Historical context

Silver trayIn time Parthians (Arsacid dynsty) gave up the quasi-federal powers to regional rulers one of whom was Sassan of Pars whose son, Babak, began a series of strategic moves to place his tribe at the forefront of the ruling clans. Their heritage was one of enhancing international trade from the east as far as China and to the west, Greece and Rome, in a liberal multi-nation empire. Ardashir, Babak’s son is recognised as the founder of the dynasty circa 224 AD. The dynasty grew from strength to strength over the next four centuries until the Islamic conquest in 632 AD. Through a history combining victories and defeats, the area under their rule grew and massive building projects to establish towns and cities, irrigation networks, defensive structures, roads and trade routes marked out Sassanid Iran as one of the most developed and prosperous countries in the world alongside the Rome and the China.

Zoroastrian religion with its strong principles and strict rules of conduct was the prevalent religion although two other prophets, Mani and Mazdak, came to prominence under the Sassanids and succeeded in attracting large numbers of followers. Neither religion had the organisation or the penetration and influence of Zoroasterianism.

Sassanid traySassanid’s love of feasting and good life was confirmed by their religious believes that their body should be taken care of and cherished. Contrary to other recognised religions, any kind of fasting and self-inflicted physical torment was forbidden. These precepts were obviously so much more exaggerated in the case of the royalty and the life at the court. Indulging the senses figured large in the lives of the Sassanid aristocracy. Music and sweet melodies to please the ears, perfumes from plants and flowers to resins and extracts for the sense of smell to enjoy and extraordinary textures and complex tastes together with refined and mature wines to gorge the palate. Stone carvings and scenes depicted on silver dishes from the time show:

While the king was hunting on the boat, there were rows of harp players, elephants, attendants and others before the king.[1]

Food, its preparation and presentation took centre stage in this respect. What comes across from texts and comments from the period is that the care and sophistication lavished on food defined the culture and civilisation of the Sassanids. The purpose of eating was not just sustenance and satisfying hunger.  In raising the livestock, plants, fruit and vegetables particular attention was paid to regional climate variations. We come across frequent references to the best produce attributed to a specific town or a region. What is clear from surviving texts is that the attention to the ingredients destined for the royal table began in the fields, well before the cooks could get their hands on them in the royal kitchens. Sassanids were the forerunners of animal welfare and believed they should be fed well and be allowed to enjoy a good life roaming free in the fields. To ensure the best results, animals were looked after and given the kind of food that had a specific and positive effect on the taste of their meat.

In spite of the tumults following the Islamic conquest of the Sassanid Emipre, some precious primary sources of information have survived. In a rare but illustrative text attributed to one of the Sassanid Kings, possibly Khosro II, the king has a conversation with his page. One of the main primary sources for information about food in Sassanid era, the article was written in Pahlavi and in it the king tests the knowledge and expertise of an aspiring young nobleman. He, the page, tells the king of his studies and achievements. The king addresses him in the text as “khosh arzu” as a reference to his aspirations,[2] which has caused some historians including Al-Tha’alibi to mistake it for the page’s name. The version commonly referred to is the one in Al-Tha’alibi’s “Histoire de Rois des Perses”[3]. Written in Arabic originally, it has since been translated into other languages including French. However, for this article I have mainly used Iraj Maleki’s translation from Pahlavi to Persian[4]. We are fortunate to have Professor Christensen’s[5] book on the era which provides us with not only a summary of the above text but also several other dishes from the time of the Sassanids. Dr Jaleh Amouzgar’s collection of articles entitled “Language, Culture and Mythology”[6] offers further insight into Pahlavi sources of the period along with a useful classification of foodstuffs. Touraj Daryaee’s[7] wealth of research into the time of the dynasty and rise and fall of the Sassanids not only gives us another angle on the same issue but also the Pahlavi names of animals and ingredients. ‘Abbas Mehrin’s book[8] on the administrative systems under the Sassanids affords us a more detailed look into the Zoroastrian world view with details of the feasts and festivals of the time. Based on these texts we can begin to form some ideas about the Sassanid cuisine and its relation with the present day Persian cuisine.

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[1] Sasanian Persia, The Rise and Fall of an Empire
Touraj Daryaee
Published by I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd in association with the Iran Heritage Foundation,2009

[2] Husruv u Kwatik Ritak
شاه خسرو و ریدک قبادی
(خسرو قبادان و ریدک)
برگردان متن پهلوی وتصحیح و مقابله
از ایرج ملکی
مجله موسیقی از انتشارات هنرهای زیبای کشور
پرتال جامع علوم انسانی

[3] Histoire Des Rois Des Perses,
Abu Mansour ‘Abd al-Malik Ibn Mohamad Ibn Isma’il Al-Tha’alibi
Text Arabe publie et Traduit par H. Zotenberg,
Paris, Imprimerie Nationale, 1900

[4] Husruv u Kwatik Ritak

[5] ایران در زمان ساسانیان، تاریخ ایران ساسانی تا حملهه عرب ووضع دولت و ملت درزمان ساسانیان
پرفسور آرتور کریستنسن، ترجمه رشید یاسمی، دنیای کتاب

[6] زبان فرهنگ و اسطوره(مجموعه مقالات)
ژاله آموزگار
تهران معین

[7] Sasanian Persia, The Rise and Fall of an Empire
Touraj Daryaee

[8] کشورداری و جمعه ایران درزمان ساسانیان
عباس مهرین