Iranian History/The Early Sassanians

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The Sassanians were a clan of pure-blooded Persians who claimed descent from the Achaemenid Emperors. Their ancestor Sasan was a petty king of Persia, which by the time of the Parthians, had been reduced to a minor principality under Parthian overlordship. His son, Ardashir, revolted against the Parthian king Artabanus (Artavadan) in 226 and established the Sassanian kingdom after inflicting a crushing defeat on the Arsacids in three successive battles. Being a Sassanian of Achaemenid descent, he regarded the Parthians as outsiders and considered it as his duty to liberate the country from foreign rule.

Ardashir I 226-240AD

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Ardeshir-i-Babagan or Ardeshir I, also known as Artakshatra, Artakshasa and Artaxerxes, was the founder of the Sassanian Dynasty.

Early Life and Rise to Power

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There are many conflicting accounts of his early life. But the Karnamik-i-Ardashir, the most popular of all accounts, tells us that Ardashir was the son of one Sasan who was married to the daughter of Babak, the Parthian satrap of Persia. The Karnamik-i-Ardashir also speculates on an Achaemenid ancestry for Ardeshir. This is probably an attempt by Ardeshir to justify his usurpation of the throne.

Ardeshir was deeply concerned by his country's subordination to Parthia. So he declared war against the Parthians and exhorted his people to rebel, portraying the insurrection as a patriotic struggle for independence and the Parthians as foreign imperialists. The rebellion was extremely successful, and Carmania was conquered in a few days followed by the outlying regions of the province of Media. The Parthian Emperor Artabanus (Artavadan) confronted the rebels with a huge army but was defeated by them in three consecutive battles, in the last of which Artabanus was killed.

With the death of Artabanus, Ardashir ascended the throne as the first Sassanian monarch of Persia. But soon afterwards Khusro the king of Armenia, who was a brother of Artabanus, rebelled against the new ruler and conquered the province of Assyria. In his rebellion he had the active support and participation of Rome.

In 229, Ardashir crossed the Tigris and invaded the Roman province of Mesopotamia. Alexander Severus, the Roman Emperor, retaliated by invading Mesopotamia from Damascus. By the spring of 232, the whole of Mesopotamia was back in Roman hands.

After he had establish Roman dominance over Mesopotamia, Alexander Severus took the offensive and launched a three-pronged attack on the Sassanian kingdom.

The northern wing was fairly successful in realizing its goals. However, the south wing which moved into Persia proper could not traverse the marshy terrain and suffered a crushing defeat near Ctesiphon. Severus sent Roman reserve troops to rescue the entrenched soldiers but was defeated once again and forced to withdraw. A peace was concluded and the war came to an end. Ardashir's success in this war established him firmly on the throne of Persia, and voices of opposition were eventually silenced.

Relations With Armenia

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Soon after the conclusion of peace with Rome, Ardeshir turned his attention towards Armenia and invaded the province. The Armenians, however, offered stiff resistance and the campaign was an utter failure. Ardeshit then resorted to intrigue and got rid of the Arsacid king of Armenia.

Ardeshir and the Zoroastrian Revival

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Ardeshir was a devout Zoroastrian and made Zoroastrianism the state religion and the Avesta the holy book. His period is celebrated in Iranian history as the period of Zoroastrian revival. He even tried to impose Zoroastrianism in the far-flung corners of the Empire and with this aim in mind, he undertook military expeditions. The heretics were condemned.

Shapur I 240-271

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Shapur I succeeded to the throne on the death of his father Ardeshir Babagan. He was the son of Ardeshir through a Parthian princess, the daughter of Artabanus, the last Parthian Emnperor.

Rebellion in Armenia and Hatra

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As soon as Ardeshir died, Armenia asserted its independence, but Shapur immediately crushed this nascent insurrection. Soon afterwards, Hatra rebelled but Shapur quelled the rebellion easily by disposing of the king by means of treachery.

War with Rome

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The state of Rome at this time was such that it could not escape the eye of Shapur I. Alexander Severus had been murdered in 235 AD by Maximin, who was later deposed, to be replaced by weak rulers all of whom were killed after short periods on the throne. The mantle finally fell on Gordian who was then an youth of fifteen.

Hoping to take full advantage of Rome's weak condition, Shapur crossed the Tigris and took the important fortress of Nisibis. He then proceeded to ravage Syria and took the important Roman metropolis of Antioch. Gordian hastened to the defence of Antioch with his father-in-law Timesitheus, who was immediately appointed Commander-in-chief. Gathering a large army, he retook Antioch and crossing the Euphrates defeated the Persians at Carrhae and Resaina. Nisibis fell after a siege and the Persians retreated leaving the Romans in charge of the whole area to the west of the Tigris.

Gordian advanced further and was confident of taking Ctesiphon when disaster struck. Timesitheus was murdered and soon afterwards, Gordian himself was murdered by Timesitheus' successor Philip. Philip concluded peace with Shapur I and withdrew from Persian lands.

However, the peace was short-lived. Philip died soon afterwards and was succeeded by six weak successors who died within a period of fourteen years. Shapur saw his chance and crossed the river Tigris in 258 AD. Within a few weeks, he was once again in charge of Antioch. The aged Roman Emperor Valerian hastened to Syria and retook Antioch but as he was meditating on an invasion of Mesopotamia he was treacherously betrayed by the Praetorian prefect Macrianus who handed him over to the Persians and captured the throne for himself. Valerian became a Persian prisoner and spent his last years in the custody of Shapur I.

Shapur's Campaign

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Soon Rome fell into a civil war as rival contenders arose for the throne. Seeing his chance, Shapur I once again crossed the frontier. He took Edessa and crossing the Euphrates with his army took Antioch and proceeded to ravage Cilicia, Cappadocia, Tarsus, Caesarea Mazaca and Emesa and all provinces right into the vicinity of Constantinople.

Rebellion in Syria

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Shapur retreated across the frontier and crossed with his armies back into Mesopotamia. However, his return to Ctesiphon was made difficult by the rebellion of Odenathus, the Arab chief of Palmyra. Odenathus defeated Shapur and pursued the returning Persian army right up to the gates of Ctesiphon. Odenathus even made an unsuccessful bid to capture Ctesiphon but left when faced with a stout defence. However, he returned to Palmyra unmolested and crowned himself the independent ruler of Syria.


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Shapur's reign saw many highs and lows in Sassanian history. The high point of his reign was the capture of the Roman Emperor Valerian and the low point was his defeat by the Arab chief Odenathus.

Ormazd I 271-2

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Shapur I died in 271 and was succeeded by his son Ormazd I. Ormazd ruled for the short span of a little over an year. He is credited with having founded the city of Ram-Hormuz in Eastern Persia during his short reign.

Bahram I 272-5

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Ormazd I was succeeded by Bahram I who was especially known for his extreme stupidity. One of the first acts of his reign after becoming Emperor was to put to death the Prophet Mani at the instigation of the Zoroastrian high-priest Kartir.

Roman Conquest of Syria

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Odenathus had died and was succeeded by his wife Zenobia. Hoping to take advantage of the rule of a woman, Rome invaded Syria and captured Palmyra. Zenobia requested Persian help, which was refused. Faced with the prospect of capture and humiliation, Zenobia was forced to flee. Bahram I offered her the safety of Ctesiphon but the Romans overtook her and took her prisoner. Bahram I tried to appease the Roman Emperor with costly presents but the Emperor humiliated him by exhibiting Persian envoys as prisoners of war and later executing them.

Rome's Persian campaign

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The Roman Emperor Aurelian resolved to conquer Persia and led a large army through Illyricum and Macedonia. However, in the spring of 275, he was murdered at a place called Coenophrurium. His successor called off the expedition and returned to Rome.

Bahram I died soon afterwards, and was succeeded by his son or brother Bahram II.

Bahram II 275 - 292

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Bahram II succeeded Bahram I in 275 and immediately after his accession to the throne launched an expedition to Sakasthan (the modern-day Sistan) and subjugated the province.

