The Sassanid Persian Empire (also spelled Sasanid Empire, Sassanian Empire, or Sasanian Empire), known to its inhabitants as Eranshahr and ErAn in Middle Persian and resulting in the New Persian terms Iranshahr and Iran,was the last pre-Islamic Persian Empire, ruled by the Sasanian Dynasty from AD 224 to AD 651. The Sassanid Empire, which succeeded the Parthian Empire, was recognized as one of the two main powers in Western Asia and Europe, alongside the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, for a period of more than 400 years.
The Sassanid Empire was founded by Ardashir I, after the fall of the Arsacid Empire and the defeat of the last Arsacid king, Artabanus IV. During its existence, the Sassanid Empire encompassed all of today's Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Dagestan), southwestern Central Asia, part of Turkey, certain coastal parts of the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf area, and areas of southwestern Pakistan.
The native name for the Sassanid Empire in Middle Persian is Eran Shahr which means Aryan Empire. According to legend, the vexilloid of the Sassanid Empire was the Derafsh Kaviani. It was also hypothesized that the transition toward the Sassanid Empire represents the end of struggle of ethnic proto-Persians with their close migrant ethnic relatives, the Parthians, whose original homeland was in modern-day Central Asia.
The Sassanid era, during Late Antiquity, is considered to have been one of Persia's/Iran's most important and influential historical periods, and constituted the last great Iranian empire before the Muslim conquest and the adoption of Islam.
In many ways, the Sassanid period witnessed the peak of ancient Persian civilization. Persia influenced Roman civilization considerably during the Sassanid period. The Sassanids' cultural influence extended far beyond the empire's territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art.
Rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rustam of Persian emperor Shapur I (on horseback) capturing
Roman emperor Valerian (standing) and Philip the Arab (kneeling), suing for peace
Conflicting accounts shroud the details of the fall of the Parthian Empire and subsequent rise of the Sassanid Empire in mystery. The Sassanid Empire was established in Istakhr by Ardashir I, a descendant of a line of the priests of the goddess Anahita. In the beginning of the third century, Ardashir became governor of Persis (modern Persian Fars). Little is known about his relationship with Sassan. Sources are not consistent concerning the relationships between the early Sassanids.
Babak was originally the ruler of a region called Kheir. However, by the year 200, he managed to overthrow Gocihr, and appoint himself as the new ruler of the Bazrangids. His mother, Rodhagh, was the daughter of the provincial governor of Persis. Babak and his eldest son Shapur managed to expand their power over all of Persis. The subsequent events are unclear, due to the sketchy nature of the sources. It is certain, however, that following the death of Babak, Ardashir who at the time was the governor of Darabgird, got involved in a power struggle of his own with his elder brother Shapur. Sources reveal that Shapur, leaving for a meeting with his brother, was killed when the roof of a building collapsed on him. By the year 208, over the protests of his other brothers who were put to death, Ardashir declared himself ruler of Persis.
Once Ardashir was appointed Shahenshah, he moved his capital further to the south of Persis and founded Ardashir-Khwarrah (formerly Gur, modern day Firouzabad). The 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 which still survive today.
After establishing his rule over Persis, Ardashir I rapidly extended his territory, demanding fealty from the local princes of Fars, and gaining control over the neighboring provinces of Kerman, Isfahan, Susiana and Mesene. This expansion quickly came to the attention of Artabanus IV, the Parthian king, who initially ordered the governor of Khuzestan to wage war against Ardashir in 224, but the battles were victories for Ardashir. In a second attempt to destroy Ardashir, Artabanus himself met Ardashir in battle at Hormozgan, where Artabanus met his death. Following the death of the Parthian ruler, Ardashir I went on to invade the western provinces of the now defunct Parthian Empire.
Factors that aided the rise to supremacy of the Sassanids were the Artabanus-Vologases dynastic struggle for the Parthian throne, which probably allowed Ardashir to consolidate his authority in the south with little or no interference from the Parthians; and the geography of the Fars province, which separated it from the rest of Iran. Crowned in 224 at Ctesiphon as the sole ruler of Persia, Ardashir took the title Shahanshah, or "King of Kings" (the inscriptions mention Adhur-Anahid as his "Queen of Queens", but her relationship with Ardashir is not established), bringing the 400-year-old Parthian Empire to an end, and beginning four centuries of Sassanid rule.
In the next few years, local rebellions would form around the empire. Nonetheless, Ardashir I further expanded his new empire to the east and northwest, conquering the provinces of Sistan, Gorgan, Khorasan, Margiana (in modern Turkmenistan), Balkh and Chorasmia. He also added Bahrain and Mosul to Sassanid's possessions. Later Sassanid inscriptions also claim the submission of the Kings of Kushan, Turan 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. In the west, assaults against Hatra, Armenia and Adiabene met with less success. In 230, he raided deep into Roman territory, and a Roman counter-offensive two years later ended inconclusively, although the Roman emperor, Alexander Severus, celebrated a triumph in Rome.
Ardashir I's son Shapur I continued the expansion of the empire, conquering Bactria and the western portion of the Kushan Empire, while leading several campaigns against Rome. Invading Roman Mesopotamia, Shapur I captured
Carrhae and Nisibis, but in 243 the Roman general Timesitheus defeated the Persians at Rhesaina and regained the lost territories. The emperor Gordian III's (238-244) subsequent advance down the Euphrates was defeated at Meshike (244), leading to Gordian's murder by his own troops and enabling Shapur to conclude a highly advantageous peace treaty with the new emperor Philip the Arab, by which he secured the immediate payment of 500,000 denarii and further annual payments.
