Rise and Fall of an Empire

Conversation with Dr. Touradj Daryaee


Rise and Fall of an Empire
by Ari Siletz

Introducing his book, Sasanian Persia, the Rise and Fall of an Empire, Dr. Touraj Daryee begins with a humble claim: there were no books in English dealing exclusively with Sasanian history, so he wrote one. Simple enough! But imagine the need if there were no English language books on Roman history. To gain insight into elements of their own governments, American and British students would have to study their own history through foreign eyes. For Iranian-Americans, particularly the younger generation with English as their first language, Sasanian Persia fills a correspondingly significant gap. Daryaee remains similarly down-to-earth throughout his reader-friendly yet erudite narrative. But by the final page of the book, there is a strong sense that the author has been generous far beyond his modest claim. Dr. Daryaee kindly agreed to answer some questions about Sasanian history that would be of interest to Iranian-American readers who also keep up with events in modern Iran.

Ari: One of the most striking revelations of your book is the inseparability of state and religion during the Sasanians. “Know that kingship is religion and religion is kingship..." according to Zoroastrian text. What are some of the ways that the philosophy of inseparability has played out in Iran's history since the Sasanians, for example Safavids, Constitution era, IRI today?

Daryaee: This idea of the connection and the survival of one based on the protection of the other has repeatedly appeared in Iranian history. The Sasanians present the earliest and clearest example that is expounded in Zoroastrian Middle Persian [Pahlavi language] texts. The Abbasid caliphs used this concept when they translated the ideas into Arabic, using them as tools for legitimizing their rule.

We see these ideas circulating in Medieval Persian Mirror for Princes literature [how-to guides for rulers] as well, but not to the extent that you find in the Sasanian or the early Abbasid period. But then again, it is in the Safavid period that it makes a strong reappearance.

With Fath Ali-Shah Qajar [the time of Iran’s humiliating defeats by Russia] we begin to get a new Shi’i interpretation of the Islamic tradition that during the Ghaybah or occultation of the Hidden Imam, the most capable person should rule, and that is the Faqih . Mullah Ahmad Naraghi brought one of the earliest interpretations of this in the 19th century. Of course this idea then became the basis for Ayatollah Khomeini’s concept of an Islamic state, where religion and state must be connected. After 1800 years, we have come back full circle!

Ari: The natural mechanisms super-gluing state and religious power--Sasanian, Roman, or empires elsewhere--can be readily seen in your narrative. This makes us wonder if, ironically, secularism is not a historic miracle. On a historic timescale, how stable are modern secular governments such as Turkey or the United States?

Daryaee: In the pre-modern times the idea of secularism is a rarity, if it ever existed. God(s) existed and was everywhere. It was not like now where the synagogue, church or mosque is the only place where you feel in the presence of God in a sacred space, and the outside world is a “secular/profane” place. Every place was sacred space and God was present everywhere, even though there are rare instances that we hear of those who don’t believe in a God in Mesopotamia.

But Turkey has successfully been able to balance religion and the state in a way that has become stable. Of course early on in the century it was violently anti religious and destroyed the power of the clerical establishment. This of course was never the case in Iran, at least since the sixteenth century.

For the US, it is a bit more interesting. In recent decades we see that religious groups are pushing for power. Who knows, one day the U.S. may be more like Iran than we would imagine!

Ari. Pabag [[Babak] the father of the first Sasanian king Ardeshir I was a fire temple priest, and Ardeshir I-- along with other early Sasanian kings--held both state and considerable religious power. But later some of this religious power flowed back into the non-royal priesthood. So here's the reverse of the previous question: why does power tend to separate between religion and state?

Daryaee: Making the Sasanian family from a priestly lineage is a Zoroastrian tradition. At times, the kings saw the power of the Zoroastrian priests and tried to counter it. At other times they used them to combat other dangerous elements / religious traditions. For example, Zoroastrianism was used to put down Mani and his Manichaean tradition, which had become popular. In the sixth century the king used Mazdak, a Zoroastrian priest to break the power of the nobility and institute changes through idea of a social / religious revolution.

But the King of Kings ruled over a large group of Christians, Jews and others, and as time went on, the state needed to promote the King’s Law over all the religious communities and so it confronted the Zoroastrian clergy as much as it could.

Ari: The word "theocracy" does not appear in your book on Sasanian Persia during any of its periods. Did you consciously avoid the term?

Daryaee: I don’t think the Sasanian Empire was a theocratic state. A clergy was never head of the state, but it came close to it. Although many are tempted to compare it with the modern times in Iran, I wanted not to do this. So you may say it was a conscious decision.

