SSS18. King Khushru / Cosroe I, Nosherwan Ādel (531-579) (Part 4)

Minister Maybud and his sons

Maybud was king Nosherwan’s trusted minister. He advised him in matters of religion and rituals. The king trusted him so much that he only ate food checked by Maybud or his two sons. Zurān, another senior minister was very envious of them. He tried to find ways and means to instigate the king against them, but was never successful.

Zurān had employed a Jewish servant in court who was in his debt. The servant knew black magic and he assured Zurān that he could kill Maybud and his sons with his black magic. Once when the king’s food was taken by the two sons, Zurān requested them to open the food, so that he could see it. The two youths opened the food, and at that moment the Jew cast a magic spell on it by his sight.

The king acts in haste

When the food reached the king, Zurān told him that the food was poisoned. He asked the bearers to taste them. The two bearers unsuspectingly tasted it and died on the spot. The king was furious and ordered Mehbud, his wife and sons to be killed. Zurān and the Jew came in the king’s favour, which was their desire since a long time. The king least suspected that they were the real culprits.

Zurān is caught

Once, when the king was to go hunting he saw the horse of Maybud. The sight of the horse reminded the king of his trusted minister, and he greatly grieved his loss. He could not believe that such a wise and righteous person could fall a prey to evil.

The evil Zurān was also a part of the king’s hunting entourage. As they were talking about other issues, the topic of black magic cropped up. The king said he did not believe in it, but Zurān said it was a fact. He further said that it is possible to turn any dish prepared from milk into poison by looking at it from afar. The king immediately started suspecting Zurān as he knew he was Maybud’s enemy.

The king summoned Zurān and asked him to recount the happenings before Maybud’s execution. The king detected a tremor in his voice and immediately realised that he was the culprit. On being interrogated, he confessed, but put the entire blame on the Jew.

The king atones for his mistake

The king immediately imprisoned Zurān and sent for the Jew. The Jew confessed the truth and also told him about Zurān’s role in the whole plot. Immediately, both of them were hanged.

As a mark of repentance, the king searched for the relatives of Mehbud and gave all of Zurān’s wealth to them. He agonized a lot and spent a long time in a pensive mood for hastily putting to death his trusted minister and his family. He sought forgiveness from God for his mistake.

War between Hephthalite and China

There was longstanding enmity between the kings of Hephthalite (Haetal) and China. The king (Khakan) of China was an ally of king Nosherwan, whereas the Hephthalite king was a descendant of Sasanian king Behram Gur, and so Nosherwan did not want them to fight.

The king of China did not heed Nosherwan’s counsel and attacked, but he was defeated. He started gathering a bigger army with the help of his allies to take revenge.

In the meantime king Nosherwan prepared a huge army and proceeded towards China. When the king of China came to know of this, he sent a letter seeking peace and requesting the king not to attack. King Nosherwan acceded to his request.

To ensure lasting peace between China and Iran, the king of China offered the hand of one of his daughters as a queen to king Nosherwan. The Iranian king accepted the offer and sent a wise man by the name Mehran Setād as his emissary to select a daughter who was not only beautiful, but also modest, wise and of a royal lineage, who could be his queen.

However, the king of China was not wanting to give his best princess in marriage, as he loved her very much. So he decided to give one of the four daughters of a lesser queen who was formerly a maid of the king Nosherwan.

After Mehran Setād reached China, he was taken into the queens’ harem where none was allowed to enter. There he was taken in a room where five princesses were sitting. Four were decked up in all finery and ornaments, but the fifth, the king’s favourite princess, was made to sit in simple clothes without ornaments, crown or make up. Mehran realised that the king was trying to fool him. He selected the girl with simple clothes. After some hesitation the king agreed to give his favourite daughter in wedding to the Iranian king.

The Khakan bid farewell to his daughter with forty maids and several precious gifts. He also sent a letter to king Nosherwan in which he highly praised him and expressed gratitude for his friendship. The Iranian emissary Mehran was also given handsome gifts. The Khakan accompanied the retinue till it crossed Jaihun river. Then winding its way through Marv, Bestām and Gorgān, they reached Ctesiphon in Iran where they were lovingly welcomed.

The Khakan gifted the cities of Turkestan, Sogdia, Samarkand and Chāch to the Iranian king and shifted his capital to Kāchār-bāshi. The chieftains of these regions approached the Iranian king with the request to make their lands prosperous, as they had all become barren. The king assured them of his help.

Golden reign of king Nosherwan

Nosherwan was overwhelmed by his good fortune. He went to the fire temple of Azar Goshasp, where with the Barsom in his hand, he recited from the Avesta before the fire. He handsomely donated wealth to the fire temple and also gave rich gifts to the priests serving there.

Iran was now experiencing the golden reign of Nosherwan where there was justice for everybody and all were happy. Even a thief would not pick up a fallen coin. All criminals were reformed and there was no oppression or violence. There was good produce in the farms, trade and commerce was prospering and there was happiness all around.