Shapur soon resumed the war, defeated the Romans at Barbalissos (252), and then probably took and plundered Antioch. Roman counter-attacks under the emperor Valerian ended in disaster when the Roman army was defeated and besieged at Edessa and Valerian was captured by Shapur, remaining his prisoner for the rest of his life. Shapur celebrated his victory by carving the impressive rock reliefs in Naqsh-e Rostam and Bishapur, as well as a monumental inscription in Persian and Greek in the vicinity of Persepolis. He exploited his success by advancing into Anatolia (260), but withdrew in disarray after defeats at the hands of the Romans and their Palmyrene ally Odaenathus, suffering the capture of his harem and the loss of all the Roman territories he had occupied.
Shapur had intensive development plans. He ordered the construction of the first dam bridge in Iran and founded many cities, some settled in part by emigrants from the Roman territories, including Christians who could exercise their faith freely under Sassanid rule. Two cities, Bishapur and Nishapur, are named after him. He particularly favored Manichaeism, protected Mani (who dedicated one of his books, the Shabuhragan, to him) and sent many Manichaean missionaries abroad. He 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. Later kings reversed Shapur's policy of religious tolerance. Under pressure from Zoroastrian Magi and influenced by the high-priest Kartir, Bahram I killed Mani and persecuted his followers. Bahram II was, like his father, amenable to the wishes of the Zoroastrian priesthood. During his reign, the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon was sacked by the Romans under Emperor Carus, and most of Armenia, after half a century of Persian rule, was ceded to Diocletian.
Succeeding Bahram III (who ruled briefly in 293), Narseh embarked on another war with the Romans. After an early success against the Emperor Galerius near Callinicum on the Euphrates in 296, Narseh was decisively defeated. Indeed Galerius had been reinforced, probably in the spring of 298, by a new contingent collected from the empire's Danubian holdings. Narseh did not advance from Armenia and Mesopotamia, leaving Galerius to lead the offensive in 298 with an attack on northern Mesopotamia via Armenia. Narseh retreated to Armenia to fight Galerius' force, to Narseh's disadvantage: the rugged Armenian terrain was favorable to Roman infantry, but unfavorable to Sassanid cavalry. Local aid gave Galerius the advantage of surprise over the Persian forces, and, in two successive battles, Galerius secured victories over Narseh.
During the second encounter, Roman forces seized Narseh's camp, his treasury, his harem, and his wife along with it. Galerius advanced into Media and Adiabene, winning continuous victories, most prominently near Erzurum, and securing Nisibis (Nusaybin, Turkey) before October 1, 298. He moved down the Tigris, taking Ctesiphon.
Narseh had previously sent an ambassador to Galerius to plead for the return of his wives and children.Peace negotiations began in the spring of 299, with both Diocletian and Galerius presiding.
The conditions of the peace were heavy: Persia would give up territory to Rome, making the Tigris the boundary between the two empires. Further terms specified that Armenia was returned to Roman domination, with the fort of Ziatha as its border; Caucasian Iberia would pay allegiance to Rome under a Roman appointee; Nisibis, now under Roman rule, would become the sole conduit for trade between Persia and Rome; and Rome would exercise control over the five satrapies between the Tigris and Armenia: Ingilene, Sophanene (Sophene), Arzanene (Aghdznik), Corduene, and Zabdicene (near modern Hakkari, Turkey).
In the treaty that concluded this war, the Sassanids ceded five provinces east of the Tigris, and agreed not to interfere in the affairs of Armenia and Georgia. In the aftermath of this defeat, Narseh gave up the throne and died a year later, leaving the Sassanid throne to his son, Hormizd II. Unrest spread throughout the land, and while Hormizd II suppressed revolts in Sistan and Kushan, he was unable to control the nobles and was subsequently killed by Bedouins in a hunting trip in 309.
Following Hormizd II's death, Arabs from the south started to ravage and plunder the southern cities of the empire, even attacking the province of Fars, the birthplace of the Sassanid 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 Shapur II, the unborn child of one of Hormizd II's wives who was crowned in utero: the crown was placed upon his mother's stomach. 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.
Shapur 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 the Romans in the west, where Persian forces won a series of battles but were unable to make territorial gains due to the failure of repeated sieges of the key frontier city of Nisibis, and Roman success in retaking the cities of Singara and Amida, after they had fallen to the Persians.
These campaigns were halted by nomadic raids along the eastern borders of the empire, which threatened Transoxiana, a strategically critical area for control of the Silk Road. Shapur therefore marched east toward Transoxiana to meet the eastern nomads, leaving his local commanders to mount nuisance raids on the Romans. 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 Sassanid art penetrated Turkestan, reaching as far as China. Shapur, along with the nomad King Grumbates, started his second campaign against the Romans in 359, and soon succeeded in taking Singara and Amida again. In response to this, the Roman emperor Julian struck deep into Persian territory and defeated Shapur's forces at Ctesiphon, but having failed to take the capital, he was killed while trying to retreat back to Roman territory. His successor Jovian, trapped on the east bank of the Tigris, had to agree to hand over all the provinces which the Persians had ceded to Rome in 298 as well as Nisibis and Singara, in order to secure safe passage for his army out of Persia.
Shapur 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. Shapur II, like Shapur I, was amicable towards Jews, who lived in relative freedom and gained many advantages in his period (see also Raba (Talmud)). At 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.
