Emperor Ardeshir and the cycle of history
By: Dr. Richard Frye
Heresies and the Church
The development of the church during the early Sasanian empire is tied to the name of Kartir who was unknown to history before the discovery of his monolingual inscriptions in the Middle Persian language. One was carved below the Middle Persian verison of Shapur on the Ka'bah of Zoroaster, another on the cliff at Naqsh-i Rustam behind the horse of Shapur showing his triumph over the Roman emperor, a third at Nazsh-i Rajab and a fourth on a mountainside at Sar Mashhad south of Kazerun. At Naqsh-i Rajab accompanying the inscription is presumably the representation of Kartir himself with finger raised in a gesture of respect. At Sar Mashhad Bahram II is shown killing a lion while protecting his queen, and behind her is probably Kartir. The contents of these inscriptions are very much the same, except that Sar Mashhad and Naqsh-i Rustam are longer than the other two, while Naqsh-i Rajab is a kind of testament of personal belief. Unfortunately both the Naqsh-i Rustam and the Sar Mashhad inscriptions are badly weathered and large portions illegible. None the less, the story they tell of Kartir reveals a fascinating page of early Sasanian history, the establishment of orthodoxy and a state church.
Before turning to Kartir, an examination of Islamic and Pahlavi sources reveals that chief religious leader or mobadan mobad of Ardashir was a certain Tansar, whose name probably should be read Tosar. He is also called a herbad or "teaching priest" in some sources. There is no indication that Tosar is to be identified with Kartir, but his activities, including making a new recension of the Avesta according to the Denkart would make a veritable Kartir of him. The inscriptions, however, are more reliable than literary sources and they tell only of Kartir, although a person called Tosar may have been active under Ardashir before Kartir came to the fore. Kartir must be the real founder of Zoroastrian orthodoxy under the early Sasanian kings.
The longest inscriptions of Kartir are the eighty-one lines of Naqsh-i Rustam and the almost identical fifty-nine lines of Sar Mashhad, the first twenty-five lines of which latter inscription are the same as the inscription of Kartir Ka'bah of Zoroaster, while lines 52 to the end are almost a verbatim copy of his inscription at Naqsh-i Rajab. In the central part of Sar Mashhad Kartir *Han- girpe (hnglpy), as he calls himself, gives what almost seems to be an apologia pro vita sua. The early fragmentary passages contain interesting theological points, the interpretation of which is very difficult because of lacunae. Afterwards Kartir becomes more personal, but in the third person, telling of a trip of many nobles to Khurasan about a woman together with the man Kartir *Hangirpe, a place (?) called pwlsy and many other enigmatic details. Kartir goes to great pains to tell posterity that he first came to power under Shapur-when he was a herbad and a mobad, which implies at least the existence of different kinds of priests already in the Zoroastrian religion. Under King Hormizd he was given the title 'mobad of Ahura Mazda', probably the first to hold this later well-attested title. In the reign of Varahran II he received the rank of nobility, the headship of the religion, and was made chief judge of the empire, and chief of the royal fire at Istakhr at the imperial shrine of Anahita. The reason for these great honours is implied in the honorific given by the same king to Kartir, 'soul-saviour of Varahran'. Undoubtedly Kartir played the role of father confessor to the king and was th,ereby rewarded. The fact that he is called 'the lord' at the very end of Naqsh-i Rajab and that he notes his elevation to the nobility further suggests that the nobility were all powerful in this period. Kartir probably played an important political as well as re- ligious role in the empire.
Of great importance was the activity of Kartir outside of Iran in trying to establish both fire temples and orthodoxy among the Hellen- ised Magians and to convert those pagans who followed rites and beliefs similar to those of the Zoroastrians; in other words Kartir was a missionary.
At the same time he reacted strongly against both foreign religions and heresies within Iran, and this may well be one reason why Mithraism as we know it in the Roman Empire is not also found in Iran. Kartir (KZ 9-IO) specifically attacked Jews, Buddhists, Hindus Nazoraeans (Mandaeans?), Christians, Mktk (a Mesopotamian religion?), and Manichaeans, destroying their centres and proscribing them. The work of Kartir apparently was not an innovation, smce Armenian and Syriac sources tell of the zeal of Ardashir in establishing fire temples and destroying pagan temples, especially in Armenia. Kartir's action was militant Zoroastrian orthodoxy in Zoroastrianism, for he Magi were organised, hel esy was forbidden, and many Varah nres were insituted. These fires represented the backbone of the Sasanian fire cult for they were centres of teaching as well as rites in the various geographical areas of the land. The work of Kartir was impressive (KZ, line I4) for we see in effect the ordering of the state church in Iran, including the practice of consanguineous marriages, a feature of Zoroastrianism which adversely struck outside observers. He also laid the basis for the power of the clergy which was to rival, if not later surpass, that of the nobility.