Counsels of Buzorg-meher

Nosherwan was fortunate to have the good guidance and counsel of ministers like Buzorg-meher. This wise ministers used to give valuable guidance and counsel to the king. Some of his well-known admonitions to the king are:

  • The only things remembered for a long time are good words and good deeds.
  • Always maintain innocence and be contented.
  • The worst man is he, who does not fear God.
  • There are ten vices, but men can protect himself from them using the armour of intelligence.
  • Effort and destiny both are important as they work hand in hand, like the body and soul. One is unseen, the other is seen.

(To be continued….)

SSS17. King Khushru / Cosroe I, Nosherwan Ādel (531-579) (Part 3)

The 3 dreams of King Nosherwan

Dreams of kings often carry a portend or a message. A recurring dream was always considered either a caution, a warning or a sign of things to come.

One night, king Nosherwan had three intriguing dreams. In the first dream he saw that a huge tree had grown next to his throne. To celebrate this, he called a party and was surprised when a wild boar walked in, sat next to him and started drinking wine from his cup.

After the first dream, he had two other dreams in succession. In the second dream he saw cows in the field drinking milk from their calves. In the third dream, the king saw five wells, one big in the centre and four smaller ones around it. The central well was full with water and it kept giving water to the smaller wells when they asked for it. But when the central well was drained of all water, and asked for some water from the surrounding wells, they refused to give back, resulting in the drying up of the central well. The king kept having these dreams for a few nights.

One morning, the agitated king summoned dream interpreters to explain these strange dreams, but none was able to decipher them. The king was keen to understand the message behind the dreams. He sent ministers and envoys to different parts of his kingdom to find a person who could interpret the dreams, offering gold coins as rewards.

Buzorg-meher is discovered

One of the messengers, Azad Sarv, reached the city of Mar, went to a Madressa where the Zoroastrian religion and religious scriptures were taught, and inquired with the teacher about the interpretation of dreams. The teacher politely expressed his inability to understand them. Just then, a bright young student named Buzorg-meher, who had overheard the conversation, volunteered to decipher their meaning. The teacher chastised him for eavesdropping, but Azad-Sarv encouraged him to respond and asked him for the interpretation.

The young student boldly maintained that he will explain the dreams only to the king. Azad-Sarv agreed, and made arrangements to take the young boy with him to the king. On the way, when they were resting, Azad-Sarv was surprised to see a black snake approach the sleeping Buzorg-meher, sniff him from head to toe and pass on after some time. This incident made Azad-Sarv realize that this was a special boy. He mentioned nothing about the snake to Buzorg-meher. After some time, the duo resumed the journey and reached the palace.

Azad-Sarv notices a black snake passing the sleeping Buzorg-meher. (Illustration by Mrs. Katie Bagli)

Interpretation of the dreams

The following day, Azad-Sarv presented Buzorg-meher to the king, and recounted all that had happened. The king summoned the young boy and narrated the dreams to him.

As the interpretation of the first dream, Buzorg-meher stated that a man dressed as a woman was staying in the king’s harem, among the ladies. He asked the king to make all the ladies in the harem walk past him.

At first the king was reluctant, but then agreed to allow them to pass with their faces covered. The ladies were made to walk past the king and Buzorg-meher with their faces covered, but no male was spotted. However, Buzorg-meher insisted that there was a man among the women. He once again made the ladies pass before him and then declared that he had found the guilty person. The king was surprised and asked him, how he had found out. Buzorg-meher replied that he was able to identify the man by the gait of his walk.

The king summoned the man who came dressed as a woman. He was the half-brother of one of the queens, who was the daughter of the governor of Chāj province. The brother was very fond of his sister and wanted to accompany her wherever she went, and hence the queen had brought him with her. The king was furious. He immediately ordered them to be executed. However, their lives were saved by the timely intervention of Buzorg-meher, who asked for a mercy-plea for them.

Buzorg-meher then explained the meaning of the second dream in which the king had seen cows in the field drinking milk from their calves. He told the king that this dream conveyed that in his kingdom some parents forced their children to work as labourers, and subsisted on their income. Upon investigation, the king found this to be true and he passed stringent laws against child labour.

Then Buzorg-meher went on to explain the third and the last dream, in which the king saw five wells, one big in the centre and four smaller ones around it. Buzorg-meher explained that the central well symbolised parents and the smaller wells represented their children. The parents gave huge sacrifices and spent their entire fortune raising their children. However, after growing up, the children abandon their parents. The central well drained of all water symbolized the parents living in dire poverty during their old age, and dying of hunger. The king got this matter investigated and passed legislations regarding the responsibility of children to look after their parents in old age.