From Shapur II's death until Kavadh I's first coronation, there was a largely peaceful period with the Romans (by this time the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire), interrupted only by two brief wars, the first in 421-422 and the second in 440. Throughout this era, Sassanid 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.
After 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 his 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 Sassanid empires. The Sassanids 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) is often compared to Constantine I. Like him, he was powerful both physically and diplomatically. Much like his Roman counterpart, Yazdegerd I was opportunistic. Like Constantine the Great, Yazdegerd I 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.
Yazdegerd I's successor was his son Bahram V (421-438), one of the most well-known Sassanid kings and the hero of many myths. These myths persisted even after the destruction of the Sassanid empire by the Arabs. Bahram V, better known as Bahram-e Gur, gained the crown after Yazdegerd 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.
Bahram V is a great favorite in Persian tradition, which relates many stories of his valor and beauty, of his victories over the Romans, Turkic peoples, Indians and Africans, and of his adventures in hunting and in love; he is called Bahram-e Gur, Gur meaning onager, on account of his love for hunting and, in particular, hunting onagers. He symbolized a king at 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 Sassanid literature were written, notable pieces of Sassanid music were composed, and sports such as polo became royal pastimes, a tradition that continues to this day in many kingdoms.
Bahram 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 Christianity.
At the beginning of his reign, Yazdegerd II gathered a mixed army of various nations, including his Indian allies, and attacked the Eastern Roman Empire in 441, but peace was soon restored after small-scale fighting. He then gathered his forces in Nishapur 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 the Oxus river in 450.
During 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. Hormizd III (457-459), younger son of Yazdegerd II, ascended to the throne. During his short rule, he continually fought with his elder brother Peroz, who had the support of nobility, and with the Hephthalites in Bactria. He was killed by his brother Peroz in 459.
In 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 Peroz 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.
These attacks brought instability and chaos to the kingdom. Peroz I tried again to drive out the Hephthalites, but on the way to Herat, he and his army were trapped by the Huns in the desert; Peroz I was killed, and his army was wiped out. After this victory, the 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 Peroz I's brothers, to the throne, although the Hunnic threat persisted until the reign of Khosrau 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.
Kavadh I (488-531) was an energetic and reformist ruler. Kavadh I gave his support to the 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 being deposed and imprisoned in the "Castle of Oblivion" 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.
Djamasp (496-498) was installed on the Sassanid 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 an adherent of the mainstream Zoroastrian religion, 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 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 brother.
The 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 in Armenia, but lost it soon afterwards. In 503 he took Amida on the Tigris. In 504, an invasion of Armenia by the western Huns from the Caucasus led to an armistice, the return of Amida to Roman control and a peace treaty in 506. In 521/522 Kavadh lost control of Lazica, whose rulers switched their allegiance to the Romans; an attempt by the Iberians in 524/525 to do likewise triggered a war between Rome and Persia.
In 527, a Roman offensive against Nisibis was repulsed and Roman efforts to fortify positions near the frontier were thwarted. In 530, Kavadh sent an army under Firouz the Mirranes to attack the important Roman frontier city of Dara. The army was met by the Roman general Belisarius, and though superior in numbers, was defeated at the Battle of Dara. In the same year, a second Persian army under Mihr-Mihroe was defeated at Satala by Roman forces under Sittas and Dorotheus, but in 531 a Persian army accompanied by a Lakhmid contingent under al-Mundhir IV defeated Belisarius at the Battle of Callinicum, and in 532 an "eternal" peace was concluded. Although he could not free himself from the yoke of the Ephthalites, Kavadh succeeded in restoring order in the interior and fought with general success against the Eastern Romans, founded several cities, some of which were named after him, and began to regulate the taxation and internal administration.
After Kavadh I, his son Khosrau I, also known as Anushirvan ("with the immortal soul"; ruled 531-579), ascended to the throne. He is the most celebrated of the Sassanid rulers. Khosrau I is most famous for his reforms in the aging governing body of Sassanids. 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. Khosrau 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 local lords. (For more about Khosrau I's reforms, visit).
Although the Emperor Justinian I (527-565) had paid him a bribe of 440,000 pieces of gold to keep the peace, in 540 Khosrau I broke the "eternal peace" of 532 and invaded Syria, where he sacked the city of Antioch and extorted large sums of money from a number of other cities. Further successes followed: in 541 Lazica defected to the Persian side, and in 542 a major Byzantine offensive in Armenia was defeated at Anglon. A five-year truce agreed in 545 was interrupted in 547 when Lazica again switched sides and eventually expelled its Persian garrison with Byzantine help; the war resumed, but remained confined to Lazica, which was retained by the Byzantines when peace was concluded in 562.
In 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 Sassanid 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, while rebellion also broke out in Iberia. Justin II took advantage of the Armenian revolt to stop his yearly payments to Khosrau I for the defense of the Caucasus passes.
The Armenians were welcomed as allies, and an army was sent into Sassanid territory which besieged Nisibis in 573. 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 agree to make annual payments in exchange for a five-year truce on the Mesopotamian front, although the war continued elsewhere. In 576 Khosrau I led his last campaign, an offensive into Anatolia which sacked Sebasteia and Melitene, but ended in disaster: defeated outside Melitene, the Persians suffered heavy losses as they fled across the Euphrates under Byzantine attack. Taking advantage of Persian disarray, the Byzantines raided deep into Khosrau's territory, even mounting amphibious attacks across the Caspian Sea. Khosrau sued for peace, but he decided to continue the war after a victory by his general Tamkhosrau in Armenia in 577, and fighting resumed in Mesopotamia. The Armenian revolt came to an end with a general amnesty, which brought Armenia back into the Sassanid Empire.
Around 570, "Ma 'd-Karib", half-brother of the King of Yemen, requested Khosrau I's intervention. Khosrau 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 Sassanids were able to establish a base in south Arabia to control the sea trade with the east. Later, the south Arabian kingdom renounced Sassanid overlordship, and another Persian expedition was sent in 598 that successfully annexed southern Arabia as a Sassanid province, which lasted until the time of troubles after Khosrau II.
Khosrau I's reign witnessed the rise of the dihqans (literally, village lords), the petty landholding nobility who were the backbone of later Sassanid provincial administration and the tax collection system. Khosrau 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.
After Khosrau I, Hormizd IV (579-590) took the throne. The war with the Byzantines continued to rage intensely but inconclusively until the general Bahram Chobin, dismissed and humiliated by Hormizd, rose in revolt in 589. The following year, Hormizd was overthrown by a palace coup and his son Khosrau II (590-628) placed on the throne. However, this change of ruler failed to placate Bahram, who defeated Khosrau, forcing him to flee to Byzantine territory, and seized the throne for himself as Bahram VI. Khosrau begged Byzantine Emperor Maurice (582-602) for assistance against Bahram, offering to cede the western Caucasus to the Byzantines. To cement the alliance, Khosrau also married Maurice's daughter Miriam.
Under the command of Khosrau and the Byzantine generals Narses and John Mystacon, the new combined Byzantine-Persian army raised a rebellion against Bahram, defeating him at the Battle of Blarathon in 591. When Khosrau was subsequently restored to power he kept his promise, handing over control of western Armenia and Caucasian Iberia. The new peace arrangement allowed the two empires to focus on military matters elsewhere: Khosrau expanded the Sassanid Empire's eastern frontier while Maurice restored Byzantine control of the Balkans.
However, Maurice was overthrown and killed by Phocas (602-610) in 602, Khosrau II used the murder of his benefactor as a pretext to begin a new invasion, which benefited from continuing civil war in the Byzantine Empire, and met little effective resistance. Khosrau's generals systematically subdued the heavily fortified frontier cities of Byzantine Mesopotamia and Armenia, laying the foundations for unprecedented expansion. The Persians overran Syria and captured Antioch in 611.
In 613, outside Antioch, the Persian generals Shahrbaraz and Shahin, decisively defeated a major counter-attack led in person by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. Thereafter, the Persian advance continued unchecked. Jerusalem fell in 614, Alexandria in 619 and the rest of Egypt by 621. The Sassanid dream of restoring the Achaemenid boundaries was close to completion. This remarkable peak of expansion was paralleled by a blossoming of Persian art, music and architecture. The Byzantine Empire was on the verge of collapse and the borders of the Achaemenid Empire came close to being restored on all fronts.
While originally seeming successful at a first glance, the campaign of Khosrau II had actually exhausted the Persian army and Persian treasuries. In an effort to rebuild the national treasuries, Khosrau overtaxed the population. Thus, seeing the opportunity, Heraclius (610-641) drew on all his diminished and devastated empire's remaining resources, reorganized his armies and mounted a remarkable counter-offensive. Between 622 and 627 he campaigned against the Persians in Anatolia and the Caucasus, winning a string of victories against Persian forces under Khosrau, Shahrbaraz, Shahin and Shahraplakan, sacking the great Zoroastrian temple at Ganzak and securing assistance from the Khazars and Western Turkic Khaganate.
In 626, Constantinople was besieged by Slavic and Avar forces which were supported by a Persian army under Shahrbaraz on the far side of the Bosphorus, but attempts to ferry the Persians across were blocked by the Byzantine fleet and the siege ended in failure. In 627-628, Heraclius mounted a winter invasion of Mesopotamia and, despite the departure of his Khazar allies, defeated a Persian army commanded by Rhahzadh in the Battle of Nineveh. He then marched down the Tigris, devastating the country and sacking Khosrau's palace at Dastagerd. He was prevented from attacking Ctesiphon by the destruction of the bridges on the Nahrawan Canal and conducted further raids before withdrawing up the Diyala into north-western Iran.
The impact of Heraclius's victories, the devastation of the richest territories of the Sassanid Empire, and the humiliating destruction of high-profile targets such as Ganzak and Dastagerd, fatally undermined Khosrau's prestige and his support among the Persian aristocracy. In early 628, he was overthrown and murdered by his son Kavadh II (628), who immediately brought an end to the war, agreeing to withdraw from all occupied territories.
In 629, Heraclius restored the True Cross to Jerusalem in a majestic ceremony. Kavadh died within months, and chaos and civil war followed. Over a period of four years and five successive kings, including two daughters of Khosrau II and spahbod Shahrbaraz, the Sassanid 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 Sassanids never had time to recover fully.
In the spring of 632, a grandson of Khosrau I who had lived in hiding, Yazdegerd III, ascended the throne. The same year, the first raiders from the Arab tribes, newly united by Islam, arrived in Persian territory. Years of warfare had exhausted both the Byzantines and the Persians. The Sassanids 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 Islamic conquest of Persia.
The Sassanids 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 the Byzantines, under similar pressure from the newly expansive Arabs, no longer threatened. Caliph Abu Bakr's brilliant commander Khalid ibn Walid moved to capture Iraq in series of lightning battles. Redeployed to the Syrian front against the Byzantines in June 634, Khalid's successor in Iraq failed him, and Muslims were defeated in the Battle of the Bridge in 634, which resulted in a Sassanid 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 companions-in-arms and leader of the Arab army.
