Zoya Ansari describes an important Sassanian Empire displaced
While discussing the rise of the Sassanian Empire displaced of Islamic rule it becomes essential to cast a glance at the ruling entity in the region that was supplanted by the Islamic rule. It is widely acknowledged that the Sassanian Empire was the last pre-Islamic Persian Empire that was established in 224 AD by Ardeshir I, son of Papak, descendant of Sasan known to be an outstanding war leader and prudent ruler. This empire ruled for more than four centuries till 651 AD when it was finally overthrown by the Muslim caliphate. Throughout the Sassanian Empire set important precedents for governing areas with disparate populations and practices. Some of its rulers became legendary in the annals of past rulers particularly Ardeshir, Shahpur and Khusro whose fame cut across frames of time and were held with supreme respect in variegated cultural milieus.
After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, the Iranian Plateau fell into the hands of his generals who established a state known as the Seleucid Empire mainly on what is today Iran and its height extended from modern-day Turkey to modern-day Pakistan. The Seleucids, although certainly influenced by the Iranian people over whom they ruled, still kept true to their Greco-Macedonian origins and were not taken as native rulers to most of their subjects. However, their rule was supplanted by the Parthians, a class composed of northeastern Iran and heavily influenced by Hellenistic traditions, in the Iranian territories.
In turn The Parthians themselves fell to Ardeshir I, a Persian hailing from Fars and under his rule the process aimed at restoring and reinstating Iranian values and culture. Although, at the core Sassanians remained Hellenized but the Iranization process continued unabated with Zoroastrianism becoming one of the founding stones of the Empire that was to have its deep mark of coming centuries and still survives in some shape or form. For 400 years the Sassanian Empire was the major power in the Near East as the rival of the former Roman Empire.
During his rule Ardeshir I gave special importance to centralization of power, installing Zoroastrianism as state religion and paying attention to the Persian rivalry with Rome. Centralization was an especially enormous task since the Parthians had kept a federative alliance of small kingdoms. Zoroastrianism, although always present, was now to be linked to the Empire’s organization and became of great importance to the administration system, especially since the legitimacy of the system established by the Sassanians was based on their divine lineage. It was natural that rivalry was to be the order of things but wars with Rome seemed stagnant being a game of push and pull between the two Empires mostly in Mesopotamia and Armenia that later on escalated.
Shahpur I, was a king mostly important for his ability to reaffirm Sassanian power in Iran and for his military prowess in fighting Rome. It was due to his consistent pressure on Rome that resulted in compelling the Roman Emperor Phillip to concede to Shahpur I in order to secure his power over Rome and was made to sign a treaty that would hand Armenia to Persia. The Persian king, seeing the current weakness of the Roman Empire, continued his attacks and dealt a severe blow to Roman morale by capturing Roman Emperor Valerian.
During Shahpur’s reign a legend emerged that he was crowned king in his mother’s womb but this legend comes from his having been chosen as king shortly after his birth as his father was murdered and the powerful nobles decided to crown the newborn, whom they hoped to mould, rather than risk trusting the crown to any of his older brothers.
With the passage of time Shahpur proved to be an energetic and imaginative leader, taking the empire to its greatest glory expanding his territories by taking advantage of the weakened Roman Empire. He also took the crucial step of committing the Zoroastrian scriptures to writing that gave them much needed veracity and permanence.
The Sassanian dynasty then produced Khusro I rated as the most pre-eminent ruler whose fame still holds considerable relevance and acclaim. He was successful both from military and administrative aspect and was accepted as an ideal king in history and would also feature prominently in Iranian literature. It is generally accepted that Khusrau’s reforms were probably what continued to sustain the Sassanian Empire for the next 100 years. His tax reforms strengthened the court by eliminating the special privileges of the grandees who ruled over their territories and who were able to tax the population exempting themselves. Through these reforms, the Sassanian state was able to provide a fixed tax that would help predict the amount of income received.
Khusro also brought about wide-ranging reforms in military matters that ensured the safety of the borders of the Empire that had the Romans to the west, the Huns to the east and the Arabs to the south and all these conditions required a military capable of reacting quickly. For undertaking this purpose the Empire was divided into four regions each controlled by a general. As for most Sassanian kings, the wars with Rome continued endlessly mostly favourable to the Sassanian, as the Romans and then the Byzantines would be occupied with confronting the Germanic invasions. Khusro is widely acclaimed for his penchant for knowledge and learning for which he set many academic institutions and they were rated the most important centers of learning in the world’s history as it sought texts from all of the neighbouring countries, from Greek philosophers, to Iranian religious texts translating them not only to Middle Persian but also Greek and other languages — a scholarly knowledge later inherited by the Arabs, and then passed to European Culture.
The last Sassanian king, Yazdegerd III ascended the throne when he was only eight years old and ruled during the push exerted by the Muslim rulers. The king was forced to move from province to province time gathering resources for the invading Muslim Arab armies but this advance was practically unstoppable as by 630 AD the Sassanian Empire suffered the loss of Yemen, Oman and Bahrain. Soon after, in 633 AD, the Sassanian client state of Hira was taken as well and thus a buffer state between the Iranians and the Arabs was removed. In 633 AD the Sassanian army was defeated by the Muslim army at the battle of Dat al-Salasel. More defeats followed and by 634 CE, Sawad, later Iraq, came under Muslim control. In 636 AD at the battle of Madar, Sassanian forces completely lost southern Mesopotamia to the Arab army. Finally in 637 AD the battle of Qadisiya took place in which the Iranian general Rustam and most of his army were killed.
The king could not face this situation and fled the capital and moved toward Ray but in 640 AD the Arabs managed to take over the heartland of Iran and the king had no choice but to move further toward the east. After the serious insurrections of the eastern provinces of Sistan and Kerman also resulted in defeat, the ruler of Marw refused to help the runaway king. Yazdegerd III is believed to have been murdered near Marw in 651 AD with the Sassanian Empire becoming part of Arab Muslim state though Persian cultural heritage continued as an enduring influence in the emerging Muslim world. TW