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.

SSS12. King Behram V, Behram-gur (419-439) (Part 4, concluded)

King Behram V, Behram-gur – The brave, daring, dashing, adventurous, ace hunter, warrior king (Part 4, concluded)

Seven questions

After Behram had left for Azarbaizan, an ambassador of the Roman Kaizar had come to visit king Behram.  The acting king Narseh met him and asked him to wait till the return of the king. After Behram returned, a minister reminded the king that the Roman ambassador, who was an old and dignified man, was still in the palace, waiting to see him. The following day the king summoned him and explained the reasons for the delay in seeing him.

The ambassador replied that he was highly impressed at the way the Iranian nation was functioning and prospering. He then conveyed that the Kaizar had sent him to ask seven questions to the king and his wise men. The king summoned his court and the ambassador asked the questions, to which the ministers answered:

Q 1. What thing is always inside?

Answer: Air

Q 2. What thing is always outside?

Answer: Sky

Q 3. What is always above?

Answer: Heaven

Q 4. What is always below?

Answer: Hell

Q 5. What is limitless?

Answer: God

Q 6. What is useless?

Answer: Attempting to go against the will of God

Q 7. What has many names and which rules the world?

Answer: Intelligence

The Ambassador was highly impressed by the replies. The king was also very happy, and rewarded the ministers. Later in the day, one of the ministers asked the ambassador “What harmful work makes us cry and what beneficial work helps man reach a high position?” To this the ambassador replied, “A task wisely done always leads us to a high position and work done with immaturity makes one cry.” The minister did not agree with this answer. He said, “The death of an innocent man should make us cry and the death of an evil person helps the world to progress.” The ambassador appreciated the minister’s explanation.  Then the king gave the ambassador several gifts and he returned to his native land.

Indian king Shangal

One day the minister informed king Behram that Shangal, the king of Kanouj in India, was demanding taxes from the provinces of Sindh and China, which were under Iranian authority. The minister warned the king that if Shangal was not checked he would be a threat to Iran and his throne.

The king decided to tackle the problem in his own way. He himself decided to visit India, disguised as an ambassador from Iran, calling himself Burzu. He asked his minister to have a letter written to Shangal which he himself would deliver. The minister ordered a letter to be written on a silken cloth in the Pahlavi language, in which he advised Shangal to act wisely and not in a way which may be harmful to him. He asked him to accept the authority of the Iranian king and pay him taxes through the envoy who was coming to him.  With this letter, Behram left incognito for India, with a few trusted noblemen.

In the court of Shangal, Behram was given due respect as the envoy of the Iranian king and was made to sit on a golden chair. When Shangal asked him to speak, he started singing praises of his king. Then he handed over the letter to Shangal, who was annoyed at reading it. He started talking about his might, power and wealth and said that he would never bow to Iran. He even threatened to behead the ambassador who had brought the letter.

Behram requested him not to get excited. He put an offer before him, that if anybody from his kingdom could win against him either in a debate or in mace-duel, he should not ask for any taxes from Iran. Shangal did not agree with the offer, but nevertheless asked Behram to stay at his palace.

In the festivities that followed, Shangal saw Behram’s prowess in wrestling, archery and polo, and was highly impressed. However, doubts started creeping in his mind as he did not expect an ambassador to be such an accomplished person. From his looks and prowess, Shangal observed that the ambassador may either be a close relative or a brother of the king. Upon asking, Behram responded in the negative. He asked to be allowed to go to Iran, to which Shangal declined.

Struck by Behram’s looks and prowess, Shangal desired to keep him back in Kanouj as his advisor and a commander. He asked his ministers to get to know him better. Upon inquiries, Behram introduced himself as Barzu and clarified that he was loyal to his own king and had no intentions to serve another king. The answer was conveyed to Shangal who was very disappointed.

Behram fights a wolf and an Azdah

Shangal tried to test Behram further. In a forest next to his kingdom lived a gigantic ferocious wolf, which even scared lions. Shangal asked Behram to slay the wolf and free his kingdom from its harassment.

Behram asked for a guide and set out to slay the beast. The guide left after showing Behram the hiding place of the beast. Soon the gigantic wolf emerged and Behram started shooting arrows at it. After some time, the wolf lay injured. Behram went near it and slew it with his sword. Then he ordered the soldiers to carry the dead beast to the king. The king organized a party to celebrate this heroic feat. However he did not want Beharam to return to Iran. He feared that such a formidable person in Iran would be a great threat to him. So he entrusted him one last mission, that of killing an Azdah. Behram took up the challenge. He went with a guide and thirty trusted men. He first injured the Azdah with poisoned arrows and then fell him with his sword.

King Behram V killing the Azdah

Shangal did not expect Behram to succeed. He felt his warriors were no match for Iranians. The thought that Behram would return to Iran and talk about his success depressed him. He decided to have Behram killed. He asked his courtiers, who guided him not to kill the ambassador as it would reflect very badly on them and invite the wrath of the Iranians.

Shangal cooked up another plan to dissuade Behram from returning to Iran. The following day he called him in privacy, offered him the hand of one of his daughters and promised to make him his successor. Behram considered this as his only option of a safe return to Iran.  He agreed to marry on the condition that the king let him select his most beautiful daughter. The king agreed, and so Behram selected princess Sapinud and married her. Seven days of festivities followed.

When the king of China came to know that Shangal had become too friendly and given his daughter in marriage to an Iranian ambassador who had done heroic deeds, he sent a letter to the ambassador praising his valour and requested him to be his guest. He further assured him that he would let him return to Iran whenever he would like. Behram declined this offer.

Behram returns to Iran

Sapinud loved Behram and pined for him all day. One day, Behram revealed to her his intention of running away to Iran and asked her whether she would be willing to accompany him. Sapinud readily agreed and assured him that she will not reveal this secret to anyone. She suggested that in a few days there will be a big celebration where Shangal and other courtiers would go. He should refrain from going by feigning illness, and then in the dark of the night they would flee. The plan worked, and so, on the day of the celebrations, Behram and Sapinud bought a boat from Iranian merchants, and set sail into the sea.

When Shangal came to know of this, he followed them, and soon caught up with them. When he rebuked them for their unfaithfulness, Behram revealed his identity as the king of Iran, which pacified Shangal. After giving promises to be friends and supporting each other, the two kings went to their respective kingdoms.

Behram was welcomed by his sons Yazdezerd and Narseh, his ministers and the Iranian people. He assured his subjects of impartial justice and asked them to approach him fearlessly whenever they needed his help. He then visited the Adar Gushasp fire temple and did a lot of charity to priests and poor people.

Shangal approaches Behram

Now with his daughter married in Iran, Shangal decided to visit Behram, to see the workings of the great and powerful king as well as to meet his daughter. He sought permission from Behram who readily sent him an invitation.

