of Armenian Christians at the Battle of Vartanantz in
451. The Armenians, however, remained primarily Christian. In his later years,
he was engaged yet again with Kidarites until his death in 457.
III (457–459), younger son of Yazdegerd II, ascended to the throne. During his
short rule, he continually fought with his elder brother Piruz, who had the
support of nobility, and with the Ephthalites in Bactria. He was killed by his
brother Piruz in 459.
the beginning of the 5th century, the Hephthalites (White Huns), along with
other nomadic groups, attacked Persia. At first Bahram V and Yazdegerd II
inflicted decisive defeats against them and drove them back eastward. The Huns
returned at the end of 5th century and defeated Piruz I (457–484) in 483.
Following this victory the Huns invaded and plundered parts of eastern Persia
for two years. They exacted heavy tribute for some years thereafter.
attacks brought instability and chaos to the kingdom. Piruz I tried again to
drive out Hephthalites, but on the way to Herat, he and his army were trapped by
Huns in the desert; Piruz I was killed, and his army was wiped out. After this
victory Hephthalites advanced forward to the city of Herat, throwing the empire
into chaos. Eventually, a noble Persian from the old family of Karen, Zarmihr
(or Sokhra), restored some degree of order. He raised Balash, one of Piruz I's
brothers, to the throne, although the Hunnic threat persisted until the reign of
Khosrow I. Balash (484–488) was a mild and generous monarch, who made
concessions to the Christians; however, he took no action against the empire's
enemies, particularly, the White Huns. Balash, after a reign of four years, was
blinded and deposed (attributed to magnates), and his nephew Kavadh I was raised
to the throne.
I (488–531) was an energetic and reformist ruler. Kavadh I gave his support to
the communistic sect founded by Mazdak, son of Bamdad, who demanded that the
rich should divide their wives and their wealth with the poor. His intention
evidently was, by adopting the doctrine of the Mazdakites, to break the
influence of the magnates and the growing aristocracy. These reforms led to his
deposition and imprisonment in the "Castle of Oblivion" (Lethe) in
Susa, and his younger brother Jamasp (Zamaspes) was raised to the throne in 496.
Kavadh I, however, escaped in 498 and was given refuge by the White Hun king.
(496–498) was installed on the Sasanian throne upon the deposition of Kavadh I
by members of the nobility. Djamasp was a good and kind king, and he reduced
taxes in order to relieve the peasants and the poor. He was also a proper
adherent of the Mazdakism sect, diversions from which had cost Kavadh I his
throne and freedom. His reign soon ended when Kavadh I, at the head of a large
army granted to him by the Hephthalite king, returned to the empire's capital.
Djamasp loyally stepped down from his position and restored the throne to his
brother. No further mention of Djamasp is made after the restoration of Kavadh
I, but it is widely believed that he was treated favorably at the court of his
Second Golden Era (498–622)
second golden era began after the second reign of Kavadh I. With the support of
the Hephtalites, Kavadh I launched a campaign against the Romans. In 502, he
took Theodosiopolis (Erzurum) in Armenia. In 503 he took Amida (Diarbekr) on the
Tigris. In 505, an invasion of Armenia by the western Huns from the Caucasus led
to an armistice, during which the Romans paid subsidies to the Persians for the
maintenance of the fortifications on the Caucasus. In year 525, he suppressed
revolts in Lazica and recaptured Georgia. His army with aid of Lakhmid ruler (a
Sasanian vassal kingdom), al-Mundhir IV ibn al-Mundhir defeated the Byzatine
army under command of famed Belisarius twice, one in year 530 in Battle of
Nisbis and other in year 531 in Battle of Callinicum. Although he could not free
himself from the yoke of the Ephthalites, Kavadh succeeded in restoring order in
the interior and fought with success against the Romans, founded several cities,
some of which were named after him, and began to regulate the taxation.
Kavadh I, his son Khosrow I, also known as Anushirvan ("with the immortal
soul"; ruled 531–579), ascended to the throne. He is the most celebrated
of the Sasanian rulers. Khosrow I is most famous for his reforms in the aging
governing body of Sasanians. In his reforms he introduced a rational system of
taxation, based upon a survey of landed possessions, which his father had begun
and tried in every way to increase the welfare and the revenues of his empire.
Previous great feudal lords fielded their own military equipment, followers and
retainers. Khosrow I developed a new force of dehkans or "knights"
paid and equipped by the central government and the bureaucracy,
tying the army and bureaucracy more closely to the central government than to
the Emperor Justinian I (527–565) had paid him a bribe of 440,000 pieces of
gold to keep the peace, in 540 Khosrow I broke the "eternal peace" of
532 and invaded Syria, where he temporarily captured and plundered the city of
Antioch. During Khosrow's en route return, he collected money from the different
565, Justinian I died and was succeeded by Justin II (565–578), who resolved
to stop subsidies to Arab chieftains to restrain them from raiding Byzantine
territory in Syria. A year earlier the Sasanian governor of Armenia, of the
Suren family, built a fire temple at Dvin near modern Yerevan, and he put to
death an influential member of the Mamikonian family, touching off a revolt
which led to the massacre of the Persian governor and his guard in 571. Justin
II took advantage of the Armenian revolt to stop his yearly payments to Khosrow
I for the defense of the Caucasus passes. The Armenians were welcomed as allies,
and an army was sent into Sasanian territory which besieged Nisibis in 572.