Under the Caliph 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, a Muslim army defeated a larger Persian force led by general Rostam Farrokhzad at the plains of al-Qadisiyyah in 637, and besieged Ctesiphon. Ctesiphon fell after a prolonged siege. Yazdegerd fled eastward from Ctesiphon, leaving behind him most of the Empire's vast treasury. The Arabs captured Ctesiphon shortly afterward, leaving the Sassanid government strapped for funds and acquiring a powerful financial resource for their own use. A number of Sassanid 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 Nihawand. 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, was now utterly helpless in the face of the invaders.
Upon hearing the defeat in Nihawand, Yazdegerd along with most of Persian nobilities fled further inland to the eastern 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 Islamic dynasty, the Samanid dynasty, which sought to revive Sassanid traditions and promoting Islam.
The abrupt fall of the Sassanid 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 Rey, Isfahan and Hamadan were exterminated thrice[clarification needed] by Islamic caliphates in order to suppress revolts.
The local population, initially under little pressure to convert to Islam, remained as dhimmi subjects of the Muslim state and paid a jizya. Practically, Jizya replaced poll taxes imposed by the Sassanids, which tended to be much higher than the Jizya. In addition to jizya, the old Sassanid "land tax" (known in Arabic as Kharaj), was also adopted. Caliph Umar is said to have occasionally setup a commission to survey the taxes, to judge if they were more than the land could bear. Conversion of the Persian population to Islam would take place gradually, particularly as Persian-speaking elites attempted to gain positions of prestige under the Abbasid Caliphate.
It is believed that the following dynasties and religious leaders have ancestors among the Sassanian rulers:
The Bavandi dynasty (665-1006) of Mazenderan, descendant of Kavadh I.
The Sassanids of Georgia, also known as Khosroides (265-570), who sprang from Shapur I.
The Gavparehids of Tabaristan (647-1597), children of Djamasp.
The Ghaznavids (977-1187), with a Persian ancestor: Yazdegerd III.
The Shahs of Shirwan (1100-1382) from Hormizd IV's line.
Baha'u'llah (1817-1892) founder of the Baha'i Faith, descendant of Yazdegerd III according to a Bahai Author.
The Sassanids established an empire roughly within the frontiers achieved by the Parthian Arsacids, with the capital at Ctesiphon in the Khvarvaran province. In administering this empire, Sassanid rulers took the title of Shahanshah (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 Sassanid 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. Sassanid queens had the title of Banebshenan banebshen (the Queen of Queens).
On a smaller scale, the territory might also be ruled by a number of petty rulers from the Sassanid royal family, known as Shahrdar, overseen directly by Shahanshah. Sassanid 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 man of the Sassanid state.
The Sassanian rulers always considered the advice of their ministers.
In normal times, the monarchical office was hereditary, but might be transferred 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.
The Sassanid 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 the 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 the House of Karen and the House of Suren, along with several Persian families, the Varazes and Andigans, held positions of great honor.
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 Sassanid state as semi-independent states. Thus, the noble families that attended at the court of the Sassanid empire continued to be ruling lines in their own right, although subordinate to the Shahanshah.
In 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.
Culturally, the Sassanids 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, Wiesehofer, Ancient Persia, or the Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3). Sassanid emperors consciously sought to resuscitate Persian traditions and to obliterate Greek cultural influence.
The active army of the Sassanid Empire originated from Ardeshir I, the first Shahanshah of the empire. Ardeshir had focused on the revival of military tactics and organisations that had previously been used in the Achaemenid Empire, as well as the Parthian knight. He even focused on the development of new siege weapons.
The Paighan formed the bulk of the Sassanid infantry, and were often recruited from the peasant population. Each unit was headed by an officer called a "Paighan-Salar," and their main task was to guard baggage train, serve as pages to the Sarvan (a higher rank), storm fortification walls, undertake entrenchment projects, and excavate mines.
The Medes provided the Sassanid army with high-quality javelin throwers, slingers and heavy infantry. Iranian infantry are described by Ammianus Marcellinus as "armed like gladiators" and "obey orders like so many horse-boys". They were essential in the campaigns against Mark Antony and his defeat by the Sassanids.
The Dailamite people also served as infantry and were Iranian people who lived mainly within Gilan, Iranian Azerbaijan and Mazandaran. They are reported as having fought with weapons such as daggers, swords and javelins and reputed to have been recognized by Romans for their skills and hardiness in close-quarter combat. One account of Dalamites was their participation in invasion of Yemen where 800 of them were led by the Sarvan officer Vahriz. Vahriz would eventually defeat the Arab forces in Yemen and its capital Sana'a making it a Persian Vassal until the invasion of Persia by Arabs.
The cavalry used during the Sassanid Empire were 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. Sassanid tactics centered on disrupting the enemy with archers, and also involved use of the war elephants which was a Sassanid specialty to deploy elephants as cavalry support.
Unlike the Parthians, the Sassanids developed advanced siege engines. The development of siege weapons was a useful weapon during conflicts with Rome, in which success hinged upon the ability to seize cities and other fortified points; conversely, the Sassanids also developed a number of techniques for defending their own cities from attack. The Sassanid army was famous for its heavy cavalry, which was much like the preceding Parthian army, albeit only some of the Sassanid's heavy cavalry were equipped with lances. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus's description of Shapur II's clibanarii cavalry manifestly shows how heavily equipped it was, and how only a portion were spear equipped:
All 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.
