The Other

The Roman Empire is still with us, alive and well in the 21st century. It is in the army, with its regiments and barracks. It is in large business enterprises, with their hierarchies and top-down approach. It is in the national administration, in the debate and argument across the floor of parliament. It is in farming, with the concept that a human being can buy and take ownership of a parcel of land, to do with more or less as they wish. It is a place in which the premise is that the system will look after you if you have something it can use and will abide by its rules.

For the Roman Empire in the first half-millennium of our era there was one adversary that they could never defeat, with whom they were almost constantly at war. This adversary clearly ran with different values from theirs. For Rome it was hard to conceive that anyone could be as successful as themselves without being Roman. And so they characterised them as the Other.

The Other, of course, is Persia. A land of magicians (the three Magi who visited Jesus came from there), of legendary armies, a dangerous place of exotic mystery. The characterisation of Persia as the Other is still there, in our popular culture. If you ever watched Babylon 5 they are the Minbari. If you read the Narnia books by C S Lewis they are the Calormenes. It is wherever you see characterisations of a successful, clever and powerful people who don’t play by our rules. It represents a worldview that was never incorporated into the Roman way of seeing the world which, as I say, is still with us. Western culture can’t deny its power and sophistication but can’t quite understand how it has achieved it.

At the time we have reached in this backwards history, around 500CE, Persia was flourishing under the Sasanian Empire. The Empire was known as Iranshahr, the realm of the Iranians. Its ruler was the shahinshah, the king of kings. Each region had its own king, usually related to or ruling with the endorsement of the shahinshah in the capital at Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia.

Sasanian drinking vessels

The artwork was sophisticated but definitely different from what was known in the Roman world.

The cultural mores were different too. I’ll name the most contentious I have come across so far. In the Roman world there is still a major taboo: the incest taboo. Dispensation had to be obtained from the Pope for a marriage between close relatives. In Iranshahr, as earlier in ancient Egypt, incest among the nobility was actively encouraged, possibly the norm.

As a window into the Sasanian world I will use a piece of literature. The Book of Arda Viraf, also known as Arda Viraz Namag, is a story whose theme we have come across twice before. It is the story of a man who was nominated to make a guided trip through heaven, purgatory and hell, and then told the tale of what he saw. It quite clearly is the precursor of Mohammed’s Night Journey, which in turn was the inspiration for Dante’s Divine Comedy.

But the sins that sent a person to the hell that Arda Viraf visited are different from the sins that Dante described.

The story takes place in a time of uncertainty for the adherents of the good religion, the mazda-worshippers (known nowadays as Zoroastrians). They began to question whether their ceremonies and rituals were inspired by God or the demons. They decided to select one person to visit the other world to ask this question.

Seven men were chosen, all of whom had no doubt of God and the good religion. Then they drew lots three times, and the name that came up each time was Arda Viraf.  Viraf agreed to make the journey.

Viraf had seven sisters, all of whom he was married to. They strongly objected to his being sent to the land of the dead before his time. They were like seven lintels on his post. When the post was taken away the lintels would fall, they said. They were assured that Viraf would return to them in seven days.

Viraf washed and put on new clothes, then perfumed himself. He then sat on  a new, clean carpet laid out on a prepared couch, ate food and made his devotions. He was then given three cups of wine and narcotics, he said grace and fell asleep. His sisters and the priests tended the fire and sat around the carpet reciting the scriptures of the good religion, to keep watch over him while he slept. After seven days he woke up as if from a pleasant sleep. He then told the story of what he had seen.

Arda Viraf begins his journey.

He told that he met his guides, Srosh the Pious and Adar the Angel. They took him to the Chinwad Bridge, the first place the souls of the dead come to. There he met a beautiful lady. He asked who she was, and was told she was his religion and deeds. ‘I am thy actions O youth, of good thoughts, good words and good deeds, of good religion’ was her response. She explained she was more virtuous, more stout, more worthy, more exalted, more resplendent as a consequence of his actions.

Next, he was taken to purgatory. This, he was told, was the place of the souls of men whose good works and sin were equal. He was shown people who had done good works but had not performed the rituals of the good religion or contracted next-of-kin marriage.

Then he was taken to Heaven. It was bright and radiant. He saw richly-dressed women who had performed the ceremonies, who honoured the water and the fire and the earth and the cattle and sheep. He saw the souls of great and truthful speakers, of warriors, of kings, farmers and artisans, all of whom had made the observances and done their duty. To Viraf  it all seemed sublime.

The next stop was a river, a gloomy place. Some people crossed easily, others with difficulty and some not at all. It was explained that this was the river of tears. Those who had wept and lamented for the dead were not able to cross it.

It was explained to him that just as he had met a beautiful woman on the Chinwad bridge, a wicked person would meet a filthy, stinking, skinny naked woman, the embodiment of his bad words, thoughts and deeds.

Next stop was hell. Here he saw souls undergoing various torments. A woman had to eat the impurity and filth of men as punishment for going near fire and water while she was menstruating. A man measuring out dust and ashes and then eating them had watered the wine and mixed dust into grain and otherwise given false measure. A man suspended in the air and flogged by fifty demons had been a bad ruler. A man whose limbs kept breaking apart had unlawfully slaughtered farm animals. And so it goes on: people who lied, polluted fire or water, kept back money that wasn’t theirs to keep, did not acknowledge their children, killed pious people or their own children, or committed adultery.

After this awfulness Viraf was taken back to the presence of Ohramazd, Ahura mazda. He heard the words, “A perfect servant art thou, pious Arda Viraf, the messenger of the Mazdayasnians; go to the material world, and as thou hast seen and understood, speak truly to the worlds; for I, who am Ohramazd, am with thee.” He was amazed that he could hear Ohramazd speaking but saw only light. Ohramazd told him to tell the people to remain in piety, not to turn from it in prosperity, adversity or any other way. To practise good words, good thoughts and good deeds, to stay in the religion as it had been received by Zoroaster.

He made a deep bow to Ohramazd, and Srosh the Pious brought him back to the carpet.

(The story can be found here:


An accidental empire. 680-740, generations 435-437.

During Mohammed’s lifetime the Arabian peninsula was united into a single polity. After he died in 632 the expansion of arab-controlled land accelerated. The rate of expansion was astounding and unprecedented. The latest dynasty of the Persian empire, the Sasanian dynasty, had the misfortune that its capital, Ctesiphon, was not easily defensible against the arab armies. After losing a battle against the invaders in 636, the Sasanian royal family abandoned Ctesiphon. Once the capital was gone, the rest of the empire could be picked off bit by bit. The arabs repeatedly attempted to take Constantinople too, but failed. Emperor Constantine had chosen a defensible location three centuries previously, on a promontory encircled by the Bosphorus. So the Roman empire, although dramatically reduced in size, was not wiped from the map in the way that the Sasanian one was, and its rump continued to be administered from Constantinople.

Within fifty years of Mohammed’s death the Umayyad dynasty was established in Damascus. From this base it controlled the whole of the ex-Persian empire as far as China, a large part of the Roman empire (Anatolia, the eastern Mediterranean, north Africa) and, by the year 720, most of the Iberian peninsula. The map of the world had changed, irrevocably.

The Umayyads appointed arab governors to each region, who collected taxes and sent them back to Damascus. There was a vigorous slave trade. It was said that after the defeat of the Visigoths in southern Spain, 30,000 blond Visigothic slaves were on sale in the slave markets of Damascus. This was beginning to look more like an empire than a religious arising. The arab elite grew rich.

Tensions began to show. The arab rulers came from the desert of Arabia. Hitherto, their main contact with the empires administered from Constantinople and Ctesiphon had been as traders and raiders: people on the move, not city-dwellers. There were not many of them: they were a tiny minority in their vast unexpected empire. They did not have the infrastructure or the traditions to manage it. How to administer these lands and retain their distinctive identity?

One way was not to move into the pre-existing cities. In Mesopotamia the arabs set up encampments, which became garrison towns in Kufa and Basra. In Egypt they set up a semi-permanent camp on the banks of the Nile at Fustat, which is now a suburb of Cairo. They left the Roman and Sasanian administrative structures in place and almost untouched. For those living in the villages of the new empire, the regime change must have been hardly noticeable. The fact that the annually-collected taxes now went to Damascus instead of Constantinople or Ctesiphon probably didn’t impinge. Otherwise, life continued unchanged.

However, there was unrest. There were repeated uprisings all over the new empire. The arabs came with a powerful new religion and a book which proclaimed a bright future for the Believers. The book seemed to say that bloodlines and tribal loyalties were secondary to what a person chose to believe. For an open-minded, thinking person this appeared to offer a way out of their current situation . It was possible to be a part of this powerful wave that had swept over the world, simply by declaring one’s adherence to the new religion. But it didn’t work out like that in practice. When several hundred escaped slaves moved to Basra and Kufa and declared themselves to be muslims, the governor had them arrested, branded and sent back to their masters. Evidently, in this new world some were more equal than others.

The pervasiveness of slavery may have been an escape-valve. The slave trade was a fact of life, seen as a necessary evil. Attempts had been made since ancient times to regulate it, but never to outlaw it. This posed new dilemmas for the arab rulers. What was the legal status of the offspring of an arab father and his non-arab slave? Could they become a muslim? Over the years a complicated hierarchy emerged. A person with two arab parents was at the top of the tree, followed by one with one arab parent, and so on. There was movement between the categories. For example, the general who led the conquest of Spain in 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad, was probably an ex-slave. Gibraltar (Jebel Tariq) is named after him.

Another area addressed by the Umayyads was the coinage. In the early years of Umayyad rule the empire continued using the Sasanian and Roman currencies. This meant that, long after the arabs had taken control, images of the Roman Emperor were still on each coin in the purses of the traders of Alexandria and Damascus. In the 680’s the Umayyad emperor had his own coins made, with his image, modelled on the Roman solidus minted in Constantinople.


Here is a coin from 693, showing an image of the caliph Abd-al Malik. Courtesy Muslim Heritage

Whereas the Roman Emperor’s solidus had his image on one side and the christian cross on the obverse, Abd-al Malik’s dinar had an image of himself holding a sword on one side and the symbol shown here on the back of the coin. Evidently the muslim prohibition of depicting the human form had not yet kicked in. His image was encircled by the testimony of Islam written in Arabic: “In the name of God, there is no deity but God; He is One; Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Interestingly, Abd-al Malik had grown up in Medina, the final home of the Prophet and base for an uprising against Umayyad rule on the grounds that it was not following the way of the Believers. By placing the Testimony of Islam on his coins, maybe Abd-al Malik was nailing his colours to the mast.

In Abd-al Malik’s next minting, in 697, there were no images.


These coins were made compulsory throughout the empire. Persian and Roman coins were melted down and restamped, on pain of death. The language of the administration was declared to be arabic rather than greek or persian as it had been. The conquered territories began the process of cohering into a single entity, the dar al-islam, the abode of islam.