The Ascension Of The Last Sasanian King Yazdezerd III To The Throne

The 16th of June marks a very significant day for Zoroastrians all over the world. This is the day when the last Sasanian Emperor, Yazdezerd Sheheryar (Yazdezerd III), ascended the throne, at Istakhra, in the year 632, on Roj Ardibahesht, Mah Aspandad, at the tender age of sixteen years. Since our Shahenshahi calendar starts from the day of King Yazdezerd Shaheryar’s coronation, this is also the day from which our Shahenshahi calendar commenced, 1388 years ago. With 16th June just a few days away, our community’s most respected and cherished priest and educator, Er. Dasturji Ramiyar Karanjia shares the interesting historical account about the ascension of King Yazdezerd-III’s ascension to the throne.

Ten monarchs ruled over Sasanian Iran within a short period of four years, from 628 to 632 CE, most of them falling victims to internecine strife. In 632 CE, the situation had become very grim. The institutions of kingship, nobility and clergy were shaken. Military generals, pretenders and usurpers took this opportunity and frequently assumed power. They were either assassinated or imprisoned. A time came when several contenders ruled simultaneously at different places and occupied different areas of the empire, like Khuzestan, Pars and Kerman. It was in these deplorable conditions, that Yazdezerd Sheheryar ascended the throne. This was also the year in which Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, passed away and Abu Bakar became the Caliph.

Yazdezerd, the son of Sheheryār, and grandson of King Khushru II (Khushru Perviz), was discovered by the nobility. His true identity had been kept hidden, since Khushru II had forbidden his son Sheheryār to marry on account of a prediction that some day, the reigns of the Sasanian Empire would slip away from Sheheryar’s child’s hands. However, a compassionate queen had him married, unknown to Khushru II. True to the prophecy, Yazdezerd, son of Sheheryar proved to be the last, unfortunate king of the Sasanian dynasty, from whose hands the empire was lost to the Arabs.

The young and inexperienced Yazdezerd proved to be a brave, courageous and good king, but was unfortunately the victim of circumstances at the Iranian royal court. Very soon, he was forced to move from province to province demanding loyalty, money and support from his allies and provincial rulers. His reign seemed to be like a ‘wandering monarchy’. 

Rise of the Arabs:

The three decades of Persia-Byzantine wars, during the reign of Khushru II, had taken a grave toll on the Iranian and Roman armies, and the Arabs took full advantage of this. The Arabs also had the added advantage of being united under the banner of Islam and were fired up by the zeal of spreading Islam. Caliph Abu-Bakar organized the Arabs and issued a Jihad to expand the boundaries of Islam. 

The ‘Arabicisation’ of Iranian territories had started since 630, much before Yazdezerd came to the throne, when Sasanian governors of Yemen, Bahrain and Oman were forced out by the Arabs. The cities were taken over by the Arab Muslims. Zoroastrians were allowed to follow their religion only after paying tributes. Thus, the Arabs extended their rule over the entire Arabian Peninsula. 

Battle of Hira: 

In 633, Arab commander Mosni bin Haresa entered Hira in southern Mesopotamia (Iraq), thus making the first inroads into Iranian territory. This place was very decisive as it was the buffer between the Sasanians and the Arabs in the desert. The Arab commander was unable to sustain for long, as the brave Iranian commander – Rustam Farrokh-zād, the son of king Hormazd IV, defeated him. 

In 634, Arab tribes under commander Mosenna (also known as Muthanna) again tried to make inroads into Hira. However, General Mehran, commander of the Iranian army, was able to scatter and oust them. Later, Mosenna successfully gathered and united many more Muslim and Christian Arab tribes, and returned with a bigger army and reinforcements. He started looting, marauding and harassing Iranians in and near Baghdad. To counter this menace, King Yazdezerd once again prepared and sent an army of twelve thousand soldiers under Commander Mehran. 

There was a fierce battle fought at Hira, where the Arab army had camped. Both armies were badly depleted. The two commanders came face to face, in which Mehran lost his life. The Iranian soldiers retreated on hearing about their Commander’s death, and thus the Arabs inflicted a crushing defeat on the Iranians.