However, dissension among the Byzantine generals not only led to an abandonment
of the siege, but they in turn were besieged in the city of Dara, which was
taken by the Persians who then ravaged Syria, causing Justin II to sue for
peace. Armenian revolt came to an end with a general amnesty from Khosrow I,
which brought Armenia back into the Sasanian Empire.
570, "Ma 'd-Karib", half-brother of the King of Yemen, requested
Khosrow I's intervention. Khosrow I sent a fleet and a small army under a
commander called Vahriz to the area near present Aden, and they marched against
the capital San'a'l, which was occupied. Saif, son of Mard-Karib, who had
accompanied the expedition, became King sometime between 575 and 577. Thus the
Sasanians were able to establish a base in south Arabia to control the sea trade
with the east. Later the south Arabian kingdom renounced Sasanian overlordship,
and another Persian expedition was sent in 598 that successfully annexed
southern Arabia as a Sasanian province, which lasted until the time of troubles
after Khosrow II.
I's reign witnessed the rise of the dihqans (literally, village lords), the
petty landholding nobility who were the backbone of later Sasanian provincial
administration and the tax collection system. Khosrow I was a great builder,
embellishing his capital, founding new towns, and constructing new buildings. He
rebuilt the canals and restocked the farms destroyed in the wars. He built
strong fortifications at the passes and placed subject tribes in carefully
chosen towns on the frontiers to act as guardians against invaders. He was
tolerant of all religions, though he decreed that Zoroastrianism should be the
official state religion, and was not unduly disturbed when one of his sons
became a Christian.
Khosrow I, Hormizd IV (579–590) took the throne. Hormizd IV was also a
vigorous ruler who continued the success and prosperity established by his
predecessors. During the reign of Khosrow II (590–628), the revolt of general
Bahram Chobin (rival King Bahram VI) briefly threw the empire into crisis, but
the crisis was short lived, and Khosrow II soon reestablished firm control over
the empire. Taking advantage of a civil war in the Byzantine Empire, Khosrow II
launched a full-scale invasion. The Sasanian dream of restoring the Achaemenid
boundaries was close to completion when Jerusalem and Damascus fell; Egypt fell
soon after. In 626 Constantinople also was under siege by Slavic and Avar forces
supported by the Persians. This remarkable peak of expansion was paralleled by a
blossoming of Persian art, music, and architecture. By 622, the Byzantine Empire
was on the verge of collapse and the borders of the Achaemenid Empire were
restored on all fronts except for parts of Anatolia.
Decline and fall (622–651)
Although hugely successful, Khosrow II's campaign had overextended the Persian army and overtaxed the people. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius (610–641) retaliated with a tactical move, abandoning his besieged capital and sailing up the Black Sea to attack Persia from the rear. Meanwhile, mutual suspicion had arisen between Khosrow II and his general Shahrbaraz. Byzantine agents showed Shahrbaraz pseudo letters indicating that Khosrow II was planning the general's execution. Shahrbaraz, fearing for his life, remained neutral during this critical period. Persia was thus denied the services of one of its largest armies and one of its best generals. To Khosrow's bad fortune, Shahin, the other great spahbod of Sasanian army who had conquered Caucasus and Anatolia passed away unexpectedly, further tipping the balance in favor of the Byzantines and drove Khosrow into state of melancholia.
Heraclius, with the assistance of the Khazars and other Turkic troops, took advantage of Shahin and Shahrbaraz's absence to win several devastating victories against a Sasanian state substantially weakened by 15 years of war. Heraclius' campaign culminated in the Battle of Nineveh, where the Byzantines (without the Khazars, who had left Heraclius) defeated the Persian army, commanded by Rhahzadh. Heraclius then marched through Mesopotamia and Western Persia sacking Takht-e Soleyman and the Palace of Dastugerd, where he received the news of the assassination of Khosrow II.
and civil war followed after assassination of Khosrow II. Over a period of
fourteen years and twelve successive kings, including two daughters of Khosro II
and spahbod Shahrbaraz, the Sasanian Empire weakened considerably. The power of
the central authority passed into the hands of the generals. It would take
several years for a strong king to emerge from a series of coups, and the
Sasanians never had time to be fully recovered.
the spring of 632, a grandson of Khosrow I, Yazdegerd III who had lived in the
hiding, ascended the throne. In that same year, the first Arab squadrons made
their raids into Persian territory. Years of warfare had exhausted both the
Byzantines and the Persians. The Sasanians were further weakened by economic
decline, heavy taxation, religious unrest, rigid social stratification, the
increasing power of the provincial landholders, and a rapid turnover of rulers.
These factors facilitated the Arab invasion.
