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The Sasanians, or Sassanids (224–641 CE) were responsible for creating an important empire that included the Plateau of Iran, parts of Central Africa, Arabia, and Mesopotamia. Their artistic talent and cultural creativity influenced their neighbors, and their history remained a reference point for the later Islamic dynasties that arose in the same area.
During the height of Sasanian power in the seventh century the empire controlled Anatolia (peninsular Turkey), Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, as well as parts of Iran, Central Africa, Arabia, and Mesopotamia. The Sasanians were an important part of the Silk Roads economy, which controlled the sale of silk and other luxury goods in Eurasia, and they produced the most recognized monetary system, specifically the coinage known as the silver drahm.
Rise of Ardashir I
The Sasanians rose up from the province of Persis (present-day Fars, in southwestern Iran), where Persian customs had remained constant and a historical memory of the past prevailed. Ardashir I (reigned 224–240 CE) was the son of a priest who served at the fire temple of the goddess Anahita in the city of Istakhr. Ardashir was able to conquer the province in the first decade of the third century CE while the nominal ruler of the area, the Parthian king of kings Artabanus VI, was busy with the Romans and fighting off contenders to the throne. By the time Artabanus VI was able to pay attention to the Persian upstart, Ardashir had gathered a large force, composed mainly of the Persian nobility. Ardashir defeated Artabanus VI in 224 and crowned himself king of kings. His coins and inscriptions call him “Ardashir, King of Kings of Iran, who is from the race of gods.” It was the first time that the name “Iran” was used to designate the Plateau of Iran as such.
Shapur I and the Prophet Mani
Ardashir’s son, Shapur I (reigned 240–270 CE), had many military successes. He was able to kill one Roman emperor (Gordian), imprison another (Valerian), and make the third a tributary (Philip the Arab). His armies captured many Roman and Germanic (Gothic) soldiers, who were placed in royal cities as engineers, craftsmen, and laborers. This Roman influence is clearly seen in the city of Bishapur in the province of Persis. Shapur I left several long inscriptions and rock reliefs attesting to his grandeur and power as the king of kings of not only Iran, but also of what he called non-Iran. This means that there was a clear notion of what lands were considered Iran and what parts of the Sasanian Empire comprised lands beyond Iran.
During Shapur’s reign the prophet Mani (c. 216–c. 274 CE) appeared in Mesopotamia. He was from a Parthian noble family that professed a syncretic, Gnostic religion that combined elements of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. Central to Mani’s religion were the two principles of light and darkness. The realm of light was the spiritual realm, while the realm of darkness was the realm of flesh. The history of the world was divided into three eras: the first era, in which the two principles were separate; the second era, in which the principles were mixed because the realm of darkness attacked the realm of light and entrapped light particles; and the third era, when the ideal state of separation returned the realm of darkness was ultimately destroyed. This religion, known as Manichaeism, became quite popular with the traders and businessmen; consequently it spread along the Silk Roads. Shapur I, although a Zoroastrian, allowed Mani to profess his religion freely throughout the empire, which made the Zoroastrian priests resentful. After Shapur’s death, the priests contrived to have Mani arrested and then killed. Mani’s followers were dispersed and fled to Central Africa and China.
Zoroastrianism in the Sasanian Period
Zoroastrianism, the religion professed by the Sasanians, was the official religion of the empire from the third century. Although other Zoroastrian deities such as Mithra and Anahita were also worshipped, and in fact the Sasanians were the caretakers of Anahita’s fire temple, in their inscriptions the Sasanians describe themselves as “Mazda worshipping.” That means that Ahura Mazda (Middle Persian Ohrmazd) was the supreme deity. The society was stratified according to the Avesta, the Zoroastrian scriptures, and three major fire temples were established: the Adur Farranbag fire temple for priests, the Adur Gushnasp fire temple for warriors, and the Adur Burzenmihr fire temple for farmers and husbandmen. A host of smaller fire temples were also established throughout the empire where the teacher priests uttered the sacred words and formulas and performed the necessary rituals.
There are two priests from the third century mentioned as the architects of the Zoroastrian state religion and the builders of the Zoroastrian hierarchy. The first is Tosar (or Tansar), who is said to have collected all the traditions relating to the Avesta and compiled an authoritative version during the time of Ardashir I. The next pivotal figure in the history of Zoroastrianism was Kerdir, who surveyed the empire, established the version of Zoroastrian religion which he saw fit, and spread those doctrines. He honored the priests who followed his teachings and punished those who opposed him. Kerdir mentions that he persecuted other religious groups within the empire, namely the Christians, Mandeans, Buddhists, Hindus, and Manichaeans. It was he who instigated the arrest and execution of Mani. He also established many fire temples, and his followers believed that he made a journey to the nether world to find out about heaven and hell and how to end up in one and avoid falling into the other. Kerdir lived through the reign of several Sasanian kings and he rose to absolute power in the second half of the third century.
Fourth and Fifth Centuries: War and Revolution
In the early fourth century the wars with the Romans was disastrous for the Persians. King Narses (reigned 293–302 CE) lost several major battles—and his entire harem—to the Romans and was forced to pay a heavy ransom for the harem’s release. In religious matters, however, it appears that Narses was able to reduce the power of Kerdir and the priests and give special importance to the goddess Anahita again. Later in the fourth century Shapur II (309–379 CE) avenged the losses of Narses and was able to defeat the Romans. He also was able to defeat the Arab tribes who had attacked and ravaged the southeastern provinces of the empire, which explains his title in the Islamic literature, “piercer of shoulders” (Arabic dul al-aktaf).
