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Ancient Persia

Ancient Persia


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Persia (roughly modern-day Iran) is among the oldest inhabited regions in the world. Archaeological sites in the country have established human habitation dating back 100,000 years to the Paleolithic Age with semi-permanent settlements (most likely for hunting parties) established before 10,000 BCE.

The ancient kingdom of Elam in this area was among the most advanced of its time (its oldest settlement, the archaeological site of Chogha Bonut, dates to c. 7200 BCE) before parts of it were conquered by the Sumerians, later completely by the Assyrians, and then by the Medes. The Median Empire (678-550 BCE) was followed by one of the greatest political and social entities of the ancient world, the Persian Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE) which was conquered by Alexander the Great and later replaced by the Seleucid Empire (312-63 BCE), Parthia (247 BCE-224 CE), and the Sassanian Empire (224 - 651 CE) in succession. The Sassanian Empire was the last of the Persian governments to hold the region before the Muslim Arab conquest of the 7th century CE.

Early History

Archaeological finds, such as Neanderthal seasonal settlements and tools, trace human development in the region from the Paleolithic through the Neolithic and Chalcolithic Ages. The city of Susa (modern-day Shushan), which would later become part of Elam and then Persia, was founded in 4395 BCE, making it among the oldest in the world. Although Susa is often equated with Elam, they were different polities; Susa was founded before even the Proto-Elamite Period (c. 3200-2700 BCE) though it was contemporaneous with Elamite culture.

Aryan tribes are thought to have migrated to the region at some point prior to the 3rd millennium BCE and the country would later be referenced as Ariana and Iran – the land of the Aryans. 'Aryan' should be understood according to the ancient Iranian language of Avestan meaning “noble”, “civilized” or “free man” and designating a class of people, having nothing to do with race - or Caucasians in any way - but referring to Indo-Iranians who applied the term to themselves in the religious works known as the Avesta. The term 'Aryan' interpreted as referencing racial Caucasians was not advanced until the 19th century CE. Scholar Kaveh Farrokh cites the archaeologist J. P. Mallory in noting:

As an ethnic designation, the word [Aryan] is most properly limited to the Indo-Iranians, and most justly to the latter where it still gives its name to the country Iran. (Shadows, 17)

These Aryan tribes were made up of diverse people who would become known as Alans, Bactrians, Medes, Parthians, and Persians, among others. They brought with them a polytheistic religion closely associated with the Vedic thought of the Indo-Aryans – the people who would settle in northern India – characterized by dualism and the veneration of fire as an embodiment of the divine. This early Iranian religion held the god Ahura Mazda as the supreme being with other deities such as Mithra (sun god/god of covenants), Hvar Khsata (sun god), and Anahita (goddess of fertility, health, water, and wisdom), among others, making up the rest of the pantheon.

The Persians settled primarily across the Iranian plateau & were established by the 1st millennium BCE.

At some point between 1500-1000 BCE, the Persian visionary Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra) claimed divine revelation from Ahura Mazda, recognizing the purpose of human life as choosing sides in an eternal struggle between the supreme deity of justice and order and his adversary Angra Mainyu, god of discord and strife. Human beings were defined by whose side they chose to act on. Zoroaster's teachings formed the foundation of the religion of Zoroastrianism which would later be adopted by the Persian empires and inform their culture.

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The Persians settled primarily across the Iranian plateau and were established by the 1st millennium BCE. The Medes united under a single chief named Dayukku (known by the Greeks as Deioces, r. 727-675 BCE) and founded their state in Ecbatana. Dayukku's grandson, Cyaxares (r. 625-585 BCE), would extend Median territory into modern-day Azerbaijan. In the late 8th century BCE, under their king Achaemenes, the Persians consolidated their control of the central-western region of the Bakhityari Mountains with their capital at Anshan.

The Elamites, as noted, were already established in this area at the time and, most likely, were the indigenous people. The Persians under their king Thiepes (son of Achaemenes, r. 675-640 BCE) settled to the east of Elam in the territory known as Persis (also Parsa, modern Fars) which would give the tribe the name they are known by. They later extended their control of the region into Elamite territory, intermarried with Elamites, and absorbed the culture. Sometime prior to 640 BCE, Thiepes divided his kingdom between his sons Cyrus I (r. 625-600 BCE) and Ararnamnes. Cyrus ruled the northern kingdom from Anshan and Arianamnes ruled in the south. Under the rule of Cambyses I (r. 580-559 BCE) these two kingdoms were united under rule from Anshan.

The Medes were the dominant power in the region and the kingdom of the Persians a small vassal state. This situation would reverse after the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BCE, hastened by the campaigns of the Medes and Babylonians who led a coalition of others against the weakening Assyrian state. The Medes at first maintained control until they were overthrown by the son of Cambyses I of Persia and grandson of Astyages of Media (r. 585-550 BCE), Cyrus II (also known as Cyrus the Great, r. c. 550-530 BCE) who founded the Achaemenid Empire.