Ari: The high priest Kerdir's influential attempt to associate a particular geographic region, Iranshahr, with a particular religious sphere, Zoroastrianism, is reminiscent of how Judaism associates itself with the land of Israel. Yet you state the Iranian identity survived the fall of the Sasanians and Zoroastrianism as state religion precisely because there was enough religious tolerance to allow non-Zoroastrians to also feel Iranian. In the light of Israel's modern resurrection, how would you evaluate Kerdir’s attempt to associate land with religion?

Daryaee: This is a very interesting and good question. The idea of Iran / Iranshahr came from the Zoroastrian tradition which the Sasanians propped up (using the Avestan tradition). But by the sixth century there was a cultural idea of Iranshahr which encompassed Christians and Jews as well, because they themselves called themselves either Iranian or from Iranshahr. So the jump had been made from a religious/ethnic to a cultural and imperial--I hesitate to use secular--idea of Iran / Iranshahr. Thus, Iran as an idea survived the fall of the state religion.

If Israel is to do this--and she probably can--some elements in the population would have to win out in the debate.

Ari: By modern reckoning Wahram V (Bahram e Goor) would be Jewish, since his mother was Jewish. Given that Sasanian Zoroastrianism went so far as to encourage consanguinity [marriage within the family], why was marrying outside the religion even tolerated? Did the wives convert to Zoroastrianism?

Daryaee: These marriages cemented the relations between the king and the community. Yes, in fact Wahram V could be considered a Jewish king in the eye of the Jewish population. Next-of-kin-marriages seem to have been encouraged more after the Muslim conquest (at least I think), in order to keep the wealth of the Zoroastrian families from disappearing. I assume there was much more marriage between Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews than we think.

Ari: Shapur I tolerated the prophet Mani to dilute Zoroastrian power. Kawad I [Ghobad I] courted Madak's socialist religion not only to subvert the power of the Zoroastrian priesthood, but also to weaken the nobility. In practical terms, what did these kings want that religious power and nobility got in the way of? In other words, why try to weaken the crown's spiritual and material support structure?

Daryaee: These kings were using religion or religious men to counter the religious hierarchy or entrenched nobility. They needed to make changes and this could be done with the help of such figures. These are the times you need the aid of the masses or a group of them who are willing to move and shake things.

Shapur was perhaps thinking of a universalist religion, just like Christianity in the 3rd CE, and Kawad was thinking of creating or reforming Zoroastrian laws and breaking the back of the nobility and the clergy.

Ari: From your book it seems that the Khusro I's [Anooshirvan] social reforms and subsequent reputation for justice should be partly credited to his father Kawad I who began the reforms under the influence of Mazdak ideology. Despite Mazdak's ill fate and bad name, could he have been the ideological hero that saved the empire from collapse?

Daryaee: Mazdak’s appearance certainly brought about much reform. Mazdak was not the cause but the symptom of a declining Iranshahr in the fifth century CE. Mazdak has gotten a bad name because his enemies have written history and nothing survives of his own accounts. But he inspires later movements in the early Islamic period. So he must have resonated with the masses.

Ari: Your book suggests that the empowerment of the dehghan class [local landlords] and the resulting localized loyalties may have been one reason the empire fell to the Arabs. The Iranian nation seems to have been punished by this sharing of power that has a component in the direction of democracy. Could this historic memory still be informing our hesitant attitude towards the sort of distributed power characteristic of democracy?

Daryaee: In one way, Khusro tried to spread the wealth and power a bit at the cost of the great houses. I don’t think that was a real problem, although some of these people thought of their own interest first and foremost during the Arab Conquest. But this is a trend in pre-modern history throughout the world, as the “nation” is our modern view of the concept of that late antique period in Iran. Sure, there was Iranshahr, and the monarchy tried to espouse it--successfully to some extent--but many in the localities may not have thought of the “nation” concept as important.

Ari: You cite reasons as to why Sasanian Zoroastrianism had a dim view of artisans and merchants, such important tasks being primarily the occupation of minorities and émigrés who were sometimes forcibly brought in. Could this ambivalence towards industry--continued into the modern era--have been a cultural contributor to Iran resisting industrialization?

Daryaee: This is also a very interesting question and idea, which may be true. Although in the Islamic period, the religion was very open and favored business, and so there may be different ways to think about this.

Ari: Scientific treatise, geography, botany, zoology, history, were appended to religious texts, instead of being allocated separate books. Is this why so much was lost after the Islamic invasion? Worldly Knowledge was stored with the burnable stuff?

Daryaee: I tend to think of the issue differently. In the Sasanian period interest in Greek (Hellenic) and Indian science is very much in play. Schools are set up, a hospital (Jundishapur) was built, and translators translated everything into Middle Persian / Pahlavi for the king and the court. We have glimpses of this in references, as well as evidence in Middle Persian literature. For example, Middle Persian texts tell us that kings ordered books on geography (zamig-paymayig). We have direct quotations from Aristotelian texts in Middle Persian, etc.

