Introduction to Ancient Persia

Persia, the name by which Iran was known until 1935. This article deals with the people, culture, and history of Persia up to that time. For geography, agriculture, industry and commerce, government, and recent history,

Persia is one of the oldest countries in the world. Where other historic nations built great empires and enjoyed a single period of grandeur before their decline, Persia rose to imperial conquest and greatness again and again. Its first empire was established in the 6th century B.C.; its last, in the 16th century A.D. Repeatedly its borders were extended to the northwest and west of present Iran to include Azerbaijan, Armenia, and most of Iraq; and to the northeast and east to include Turkmenistan, part of Uzbekistan, and most of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The ancient Persians, an artistic people, borrowed architectural forms and art motifs from Assyria. Egypt, and Greece and blended them into an exquisite style of their own. So strong was its influence on later conquerors of Persia that both Arabic art and Turkish art developed directly from the Persian. With the Mongols came Chinese art elements that further enriched Persian decorative themes. Persian miniature painting on ivory and tile is especially admired.

The First Persian Empire

Persia was settled by a people called Iranians who spoke an eastern Indo-European language. They originated somewhere to the northwest and about 1000 B.C. occupied the area between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Their territory extended westward to the region of the older Mesopotamian civilizations. Among the major states established were Persis, along the northern shore of the Persian Gulf; Anshan, at the head of the gulf; and Media to the north, at the end of the Caspian Sea. Persis and Anshan were inhabited by Iranians called Persians; Media, by Iranians called Medes.

Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes

Western Asia was dominated in the ninth to seventh centuries B.C. by the Assyrians. In 612 B.C., the Medes, allied with the Chaldeans (Babylonians), overthrew the Assyrians and destroyed their capital city of Nineveh. Media became the ruling Iranian state, with dominion over Persis and Anshan. In 550 B.C., Cyrus, king of Anshan and Persis, united all the Persians under his leadership and overthrew the Medes. He made himself Shahanshah ("King of Kings") of all the Iranians.

Cyrus (called “the Great") defeated the king of Lydia and gained control of all Asia Minor, including the Greek city-states of Ionia. He conquered the Chaldeans and occupied their capital, Babylon, in 539 B.C. Soon his empire extended to the border of Egypt, with its capital at Susa (the Biblical Shushan). Egypt was conquered under Cyrus' son Cambyses (529–521 B.C.)

Darius I (ruled 521–486 B.C.) extended the empire eastward to beyond the Indus River, and built the new royal city of Persepolis. He built an extensive system of roads and speeded communications by using relays of mounted couriers. In establishing firmer control over his immense domain, he aroused the Ionian cities to revolt and soon found himself at war with Greece. Darius was defeated at Marathon, Greece, in 490 B.C. His son Xerxes (ruled 486–465 B.C.) renewed the campaign and defeated the Greeks at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., but the Greek navy routed the Persian fleet at Salamis, and the following year the Greeks drove the last of Xerxes' army out of Greece.

Decline of the Empire

Persia made no further efforts to expand its boundaries. However, the administrative policies set up by Darius were effective in holding the empire together for more than 150 years. Persian assistance to the Greek city-state of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War helped destroy the Athenian empire. When Cyrus the Younger attempted to seize the Persian throne from his brother Artaxerxes II in 401 B.C., the king crushed the revolt.

Meanwhile, Persian strength was diminishing. In the fourth century B.C. the Phoenician cities began to break away. The Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great in 333 B.C.

The distinctive feature of the first Persian empire was the just and reasonable manner in which subject territories were ruled. Native laws, customs, and religions were permitted; native leaders often held high official positions. The empire was divided into provinces called satrapies under satraps (governors) responsible to the king.

Persia Under Hellenistic Rule

In 331–330 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered the major Persian cities and burned the royal palace at Persepolis. In the next six years he subdued the entire empire. Following Alexander's death at Babylon in 323 B.C., Seleucus, one of his generals, created a kingdom that included all Alexander's empire west of the Mediterranean Sea. With the further conquest of Asia Minor, Syria became the seat of government of the Seleucid kingdom.

In the mid-third century B.C. the Persian satrapies began to throw off Seleucid domination. Persia retained many Greek cultural influences in art, literature, religion, and science. The Hellenistic world, in turn, was influenced by Persian religion.

The Parthian and Sassanid Eras

The second Persian empire began to be formed in 248 B.C. and lasted until the coming of the Muslims in 641 A.D. For almost 500 years it was ruled by the Parthians, a Scythian people who had settled in what is now Khurasan. The Parthians freed themselves of Seleucid rule and expanded their control to all the old Persian empire as far west as the Euphrates River. Beginning in the first century B.C. there were frequent clashes between the Persian and Roman empires. In 115–16 A.D. Roman armies advanced to the Tigris, but they were soon withdrawn.

