12 November 2007

Sassanian Stuff II

How It All Began

IN the province of Pars in Southwest Persia, the religion of Zoroaster was always observed. Here the priests attended to the sacred fires and the injunctions of the prophet were rigorously observed --no corpses were to pollute the earth, no flames were to be blown out, and the divine radiance must be worshipped. In Pars, too, where the tombs of the Achaemenid Kings and ruins of Persepolis remained to remind believers of the splendour of their past, men dreamt of a time when a Persian dynasty would again be on the throne.

Such a man was Pâpak. He was the high priest (mobad) of the important fire temple of the goddess Anahita -- goddess of water, fertility, wisdom and war -- in the Persian capital of Istakhr, very near ancient Persepolis. As a vassal of the Parthians, he was also Commander of the Army in Pars. Around the year 200 AD, Pâpak married Princess Ram Behest, daughter of the Parthian Satrap of Pars. In 211, he succeeded his father-in-law and became Satrap. He now combined in his person the religious, military, and political power of Pars [ known as Persis to the Greeks (its modern name is Fars)].

If I had been his Parthian overlord, I would have been very worried.

And even more worried, I would think, when Pâpak began to trace his ancestry back to the founders of the Achaemenid dynasty. In a late genealogy, his father is named as Sasan (the eponymous hero of the Sassanians), who may himself have descended from an 'Elder Sasan', a 1st century vassal kinglet, and through him to the Achaemenids. That may or may not be history but suffices to establish connections with the previous dynasty; where such connections did not exist, they were fabricated. ... as in the "Pâpak Romance", if I may call it that, the stuff of legend, and much more fun: it tells quite another story about Sasan, and Pâpak's three dreams.

It goes like this.

Sasan worked for Pâpak as a lowly shepherd, always with the sheep and goats, but secretly he was descended from the line of Darius III, the last king of the Achaemenid empire, who was defeated by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. Alexander, by the way, was not so 'Great' to those he had conquered, and all his Persianizing habits didn't make him liked. On the contrary, even in Pâpak's time, 500 years later, the Persians remembered the evil he had done them and so Sasan's story begins with these words, During the evil reign of Alexander, the descendants of Darius privately lived in distant lands, wandering with Kurdish shepherds...

Because the Zoroastrian god Hormizd (aka Ahura Mazda), was on Sasan's side, the Satrap Pâpak had his dreams:
One night Pâpak saw in a dream as though the sun was shining from the head of Sasan and giving light to the whole world. Another night he dreamt that Sasan was seated on a richly adorned white elephant, and that all those that stood around him in the kingdom made obeisance to him, praised, and blessed him. The next third night he saw as if the [three] sacred fires were burning in the house of Sasan ....
Needless to say, Pâpak called in the interpreter of dreams, who told him what this meant:
The person that was seen in that dream, he or somebody from among the sons of that man will succeed to the sovereignty of this world, because the sun and the richly adorned white elephant that you observed represented vigor and the triumph of opulence; the [first] sacred fire, the religious intelligence of the great men among the priests ; and the [second] sacred fire, warriors and military chieftains; and the [third] sacred fire, the farmers and agriculturists of the world: and thus this sovereignty will fall to that man or the descendants of that man.
That's all Pâpak needed to hear. Whereas a lesser man would have topped Sasan and put a bloody end to any threat from that quarter, Pâpak (undoubtedly guided by his god) instead gave him his daughter in marriage: in a short time, Ardashir was born. When Pâpak saw that Ardashir was beautiful and clever, he said to himself, "The dream which I beheld was true." He regarded Ardashir as his own son, and brought him up as a dear child.

Meanwhile, the king of the Parthians , Artabanus V, finally woke up to what was going on in Pars. No dreams for him, but the night sky was ominous. He called in his astrologers who duly warned him that regicide was definitely on the cards:
The [Capricorn] is sunk below; the star Jupiter has returned to its culminating point and stands away from Mars and Venus, while [Ursa Major]and the constellation of Leo descend to the verge and give help to Jupiter; whereupon it seems clear that a new lord or king will appear, who will kill many potentates, and bring the world again under the sway of one sovereign.
To make a very long story short, war broke out between Pâpak and Artabanus, which went on for four or five years. Pâpak died before the savage contest was decided, and, in 216, his (adopted?) son Ardashir became king of the Persians and continued the campaign.

He came to battle twice and won twice, He killed the entire army of the [Parthians], seized their wealth, property, horses, and portable lodges. In the second battle, he sent Artabanus fleeing from the field.

