“The tale of Khosrow and Shirin is well known
And by Truth, there is no sweeter story than it”
Nizami penned a lyrical love story (circa 1177-1180) of the Persian Sasanian Shahnshah Khosrow II Parviz and the Princess Shirin as part of his Panj Ganj. The Zoroastrian Shahnshah’s courtship of the Armenian Christian Princess followed many twists and turn.
He endured long journeys, both of a physical and spiritual nature, before marrying
Shirin, his true love. But their story ended in tragedy
By Mahlia Lone
The romance written by Nizami Ganjavi was commissioned and dedicated to the Seljuk Sultan Toghril II, the Atabek Muhammad ibn Eldiguz Jahan Pahlavan and his brother Qizil Arslan. The Sultan did not choose the subject, just the genre. Although the story was well known in the region, its romance was heightened by Nizami. Unlike Ferdowsi who focused on the historical aspect, i.e. kingship and battles of Khosrow, Nizami decided to blur the facts a bit and expand its romantic aspect. The following is a summary of the version in Love Stories of Persian Literature, based on the translation by Nazy Kaviani:
Hormizd IV, the Sasanid King of Persian was a good monarch who cared for the welfare of the common people and maintained strict discipline in his army and court. He also did not allow the Zoroastrian priests to persecute the Christian citizens of his realm. Due to these reasons, he was not popular amongst the elite, which led to many executions and confiscations amongst those that opposed his policies.
Hormzid had another worry that made him anxious about the future of his realm. He didn’t have a son. At long last, his queen gave birth to a healthy, cherubic baby boy, Khosrow Parvez. The overjoyed King got the brightest tutors to arm his son with the best education and prepare him for his future role. By age ten, the clever boy became skilled in such manly pursuits as riding, fencing, and archery, essential for a prince in those days. Khosrow’s best friend Shapur excelled at painting and chose it as his vocation.
One night, a young Khosrow feasted and caroused in a farmer’s house, which displeased his father, Hormizd, who didn’t think it suited his dignity as the heir to the throne. A repentant Khosrow apologized to his father who readily forgave him. That night, Khosrow saw his grandfather Khosrow I Anushirvan in a dream who foretold that his grandson would have a wife named Shirin, a steed named Shabdiz (the legendary black stallion and “world’s fastest horse”), a musician named Barbad and a great kingdom, Persia. As it turned out that both the horse and the court musician played significant roles in the love story.
Khosrow recounted the dream to his close friend and a painter, Shapur, who told the Prince about the unmarried Armenian Queen Shamira Mahin Banu who ruled over a vast territory and had no heir other than her beautiful niece, Shirin. He described Shirin’s flawless and unmatched beauty in detail and added that she had an exceptional horse, named Shabdiz, that galloped faster than the wind. The young prince was intrigued and couldn’t stop thinking about the princess who he felt was destined for him. He sent Shapur to Armenia to throw a feeler out to Shirin from the prince’s side. Shapur assured his friend that he would convince Shirin to not take any other husband save Khosrow.
Once in Armenia, Shapur started tracking Shirin’s daily whereabouts. One day, he discovered that Shirin and her companions would be spending the day in a nearby forest. Arriving before the ladies, Shapur hung a portrait he had made of the prince from a tree and left. Knowing that they were safe from prying eyes, Shirin and her friends danced around the trees. Suddenly, Shirin found herself face to face with Khusrow’s picture that hung from a magnificent tree. She swooned at his likeness. Not only was he gorgeous, but he was dressed as a prince.
Shirin couldn’t sleep that night in her restlessness to find out whose likeness it was. She went back to the forest the next morning accompanied by her companions to find out the identity of the mysterious stranger. Shapur appeared and satisfied her curiosity. He told her that Khosrow was no ordinary prince but the heir to the Persian throne and was extremely interested in her.
Background — a Romanticised History
Khosrow II entitled Parvez (The Victorious), the last great King of the Sasanian Empire, is prominently featured in such enduring works of Persian literature as the great Abu ’l-Qasim Ferdowsi Tusi’s epic poem The Shahnameh (Book of Kings, circa 940–1020), as well as Nizami Ganjavi’s Khosrow and Shirin, a romantic and tragic retelling of it. The former is the world’s longest epic poem written by a single poet and the national epic of Greater Iran, while the latter is a fictional version of the Sasanian ruler Khosrow’s life portraying him as heroic king and star crossed lover and Shirin, his faithfulAramean queen.
