The SaSanian

"The habits and customs of royalty in the West derive straight from
Persia (in the Sasanian era)"

Article By Robert Payne

IN THE province of Fars in South Persia the religion of Zarathustra
lived on quietly. Here the priests attended to the sacred fires, and
the poems of the prophet and fragments of ancient literature
survived. The eternal war waged between the spirits of light and the
spirits of darkness was quietly accepted in this province, where the
rule of the Parthian Emperors was least effective. The rulers of the
land were feudal princes, usually relatives of the Parthian Emperor,
but the spiritual rulers were the high priests, who diligently served
the gods Ahuramazda, Mithra, and Anahita, and saw that the
injunctions of the prophet were rigorously observed --no corpses were
to pollute the earth, no flames were to be blown out, the divine
radiance must be worshipped, and all must pay appropriate penances
for their sins. In all Persia there was no place where the ancient
Zoroastrian rituals were so carefully observed as in the province of
Fars, where the tombs of the Achaemenian Kings remained to remind
believers of the splendor of their past. In Fars men dreamed of a
time when a purely Persian dynasty would be on the throne.
During the early years of their rule the Parthians had despised the
Zoroastrian faith. Now, as their hold on the people diminished, they
began to make concessions to the faith which the Persians had
secretly upheld since Achaemenian times. The Parthian King Vologases
III ordered that the ancient Zoroastrian texts be carefully collected
and preserved. When a ruthless sovereign begins to make concessions,
the people, suddenly made aware of their power, begin to claim still
greater concessions. So it happened then: there followed a vast
upsurge of feeling for the ancient Persia which the Parthians thought
they had stamped out of existence. The priests fanned the flames. A
man living during the closing years of the Parthian Empire could
almost have prophesied that rebellion would break out in Fars and
that the leader of the rebellion would be a young Prince, perhaps
belonging to a priestly family, claiming descent from the Achaemenian
Kings, ruthless and determined in war, a strict observer of the
Zoroastrian faith.

In the year A.D. 180 there was born to the high priest of the temple
of Anahita in Istakhr, not far from the ruins of Persepolis, a son
called Papak. We know little about the son, and still less about the
father, who was called Sasan. We do know that Papak suddenly revolted
against his overlord, the Prince of the province of Fars, and defied
the Parehian Emperor to remove him from the provincial throne. The
Parehian Emperor, busily fighting the Romans in the west, protested.
He seems not to have been unduly perturbed. There had been rebellions
before; they had been put down mercilessly. Papak's son, who bore the
name of Artaxerxes, pronounced Ardashir in the local dialect, began
rallying the people to his flag. With the blessing of the Zoroastrian
priests, he overthrew the local barons and princes and marched north
to Isfahan and Kerman. It was the beginning of the explosion which
was to blast the Parthian dynasty from the throne.

Following the tradition of Cyrus, who rose out of a small community
of dedicated men and in his own lifetime conquered most of the known
world, Ardashir set out to conquer the Parthians and extend the
borders of the Persian Empire. In three savage battles he defeated
the Parthians, captured and killed the last Parehian King and would
have killed all the Parthian Princes if some of them had not escaped
to Armenia. He gave himself the title of "King of Kings of the
Aryans," and not far from Persepolis, on a great bluff of yellow rock
facing the Mervdasht Plain, at a place now called Naqshi-Rustam, he
ordered a memorial of his triumph to be carved, so that his name and
his victory should never be forgotten.

The carving remains, fresh and glowing in the sunlight, three times
larger than life. A few yards away, hidden from the plain, are the
tombs of the Achaemenian Kings, but Ardashir so placed this carving
in his own honor that he acquires priority over the Achaemenians. He
leads the procession. Almost casually, he has placed himself above
all other Persian Kings.

In the carving, Ardashir shows himself receiving the diadem, the
pledge of power, from the great god Ahuramazda. Both are on
horseback. Under the horse of the King lies the last of the Parthian
Kings, Artabanus. Under the horse of Ahuramazda lies "the one who
lies," the devil Ahriman, with two snakes coming from his head.
Behind Ardashir, holding a fly-whisk, is a guard, perhaps his son
Shapur, which means "the son of the Shah." The god holds a sceptre,
but no guard accompanies him, for he has no need of guards. There
quietly, almost contemplatively, king confronts god. There is a
strange tranquillity in the carving. Both king and god wear flowing
gowns which hang in loose folds to the ground. Ribbons fall from the
diadem, which is not incised deeply, but only suggested. The horses
are not war-horses, but high-stepping ceremonial ponies. Once no
doubt the carving was painted. We can guess the colors --the ring
gold, the King's gown of purple ornamented with white, this being the
color of the imperial robe of state of the Achaemenian Kings, the
ponies white and spotless. Look at the carving more closely. The arms
are elongated to suggest power, but it is power held in reserve. The
bodies of the riders are supple --we shall see this same suppleness
throughout the art of the Sasanian dynasty. In Achaemenian art the
animals usually have more life than the men who stand beside them.
Here the men completely dominate the animals. Part of the king's face
has flaked away, but we can still recognize the face which meets us
on the coins he issued: large eyes, a long, pointed nose, a curled
beard woven in three long strands, an _expression of extraordinary
energy and concentration, as befits a man who believed himself
touched by the divine radiance, without which no man can become a

