Sassanid Empire (224 – 651 A.D.) [Part 4]


The Persian monarch maintained at his court Greek physicians and thinkers, and a university was established in Gonde-Shapur. This famous university survived into Islamic times. Khosrow was a great builder, embellishing his capital, Ctesiphon, and founding new towns. Among these, near his capital, was a new city called Weh-Antioch-Khosrow (“Better than Antioch [has] Khosrow [built this]”). He also constructed a great many caravanserais, bridges, and roads. There was, as well, 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. Under his auspices, many books were brought from Greece and India and translated into Pahlavi.

Some of them later found their way into the literature of the Islamic world. During Khosrow’s 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. A vast number of silver plates and engraved gems in various museum collections are further evidence of the pomp and glory of Khosrow’s reign. Khosrow was succeeded by his son Hormoz IV. The wearisome war with Byzantium continued during his supremacy with no decisive advantage to either party. Other Persian foes also took advantage of the country’s ill fortunes: The Arab tribes raided lower Iraq, while the Turks, who by this time had been consolidated into a great power, invaded the northeastern provinces of the Sassanid Empire.

Bahram Chubin

The Persian general Bahram Chubin was made commander of the Sassanid troops in the east and was assigned to repel the Turks. Bahram proved his brilliance not only by the serious defeats he inflicted on the Turks but also by a series of successful campaigns against Byzantium. His achievements, however, served him ill. Hormoz became jealous of his general’s popularity and decided to remove him from office. Bahram reacted by staging a rebellion, which was widely supported by the army. His troops marched on Ctesiphon unopposed. Having lost the support of the aristocracy and the religious leaders.

Hormoz was imprisoned. He was soon put to death, perhaps with the connivance of his son Khosrow II, who succeeded him on the throne. At first the new king 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. There he asked the aid of Maurice, the Byzantine Emperor, with Dura-Europos and part of Armenia promised to Maurice as payment for Byzantine support Maurice agreed, and Byzantine troops were prepared, to assist Khosrow in regaining his throne. Meanwhile, Bahram Chubin tried to secure the support of the nobility against Khosrow but failed. After several serious defeats, in which Bahram’s forces, though inferior, were able to inflict large casualties on their enemies, Bahram was obliged to retreat and flee to the Turks. There he remained for a year until he was assassinated, probably at the instigation of Khosrow.


Except for Media, which was ruled by Bastam, another pretender to the throne, Iran was united under Khosrow, the last great monarch of the dynasty. A. peace was negotiated between the Sassanid and Byzantine empires, and this time the friendship was so strong that some Armenian writers believed that Khosrow had been converted to Christianity. It was not so, but Khosrow did indeed show considerable sympathy to the Christians. He also had a favorite Christian wife called Shirin, who maintained her position of ascendancy during the whole of her lifetime, a remarkable accomplishment in oriental history.

Khosrow shirin

Khosrow II was titled Parviz (“the Victorious”), perhaps for his successes in the military campaigns which drove the western Persian boundaries as far as Jerusalem and Egypt. (Khosrow’s former benefactor Maurice had been overthrown and killed. Thus, Khosrow had an excellent pretext for declaring war on Byzantium, and took over most of its territories.)  Khosrow had in effect re-established the limits of the Achaemenid Empire, but his state was not destined to last for long. In Khosrow’s Jerusalem campaign, the supposed True Cross was taken to Ctesiphon of whom was found in one as part of the booty.

This provoked the church to finance the “holy” war against the Sassanians. This war was led by Heraclius, the new Byzantine Emperor. The army, reorganized by Heraclius’s clever reforms, managed to clear Asia Minor of Sassanid troops. Subsequently, the Sassanid army was defeated on all sides. Heraclius invaded Armenia and Azerbaijan, and made a brave dash as far as Dastgerd, a short distance from Ctesiphon, where he found vast treasure. Khosrow lost heart and fled to the capital. There, looking for a scapegoat to take the blame for the defeat, he decided to execute Shahrbaraz, the celebrated general who had brought him most of his victories. The plan backfired, and Khosrow was imprisoned and murdered. With his death, the Sassanid Empire entered the final chapter of its history.

Shiro, son of Khosrow II, ascended the throne as Qobad II. He had joined the rebels and agreed to the execution of his father. The new ruler at once sought the Heraclius and agreed to recall Sassanid troops from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, and western Mesopotamia, and to observe the pre-war boundaries. All prisoners were to be returned, and True Cross and other relics restored. Both sides rejoiced in the termination of the hostilities which had been bleeding the two empires for so many years. Qobad’s rule, however, lasted less than a year. Following his death from the plague, anarchy set in. First, he was succeeded by his son Ardashir III, still an infant. Shahrbaraz, who was still active politically, decided to seize the throne. He defeated the supporters of Ardashir and killed the baby king and his chief followers.

However, Shahrbaz’s reign was to last less than two months before he was murdered. Piruz II, Khosrow II’s nephew, who ruled in the eastern part of the empire, was killed before he could even reach Ctesiphon. Since no sons of Khosrow II were left alive, the nobles raised to the throne Khosrow’s daughter Purandokht, the first woman to occupy this position. She died after a rule of little more than a year. A succession of rulers followed one after the other, each ruling only a few months. We know little more than their names: Azarmidokht, sister of Purandokht, Hormoz V, and Khosrow IV.

Finally, in 632, the nobles were raised to the Yazdgerd III grandson of Khosrow II, close to the last member of the house of Sasan. Yazdgerd had been living virtually in hiding in Estakhr, and it was there that the last Sassanid king was crowned. Yazdgerd ascended the throne, and in that same year, the Sassanid Empire was attacked by Arab squadrons led by Khalid ibn Walid, one of the Prophet Mohammad’s companions and the leader of the Arab army after the Prophet’s death. At the Battle of Qadisia, the Persian troops were defeated, and their commander-in-chief Rostam-e Farrokhzad was killed.

The following year Ctesiphon surrendered to the Arabs. Yazdgerd, hoping to rally the Persians to oppose the new menace, fled to the eastern provinces, but his efforts were vain. He requested aid from China, but no one came to help his dying cause. Years of exhausting warfare between Byzantium and Persia, economic decline, government corruption, religious strangulation, and the rapid turnover in rulers had all undermined the Sassanid state. One by one, Iranian cities surrendered to the Arabs, who used both proselytizing and force in their conquest. The Battle of Nehavand won by the Arabs, saw the destruction of the imperial Sassanid army.

Yazdgerd was murdered by his viceroy in Merv, and the Sassanid era was over. However, the ignominious end of the Sasanians was not the end of Iran. The traditions of Sassanid Iran were to continue into Islamic Iran. It could not have been otherwise, since the Sassanid period marked a high point of Iranian civilization. The arts, and in particular, metalwork and the engraving of gems, reached a high level of artistry and craftsmanship, and architecture often took on proportions of grandeur, as seen in Firuzabad, Bishapur, and Sarvestan (31 7-319).

Rock sculptures were the most characteristic of Sassanid art. The best-known groups are Naqsh-e Rostam, Naqsh-e Rajab (262-263), and Bishapur. There are two near Firuzabad, and individual reliefs are carved in Sar-Mashhad (291), Sarab-e Bahram (269), Darab, and Barm-e Delak (203). Sassanid sculptured reliefs are less numerous outside Fars, with the most prominent found at Taq-e Bustan near Kermanshah. Generally speaking, the Sassanid era was one of the renaissances in Iranian culture and art, and most of the Iranian achievements during the Islamic period are indebted to Iran’s Sassanid heritage.