The Sassanian Empire

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The Sassanian Empire (224-651) was the last pre-Islamic dynasty to rule Iran.
They called their dominion ‘Iranshahr’, meaning ‘Empire of Iran’. The Sassanians reinstated native Persian rule after centuries of foreign dominion and codified Zoroastrianism as their state religion. They were nemeses of the Roman Empire, and the two powers fought incessantly. The Sassanians ruled modern Iran, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Caucasus and the Stans of Central Asia (except Kazakhstan).sassanian coin

  • Capital: Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad)
  • Official language: Middle Persian (Pahlavi)
  • State religion: Zoroastrianism
  • Government: Absolute monarchy
  • Dynasty: The House of Sasan

The Sassanians were an old Persian family claiming descent from Cyrus the Great. Having conquered Persia in 330 BC, the Macedonians ruled three centuries. The Parthians who followed were of north-east Iranian stock but adopted Greek customs. In the third century AD, Ardashir of the House of Sasan overthrew his Parthian overlords and was crowned ‘Shahanshah’ – king of kings. His dynasty turned the feudal Parthian Empire into a centralised, urban state and restored the Persian Empire of old.

sassanian empire map

Zoroastrianism was the Sassanian state religion. The high priest Kartir put its oral traditions to paper and pushed an orthodox Zoroastrianism that left no room for differing interpretations. The clergy became a privileged and influential caste alongside the seven noble families of Iran.

Two heresies threatened the Sassanian order.  Early in the Sassanian Empire, the Manichaeans accepted a new prophet and threatened the clergy’s hold on power. The followers of Mazdak (Mazdakites) arose in the 6th century. They were a proto-communist cult advocating social revolution. Spurred by the clergy, the Sassanian rulers uprooted both and killed their prophets.

sassanian cataphract 3The backbone of the Sassanian army was its cataphracts – armoured men on armoured horses fighting with mace and lance. The Romans copied their design and it later influenced European knighthood. The Sassanians also used Indian elephants in war. 

The Sassanian Empire was one of five world powers alongside Rome, Ethiopia, India and Tang China. Their tug-of-war with the Romans over Armenia and Mesopotamia lasted four centuries. In 260, Shapur I annihilated a Roman army at Edessa and inflicted one of Rome’s worst-ever defeats. Emperor Valerian was taken captive and made Shapur’s footstool until he died. In the west, the Sassanians defended Iran against migrating Hunnish and Turkic tribes.

khosrauKhosrow I (reigned 531-539) gave the empire a second wind. He reformed the inefficient tax system and eased persecution of Christians and Jews while crushing the Mazdakites. His occupation of Egypt, Anatolia and Yemen brought Sassanian Persia to its greatest extent. When the Romans closed the Athenian Academy in 529, Khosrow welcomed its scholars to his court. An admirer of Plato, he sought to emulate the ideal philosopher-king.

The final Roman-Persian war of 602-628 bled the empire dry. Four years later, the Arabs, now united under Islam, invaded and destroyed the Sassanians within twenty years. In focusing so much on the Romans, the Sassanians had neglected their neighbours to the south. The last Shahanshah, Yazdegerd III, fled east and was murdered for his purse.

Today Persians consider the Sassanians the most authentically ‘Iranian’ Empire. The older Achaemenid Persian Empire belongs to an ancient, almost mythical past. By contrast, the Sassanians left ample records. They created truly Persian literature, practised a Persian religion and wrote in a Persian script. Chess was popularised and backgammon invented in the Sassanian court. Stories that would later make Ferdowsi’s ‘Shahnameh’, the Iranian national epic, were first collated in Sassanian times. The academy at Gundeshapur translated hundreds of philosophical and medical texts from Greek and Sanskrit into Persian which in turn laid the foundations of the Islamic Golden Age.

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Sources: Encyclopedia Iranica, Richard N Frye – The Heritage of Persia (1962)

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Peoples of Afghanistan

afghanistan ethnic map 3Afghanistan is home to five major ethnic groups and nine smaller ones. Being a mountainous land at the crossroads of empires, Afghanistan was historically settled by various people and nations. Today each group practises its own distinct culture and generally lives in different parts of the country while mingling in the cities. Though they might all be seen as ‘Afghans’ to outsiders, within the country ethnic divisions predominate.

afghan girl natgeo2

Pashtuns make up 42% of the country. They are represented in both the urban elite and the rural poor. After the British invasion of Afghanistan, the Pashtun homeland was split in two. As a result, over 500,000 also live in neighbouring Pakistan, mainly in the mountainous border region. Sunni Muslims since the 9th century, Pashtuns live in a tribal society where clan loyalty is paramount. Rural Pashtuns still wear traditional clothing and follow an honour system called ‘Pashtunwali’. Pashto, their native language, is an Indo-European tongue related to Persian. Many also speak Persian (Dari) and Urdu.