Shangal set off for Iran with his army, lots of gifts, and 7 ally kings from Kabul, Hind, Sindh, Sandal, Jandal, Kashmir and Multan. However he did not inform the king of China about his visit. When Shangal neared Iran, Behram went with his army to receive them. Both of them met warmly and then Behram brought Shangal and his retinue to the palace, where a sumptuous feast was organized.

There was a very emotional meeting between Shangal and his daughter Sapinud, where both cried their hearts out. He gave her the gifts that he had brought for her. Shangal was highly impressed with her magnificent palace, ivory throne and lavish lifestyle, which was much superior to her native place.

Then Shangal and Behram went for a hunt. They returned after almost a month. After some more lavish feasts, Shangal prepared to return to India. Before leaving, he declared that Behram be made the king of Kanouj after him. He handed over his written declaration to his daughter and left for India with loads of gifts from Behram.

Behram and Theodosius II

In 421 CE, Behram demanded the repatriation of all those Christians who had fled from Persia to Byzantium. The Roman emperor Theodosius II rejected this proposal, which led Behram to declare a war, which was fought from Nisibis to Armenia. However, this war was short lived, and no decisive result was reached on either side.

Then Behram signed a 100 year peace treaty with Theodosius II in 422, allowing freedom of worship to Christians and Zoroastrians on both sides. This treaty brought much needed peace to both the sides.

Astrologers had predicted Behram’s life to be of sixty three years. At the age of forty, Behram asked his ministers to calculate how many years the wealth in his treasury would last. After elaborate calculations he was told that the treasury would last at least for another twenty years. Behram was relieved at this. He declared that henceforth no taxes should be charged either to Iranian or non-Iranian people. Among the many beneficial reforms that he introduced, one was to ensure that all lazy people were made to work. There was happiness all around in his land.

One morning, when Behram did not come out from his room, his son Yazdezerd went to see and was shocked to see the lifeless body of his father on the bed.  Behram ruled for 33 years. Historical accounts attribute King Behram’s death to either an accident in which he fell in a quicksand or drowning in a river, his body never being found. Some accounts also maintain that the king was murdered by some priests and nobles and his body disposed off.  

However his end, the reign of king Behram will always be remembered as a time of peace and heroism. The kingdom mourned the death of their king for forty days after which his son Yazdezerd II assumed the throne.

SSS11. King Behram V, Behram-gur (Part 3)

King Behram V, Behram-gur – The brave, daring, dashing, adventurous, ace hunter, warrior king (Part 3)


Last time, we shared a few stories about the exploits and adventures of King Behramgur. This time we will see a few more stories connected to the king:

1) The king marries three sisters

2) Ārzu, the versatile queen

3) A lesson to the miser village-chief

4) Trapping the Hephthalite king

1) The king marries three sisters

Once, the king set out for a hunt with his soldiers, hunting dogs and hunting birds. While following a hunting bird named Tugrol, the king came across a huge palace surrounded by a garden, in which was seated Barzin, the nobleman who owned the palace. Along with him were his three young daughters Māh-Āfrid, Frānak and Sham-balid. When the king asked the nobleman about his lost bird, he replied that he had seen it landing on a walnut tree in the garden. On searching, the king got back his prized bird. When he saw the three beautiful daughters, he took a liking for them. After some food and drinks, Barzin asked his daughters to entertain the king. Each of them excelled in the arts of singing, music and dancing, and they displayed their skills. The king was highly impressed and asked for their hands in marriage, to which Barzin readily agreed.

Hunting bird

After some food and drinks, Barzin asked his daughters to entertain the king. Each of them excelled in the arts of singing, music and dancing, and they displayed their skills.

The 3 sisters entertaining the king

The king was highly impressed and asked for their hands in marriage, to which Barzin readily agreed. The three sisters were taken to the palace in golden carriages with maids in attendance.

2) Ārzu, the versatile queen

After a few days, the king once again went for a hunt. He hunted a few ferocious lions. While the king was returning with the hunted lions, a passing shepherd saw them, and thanked the king for hunting these lions as they were killing his cattle when he took them for grazing. He further added that the cattle belonged to Mahiyar, a rich jeweler, who had an extremely beautiful daughter called Ārzu. The king decided to meet the jeweler and his daughter.

At night when the king approached the jeweler’s house, he heard the sound of a silk-stringed musical instrument called Chang, which was being played by Ārzu. He went inside disguised as a soldier, while his soldiers kept his horse whip at the door, as was their practice.

Mahiyar was very hospitable to the king, though he was disguised as the soldier. The king expressed the desire to hear the song accompanied by Chang, sung by his versatile daughter. Ārzu came and sang, after which the king asked for Ārzu’s hand from his father. On being asked, the daughter willingly agreed to marry this person who, she felt, looked regal like a king.

Mahiyar wanted to have the marriage the following morning, but the king insisted on marrying Ārzu that very night, to which Mahiyar reluctantly agreed, and the marriage was solemnised.

The following morning the king’s soldiers collected outside the house and bowed to the horse whip placed outside. Soon Mahiyar realised that his guest was none other than king Behram himself, and informed his daughter accordingly. Mahiyar was afraid that he may have taken undue liberties with the king, whom he took to be an ordinary soldier. However, when the king summoned him and shared jokes with him, Mahiyar was relieved. Thereafter Ārzu was ceremoniously taken to the queen’s palace.

However, the king’s chief minister was not happy with the king’s attitude of collecting queens, as he now had hundreds of queens in his queen’s palace.

3) A lesson to the miser village-chief

After spending a couple of days in his palace, the king once again set out hunting with his minister Ruzbeh. Whenever the king and his entourage did a lot of hunting, the hunted animals were sold to people at very reduced prices.

After a month of hunting, on their way back, Behram desired to visit a village on the way. He asked his group to leave and went alone to the village, where he came across a decrepit house which belonged to Frashidvard, an old man. The king entered the house and asked for something to sit on, something to eat and some water to drink, but the man said he did not have a single thing in his house. He asked the king to leave as he felt that the valuables in his house were not safe and he feared that the guest may steal things from his. The king went away with a smirk on his face and rejoined his group, which was passing through a thick forest.

In the forest, the king saw Delāfruz, a wood-cutter, chopping trees. He asked him about the head of the nearby village, and was surprised that Frashidvard was its chief. The wood cutter further elaborated that he had thousands of cattle and lots of land but was so stingy that he neither wore proper clothes nor ate proper meals.

The king asked him to lead his minister and an accountant to take stock of the cattle, and promised him a hundredth share of Frashidvard’s wealth. The count of the animals exceeded every expectation. There were thousands of cows, horses, camels and lots of smaller animals. It was also reported that a large quantity of gold and ornaments were hidden somewhere. The king realised that Frashidvard had a lot of unused wealth about which he had lied, so he had most of Frashidvard’s wealth confiscated and distributed among the poor.

4) Trapping the Hephthalite king

The regular hunting forays of king Behram resulted in his prolonged absence from the court, and earned him the reputation of being a careless ruler. Neighbouring countries like India, Rome, Turkistan, Hetal and China considered Iran vulnerable without the king, and took opportunity of this situation.

