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Persia

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Ancient Persia

After the fall of the earliest Mesopotamian civilizations, the Persian Empire rose to become the greatest military force in the ancient world.

Warrior & King via Costumes of All Nations (1882)
The Ancient Persian Empire

Parthian Prince, from Sham-Izeh, Malamir, 50 BCE

The early history of man in Iran goes back well beyond the Neolithic period, it begins to get more interesting around 6000 BC, when people began to domesticate animals and plant wheat and barley. The number of settled communities increased, particularly in the eastern Zagros mountains, and handmade painted pottery appears. Throughout the prehistoric period, from the middle of the sixth millennium BC to about 3000 BC, painted pottery is a characteristic feature of many sites in Iran. The Persian Empire is the name used to refer to a number of historic dynasties that have ruled the country of Persia (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.” Successive states in Iran before 1935 are collectively called the Persian Empire by Western historians.

Persian Origins

A Persian warrior form the Ishtar gate

The name ‘Persia’ has long been used by the West to describe the nation of Iran, its people, or its ancient empire. It derives from the ancient Greek name for Iran, Persis. 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, based on which other European nations termed the area Persia. This province was the core of the original Persian Empire. Westerners referred to the state as Persia until March 21, 1935, when Reza Shah Pahlavi formally asked the international community to call the country by its native name. Some Persian scholars protested this decision because changing the name separated the country from its past. It also caused some Westerners to confuse Iran with Iraq; so in 1959 his son Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi announced that both Persia and Iran can be used interchangeably.

The Persian Empire dominated Mesopotamia from 612-330 BC. The Achaemenid Persians of central Iran ruled an empire which comprised Iran, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, and parts of Asia Minor and India. Their ceremonial capital was Persepolis in southern Iran founded by King Darius the Great. Persepolis was burned by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. Only the columns, stairways, and door jambs of its great palaces survived the fire. The stairways, adorned with reliefs representing the king, his court, and delegates of his empire bringing gifts, demonstrate the might of the Persian monarch.

An illustration depicting Persian modes of dress in classical times

An illustration depicting Persian modes of dress in classical times

The first record of the Persians comes from an Assyrian inscription from c. 844 BC that calls them the Parsu (Parsuash, Parsumash) and mentions them in the region of Lake Urmia alongside another group, the Madai (Medes). For the next two centuries, the Persians and Medes were at times tributary to the Assyrians. The region of Parsuash was annexed by Sargon of Assyria around 719 BC. Eventually the Medes came to rule an independent Median Empire, and the Persians were subject to them.

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The Persian Empire

A map of the Persian Empire

The Achaemenids were the first line of Persian rulers, founded by Achaemenes (Hakaimanish), chieftain of the Persians around 700 BC. Around 653 BC, the Medes came under the domination of the Scythians, and the son of Achaemenes, a certain Teispes, seems to have led the nomadic Persians to settle in southern Iran around this time — eventually establishing the first organized Persian state in the important region of Anshan as the Elamite kingdom was permanently destroyed by the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal (640 BC).

The kingdom of Anshan and its successors continued to use Elamite as an official language for quite some time after this, although the new dynasty spoke Persian, an Indo-Iranian tongue. Teispes’ descendants branched off into two lines, one line ruling in Anshan, while the other ruled the rest of Persia. Cyrus II the Great united the separate kingdoms around 559 BC.

At this time, the Persians were still tributary to the Median Empire ruled by Astyages. Cyrus rallied the Persians together, and in 550 BC defeated the forces of Astyages, who was then captured by his own nobles and turned over to the triumphant Cyrus, now Shah of the Persian kingdom. As Persia assumed control over the rest of Media and their large Middle Eastern empire, Cyrus led the united Medes and Persians to still more conquest. He took Lydia in Asia Minor, and carried his arms eastward into central Asia.

The Persian Cavalry

The Persian Cavalry

Finally in 539 BC, Cyrus marched triumphantly into the ancient city of Babylon. After this victory, he set the standard of the benevolent conqueror by issuing the Cyrus Cylinder. In this declaration, the king promised not to terrorize Babylon nor destroy its institutions and culture.

The Cyrus Cylinder is an artifact of the Persian Empire, consisting of a declaration inscribed on a clay barrel. Upon his taking of Babylon, Cyrus the Great issued the declaration, containing an account of his victories and merciful acts, as well as a documentation of his royal lineage. It was discovered in 1879 in Babylon, and today is kept in the British Museum.