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Tajiks are a Persian speaking people indigenous to Central Asia. They are 27% of Afghanistan and the majority in neighbouring Tajikstan. The 19th-century Russian invasion of Central Asia cut their homeland in two as the British did the Pashtuns. Tajiks were highly represented in the ‘Northern Alliance’ who fought the Taliban. Also known as ‘East Persians’, Tajiks descend from the settled Persian communities of Afghanistan, in contrast to the traditionally pastoral Pashtuns. Unlike the Persians of Iran, they are mainly Sunni Muslim.


Hazaras are 9% of Afghanistan and hail from its mountainous centre. Though they speak Persian, Hazaras descend from 13th century Mongol invaders and their appearance is distinctly more East Asian than other Afghans. Being Shia Muslims in a Sunni dominated state, Hazaras face severe discrimination. The Taliban massacred thousands of Hazara between 1996 and 2001.

Screenshot of a news report featuring Soyra Saddot, Afghanistan's first female district governor

Uzbeks, at 9% of the population, descend from the Uzbek Khanate, a 11th-century Turkic state. In the ‘Great Game’ of the 1800s, the British-backed Pashtuns seized land from the Russian-backed Uzbeks and made it Afghan. Many Uzbeks supported Afghanistan’s Communist government against the Mujahideen in the 1970s. Neighboring Uzbekistan is named after them. The Uzbek language is of the Karluk Turkic branch.


Nomadic peoples of Afghanistan include the Turkmens, Aimaqs and Balochs. The Nuristani people (above) are unique in their light featured appearance. They claim descent from Greek soldiers who settled the region when Alexander the Great conquered Bactria in the 300s BC, though most scholars believe the Nuristanis are indigenous to the region.

Sources: Encyclopedia Iranica, Minority Rights, NPR, World Population Review

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Mani of Babylonia

mani 3Mani (216 – 277) was a painter and theologian who preached in 3rd century Persia. His teachings became Manichaeism, a religion that peaked in the 9th century and rivalled early Christianity. Mani envisioned a global faith that combined the teachings of Christianity, Gnosticism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism and could breach cultural and linguistic divisions. Persecuted in Persia and Rome, Mani’s teachings spread as far as China and North Africa.

Mani was born to a Jewish-Christian sect near modern-day Baghdad. He was of Parthian descent and lived under the Sassanian Dynasty, who were staunch Zoroastrians. At age 20, Mani heard the voice of his ‘divine twin’ urging him to leave home and preach the word of God. Mani travelled the Silk Road to India, where he learned from Hindu and Buddhist sages. In his lifetime he gained more followers than Jesus. He detailed his teachings in six known books that he wrote and illustrated:

  • Shapuragan
  • Book of Giants
  • Fundamental Epistle
  • Living Gospel
  • Mani Codex
  • Arzhang

Mani wrote the Shapurangan for Emperor Shapur of Persia. It failed to convert him, though Shapur tolerated and protected Mani’s followers. As none of the originals survive in full, what we know comes from fragments, quotations and discussions by other authors.

Manichaeans believe in a dualistic universe. Good and Evil are separate and equally powerful forces. Both are uncreated and eternal. Originally the worlds of Light and Darkness were separate and the Earth was born from their collision. Humans are essentially (Good) spiritual beings trapped in (Evil) material bodies. The battle between Good and Evil takes place in the human soul. The Divine Father sent prophets to guide humanity back to him. These included Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus and Mani. Only through prayer, fasting and the and rejection of evil can one’s soul escape the cycle of reincarnation and reunite with the World of Light. The truly evil join the World of Darkness when they die.

mani 4

The faith combines Zoroastrian dualism with Biblical revelation and Buddhist enlightenment. In his books, Mani detailed his cosmology with coloured illustrations. He sought to reform Zoroastrianism and turn it from its ethnocentric origins as a religion for Persians and Medes to a universal missionary faith for all mankind as the early Christians did with Judaism. As a painter, he believed the arts in all their forms were sacred and divine.

