Persia’s struggle against Greece had terminated by the defeat of the Achaemenid Darius III. It was both a dynastic and national disaster for Iran. Alexander had just introduced Hellenism into the very heart of Asia. Later, Selucus, conquering back his eastern heritage, founded a Greek dynasty there. Parthia, claiming to be philhellene, made itself independent. The Greco-Bactrian kingdom’s frontiers were pushed forward as far as Chinese Turkestan. The orient had apparently become a province of Hellenism. As Ferdowsi says in Shah-Nameh, “centuries passed during which one would have said that there was no king upon the earth.”
However, the sacred fire was not totally extinguished and the minor princes of Fars in particular had preserved intact the tradition of the magi of Achaemenid period.
One of them, called Babak, who was a pretty king of a region in the east of Shiraz, and whose father, Sasan, had fulfilled priestly functions at Estakhr, Capital of the kings of Persis, had to begin to increase his domains at the expense of his neighbors. One of his sons, Ardeshir, from whom he had obtained a high military post in the town of Darabgard and who had convinced the ambitious project of recapturing the power of the Achaemenids for himself, took several towns in the province, defeating and killing the reigning princes.
He put down a revolt which had broken out in the region in his charge and asserted his power by conquering the province of Kerman. Having succeeded his father in the capacity of priest-king, master of the whole province of Fars and Kerman, he had a princely palace built at “Gur” (present day FiroozAbad). It excited the jealousy of his sovereign, the Arsacid Ardawan (Artabanus), and caused discord between the “King of Kings” and his subjects, as a letter from Ardawan to Ardeshir testifies:
“You wretched, how did you dare to build such a royal residence?” Ardeshir, so the story goes, revolted against his sovereign, conquered him and slew him with his own hand.
After this battle, which took place in AD 224, Gur was called Ardeshir Khoreh, i.e. “Glory of Ardeshir”. In AD 226 Ardeshir entered Ctesiphon, pretending himself as the Arsacids’ successor. It is thought that he had himself solemny crowned “King of Kings of Iran” shortly after this event. We do not know where the ceremony took place, but it was probably in his family’s home country, either at “Estakhr”, in the temple of Anahita, whom his ancestor Sasan had served as high perist, or at “Naqsh-e-Rajab”, between “Estakhr” and Persepolis in the shallow gorge where Ardeshir himself and his successor, Shapur I, both commemorated their accession to the throne with magnificent bas-reliefs carved on the rock.
During the next few years Ardeshir conquered Media, attacked Armenia and Azerbaijan, unsuccessfully at first, but later victoriously. He subdued Sistan, Khorasan, Marv, Khwarazm to the east of Casoian sea, and Margiana. The King of Kushans, who was still masterof the valley of Kabul and Panjab, sent ambassadors to him and recognized his sovereignty. His empire then comprised present-day Iran, Afghanistan and Baluchestan, the land of the oases of Marv and Khiveh as far as the Oxus in the north, and as far as Babylonia and Iraq in the west. So five and a half centuries after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire, the Persians had reconquered their Iranian domain and a new oriental empire had been created which could treat with the Roman Empire on an equal footing.
Ardeshir, a powerful politician, endowed with great military talents, but cruel and unscrupulous, posed as the protector of national traditions, especially the national traditions, especially the national religion. He linked the dynasty he had created with that of the Achaemenids by a fictitious genealogy – or perhaps it was done for him.
We have seen that the dualist religion of the Medes had reached Persia during the Achaemenid period. Obviously it is not possible for us to follow the religious development which led from primitive Mazdaism to the convinced Zoroastrianism of the Sassanians. Undoubtedly the Zoroasteian magi gradually gained influence and power under the Arsacids, who were worried about it at first, then tried to take advantage of this force by acknowledging its resolute spirit and prestige.
With the passing of the Parthians and their superficial Hellenism, the old Iranian civilization resumed the government of its empire. In the age of the Achaemenids it had deliberately confined itself to purely oriental culture but with the advent of the Sassanids it resolved to establish relations with foreign civilizations whose prestige had attracted it and so take advantage of the benefits these contracts might bring in their train. However it was firmly determined to lose nothing of its own personality in the process: Iranian it was, Iranian it meant to remain. Not for nothing did it carve the image of its kings on the rocks of Naqsh-e-Rostam, near Persepolis.
The art of Sassanian period, therefore, was at once traditional and progressive. As in the time of the Achaemenids, the principal monuments were the royal palaces; the main objective was to present the King of Kings at the far end of his Apadana as a ‘divinity come down to earth’; it was still the same program, but the Achaemenid solution seemed too costly to the Sassanians and perhaps also impossible to develop further, because the length of wooden beams had limits which had already been reached. For the actual royal buildings they adopted vaulted architecture which was then, and no doubt was in Achaemenid period, the ordinary architecture of the country. They hoped surpass the grandeur of the monuments of Darius by this popular art, and we will see what it became in their hands.
It is still generally believed that the only vaults used in the Sasanian period were barrel vaults, domes and those conical vaults which facilitated the transition from a square ground plan to the circular plan of a dome. Sasanian Iran seems not to have known either the groined vault (pic 1) or the cross vault (pic 2). “From antiquity to our days” says Choisy, “the Persians have never accepted anything but the barrel vault (pic 3) and the dome on squinches (pic 4
“at first sight,” he goes on, “the dome – a vault circular in section – would seem to be clearly contra-indicated for a square hall: the obvious vault would seem to be the cross vault in which the four walls of the hall are prolonged by curving progressively inwards so that they cover the building. But that would have needed centering; the advantage of the dome is to make centering superfluous, and this precious property explains the efforts made by the Persians to combine the dome with a rectangular base plan.”