“None will regard the noble Persian stock. " - The Battle of al-Qādisiyyah in 636

19 November 636 CE, 150 miles south of present-day Baghdad, the Sassanid Persians were decisively defeated on the fourth day of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah by the armies of the Rashidun Caliphate during the Arab conquest of Mesopotamia.

“None will regard the noble Persian stock. / They will be shedding blood for lucre's sake. / An evil age will be inaugurate. / My heart is full, my face is wan, my mouth / Is parched, my lips are filled with sighs to think / That after I — the paladin — have gone / Sasanian fortune shall become thus dark ; / So faithless hath revolving heaven grown, / Ta'en umbrage, and/ withdrawn from us its love ! / If with my lance I strike a brazen mountain / I pierce it, being brazen-bodied too. / But now my shafts with steel-transfixing heads / Are impotent with men that wear no mail ! / My sword, which felled the necks of elephants / And lions at a blow, can not cut through / An Arab skin ! My knowledge bringeth loss / On loss upon me. Would that I possessed not / This wisdom since it caused me to know Of this ill day ! The chiefs that are with me / From Kadisiya are both hardy men /And hostile to the Arabs. They expect / That this brake will be filled, that earth will run /Like the Jihun with our foes' blood. None knoweth / The secret of the skies and that this strife / Can not be quickly ended ; but when fortune /Departeth from a race what profit cometh / Of travail and of fight? Be prosperous, / My brother ! May the Shah's heart joy in thee / Because this Kadisiya is my charnel, / My breastplate is my shroud, my helmet blood : Such is the secret of the lofty sky.” (Ferdowsi, Rostam Farrokhzād’s letter to his brother from the Shāh-nāmeh)

An image of the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah
from a manuscript of the Persian epic Shāh-nāmeh, probably 15th century

More than a generation of bitter war between the two superpowers at the end of Antiquity, the Eastern Roman and the Sassanid Empires, had left the Near and Middle East ravaged and both archenemies bled dry. What could have been a time of recuperation ended all of a sudden in 632 CE, when a long overlooked region entered the stage of world affairs with a bang. The armies of Islam broke forth from the Arabian Peninsula and the Prophet’s immediate successor caliph Abu Bakr took Egypt and the Levant from the exhausted Byzantines without much effort. The Sassanid Persians were after the assassination of their King-of-Kings Khosrau II in a period of internal turmoil and young Yazdegerd III was just 10 years old and the 7th king in three years, when his general Rostam Farrokhzād repulsed the first Arabic attempt of invading Sassanid territory in the Battle of the Bridge on the banks of the Euphrates in the autumn of the year 634, 150 miles south of modern Baghdad. But the new caliph, Umar, did not let up. Four years later, his generals Sa`d ibn Abī Waqqās and Al-Muthanna ibn Haritha marched north along the Euphrates with 30.000 men and met with Rostam Farrokhzād again, allegedly negotiated for three months and tried to convert the Persians to Islam and close to the remains of old Babylon at Kadisiya, the battle ensued, after Caliph Umar defeated the Byzantines at Yarmouk in Syria.

A modern imagination of charging 7th century Arab warriors like the ones who fought at Yarmouk and al-Qādisiyyah

Tradition holds that Rostam Farrokhzād’s army was numerically far superior to the Rashidun Arabs, with the feared Persian knights and war elephants, horse archers and 45,000 foot soldiers, arranged in a front that was two and half miles wide. Fighting went on for three days without one side being able to gain the upper hand, the Arabs disrupting the Persian lines with quick cavalry charges and the Persians responding with letting their elephants assault until, on the last day of the battle, General Sa`d mysteriously received reinforcements with experience in fighting elephants. When a sandstorm arose on the fourth day of battle, confusing the Persians, the same meteorologic intervention that furthered the end of the Byzantines at Yarmouk, and Rostam Farrokhzād was found dead with 600 wounds on his body, the Sassanids lost heart and fled and were slaughtered by the pursuing Arabs. The Battle of al-Qādisiyyah was over and the end of the Sassanid Empire began.

A 14th century Middle Eastern imagination of the last Sassanian Shāhanshāh Yazdegerd III

Shah Yazdegerd offered peace to the advancing Arabs but they sensed a total victory and refused. The residency of Ctesiphon was abandoned and the Shah fled east towards Afghanistan, returned to offer battle and was finally defeated by Sa`d ibn Abī Waqqās in the Battle of Nahāvand in 642, again against overwhelming odds, and the parallels between the end of the old Persian Achaemenid Empire at the hands of Alexander the Great and the end of the Sassanids are strong – defeats in two epic battles and a final flight of the Shah to the East of the empire – Yazdegerd III was murdered like Dareios III in Bactria, somewhere at the end of the world, another consonance as if out of a storybook. Mesopotamia finally changed from Sasanid to Arabic rule and close to the old metropolis of Ctesiphon, the new capital of the largest empire the world had ever seen arose in 762 – Baghdad, the centre of the Abbasid Caliphate.

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