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Queries and Comments: How Tolerant Was Ancient Persia? BAR 22:04, Jul-Aug 1996.

rony_reich_001Ronny Reich’s discovery at Mamilla enriches our understanding of the 400-year struggle between Sassanian Persia and Byzantium. It is puzzling, however, that Reich asserts that “the Persian empire was not based on religious principles and was indeed inclined to religious tolerance.”

On the contrary, the Sassanian Persian empire was firmly based on religious principles, namely those of its state religion, Zoroastrianism.1 In the words of the Persian high priest Tansar, “Do not marvel at my zeal and ardor for promoting order in the world, that the foundations of the laws and of the faith may be made firm. For Church and State were born of the one womb, joined together and never to be sundered.”2

Although some Sassanian rulers, such as Hormizd IV, were tolerant of other faiths, the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire put Persian Christians in a dangerous position—as is clear from the Orthodox Church’s list of Persian martyrs.

Above all, the Persian King of Kings was the earthly regent of Ohrmazd, the Supreme Being of Zoroastrianism. Sassanian bas-reliefs carved on rock cliffs show monarchs receiving the diadem of kingship from the hand of Ohrmazd.

The investiture relief at Bishapur is especially instructive- On the right, Shapur I sits upon a horse, beneath which lies the body of the Roman emperor Gordian III; on the left, Ohrmazd sits upon a horse, beneath which lies the prostrate figure of the evil god Ahriman; Ohrmazd extends the diadem of kingship to Shapur.

The meaning is clear- The enemies of Persia are confederates of the Evil One, and their historical defeat by the King of Kings anticipates the eschatological defeat of Ahriman by Ohrmazd.

As Reich himself notes, the aim of the Persian sack of Jerusalem was to humiliate the Byzantine Christian empire. By the same token, the aim of the Christian Heraclius’s destruction of the great fire temple of Adur Gushnasp was to humiliate the Persian Zoroastrian empire. Both Persia and Byzantium were founded on religion, and both empires viewed the conflict between them as a holy war.

Gene Paul Strayer

Lancaster Theological Seminary

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

1. See Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians- Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London- Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), pp. 101–144. On the religious foundation of Sassanian law and social institutions, see A. Perikhanian, “Iranian Society and Law,” in Ehsan Yarshater, ed., The Cambridge History of Iran (Cambridge- Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983), v. 3(2), pp. 627–680.

2. Mary Boyce, ed. and trans., Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism (Chicago- Univ. of Chicago, 1984), p. 109.

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