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Causes of the Downfall of the Sassanian Empire[i]


















The fall of the Parsi empire at the hands of the Arabs in the last days of the Sassanian dynasty was the most inglorious chapter in the otherwise renowned history of ancient Iran. What were the causes that led to this downfall at the hands of the hungry and uncivilized people of the desert?

Almost a thousand years before the reign of Yazdagard III, the Iranians had met with a serious defeat, but it was at the hands of a civilized foe, under Alexander, the Gojestak (the accursed), as he is known amongst the Parsis. Defeat at the hands of any foe, whatever its class or distinction, is always humiliating. This is not an attempt to remove this shadow of disgrace, but I want to correct the many beliefs and untruths that have cluttered this part of our ancient history. Some historians have led us to believe that the victory of the Arabs was a miracle, but it was nothing of the kind. Their victory was purely due to a series of circumstances, mostly brought about by the Iranians themselves, long before the last king of Iran ascended the throne. I will give the causes of the defeat as briefly as possible, then I will enumerate the gloomy and unfortunate incidents, which to a great extent led to the final fall of this great culture and civilization.

  1. The bloody and senseless massacre by Hormazd, son of Anoshirwan, of the many ministers, administrative officers, nobles and generals who, he felt, were favorites of his late father and thus not well disposed towards him.

  2. Dissatisfaction in the ranks of the armed forces, and dissatisfaction and disagreement amongst the nobles, chieftains and the other influential sections – mainly due to the weakness of the rulers

  3. The revolt of the people against Hormazd, and the advantage taken by General Bahram Chobin to occupy the throne.

  4. The long and continuous wars of over 38 years with the Romans, which left both empires weak and vulnerable.

  5. The tendency resorted to by the Rabia’h tribe of Hejaz, Arabia, who were permitted by Anoshirwan to settle in Iraq near Ctesiphon, the Iranian capital.

  6. Jealousy, enmity, discord and open strife amongst the commanders, their lust for power and dream of occupying the throne

  7. The communistic teachings and instigations of Mazdak, which led to revolt by the peasants, and laborers and their open opposition towards authority.

  8. One of the greatest natural calamities occurred in the reign of Khushrow Parvez--unprecedented floods in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers inundated vast areas of Iraq. A number of dams and a network of irrigation canals, which had made this area the most fertile and populated, were washed away. This was followed by severe epidemics of cholera and plague.

  9. The revenge taken by the one-time friendly tribe of Bani Lakhm of Hira, a border province of Iraq, because of the unwarranted execution of Noman their chief, by Khushrow Parvez.

  10. The unfortunate period in Iran’s history, when in a short period of less than five years eleven rulers occupied the throne, each reigning for a few days or months.

  11. When Shiroyah, the son of Khushrow Parvez, came on the throne, he beheaded almost all the members of the royal family besides many chieftains and nobles.

  12. The Roman Empire of Byzantine had become weak with its wars with Iran and its defeat at the hands of the Arabs, left Iran alone to face the common enemy.

I will now explain these in greater detail.

The actual deterioration of the Parsi civilization can be said to have begun from the time of Hormazd, son of Anoshirwan, almost 75 years before the final fall. The most serious and disastrous action of Hormazd, soon after his accession was the senseless killing of a number of persons –chieftains, commanders and landlords –who he felt were not well disposed towards him, as they were the favorites of his late father. This bloody action alienated the feelings of his subjects, and the loyalty and pride with which the Iranian people looked upon their rulers was rudely shaken. Unlike his father, who even at the ripe old age of eighty, used to conduct the wars against the Romans from the battlefields, he never cared to visit the fronts, but from his hunting grounds and palaces commanded his generals to carry on the war successfully. He led a life of ease and comfort and was completely indifferent to the welfare of the armed forces. This indifference had a deleterious effect upon the morale of the armed forces that had to look to their commanders for favors, and thus slowly transferred their loyalty to them. These made the commanders very powerful, and some even began dreaming of occupying the throne. As the king began to weaken, greater moral disintegration set in and the Arabs took full advantage of it. Hormazd adopted the policy of pampering the Mazdakites. In doing so, he antagonized the dehgans and made the Mazdakites bolder and stronger. In the history of Iran the Mazdakites played a sinister and underhand part in overthrowing the empire. Hormazd’s policy of treating all religions alike made him lose the support and respect of the Mobeds, and on the other hand strengthened the Jews, Arabs and Christians who fully entrenched themselves in the country, and later on when Iran was at war with their religionists outside, they played a treacherous part in overthrowing the empire. The unfortunate Hormazd, after a short reign of about twelve years was overthrown by his own people, blinded and thrown into prison in his old age.

