History of Iran – Part 3

After Alexander’s attack to fall of Sasanid Empire

History of Iran – Part 3 (1)

History of Iran – Part 3

The end of the Achaemenid Empire came at the hands of Alexander the Great. Alexander spent several months at Persepolis, before the finest symbol of Achaemenid power was burned to the ground. Even today experts argue whether this was the accidental result of a drunken party or deliberate retaliation for the destruction of Athens by Xerxes, it was a very bad mistake.
Alexander tried to establish strong bonds with the Iranian nobility and married with Roxana, daughter of the most powerful of the Bactrian chiefs. However, Alexander’s plans to bring the union of the Greeks and Iranians destroyed when he died in Babylon. Alexander’s widow and son were assassinated. Finally, three generals won out over the others, and divided the Macedonian Empire among them. Iran fell to Seleucus, the only one who had kept his Iranian wife. He eventually became known as Seleucus I Nicator, the founder of Seleucid Empire.

Despite their far-flung plans and high flying ambitions, neither Seleucus nor his successors had the competence to control their vast domain. After approximately a century and a half of Greek rule in Iran, the Seleucids lost all their territories in the east of the Euphrates to a dynasty known as the Parthians and had to content themselves with what was left, a small state in Syria and Eastern Cilicia.
Parthava or Parthia was a territory in southeast of Caspian Sea, inhabited by Parthians, a semi-nomadic people of Aryan stock. The Parthians were among the first to revolt against the Seleucids. The best evidence suggests that two brothers, Ashk and Tirdad led an uprising around 250 BC and overthrew the Seleucid ruler. By 200 BC, the Parthians were firmly established on the north eastern Iranian plateau. Later through the conquests of Mehrdad I and his successors, most of the former Seleucid Empire came under the Parthian control. This period was characterized by a strong Hellenistic cultural influence, manifested in the arts and in the use of Greek language. The reign of Mehrdad II constitutes one of the most glorious chapters of Parthian history. Ruler of the lands stretching from the portals of China and India to the Roman Empire, he was the first Parthian ruler to assume the Old Achaemenid title “King of the Kings”. He established diplomatic relations with China and Rome, and trade blossomed, with Iranian providing a convenient route- which in the later days became known as the Silk Road.

Following Mehrdad’s death, the country fell into a state of chaos. In contrast with the early period of Parthian rule, the final centuries were characterized by “anti-Hellenistic” movements, marked by strong emphasis on the national culture and opposition to all foreign things. Ardovan III, one of the most important later rulers, tried to settle exterior problems and to conduct internal reforms, but in crippled Parthian state was inevitably proceeding toward its end. In 224 AD the last Parthian king, Artabanus V, was killed in a battle against his former vassal in Fars, Ardashir Babakan, and the throne of Iran passed into the hands of Sasanians.
The Sasanid dynasty rose to power as a result of the successful struggle of Ardashir Babakan, not only against his Parthian overlord, but also against a multitude of neighboring rulers. Ardashir was a son of Babak, a local king of Fars, who was a descendant of Sasan, landlord and priest of the Temple of Anahita in Estakhr. Having consolidated his power in Fars, Ardashir began to expand his realm. After Artabanus V was defeated and killed, Ardashir was officially crowned, and proclaimed Suzerain of the former Parthian realm. The Sasanians considered themselves heirs to the Achaemenians, and strove to revive the old values, practices and prominence of these- particularly their old supremacy in world affairs. In contrast with the Parthian confederation with its freedom of religious practices, the Sasanid Empire possessed a strong centralized government, a strict philosophy of dynasticism, and an official religion, Zoroastrianism. The society was divided into three classes: ruling elite and warriors, priest and scribes, and farmers and craftsmen. The Zoroastrian priesthood gained a tremendous amount of influence. The head of the priestly class, the Mobed – Mobedan (“priest of the priests” – a title modeled on the familiar “king of the kings”) was among the greatest men of the state.
The Sasanians established their capital in Ctesiphon. A reasonable choice because trade routes from four points of the compass converged at the city and wealth from commerce and agriculture accumulated in this area of Modern Iraq, once ancient Babylon.