The fanaticism of the period of Varahran II was tempered in the reign of Narseh (293-302) who revolted against the young King Varahran III, who is called the Saka king in Paikuli, and seized power in northern Iran. He marched on Ctesiphon and was met by a party at Paikuli, a site north of present Khaniqin, and there he was proclaimed king of kings, and a bilingual inscription was erected to commemorate this event. In line 16 of Paikuli the name 'Kartir, the mobad of Ahura Mazda' appears, but because of lacunae in the in- scription one cannot say whether he is a foe or friend of Narseh. He was surely quite elderly and must have died or retired shortly after- wards. Since Narseh did not mutilate Kartir's inscriptions, and there is no evidence of a clash between the two, we may assume that Narseh, who mentions in his inscription (Paikuli, line g) 'Ahura Mazda and all the gods and Anahita called the lady', did not overthrow the work of Kartir. The policy of toleration of Narseh towards the Manichaeans is generally known, but it is possible that a change began at the very end of the reign of Varahran II. The evidence of a complete about-face in religious policy under Narseh and a victory of herbads over mobads or Anahita over Ahura Mazda, is lacking; rather the change seems to be one of relaxation yet continuity.
The question of heresies within the Zoroastrian religion is complicated because our Pahlavi sources are all post-Islamic in date, when the minority religious comrnunities of the Zoroastrians were more concerned with correct beliefs than in Sasanian times when the religion was upheld by the state. I believe that orthopraxy was more important than orthodoxy under the Sasanians and Zurvanism, or time speculation, was not a heresy in the same manner as Mazdakism, which was a threat to the practices and the organisation of society as well as the church. But in the early days of the empire the Zandiks, as the Manichaeans were called, were the chief heretics. The exact dates of Mani's life are uncertain since they are tied to the chronology of Shapur's accession which itself is not certain; but he was killed either in the last year of the reign of Varahran I (274) or in the early years of his successor ( 277 ) . Manichaeism has been called an expression of universalism or syncretism in religion and it has been compared with Bahaism of the present day. It is perhaps not as representative of Iranian religious tendencies in its dualism as was the Zoroastrian state religion, but certainly the syncretic and 'international' features of Manichaeism found many ready supporters in Iran. We are not here concerned with the teachings of Manichaeism which are at present better known than before the discovery of original Manichaean writings in Coptic, Parthian, Sogdian and other languages. The Manichaeans suffered the same fate in Iran as in the Christian world; in both the arch-heretics were alwas Manichaeans and they were accordingly persecuted severely. After Narseh, however, Manichaean cornmunities continued to exist in Iran, especially in eastern Iran, and later, as is well known, Manichaean missionaries reached as far as China.
Perhaps the most striking development of Manichaeism was the social and economic movement led by Mazdak at the very end of the fifth century, about whom much has been written of late. It would seem that royal opposition to the nobility and their power was an important reason for the support of Mazdak by King Kavad. The Mazdakites preached a form of communism, the division of wealth including wives and concubines, which found support among the poor, but our sources are not clear and are contradictory about the course of events of this revolution. The Mazdakites, however, met the same fate the Manichaeans had suffered at the hands of Kartir and King Varahran. It happened at the end of Kavad's (second) reign, and the Crown Prince Chosroes Anosharvan was the chief instigator of the massacre of the Mazdakites circa 528. The death of their leaders, of course, did not end the Mazdakites as a sect but sent them underground. But a new pejorative had been coined and henceforth any social or religious reformer was usually branded as a Mazdakite by his opponents, and this lasted long into Islamic times when many Iranian revolts against the caliphate or the rule of the Arabs were designated as Mazdakite movements. The Mazdakite movement was known to such Islamic authors as Nizam al-Mulk in his Siyasatname.
Already, from the beginning of the Sasanian period, we are in a new religious world. The cults of the old Mesopotamian gods were long since dead and in their places new gnostic and ritualistic sects had arisen side by side with Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Cabalistic beliefs and practices seem to have been widespread, and in the views of most Greek and Roman authors the Persians were the chief believers in magic and unusual religious practices. Zoroastrianism for the classical writers was the epitome of the mysterious, Oriental cult. Yet Kartir and his followers laid the basis for Zoroastrian ortho- doxy which probably opposed magic, demon worship, and the like as much as did Christian orthodoxy in the empire of the Caesars.
