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The Shapur Plate: From Sasanian Iran to the Freer Gallery of Art


The Sasanian Empire

Shortly after the death of Alexander of Macedonia in 323 BCE, who had conquered Iran in 331 BCE, the country came under the control of the Seleucids and then the Parthians. In 224 CE, Ardashir, a regional prince from the house of Sassan, overthrew the Parthians and founded the Sasanian dynasty. The Sasanians ruled Iran from 224 CE until the Arab conquests in the seventh century. 

At its height, the Sasanian Empire controlled a territory that extended from Egypt to Central Asia, and for many years it was the most forbidding rival of the Roman Empire. They consolidated Iran under one bureaucratic system and ruled the vast territory from many regional capitals, including Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad), Firuzabad, and Bishapur in southern Iran. The official religion of the Sasanians was Zoroastrianism, a belief rooted in the moral and cosmic dualism of order and chaos. Followers of Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism were allowed relative freedom.

Cities & Architecture »

Map of the Ancient World during the Sasanian Period

Over the centuries, the borders of the Sasanian Empire fluctuated, sometimes expanding as far as the Mediterranean and India. Fars, a region in southern Iran, was the center of the empire.

Sasanian kings built upon the legacy of earlier Iranian empires. This panorama shows the royal burial site of the Achaemenids (circa 550–331 BCE). Hundreds of years later, the Sasanians chiseled reliefs of their achievements into the rock cliffs below the Achaemenid tombs as a way to establish a connection to the past.

Naqsh-i Rustam Panorama
Iran, Naqsh-i Rustam
Photograph
Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FǀS Archives, 3899

While admiring the ruins of the ancient palace of Persepolis, Shapur II ordered this inscription be carved into a wall. Centuries later an early Islamic ruler carved his own inscription next to it, a testament to the importance of legacy in ancient Iran.

Persepolis, View of Sasanian inscription of Shapur II and Arabic inscription
Iran, Persepolis, Palace of Darius
Photographic glass plate negative
Ernst Herzfeld Papers, FǀS Archives, FSA A.6 04.GN.2671

Antoin Sevruguin, a renowned Armenian photographer, sits in front of a monumental relief carving of Shapur I conquering the Roman emperor Valerian. Rock reliefs often served as propaganda against the Sasanians' biggest rival, the Romans.

Self-portrait at Naqsh-i Rustam
Antoin Sevruguin (late 1830s–1933)
Iran, ca. 1900
Photographic glass plate negative
FǀS Archives, 38.6

Sasanian coins, such as this one minted during the reign of Shapur I, usually depicted the ruler on the front and a fire altar on the reverse. Maintaining sacred fires across Iran was both a religious ritual and a sign of the king's power.

Coin of Shapur I
Iran, 241–272 CE
Silver
The National Numismatic Collection, Division of Political History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution