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The Persian Empire is the name used to refer to a number of historic dynasties that have ruled the country of Iran. Iran's earliest known kingdom was the proto-Elamite Empire, followed by the Median Empire; but it is the Achaemenid Empire that emerged under Cyrus II the Great that is usually the earliest to be called "Persian." Successive states in Iran before 1935 are collectively called the Persian Empire by historians. In that year Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Persia, formally asked the international community to call the country by its native name, Iran.
The name Persia
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, Iran, which means Land of the Aryans. For the geography of Fars/Persia, see Geography of Iran.
The rise and fall of empires in Persia
The first Persian state: Achaemenid Persia
c.648 BC-330 BC
The first record of the Persians comes from an Assyrian inscription from ca. 844 BC which calls them the Parsu (Parsuash, Parsumash) and mentions them in the region of L. Urmiah alongside another Aryan group, the Madai (Medes). For the next two centuries the Persians and Medes were tributary peoples to Assyria, Babylonia, and another Aryan tribe, the Scythians. 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.
The Achaemenid dynasty was the first line of Persian rulers, founded by Achaemenes, chieftain of the Persians around 700 BC. His son Teispes led the nomadic Persians to settle in southern Iran around 650 BC, establishing the first organized Persian state. The Persians gradually conquered territory from the native kingdom of Elam, including the important region of Anshan. 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 divided kingdoms around 559 BC. At this time the Persians were still subservient to the Median Empire ruled by Cyrus' grandfather, Astyages. Cyrus rallied the Persians together and revolted, throwing Astyages from power. Cyrus, now Shah of a united Persian kingdom, conquered the rest of Media and their large Middle Eastern empire in 550 BC. 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. 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 declaring what has been called the Cyrus Charter of Human Rights. In this charter, the king promised not to terrorize Babylon or destroy its institutions and culture. Cyrus was killed during a battle against the Massagetae or Sakas.
Cyrus' son, Cambyses II, added Egypt to the Persian Empire. The empire then 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. His son Xerxes I also tried to conquer Greece, but was defeated at the naval battle of Salamis in 480 BC.
The Achaemenid Persian Empire was the largest and most powerful empire the world had yet seen. More importantly, it was well managed and organized. Darius divided his realm into about twenty provinces under satraps, or governors, many of whom had personal ties to the Shah. He instituted a system of tribute to tax each province. He took the advanced postal system of the Assyrians and expanded it. Also taken from the Assyrians was the usage of secret agents of the king, known as the King's Eyes and Ears , keeping him informed. He built the famous Royal Road by improving ancient trade routes, thereby connecting far reaches of the empire. He moved the administration center from Persia itself to Susa, near Babylon and closer to the center of the realm. The Persians allowed local cultures to survive, following the precedent set by Cyrus the Great. This was not only good for the empire's subjects, but ultimately benefited the Achaemenids, since the conquered peoples felt no need to revolt.
During the Achaemenid period, Zoroastrianism became the religion of the rulers and most of the people of Persia. Its founder Zoroaster had lived around 600 BC. The new religion was a new look at the traditional Aryan gods; it emphasized a universal struggle between good and evil gods and a final battle yet to come. Zoroastrianism and its mystic leaders, called Magi, would become a defining element of Persian culture.
Achaemenid Persia united people and kingdoms from every major civilization of the time except China. For the first time people from very different cultures were in contact with each other under one ruler.
330 BC-170 BC
The later years of the Achaemenid dynasty were marked by decay and decadence. The mightiest empire in the world collapsed in only eight years when it fell under the attack of a young Macedonian king, Alexander the Great.
Persia's weakness was exposed to the Greeks in 401 BC, when the Satrap of Sardis hired ten thousand Greek mercenaries to help secure his claim to the imperial throne (see Xenophon). This exposed both the political instability and military weakness of late Achaemenid Persia.
Philip II of Macedon, leader of most of Greece, and his son Alexander decided to take advantage of this weakness. After Philip's death, Alexander looked toward Persia. Alexander's army landed in Asia Minor in 334 BC. His armies quickly swept through Lydia, Phoenecia, and Egypt, before defeating all the troops of Darius III at Issus and capturing the capital at Susa. The last Achaemenid resistance was at the "Persian Gates" near the royal palace at Persepolis. The Persian Empire was now in Greek hands.
