Media, Persia,
Parthia, and Irān

Philosophy of History

The Parthian Arsacids,
248 BC-227 AD

Parthia independent, 248; Arsacid (Parthian) Era Begins, 248/247 BC
Arsaces Ic.250-248
Tiridates I248-211
Artabanus I/
Arsaces II?
Parthians expand into
eastern Irān, 185
Phraates Ic.176-171
Mithridates Ic.171-139
Parthians take Media, 141;
Parthians take Persia, 139
Phraates IIc.139-129
Artabanus IIc.128-124
Parthians take Babylonia, 126
Mithridates II
the Great
Treaty with Rome, 92
Gotarzes Ic.90-80
Orodes Ic.80-77
Phraates IIIc.70-57
Orodes IIc.57-39
Battle of Carrhae, Triumvir Crassus killed, 53 BC; 34,000 legionnaires captured or killed
Mithridates IIIc.57-55
Pacorus Id.38
Phraates IVc.37-3 BC
Tiridates IIc.30-25 BC
Phraates V/
3 BC-3 AD
Orodes IIIc.4 AD-7 AD
Vonones Ic.7-12
Artabanus IIIc.11-38
Vardanes Ic.39-45
Gotarzes IIc.43-50
Vologezes Ic.50-76
Treaty with Rome, Arsacid installed in Armenia, 63
Vologezes II77-78
Pacorus II78-86
Artabanus IV79-80
Vologezes II89-90
Pacorus II92-95
Vologezes III111-146
Trajan occupies Mesopotamia, takes Ctesiphon, 114-117
Pacorus II113-114
Mithridates IVc.130-147
Vologezes IV148-190
War with Romans, 161-166, Ctesiphon sacked & burned, 166
Vologezes V190-206
War with Romans, 197-198, Ctesiphon sacked, 198
Vologezes VI207-221
Artabanus Vc.213-227
The Parthians led the way in the breakup of the
Seleucid state, although for a little while it looked like the Seleucids remained strong enough to reassert authority if they really wanted to. The defeat of Antiochus III by Rome in the Syrian War, 192-188, took care of that; and the Parthian realm soon began to spread. With the conquest of Babylonia in 126, a new capital was founded at Ctesiphon, Κτησιφῶν, near the Seleucid capital of Seleucia on the Tigris. Babylon, of course, across the isthmus on the Euphrates, was long abandoned and all but forgotten. Ctesiphon would remain the Iranian capital until the Islamic Conquest.

The modern Persian word for "Parthian" is , Pahlavi, the name chosen for the late dynasty of Shāhs. Pahlavi is also often applied to the middle Persian language, although I think most materials in this language are from the Sassanid period, not from the Parthian. Although without Greek epithets (Eugertes, etc.), the Parthian kings appear rather more Hellenistic and philhellene than the Sassanids, who were deliberately engaged in a Persian revival.

The dating and even sequence of the Arsacids is uncertain, largely known from coins. There is little epigraphic and, as far as I know, no documentary evidence from the period. This list is based on E.J. Bickerman, Chronology of the Ancient World [Cornell University Press, 1982, p. 130-131] and Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq [Penguin, 1964, 1992, pp.515-516]. Bickerman says, "The identity of some kings who issued coins...remains uncertain," and, "not all pretenders and temporary rulers are mentioned in this list," though a fair number of overlapping reigns do seem to be mentioned. Things seem a bit tidier in Roux, and several Vologozes's are apparently combined, but Roux also leaves out several undoubted rulers, resulting in some gaps. Since he doesn't discuss the problems of Arsacid chronology, I have retained all of Bickerman's rulers.

Parthian genealogy is very poorly known, as the number of question marks above indicates. It is also unfortunate that when an Arsacid dynast is installed in Armenia, we don't know his relationship to the contemporaneous Parthian King, Vologezes I.

The Parthians were famous for their heavy cavalry, called "cataphracts" (Latin cataphractus, Greek κατάφρακτος, katáphraktos, "mail-clad," or Latin clibanarius, from Greek κλίβανος, klíbanos or kríbanos, an earthen or iron pot or pan). These were shock troops, a little unusual until the armored knights of the Middle Ages. Below is one of the few contemporary images of a cataphract, armed with a lance (12 feet long was standard), from a graffito at Dura Europus on the Middle Euphrates -- the conical hat and chain mail over the whole head makes him look like someone from the Ku Klux Klan. The Parthians also had light cavalry, armed with bows, using tactics of riding in, shooting, and riding away -- "Parthian arrows." This harrying could not, all by itself, win battles against disciplined Roman Legions; but if their victims were otherwise discomfited, cut-off, tired, hungry, thirsty, or demoralized, discipline could break, formations could loosen, and, as in cavalry tactics in all ages, a sudden attack, especially by the cataphracts, could break apart the infantry defense.

The battle of Carrhae (53 BC), where 20,000 out of 36,000 legionaires may have died, the greatest Parthian victory against Rome, was a very bad moment in Roman history and a very good moment in Parthian history. Even more intriguing, however, is how it may also represent a moment in Chinese history. There are Chinese records about a subsequent battle between the Chinese and the Parthians in Central Asia, where the Chinese describe apparent Roman Legionary tactics -- i.e. locking shields to make a wall. The Parthians may have been using captured Romans to fight where they could not simply desert and return to Rome. The Chinese, as it happened, captured a number of these soldiers themselves and returned to China with them. This, indeed, would have been an extraordinary fate in the 1st century BC, to have been a Roman legionnaire, captured by the Parthians, then captured by the Chinese, and then living out one's life in China. If this is what actually happened, it is shame not to have some memoires from the men themselves. Since Han China and Rome traded silk for gold by way of Parthia, which endeavored to conceal knowledge of each from each other, any occasions for common knowledge would be extraordinary.

I have had inquries about my source for this information. Unfortunately, I heard of if from my colleague in the History Department at Los Angeles Valley College, Gunar Freibergs. He had simply heard it in a paper at a history conference and so is not actually able to cite the primary research any more than I can. Hopefully the scholar who gave the paper will eventually publish or post his research in an accessible form.

