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.

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)