Buzorg-meher is made an advisor

The king was highly impressed by the wisdom of Buzorg-meher. He decided to groom him and later give him a place amongst his cabinet of ministers. He made preparations for his further studies in the palace itself. After a few years, Buzorg-meher turned out to be not only wiser than other ministers, he also showed a greater grasp in administrating the kingdom. He had even gathered extensive knowledge of medicine and astrology. 

One day the king invited all his ministers and asked them to enrich him with their wise words.  When it was Buzorg-meher’s turn, he exhorted the king about many wise things, like:

1. Not to mindlessly amass wealth, as this world is a transitory place.

2. The nature of man depended on what types of desires he had.

3. Wise men should keep their body in this world and mind in the spiritual world.

Buzorg-meher compared the king to a shepherd and the subjects to his flock. He asked the courtiers and the subjects to always be faithful to the king. Everyone was impressed by his wise words and praised him. Awe-struck at the wisdom of this young man, the king presented him with gold coins. (End of Part 3….to be continued)

SSS16. King Khushru / Cosroe I, Nosherwan Ādel (531-579) (Part 2)

The Great Wall

Once when the king went to tour his kingdom, he noticed that in the northern part, land was uncultivated and people were unhappy. On enquiring he was told that Turks and Huns from the North used to attack and loot people and hence they were scared to go out. The king immediately ordered a senior minister to have a series of huge defensive walls built around the place to protect the subjects against enemy tribes. The wall should start from the sea, be very high and must be made of lime and stone. Within a short time a wall was erected in the north-east along the Gurgan plains. Now, people lived fearlessly and the land started prospering.

These Persian Walls were similar to the Hadrian Wall of the Romans and the Great Wall of China. Four such walls were built, one in the north-east along the Gurgan plain, one in the north-west at the Caucasus passes, one in the south-east and one in south-west against the Arabs.

Remains of the Gurgan Wall

Military campaigns

The administrative and economic reforms of king Nosherwan reflected in his military success. In the west, he concluded a favourable treaty “The Eternal Peace” with Roman emperor Justinian in 535. The war with Armenia lasted a long time from 541 to 557 resulting in a truce. Between 557 and 558, he defeated the Hephthalites in the east. From 572 to 577 he checked the Turkic incursions into the north-east.

In 565, when Justin II became the Roman emperor, he started a war, which proved disastrous for him. By 573, he had lost parts of Caucasus, Mesopotamia and Syria. He appealed for peace and agreed to pay forty thousand gold coins. He also lost the fort of Dara to the Iranians. Soon after this humiliating defeat, Justin II lost his sanity.

The new emperor Tiberius in 578 continued the wars with Sasanians at Armenia with mixed fortunes. The Roman general Maurice kept on the fighting and later attempted to engage in peace negotiations, but in the same year the Iranian king passed away.

King Munzer of Arbastan

The Shahnameh tells us about the time when king Nosherwan went to Madayan. On the way, he saw a huge army from a distance. The commander of the army came to the king, introduced himself as king Munzer from Arbastan, and told him that though he had accepted his sovereignty, the Roman Caesar had attacked him. The king was very angry. He sent a messenger to the Caesar to inform him that Munzer was under his protection and he will not tolerate if he was attacked or harmed him in any way.  The Caesar   rebuked the messenger and replied that he would continue attacking Arbastan.

When the messenger informed Nosherwan of the Caesar’s reply, he decided to teach him a lesson. He selected a hundred thousand of his best soldiers, gave them to Munzer and asked him to take them along with his army and attack Rome.

Nosherwan sent a letter to the Caesar in which he told him that if he did not respect their treaty and attacked the countries under him, he will have no recourse but to retaliate. The Caesar replied that he was not under him and was free to do what he wanted. He reminded him how Alexander the Macedonian had destroyed Iran in the past. The Caesar further said that he was just settling scores with the Arabs who had looted Rome in the past.

When the messenger returned to the king, he pondered over the rebellious reply of the Caesar, consulted his ministers for three days and then decided to attack the Romans. With a huge army, he proceeded towards Rome. On the way he offered prayers and paid respect to the sacred fire of Adar Goshasp at the Azar Abadagan fire temple. He appointed Shiroy son of Behram as the Commander of the army and allotted different sections of the army to commanders Farhad, Ustad (son of Barzin), Gushasp, Mehran, and Hormazd (son of Kharrad). He strictly instructed his soldiers not to harass or loot civilians, nor destroy their properties or harm their fields.

Nosherwan proceeded towards Rome conquering on the way, the forts of Shurāb and Arāyesh. Just then, he got the news that the Caesar had sent an army under commander Beliserius to meet his army, and it was on its way. In the battle that ensued, the Roman army was defeated and its commander had to flee. On the way, Nosherwan captured the fort of Kalinius. From there he proceeded to Antioch. He was very much impressed with its beauty and did not attack it. Nearby he established a beautiful city and called it Zibe-Nosherwan.  In this city he rehabilitated the Roman prisoners of war. He gave the reigns of this city to a local Christian and asked him to take care of it. The triumphant king then returned to Iran.