Achaemenid Empire

Cyrus II overthrew Astyages of Media c. 550 BCE and began a systematic campaign to bring other principalities under his control. He conquered the wealthy kingdom of Lydia in 546 BCE, Elam (Susiana) in 540 BCE, and Babylon in 539 BCE. By the end of his reign, Cyrus II had established an empire which stretched from the modern-day region of Syria down through Turkey and across to the borders of India. This was the Achaemenid Empire, named for Cyrus II's ancestor Achaemenes.

Cyrus II is unique among ancient conquerors for his humanitarian vision and policies as well as encouraging technological innovations. Much of the land he conquered suffered from a lack of adequate water supply and so he had his engineers revive an older means of tapping underground aquafers known as a qanat, a sloping channel dug into the earth with vertical shafts at intervals down to the channel which would bring the water up to ground level. Although Cyrus II is often credited with inventing the qanat system, it is attested to earlier by Sargon II of Assyria (r. 722-705 BCE) in the inscription describing his 714 BCE Urartu campaign. Sargon II notes qanats in use around the city of Ulhu in Western Iran which created fertile fields far from any river. Cyrus II, it seems, developed the qanat across a much greater area but it was an earlier Persian invention as was the yakhchal – great domed coolers which created and preserved ice, the first refrigerators – whose use he also encouraged.

Cyrus II's humanitarian efforts are well-known through the Cyrus Cylinder, a record of his policies and proclamation of his vision that everyone under his reign should be free to live as they wished as long as they did so in peaceful accord with others. After he conquered Babylon, he allowed the Jews – who had been taken from their homeland by King Nebuchadnezzar (r. 605-562 BCE) in the so-called Babylonian Captivity – to return to Judah and even provided them with funds to rebuild their temple. The Lydians continued to worship their goddess Cybele, and other ethnicities their own deities as well. All Cyrus II asked was that citizens of his empire live peacefully with each other, serve in his armies, and pay their taxes.

In order to maintain a stable environment, he instituted a governmental hierarchy with himself at the top surrounded by advisors who relayed his decrees to secretaries who then passed these on to regional governors (satraps) in each province (satrapy). These governors only had authority over bureaucratic-administrative matters while a military commander in the same region oversaw military/police matters. By dividing the responsibilities of government in each satrapy, Cyrus II lessened the chance of any official amassing enough money and power to attempt a coup.

The decrees of Cyrus II – and any other news – traveled along a network of roads linking major cities. The most famous of these would become the Royal Road (later established by Darius I) running from Susa to Sardis. Messengers would leave one city and find a watchtower and rest-station within two days where he would be given food, drink, a bed, and be provided with a new horse to travel on to the next. The Persian postal system was considered by Herodotus a marvel of his day and became the model for later similar systems.

Cyrus founded a new city as capital, Pasargadae, but moved between three other cities which also served as administrative hubs: Babylon, Ecbatana, and Susa. The Royal Road connected these cities as well as others so that the king was constantly informed of the affairs of state. Cyrus was fond of gardening and made use of the qanat system to create elaborate gardens known as pairi-daeza (which gives English its word, and concept of, paradise). He is said to have spent as much time as possible in his gardens daily while also managing, and expanding on, his empire.

Cyrus died in 530 BCE, possibly in battle, and was succeeded by his son Cambyses II (r. 530-522 BCE) who extended Persian rule into Egypt. Scholars continue to debate the identity of his successor as it could either be his brother Bardiya or a Median usurper named Gaumata who took control of the empire in 522 BCE. Cambyses II is said to have assassinated his brother and Gaumata to have assumed Bardiya's identity while Cambyses II was campaigning in Egypt. Either way, a distant cousin of the brothers assassinated this ruler in 522 BCE and took the regnal name of Darius I (also known as Darius the Great, r. 522-486 BCE). Darius the Great would extend the empire even further and initiate some of its most famous building projects, such as the great city of Persepolis which became one of the empire's capitals.

Darius launched an invasion of Greece which was halted at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE.

Even though Darius I continued Cyrus II's policy of tolerance and humanitarian legislation, unrest broke out during his reign. This was not uncommon as it was standard for provinces to rebel after the death of a monarch going back to the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great in Mesopotamia (r. 2334-2279 BCE). The Ionian Greek colonies of Asia Minor were among these and, since their efforts were backed by Athens, Darius launched an invasion of Greece which was halted at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE.

After Darius I's death, he was succeeded by his son Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE) who is said to have raised the largest army in history up to that point for his unsuccessful invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. Afterwards, Xerxes I occupied himself with building projects – notably adding to Persepolis – and his successors did the same. The Achaemenid Empire remained stable under later rulers until it was conquered by Alexander the Great during the reign of Darius III (336-330 BCE). Darius III was assassinated by his confidante and bodyguard Bessus who then proclaimed himself Artaxerxes V (r. 330-329 BCE) but was shortly after executed by Alexander who styled himself Darius' successor and is often referred to as the last monarch of the Achaemenid Empire.

The Seleucid & Parthian Empires

After Alexander's death in 323 BCE, his empire was divided among his generals. One of these, Seleucus I Nicator (r. 305-281 BCE), took Central Asia and Mesopotamia, expanding the territories, founding the Seleucid Empire, and Hellenizing the region. Seleucus I kept the Persian model of government and religious toleration but filled top administrative positions with Greeks. Even though Greeks and Persians intermarried, the Seleucid Empire favored Greeks and Greek became the language of the court. Seleucus I began his reign putting down rebellions in some areas and conquering others but always maintaining the Persian governmental policies which had worked so well in the past.