The Hetali king collected his army and marched towards Iran. The Hetalis referred in the Shahnameh are the Hephthalites. They were the White Huns who had Turkik, Hun and Mongolian ancestry. They dominated Central Asia, having taken over Tokharistan, Badakhshan, Balkh and Sogdia. Modern historians mention that in 420 CE an army of the Hephthalites marched into Iran.

The Iranian commanders went to their king and drew his attention to this imminent danger. Behram assured them not to worry, continued his merry ways and went to a hunting expedition to Azarbaizan. The commanders thought their king to be reckless, but they had not understood him correctly. He knew his responsibilities well. However, since he did not exhibit or express any signs of anxiety, they thought he was shrugging off his responsibility. In fact, the king had laid a trap for the Hephthalites, and had kept a hundred thousand strong army ready to counter their attack.

The king summoned several commanders like Gastaham, Meher-Firuz bin Behzad, Meher-Barzin bin Kharrad, and Behram bin Firuze-Behramian. He also called upon allies like Kharzvan of Gilan, Rohham of Rae, and Rād-Barzin of Zabulistan and explained his strategy to them.

King Behram in conference with his 7 Commanders

He then went towards Azarbaizan entrusting his kingdom to his brother Narseh, after explaining him his strategy. Iranian people and junior commanders under-estimated their king’s strategy, and jumped to the conclusion that their king had fled from the oncoming army. They rued that their king had deserted them. They decided to approach the Hephthalite king with a plea of mercy. Narseh reprimanded them for losing faith in their king and having such reprehensible thoughts about him.

The ministers did not listen to Narseh. Fearing the ignominy of being defeated, they decided to tide the dam before it was too late. They sent Homā, a wise man, to the Hephthalite leader accepting his superiority and agreeing to pay taxes, if he agreed to evacuate. The Hephthalite leader was overjoyed at this meek surrender and accepted their offer. He marched into Marv and asked the ministers to quickly give him taxes so that he can soon return.

King Behram, alert to the happenings, lay in wait for the developments. When he came to know that the Hephthalite leader was in Marv, he swiftly and secretly went there with a few soldiers, advancing only at night.

Before attacking, Behram sent several spare horses with sacks full of rocks on them. The rumbling sound of the rocks, totally distracted the Hephthalite army and caused confusion among them. Taking advantage of this, Behram attacked the Hephthalite leader. Taken by surprise, he was imprisoned and defeated.

After that, Behram did not rest, but pursued them and went on to destroy the retreating Hephthalites and the Turks who had come with them. He went to Bokhara through Amui, crossed the Farab river and the desert, passed through Māe and Mārg and wreaked havoc among the Turks, who pleaded for mercy. They reasoned that the Hephthalite leader was already in his custody and they were ready to pay taxes, so why was he still continuing the war. Behram felt sympathy for them and terminated the attack. He succeeded in pushing out the Hephthalites from Central Asia.

Behram had a stone column erected at the border to mark the boundary. He summoned the Hephthalite commanders and ordered them not to cross the boundary and enter Iran without his permission. He instituted Shahreh, a wise commander from his army, as the governor of this territory.

Behram sent a letter to his brother Narseh, in which he also addressed other seniors of the court and stated how he had humiliated the army and taken their leader captive. When Narseh conveyed this good tidings, the noblemen who had doubted their king felt very bad. About one hundred and thirty noblemen went to Narseh requesting him to convey their apology to the king for their shameful behaviour.

The king returned to his capital Ctesiphon through Istakhra and met Narseh and his ministers. He did a lot of charity, pardoned prisoners and announced tax-exemption for the next seven years. He gave admonitions to his people to be good, honest and righteous. He then gifted the province of Khorasan to his brother Narseh and asked him to settle there.

(All drawings are by Mrs. Katy Bagli)

SSS10. King Behram V, Behram-gur (Part 2)

Silver coin (obverse and reverse) of King Behram V

King Behram V, Behram-gur – The brave, daring, dashing, adventurous, ace hunter, warrior king (Part 2) 

The Shahnameh has several stories about the exploits and adventures of King Behramgur. We will share these stories over a period of time, starting with today:

1) The generous Christian and the miserly Jew

2) Liquor – boon or bane

3) The power of a good leader

4) Behram-gur marries four sisters

5) King Jamshed’s treasure

6) The ill effects of anger

1) The generous Christian and the miserly Jew

King Behram liked to disguise himself and visit the houses of his subjects. Once, he was informed about two of his subjects with opposite temperaments. One was Lambak, a Christian water-carrier who was poor yet very generous and large hearted. The other was Barahām (perhaps a Persian form of Abraham), a Jew who was very rich and yet stingy and wicked. The poor Christian would use his day’s earnings for his needs and spend the rest to feed the poor and would not save for the future.

King Behram ordered his subjects not to buy water from Lambak and then, disguised as a soldier, went to test the hospitality of the poor water-carrier. When King Behram arrived as a guest at Lambak’s home, the water-carrier had no money to offer hospitality to his guest. So he sold and mortgaged his belongings to give good hospitality not only to the king but also to his horse for three days. They feasted on good food and wine, which the poor Lumbak paid by selling all that he had.

Next day, the king disguised himself as a soldier and went to the house of Barahām, the Jew, who, inspite of his wealth, was reluctant to take the king in his house. When the king insisted, he was allowed to sleep in the verandah, but cautioned that he would not be offered anything to eat. Then the Jew alone ate food and drank wine, without offering a morsel to the king in disguise.

The next morning the Jew asked Behram to clean his horse droppings before he went. Behram requested that he get it cleaned by his servant, to which the Jew said that he had no servants to do that job. Finally Behram cleaned it, filled it in a fine silk sachet which he had and threw it into the dustbin. The greedy Jew on seeing the beautiful silk sachet, picked it with the horse droppings from the dust bin, cleared the droppings and kept the cloth, which greatly amused the king.

The following day, the king summoned Lambak and Barahām to his court. He asked a minister to go to Barahām’s house and take away all his wealth. A thousand camels were required to collect the gold, silver, precious stones and rich cloth from the house. The wealth even seemed to exceed the royal treasury. The king gave one tenth of his wealth to Lambak. The rest he distributed among the poor and told the Jew that he was taking away all his wealth, as he did not know how to use it wisely. He told him to consider his good fortune that his life was not taken away from him. The greedy Jew learnt his lesson.

2) Liquor – boon or bane

Once king Behram decided to go for a hunt. He went with a hunting entourage which included hunting dogs and hawks. On the way a lion and lioness attacked him. He lost no time in killing them. On hearing the commotion a man name Meher-bidād appeared and thanked him saying he had been tormented by the lion and lioness since a long time. He organized a feast in the king’s honour.

In the feast, a nobleman by the name Kiruy had a lot of wine. When he went out, he fell unconscious and crows pecked his eyes out. When the king came to know about this, he became so upset that he banned the drinking of liquor in his kingdom. A year passed and none including the king touched liquor.