Mosenna went back to Medina. He convinced the dying Abu Bakar the need to provide more troops. He also made an impassioned speech to the Arab Moslems to shed their blood for the cause of their prophet and religion. His speech had the desired effect – more than a thousand new recruits joined, one of whom was Abu Ubeidah (or Obayad), who later took command of the Arab forces. Shortly, another army joined Mosenna from Medina. These combined forces charged against the Iranian army, which was unable to give a strong resistance. 

Battle of the Bridge:

In 635, the Arabs under Commander Abu Ubeidah came into Mesopotamia and crossed the Euphrates on a bridge of boats. Sasanian General Behman attacked them with elephants and cavalry. The elephants in the Sasanian army frightened the Arab horses, which refused to proceed. The Arabs mounted an attack on foot. However, they were not successful, as the bridge of boats started to set adrift. In the commotion that ensued, the Arab commander Ubeidah was trampled under the feet of a huge white elephant. 

Quickly enough, the Arabs started to make a new bridge. Arab commander Mosenna came to their rescue with a troop of ten thousand soldiers. There was fierce fighting with much loss of life on both sides. Many Iranian soldiers were killed or drowned. 

Mosenna was not successful, and had to retreat with only three thousand soldiers, as the rest were either killed or had fled. Mosenna was seriously injured in the battle and died soon afterwards. The news of a rising at Ctesiphon compelled Iranian commander Behman to rush there. This was the last battle in which the Sasanians were comparatively more successful over the Arabs.

Battle of Qadesiya:

The Iranians made preparations on a large scale. They realized it was a do or die situation for them. They collected an army of more than a hundred thousand soldiers under General Rustam Farrokh-zād. In 636, they crossed the Euphrates and challenged the Arab forces who were under the command of Saad bin Waqqas at Qadesiya near Kufa in Sasanian Iraq. 

The Sasanians had three times the number of troops, but many of them were newly recruited soldiers, whereas Caliph Omar had provided Waqqas with the best of soldiers and supplies. The morale of the Arabs was high after their victory against the Byzantines in Syria. Rustam sent an emissary to bring a peaceful end to the conflict. Waqqas sarcastically replied that Arab warriors were a hardy lot who did not want fancy clothes and rich food like the Iranians. Their only motive was to make the Iranian king accept the religion of Prophet Mohammad. If he was agreeable, then there would be no war. Rustam retorted that the Iranians would never accept the Islamic religion and that they were prepared for the war.

The battle of Qadesiya lasted for four days. On the first day, both the sides seemed to have known the tactics of the other side. The Sasanians used their elephants to scare the horses of the Arabs, but the Arabs surrounded the elephants and forced their riders to dismount. Rustam ordered a withdrawal. 

On the second day of the battle, both the sides were fighting like equals. Soon enough, two of the Iranian generals Bandsuwan and Behman lost their lives and the Arabs had an upper hand. Moreover, the Iranian camp experienced shortage of water. They were not able to fight in the excruciating heat. On the other hand the Arabs were adequately reinforced. Iranians lost almost ten thousand men, whereas the Arabs just lost two thousand of their troops. 

On the third day, the Arabs found a way of blinding the battle elephants of the Iranians. As a result of this, the huge beasts took to flight. There was relentless fighting throughout the day with the artillery and cavalry fighting with swords and spears. The inexperienced Iranian soldiers were exhausted and Rustam once again gave orders to his army to withdraw. 

On the fourth day, Rustam had the upper hand and Sasanians were approaching victory, but just then, a violent sandstorm emerged which blew huge clouds of sand into the faces of the Sasanian soldiers. The Arabs however fought with their backs to the storm. The Iranian soldiers, blinded by the sand were not able to press for the final attack. The Arabs soon reached Rustam through a breach in the Sasanian defense. The brave Rustam who was trying to seek refuge from the stormy wind, was killed by the sword of an Arab warrior. The Arabs were jubilant. When the Sasanian soldiers heard the news of the death of their commander, they began to flee in a disorganized manner. That day, the Iranians lost forty thousand soldiers, whereas the loss of the Arabs was numbered at just six thousand. 

