“Theologia Symbolica”: Dream, Allegory, and Imagining the Afterlife in Sasanian Art and Ideology

Shervin Farridnejad, University of Hamburg, Germany

Both allegorical and metaphorical ideas belong to the realm of religious meaning making, which can be manifested in iconographic and textual exegesis. These practices have proven to be an effective religious, didactic, and even political tool that was widely used by the late antique religious traditions. The Zoroastrians of late antiquity have also developed a visual language within the framework of a series of “theological symbols” to accompany and explain the religious, didactic, and philosophical foundations of the royal ideology. Moreover, the concepts dealing with life after death, not only as a religious but also a political issue, seem to occupy an important place. This paper aims to provide an overview of Zoroastrian afterlife beliefs as manifested in the imagery of Sasanian art.

A New Contribution to Sasanian Sigillography: The Bullae Collection at the Reza Abbasi Museum, Tehran

Negin Miri, Shahid Beheshti University, Iran

The interconnection between the iconographic and epigraphic data on seals and seal impressions can shed new light on the history of polities, the Sasanian Empire being no exception. Indeed, few categories of material evidence from this period can enlighten as much as seals and bullae, particularly with regard to our knowledge of the empire’s administrative organization and practices. They not only contain personal names, toponyms, and references to the administrative, military, and religious offices and concepts but are also relevant for their artistic and technical attributes. At the same time, only a few collections of Sasanian bullae have been discovered through controlled archaeological excavations, and many, generally unprovenanced, are held in private and public collections. Yet the study of such collections can be important in increasing our current understanding of Sasanian social, political, and administrative history.

Tehran’s Reza Abbasi Museum holds a small collection of thirteen bullae, while a larger collection of about thirty, from which only three bullae are on public view, is kept in the Iran Money Museum in Tehran. As part of the author’s future project in agreement with these museums, these collections are going to be studied and published. This presentation will concentrate on a general introduction to the Reza Abbasi Museum collection, as well as a more detailed presentation of iconographic and epigraphic content of several examples. This study will be placed in the context of the already existing studies of Sasanian seal and bullae collections. It is hoped that this addition to the data will help us further understand the social, political, and administrative history of the Sasanians.

Transitions in the Visual Culture of Iranshahr: Post-Sasanian Metalwork

Judith A. Lerner, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (New York University), United States

With the collapse of Sasanian rule and Iranshahr coming under Arab or Islamic rule, craftsmen did not necessarily change their way of representation or even their imagery to accommodate the new order, although, as with all creative endeavors, the modes of depiction and what is depicted reflect over time new cultural, religious, economic, and patronage influence. Despite ruptures in rule and religion, the visual culture of Iranshahr continued its artistic trajectory well into—and even through—the eighth century, coinciding with the beginning of Abbasid rule. This occurred not only in what had been Sasanian Persia, but in Bactria and farther east into Sogdiana. In particular, the metalwork attributed to post-Sasanian Persia and Bactria, as well as to Sogdiana—which we have in relative abundance—shows formal and iconographic continuities that seem unaffected by the Conquest that had originated in the west; and, in some examples, shows greatest affinities with Central Asia and even China.

Reviving the Concept of Sasanian Kingdom in the Qajar Rock Reliefs

Kianoosh Motaghedi, Iran

Sasanian rock reliefs stand among the most glorious artistic heritage of ancient Iran. Following the decline of the Sasanian Empire and until some twelve centuries later, right up to the Qajar era, no trace of the revival of the concept of royalty has been discovered on rocks or mountains. It was not until the reign of Fath-Ali Shah Qajar that such an idea was proposed once again, and, consequently, ancestral themes (the idea of Irānshahr) became widespread in art.

In this period, some works were carved on the basis of the Sasanian prototypes in Iran with significant resemblance and with the same function as those formerly created in ancient times. Qajar rock reliefs were representative of the image of power and authority of a newly established dynasty that was in compelling need of political stability and legitimacy. Such a matter required widespread visual publicity, with similar features inspired from the Sasanian works, such as common figurative structure, execution, and setting.

In Qajar reliefs, the portraits of king, accoutrements (royal throne, crown, and walking stick), poses, and reception ceremonies (audience) are all indicative of a revival of ancestral themes from the Sasanian period. Such a retrospective approach to past traditions, counterbalanced by the Shiite beliefs in Qajar society and the advent of a neo-Zoroastrian ideology in the nineteenth century, could only be fulfilled through Fath-Ali Shah’s patronage. Consequently, the role of king in the formation and encouragement of the new movement regarding the revival of ancestral themes in Persian art and culture is of major significance.