It so happened that in the kingdom a cobbler had married and was not able to consummate his marriage because he was not virile enough. The cobbler’s mother had hidden a bottle of liquor. She took him to a lonely place and made him drink it. The liquor transformed the young cobbler into an energetic man and he was able to consummate the marriage. He happily went to tell his mother about the good news. On the way he came across a lion who had run away from the palace. On seeing the lion, the cobbler who was still in a drunken state, stopped the lion grappled with it for a while and then sat on it.

The drunken cobbler sitting on a lion

The lion meekly carried him, as it was terrified and exhausted. When the lion’s keeper saw this amazing spectacle, he informed the king, who called the cobbler’s mother. He inquired with the mother whether she belonged to a royal family, as the cobbler’s valour had made the king assume that he was from a royal family. The mother denied any royal lineage and confessed to having given liquor to her son. The king was surprised on hearing this. He realized his mistake and revoked the ban on liquor, but advised his people to drink in moderation.

3) The power of a good leader

Once when Behram was returning from an unsuccessful hunt. He was quiet tired and upset. On top of it, when he passed a village, its people did not show him respect. Angry, he ordered his minister Rozbeh to destroy the village. The wise minister, instead of outright destroying the village decided to pass an order which would lead the village to self-destruction. He went to the village and announced that from that day, all were equal in that village. On account of this, all men started fighting with each other for superiority and in no time the village became deserted as most people had killed each other for superiority.

When Behram passed near that village after a year, he too was shocked at what he saw. He felt sorry and he asked his minister Rozbeh to go back to the village and give them the necessary help to return the village to its former glory.

The minister went to an old man in the village, appointed him the head-man and promised him all help. The old men started making the village prosperous again and people who had fled returned back. After three years when the king passed the way and saw the prosperous village, he was very happy.

The king summoned his minister and asked him minister the secret behind the desolate and prosperous village. The minister said, “Wherever there is more than one leader, the place becomes desolate, and where there is just one good leader the place becomes prosperous. This village is a living example of that.” The king was impressed by the minister’s wit and rewarded him.

4) Behramgur marries four sisters

Once when the king was passing a village while returning from a hunt, he heard melodious songs and saw a bon-fire, so he went there. Four girls were singing songs in praise of the king. On inquiry it was revealed that the four girls – Mushkanāb, Mashkanak, Nāztāb and Susanak – were the four daughters of a flour mill owner and were waiting for their father to return.

When the father returned, the king asked him why he did not have his daughters married. The old man replied that he did not have the gifts and gold that are necessary to be given away as marriage gifts. The king offered to marry all four daughters without gifts, to which the mill owner agreed and so Behram took all four of them as his queens. The next day the neighbor told the mill owner that the young hunter was none other than the king and he would soon be the father-in-law of the king. The mill owner and his wife were very happy.

5) King Jamshed’s treasure

Once a farmer came across a huge underground brick vault in which there was unimaginable treasure. He reported it to the king. After inquiries, it was revealed that the treasure belonged to the Peshdadian King Jamshed. Behram did not take any part of the treasure. He gave a tenth of it to the farmer who found it and the rest he distributed to the needy and deserving people. The people were surprised by the generosity and fairness of their king.

6) The ill effects of anger

One fine spring day, king Behram prepared for a hunt. After consulting his court, he decided to go to a forest near Turan. They went with several soldiers, hunting dogs and birds and hunted gur “onager”, wild sheep and deer.

On the fourth day of the hunt, the king spotted an Azdāh, a ferocious dragon like creature with the head of a snake. The king shot arrows at the gigantic creature and killed it. When the Azdāh fell, Behram pierced its chest with a dagger. He was surprised to see a young man, lying dead in its innards. The poisonous fumes and blood coming from the Azdāh’s body made Behram dizzy and he went away from there. Some distance away he saw a young lady and sought refuge in her house. Though she welcomed him, she did not recognise him.

The husband of the lady was very lazy, and did not get up to welcome the king. The poor lady cleaned the house and cooked food all by herself. The king rested for some time but was still not feeling well. He called the lady and asked her whether she was happy with the ruler of the land. The lady said that she was happy but some of the officers were very cruel. Hearing this, the king became angry, decided to investigate the matter and if necessary take the offending officers to task.

When the lady went to milk the cow, she was surprised to notice that her udders had dried up. The shrewd lady immediately gathered that her guest was the king. She requested him not to be angry, as she attributed the drying of her cow’s udders to his anger. The king realised his mistake and decided to be kind to the officers. When the lady went out again to milk the cows, her udders were filled with milk. The lady prepared dessert from the cow’s milk and served the king, who gratefully thanked the couple, gifted them a village and returned back to his palace.

The king marries three sisters

A few days later, the king set out for a hunt with his soldiers, hunting dogs and hunting birds. While following a hunting bird named Tugrol, the king came across a huge palace surrounded by a garden, in which was seated Barzin, the nobleman who owned the palace. Along with him were his three young daughters Māh-Āfrid, Frānak and Sham-balid. When the king asked the nobleman about his lost bird, he replied that he had seen it landing on a walnut tree in the garden. On searching, the king got back his prized bird. When he saw the three beautiful daughters, he took a liking for them. After some food and drinks, Barzin asked his daughters to entertain the king. Each of them excelled in the three different arts of singing, music and dancing. All the three girls together displayed their skills. The king was highly impressed by them and asked for their hands in marriage, to which Barzin readily agreed.

Barzin’s 3 daughters entertains the king

The three sisters were taken to the palace in golden carriages with Roman maids in attendance. The king spent a week with them.

(End of Part 2)

(All drawings are by Mrs. Katy Bagli)

SSS9. King Behram V, Behram-gur (Part 1)

SSS9. King Behram V, Behram-gur (419-439) – The brave, daring, dashing, adventurous, ace hunter, warrior king

Behram Gur is one of the most interesting figures of the Shahnameh. Though very historic, his life reads very much out of a fairy tale and parts of it resemble the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor.

King Behram V on a 5th century Plate


Prominent paladins like Gastaham, Kāran, Milād, Ārash and Parviz met to select a new king after the accidental death of king Yazdezerd I (Athil). Since Yazdezerd was not liked by most people, the noblemen decided against giving the throne to any of his sons, especially Behram who was perceived to be hot headed like his father. The other son Shahpur, who was the Governor of Armenia, hurriedly came to Iran, but was murdered.

Many royal relatives started claiming the throne and the nation went into a state of anarchy. Finally priests and wise men decided to appoint Khushrav, an experienced nobleman from the royal family, as the next king.

Behram came to know about his father’s death, and went into grief. When he came to know the court’s decision of ignoring his right to the throne, and choosing Khushrav as the king, he was very angry. With Munzar and Naoman he decided to attack Iran to claim his right. The neighbouring countries of Rome, China, Turkestan, Arabia, India and Makran got a whiff of the problems in Iran and started preparations to attack it.

