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224-651 CE

Persia /
Sassanid Dynasty
Other spellings: Sasanid, Sassanian, Sasanian

1. Organization
2. Economy
3. Religion
4. Art and Literature
5. History

The winter capital of the Sassanids, Ctesiphon, now Iraq.
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The winter capital of the Sassanids, Ctesiphon, now Iraq.

Ctesiphon, now Iraq.
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Another view of Ctesiphon, now Iraq.

Rulers (Shahs)
Ardashir 1 (208) 224-241
Shapur 1 241-272
Hormizd 1 272-273
Bahram 1 273-276
Bahram 2 276-293
Bahram 3 293
Narseh 293-302
Hormizd 2 302-310
Shapur 2 310-379
Ardashir 2 379-383
Shapur 3 383-388
Bahram 4 388-399
Yazdegerd 1 399-420
Bahram 5 420-438
Yazdegerd 2 438-457
Hormizd 3 457-459
Peroz 1 457-484
Balash 484-488
Kavadh 1 488-531
Djamasp 496-498
Khosrau 1 531-579
Hormizd 4 579-590
Khosrau 2 590-628
Bahram 6 590-591
Bistam 591-592
Hormizd 5 593
Kavadh 2 628
Ardashir 3 628-630
Peroz 2 629
Shahrbaraz 630
Boran 630-631
Hormizd 6 631-632
Yazdegerd 3 631-651

Sassanid bridge in Dezful, Iran.
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Sassanid bridge in Dezful, Iran.

Dynasty of Ancient Persia (224-651 CE), which at its largest covered an area of modern Iran and Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and large parts of Pakistan. Because of its large area, the title of the king was "King of kings of Iran and non-Iran". The dynasty is named after Sasan, an ancestor of Shah Ardashir 1.

The governmental structure of the Sassanian Persia was centralized, where local rulers were removed early in the dynasty's history. Instead, members of the Sassanian family were made provincial governors. Until the 4th century the appointed heir to the throne would generally rule one of the provinces as "Great King"; Kushanshahr (formerly Kushan Empire) and Armenia were common.
The hierarchic structure below the top levels was strictly defined. The local kings and governors, as well as officials in the cities and provinces reported directly to the royal court.
The centralized structure of the Sassanian dynasty created a very effective army, important both for conquests and defence.
Despite the initial attempts to secure peaceful and effective transfer of power, the empire would see several disputes over power, and at times parallel rulers.
Great imperial ambitions of the rulers, influenced by the memory of the Achaemenid Persian empire, brought Persia into numerous conflicts with the Roman (later Byzantine) Empire.

As with most other country in this period, agriculture and husbandry were the central economic activities, and involving the largest work force. Thanks to both a diverse agriculture and rich yields, there was ample room for craftsmanship as well as a powerful administration in the Sassanid Empire.
As the empire covered enormous areas, and most of the time could guarantee security inside these borders, trade could develop and allowed the specialization of crafts.
International trade was limited, due to the long periods of tensions between the empire and its neighbours.

The state religion of the Sassanians was Zoroastrianism, and the religion was closely linked to the state. During the Sassanian period Zoroastrianism went through a development leading it into a shape much resembling its modern form.
Among the changes that can be traced to this period, is the increased importance of the fire cult and the worship of Ahura Mazda, where all gods were made definitely subordinate of him.
The practice of animal sacrifice appears to have disappeared in this period. the last known occurrence of it dates to around 400. Today this is an illegal practice.
Zoroastrian priests, mobed, acted as more than only religious officials. Due to their knowledge of reading and writing, they were also important in local administration. To some extent they played an important role in the selection of new rulers and the policy of the cental government.
Thanks to the strong position of Zoroastrianism, believers of other faiths at times suffered from persecution. With the rise of Christianity around 300, Christians were especially victims of this. A new wave of oppression came in the 5th century.
There was likewise much control with deviations inside Zoroastrianism, and defection from Zoroastrianism was made a capital crime. In the 6th century, the ideas around the new Zoroastrian concept of Zurvan were declared heretical, and followers of the teachings of Mazdak were killed in a great massacre.
After the fall of the dynasty, and the arrival of Muslim rulers over the old Iranian territories, Zoroastrianism would gradually loose its importance.

Art and Literature
The language of the Sassanians was Pahlavi. The Sassanian rulers had built many great monuments, of which the ones at Ctesiphon, Firuzabad and Sarvestan are especially noted. With the building of the royal palace at Ctesiphon around 600 was the world's largest single-span vault built. This still stands today (see photo).
The most distinct form of art of the Sassanian period are the rock sculptures carved on limestone cliffs, of which most are found in the Fars region.
Other arts that saw great advances under the Sassanians were metalwork and gem engraving.
Literature was of some importance field, and the Sassanian period was one where the oral tradition was gradually replaced by a written tradition. Most of it dealt with religious and historical matters, and is of relatively little literal interest. Towards the end of the Sassanian period were many great works were translated into Pahlavi.

208: Shah Ardashir 1 becomes ruler of the Istakhr district, one of Persia's small states. He builds a stronghold at Gur (now Firuzabad) in the mountains in southern Persia. He soon embarks on a campaign of subduing other local rulers.
210's: Ardashir enters into battle with the Parthian king Artabanus 5, a conflict that would last for several years.
224: In a decisive battle at Hormizdagan, Artabanus is killed. With this Parthian dynasty is defined to have come to an end, even if Parthian princes waged war against Ardashir for about 4 or 5 years more. Despite the conflicts, this year is defined as the beginning of the Sassanid Dynasty.
227: Ardashir starts a great campaign against the lands in the east, conquering Seistan, Gorgan, Merv, Balkh, Khwarezm and the powerful Kushan Empire.
283: The Sassanian Empire is invaded by Rome, the army reaches Ctesiphon. Only because of the sudden death of the Roman emperor, the Roman army retreats.
296: Shah Narses signs a treaty with the Romans, where the Sassanians abstains from Armenia and some of the northern parts of Mesopotamia.
337-361: Influenced by religious tensions between the Zoroastrian Sassanid Empire and the Christian Roman Empire, as well as normal strife over territorial rights, leads to a long war. Despite many losses, the Sassanian Empire is the victor, regaining control over much land in Mesopotamia aas well as most of Armenia.
379- 399: A period of instability and weak governments.
2nd half of 5th century: The Sassanian Empire is repeatedly attacked by the Hephthalites (White Huns) in the east.
484: The Hephthalites capture the northeastern cities of the empire, emptied the royal treasury and forced King Balash to pay them tribute. This together with drought and famine resulted in political unrest.
528: Followers of the Mazdak religion are massacred. This religion had been favoured early in the reign of the ruling King Kavadh 1, but not tolerated by his son, Crown Prince Khosrau 1.
560's: King Khosrau 1 defeats his main enemy in the east, the Hephthalites, through an alliance with the Turkish leader Sinjibu. In addition takes Persia control over lands stretching onto the Black Sea.
580's: Tensions inside the empire and a weak ruler, King Hormizd 4, leads to a situation close to civil war.
590: Khosrau 2 becomes new king, and defeats his opponents, bringing stability back to the empire.
602-619: The new and strong army of King Khosrau leads great campaigns into the lands of its neighbours, almost reaching Costantinople of the Byzantine Empire, ravaging Syria, capturing Antioch, Damascus and Jerusalem before occupying Egypt.
622-627: The Byzantine emperor leads a devastating revenge attack on Persia, invading areas corresponding to modern Azerbaijan and Iraq.
628: King Khosrau 2 is deposed by the occupying Byzantine forces. A peace treaty is signed, and the Sassanians retreat to their pre-602 borders.
628- 633: With the death of King Kavadh 2, a period of destructive anarchy follows. There was much fight over control over provinces and the central government. Stability was not established until Yazdegerd 3 took power.
636: The battle of Qadisiyya, where the Muslim Arabs defeat the Sassanians and takes control over much of the western provinces, including Ctesiphon.
642: In the battle of Nahavand, the Arabs defeats the Sassanian to a degree where the central parts of the empire is lost, and with that much of the army and the state revenues.
651: After years of fleeing from the Arabs, is King Yazdegerd 3 captured, and assassinated near Merv.

By Tore Kjeilen