His son and heir, Khushrow Parvez, had earlier escaped to Azerbaijan to avoid his father’s wrath resulting from a plot hatched by Bahram Chobin. Perhaps, had he been with his father, he too might have met a similar fate. The throne being vacant Bahram Chobin occupied it, he being the most powerful commander at the time. In this, he was encouraged and instigated by Shahvaraz, a junior officer, who himself in later years rebelled and occupied the throne, only for a few days. Khusrow Parvez then went to Constantinople, the court of Maurice, the Roman Byzantine emperor, from whom he requested help to regain his throne. Maurice not only gave him assistance, but also gave him his daughter in marriage. Khusrow with an army of seventy thousand entered Iran, and Bahram Chobin came out to give battle. Before the battle could begin, Khusrow sent out a general amnesty to the Iranians siding with Behram Chobin that if they came over to his side before the battle began, they would receive his pardon. It is recorded that almost the whole of Bahram Chobin’s army went over to Khusrow in one night. Bahram was captured and beheaded. Khusrow declared himself king.

Khushrow Parvez turned out to be a weak ruler, given to ease and comfort. He spent most of his time at Dastkert, a place about 107 kilometers from Ctesiphon, the capital. He hardly ever visited the capital or went to the battlefields. He beguiled his time at Dastkert in the company of mistresses and a retinue of servants. It is recorded that a thousand musicians and singers would be in attendance at his dinner table. Shortly after Khushrow’s accession, Maurice, the Roman Byzantine emperor needed Iran’s help to put down an uprising by Phocus, one of his generals. Khushrow was indebted to Maurice, and immediately sent two armies under the commands of Shahvaraz and Shahin, who began their march from two separate sectors of the Roman territories. Before help could reach Maurice he was killed by Phocus in 603A.C. Phocus in turn was beheaded by the Romans and Heraklius was elected emperor of Byzantine. Heraklius offered Parvez peace and sent him costly presents. Khushrow Parvez did not accept the hand of peace, but ordered his generals to continue the attacks. Edessa and many other cities in Syria were conquered in 609 A.C., Antakia and Damascus in 614 A.C., Jerusalem after a siege of eighteen days and infliction of heavy damages, was overrun in 615 A.C. According to Roman historians the Jews, who had all along harbored a deep grudge against the Christians and the Romans, had joined the Iranian forces and thus got a chance to avenge themselves. The Jews were allowed to plunder the city. They destroyed the churches, burnt the grave of Jesus Christ, massacred many Christians and took some thirty thousand as slaves. The Holy Cross on which Jesus was crucified was removed and handed over to the Iranian commander. It was in the 24th year of Khushrow’s reign that the Holy Cross reached Iran and was deposited in the Royal Treasury. Thereafter, in the year 618 A.C. Egypt was conquered and the Iranian empire spread light up to the borders of Abyssinia.

General Shahin, on the other hand, in the same year reached the shores of Bosporus; Constantinople, the Roman capital, was in danger. Heraklius again offered peace and sent valuable presents to Khushrow, but the offer was not accepted. Sensing the danger, Heraklius tried to move the capital and its treasures secretly. The people discovered the plot and prevented him from leaving the capital with the treasures. At this stage, taking advantage of the situation and fear, the Christian priests began to whip-up the passion of the Christians. They called upon all, high and low, rich and poor, to make every effort and sacrifice their all to regain the Holy Cross from the Iranians. The Christians rallied and prepared to take the war into enemy’s territory. In this they got the help of the Christians living in Iran, who acted as spies and saboteurs. The Christians charged with hysteria and religious zeal changed the political war into a religious war, which shook the very foundation of the Iranian empire. Heraklius, at the head of a Roman and Christian army, marched through Armenia, which being predominantly Christian helped the invaders, and attacked Azerbaijan. In their march through Armenia, they plundered and ravaged many towns and villages. Khusrow Parvez at that time was on a pilgrimage to the ancient and great fire temple of Azargushap at Shiz, a city of Azerbaijan. As the Romans had begun their march into Armenia, Khusrow had ordered both his generals ---Shahvaraz and Shahin to intercept the Romans, both the generals, tired of the long wars and dissatisfied with the treatment and with ways of Khushrow, deliberately delayed taking action. This delay gave the Romans time to reach and attack Shiz, but not before Khusrow had removed the Holy Fire and its fabulous treasures. The Romans captured Shiz and completely destroyed the temple and the city. This was in retaliation for what the Jews had done to Jerusalem. The Iranians had to suffer from the sins of the Jews. Heraklius then withdrew from Iran, as he did not have the confidence to face the Iranian army in an open battle. In fact, the Romans whenever they attacked Iranian soil, never remained there, but always withdrew to their positions. In spite of the Romans attack on Shiz and the damaged caused because of the revolt of the generals, the Iranian army was still in possession of the Roman territories.