Proud, imperious, determined to be at once King, Emperor, and High
Priest of the newly created state, Ardashir concentrated all power in
his own hands. Five and a half centuries had passed since the last of
the Achaemenians perished, but he was determined to revive the
glories of the past. "The King's power," he said once, "derives from
his military power, and this can only be maintained by taxes, and all
taxes in the end fall upon our farmers. It behooves us therefore to
protect our farmers and treat them always with justice." These wise
counsels he seems to have put into practice, for there is no evidence
of rebellion within Persia during his reign.

WHEN Ardashir's son Shapur came to the throne, he had already been
acting as regent for some years. He had a softer and fuller face than
his father, but there was hard metal in him, and he had none of his
father's intense feeling for Zoroastrianism. He first turned to the
east. A long inscription at Naqsh-i-Rustam records his victories in
northern India. He captured Peshawar, watered his horses in the
Indus, crossed the Hindu Kush, conquered Bactria, and seized
Samarcand. The Roman Empire was going through a period of
convulsions. One after another, Emperors were being proclaimed, only
to fall victim to paid assassins. Shapur marched west, conquered
Armenia (which had long been the hereditary foe of Persia), invaded
Syria, and captured Antioch, the wealthiest city of Asia and the
chief Roman base. The Romans were compelled to fight or see all Asia
Minor, Egypt, and perhaps Greece fall to the power of the Persians.
The Roman Emperor was Valerian, an old man, who had shown himself in
the past a capable general. He was loved by his troops and feared by
his enemies. But when he put himself at the head of a Roman army, he
seems to have had a premonition of the fate in store for him. At the
battle fought outside the city of Edessa, the ailing Emperor was
captured alive, together with 70,000 Roman legionaries. The triumph
of Shapur was complete.

At Naqsh-i-Rustam, far in the south of Persia, and not far from the
extraordinary monument which celerates Ardashir's conquest of the
throne, there is another carving in honey-colored rock celebrating
the abasement of a Roman Emperor. Valerian kneels before Shapur, who
rides a gaily caparisoned horse. The Emberor is very small, very
tense, his arms thrust out as he pleads for mercy, his cape
billowing, as though at fiat very moment, quite wddenly, at the
prompting of the Persian King, he had fallen to his knees, and this
tery suddenness had sent the cape whirling. Shapur smiles down at
him, one hand on his sword-hilt, the other raised in a gesture of
triumph, his whole body assuming a pose of victory, while the great
plumes above his crown climb so high that they thrust through through
the frame of the rock. Guards stand behind Shapur, impassive,
impersonal. But these guards are only decoration. The artist has
caught the moment of supreme victory and supreme abasement, and at
first glance we are aware only of the two rulers confronting one

Shapur was so proud of his conquest of Rome that he caused four more
rock carvings of the same scene to be made in the province of Fars.
Some of these carvings are cluttered with the presence of the
Imperial Guard, row upon row of them. It seems a pity. Such triumphs
are more effective when depicted simply.

With this carving at Naqsh-i-Rustam there is the beginning of a
purely Sasanian art. The old Achaemenian forms are preserved, but
they are given more life. The sculptures of Achaemenian times have a
strange stillness about them, as though life were welling up in the
figures at noonday, quietly waiting to reveal itself: no one is in
any hurry, all patiently await the word of the King. These
Achaemenian faces are grave and mature: they have exhausted action,
the world has been conquered, there is almost nothing left to do. But
in Sasanian art the wind blows free, there is more light, more
movement, more experiment. The swords flash in the sun. The
Achaemenians seem never to have felt the need to depict a triumph
with any sense of movement: it was enough to show the immense parade
of soldiers and tribute-bearers. They had their settled faith in
Ahuramazda. They had no restlessness. The Sasanians however were
restless, delighting in movement, in the flow of draperies, in swift
horses, sudden ambushes, quick alterations of mood. Their horses
plunge headlong. They are on fire with the chase. Yet demonstrably
they belong to the same race as the Achaemenians and worship at the
same altars.