The Sixth century patriarch of the Church of the East, Isho‘yahb met all three of the great rulers of his time, the Roman Emperor Heraclius, Sasanid Shahnshah Khosrow II and the second Muslim Caliph Hazrat Umar ibn al-Khattab. It was recorded that “Isho Yahb was treated respectfully throughout his life, by the king himself and his two Christian wives Shirin the Aramean and Mary the Roman.”
Seventh-century Byzantine historiographer, the last historian of Late Antiquity, writing in the time of Emperor Heraclius (c. 630) Theophylact Simocatta argued that Shirin was Roman: “In the following year the Persian King (Khosrow II) proclaimed as Queen Seirem (Shirin) who was of Roman birth and Christian religion, and of an age blossoming for marriage, slept with her…In the third year he entreated Sergius, the most efficacious in Persia, that a child by Seirem be granted to him. Shortly afterwards this came to pass for him.”
But the seventh century Armenian historian Sebeos contradicted Shirin’s Roman (Byzantine) ancestry: “(Xosrov), in accordance with their Magian religion, had numerous wives. He also took Christian wives, and had an extremely beautiful Christian wife from the land of Xuzhastan named Shirin, the Bambish, queen of queens (tiknats’ tikin). She constructed a monastery and a church close to the royal abode, and settled priests and deacons there allotting from the court stipends and money for clothing. She lavished gold and silver (on the monastery). Bravely, with her head held high she preached the gospel of the Kingdom, at court, and none of the grandee mages dared open his mouth to say anything—large or small—about Christians. When, however, days passed and her end approached, many of the mages who had converted to Christianity, were martyred in various places.”
The 12th-century poet Nizami Ganjavi, the greatest romantic epic poet in Persian literature, responsible for imparting q colloquial and realistic style to the Persian epic, himself was married to a Kipchak slave girl, called Afaq, presented to him by Fakhr al-Din Bahramshah, the ruler of Darband. Afaq was Nezami’s “most beloved” wife of the three that he took over his lifetime. His only son Mohammad who he referred to as the “apple of my eyes” was from this wife. She died after Khosrow and Shirin was completed. Mohammad was seven at the time.
According to Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, Peter Chelkowski, Nizami’s favorite pastime was reading Firdawsi’s Shahnameh. Nizami based the Shahnameh as a source for his three epics of Haft Paykar, Khosrow and Shirin and Eskandar-nameh (Alexander the Great), part of his Panj Ganj (Five Treasures). The second of his four romances Leyli and Majnun (see GT issue ) is based on a real life Arab couple.
Using his vast knowledge, Nizami was responsible not only linking Persia between Pre and Islamic times and also placed the nation in context of the Ancient World.
The princess was at the age when young people are ripe for falling in love and cajoled Shapur to tell her how she could meet the prince. Shapur told her that she would have to lose her companions to meet Khosrow between her kingdom and his. He gave her a ring Khosrow had sent her and said that if she couldn’t find Khosrow on the way, she should continue towards Madaen, the metropolis where the royal center of Ctesiphon was located. Once there, she should show the ring to the courtiers who would take her to Khosrow.
Shirin did as she was told. She got on her trusty steed Shabdiz, which was so fast that nobody could catch up with her. After she had travelled for countless miles, Shirin felt hot and dusty from the hard ride. Both she and her horse were parched. When she came to a pond she dismounted and, seeing nobody around, stripped and stepped into the pond to take a bath.
Meanwhile, Khosrow was galloping fast towards the Armenia. On the way, he too chanced upon the clearing. He dismounted and, walking around, spied the moonlit image of a young, naked woman bathing in the silvery water with her long, thick, lush hair spread around her like a cape. Mesmerized by the image, he stood transfixed.