Happily, I now have suddenly discovered the source for this account, thanks to an article in The Economist of December 18, 2004. The theory was originally that of Homer Dubs, a professor of Chinese at Oxford University, proposed in 1955. According to him, about 10,000 Romans may have been captured by the Parthians. Pliny the Elder said that some of these were used as guards on their eastern frontier. According to Dubs, some of these may have escaped to join the Huns (this probably means the Hsiung-nu, or Xiōngnú). There we get to Chinese records. Dubs says that in 36 BC, a Chinese assault on the Hun ruler Zhizhi netted some prisoners, including 145 Romans. However, the Chinese records do not actually say that these were Romans, just that they fought in a "fish-scale formation," i.e. overlapping shields, which presumably only the Romans were using at the time. They were settled at a frontier post in Kansu (Gansu), called "Líqián," which at some point was the Chinese word for "Rome," now supposedly the village of Zhěláizhài. This theory has had enthusiasts in China, including local officials in Gansu, and a Chinese scholar, Guan Yiquan, who spent the last 20 years of his life (from 1978) writing an unpublished book on the topic. None of this is decisive as evidence, but there is enough local enthusiasm (for tourism) that a statue of a Roman soldier (or at least the local impression of what a Roman soldier would look like) stands in the nearby town of Yǒngchāng. Some Chinese in the area now claim to be descendants of the Romans.

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The Sassanid Shāhs (Great Kings),
224-651 AD

The Sassanids replace the Hellenophile Parthian dynasty, with the program of deliberately reviving the Zoroastrian Achaemenid Persian Empire, aspiring to recover all the former provinces of the Achaemenids (Egypt, Syria, Anatolia). However, it is not clear what the Sassanids knew about the Achaemenids, since there was no tradition of Iranian historiography and so actually no surviving documents or accounts of the earlier times -- the cuneiform cliff inscriptions could no longer be read. The information we have is from the Greek historians.

Thus, the Sassanids may have believed themselves the heirs, not of Darius, but of the legendary Jamshīd -- whose legend later would be recounted in the Shāh-nāma. Even today, the ruins of the great palace at Persepolis, burned down by Alexander the Great, are known as the Takht-e Jamshid, , the "Throne of Jamshid."

Things got off with a bang when Shapur I defeated and captured the Roman Emperor Valerian in 260, one of only two Roman Emperors ever captured in battle by a foreign enemy -- the other being Romanus IV, captured at Manzikert in 1071. Valerian was kept prisoner and subject to various humiliations until executed. His skin was then flayed, dyed red, stuffed, and kept for later display to Roman emissaries. In any case, this is what we are told by later Romans, such as Lactantius, and questions have been raised about the reliability of these accounts.

Artashir I224-240
Shapur I240-272
defeats and captures
the Roman Emperor
Valerian, 260
Hormizd I272-273
Varahran I273-276
Mani crucified, 276
Varahran II276-293
Varahran III293
Hormizd II302-309
Shapur II309-379
Siege & capture of
Amida on the Tigris,
359; Emperor Julian
killed invading
Mesopotamia, 363
Ardashir II379-383
Shapur III383-388
Varahran IV388-399
Yazdagird I399-421
Varahran V421-439
Yazdagird II439-457
Hormizd III457-459
execution of leading Jews, 467; ban on Jewish teaching and practice, 468; abolition of post of Jewish "Exilarch," 470; killed in Battle of Gurgan with Hephthalites, the White Huns, 484
Kavad I488-496
Kavad I
prophet Mazdak executed, 528; Expulsion of the Jews, 529
(Chosroes) I
Sack of Antioch, 540;
builds palace with
the Great Arch of
Ctesiphon, c.550-560
Hormizd IV579-590
Varahran VI
Khusrau II
Invades, conquers Syria, Egypt, & Asia Minor, 607-616; siege of Constantinople with Avars, 626; then defeated by Heraclius, overthrown by nobles, 624-628
Kawadh II,
Siroy, Siroes
Ardashīr III628-630
Bōrān 630-631
Hormizd V631-632
Khusro III631-632
Yazdagird III632-651
Battle of al-Qadisiyyah, Mesopotamia falls to Arabs, 636/8; Battle of Nihawand, opens Iranian plateau to Arab conquest, 642; Yazdagird murdered, 651
We do see Valerian in captivity in a relief of Shapur at Naqsh-e-Rostam, , above right. Valerian is standing in the background while another Roman Emperor, perhaps Philip I, kneels before Shapur on horseback. Philip did pay tribute to the Persians, but he never fought a battle with them.

The Persian offensive at the time, however, was blunted by the Roman client state of Palmyra, and Roman boundaries were then restored by Aurelian. The Emperor Carus captured Ctesiphon in 283. A real shift in power came when the Emperor Julian was killed during an ambitious but poorly planned invasion of Mesopotamia in 363. The peace that was then hastily made by the Emperor Jovian advanced the Persian frontier and gave the Sassanids the upper hand over Armenia, which by 428 had become a Persian province.

The lifespan of the Sassanid Empire may be taken to perfectly match the last years of Ancient Times and the first of the Middle Ages that together have come to be considered the age of Late Antiquity -- an expression that implies a segment of Ancient history but that, given the special and transitional features of the early Middle Ages, often encompasses time down as late as 751 or even later.

The neglect of this period in much popular and even academic discourse, which devalues Imperial Roman history after its first couple of centuries and is positively dismissive and scornful of the early Middle Ages, as overwhelmed by darkness, religion, barbarians, and ignorance, effectively removes all of Sassanid history from serious consideration. Yet there is little of the "Dark Ages" about Sassanid Persia, and the Empire is not seriously compromised by any equivalent of barbarian invasion (although it happened) until the Arab Conquest. Thus, all of Sassanid history illuminates the time of Late Antiquity and puts into sharp relief the transformations of Roman history from Alexander Severus to Constans II.

