Touraj Daryaee “Burden of the Past”

Touraj Daryaee. Source: first time I heard of Touraj Daryaee was in 2012. I was about to go to the TOPOI workshop Imperial Space and Daryaee was listed aa one of the speakers. Daryaee, professor at the University of California, Irving, is an American Iranologist of Persian descent specialized in the Sasanid period. The Sasanid period has often been neglected, but in recent years Daryaee has popularized it and became one of the leading authorities in the field. Since the subject of my Master thesis was interconnected with Sasanid history, I was very interested to hear him speak. Unfortunately, however, Daryaee himself couldn’t make it to Berlin. He sent a representative who nevertheless gave a fascinating lecture. During the years that followed I read many of Daryaee’s books and articles. He has an accessible and engaging writing style that is ideal for introducing laypeople to a complex topic. When I received an email from Rolf Strootman about a week ago that Daryaee was about to give a lecture at the University of Utrecht on April 19th, I didn’t hesitate one moment.

First meeting with Touraj Daryaee
Daryaee was about to speak in the Kanunnikenzaal, a small room that offered just enough space for 30 people. There I met Bert van der Spek, my former Ancient History professor and Rolf Strootman, a history teacher from the University of Utrecht with whom I had discussed my plans for a PhD research proposal. Besides the three of us there were few people, so it was easy for me to introduce myself to Daryaee when he came in. I was glad to find that he was as accessible and engaging in real life as he was in his books. He easily mingled with the guests. Luckily more students came in a few minutes before the lecture would start, so the 30 seats that had been reserved were all taken.

A Sasanid view of the past
Touraj DaryaeeDaryaee’s lecture was titled “Burden of the Past” and dealt with one of my favorite subjects; the construction of a mythical past in the late Sasanid period. Based on early Islamic sources we may deduce that the Sasanids recognized four main dynasties prior to their own: 1) The Pishdadi’s. These were mythical culture heroes who founded civilization as we know it. 2) The Kayanians. These were heroic kings under whose rule Iran prospered. 3) Darius and Alexander. These two names are all that was left of the Sasanid memory of the Achaemenids. These kings were usually counted among the Kayanians. 4) The Ashkanians A.K.A. Arsacids A.K.A. Parthians. Their history had been all but wiped out by the Sasanids.

The first two dynasties are derived directly from Zoroastrian tradition, so its kings were venerated by all Zoroastrians. When Zoroastrianism was elevated to the state religion of the Persian Empire in the fourth century, likely in response to the Christianization of the Roman Empire, the Sasanid kings consciously tried to emulate the Pishdadi and Kayanian kings. Moreover, they tried to interpret the present situation through their mythological world view. An important example can be found in the legend of the three sons of Feraydun.

Feraydun was a Pishdadi king who ruled over the entire world. For unknown reasons, he decided to divide his kingdom among his three sons: Salm, Tur and Iraj. Salm received Rome and the West, Tur received China and the East, and Iraj received Iran. Salm and Tur, however, were jealous of Iraj’s inheritance and decided to kill their younger brother. Later Iraj’s grandson Manuchehr killed Salm and Tur and restored Iran to the descendants of Iraj. An eternal feud with Turan and Rome was born, however, which was the reason why the Turks (Tur) and the Byzantines (Salm) continously tried to invade Iran. The Sasanid kings had the duty, like their Kayanian ancestors before them, to fight off these enemies and to weaken them through pre-emptive strikes.

The Byzantine-Sasanid war of 602-628
The consequences of this ideology became clear in the Byzantine-Sasanid war of 602-628. Although the Byzantines and the Sasanids had fought each other many times before, these wars were usually border disputes over vassals, tribute and border towns. The war of 602-628, however, seems to have escalated. Especially after the Sasanid king Khosrow II had rejected a peace offer by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius in 610, the Persians set out on a series of campaigns on which they conquered almost all of Anatolia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Normally the Sasanids confined their campaigns to Mesopotamia, Armenia and the Caucasus region, but this time Khosrow II apparently tried to defeat the Byzantines once and for all. According to Daryaee Khosrow II believed that he lived in the End Times, when according to Zoroastrian beliefs the god Ohrmazd would lead the king of Iran to a definitive victory over the descendants of Salm and Tur. This explains his fanaticism and his reckless military ventures. The successes of the Persians also led to End Times beliefs among the Christian Byzantines and probably also among the earliest followers of Muhammad.

A golden coin depicting Khosrow II. Source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
A golden coin depicting Khosrow II.
Source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

My objections
The subject of the lecture fascinated me a lot, since I was right in the middle of writing an article for Medieval Warfare Magazine on the factors that contributed to the escalation of the 602-628 war. In my article I had taken a sceptical approach to the idea that Khosrow was motivated by religion and ideology, so I was interested in hearing his arguments. In my article I had argued that Khosrow was not intolerant towards the Christians within his empire and that his theft of the True Cross from Jerusalem was not an act of sacrilege. I also argued that he didn’t attempt to recreate the Achaemenid Empire, as some have claimed, since they probably didn’t have much of a memory of them anyway.