When the court in Iran came to know of Behram’s plans, they were afraid. They sent a messenger to Munzar saying that he was an ally and should not attack Iran. Munzar, after consultations with Behram, replied that it was their behaviour that had incensed them into planning an attack. If they were agreeable, Behram would come to Iran with an army to claim his throne. Even he did not want a war, and the matter could be sorted out amicably. The messenger returned with this encouraging response, and the Iranians agreed to meet them.

Behram, Munzar and Naoman arrived in Iran and met the Iranian wise men, elders and noblemen for a discussion. Half of them were in favour of Behram as the king and the other half were in favour of Khushrav. Those who were not in Behram’s favour brought maimed people without limbs, eyes and ears, to show victims of his father’s cruelty.

The maimed being assembled before Behram

Munzar, Naoman and Behram were shocked to see the people maimed by Yazdezerd’s cruel sense of justice. Behram assured them that he was not like his father. In fact, he himself was a victim of his father’s wrath and hence had taken refuge with Munzar.

Behram’s sporting offer

Behram thought about a sporting offer to avoid war and bloodshed. The person staking a claim to kingship would have to take a crown placed on an ivory throne, which would be guarded by two ferocious lions on each side. The claimant would have to fight the lions, sit on the throne and wear the crown.

The following day Behram invited the noblemen to hear him out. He told them about his sporting offer. He explained to them that he was different from his father, that he will be just, kind, caring and considerate to his subjects. The noblemen were impressed and agreed to his offer as they saw a win-win situation in this offer. If Behram were to be killed in this sport they would be happy to get rid of him. If he won, he would have proved his valour and nobility.

Preparations were made for the challenge. A place was selected in the forest where an ivory throne was kept and two lions were tied on either sides of the throne on which the royal crown was kept.

Behram and Khushrav went to the forest, along with several priests and ministers. When Khushrav saw the lions he told the ministers that the person who claims the throne should go in first. Behram accepted the proposal. The minister tried to caution Behram and asked him to think twice before risking his life.  Behram was firm about his decision. He washed himself, prayed to God and sought His help for success.

Behram proceeded towards the throne with a huge Gorz in his hand. One of the lions freed himself from the chains and rushed at him.

Behram facing the ferocious lions
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is behramgur-and-lions.jpg
A painting of Behram fighting a lion

Behram swung his Gorz at the monstrous creature and soon enough the ferocious lion fell lifeless. Thereafter he went to the other chained lion and with one blow of the Gorz ended its life.  Then, he went to the throne, picked up the crown, sat on the throne and placed the crown on his own head. Immediately Khushrav went to him, offered salutations and accepted him as the king of Iran.

Behram was coronated on roj Sarosh of mah Adar. He was fondly called Behram-gur as he was excessively fond of hunting gur “onager/wild ass”. As soon as he assumed the throne, he wrote off the debts of all Iranians. The whole nation was very happy at this generous gesture.  He also forgave all those whom his father had exiled and asked them to return. He gave generous gifts to priests, noblemen and commanders.

(All drawings are by Mrs. Katy Bagli)

SSS8. Yazdezerd I (Athil) and 3 kings before him

After Shahpur the Great, three kings ruled for brief periods. They were:

Ardeshir II (Nikukār, 379-383): He was the younger brother of Shahpur II, and was also referred to as Kushan-shah. As he was the king of the Kushans, before becoming the emperor. He had a very mild and compassionate temperament. On account of his goodness he was given the title Nikukār “doer of good deeds”. When Shahpur III, son of Shahpur II came of age, he handed over the throne, crown and treasury to him.

Shahpur III (383 – 388): He was the son of Shapur II.  He was killed in a freak accident, when he had gone hunting, killing him instantly.

Behram IV (Kermanshah, 388-399): He was the younger son of Shahpur II. He was also referred to as Kermanshah, as he had served as a Governor of Kerman before becoming the king.

Yazdezerd I (Athil, 399-419): He was the younger brother of Behram IV. When he started his reign, he was a kind ruler, considerate towards all, including the Christians and Jews. He punished Zoroastrian priests when they committed any atrocity on non-Zoroastrians. This attitude was opposed by the Zoroastrian clergy, so much so that they even called him a sinner. However, the Christians praised him.

Yazdezerd was also very well disposed towards the Romans. When the Roman emperor was on his death-bed, he entrusted his son under his care, because of the court intrigues in Rome. The Roman prince was kept at Ctesiphon and trained under the best Iranian teachers. However, the Iranian court was not in favour of his being well disposed to the Romans.

After some time, because of the pressure form the court and the clergy, Yazdezerd started becoming ruthless. His punishments to the guilty bordered towards cruelty. The court and the people greatly feared him, but they had to tolerate him. On account of his cruelty he earned the notorious title Athil “the cruel one”. Seven years into his reign, a son was born to him on the Zoroastrian New Year day, who was named Behram. The courtiers did not want the young prince to be cruel and hence they suggested that the young prince be sent to a capable teacher elsewhere. After talking with many kings, finally it was decided that Behram be entrusted to king Manzar from Yemen. Behram was taught all arts and skills by the best teachers, till he reached 18.

A painting of Behram’s hunting expedition with Azadeh.

One day Behram went for a hunt with his companion Āzādeh. His partner challenged him to make the male deer lose his antlers and put arrows on female deer to look like antlers. She also asked him to sew together a deer’s ear and hoof.” Behram very skilfully did as he was told, and everyone was highly impressed by his hunting skills, but Azadeh called him cruel and she was punished.

Behram visits Yazdezerd

After some time, Behram expressed his desire to see his father, which Munzar arranged. Yazdezerd was overjoyed to see his son after a long time. However, over a period of time Behram felt that his father’s behaviour towards him was cold. Behram sent a letter to Munzar telling him he was not happy with his father’s attitude.

Once when Behram was sitting in his father’s court, he dozed off as he was very tired. His father was very angry. He stripped off his royal privileges and sent him to prison, where he spent a year. As soon as Behram was freed at the behest of a Roman ambassador, he returned to Yemen.

Death of Yazdezerd

An ageing Yazdezerd was once told by an astrologer that his death was destined at a lake in Sav village, in the city of Toos. The king decided never to go to this lake, so that he can avoid death. Three months later, the king had an illness. The chief physician advised him to go to the lake in Sav village, and put its mud on himself. The king did accordingly and the bleeding immediately stopped.

Just then a majestic white horse emerged from the lake. The king had it captured and decided to ride it. As soon as he went near, the horse kicked him hard and the king immediately lost his life. The body of the king was taken to Pars and kept in a Dakhma.

SSS7. Shahpur II, The Great (Part 2)

The Romans made Bazanush, a scion of the royal family, the new Caesar. Realizing the futility of fighting Shahpur, he had a letter written to the Iranian king in which he offered to accept his sovereignty and requested him to stop the war. Shahpur forgave the Romans and agreed to stop the war.