The greatest surviving monument of the Sassanids is the façade of the palace containing the Arch of Ctesiphon, , Tāq-e-Kasrā, (i.e. the "Arch of Khusro"), built by Khusro I after he sacked Antioch in 540. The Arch is still the largest brick vault in the world, 115 feet high and 82 feet wide, and until recently was the highest parabolic arch, period (the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is much larger) -- as impressive now as it was to the Abbasid Caliphs in nearby Baghdad, who sometimes felt oppressed by its evidence of past, especially pre-Islamic glories. This should be an additional reminder that the "Dark Ages" were a phenomenon of Western Europe, not of the Middle East. The first image shows the building as it still appeared just before the flood of 1888.

In flooding during 1888, one whole wing of the façade and large part of the Arch collapsed, as can be seen in the modern image below, which also shows the remaining Arch itself better. This is actually all that remains visible of the entire city of Ctesiphon, Κτησιφῶν, which had served both the Parthians and Sassanids.

The Sassanid period is the only time that a vigorous Zoroastrianism was a state religion in Irān, without the polytheistic remnants (e.g. the cults of Mithra and Anahita) that were tolerated by the Achaemenids. However, the strongest expressions and expositions of Zoroastrian doctrine were written rather as apologetics and polemics after the Islamic Conquest.

This is what we see in the Dēnkart (or Dēnkard -- dēn, "religion," borrowed into Arabic -- as , dīn -- and kart, which still exists in Modern Persian kardan, , "to do, make"), which argued that, while Zoroastrianism is the "Good Religion," simply requiring us to choose between Good and Evil, none of the "99 Names of God" in Islam is "the Good." R.C. Zaehner's classic, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism [1961], poignantly characterizes the Sassanid period as the "twilight." What should have been the central time of Zoroastrian ascendency was obscured by the Hellenism of both the Hellenistic states and of the Parthian kingdom.

The language of the Dēnkart is Middle Persian, often called Pahlavi or "Parthian." The language, however, was the dialect of Persia proper, or Pārs, and not of Parthia. A Parthian connection, on the other hand, is found in the most common writing system, which was a continuation of the Aramaic alphabet as it had been previously adapted to write the Parthian dialect of the Arsacids. Middle Persian, with many changes, derived from the Old Persian of the Achaemenids, which represented a major branch of the Indo-Iranian languages. Under the Islamic dominion, the language, its alphabet, and Zoroastrianism declined to practical extinction. New Persian, in the Arabic script and heavy with Arabic and Islamic influence, began to appear under the Sāmānids.

"Zoroaster," of course is the Prophet's name from Greek, Ζωροάστρης. In Avestan, transcribed phonetically, it was
Zaraθuštra, with the /z/ as in English, the /θ/ in as English "thin," and /š/ as English "sh." Nietzsche's German Zarathustra would actually get the /sh/ right, but would have German /ts/ for "z" and /t/ for the "th." In Modern Arabic and Persian there are a variety of renderings of his name:  Zartošt, Zardašt, Zardohašt, Zarādošt (), etc. The last is not common but preserves more of the feel of the original [note].

The Shāh-nāma, , Book of Kings, of Firdawsī (9401020) contains a striking dream image, of four men pulling at the corners of a square cloth, but not tearing it. This is interpreted to mean that the four men are the Prophets Moses, Zoroaster, Jesus, and Muhammad, while the cloth is the Religion of God. That Zoroaster figures along with Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad is an unmistakable clue that we are dealing with a Persian source [note].

Otherwise, Muslims do not go out of their way to include Zoroaster, certainly not on equal footing, with the other three -- the Qurʾān mentions the "Magians," , ʾal-Majūs [22:17], but not among the tolerated "People of the Book." Also, as a statement about religion it is un-Islāmic and subversive in that it implies an equality, despite the conflict, between the four attendant religions. The Islāmic view is that only Muhammad delivers an uncorrupted revelation, with his definitive version replacing that of the earlier prophets -- who in turn are accused of "corrupting" their own scriptures. Nevertheless, the origin of Islāmic Law in Abbasid Iraq seems to have involved many Persian converts, whose influence may be evident in provisions such as for a Zoroastrian practice of five prayers a day, where the Qurʾān only specifies three, and for the execution of apostates.

After steady conversion, only about 20,000 Zoroastrians remain in modern Irān; and they have recently been prohibited from practicing their distinctive "sky burial," i.e. laying out the dead on "Towers of Silence" to be eaten by birds. A much larger and more vigorous Zoroastrian community is found in the refuge of India, where it is still known by the Middle Persian word for Persian, "Parsi" ().

The Parsis, however, do not accept converts, and the intermarriage of community members outside of India has resulted in a decline in their numbers. As their Towers of Silence have become surrounded by modern Bombay, vultures have become more reluctant to service them. Nevertheless, a friend of mine who once lived nearby said that the occasional body part dropped into her garden.

While the official religion of Sassanid Persia was Zoroastrianism, there was also a Christian community, whose line of Patriarchs of the East, usually referred to as "Nestorians" by historians, continues to the present; and refugee pagans were accepted from the increasing intolerance of Christian Rome. Most noteworthy in that respect were the last Scholarch of Plato's Academy, Damascius, his colleague Simplicius, and other scholars, who fled to Persia after the Emperor Justinian closed the Academy in 529. Khosro I took great interest in the refugees, who nevertheless became homesick and returned to Romania. Justinian, after all, had promised them pensions for a quiet retirement.

While Romans found some religious toleration under the Sassanids, the founder of another religion did not. This was Mani, the eponymous Savior of Manicheanism, who claimed to be both Christ and the Buddha, and was crucified, either under Hormizd I or slightly later, as shown. Mani preached a Zoroastrian conflict between good and evil, but then (like the Gnostics) regarded matter as evil.

Served by a celibate and vegetarian priesthood, Manicheanism spread both East and West. To the East, it was adopted by the Sogdians and Uighurs (under Bugug Khan, 759-780), until the advent of Islām, and spread all the way to China. Marco Polo's description of a Christian community in China which had actually forgotten it was Christian may actually refer to a group of Manicheans. In the West, Manicheanism became familiar in the mix of religions of Late Antiquity. It is often said that there were Manichean remnants in Mediaeval Europe, like the Cathari exterminated by the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229). Also Jews were not always tolerated by the Sassanids. There were Jewish executions in 467, a ban on Jewish teaching and practice in 468, and abolition of post of Jewish "Exilarch" in 470. Then they were expelled in 529, which may have supplied a cadre for the Jewish influence that grew among the Khazars.

