At its height, around 620 CE, the Sasanian empire ruled over a territory stretching from Jerusalem in the west to Samarkand in the east. The royal court at the ancient city of Ctesiphon, near present-day Baghdad, was the political heart of this vast realm, and its official religion was the ancient Iranian faith, Zoroastrianism. In royal iconography, the king of the Sasanians was likened to Ohrmazd, the good creator God: just as Ohrmazd vanquishes the evil spirit Ahriman, so, too, does the king triumph over his enemies on the battlefield. For at least 1,000 years, the Zoroastrian faith held sway over the empires of Persia.
In 651 CE, the Sasanian empire collapsed. Armies commanded by the second and third Islamic caliphs, Umar ibn al-Khattab and Uthman ibn Affan, relentlessly pushed defeated Persian forces eastward from the imperial heartland in Mesopotamia. Yazdegird III, the last Sasanian king, was murdered. The remnants of the royal family fled to China. It was a total defeat, unprecedented in Iranian history. Faced with today’s world-changing events, this Iranian experience has much to teach us. In responding to an event different from, but in many ways proportionate to, our own, Zoroastrians, followers of the ancient Iranian religion, sought comfort in the apocalyptic – a comfort we might now turn to as well.
For the Zoroastrians, it was a defeat of apocalyptic proportions. The fact that a rival faith could so thoroughly destroy the ‘good religion’ – which Ohrmazd revealed to the prophet Zoroaster thousands of years before – violated the fundamental laws of the Universe itself. In the Zoroastrian conception, the progress of time is fixed and irreversible. When Ahriman first became aware of Ohrmazd in the uncreated spiritual realm, the two made a pact to fight for 9,000 years; Ohrmazd, knowing in his omniscience that the evil spirit would never be defeated unless a limit was imposed, tricked Ahriman into agreeing to the time-bound fight. This 9,000-year period is divided into three stages. First, the primal creation of the world by Ohrmazd, a time of harmony, perfect and unmoving. Next is the period we live in now, known as the Mixture (gumezišn), which began with the attack by Ahriman and the demons on creation, who corrupted the world with their evil and filth. At last, there will be the defeat and removal of evil from the world and the final, purifying judgment of all mankind at the end of days.
The Islamic conquest upset this steady progression of the Zoroastrian universe. Time itself must have seemed derailed. The Zoroastrians were forced to rethink their world. In the wake of the tragedy, they began to write.
Read the full story from 2020 in Psyche.