When the Caesar came to know of the might of Nosherwan’s army, he had second thoughts about going to war with him. He conferred with the elders of his empire who advised him not to fight against the Iranian king. He sent a delegation of sixty wise men, under the leadership of Mihraz to Nosherwan, apologised for challenging him and sent him a lot of treasure and taxes. The Iranian king accepted the gifts and the apology and demanded such taxes every year, along with the assurance that he will not go near Yaman and Arbastan.

Rebel Prince Nushzad

King Nosherwan had a Christian queen, who had a son named Nushzad. The king was disappointed as the son had Christian leanings. Before leaving for Rome, he had kept him under house arrest at Shahpur-gard far away from the capital, as he was concerned that the young prince may easily be instigated and misled.

After an elated yet exhausted Nosherwan returned to Iran, he needed time to rest and recuperate. Hence he did not meet anybody, which gave rise to the rumour that the king had died on the way. When this rumour reached Nushzad, he fled from the house arrest after taking money from his mother. He then collected a thirty thousand strong army and started attacking and capturing Iranian provinces.

He wrote a letter to the Kaisar, to whom he was related, saying that he was fortunate that his father Nosherwan had died. Claiming to belong to the same race and religion as the Kaisar, he not only offered him his loyalty, but also the whole country of Iran, and called himself a vassal of the Kaisar.

Ram-barzin, the elderly ruler of Madayan got a whiff of this letter and informed the king, who was very much pained at his son’s behaviour, since he dearly loved him. He wrote a letter to Ram-barzin asking him to put an end to Nushzad’s activities and preferably take him prisoner. If he resisted, they should take him captive by force, but care should be taken that he should be kept with care and dignity in his own palace.

On receiving the letter, Rambarzin prepared to attack. When Nushzad came to know of this, he prepared his army under the command of Shamsās. A large part of his army comprised of Romans including Christian priests. The Roman commander tried to persuade Nushzad against fighting his own father and asked him to seek forgiveness. The arrogant Nushzad flatly refused to apologise and initiated the battle, in which he lost his life. Before dying he expressed the desire to be buried in a coffin like a Christian at the hands of his mother. His heavily injured body, ridden with arrows was taken to her mother, where the distraught queen received it with an extremely heavy heart. The entire city of Junde-Shahpur joined the king and the queen in their grief.(End of Part 2….to be continued)

SSS15. King Khushru / Cosroe I, Nosherwan Ādel (531-579) (Part I)

In the previous post, we had already seen the glimmer of greatness of this Sasanian king who had defeated the heretic Mazdak in discussions and hence proved his claim to the throne, though being the youngest amongst princes.

King Khushru I, better known as Nosherwan Ādel, is one of the most illustrious of the Sasanian kings, who is known for his legendary justice. During his reign Mohammad, the prophet of Islam was born, and many other significant events took place, with which we are connected even today.

His reign of almost half a century can be regarded as the Golden Period of Sasanian history. So read on……..

King Nosherwan on a plate
King Nosherwan on a coin

Though the courtiers and clergy favoured the younger son Khushru as the new king, the Mazdakites supported Kobad’s eldest son Kaus as his successor, as he was favourably inclined towards them. , and even the late king was in his favour. Kaus, who was the Governor of Tabaristan tried to get the throne but was not successful. Khushru had to deal very sternly with his brothers and uncles who were trying to usurp the throne by indulging in court conspiracies and intrigues. Khushru succeeded in overcoming all oppositions and became the king. He was the fourth and youngest son of king Kobad, and yet the wisest and the bravest. It was for these qualities that he was preferred as the heir to the throne by his father as well as the courtiers.

Statue at the Courthouse of Tehran depicting King Nosherwan giving justice

Due to his fairness and justice he was known by his titles Nosherwan “immortal” and Ādel “just.”  He was also referred to as Kisra, which was a modified form of his name Khushru. The Romans referred to him as Cosroes. His reign was one of the best in the annals of Iranian history. In this narrative, we will refer to him as Nosherwan, so as not to confuse him with Khushru II, that is, Khushru Purviz.

Patron of art and learning

Khushru was a lover of art, literature and learning. Incidentally he ruled around the same time as emperor Justinian, another lover of art and philosophy, ruled over Rome. Even then, the Roman referred to Nosherwan as the “true philosopher king”. He was open to accepting ideas from people of any religion or nationality. Nosherwan’s reign of almost fifty years was the most glorious era of Sasanian rule and can be considered an Iranian renaissance in learning, music, arts, architecture and trade.

The king was an avid patron of learning and philosophy. Wise men from India and Rome were welcomed to his court. Works brought by them in Sanskrit, Greek and Syrian on various subjects like medicine, astronomy, music and philosophy were translated into Iranian languages.