Wars with Rome

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In 282, Carus the Emperor of Rome crossed the Euphrates and Perso-Roman hostilities again broke out. Bahram II hurriedly recalled his troops from Afghanistan and posted them on the Western frontier. The Persians fared badly as the Romans conquered Mesopotamia and took Selucia and Ctesiphon. But one night, as Carus was camping on the outskirts of the Persian capital, disaster struck. There was a terrible thunderstorm and a bolt of lightning struck the tent. Carus was killed in the melée, although the exact cause of his death is unknown. As an immediate consequence of Carus' death, Rome pulled back its troops from the Persian frontier.

Secession of Armenia

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In 286, Rome resumed hostilities by supporting the cause of the Armenian king Tiridates. Tiridates revolted successfully and liberated Armenia from Persian yoke. Persia sent two armies against him but he defeated both these armies in pitched battles. He even extended his sway beyond the frontiers of Armenia, into Persian territory. Before he could prepare an expedition to subdue Tiridates, Bahram II passed away in 292.

Bahram III 292 - 293

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Bahram III ruled for four months and was incompetent and ineffectual to stop Tiridates.

Narseh 293 - 301

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Narses or Narseh succeeded Bahram III, and soon after his accession he was involved in a war of succession with his brother Ormazd. Narseh emerged victorious and Ormazd was probably slain.

In 296, Narseh embarked on his first military campaign provoked by the repeated attacks of Tiridates. He defeated Tiridates and made deep forays into Armenian territory. Tiridates fled Armenida and sought the protection of Rome.

As 296 drew to a close, the Roman Emperor Diocletian sent his son-in-law Galerius at the head of a large army into Asia. Narseh took Khabour, and was camping near the Euphrates when Galerius took command in Mesopotamia and engaged Narseh in a set of three battles. The first two ended in a stalemate while the last one resulted in a humiliating defeat for Galerius.

Galerius retreated to join his father-in-law Diocletian at Antioch, and leading a reinforced Roman army entered Armenia in 297. Narseh resisted but was defeated and was forced to flee. However, his baggage fell into the hands of the Romans along with his sisters, concubines and members of the royal household. Narseh was therefore forced to sign a treaty with Rome in order to rescue them. Unable to bear the humiliation, Narseh abdicated in 301 and was succeeded by his son Ormazd II.

Ormazd II 301 - 309

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Ormazd II ascended the throne in 301 and ruled for eight years. His reign was one of peace and prosperity. The king was a lover of art and architecture and founded entirely new cities in Khuzestan and Susiana. Ormazd is also credited with having established a Court of Justice. Ormazd died in 309 succeeded by his yet unborn son Shapur II, who was crowned Emperor while still inside his mother's womb.

Shapur II 309 - 379

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Ormazd II had a son called Ormazd who hoped to succeed on his father's death in 309. But he was highly disliked by the Zoroastrian clergy and noblemen ,who threw him into a dungeon. As Ormazd had left no other sons, they proclaimed an as yet unborn infant of Oramzd II as the Emperor of Persia. Fortunately for the Magi and for Persia, the child was a boy and was given the name Shapur.

Persia during Shapur's minority

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During the first sixteen years of Shapur's reign, Persia suffered from the invasions of the Arabs and Mesopotamians. Finding the rich and prosperous Persian Empire under the rule of a young child, the barbarous Arabs were constantly tempted to harass their Persian overlords. The tribes of Beni Aqyar and Abdul Kais were constantly harassing the Persians. One Mesopotamian chieftain called Tahir even had the courage to make a successful invasion of Ctesiphon and carry away a sister or aunt of the Persian monarch.

Retaliatory Wars against Arab tribes

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However, when Shapur came of age in 325, Persia began to retaliate. Shapur defeated the Arabs and drove them from Persian territory. He is also credited with establishing the Persian navy and a fleet of considerable size landed at El Katif on the Persian Gulf and inflicted a crushing defeat on the rebellious Arab tribes. The captives were punished by piercing their shoulders and inserting a string into the wound and driving them off into captivity. This earned Shapur the title 'Dhoulacta' or 'Lord of the shoulders'.

