Byzantine Empire 555AD
Byzantine Empire 555AD

Religion in the Persian Sassanid Dynasty

compiled by Lewis Loflin

The following was compiled to fill in the historical record from the late Roman Empire to the rise of Islam. Most notable was the constant war between the Persians and Romans and the later Arabs.

Definition: The kings of the Sassanid Dynasty, from A.D. 224-651, ruled an empire similar in extent to the Persian Empire of the earlier Achaemenid Dynasty. The Sassanid capital was at Ctesiphon (now Tak-i-Kesra), about 20 miles southeast of Baghdad.

Shaking off the influence of the Greeks, the Sassanids revived earlier Persian customs, including rigid social stratification, and adopted Zoroastrian beliefs. The Sassanids fought repeatedly with the Roman or Byzantine Empire. Eventually the Arabs invaded and conquered the Sassanids.

The reign of Chosroes II (591-628) was characterized by the wasteful splendor and lavishness of the court. Toward the end of his reign Chosroes II's power declined. In renewed fighting with the Byzantines, he enjoyed initial successes, captured Damascus, and seized the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. But counterattacks by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius brought enemy forces deep into Sassanid territory.

Years of warfare exhausted both the Byzantines and the Iranians. The later Sassanids were further weakened by economic decline, heavy taxation, religious unrest, rigid social stratification, the increasing power of the provincial landholders, and a rapid turnover of rulers. These factors facilitated the Arab invasion in the seventh century that ended Persia as it was known.

Data as of December 1987 Source: Library of Congress Country Studies


The Greek culture and religion had spread and mixed with Zoroastrianism culture when Alexander had conquered the Persian Empire from Darius III in 330 BC. Under Sassanid Rule (224 to 651 AD), the pure, orthodox version of Zoroastrianism was re-instated. The loose system of priests was replaced with a hierarchical formed religious system.

Large portions of the Avesta created during the reign of Darius I were lost when Alexander burned the city of Persepolis as an act of revenge for the First and Second Persian invasion of Greece. Under the reign of Shapur I, attempts to re-build the Avesta were made.

The religion of the Sassanid state was Zoroastrianism, but Sassanid Zoroastrianism had clear distinctions from the practices laid out in the Avesta, the holy books of Zoroastrianism. Sassanid Zoroastrian clergy modified the religion in a way to serve themselves, causing substantial religious uneasiness. Sassanid religious policies contributed to the flourishing of numerous religious reform movements, the most important of these being the Mani (216-276 AD founded Manichaeism,) and the Mazdak religion.

Mazdak (died c. 524 or 528) was a proto-socialist Persian reformer and religious activist who gained influence under the reign of the Sassanian Shahanshah Kavadh I. He claimed to be a prophet of God, and instituted communal possessions and social welfare programs. Little is really known of them.

Christian Church of the East

Christians in the Sassanid Empire belonged mainly to the Nestorian and Jacobite branches of Christianity. Although these churches originally maintained ties with the Christian churches in the Roman Empire, they were indeed quite different from them. One reason for this, was that the Church language of the Nestorian and Jacobite churches was the Aramaic language, the language spoken by the Jews in Judea and Galilee at the time of Jesus.

This language was not used by the vast majority of the Christians in the Roman Empire, who mainly spoke Latin, Koine Greek, or Coptic. Another reason for a separation between Eastern and Western Christianity, was strong pressure from the Sassanid authorities to sever connections with Rome, since the Sassanid Empire was often at war with Roman Empire.

Christianity was recognized by king Yazdegerd I in 409 as an allowable faith within the Sassanid Empire. In 410, at the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, Mar Isaac was elected as Catholicos of the Church of the East.

The major break with Roman Christianity came in 431, due to the pronouncements of the First Council of Ephesus. The Council condemned Nestorius, a theologian of Cilician/Kilikian origin and the patriarch of Constantinople, for teaching a view of Christology that was rejected and regarded as heretical by the majority of Greek, Roman and Coptic Christians.

One of the differences in Nestorius' teachings, was that he refused to call Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ "Theotokos" or Mother of God. The Sassanid church, however, disagreed with the Roman churches, and refused to condemn Nestorius' teachings.

When Nestorius was deposed as patriarch, a number of his followers fled to the Sassanid Persian Empire. Persian emperors also used this opportunity to strengthen Nestorius' position within the Sassanid Church (which made up the vast majority of the Christians in the predominantly Zoroastrian Persian Empire) by eliminating the most important pro-Roman catholic clergymen in Persia and making sure that their places were taken by Nestorians. This was to assure that the only loyalty these Christians would have would be to the Persian Empire, and not to Rome.

Most of the Christians in the Sassanid empire lived on the western edge of the empire, predominantly in Mesopotamia, but there were also important communities on the island of Tylos (present day Bahrain), the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, the area of the Arabian kingdom of Lakhm and the Persian part of Armenia. Some of these areas were the earliest to be Christianized; the kingdom of Armenia became the first independent Christian state in the world in 301. While a number of Assyrian territories had almost become fully Christianized even earlier during the 3rd century; they never became independent nations.

Other religions

Alongside Zoroastrianism other religions, primarily Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism existed in Sassanid society, and were largely free to practice and preach their beliefs. A very large Jewish community flourished under Sassanid rule, with thriving centers at Isfahan, Babylon and Khorasan, and with its own semiautonomous Exilarchate leadership based in Mesopotamia.

This community would, in fact, continue to flourish until the advent of Zionism. Jewish communities suffered only occasional persecution. They enjoyed a relative freedom of religion, and were granted privileges denied to other religious minorities.

Shapur I (Shabur Malka in Aramaic) was a particular friend to the Jews. His friendship with Shmuel produced many advantages for the Jewish community. He even offered the Jews in the Sassanid empire a fine white Nisaean horse, just in case the Messiah, who was thought to ride a donkey or a mule, would come.[79] Shapur II, whose mother was Jewish, had a similar friendship with a Babylonian rabbi named Raba.

Raba's friendship with Shapur II enabled him to secure a relaxation of the oppressive laws enacted against the Jews in the Persian Empire. Moreover, in the eastern portion of the empire, various Buddhist places of worship, notably in Bamiyan were active as Buddhism gradually became more popular in that region. (Wiki)

Religious Articles Index
Origins Christianity