Feeling his intent gaze upon her, Shirin raised her eyes towards him. Their eyes met for an instant and they made an electric connection. Though she had seen likeness in the portrait, she didn’t recognize Khosrow due to his clever disguise. The prince felt that he was intruding and averted his gaze in respect.
Soon both resumed their journeys in opposite directions intent on their purpose.
Khosrow arrived in Armenia without further incident. The Queen welcomed him to her castle. He told her he had come to meet her niece and ask for her hand in marriage. Overjoyed at the thought of such an illustrious alliance bound in matrimony, the Queen told him that Shirin had set off for Madaen. They sent Shapur to bring her back, but before they could return, Khosrow got the sad news of his father’s demise. There had been a palace coup. The rebel leaders deposed, blinded and killed Hormizd. Appalled at the turn of events, Mahin Bano gave Khosrow a fresh Arabian horse nearly as fast as Shabdiz, named Golgoon, to ride back swiftly to Madaen.
By the time Shirin returned with Shapur, Khosrow had left to claim the throne. Back home, he was crowned Shahanshah Khosrow I only to be overthrown by the powerful and ambitious General Bahram Chobin who seized power and took the throne. The legitimate King fled to Armenia.
This time he and Shirin did finally meet. Their love affair began in earnest when Shirin overheard Barbad singing of the prince’s love for her in an adjoining tent tent to her abode. Khosrow and Shirin spent the days getting to know each other, and falling in love. Swept up in a sea of passion, Khosrow was impatient to consummate their love, but Shirin wanted to wait for their wedding night. As much as Khosrow wanted Shirin, he was now the legitimate King, and taken aback by her reluctance. So the lovers danced the dance of flirtation, two steps forward, and one step back.
Shirin remained resolute and adamant that she would not marry him unless he was not just King in name but in actuality too. Before she would consent to marry him, he had to reclaim his throne back from Bahram Chobin. She wanted him but she wanted to be married to a king more. Moreover, she probably felt that she could only respect him if he were strong and brave enough to punish his enemies. Feeling angered and rejected by Shirin, Khosrow had no choice but to leave. Shirin gave him Shabdiz and bid him a speedy and fruitful journey.
Khosrow needed help with forces and money. So he decided to solicit the help of his father’s erstwhile enemy the Caesar of the Byzantine Empire, Emperoror Maurice. He travelled straight to Constantinople and negotiated a deal with him. In exchange for returning former Byzantine territories under Persian control, Maurice agreed to supply Khosrow with additional forces on two conditions. One that Khosrow marry his eldest daughter Miriam and two that he not get remarried in her lifetime. With no other choice, Khosrow consented.
With the help of Caesar’s army, Khosrow’s forces waged a decisive battle against Bahram Chobin, defeated him and crowned himself Shahanshah of Persia. Having entered a marriage of political convenience, he continued to miss and pine for Shirin, but had a son with his new wife.
Back in Armenia, Shirin’s aunt, Mahin Bano fell ill and died, bequeathing her entire territory to Shirin before she died. Queen Shirin focused on improving the lives of her subjects and released deserving prisoners. Though beloved by her people, in her private thoughts she could neither forget Khosrow nor forgive him for his marriage to Miriam. He was always in her thoughts until one day she decided she could not bear it anymore. Entrusting her kingdom to her trusted advisers, she strode Golgoon and left Armenia for Madaen with a few companions. Upon arrival, she settled in a dark and gloomy castle, far from the royal palace.
Miriam heard about Shirin’s presence at the capital, but was so jealous that she kept Khosrow away from her. Khosrow and Shirin continued to send messages to each other through Shapur. One day Khosrow asked Shapur to tell Shirin to come to a secret meeting place. Shirin was angry at this request. She told Shapur to convey the message to Khosrow that she would not carry on in private with a married man; she wanted more.
Shirin only took milk; she was so upset that she couldn’t eat. Transporting milk to her secluded, far off castle over a rocky mountain was an arduous task for her caretakers to perform every day. She asked Shapur for a solution and he told her about his old schoolmate, an expert engineer/sculpturor named Farhad.
As a solution, Farhad devised an ingenious way of carving a canal through the mountain through which the milk would flow in a stream to where Shirin resided. When he met the Shirin to present her with the plan, he fell in love at first sight.