In A.D. 545 Chosroes I, known as Nushirvan, meaning the Blessed,
signed a treaty of peace with the Emperor Justinian. Then for fifty
years there was no fighting between them. Many years after the long
reign of Chosroes I came to an end, an obscure missionary in Arabia
was asked for the date of his birth and answered: "I was born in the
reign of the Blessed King." Mohammad, whose armies destroyed the
Persian empire, was speaking of Chosroes.

THERE WERE three supremely great Kings of Persia: Chosroes I was the
second. He had a long, ascetic face and wore a look of extraordinary
gravity at all times, but he was a man of peace. He surveyed the
land, visited all the cities of the empire, saw that taxes fell
equitably on the people. Vast numbers of Persians had died, and he
placed the orphans in his personal care. He rebuilt the canals and
restocked the farms, which had been destroyed in the wars. He built
strong fortifications at the passes and placed subject tribes in
carefully chosen towns on the frontiers, so that they could act as
guardians of the state against invaders. Justinian paid him 440,000
pieces of gold, as a bribe to keep the peace, but he seems to have
been a man who genuinely enjoyed the fruits of peace and saw no
reason to continue a senseless war. He was tolerant of all religions,
though he decreed that Zoroastrianism should be the official state
religion, but he was not unduly disturbed when one of his sons became
a Christian. He rebuilt the winter palace at Ctesiphon, and the great
arch of his palace, called Takt-i-Kisra ("The Arch of Chosroes"),
still remains and in its time was the widest single-span vault of
unreinforced brickwork in the world.

In this vast palace Chosroes received the world's ambassadors and
planned the defence of his empire, serving as King, high priest, and
lawgiver. Stories were told of his nice sense of justice. Once an
ambassador asked why the square in front of the palace was
irregularly shaped. Chosroes answered that it could not be otherwise
because part of this land was owned by an old woman who declined to
sell at any price. He refused to force her to sell. Other stories
were told of how he gave dowers to the poor, sent promising students
to college, and sensibly discussed intricate problems of religion
with foreign priests and philosophers. He set artists to work, for
the country was now rich and huge wealth flowed into the imperial

The splendor of those last days of the Sasanian empire has become
proverbial. Once again there was a flowering of taste. The quick
curving dramatic line, which we associate with Sasanian art, seems to
have reached its highest perfection during his reign. It was a time
comparable to the Elizabethan period in England, the Renaissance in
Italy, the reign of the Emperor Ming Huang in China. Tolerance, a
delight in art, the coming of tradesmen and artisans from all corners
of the world, innumerable translations of foreign works, Greek,
Latin, and Indian, helped to foster an artistic rebirth. More than
anyone else, by his character and his love of sumptuous decoration
and his instinctive understanding of art, Chosroes seems to have been
responsible for the change. Yet to the end there was a curious
remoteness about him. He rejoiced in his majestic position and was
regarded by his subjects as though he were a god. He sat on a golden
throne, its legs inlaid with rubies. Above his head, a gold crown
hung from the immense vaulted ceiling of the palace. Before him the
sign of his power and wealth, and also of his priestly functions as
one who was in eternal communion with the god Ahuramazda and could
therefore bring seasonable weather to the Persians lay a great jewel-
encrusted carpet representing a garden, the ground wrought in gold,
the pathways of silver, the blossoms, fruit, and birds in pearls,
rubies, diamonds, and emeralds. The carpet, which covered nearly
1,000 square feet, represented spring, paradise, majesty. A man
seeing the King as he sat in cloth of gold, blazing with jewels, with
the carpet before him, could not help being deeply impressed, seeing
so much glory and flashing fire at the King's feet. Costly draperies
hung over the open archway. The walls were polychrome stucco, painted
over with immense murals. Before the King, high officers of state,
themselves on fire with jewels, knelt in impassive splendor. Here for
the Persians and all the subject races lay the heart of the mystery
of Kingship, which the Sasanians, like the Achaemenians before them,
elevated to the height of an intricate and sumptuous art, to be
imitated but never rivalled by the Byzantine Emperors, who derived
their regal costumes and regal processions from the Persians.
The habits and customs of royalty in the West derive straight from
Persian models.

