UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


227 AD - 636 AD - Sassanid Empire in Mesopotamia

The Sassanids conquered the Mesopotamia region in A.D. 227. Little information is available on the Sassanid occupation, which lasted until A.D. 636. The north was devastated by battles fought between Romans and Sassanids. For the most part, the Sassanids appear to have neglected Mesopotamia. By the time the enfeebled Sassanid Empire fell to Muslim Arab warriors, Mesopotamia was in ruins, and Sumero-Akkadian civilization was entirely extinguished. Sassanid neglect of the canals and irrigation ditches vital for agriculture had allowed the rivers to flood, and parts of the land had become sterile. Nevertheless, Mesopotamian culture passed on many traditions to the West. The basic principles of mathematics and astronomy, the coronation of kings, and such symbols as the tree of life, the Maltese cross, and the crescent are part of Mesopotamia's legacy.

It was the dream of the Sassanids to revive this empire; and the dream was so far a national aspiration also, that a warlike king could always rouse the enthusiasm of the nation by a challenge to the Roman Emperor to "withdraw from the inheritance of the ancestors of the King of kings." It is obvious that, when such aspirations were entertained, the relations between the Empire of Rome and that of the East must have been normally hostile; and that only truces of more or less uncertainty could break a perennial state of war.

Where the two empires "marched," which was the case only in the north-west of Mesopotamia, another question was open. Here, a comparatively narrow belt of fertile territory intervenes between the mountains of modern Kurdistan and the desert of Arabia. The power that held this district, and with it the great fortress of Nisibis, was somewhat in the position of the holder of Alsace-Lorraine. It had control of a gate which might admit its armies into the territory of the enemy, or which might be effectively shut in the face of an invader. Hence both parties claimed the five small, and otherwise not very important, provinces into which this country was divided, and neither could be content to see them in the hands of the other. With all these causes for war ready to hand, it is not surprising that only unusual combinations of circumstances, like the simultaneous accession of two peace-loving monarchs, or simultaneous invasion of both empires by the barbarians who threatened the northern frontiers of either, could keep their relations friendly.

Islamic forays into Iraq began during the reign of Abu Bakr. In 634 an army of 18,000 Arab tribesmen, under the leadership of the brilliant general Khalid ibn al Walid (aptly nicknamed "The Sword of Islam"), reached the perimeter of the Euphrates delta. Although the occupying Iranian force was vastly superior in techniques and numbers, its soldiers were exhausted from their unremitting campaigns against the Byzantines. The Sassanid troops fought ineffectually, lacking sufficient reinforcement to do more. The first battle of the Arab campaign became known as the Battle of the Chains because Iranian soldiers were reputedly chained together so that they could not flee. Khalid offered the inhabitants of Iraq an ultimatum: "Accept the faith and you are safe; otherwise pay tribute. If you refuse to do either, you have only yourself to blame. A people is already upon you, loving death as you love life."

Most of the Iraqi tribes were Christian at the time of the Islamic conquest. They decided to pay the jizya, the tax required of non-Muslims living in Muslim-ruled areas, and were not further disturbed. The Iranians rallied briefly under their hero, Rustam, and attacked the Arabs at Al Hirah, west of the Euphrates. There, they were soundly defeated by the invading Arabs. The next year, in 635, the Arabs defeated the Iranians at the Battle of Buwayb. Finally, in May 636 at Al Qadisiyah, a village south of Baghdad on the Euphrates, Rustam was killed. The Iranians, who outnumbered the Arabs six to one, were decisively beaten. From Al Qadisiyah the Arabs pushed on to the Sassanid capital at Ctesiphon (Madain).

The Islamic conquest was made easier because both the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire were culturally and socially bankrupt; thus, the native populations had little to lose by cooperating with the conquering power. Because the Muslim warriors were fighting a jihad (holy war), they were regulated by religious law that strictly prohibited rape and the killing of women, children, religious leaders, or anyone who had not actually engaged in warfare. Further, the Muslim warriors had come to conquer and settle a land under Islamic law. It was not in their economic interest to destroy or pillage unnecessarily and indiscriminately.

The caliph Umar (634-44) ordered the founding of two garrisoned cities to protect the newly conquered territory: Kufah, named as the capital of Iraq, and Basra, which was also to be a port. Umar also organized the administration of the conquered Iranian lands. Acting on the advice of an Iranian, Umar continued the Sassanid office of the divan (Arabic form diwan). Essentially an institution to control income and expenditure through record keeping and the centralization of administration, the divan would be used henceforth throughout the lands of the Islamic conquest. Dihqans, minor revenue collection officials under the Sassanids, retained their function of assessing and collecting taxes. Tax collectors in Iraq had never enjoyed universal popularity, but the Arabs found them particularly noxious. Arabic replaced Persian as the official language, and it slowly filtered into common usage. Iraqis intermarried with Arabs and converted to Islam.

By 650 Muslim armies had reached the Amu Darya (Oxus River) and had conquered all the Sassanid domains, although some were more strongly held than others. Shortly thereafter, Arab expansion and conquest virtually ceased. Thereafter, the groups in power directed their energies to maintaining the status quo while those outside the major power structure devoted themselves to political and religious rebellion. The ideologies of the rebellions usually were couched in religious terms. Frequently, a difference in the interpretation of a point of doctrine was sufficient to spark armed warfare. More often, however, religious disputes were the rationalization for underlying nationalistic or cultural dissatisfactions.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:48:43 ZULU