Beside the River Tigris stand the remains of the royal capital of not just one but two great ruling dynasties of the ancient world. The remains of the city of Ctesiphon today lie some 20 miles from Baghdad and have seen better days.
Ctesiphon began life as a small and unimposing cluster of dwellings across the river from the city of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, capital of the Hellenistic Kings who at the height of their powers had ruled over a sprawling inheritance stretching from the shores of the Aegean to the Hindu Kush. These lands, hard-won by Alexander and bitterly contested by his successors had eventually come into the possession of Seleucus, the onetime commander of one of Alexander’s elite regiments and political survivor par excellence.
The descendants of Seleucus had ruled over their empire as the Greek speaking successors to the almighty kings of Persia that their illustrious ancestor had had a hand in overthrowing, with all the attendant pomp and bluster, until one day King Antiochus IV was humbled by a Roman Pro-Consul who took his sword and drew a line in the sand around the king and dared him to step over it. It was an eloquent illustration of the decay of the Seleucid Dynasty in the face of the inexorable rise of Rome, which had already deprived them of some of their wealthiest territories. By the time that Pompey the Great made his triumphant progress through the former Seleucid territories of the Near East, annexing a province here, setting up a petty client kingdom there, the Seleucid monarchs were no more; their line extinguished in fratricidal mayhem. It was not the Romans who had done for the Seleucids however, neither was it King Tigranes the Great of Armenia, whom Pompey had lately overthrown to take possession of a swath of formerly Seleucid territory that the Armenian ruler had made his own. Instead it was a formerly subject people of the Seleucid Kings who had struck the most decisive blow. The Parthians, a rough around the edges, formerly nomadic people who had occupied the north-eastern fringes of the Seleucid Empire and had paid little more than grudging lip service to the kings ruling in Seleucia, had risen against their nominal masters. Over the course of a century from attaining effective independence, the Parthians had grown from a nuisance to a dangerous rival to a deadly threat. In 139 BC, following a disastrous punitive expedition by the Seleucid King Demetrius II, the Parthian King Mithridates had taken Demetrius prisoner and held him captive for ten years. In 126 BC the Parthians advanced upon and took control of Seleucia. Rather than making it their own however, they left it as an entrepot of Greek merchants who lived under the protection of the new Parthian rulers and instead set up their capital across the river in Ctesiphon.
In 53 BC at the Battle of Carrhae, the formidable horse archers and cataphracts of Parthia had destroyed a Roman army under Marcus Crassus, inflicting on the Republic one of the worst defeats in its history. From this point Rome knew no deadlier rival and a grudging respect grew up between the two great empires that faced each other across the Euphrates.
The Parthian rulers however found themselves faced in the end with the same problems as their Seleucid predecessors; a vast and sprawling territory to control, fiercely independent subjects whose loyalty could never be taken for granted and a large and aggressive neighbour which would take advantage of any sign of weakness.
In 116 AD Rome’s greatest soldier-emperor Trajan did just this, advancing deep into Parthian territory and capturing Ctesiphon. Although stiffening resistance and trouble in Egypt forced Trajan to withdraw, he did so having stripped the Parthian capital of enormous wealth, much of it generated through a stranglehold on the silk trade which passed through Parthian territory.
By the time of the final, fatal revolt against Parthian rule in 226 AD, the Romans had repeated this feat twice more, each time withdrawing with vast quantities of loot. The credibility of the Parthian ruling house was in tatters. The revolt was led by Ardashir, a petty king who had laid claim to the ancient titles of Persian kingship and who now marched against the last Parthian ruler Artabanus IV, defeating him in battle and laying claim to all of his territories to usher in an era of a second great Persian Empire; that of the Sassanids. Ardashir rejected Ctesiphon with its Parthian associations and instead began redeveloping Seleucia as his seat of power; renaming it Veh Ardashir. The ever fickle Tigris had other ideas however, shifting its course to bring destruction to the new king’s efforts.
Under Ardashir’s son Shapur, Persia would prove once more to be a formidable opponent of Rome. His forces probed the Roman defenses and at times advanced deep into imperial territory, capturing strategic cities and inflicting stinging defeats on the forces of emperors Alexander Severus and Gordian III. His efforts culminated in the capture and sack of Antioch. In 260 AD Shapur would take prisoner and subsequently enslave the Roman emperor Valerian. Roman pride had never known a more terrible shame.