Sasanians never mounted a truly effective resistance to the pressure applied by
the initial Arab armies. Yazdegerd was a boy at the mercy of his advisers and
incapable of uniting a vast country crumbling into small feudal kingdoms,
despite the fact that Byzantine, under similar pressure from the newly expansive
Arabs, no longer threatened. The first encounter between Sasanians and Muslim
Arabs was in the Battle of the Bridge in 634 which resulted in a Sasanian
victory, however the Arab threat did not stop there and reappeared shortly from
the disciplined armies of Khalid ibn Walid, once one of Muhammad's chosen
companion-in-arms and leader of the Arab army. Under the Caliph `Umar ibn al-Khattāb,
a Muslim army defeated a larger Persian force lead by general Rostam Farrokhzad
at the plains of al-Qādisiyyah in 637 and besieged Ctesiphon. Ctesiphon fell
after a prolonged siege. Yazdgerd fled eastward from Ctesiphon, leaving behind
him most of the Empire's vast treasury. The Arabs captured Ctesiphon shortly
afterward, leaving the Sasanian government strapped for funds and acquiring a
powerful financial resource for their own use. Had the empire not been
exhausted, and divided, without an effective government, at the time of the Arab
invasions, the Asawaran (Azatan) knightly caste could in all probablity have
defeated them, if summoned at once, and massed as a single army. But they were
never summoned in time, events unfolded too quickly, in a relative vacuum of
power in the Empire. The result was the Islamic conquest. A number of Sasanian
governors attempted to combine their forces to throw back the invaders, but the
effort was crippled by the lack of a strong central authority, and the governors
were defeated at the Battle of Nihawānd; the empire, with its military command
structure non-existent, its non-noble troop levies decimated, its financial
resources effectively destroyed, and the Asawaran (Azatan) knightly caste
destroyed piecemeal, the Sasanian empire was now utterly helpless in the face of
hearing the defeat in Nihawānd, Yazdgerd along with most of Persian nobilities
fled further inland to the northern province of Khorasan. He was assassinated by
a miller in Merv in late 651 while the rest of the nobles settled in central
Asia where they contributed greatly in spreading Persian culture and language in
those regions and the establishment of the first native Iranian dynasty, the
Samanid dynasty, which sought to revive and ressuscitate Sasanian traditions and
culture after the invasion of Islam.
abrupt fall of Sasanian Empire was completed in a period of five years, and most
of its territory was absorbed into the Islamic caliphate; however many Iranian
cities resisted and fought against the invaders several times. Cities such as
Ray, Isfahan and Hamadan were exterminated thrice by Islamic caliphates in order
to suppress revolts and to terrify Iranian people.
local population either willingly accepted Islam, thus escaping from various
restrictions imposed on non-Muslims, including the requirement to pay a special
poll tax (jizya), or were forced to convert by the invading armies.
Invaders destroyed the Academy of Gundishapur and its library, burning piles of
books. Most Sasanian records and literary works were destroyed. A few that
escaped this fate were later translated into Arabic and later to Modern Persian.
During the Islamic invasion many Iranian cities were destroyed or deserted,
palaces and bridges were ruined and many magnificent imperial Persian gardens
were burned to the ground.
to Al-Tabari, the Arab Commander Sa'd Ibn Abi-Vaghas wrote to Caliph Umar ibn
Al-Khatab about what should be done with the books at capital Tyspwn (Ctesiphon)
in province of Khvârvarân (today known as Iraq). Umar wrote back:
the books contradict the Qur'an, they are blasphemous. On the other hand, if
they are in agreement, they are not needed." All the books were thrown into
another ruler Gotaibeh ibn Muslim in Khwarezmia, all the historians, writers,
and mobeds were massacred and their books burned in fire, so that after one
generation, the people became illiterate.
ibn Mohlab is reputed to have ordered the decapitation of so many Iranians that
their blood flowed in the water powering a millstone for one full day. There are
many other massacres recorded.
Sasanians established an empire roughly within the frontiers achieved by the
Achaemenids, with the capital at Ctesiphon in the Khvarvaran province. In
administering this empire, Sasanian rulers, took the title of Shāhanshāh (King
of Kings), became the central overlords and also assumed guardianship of the
sacred fire, the symbol of the national religion. This symbol is explicit on
Sasanian coins where the reigning monarch, with his crown and regalia of office,
appears on the obverse, backed by the sacred fire, the symbol of the national
religion, on the coin's reverse. Sasanian queens had the title of Banebshenan
banebshen (the Queen of Queens).
smaller scale the territory might also be ruled by a number of petty rulers from
Sasanian royal family, known as Shahrdar overseen directly by Shahanshah.
Sasanian rule was characterized by considerable centralization, ambitious urban
planning, agricultural development, and technological improvements. Below the
king a powerful bureaucracy carried out much of the affairs of government; The
head of the bureaucracy and vice chancellor, was the "Vuzorg (Bozorg)
Farmadar". Within this bureaucracy the Zoroastrian priesthood was immensely
powerful. The head of the Magi priestly class, the Mobadan, along with the
commander in chief, the Iran (Eran) Spahbod, the head of traders and merchants
syndicate "Ho Tokhshan Bod" and minister of agriculture "Vastrioshansalar"
who was also head of farmers were, below the emperor, the most powerful men of
the Sasanian state.
Sasanian monarch usually acted with the advice of his ministers, who composed a
council of state. Masudi, the Muslim historian, praised the "excellent
administration of the [Sasanian] kings, their well-ordered policy, their care
for their subjects, and the prosperity of their domains."
normal times the monarchical office was hereditary, but might be transmitted by
the king to a younger son; in two instances the supreme power was held by
queens. When no direct heir was available, the nobles and prelates chose a
ruler, but their choice was restricted to members of the royal family.