After years abroad, Mani returned to Persia in AD 272. The Zoroastrian clergy considered his teachings a dangerous heresy. In 273 the new king, Bahram I, imprisoned Mani and ordained his execution. Mani was flayed alive, his body stuffed with straw and crucified over the gates of Gundeshapur. Bahram banned Manichaeism and expelled its followers from Persia.

Spread of manichaeism

In the West, Manichaeism spread across Roman Italy and North Africa. Saint Augustine was a Manichaean before converting to Christianity. Through him, dualistic tendencies seeped into Catholic thought, particularly regarding Heaven and Hell. Manichaean teachings strongly influenced medieval heretics like the Cathars, whom French crusaders exterminated in the 14th century.

The Uighurs adopted Manichaeism and it spread through western China. Their empire collapsed in the 840s, however, and they later converted to Islam. Manichaeism thrived in China until purges drove it underground. Today only a few sects still practice the faith, and only one temple remains – a remote shrine in Ca’oan, China that was long disguised as a Buddhist temple.

manichaean temple

Sources: Encyclopedia Iranica, Iran Chamber, Kaveh Farrokh

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Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the GreatCyrus II (Kūruš in Old Persian) founded the Persian Empire (550-330 BC). Once ruler of an insignificant city, he overthrew his Median overlords and established the greatest empire of its time. Cyrus is revered in Iran and is the Hebrew Bible’s only non-Jewish messiah. Like his admirer Alexander the Great, who would conquer his empire, Cyrus was among the greatest rulers of the ancient world. Unlike Alexander, his empire outlasted him by two hundred years.

When Cyrus was born
, four powers ruled the known world:

  • Median Empire (Iran)
  • Babylonian Empire (Iraq and the Levant)
  • Lydia (Turkey)
  • Egypt

According to Herodotus, who wrote the oldest account on Cyrus’s life, King Astyages of Media had a daughter called Mandane who married his vassal the king of Persia. One day Astyages had a disturbing dream: Mandane urinating over the world. The court magi interpreted it as prophecy. Her child would overthrow Astyages and destroy his empire. When Mandane gave birth to a son, the king dispatched his commander Harpagus to kill him. Unwilling to murder a baby, however, Harpagus gave the infant to a shepherd couple and presented their stillborn baby to the king instead. Years later Cyrus, now king of Persia, rebelled against Astyages. Harpagus defected to him and Cyrus overthrew his grandfather and seized his empire.

median empireCyrus then invaded Babylon. After defeating its unpopular king, he entered the city peacefully and portrayed himself not as a conqueror but a saviour restoring legitimate rule. Cyrus allowed the captive people of Babylon to return to their respective homelands, declaring so in the famous Cyrus Cylinder (below), which Iranians claim to be the first declaration of human rights.

The Cyrus Cylinder as Design Object | The Getty Iris

Hearing of this upstart king, Croesus of Lydia consulted the Oracle of Delphi, at least according to Herodotus. The oracle told him that if he goes to war with Persia, a great empire will fall. Croesus sent his armies against Cyrus, only to find the empire that fell was his own.

Cyrus ruled his empire indirectly. The Persians were far more merciful and less imposing than the Babylonians and Assyrians who went before them. Cyrus often spared his enemies; he retired Astyages to a summer house and made Croesus a leading advisor.

So revered was Cyrus, that for centuries later, Persia’s male beauty standards were based on one’s resemblance to him.

Scholars disagree on Cyrus’s fate. Herodotus claims he died fighting Tamyris of the Massagetai, a barbarian queen to the east. Other accounts claim he died peacefully in his capital. His tomb still stands in modern-day Iran. Though the inscription has faded away, Strabo recorded it saying:

Passer-by, I am Cyrus, who gave the Persians an empire and was king of Asia. Begrudge me not, therefore, this monument.

Since the early 2000s, thousands of Iranians gather at his tomb to celebrate ‘Cyrus the Great Day’ every October 29th, the day Cyrus entered Babylon. Iran’s government does not recognise or condone the event.

cyrus the great day
Xenophon’s ‘Cyropaedia’
depicts Cyrus as an ideal ruler all others should emulate. Its fans included Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Machiavelli, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Cyrus promoted religious freedom. Although likely Zoroastrian himself, he portrayed himself as chosen by the gods of all his subjects, be it Ahura Mazda, Marduk or Yahweh and patronised temples across his empire. Cyrus ended the Jews’ 70 year ‘Babylonian Exile’ and helped rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Of this ‘Second Temple,’ only the Western Wall stands today and is the religion’s holiest site. The Persian king’s decrees ensured the Jews did not assimilate into mainstream Babylonian culture. Without Cyrus’s intervention, there might be no Judaism, no Christianity or Islam today.