During the lecture it turned out that Daryaee agreed with the points mentioned above, but he still argued that the large scale conquests of regions that were way beyond Persia’s traditional boundaries must have had an ideological reason. After the lecture I asked him why the Apocalyptic belief of the Sasanids only came to fruition in the seventh century, when they had adhered to a Zoroastrian ideology since at least the fourth century. Daryaee’s main arguments were that 1) the Zoroastrian view of history was only compiled under Khosrow I in the sixth century, in the so-called Khwadaynamag, 2) Khosrow I had defeated Tur (the Turks), so Khosrow II expected to defeat Salm (Rome) as well.

These are interesting arguments and the hypothesis that Khosrow II had Apocalyptic views is certainly plausible, but I do have some objections:

1) What evidence is there for the notion that the kings of Iran expected to conquer Rome and Turan in the End Times? Wasn’t Feraydun’s division of the world Ohrmazd’s will? Daryaee argued that the Sasanids still wanted to take revenge on the descendants of Salm and Tur for the death of Iraj, but hadn’t Manuchehr already avenged his ancestor?

2) Did Khosrow I actually defeat the Turks? As far as I know he allied himself with the Turks to defeat the Hephtalites. The Turks did turn against Persia immediately after the end of this war, after which Bahram Chobin pacified them in 588, but he did not conquer their territory.

3) Although ideology can have a great impact on the choices of human beings, one should always keep into consideration the practical circumstances in which these ideologies arise.

Resistance to centralization
In my article for Medieval Warfare Magazine I had drawn attention to the unstable situation within the Sasanid Empire prior to this war. In the sixth century the Sasanid king Khosrow I (531-579) had tried to centralize the government at the expense of the Parthian noble families who still owned most of the land. Although at first sight his reforms seemed to bear fruit, they were met with resistance among the nobles soon after Khosrow’s death. Khosrow’s son Hormizd IV (579-590) tried to keep the nobles in check by executing those who disagreed with him.

Hormizd’s repression led to a coup by the Parthian nobleman Bahram Chobin in which the king was killed. Upon Hormizd’s death Bahram proclaimed himself king and claimed to have restored the Parthian dynasty. He refused to accept Hormizd’s son Khosrow II as his king, so the latter was forced to seek refuge with his former enemy, the Byzantine emperor Maurice. Khosrow asked Maurice for help in reclaiming his throne and with the help of the Byzantines Khosrow managed to regain his position. However, he realized that he owed all of his power to his Byzantine enemies and the Parthian nobles and this was quite a humiliating situation for a King of Kings.

Khosrow realized that he needed to prove himself and that he had to get rid of potential rivals. First he ordered the execution of Vistahm, a powerful Parthian nobleman who had helped in regain his throne. Vistahm, however, resisted his arrest by proclaiming independence for his fief, Khorasan. Khosrow took six years to defeat Vistahm, which was again a sign of his weakness. He realized that he needed a great war against the Byzantines to prove himself and he would soon get what he was looking for.

Battle between Heraclius' army and Persians under Khosrau II. Fresco by Piero della Francesca, c. 1452.
Battle between Heraclius’ army and Persians under Khosrau II. Fresco by Piero della Francesca, c. 1452.

Reasons for rejecting the 610 peace offer
Since Khosrow owed his throne to the Byzantine emperor Maurice, he was bound by oath not to attack Byzantium as long as he lived. When Maurice was killed in a coup led by Phocas, however, Khosrow got the perfect pretext for an anti-Byzantine war. Claiming to avenge his ‘friend and father’ Maurice, Khosrow organized yearly campaigns to Roman Mesopotamia, Armenia and the Caucasus; the traditional border regions. Because the Byzantine Empire faced a lot of internal and external threats, Khosrow gained a lot of victories. It was everything he could have hoped for. When the new Byzantine emperor Heraclius killed Phocas in 610 and offered peace, Khosrow declined and went on to conquer Anatolia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

Khosrow’s rejection of this peace offer doesn’t necessarily require an ideological explanation. Since he was on the winning hand and gaining popularity, he saw no reason to accept this offer. However, things do get interesting when Khosrow, meeting little resistance on his campaigns, ventured away from the traditional border regions, into Anatolia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. One may wonder why Khosrow ventured that far, but since it was the kings duty to always strive for the perfect victory this too does not necessarily need any additional justification. Alexander the Great did the same. Concerning Khosrow’s Apocalyptic views, I agree that his successes may have made him believe that the End Times were approaching, but this most likely was a result of the 602-628 war, not the cause.