November 2, 2023

Ifra Hormizd, a Saint of the Church Who Was the Wife and Mother of Persian Kings

King Shapur II as a child being served by servants and his mother Ifra (The Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, 16th cent.)

On November 2nd, the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Martyrs Akindynos, Aphthonios, Pegasios, Elpidophoros, Anempodistos and 7,000 others martyred with them in Persia during the reign and persecution of Shapur II, King of the Sassanid Empire. King Shapur II was the son of King Hormizd II and one of his wives Ifra Hormizd.

The son of Ifra Hormizd became the King of the Sassanid Empire in the following manner. Following the death of Hormizd II (r. 302–309), his son Adur Narseh (r. 309–309) succeeded him, but after a while he was deposed and killed by noblemen. Nobles then blinded Hormizd's second son and his third son who was named Hormizd, was imprisoned. He escaped the prison shortly afterwards and took refuge in the Roman Empire. Therefore the throne of the Sassanid Empire was considered for the unborn son of Hormizd by his wife Ifra Hormizd, who later became Shapur II (r. 309–379). Thus, the crown was said to have been placed on Ifra's belly (the only coronation in history done through a mother's womb), and she ruled over the country with nobles from 309 until the adulthood of her son, Shapur II, who was declared mature to rule himself at age sixteen in 325.

The stability of Iran during Shapur's childhood is remarkable despite the proxy rule of his mother and the nobles over the country and the absence of a king in practice. Part of this stability is because the Roman Empire was engaged in internal conflicts. However, Iran was not completely untouched during this period and was invaded by Arab tribes. Upon reaching the age of sixteen, Shapur suppressed these tribes during a war and restored security to the southern borders of the country.

We know of Ifra's name only through Jewish sources. According to a Nestorian chronicle, Ifra's father was Jewish. There have been many accounts in history about her support of the Jews and her friendly relationship and cooperation with them in the court in order to achieve their goals. She is mentioned in five Talmud stories. The Talmud represents Ifra as a queen with an interest in Judaism. She is said to have stopped her son from interfering in the affairs of the Jews and advised him to treat them with respect and gentleness. According to the Nestorian chronicle, Ifra Hormizd was converted to Christianity by Shemon Bar Sabbae and it was one of the main reasons for the execution of Shemon and the persecution of Christians during reign of Shapur II.

Persian Martyrs commemorated November 2nd

The martyrdom accounts of the Holy Martyrs Akindynos, Aphthonios, Pegasios, Elpidophoros and Anempodistos give us more interesting information about Ifra Hormizd, who is said in this account to have been secretly a Christian during her son's persecution of the Christians. There we read how when Saint Akindynos stood before King Shapur II, the king threatened him and made him choose to either abandon his Christian faith or be cast into a burning furnace which he prepared for him and his surviving companions. Akindynos replied:

"An even greater furnace is prepared for you in the fires of hell, in which you will burn eternally with your namesakes, the demons."

The king angrily asked: "Am I a demon?"

Akindynos answered: "Both your deeds and your name show that you are a demon, because you do what is characteristic of demons, and your name means: 'king of demons'; and it was good that your mother called you Shapur, because you are in communion with the demons."

The king said to his companions present: "Ask my mother to come here to me." And when his mother came, he got up from his throne, paid respect to her, then sat her next to him and said to her: "Tell me, my mother, what is my name?"

His mother, Ifra, answered: "You bear the name of your grandfather; your grandfather's name was Shapur, and your name is Shapur."

The king, pointing his finger at the holy martyrs, said: "And these lawless people say that I have a demonic name."

When Shapur said this, the account says that Ifra, his mother, laughed, because she already believed in Christ, but was hiding it from her evil son. But when he saw his mother smiling, the king was furious and rushed at her and started hitting her in the face. And she fell at the feet of the holy martyrs and crying, said: "Save me in my old age, servants of Christ, because I see that not only in name but also the very thing I have given birth to is a demon and a miserable satan."

"The king, seeing that his mother also believed in Christ, condemned her to be thrown into the fiery furnace together with the holy martyrs. Apart from that, twenty-eight of the soldiers present believed in Christ, and they were all thrown into the furnace together with Akindynos, Pegasios, Anempodistos and the blessed mother of the king; and praying in the fire, they surrendered their holy souls to God." The account further says that "worthy people saw a choir of holy angels singing around the furnace and receiving the souls of the saints, and an indescribable fragrance emanating from the bodies of the holy martyrs. And when the furnace was extinguished, and the king went to the palace, and everyone dispersed, some of the believers came to the furnace and covered the bodies of the holy martyrs, whole and unharmed by the fire, took them and buried them together, glorifying the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Only God, to whom be glory forever. Amen."

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