Sasanian nobility was a mixture of old Parthian clans, Persian aristocratic
families, and noble families from subjected territories. Many new noble families
had risen after the dissolution of Parthian dynasty, while several of the
once-dominant Seven Parthian clans remained of high importance. At the court of
Ardashir I, the old Arsacid families of Suren-Pahlav and Karen-Pahlav, along
with several Persian families, the Varazes and Andigans, held positions of great
honor. Ardashir's successor, Shapur I , used as his symbol the Gondophar's crest
(a circle surrounded by crescent), which may have indicated his relationship
through his mother to the House of Suren-Pahlav. Alongside these Iranian and
non-Iranian noble families, the kings of Merv, Abarshahr, Carmania, Sakastan,
Iberia, and Adiabene, who are mentioned as holding positions of honor amongst
the nobles, appeared at the court of the Shahanshah. Indeed, the
extensive domains of the Surens, Karens, and Varazes had become part of the
original Sasanian state as semi-independent states. The Suren-Pahlavs maintained
their rule over the Sakastan, and one of their branches ruled the area around
Nishapur. Thus, the noble families that attended at the court of the Sasanian
empire continued to be ruling lines in their own right, although subordinate to
general, Bozorgan from Persian families held the most powerful positions
in the imperial administration, including governorships of border provinces (Marzban).
Most of these positions were patrimonial, and many were passed down through a
single family for generations. Those Marzbans of greatest seniority were
permitted a silver throne, while Marzbans of the most strategic border
provinces, such as the Caucasus province, were allowed a golden throne. In
military campaigns the regional Marzbans could be regarded as field marshals,
while lesser spahbods could command a field army.
the Sasanians implemented a system of social stratification. This system was
supported by Zoroastrianism, which was established as the state religion. Other
religions appear to have been largely tolerated (although this claim is the
subject of heated discussion; see, for example, Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia,
or the Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3). Sasanian emperors consciously
sought to resuscitate Persian traditions and to obliterate Greek cultural
The backbone of the Persian army (Spah) in the Sasanian era was composed of two types of heavy cavalry units: Clibanarii and Cataphracts. This cavalry force, composed of elite noblemen trained since youth for military service, was supported by light cavalry, infantry, and archers. Sasanian tactics centered around disrupting the enemy with archers, war elephants, and other troops, thus opening up gaps the cavalry forces could exploited.
their predecessors, the Parthians, the Sasanians developed advanced siege
engines. This development served the empire well in conflicts with Rome, in
which success hinged upon the ability to seize cities and other fortified
points; conversely, the Sasanians also developed a number of techniques for
defending their own cities from attack. The Sasanian army was famous for its
heavy cavalry, which was very much like its predecessor Parthian army, albeit
more advanced and fatal. The Greek historian Ammianus Marcellinus's description
of a Shapur II's clibanarii cavalry manifestly shows how heavily equipped
the companies were clad in iron, and all parts of their bodies were covered with
thick plates, so fitted that the stiff-joints conformed with those of their
limbs; and the forms of human faces were so skillfully fitted to their heads,
that since their entire body was covered with metal, arrows that fell upon them
could lodge only where they could see a little through tiny openings opposite
the pupil of the eye, or where through the tip of their nose they were able to
get a little breath. Of these some who were armed with pikes, stood so
motionless that you would have thought them held fast by clamps of bronze.
point of fact, the later dreaded Muslim heavy cavalry were literally Arabs who
had adopted clibanarii cavalry weapons and tactics. It was this heavy cavalry,
adopted from Persia, that overran the remainder of the Roman Empire until
Charles Martel inflicted the most devastating major defeat of the Islamic
Expansion Era at the Battle of Tours, using both tactics inspired by the ancient
Greek phalanx and terrain advantages to neutralize the Muslim heavy cavalry.
Ironically, the Sasanians, who had given birth to the first "Knights"
with their Asawaran (Azatan) knightly caste, and clibanarii cavalry and saw
those same "Knights" adopted by the Arabs, also were then the founders
of western heavy cavalry, since Martel used captured stirrups, and armour from
the Muslim dead at Tours to create the first western Knights and heavy cavalry.
It is clear historically that the first "Knights" complete with their
feudal caste system, and code of honor, developed in the Sasanian Empire in the
Asawaran (Azatan) knightly caste, and clibanarii cavalry weapons and armour, and
were adopted by the Arabs, who in turn, gave them to the West. The amount of
money involved in maintaining a warrior of the Asawaran (Azatan) knightly caste
required a small estate, and the Asawaran (Azatan) knightly caste received that
from the throne, and in return, were the throne's most notable defenders in time
of war. Had the empire not been exhausted, and divided, without an effective
government, at the time of the Arab invasions, the Asawaran (Azatan) knightly
caste could in all probablity have defeated them. But they were never summoned
in time, events unfolded too quickly, in a relative vacuum of power in the
Empire. The result was the Islamic conquest. Ironically, the Asawaran (Azatan)
knightly caste would survive in spirit, in not in person, in Western Europe,
which came to adapt virtually the same system of warrior caste, feudal estates,
code of knightly honor, and noble obligation to the throne, in the Middle ages
Sasanians, like the Parthians, were in constant hostilities with the Roman
Empire. Following the division of the Roman Empire in 395, the Eastern Roman
Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, replaced the Roman Empire as
Persia's principle western enemy. Hostilities between the two empires became
more frequent. The Sasanians, similar to the Roman Empire, were in a constant
state of conflict with neighboring kingdoms and nomadic hordes. Although the
threat of nomadic incursions could never be fully resolved, the Sasanians
generally dealt much more successfully with these matters than did the Romans,
due to their policy of making coordinated campaigns against threatening nomads.