When Chosroes I died in A.D. 579, the influence of the Persians
extended as far as Abyssinia and the Altai mountains on the borders
of China; it reached down into India and included all Cappadocia and
Syria. But already cracks were appearing. Once more the Romans were
beginning to fear the expansion of Persia. There were border wars,
the Turks were pressing down on the northern border, and both Persia
and Rome found themselves looking apprehensively in the direction of
the tribesmen pressing down from Central Asia. The Romans sent
ambassadors to the mysterious figure who held the strings of power in
the northwest. "In the valley of the Golden Mountain," they related
afterwards, "we found the Great Khan in his tent, seated on a chair
with wheels, to which a horse might be occasionally harnessed." In
time, the Turks were to conquer Persia, but the real danger, unknown
to anyone at Ctesiphon, came from the followers of the obscure
missionary in Arabia. Within a few years of Mohammad's death the
Sasanian Empire was to perish, while half of the Roman Empire was to
fall into Arab hands.

Meanwhile Rome and Persia faced one another, supremely confident in
the belief that they were the only two great powers and that one must
destroy the other. The successor of Chosroes I was the young and
talented Prince Hormizd, who found himself simultaneously at war with
Romans, Turks, and Huns. Vahram Chobin, his greatest general, flung
the Turks and Huns back into the arid wastes from which they sprang,
but he failed to defeat the Roman legionaries. Hormizd, more scholar
than strategist, ordered Vahram Chobin's abrupt dismissal. The
general turned against the King, and the army made common cause with
the nobles: Hormizd was dethroned in a palace revolution, thrown into
prison, mutilated, and killed. His successor was Chosroes II, known
as Parviz or "The Conqueror." With him the four-hundred-year-old
dynasty went swiftly to its decline.

In the spring of 633 a grandson of Chosroes called Yezdegerd ascended
the throne, and in that same year the first Arab squadrons made their
first raids into Persian territory.

It was the beginning of the end. Yezdegerd was a boy, at the mercy of
his advisers, incapable of uniting a vast country which was crumbling
into a number of small feudal kingdoms. Rome no longer threatened.
The threat came from the small disciplined armies of Khalid ibn
Walid, once one of Mohammad's chosen companion-in-arms and now, after
the Prophet's death, the leader of the Arab army. Ctesiphon was
stormed. The great carpet with its border of emeralds representing
green meadows and watercourses of pearls fell into the enemy's hands
and was cut up into small pieces, one fifth going to the Caliph Omar,
another fifth to Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet, and the rest
being divided among the Arab soldiers. The great carpet was only part
of the plunder. There were vast stores of silver and gold, costly
robes, chests full of amber and musk, a horse made of gold with teeth
of emeralds, a ruby mane, and trappings of gold. The armory of the
Persian King contained a helmet, breastplate and greaves of solid
gold inlaid with pearls. All these were removed, until the White
Palace at Ctesiphon was stripped bare. Across the sands innumerable
camels carried the treasure away, but the great palace, built of
solid brickwork, hard as iron, remained. Today only one crumbling
wall and a large part of the vaulted roof remain, and there is no
longer any sign of the gold stars which were once painted on the blue
vault and all the marble facing has disappeared, but like a huge and
empty eye, the vault still looks across the plain, still terrifying
in its splendor and its power.

After the Arab attack, Ctesiphon was never used as a palace again.
The Arabs converted it into a mosque, and the banner of the Prophet
hung where once had hung the banner of the Sasanian King.
For a little while longer the Persians fought back. But they were no
match for the fanatical fury of the Mohamadans. In the battle of
Nehavend in A.D. 642 the Arabs with an army of 30,000 destroyed a
Persian army five times their number. Even then Yezdegerd fought on,
never surrendering, refusing all offers of peace, rejecting all
threats, maintaining the hopeless struggle for nearly ten years more,
until at last he was assassinated near Merv. When Firdausi came to
write the Shah Nameh, that immense epic describing the real and
imaginary past of the Persians, he deliberately ended it with the
death of Yezdegerd.

The empire fell. For eight hundred and fifty years the Persians were
to be ruled by foreigners. In turn the Arabs, the Seljuk Turks and
the Mongols ruled the land. The Sasanian empire survived in the
hearts and the legends of the people. Ardashir, Shapur, Chosroes the
Blessed, Chosroes the Conqueror, the beautiful Queen Shirin, and the
tragic Yezdegerd lived on. In later years people came to believe that
a daughter of Yezdegerd married Hussayn, the grandson of the Prophet
Mohammad, and that somewhere in Persia, wandering mysterious and
alone, there was an uncrowned King descended from this marriage who
owed his title to his double descent from Mohammad and the
Achaemenians. With every new conquering dynasty, the Persians fought
back with peaceful weapons: they infiltrated the courts, and subtly
influenced their conquerors, until the conquerors became more Persian
than the Persians. Defeated for eight hundred and fifty years, they
never recognized defeat.