ʿAmr I ibn ʾAdi268-295
ʾImruʿ al-Qays I, ibn ʿAmr295-328
defects to Rome? Christian? buried at al-Namarah, in Syria, 328
ʿAmr II ibn ʾImruʿ al-Qays328-363
ʾAws ibn Qallam (non-dynastic)363-368
ʾImruʿ al-Qays II ibn ʿAmr368-390
ʾal-Nuʿman I ibn ʾImruʿ al-Qays390-418
ʾal-Mundhir I ibn al-Nuʿman418-462
ʾal-Aswad ibn al-Mundhir462-490
ʾal-Mundhir II ibn al-Mundhir490-497
ʾal-Nuʿman II ibn al-ʾAswad497-503
ʾAbu Yaʿfur ibn ʾAlqama (non-dynastic, uncertain)503-505
ʾal-Mundhir III ibn al-Nuʿman503/5-554
Captures and sacrifices son of ʾal-Harith V ibn Jabalah, 544; captured and executed by Ghassanids, 554
ʿAmr III ibn al-Mundhir554-569
Qabus ibn al-Mundhir569-573
Suhrab (Persian governor)573-574
ʾal-Mundhir IV ibn al-Mundhir574-580
ʾal-Nuʿman III ibn al-Mundhir580-602
Executed by Sassanid Shāh, 602
ʾIyas ibn Qabisah at-Taʿi (non-dynastic)602-
Nakhiragan (Persian governor)
AzadbehPersian governor, 617/618
Islāmic conquest, 633
An artifact of Zoroastrian and Manichean influence in China is the Chinese character , which is defined by Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary as, "A term used during the
T'ang Dynasty to denote the god of the Zoroastrians; it was also adopted by the Manicheans" [Harvard University Press, 1972, character #2657 -- note]. From this we also get the combinations , "the fire-god of Zoroastrianism," and , "Zoroastrianism." Of course, there was no "fire-god" of Zoroastrianism; but the Zoroastrian fire altars were widely identified with the religion, and we can imagine that the Chinese just got the wrong idea.

Even more intriguing is the definition in the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary of the combination as, "a Nestorian" [John DeFrancis, University of Hawai'i Press, 2003, p.1032]. Since this merely adds the character , "follower, disciple," to "Zoroastrianism," we would expect the phrase to mean "a Zoroastrian." If it was used to mean "a Nestorian," this may be another case where the Chinese got the wrong idea again, identifying Nestorian missionaries with the previous Western religions, Zoroastrianism and Manicheanism, that had come down the Silk Road from Central Asia. Later, by the Ming, Christians and Jews, as the , would be confused with Muslims and with Islām, the -- the next religion to come through Central Asia.

The Lakhmids, or Banū Lakhm, , were an Arab tribe, clients of Persia, who controlled the Western approaches to Babylonia and the West coast of the Persian Gulf, including the administration of Persian possessions such as what today are Qatar, Bahrain, and the Emirates. They were often called "kings" by the Persians.

Although still at least in part nomadic and pastoral, the Lakhmids possessed a permanent capital at ʾal-Ḥīrah, , due south of Ctesiphon on the Euphrates, adjacent to where Kūfah would be founded (639 AD) as an Arab garrison town, one of the "Fetters of Islām." This may not be a coincidence. ʾAl-Ḥīrah had become a cultural center, with the cultivation of classical Arabic poetry and even the Arabic alphabet, which spread into Arabia itself. It is thus hard to overestimate the impact of the Lakhmids on what became the civilization of Islām.

While many Lakhmids must have been Nestorian Christians (ʾImruʿ al-Qays I may have defected to the Romans because of his religion), the kings generally remained loyal to Arabian pagan gods. A dramatic example of this came in 544 when al-Mundhir III ibn captured a son of the Ghassanid ruler al-Harith V and sacrificed him to the goddess ʾal-ʿUzza, . Ten years later, ʾal-Harith V defeated, captured, and then executed Mundhir. So, obviously, there was no love lost between the two tribes, clients of the Romans and Persians.

The last Lakhmid king, ʾal-Nuʿman III, was executed by the Persians -- trampled by elephants, it is said -- and their domain put under Persian governors, initially with a non-Lakhmid figurehead. The legend is that the Shāh requested a sister of ʾal-Nuʿman in marriage, to which ʾal-Nuʿman replied, "Aren't the cattle of ʾal-Sawad ["the Black," i.e. the dark, cultivated groves of the irrigated lands of Mesopotamia] enough for him, or does he have to have Arab women as well?" [Arabs, A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Yale, 2019, p.91]. This sounds like a very serious insult. But then ʾal-Nuʿman apparently regarded the solicitation as itself an insult. Indeed, an Arab women marrying a foreigner (ʿajam, , "barbarian, non-Arab," but specifically "Persian"), would be called ʾiqraf, , "loathsome infection." An Arab man marrying a foreign woman, however, something that was univesal after Arab conquests, was merely hujnah, , "baseness."

It is possible that the Persian actions demoralized or outraged the Lakhmid Arab population enough that they had little will to resist the Islamic Conquest, or many may actually have gone over to the Muslims -- remember the Persian insult to a Lakhmid princess. A devastating defeat of the Persians actually occurred at the site of al-Ḥīrah, in 633, by which the Arabs occupied Lakhmid territories.

The full Sassanid program of restoring the Achaemenid Empire was ultimately achieved, briefly, by Khusro II, between 607 and 616. The brilliant counter-invasion of Irān, from 624-628, by the Emperor Heraclius, however, undid all of this and resulted in the overthrown of Khusro and a period of anarchy. After Heraclius' first campaign in Persia in 624-625, a Persian army reached the Bosporus in 626 and attempted to invest Constantinople with the help of Avar allies on the European side. The Avars, despite the use of some modern siege equipment, made no headway against the Walls of Theodosius, and the Roman navy prevented Persian forces from crossing from Asia. The siege was thus memorably repulsed; and when Khusro ordered his commanding general, Shahrvarāz, executed, Shahrvarāz reached an understanding with Heraclius and ceased operations against him.