The royal history given on the cylinder is as follows: The founder of the dynasty was King Achaemenes (ca. 700 BC) who was succeeded by his son Teispes of Anshan. Inscriptions indicate that when the latter died, two of his sons shared the throne as Cyrus I of Anshan and Ariaramnes of Persia. They were succeeded by their respective sons Cambyses I of Anshan and Arsames of Persia. Cambyses is considered by Herodotus and Ctesias to be of humble origin. But they also consider him as being married to Princess Mandane of Media, a daughter of Astyages, King of the Medes and Princess Aryenis of Lydia. Cyrus II was the result of this union. Cyrus was killed during a battle against the Massagetae or Sakas.

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Rise of Darius

Darius the Great, from a sculpture at Persepolis

Darius the Great, from a sculpture at Persepolis

Darius was the greatest of all the Persian kings. He extended the empires borders into India and Europe, yet he also fought two wars with the Greeks which were disastrous. The empire reached its greatest extent under Darius I. He led conquering armies into the Indus River valley and into Thrace in Europe. His invasion of Greece was halted at the Battle of Marathon. Darius I, who ascended the throne in 521 BC, pushed the Persian borders as far eastward as the Indus River, had a canal constructed from the Nile to the Red Sea, and reorganized the entire empire, earning the title ‘Darius the Great.’

Darius (Greek form Dareios) is a classical form of the Old Persian Daraya-Vohumanah, Darayavahush or Darayavaush, which was the name of three kings of the Achaemenid Dynasty of Persia: Darius I (the Great), ruled 522-486 BCE, Darius II (Ochos), ruled 423-405/4 BCE, and Darius III (Kodomannos), ruled 336-330 BCE. In addition to these, the oldest son of Xerxes I was named Darius, but he was murdered before he ever came to the throne, and Darius, the son of Artaxerxes II, was executed for treason against his own father.

According to A. T. Olmstead’s book History of the Persian Empire, Darius the Great’s father Vishtaspa (Hystaspes) and mother Hutaosa (Atossa) knew the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster) personally and were converted by him to the new religion he preached, Zoroastrianism.

The empire of Darius the Great extended from Egypt in the west to the Indus River in the east. The major satrapies or provinces of his Empire were connected to the center at Persepolis, in the Fars Province of present-day Iran. The Royal Road connected 111 stations to each other. Messengers riding swift horses informed the king within days of turmoil brewing in lands as distant as Egypt and Soghdiana.

A view of Persepolis, with a royal procession on the wall of the great stairway

A view of Persepolis, with a royal procession on the wall of the great stairway

One of the most awe-inspiring monuments of the ancient world, Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenian empire. It was built during the reign of Darius I, known as Darius the Great (522-485 BC), and developed further by successive kings. The various temples and monuments are located upon a vast platform, some 450 metres by 300 metres and 20 metres in height. At the head of the ceremonial staircase leading to the terrace is the ‘Gateway of All Nations’ built by Xerxes I and guarded by two colossal bull-like figures.

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The Persian Wars

One of the 10 thousand immortals, the royal guard of Persia

In the 5th century BC the vast Persian Empire attempted to conquer Greece. If the Persians had succeeded, they would have set up local tyrants, called ‘satraps’, to rule Greece and would have crushed the first stirrings of democracy in Europe. The survival of Greek culture and political ideals depended on the ability of the small, disunited Greek city-states to band together and defend themselves against Persia’s overwhelming strength. The struggle, known in Western history as the Persian Wars, or Greco-Persian Wars, lasted 20 years — from 499 to 479 BC.

Persia already numbered among its conquests the Greek cities of Ionia in Asia Minor, where Greek civilization first flourished. The Persian Wars began when some of these cities revolted against Darius I, Persia’s king, in 499 BC. Athens sent 20 ships to aid the Ionians. Before the Persians crushed the revolt, the Greeks burned Sardis, capital of Lydia. Angered, Darius determined to conquer Athens and extend his empire westward beyond the Aegean Sea.

In 492 BC Darius gathered together a great military force and sent 600 ships across the Hellespont. A sudden storm wrecked half his fleet when it was rounding rocky Mount Athos on the Macedonian coast. Two years later Darius dispatched a new battle fleet of 600 triremes. This time his powerful galleys crossed the Aegean Sea without mishap and arrived safely off Attica, the part of Greece that surrounds the city of Athens.

The Persians landed on the plain of Marathon, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Athens. When the Athenians learned of their arrival, they sent a swift runner, Pheidippides, to ask Sparta for aid, but the Spartans, who were conducting a religious festival, could not march until the moon was full. Meanwhile the small Athenian army encamped in the foothills on the edge of the Marathon Plain.