Even though this same practice was followed by his immediate successors, regions rose in revolt and some, like Parthia and Bactria, broke away. In 247 BCE, Arsaces I of Parthia (r. 247-217 BCE) established an independent kingdom which would become the Parthian Empire. The Seleucid king Antiochus III (the Great, r. 223-187 BCE) would retake Parthia briefly in c. 209 BCE, but Parthia was on the rise and shook off Seleucid rule afterwards.

Antiochus III, the last effective Seleucid king, reconquered and expanded the Seleucid Empire but was defeated by Rome at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BCE and the Treaty of Apamea (188 BCE) resulted in significant losses, shrinking the empire down to less than half its former size. Shortly after this, the Parthian king Phraates (r. 176-171 BCE) seized on the Seleucid defeat and expanded Parthian control into former Seleucid regions. His successor, Mithridates I (r. 171-132 BCE), would consolidate these regions and expand the Parthian Empire further.

Parthia continued to grow as the Seleucid Empire shrank. The Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 175-164 BCE) focused entirely on his own self-interests and his successors would continue this pattern. The Seleucids were finally reduced to a small buffer kingdom in Syria after their defeat by the Roman general Pompey the Great (l. 106-48 BCE) while, by that time (63 BCE), the Parthian Empire was at its height following the reign of Mithridates II (124-88 BCE) who had expanded the empire even further.

The Parthians reduced the threat of rebellion in the provinces by shrinking the size of satrapies (now called eparchies) and allowing kings of conquered regions to retain their positions with all rights and privileges. These client kings paid tribute to the empire, enriching the Parthian treasury, while maintaining peace simply because it was in their own best interests. The resultant stability allowed Parthian art and architecture – which was a seamless blend of Persian and Hellenistic cultural aspects – to flourish while prosperous trade further enriched the empire.

The Parthian army was the most effective fighting force of the age, primarily due to its cavalry and the perfection of a technique known as the Parthian shot characterized by mounted archers, feigning retreat, who would turn and shoot back at advancing adversaries. This tactic of Parthian warfare came as a complete surprise and was quite effective even after opposing forces became aware of it. The Parthians under Orodes II (r. 57-37 BCE) easily defeated the triumvir Crassus of Rome at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE, killing him, and later defeated Mark Antony in 36 BCE, delivering two severe blows to the might and morale of the Roman army.

Sassanian Empire

Even so, Rome's power was on the rise as an empire founded by Augustus (r. 27 BCE - 14 CE) and by 165 CE the Parthian Empire had been severely weakened by Roman campaigns. The last Parthian king, Artabanus IV (r. 213-224 CE) was overthrown by his vassal Ardashir I (r. 224- 240 CE), a descendant of Darius III and a member of the royal Persian house. Ardashir I was chiefly concerned with building a stable kingdom founded on the precepts of Zoroastrianism and keeping that kingdom safe from Roman warfare and influence. To this end, he made his son Shapur I (r. 240-270 CE) co-regent in 240 CE. When Ardashir I died a year later, Shapur I became king of kings and initiated a series of military campaigns to enlarge his territory and protect his borders.

Shapur I was a devout Zoroastrian but adhered to a policy of religious tolerance in keeping with the practice of the Achaemenid Empire.

Shapur I was a devout Zoroastrian, like his father, but adhered to a policy of religious tolerance in keeping with the practice of the Achaemenid Empire. Jews, Christians, and members of other religious faiths were free to practice their beliefs, build houses of worship, and participate in government. The religious visionary Mani (l. 216-274 CE), founder of Manichaeism, was a guest at Shapur I's court.

Shapur I was as able an administrator, running his new empire efficiently from the capital at Ctesiphon (earlier the seat of the Parthian Empire), and commissioned numerous building projects. He initiated the architectural innovation of the domed entrance and the minaret while reviving the use of the qanat (which the Parthians had neglected) and the yakhchal as well as wind-towers (also known as wind catchers), originally an Egyptian invention, for ventilating and cooling buildings. He may have also commissioned the impressive Taq Kasra arch, still standing, at Ctesiphon although some scholars credit this to the later monarch Kosrau I.

His Zoroastrian vision cast him and the Sassanians as the forces of light, serving the great god Ahura Mazda, against the forces of darkness and disorder epitomized by Rome. Shapur I's campaigns against Rome were almost universally successful even to the point of capturing the Roman emperor Valerian (r. 253-260 CE) and using him as a personal servant and footstool. He saw himself as a warrior king and lived up to that vision, taking full advantage of Rome's weakness during the Crisis of the Third Century (235-284 CE) to enlarge his empire.

Shapur I lay the foundation for the Sassanian Empire which his successors would build on and the greatest of these was Kosrau I (also known as Anushirvan the Just, r. 531-579 CE). Kosrau I reformed the tax laws so they were more equitable, divided the empire into four sections – each under the defense of its own general for quick response to external or internal threats, secured his borders tightly, and elevated the importance of education. The Academy of Gondishapur, founded by Kosrau I, was the leading university and medical center of its day with scholars from India, China, Greece, and elsewhere forming its faculty.

