Who are the Persians?

To see a map of the Persian empire over time, click here.

The first mention we have of the Persians is on a tablet recording the expedition of Shalmanesser III into a country called Parsua, in the mountains of Kurdistan around 837 B.C. There, it seems that twenty-seven chieftain-kings ruled over twenty-seven states thinly populated by a people called Amadai, Madai, or Medes. They were Indo-European and had probably come from around the Caspian Sea into Western Asia about 1000 B.C. The Zend-Avesta, the sacred scriptures of the Persains, idealized the racial memory of their ancient homeland and described it as a paradise.


The Persians seem to have wandered south until they reached Persia. At Ecbatana "a meeting place of many ways", which is located in a picturesque valley made fertile by the melting snows of the highlands, Deioces (also their first recorded king) founded their first capital. It was dominated by his royal palace which covered an area of nearly a square mile.

According to a passage in Herodotus, Deioces achieved power by acquiring a reputation for justice. Unfortunately, once he got the position, he turned into a despot.

Deioces issued a decree, that "no man should be admitted to the King's presence, but everyone should consult him by means of messengers; moreover, that it should be accounted indecency for any one to laugh or spit before him. He established such ceremony about his person for this reason,...that he might appear to be a different nature to them who did not see him." So wrote Herodotus.

Under the leadership of Deioces, the Medes became a threat to the power of Assyria, so the Assyrians repeatedly invaded him. Each time, they imagined the Medes subdued, only to be surprised by their persistance in rebelling and fighting.

The greatest of the Median kings was one Cyaxares, and he finally demonstrated to the Assyrians their mistake in imagining the Medes were subdued: he invaded Assyria and destroyed its capital Ninevah and with that the Assyrian empire ended.

Inspired by his victory, Cyaxares swept though western Asia to the very gates of Sardis, only to be turned back by an eclipse of the sun. Cyaxares was on the superstitious side. However, Cyaxares' enemies were equally superstious, and taking the eclipse as a warning from the sky, they quickly signed a peace treaty and sealed it by drinking one another's blood.

Cyaxares died the next year, having, during the course of his reign, expanded his kingdom from a subject province into an empire embracing Assyria, Media, and Persia. As is the nature of empires, his creation was unstable, and within a generation of his death, it had fallen apart. So, the tenure of this Median Empire was too brief to lead to much in the way of contribution to the civilization of the world, except in that it prepared or laid the ground work for the culture of Persia.

To Persia, the Medes did give something: their Aryan language, their alphabet of thirty-six characters, their replacement of clay with parchment and the use of a pen as a writing tool; the Medes also gave the Persians the use of the column in architecture, their Zoroastrian religion of Ahura-Mazda (which had nothing at all to do with later Japanese auto manufacturers), and Ahriman. They also gave them their patriarchal family structure and polygamous marriages.

In any case, the degeneration of the Medes proceded much more quickly than their rise. Astyages, the successor of Cyaxares, proved once again that monarchy is a crapshoot (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:18-19: "I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me, and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?"). Astyages inherited the kingdom cheerfully, and settled down to enjoy it. His behavior, and that of his countrymen, was not unlike so often happens to those who gain riches to quickly and too easily. The stern and stoic philosophy of their forebears was forgotten; the upper classes became slaves of fashion and luxury; the men wore embroidered pants, the women covered themselves with cosmetics and jewlry, and even the horses were decked with gold. A formerly pastoral people, who had been glad to be borne by crude wagons, now rode in expensive chariots from party to party.

While the early kings of the Medes had prided themselves on justice, Astyages was of another mind. Being displeased with an individual by the name of Harpagus, Astyages served up the dismemebered and headless body of his own son and forced him to eat it. Harpagus ate, commenting that whatever the king did was agreeable to him.

Unsurprisingly, Harpagus harbored a bit of a grudge and was instrumental in helping Cyrus later depose Astyages. In fact, when Cyrus, who had come from the Median dependancy of Ansham, in Persia, rebelled against Astyages (c549 B.C.), the Medes welcomed Cyrus' victory and accepted him, almost without protest, as their new king.

Thus, in a single engagement, Media ceased to be the master of Persia, and Persia became the master of Media; soon, it would become the master of the entire Near Eastern world, as well.


The Cyrus Cylinder
at The British Museum

Written in Babylonian is an account of Cyrus, King of Persia (559-530 BC) of his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC and capture of the Babylonian king.

This cylinder has sometimes been described as the 'first charter of human rights', but it infact reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia, where from as early as the third millennium BC, kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms.

An alliance was formed against Cyrus by Croesus, the King of Lydia (which is in Asia minor. Croesus is significant, if for no other reason than the fact that he is credited with the invention of coinage), Nabonidus of Babylon, and Amasis, the Pharoah of Egypt (569-525 B.C.). So, in 546 Cyrus attacked the forces of Croesus and defeated him, thus gaining control of the whole of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). His next thrust was at Babylon itself, and the Cyrus Cylinder records the way he believed (or at least this is what he told the Babylonians) that Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, assisted his subsequent victory:

"Marduk...to his city Babylon he caused [Cyrus] to go, he made him take the road to Babylon, going as a friend and companion at his side...without battle and conflict he permitted him to enter Babylon. He spared his city Babylon a calamity...."

Cyrus is said to have diverted the course of the Euphrates River during his assault of Babylon. Since the river passed under the city walls and through the city, when the water was diverted, his army was able to enter the city easily by simply walking along the now dry riverbed. Thus, Babylon fell to Cyrus about 538 BC.