In the year 628 A.C. Heraklius finding the way clear as the Iranian army was occupied elsewhere, attacked Dastkert, Khushrow’s headquarters. He completely ransacked and burnt it. He had hoped to regain the Holy Cross but failed. He, however, collected a considerable amount of booty, which Khushrow had to leave behind while fleeing, plus about 300 Roman flags, which the Iranians had captured in various battles. The ruins of the city can still be witnessed on the site of the ancient highway between Qasr–e Shirin and Baghdad. The whole populace was tired of Khushrow. At the age of seventy the people finally ousted him, put him on trial and sentenced him to death. His son, Shiroyah by a Roman princess was crowned as king.

Iraq in those days was a part of Iran with Ctesiphon, near present Baghdad, as the Iranian capital. The waters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers were systematically harnessed by means of a number of dams. A network of irrigation canals had made Iraq the granary of Iran and it formed an important and densely populated part of the country. In the later part of the reign of Khushrow Parviz an unprecedented flood occurred in the rivers. The dams burst and the greater part of the low-lying land was inundated for considerable periods. Historians like Ibn Khurdabeh, Masoodi, Bellazerri and Yaqoot have all given detailed accounts of these floods and referred to it as ‘the worst heavenly calamity of the Middle Ages’. Iranian government did nothing to rebuild these dams of irrigation systems. The inundation in turn led to serious epidemics like cholera and plague. The disruption gave the Arabs a chance to plunder and rob. They became bolder when they found that the Persian government did not care to come to the help of the people. The main Arab invasions and attacks were through this upset territory of which they had taken almost complete control.

Shiroyah, the son of Khusrow Parvez, immediately on his accession beheaded 16 or 17 of his brothers and many members of the royal family. Yazdgard, who afterwards became the last Iranian King, was among the few who managed to escape. He also did away with a number of nobles and commanders against whom he had the least suspicion. This bloody act of his made him very unpopular and hated. On his accession he proposed a cessation of hostilities with the Romans. Heraklius accepted on the condition that the Holy Cross was returned. Shiroyah agreed, but before he could act he died of plague, ruling only for a period of six or seven months. His sister Pourandokht when she became queen returned the Holy Cross to the Romans on 14th September 629 A.C. At this stage we can only surmise as to what the outcome would have been had Khusrow Parvez instead of continuing the war had accepted Heraklius’ peace offer, accepted damages and tributes and later diplomatically offered to return the Holy Cross; the Christians would have given their entire wealth to get back the Cross and that could have been more important than mere possession of the Cross. Strives and calamities, which had weakened both the empires could have been avoided and perhaps the Arabs would not have dreamt of attacking Iran.

Shiroyah’s infant son then succeeded him as Ardashir III, and Meher Gushnasp, a former minister of Khushrow Parvez was declared his regent. The infant king remained on the throne for only 18 months when, Piroz his chamberlain at the instigation of Shahvaraz assassinated the infant king. I had earlier mentioned that Shahvaraz as a junior officer had been instrumental in instigating Baharm Chobin to usurp the throne. Shahvaraz had all along been planning to get the throne. During Khushrow Parvez’s time he had entered into an arrangement with the Romans to gain the throne. This explains his treachery in not saving Shiz and the holy fire temple. Shahvaraz had returned to Iran with his army and the assassination of the infant king was timed with his entry into the capital. He declared himself, as king as there was no one to oppose him. Shiroyah had already wiped out the Royal family and the best blood of the country. He was on the throne for only forty days or so when he was killed on 9th June 629 A.C. by a loyal youth from Persepolis while he was hunting with a large retinue of cronies. According to Firdausi his death sparked off a bloody uprising and there were many casualties.

Purandokht, daughter of Khusrow Parvez was then crowned queen. At the time of her accession the country was in turmoil and discord, jealousy and strife were on the rise. The Arabs were boldly looting and plundering the border provinces of Iraq. The government was weak and helpless and did not take any steps to prevent the decay all around. The unfortunate queen died after reigning for a period of 18 months or so.

