The article below on Bahrām V Gōr بهرام گور was written by O. Klíma for the Encyclopedia Iranica in December 15, 1988 and was last updated in August 24, 2011. This article is available in the print volumes of the Encyclopedia Iranica (Vol. III, Fasc. 5, pp. 514-522).
Kindly note that the article below contains pictures and captions that do not appear in the Encyclopedia Iranica version.
Bahrām V Gōr, son and successor of Yazdegerd I, reigned from 420 to 438. His mother was said to have been Šōšanduxt, a daughter of the Jewish exilarch (Markwart, Provincial Capitals, par. 74). As a youth he was brought up at the court of the Lakhmid kings of Ḥīra, Noʿmān and his son Monḏer (he had probably been banished thither upon some disagreement with his father, see Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 90 n. 2). Since the death of Šāpūr II in 379, nobles and priests had increased their prestige and power at the expense of central authority, electing, deposing and killing kings (among them Yazdegerd I) at will; and they now intended to exclude Yazdegerd’s sons from the succession (Christensen, Iran Sass., pp. 253ff.). The eldest son, Šāpūr, governor of Persarmenia, hurried to Ctesiphon to seize the throne but was murdered by the nobles, who elected a prince of Sasanian descent, Ḵosrow by name, as king (Nöldeke, op. cit., p. 91, n. 4).
Bahrām V Gōr بهرام گور on a camel firing his missiles at wild game; he is accompanied by the diminutive figure of Azadeh (Source: Hermitage Museum – Inv.S-252). Firdowsi’s (940-1020) post-Islamic epic of the Shahname Twritten in the late 10th to the early 11 centuries, narrates a story of the Sasanian king Bahram V (r. 420–38), who was challenged by his favorite female musician, Azadeh, to engage in fantastic feats of archery. This theme remained unknown in the few Sassanian works that survived the Arabo-Islamic invasions of the 7th century CE, however the discovery metalworks such as the above helped bring this aspect of the Sassanian martial tradition to light. There is another Sassanian metalwork plate (similar to the above sample at Hermitage) housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Bahrām asked and received military assistance from Monḏer, and marched on the capital. Alarmed, the nobles negotiated with him and accepted his claim after exacting from him the promise that he would right his father’s misrule. According to the Persian tradition celebrated in the Šāh-nāma (Moscow, VII, pp. 296-303) and other Sasanian-based sources, Bahrām opted for an ordeal, suggesting that the royal crown and garb be placed between two lions, and whoever could retrieve them by killing the beasts should be acknowledged as the divinely favored king; and while Ḵosrow withdrew, Bahrām underwent the ordeal and won the throne. He left the task of administration to his father’s officials, especially to Mihr Narseh, grand minister (wuzurg framadār) of the empire. He also remitted taxes and public debts at festive occasions, promoted musicians to higher rank and brought thousands of Indian minstrels (lūrīs) into Iran to amuse his subjects, and he himself indulged in pleasure-loving activities, particularly hunting (his memorable shooting of a wonderful onager, gōr, is said to have given origin to his nickname Gōr “Onager [hunter]”). These measures made Bahrām one of the most popular kings in Iranian history.
Portrayal of a Khamseh (quintet) by the Persian poetry of Nizami (1141-1209) entitled “Bahram and the Indian princess in the black pavilion (Source: Public Domain); the artwork is dated to the mid 1500s, during the reign of the Safavids (1501-1722).
Right after his accession, he proved himself in battle against the White Huns (the Hephthalites) who had invaded eastern Iran. Leaving his brother Narseh as regent, Bahrām took the road from Nisa via Marv to Kušmēhan, where he fell upon the enemy, won a resounding victory, and obtained precious booty from which he made rich offerings to the fire temple of Ādur Gušnasp. On his return, he appointed Narseh governor of Khorasan. However, on the western front, Bahrām was less successful. Many Armenian Christians had appealed or defected to the Romans, and the refusal to surrender them resulted in open hostility in 421. Mihr Narseh led the Persian forces but engagements were indecisive, and finally a treaty was signed giving freedom of religion to the Christians in Iran and Zoroastrians in the Byzantine empire, and obliging the Romans to contribute financially to the defense of the Caucasus passes against the Huns. Bahrām then deposed the Armenian king, Artašeš (Ardašīr), son of Bahrāmšāpūr (Vrāmšapuh), and replaced him with a margrave (marzbān).
A gold coin depicting Bahrām V Gōr بهرام گور; note the fire temple on the reverse of that coin (Source: Public Domain).
Bahrām V is exceedingly popular in Iranian literature and art. His coins show him as wearing a crown with three-step crenellations and a large crescent of the moon; they also introduce certain novelties such as the appearance of the crowned king’s bust within the flames of the fire altar on the reverse (R. Göbl, Sasanian Numismatics, Brunswick, 1971, p. 49, pl. 9 nos. 153-58). No monument has survived of Bahrām V. His death is said in one tradition to have occurred during a hunt; according to another version, he died a natural death (summer of 438).
The main Sasanian-based account is given by Ṭabarī, tr. Nöldeke, pp. 85-112.
See also Dīnavarī, pp. 53ff.; Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VII, pp. 266ff.; Nehāyat al-erab apud E.G. Browne, JRAS, 1900, pp. 222ff.; Masʿūdī, Morūj II, pp. 157ff., 191; Ṯaʿālebī, Ḡorar, pp. 553ff.
For chronology see Nöldeke, op. cit., pp. 419ff. Concerning Bahrām’s love for music and the role of the minstrels see M. Boyce, “The Parthian gōsān and Iranian Minstrel Tradition,” JRAS, 1957, pp. 11, 30f.
Armenian, Syriac, and Byzantine references to Bahrām are listed in Justi, Namenbuch, p. 362 no. 14, and used by Nöldeke in his notes on Ṭabarī. Bahrām’s relations with the Christians are discussed by J. Labourt, Le christianisme dans l’empire perse, Paris, 1904, pp. 117ff.