The Crazy True Story of the Ancient Persians | 22 Words

The Persian Empire was a series of imperial dynasties that lasted from the Achaemenids in the 6th century BCE to the Qajar in 1925. At the pinnacle of its power, the Persian Empire encompassed a region from the Balkan Peninsula to the Indus River Valley in northwest India and south to Egypt.

Throughout its history power changed hands many times, being defeated by Alexander the Great in 334 BCE and again by the Arabs in 651 CE. It’s no wonder the empire was so enviable to various conquerors – highly advanced for their time, the Persians were an exceptionally diverse and tolerant people. They engineered numerous innovations, formed trade routes throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe and created a lasting artistic legacy in a breadth of mediums such as metalwork, weaving, and ceramics.

Explore the facets of the Persian Empire, from their many conquests and unique cultural heritage to their agricultural practices and family life.

The establishment of Achaemenid rule marks the beginning of the Persian Empire.

But before this event occurred, nomadic peoples migrated to a region between the Zagros mountains and the Hindu Kush. Occasionally, a tribe would subsume another under its leadership and such was the case with the Medes, who built the capital Ecbatana, situated in eastern Zagros. Southeast of Ecbatana lay a handful of tribes that paid tribute to Medes, in Persia. One such tribe was the Pasargadae, whose leaders were from the Achaemenid clan. In 559 BCE, Cyrus II was chosen as leader.

The Rise of the Achaemenids

Cyrus II (aka Cyrus the Great) grew weary of living under the thumb of Median rule and organized a series of uprisings that culminated with seizing Ecbatana. Cyrus continued his winning streak, capturing another powerful region known as Lydia, located in modern-day Turkey. He then named himself Shah, or King, of his growing empire.

No Ordinary Leader

Cyrus the Great was progressive for his time, exercising mercy and regard for a breadth of creeds. For example, after taking Lydia Cyrus chose not to execute its ruler, King Croesus. Allegedly he preferred to maintain ties with those he conquered, referring to them for valuable counsel.

Cyrus the Great then set his eyes on conquering Babylon, the capital city of a vast empire that covered modern day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

Ever the nonconformist, he chose to wage a negative political campaign against its unpopular leader, King Nabonidus, instead of usurping power through brute force.

After annexing Babylon, Cyrus the Great restored the worship of the Babylonian icons that had been repressed under Nabonidus’ rule.

via: Getty

This includes the patron god of Babylon, Marduk, who was represented as a man holding a sceptre in one hand and a bow, spear, or thunderbolt in the other. In a similarly unprecedented fashion, Cyrus the Great liberated the Jews of Babylon, who had been living in the empire as foreign exiles. His display of religious tolerance and respect garnished him much popularity among the public.

Cambyses II succeeded Cyrus the Great for the throne, but soon his power faltered and revolts broke out in the newly adjoined territories.

Eventually a general, Darius I, took the position as Shahanshah, or King of Kings. Soon, Darius I restored the empire and even extended it into the Indus Valley, a desirable location due to its advanced society and fertile land.

Next, he divided the empire into 20 satrapies, or provinces, connected by roads and led by their respective satraps, or governors.

via: Shutterstock

What differentiated Darius I from other leaders was his use of the tax that each satrapie paid, using it for public good and infrastructure instead of stockpiling it for personal use. 

Darius continued to advance his empire through several accomplishments.

They included instituting a shared currency and metric system, establishing Aramaic as the common language, creating a postal service, building the capital Persepolis, and subjugating Macedonia and Thrace under its governance.   

The metric system developed under Darius the Great included the shekel and the mina, used for weight and volume, and the talent, used to weigh large proportions of coins.

Shekel translates to “profane" and mina translates to “sacred" in Aramaic, and their weights were equated to the weight of said volume in water.

Those tribes who originally occupied Persia undoubtedly spoke different dialects so when they were united under Achaemenid rule, a standard language was necessary to ensure the empire’s strength.