The Power of the Royal Image: Sasanian Iconography and Its Legacy

Vesta Curtis, British Museum, United Kingdom

The Sasanian royal image on coins, reliefs, and small objects presents the king of kings surrounded by divine powers that provide him with protection and legitimize his rule. The royal crown and astral symbols emphasize the divine nature of the king’s reign. The diadem, a legacy from the previous Arsacid iconography, accompanies the king of kings, decorates his crown and his shoulders, and becomes part of the decoration of his costume. Its appearance on the neck, tail, and feet of the king’s horse suggests that anything associated with the king also enjoys divine support and adds legitimacy to the royal image.

This paper will focus on royal iconography in Sasanian art, also briefly examining its origin and its legacy in the post-Sasanian period. Furthermore, the intricate relationship between kingship and religion and the necessity to create a powerful and endearing imagery will be discussed. Finally, we will ask who was it addressed to—the internal or external enemy?

More than Connected Histories: Sassanid Persia, Rome, and the Caucasus, 364–87 CE

Giusto Traina, Sorbonne Université, France

After the treaty of peace between Jovian and Shapur II was signed in 364 CE, the relations between Rome, Persia, and the Caucasus were particularly tense. A cross-comparison of Ammianus and the Epic Histories helps us reconstruct the political and military history of these years; however, we may better understand the situation through a broader geopolitical analysis.

In 367, while the Eastern emperor Valens was busy on the Danube against the Goths, Shapur ordered an invasion of the South Caucasus. The Armenian king Aršak II, whom the Romans appreciated for his loyalty, was confined in the infamous Fortress of Oblivion. He committed suicide sometime after. The Iberian king Sauromaces was also deposed in favor of his cousin Aspacures.

When Valens struck back, with the aid of Aršak’s son Pap, Constantinople managed to control the situation, even after the killing of Pap by Roman troops. Valens appointed Pap’s nephew Varazdat the king of Armenia, and he placed him under the tutelage of the general Mušēł Mamikonean. Nevertheless, the situation changed with the Gothic crisis in 376–78. After Valens’s death at Adrianople, his successor, Theodosius the Great, was forced to stop hostilities in the East. Whereas the Persians managed to be in control of Iberia, the naxarar family of the Mamikonean practically ruled Armenia. According to the Epic Histories, Manuēl Mamikonean ruled the country for seven years, discouraging Persian attacks. However, the situation changed after Manuēl’s death in 385. Both Constantinople and Ctesiphon decided to start negotiations for peace.

There is Blood on the “Zarbāft” Silk

Ani Honarchian, Saint Louis University, United States

Zarbāft is a technique of gold embroidery done on expensive silk-like fabrics like Dībā. The fabric was reserved for royalty and the exalted ranks of the Sasanian Empire. Ferdawsī (329–411/940–1020) in his Shāhnāma refers to Zarbāfti Shāhanshāhi coming from Shūshtar (Khuzestan), China, or Rome. Sasanian Kings and nobility garbed themselves in these dazzling materials, the motifs of which were echoed on the walls of Tāq-e-Bostān and the stuccos of Ctesiphon.

In this talk, however, I leave the royalty in their magnificent ensemble behind to take a look at the stories of other people—the makers of this universe. The actual labourers and the masters of crafts, dyers of silk, embroiderers of golden threads, and the decorators of the walls and palaces of the Sasanian kings. The preservation of these stories by the community in and of itself is an act of weaving and making a new space, a world within. These stories are mentioned by the fifth-century church historian Sozomen in Book II of his Ecclesiastical History and are parsed out at length in Syriac in the Persian Martyr Acts, and in the Armenian “Martyrdom of bishop Simeon and a Lecture on Eastern Martyrs” in Sop’erk Hatkakank’ 19–22, published by Mekhitarist Monastery in the nineteenth century.

I argue that these stories demanded and dedicated their readers to achieve sanctity by the imitation of martyrs. The stories use God, universe, textiles, and bodies of men and women living in the empire to create a conformity between God and his martyrs, an individual and the community. From these stories we learn that sanctity could be worn like a garb until it became an inner quality. I study these accounts alongside Sasanian royal inscriptions and post-Sasanian Zoroastrian religious materials to see how the Christian communities of Sasanian Iran defined themselves. They reflect on moments in time and space in which martyr bodies became the site of power as they transgressed boundaries guarded by the Zoroastrian God.