Bazanush went with gifts to thank Shahpur. He was asked to compensate for the destruction he had caused. He asked for a tribute of two hundred thousand Roman dinars thrice a year. He also asked for Nisibis, a Southern province of Kurdistan. Bazanush grudgingly agreed as he knew he would not be able to face the might of the Iranians. In return he asked Shahpur to sign a peace treaty with Rome, to which he agreed.  Thereafter Shahpur returned to Istakhra, the capital of Fars.

When the people of Nisibis, who had been converted to Christianity, came to know of the treaty, they were unhappy. They wanted a Christian and not an Iranian ruler. Shahpur sent an army to Nisibis and crushed their revolt. Only after they asked for forgiveness, did Shahpur call off his army.

Victory at Amida

City and fortress of Amida
Fortress of Amida

City and fortress at Amida

In the later years of Shahpur’s reign, there were many wars against the Romans. One of the greatest victory of Sasanian army was at the city of Amida in Mesopotamia on the bank of Tigris (now in eastern Turkey) in 259, which was pro-Roman. Shahpur not only led the siege, but fought shoulder to shoulder with his troops. The army hurled powerful projectiles and battery rams to break the city walls, and finally entered the city after seventy three days. After a long and bloody battle Amida surrendered giving a resounding victory to Shahpur. Soon after that, Singara and Bezabde too were captured.

Renewed Roman attack

In 362, Roman Caesar Julian attacked Persia. He was wishing to defeat Shahpur and have his brother Hormazd, who had defected to Rome, sit on the Iranian throne as a puppet ruler. Julian entered through Mesopotamia, captured Babylon and Seleucia and stood at the gates of the capital city of Ctesiphon. The Roman and Iranian armies met at the bank of the Euphrates. However, the Romans were not able to pierce the strong Iranian defense. Julian, while retreating, was pierced by a javelin and killed on June 26, 363, at the age of 31.

Emperor Jovian assumed command and immediately attacked the Iranians in 363. However, he was not able to defend himself, against the Iranian army, and soon negotiated for peace. Shahpur granted it at a very heavy price. Many major regions including Armenia, Mesopotamia, Singara, Nisibis, and several fortresses came back in Sasanian hands. The Jovian treaty lasted for thirty years. The subsequent Roman emperor Valens attacked the Iranians, but he too sued for peace, on account of which the two kings divided Armenia between themselves in 377.

Religious stability

Shahpur II had to be very firm against Christian infiltrators who had made inroads into Iran on account of the weakness of several previous Iranian rulers. Shahpur came out firmly against them, and curtailed the activities of several over-zealous Christians. He was enraged at the arrogance and defiance of the Christian bishops and so he ordered the closing down of several Churches. At that time, the Roman emperor Constantine II had recently converted himself to Christianity and so he wrote to Shahpur not to be too harsh towards the Christians.

The long reign and firm hands of Shahpur II enabled a lot of religious stability. The Manichaean movement which had taken a very strong foothold among the Iranian nobility and masses especially during the reign of Shapur I and subsequent kings, was put down very firmly by Shahpur II.

Gold coin of Shahpur II with the Image of a fire altar on the reverse

Shahpur had many Atash Behrams built during his long reign. Many of his coins had the image of a fire altar on the reverse.

Adarbad Mahraspand

The best thing to happen to Iran during the reign of Shapur II was the rise of a very learned and pious Dastur by the name Adarbad Mahraspand, who was the head priest and was responsible for bringing back faith of the people in religion and rituals after undergoing an ordeal. He had molten brass poured over his chest and came out unscathed from it. In this way he had replied to the challenge to Zoroastrianism from the Zurvanites and the newly founded Christian religion.  After his ordeal he was regarded as the final word on Zoroastrian orthodoxy.

He was the most notable and prolific of the Pahlavi writers in the andarz “admonitions” style of writing. The maximum number of andarz texts are ascribed to him. His writings and sayings are scattered throughout the Pahlavi literature.

The work of collecting and collating the 21 Avestan Nasks was completed under him. He also composed several Pazand prayers like the 6 Setayāsh, Patet Pashemāni and the Āfrins. The Khordeh Avesta, the daily prayer book of the Zoroastrians, was compiled and collated by him. In course of time he came to be regarded as hu-fravart “a saint”.

Shahpur’s reign was the longest among all Sasanian kings. He minted many gold and copper coins. When he was seventy, he asked his younger brother, Ardeshir II, to occupy the throne till his young son, who would become Shahpur III, grew old enough to become the king. Ardeshir, in the presence of ministers, assured his brother Shahpur that he would hand over the crown, throne, treasures and army to prince Shahpur when he would come of age.

SSS6. Shahpur II, The Great (Part 1)

Bust of King Shahpur II

King Shahpur II ruled from 309 to 379 CE, a very long period, almost from his cradle to his grave. In fact, he was crowned even before he was born, by placing the crown on his mother’s belly when she was pregnant.

In his long reign, Shahpur II dealt with ten Roman emperors and fought several battles with the Arabs and the Romans. He established a learning tradition in Iran, which became the foundation for later Islamic and European traditions of learning and medicine. It was on account of his achievements on and off the field, that he achieved the title “Great”. Forty days after Shahpur was born, the child was made to lie on the throne and a crown was suspended over its head. Shahrui, a wise and elderly priest, was appointed his caretaker. He looked after the interests of the child as well as the state in a just manner.

Infant Shahpur with a crown on his head

It is stated that even as a five year old, the young Shahpur started taking interest in the affairs of the state. One evening, in the capital city of Ctesiphon, located to the south of the present city of Baghdad in Iraq, the child heard great commotion and inquired about it. He was told that the people returning home from work had a single bridge to cross the river, and hence the commotion, since everyone was in a hurry to reach home before dark. The child pondered for a moment and then suggested that a second bridge be immediately built from the royal treasury to ease the problem. The priests and noblemen were highly impressed by the child’s wisdom.

Soon the young king was seven and his education in warfare, statesmanship and sports commenced. It took him just a year to complete his training. He ordered that Istakhra be made his capital, so that he could stay in the palace of his glorious ancestors.

The Arabs

The Arabs first started serious inroads into Iran when the boy-emperor Shahpur was very young. They frequently attacked from the south, raided, looted and occupied a considerable part of south-western Iran including Pars and Khuzistan. They, came upto Mesopotamia and had intentions of reaching Ctesiphon. The advisors and ministers of the young emperor were not able to stop them.

Then, in 325, a young sixteen year old Shahpur took things in his hands. He commanded the army and ordered it to crush the Arabs and expel them. He secured a brilliant victory. As he grew up, he successfully continued his onslaught on the Arabs, and soon all Arab occupied territories were liberated.