This monumental conflict came at a very bad time. The Bubonic Plague struck in the middle of it (627), with terrible effects on the population, on top of the other dislocations and costs of the war. Neither side had much opportunity to rest and restore themselves before the forces of Islām snatched Syria and Egypt from Romania and completely overthrew Sassanid Persia. Yazdagird III, like the luckless Darius III, spent his last days unsuccessfully fleeing towards Central Asia, before being murdered. We have no record of Yazdagird's murder being avenged as Alexander did that of Darius. For a while, Persian language and culture simply disappeared under the cloak of Arabic and Islam. The culture began to revive under the Sāmānid Amirs, who claimed descent from the Sassanids, but the Sāmānids themselves were swept away by Turkish migration. A true national monarchy did not revive until the Safavids -- themselves at first, ironically, Turkomen.

In the image of the Arch of Ctesiphon here, we see human figures, not only at the base of the walls, but above on the top of the front arch. This is give a striking perspective on the size of the façade and the arches. No wonder the Abbasid Caliphs were intimidated. The original palace must have been something else.

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The Sassanid Shāhs (Great Kings), 224-651 AD; Note 1

The devotionalistic image of Zoroaster at right is from a photocopy I made many years ago, around 1970, when photocopies were pretty primitive, from a book in the UCLA University Research Library (the URL, now the YRL, the "Young" Research Library, named after former Chancellor Young).

At the time, I thoughtlessly and carelessly (being a young fool) did not note what book that was, its title or author; and I don't think I would have a chance of finding it (if it wasn't by Zaehner) -- especially when the YRL has removed a lot of old books to "remote storage," so that one can no longer find every interesting thing just wandering among the stacks (many large libraries have now resorted to remote storage).

For a long time I was surprised that I was unable to find this same image on the Internet, once the Internet came into existence, or in the materials that Zoroastrian students supplied me. Indeed, most of the images I saw appeared to have a much more recent provenance and reminded me of images of the Caliph and Imām ʿAlī that a friend used to bring back from Irān. This image may perhaps have been in a style that was more in vogue with the Parsis in India, and I think the Prophet is shown in Parsi dress.

Checking again in 2017, versions of this image, some in color, had by then appeared on the Internet; and I was relieved to update the display with the image in the text above. And I found an attribution for the images, that they were from the History of the Parsis by Dosabhai Framji Karaka (1829-1902) [MacMillan and Co., 1884]. The form of this representation is dramatically different from most of the others, which still look like modern Iranian images. This is not surprising if it is a Parsi product from more than a century ago.

Volume I of the History of the Parsis has been reprinted by Elibron Classics; but, as it happens, the image of Zoroaster is not contained in that volume. Finding an original copy of Volume II in the Princeton Firestone Library, I discovered the image, in full color, opposite page 146. A scan of this is at left. This has taken a long time; and I still cannot say, of course, if History of the Parsis was actually the book I found in the UCLA library so long ago.

The image there was supposed to be based on the sculpture at Tāq-e Bostān, , which shows the investiture of Ardashir II, with Shapur II on one side, and with another figure on the other side that is identified as Zoroaster by the Parsi sources. Some scholars now think that the figure is actually the god Mithra, originally a god of contracts. However, this is inconsistent with the sense that the Sassanids had purged these old Iranian gods from their religion. This is pretty far into Sassanid history for such a deity to still be present. At the same time, there is no reason not to see Zoroaster himself assuming any needed functions of Mithra; and what we see here is the figure holding a barsom, a Zoroastrian ritual scepter used to sanctify ceremonies.

These circumstances highlight difficulties we have with Sassanid history. There are no surviving literary histories of the dynasty, and even many monumental sculptures like this suffer from the actual lack of accompanying inscriptions. Since there is subsequent surviving religious literature, we can only conclude that a tradition of historiography simply never developed.

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The Sassanid Shāhs (Great Kings), 224-651 AD; Note 2

The , nāmah, in Shāh-nāma means "book." However, "book" in Modern Persian is generally the borrowed Arabic word , kitāb, whose Persian pronunciation is ketāb. The usage of Firdawsī is said to be "New" Persian but not "Modern" Persian. Meanwhile, , nāmah, has come to be pronounced , nāmeh, and now means "letter" rather than "book." Also , rūznāmeh, "day letter," means "newspaper," which is neither a book nor a letter. With these changes, , Shāh Nāmah, is now often read , Shāh Nāmeh, despite the inappropriateness of the meaning of the modern word. Since nāmah doesn't exist in Modern Persian, perhaps this substitution is understandable, especially for people who don't understand that the language has changed.

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The Sassanid Shāhs (Great Kings), 224-651 AD; Note 3

The formation of the character is of some interest. It is not of the common "radical and phonetic" nature, where one part of the character gives a clue as to meaning (and is the index for Chinese dictionaries) and the other gives a clue about pronunciation. Instead, this is an example of a "Compound Indicative" or a "Logical Aggregate," where each part of the character contributes meaning, without any clue to pronunciation. The left hand part, which here is the Radical (in dictionary terms, Radical 113), is the character , "omen; to manifest, proclaim, show, indicate." We also see this, with apparently the same contribution to meaning, in , "the sprit of the earth, earth god, spirit, deity." We get a compound , "spirits of heaven and earth," literally, "high, low, god, earth god."

On the right part of we get , "heaven, sky, celestial, divine, God." Thus, the character for the "god of Zoroastrianism" (or Manicheanism, or Nestorian Christianity) is a compound of chacacters in Chinese that are already associated with deities. But then where does its pronunciation come from? The pronunciation, as it happens, is identical to that of , "an immortal, a fairy, a genie," which is particularly associated with the "Eight Immortals," , the deities of Taoism. So it is not just the parts of the character, but the word itself, that is connected to divine beings. One is left curious how a rare character like this, with such specialized application, got formulated in the first place.

