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Ancient Sasanian Empire, the Subject of the June 7th Symposium at the African and Middle Eastern Division

(The following is a post by Hirad Dinavari, Reference Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Each year, the Library of Congress’ African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) holds an all-day symposium focusing on an ancient Near East city or civilization. For the 2017 symposium, AMED’s Near East Section organized a one day seminar on the legacy of the Sasanian Persian dynasty. The Sasanians ruled a large empire in Central and Western Asia, stretching from the Oxus River to the Euphrates and from the Hindukush (present day, Afghan-Pakistan border region) to Eastern Arabia, for over 400 years (224-651 AD). Known as Iranshahr (the Domain of Iran), it was a powerful empire that engendered much of what came to be known as the Iranian culture in the medieval and modern periods.

Sassanid Map. Author: Arab League. 26 January 2008.

In the last decade I have been following the scholarly research on the Sasanian imprint not only in Iran but also on the history and heritage of the greater Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Horn of Africa and the eastern Mediterranean region. Researchers have pointed out that some traditional scholarship on this unique empire did not capture the complex interplay between the various social, political and religious groups during this period. In the past decade, however, a cadre of new scholars from the United States, Israel, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Central Asia, and Russia have stepped up to the plate and addressed this challenge.

Investiture of Ardašir I. 224–241. Creator: Jona Lendering.

The Sasanians traditionally were seen by many as the last ancient or pre-Islamic empire of the Middle East. Some regard the Sasanian Empire as the domain of Persian ethnicity and the Zoroastrian faith. However its history is much more complex. The four hundred year Sasanian epoch spans all three eras: the ancient, the classical and the early medieval. Even though the Sasanian ruling elite, based in present day Iraq (Mesopotamia), were of Persian origin from Fars and were followers of the Zoroastrian faith, it was during their reign in the Middle East that various gnostic and Christian religious traditions started to take shape. Similarly, the Jewish Talmudic tradition developed during the Sasanian period as well. To the east of the empire, in present day Afghanistan and Central Asia, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Christian and Manichean religious traditions all flourished and interacted with one another during this period as well. Linguistically, even though Pahlavi (Middle Persian) was the official language of the Sasanian court and of the Zoroastrian priesthood, the multiethnic empire used Aramaic and Syriac as its actual lingua franca and Greek and Latin were used extensively. The Sasanian Empire officially came to an end after it was defeated by the Islamic Caliphate in 651. Nonetheless there was continuity, as many Sasanian institutions, and cultural traditions were maintained, and large numbers of people continued to follow the older Zoroastrian faith, which flourished well into the 10th century under Arab and Islamic rule.

Plate with king hunting rams, A.D. mid-5th–mid-6th century, Silver, mercury gilding, niello inlay, Accession: 34.33 On view in: Gallery 405, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“From Oxus to Euphrates: The Sasanian Empire,” a three panel multidisciplinary conference featured nine experts and scholars from various fields of study and drew upon ancient and classical history, Persian and Central Asian Studies and Near-Eastern religious and confessional traditions. Showcased was the legacy and the culture of the Sasanians, with topics ranging from Sasanian history, to literature, inscriptions and art. The discussion focused on new research that looked at the interaction of the Sasanian Empire with the various cultures and civilizations on its periphery, in Central and South Asia, the Caucasus, and the Arabian frontier. To give more context to the rich and cosmopolitan Sasanian era, a panel was dedicated to look at the philosophical and religious diversity within in the empire. It examined the dialog and interaction between the Zoroastrian tradition and the various Christian, Syriac, Armenian and Greek Orthodox traditions, as well as with the Jewish, Buddhist, Manichean and later Islamic traditions that flourished during the various centuries of the Sasanian dynasty.

Source: Ghirshman, Roman. “Persian art, Parthian and Sassanian dynasties, 249 B.C.-A.D. 651.” Translated by Stuart Gilbert and James Emmons. New York, Golden Press, 1962. Library of Congress General Collections.

Source: Ghirshman, Roman. “Persian art, Parthian and Sassanian dynasties, 249 B.C.-A.D. 651.” Translated by Stuart Gilbert and James Emmons. New York, Golden Press, 1962. Library of Congress General Collections.

Source: Ghirshman, Roman. “Persian art, Parthian and Sassanian dynasties, 249 B.C.-A.D. 651.” Translated by Stuart Gilbert and James Emmons. New York, Golden Press, 1962. Library of Congress General Collections.

The last panel focused on literature, inscriptions, sculpture, art and the legacy of the Sassanians through the ages. The Zoroastrian and Pahlavi texts survived well into the 11th century during the reign of the Arab-Islamic Abbasid court in Baghdad, and had a strong impact on later classic Persian Islamic works such as the Shahnameh. The cultural continuity of the Sasanians through the centuries to the present time was also showcased by two presentations examining the influence of Sasanian sculpture on the 19th century Qajar dynasty in Iran as well.  The presentation on the way Sasanian themes and aesthetics shaped modern Iranian dance, brought the Sasanian legacy from ancient times to the present.

Taq-i Kasra, one of the ancient world’s largest arch from the Sasanian capital city of Ctesiphon, a few miles from the modern Iraqi capital city of Baghdad. © Pejman Akbarzadeh. Fall 2017. Used with permission.

The African and Middle Eastern Division, in cooperation with the Iranian-American Alumni of the Alborz High School, helped fund and host the symposium on the legacy of the ancient Persian Sasanian empire . AMED worked closely with two top experts on the Sasanian period: Dr. Touraj Daryaee, Maseeh chair in Persian Studies and Culture, director of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California at Irvine, and Dr. Khodadad Rezakhani, associate research scholar at the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at Princeton in selecting the main themes of the conference. Below is the program of the whole day conference including the list of participants:

Seated in the front: left to right: Hirad Dinavari, Fatemeh Keshavarz, Mary-Jane Deeb, Judith Lerner, Ida Meftahi. Standing in the back left to right: Yousef Javadi, Saghi Modjtabai (both representing Alborz Alumni), Khodadad Rezakhani, Samra Azarnouche, Stephen Rapp Jr., Touraj Daryaee, Simcha Gross, Yuhan Vevaina, Scott McDonough. (Photo by Hirad Dinavari)

Panel One: History of Iranshahr, with presentations by Professors: Touraj Daryaee, University of California, Irvine; Stephen H. Rapp Jr., Sam Houston State University; and  Khodadad Rezakhani,  Princeton University.

Panel Two: Peoples and Religions of the Sasanian Realm, with presentations by Professors: Yuhan Sohrab-Dinshaw Vevaina, University of Toronto; Scott McDonough, William Paterson University; and Simcha Gross, University of California, Irvine.

Panel Three: Art and Culture in the Sasanian period and beyond with presentations by Samra Elodie Azarnouche, L’École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE); Judith A. Lerner, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW); and Ida Meftahi, Roshan Institute for Persian Studies, University of Maryland.

Related Resources:

Sasanian Empire Symposium video (view on YouTube)
Press Release
Symposium Program
Collection Display Book List

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