A Remote Sensing Perspective on the Sasanian Hydraulic Systems: Reexamining the Irrigation Discourse

Mehrnoush Soroush, University of Chicago, Oriental Institute, United States

The water management discourse of the Sasanian period revolves mainly around canal building for irrigation purposes. We can expand our perspective on irrigation practices by examining the Sasanian waterworks from a landscape perspective. Examining the Sasanian hydraulic systems using remote sensing data can suggest motivations for hydraulic investment other than irrigation. In this talk, I will look specifically at two examples in Khuzestan that are traditionally considered irrigation infrastructure but might have different purposes instead of or in addition to irrigation. The first example is the Gargar canal in Shushtar, known as a significant irrigation undertaking in the Sasanian period. But the canal does not seem to have irrigated any land around Shushtar. I suggest that Gargar might have been built as a flood protection system for the city and its agricultural hinterland. The second example is the canals associated with Iwan-e Karkheh, also known as an irrigation system. But the carrying capacity of the land around the canal and the local topography cast doubt on this function. I suggest that the canals might have been used for another purpose, for example, royal textile production.

Sasanian Maritime Trade?

Derek Kennet, Durham University, United Kingdom
Seth Priestman, Durham University, United Kingdom
Rebecca Darley, University of Leeds, United Kingdom

Almost fifty years ago, Whitehouse and Williamson published their seminal paper, “Sasanian Maritime Trade” (Iran 11 (1973): 29–49), in which they argued that the Sasanians utilized their territorial supremacy to develop the maritime economy of the Persian Gulf and the western Indian Ocean, resulting in a period of “intensive maritime trade” from the Gulf to Sri Lanka and beyond to as far as China. This view has become an integral part of our understanding of the origins and development of the flourishing, long-distance trade that emerged during the early Islamic period. Whitehouse’s and Williamson’s ideas have been nearly universally accepted by historians and archaeologists alike, who have continued to replicate them and use them as a base for further investigation, cementing their perceived validity.

Although the available historical source material remains largely unaltered, historiographic analysis and textual interpretation have moved on in the intervening decades, and new perspectives are now being developed on several of the key sources.

At the same time, numerous archaeological discoveries have been made in the intervening fifty years, many of which have the potential to refine or significantly alter our understanding.

This presentation will therefore review the Sasanian maritime trade thesis, focusing particularly on new archaeological evidence that has emerged over the past fifty years and new historical interpretations. The paper will examine the available evidence and consider what we actually know about the nature, size, reach, and structure of the Sasanian maritime economy.

Through the Turanian Lands: Post-Sasanian–Tang Aesthetics of Early Tibetan Material Culture

Mariachiara Gasparini, University of Oregon, United States

Early Islamic sources describe Turan as the land of non-Iranians beyond the Amu Darya to the East. The Turanians or Türks, however, seem to also include the Tubo (early Tibetans). Before their conversion to Buddhism (between the seventh and ninth centuries), the Tubo are often presented as crude people without law, religion, or a writing system. Although the origin of the indigenous Tibetan Bon religion is still debated, it has been suggested the founder, Shenrab, had lived in lands inhabited by Iranian tribes who were familiar with Zoroastrianism. With no doubt, early Tibetan textual and visual sources show a combination of Central Asian customs and traditions. Objects of art recently excavated in the western regions of China and Tibet and those from private collections and museums have revealed a unique style that synthesizes Chinese and Turko-Iranian motifs and patterns. By analyzing a few examples of unpublished metalwork and textiles, in this paper, I discuss the post-Sasanian–Tang style that was developed along southern Silk routes and across the Taklamakan and the Himalayas (to present-day Afghanistan), and that was peculiar to the early Tibetan imperial period, which coincides with the Islamization of Central Asia.

The Sasanian Enigma: Answers and Questions from the Last Half-Century

Prudence Harper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, United States

The Sasanian era has suffered periodically from inattention and marginalization. Seminal investigations in the 1920s and 1930s were followed, after three decades, by what seems in retrospect an explosion of scholarly attention. Archaeological discoveries, abundant artifacts and scientific analyses of them, and investigations of contemporary Middle Persian inscriptions and of other historical, religious, and economic texts have led to a better understanding of the era. More is now known of Sasanian maritime trade, of east Iranian, Sogdian culture, and of the impact of nomadic peoples west and east of Iran: Avars and Turkic peoples in Europe, Kushans, Huns, and Turks in the East. Disseminating this information are new books and periodicals in print and online, as well as important, worldwide exhibitions of public and private collections.