The early forms of the games of Chess and Back-gammon were introduced in Iran during his reign. Bastān-nāmeh and Khudā-nāmeh, books of ancient history on which the Shahnameh was based, were also written during his reign.

Whereas in Rome, emperor Justinian closed down the School of Athens in 529, Nosherwan built a renowned library and center of higher learning and medicine in the town of Junde-Shahpur. Other universities too were built at Tabriz, Shiz, Marv, Ctesiphon and Babylon.

On account of advances in medical science the first bimāristān “hospital” was established which had segregated wards according to pathology. Greek pharmacology and Indian medicines too were practiced here.

Administrative changes

Nosherwan is credited to have introduced many administrative changes. One of his first reforms was to take into confidence grass-root level workers, the dehkāns “the small land-owners”, and take their help in organizing the society. They later became the backbone of the Sasanian military and economy.

Another administrative change he introduced soon after assuming the throne, was to discontinue the Satrapy system and instead divide his kingdom into four divisions. The first division covered the area around Khorasan (Central Asia), the second around Qom, Esfahan and Azarbaizan (Caucasus), the third around Pars, Ahvaz and Khazar (Persian Gulf) and the fourth around Iraq and Rome (Mesopotamia).

The king announced to his subjects that he was accessible and available to all at any time. He sternly warned his officers of dire consequences if they harassed any of his subjects. People started feeling safe in his reign and the country started prospering.

When kings of India, China and Rome came to know about the peace and prosperity in Iran, and the might of king Nosherwan, they dreaded him and sent taxes and gifts on time.


The early Sasanian kings used to tax the produce of the farmers either at 33% or 25 %. Nosherwan’s father Kobad had reduced the tax to 10%. Nosherwan abolished the 10% tax and started a new system of taxation which became quite popular.

He levied a very nominal tax based on the area of land tilled by the farmer. Orchards were taxed on the basis of number of trees. The taxes had to be paid in three installments every four months. If the crops failed due to natural reasons, the farmers did not have to pay taxes. Nosherwan also established a separate ministry for taxation.

Farmers who had land but did not have the money to invest in sowing and cultivation, were given loans by the Agriculture Ministry to buy grains for sowing as well as equipment and cattle for tilling.

The king submits to his own justice

Once, king Nosherwan instructed his minister Babak to inspect the army. The following day, Babak ordered the army to gather for inspection, but sent it back after some time. He repeated this on the second and third day too, saying that the assembly was incomplete. Babak repeatedly sent back the army as he expected the king to come for the inspection too, since the king being the commander, was also a part of the army. The king who watched the proceedings, realized the motive behind Babak’s behavior. The following day, he presented himself before the minister in full battle regalia along with the army. Like other soldiers, he submitted himself to tests of agility and reflexes. Then, on Babak’s command he also collected his wages along with the other soldiers.

King Nosherwan submitting for inspection with other soldiers ( Illustration by Mrs. Katy Bagli)

After the inspection was over, Babak came to the king and apologized for treating him like a soldier. The king commended the minister and rewarded him for sticking to his duty.

Conscription of soldiers

Once the minister of wars told the king that he required more money to recruit new soldiers. The king realised that he had no budget for expenses on soldiers, and to get the money he would have to tax his subjects, which he did not want.

He devised an ingenious plan. He asked his ministers, noblemen and subjects to send their sons for free military training so that in times of war they could be of help and they would not feel helpless when attacked by enemies. They would learn to ride a horse and handle weapons. Everybody liked the idea and so Noshirwan had the biggest army, without having to pay the soldiers or tax the subjects.

(End of Part I….to be continued)

SSS14. Kings Balāsh/Palāsh (484-487), Kobād I (487-496 & 498-591) and Jamasp (496-498)

Balāsh/Palāsh (484-487)

King Balash/Palash

One month after king Piruz’s death, Balāsh occupied the throne. Sufrāy decided to avenge his king’s death. He prepared a strong army and sent a message to the Hephthalite king, announcing his arrival to take revenge of the senseless death of his king. Khushnawaz, who by now had occupied Marv and Herat, pleaded innocence, saying that it was Piruz who had broken the truce and hence displeased God. However, he showed readiness to fight Sufrāy.

Sufrāy and his son Zaremeher attacked and quickly decimated the Hephthalite army. The battlefield was lined with dead bodies. A defeated Khushnawaz requested Sufrāy to stop the attack and offered to give him back everything taken from the Iranians and free the prisoners. Sufrāy accepted the proposal and asked him to release crown prince Kobad, princess Piruz-dokht and high priest Ardeshir. Sufrāy and Kobad then returned to Iran amidst triumphant celebrations arranged by Balāsh. A few years later Sufrāy asked Balāsh to vacate the throne and hand it over to Kobad who according to him was a better administrator. Balāsh grudgingly acceded to this request.