For the third battle, Ardashir collected soldiers in large numbers from Kerman, Mokristan, Spahan, and different districts of Pars, and came to fight with Artabanus himself. So Artabanus sent for soldiers and provisions from different frontiers, such as Rai [near Tehran], Demavand [the mountain range near Tehran], Delman [modern Gilan], and Patash-khvargar [an offshoot of the Aparsen Range].

The last engagement took place in April 224 on the plain of Hormuz, the Battle of Hormizdgan, where Ardashir won a decisive victory over Artabanus who was killed. The story goes that his death was the result of hand-to-hand single combat while their troops looked on, the outcome to decide who would rule. A dubious story, but a chivalrous one, which was much applauded in medieval Persia.

Chivalry is not dead: a view from the 14th century

Ardashir now gave himself the title of "King of Kings," and not far from Persepolis, on a great bluff of yellow rock, at a place now called Naqsh-i-Rustam, he ordered a memorial of his triumph to be carved in the rock, so that his name and his victory should never be forgotten.

The bluff stands at the entrance of a majestic valley, the sanctity of which was stressed by the fire temple of Anahita (left*), where the Sassanian kings were crowned (and where Pâpak may have been mobad) and the tombs of the first Achaemenid kings. The site had surely been chosen by Ardashir to unite the divine beneficial radiance of the Achaemenids with his own person and with his family. The carving remains, fresh and glowing in the sunlight, three times larger than life.

The rock relief at the top of this post shows his Coronation scene. Ardashir receives the ribboned diadem (cydaris), the symbol of kingship, from the great god Hormizd. Ardashir takes the diadem with his right hand, and salutes the god with his left fist and pointed index finger as a token of respect and obedience (a gesture repeated on many Sassanian rock reliefs). Both king and god are on horseback and are of equal size. Under the horse of the King lies the last of the Parthian Kings, Artabanus. Under the horse of Hormizd lies "the one who lies," the devil Ahriman. The relief of Ardashir is, therefore, the legitimization of the new Sassanian dynasty.

When Pâpak and his son revolted against Parthian rule, they more or less admitted that they had been rebels and had betrayed their master Artabanus V, but they had done so because the supreme god Hormizd had wanted them to do so. [Now, where have I recently heard that justification for war? God talks to me] The inscription in Persian, Parthian, and Greek, reads:
This is the image of the Hormizd-worshipping Majesty Ardashir, whose origin is of the gods
Ardashir's distinctive crown illustrates a remarkable idiosyncracy of the Sassanian kings: each emperor will wear a different personal crown, and these become successively more elaborate. The constant element is the rather unusual globe, called the korymbos, the bulbous central element of which was made of silk and designed to contain the hair. Additionally a diadem was worn, with pointed, sometimes wing-like elements and pleated ribbons falling on either side.

Ardashir's rule was absolute and god-given. And his to give on. Before his death in 241, he abdicated his throne to his favourite son Shapur.

This rock relief at Taq-i-Bostram (above) may represent Ardashir handing over the diadem of power to Shapur.** The god Hormizd (on the left, marked by his customary bundle of sacred twigs and with a crown of sun rays around his head), looks on approvingly. The 10th C. Arab writer, Macoudi, declares that, sated with glory and with power, Ardashir withdrew altogether from the government, and, making over the administration of affairs to his son, devoted himself to religious contemplation.

It was a smart move. By the end of his reign, the Sassanian Empire stretched from Sogdiana in the north to the Mazun in the Arabian south, from the Indus River Valley in the east to the borders of Roman Syria in the west. The stage was set for a monumental clash with imperial Rome. In the East, the one chief of chiefs who is the king of kings, the ruler of the world. In the West, the ruler of all mankind. And Palmyra caught in the middle.

More on that in Sassanian Stuff III.

* photograph from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, with thanks.

** But the relief could also picture the coronation of Shapur II (ca. 364 AD). And the god could be Mithra, not Hormizd, which perhaps better explains the lotus under the god's feet, and that would certainly support the later date ; see Mithra: dieu iranien.


  1. ZOMG! I'm doing research on Ancient Persia for my novel and this is so interesting! Thanks for the fantastic pictures and information.

  2. Delighted to be of help. Lots more Sassanian Stuff to come!

  3. I just finished reading the novel "Creation" by Gore Vidal, wherein the narrator is a grandson of Zoroaster.

    Riveting stuff!

  4. Splendid. Looking forward to future posts.


  5. Thanks for your article, quite effective info.


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