Shapur's Arabian campaign lasted 12 years at the end of which he was completely victorious.

War with Rome 337 - 350

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Emperor Constantine the Great of Rome was an early contemporary of Shapur II. Being a convert to Christianity, he displayed the aggressive zeal of a new convert. His reputation was so great that Shapur did not venture to invade the dominions of Rome.

In 338, well after Constantine had died, Shapur laid siege to Nisibis. However, the garrison at Nisibis resisted determinedly for sixty-three days and Shapur was forced to call off the siege.

In 341, Shapur succeeded in capturing the Armenian king Tiranus and placed his son Arshaka or Arsaces on the Armenian throne. Arsaces ruled as a vassal of Persia.

Shapur launched a second siege of Nisibis in 346 but was repulsed once again.

In 348, Shapur made a determined effort to drive off the Romans from Mesopotamia. A decisive battle was fought at Singora in which the Romans were heavily outnumbered and defeated.

In 350, two years after the Battle of Singora, Shapur made one last effort to capture Nisibis. Shapur had seized the opportune moment to launch the attack when Constantine had left for Rome to quell a domestic insurrection. The Persians made a successful breach but were unable to enter the fort due to the soft mud. At length, Shapur sounded the retreat and Nisibis remained with the Romans. That very year, Shapur had to conclude hostilities with the Romans due to the outbreak of a rebellion by the Massagatse of the north.

The Second Roman War 359 - 361

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A rebellion in the Persian province of Armenia triggered the Second Perso-Roman war of Shapur II. Shapur's campaign against the Massagatse had been an overwhelming success by the year 357 to the extent that garrisons supplied by the Massagatse fought in the war against Rome which broke out in 359.

Hostilities between the Persians and Romans commenced in 359 when a Roman army occupied Mesopotamia. The Persians crossed the Tigris and advanced on the Romans, at which the Romans quit their positions and retreated from Mesopotamia, laying waste to the whole country. They made a stand at the impregnable fortress of Amida (now Diabekr), which they successfully defended from the attacks of the Chionite allies of the Persians.

The Persians launched a second and more aggressive attempt to capture the fort and Amida was occupied by them after a siege of seventy-three days. The inhabitants were slaughtered.

After the conquest of Amida, Shapur crossed the Tigris and invaded Singara. Singara fell easily to the Persians. Emboldened, the Persian troops crossed Nisibis and conquered Phoenicia. By 361 when the war came to an end, the Persians were once again the masters of Mesopotamia.

Julian's Persian Campaign 362 - 363

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Constantine was succeeded by Julian who was as ambitious as Alexander the Great. He reached Antioch in 362 and, collecting an army and Armenian support, invaded Mesopotamia. He divided his army and sent one division against Media while he himself led the other division down the river Euphrates. Leaving Carrhae on the 26th of March, Julian led 65,000 soldiers across the Euphrates and occupied the Persian strongholds of Anah and Thilutha and then the Persian city of Perisabor (Mruz Shapur) near Ctesiphon before laying siege to Ctesiphon itself. Maoga-Malcha, the fortress that protected Ctesiphon, resisted stoutly but was eventually taken. Julian crossed the Tigris and even took the city of Ctesiphon itself. But the Romans decided not to advance further, as they were convinced that they had not yet seen the full strength of Shapur's army. So they withdrew from the territories they held and commenced their return journey to Rome.

The Roman army reached the city of Samara on the Tigris safely. But they were ambushed by the Persian cavalry and elephant corps on the banks of the Tigris and were killed in large numbers. Julian was among the slain and was succeeded by Jovian as the Roman Emperor. Soon after taking over from Julian, Jovian masterminded the safe retreat of the Roman troops across the Tigris and negotiated a peaceful settlement with the Persians.

According to the terms of the peace treaty, the Persians got back the five provinces to the east of the Tigris ceded by the Sassanian monarch Narseh. The strongholds of Nisibis and Singara, regarded as impregnable, became part of the Persian Empire.