In the battle of Qadesiya, despite all their efforts, the Iranians lost their national standard, the Drafsh-e-Kāvyāni. This was a massive psychological blow to the Iranians, who had also lost almost one thirds of their entire army. After this defeat, many Iranian soldiers defected and joined the Arabs. Since the Arabs too had lost about one-thirds of their force, there was a respite for about eighteen months till the Arabs launched another attack. In this period, they re-inforced their position at Basra and Kufa and at the right bank of the Euphrates.

Fall and loot of Ctesiphon:

In 638, Caliph Omar asked Waqqas to attack Iran once again, this time straight on Ctesiphon, referred to as Madayan by the Arabs. Yazdezerd’s advisors asked him to retreat to Azarbaizan and Kurdisatan. He also had the alternative to go to the refuge of Holwan in the Zagros mountains. Waqqas, instead of following the Iranian king, was lured by the treasures at Ctesiphon. In order to come to Ctesiphon, the Arabs had to first takeover the west bank of Tigris and then, through a bridge, advance to the east coast, where Ctesiphon was situated. The local inhabitants had destroyed the bridge and the Arabs had to rebuild it. 

The Arabs were successful in storming the palace of Tāk-i-Kisrā at Ctesiphon and looting all its riches. One fifth of the loot was sent to Caliph Omar in Medina and the rest was distributed among the soldiers. So huge was the haul that each soldier received about twelve thousand dirhams worth of riches. Forty thousand noblewomen were sold as slaves in Arabia. Ceremonial swords of Kobad I, Behram V and Khushru II, crowns and jewels of Khushru II and the sword of Heraclius were among the riches. 

However, the costliest item looted was the gigantic Royal carpet of Persia measuring 100 feet by 100 feet studded with rare jewels of various hues to represent a garden of flowers, embellished with gold and silver embroidery. All these and the equally jewel studded Drafsh-e-Kāvyāni, were sent to Caliph Omar. It is said that the Drafsh-e-Kāvyāni, the Royal Iranian standard was sold for thirty thousand dirhams in Arabia. 

Battle of Jalula:

In 639, the next major battle was fought at Holwan in Jalula near Baghdad, where a very small Arab army, under commander al-Hashem, met the Sasanian force, under commander Rustam’s brother – Farrokh-zād (also referred to as Khorrzad or Firoozān) and Mehran. The Sasanian army was ten times bigger than the Arab army in size, but it was made up of raw recruits. 

The Sasanians dug a deep ditch in front of their forces and stayed safe behind their defense. The Arabs too did not attack, and waited patiently for eight months. Since the small Arab army had a lot of Sasanian soldiers, they knew all the nuances and secrets of the Iranian army. The Iranians got frustrated waiting and thus the Arabs finally succeeded in luring the Iranians out of their defensive positions. In the battle that ensued, there was large-scale massacre of the Iranian soldiers. Not only were treasures looted, but women and children were taken as slaves.  This was one more defeat for the battered Iranians.

The Last Battle at Nehavand:

In 641, Yazdezard, who was now at Rae got the news that the successful Arab general Waqqas had been recalled to Medina. Emboldened, he made one last bold attempt by sending emissaries to all the Iranian provinces like Media, Azarbaizan, Khorasan, Gurgan, Tabaristan, Sistan, Kerman and Pars. He managed to collect a military force consisting of one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers, who were then asked to assemble at Nehavand, in northwestern Iran. He appointed General Farrokh-zād as their Commander.

Caliph Omar immediately sent a strong resistance force of a hundred thousand soldiers towards Nehavand, under Commander Noman. The Arab force had many non-Arab professional troops, including ex-Sasanian and ex-Byzantine fighters. The Iranian Commander’s tactic was not to attack the approaching Arab forces, but to wait, and bait the enemy to make the first move, or wear out their patience. He had confidence on his legendary strong archers, and the hidden trenches and traps. 

Arabs Wwin at Nehavand with Guile:

The Arabs too did not attack and waited for two months. However, they did not have enough supplies and provisions to last them for long and hence they resorted to a guile to break the stalemate. They spread rumours that Caliph Omar had died and that the Arabs were withdrawing. Then they staged a false withdrawal, which led the Iranians to change their strategy and go in their pursuit. 

The Iranians pursued their enemies for two days. Then, on the third day, the Arabs, as planned, turned around and attacked the surprised Iranian troops, repeatedly chanting Allāhu Akbar “God is great”. The Iranians soon landed in the traps prepared for them by the Arabs.

