The Last Empire of Iran Dr Michael Bonner

Dr. Michael Bonner: Iran’s Grand Past and its Many Influences on Islam

“Though Islam steadily spread throughout Iran with time, the indigenous population refused any other form of assimilation. The Sasanian Empire lost the battle, but won the war.”

When Islam appeared, the world was old. Two great superpowers – Iran and Rome – had been competing for mastery of Eurasia for 700 years. When Muhammad hoped for, and predicted, an eventual Roman victory (Qur’an 30: 1–5), he was contemplating the recent Persian annexation of nearly the entire Roman Empire. Since the year 602, the armies of Iran, then ruled by the Sasanian dynasty, had been moving westward, gradually pushing the Roman frontier further and further ahead, overcoming fortress after fortress, until the fateful year 614. That year Persian forces sacked the city of Jerusalem, burned a portion of it to the ground, slaughtered many of its people, and carried off the True Cross as a trophy of victory.

The Roman world was shaken to its foundations, just as it had been by sacking of the city of Rome in AD 410. St Augustine’s utopian visions, which he recorded in his City of God, were conjured up by the shock of Rome’s fall. These were paralleled by prophecies of the end of the world and calls to repentance by Roman churchmen who endured the fall of Jerusalem and the Persian advance.

But there is no more arresting reflection on that grim time than the earliest portions of the Qur’an which were composed during the last great war between Rome and Persia.

It took some time for Muhammad’s prediction to come true. After Jerusalem had been subdued, the armies of Iran pushed on into Egypt and Anatolia. The Roman Senate sent a grovelling letter, urging the Persian king Khusro II to install a new emperor of his choosing and leave what remained of the empire in peace. Khusro refused, and resolved to liquidate the Roman state once and for all.

The armies of Iran and her nomadic allies were to descend upon Constantinople on all sides, besiege it, and receive the emperor’s surrender. At this moment, king Khusro II would have had every reason to look forward to snuffing out his great western rival. But the siege failed, and the Roman emperor Heraclius led a bold counterattack through Armenia and took the fight to the outskirts of the Persian capital at Ctesiphon, near modern-day Baghdad.

Khosro II
Depiction of Khusro II (centre) at Taq-e Bostan, near Kermanshah, Iran. (Photo: Philippe Chavin)

Meanwhile, the Turks (who had formed an alliance with Rome) smashed their way through Iran’s northern defences in the Caucasus and threatened to overrun the entire Persian Empire. This was the last straw. Khusro II was killed in a palace putsch on the night of 28 February, 628. His son became king and immediately made peace with Rome. All formerly Roman territory was swiftly given back, as was the relic of the True Cross.

The uneasy peace that resulted could have lasted and might have become more stable.

But neither Iran nor Rome had paid enough attention to their southern frontier, where the withdrawal of Iranian troops left them vulnerable.

Arab tribes began raiding across that frontier, and it was not long till they were in sight of Ctesiphon. In the late 630s, the last king of the Sasanian dynasty, Yazdgard III, abandoned his capital, and fled for his life. He was intercepted and killed while trying to escape into the Asiatic steppe in the year 651, while his sons went on to find refuge in China at the Tang court. At this point, the total conquest of Iran was inevitable, and every attempt at resistance had failed. City after city capitulated to the conquerors. Meanwhile, the Arab conquest of much of the Roman Empire proceeded apace.

The Arab Umayyad clan was the first dynasty to rule the new empire. For nearly a century the Umayyads held sway from their capital at Damascus, attempting to enforce their authority over the old Sasanian domains. But at the end of the 7th century, fifty-thousand Arabs stationed at the eastern garrison city of Marv mixed with the local population, took Iranian wives, and adopted the culture of Iran.

In the year 750 a mysterious figure by the name of Abu Muslim led a revolt and overthrew the Umayyads. The new dynasty, known to posterity as Abbasid, established a new capital between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris at Baghdad only about twenty miles from the derelict site of Ctesiphon.

From this moment we can trace the rebirth of Iranian culture in new, Islamic garb.

Baghdad Abbasid Period
Map depicting Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, around the 8th-10th centuries. The city was founded in 762 near the ancient Sassanid capital Ctesiphon. (Image: public domain).

The Abbasid bureaucracy imitated the customs of the old Sasanian chancery, and a new generation of Iranian functionaries arose in service to the new empire. Pride in their ancient civilisation, and confidence in the new dynasty, led those men to celebrate the culture of their ancestors.

The Arabian empire quickly took on an Iranian identity, and the successors Muhammad were instructed and edified by volumes of Persian wisdom literature, treatises on Iranian courtly manners and good government, and the history of the Sasanian dynasty.

There had been bitter resistance and rebellion in some parts of Iran. The authority of the caliph sat lightly upon the more remote regions of the old Sasanian Empire. At the beginning of the Abbasid revolution, there were at least two attempts to overthrow the Arabs and re-establish an indigenous Zoroastrian monarchy, but they failed. It was only in the 9th century, as the Abbasid caliphate declined, that indigenous Iranian dynasties began to assert themselves again. But there would never be a Persian Justinian to re-conquer his ancient patrimony. No Iranian Charlemagne would revive the religion and monarchy of Ardashir, and there were no Zoroastrian monasteries to copy and to preserve the literary heritage of Iran.

Most of the high aristocracy of Iran had perished in battle, or had fled to China with the sons of Yazdgard III. So it fell to the landed gentry, who had arisen in Sasanian times, to preserve and transmit the heritage of Iran to successive generations of Iranian Muslims.

Local gentry survived in no other part of the Islamic empire, for the great families of Roman Syria and Egypt disappeared in the early seventh century, never to return.

Only in Iran did such aristocrats look back with defiant pride upon their Zoroastrian ancestors and boast of the achievements of their ancient kings and heroes. Caesar, Constantine, and Justinian were nothing but names to the Arabs, and their reigns were forgotten.

But ancient Iranian mythology and the memory of the Sasanian kings were faithfully remembered – most famously by the 11th-century poet Ferdowsi in his Shahnameh. The survival of the Persian language, in which the Shahnameh was composed, seemed doubtful at first. The Coptic, Aramaic, and Greek languages are no longer spoken in the Arab empire, and the modern citizens of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq mostly speak Arabic and call themselves Arabs. But the Persian language has survived.

Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp
Illustration from Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, 16th century. (Image: public domain).


Long before Ferdowsi wrote his Shahnameh, the 9th the Samanid court at Bukhara produced the poet Rudaki who elevated the Persian language into the finest poetic idiom in the world. Soon after that the poet Nizami was inspired by the legends of king Bahram V and the romance of Khusro II and his Christian wife Shirin. The charming quatrains of Omar Khayyam, well-known in Fitzgerald’s somewhat loose English translations, invoke the mythical kings of the Iranian past in meditations on the passage of time and the fragility of power.

The most famous work of the 13th-century poet Khaqani is a solemn meditation on the ruins of the Sasanian royal palace at Ctesiphon, which the poet insisted on visiting while performing the Meccan pilgrimage. Mowlavi, Sana’i, Attar, Sa’di, and Hafez, who came later, may be the finest metaphysical poets who ever lived. The language in which they wrote, and the theme of the ancient splendour of Iran, remain the most potent symbols of a national identity. Not even the Ayatollah Khomeini, who overthrew the last monarch of Iran, refrained from invoking Sasanian imagery and legends in his poetry.

Though Islam steadily spread throughout Iran with time, the indigenous population refused any other form of assimilation. The Sasanian Empire lost the battle, but won the war.

Nabigha al-Ja’di, an early Islamic poet, marvelled that the old Iranian Empire had been destroyed so quickly, as though it had been only a dream. But the truth is that, though the empire was gone, the dream never died. In fact, it could be said that instead of assimilating Iran, the Arabs and Islam were assimilated by Iran.

The Sasanian heritage was to the Islamic Golden Age as Graeco-Roman culture was to the European Renaissance – the key difference being that Sasanian culture was revived after a shorter interval.

Much of what we think of as Islamic architecture and visual art have no Arabian precedents. They are, like the huge vaulted porticoes and pointed arches of Bukhara, of Sasanian inspiration. The mosaics within the Dome of the Rock, for instance, borrow Sasanian images, and even depict the same ‘wings of victory’ visible on the coins of Khusro II, and which also appear on the modern logo of the University of Tehran. So-called Islamic carpets, glassware, metalworking, music, astrology – all of these were inspired by Sasanian models also.

The recent failures of the so-called Arab Spring and political Islam may make it hard to imagine the Middle East as anything other than an area riven by sectarian strife and ruled by warlords, strongmen, or clerics. Perhaps the memory of the Iranian past can make us see it differently.


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