The next person to ascend the throne was Gushnasp Bandah, a distant cousin of Khushrow Parvez, but he was dethroned within a few weeks. Azarmidokht, a young and very beautiful daughter of Khushrow Parvez succeeded him. Farrokh Hormazd, powerful but an aged commander made a bid for the throne. His plan was to occupy the royal palace by force, marry Queen Azarmidokht and establish his own dynasty. Azarmidokht forestalled the plan by having him murdered before he could attack. Farrokh Hormazd’s son, Rustom Farrokhzad, who later became a famous general under Yazdagard and was killed on the battlefield of Qadesia, hearing of his father’s murder attacked the palace, captured the queen and killed her. Azarmidokht reigned for about 18 months.

Thereafter, four other persons of Royal blood wore the crown in quick succession. All four met with violent deaths, and none ruled more than a few months at a time. At the end of this sorry period, a search party found Yazdagard, a grandson of Khushrow Parvez at Istakhr. He was crowned in the same place in the famous fire temple consecrated by Ardashir Babaeghan. Yazdagard III was just eight years old when he was crowned. He had been hiding in fear of his life, and as such had received no training whatsoever for the high office to which he was called. In his reign there was some semblance of peace. The people also were tired of strifes and rebellions and were aware that unless they were united they would not be able to survive. The armies of Caliph Omar were hammering away at the borders of Iraq.

Years of dissensions, strives and the complete annihilation of the Royal family and nobility -–the flower and backbone of the empire-- had all in all weakened the country to a point of no return. The armies were exhausted and worse still, had no proper commanders or officers to lead them. Because of constant fear of his life and of intrigues and plots against the Crown, Yazdagard could not settle down. He had to be on move all the time and could not consolidate his throne. It was a sorry state of affairs. The defeat of the Romans, in and around Syria, in 641 A.C. was a great blow, as it left the Arabs free to concentrate on Iran. Yazdagard, after a fateful reign of twenty years, died at the hands of an assassin, Mahooi Soori, at Marv, in Northern Khorasan.

I will now give you a brief idea of how Arabs had started eroding the foundation of the Iranian empire long before the final defeat. In Anoshirwan’s time there had been a serious draught in Hedjaz, Arabia. The Rabia’h tribe living there migrated towards Iraq, and their chieftain asked Anoshirwan’s permission to settle in Iraq, which was granted on the condition that they lived in peace and did not rob and plunder as was their habit. The spot they selected to settle down was in neighborhood of Ctesiphon, the capital of Iran. After the floods and later after the death of Khusrow Parvez, these and the other Arabs began to plunder and rob the people. During Khushrow Parvez’s reign the border province of Hira in Iraq was ruled by Noman, a chieftain of the Bani Lakhm tribe. Noman was a noble man and a strong supporter of Iran. His ancestors, in fact had been holding this office before him.

For some unknown reason Khushrow Parvez executed Noman, and the Bani Lakhm tribe was upset by this incident. They left Hira vowing revenge and joined up with Mossana, a chieftain of Shibani tribe of Arabs. Mossana was a vassal of Iran but was plotting against it. He approached the Arab Caliph and instigated him to attack Iran promising him the help of the Arabs within Iran. The Caliph sent an army under Khalid bin Valid. They marched towards Hira, Noman’s former territory, which was then under Ayas bin Qabisah. Ayas did not put up any resistance, welcomed Khalid and gave him a large sum as tribute. Khalid made Hira his headquarters and from here began harassing the other provinces, and extorting tributes from them. Because of his successes the Caliph sent him a reinforcement of 18,000 men. The Arabs marched towards Ibella, the present Basra. Hormazd the commander of the town had 20,000 men under him and asked for help from Jazirah. As usual the help did not come, and in order to save the town Hormazd went forward to meet the enemy, but lost. His army, which consisted mostly of Arabs and Mazdakites did not put a proper fight.

Again sometime later, the Arabs had gathered at Lice on the other side of the river Euphrates, Bahman Jadooyeh, a young and brave general was in Qasinata. He ordered his deputy Jaban to proceed to Lice, with instructions not to attack until his return from the Court of the King, where he went for instructions and help. The king was indisposed and Bahman was delayed in getting instructions and help from the king. In the meanwhile Jaban instead of waiting for his commander attacked Arabs. He fought a raging battle but lost due to treachery of the Arabs in his forces. Khalid took many Persians as captives and in order to strike terror in the hearts of the enemy, he beheaded every one of them and caused a river of blood to flow. Khalid was ordered by the Caliph to proceed to Syria against the Romans. The Iranians did nothing to regain the lost provinces and take advantage of the Arabs’ preoccupation in Syria.