The Athenian general Miltiades ordered his small force to advance. He had arranged his men so as to have the greatest strength in the wings. As he expected, his center was driven back. The two wings then united behind the enemy. Thus hemmed in, the Persians’ bows and arrows were of little use. The stout Greek spears spread death and terror. The invaders rushed in panic to their ships. The Greek historian Herodotus says the Persians lost 6,400 men against only 192 on the Greek side. Thus ended the battle of Marathon (490 BC), one of the decisive battles of the world.

Darius planned another expedition, but he died before preparations were completed. This gave the Greeks a ten-year period to prepare for the next battles. Athens built up its naval supremacy in the Aegean under the guidance of Themistocles.

In 480 BC the Persians returned, led by King Xerxes, the son of Darius. To avoid another shipwreck off Mount Athos, Xerxes had a canal dug behind the promontory. Across the Hellespont he had the Phoenicians and Egyptians place two bridges of ships, held together by cables of flax and papyrus. A storm destroyed the bridges, but Xerxes ordered the workers to replace them. For seven days and nights his soldiers marched across the bridges.

On the way to Athens, Xerxes found a small force of Greek soldiers holding the narrow pass of Thermopylae, which guarded the way to central Greece. The force was led by Leonidas, king of Sparta. Xerxes sent a message ordering the Greeks to deliver their arms. “Come and take them,” replied Leonidas.

For two days the Greeks’ long spears held the pass. Then a Greek traitor told Xerxes of a roundabout path over the mountains. When Leonidas saw the enemy approaching from the rear, he dismissed his men except the 300 Spartans, who were bound, like himself, to conquer or die. Leonidas was one of the first to fall. Around their leader’s body the gallant Spartans fought first with their swords, then with their hands, until they were slain to the last man.

The Persians moved on to Attica and found it deserted. They set fire to Athens with flaming arrows. Xerxes’ fleet held the Athenian ships bottled up between the coast of Attica and the island of Salamis. His ships outnumbered the Greek ships three to one. The Persians had expected an easy victory, but one after another their ships were sunk or crippled. Crowded into the narrow strait, the heavy Persian vessels moved with difficulty. The lighter Greek ships rowed out from a circular formation and rammed their prows into the clumsy enemy vessels. Two hundred Persian ships were sunk, others were captured, and the rest fled. Xerxes and his forces hastened back to Persia.

Soon after, the rest of the Persian army was scattered at Plataea (479 BC). In the same year Xerxes’ fleet was defeated at Mycale. Although a treaty was not signed until 30 years later, the threat of Persian domination was ended. Darius was killed in a coup led by other family members. At the time, he was preparing a new expedition against the Greeks. His son and successor, Xerxes I, attempted to fulfill his plan.

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The City of Persepolis

A gold Sphinx found at Persepolis

Persepolis, an ancient city of Persia, situated some 40 m. N.E. of Shiraz, not far from where the small river Pulwar flows into the Kur (Kyrus). The site is marked by a large terrace with its east side leaning on Kuhi Rahmet (” the Mount of Grace “). The other three sides are formed by a retaining wall, varying in height with the slope of the ground from 14 to 41 ft.; on the west side a magnificent double stair, of very easy steps, leads to the top. On this terrace are the ruins of a number of colossal buildings, all constructed of dark-grey marble from the adjacent mountain. The stones were laid without mortar, and many of them are still in situ. Especially striking are the huge pillars, of which a number still stand erect. Several of the buildings were never finished. F. Stolze has shown that in some cases even the mason’s rubbish has not been removed.’ These ruins, for which the name Kizil minare or Chihil menare (” the forty columns or minarets “), can be traced back to the 13th century, are now known as Takhti Jamshid (” the throne of Jamshid “). That they represent the Persepolis captured and partly destroyed by Alexander the Great has been beyond dispute at least since the time of Pietro della Valle.2 Behind Takhti Jamshid are three sepulchres hewn out of the rock in the hillside, the facades, one of which is incomplete, being richly ornamented with reliefs. About 8 m. N.N.E., on the opposite side of the Pulwar, rises a perpendicular wall of rock, in which four similar tombs are cut, at a considerable height from the bottom of the valley. The modern Persians call this place Nakshi Rustam (” the picture of Rustam “) from the Sassanian reliefs beneath the opening, which they take to be a representation of the mythical hero Rustam.