Farhad’s talent knew no bounds plus he wanted to impress his lady love. He cut the promised canal through sang-e-khara (solid granite) in just a month, ending in a pool by Shirin’s castle. When Shirin saw the completed canal, impressed with Farhad’s art and touched by his love and dedication for her, she removed her earrings and gave them to Farhad in gratitude as a reward and a token of her esteem. Farhad was speechless and overcome; returning the earrings, he took off into the wilderness where he pined for Shirin.
Soon tales of his love for Shirin travelled around town. Farhad, being single, was open about his feelings and would write and recite love poems he had written expressing his feelings. Word travelled to Khosrow who couldn’t brook another rival and, spurred on by jealousy, became determined to keep Shirin and her love for himself. Men thrive on competition. Khosrow had to figure out a way to get Farhad out of Shirin’s life without seeming petty or vengeful. Since he himself was married, so outwardly he couldn’t object to Shirin settling down.
Farhad was not only a gifted artist and highly skilled engineer, but good looking to boot; he posed a real threat to the King. Khosrow called Farhad to his castle to try and bribe him to get him out of Shirin’s life. Nizami penned a dramatic and sensitive scene in which Khosrow and Farhad have a poetic dialogue about Shirin, by the end of which Khosrow knew Farhad would never willingly give up Shirin and winning her heart.
Khosrow promised Farhad that if he could cut a passage and a staircase through the mountains outside of his castle, he would let him marry Shirin. Khosrow knew that the project was so arduou, treacherous, and time-consuming that it would surely take Farhad the rest of his life to complete it. Farhad agreed to this project and started his labor of love.
Farhad diligently started work on carving the Bistoon Mountain. First he engraved a statue of Shirin on the mountainside, which he kissed several times a day to give him the impetus and inspiration to carry out his laborious project. He would climb to the mountaintop every morning without fail from wthere he would proclaim his undying love for Shirin, and then begin work. He worked day and night to complete this Herculean task.
Again the story of Farhad’s astonishing progress in what everyone had thought to be an impossible project soon reached the King’s ears. Everyone was talking about Farhad the wonderful artist/poet/consummate lover who took no rest and hardly slept intent on working a miracle in the mountains. Even Shirin went to visit Farhad, to “observe his progress on the project.” Each time she was more in awe of his dedication and felt closer to Farhad.
Hearing about all this, Khosrow didn’t know what to do. He envied Farhad his dedication and feared losing Shirin to Farhad as the project neared completion. He sought counsel from his advisors who told him he had to eliminate Farhad as a threat completely. Hence, a messenger was dispatched to the mountaintop to tell Farhad of Shirin’s death.Heart broken, inconsolable with grief and feeling utterly hopeless, Farhad did not want to go on living without Shirin; he threw himself off the mountain down to his death.
Shirin was devastated at the news of Farhad’s death. She mourned his death, cried inconsolably and ordered a suitable memorial monument erected at his gravesite. A remorseful Khosrow tried to console Shirin by sending her a remorseful condolence letter. As it happened, at roughly the same time, Miriam conveniently fell ill and died. Shirin replied with a condolence letter to Khosrow. (In Ferdowsi’s version, Shirin secretly poisoned Miriam and she replied to Khosrow’s letter with a sarcastic letter of condolence. The two royals seemed to be evenly matched, each doing away his/her love rival.)
You would think that with no further impediments, the story would come to a happy conclusion. Not to be, further strife was in store for the ill-starred couple. As fate would have it, before Khosrow could propose marriage to Shirin, he started having an affair with a woman called Shekar in Isfahan, which delayed the lovers’ union for another year.
When finally the errant King turned up at Shirin’s castle, he was drunk. Smarting at the slight she had received from him, Shirin allowed Khosrow into the courtyard of her castle as he was the King after all, but would not let him to come into her living quarters. She told him that she wouldn’t let a drunken man into her home, and that if Khosrow was truly interested in her, he would have to respect her as a woman of values and integrity. She told him she had waited for him all these years and deserved to be taken seriously. She held out for marriage despite her loneliness.
