The Sasanian Empire (224 BCE - AD 642)

By Irma Marx


At the beginning of the third century AD the province of Fars in southwestern Persia came under the control of a local dynasty called the Sassanid. In AD 224 the Sassanid leader defeated and kiled the last Parthian ruler in battle. In the following years a long line of some forty Sassanid kings ruled the country, and the period was one marked by prosperity and the power of the government.

The Sasanian revolution heralded a new era. However, the problem with dividing various areas of interest remained the same. There was continued confrontation with Rome often involving a dispute over who had the right to control Armenia. He Huns represented for the Sasanians an even more formidable threat to the eastern borders of their territory than the Scythians had done for the Parthians some centuries earlier. In AD 224 the Sasanid leader defeated and killed the last Parthian ruler Artabanus V in battle, and the new Sasanid ruler Ardashir (211-241) established his capital Ctesiphon near modern Baghdad in Iraq. Ardshir's forefathers had been closely connected with the Zorastrian religion, which had been practiced at Istakhr, in Persia in the sixth century BCE. It was only natural that the new regime had strong religious and nationalistic overtones from that period. Zorastrianism, as a state religion, however, found itself in conflict with the already established Christian Church, Manichaeism and other heterodox beliefs.

Ardashir was responsible in creating the new Sasanid kingdom in Persia. However, is was his son and successor Shapur I (241-272) who expanded the borders of the new Kingdom. After successful campaigns of thirty years, Sasanian territory included all of modern Iran, parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Soviet Union (on both sides of the Caspian), Iraq, and the Gulf Coast of the Arabian peninsula. By the openilng of the seventh century AD the Sasanid Empire lay exhausted, following its long struggles against the armies of Rome and Byzantium. Then they were speedily overrun by the Arabs who emerging from their homeland to spread the newly born Moslem creed beyond the limits of the Arabian peninsula. In AD 637 the Sasanian capital Ctesiphon fell. Thereafter, the Islamic conquest of Iran was inevitable. Sasanian 'Great Kings' were themselves overthrown by the Muslem Arabs in AD 642. Shapura's successors nearly lost all of the territorial gains he had made.

In an inscription on a monument near the capital city Persepolis (see picture), Shapur I had declared himself as "King of kings of Iran and non-Iran," that included the Roman Empire. He commemorated his great victory over the Roman emperor Valerian in a series of rock-cut reliefs in the cliffs of Bishapur (see picture). In the relief Shapur is seen, larger than life size, riding in from the left and wearing the distinctive tall Sasanian crown which breaks through the border of the relief and serves to draw the viewers attention to the king. Below the legs of his steed is a crumpled body of a Roman soldier, this probably is to tell the defeat of the entire Roman army.

The architecture of the Sasanian period is represented by many remains of a variety of structures: palaces, fire temples, forts, bridges, dams, houses and planned cities. Hellenistic elements were included in the designs. However, the architecture displays are distinctly bold and grandiose Sasanian style. Shapurs palace at Ctesiphon (c. AD 250) is today in a ruined state. The photograph taken before an 1880 earthquake caused the collapse of the right-hand portion of the fašade (see photo). However, the photo gives us a good idea of the palaces' style and character. The once colossal palace was constructed with baked bricks. The royal audience hall was placed at the center of the fašade, was seventy-five feet wide, one hundred and fifty feet deep and was covered by a tunnel vault whose apex was ninety feet above the ground. The fašade on either side of the hall had arcades in a typical Hellenistic tradition.

A luxurious silver plate portraying Shapur II (310-379) (see photo), testifies the wealth of the Sasanian dynasties and their superb craftsmanship. The plate shows Shapur II on horseback hunting a wild boar. Hunting themes were very popular throughout ancient Central Asia, is repeatedly shown on relief decorations on palaces and other art work.

By the opening of the seventh century the Sasanic Empire lay exhausted, following its long struggle against the Roman and Byzantium armies. A better explanation than this, however, is needed to interpret the reasons for the Sasanians' resounding defeat. For Iran itself, the extended wars against Byzantium had sapped the energies of the country, as well as weakened its coffers. For, the people themselves, the religion (see Zorastrianism) had become so codified under the last rulers that it served only the needs of the priesthood and not of the people. There was nothing that they could be called upon to defend in the Zorastrian faith. In addition, with the centralization of power achieved by the ruler Khusrau, the village lords had no way of combining their efforts in resistance once the royal armies had been defeated. But ironically, while Iran was taken over for the moment by a movement of the Arabs and, while the new faith had an immediate simplicity and appeal, it would not be long before the village lords were again to exert a very strong Persianizing influence upon Islam in that area.


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