Shapur I was the next king and in his first major victory over the Romans, Shapur managed to defeat the troops of the Roman Emperor, Gordian III, who is always shown prostrated under the hooves of Shapur’s horse in Sasanid bas-reliefs. Gordian was not killed by Shapur’s hand, however as some think. It seems that the emperor was murdered in mutiny, perhaps with the connivance of Philip the Arabian, who had become the new Roman emperor. Philip started out his rule by negotiating a peace which ended the war with Persia. According to Shapur’s inscription at Naqshe Rostam, Philip paid a ransom of 500000 gold dinars as a war indemnity. He also seems to have agreed not to aid the Armenians against Shapur. In 256, the son of Armenian King fled to Roman territory and it was the reason for beginning the war, again. The Roman army was destroyed in Syria and Anatolia. Moreover, Shapur took the Roman Emperor, Valerian as a captive – a feat all but unique in history. In a commemorative inscription at Naqshe Rostam, Shapur brags, “Valerian came to meet us with an army composed of twenty nine European tribes, numbering 70000 men in all. A great battle ensued around Alreha and Edessa. We captured Valerian with our own hands. We took his generals, senators, and high-ranking officers prisoner, banishing them all to Persian states”. The captives from Antioch build the city of Web-Antioch-Shapur with later name Gonde-Shapur, and later became home to the celebrated Academy of Sciences. The captives also created Shushtar’s “Dam of Caesa”, which is still standing, and contributed in many other Sasanid projects. Shapur styled himself with new title as “King of Kings of Iran and non-Iran”. During his reign, a new religious movement made its appearance. This was Manichaeism, founded by a visionary called Mani.

Shapur died and his son, Hormoz I became the king, a little more than a year. He was succeeded by his brother, Bahram I. under his rule, the religious tolerance of the Achaemenians and the indifference of the Arsacids were gradually replaced by religious persecutions. The Priest Kartir gained powerful influence and was instrumental in the imprisonment of Mani that led to Mani’s death.
Bahram I chose his son Bahram II, rather than his brother Narseh, who had for a long time cherished dreams of inheriting the Sasanid throne. After Bahram’s death, he was succeeded by his son, Bahram III, who ruled for only a few months before he was deposed by his uncle Narseh. The youngest son of Shapur I. Narseh determined to regain the territory lost to Romans by Bahram II. After some initial success, however he was defeated. Armenia lost. Towards the end of Narseh’s reign, Armenia which had been Zoroastrian for centuries, made Christianity its official state religion.
Shapur II is credited with the longest reign in Iranian history – seventy years. The rule of Shapur is marred by his severe persecution of the Christians, particularly after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. In the other hand, Yazdgerd I is viewed differently by Christian and Zoroastrian sources. The former praise his clemency, while the later refer to him as “Yazdgerd the sinful”. Yazdgerd is also known to have a Jewish wife, which in fact was certainly influential in improving the position of the Jews in the land. After Yazdgerd’s death, the nobles refused to allow any of his sons to ascend the throne. However, one of his sons successfully challenged the nobility and was crowned as Bahram V, surnamed Gur, reputedly because of his skill in hunting Onagers. Perhaps he was able to persuade the nobles that he possessed “Farr”, which was an essential attribute of kingship. He came to symbolize the concept of “King” at the height of the golden age, and was the embodiment of royal prosperity.