Khosrow returned to his palace, feeling sad and rejected. Shapur consoled him; he assured him of Shirin’s love and loyalty. He reiterated that if they truly loved each other, they were meant to be together.
Khosrow finally seriously proposed marriage to Shirin, treating her with all the respect she desired. They had a grand royal wedding; the lovers finally becoming husband and wife began their life together. Shirin was a true queen consort to Khosrow, helping him become a better king, kind and forgiving to his people.
Khosrow’s son, Shirouyeh, from his marriage to Miriam was a wayward, unruly and petulant young man. Since the age of only ten, he had harbored a crush on Shirin. Bitter and resentful, he bided his time and, as soon as he came of age, imprisoned his father, Khosrow, and crowned himself the King. Shirin stood by Khosrow and gave him hope. But this too, Shirouyeh didn’t like and murdered Khosrow while both husband and wife slept. When she woke up and saw Khosrow dead, Shirin was devastated. Shirouyeh sent a messenger to Shirin, telling her that she was allowed to mourn Khosrow for only one week and after that she would have to marry him.
Shirin lovingly and carefully prepared Khosrow’s body for his funeral. She then applied makeup and scent, dressed herself in lavish finery, dressed her hair, and put on her best jewellery and followed her husband’s coffin. Shirin appeared to have reconciled to her husband’s murder and looked like she was ready to move on. She followed Khosrow’s body as it was taken to a mausoleum for burial; she asked everyone for privacy so she could bid him good bye, undid Khosrow’s shroud and kissed his chest where the knife had made a wound. Then, she put a knife to her chest and fell heavily on Khosrow’s body, the knife plunging into her heart. Kissing his lips, holding him in her arms, she put her head on his shoulder and died.
It is interesting to note that this scene is very similar to the one in Romeo and Juliet. Surely, William Shakespeare was familiar with and inspired by Nizami’s poem to pen his own romantic tragedy.
A brief history of the Sasanian or Neo-Persian Empire
Before Islam, the last period of the Persian Empire was ruled by the imperial dynasty of the Zoroastrian practicing House of Sasan, which ruled from 224 to 651 AD.
The Sasanian Empire (official language Aramaic) was one of the world’s leading powers alongside its neighbour, the Roman-Byzantine Empire that consisted of the Western Roman Empire (official language Latin) and the Byzantine Eastern Empire (official language Greek). It was established after the fall of the Parthian Empire.
Radiate Of Valerian On A Coin At The Yorkshire Museum. Byzantine Emperor Valerian Was Defeated By Shapur I
At its largest, the Sasanian Empire included the area of Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE, Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Egypt, Turkey, much of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and even Pakistan.
Ancient Iranian civilization peaked during Late Antiquity’s Sasanian Empire. Sasanian cultural influence permeated as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It not only influenced late Ancient Roman culture as well as European and Asiatic Medieval art, but also Islamic art, architecture, music and literature that came after it.
Relief Of Shapur I, Naqsh I Rustam, Iran
The important rulers of this dynasty that ruled for 400 years are as following:
Shapur I The Great (240 – 270 AD) expanded his father Ardashir I’s territory and defeated the mighty Romans under Valerian the Elder (253-260 CE) and annexed multiple Roman territories. His second battle against the Romans at Barbalissos (in modern day Syria) was a resounding victory using his superior knowledge of tactics, strategic traps, and troop formations , and “destroying the entirety of 60,000 legionaries.”
Bust Of Shapur II (r. 309 379)
The once unbeatable Roman Army was no match and was besieged at Edessa where Valerian was captured by Shapur who publicly shamed the defeated and imprisoned Emperor until his death.
Shapur’s victory over the Romans was immortalized with rock reliefs carved in Naqsh-e Rustam and Bishapur, as well as a monument inscribed in Persepolis in both Persian and Greek. He advanced into Anatolia (in modern day Turkey) and conquered Antioch but could not retain the territory and lost his harem to the Romans as revenge humiliation.
Shapur’s other achievements included the construction of the first dam bridge, founding many cities, and allowing Christians to settle lands and practice their faith freely. The Jewish community also enjoyed a fair and equitable status.