The Byzantine emperor Maurikios also emphasizes in his Strategikon that many of the Sassanid heavy cavalry did not carry spears, relying on their bows as their primary weapons. However the Taq-i Bustan reliefs and Al-Tabari's famed list of equipment requirement for dihqan knights which included the lance, provide a contrast. What is certain is that the horseman's paraphernalia was extensive.
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.
The Sassanids, 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 principal western enemy. Hostilities between the two empires became more frequent.
The Sassanids, 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 Sassanids generally dealt much more successfully with these matters than did the Romans, due to their policy of making coordinated campaigns against threatening nomads.
In the west, Sassanid 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.
In the south and central Arabia, Bedouin Arab tribes occasionally raided the Sassanid empire. The Kingdom of Al-Hirah, a Sassanid vassal kingdom, was established to form a buffer zone between the empire's heartland and the Bedouin tribes. The dissolution of the Kingdom of Al-Hirah by Pervaiz (King) Khosrau II in 602, contributed greatly to decisive Sassanid defeats suffered against Bedouin Arabs later in the century. These defeats resulted in a sudden takeover of the Sassanid empire by Bedouin tribes under the Islamic banner.
In the north, Khazars and other Turkic nomads frequently assaulted the 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 Sassanids built numerous fortifications in the Caucasus region to halt these attacks.
Like their predecessors the Parthians, the Sassanid Empire carried out active foreign relations with China, and ambassadors from Persia frequently traveled to China. Chinese documents report on 13 Sassanid embassies to China. Commercially, land and sea trade with China was important to both the Sassanid and Chinese Empires. Large numbers of Sassanid coins have been found in southern China, confirming maritime trade.
On different occasions, Sassanid kings sent their most talented Persian musicians and dancers to the Chinese imperial court at Luoyang during the Jin and Northern Wei dynasties, and to Chang'an during the Sui and Tang dynasties. 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.
Politically, we hear of several Sassanid and Chinese efforts in forging alliances against the common enemy who were the Hephthalites. Upon the rise of the nomadic Gokturks in Inner Asia, we also see what looks like a collaboration between China and Sassanid to defuse Turkic advances. Documents from Mt. Mogh talk about the presence of a Chinese general in the service of the king of Sogdiana, at the time of the Arab invasions.
Following the invasion of Iran by Muslim Arabs, Peroz II, son of Yazdegerd III, escaped along with a few Persian nobles and took refuge in the Chinese imperial court. Both Peroz and his son Narsieh (Chinese neh-shie) were given high titles at the Chinese court.
At least in two occasions, the last possibly in 670, Chinese troops were sent with Peroz in order to restore him to the Sassanid throne with mixed results, one possibly ending in a short rule of Peroz in Sistan (Sakestan), from which we have a few remaining numismatic evidences. Narsieh later attained the position of commander of the Chinese imperial guards, and his descendants lived in China as respected princes. The sister of the Sassanian Prince Peroz II was married into the imperial court, which allowed Sassanian refugees fleeing from the Arab conquest to settle in China. The Emperor of China at this time was Emperor Gaozong of Tang.
Following the conquest of Iran and neighboring regions, Shapur I extended his authority eastwards into the northwestern Indian subcontinent. 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 Indian Gupta Empire in the 4th century, it is clear that Sassanid remained relevant in India's northwest throughout this period.
Persia and northwestern India engaged in cultural as well as political intercourse during this period, as certain Sassanid practices spread into the Kushan territories. In particular, the Kushan's were influenced by the Sassanid conception of kingship, which spread through the trade of Sassanid silverware and textiles depicting emperors hunting or dispensing justice.
This cultural interchange did not, however, spread Sassanid religious practices or attitudes to the Kushans. While the Sassanids 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.
Lower-level cultural interchanges also took place between India and Persia during this period. For example, Persians imported chess from India and changed the game's name from chaturanga to chatrang. In exchange, Persians introduced Backgammon to India.
During Khosrau I's reign, many books were brought from India and translated into Pahlavi, the language of the Sassanid 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 Khosrau's ministers, Burzoe. 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 acquisition of the Panchatantra are written in full details in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh.
In 522, before Khosrau's reign, a group of monophysite Ethiopians led an attack on the dominant Himyarites of southern Arabia. The local Arab leader was able to resist the attack, and appealed to the Sassanians for aid, while the Ethiopians subsequently turned towards the Byzantines for help. The Ethiopians sent another force across the Red Sea and this time successfully killed the Arab leader and replaced him with an Ethiopian man to be king of the region.
In 531, Justinian suggested that the Ethiopians of Yemen should cut out the Persians from Indian trade by maritime trade with the Indians. The Ethiopians never met this request because an Ethiopian general named Abraha took control of the Yemenite throne and created an independent nation. After Abraha's death one of his sons, Ma'd-Karib, went into exile while his half-brother took the throne. After being denied by Justinian, Ma'd-Karib sought help from Khosrau, who sent a small fleet and army under commander Vahriz to depose the current king of Yemen. After capturing the capital city San'a'l, Ma'd-Karib's son, Saif, was put on the throne.
Justinian was ultimately responsible for Sassanian maritime presence in Yemen. By not providing the Yemenite Arabs support, Khosrau was able to help Ma'd-Karib and subsequently established Yemen as a principality of the Sassanian Empire.
Sassanid society and civilization were among the most flourishing of their time, rivaled in their region only by the Byzantine civilization. The amount of scientific and intellectual exchange between the two empires is witness to the competition and cooperation of these cradles of civilization.