The Sassanid Empire

In 226 A.D. the Parthian line was overthrown by Ardashir, the ruler of Persis province, who founded the Sassanid dynasty. The Sassanids were energetic and aggressive. They invaded Syria, and captured the Roman emperor Valerian (260). In 363 the Roman emperor Julian was killed fighting the Persians.

Later aggressions brought the Persians into conflict with the Byzantine Empire. The most illustrious of the Sassanids, Khosrau I (reigned 531–79), forced a humiliating treaty on the emperor Justinian, and then broke it by invading Syria and capturing Antioch. His grandson Khosrau II (590–628) took Damascus and Jerusalem, subjected Egypt, and marched through Asia Minor to Chalcedon across the straits from Constantinople (611–17). The Byzantines soon regained the territory. The constant warfare left both empires unable to meet the Muslim onslaught that began in the 630's.

Throughout the Parthian and Sassanid period there were frequent contacts with Western culture. Christianity was introduced into Persia at an early date and was alternately tolerated and persecuted. In the third century A.D. Manichaeism, a religion combining elements of Christianity and Zoroastrianism, gained a large number of adherents. Later the East Syrian, or Nestorian, branch of the Christian church won a following in Persia.

The official language of the period was Pahlavi, Old Persian written in Aramaic characters. Under the Sassanids the Hellenistic literary influence vanished and Pahlavi literature reached a high point of development. Philosophy and medicine also flourished.

Persia In the Muslim Empire

In western Arabia the Prophet Mohammed founded a new religion, Islam, in the early seventh century. Upon his death in 632, his followers, the Muslims, started north on the path of conquest. Persia was quickly overrun, as were Syria and Egypt. The Muslims did not devastate the countries they occupied, however. Northern Arabians settled in Persia and Mesopotamia and made the area the center of Islam. A new city, Baghdad, was built on the Tigris River to be the residence of the caliph (Muslim ruler). The Abbasids, a dynasty of caliphs established in 750, remained in power until the Mongol invasion of the 13th century.

Although other religions were tolerated at first, all Persia was converted to Islam within a few hundred years. Arabic became the official language, and “Arab" came to mean an Arabic-speaking Muslim of any nationality. The Arabians, with a primitive cultural background of their own, adopted Persian culture. Baghdad became the center of a great intellectual awakening in which mathematics, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, history, and geography, as well as art and literature, thrived. The art and writings of Persia spread across the Muslim world to Spain and were there introduced into European culture. Baghdad was the center also of trade between the Near East and India and China.

The Samanids and Buyids

Gradually the Persians took over political rule of the Abbasid caliphate, although the caliph in Baghdad remained spiritual leader. In the ninth century a dynasty of Persian provincial governors, the Samanids, gained control of the entire eastern section of the caliphate. The Samanid capital, Bukhara, rivaled Baghdad in culture, and Persian poetry here reached its highest development. In the 10th century a second Persian dynasty, the Buyids, assumed power in Baghdad.

The Seljuk Turks

The Seljuk Turks, a nomadic people from central Asia, had been moving southward during most of the Islamic era. Many had settled north of the Oxus River, where they fell under Muslim rule and became converted to Islam. The royal courts of both Bukhara and Baghdad were staffed with Turkish slaves, who in time became the royal guard and then the high command of the army.

In the 11th century actual control of the country fell, section by section, to the Seljuk Turks. Baghdad was occupied by the Seljuks in 1055, but the caliph was retained as religious head. The arts and sciences continued to flourish. One achievement was creation of an improved calendar by a group of scholars that included Omar Khayyám, the noted mathematician, astronomer, and poet.

The Seljuks, moving westward against the Byzantine Empire, in 1071 won a great victory at Manzikert (Malazgirt, in eastern Turkey). The Byzantines appealed to Europe for help, and the Crusades were the result.

The Mongol Invasions

In the early 13th century another invading horde swept into Persia from the northeast. It consisted mainly of Mongols who, under their leader Genghis Khan, had already conquered northern China. The invaders, joined by Turkish tribes along the way, were known as Tatars (or Tartars) in Persia. They spread utter destruction as they went, passing across Persia and north of Baghdad into the territory of the Russians.

In the 1250's Genghis' grandson Hulagu completed the conquest of Persia. Baghdad was burned. Hulagu's dynasty, the Il-khans, established an empire that extended from the Oxus to Syria and from the Caucasus to the Indian Ocean. The Il-khans established their capital at Tabriz. To the north were Mongol empires founded by other Mongol leaders who had succeeded Genghis.