Aramaic, a Semitic language under the larger Afroasiatic language family was chosen. What’s interesting about this now extinct language is that it was the one spoken by Jesus, though it appears he spoke the Galilean dialect.

The Royal Road that was rerouted and refined under Darius the Great stretched from Susa at the foot of the Zagros Mountains in Iran, to Sardis, an ancient city located in modern-day Turkey.

Relative to other major routes it was a safe road to travel and was continually surveilled by about 100 guards. Using this road one could traverse the 1,500-mile journey in just 9 days, though it normally took closer to 3 months.

Along the Royal Road lay the Chapar Khaneh, or Persian postal system outposts.

The majority of mail passed at this time would have been governmental dispatch. For urgent posts, a member of the pirradazish, meaning express runner, would relay messages between the major cities. In fact, Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian who informed much of what we know today about Ancient Persia, wrote that “whatever the conditions – it may be snowing, raining, blazing, hot, or dark – they never fail to complete their assigned journey in the fastest possible time. Looks like this phrasing may have inspired today’s postal service motto!

Darius the Great ruled with more suspicion than his predecessor, Cyrus the Great.

Darius appointed numerous spies that regularly inspected each Satrap and reported only to the Shahanshah. This guaranteed control and loyalty amongst the various factions of his empire.

Although Cyrus the Great chose Persepolis as the Persian Empire's capital, it was Darius the Great who furnished the city with the many terraces and palaces its known for.

via: Shutterstock

It was located northeast of the modern-day city Shiraz in Iran. However, its archaeological evidence suggests that Persepolis was more the symbol of the Persian Empire, as opposed to the true epicenter of economy and reign. Today, the ruins of Persepolis have been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site.

During the 6th century, Darius the Great ordered the construction of many palaces in his name but among the greatest was the Apadana Palace.

via: Getty

Located in Persepolis, the Shahanshah used it to entertain audiences and its 72 columns were inlaid with sculptures of symbolic animals. The Old Persian term “a-pad-an" translates to “unprotected", lending its meaning to the open, veranda structure that distinguished the palace from others of the time.

Ancient Persians established an artistic custom using metal, rock, pottery, weaving, calligraphy, and architecture.

via: Getty

Because the empire incorporated so many subcultures under its reign, its art reflected a diversity of traditions. In addition, the Royal Road intersected with China’s trade route, the Silk Road, and evidence of its influence in Ancient Persian art can be seen in various artifacts. For example, pottery from the Achaemenid dynasty is decorated using a Chinese technique called sgraffito, in which two glazes are applied, and a design is carved into the glaze.

Gold and metal-smithing was a tradition likely borrowed from Media, the region that Cyrus the Great originally conquered when he seeded the empire.

Ceremonial drinking cups known as rhyta in Greek and takuk in Persian were fashioned in the shape of animal heads and horns and sometimes featured a small hole at the bottom of the form. This allowed the carrier to create a drinking spout that they could plug and unplug using their thumb.

Architectural Legacy

Architectural ruins from the Persian Empire survive today, including the sites of Cyrus the Great’s mausoleum in Pasargadae as well as the city of Ephesus, an ancient settlement on the coast of Ionia and represented the edge of the empire’s reach. Ancient Persia was influenced by the cultures it subsumed, namely the Greeks and the Egyptians, and it showed in their aesthetic. Stone reliefs were juxtaposed to massive architectural complexes and although their columns were reminiscent of the Grecian style, they were more slender. The capitals, or the top of the columns, are ornamented with various motifs such as lions and bulls, symbolizing the sun and the moon. The renowned “Frieze of Archers" that adorned the palace for Darius the Great in Susa was inspired by the Babylonian frieze the “Processional Way," though the artists used different materials.

Immortalized Kings

via: Getty

Some 8 miles northwest of Persepolis lies the ancient necropolis Naqsh-e Rustam. The tombs of kings from both the Achaemenid and Sassanid periods are hewn into the side of a cliff, their entrance embellished with reliefs. Each tomb is framed by a cruciform carving and inside lay sarcophagi, of which the only certain one is of Darius the Great.