War in Armenia 363 - 370

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Christian Armenia had been an ally of Christian Rome ever since the start of the Persian campaign. But on the accession of the pagan Julian to the throne of Rome, Armenia began to waver. The Armenian Emperor Arsaces favored the Persians and when hostilities between the Romans and the Persians came to an end he was compelled to surrender to the Persians. Iberia too was taken by Shapur who made a certain Aspacures the king of Iberia.

Immediately, Armenia revolted and proclaimed Arsaces' wife Pharandzem the queen of the country. Pharandzem and her son Para enlisted the support of the Romans and liberated most of Armenia from Persian control. At this, Shapur took charge himself and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Armenians.

While Shapur was busy in Armenia, Iberia revolted. Rome supported the rebellion and sent a large army to liberate Iberia. Peace was however concluded in a short while and Iberia was divided equally between Rome and Persia.

Soon after the winter of 370 came to an end, Shapur crossed the frontier and attacked the Romans at a place called Vagabanta. The Romans resisted determinedly and, old and worn out, Shapur retreated.

Religion and Religious Movements

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The state religion of the Sassanian Empire was Zoroastrianism, and an extremely zealous form of Zoroastrianism was practised. Ardeshir-i-Babagan, who established the Sassanian Empire, regarded his rebellion against Artavadan the Parthian as a holy war against non-Zoroastrian outsiders. The Karnamik-i-Ardashir tells of Ardashir's victory over the "Worm of Guzaran" (Guzaran is probably Gujarat in India) and the forcible conversion of the "idolatrous population" to Zoroastrianism. Ardeshir's reign witnessed a revival of Zoroastrianism, which Persian lore says had grown moribund during Parthian rule.

The compilation of the Avesta was a process which had begun during the reign of the Parthian monarch Valkhash, but it gained momentum only during the time of Ardeshir. The Avesta was completed only during the time of Khusrau Anushirvan, whose reign is usually regarded as a golden age of Persian literature when a number of classics were compiled.

However, this period of Zoroastrian ascendancy also saw a number of heresies, at least one of which even survived the Islamic conquest. The Sassanian Emperors differed on their opinion on these supposedly heretical cults. While some supported them, others were against them.


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The most powerful threat to orthodox Zoroastrianism rose from a heretical sect which arose during the time of Shapur I.

This heretical sect was founded by Mani, a native of Babylon, during the time of Shapur I. Mani was born Qurqabios on the 14th of April 216; his parents were Pateg and Marmaryam who hailed from the Ashganiyya family of Parthian nobility.

Mani's father Pateg was from Hamadan and he had moved to Ctesiphon in his youth. At Ctesiphon, he used to frequent a temple of idols to pray. According to biographer Al-Nadim, one day one of the idols cried out to him, “Fatiq, do not eat meat, do not drink wine, and stay away from any sexual commerce!” He heard the cry three days three times each.

Pateg then joined a Christian Baptist community called Mughtasila, headed by an individual called Al-Haysa (Elchasai by the Romans). Al-Haysa preached that sin could be atoned for by a second baptism. Al-Haysa detested the bloody ceremony carried out during Easter and broke off from the Christian church by adopting vegetarianism. Otherwise the religion was scrupulously observed: circumcision, monotheism, rejection of divination and astrology, etc. He made water the symbol of his new religion and preached that Jesus was the last of a series of Messiahs starting with Adam. Mani was brought up amongst the Mughthasila from the age of four. At the age of twelve, however, he broke up from the community.

Mani had his first revelation at the age of twelve when the angel Al-Tawm (The Twin) appeared to him. Mani detested the elaborate purification rituals that the Mughtasila community indulged in and never missed an opportunity to portray their futility. On the contrary he preached that the purification which Jesus had mentioned in the Scriptures was the separation of light from darkness. Eventually, Mani was excommunicated and denounced as a heretic.

At the age of twenty-four, Mani had a second revelation. This was on April 12, 240, on the exact day when Shapur I was crowned king. Mani preached that the paraclete or Holy Ghost was nothing but himself. According to accounts, first of all, he travelled to the East and converted the king of Turan (modern-day Baluchistan). He returned to Babylon a few months later and made the acquaintance of Piruz, a brother of Emperor Shapur I, who arranged for an audience with the Sassanian Emperor.

