“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have gone / Sasanian fortune shall become thus dark ; / So faithless hath revolving heaven grown, / Ta'en umbrage, and/ withdrawn from us its love !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

The King of Kings had an underground palace housing 3,000 concubines. Or so the story goes, handed down with a metaphorical shaking of his scholarly, septuagenarian head in awe by the Persian historian al-Tabari in his “History of the Prophets and Kings”. Around the year 900, when Caliph al-Mu'tadid bi-llah was commander of the faithful, in Baghdad, where Ctesiphon once stood, the capital of the Parthian kings of old and that of their Sassanian successors, the Zoroastrian shâhanshâhs of whom Khosrau II was the greatest. And Persia’s downfall at the same time. 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. Khosrau, King of Kings, had gambled and lost all in the end, even his life. His own son murdered him in 628, was crowned as Kavadh II and immediately forced to conclude a humiliating peace with the Roman emperor  who already stood at the gates of Ctesiphon. However, with about 2,999 jealous aunts in the cellar and numerous siblings already whetting their knives, Kavadh’s chances of survival were rather slim. Kavadh murdered the immediate rivals among his brothers, and whether he toyed with the thought of becoming Christian and thus making the Zoroastrian priests of the empire his mortal enemies or not on top of it, Ahura Mazda’s wrath struck the patricide and fratricide and probable auntricide and possible apostate and the new shâhanshâh died of the plague after reining for only eight months. What followed was a complete chaos of succession when sons and daughters and grandchildren of Khosrau who got away from Kavadh’s nights of the long knives fought for the throne and stabilisation of the struggling empire. Not that the Romans, exhausted like the Sassanids, fared any better, defending their long borders against all kinds of potential invaders. Again, just like the Persians. And then, all of a sudden in 632 CE 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.

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

Yazdegerd III, Khosrau’s grandson, 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. Rostam Farrokhzād, the old warhorse who had served under Khosrau against the Rumi, Heraclius’ Romans, against Turkish steppe raiders, victor of the Battle of the Bridge against the Arabs, laughed himself half silly. Some 400 years, with something bordering on blasphemous pride of his Sassanian ancestors, the Persian poet Ferdowsi puts the scorn of empires of old over bare-arsed barbarian upstarts into the mouth of Yazdegerd’s field marshal, his spahbed. Quoth the Shahnameh: “"In the presence of the pure Lord of the world we may not stand without fear and reverence, for it is through him that the revolving heavens endure and all his governance is justice and charity. May there be blessings from him on the monarch who is the adornment of his crown, throne and seal, who by his Farr holds Ahriman [the spirit of evil] enthralled, the lord of the sword and the sublime crown. This deplorable vent has occurred and to no purpose has this grievous thing, this struggle, come to pass. Tell me this, who is your king? What man are you and what is your religion and way of life? Over whom do you seek to triumph, you, naked commander of a naked army? With a loaf of bread you are satisfied yet remain hungry. You have neither elephants nor platforms nor baggage nor gear. Mere existence in Iran would be enough for you, since crown and ring belong to another, one who possesses elephants and treasures, Farr and sublime rank. His forebears from ancestor to ancestor have all been renowned kings. When he is visible, there is no moon in the sky. There is no monarch of his stature on earth. When he laughs at a feast with his lips open and teeth shining like silver, he gives away what is the ransom of an Arab chief without any loss to his treasury. His hounds, panthers and falcons number twelve thousand, all dight with golden bells and earrings. From a diet of camel's milk and lizards the Arabs have come so far as to aspire to the Kayanian throne. Is there no shame in your eyes? Do feeling and honour not lie on the path of your wisdom? With a countenance such as yours, such birth, such sentiments and spirit, do you aspire to such a crown and such a throne? If you seek to possess some portion of the world you will not make over-boastful claims. Send us some man to speak for you, someone of experience, a warrior of understand, of the kind who may tell us what your religion is and who your guide is upon the royal throne. I shall send a cavalier to the Shah requesting him to grant you what you desire. And now do not attempt to make war on so great a monarch, for it is in his hands that the outcome of it will lie. Observe well the contents of his letter filled with good counsel; do not bind up the eyes and ears of wisdom." Close to the ruins of old Babylon, at Kadisiya, the battle began.

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

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, 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 in August of the same year, 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. 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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