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THE SHĀHS OF IRĀN, 1501-1979

Esmāʾil I1501-1524
nationalist Persian monarchy established on basis of Shiʿite (Twelver) ideology
Ṭahmāsp I1524-1576
Esmāʾil II1576-1578
Moḥammad Khodābanda1578-1587
ʾAbbās I1587-1629
Persians & English expel Portuguese from Hormuz, demolish fort, English factory at Bandar Abbas, 1622
Ṣafi I1629-1642
ʾAbbās II1642-1666
Ṣafi II/Solaymān I1666-1694
Ḥosayn I1694-1722
Afghans Occupy Irān
Ṭahmāsp II1722-1732
k. 1740
ʾAbbās III1732-1736
k. 1740
Afshārid rule, 1736-1750
Solaymān II at Mashhad1750
Esmāʾil III in Eṣfahān1750-1765
d. 1773
The Safavids were actually of Turkomen origin and established themselves first at Tabriz, which had been the capital of the Mongol
Il Khans, in Turkish speaking Azerbaijanistan. At first religion was much more important than any ethnic identity, and Esmāʾil created a powerful Shiʿite identity for his dynasty and state. This became a unifying and militant force in Irān, especial vis à vis Orthdox Turkey, right down to the present. Abbas I, however, moved the capital to Eṣfahān, and the state began to take on more of a Persian than a Turkish character. In retrospect, what the Safavids did was to succeed in establishing a new Persian national monarchy.

After the Arab Conquest, Persian disappeared briefly as a written language -- although Zoroastrian literature, like the Dēnkart, apparently continued for a while, written in Middle Persian or Pahlavi -- with references to Islam that indicate its date.

The spoken language then reappeared in writing, revived and remade as "New Persian," under the Sāmānids, now written in the Arabic alphabet and with a large Arabic vocabulary. This Persian, however, had some sounds that Arabic did not, and so four letters were added to the alphabet. Since a number of Arabic letters already only differed by the addition of different numbers of dots to the same "chair," this device was easily expanded to accomodate new letters.

At the same time, Arabic had a number of sounds that did not exist in Persian. Consequently, three different letters from Arabic came to be pronounced "s" in Persian, and no less than four were pronounced "z." The Persian pronunciation of these letters would be inherited by Turkish, Urdu, and Malay. This reflects the influence of literary Persian on those languages, whose own extensive Arabic vocabulary is thus often borrowed by way of Persian mediation.
Nāder Shāhregent since 1732
Looting of Delhi; Peacock Throne brought back, 1739
ʾĀdel Shāh1747
Shāh Rukh1748-1750;
1750 &
in Khorāsān
Nāder Mirzā in MashhadKhorāsān, 1796-1803

It is now common to hear people call the Persian language Fārsi -- and there are even dictionaries and grammars that say they are for "Farsi."
This is indeed the name of the language in Persian, , from the Arabic word for "Persia," Fārs, . Standard Persian is based on the dialect of the city of Shirāz, which is in Fārs.

Spoken in English, however, "Farsi" is typically mispronounced, with the wrong quality for the "a" and with the accent on the first syllable rather than on the second. The use of "Farsi" seems to be a combination of affectation, to show one's familiarity with the language (although this is most often done by people who don't know the language -- although I suppose we can't say that about the dictionaries), and political correctness, on the basis that only local names ("endonyms") for things should be used -- this from people who rarely say al-Qāhira for Cairo or even Roma for Rome. The result, like most affectations, is silly. Persian language television that I used to watch sometimes in Los Angeles, called itself "Persian," with a hint of Persian phonology in the word.

The older pronunciation of the word Fārsi, as , Pārsi, is preserved in India, where English travelers and officials learned it with the dialect of Persian that had become established at the Moghul Court. Also, the word persists as the name of the community of Zoroastrian refugees from Irān, the Parsis. The Parsis have been in decline since they do not accept converts or marriages outside their religion. It is not clear whether newer refugees from Irān, which has renewed the persecution of Zoroastrians, are accepted either. The Iranian refugees discover that their culture is a little different from that of their co-religionists in India, and they tend to be called Irāni, Iranians, by the locals.

Persian wrote standard Arabic vowels but pronounced them differently. Arabic "i" became Persian "e"; Arabic "ī," Persian "i"; Arabic "u," Persian "o"; and Arabic "ū," Persian "u." Arabic "a" is fronted as "æ," which is close to the English "a" in "bad" (as in , bæd, meaning, of all things, "bad"); and Arabic "ā" is pushed back until it is close to the short English "o" in "cot." We can also write the short vowel of Arabic with "a" and the long vowel with "ɑ," what is called the "Latin alpha" letter. This latter is the convention is the classic Persian Grammar by A.K.S. Lambton [Cambridge, 1953, 1967, p.xiii]. As discusssed on the page for Urdu, Persian words are often transcribed with the Arabic notation for their vowels. That is not done on this page, except to contrast a/ā (for æ/a or a/ɑ). Also, Arabic consonant distinctions, written but not pronounced in Persian, are retained, as they are indeed in Persian writing.

(without Khorāsān)
Karim Khānregent for
Esmāʾil III
Abu-l-Fatḥ1779 in Shirāz
Moḥammad ʿAli
Moḥammad Ṣādiq1779-1781
in Shirāz
ʿAli Morād1781-1785
in Esfāhān
in Esfāhān,
then Shirāz
Luṭf ʿAli1789-1794
in Shirāz
Before a long period in which the monarchy weakens and the country begins to fragment, Nāder Shāh puts a memorable Iranian mark on the history of India with a spectacular raid that captures Delhi. This humiliation of the declining Moghuls, which netted the famous Peacock Throne, also turned out to be the last hurrah of the early vigorous Iranian monarchy. Nāder Shāh's descendants soon become confined to Khorāsān, while a new dynasty, the Zands, come to rule the western side of the country.

The Qajars reunify the country and usher in a long period in which there is at least a national government legitimized by durability.