Kosrau I continued the policies of religious tolerance and inclusion as well as the ancient Persian antipathy towards slavery. Prisoners of war taken by the Roman Empire became slaves; those taken by the Sassanian Empire became paid servants. It was illegal to beat or in any way injure a servant, no matter one's social class, and so the life of a 'slave' under the Sassanian Empire was far superior to slaves' lives anywhere else.

The Sassanian Empire is considered the height of Persian rule & culture in antiquity.

The Sassanian Empire is considered the height of Persian rule and culture in antiquity as it built upon the best aspects of the Achaemenid Empire and improved them. The Sassanian Empire, like most if not all others, declined through weak rulers who made poor choices, the corruption of the clergy, and the onslaught of the plague in 627-628 CE. It was still hardly at full strength when it was conquered by the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century CE. Even so, Persian technological, architectural, and religious innovations would come to inform the culture of the conquerors and their religion. The high civilization of ancient Persia continues today with direct, unbroken ties to its past through the Iranian culture.

Although modern-day Iran corresponds to the heartland of ancient Persia, The Islamic Republic of Iran is a multi-cultural entity. To say one is Iranian is to state one's nationality while to say one is Persian is to define one's ethnicity; these are not the same things. Even so, Iran's multi-cultural heritage comes directly from the paradigm of the great Persian empires of the past, which had many different ethnicities living under the Persian banner, and that past is reflected in the diverse and welcoming character of Iranian society in the present day.


Top 7 Most Important Events in Ancient Persia

Ancient Persia, now modern-day Iran, extended from the Persian Gulf in the east to the Euphrates River in the west. The territory covered a vast swathe of land including deserts, mountains, valleys, and pastures. Ancient Persia was ruled by an absolute monarchy, and the people did not enjoy the same basic freedoms and human rights that we do today. In the Persian army, soldiers were all either Persians or Medes to ensure loyalty.

Here is a list of the top 7 most critical events that took place in ancient Persia:


A Thousand Years of the Persian Book History

Muḥammad Amīn ibn Abī al-Ḥusayn Qazvīnī. پادشاهنامه یا شاهجهان نامه (The Book of the King or The Book of Shah Jahan). India, 1825. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00)

From the tenth century to the late nineteenth century, historical writing became one of the most revered and important literary traditions in the Persian language. These works were often written in prose as well as in verse. Most of the surviving historical works produced in the Persian-speaking world are from the Islamic period (651–present).

Historians, scholars, rulers, and elites from various regions of India, the Central Asian Khanates, the various city centers of Iran and Afghanistan, and the Ottoman lands have produced a wide range of historical manuscripts and lithographic printed books in Persian. Subjects covered include travel literature, world history, current events, and traditional subjects such as the history of Islamic civilization.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, as contact with the West increased, and as Western travel diaries and travel literature became available to readers in Persian lands, a new tradition of Safarnamah (travelogue) writing spread in the region. By the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Safarnamah literature became a mainstream genre in Persian historiography.

The History of Tabari

From the tenth to the fourteenth centuries a number of Persian historians wrote in Arabic, the common academic language of the time, including the Persian historian Abu Ja‘far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari’s (839–923), author of Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk, more commonly known as Tarikh al-Tabari (History of Tabari). This pioneering work advanced the tradition of historical writing about the Islamic world and its schools of thought. In later centuries Persian historians influenced by these classic works began translating historical works from Arabic into Persian, building upon the older works. This copy, translated by the renowned tenth-century Persian historian Bal’ami, shows the original Arabic alongside the Persian translation.

Abu Ja‘far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari. ترجمۀ تاريخ طبرى از بلعمى (Bal’ami’s Persian Translation of The History Tabari). Persia, fourteenth century. Manuscript. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (026.00.00)

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The Book of Shah Jahan

One of the most important works in the Library’s Persian collections is this manuscript known as the Pādishāh‘nāmah, also referred to as the Shāhjahān‘nāmah, which contains the history of the reign of Shah Jahan (reigned 1627–1658), the Mughal ruler of India. The work addresses the life of Shah Jahan (1592–1666), during whose reign the Taj Mahal and other architectural glories were built in India. The manuscript highlights the importance and value the Indian Mughal court gave to the tradition of bookmaking, recording history, and to Persian literary and artistic traditions. The illustrations on display depict scenes from the emperor’s private and public life, shown against images of his unique architecture.

Muḥammad Amīn ibn Abī al-Ḥusayn Qazvīnī. پادشاهنامه یا شاهجهان نامه (The Book of the King or The Book of Shah Jahan). India, 1825. Page 2. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00, 025.00.01)

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The Monuments of Ancient Persia

Originally published in 1896–1897, the second edition of Fursat al-Dawlah Shīrāzī’s (1854–1920) important work on the ancient monuments of Persia was later published in the early Pahlavi period. Shīrāzī’s book gained particular renown for its numerous faithful and detailed illustrations of historical sites and rock reliefs that introduced the results of nineteenth-century archaeological research to an Iranian audience. The illustration shown depicts two rock reliefs located at Tāq-i Bustān in the vicinity of present-day Kirmānshāh. The image illustrates the investiture of pre-Islamic Sassanian Persian rulers Ardashir II (reigned 379–383) by his predecessor Shāpur II (reigned 309–379). The figure to the far left represents the sun deity Mithra standing on a lotus flower and bearing witness to the pact.

