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Thursday, August 5, 2021

Yazdegerd III: The Last Persian Shah

There comes a time when fortune and history start marching in opposite directions—the civilizations on which fortune is kind, history becomes unkind. Those who live in a dominant civilization which has peaked believe that they are the chosen people, the fortunate ones, the ones who are the saviors of mankind. They believe that they are entitled to the power, prestige, and material and intellectual resources that their ancestors had created. But history is no longer kind to them. There was a time when their civilization was powerful, innovative, and feared. Now it is ossified, weak and decadent. It cannot be saved. Its people are history’s flotsam.

The Persians in the beginning of the seventh century were convinced that their civilization was blessed by Ahura Mazdā, the supreme uncreated and benevolent deity of wisdom in Zoroastrianism. They thought that their world would last forever. But their world came to an abrupt end in 651 AD, when the last Persian Empire where Zoroastrianism was the state religion, the Sassanid Empire, came crashing down.

Yazdegerd III, the grandson of Khosrow II, was the last Sassanid Shah. After the death of Khosrow II, a succession of weak rulers had acquired the Empire’s throne. Almost every ruler was murdered within a year of taking power. The imperial palace had turned into a zone for slaughtering the kings and aristocrats. Generals had turned into warlords. They commanded their own militia and were battling for power all over the country. The state of the Empire was so chaotic that the Persian chroniclers of that time were openly writing about the imminent downfall of Persia.

In 632 AD, when Yazdegerd ascended the throne, he was eight years old. He did not have the experience and the authority to lead the Empire in a new direction. The real power was being wielded by his generals and the powerful members of the aristocracy who were so busy fighting the civil war that they refused to take note of the threat of Islamic invasions. In 633 AD, the Sassanid army was defeated by an Arab Islamic army near the Sasanian city of Hira, which was occupied by the Arabs. After the fall of Hira, the Persian elite started taking note of the Arab army. But by now it was too late. From 633 to 637, the Arabs defeated the Sassanid army in two major battles—Battle of al-Qadisiyyah and the Battle of Nahavand—and a series of smaller battles.

In 642 AD, Yazdegerd fled to Isfahan where he tried to make a last stand by raising a small army. But his army mutinied when the Arab leadership bribed the soldiers with the offer of free land. Yazdegerd fled to Estakhr but the Arabs invaded the city and razed it to the ground. The Persian nobles who had fled with Yazdegerd were killed in Estakhr. Yazdegerd kept running from one city to another while being pursued by the Arab army. He wrote to Byzantine Emperor Heraclitus, pleading for assistance but the Byzantines were mired in their own problems. In 651 AD, Yazdegerd was hiding in the establishment of a miller in a small village called Marw. According to historical sources, the miller killed Yazdegerd for his jewelry.

With the death of Yazdegerd, the age of Zoroastrianism in Persia came to an end. Islam became Persia’s state religion, and the Zoroastrians were given the dhimmi status. Zoroastrianism is among the world’s oldest continuously practiced religion. Its roots probably go back to the second millennium BC. But after the fall of Persia, it lost many of its adherents. By the tenth century, there were very few Zoroastrians left in the country.

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