Agha Moḥammad1779-1797
1794, southern Persia
1796, Khorāsān
Fatḥ ʿAli1797-1834
Nāser od-Din1848-1896
the Bāb executed, 1850
Muẓaffar od-Din1896-1907
Moḥammad ʿAli1907-1909
Since the Shāhs of Irān were always regarded as deputies of the Hidden Imām of
Twelver Shiʿism, a significant date approached in 1849, the 1000th anniversary of the disappearance of the the Twelfth Imām (in 878 AD -- 1000 years on the lunar Moslem calendar is less than 1000 years on the solar Julian or Gregorian calendars). As one might expect, people appeared claiming to be the returned Imām. One of these, called the Bāb ("Gate, " ) acquired a following, leading to the subsequent new Bābi and Bahāʾi religions. Since both of these groups were regarded as apostate by most Islāmic authorities, they were sporadically persecuted in Irān and then erased from the country (largely by emigration, fortunately) and their holy sites demolished by the Islāmic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Reẓā [Riḍā] Shāh1925-1941, d.1944
Persia is officially styled Irān, 1935; Shāh deposed as pro-German by Russians and British
Moḥammad Reẓā1941-1979, d.1980
Celebrates the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire, 1971; goes into exile, 1979
The Pahlavi, , Dynasty begins as a military coup, a kind of Iranian Young Turks rebellion, but then quickly became more like a traditional change of dynasty. A story about Shāh Reẓā is that he was informed one day about about a mullah who was preaching in favor of the Veil and, by implication, against the Shāh. Reẓā immediately rode down to the mosque with some troops and personally nailed a veil to the forehead of the mullah. Although such an endorsement of Westernization was relatively mild compared to what Atatürk was doing in Turkey, it would ultimately prove too much for the country.

In World War II Iranian neutrality, and what may have been Reẓā's sympathy for Germany, led to the Russians and British occupying the country and deposing the Shāh. This opened a transport route to the Soviets and also secured Allied control of Iranian oil. A similar problem of getting caught in the middle of geopolitics occurred in 1953, after prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh tried nationalizing the Iranian oil industry. This was regarded not only as hostile, but as effectively pro-Soviet. In 1953, as in 1941, Shāh Reẓā's son, Moḥammad Reẓā, was more amenable to Western interests. A coup, with American support, took out Mossadegh. In the demonology of anti-imperialism, this is counted as one of the primal sins of American foreign policy. The Soviet occupation in 1941 apparently doesn't rate the same indignation.

Over the years, the Shāh seemed to go from success to success. Irān became a kind of Great Power in the Persian Gulf, and with expensive pageantry the Shah's belated coronation and then the supposed 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire were celebrated. Since the "2500th Anniversary" was observed in 1971, this was a little confusing. 2500 years before 1971 was 530 BC, the year of the death of Cyrus the Great. Is that really what was being observed? Cyrus came to the Throne of Persia in 559 BC. 2500 years later was 1942. This was close to when the Shāh himself came to the Throne of Irān in 1941. Indeed, some sources say that 1941 itself was the 2500th anniversary. This may have resulted from the confused mathematics of simply subtracting 559 from 2500 -- confused because mathematically 559 BC must be treated as -558 AD. There is no year zero in the use of "BC" counting, but adding and subtracting requires the use of zero. Thus, the year that follows 1 BC is 1 AD, but you cannot get "1" for 1 AD by either adding or substracting "1" to the "1" of 1 BC. The year 1 BC must be treated mathematically as 0 AD. If the Shāh wanted 1941 to be 2500 years after 559 BC, however, this is probably because he wanted to compare his whole reign to that of Cyrus. In fact, he did rule longer, but then he did not come to the same kind of admirable end.

The Ayatollāh,
, Ruhollah Khomeini
Supreme Leader, , 1979-1989
Abo-l-hassan Banisadr1980-1981, Impeached
Mohammad ʿAli Rajai1981, Assassinated
The Ayatollāh ʿAli Khamenei1981-1989
Supreme Leader,
ʾAkbar Hashemi Rafsanjani1989-1997
Mohammad Khatami1997-2005
Mahmoud Ahmad-i-Nejad2005-2013
Hassan Rouhani2013-2021
Ebrahim Raisi2021-2024
Called the "Butcher of Tehran" for slaughtering anti-regime demonstrators; killed in helicopter crash
Meanwhile, however, Iranian students demonstrating aginst the Shāh, often with bags over their heads, were becoming a familiar sight in the West. Reasonable complaints about an undemocratic and oppressive government, however, soon got linked to a particular alternative, the "Islamic Republic" proposed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was living in exile. As demonstrations spread to Irān itself, the Shāh abdicated and left the country. The Ayatollah returned and assumed power.

Murder, fanaticism, and a Mediaeval night of religious oppression descended on Irān. The slaughter of royal military officers tempted Saddam Hussein of Iraq to attack, just as Stalin's slaughter of his officers tempted Hitler. As it happened, Hitler did rather better, at least in the short run. With human wave attacks that provided reefs of martyrs for Iranian cemeteries, Irān at least held Hussein to a stalemate of mutual exhaustion. Khomeini said he would rather drink poison than make peace with Hussein, but, just before his death, he did. Meanwhile, the Shāh, sick with cancer, did not survive a year in exile -- a bitter pill for everyone eager to assassinate or execute him.

Thus passed the last Emperor in the European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern world, as Cyrus the Great, or perhaps Sargon of Akkad, had been the first. Of the two traditional empires that were contemporaneous with the last Shāh -- Ethiopia and Japan -- only the office of Japanese Emperor survives. Irān, meanwhile, for a while seemed caught between a popular but timid liberalization and an institutional check of reactionary zealots that was carefully put in place by Khomeini. Then, with the election of President Ahmad-i-Nejad in 2005, any thought of liberalization seems to have been forgotten and Irān's nuclear program has become a matter of international concern.

The Ayatollah, -- ʾĀyatu-llāh, itself a title meaning "the Sign [σήμεῖον] of God" -- became the "Leader of the Revolution," , Rahbar-e Enqelāb or, less formally, the "Supreme Leader," , Rahbar-e Moʿazzam. This office continues over and above the Presidency and secular (such as it is) government of Irān.