Occupants of these seven tombs were kings might be inferred from the sculptures, and one of those at Nakshi Rustam is expressly declared in its inscription to be the tomb of Darius Hystaspis, concerning whom Ctesias relates that his grave was in the face of a rock, and could only be reached by means of an apparatus of ropes. Ctesias mentions further, with regard to a number of Persians kings, either that their remains were brought ” to the Persians,” or that they died there.’ Now we know that Cyrus was buried at Pasargadae and if there is any truth in the statement that the body of Cambyses was brought home ” to the Persians ” his burying-place must be sought somewhere beside that of his father. In order to identify the graves of Persepolis we must bear in mind that Ctesias assumes that it was the custom for a king to prepare his own tomb during his lifetime. Hence the kings buried at Nakshi Rustam are probably, besides Darius, Xerxes I., Artaxerxes I. and Darius II. Xerxes II., who reigned for a very short time, could scarcely have obtained so splendid a monument, and still less could the usurper Sogdianus (Secydianus). The two completed graves behind Takhti Jamshid would then belong to Artaxerxes II. and Artaxerxes III. The unfinished one is perhaps that of Arses, who reigned at the longest two years, or, if not his, then that of Darius III. (Codomannus), who is one of those whose bodies are said to have been brought ” to the Persians “. Another small group of ruins in the same style is found at the village of Hajjiabad, on the Pulwar, a good hour’s walk above Takhti Jamshid. These formed a single building, which was still intact goo years ago, and was used as the mosque of the then existing city of Istakhr.

A warrior form Persepolis

A warrior form Persepolis

Since Cyrus was buried in Pasargadae, which moreover is mentioned in Ctesias as his own city,’ and since, to judge from the inscriptions, the buildings of Persepolis commenced with Darius I., it was probably under this king, with whom the sceptre passed to a new branch of the royal house, that Persepolis became the capital of Persia proper. As a residence, however, for the rulers of the empire, a remote place in a difficult alpine region was far from convenient, and the real capitals were Susa, Babylon and Ecbatana. This accounts for the fact that the Greeks were not acquainted with the city until it was taken and plundered by Alexander the Great. Ctesias must certainly have known of it, and it is possible that he may have named it simply Ilepvac, after the people, as is undoubtedly done by certain writers of a somewhat later date.’ But whether the city really bore the name of the people and the country is another question. And it is extremely hazardous to assume, with Sir H. Rawlinson and J. Oppert, that the words and Pdrsd, ” in this Persia,” which occur in an inscription on the gateway built by Xerxes, signify ” in this city of Parsa,” and consequently prove that the name of the city is identical with the name of the country. The form Persepolis (with a play on 71-ports, destruction) appears first in Cleitarchus, one of the earliest, but unfortunately one of the most imaginative annalists of the exploits of Alexander.

It has been universally admitted that ” the palaces ” or “the palace ” burned down by Alexander are those now in ruins at Takhti Jamshid. From Stolze’s investigations it appears that at least one of these, the castle built by Xerxes, bears evident traces of having been destroyed by fire. The locality described by Diodorus after Cleitarchus corresponds in important particulars with Takhti Jamshid, for example, in being supported by the ‘ This statement is not made in Ctesias (or rather in the extracts of Photius) about Darius II., which is probably accidental; in the case of Sogdianus, who as a usurper was not deemed worthy of honorable burial, there is a good reason for the omission.

A lion attacking a bull from Persepolis, the meaning of this symbolic imagery is still not yet so clear

A lion attacking a bull from Persepolis, the meaning of this symbolic imagery is still not yet so clear

Diodorus says that the rock at the back of the palace containing the royal sepulchres is so steep that the bodies could be raised to their last resting-place only by mechanical appliances. This is not true of the graves behind Takhti Jamshid, to which, as F. Stolze expressly observes, one can easily ride up; on the other hand, it is strictly true of the graves at Nakshi Rustam. Stolze accordingly started the theory that the royal castle of Persepolis stood close by Nakshi Rustam, and has sunk in course of time to shapeless heaps of earth, under which the remains may be concealed. The vast ruins, however, of Takhti Jamshid, and the terrace constructed with so much labour, can hardly be anything else than the ruins of palaces; as for temples, the Persians had no such thing, at least in the time of Darius and Xerxes. Moreover, Persian tradition at a very remote period knew of only three architectural wonders in that region, which it attributed to the fabulous queen Humai (Khumai) – the grave of Cyrus at. Murgab, the building at Hajjiabad, and those on the great terrace.’ It is safest therefore to identify these last with the royal palaces destroyed by Alexander. Cleitarchus, who can scarcely have visited the place himself, with his usual recklessness of statement, confounded the tombs behind the palaces with those of Nakshi Rustam; indeed he appears to imagine that all the royal sepulchres were at the same place.