At the Sassanian court, Mani presented his faith as the "true religion" as had been preached by Zoroaster himself. He compiled his teachings into a book and named it Shaburaghan after Shapur I in his bid to impress the king further. At length, Shapur was convinced and he assured royal protection, though it is evident that he did not convert to the faith himself. With royal patronage, Mani toiled to spread his new faith to every nook and corner of the Empire. He sent Adda and Pateg to the west and Ammo to the north-east while he himself travelled to the north-western frontier of the Empire to spread the faith.

Manichaeism flourished under Shapur I and his son Ormazd I and during the early part of the reign of Bahram I. The Manichean scriptures assert that Ormazd I was a convert to Manichaeism. However, Mani was arrested and confined to a prison when he failed to heal a dying son of Bahram I. He escaped by bribing the jailer, but was captured and eventually brought before the king. Bahram I reportedly skinned him alive and offered his flesh to the birds. His skin, however, was hung in front of his palace at Ctesiphon as a warning.

Though Mani was barely 60 when he was brutally executed in 276, his religion survived him and eventually emerged as the strongest of the Zoroastrian heresies. One of the prominent torch-bearers after Mani's death was King Amaro of Hira. By the end of the 3rd century, the religion had reached North Africa; by the 4th century AD, it had reached Rome where it became an issue of concern to the Roman Catholic religion. Edicts were issued to nip its influence in the bud. However, Manichaeism survived in Constantinople till the 6th century AD, where it was eventually wiped out by aggressive proselytization of the Roman Catholic missionaries.

In the east, however, Manichaeism survived for a long time. It had to go underground fearing persecution by the Sassanians but emerged from exile when Iran was conquered by the Arabs in 636 - 652. After that, it began spreading rapidly eastwards, first to Sogdiana (the modern-day Samarkand) and Balkh and then to Central Asia and even China. In Iran, the faith survived for a few centuries but died away by the start of Ghaznavid rule in the 10th century AD. It also died away in Sogdiana and Balkh as these lands came under Islamic rule. However, it survived in China well into the 16th century AD and as evidence indicates, may well have survived until the 18th century AD.

Manichaeism left a more profound impact on Christianity than Zoroastrianism. Gnosticism and the Classical Revival of the 15th and 16th centuries claim to have been directly inspired by the Manichean doctrine.

Edict of Kertir

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Kertir was the Zoroastrian chief-priest of Persia during the reign of Shapur I, Ormazd and Bahram I. He was a sworn enemy of the Manicheans and was chiefly responsible for the execution of Prophet Mani.

He is remembered for and known through his edicts at the Naqsh-i-Rajab and the Kaaba-i-Zardosht. In the inscription at the Kaaba-i-Zardosht he describes his own rise to power and denounces non-Zoroastrian creeds. He describes the methods used to propagate Zoroastrianism and the persecution inflicted on other religions. He says that Manichaeism was abolished in the Empire and its practice made illegal.

Adarbad Mahraspand

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Adarbad Mahraspand was a Zoroastrian high-priest who lived during the reign of Shapur II. He was mainly responsible for the compilation of the Avesta. When Shapur was still a child, Adarbad collected the bits and pieces of the Avesta which had survived Alexander's invasion and gave the Avesta the form that we know today. The compilation took around five years, from 325 to 330.

According to the Zoroastrian prophecies, the Zoroastrian faith would be overthrown three times and three times it would be restored - first, by Alexander and it was restored by Ardeshir; second by the heretic Mani and it was restored by Adarbad Mahraspand and lastly, it would be overthrown by the Arabs and restored by Soshyant. The Zoroastrian prophecies also mention three great prophets of Zoroastrianism, the first being Zoroaster himself, the second being Jamasp, the son-in-law of Zoroaster who recites the Avesta as dictated to Zoroaster and compiles it in the form of a book and third, Adarbad Mahraspand.

Zoroastrian legends state that molten iron was poured down Adarbad's chest to test his purity and devotion and as if by miracle, Adarbad emerged from this test of purity, unscathed.


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