Kobad I (first reign) (487-496)

King Kobad I (Notice the crescenct moon and star on the obverse rim, much before the advent of Islam)

Kobad shifted his capital from Istakhra to Ctesiphon. In the initial years of his reign, he had to contend with the Turkik Khazars who had established their kingdom between the Don and Volga rivers. They came through the Caucasus passes and raided Armenia, Albania and Azarbaizan. Kobad was successful in crushing the Khazar forces. To check their invasions, a fortress was built at the place of their entry.

In 510 CE, Sufrāy, content with life, shifted back to his hometown Shiraz, confident that Kobad would always be grateful to him for making him the king. However, some evil courtiers instigated Kobad by telling him that Sufrāy was more powerful, popular and loved than the king. He was told that Sufrāy had plans to rebel against him. The instigation worked on Kobad, and he asked Shahpur Rāzi, Sufrāy’s only enemy to go and bring Sufrāy. Shahpur took a small army and proceeded to Shiraz. When Sufrāy came to know of this he too prepared an army.

When Shahpur met Sufrāy, he told him of his king’s orders. Sufrāy was very disappointed but accepted his orders and went to him. Kobad immediately threw him into a prison and attached all his wealth and property.

Kobad’s ministers informed him that all subjects were heavily in favour of Sufrāy and were sympathetic towards him. If he was alive he would be a grave danger to the king. Hearing this, Kobad ordered Sufrāy to be executed. This act of Kobad, greatly alienated him in the eyes of his subjects and ministers.

Mazdak, the heretic

Several years into the reign of king Kobad, a Syrian by the name Mazdak, son of Bāmdād, having extreme socialistic ideas, came into the court claiming to be a prophet. In his younger days, he was a member of the Manichaean movement. He had been preaching his doctrines in western Iran since 484 CE. The basis of his teachings was the outrageous socialist idea, that there should be no individual right or affiliation to wealth, property and women, and they should be shared by all, since wealth, property and women give rise to the five vices of jealousy, anger, revenge, greed and lust.

Mazdak was a clear threat to the established Zoroastrian religion and its clergy. His teachings downplayed the role of hard work, rituals and ceremonies in the religion and instead preferred asceticism as the way of life. Mazdak had thousands of followers in a short time, most of them from the lowest rung of society. Kobad was highly influenced by Mazdak and appointed him his minister and treasurer. The execution of Sufrāy, compounded by his close proximity to Mazdak, made the clergy and nobility rise in rebellion against their king.  In 496 CE they chained Kobad in the old fort of Anoshbard in Khuzestan, and made his younger brother Jamasp, the king.

Jamasp (496-498)

King Jamasp I

Jamasp is king for two years

In 496 CE, Jamasp, the younger brother of Kobad, was made the king. Jamasp went on to fight in Armenia, where he defeated the Khazars, and conquered some of their territory. There he married an Armenian woman from a royal family, who bore him a son named Narseh. In his brief reign, Jamasp minted coins which had the fire altar on the reverse side.

The angry subjects had entrusted Kobad to Zaremeher, son of Sufrāy. However, this noble person forgave Kobad and instead pledged his support and helped him flee the prison, which made the king very repentant. He decided to repay this act of nobility in future. Since Kobad had stayed with the Hephthalite king as his hostage, he had developed strong ties with him, which helped now. He sought the help of the Hephthalite king and got an army from him. He also married his daughter. In return the Hephthalite king asked for the town of Chagan and its treasures, to which Kobad agreed.

Kobad I (second reign) (498-531)

Kobad regains throne

After peacefully regaining the throne, Kobad prepared an army of forty thousand soldiers, and with the help of Zaremeher marched into Ahwaz, and then into the capital city of Ctesiphon. Jamasp peacefully yielded the throne back, and thus Kobad regained his crown in 498 CE. The Iranian people requested him not to harm the young Jamasp. In due course, Kobad’s queen gave birth to a beautiful boy who was named Khushru. As he grew up, he was entrusted to teachers for his royal training.

In the second part of his rule which lasted for about thirty years, Kobad had to always be alert for incursions from three fronts, Hephthalites from the east, Romans from the west and Arabs from the south.

First Byzanto-Persian war

In 502, Kobad himself launched a full-scale invasion of Byzantine during the rule of emperor Anastasius (491-518), as the Roman emperor had stopped paying taxes. This resulted in the first Byzanto-Persian war.

Initially, the city of Theodosiopolis fell and then Amida fell in 503 after an eighty day siege. However Kobad was not able to hold on to Amida for long. The Roman emperor sent re-inforcements and Kobad had to surrender Amida in 504. In 505, a seven year peace treaty was concluded with the Romans.

