THE SASANIANS: SHAPUR I (AD 241 - 272)

A politically wise and culturally aware ruler

Exploitation of Roman expertise: improved communications

The 70,000 Roman prisoners from Valerian's army were put to work - and not just as labour. Sasanian progress in architecture, engineering and the arts got a great boost from the craftsmen and specialists in the Roman army. Twenty bridges are known about - of the best preserved, one is at Pol-e Dokhtar (Maidenbridge), where the Royal Road connecting Persis with Mesopotamia crossed the river Choaspes in Lorestan. It had 8 arches, and was 270 metres across.

Pol-e Dokhtar

Pol-e Dokhtar, "bridge of the daughter" built in the reign of Shapur I

Click here more more pictures of Pol-e Dokhtar

The other is Band-e Qaisar ("Caesar's Bridge") the bridge at Shushtar, already mentioned, which was part of a water-management complex involving a very sophisticated dam and water-mills. It was even larger, spanning 550 metres.

More pictures here

Shapur's Roman prisoners also worked for him on a new capital, to replace Ardashir's old-fashioned Parthian-style circular city at Firuzabad. It was called Bishapur (Shapur City), and laid out with a Greek/Roman style grid plan, with crisscrossing streets, rather like a Roman camp. As well as what has been claimed to be Shapur's palace, there was a partly subterranean building, through which water could be diverted - possibly a fire-temple dedicated to Anahita. There are walls with round bastions, and remains of several houses. The site is currently being excavated. Bishapur was only one of Shapur's new cities - the Sasanians were essentially urban people (in contrast to the Parthians, and the many nomadic tribes that they ruled).

Bishapur Mosaic

Mosaic from Bishapur

Click here for more pictures and information about Bishapur;

and here for a Photo Essay on Bishapur and its Rock Reliefs

Religion: a new faith for a new empire?

Shapur came from a religious family - his ancestors had been priests of Anahita and were believers in the power of Ahura Mazda (as shown on coins and inscriptions): but the Zoroastrian religion was at this time not yet a unifying force: there were important differences between the worship of Ahura Mazda, together with Anahita and Mithra as practised in Persis, and the Zoroastrianism of the north-east.

It was a time when several religions were competing for dominance - Judaism and Christianity in the west, and Buddhism on the eastern frontiers, as well as the various flavours of Zoroastrianism within the Persian empire. Shapur's solution may have been to try to introduce a completely new religion, based on the teachings of Mani. Or perhaps he was merely trying to offset the influence of the Zoroastrian priests, inspired by Kerdir.

Mani was born in Mesopotamia in AD 216, when it was still under Parthian rule, and he was said to have been related to the Arsacids. His parents brought him up in their rather strange sect - which had Jewish and Christian elements, and was concerned with bodily purity: it involved baptism and purifying rituals.

Mani codex

Two pages of a tiny book (the size of a matchbox) found in Egypt, written in Greek, which turned out to be Mani's biography

But this was not pure enough for Mani. He didn't just want to purify his body, but to escape from it, and purify the soul. For him all creation, including the human body, was evil - but each person contained a spark of divine light; life was a struggle to release this light from its prison of darkness. He identified very strongly with Jesus. Mani believed he was the "Paraclete" (from Greek meaning 'advocate') mentioned in the New Testament who would continue the work of Jesus to end suffering in the world. He taught his religion during his extensive travels in the Persian empire and India. His teachings took on a Buddhist flavour when he was with Buddhists - in fact he believed that the Buddha, Jesus and Zarathushtra were basically the same: he saw himself as completing the work they had begun to make the world a better place.

Followers of Mani (Manichaeans) were forbidden to do various things which might make purifying the soul more difficult: killing, eating meat, farming, eating vegetables, sex, drinking wine or milk, owning property, using medicine, washing and changing one's clothes more than once a year. Only a minority, the "elect" could be expected to endure this regime - but others could eventually improve their position by serving the elect. Unlike Jesus, Buddha and Zarathushtra, Mani published books himself explaining his beliefs clearly.

The Manichaeans' main difference from Christianity was their renunciation of the world as evil, and their belief that they could "know" God directly - with no need for the Church (this is why they were harshly persecuted by the Church.)

So why did it appeal to Shapur I, who entertained Mani at court and gave him strong support to spread his teachings in the empire? Possibly it was the idea that Mani's religion was universal - it could appeal to Christians, Zoroastrians and Buddhists alike, and thus help to unify his multi-ethnic, multi-cultural empire. Soon the Roman emperor Constantine was to use Christianity for the same purpose.

Shapur I may have liked the idea of a new religion. But the Persian traditionalists did not. He was violently denounced by the Zoroastrian chief priest Kerdir (Kartir), whose power had been growing steadily. When Bahram I, Shapur's son, became king, he had Mani arrested, tortured and put to death (AD 272). His religion did not die with him. Though banned and persecuted in Persia, Manichaean missionaries travelled east and west along the Silk Route - and it became a popular religion in Egypt and North Africa, and especially in Turkmenistan and in China, where communities of Manichaeans still existed in the 15th century AD.

Sculpture and rock-reliefs

In the gorge just outside Bishapur, Shapur began an astonishing series of reliefs showing his various victories over the Roman emperors Gordian III, Philip the Arab and Valerian I. Later Sasanians added their own reliefs - and they complement the Sasanian reliefs at Naqsh-i Rustam (where Ardashir commemorated his victory over the Parthians) and nearby at Naqsh-i Rajab. But the most impressive work of art from the entire Sasanian period is the colossal statue of Shapur I, carved from a huge stalagmite, in a limestone cave a few miles from Bishapur in the Zagros mountains.

Giant statue of Shapur I

Shapur's statue, 6.7 metres high

Naqsh-i Rajab

Shapur's sons and leading nobles process behind Shapur I on his great horse. Probably a celebration of the victories over Roman emperors Philip the Arab and Valerian (photo AMW)

NEXT: AN INTERLUDE - PALMYRA