What happened in the Abbasid period was to mimic the Sasanians and so a translation movement came about where all these texts were translated into Arabic (the new language of the new empire). Since these Middle Persian texts were of no use in the early Islamic period, they withered, but the religious material survived with the Zoroastrian priests who needed to have them.

Ari: The Sasanians tried to connect themselves to the Avestan Kianid kings, bypassing and erasing real history even from the likes of Ferdowsi. Today we rename streets and monuments to hide our past and shape it to our advantage. From a strictly non-judgmental point of view, are such measures necessary for the stability of regimes?

Daryaee: What you have in the Shahnameh is really the Sasanian vision of the origin and the history of Iranshahr. The Sasanians created a sacred history of Iran, which should necessarily begin as described in their religious text, i.e., the Avesta. In the Yashts of the Avesta, the Kayanids loom larger than life. The Sasanians used them and modeled themselves after them. In such a scheme there was no need for the Achaemenids whose memory was reduced to Dara son of Dara (Darius III), because he had been defeated by Alexander of Macedon.

Every dynasty and regime tries to rewrite history and push issues that makes them legitimate. But if the Khoday-namag (book of kings) of the Sasanian period had been lost, and not given its Persian form, the Shahnameh, we would have lost our identity and would have become just another Muslim country. Of course this did not happen.

Ari: From the descriptions in your book, a reader can suspect that the Iranian Shiite tradition of azaadari, perhaps even the self-mutilation rituals of Ashura have roots in some regional Sasanian Zoroastrian rituals. The recommended age of marriage for a girl was nine, and women had to cover themselves and not wear makeup. In what other ways would today's Shi’ism look familiar to a devout Sasanian Zoroastrian?

Daryaee: As a historian, I am somewhat weary of making direct connections, but still you see continuity. Of course we have to remember that Iran was dominantly Sunni for almost a 1000 years before Shi’ism became the state religion during the Safavid period.

But we see local customs in the Sasanian period that show passion plays--Sug I Siyavash is a good example. The idea of marriage when you are young was the norm in antiquity as people did not live long like today, and having offspring early was most important. I would even contend, as some evidence has come to light, that the idea of contractual or temporary marriage is found in the Sasanian period and then in Shi’sim. What makes such a connection so interesting is that even in the Arab Shi’i countries the idea of Mut’a or temporary marriage is not really accepted and it is only in Iran that you have this idea taking hold. How is it that we had this practice in Iran among the Sasanian Zoroastrians of 1, 3, 10-year contracts? Also, the Jews mention in their Talmud that the Iranians had this practice in the Sasanian period. Then in Iran of the Islamic period we again face a similar issue.

I should note there are many more laws in common between Shi’ism and Zoroastrianism of the Sasanian period. These need to be studied and worked out of course.

Ari: Thank you Dr. Daryaee. Your book was a fascinating read. Everything felt so familiar in Sasanian. Iran--including the short passages in Middle Persian. For a modern Iranian layperson it certainly stirred up a lot of soul searching, as you may have noticed from the questions.

Daryaee: I too think the Sasanians are very much with us, or we are the product of a plan they set up 1800 years ago! That is why I am interested in them.


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Without Islam

by Veiled Prophet of Khorasan on


I think Iran would have reformed and revitalized. Probably been the most advanced nations in the world. Imagine no Arab or Mongol attacks; no burning of the libraries. We would be on top of the world now.


He's coming to DC

by irnstd on

to give a talk for those interested:




Through the hazy shade of history!

by Arj on

Thanks dear Ari for the interesting Q&A. However, idea of democracy was not an entirely strange concept to the ancient Iran as the early Parthian (Ashkanid) era saw relative religious tolerance and multiculturalism due to being influenced by the Greek democracy! Nonetheless, emergence of the Sassanid dynasty and establishment of Zoroastrianism as the official state religion paved the way for a powerful religious institution dominating the Sassanid court affairs, and in part, causing its eventual decline!

Indeed, the Manichean and Mazdaki movements (the latter being the first of its kind, egalitarian/socialist, in the known history of mankind) were direct reactions to the injustice caused by the influence of the religious establishment on state affairs and the caste system imposed on the society as a result! Moreover, Ghobad I (Khosow's father) was genuinly drawn to the Mazdaki movement as an alternative to status quo and a gesture towards social reforms (he even married a commoner whose son he had groomed to succeed him)! Perhaps Khosrow Anushirvan's interest in becoming an icon of social justice could be seen as an attempt to make ammends for the brutal massacre of the Mazdakis (including his own half-brother)!