the west, Sasanian territory abutted that of the large and stable Roman state,
but to the east its nearest neighbors were the Kushan Empire and nomadic tribes
such as the White Huns. The construction of fortifications such as Tus citadel
or the city of Nishapur, which later became a center of learning and trade, also
assisted in defending the eastern provinces from attack.
the south in central Arabia, Bedouin Arab tribes occasionally raided the
Sasanian empire. The Kingdom of Al-Hirah, a Sasanian vassal kingdom, was
established to form a buffer zone between the empire's mainland and the Bedouin
tribes. The dissolution of the Kingdom of Al-Hirah by Khosrow II in 602
contributed greatly to decisive Sasanian defeats suffered against Bedouin Arabs
later in the century. These defeats resulted in a sudden takeover of the
Sasanian empire by Bedouin tribes under the Islamic banner.
the north, Khazars and other Turkic nomads frequently assaulted northern
provinces of the empire. They plundered the territory of the Medes in 634.
Shortly thereafter, the Persian army defeated them and drove them out. The
Sasanians built numerous fortifications in the Caucasus region to halt these
Relations with China
their predecessors the Parthians, the Sasanian Empire carried out active foreign
relations with China, and ambassadors from Persia frequently traveled to China.
Chinese documents report on thirteen Sasanian Embassies to China. Commercially,
land and sea trade with China was important to both the Sasanian and Chinese
Empires. Large number of Sasanian coins have been found in southern China,
confirming maritime trade.
different occasions Sasanian kings sent their most talented Persian musicians
and dancers to the Chinese imperial court. Both empires benefited from trade
along the Silk Road, and shared a common interest in preserving and protecting
that trade. They cooperated in guarding the trade routes through central Asia,
and both built outposts in border areas to keep caravans safe from nomadic
tribes and bandits.
we hear of several Sasanian and Chinese efforts in forging alliances against the
common enemy who were the Hephthalites. Upon the encroachment of the nomadic
Turkic states in Central Asia, we also see what looks like a collaboration
between China and the Sasanian to defuse the Turkic advances. The documents from
Mt. Mogh also talk about the presence of a Chinese general in the service of the
king of Sogdiana at the time of the Arab invasions.
the invasion of Iran by Muslim Arabs, Piruz, son of Yazdegerd III, escaped along
with a few Persian nobles and took refuge in the Chinese imperial court. Both
Piroz and his son Narseh (Chinese neh-shie) were given high titles at the
Chinese court. At least in two occasions, last one possibly in 670, Chinese
troops were sent with Piruz in order to restore him to the Sasanian throne with
mixed results, one possibly ending up in a short rule of Piruz in Sistan (Sakestan)
from which we have a few remaining numsmatic evidence. Narseh later reached the
position of the commander of the Chinese Impersial guards and his descendants
lived in China as respected princes.
Expansion to India
the Sasanians had secured Iran and its neighboring regions under Ardashir I, the
second emperor, Shapur I (240–270), extended his authority eastwards into what
is today Pakistan and northwestern India. The previously autonomous Kushans were
obliged to accept his suzerainty. Although the Kushan empire declined at the end
of the 3rd century, to be replaced by the northern Indian Gupta Empire in the
4th century, it is clear that Sasanian influence remained relevant in India's
northwest throughout this period.
and northwestern India engaged in cultural as well as political intercourse
during this period, as certain Sasanian practices spread into the Kushan
territories. In particular, the Kushan's were influenced by the Sasanian
conception of kingship, which spread through the trade of Sasanian silverware
and textiles depicting emperors hunting or dispensing justice.
This cultural interchange did not, however, spread Sasanian religious practices or attitudes to the Kushans. While the Sasanians always adhered to a stated policy of religious proselytization, and sporadically engaged in persecution or forced conversion of minority religions, the Kushans preferred to adopt a policy of religious tolerance.
cultural interchanges also took place between India and Persia during this
period. For example, Persians exported chess
and Backgammon to India.
Khosrow I's reign many books were brought from India and translated into Pahlavi, the language of the Sasanian Empire. Some of these later found their
way into the literature of the Islamic world. A notable example of this was the
translation of the Indian Panchatantra by one of Khosrow's ministers,
Bozorgmehr; this translation, known as the Kelileh va Demneh, later made
its way into Arabia and Europe. The details of Burzoe's legendary journey to
India and his daring acquirement of Panchatantra is written in full details in
society and civilization were among the most flourishing of their time, rivaled
in their region only by the Byzantines. The amount of scientific and
intellectual exchange between the two empires is witness to the competition and
cooperation of these cradles of civilization.
most striking difference between Parthian and Sasanian society was renowed
emphasis on charismatic and centeralized government. In Sasanian theory, the
ideal society was one which could maintain stability and justice and the
necessary instrument for this was a strong monarch. Sasanian society was
immensely complex, with separate systems of social organization governing
numerous different groups within the empire. Historians believe that society was
divided into four classes: Priests (Atorbanan), Warriors (Arteshtaran),
Secretaries (Dabiran), and Commoners (Vasteryoshan-Hootkheshan).