Yazdgerd II, the Bahram’s successor, began his career by resuming the war with Byzantium. However the Byzantine Emperor persuaded him to make peace. Yazdgerd then turned to his eastern borders, and for a time established his capital in Nishapur in Khorasan so as to be better able to pursue the war against his eastern enemies. After Yazdgerd’s death, his two sons wrangled over the throne. First it was taken by Hormoz III, but then his brother Piruz marched against the king and deposed him. The twenty-five years of Piruz’s reign are remembered for a terrible famine and the renewal of hostilities between his people and the Hephthalites. Piruz himself was killed in the war and Balash was elected king by nobles. Unwilling to be a pawn at their hands, Balash fell a victim to their conspiracy. Soon he was deposed in favor of Piruz’s son, Qobad I who proved himself as a vigorous ruler. The time spent in his youth as a hostage of the Hephthalites had provided him with valuable military experience and connections, which he later turned to good use. Qobad slowly became old and because of some problems with nobles, he want to ensure the succession of Khosrow, his son. Qobad’s written testament sufficed to place Khosrow on the throne. Khosrow Anushiravan (that means of Immortal soul) was among the most illustrious of the Sasanid monarchs, and has come down through posterity bearing the title of “the Just”. His rule began with the suppression of the revolts of his brothers and some discontented nobles. He made peace with Byzantium and devoted most of his time to the reforms of taxation and internal administration. Similarly important were Khosrow’s army reforms. He gave the poor nobles, more correctly termed knights, equipment and a salary. Thus the army was tied more closely to the central government, and the great nobles who had maintained private armies saw their power drastically reduced.
A more notable event took place during this era: the birth of Islamic Prophet Mohammad.

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History of Iran – Part 2

Reign of Khosrow is largely characterized by a considerable amount of religious tolerance. When in Athens, Justinian closed the Academy which had been a center of ancient Greek philosophy and culture, the last Neo Platonists turned to Khosrow, hoping to find in him the true philosopher-king. Khosrow welcomed them and treated them well and when they became homesick, he secured permission from Justinian for them to return to Athens as part of one of the peace treaties between two empires. Khosrow was a great builder. He constructed many great Carvanserais, bridges and roads. There was an unprecedented investment of state funds in a costly irrigation system, which helped to increase the acreage of arable lands to an extent never achieved before or since. During his time, the game of chess had been brought to his court from India and his renowned Prime Minister Bozorgmehr is reputed to have invented Backgammon.
Khosrow was succeeded by his son Hormoz IV. The wearisome war with Byzantium continued during his supremacy with no decisive advantage to either party. The Persian general Bahram Chubin was made commander of the Sasanid troops in the east and was assigned to repel the Turks. Bahram proved his brilliance by the serious defeats of Turks and a series of successful campaigns against Byzantium. Hormoz became jealous of his general’s popularity and decided to remove him from office. Bahram reacted by staging rebellion which was widely supported by the army. Hormoz was imprisoned and was soon put to death. Khosrow II, son of Hormoz became the king. At first he tried to conciliate Bahram Chubin, but his efforts proved useless. In a major battle waged between the king’s supporters and the rebels, the king was defeated and had to flee to Byzantium. Byzantine troops were prepared to assist Khosrow II in regaining his throne. Bahram tried to secure the support of the nobility against Khosrow, but he failed. After several defeats, he obliged to retreat and flee to the Turks. There he remained for a year until he was assassinated, probably at the instigation of Khosrow.

A strong peace negotiated between Sasanid and Byzantine Empires. Khosrow showed considerable sympathy to the Christians. He also had a favorite Christian wife called Shirin. Khosrow II was titled Parviz (that means the Victorious) and with his death, Sasanid Empire entered the final chapter of its history. Some kings came and went since no sons of Khosrow Parviz were left alive, the nobles raised to the throne, Purandokkht, daughter of Khosrow. She died after a rule of little more than one year. A succession of rulers followed, one after the others, each ruling only a few months. Finally in 632, the nobles raised to the throne, Yazdgerd III, grandson of Khosrow. Yazdgerd had been living virtually in hiding in Estakhr, and it was there that the last Sasanid king was crowned. Yazdgerd ascended the throne and in that same year, the Sasanid Empire was attacked by Arab army led by Khalid ibn Walid. At the battle of Qadisia, the Persian troops were defeated and their commander in-chief, Rostam-e Farrokhzad was killed. Yazdgerd fled to eastern provinces and requested aid from China, but no one came to help. One by one, Iranian cities surrendered to the Arabs, Yazdgerd was murdered by his viceroy in Merv, and the Sasanid era was over.

However, the ignominious end of the Sasanians was not the end of Iran. The best known groups of their heritage are at Naqshe Rostam, Naqshe Rajab and Bishapur. The Sasanid era was one of the renaissance in Iranian culture and art, and most of the Iranian achievements during the Islamic period are indented to Iran’s Sasanid heritage.

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