Meanwhile Caliph Abubaker died and Omar became the Caliph. War with Iran had been at a standstill. Mosanna again went to Omar and instigated him to take advantage of the Iranian weakness, and invade Ctesiphon. Omar agreed and sent an army under Abu Obaidah. Bahman Jadooyeh was deputed to stop the Arabs. The Arabs crossed a bridge over a river and at once attacked the Iranian forces. In this battle, known as the Battle of the Bridge, the Arabs were completely vanquished and their commanders killed. This was the first battle with the Arabs in which the army was entirely composed of Iranians and they had no difficulty in vanquishing the Arabs. The Iranian authorities again did nothing to consolidate their position by driving out the Arabs in and around Iraq, but just let matters rest. Had Bahman Jadooyeh been allowed to pursue them into Arabia, perhaps history might have been different. After this defeat, it is said that Omar did not mention the name of Iran and forbade anyone to mention it to him.

As the Iranians did nothing to pursue the Arabs or to reconsolidate their positions in Iraq, Mossana, after about one year again made bold to approach the Caliph Omar and requested his help. Omar unwittingly consented and sent an army under Saad Vaqqas. The Arab army reached the borders of Iran. Their aim was to attack Ctesiphone, the capital. The Iranian army was under the command of Rustom Hormazd. Rustom due to the intrigues and jealousies within the Iranian army was reluctant to give the Arabs battle and wanted to make peace with them. He intentionally delayed taking out his army, and he took four months to reach the battlefield of Qadesia (Qadisiyyah),[ii] a distance of one hundred kilometers from Ctesiphon. After a long delay the armies met and a long and bloody battle ensued. Seldom battles were fought continuously for days and nights. The Iranian army for the first three days kept a strong pressure and the Arabs had begun to fall back. The Iranians had only to pursue and finish them. On the midday of the fourth day, just when victory was in sight for the Iranians, a terrific sandstorm began blowing into the faces of the Iranian army. The Iranians were forced to turn around and seek cover. The Arabs saw in this their advantage, and with the storm behind them they began pursuing the fleeing Iranians who perforce could not retaliate. There was chaos all around, but Rustom held his position to the last. The Arabs ultimately surrounded him and in trying to fight his way out he got entangled in the ropes of a tent and was killed. Without a leader the rest of the army fled towards Ctesisphon pursued by the Arabs. At Ctesiphon no preparation was made for its protection and it fell in the hands of the Arabs. The Iranian army tried to make a final stand at Nehavand but here again, due to treachery from within, the Arabs prevailed.

From this narrative it will be seen that the main causes of the fall of the Parsi civilization were internal squabbles, and weak and disinterested leadership of the rulers. Disunited, the Parsi civilization not only fell: but was wiped out by the savage and uncivilized Arabs. The following passage from the book Almoqaddamah by the famous Arab historian Ibn Khaldum under the title Places that succumb to the Arabs are quickly ruined describes the harm done by the Arabs.

“Arabs are a savage nation. The Arabs need stones to set them up as support for their cooking pots, so they take them from buildings, which they tear down to get the stones, and use them for that purpose. Wood too needed by them, as props for their tents and for use as tent-poles for their dwellings, so they tear down roofs to get the wood for that purpose. Furthermore it is their nature to plunder whatever other people possess. They recognize no limit in taking the possession of other people. Under the rule of the Arabs, the subjects live as in a state of anarchy, without law. Anarchy destroys mankind and ruins civilization. It is noteworthy how civilization always collapsed in places the Arabs took over and conquered and how such settlements were depopulated and there the very earth turned into something that was no longer earth. Persian civilization in Arab Iraq is completely ruined. The same applies to contemporary Syria”

In my paper, I have referred all along to Parsi civilization. As far back as the 6th century B.C. the Iranians were referred to as ‘PARSA’. It became ‘Parsik’ in the Pahlavi literature and Parsi in the later Sasanian times.

[i] This paper was posted on vohuman.org on December 23, 2005. It is based on the article featured in the December 16, 2005 issue of the USHAO (E-Mail edition) Educational journal (Volume VI, No. 10), edited by Mr. Virasp Mehta.

This paper was originally presented at the ‘One-day Seminar on the Zoroastrian Culture and History,’ held under the auspices of the World Zoroastrian Organization in London, UK on October 1, 1989, and was read by Mr. Shahpur F. Capitan.