Later on, once again, Tāyar, the Yemeni king, gathered a huge army and approached Ctesiphon. Shahpur too prepared his army, went to war and forced Tāyar to retreat, who returned to Yemen and shut himself up in a fort. Shahpur and his army followed Tāyar to Yemen, and laid a seize to the fort for a month. It was difficult for Shahpur and his army to get entry into the fort. Just then, the Yemeni princess Mallekah, who happened to be the grand-daughter of Iranian king Narseh, saw Shahpur from the fort and fell in love with him. She asked her attendant to invite him on her behalf, and inform him that one part of her ancestry was Iranian. She promised him help to win the fort.

Princess Mallekah watching king Shahpur II

That night the attendant went to Shahpur and narrated the proposal. He immediately accepted her offer, pledged his commitment to her and sent back a diadem, bracelets and a rich silk chador (head dress).

The next day the young princess went into the fort. She took the store room keys and sent a lot of food and wine to the rooms of all the senior courtiers and army commanders. Then she went to the wine-pourer and asked him to give the stiffest, undiluted wine to king Tāyar in the evening and keep pouring it till he was fast asleep.

At night, as per the plan, all senior noblemen wined and dined and so did the king. Then, under the influence of the wine, all of them fell fast asleep. Mallekah ordered the guards to open the gates of the fort. Shahpur and his army entered without much difficulty. They mercilessly attacked and massacred the Arabs. Tāyar too was killed.

Shahpur was ruthless in his treatment to the defeated. He had his Arab prisoners led in captivity across the desert on a rope threaded through their pierced shoulders. Hence he came to be known among the Arabs by the dreaded name Zu-al-aktāf “One who pierces shoulders”. The jubilant Shahpur returned back to Pars with Mallekah.

In order to keep the Arabs from mounting further attacks, Shahpur II constructed a defensive wall close to the city of Hira, which came to be known as Var-i-Tāzigān “wall of the Arabs” and Khandak-i-Shahpur “the defense of Shahpur”.

Many months passed peacefully and uneventfully. One evening, when Shahpur summoned the astronomers and asked about his future, they told him that as time goes by, many problems would afflict him, but he would be overcome them all.

To Rome in disguise

Shahpur II had to continuously contend with Romans during his long reign. He ruled during the reigns of ten Roman emperors, and fought wars against five of them – Constantine II (337-340), Constantius II (340-361),  Julian (361-363), Jovian (363-364) and Valens (364-378). During the course of his reign, Shahpur had to contend with the Roman emperors almost continuously and he fought ten battles against them.

Though Constantine the Great (306-337) had made preparations for war with Shahpur, he died before he could launch the attack. Constantius II attacked Armenia, Nisibis, Mesopotamia and Singara and there were long drawn battles, most of which ended in stalemates.

It must be towards the end of the reign of Constantine II or the early years of Constantius II that the episode of the Shahnameh, in which Shahpur decides to go to Rome in disguise, must have taken place. We are told that Shahpur visited Rome as a trader, taking into confidence his senior ministers, to see how the Caesar administered his army and treasury and whether he was satisfied with his strength and might.

When Shahpur, in disguise, visited the Roman court, there an expelled Iranian cleric recognised his king and told the Caesar that the Iranian trader looked and talked like the Iranian emperor. Shahpur was immediately taken prisoner, sewed up in a thick leather bag made from donkey hide, and kept in a deep dungeon.

The key of the dungeon was handed over to the Queen who entrusted it to her attendant. Luckily, the attendant was of Iranian descent and hence sympathetic towards the Iranian prisoner. She was assigned the task to give him food and water, just enough to keep him alive.

In the meanwhile, the Caesar took opportunity of the absence of the Iranian emperor and attacked Iran. Without a leader, the Iranians were in a very pitiable condition. People fled their houses and went into hiding. Many of them converted to Christianity and sought refuge in the church.

The attendant with the Iranian descent developed a soft corner for the imprisoned Shahpur. She used to cry everyday seeing his pitiable condition and his emaciated body. Shahpur too realized that she was in great pain seeing his condition, as she had developed an attachment to him. One day, when the attendant asked him about his identity, he trusted her and revealed his whole story. The attendant showed readiness to help him in any which way he wanted. Shahpur asked her to get hot milk every night and pour it on the leather sack in which he was sown. This would gradually make the leather soft and he would be able to tear it and break free. The attendant did as she was told and soon enough Shahpur was able to break free from the tight leather casing in which he was bound.

King Shahpur tied up in a bag in a dungeon

Shahpur thereafter asked the attendant to devise a plan whereby they could flee to Iran. The attendant revealed that the following day was a Roman holiday and the Queen and courtiers would go for a feast. She could make arrangements for two horses, some weapons and precious stones and then they can flee at night.

True to her words, she made arrangements as planned, and at night both of them fled Rome. They rode tirelessly for hours without food or rest. Then they took shelter in the house of a sympathetic gardener, introducing themselves as Iranians fleeing the Roman Caesar. The gardener told Shahpur that Iran was in a bad condition, many Iranians had converted to Christianity and everyone was wondering where the emperor had gone. He then started crying for his emperor.

Seeing the gardener’s love for his emperor, Shahpur revealed his identity. The gardener could not believe his good fortune of having the emperor as his house-guest. The next morning the emperor called for the gardener. He requested him to get a barsom (a ritual implement) and a prayer book. With these in hands he swore the gardener to utmost secrecy.

Then Shahpur asked the gardener whether he knew the whereabouts of his senior minister. When the gardener answered in the affirmative, he was asked to get some wax. The emperor imprinted his royal seal on the wax and asked the gardener to cautiously take it to the minister.

The gardener did as he was told. The minister was thrilled to see his emperor’s seal. He inquired with the gardener about the looks and build of the person who gave him the seal. When convinced of the identity, the minister was overjoyed that his emperor was back, and asked him for further instructions. The emperor sent a message to the minister to inform the Commander and ask him to re-gather his army. Soon the news spread that the emperor was returning, and so people started returning to their houses.

The Commander met the emperor in his house, where a makeshift court was held. Shahpur narrated his travails in Rome and his fortunate escape, for which he expressed his gratitude to the Iranian attendant. He further informed them to keep his identity a secret as the Roman Caesar should not know their plans till the minister gets the army ready and they are prepared to launch an attack.

Soon the Minister came with an army of six thousand soldiers. It seemed a small army, but Shahpur was confident of victory as his spies had informed him that the Caesar’s army was scattered all over. Moreover the Roman king was over-confident since he did not perceive threat from any side as he thought that the Iranian emperor was in his custody.

Still Shahpur played it safe. He took three thousand of his best soldiers and marched towards Ctesiphon. He moved only during the night through remote jungles and mountains. One night he attacked the Roman camp and took the Caesar and his men by surprise. More than twelve thousand soldiers were killed. The next day Shahpur sent messages to all the allies of Rome asking them to send tributes to him, as he was their new lord. He then ordered the imprisoned Caesar to be brought to him. The Caesar pleaded for his life. Shahpur reprimanded him for not following the protocol and imprisoning him when he had come as a trader.