Fursat Shīrāzī. ‏ ‏آثار عجم (The Monuments of Ancient Persia). Bombay, India: Nâderi, 1933–1934. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (021.00.00)

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The Sea of Benefits

Riyāz̤ī’s book, usually known as the Collected Works of Riyāz̤ī, includes twelve treatises covering topics related to the creed of Twelver Shi`ism, the belief in twelve imams who are the spiritual and political successors of the Prophet Muhammad. The compilation, which also includes subjects such as Islamic theology, mysticism, and religious law, was intended to educate Persian speakers on the classics as well as on current history and world events. On display are portraits of rulers of Iran and Afghanistan, highlighting noteworthy kings, such as Nādir Shāh Afshār (reigned 1736–1747) and Karim-Khān Zand (reigned 1750–1779), and various nineteenth-century Qajar dynasty kings of Iran such as Nasir al-Din Shah (reigned 1848–1896) and the important Bārakzaī rulers of Afghanistan, ending with Habib-Allâh Khān (reigned 1901–1919).

Muḥammad Yūsuf Riyāz̤ī Haravī. کتاب بحر الفوائد: کليات رياضى (The Sea of Benefits). Bombay, India or Mashhad, Iran: Agha Muhammad-Ja‘far Shushtari, Mirza Muhammad “Malik al-Kuttab,” 1906. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (022.00.00)

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Travelogue of a Qajar King

Travelogues or Safarnameh writings became a very popular genre in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Library’s Persian book collection includes a range of lithographic and early movable type print books written by various regional rulers and Western travelers. On display is an example from the Qajar Iranian king Muẓaffar al-Dīn Shāh (reigned 1896–1907). Although the book was printed using moveable type, the opening and colophon are handwritten and designed in the traditional Persian manuscript and lithographic style, demonstrating both a desire to use modern printing methods and the initial discomfort with its use.

Muẓaffar al-Dīn Shāh. قاجار شاه الدین مظفر سفرنامۀ دومین (The Second Travelogue of Muẓaffar al- Dīn, King of the Qajar Dynasty). Tehran: Royal Printing Press, 1903. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (023.00.00)

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The Anguish of Nations

In the late nineteenth century, a number of books about contemporary issues in Persian-speaking lands and the world at large were produced in the lithographic book format, combining European printing technologies, modern photography, and maps, with classic Persian writing styles. The book on display is an autobiography by ‘Ālam Khān, the Amir of the Bukharan Emirate (present-day Uzbekistan). It recounts the recent history of the Turkestan region, relations with neighboring Iran and Afghanistan, and the Russian, British, and French involvement in the region now referred to by historians as the “Great Game.” It is written in the Persian Shikastah calligraphic style and includes photographs and a French map.

Amīr Sayyid ‘Ālam Khān. حزن الملل تاريخ بخارا (The Anguish of Nations, History of Bukhārā). Paris: Mazennau Brothers Press, 1921. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (024.00.00)


Persia

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Persia, historic region of southwestern Asia associated with the area that is now modern Iran. The term Persia was used for centuries and originated from a region of southern Iran formerly known as Persis, alternatively as Pārs or Parsa, modern Fārs. The use of the name was gradually extended by the ancient Greeks and other peoples to apply to the whole Iranian plateau. The people of that region have traditionally called their country Iran, “Land of the Aryans.” That name was officially adopted in 1935.

For the history of the region prior to the 7th century ad , see Iran, ancient. For the history of succeeding periods and a study of the current geography, see Iran. For a discussion of the religions of ancient Iran, see Iranian religion. For a discussion of visual arts from the prehistoric period through the Sāsānian period, see art and architecture, Iranian. For a detailed account of Mesopotamian history through the Sāsānian period, see Mesopotamia, history of.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.


History of The Ancient Persian Empire

The First Empire

In the second millennium, around 1500, the Indo-European Persians from the other side of the Caucasus occupied the western regions of Iran. Other groups penetrated Asia Minor and other branches came to India. Those who remained in the Iranian plateau were called Medes and Persians, the Medes occupied the territories to the North of the plateau and the Persians, occupied the lands to the south. The situation in the area was as follows:

  • Current Iran and West Turkey: The Medes
  • In Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine: The Neo-Babylonians
  • In North Africa: Egyptians trying to spread to Palestine and Syria
  • In Turkey: Different states of Greek influence.

The Assyrians constantly launched campaigns against neighboring villages, robbing, killing and deporting the populations or their ruling classes. This caused great human and economic deterioration throughout the area, including Assyria, which became depopulated as a result of large casualties in the continuous wars. Assyria began to weaken, its enemies united in a great coalition, defeated it and by the year 610 BC, the Assyrians had been totally subdued.

