An Iranian perspective on Christians in Sassanid Iran

Today I encountered a book, written by an Iranian, discussing the position of “religious minorities” in Iran during the Sassanid and medieval period.  The author is Aptin Khanbaghi, the title is The Fire, the star and the cross: Minority religions in medieval and early modern Iran, I.B.Tauris, 2006, and there is a Google books preview here.

It’s very interesting to see a different perspective on things:

The position of Christians probably improved even more under Khusraw I Anushiravan (531-578) as he had a Christian wife. His son Anushazad apparendy embraced the religion of his mother and hoped to obtain the support of Nestorians in Khuzistan to usurp power, without any success.66 Anushazad’s appeal to the Christians for support, shows the numerical importance of this community in Khuzistan at this time. During the same period, Maraba (540-552), a Zoroastrian apostate, became Catholicos (head of Nestorian Church) at Ctesiphon.67 Despite the fact that apostasy in Zoroastrianism was not acceptable, the important number of Christians in the West of Iran prevented Khusraw I from killing him. He needed his collaboration to appease a revolt of Christians.68 Following Maraba’s death, Khusraw I placed his private physician, Joseph on the throne of the Catholicate (552-567). The bishops did not contest his choice.69 Another physician, named Moses or Narses from Nisibis, is mentioned as having gone to the court in order to present to the monarch the anguish of the Christians, so that Joseph could be deposed. However, Joseph’s influence on Khusraw was so strong that the bishops did not dare nominate another Catholicos.70

Henceforth, Zoroastrian officers who converted to Christianity were allowed to maintain their rank in the Persian army, and were no longer ostracized.71 By the time of Hormizd IV (579-590), the number of Christians had increased to such an extant that when the Zoroastrian priests solicited the King to restrict the activities of the Christians, Hormizd replied:

“Just as our royal throne cannot stand on its two front legs without the two back ones, our kingdom cannot stand or endure firmly if we cause the Christians and adherents of other faiths, who differ in belief from ourselves, to become hostile to us. So renounce this desire to persecute the Christians and become assiduous in good works, so that the Christians and the adherents of other faiths may see this, praise you for it, and feel themselves drawn toward your religion.”72

The reconciliation of the Sassanians with the Christians generated a new social and political atmosphere, which allowed the Christians to establish intellectual centres similar to those belonging to Jews, such as the School of Nisibis and the School of Ctesiphon.

I wish that I could see the references!

And … why is this book so expensive?  How on earth does on get to read it?


9 thoughts on “An Iranian perspective on Christians in Sassanid Iran

  1. 1. It’s part of an academic series about Iran.

    2. Some libraries have bought some kind of ebook version, or it’s part of some kind of ebook collection for library use.

  2. Palgrave Connect’s FAQ page says that they don’t sell subscriptions or access to individuals.

  3. Hormizd’s ‘two-legs, four-legs’ trope is very striking, and was evidently remembered. I may be wrong, as I don’t have all the relevant references to hand, but I think the earliest extant Christian text to retail this anecdote is the Chronicle of Seert, probably written towards the end of the ninth century. Here’s the relevant passage:

    “Khusro Anushirwan died after a reign of forty-seven years. Hormizdad, who succeeded in the Persian empire, showed himself very favourable to the Christians. The magi, unable to bear this, complained of it to him. The king, in order to make them understand that the empire could not rest on the magi alone, quoted them this proverb: ‘Just as a throne, which has four legs, cannot stand only on the front two legs but needs the two back legs also, so the religion of the magi cannot stand without another religion opposed to it. Beware, beware, do not violate the ordinances which I have made for the protection of the Christians, for the conservation of their laws and for the practice of their customs; for they are loyal and obedient.’ Hormizdad greatly honoured the catholicus Ezekiel. Anushirwan had designated him his successor, just as his father Qavad had earlier done for him. He was crowned after the death of his father, in the days called Pirozdejan, in a fire temple at Jundishapur. His brothers honoured him with their esteem. May God have mercy upon him.” (Scher’s edition, ii. 102-4, my translation).

  4. David, thank you very much for this! Glad to hear that it is in the Chronicle of Seert, and I appreciate the translation. It really does sound like a striking and original phrase, and it marks a significant shift in Sassanid policy, doesn’t it?

  5. The fact that even though the Zoroastrians allowed the christians to practise their faith, The likes of Vartaan Magmonian and others described Zoroastrians as Heathens and Un godly. This because they did not convert to christianity. Also many a treatise were broken once the christians re grouped after facing defeat at first.

    The same thirst to convert zoroastrians and Persia out of Zoroastrianism was /is shared by the Islamists. History has passages where the christians and Islamists in later days even supported each other to overthrow Zoroastrianism.

    Ironically 2000 years hence since the christian thirst to overthrow zoroastrianism and laters Islam doing the same, both the Christian and Islamic world are at wars in Zoroastrian lands, each still trying to wrestle power and convert the world!

  6. Thanks for your comment! But I’m not sure that the Persian King of Kings would have shared your point of view, you know? By the late 6th century Nestorian Christianity was just as Persian as Zoroastrianism, in a way that Islam is not.

    I’ve never heard of Vartaan Magmonian. Do you have a reference for this? I’d like to know more.

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