It is noteworthy that the conception and the terminology, for all the reactionary nature of the regime, do not reflect Islamic tradition. The original Islamic executive and military title was simply ʾamīr, , "commander," later "governor" or "prince." We thus see the influence, not of Islamic history, but of modern Western political ideology -- unfortunately of the totalitarian variety. Rahbar, , "Leader," a term unknown in Islāmic history or jurisprudence, thus, betraying its origin, significantly joins the other titles meaning "leader" in the Fascist tradition:  Duce, Führer, Caudillo, and Líder.

Irān is a police state where newspapers are shut down for daring to ask if it is illegal to laugh in public. Iranian Jews fled the country. Bābis and Baháʾís, regarded as apostates from Islām, were driven out, while their institutions and holy places were literally and completely destroyed. The remaining Zoroastrians in Irān were prohibited from the traditional "sky burial" of their dead, on the "Towers of Silence." Although the public seemed to tire of all this, the election of Ahmad-i-Nejad means either that they have not or that the reactionaries rigged the election. Nevertheless, the inspiration of Islamic Fascism spreads to other causes.

In 2009 there was a new presidential election. Ahmad-i-Nejad was offically reelected; but, since he was announced the winner before votes had even been counted, there was immediately an outpouring of protest. We learned that much of the urban population, at least, was weary of the reactionaries, and there was suddenly mass chanting, not of marg be Amrika ("death to America") but of marg be diktator ("death to the dictator"). We then learned how much of a police state Irān now is, as the protests were suppressed and many dissidents arrested. The regime evidently has enough support that it can use its numbers to suppress protest. There is also the problem that the rural population, still a considerable force in the country, may be more blindly loyal to the mullahs. There is no telling how this will play out next.

In 2015 the desperation of Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for a deal with Irān resulted in a treaty on nuclear weapons that was supposed to do no more than delay Irān's program to build them -- with an enforcement mechanism pathetically unable to do any real enforcing. This was not even presented at the United States Senate as a treaty, since it would certainly not have been ratified. It was no more than an executive agreement, which could be immediately abrogated by the next President -- as President Tump did abrogate it.

Obama and Kerry seemed to hope that the process can create enough "facts," by lifting sanctions and allowing connections to be made in Europe, that much of the deal will survive by default. Since the mullahs have vowed to nuke Israel and kill all the Jews at the first opporunity, Israel and other powers, including many Arab states, would need to be prepared to strike first. Since the rationale for the approach of Obama and Kerry was to forestall an arms race in the Middle East, the certainty of conflict created by the deal with Irān renders the whole project senseless.

In the aftermath of Trump's move, Irān attacked and seized ships in the Persian Gulf, and launched an attack against a Saudi oil refinery. American retaliation was minimal, until the Iranian terror master, Qassim Suleimani, was killed by an American drone in Iraq, after attacks conducted by him against the American Embassy and American bases there. Suleimani was illegally present in Iraq. The Democrats, being Democrats, mourned the death of Suleimani and seemed to think he was a beloved and honored leader who should have been respected by us.

Meanwhile, Irān and Russia have been working together to support the Assad regime in Syria, with Iranian supported Shiʿite militias, and actual Iranian military, which moved into the vaccuum left by Obama's complete withdrawl of American forces from Iraq. American aid in the defense of Iraq against the Islamic State (ISIS), which was driven out of Iraq and now all but exterminated in Syria, has not altered the dynamic that most support of the Shiʿite government in Iraq now comes from Irān. Obama did so much to further Iranian political and stratigic goals that he and John Kerry almost seemed to be agents of Irān. Jimmy Carter was less of an embarrassment to American foreign policy. And Democrats have done their best to sabotage Trump's reversals of policy. Rumor is that John Kerry has continued his long record of anti-American activity, which began with his contribution to the defeat of the United States in Vietnam, by actually advising Irān to wait patiently for Trump to lose reelection or otherwise be removed from office.

In 2022, after an Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, was arrested and beaten to death by police because some of her hair was visible from beneath her head scarf, there were mass protests against the regime. Since many or most of the protesters were women, the regime adopted tactics of shooting or beating them in the face, to mutilate them. Shootings and beatings eventually suppressed the protests. American feminists, of course, were mostly quiet, since Irān and radical Islām are valuable anti-American allies for the Left; and establishment Feminism consistently sells out women for the sake of Leftist allies.

Meanwhile, Irān has been supplying Russia with missiles to use against the Ukraine, which must tax the Iranian economy but is a lifeline for Russia. Both Irān and Russia, of course, have benefited from Joe Biden's program of destroying American oil production, which has driven up oil prices on the international market, handing both Irān and Russia windfall profits. Irān has used this to fund terrorism against Israel, and elsewhere. Biden has also tried to revive the nuclear deal with Itan, which has involved lifting some sanctions and, again, handing them money. This has all proven to be a Perfect Storm of folly.

On October 7, 2023, the terrorist organization Ḥamās launched a massive attack into Southern Israel. In this, they were supported by Irān, was were their fellow Jihadists, Hezbollah, in the South of Lebanon, the Shiʿite militias in Iraq, and the Ḥouthi rebels in Yemen. This result has been, not just the response of Irael to invade Gaza, but Hezbollah firing rockets into Israel, the militias attacking American forces in Iraq and Syria, and the Ḥouthi using drones and rockets to attack shipping in the Red Sea.

So far, American naval ships have shot down almost all the missiles used by the Ḥouthis and have also foiled one attempt to board and take a commercial ship. The Biden Administration, having recently still been sending money to Irān, has only done minor retaliations in Iraq and Syria and none against either Irān or the Ḥouthis. With shipping companies planning on avoiding the Red Sea, which would interrupt international commerce, Biden has at least attempted to organize an international patrol force; but there is still no prospect of hitting targets in Yemen where the Ḥouthis launch their drones and rockets.

The impression is still a policy of appeasing Irān, whose operatives have now been exposed as infiltrating American government and intelligence agencies. Very little is still being done even about operatives who have been exposed, leaving the impression that Biden and allies have actually sold out, somehow, to Irān.

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