Belief in divine revelation and the recording of that revelation in books was in the air, and the Christians, of course, were the most widespread propagators of the idea of 'Holy Writ'. It may have been because of the example of the Christians that the Zoroastrian church assembled and canonised its writings. Zoroastrian tradition claims that fragments of the Avesta were assembled and presumably written down in Arsacid times and again under Shapur I. The written Avesta of the early Sasanians must have been really a mnemonic device to aid the memory of the priests who usually recited the Avesta in a traditional Oriental manner. In the beginning of the fifth century the present Armenian alphabet was devised mainly to propagate the Christiar religion in that land. Some have conjectured that the present Avestan alphabet was invented about the same time possibly as a forerunner or even as an imitation of the Armenian alphabet although the Avestan alphabet in phonetic completeness is more like the Devanagari alphabet of Sanskrit. It is not impossible to assume a religious motivation for the creation of this rather late alphabet which, as far as we know, was only used for texts of the Zoroastrian religion. It is a pity that this alphabet did not replace the incomplete Pahlavi alphabet, with its great deficiency of letters to represent sounds, for the Middle Persian language. It must be emphasized that we have no old manuscripts of the Avesta, none earlier than thirteenth or fourteenth century, but the existence of a written Avesta in Sasanian times much as we know it today seems assured in spite of the overwhelming importance of the oral tradition.
From Christian authors writing in Syriac and Armenian it would seem that the Sasanians primarily followed Zurvanism, a Zoroastrian heresy which, after the Islamic conquest, vanished in favour of ortho- doxy. I believe, as shown elsewhere, that Zurvanism was not a full- fledged heresy with doctrines, rites and a 'church' organisation separate from the Zoroastrian fold, but rather a movement to be compared perhaps with the Mu'tazilites of Islamic times. There were basically two features of Zurvanism which have been preserved for us, time speculation (eternity, etc.) and the myth of the birth of both Ohrmizd (Ahura Mazda) and Ahriman from their father Zurvan. The first was widespread and certainly by itself would not form the basis for a separate sect. The Zurvan birth story can be paralleled by the story of Chronos in Greek mythology and again, in my opinion, would not lead to the formation of a sect. Undoubtedly the Zurvan birth story was widespread among 'orthodo' Zoroastrians in Sasanian times, but after the Islamic conquest when Zoroastrians withdrew into tightly knit communities, Zurvanite elements were eliminated from the new orthodoxy which was concrned with 'orthodoxy' as well as 'orthopraxy'. In Sasanian times a Zoroastrian heretic was more one who broke away from orthopraxy and even became a Christian or Manichaean, while in Islamic times a Zoroastrian heretic was primarily a person who also broke with orthodoxy as, for example, Abalish (or 'Abdallah?) a Zoroastrian who became a heretic in the time of the caliph al -Ma'mun in the ninth century, and may have adopted Mani- chaean beliefs. Any kind of social heresy, of course, would be the concern of the ruling caliph.
From the acts of the Christian martyrs we learn much especially about the Nestorian communities in the Sasanian empire. In effect the consolidation and growth of the Zoroastrian church in Iran was paralleled by the growth of the Christian church and of the Manichaean communities. Undoubtedly the influx of Christian prisoners in Iran in the wake of both Shapurs' conquests gave a strong impetus to the spread of Christianity, but the religion naturally spread in Mesopotamia among the Semitic peoples. The first great persecution of Christians occurred under Shapur II, beginning about 339, and seems to have had political motivation since it began after Constantine had made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Later there were periods of tolerance followed by more persecution, but after the break away of the Nestorians from other Christians at the end of the fifth century, the condition of Christians in Iran improved. The Nestorians elected a catholicos who had his seat in Ctesiphon and synods usually met there in deciding church problems. The ecclesiastical geography of the Nestorian bishoprics is also of importance for the civil geography of the Sasanian empire since the Church usually followed civil boundaries; thus we gain some knowledge of civil administrative divisions from the acts of the martyrs.
The Christianisation of Armenia and Transcaucasia in the fourth century provided a source of conflict betwen Armenia and the Sasanians even more than the struggle for influence in those areas between Romans and Persians. In the east, too, Christian missionaries made converts among the Hephthalites and Sogdians, so one may infer everywhere a growing Christian influence at the end of the Sasanian empire. The whole religious picture of Iran, however, was more complicated than we can know from the sparse records, and the interplay of various religions is matched by internal divisions within the Zoroastrian church which we perceive but dimly.