Shapur constructed himself a splendid new palace at Ctesiphon fit for a King of Kings. Little if anything remains of this structure. Some surviving mosaics from Shapur’s better preserved palace at Bishapur (below) however give an indication of the rich decoration that the palace would doubtless have featured.
The sole surviving monument is the Palace of Khusrow known today in Arabic as the Taq-e Kisra. Only one half of the façade along with the vault of the great iwan now stand. This vaulted mud brick chamber 37 metres high and 26 metres across was at the time of its construction the largest such structure attempted. The chamber was open at the front of the building to create a dramatic archway leading into the royal audience chamber.
The palace was constructed in the reign of Khusrow I (531-579 AD) This mighty king was a contemporary of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and fought a series of wars against Byzantium which saw the two superpowers of their day clashing directly or by proxy in conflicts from the Yemen to Georgia. At the same time Khusrow faced the threat on his north eastern frontiers of the Hepthalites or White Huns against whom he waged a war of annihilation.
Under Khusrow, Ctesiphon became an imperial capital as never before. Khusrow took a firm grip on his sprawling territories, gathering more power unto himself than any of his predecessors at the expense of the great noble families who had ruled their own lands as little kings in their own right. Khusrow’s reforms brought the armies and the tax revenues of the Persian Empire directly under royal control for the first time. In the reign of Khusrow all roads led to Ctesiphon and these too were redeveloped to improve the speed of communications within his empire. In his quieter moments Khusrow found time to enjoy playing the game of chess, recently introduced from India.
Under Persian rule, Ctesiphon had only once been subjected to the sack at the hands of the Romans back in 283 AD when the emperor Carus had led a lightning strike down the Euphrates whilst the Persian king and his elite forces were engaged in fighting a civil war far to the east. Carus died, most probably by assassination before he could advance any further into Persia and the Romans retreated. Under Julian the Apostate the Romans had advanced to the very walls of Ctesiphon before the expedition of that remarkable emperor also met with disaster in 363 AD.
A digital reimagining of Ctesiphon in its heyday
In 627 the city faced its gravest threat yet in the form of the emperor Heraclius, who, having put all the armies of the Great King Khusrow II to flight was advancing upon the city, having turned the tables in a war which had seen Persian forces overrun the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire and advance to within sight of Constantinople. In the face of impending defeat Khusrow was overthrown and flung into the terrible prison known as the House of Darkness before being done to death shortly afterwards. Peace was established and Heraclius called off his advance. Both empires were militarily exhausted after years of warfare and left vulnerable to a new and unexpected threat from out of the Arabian deserts.
In 636 the forces of the last Sassanid king Yazdegird III were annihilated at Al Qadisiyyah by the forces of the Caliph Umar and two years later the Arabs stormed across the Tigris to put Ctesiphon to the sack for the last time. The Persian king fled, as Darius had fled from Alexander, leaving his palace to be looted by the Arab conquerors, who would make the land their own. In these early days of the Arab conquests the division of the spoils was scrupulously handled with a fifth going to the Caliph and the remainder being equally shared out amongst the conquerors. According to one Arab account, the most remarkable item taken from the palace of Ctesiphon was a magnificent carpet known as the King’s Spring which depicted a stream flowing through a garden and measured one hundred feet across. Precious jewels were even sewn into the carpet. The carpet was sent to the Caliph who ordered it cut into small pieces and distributed amongst the faithful. One has to wonder how such an unwieldy object could have been transported in one piece however.
Following its conquest by the Arabs, Ctesiphon was abandoned and the new cities of Basra and Kufa grew up around military camps to become the major centres of the province of Iraq. The ruins of Ctesiphon were systematically plundered during the 9th Century for the construction of the city of Baghdad which became the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate and one of the most sophisticated cities of the Middle Ages. The Caliph Al Mansur is said to have considered pulling down Khusrow’s palace but was deterred by the scale of the task. The great iwan was allowed to stand therefore and it still stands today against the ravages of time. In 1888 the Tigris flooded and carried away half of the façade. This photograph shows the remains of the palace before the flood.
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