The Persian Expansion

In the eighth century BC, the Medes possessed a kingdom with an organized army, which dominated the Iranian and Persian peoples, forcing them to pay hefty taxes. This caused the unrest of the Persian population, until in 550 BC. Cyrus the great, of the Aquemenidas dynasty, led a rebellion against the Medes, being victorious and collecting on its dominions and influence in all of the tribes that inhabited the Plateau of Iran.

The Persian Empire began to form from the governing body. Ciro the Great led the Persians to expansion, conquering great regions and thereby resolving the increase in population and assisting in their dietary needs since the region of Iran did not supply its empire completely.
Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, after defeating the Medes and all the peoples of the Iranian Plateau, set out to conquer the kingdoms of Lydia and the Greek cities of Asia Minor. In 539 BC, the Persians conquered the region of Mesopotamia. Cyrus the Great ordered the return of the Jews to the region of Palestine, after releasing them from their captivity by annexing the region of Babylon, as well as all Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and Palestine.

Cyrus II the Great died in combat in the year 529 BC and was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, who conquered Egypt with a great army in 525 BC in the battle of Pelusa. Upon his return to Persia, Cambyses was killed in an internal revolt. He was succeeded by his son Darius I the Great.

The Fall of the Persian Empire

The great ambition of the Persian emperor, Darius I, was the conquest of Greece. Thus begins the so-called The Medica Wars, which would involve the Persians and the Greeks. The First Medica War would result in the defeat of the Persians in the year 490 BC. In the battle of Marathon, Greek cities led by Athens, with a better army that was more orderly and disciplined, obtained victory over the forces of the Persian Empire, this put an end to the ambitions of Darius I in continental Greece, although it expanded the territory of his empire in the islands of the Aegean Sea.

After the death of Darius I, his son Xerxes I inherited not only the throne but also his desire to subdue the Greeks. This military campaign would initiate the Second Medica War, where one of the most epic battles that took place was the battle of Thermopylae. It was named after the passage of Thermopylae, the location of the battle.

Xerxes I assembled an army and an immense navy to conquer all of Greece. The Greeks, aware of the plans of Xerxes I, managed to recruit an army of men among the Greek polis. Led by Sparta, Athenian general Themistocles proposed that the Greek allies cut off the path and the advance of the Persian army in the Passage of Thermopylae. At the same time, they blocked the advance of the Persians in the Straits of Artemis.

Enormously outnumbered, the Greeks halted the Persian advance for seven days in all, before they were overtaken from the rear. During two full days of battle, a small force commanded by king Leonidas I of Sparta blocked the only way that the immense Persian army could use to access Greece.

After the second day of battle, a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by showing the invaders a small path they could use to access the rear of the Greek lines. Knowing that his lines were to be surmounted, Leonidas dismissed most of the Greek army, remaining to protect their retreat along with 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and possibly a few hundred more soldiers, most of whom died in battle.

Despite this victory by the Persians, the Second Medica War would also end in victory for the Greeks led by the Hellenic cities of Athens and Sparta. This meant that the Persian emperors had enormous difficulties in maintaining control of their cities. Revolts, political intrigues, economic problems, etc., were determining factors that contributed to the decline of the Empire, which was to be conquered in 330 BC by the army of Alexander the Great.


Genocide Becomes a Holiday

For years afterward, The Slaughter of the Magi was an annual holiday . On the anniversary of Smerdis’s death, the Persians would hold massive feasts . They would give thanks to the gods, eat with their family, and celebrate the day an immigrant community was nearly wiped out.

This was a major holiday. Multiple ancient sources talk about it, and while it’s not entirely clear how long it lasted, it’s said that, during the reign of Darius I, the Slaughter of the Magi was “the greatest holy day that all Persians alike keep”.

But it was more than just a feast. By strict law, on the day of the holiday, every Magi was required to stay inside his home. If one was caught walking around outside, there was nothing protecting him . Every Persian who saw him was encouraged to beat him, cut him, and leave him bloody and dying in the middle of the road.

Once every year, the Persians would relive the genocide that had turned the streets red with the blood of innocent people.

Top Image: Apadana Hall, 5th century BC carving of Persian and Median soldiers in traditional costume (Medians are wearing rounded hats and boots). The Magi were a group of immigrants from Media who followed the Zoroastrian faith. Source: Arad/ CC BY SA 3.0


Artemisia, Zoroastrianism and everything in between

Halfway through the first millennium BCE, life for women was at a peak of autonomy. By this time, much of the underlying cultural impetus behind the power and influence of woman was enshrined in the predominant religion, Zoroastrianism. Persia's religious and spiritual life centered around the idea that men and women had an equal right to the trappings of life. They entered and exited life as equals.

Ancient World Magazine describes how these basic assumptions of equality enriched Persia's prodigious military exploits. For example, Artemisia I of Caria, the great warrior queen, was an acclaimed Admiral of the Persian Fleet around 480 BCE. She was a cunning and resourceful strategist — so much so that her mortal enemies, the Greeks, placed a small fortune in bounty money on her head. She advised the king through many devastatingly successful Persian encounters (and a few crushing defeats when the king chose not to listen to her advice). Artemisia was honored with the role of escorting the king's son safely out of Greece after a failed military campaign, a rare honor among the Persian military, and one that reveals how significant her brilliance in the field of battle was to the royal court.