Sources: Encyclopedia Iranica, Herodotus – The HistoriesReuters

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Iranian Civilisation

Iran 1Iran has one of the oldest and most influential civilisations in the world. Iranian culture dominated Central Asia and the Middle East from the time of Cyrus the Great to the Islamic Conquests and in some ways continues to do so.

Greater Iran includes the countries and peoples who speak Iranian languages, from the Euphrates to Indus Rivers. These include:

  • Persians (Iran)
  • Kurds (Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria)
  • Tajiks (Tajikstan, Afghanistan)
  • Pashtuns (Afghanistan, Pakistan)

Other nations that were once a part of Iranian empires but today have different cultures include Iraq, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. ‘Stan’ is the Persian word for land.

iran 3Persia is the old Greek world for Iran and its English name until 1932. The modern Persian language swapped the P sound for F, so ‘Persia Proper’ is today Iran’s Fars province. The Persian language is Farsi. The Zoroastrians who fled to India when the Muslims took over before the language changed are called the Parsi.

‘Iran’ comes from the Sassanian name for Persia, ‘Eran-Shahr’ which derives from ‘Aryan’. All Persians are Iranian but not all Iranians are Persian.

Five Dynasties ruled Iran before Islam. They mainly followed the teachings of Zoroaster, a Bronze Age prophet:

  • persian empireMedians (non-Persian Iranians, 678 – 549 BC)
  • Achaemenids (Cyrus, Darius etc, 559 – 330 BC)
  • Seleucids (Macedonian, 305 – 63 BC)
  • Arcasids (Parthians, 247 BC – 224 AD)
  • Sassanians (Persians, 224 – 651 AD)

As Western civilisation grew out of Rome, and Chinese out of the Han Dynasty, Iranian civilization sprang from the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Cyrus the Great conquered most of the known world and established an administration system that lasted centuries. Even Alexander the Great, who conquered it, retained the Persian system.

The Muslims who conquered Iran in the 600s ushered an age of foreign rule. Arabs, Turks and Mongols ruled Iran. Although the foreigners adopted elements of Persian culture, they were still considered foreigners. The greatest scientific advances of the Islamic Golden Age were made by Persians like Avicenna and Al Khwarezemi.

Iran 2The Safavid Dynasty restored native rule in the 1500s. They retained Persian culture, made Persian, not Arabic, the country’s official language and made Iran the centre of the Shia Muslim world. In 1979 clerics overthrew the last Shah, Reza Muhammad of the Pahlavi Dynasty, and replaced the monarchy with a theocratic republic, ending 2,500 years of imperial rule.

Though Greater Iran is overwhelmingly Muslim today, it has given the world four religions:

  • Zoroastrianism (900s BC -)
  • Mithraism (200s BC – 300s AD)
  • Manichaeism (200s AD – 1400s)
  • Baha’i (1800s -)

Central to the Iranian philosophical and religious tradition is an emphasis on truth and spiritual purity.

Historically Persia lay between the eastern and western halves of Eurasia. The Silk Road ran through it meaning Chinese inventions like chess, gunpowder and silk came to Europe via Persia.

Persian carpetAmong other things, Persia has given the world:

  • lutes
  • polo
  • ice cream
  • refrigerators
  • windmills
  • banks
  • armoured knights
  • poetry of Hafez and Rumi
  • The Shahnameh (Book of Kings)
  • Avicenna, father of modern medicine
  • hospitals
  • trigonometry
  • carpets

While the Syrian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures were largely subsumed into Arabic, Iran retained its unique identity. Modern Islamic civilisation is arguably a mixture of Arabic and Persian influences. The Persian example helped internationalise Islam and allow it to spread as far as it has today. Sir Muhammad Iqbal, the spiritual father of Pakistan, claimed:

“If you ask me what is the most important event in the history of Islam, I shall say without any hesitation: “The Conquest of Persia.” The battle of Nehawand gave the Arabs not only a beautiful country, but also an ancient civilisation; or, more properly, a people who could make a new civilisation with the Semitic and Aryan material. Our Muslim civilisation is a product of the cross-fertilisation of the Semitic and the Aryan ideas. It is a child who inherits the softness and refinement of his Aryan mother, and the sterling character of his Semitic father. But for the conquest of Persia, the civilisation of Islam would have been one-sided. The conquest of Persia gave us what the conquest of Greece gave to the Romans.”

Sources: Richard N Frye – The Heritage of Persia (1962), Iran Review

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