With the conquest of Babylon, Cyrus became the ruler of the largest empire the world had known till that time. During this reign, the influence of Persia would extend all the way to Egypt as well.

Under Cyrus, the fall of Babylon was an answer to prayer and prophecy. It would signal the beginning of their restoration to the promised land.

The first principle of Cyrus' policy was that the various people of his empire should be left free in their religious worship and beliefs. Cyrus was one of the first rulers to recognize a basic principle of statesmanship: religion is stronger than the state.

Instead of sacking cities and wrecking temples, he showed a courteous respect for the deities of the conquered and contributed to the maintance of their shrines. This is seen in the wording of his decree to the Jewish people in permitting them to return to their land. His positive statements about Yahweh and the Jews, should be taken in the context of his attitude toward other deities, rather than being taken as proof that he had become a convert to Judaism.

Cyrus died of ambition. He was killed in a battle with Massagetae, an obscure tribe that peopled the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. His son, Cambyses took the throne upon his father's untimely demise, and immediately put to death his own brother and potential rival, Smerdis. Attracted to the wealth of Egypt, he captured Memphis, and made an attempt to take Carthage but lost fifty thousand of his men without a trace, swollowed up by the desert, when he sent them to annex the Oasis of Amon[1]. A second expedition to conquer Carthage failed to materialise because the main fighting force of the Persian navy came from the Phoenicians who in the past had sent off settlers to found the city of Cathage. The Persians realised that the Phoenicians would not willingly attack a city who they believed was founded by their children.

Next, Cambyses publically scoffed at the Egyptian religion, plunged a dagger into the bull revered by the Egyptians as the god Apis, exhumed mummies, and pried into royal tombs, heedless of ancient curses. He profaned temples and ordered idols burned. He thought that by doing these things he would succeed in freeing the Egyptians of their superstitions. Unfortunately, he was stricken ill -- apparently epileptic seizures -- and the Egyptians became convinced that it was the gods themselves punishing him.

Cambyses killed his wife, who was also his sister, Roxana with a kick to the stomach. He dispatched his son Prexaspes with an arrow. Twelve Persians of noble birth he buried alive. And then he condemned Croesus, king of Lydia, to death. A little while later, he changed his mind, and rejoiced at the news that the execution had not yet been carried out. To celebrate, he punished the officers who had delayed in executing the Lydian king.

On his way back to Persia from Egypt, he learned that an usurper had taken the throne, supported by a massive revolution. Nothing more is heard of Cambyses, though the rumor is, he committed suicide. The usurper had pretended to be Cambyses, though in reality he was a religious fanatic bent on destroying Zoroastrianism, the official religion of Persia. This idea did not go over well, and so another revolution soon got rid of him. The seven aristocrats who had organized this rebellion raised one of their own to the throne. His name was Darius, he was the son of Hystaspes. It should be noted that this is not the Darius mentioned in the book of Daniel.


Persian royalties

Darius' succession to the throne was marked by uprisings in the various subject regions, as is always the case when an empire shifts hands. The governors of Egypt and Lydia refused submission, and the provinces of Susiana, Babylonia, Media, Assyria, Armenia, Sacia, and others rose in simultaneous revolt.

Darius, needless to say, suddenly had his hands full. Amazingly, he managed to prevail.

Taking Babylon after a long seize he crucified three thousand of its leading citizens as an inducement to the rest that obedience was a wise choice. In a series of swift campaigns, he pacified one rebellious region after another.

With the empire whole again, and this lesson firmly in mind, that vast empires in crisis could quickly fall to pieces, he put asside the battle gear and became one of the wisest administrators in history, seeking a way to bind the empire together so that it would not so easily fall apart in the future. What he did became a model of imperial organization. The result was a generation of peace, order and prosperity that western asia had never known before.

Still, all was not conflict free. The Scythians kept invading distant regions of his empire from the north, necessitating action on his part. So he marched his army into southern Russia, across the Bosphorus and the Danube, all the way to the Volga. He marched across Afganistan and into Indus Valley. Thus, he added millions of people and vast wealth to his empire.

Greece. Herodotus, the Greek historian, would have us believe that Darius entered upon his war with Greece -- what ended up being his greatest mistake -- because one of his wives, Atossa, teased him into it while they were in bed. It seemse more likely that he simply saw the Greek city states and their colonies as a potential danger to him, should they ever manage to unite. Thus, when Ionia revolted and received aid from Sparta and Athens, Darius went to war.

Languages of Persia. Many languages have been used in the long history of Persia. The speech of the court and nobility in the days of Darius I was Old Persian, a tongue so closely related to Sanskrit that evidently they are both dialects of some language older still.

Old Persian developed on the one hand into Zend, the language of the Zend-Avesta and on the other hand into Pahlavi -- a Hindu language from which has come the Persian language of today, Farsi (spoken in modern Iran).

When the Persians took to writing, they adopted the Babylonian cuneiform for their monumental inscriptions and the Aramaic alphabet for their other documents.

They proceeded to symplify the unwieldy syllabary of the Babylonians from six hundred plus characters down to thirty-six signs which gradually became letters instead of syllables, thus becoming a cuneiform alphabet.

We are able to read Babylonian and the earlier Sumerian today because of the Persians. Had they not used Babylonian cuneiform to write their inscriptions, together with the same inscription in Aramaic script, we would never have been able to decipher the older writings.



[1] There is a link here between Cambyses' loss of his armed forces to the desert, on their way to the Oasis of Amon and the Persian invasion of Hellas, where once they were successful in overcoming the allied forces at the Battle of Themopylae, the Persian attitude towards sacking the Oracle of Delphi.

Copyright 2011 | All Rights Reserved