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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.


Traced to a legendary ruler named Sasan, the Sasanian regime (226–651 CE) began with a revolt against Parthia. Coins, primarily silver dirhems, portray individual kings. The main chronology comes from Western accounts; Sasanian texts were written in the hard-to-decipher Middle Persian (Pahlavi) script, and few are preserved. The archaeological record is very poor.

The Dynasty.

In 228 CE, Ardashir, the first monarch, was imperially titled shahanshah (“king of kings”), and a new capital was founded at Ctesiphon that started a pattern that became the state's trademark whereby victories were commemorated with the foundation of new cities. The capture of Hatra extended Sasanian control into the region of the Euphrates River, where struggles with the West were to remain a constant theme. Like Ardashir, Shapur I (241–272) was aggressive along the Sasanians' frontiers. He adopted the title “King of Kings of Iran and non-Iran,” referring to conquests beyond Iranian-speaking territory. In 244, Shapur's northeastern campaign tempted Philip the Arab to invade from the West. Shapur's reaction was immediate; Philip withdrew, paying a ransom of 500,000 gold dinars for safe passage, and ceded suzerainty over Armenia.

The assassination of the Armenian king In 252 became a pretext for aggression against Roman Syria. The Sasanians sacked Antioch and commemorated the event by founding a new city, Gundeshapur. The emperor Valerian's counter-invasion was a disaster, and Shapur's victory inscription at Naqsh-i Rustam celebrates the capture of seventy thousand Romans and thirty-six Roman cities plundered. [See Naqshi Rustam.] Yet, the Sasanians neglected the region, interested more in plunder than settlement.

Internal power struggles are reflected in Narseh's (293–302) anachronistic insertion of his name on his predecessor's victory relief. Narseh's own Paikuli victory monument lists his backers, from which the rulers of central Iran and the Parthian feudal families were notably absent. Narseh largely had fringe support.


Lands of the Parthians and Sasanians

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With Rome officially Christian, as was Byzantium, Iran subjected believers to harsh taxes and often to persecution. Yet, Christian fortunes fluctuated wildly, for at the end of the fourth century, Yazdigird I earned the reputation amongst Zoroastrians of being “sinful,” for his Christian tolerance. Christian issues were interwoven with the longstanding Armenian problem. Under Yazdigird II (438–457), his minister, Mihr Narseh, tried to convert Armenia to Zoroastrianism with bloody violence. Only disasters against the Huns in the East, including King Peroz (457–484) losing his life fighting them, forced Sasanian concessions for religious freedom in Armenia.

Internal disruptions followed Kavad II's sympathizing with the revolutionary movement of Mazdakism, which touted social equality and women's rights. Khusrau I (531–579) restored the power of the state. The revolutionary Mazdak and his followers were murdered treacherously while banqueting. Later, Khusrau was called Anushirvan (“of immortal soul”) for fostering orthodox Zoroastrianism. His administrative reforms improved systems of taxation and created a professional army, rather than rely on levies from the nobles. Khusrau's most effective campaign started In 540, with the sack of Antioch. Prisoners and spoil were taken, as usual, to a new city near the capital. Like Shapur I, however, Khusrau failed to master the Arab, and now Christian, reaches of the upper Euphrates. Like others, he had to face the East. Arranging a truce with Emperor Justinian, and allying with the new Turkish groups in Transoxiana, Khusrau won dramatically over the Huns. The truce with Justinian was supposed to last fifty years. Sasanian aggression, however, was transferred to the Red Sea, where Byzantine rivalry for trade with India persuaded them to interfere in southern Arabia. In about 575, the Sasanians took Yemen as a province.

Military professionalism impacted upon state security, however. A jealous Hormizd IV (579–590) forced General Bahram Chubin to become a revolutionary who exiled the king, as well as Hormizd's successor, Khusrau II (591–628). Emperor Maurice received the fugitive Khusrau's overtures, and Bahram Chubin was overwhelmed by two Byzantine forces sent against him. As Khusrau II, the new king upheld his promise and ceded territorial rights in the Caucasus.

Khusrau earned his title, parvez (“victorious”), through subsequent victories. His spoils included the previously impregnable Edessa, taken In 609. After taking Antioch, In 611, the Sasanians went on to Palestine and Lower Egypt: In 614, the Holy Cross was taken as part of the Jerusalem loot, and In 619 Alexandria fell. A Sasanian army reached the Bosphorus and threatened Byzantium itself.