The Tatar conquest was disastrous for Persia. A large part of the male population was killed, and the overall population of the country was reduced by nearly one-fourth. The economy was left in shambles, and Mongol taxes kept the people impoverished and prevented recovery.

Rebuilding of Persia began with the accession of Ghazan Khan to the throne in 1295. To make Mongol rule more acceptable to the Persians, he converted to Islam and restored Persian officials to positions of authority. With their help, he codified the laws, reduced taxes, rebuilt and extended irrigation works to raise agricultural productivity, and made caravan routes safe to encourage trade. Italian merchant colonies in Persia opened up trade with the Mediterranean area. Shiraz, near the site of Persepolis, became a center of literature and art. With the Chinese influence introduced by the Tatars, exquisite pottery and illuminated manuscripts were produced.

In 1335 the Il-khan empire splintered into a number of virtually independent states. In 1381 Tamerlane (or Timur), a Muslim descendant of the Tatars and ruler of Samarkand, conquered Persia and created a large empire. His successors, the Timurids, ruled until 1500, when the Persians regained control.

Persia As An Independent State

The leader under whom the Persians overthrew the Timurids was Ismail, founder of the Safawid dynasty. He reestablished the Persian kingdom, reaching to the Oxus on the northeast and the Euphrates on the west. The rising power of the Ottomans, however, led to frequent border conflicts. Shah Abbas (I) the Great (reigned 1586–1628) moved his capital inland to Isfahan. He led the Persians in a war against the Turks, 1602–18, in which the Ottomans were driven back and Persia won new territory in the northwest.

Portugal had seized a Persian port in 1555. Although the old caravan routes lost importance after the sea route was opened around the Cape of Good Hope, Persian ports were well located for the developing trade between Europe and India. In 1622 the English and the Dutch aided Persia in forcing the Portuguese out, and England became a major influence in Persian commerce.

In 1638 Mesopotamia was permanently annexed by the Ottoman Empire. In the early 18th century the Afghans declared their independence and began occupying eastern Persia. Russian Cossacks made raids into the Caucasus. In 1736 a provincial governor, Nadir Shah, seized control of the kingdom. He pushed back the Russians and Ottomans, reconquered the Afghans, and successfully invaded India, but Persia was impoverished by his campaigns. At his death in 1747 Afghanistan established its independence. An Iranian tribe, the Zands, made themselves rulers of Persia, with Shiraz as capital. In 1794 they were overthrown by a northern tribe, the Kajars.

Era of Foreign Influence

The Kajars ruled Persia for 131 years. As sovereigns they had little concern for their subjects, and the country at large declined into poverty and ignorance. The shahs (rulers) lived in pomp and splendor at their capital of Tehran, financed in part by European powers seeking Persian assistance in strengthening their empires. An Anglo-Persian treaty was signed in 1814, with Persia receiving an annual subsidy to help Britain protect its rights in India.

In the meantime, Russia had moved into the Caucasus. In the resulting warfare Persia lost most of the region (1828). During the next half century Russia occupied the northeast Persian provinces one by one. In the late 19th century Britain made Baluchistan a province of India. The Persian people were roused from their apathy by British moves toward modernizing the country. A telegraph system was installed, a bank founded, and river navigation improved. Growth of political awareness led to a demand for constitutional government. A constitution was granted in 1906, but the shah did not put it into effect until an uprising forced him to act.

Development of the Oil Industry

The presence of oil in Persia had long been known. In 1901 a concession for developing the oil resources was granted to a British representative, and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was formed in 1909. By the outbreak of World War I, the majority of shares was owned by the British government. Persia was by then one of the major oil-producing areas in the world.

Although Persia declared itself neutral in World War I, it suffered repeated invasions because of its oil resources. It was attacked by Turkey from the northwest and by Germany from the gulf coast. Britain and the Allies successfully defended the pipelines and oil installations, but Persia was left with its agriculture destroyed and finances shattered. Nationalist feeling and bitterness against foreign encroachment were strong. Russia, weakened by internal upheaval, renounced its previous seizures of territory. Persia joined the League of Nations in 1920, and the following year a withdrawal of British troops began.

Pahlavi Monarchy

Riza Khan, named minister of war in 1921, brought about the complete fall of the Kajar dynasty in 1925. He became ruler of Persia under the name of Riza Shah Pahlavi. The new shah pressed a program of Westernization. He made education compulsory, freed women from the harem, and rebuilt Tehran into a modern city. An effective armed force was created with French assistance, roads improved with United States aid, and a trans-Persian railway constructed without foreign financing. In 1933 the Anglo-Persian oil concession was extended. In 1935, the government demanded that other countries officially recognize the native name of “Iran."