The most striking difference between Parthian and Sassanid society was renewed emphasis on charismatic and centralized government. In Sassanid theory, the ideal society was one which could maintain stability and justice and the necessary instrument for this was a strong monarch.
Sassanid 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:
Warriors (Persian: Arteshtaran)
Secretaries (Persian: Dabiran)
Commoners (Persian: Vasteryoshan-Hootkheshan)
At the center of the Sassanid 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. The Sassanid caste system outlived the empire, continuing in the early Islamic period.
There was a major school, called the Grand School, in the capital. In the beginning, only 50 students were allowed to study at the Grand School. In less than 100 years, enrollment at the Grand School was over 30,000 students.
Membership 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 classes.
On a lower level, Sassanid society was divided into Azatan (Azadan)(freemen), who jealously guarded their status as descendants of ancient Aryan conquerors, and the mass of originally non-Aryan peasantry. The Azatan formed a large low-aristocracy of low-level administrators, mostly living on small estates. The Azatan provided the cavalry backbone of Sassanid army.
The Sassanid kings were enlightened patrons of letters and philosophy. Khosrau 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 Khosrau's court. In time they grew homesick, and in his treaty of 533 with Justinian, the Sassanid king stipulated that the Greek sages should be allowed to return and be free from persecution.
Under Khosrau I, the Academy of Gundishapur, which had been founded in the 5th century, became "the greatest intellectual center of the time", drawing students and teachers from every quarter of the known 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.
Artistically, the Sassanid 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 Sassanid Empire stretched from Syria to northwest India, but its influence was felt far beyond these political boundaries. Sassanid motifs found their way into the art of Central Asia and China, the Byzantine Empire, and even Merovingian France. Islamic art however, was the true heir to Sassanid art, whose concepts it was to assimilate while, at the same time instilling fresh life and renewed vigor into it. According to Will Durant:
Sassanid carvings at Taq-e Bostan and Naqsh-e Rustam 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; Firdowsi 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.
Painting, 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 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 appendage of wealth in the East since Assyrian days. The two dozen Sasanian textiles that have survived are among 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 Middle Ages, they were favored for clothing the relics of Christian saints.
When Heraclius captured the palace of Khosru Parvez at Dastagerd, delicate embroideries and an immense rug were among his most precious spoils. Famous was the "Winter Carpet", also known as "Khosro's Spring" (Spring Season Carpet) of Khosru Anushirvan, designed to make him forget winter in its spring and summer scenes: flowers and fruits made of inwoven 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.
Studies on Sassanid remains show over 100 types of crowns being worn by Sassanid kings. The various Sassanid 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 beliefs.
The Sassanid Dynasty, like the Achaemenid, originated in the province of Persis (Fars). The Sassanids 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.
Sassanid silk twill textile of a Simurgh in a beaded surround, 6-7th century. Used in the reliquary of Saint Len, Paris In reviving the glories of the Achaemenid past, the Sassanids were no mere imitators. The art of this period reveals an astonishing virility, in certain respects anticipating key features of Islamic art. Sassanid 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 Sassanid period, there was reaction against it. Sassanid art revived forms and traditions native to Persia, and in the Islamic period, these reached the shores of the Mediterranean. According to Fergusson:
During the Sassanid 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 (24 m) and reaches a height of 118 feet (36 m). 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 Firouzabad is the earliest surviving example of the use of the squinch, suggesting that this architectural technique was probably invented in Persia.
The unique characteristic of Sassanid architecture was its distinctive use of space. The Sassanid 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 Rey (late Sassanid 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.
At Bishapur, some of the floors were decorated with mosaics showing scenes of banqueting. The Roman influence here is clear, and the mosaics may have been laid by Roman prisoners. Buildings were decorated with wall paintings. Particularly fine examples have been found on Mount Khajeh in Sistan.
Persian industry under the Sassanids developed from domestic to urban forms. Guilds were numerous. Silk weaving was introduced from China; Sassanid silks were sought after everywhere, and served as models for the textile art in Byzantium, China and Japan. Chinese merchants came to thriving Iranian ports such as Siraf to sell raw silk and buy rugs, jewels and 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. Sassanid merchants ranged far and wide and gradually ousted Romans from the lucrative Indian ocean trade routes. Recent archeological discovery has shown an interesting fact that Sassanids used special labels (commercial labels) on goods as a way of promoting their brands and distinguish them between different qualities.
Khosrau I further extended the already vast trade network. The Sassanid 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, Central Asia and South Russia, in the time of Khosrau, although competition with the Byzantines was at times intense. Sassanian 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 Sassanid vassals and the Iranian people, the Sogdians.
The main exports of the Sassanids were silk; woolen and golden textiles; carpets and rugs; skin; and, leather and pearls from the Persian Gulf. There were also goods in transit from China (paper, silk) and India (spices), which Sassanid customs imposed taxes upon, and which were re-exported from the Empire to Europe.
It was also a time of increased metallurgical production, so Iran earned a reputation as the "armory of Asia". Most of the Sassanid mining centers were at the fringes of the Empire-in Armenia, the Caucasus and above all, Transoxania. The extraordinary mineral wealth of the Pamir Mountains on the eastern horizon of the Sassanid empire led to a legend among the Tajiks, an Iranian people living there, which is still told today. It said that when God was creating the world, he tripped over Pamirs, dropping his jar of minerals which spread across the region.
Under Parthian rule, Zoroastrianism had undergone corruption and disillusions from the Greek religion. The Greek religion had spread and mixed with Zoroastrianism when Alexander the Great had conquered the Persian Empire from Darius III. Under Sassanid rule, the pure, orthodox version of Zoroastrianism was re-instated. The loose system of priests was replaced with a hierarchical formed religious system.
