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:


The people of the Book

Mesopotamia, known since ancient times as the Fertile Crescent, is rich in more ways than food production. For centuries it has been a place where learned people inquired into the nature of reality. It was a place of rich and fertile exchange of ideas.

But first, some background. To the west of this region was a great empire, referred to in our history books as the Byzantine Empire. But the word ‘Byzantine’ fell out of use in 330 C.E. When the Roman Empire was divided into a western and eastern half, the emperor Constantine established the capital of the empire of the east in the city of Byzantium in 324 and changed its name to Constantinople in the year 330.

Over the following centuries the western half of the Roman Empire disintegrated under repeated invasions from the north. The eastern half continued for another thousand years. The inhabitants of the empire ruled from Constantinople, which included the Balkans, modern-day Turkey, the eastern Mediterranean and parts of north Africa, referred to themselves as Romans.

Constantine also adopted Christianity as the official religion of the empire. Over the following generations scholars argued and agonised over the nature of Jesus. Was he human or divine, or both at once? Could a person so influential, so world-changing, have been a mere mortal like the rest of us? And if he was divine, what was the nature of Mary, his mother? They held councils to debate the question and came up with an official doctrine. Those who did not subscribe to the official view were declared heretics.

Many of those so-called heretics moved to Mesopotamia and joined the church of the East. The orthodox christians back in Constantinople disparagingly referred to them as Nestorians. The name stuck. That is the name used for the church of the East in my history books 1500 years later. (Nestorius was a bishop in Constantinople who had disagreed with the establishment over the term ‘Mother of God’ for Mary. His ideas were more welcome in the church of the East, but it was already in existence when he arrived.)

Byzantine, Nestorian … the third misrepresentation is ‘Zoroastrian’. This word was first used in the nineteenth century, to describe a set of beliefs prevalent in Persia since ancient times. This religion was traditionally founded by a man called Zoroaster, or Zarathustra who lived around 1000 BCE. Its heartlands were the mountains of Persia through to Khorasan in the north and east as far as India. Each region, each mountain valley had its own version of it. Further east, it contained elements of the Vedas. Shiva was incorporated into the belief systems, for example. Some adherents were vegetarians and pacifists who abhorred the unnecessary taking of life. In some regions polyandry was practised. This last appalled the incoming arabs, who described it as ‘wife-sharing’. To the west, it rubbed up against the values of the christians and jews (who themselves could not be separated into distinct categories as they are today. There were jewish christians and christian jews).

Around the same time that the christians were arguing in Constantinople, the scholars of this Persian religion living in the Fertile Crescent decided to transcribe their sacred tradition, recited from generation to generation for over a millennium or more. The book they compiled is known as the Avesta.

The Jews who were living in Mesopotamia already had a book: the Torah, the first five books of the bible. However, it would seem that they also joined in the discussions. While the Avesta was being put together, the Jewish rabbis compiled the Talmud, a set of commentaries on the Torah, often in response to issues raised by the mowbeds, the priests of the Avesta.

These were the three ‘religions of the book’. They shared many beliefs and values. For all of them, history has a beginning, and therefore also an end. The belief systems in India, further to the east, do not have this concept but rather one of endless cycles. There is a belief in one god (although the mowbeds who compiled the Avesta might say two: Ahura Mazda, the lord of light and Ahriman, the principle of evil or darkness). There was the concept of saviours, (prophets in Judaism) who brought new revelations to the human race. Zoroaster and Jesus were saviours. The three wise men who came from the east to visit the infant Jesus were magi, followers of Zoroaster. Some remembered Alexander the Great as a saviour. There were other, lesser saviours too. Later, some saw Abu Muslim, who was the focus of the overthrow of the arab Umayyad dynasty as a saviour.

This is the context in which the new religion of the Arabs arrived. It also had a prophet (Mohammed), a book (the Qur’an) and a timescale: the unbelievers had ‘an evil cradling’ awaiting them, whereas believers could look forward to dwelling in gardens underneath which rivers flow (phrases repeated many times in the Qur’an). And it most decisively had one god, recognised to be the same as  the god of the jews and the christians. By 800 CE the arabs living in the Fertile Crescent had also compiled their commentaries, collections of sayings of Mohammed not included in the Qur’an. These are known as the hadiths. The extent to which the hadiths were influenced by the ideas of the bishops, rabbis and mowbeds, exponents of the other religions of the book living in the same region, is too contentious to even start to explore.