Along his route of conquest, Alexander founded many colony cities, all named "Alexandria". For the next several centuries, these cities served to greatly extend Greek, or Hellenistic, culture in Persia.
Alexander's empire broke up shortly after his death, but Persia remained in Greek hands. Alexander's general, Seleucus, took control of Persia, Mesopotamia, and later Syria and Asia Minor. His ruling family is known as the Seleucid Dynasty.
Greek colonization continued until around 250 BC; Greek language, philosophy, and art came with the colonists. Throughout Alexander's former empire, Greek became the common tongue of diplomacy and literature. Trade with China had begun in Achaemenid times along the so-called Silk Road; but during the Hellenistic period it began in earnest. The overland trade brought about some fascinating cultural exchanges. Buddhism came in from India, while Zoroastrianism traveled west to influence Judaism. Incredible statues of the Buddha in classical Greek styles have been found in Persia and Afghanistan, illustrating the mix of cultures that occurred around this time (See Greco-Buddhism), although it is possible that Greco-Buddhist art dates from Achaemenid times when Greek artists worked for the Persians.
The Seleucid kingdom began to decline rather quickly. Even during Seleucus' lifetime the capital was moved from Seleucia in Mesopotamia to the more Mediterranean-oriented Antioch in Syria. The eastern provinces of Bactria and Parthia broke off from the Seleucid Kingdom in 238 BC. King Antiochus III's military leadership kept Parthia from overrunning Persia itself, but his successes alarmed the burgeoning Roman Empire. Roman legions began to attack the kingdom. At the same time, the Seleucids had to contend with the revolt of the Maccabees in Judea and the expansion of the Kushan Empire to the east. The empire fell apart and was conquered by Parthia.
170 BC-AD 226
Parthia was a region north of Persia in what is today northeastern Iran. Its rulers, the Arsacid dynasty, belonged to an Iranian tribe that had settled there during the time of Alexander. They declared their independence from the Seleucids in 238 BC, but their attempts to expand into Persia were thwarted until c. 170 BC under Mithridates I.
The Parthian Empire shared a border with Rome along the upper Euphrates River. The two empires became major rivals. Parthian mounted archers proved a match for Roman legions, like in the Battle of Carrhae. Wars were very frequent, with Mesopotamia serving as the battleground.
During the Parthian period, Hellenistic customs partially gave way to a resurgence of Persian culture. However, the empire lacked political unity. By the first century BC, Parthia was decentralized, ruled by feudal nobles. Wars with Rome to the west and the Kushan Empire to the northeast drained the country's resources.
During Parthian rule Persia was only one province in a large, loosely controlled empire. The local king of Persia at this time, Ardashir I, led a revolt against the imperial government of Parthia. In two years he was the shah of a new Persian Empire.
The Sassanid (or Sassanian) dynasty (named for Ardashir's grandfather) was the first native Persian ruling dynasty since the Achaemenids; thus they saw themselves as the successors of Darius and Cyrus. They pursued an aggressive expansionist policy. They recovered much of the eastern lands that the Kushans had taken in the Parthian period. The Sassanids continued to make war against Rome; a Persian army even captured the Emperor Valerian in 260.
Sassanid Persia, unlike Parthia, was a highly centralized state. The people were rigidly organized into a caste system: Priests, Soldiers, Scribes, and Commoners. Zoroastrianism was finally made the official state religion and spread outside Persia proper and out into the provinces. There was sporadic persecution of other religions. The Catholic (Orthodox) Christian church was particularly persecuted, but this was in part due to its ties to the Roman Empire. The Nestorian Christian church was tolerated and even sometimes favored by the Sassanids.
The wars and religious control that had fueled Sassanid Persia's early successes eventually contributed to its decline. The eastern regions were conquered by the White Huns in the late 400s. Adherents of a radical religious sect, the Mazdakites, revolted around the same time. Khosrau I was able to recover his empire and expand into the Christian countries of Antioch and Yemen. However, a final war with Rome utterly destroyed the empire. Between 605 and 629 CE, Sassanids successfully annexed Levant and Egypt and pushed into Anatolia. Their armies even reached Constantinople, but could not defeat the Byzantines there. Emperor Heraclius successfully outflanked Sassanid armies in Asia Minor and handed them a crushing defeat in Northern Mesopotamia. Sassanids had to give up all their conquered lands and retreat. Heavy taxing and a very long war caused rebellions across the empire. Khosro II (Parviz) was assassinated in 629 and the empire plunged into anarchy after the death of his successor, Kavadh II. After a defeat at Nineveh in 642, civil war broke out and the king was assassinated. The Sassanid shahs no longer had control over the country.