The battle was hard fought and there were heavy casualties on both the sides. Though the Arabs had lost their commander Numan early on, they did not let it be known till the end of the battle. Farrokh-zād was badly wounded, but he managed to save his life. Nehavand was soon captured, followed by Rae. The Iranians had lost their last decisive battle. The Arabs referred to the battle of Nehavand as fattteh ul fatteh or ‘victory of victories’. They went on conquering province after province. 

The Iranians were losing hope of regaining their kingdom. Some provincial Governors of the Iranian empire put up a heavy resistance against the Arabs, but were ultimately defeated. However, several autonomous Iranian Governors now realized that it was futile to resist the might of the Arabs. They made themselves subjugated to them without a fight and offered them weapons and troops. Nevertheless a few Governors and rulers in northern Iran kept on resisting the Arabs. 

The King on the Run:

After the defeat at Nehavand, Yazdezerd managed to escape from Rae. He was on the run for almost ten years, from 641 to 651, trying to go as far away from the Arabs as possible. He was in flight from one place to another, unsuccessfully trying to garner help from allies. He spent a lot of time in Kerman and from there had gone to Sistan. 

In August 1951, the king decided to move towards the province of Khorasan and then go further northeast. Before that, he wrote a letter to Mahue-suri, the Governor of the city of Marv in Khorasan, informing him about all that had transpired till then. He then told him to keep his troops ready as the enemies had already taken over Ctesiphon and he informed him about his plans to approach his allies, the Turks and Chinese, to seek their help.

Mahue-suri was a shepherd boy, whom the king had brought up from childhood, had heaped many favours on him and brought him to the position that he was now in. That is why he trusted him. The king had conveyed his plans to seek Mahue-suri’s help to Farrokhzād. However, Farrokh-zād was not in favour of keeping faith on a new and unknown person like Māhuye-suri at such a crucial time, especially since he did not belong to the royal family. However, the king decided to go ahead with his idea. The king with a few trusted men set off towards Nishapur.  In order to be of help to his king, Farrokh-zād also proceeded with his army from Rae through Gorgān towards Nishapur. 

King Yazdezerd had a message sent to the Governor of Tus city, asking him and the Governors of surrounding areas to send food and rations, that could last for two months, to the fort at Nishapur where Farrokh-zād had already reached. He promised to reimburse them later, as much as possible. The king now reached the city of Nishapur in Khorasan province and from there had decided to go to Merv to seek the help of Māhuye-suri. When Māhuye-suri at Merv came to know that the king was approaching, he himself sent a message that he was coming to receive him. 

Farrokh-zād wrote to Māhuye-suri to be faithful to the king, as the monarch implicitly trusted him. Then Farrokh-zād went back eastwards to Rae to fight the Arabs, not knowing whether he will return alive to see his king again.

Māhuye-suri’s Treachery:

Māhuye-suri was a treacherous person. He had realized that the king was fast losing ground to the Arabs. He feigned sickness and avoided being with the king. He sent a message to Bizan who was a warrior king of Samarkand, telling him that the Iranian king was all alone at his place in Merv and that this was a wonderful opportunity for them to bring an end to Yazdezerd and take away his wealth, army and throne.

Bizan sent an army of ten thousand dagger wielding soldiers from Bokhara to capture Yazdezerd. When the king inquired about the approaching army, Māhuye-suri lied to him that the Turks had attacked and they needed to go and fight them. The king put on his armour and weapons and went into the war followed by Māhuye-suri and his army. However, as soon as he approached the enemy, the treacherous Māhuye retreated with his soldiers as per the plan and the king was left all alone to fend for himself, in front of the enemy army of Bizan. 

The king realized that a trap was laid for him by Māhuye-suri. He valiantly fought the Samarkand army and started retreating, with the enemy soldiers on his back. On the way he came across the Zark river next to which he saw a flour mill. He hid inside the flour mill. The enemy soldiers searched for him and found his horse, sheath and sword. They looked around but could not find him. After searching for some time, they went away.

