SSS4. Ardeshir Bābekān {Part 3, concluded}

Ardeshir coronated emperor

A bas-relief of Ardeshir (l) cornated by being given the ring of authority by Dastur Tansar/Tosar (r) at Nakhsh-i-Rustam, Shiraz, Iran.

Ardeshir was coronated an emperor in Baghdad in 226 CE. He assumed the title of Shāhān Shah ī Iran “King of kings of Iran.” Later Ardeshir explained, that this high sounding title was not for vanity but to remind him of his duties and responsibilities. The emperor promised to rule justly and protect his subjects. He sent his army all around to ensure allegiance from nearby rulers.

Tabak gave a respectful farewell to Ardavan and consigned his body to the Dakhma. He advised Ardeshir to occupy Ardavan’s palace and take the hand of his young and beautiful daughter in marriage. Ardeshir did accordingly.  For two months he stayed in this palace and then proceeded towards Pars. The majority of the Medes and Assyrians joined Ardeshir.

Ardeshir and the Kurds

Kurdistan, a neighbouring province, was ruled by Mādig. Ardeshir came to know that he and some other small rulers in the surrounding areas were harassing Iranian people. When warned about this, Mādig rose against Ardeshir.  In the battle that ensued, Ardeshir found it harder than expected to overpower him. The battle went on for a day and night in which the Kurds had an upper hand. There were many casualties, especially in the Ardeshir’s army.

At night, the tired king retreated. He saw a fire burning at a distance. He went there to find a few shepherds, where he had some food and rest. In the morning, Ardeshir asked the head of the shepherds whether he could get some place to rest. The shepherd sent an elderly guide who took him to a nearby village.  The headman of the village was very kind and went all out to help his king. A few men were sent to the capital to mobilize more troops. Some spies were sent inside the Kurdish territory.

The spies reported that the Kurds were over-confident and had already started celebrating their victory. Ardeshir was happy, as he now had an opportunity to take them off-guard. He took a troop of three thousand eminent warriors and took the Kurds by surprise. He perpetrated Shab-e-khun “attack at night”, killing a few soldiers and taking many as prisoners. After gaining this victory, he gifted wealth to his soldiers, and returned back to Istakhra.

Thereafter in 227 CE, Ardeshir achieved successes at Makran, Seistan and Gorgan, and formally incorporated them into his new empire. The regions of Balk, Margiana and Chorasmia were also annexed by Ardeshir

Ardeshir established the cities of Khorreh–Ardeshir and Shahr-e-Zur. He built beautiful gardens, parks and meadows in all villages and cities. He also had canals dug to facilitate agriculture. He re-started the celebration of festivals like Jashan-e-Sadeh and Jashan-e-Mehrangān.

Rome and Armenia

After becoming the emperor, Ardeshir sent a delegation to the Roman emperor Alexander Severus (222 – 235 CE) asking him to return the provinces near the Aegean sea which once belonged to Iran during the Achaemenian times. Instead of responding positively, the Roman emperor insulted the envoys and imprisoned them, which resulted in a war.

The Roman emperor himself came with an army to Iran.  After a long drawn battle, the hostilities ended and the Romans retreated and were pushed out of Mosul city. However, Ardeshir did not emerge conclusively victorious.

After some time, that Ardeshir attacked again and successfully annexed the provinces of Mesopotamia, Carrhae, Nisibis and Hatra.

The Armenian king Khushru, who was supported by the Roman emperor, harassed the Iranians in his kingdom. However, after the defeat of the Romans at the hands of Ardeshir, he too calmed down and accepted the sovereignty of the Iranian emperor, but maintained his independence.

In the east, the Kushans too accepted Ardeshir’s superiority. Thus the king’s authority reached as far as the Indus river. Ardeshir claimed the rightful inheritance of many ancient territories which once belonged to his forefathers, the illustrious Achaemenid empire.

Birth of Shahpur

Ardeshir’s queen was the daughter of king Ardavan. Two of her brothers, including the eldest brother Bahman had fled to India and two were taken prisoners. Once Bahman sent a messenger to his sister. Along with the message he also sent some poison, asking his sister to kill her husband for their sake. In the message he instigated his sister saying her husband was responsible for the death of their father, the end of their kingdom, and the pitiable conditions of his brothers.

The sister was moved by the letter and decided to act accordingly. Once when Ardeshir returned from a hunt, she mixed the poison in his drink and gave it to him. Ardeshir, who was protected by the divine powers, was miraculously saved as the glass slipped from his hand and the drink spilt down. Hens which pecked at the drink died immediately. The king immediately realized that the queen had attempted to poison him. The queen started trembling.

Attempt to poison king Ardeshir

The king summoned Gerānmāyeh, who was his chief priest and senior minister, told him about the plot to poison him without revealing the identity of the perpetrator, and asked for his advice. After hearing the king out, Gerānmāyeh declared him that such a traitor should be immediately beheaded. The king immediately ordered the queen to be killed.  