Large portions of the Avesta created during the reign of Darius I were lost when Alexander burned the city of Persepolis, either while intoxicated or as an act of revenge for the First and Second Persian invasion of Greece. However, under the reign of Shapur I, attempts to re-build the Avesta were made.
The religion of the Sassanid state was Zoroastrianism, but Sassanid Zoroastrianism had clear distinctions from the practices laid out in the Avesta, the holy books of Zoroastrianism. Sassanid Zoroastrian clergy modified the religion in a way to serve themselves, causing substantial religious uneasiness.[specify] Sassanid religious policies contributed to the flourishing of numerous religious reform movements, the most important of these being the Mani and Mazdak religions.
Indeed, the relationship between the Sasanian kings and the religions practiced in their empire were complex and varied. For instance, while Shapur I tolerated and encouraged a variety of religions and seems to have been a Zurvanite himself, religious minorities were suppressed under Bahram II. Shapur II, on the other hand, was tolerant of most religious groups excepting Christians, whom he only persecuted in the wake of Constantine's conversion.
Christians in the Sassanid Empire belonged mainly to the Nestorian Church (Church of the East) and the Jacobite Church (Syriac Orthodox Church) branches of Christianity. Although these churches originally maintained ties with Christian churches in the Roman Empire, they were indeed quite different from them.
One reason for this was that the Church language of the Nestorian and Jacobite Churches was their use of Syriac as their liturgical language rather than Greek, the language of Byzantine Christianity. Another reason for a separation between Eastern and Western Christianity, was strong pressure from the Sassanid authorities to sever connections with Rome, since the Sassanid Empire was often at war with the Roman Empire.
Christianity was recognized by king Yazdegerd I in 409 as an allowable faith within the Sassanid Empire. In 410, at the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, Mar Isaac was elected as Catholicos of the Church of the East.
The major break with mainstream Christianity came in 431, due to the pronouncements of the First Council of Ephesus. The Council condemned Nestorius, a theologian of Cilician/Kilikian origin and the patriarch of Constantinople, for teaching a view of Christology in accordance with which he refused to call Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, "Theotokos" or Mother of God. While the teaching of the Council of Ephesus was accepted within the Roman Empire, the Sassanid church disagreed with the condemnation of Nestorius' teachings.
When Nestorius was deposed as patriarch, a number of his followers fled to the Sassanid Persian Empire. Persian emperors used this opportunity to strengthen Nestorius' position within the Sassanid church (which made up the vast majority of the Christians in the predominantly Zoroastrian Persian Empire) by eliminating the most important pro-Roman clergymen in Persia and making sure that their places were taken by Nestorians. This was to assure that these Christians would be loyal to the Persian Empire, and not to the Roman.
Most of the Christians in the Sassanid empire lived on the western edge of the empire, predominantly in Mesopotamia, but there were also important communities on the island of Tylos (present day Bahrain), the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, the area of the Arabian kingdom of Lakhm, and the Persian part of Armenia. Some of these areas were the earliest to be Christianized; the kingdom of Armenia became the first independent Christian state in the world in 301. While a number of Assyrian territories had almost become fully Christianized even earlier during the 3rd century, they never became independent nations.
Alongside Zoroastrianism, other religions, primarily Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism, existed in Sassanid society, and were largely free to practice and preach their beliefs. A very large Jewish community flourished under Sassanid rule, with thriving centers at Isfahan, Babylon and Khorasan, and with its own semiautonomous Exilarchate leadership based in Mesopotamia. 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 (Shabur 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 Sassanid empire a fine white Nisaean horse, just in case 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.
The influence of the Sassanid Empire continued long after it ceased to exist. The empire, through the guidance of several able emperors prior to its fall, had achieved a Persian renaissance that would become a driving force behind the civilization of the newly established religion of Islam. In modern Iran and the regions of the Iranosphere, the Sassanid period is regarded as one of the high points of Iranian civilization.
Sassanid culture and military structure had a significant influence on Roman civilization. The structure and character of the Roman army was affected by the methods of Persian warfare. In a modified form, the Roman Imperial autocracy imitated the royal ceremonies of the court of the Sassanids at Ctesiphon, and those in turn had 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.
Through the late Roman Empire's adoption of Cataphract cavalry, the principles of the European knighthood (heavily armored cavalry) of the Middle Ages can be traced to the Sassanid Asawaran (Azatan) knightly society with whom it also shares a number of similarities.
In Jewish history, the Sassanid Empire is a very important chapter in the expansion of the Jewish faith. The Sassanid period saw major developments such as the construction of the Babylonian Talmud and the establishment of several Jewish orientated academic institutions such as Sura and Pumbedita, which were for centuries the most influential in Jewish scholarship. Several individuals of the Imperial family such as Ifra Hormizd the Queen mother of Shapur II and Queen Shushandukht, the Jewish wife of Yazdegerd I, significantly contributed to the close relations between the Jews of the empire and the government in Ctesiphon.
The collapse of the Sassanid Empire caused the state religion to be switched from Zoroastrianism to Islam. Zoroastrianism slowly went from a major religion to a persecuted minor religion. For the survival of their faith and their lives, a large number of Zoroastrians 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 small but significant role in the development of India. Today there are around 70,000 Parsis in India.
The Parsis, as Zoroastrians, still use a variant of the religious calendar instituted under the Sassanids. That calendar still marks the number of years since the accession of Yazdegerd III, just as it did in 632.
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