The Roman Caeser pleading for his life before King Shahpur II

He still forgave the Caesar on the condition that he return the looted treasures, rebuild whatever he had destroyed in Iran at his own cost and plant all the trees he had cut. He then enchained the Caesar and sent him to prison. The Romans blamed the Caesar for their pitiable conditions. The Iranians on the other hand felt that their emperor’s actions had been vindicated.

SSS5. Shahpur I

King Shahpur I (240-271)

Shahpur I was the king from 240 to 271 CE. He was the son and successor of Ardeshir was crowned emperor at Ctesiphon on 20th March, 240 CE. For the first two years, he co-ruled with his father. At the time of coronation, as per the tradition, he gave an admonition in presence of his council of ministers comprising of wise men, elders and priests. He assured the council that he will follow the policies of his father in all matters, including collecting only three percent tax from his people. He continued the conquests and expansion of the empire.

Shahpur and Roman Emperor Gordianus

Soon after becoming the king, Shahpur stormed the defenses of the city of Hatra, which had proved to be a bugbear not only to his father but also to Romans. Then he captured the fortress city of Nisibis, followed by Antioch and Carrhae.

In 243 CE, the Roman emperor Gordianus III came with an army of Goth and German soldiers, successfully defeated Shahpur and took control of the cities of Mesopotamia, Nisibis, Antioch and Carrhae.

However, in a later war in 244, Shahpur defeated and killed Gordianus, at Misikhe near Ctesiphon close to the Euphrates river. There he established a city called Firoz-Shahpur “Victorious Shahpur”.

Shahpur and Roman Emperor Philip the Arab

The next Roman Caesar was Philip the Arab (244-253), who was a soldier-emperor. He instigated the provinces upto Kaydafah in North Africa against the Iranians. Then the Caesar and Roman army under the leadership of General Belisarius (Bazanush), set off to attack the Iranians. The Iranian army under commander Kersasp went to defend, and met the Romans at Paluniyah.

Shahpur I and Philip’s armies at Paluniyah

In 252, a bloody battle was fought in which thousands of Romans were killed and seventy thousand were taken prisoners. The Romans were badly defeated. The Caesar of Rome asked for truce by ceding the territories of Armenia and Mesopotamia and paying him five lakh denarii as tax. Shahpur waited at the battle camp till the taxes arrived with several other gifts. However, Philip reneged on the peace treaty and attacked again. Shahpur was prepared for the attack and conclusively defeated him in 253. To celebrate this victory, he established the city of Nishāpur.

Shahpur and Roman Emperor Valerian

Valerian (253-260), the next Roman Caesar, was keen to destroy Shahpur. However he miscalculated the massive might of the Sasanians. After some preliminary victories, Valerian was crushed by Shahpur in 260 in the battle of Edessa. Valerian was captured along with seventy thousand Roman soldiers. Never in the history of Rome, had a Roman emperor been captured alive. It was one of the most humiliating military losses in Roman history. To celebrate this conclusive victory Shahpur built a city called Shahpur-gard close to the site of victory. He also established a city to house the Roman prisoners of wars. The Roman Caesar Valerian was also detained along with the other prisoners.

Roman emperors pleading before Shahpur I’s in a bas-relief at Naksh-i-Rustam

While returning, the Sasanian and Roman armies passed the city of Shustar in the province of Khuzistan, where they had great difficulty in crossing the river Karun. Shahpur in his wisdom asked Valerian to make use of the Roman ingenuity in engineering and wealth from Iranian treasures. He entrusted him the task of building a dam-bridge on the river Karun with the help of the captured soldiers. Shahpur assured him that he will be released once he completed this task. It is said that Valerian took three years and made a beautiful bridge which stands even today and is known as Band-e-Kaisar.

Valerian was kept a prisoner for some time. Even today, in the ruins of the city of Bishāpur lies a place marked Zindān-e-Valerian “Valerian’s prison”. What happened to Valerian in the end is not conclusively known. Some believe, he met with his end in Iran. Others maintain that Valerian was honourably allowed to return to Rome.

Thus Shahpur became the one and only emperor in world history who defeated three successive Roman Caesars, killing one, making another a tributary, and the unprecedented achievement of capturing and taking the third as a prisoner.

Emergence of High priest Kartir

High priest Kartir with his inscription on a bas-relief at Nakhsh-i-Rajab

Religion was always given a lot of importance by Ardeshir, and his son Shahpur was no different. The chief Zoroastrian priest during his time was Kartir, who tried to establish standard and uniform Zoroastrian religious laws which were quite strict and stringent. He made an attempt to put in writing the scattered Avesta Nasks. He also tried to establish the superiority of the priests over the rulers. Kartir remained a very influential figure in Sasanian history and remained the religious head for several successive Sasanian kings.


Mithraism was prevalent is Shahpur’s time and was popular among Sasanian and Roman troops. In fact, the movement started in 100 CE and lasted till 400 CE. It was at its zenith during this period and was spread all over Europe into the Balkans, Italy and England.


We come to know from sources other than Firdausi, that in the reign of Shahpur emerged a heretic by the name Māni. He was born in 216 to Iranian parents and believed to have visions since the age of four. He was a good orator, and he claimed to be a prophet. When Māni was about twenty, he had a spiritual vision, and he came forward as a new prophet.

His philosophy was a synthesis of various existing religions like Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, and hence not confined by national borders. Initially his teachings were well received. Māni claimed that Hormazd and Ahreman were equals. He identified evil with matter and good with spirit. His dietary laws forbid the eating of animal products. There was an antipathy towards sexual activity. Zoroastrian and Christian priests vehemently opposed his stand.  He could not substantiate his arguments in the debates that ensued.

Mani preaching to the masses

Mani was introduced to the king Shapur I by prince Peroz. The king was duly impressed by him and made him an honorary member of the court, where he started to preach his doctrine.

Opposition to Mani’s views grew stronger and at last Shahpur had to advise Mani to leave the country. Mani left Iran for many years, and wandered all over Central Asia, including Syria, Palestine and Egypt. He even went as far east as China. Manichaeism spread towards the east into Spain, Greece, Illyria, Italy and Gaul. So vast was his influence that his works were found extensively in Sogdian, Old Turkish and Chinese. A Turkish king officially endorsed Manichaeism as the state religion.

After the death of Shahpur I in May 272 CE, Mani returned to Iran and was well-received by Shahpur’s successor Hormazd I, but when Hormazd died after a very short reign, his successor, Bahram I, showed strong dislike for Mani. His head priest Kartir tortured Mani and put him to death in 276. Mani’s followers were banned throughout the Iranian Empire, and hence they migrated to the west and south. Mani’s faith continued in the East till about the 17th century CE. Shahpur I has commemorated his victories over the three Roman emperors in one single consolidated rock relief at Nakhsh-i-Rustom, in one of the most majestic and well-preserved reliefs. In fact, this place got its name from this relief where the majestic looking king Shahpur I was mistaken for the great warrior Rustom.  Nearby, at Kābā-i-Zardusht, Shahpur I has also left a long description of his conquests which is the first long testament by a Sasanian king.