The queen was terrified by this pronouncement. She met Gerānmāyeh and revealed to him that she was to be the mother of the king’s child. She requested her life to be spared till an heir to the throne was born. The priest approached the king requesting him to re-consider the punishment. However the angry king was firm and asked the priest to get her killed immediately.

Gerānmāyeh, realising that the king was not in a position to take a proper decision, took the matter in his own hands. He realized how important an heir to the throne was, especially since the king had no other children. He decided to keep the queen alive, at least till she delivered the child.

He took the queen in his palace and gave her a place to stay. He told his wife to be careful that nobody may set an eye on her. Just in case if anybody may doubt his intention or integrity, he cut off his genitals, put it in a box, sealed and put a date on it and gave it to the king for safe keeping, saying that it was an important treasure which he should keep in his treasury.

After nine months a child was born to the queen, who was named Shahpur, which means “son of a king.” He had the royal bearings and looks of the king. For seven years the identity of the child was kept hidden.

Once Gerānmāyeh saw the king in a pensive mood and asked, “Oh great one, what ails you?  You have everything a man can desire. Now is your time to rejoice and enjoy life.”

“Yes, my faithful one”, the king responded. “Now, when I am fifty one, and have everything, I long for a son who can succeed me.” The priest realized that this was the right time to reveal the truth about his queen and his son, and replied, “Sire, I am in a position to relieve your grief, if only you grant me my life.”

The king was surprised at this strange request. “What makes you fear for your life, O wise one! Reveal to me what you know and I assure you that no harm will come to you.”

“Sire, then please ask the treasurer to bring back the box I had given you some years back.” Gerānmāyeh requested. The king summoned for the box, and then asked the priest what was inside it. The priest said, “In it is my most cherished possession, my manhood.  You had asked me to kill your queen, but since she was carrying your child, I did not follow your orders. I kept her alive in my palace and lest anybody doubt my integrity or intention, or cast aspersions at the legitimacy of the prince’s lineage, I had to take this drastic step.

Your son is now fourteen. I have named him Shahpur. His mother too is with him and looking after him.”

The king rejoiced on hearing this news. He said, “My trusted minister, you have given a big sacrifice for the sake of your king. I do not want to prolong your responsibility. Tomorrow you assemble a hundred children of the same age, height, body and features as my son, make them wear the same dress and let them play polo in a field. I am sure that I would be attracted to my own son and my heart will lead me to him.”

The following day, the minster did exactly as instructed.   A hundred children started playing polo in the field. The king immediately recognised his son and asked the minister, who nodded in assent. But the king wanted one further test. He waited till a ball came towards him. He wanted to see whether his son was bold enough to come near him and collect the ball.

King Ardeshir watching the game of Polo

Soon enough, during the course of the game, the ball was struck in the direction of the king. Several boys came running to collect the ball, but stopped short of going near the king. However Shahpur, excused himself, bravely went near the king, collected the ball and brought it back.

After the game, the king’s attendants were asked to summon Shahpur. Ardeshir was extremely happy at being reunited with a son whom he never knew existed. He richly rewarded Gerānmāyeh. He also had coins minted on which he had his own image imprinted on the obverse side and the minister’s bust on the reverse. He also included the minister’s name and seal on all his royal pronouncements.

Ardeshir got his queen and his prince back into the palace and earnestly began the royal education of the prince. He was taught Iranian languages, royal mannerisms, horse riding, weapon wielding and other royal skills. He established a city by the name of Junde-Shahpur to celebrate the reunion with his prince. This city was near Shustar, in the present province of Khszestan in south-west Iran

Young Shahpur

Soon prince Shahpur became a handsome young man, and a trusted advisor and commander to his father. Meanwhile, emperor Ardeshir who was spending a lot of time in wars, was now weary of them, and wanted to find a way to end them. He asked a fortune teller from India, and was told that his hectic life on the battle field could end only if he gets his son married to his old enemy Mehrak Nushzad’s daughter.

Ardeshir was very angry when he heard this. He was neither willing to forgive his old enemy nor get his daughter married to his son. Instead, he ordered the daughter be killed. When Mehrak’s daughter, who was a very beautiful young lady, came to know about these orders, she fled to a village and sought refuge in the house of the village headman.

Once Ardeshir went on a hunting expedition with Shahpur. After the hunt, Shahpur wandered into a village and went into the house of its chieftain. In the garden there, he saw a beautiful girl drawing water from a well.

Prince Shahpur watching the girl drawing water

Shahpur too wanted water from the well and had gone there with his water-pot. When the girl offered to draw water for him, he declined saying that he will ask his soldier to do so. He ordered a soldier to draw water, but he was not successful. Thereafter several other soldiers tried, but in vain. Shahpur chided them and himself went to draw the water. However, he too was able to draw water with great difficulty. He admired the strength of the beautiful girl and assumed that she must be from a royal family.