Second Byzanto-Persian war

In 526 CE, when Kobad was busy fighting the Hephthalites, some of the Roman commanders made encroachments in Iranian territory. The king complained to the Roman emperor Anastasius, but he did not help, and after his death, Julian, the emperor that followed, too did not pay heed. So Kobad marched into Lezica, and then into Mesopotamia in 527, and defeated the Romans. In 527 Kobad had to battle in Mesopotamia with the Arabs, the Huns and the Romans, all at the same time.

Emperor Justin died in 528 and his nephew Justinian became the emperor. There was a war between Persian commander Firuz and Roman commander Belisarius at the fort of Dara, in which the Romans won with the help of Massagetae soldiers. Till 531, battles continued with the Romans in Armenia, Georgia and Lazica with changing fortunes.

Kobad fought the Hephthalites almost continuously for ten years. But after that, they were defeated so emphatically, that their power in Iran diminished drastically and they were not heard of much.

Death of Mazdak

The influence of Mazdak and his socialist teachings had to be tolerated by Kobad and his court. Once Mazdak’s chief followers plotted against the king, planning to have him replaced by one of the princes, who was their disciple and hence would be their puppet. They were planning to make Mazdakism the state religion. When Kobad became aware of this plot, he feigned readiness for abdication, called all the leading supporters of Mazdak for a meeting and had all of them murdered.

Mazdak and Khushru debating in the court.

Prince Khushru, now a young man, was not at all impressed by Mazdak’s ideas. Moreover, Mazdak also made a claim on Kobad’s queen, who was Khushru’s mother, which greatly infuriated Khushru. Mazdak complained to the king that his son was not accepting his teachings. On being summoned, Khushru told his father that he would reveal the hollowness of Mazdak’s teachings and prove his treachery in six months. In the meanwhile Khushru minutely studied the teachings of Mazdak and challenged him to an open debate.

Mazdak was defeated in the debate, his lies were exposed and he was sentenced to death along with his three thousand disciples.

From 524 to 528, Kobad allowed Khushru to unleash a campaign of persecution against the Mazdakites. Some followers fled to Syria, Arabia and Rome. Khushru systematically tried to destroy the traces of Mazdakism.

But the long exposure of the Iranian society to Mazdak’s teachings had already done considerable damage. The philosophy of Mazdak had been so widespread that it continued for a long time even after his death. A few of Mazdak’s followers are believed to have existed in Afghanistan and nearby places till recent times.

Kobad’s religious policy

Kobad had a tolerant religious policy. He represented himself as an advocate of orthodox Zoroastrianism.  However he did not harm the Christians under him either, and they practiced their religion without any persecution.

Like his predecessors, Kobad too built had Atash Behrams and had them maintained well. On many of his coins the fire altars figure prominently on the reverse.

End of Kobad I

Kobad’s long reign was marked by internal fighting and contending with Mazdak on one side, and fight with the Romans, Huns and Arabs on the other. He fought bravely till the very end in all his battles, and himself directed the forces in most of them. He ruled for forty years and passed away at the age of eighty two, after which he was ceremoniously laid to rest in the Dakhma.

SSS13. Kings Yazdezard II (440-457), Hormazd III (457-458) & Piruz I (458-484)

Yazdezerd II (440-457)

Yezdezard II on a silver coing

Yazdezerd II, the son of Behram V, was an illustrious king. He was the first Sasanian king to assume the title Kae which adorned the Kayanian kings of yore.

Though Firdausi does not mention anything about him, we know from Western historians that he was a brave and fearless king.

The Roman emperor Theodosius II had violated the previous treaty and started building forts on the Iranian border near Carrhae.  Immediately after assuming the throne, Yazdezerd II made his intentions clear. He asked the Roman emperor to stop building forts on the Iranian border, or else he would attack. The Roman emperor was not prepared for the war, and hence he commanded Anatolius, the Roman governor of Asian provinces to stop building the forts. After the Romans offered a truce on his terms, the war was averted.

When the Hephthalites invaded the eastern part of Iran, Yazdezerd entrusted the throne to his brother Meher-Narsi, and himself went for war. After several battles, the Hephthalites were forced to flee. However, after a few years the Hephthalites once again attacked Khorasan, and Yazdezerd once again defeated them.

A staunch Zoroastrian

Yazdezerd was not only courageous, he was also a very devout Zoroastrian himself, and a true defender of the Zoroastrian faith. He sent his brother Meher-Narsi to Armenia, an Iranian province, to curb the activities of Christian missionaries over there. After prolonged warfare, the Zoroastrians of Armenia who had been converted to Christianity were brought back into the Zoroastrian fold, some by persuasion and some by threat.

Yazdezerd had two sons, Piruz and Hormazd. The king did not want his elder son Piruz to succeed him and hence, during his lifetime, he made him the governor of Sistan. Yazdezerd II ruled for 18 years till he peacefully passed away in 457.

