The SaSanian

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 Fats, 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 king.

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.
Never before had a Roman Emperor fallen into the hands of an oriental power. It is probable that the Emperor was put to death shortly after his capture, but for many years afterwards legend and rumor asserted that Shapur used the man as a mounting-block whenever he mounted his horse, the ailing Emperor bowing low to the ground and allowing his back to support the feet of the Persian King. They also say that when he died, he was skinned, and the skin was stuffed with straw. Then the stuffed Emperor was thrown into the corner of a Persian temple until he rotted away.

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 another.

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, almost there is 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 coffers.

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.