In 316 B.C. Persepolis was still the capital of Persis as a province of the great Macedonian Empire. The city must have gradually declined in the course of time; but the ruins of the Achaemenidae remained as a witness to its ancient glory. It is probable that the principal town of the country, or at least of the district, was always in this neighborhood. About A.D. 200 we find there the city Istakhr (properly Stakhr) as the seat of the local governors. There the foundations of the second great Persian Empire were laid, and Istakhr acquired special importance as the center of priestly wisdom and orthodoxy. The Sassanian kings have covered the face of the rocks in this neighborhood, and in part even the Achaemenian ruins, with their sculptures and inscriptions, and must themselves have built largely here, although never on the same scale of magnificence as their ancient predecessors. The Romans knew as little about Istakhr as the Greeks had done about Persepolis – and this in spite of the fact that for four hundred years the Sassanians maintained relations, friendly or hostile, with the empire.

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The Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela

The Church of St. George

Francisco Alvarez was the first European to describe the rock churches of Lalibela, who came to this holy city between 1521 and 1525 praising it as a “New Jerusalem”, a “New Golgotha”, the “Christian Citadel in the Mountains of Wondrous Ethiopia”. The inhabitants of the monastic township of Roha-Lalibela in Lasta, province of Wollo, dwelling in two story circular huts with dry stonewalls, ascribe their creation to one of the last kings of the Zagwe dynasty, Lalibela, who reigned about 1200 A.D.

The Zagwe dynasty had come to power in the eleventh century, one hundred years after Queen Judith, a ferocious woman warrior had led her tribes up from the Semyen mountains to destroy Axum, the capital of the ancient Ethiopian empire in the north. The charming Ethiopian folklore pictures telling the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which are sold in Addis Ababa, give a popular version of how not only the dynasty of ancient Axum (and present day Ethiopia) descended from King Solomon, but also the medieval Zagwe dynasty. The Queen of Sheba gave birth to Menelik, who became the first King of Ethiopia. But the handmaid of the Queen, too, gave birth to a son whose father was King Solomon, and her son was the ancestor of the Zagwe dynasty.

The Zagwe kings ruled until the thirteenth century, when a famous priest, Tekla Haymanot, persuaded them to abdicate in favour of a descendant of the old Axumite Solomonic dynasty. However, according to legend before the throne of Ethiopia was restored to its rightful rulers, upon command of God and with the help of angels, Lalibela’s pious zeal converted the royal residence of the Zagwe in the town of Roha in to a prayer of stone.

The Medhane Alem Church

The Medhane Alem Church

The Ethiopian Church later canonized him and changed the name of Roha to Lalibela. Roha, the centre of worldly might, became Lalibela the holy city; pilgrims to Lalibela shared the same blessings as pilgrims to Jerusalem, while the focus of political power drifted to the south, to the region of Shoa. Legends flower in Lalibela, and it is also according to legend that Lalibela grew up in Roha, where his brother was king. It is said that bees prophesied his future greatness, social advance and coming riches. The king, made jealous by these prophecies about his brother tried to poison him, but the poison merely cast Lalibela into a death like sleep for three days. During these three days an angel carried his soul to heaven to show him the churches which he was to build. Returned once more to earth he withdrew into the wilderness then took a wife upon God’s command with the name of Maskal Kebra (Exalted Cross) and flew with an angel to Jerusalem. Christ himself ordered the king to abdicate in favor of Lalibela. Anointed king under the throne name Gare Maskal (Servant of the Cross) Lalibela, living himself an even more severe monastic life than before, carried out the construction of the churches. Angels worked side by side with the stone masons, and within twenty four years the entire work was completed.

Walking through the village you will see the mountainous landscape of the region of Lasta, where the peasants labor to cultivate their patches of stony fields with the traditional hook-plow. Strolling across a gently undulating meadow, you will suddenly discover in a pit below you a mighty rock – carefully chiseled and shaped -the first rock church. None of these monuments of Christian faith presents itself to the visitor on top of a mountain as a glorious symbol of Christ’s victory, to be seen from far away by the masses of pilgrims on their road to the ‘Holy City’, they rather hide themselves in the rock, surrounded by their deep trenches, only to be discovered by the visitor when standing very close on top of the rock and looking downwards.

In Lalibela itself you will find two main groups of churches, one on each side of the river Jordan and one other church set apart from the rest. The town of Roha-Lalibela lies between the first and the second group of churches. It is situated on the higher part of a mountain-terrace on a vast plateau of rock. At Timkat (Ethiopian Epiphany. ca. January 19) a vivid ritual unfolds before the spectator: here the dances of the priests take place after the annual repetition of mass baptism in the river Jordan. There are twelve churches and chapels, including various shrines. Four churches are monolithic in the strict sense; the remainder are excavated churches in different degrees of separation from the rock. The walls of the trenches and courtyards contain cavities and chambers sometimes filled with the mummies of pious monks and pilgrims.

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