The girl then addressed Shahpur by his name, at which the prince was surprised. He asked her how she knew him and she said that she had heard praises of his height, physique and good looks and today saw his strength.

Shahpur’s wedding

Shahpur asked her identity, to which she replied that she was the village chief’s daughter. Shahpur could not accept this explanation. He told her not to lie to a prince, to which she said that he should assure her that no harm should come to her, only than she could reveal the truth. After the prince’s assurance she revealed her identity.

After some time, with the chieftain’s permission, the two were duly wedded. The wedding was kept a secret from Ardeshir. A child was born to them, who was named Hormazd. His birth was kept hidden and he was rarely allowed to go out. After seven years, when Ardeshir had once gone for a hunt, young Hormazd was out playing polo with his friends. While playing, the ball went near the king. None dared to go near the king except Hormazd. After fetching the ball, he triumphantly proclaimed that he was born to be great. King Ardeshir was surprised and asked the minister to find out the lineage of this child. The minister could not ascertain the lineage and so the king summoned the child.

The child was brought to the king. When he was asked his lineage, he proudly said that his father was prince Shahpur and mother was the daughter of Mehrak Nushzad.

Ardeshir immediately called for Shahpur, who apologized for the secret marriage. The king forgave him and accepted Hormazd. He presented a small golden crown to his grandson and gave away a lot of wealth in charity. He told his subjects that none should ignore the astrologers, since only after the union of Mehrak’s daughter and his son, much against his wish, that good fortune had come to him.

Ardeshir proved to be a very wise ruler. He initiated schemes to recruit youngsters as soldiers, trained them well in every manner and ably rewarded them. He also encouraged the scribes in his court. He also advised his officers to be kind, sympathetic, just and impartial towards the subjects.

Ardeshir abolished the ten percent tax that he had levied in his initial days as king. He had needed that amount to fight wars and establish his power. Now that his power was established, he no more needed that money and he also got regular taxes from his subject nations Rome, China, Tartar, Turkestan and North India.


Ardeshir tried to undo much of the damage done by Alexander the Macedonian. In terms of state, he did it by uniting the fragmented kingdoms, and in terms of religion, he did it by building his empire on the solid foundations of the Zoroastrian religion. He proudly proclaimed on his coins that he was a Mazdayasni, and had descended from the Yazads “divine beings”.

Ardeshir firmly believed that secular power and religion should go hand in hand. This is clearly depicted not only on his coins, but also on the coins minted by most subsequent Sassanian kings,  where on the reverse we see a fire-altar flanked by fully armed figures. The armed figures represent the secular power, and the fire represent the religion.

As a thanksgiving for establishment of the Sasanian empire, Ardeshir ordered Atash Behrams to be built at various places like Pars, Parthia, Babylonia, Azarbazan, Isfahan, Rae, Kerman, Sistan, Gurgan and Peshawar. Under Dastur Tansar, he started the work of collecting the 21 Volumes of Avestan texts, known as the 21 Nasks, mainly from the memory of priests.

Emperor Ardeshir, in order to quell the doubts of his subjects about whether religious rituals reach the other world or not,  made arrangements to send the soul of a very pious priest Ardā-Virāf (also referred as Ardāe Virāz) to the other world and find out whether heaven and hell really existed and whether rituals reached the souls. Ardā-Virāf was selected from among forty thousand priests to leave his bodily form on the earth. Under ritual conditions his soul visited the other world, met the divine beings and conversed with Ahura Mazda. After returning he had his account written down by scribes, which is available today in the Pahlavi language as the Ardā Virāf Nāmeh “The Book of Ardā-Virāf”.

Ardeshir and Shahpur

Shahpur also joined Ardeshir in his military expeditions. They fought many battles against the Romans, and were able to eject them from Mesopotamia and Syria. In fact many coins depict the father and son as co-rulers for about the last ten year’s of Ardeshir’s reign.

Passing away of Ardeshir

Ardeshir ruled as a king for forty years and as an emperor for fourteen years. When he was exhausted he called for his son Shahpur, gave him many admonitions, passed the mantle of kingship to him in 240 CE, and ruled with him for two years. He passed away in February 242 of natural causes. He had requested his son to have his mortal remains placed in the Dakhma after his passing away.

King Ardeshir’s last admonition to his son Shahpur.

Much of Ardeshir’s life and exploits have been recorded in the Pahlavi book Kārnāmak ī Artakshir Pāpakān “The exploits of Ardeshir Pāpakān”. He commissioned several rock reliefs of himself at Nakhsh-e-Rustom, Nakhsh-e-Rajab and Feruzabad.

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