However, under pressure from Zoroastrian Magi some later Shahnshah, like Bahrams I and II, reversed Shapur’s policy of religious tolerance.
Shapur II the Great, the tenth Shahanshah (r. 309 to 379), was the longest-reigning monarch in Iranian history. He reigned since birth to his death 70 years later. His reign marked the start of the first Sasanian golden era with the expansion of the empire’s territorial realm. Though his mother and her advisors ruled in his minority, upon coming of age, Shapur II took the charge.
Sasanians dominated the region of Turkmenistan not only militarily but also through art and culture. Shapur II also established such an effective administrative system that, despite weak and ineffective leaders that followed, the empire continued to function well as a unit.
Bahram V (r. 421–438) or Bahram-e Gur (Gur meaning onager or a wild ass. Nelieve it or not, he was nicknamed for his love of hunting wild asses) was the Shahanshah at the height of the Empire’s golden age during a time of prosperity and flourishing of the arts. Stories of his valor, hunting prowess, personal beauty, love affairs as well as important victories over the Romans, Turkic tribes, Indians and Africans were sung widely. Just like the Tudors and the Bourbons, apart from waging successful military campaigns, he indulged himself and his courtiers with elaborate hunting parties, banquets and elaborate courtly rituals. During this time, the best Sasanid literature, music and sports, such as polo, gained royal patronage.
At around this time, the Hephthalites or White Huns that consisted of Central Asian nomadic tribes started their campaign of frequent attacks on Persia inflicting plunder and mayhem. After being driven back repeatedly, the Huns annihilated the army of Peroz I (457–484) and devastated eastern Persia up till Herat. Though they exacted heavy tribute to return, the Empire became shaky and unstable.
Khosrau I (r. 531–579) also known as Anushirvan (with the immortal soul) was the most celebrated Sasanid ruler because he managed to reform the ageing governing body of Sssanids. He worked for the welfare of the people by promulgating a fairer system of taxation based on land survey and increased the national revenue. He changed the system by taking power away from great feudal lords with their own armies and transferring it to the dehqans (knights) that owed their allegiance to the central government and the bureaucracy. These small time landholders were absorbed in the Sasanid provincial administration and tax collection system. In this way, Khosrau centralised control over the army, feudal lords and bureaucracy, a move that would not happen in Europe for more than 1000 years.
Trying to restore the former glory of the Roman Empire, Emperor Justinian I negotiated the “eternal peace” treaty of 532 Khosrow I and paid 440,000 pieces of gold. However, within the decade, in 540, Khosrow broke the treaty and invaded Syria and Antioch. The Byzantines retaliated by sending ground troops into Sasanid territory by sailing across the Caspian Sea. Khosrow fought back successfully and annexed Armenia.
Thirty years later, the King of Yemen requested Khosrau’s help and military intervention to preserve his monarchy. Wily and far sighted Khosrau I sent a fleet and a small army to present day Aden which successfully took over the occupied capital of San’a’ and enthroned King Saif who allowed the Sasanids to establish a base in southern Arabia to control the sea trade with the East. Another thirty years later, the Sasanids annexed southern Arabia as a province.
In addition to expansion, Khosrau I founded new towns, rebuilt canals, beautified his capital city of Ctesiphon in modern Iraq and aided farmers increase their farm output. He built forts at frontier passes and relocated tribes to act as a buffer against against invaders. Decreeing Zoroastrianism as the official state religion, he remained tolerant of all religions, and even allowed one of his sons to convert to Christianity.
Khosrau II (r. 590–628) was his grandson. After the powerful General Bahram Chobin deposed Khosrau II’s father he declared himself Shahnshah Bahram VI. Khosrau II was forced to flee to Byzantine territory in Syria accompanied by Shirin who was not yet his wife, and beseech the Byzantine Emperor Maurice (582–602) for military assistance against Bahram, in exchange for the western Caucasus.
According to the 12th-century chronicler Michael the Syria, the alliance was bound in the marriage of Khosrau with Maurice’s eldest daughter Miriam or Maria.