Yazdezerd hid in the mill all night, sleeping on the hay. In the morning, Khushru the mill owner came in. Both of them were shocked at seeing each other. The mill owner was more shocked, as the person in his mill did not seem to be an ordinary person. He was tall, well-built and sharp-eyed wearing rich clothes and fine ornaments. He asked him, “O illustrious man! Who are you, and why have you come in this humble flour mill?”

The king, hiding his identity, replied, “I am an Iranian soldier who had to flee after defeat at the hands of the Turanians. I am hungry for three days, can you give me something to eat?”

“I just have nān made of Jowar (sorghum) and some vegetables, if it is okay with you.” said Khushru.

The hungry king was ready to eat it, but not before praying the bāj, for which he required the ritual implement of barsom. He told Khushru, “I will eat anything, but first get me a barsom, so that I can perform the bāj before eating.”

Khushru went to a priest’s house, near the Zark river, to get the barsom. He narrated to him whatever had transpired. The priest was aware that Māhuye-suri was looking for the fugitive Iranian king. He immediately realized that the stranger may be the king, since only priests and members of royal family insisted on performing the bāj with barsom before meals, and the person described by Khushru fitted the description of the king. 

End of King Yazdezerd:

Khushru and the priest suspected the stranger to be the king. They decided to inform Māhuye-suri about this, in the hope of getting a reward. The priest sent Khushru with a person to Māhuye-suri, who immediately realized that the stranger was the fugitive king. However, instead of rewarding Khushru, he ordered him to go and kill the king, or else he would get Khushru and his family killed. 

A couple of wise ministers advised Māhuye-suri against such an order, but he was adamant. He feared that since he had already committed treachery, the king will not forgive him if he survives. He ordered Khushru to kill the king. However, he instructed him to remove all his clothes and ornaments before disposing his body. The miller was feeling miserable at being the cause of his king’s possible death, however he had no option or else his own life and the lives of his family members were at stake. 

Khushru went back to his mill. It was the night of 23rd August 651 CE. In the mill, Khushru approached the king, as if he wanted to tell him something, drew his dagger and pierced the stomach of the king. In a few moments, the king lay lifeless in a pool of blood. He was just thirty-six years old. The soldiers who had accompanied the miller, removed the king’s clothes and ornaments, and then, in the dark of the night, as per instructions, flung his lifeless, clothes-less body in the river. 

In the morning, two men who were walking past the river side, saw the lifeless body of the king. One of them immediately rushed to a nearby house where a Christian priest was staying. Several priests rushed to the site, and recognized the body as that of the king, and mourned his death. A couple of priests immediately removed some over-clothes from their own selves, respectfully covered the body and removed it from the water. A modest Dakhma was specially prepared and king Yazdezerd’s body was respectfully laid there with as much royal tradition as possible.

The story of the princes and princesses of Yazdezerd Shaheryar, and their immense sacrifices, is also a heart rending one, but that is for another day.

We are in the Zoroastrian calendar year 1389 Yazdezardi (YZ). In a few days, it will be exactly 1388 years since our last unfortunate king ascended the throne. After knowing about his life and his efforts, we can learn lessons from the history of our last glorious Sasanian dynasty. These are: 

  • Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians should never forget the difficulties and troubles that their ancestors went through to safeguard our religion and identity.
  • Inter-marriages, for whatever reason, were the root cause of the fall of the Sasanian dynasty. The non-Zoroastrian queens were working at cross purposes with the kings to have their sons on the throne and the kings did not want the sons of their non-Zoroastrian queens on the throne.
  • In was not the Arabs that brought about the downfall of the mighty Sasanian empire. Infighting and treachery had corroded the very foundations of the empire and made it so weak that it was very easy for the outside forces to come and take over.
  • Zoroastrians were not loyal to their leadership. The neighboring empires were always on a lookout for a weak link to exploit and get inroads into the leaders. And it was easy to get it as there were many who were willing to sell themselves and betray their leaders.
  • Fate and destiny (luck) play a very important role in our lives. But before we allow it to take over our lives, we have to leave no stone unturned and spare no efforts to work towards achieving what we rightfully want.

May the 16th of June be the day on which we relearn our lessons and make the martyrdom and sacrifices of our beloved King, Yazdezerd Shaheryar, his family and countless other valiant ones, not go in vain.

About By Dasturji Er. Ramiyar P. Karanjia

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