Hormazd III (457-458)

Hormazd II on a Plate, hunting lions

Yazdezerd II’s younger son Hormazd succeeded him. His brother Piruz wanted to get the throne which he believed was rightfully his. He approached Khushnawaz, the Hephthalite king for help. At first the king refused, but then he promised to give an army of thirty thousand soldiers in return for two provinces, to which Piruz agreed. With this army Piruz went to claim his right to the throne.

As there was no animosity between the two brothers, Hormazd surrendered the throne and Piruz allowed him to stay in the palace. Some accounts state that Hormazd was captured and executed by Piruz.

Piruz I (458-484)

Gold coin of Piruz I. On the reverse is fire altar with attendants
Piruz II – Hunting scene on a Plate

Piruz I, the elder son of King Yazdezerd II and brother of Hormazd III, then became the king.

Seven years’ famine

Six years, into his reign, a deadly famine struck the empire, which went on for seven years, from 464 to 471. It devastated the crops and ruined the country. Wells dried up and there was not a trickle of water either in the Tigris or the Euphrates rivers. On account of the failure of crops, thousands of people and animals perished. Corpses and carcasses were seen strewn all over the country.

Corpses and carcasses during the 7 year famine

Piruz showed great firmness in dealing with the catastrophe. He stopped collecting taxes and asked the rich to give grains to the poor assuring them payment from his own treasury. He made efforts to import food grains from India, Greece and Abyssinia to fight the famine. He even offered to buy grains from granaries and he personally distributed grains to avoid favouritism. People were instructed to offer prayers to secure divine help.

As a result of the measures taken by the king, and on account of his wisdom and benevolence, the empire recovered from the famine and a greater tragedy was averted.

First war with the Hephthalites

In 464, taking advantage of the famine, Khushnawaz showed signs of rebellion, so Piruz attacked him. However, when he failed to subdue him, Piruz sought peace, offering the hand of his daughter to the Hephthalite king. Khushnawaz was happy with this arrangement. However, instead of his own daughter, Piruz sent another lady dressed as the princess. The ruse was soon discovered by Khushnawaz, and he flew into a rage, killing and maiming several Iranian war prisoners who were with him.

The second war

This move angered Piruz and he declared a war against Khushnawaz in 469 CE. When Khushnawaz came to know about the attack, he sent a letter to Piruz reminding him of the truce with Behram V, and asked him to honour it. Piruz replied that it was he who had broken the truce by extending the boundary of his kingdom from the river Tarak to the river Jaihun. Khushnawaz sent him the old truce showing that his boundary was indeed till river Jaihun. Piruz did not accept this boundary and continued his attack.

Piruz’s forces went straight into the enemy territory, and the Hephthalite seemed to be retreating. However, Khushnawaz was leading the Iranian army into a deadly trap. They were totally surrounded and became sitting targets. Piruz and his soldiers were captured. Khushnawaz imposed four humiliating conditions for their release. First, Piruz should ask for forgiveness by kneeling before him, second he should surrender the hostages, third he had to pay money for his release and taxes thereafter, and fourth he should never again challenge the Hephthalites nor pass the boundary demarcated by a pillar which would be set by Khushnawaz.

Piruz was agreeable to all the conditions accept kneeling before Khushnawaz. However, his priests and advisors showed him a way out. They advised Piruz to bow before the rising sun in the east which would lead Khushnawaz to believe that he was bowing to him. Piruz did accordingly and secured his release.

The third war

Piruz, anxious to avenge the two humiliating defeats, prepared for a third war against Khushnawaz in 484 CE. Though he was bound under the treaty not to cross the demarcating pillar, he prepared a huge army which included three hundred elephants. He took charge of the army and appointed his son Kobad as commander. He made his younger son Balāsh/Palāsh the temporary king under the guidance of Sufrāy, a wise provincial ruler from Shiraz of the Surren-Pahlav family. Some European historians consider Balāsh to be the younger brother of Piruz. When Khushnawaz came to know of the imminent attack, he once again devised a dangerous trap for the Iranians. He had a wide and deep moat dug around his army camp, measuring sixty feet by thirty feet, and had it camouflaged. Then he feigned a mock attack, instructing his army not to go beyond the moat and he and his army beat a retreat from that point. The unsuspecting Iranian army chased the Hephthalites and fell into the moat.

The king, his family and soldiers fallen in a moat.

Seven leaders of Piruz’s army, including the king himself fell into the moat and died. Prince Kobad, princess Piruz-dokht and high priest Ardeshir survived and were taken prisoners. Several soldiers lost their lives. Balāsh and the Iranian people were shocked at the tragic deaths of their king, his family and several soldiers in the moat. The Hephthalites were now the masters of north eastern Iran.

Devout nature of Piruz I

The devout nature of Piruz was revealed at the difficult time of famine during his reign, when, after taking several stern and practical measures, he even instructed his subjects to pray to God for securing help. He even established and looked after Atash Behrams. Images of fire altars are see on the reverse of his coins.