The allied forces of the erstwhile rivals the Byzantines and Persians defeated Bahram at the Battle of Blarathon. When Khosrau was restored to power he handed over the hard won provinces of western Armenia and Caucasian Iberia to the Eastern Roman Emperor. Instead, Khosrau expanded the Sasanid Empire in the East, while Maurice retook control over the Balkans.
After Maurice was overthrown and killed in 602, Khosrau II took advantage of the ensuing civil war and used regicide as a pretext to systematically besiege the heavily fortified Byzantine territories in Mesopotamia and Armenia. In addition, Persian forces invaded Syria and captured Antioch in 611. After Persian generals repelled a counter-attack led in person by the new Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641) two years later, there was no turning back and one by one the Byzantine strongholds of Jerusalem, Alexandria in 619 and the rest of Egypt fell to the Persians.
The Sasanids had managed to restore the Neo Persian Empire to its glory and hegemony during the days of the Achaemenid dynasty. The Byzantine Empire, on the other hand, lay in tatters and was on the verge of collapse. This territorial peak translated into a blossoming of Persian art, music, and architecture. However, the Persian army was stretched, treasury empty and the population severely overtaxed.
Not one to give up, Heraclius risked all mounting a counter-offensive. He fought back in Anatolia and the Caucasus. The top three most powerful Persian generals were so busy competing against each other that Heracules took advantage of the disunity of their forces and won a series of resounding victories.
The two Emperors were locked in an iron grip struggle to the death. Khosrau allied himself with the Avars of the North Caucasus, Slavs and Central Asian tribes and launched a long term siege to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 626, a first by the Sasanids.
However, at home, he had lost power, prestige and the support of the Persian aristocracy. Just two years later, there was a coup. Khosrau II was overthrown, murdered and replaced by his son Kavadh II. Readily bending to the will of those that brought him to power, Kavadh promptly sued for peace by withdrawing from all occupied territories. In 629, Heraclius ceremoniously restored Christ’s True Cross to Jerusalem that had been in the possession of Khosrau’s Christian wife, Shirin. Kavadh died shortly after and civil war followed.
Five Shahnshahs over four years later, the Sasanid Empire was a shadow of its former glory. The power lay with the generals who kept control over the weakened empire.
In 632, the last Sasanian Shahanshah Yazdegerd III ascended the throne and Muslim Arab tribes started invading Persia.
The Sasanids couldn’t repel the initial Arab armies. Yazdegerd was an inexperienced boy king. The Byzantines too were under pressure from the newly united Arabs. Caliph Hazrat Abu Bakr’s commander Khalid ibn Walid and leader of the Arab army easily captured Mespotamia (Iraq) in 633.
In 637, Caliph Hazrat Umar ibn al-Khattab defeated the much larger Persian force led by General Rostam Farrokhzad and advanced on Ctesiphon, which fell after a prolonged siege. To save his life, Yazdegerd fled the capital eastward, leaving behind the Sasanid’s vast treasury. Though some courageous Sasanid governors joined together to push back the Arabs, there was no strong central authority to take charge and they too were easily defeated at the Battle of Nihaw?nd.
Derafsh Kaviani, the royal standard of the Sasanian Empire, was recovered by Zerar bin Kattab who was paid 30,000 dinars for it. After the jewels were removed, the Caliph Hazrat Umar burned the standard, signifying the end of the Sasanid Empire.
Yazdegerd was assassinated by a miller in 651, while the nobles who had accompanied him settled in Central Asia, spreading Persian culture and language there. Later their descendants returned to Persia and established the first native Iranian Islamic dynasty, the Samanid dynasty combining revived Sasanid traditions with Muslim laws.
The Muslim caliphs did not pressurize the native to convert to Islam, only be law abiding citizens and pay a jizya (tax). To be just and fair, the Caliph Hazrat Umar had a commission regularly survey the taxes and judge if they were more than the land could bear. The Zoroastrians gradually converted to Islam to gain prominent positions later under the Abbasid Caliphate.
Dr. Howard-Johnston, professor of Byzantine Studies at the University of Oxford, in his book Witnesses to a World Crisis, wrote that “The Last Great War of Antiquity” (between Rome and Persia) destroyed the two established great powers at the time of the emergence of a new religion (Islam), which led to the creation of a new world empire by Muslim warriors.