Uncertainties, of course, remain. Archaeological excavations are rarely comprehensive enough to permit reconstructions, in any depth, of life in Sasanian communities. Although regional diversity is apparent in Sasanian art and architecture, evidence for this phenomenon is lacking in many media. Without Sasanian wall paintings and textiles, it is hard to visualize the role of color in defining majesty and authority, an absence highlighted by recent exhibitions and publications of Qajar art. Continuing investigations of Sasanian themes and motifs in the art of contemporary neighbors and in different parts of the earliest medieval European and Islamic worlds lead to new questions concerning the tenacity of Iranian cultural traditions.

Central Asiatic Silverware in Sasanian Times: A Reinterpretation of the Freer Bowl

Anca Dan, National Center for Scientific Research, France
Frantz Grenet, Collège de France, France

The so-called “Bactrian bowls” reveal aspects of the cultural history of “Greater Iran” during the Sasanian period and have remained understudied until today. Even if they are often deprived of archaeological contexts, these pieces of silverware have been correctly located and dated by Boris Marshak as being executed in Bactria and neighbouring regions from the fourth to the fifth century onwards, after the Sasanian withdrawal but still under strong Sasanian influence. They combine Sasanian and “Hunnish” features with iconographic and literary motifs inherited or imported from the West, during the Hellenistic “colonization,” as well as through commercial contacts with the Roman Empire. By the rigorous study of their details, compared with Greek, Roman, and Iranian parallels, we can show how Greek mythical and historical characters, dressed in Indo-Iranian cloths, were addressed to the Eastern Iranian public. This is the case of Jocasta and Oedipus, illustrating the Zoroastrian xwēdōdah on a bowl found in Kustanai (now in the Hermitage), and also of Heracles and Hermes on a seventh-century bowl from the Stroganoff collection (also in the Hermitage). Using the same method, we would like to offer a new reading for the silver bowl in the Freer collection: This is not a collection of random tragic scenes but a representation of Bellerophon’s fatal destiny, which perhaps echoed that of Kay Kāwus to a culturally Iranian audience.

Situating Sasanian Art within Art and Archaeological History and within Global Context

Matthew P. Canepa, University of California, Irvine, United States

This paper explores the problem of the place of Sasanian art within the context of the broader late antique/early medieval world and offers suggestions for how to approach the field within broader art historical and archaeological inquiry. Indeed, the importance of the Sasanian period has now finally been acknowledged by scholarship beyond specialists of ancient Iran, yet its particular lines of development challenge interpretive paradigms and expectations imported from other fields, including Near Eastern, Classical, and Medieval studies. As an important test case, this paper will focus particularly on the global impact of Sasanian visual culture beyond the frontiers of the empire. The empire’s luxury objects, court costumes, and rituals of political culture were adapted by those beyond the empire’s frontiers, forming a broader Afro-Eurasian material and political culture, which was located not entirely in any one geographical area or culture. Indeed, while the Sasanians’ luxury material and courtly practices served as common currency and catalysts, much of the broader Afro-Eurasian phenomenon unfolded well beyond the empire’s direct control or involvement, as Iranian objects, images, and rituals took on new and at times unexpected meaning and uses.

A Fragrance for Every Woman, Man, and Child: The Smell of the Sasanian Empire

Touraj Daryaee, University of California, Irvine, United States

This essay seeks to demonstrate that in the Sasanian Empire there was a sophisticated sense of smell that determined gender, class, and age. This fragrant world was not only associated with the citizens of Ērānšahr (Empire of the Iranians) but also with important places such as the fire-temples and for the righteous individuals in the heavenly realm. Thus, the Sasanian Empire itself was deemed to be a garden with its flowers and walls, a sort of paradise on earth. This state of beauty and sweet smell was negated by the world of evil and chaos that produced the exact opposite on earth and beyond. The stench of hell and the evil spirit in Middle Persian texts is indicative of such beliefs in late antique Iran, which was based on the dualism of the Zoroastrian worldview. In such a world, there could be no place nor person without smell, where odor determined the state of people and the location of the deities and evil spirits.