Ancient Persia - History

Persian cuisine is ancient, varied and cosmopolitan. Eating habits and products from ancient Greece, Rome and many Asian and Mediterranean cultures have influenced and are affected by this unique cuisine.

It has borrowed spices, styles and recipes from India and has in turn influenced Indian food. There are many dishes that are shared by both Iranians and Turks to the extent that it is hard to say who has borrowed what and from where. The archives at the major ancient Persian cities contain names of many food products, ingredients, beverages, herbs, spices and wine, an important ceremonial and religious drink. Basil, mint, cumin, cloves, saffron and coriander were traded along with olive all over the ancient trade routes. The Parthian and the Sasanian records mention walnut, pistachio, pomegranate, cucumber, broad bean, pea and sesame in their trade records. The ancient physicians influenced by the Greek sciences considered food and beverages important factors to revive body. Excessive consumption of too much red meat and fats was thought to upset body's balance.

While a balanced combination of fruits, vegetables, poultry, herbs, seeds and mixed petals and blossoms of roses was regarded as a very good diet capable of strengthening body and mind.

Muslims, through the Iranians and the Byzantines, borrowed the entire Greek medicine and sciences. They adopted the ancient Greek principle that disease was caused by a fundamental imbalance in the body between certain opposed qualities, such as heat and cold (sardi/garmi), or wetness and dryness (tari/khoshki). The physicians of the period improved Hippocrates (460-377BC) ideas who had proposed that health resulted from the equal influence of four bodily "humors" that was analogous to the four elements of the Greek physics (earth, water, air and fire). Food became an important factor instrumental in maintaining the body's balance.

The ideas of cold and hot foods are still believed by many Iranians and in planning for meals such considerations will be paid attention to. From region to region, the classifications may vary. In general, animal fat, poultry, wheat, sugar, some fresh fruits and vegetables, and all dried vegetables and fruits are considered as hot. Most beef, fish, rice, dairy products, fresh vegetables and fruits are considered as cold. In planning for meals people's nature, season or illness, will be considered and cold or hot or a combination of the two foods will be produced. For instance, walnut, a hot food is usually combined in a dish that includes pomegranate, a cold food, to make the dish balanced and delicious. Or a variety of pickles are consumed when eating fatty or fried foods to neutralize the effect of too much fat. Iranians are avid consumers of dairy products and many still make their own yogurt and cheese at home.

Women have had a great influence in the history of cooking in Iran. The best chefs were and still are women. From the palaces of the Persian kings to the average housewife, women have had fabulous skills preparing exquisite cuisine. Most men do no cook but expect the best food from their wives or mothers. Iranians regard most foods at restaurants as second-class and homemade food is precious and more appreciated. Even for weddings and major parties when catering services are used, the food is expected to be the same quality as the best homemade food. Restaurants both in Iran and outside the country prepare a very small selection of Iranian cuisine. They are very limited in choice and are most popular for rice and kebabs known as chelo kebab.

Central to the Persian cooking are the numerous rice dishes, some containing almonds, pistachios, glazed carrots or orange peels, and raisins others with vegetables and spices occasionally with meat. Most often perfected and finished by the use of specially prepared saffron from Iran and cooked slowly after boiling to have a hard crust at the bottom (tah dig). Other recipes include stews, dumplings, kebabs, and stuffed vegetables accompanied by different sauces. The sweetmeats and pastries are especially delicious. Many of the dishes are vegetarian, and the mixing of sweet and savory, such as grains stewed with fruit and spices produce unique meals. The result is a feast of flavors and textures as well as a visual delight. Most cooking is done from scratch and ready-made products and previously prepared ingredients such as frozen mixed herbs currently becoming popular with the younger generations are not acceptable to many.

Iranians use a variety of breads. The breads are mostly flat and all are baked in special ovens similar to clay ovens in Indian restaurants. In Iran the bread is bought fresh every day and sometimes for each meal, but in Europe and America most buy enough for several days and will freeze and toast them for meals. They are not the same quality as the breads in Iran and are baked in modern conventional ovens and some are similar to the Greek pita bread but not identical.

Many in Iran make fresh sherbets and many different kinds of herbal drinks at home. A small variety exists in the Iranian stores in North America, but again they are not the same quality as the homemade ones. Many Iranians drink all kinds of alcoholic beverages and do not follow the Islamic ban on alcohol. However, many practicing Muslims will not consume alcohol and other edibles prohibited by the Islamic codes such as pork, blood and some kinds of fish.

Iranians are great consumers of all kinds of meat except pork for those who follow the religious codes. The meat has to be slaughtered in a certain way according to religious prescription. The people who follow such practices purchase their meat from special halal Meat shops. Halal means permitted and is normally referred to shops selling meat slaughtered according to the Islamic prescribed codes. These shops are in every major city and easy to access. All Islamic on-line sites have detailed information on prohibited foods and beverages for public access. Many Iranians outside Iran do not observe such practices and have no problems buying regular meat.