At the center of the Sasanian caste system was the Shahanshah, ruling
over all the nobles. The royal princes, petty rulers, great landlords, and
priests together constituted a privileged stratum, and were identified as Bozorgan,
or nobles. This social system appears to have been fairly rigid.
in a class was based on birth, although it was possible for an exceptional
individual to move to another class on the basis of merit. The function of the
king was to ensure that each class remained within its proper boundaries, so
that the strong did not oppress the weak, nor the weak the strong. To maintain
this social equilibrium was the essence of royal justice, and its effective
functioning depended on the glorification of the monarchy above all other
a lower level, Sasanian society was divided into Azatan (Azadan - freemen), who
jealously guarded their status as Aryans, and the mass of peasantry. The Azatan
formed a large low-aristocracy of low-level administrators, mostly living on
small estates. The Azatan provided the cavalry backbone of Sasanian army.
Sasanian kings were enlightened patrons of letters and philosophy. Khosrow I had
the works of Plato and Aristotle translated into Pahlavi taught at Gundishapur,
and even read them himself. During his reign many historical annals were
compiled, of which the sole survivor is the Karnamak-i Artaxshir-i Papakan
(Deeds of Ardashir), a mixture of history and romance that served as the basis
of the Iranian national epic, the Shahnama. When Justinian I closed the schools
of Athens, seven of their professors fled to Persia and found refuge at
Khosrow's court. In time they grew homesick, and in his treaty of 533 with
Justinian, the Sasanian king stipulated that the Greek sages should be allowed
to return and be free from persecution.
Khosrow I the college of Gundishapur, which had been founded in the 4th century,
became "the greatest intellectual center of the time," drawing
students and teachers from every quarter of the world. Nestorian Christians were
received there, and brought Syriac translations of Greek works in medicine and
philosophy. Neoplatonists, too, came to Gundishapur, where they planted the
seeds of Sufi mysticism; the medical lore of India, Persia, Syria, and Greece
mingled there to produce a flourishing school of therapy.
the Sasanian period witnessed some of the highest achievements of Persian
civilization. Much of what later became known as Muslim culture, including
architecture and writing, was originally drawn from Persian culture. At its peak
the Sasanian Empire stretched from Syria to northwest India, but its influence
was felt far beyond these political boundaries. Sasanian motifs found their way
beyond provinces in Central Asia to the north and China, the Byzantine Empire,
and even Merovingian France. Islamic art however, was the true heir to Sasanian
art, whose concepts it was to assimilate while, at the same time instilling
fresh life and renewed vigor into it. According to Will Durant:
art exported its forms and motifs eastward into India, Turkestan, and China,
westward into Syria, Asia Minor, Constantinople, the Balkans, Egypt, and Spain.
Probably its influence helped to change the emphasis in Greek art from classic
representation to Byzantine ornament, and in Latin Christian art from wooden
ceilings to brick or stone vaults and domes and buttressed walls.”
carvings at Taq-e Bostan and Naqsh-e Rostam were colored; so were many features
of the palaces; but only traces of such painting remain. The literature,
however, makes it clear that the art of painting flourished in Sasanian times;
the prophet Mani is reported to have founded a school of painting; Ferdowsi
speaks of Persian magnates adorning their mansions with pictures of Iranian
heroes; and the poet al-Buhturi describes the murals in the palace at Ctesiphon.
When a Sasanian king died, the best painter of the time was called upon to make
a portrait of him for a collection kept in the royal treasury.
sculpture, pottery, and other forms of decoration shared their designs with
Sasanian textile art. Silks, embroideries, brocades, damasks, tapestries, chair
covers, canopies, tents, and rugs were woven with servile patience and masterly
skill, and were dyed in warm tints of yellow, blue, and green. Every Persian but
the peasant and the priest aspired to dress above his class; presents often took
the form of sumptuous garments; and great colorful carpets had been an appanage
of wealth in the East since Achaemenid days. The two dozen Sasanian textiles that
escaped the teeth of time are the most highly valued fabrics in existence. Even
in their own day, Sasanian textiles were admired and imitated from Egypt to the
Far East; and during the Crusades these pagan products were favored for clothing
the relics of Christian saints. When Heraclius captured the palace of Khosrow
Parviz at Dastgird, delicate embroideries and an immense rug were among his most
precious spoils. Famous was the "Winter Carpet", also known as "Khosrow's
Spring" (Spring Season Carpet) of Khosrow Anushirvan, designed to make him
forget winter in its spring and summer scenes: flowers and fruits made of in
woven rubies and diamonds grew, in this carpet, beside walks of silver and
brooks of pearls traced on a ground of gold. Harun al-Rashid prided himself on a
spacious Sasanian rug thickly studded with jewelry. Persians wrote love poems
about their rugs.
on Sasanian remains show that over 100 types of crowns being worn by Sasanian
kings. The various Sasanian crowns demonstrate the cultural, economic, social,
and historical situation in each period. The crowns also show the character
traits of each king in this era. Different symbols and signs on the crowns, the
moon, stars, eagle, and palm, each illustrate the wearer's religious faith and
Sasanian Dynasty, like the Achaemenid, originated in the province of Persis
(Fars). The Sasanians saw themselves as successors of the Achaemenids, after the
Hellenistic and Parthian interlude, and believed that it was their destiny to
restore the greatness of Persia.
reviving the glories of the Achaemenid past, the Sasanians were no mere
imitators. The art of this period reveals an astonishing virility, in certain
respects anticipating key features of Islamic art. Sasanian art combined
elements of traditional Persian art with Hellenistic elements and influences.
The conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great had inaugurated the spread of
Hellenistic art into Western Asia. Though the East accepted the outward form of
this art, it never really assimilated its spirit. Already in the Parthian
period, Hellenistic art was being interpreted freely by the peoples of the Near
East. Throughout the Sasanian period there was reaction against it. Sasanian art
revived forms and traditions native to Persia, and in the Islamic period, these
reached the shores of the Mediterranean. According to Fergusson:
the accession of the [Sasanians], Persia regained much of that power and
stability to which she had been so long a stranger… The improvement in the
fine arts at home indicates returning prosperity, and a degree of security
unknown since the fall of the Achaemenidae.
palaces illustrate the splendor in which the Sasanian monarchs lived. Examples
include palaces at Firuzabad and Bishapur in Fars and the capital city of
Ctesiphon in Khvarvaran province, Iraq. In addition to local traditions,
Parthian architecture influenced Sasanian architectural characteristics. All are
characterized by the barrel-vaulted iwans introduced in the Parthian period.
During the Sasanian period, these reached massive proportions, particularly at
Ctesiphon. There, the arch of the great vaulted hall, attributed to the reign of
Shapur I (241–272), has a span of more than 80 feet and reaches a height of
118 feet. This magnificent structure fascinated architects in the centuries that
followed and has been considered one of the most important examples of Persian
architecture. Many of the palaces contain an inner audience hall consisting, as
at Firuzabad, of a chamber surmounted by a dome. The Persians solved the problem
of constructing a circular dome on a square building by employing squinches, or
arches built across each corner of the square, thereby converting it into an
octagon on which it is simple to place the dome. The dome chamber in the palace
of Firuzabad is the earliest surviving example of the use of the squinches,
suggesting that this architectural technique was probably invented in Persia.
unique characteristic of Sasanian architecture was its distinctive use of space.
The Sasanian architect conceived his building in terms of masses and surfaces;
hence the use of massive walls of brick decorated with molded or carved stucco.
Stucco wall decorations appear at Bishapur, but better examples are preserved
from Chal Tarkhan near Ray (late Sasanian or early Islamic in date), and from
Ctesiphon and Kish in Mesopotamia. The panels show animal figures set in
roundels, human busts, and geometric and floral motifs.
Bishapur some of the floors were decorated with mosaics showing scenes of
merrymaking as at a banquet. The Roman influence here is clear, and the mosaics
may have been laid by Roman prisoners. Buildings were decorated with wall
industry under the Sasanians developed from domestic to urban forms. Guilds were
numerous, and some towns had a revolutionary proletariat. Silk weaving was
introduced from China; Sasanian silks were sought for everywhere, and served as
models for the textile art in Byzantium, China, and Japan. Chinese merchants
came to Iran to sell raw silk and buy rugs, jewels, rouge; Armenians, Syrians,
and Jews connected Persia, Byzantium, and Rome in slow exchange. Good roads and
bridges, well patrolled, enabled state post and merchant caravans to link
Ctesiphon with all provinces; and harbors were built in the Persian Gulf to
quicken trade with India. Sasanian merchants ranged far and wide and gradually
ousted Romans from lucrative Indian ocean trade routes. The recent Archeological
discovery has shown an interesting fact that Sasanians used special labels
(commercial labels) on goods as a way of promoting their brands and distinguish
between different qualities.
I further extended the already vast trade network. The Sasanian state now tended
toward monopolistic control of trade, with luxury goods assuming a far greater
role in the trade than heretofore, and the great activity in building of ports,
caravanserais, bridges, and the like was linked to trade and urbanization. The
Persians dominated international trade, both in the Indian Ocean and in Central
Asia and South Russia in the time of Khosrow, although competition with the
Byzantines was at times intense. Sasanian settlements in Oman and Yemen testify
to the importance of trade with India, but the silk trade with China was mainly
in the hands of Sasanian vassals and the Iranian people, the Sogdians.
main exports of Sasanians were silk, woolen and golden textile, carpet and rug,
skin, leather and Pearl from Persian Gulf. Also there were goods in transit from
China (paper, silk) and India (spices) whom Sasanian customs imposed taxes on
them and were re-exported from Empire to Europe.
was also a time of increased metallurgical production, so Iran earned a
reputation as the "armory of Asia". Most of the Sasanians mining
centers were at the fringes of the Empire, in Armenia, the Caucasus and above
all Transoxania. The extraordinary mineral wealth of Pamir Mountains on the
eastern horizon of the Sasanian empire led to a legend among the Tajiks, an
Iranian people living there, which is still told today. It said when God was
creating the world, he tripped over Pamirs, dropping his jar of minerals which
spread across the region.
Undoubtedly the most devout and orthodox Zoroastrians in ancient times were Sasanians; modern Zoroastrians are the surviving remnant of that formidable semi theocracy. Forbearers of Ardashir were the hereditary guardians of, not the famous fire temple of Adur Farnabag, as one might logically imagine, but that of the equally famous temple of Anahita in Istakhr.
In view of the above, one would logically expect that the Sasanians must have returned to the purity and the simplicity of the 18th century BCE, Gathic Zoroastrianism. Such simplicity and purity, however, seems to have been only applied to their fire temples; outside these temples they evolved the most elaborate religious iconography in Zoroastrian history, apparently with no holds barred.
Sasanians clergies modified the religion in a way to serve themselves, causing substantial religious uneasiness. Sasanian religious policies contributed to the flourishing of numerous religious reform movements, the most important of these being the Manichaeism and Mazdakite religions.
and pronounced dualism constituted the most noticeable feature of Sasanian
only in their coins, seals and rock carvings are liberally illustrated with
images of various pre-Zoroastrian gods and their ornaments such as Mithra and
Anahita, but they even went as far as depicting Ahura Mazdah himself in human
was the first to teach monotheism, the belief in one God, Ahura Mazda (The Lord
of Wisdom), but Sasanians
were modified this, and Ahura Mazda became the principle of Good, while Ahriman,
which was a concept, have become the principle of Evil.
Sasanian even went further and expressly declared both to be "twins"
who had "in the beginning come together to create Life and Death, and to
settle how the world was to be; as the result not only their coins, seals and
rock carvings are liberally illustrated with images of various pre-Zoroastrian
gods and their ornaments, but they even went as far as depicting Ahura Mazdah
himself in human form.
Alongside Zoroastrianism other religions, primarily Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism existed in Sasanian society, and were largely free to practice and preach their beliefs. The tolerant vassal kingdom of Kushan, with its many converts to Buddhism may have received an especial treatment, which probably constitutes the very first act of religious intolerance in Zoroastrian history. Not only the Zoroastrian image temples, but also the Buddhist ones, together with their cult statues and other works of art appear to have been destroyed; from then on the word Buddha was demoted in Persian language to mean idol; all modern Iranian languages, as well as many others, still use the Sasanian terms, butparast, meaning Buddha-worshipper, to describe an idolater, and butshekan, "Buddha-smasher", as an iconoclast. This act of licensed vandalism was gratuitously copied, first by the Christians and later by Islam, with devastating consequences for the artistic heritage of virtually every culture conquered by those two religions.
Also there were a very large Jewish community flourished under Sasanian rule, with thriving centers at Isfahan, Babylon and Khorrasan, and with its own semiautonomous Exilarchate leadership based in Iraq. This community would, in fact, continue to flourish until the advent of Zionism. Jewish communities suffered only occasional persecution. They enjoyed a relative freedom of religion, and were granted privileges denied to other religious minorities. Shapur I (Shvor Malka in Aramaic) was a particular friend to the Jews. His friendship with Shmuel produced many advantages for the Jewish community. He even offered the Jews in the Sasanian empire a fine white Nisaean horse, just in case that the Messiah, who was thought to ride a donkey or a mule, would come. Shapur II, whose mother was Jewish, had a similar friendship with a Babylonian rabbi named Raba. Raba's friendship with Shapur II enabled him to secure a relaxation of the oppressive laws enacted against the Jews in the Persian Empire. Moreover, in the eastern portion of the empire, various Buddhist places of worship, notably in Bamiyan were active as Buddhism gradually became more popular in that region.
Christians in Iran at this time belonged mainly to the Nestorian and Jacobite branches of the church, which considered heretical movement by Byzantine church. Nonetheless, they occasionally played as the fifth column and assisted the Byzantine army during wars between the two empires.
Most of the Christians in the Sasanian empire lived on the western edge of the empire in Khvarvaran province, and southern shores of Persian Gulf. A particularly large concentration existed in Armenia, where the Armenians, previously Zoroastrians, had been the first people in the empire to convert to Christianity.
influence of the Sasanians continues long after they ceased to exist:
had a significant influence on Roman civilization. The character of the Roman
army was affected by the methods of Persian warfare. In a modified form, the
Roman Imperial autocracy imitated the royal ceremonial of the court of Sasanians
at Ctesiphon, and the Roman ceremonies had in turn an influence on the
ceremonial traditions of the courts of modern Europe. The origin of the
formalities of European diplomacy is attributed to the diplomatic relations
between the Persian governments and Roman Empire.
principles of the European knighthood (heavily armoured cavalry) of the Middle
ages can be traced to the Sasanian Asawaran (Azatan) knightly caste, with whom
it also shares a number of similarities.
the collapse of the Sasanian Empire, after which Zoroastrianism was supplanted
by Islam, Zoroastrians increasingly became a persecuted minority, and a number
of them chose to emigrate. According to the Qissa-i Sanjan, one group of
those refugees landed in what is now Gujarat, India, where they were allowed
greater freedom to observe their old customs and to preserve their faith. The
descendants of those Zoroastrians, now known as the Parsis, would play a
significant role in the development of India. Today there are around 70,000
Parsis in India.
Parsis, as Zoroastrians, still use a variant of the religious calendar
instituted under the Sasanians. That calendar still marks the number of years
since the accession of Yazdegerd III, just as it did in 632. (See also:
Copyright © 1998-2015 The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS)