The Sassanids practiced a severe form of orthodox Zoroastrian. Anyone who renounced the religion was punished by death. Even so Jews survived the persecution and new religions emerged. Mithraism merged Zoroastrianism with the worship of Mithras, a pagan Persian sun god that had been reounced by Zoroaster.Manichaeism (named after Mani, the “ambassador of light”) merged Zoroastrian with Christianity. Both Mithraism and Manichaeism spread to the Roman empire, where they conflicted with Christianity.

Richard Frye wrote in “The Heritage of Persia”: “Already, from the beginning of the Sassanid period, we are in a new religious world. The cults of the old Mesopotamian gods were long since dead and in their places new gnostic and ritualistic sects had arisen side by side with Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Cabalistic beliefs and practices seem to have been widespread, and in the views of most Greek and Roman authors the Persians were the chief believers in magic and unusual religious practices. Zoroastrianism for the classical writers was the epitome of the mysterious, Oriental cult. Yet Kartir and his followers laid the basis for Zoroastrian orthodoxy which probably opposed magic, demon worship, and the like as much as did Christian orthodoxy in the empire of the Caesars.

“Belief in divine revelation and the recording of that revelation in books was in the air, and the Christians, of course, were the most widespread propagators of the idea of 'Holy Writ'. It may have been because of the example of the Christians that the Zoroastrian church assembled and canonised its writings. Zoroastrian tradition claims that fragments of the Avesta were assembled and presumably written down in Arsacid times and again under Shapur I. The written Avesta of the early Sassanids must have been really a mnemonic device to aid the memory of the priests who usually recited the Avesta in a traditional Oriental manner.

“The question of heresies within the Zoroastrian religion is complicated because our Pahlavi sources are all post-Islamic in date, when the minority religious comrnunities of the Zoroastrians were more concerned with correct beliefs than in Sassanid times when the religion was upheld by the state. I believe that orthopraxy was more important than orthodoxy under the Sassanids and Zurvanism, or time speculation, was not a heresy in the same manner as Mazdakism, which was a threat to the practices and the organisation of society as well as the church.

Sassanid Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism as practiced by the Sassanids was more philosophical than its previous incarnations and emphasized the dualism of good and evil. There was a priesthood, formal worship and support of the Sassanid ruler, who was regarded not only as a king but was considered a force that maintained harmony between different classes and ethnic groups.

Under Parthian rule, Zoroastrianism had fragmented into regional variations which also saw the rise of local cult-deities, some from Iranian religious tradition but others drawn from Greek tradition. But under the Sassanids, an orthodox Zoroastrianism was revived and the religion would undergo numerous and important developments. Sassanid Zoroastrianism would develop to have clear distinctions from the practices laid out in the Avesta, the holy books of Zoroastrianism. It is often argued that the Sassanid Zoroastrian clergy later modified the religion in a way to serve themselves, causing substantial religious uneasiness. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Influence of Religion on Sassanid Culture

Sassanid religious policies contributed to the flourishing of numerous religious reform movements, most importantly the Mani and Mazdak religions. The relationship between the Sassanid Kings and the religions practiced in their empire became complex and varied. For instance, while Shapur I tolerated and encouraged a variety of religions and seems to have been a Zurvanite himself, religious minorities at times were suppressed under later Kings, such as Bahram II. Shapur II, on the other hand, tolerated religious groups except Christians, whom he only persecuted in the wake of Constantine's conversion. +

In addition to Persian, Aramaic and Arabic were widely spoken. Richard Frye wrote in “The Heritage of Persia”: “In the beginning of the fifth century the present Armenian alphabet was devised mainly to propagate the Christian religion in that land. Some have conjectured that the present Avestan alphabet was invented about the same time possibly as a forerunner or even as an imitation of the Armenian alphabet although the Avestan alphabet in phonetic completeness is more like the Devanagari alphabet of Sanskrit. It is not impossible to assume a religious motivation for the creation of this rather late alphabet which, as far as we know, was only used for texts of the Zoroastrian religion. It is a pity that this alphabet did not replace the incomplete Pahlavi alphabet, with its great deficiency of letters to represent sounds, for the Middle Persian language. It must be emphasized that we have no old manuscripts of the Avesta, none earlier than thirteenth or fourteenth century, but the existence of a written Avesta in Sassanid times much as we know it today seems assured in spite of the overwhelming importance of the oral tradition.” [Source: Richard Frye, “The Heritage of Persia,” starting with pg. 325]


Richard Frye wrote in “The Heritage of Persia”: “The development of the church during the early Sassanid empire is tied to the name of Kartir who was unknown to history before the discovery of his monolingual inscriptions in the Middle Persian language. One was carved below the Middle Persian verison of Shapur on the Ka'bah of Zoroaster, another on the cliff at Naqsh-i Rustam behind the horse of Shapur showing his triumph over the Roman emperor, a third at Nazsh-i Rajab and a fourth on a mountainside at Sar Mashhad south of Kazerun. At Naqsh-i Rajab accompanying the inscription is presumably the representation of Kartir himself with finger raised in a gesture of respect. At Sar Mashhad Bahram II is shown killing a lion while protecting his queen, and behind her is probably Kartir. The contents of these inscriptions are very much the same, except that Sar Mashhad and Naqsh-i Rustam are longer than the other two, while Naqsh-i Rajab is a kind of testament of personal belief. Unfortunately both the Naqsh-i Rustam and the Sar Mashhad inscriptions are badly weathered and large portions illegible. None the less, the story they tell of Kartir reveals a fascinating page of early Sassanid history, the establishment of orthodoxy and a state church. [Source: Richard Frye, “The Heritage of Persia,” starting with pg. 325 +/ ]

“An examination of Islamic and Pahlavi sources reveals that chief religious leader or mobadan mobad of Ardashir was a certain Tansar, whose name probably should be read Tosar. He is also called a herbad or "teaching priest" in some sources. There is no indication that Tosar is to be identified with Kartir, but his activities, including making a new recension of the Avesta according to the Denkart would make a veritable Kartir of him. The inscriptions, however, are more reliable than literary sources and they tell only of Kartir, although a person called Tosar may have been active under Ardashir before Kartir came to the fore. Kartir must be the real founder of Zoroastrian orthodoxy under the early Sassanid kings. +/

“The longest inscriptions of Kartir are the eighty-one lines of Naqsh-i Rustam and the almost identical fifty-nine lines of Sar Mashhad, the first twenty-five lines of which latter inscription are the same as the inscription of Kartir Ka'bah of Zoroaster, while lines 52 to the end are almost a verbatim copy of his inscription at Naqsh-i Rajab. In the central part of Sar Mashhad Kartir *Han- girpe (hnglpy), as he calls himself, gives what almost seems to be an apologia pro vita sua. The early fragmentary passages contain interesting theological points, the interpretation of which is very difficult because of lacunae. Afterwards Kartir becomes more personal, but in the third person, telling of a trip of many nobles to Khurasan about a woman together with the man Kartir *Hangirpe, a place (?) called pwlsy and many other enigmatic details. Kartir goes to great pains to tell posterity that he first came to power under Shapur-when he was a herbad and a mobad, which implies at least the existence of different kinds of priests already in the Zoroastrian religion. Under King Hormizd he was given the title 'mobad of Ahura Mazda', probably the first to hold this later well-attested title. In the reign of Varahran II he received the rank of nobility, the headship of the religion, and was made chief judge of the empire, and chief of the royal fire at Istakhr at the imperial shrine of Anahita. The reason for these great honours is implied in the honorific given by the same king to Kartir, 'soul-saviour of Varahran'. Undoubtedly Kartir played the role of father confessor to the king and was th,ereby rewarded. The fact that he is called 'the lord' at the very end of Naqsh-i Rajab and that he notes his elevation to the nobility further suggests that the nobility were all powerful in this period. Kartir probably played an important political as well as re- ligious role in the empire. [Source: Richard Frye, “The Heritage of Persia,” starting with pg. 198 +/ ]

“Of great importance was the activity of Kartir outside of Iran in trying to establish both fire temples and orthodoxy among the Hellen- ised Magians and to convert those pagans who followed rites and beliefs similar to those of the Zoroastrians; in other words Kartir was a missionary. At the same time he reacted strongly against both foreign religions and heresies within Iran, and this may well be one reason why Mithraism as we know it in the Roman Empire is not also found in Iran. Kartir (KZ 9-IO) specifically attacked Jews, Buddhists, Hindus Nazoraeans (Mandaeans?), Christians, Mktk (a Mesopotamian religion?), and Manichaeans, destroying their centres and proscribing them. The work of Kartir apparently was not an innovation, smce Armenian and Syriac sources tell of the zeal of Ardashir in establishing fire temples and destroying pagan temples, especially in Armenia. Kartir's action was militant Zoroastrian orthodoxy in Zoroastrianism, for he Magi were organised, hel esy was forbidden, and many Varahnres were instiuted. These fires represented the backbone of the Sassanid fire cult for they were centres of teaching as well as rites in the various geographical areas of the land. The work of Kartir was impressive (KZ, line I4) for we see in effect the ordering of the state church in Iran, including the practice of consanguineous marriages, a feature of Zoroastrianism which adversely struck outside observers. He also laid the basis for the power of the clergy which was to rival, if not later surpass, that of the nobility. +/


Manichaeism was an important religion in the Sassanid Empire as well as is an extinct dualistic religion of Iranian origin, founded in the A.D. third century by the Prophet Mani. Originating in Babylon (a province of Persia at the time), Manichaeism once flourished in the ancient world. At its height, the religion claimed followers from North Africa to China. Theologically, Manichaeism is a dualistic religion that postulated an ongoing struggle between the forces of good and evil in the universe. It is also an eclectic religion that attempted to provide a synthesis of previous religious teachings. Its founder, Mani, claimed to be the final prophet for all religions. [Source: New World Encyclopedia]

Manichaeism has a plausible explanation of the reason why evil as experienced in the world is substantial and virulent. As such, it compares favorably with the Augustinian Christian view that evil is non-being or non-substantial. However, its cosmic dualism of God and Satan is unacceptable to any monotheist who believes in one supreme God of goodness. The original texts of Manichaeism were composed in Syriac Aramaic. However, most of the writings of the founding prophet Mani have been lost. Augustine of Hippo, who formerly belonged to the Manichaean faith before converting to Christianity, passionately denounced Manichaeism in his post-conversion writings, and eventually the Manichaean religion was widely persecuted under Christian leaders of the Roman Empire. Although Manichaeism is extinct today, a revival has been attempted under the name of Neo-Manichaeism.

Manichaeism spread with extraordinary rapidity throughout both the east and west. It reached Rome through the apostle Psattiq, by 280 C.E., who was also in Egypt in 244 and 251. The faith was flourishing in the Fayum area of Egypt in 290. Manichaean monasteries existed in Rome in 312, during the time of Pope Miltiades. By 354, Hilary of Poitiers wrote that the Manichaean faith was a significant force in southern France. However, Manichaeanism was also widely persecuted. Mani himself was martyred by the Persian religious establishment in 277, which ironically helped spread the sect more widely. After failing to win the favor of the Zoroastrian clergy, Mani is reported to have died in prison awaiting execution by the Persian Emperor Bahram I. The date of his death is fixed between 276–277 C.E. In 291, persecution arose in the Persian Empire, with the murder of the apostle Sisin by Bahram II, who also ordered the slaughtering of many Manichaeans. In 302, Diocletian issued an Edict against the Manichaeans and decreed that their organizers and leaders be subject to the final penalties and condemned to the fire with their abominable scriptures, resulting in numerous martyrs in Egypt and North Africa. In 381, Christians requested Theodosius I to strip Manichaeans of their civil rights. He issued a decree of death for Manichaean monks in 382. The faith maintained a sporadic and intermittent existence in the west (Mesopotamia, Africa, Spain, France, North Italy, the Balkans) for a thousand years, and flourished for a time in the land of its birth (Persia) and even further east in Northern India, Western China, and Tibet.

Manichaeism History and Beliefs

Manichaeism is named after the Prophet Mani (A.D. 216-276), who resided in the Persian Empire. According to biographical accounts preserved by Ibn al-Nadim (d. 995 or 998) and the Persian polymath al-Biruni (973-1048), a young Mani received a revelation from a spirit called the Twin, which allegedly taught him "divine truths" which would developed into the Manichaean religion. Therafter, Mani claimed to be the "Paraclete of the Truth" (as promised in the New Testament) as well as the Last Prophet. Mani was eager to describe himself as a "disciple of Jesus Christ," but the early Christian Church rejected him as a heretic. Nevertheless, despite having fewer adherents than Christianity or Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism won the support of many high-ranking political figures in the Persian Empire. With the aid of royal patronage, Mani initiated several missionary excursions. It is said that he traveled far and wide to foreign lands, including Turkistan, India, and Iran. [Source: New World Encyclopedia]

Richard Frye wrote in “The Heritage of Persia”: “In the early days of the empire the Zandiks, as the Manichaeans were called, were the chief heretics. The exact dates of Mani's life are uncertain since they are tied to the chronology of Shapur's accession which itself is not certain; but he was killed either in the last year of the reign of Varahran I (274) or in the early years of his successor (277). [Source: Richard Frye, “The Heritage of Persia,” starting with pg. 325 +/ ]

“Manichaeism has been called an expression of universalism or syncretism in religion and it has been compared with Bahaism of the present day. It is perhaps not as representative of Iranian religious tendencies in its dualism as was the Zoroastrian state religion, but certainly the syncretic and 'international' features of Manichaeism found many ready supporters in Iran. We are not here concerned with the teachings of Manichaeism which are at present better known than before the discovery of original Manichaean writings in Coptic, Parthian, Sogdian and other languages. The Manichaeans suffered the same fate in Iran as in the Christian world; in both the arch-heretics were alwas Manichaeans and they were accordingly persecuted severely. After Narseh, however, Manichaean cornmunities continued to exist in Iran, especially in eastern Iran, and later, as is well known, Manichaean missionaries reached as far as China. +/

“Perhaps the most striking development of Manichaeism was the social and economic movement led by Mazdak at the very end of the fifth century, about whom much has been written of late. It would seem that royal opposition to the nobility and their power was an important reason for the support of Mazdak by King Kavad. The Mazdakites preached a form of communism, the division of wealth including wives and concubines, which found support among the poor, but our sources are not clear and are contradictory about the course of events of this revolution. The Mazdakites, however, met the same fate the Manichaeans had suffered at the hands of Kartir and King Varahran. It happened at the end of Kavad's (second) reign, and the Crown Prince Chosroes Anosharvan was the chief instigator of the massacre of the Mazdakites circa 528. The death of their leaders, of course, did not end the Mazdakites as a sect but sent them underground. But a new pejorative had been coined and henceforth any social or religious reformer was usually branded as a Mazdakite by his opponents, and this lasted long into Islamic times when many Iranian revolts against the caliphate or the rule of the Arabs were designated as Mazdakite movements. The Mazdakite movement was known to such Islamic authors as Nizam al-Mulk in his Siyasatname. +/


Richard Frye wrote in “The Heritage of Persia”: “From Christian authors writing in Syriac and Armenian it would seem that the Sassanids primarily followed Zurvanism, a Zoroastrian heresy which, after the Islamic conquest, vanished in favour of ortho- doxy. I believe, as shown elsewhere, that Zurvanism was not a full- fledged heresy with doctrines, rites and a 'church' organisation separate from the Zoroastrian fold, but rather a movement to be compared perhaps with the Mu'tazilites of Islamic times. [Source: Richard Frye, “The Heritage of Persia,” starting with pg. 325 +/ ]

“There were basically two features of Zurvanism which have been preserved for us, time speculation (eternity, etc.) and the myth of the birth of both Ohrmizd (Ahura Mazda) and Ahriman from their father Zurvan. The first was widespread and certainly by itself would not form the basis for a separate sect. The Zurvan birth story can be paralleled by the story of Chronos in Greek mythology and again, in my opinion, would not lead to the formation of a sect. Undoubtedly the Zurvan birth story was widespread among 'orthodo' Zoroastrians in Sassanid times, but after the Islamic conquest when Zoroastrians withdrew into tightly knit communities, Zurvanite elements were eliminated from the new orthodoxy which was concrned with 'orthodoxy' as well as 'orthopraxy'.

“In Sassanid times a Zoroastrian heretic was more one who broke away from orthopraxy and even became a Christian or Manichaean, while in Islamic times a Zoroastrian heretic was primarily a person who also broke with orthodoxy as, for example, Abalish (or 'Abdallah?) a Zoroastrian who became a heretic in the time of the caliph al -Ma'mun in the ninth century, and may have adopted Manichaean beliefs. Any kind of social heresy, of course, would be the concern of the ruling caliph. +/

Nestorian Christianity

Richard Frye wrote in “The Heritage of Persia”: “From the acts of the Christian martyrs we learn much especially about the Nestorian communities in the Sassanid empire. In effect the consolidation and growth of the Zoroastrian church in Iran was paralleled by the growth of the Christian church and of the Manichaean communities. Undoubtedly the influx of Christian prisoners in Iran in the wake of both Shapurs' conquests gave a strong impetus to the spread of Christianity, but the religion naturally spread in Mesopotamia among the Semitic peoples. [Source: Richard Frye, “The Heritage of Persia,” starting with pg. 325 +/ ]

“The first great persecution of Christians occurred under Shapur II, beginning about 339, and seems to have had political motivation since it began after Constantine had made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Later there were periods of tolerance followed by more persecution, but after the break away of the Nestorians from other Christians at the end of the fifth century, the condition of Christians in Iran improved. The Nestorians elected a catholicos who had his seat in Ctesiphon and synods usually met there in deciding church problems. The ecclesiastical geography of the Nestorian bishoprics is also of importance for the civil geography of the Sassanid empire since the Church usually followed civil boundaries; thus we gain some knowledge of civil administrative divisions from the acts of the martyrs. +/

“The Christianisation of Armenia and Transcaucasia in the fourth century provided a source of conflict betwen Armenia and the Sassanids even more than the struggle for influence in those areas between Romans and Persians. In the east, too, Christian missionaries made converts among the Hephthalites and Sogdians, so one may infer everywhere a growing Christian influence at the end of the Sassanid empire. The whole religious picture of Iran, however, was more complicated than we can know from the sparse records, and the interplay of various religions is matched by internal divisions within the Zoroastrian church which we perceive but dimly. +/

Religion in the Late Sassanid Period

Richard Frye wrote in “The Heritage of Persia”: “The last century of the empire saw an increase in converts to Christianity, and the expansion of bishoprics to the east can be found in the acts of the Nestorian synods. Not only did the richest part of the empire, the lowlands of the Tigris-Euphrates become predominantly Christian, with Monophysites gaining ground against the Nestorians at the end of the empire, but the plateau too saw an increase in churches. Thls does not mean, however, that the Sassanid state was becoming Christian just before the Islamic era, as some have suggested. The state religion was still upheld by all of the rulers, even though it had become a faith primarily of rituals and taboos. It had a great disadvantage in comparison to Christianity and Islam in that it was not an oecumenical religion actively seeking converts, and it was bound too closely to the Sassanid state and its fortunes. One might say that in the later years of the Sassanid Empire the state dominated the church, whereas in the west the reverse seems more true, or perhaps one could say 'used' rather than 'dominated' in both cases. [Source: Richard Frye, “The Heritage of Persia,” starting with pg. 325 +/ ]

“The organization of minority religions in the Sassanid Empire served to protect Zoroastrianism after the Arab conquest, when the change from dominant, state religion to one of minority status was made, and this enabled Zoroastrianism to survive to the present. The status of Jews and Christians changed little under Islam, except that the model of an imperial state and religion, which influenced their organizations and outlooks, changed to a 'democratic' model, which the Islamic state under the early caliphs was in comparison. In Judaism the end of the Sassanid Empire meant the decline and fall of the exilarchate and the triumph of the rabbinate, much like the 'ulama of Islam. +/

“For Manichaeans the end of the Sassanids gave them a chance to come into the open in Iraq and Iran, until later in the 'Abbasid Caliphate they fell vlctims of a persecution. The Nestorian church, on the other hand, experienced a revival with missionaries penetrating to China. Only Zoroastrians soon withdrew into ghettoes, to be followed later bx other minority religions in the Islamic world. It was mainly the Zoroastrian clergy which preserved the Middle Persian writings which explains the loss of so much secular literature. The latter, however, was translated, or paraphrased, into Arabic and later New Persian, but with an Islamic reworking of texts, which makes reconstruction of originals difficult. But in these later, secular writings the heritage of the Sassanids was preserved, and it was a powerful force in the making of Islamic culture. +/

“The last holdout of Sassanid Iran was in the east, and it is to this little studied part of the world that scholars need next to approach — for it seems certain to me that the small states of Central Asia, too, were part of the ancient Iranian world, and their role in bringing Iranian influences to China and to Russia should not be forgotten.” +/

Sassanid Art

Sassanid art included silver and gold rhytons (drinking horns) with a ram on one side. Many of Persia's subjects liked Persian rule because it introduced near technologies such as qanats (underground irrigation tunnels). The Sassanids made great works of art from silver, which was fashioned into royal artworks with royal images. These include silver cups with images of kings such as Shapur II hunting wild boar. Sassanid coins were finely wrought and depicted Zoroastrian fire altars on one side and Sassanid rulers on the other.

On an exhibition of Sassanid art in New York organized by the Asian Society, Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: “One of the first things you see in the galleries is a silver-and-gilt bowl decorated with a male royal portrait head clearly based on Greco-Roman prototypes, while a wine vessel nearby, in the shape of an antelope's head, has stylistic roots in the remote borderlands of Central Asia. In art, the Sasanians gave as good as they got, generating widespread and long-lasting influences of their own. Exquisite textiles of Sasanian design have been found in Egypt. And a gorgeous little glass cup in the show — it is purplish-brown, with protruding sensorlike knobs that make it resemble Sputnik — compares to others that ended up in Chinese tombs, Japanese temples and the treasury of San Marco in Venice. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, February 16, 2007 ***]

“Sasanian art made the rounds. And its wide distribution, combined with uncontrolled excavation, has made it almost impossible to date precisely, or to assign an exact place of origin. Archaeologists and art historians frequently have trouble determining whether something is actually Sasanian or in-the-style-of. (Glass is particularly elusive in this respect.) Nonetheless, certain types of images seem specific to its imperial culture, namely those that refer to the state religion of Zoroastrianism. But even here cross-cultural sampling prevails. ***

“The religion's principal female deity, Anahita, the goddess of fertility, assumes various guises. In a stucco relief she is a formidable Mesopotamian matron with dangly earrings. But she is also a Hellenistic bacchante scintillating over the surface of a chunky silver vase, now owned by the Louvre. By the time this luxury item emerged from an imperial atelier in the fifth or sixth century, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Manichaeism were all practiced within the empire, contributing to its visual eclecticism.” ***

On one of its pieces, the Metropolitan Museum of Art reports: Dating from the fourth century A.D., this silver head of a Sasanian king is an exquisite example of Sasanian metalwork. It is raised from a single piece of silver with chased and repoussé details. The king wears simple ovoid earrings and a beaded necklace of Sasanian fashion. His powerful stare and characteristic arched nose seem to suggest that the artist was attempting to convey a sense of majesty rather than an individual likeness. The identity of the subject of such representations, in relief or in the round, can often be determined by comparison of facial features and details of the crown with those of kings portrayed on Sasanian coins of the period. In this case, however, the crescent that decorates the crenellated crown and the striated orb that rises above it have no exact parallel. A combination of stylistic details suggests that it was made sometime in the fourth century, perhaps during the reign of Shapur II (A.D. 310–379). The lower section of this head has been cut away, so there is no way of knowing whether it was originally part of a larger sculpture composed of several pieces or a decorative bust intended to be seen alone.” [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Richard Frye wrote in “The Heritage of Persia”: “Sassanid art can be characterised as the culmination of a millennium of development. For one may discern Greek and Roman elements, ancient Oriental archaising motifs and purely Iranian subjects, such as the investiture of the king on horseback, in later Sassanid art. The brief Greek revival under Shapur I hardly interrupts the development of Iranian art from the Parthian period and Ardashir down to Chosroes. Just as in late Gandharan art so in Sassanid art stucco and plaster are supreme as the medium of expression. The widespread use of monograms, symbols and complicated designs is typical of late Sassanid art and as such is a forerunner of Islamic art. [Source: Richard Frye, “The Heritage of Persia,” starting with pg. 198 +/ ]

“The more naturalistic emphasis in earlier Sassanid art seems to give ground before more stylised and even geometric art at the end of the period. The anthropomorphic representation of the god Ahura Mazda, perhaps a residue from the 'messianic period' of the religions of the Near East, is not attested at the end of the empire. Although ancient motifs of the hunt, investiture of the king or battles on horseback, appear on rock carvings or on the wonderful silver platters, they are all distinctive and could not be mistaken for anything other than Sassanid. The Sassanid hallmark or 'stamp' may be considered another evidence of the freezing of culture and society. What has remained of the architecture, sculpture, metalwork, ceramics and silks of the Sassanid period, however, is enough to testify to the grandeur and richness of Iranian culture.” +/

Sassanid Rhytons and Wine Vessels

On a Sassanid rhyton, or wine vessel, Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “One of the great masterpieces” is silver vessel that “consists of a trumpet-shaped section curving abruptly to join up with the stylized head of an animal, perhaps an antelope or a bullock. Seen in profile, the vessel looks like a horn. And a drinking horn it is...Early Persian literature ranging from a lexicon compiled in the mid-11th century to poetry of the same period, sheds light on wine horns. Called "palogh" or "shakh"/"shakh-e badeh," literally horn/wine horn, these featured prominently in wine banquets. [Source: Souren Melikian, International Herald Tribune, December 1, 2006 -]

“Another distinctive wine vessel represented... by a piece in the high tin alloy known in Persian as "white bronze" reproduced the shape of a boat used in shallow waters. As it happens, the type of embarkation appears in a scene on a silver dish....The object - called in Persian "kashti-e mey" (wine boat), or simply "kashti" (boat) - is mentioned in the earliest Persian literature describing wine libations at court. Countless verses remind us that the vessel was crescent shaped because it represented the new moon. Wine, on the other hand, symbolized liquid sunlight. When filled with the beverage, the crescent boat was seen as the new moon containing the orb of the sun. With it, the royal drinker held a symbol of the world. -

“Such concepts alien to Islam go back to the deepest past of Iran. They probably preceded Zoroastrianism, the religion preached by the prophet Zarathushtra, long before the first Iranian empire came into existence in 559 B.C. However, as often happens with ancient customs, the wine libations ceremonial was taken over by Zoroastrianism. -

Sassanid Zoroastrian-Influenced Wine Rituals

Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “In a treatise, Omar Khayyam, better known as a poet, describes the most important of all wine banquets held during the New Year (Nowruz) celebrations. The head of the Zoroastrian priests would step forth in front of the king, holding up a gold cup filled with wine as he sung the ruler's praise. The scenes chased in low relief on the sides of a small silver bowl precisely represent such a Nowruz banquet. [Source: Souren Melikian, International Herald Tribune, December 1, 2006 -]

“In one of five panels defined by the pillars of an arcade, a Zoroastrian priest walks toward a prince reclining on a low couch in the next panel. Holding a circular tray in one hand and a decanter in the other, the priest wears a mask to shield the wine cups on the tray from his breath. Near him, a sieve is stuck into the mouth of a jar laid on the ground. It filters the wine that has been fermenting and must be free from dregs. This is the final stage in the preparation of wine that took place at the time of the Nowruz. Nearby, a wine horn comes as close to the Sackler wine horn as the tiny scale permits. -

“In the panel on the left, a prince holds a wine cup in one hand and clutches with the other the myrtle crown handed to him by an attendant. In the panel on the right, a woman plucks a lute and a man beats the Iranian double drum - music was invariably performed at banquets. The two other panels enclose scenes associated with the New Year wine banquet in Persian literature. Two men play a game of backgammon; two wrestlers perform a stunt. -

Problems with Sassanid Art Scholarship

On an the lack of scholarship regarding Sassanid art in particular and Iranian-Persian art in general, Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “In an era of globalization keen on international understanding, it might seem elementary for scholars studying the art of the Iranian past to have access to the language, Persian, in which a vast body of literature yields essential keys to its objects. This, however, is not part of the Western academic tradition. The guest curator of” an exhibition in Paris on Sassanid art, “Françoise Demange of the Louvre, is a specialist in Ancient Greek art who does not read Persian, and most of the contributors to the exhibition book are likewise strangers to the living heritage of Iranian culture. In keeping with time-honored Western tradition regarding pre-Islamic Iran, the objects are looked at as if they were the work of little green men just descended from outer space. Not a single Persian archaeological publication is cited. More surprisingly, Greek words are chosen when referring to objects that are named in Persian dictionaries and sung in poetry from the 11th century on. [Source: Souren Melikian, International Herald Tribune, December 1, 2006]

“Dates, unfortunately, remain hypothetical because none of the silver vessels were found in archaeological sites duly surveyed. The majority were propelled on to the art market by the massive looting that has devastated Iranian sites for the last 80 years. Others turned up in Russia along the routes that led from Iran to the Baltic Sea or, going east, to the Ural mountains, and beyond. In either case, dating is more akin to guesswork than to scientific deduction and varies from one publication to another. Location itself is the object of speculation. Silver vessels that were said to come from Iran three decades ago because they were sold by Iranian dealers are suddenly given a qualified provenance. Hesitation even affects the dating of architectural fragments. Some surfaced on the art market robbed of their context. Others were recovered from excavations that yielded no conclusive data.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History “ by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples “ by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures “ edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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