Hafez for Beginners

Modern People!

by Hafez for Beginners on

Thank you, I enjoyed this. The part about: " Iran as an idea survived the fall of the state religion" - reminded me of the fact that I always say to American friends that "Iran" and being Iranian, is like saying you are "American", ie. your religion and ethnicicty are not specified.

What a modern people, we were! Thanks, again - Touradj Daryaee and Ari.



Mohammad Ala

Thank you.

by Mohammad Ala on

Thanks Ari jaan for your time and efforts.  I appreciate what you did.  I have thanked Dr. Daryaee several times for his time and efforts also.


Very Interesting

by JahanKhalili on

Thanks, Ari!

Immortal Guard

For those who are interested!

by Immortal Guard on

Anahid Hojjati

thanks Ari for a very interesting interview

by Anahid Hojjati on

fascinating information such as the fact that temporary marriage and getting married at 9 happened in sassani period too. 

Ari Siletz

Some replies

by Ari Siletz on

Dr. Saadat Nouri: Thank you for your attention to this interview. Though I neglected to ask Dr. Daryaee his opinion as to what role religious fanaticism played in the downfall of the Sasanians, I personally incline to a view similar to yours. A runaway influence of religion will crash the system.

Immortal Guard: Good question. Don't know what Dr. Daryaee would say; I will ask him next time I get a chance. My own conjecture is that a renaissance would not have happened in the hypothetical "no Arab invasion" scenario for the simple reason that in Iran  there was no "naissance" to "re" to! Taking the scenario further, even the European Renaissance may not have happened without the Arab invasion which brought East and West together, effectively combining Byzantine Rome and Persia. Greek philosophy contributed the rational method to the Renaissance, but the other important component, empiricism, was developed mostly by the Iranian Farabi and Ibn Sina (with a debt to Aristotle). Through our great thinkers, we Iranians have some claim to the Renaissance.


Anonymous Bugger: You are trivially right. There was no Islamic Republic of  Sasanid. Certain aspects of the late antique Iranian culture continue to this day, including some aspects of  Shi'ism.

Anonymous Bugger

subtlly, correlating&connecting Sassanid to IRI ...:)

by Anonymous Bugger on

legitimacy issue?..still at it 24/7 ;). For 14 centuries Omarists & Ommatist victors  tried to glue together a nasty portrait of Kiaani Iran system of governance yet they failed. So they chose to go the easy way and this time as the sect of shia to connect with it for much needed legitimacy.

Sassanid system of governance was not of a religious state headed by a priestly class but a Soveriegn Monarch  supporting the state's official religion among his/her many other tasks. Much more tolerant & open verses her priest-kings of holy Roman Empire or Byzentine counterparts such as Photius with  forced mass conversions on slavs. Ironicaly Sassanid Monarchs  such as Kavadh(Ghobad) & Shahpour were the ones who funded & promoted Minority sects such as Mazdaks & Manism to build their temples & preach the message. Indeed,Mani dedicated one of his books "Shabuhragan" to Shahpour himself. It was Khosru I & Shahpour who invited  oppressed Jews & christian migrants to settle & exercise their faiths freely in Iran-Shahr. Mind you, this is not to deny that a strong religious lobby was not present in the person of folks like head priest Kartir who enjoyed the king's attention yet this is normal practice among all other monarchist systems such as Frankish , Norman or British models.

Thus, Islamic republic of Sassanid is not there..no dice..pass along folks.



btw, why dont we have an interview about the similarities of Akhoond Janati & king Khosru ..i hear Shahnameh was originaly inspired by a-khoondnameh & not khodaynameh & was dedicated to janati.

Immortal Guard

I would have liked to know...

by Immortal Guard on

I would have liked to know how Sassanian Iran would have developed if Islam had not arrived!

Do you think that the Sassanian Empire would have been capable of a Renaissance-like development or only useless war with Rome would have continued?

M. Saadat Noury

Dear Ari

by M. Saadat Noury on

Thank you for this great interview; enjoyed every minute of it. The sincere congratulations go to the author of Rise and Fall of an Empire for everything, but most of all for his rigorous exhaustive work of collecting data that were desperately needing to be published.

And a note to remember that, "The religious fanaticism not only caused downfall of Sassanids but also that of Safavids. Iran gradually weakened during both Zoroastrian Sassanid and Shi’ite Safavid dynasties and the conditions became favorable for foreign adversaries to overthrow the dynasties in power at the time. Arabs defeated the Yazdegerd III (632-651), last king of Sassanians, and an Afghan rebel army toppled Shah Sultan Hossein (1694-1722), the last effective ruler of Safavid dynasty": //iranian.com/main/blog/m-saadat-noury/first-iranian-who-established-state-religion-iran