Only Heraclius, whose brilliant reforms involved rebuilding the army and realigning troop loyalties, rescued Byzantium. In 622, with a superior navy, Heraclius moved quickly into Armenia, twice defeating the Sasanians. Attempts to divide Byzantium in the Caucasus failed, and Heraclius's offensive penetrated deep into Iranian territory, moving to within reach of Ctesiphon, where only winter forced his withdrawal.

In 628 Khusrau was executed by his own generals, and his son, Kavad II, expediently evacuated the newly conquered territories. Assassinations brought a series of rulers to the throne, including a female, about whom little is known. A grandson of Khusrau II became Yazdigird III (633–651). He faced the challenge of Islam, whose armies conquered Syria In 636, Mesopotamia In 639, and Egypt and Iran In 640 and 641. For all its professionalism, the Sasanian army failed to stem this novel tide of invaders, and the people of Iran had no spirit to resist.

Religious Thought and State Religion.

During his reign Ardashir established Zoroastrianism as a state religion, and idolatry was abolished. Fire worship, introduced by the priesthood in Achaemenid times, became mainstream in the new orthodoxy. Coronation fires were consecrated in the king's name, and coins bore images of fire altars. Excavations have exposed walls of simple domed pavilions recognized as fire temples, whose altars are positioned centrally on the floor beneath the dome of the sanctuary. Discreet ceremonies would have been held inside the building, where the sacred fire was held pure. Altars located on hillsides served the need for public display.

Ardashir proposed reforms to simplify the calendar. Their failure underlies the complexity of Iranian society, whose faiths were a millennium old. Zoroastrianism remained an oral tradition, its main texts archaic and obscure. People honored the new calendar but celebrated traditional festivals as well. Ironically, the now traditional March equinox new year (Naw Ruz) was introduced much later.

The nature of god was intensely debated. One school maintained that Zurvan (“time”) begot the twins Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda), who created the world, and Ahriman (Anru Mainyu) its evil. Some members of the royal family favored Zurvanism. Equalizing good with evil, the Zurvanites lessened Ohrmazd's stature, despite his responsibility for all subsequent creation. Orthodox Mazda worshipers believed in only one creator. Zurvanism was treated as a heresy in the sixth century, when Khusrau I initiated his program of state purges. Mysticism and the Eastern sects of Christianity made inroads, and the Eastern-rite Nestorians became freer in Iran after the 525 Council of Chalcedon (they were seen as separate from Byzantium). In the third century the prophet Mani, influenced by a number of faiths and aware of the teachings of Buddha, preached worldly withdrawal. Zoroastrians considered him a dangerous heretic. Mani's fame is the result of the discovery of Manichaean texts unearthed from old monasteries in Chinese Turkistan, where Manichaeans fled from persecution after their prophet's death In 276.

Architectural Remains.

There have been virtually no modern surveys or settlement studies in the region and no scientific excavations. What is known mostly comes from texts. Of these, the majority are from Islamic times. Typical of what is known is how the colorful figure of Bahram V (420–438) became part of Persian literature through his skills as a hunter. He earned the epithet Gur (“wild ass”), being frequently portrayed in Islamic art performing virtuoso acts with his bow. His real exploits, particularly campaigns in the East, are much less well known because written Sasanian sources are lacking.

In Mesopotamia, canal networks supporting large-scale irrigation have been recorded through survey. Intended to increase revenues, as much as feed people, these networks remained viable after the dynasty's fall. Systems of communication survived, but the newly founded cities were less enduring, lacking base support after the reign of the monarch.

Some sites have striking patterns visible from the air. At Gundeshapur, the rectangular city grid is seen as Roman work. However, it is uncertain whether this interpretation is sound. Darabgird, a round city, is also seen as a prototype for the first Sasanian capital, at Firuzabad. Others claim that Darabgird is post-Sasanian, underlining the primitive state of Sasanian archaeological studies. What is known comes from architectural, and mostly freestanding, remains.

Architectural innovations begun under the Parthians became entrenched. Barrel-vaulted chambers surrounded by corridors serving as buttresses continued to appear. On the Iranian plateau, round domes in solid masonry over square chambers were erected, but these are rare in Mesopotamia. Their interpretation as fire sanctuaries is based mostly on the observation that they are standing structures and by drawing analogies from the religious ceremonies in the fire temples of the Zoroastrian Parsees of nineteenth-century Iran and India.

In palaces, the use of piers allowed for the opening up of internal spaces, giving halls a Roman basilica look. Western decorative devices were popular, but indigenous building techniques continued, particularly the use of blind facades. At Kish, excavated structures, including palace courts with ornamental pools and throne halls reflect the nobility's growing pretensions. The stucco ornament at Kish, characterized by the use of heraldic figures and human busts, is similar to that at the capital, Ctesiphon.


Long-distance trade impacted on the quality of portable goods. Cosmas Indoplasticus, a sixth-century Indian navigator, reports Arab and Persian merchants trading as far as Ceylon. Controlling the maritime routes toward the Arabian and Red Seas, the Sasanians held a monopoly over eastern routes, exporting raw silk to Byzantium, Egypt, and Syria. When Justinian received live silkworms from China in the sixteenth century, the West's own sericulture broke the Persian monopoly.

In Central Asia, Soghdia's Iranian speaking rulers, whose merchants visited China, encouraged trade. Monasteries in Soghdia provided havens for merchants and served as exchange points for goods and ideas. Nestorian missionary activity brought Westerners into contact with China, where an Iranian presence is also described in texts and inscriptions such as the Xian monument dated 781. When the last Sasanian king fled before the advancing Arab armies of Islam In 641, his descendants sought refuge in the Tang court.

Remarkably, China imported from Iran fabrics made from Chinese silk, “Persian brocades” characterized by animal and bird motifs carried within pearl-bordered medallions. Although quite different from designs found in Chinese art, they are comparable to Central Asian wall paintings and silver vessels from the Sasanian period.

Sasanian silver and gold vessels are found in China, traded there from as early as the fourth century. Some may have been made by Iranians in China. Sasanian cut glass was popular. Many Sasanian artifacts were buried after the fall of the Chinese Tang dynasty, reflecting an influx of royal refugees. Thousands of coins, extending in date for more than three centuries, have also been unearthed, the earliest from the time of Shapur II. The largest group dates from Khusrau II, which is also true in Iran itself as a result of fiscal reforms. Mint marks reveal that the coins found in Tang China were struck in both central and eastern Iran. Some bear a counterstrike mark of the Huns, for whom there is otherwise little tangible evidence.

[See also Byzantine Empire; Ctesiphon; Kish; and Persia, article on Persia from Alexander to the Rise of Islam.]


  • Adams, Robert McC., and Hans J. Nissen. The Uruk Countryside: The Natural Setting of Urban Societies. Chicago, 1972. Historical interpretation of changes to canal systems in Mesopotamia.
  • Frye, Richard N. The Heritage of Persia. Cleveland, 1963. Iranian history by a specialist in Iranian languages.
  • Ghirshman, Roman. Iran: Parthians and Sassanians. London, 1962. Colorful picture book with a personal viewpoint.
  • Göbl, Robert. Sasanian Numismatics. Braunschweig, 1971. Basic catalog of the dynasty's coins, with details of all the variations.
  • Harper, Prudence Oliver. The Royal Hunter: Art of the Sasanian Empire. New York, 1978. Extensive commentary on a wide range of objects shown at an Asia House (New York City) exhibition.
  • Hayashi, Ryōichi. The Silk Road and the Shoso-in. New York, 1975. Treasury of Persian art found and housed in the Far East.
  • Herrmann, Georgina. The Iranian Revival. Oxford, 1977. Picture essays with insightful commentary.
  • Lukonin, Vladimir G. Persia II. New York, 1967. Rich inventory of artifacts from Soviet collections.
  • Millar, Fergus. The Roman Near East, 31 BC–AD 337. Cambridge, Mass., 1993. Historical background and the reign of Shapur.
  • Trümpelmann, Leo. Zwischen Persepolis und Firuzabad. Mainz, 1992. Survey of ancient Iranian monuments and reliefs including aerial photographs.
  • Yarshater, Ehsan, ed. The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3, The Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian Periods. 2 vols. Cambridge, 1983. Numerous contributions on political, numismatic, and social issues by specialists.

E. J. Keall

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