Agriculture proved to be the bedrock of Ancient Persia’s economy, and they developed several revolutionary systems to maximize the land’s output.

The qanat was an underground channel designed to irrigate water to more arid regions, allowing settlements to flourish.

The Persians also treasured their gardens as a context for relaxation and spirituality.

via: Shutterstock

Likely inspired by the Mesopotamian and Babylonian cultures, the Persians conceptualized an earthly paradise and in fact, the English word “paradise" stems from the Old Persian word "paridaida," meaning “walled around." This also explains one of the hallmark features of a traditional Persian garden, in which trees, trellises, pavilions, and walls are used to provide shade and protection from outsiders. Water is another critical aspect of a Persian garden, in which irrigation systems were employed and ditches referred to as “juy" were filled with water and planted with trees to prevent evaporation. Lastly, establishing an inner courtyard within the garden permitted individuals to take further refuge in their surroundings.

Unfortunately, few literary works survive from the Achaemenid empire, as the library at Persepolis was destroyed during its overthrow (spoiler alert).

Only royal inscriptions, such as those carved on the stone reliefs on Mount Behistun remain from this period. Interestingly, it is repeated in three different cuneiform texts and was crucial to deciphering the other cuneiforms scripts.

Ancient Persia practiced Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions retaining a faction of followers.

This monotheistic faith anchored its beliefs in the duality of good and evil, maintaining an eschatology that good will eventually avail. Many historians believe Zoroastrianism served to inform later monotheistic religions like Judaism and Christianity.

The central deity in Zoroastrianism is Ahura Mazda and under him are the twin spirits he created, Angra Mainyu representing destruction, and Spenta Mainyu symbolizing the beneficent spirit.

via: Shutterstock

The central precepts include humata, hukhta, and huvarshta, or good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Daena and asha are also principle concepts in the religion, the former representing consciousness and insight and the latter, truth, and righteousness.

Nowruz translates to “new day" and is the term used to describe the Persian New Year.

It is celebrated to this day, but its roots date back to Zoroastrianism an ancient Persia. Celebrated on the vernal equinox (near March 21st for the northern hemisphere) and it’s believed that the royal palace Apadana may have even been constructed for its celebration.

The Persian prophet Zoroaster is credited with founding this eponymous religion.

He is credited for authoring the Gathas and the Yasna Haptanghaiti which are hymns within the main liturgy of Zoroastrianism, the Avesta. All were originally composed in the language Zoroaster spoke during his lifetime, Old Avestan, which is closest in nature to Vedic Sanskrit.

A Disintegration of Power

In 499 BCE the Ionians of Greece revolted, and after Darius I quelled it he launched an assault on Athens to punish them for supporting the revolt. Unexpectedly, the Persians lost and in reaction, Darius I increased taxes to raise funds to organize a retaliation. Unsurprisingly, this was an unpopular move and when Darius I’s son, Xerxes I, took the throne in 486 BCE riots were breaking out in Babylon. Xerxes I attached the city, melting the solid gold statue of Marduk, the patron god of Babylon.

After destroying Babylon, Xerxes I used the gold from Marduk to wage battle against the Greeks in 480 BCE.

Xerxes I suffered a massive defeat, stowing himself inside his opulent palace out of humiliation. This marked the slow descent of the Persian Empire.

The great Achaemenid empire was overthrown by none other than Alexander the Great in 334 BCE.

Leading up to this victory, he fought three prominent battles against the Persians, the battle of Granicus, Issus, and Gaugamela. Ironically, he used the Royal Road that the Persians built to successfully usurp the empire. Evidence suggests that he didn’t force the Persians to assimilate to Grecian customs and that he made few changes to the current structure of the numerous satrapies.

The history of this region is deeply intertwined with the advent of human civilization, and the many innovations in technology and culture served to refine society.

Even today we could take a cue from the Achaemenid kings, who demonstrated that tolerance could be the key to consolidating power and ensuring long-term prosperity. Now, drink from your takuk in your Persian garden and celebrate all that you learned today.