In the fifth century, during the reign of Yazdegerd I (reigned 339–420 CE), the patriarch of the Nestorian (Christian) Persian Church was established at the Sasanian capital, Ctesiphon. Yazdgerd I also married the daughter of the chief rabbi in the Sasanian Empire, from whom the next king of kings, Bahram IV (reigned 388–399 CE) was born. These actions brought a sense that the empire belonged to citizens of all religions: as long as they paid their taxes, they were part of the empire.
It was also in the fifth century that the Hepthalites attacked from the east. The Sasanians had to fight the Arabs and the Romans on the southwestern and western front. By the end of the fifth and early in the sixth century, under the rule of Kavadh I (reigned 488–496 CE; 499–531 CE), the society went through a revolution. Using a novel interpretation of the Avesta, the magi (priest) Mazdak helped king Kavadh to reduce the power of the landed nobility, who exerted a lot of influence and were immune from paying taxes. Their lands were redistributed among the people, and new small-landed gentry became the backbone of the state. The power of the clergy, who had supported the earlier status quo, was also reduced.
Khosrow I and His Reforms
Kavadh’s son Khosrow I (reigned 531–579 CE) came to the throne after defeating his brother. His first action was to make peace with the Romans and secure the borders of the empire. He then began the capture and persecution of Mazdak and his followers. Once the king had been able to reduce the power of the clergy and the nobility, they again began to bring the empire back to order. Khosrow I, however, did not restore any land to the nobility, but rather made the smaller landowning gentry the backbone of the society and tax infrastructure. Khosrow I surveyed the land and created a new tax system that taxed not only the land but also its produce, to be paid in three installments annually. He also divided the empire into four cantons, one the northeast, one in the southeast, one in the southwest, and one in the northwest. The military was also divided into four sections, one to take charge of the defense of each canton. This was in an attempt to combat the invasions that came from all directions.
Religiously, the Avesta and its commentary (the Zand) were placed under the direction of trusted magis whose interpretation was accepted by the king. The Avesta was written down in its final version, along with its interpretation. The royal chronicle that described the history of Iran, known as the Khudy-nmag (Book of Kings) was also written during Khosrow’s rule. Khosrow encouraged intellectual inquiry, inviting philosophers from the Byzantine Empire to come to Persia, where they wrote works on Aristotelian philosophy and other sciences for the Persian king. Khosrow also sent to India for books on astronomy, logic, and wisdom literature. Khosrow’s minister, Wuzurgmihr, was renowned for his wisdom even in the post-Sasanian (Islamic) period. Such games as chess and backgammon were also introduced to Iran from India at this time. The game of polo was already a kingly sport and played at the time of Khosrow I. Khosrow’s court was also known for its opulence: his crown was so big and heavy that it had to be suspended from the ceiling.
Sixth and Seventh Centuries: Iran
Khosrow II (reigned 590–628 CE), a vigorous ruler, oversaw the conquest of Egypt and the siege of Constantinople, but the Byzantine emperor Heraclius was able to strike back and defeat the Persians. The riches and the opulence of Khosrow II’s court and palaces became legendary in the later Islamic period. His love for an Armenian wife of his, Shirin, was recorded in romances and epics, as was the beauty of his horse, Shabdiz. During his rule performers and musicians gained fame, especially the composer-performer Barbad and the female singer Nakisa. The artistic expression of the late Sasanian period is captured in the monuments at Taq-e Bustan and also at Bisitun, where there appears to have been a plan to carve a monumental rock-relief that was never finished.
After Khosrow II, his sons, grandson, and daughters came to the throne. Queen Boran (reigned 630– 631 CE) is known to have tried to revive the memory of her father and to bring order to the chaotic empire after his death. Queen Azarmiduxt, the sister of Boran, ruled for a short time as well. Their reigns attest to the fact that women were allowed to rule the Sasanian Empire. A series of distant relatives then competed for the throne, ending with the accession of Yazdegerd III (reigned 632–651 CE), the last Sasanian king. By then the Arab Muslim armies were on the march; they defeated the Sasanians in three major battles. Yazdegerd III attempted to gather forces to fight the invaders, but he was murdered in Khorasan by a local governor who did not want to support the wandering king. His sons and daughters fled to China seeking help. Even his grandson in the eighth century was hoping for the recapture of Iran, but by then the world of Iran had changed and a new dominant force, the Marwanids, were in power.
Sasanian Legacy in World History
Many Sasanian customs were passed on to the Islamic world, including games such as polo, chess, and backgammon. Wisdom texts from India and Iran and manuals on how to rule and manners of conduct were translated from Middle Persian into Arabic. Iranian administrative practices became the dominant feature of the Islamic administrative system, and the Sasanian silver coinage became the model of Islamic coinage. In the ninth century, with the breakup of the Islamic Abbasid power, claims to Sasanian heritage became a main component of the ideologies of the local dynasties that vied for power on the Plateau of Iran. This fact suggests the enduring power and importance of the Sasanians in the memory of the people of Iran and neighboring lands.
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