Iranian food is varied and changes from area to area and there are many great cookbooks published in every language making the cuisine available internationally. The recipes mentioned below are only a few that are used for major ceremonies and rituals. Rice is a major ingredient and is cooked very differently from Indian or oriental rice. Iranians use Indian basmati rice and to get the best results the best basmati should be purchased since there are many different kinds. The ones produced in India are better than others and the local shop owners or Iranian friends should be able to recommend the best variety in your neighborhood.

Persian Cooking
Nesta Ramazani, Ibex Publishers, Inc., 2000


Persia In the Bible

Persia is an empire located in southern Asia. It was created by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC and was destroyed by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. It became a theocratic Islamic republic in the Middle East in western Asia. The Persian Empire is the name used to refer to many historical dynasties that have ruled the country of Persia now known as Iran. Persia’s earliest known kingdom was the proto-Elamite Empire, followed by the Medes, but it is the Achaemenid Empire that emerged under Cyrus the Great that is usually the earliest to be called “Persian.” However, it is placed on the Bible Timeline as early as the 14th century BC based on it’s earliest beginnings.

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In the Early history, the Elamite kingdom was found in what is now southwestern Iran and Mesopotamia. The nomadic people known as Scythians, Medes, and Persians ranged from Central Asia to the Iranian plateau. Cyrus the great overthrew the Median King to become the ruler of Persia and Media. Cyrus captured Babylon and released the Jews from captivity. Darius, I next became the king. He reestablished and extended the empire, carrying out the administrative reorganization.

Darius invaded the Greek mainland but was defeated at the Battle of Marathon. Before 1995, successive states were collectively called the Persian Empire by Western historians. The name Persia has long been used by the West to describe the nation of Iran, its people, or its ancient empire. Persis is derived from the ancient Greek name for Iran. This in turn comes from a province in the south of Iran, called Fars in the modern Persian language and Pars in Middle Persian. Persis is the Hellenized form of Pars, which is the basis for other European nations calling the area Persia.

Persians in the Bible

King Xerxes ruled over 127 territories in his kingdom. They reached from India all the way to Cush. The story of Esther tells of Persia. (Esther 1:1) This is how Persia is introduced in the Bible. Many historical Persian people have been mentioned in the Bible such as Cyrus the Great who has been referred to as a “Messiah” in the Old Testament. Cyrus the Great freed the Jews from captivity in Babylon through his Edict of Restoration in 538 BC and helped them to go back to the Jerusalem.He helped the Jewish people to rebuild their temples.

Many Jewish people worked in the Persian court, and Jewish law was recognized in Persia. Some historians believe that one or all of the three wise men who brought gifts to Jesus at the time of his birth were Persian. They are referred to as “magi” and a magus (the singular of magi) was a Zoroastrian priest. Finally, Persians were some of the first people to convert to Christianity.

What Part of the Bible Mentions Persians?

2 Chronicles 36:22 – Cyrus, king of Persia, is tasked to formulate a declaration throughout his kingdom and to put it in writing in the accomplishment of the Lord’s proclamation pronounced by Jeremiah.

2 Chronicles 36:23. Cyrus king of Persia appointed to build a temple for the Lord at Jerusalem in Judah.

2 Chronicles 36:20. He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his sons until the kingdom of Persia came to power.

Ezra 9:9. God has shown kindness and goodness to His people in the sight of the kings of Persia: new life and new living to re-establish the house of God. And restore its ruins, and He has set a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.

Ezekiel 27:10. Men of Persia, Lydia, and Put served as soldiers in the army.

Ezra 4:3. Zerubbabel, Jeshua and other family members of Israel opposed the offer of the enemies of Judah and Benjamin to help build the temple of God. As they were determined to work on this task alone for the Lord, God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, ordered them.


The balcony of the new millennium

However, with the beginning of the 21th century, the balcony (and with it, the terrace) became a mirror of the changing society, impudently capitalist and increasingly individualist. The balcony was no longer seen as the place where to meet other residents, but as something private, inside your home but at the same time facing the street, where you can protect yourself from prying eyes and nasty noises: it became a synonym for privilege and splendor. In the global era, the balcony, often disguised as a bio-climatic space, is the protagonist of the advertising campaigns of the many real estate promotions that have invaded the cities all over the world, including Milan.

And now that we find ourselves in this sad condition, locked inside our homes, we finally realize it, because we feel and need those social relationships.
So, we are once again looking out, we’re looking at our deserted cities from above, in a desperate attempt to have human contact, to participate, we do not want to “balconear” anymore.
In order to imagine a future in which we do not want to jump off the balcony to escape from our home, and in which situations like this, or worse, do not happen again, we really need to hear some good ideas that will help us build the life after Coronavirus.
So, to quote a hashtag created by the Napoli-based video-maker group, The Jackal: #restiamoaibalconi - #stayonthebalcony

Carlotta Origoni, graphic designer, deals mainly with visual communication, publishing and printing techniques.
Matteo Origoni, architect, is professor of museography at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts and focuses on exhibit design, interior and product design.
They work, together with Franco Origoni and Anna Steiner, in the family studio: Origoni Steiner architetti associati.