Islam and Persia
Main article: Islamic conquest of Iran
Persia's conquest by Islamic Arab armies marks the transition into "medieval" Persia. The explosive growth of the Arab Caliphate coincided with the chaos caused by the end of Sassanid rule. Conquest came easily; most of the country was overrun in 643-650. The last resistance from the remnants of the Sassanid dynasty ended two years later.
The Arab empire, ruled by the Umayyad Dynasty, was the largest state in history up to that point. It stretched from Spain to the Indus, from the Aral Sea to the southern tip of Arabia. Yet the Umayyads borrowed heavily from Persian and Byzantine administration systems and moved their capital to Damascus, in the center of their empire. The Umayyads would rule Persia for a hundred years.
The Arab conquest dramatically changed life in Persia. Arabic became the new lingua franca and Islam quickly replaced Zoroastrianism; mosques were built, and many Persians intermarried with Arabs. A new language, religion, and culture were added to the Persian cultural milieu.
In 750 the Umayyads were ousted from power by the Abbasid family. Their rule ushered in a golden age of Islamic civilization. By that time, Iranians had come to dominate not only the bureacracy of the empire, but all branches of the government . The unrivaled dominance of the Persians on all affairs of the administration led to the spread and blossoming of Persian culture throughout the Arab world, along with science, mathematics, and medicine. The caliph Al-Ma'mun, whose mother was an Iranian, moved his capital away from Arab lands into Merv in eastern Persia. It was he who later founded the Baghdad House of Wisdom, based on the Persian Jondishapour.
The scientific movement that hence resulted, was to have a direct impact on the European Renaissance centuries later: The Iranian Khwarazmi contributed heavily to the mathematical field of algebra, earning himself the title of Father of Algebra. He, along with al-Karaji, Kashani, Marvazi , Khayam , Nasiruddin Tusi , Mozaffar Tusi , Abu Wafa , Biruni, Faresi , Khazeni , Khojandi , Kuhi , Mahani , Nasawi , Samarqandi , Neyrizi , Sajzi , Avicenna , Geber, Rhazes, and numerous others, were directly responsible for the establishment of Modern Algebra, unparalleled advancement of Medicine, and the discovery of Trigonometry  .
But political unrest continued. In 819, East-Persia was conquered by the Persian Samanids, the first native rulers after the Arabic conquest. They made Samarqand, Bukhara and Herat their capitals and revived the Persian language and culture. It was approximately during this age, when the poet Firdawsi finished the Shah Nama, an epic poem retelling the history of the Persian kings; Firdawsi completing the poem in 1008. In 913, West-Persia was conquered by the Buwayhid, a native Persian tribal confederation from the shores of the Caspian Sea. They made the Persian city of Shiraz their capital. The Buwayids destroyed Islam's former territorial unity. Rather than a province of a united Muslim empire, Persia became one nation in an increasingly diverse and cultured Islamic world.
The Muslim world was shaken again in 1037 with the invasion of the Seljuk Turks from the northeast. The Seljuks created a very large Middle Eastern empire and continued in the flowering of medieval Islamic culture. The Seljuks built the fabulous Friday Mosque in the city of Isfahan. The most famous Persian writer of all time, Omar Khayyam, wrote his Rubayat of love poetry during Seljuk times.
In the early 1200s the Seljuks lost control of Persia to another group of Turks from Khwarezmia, near the Aral Sea. The shahs of the Khwarezmid Empire ruled for only a short while, however, because they had to face the most feared conqueror in history: Genghis Khan.
Persia under the Mongols and their successors
In 1218, Genghis Khan sent ambassadors and merchants to the city of Otrar , on the northeastern confines of the Khwarizm shahdom. The governor of Otrar had these envoys executed. Genghis, out of revenge, sacked Otrar in 1219 and continued on to Samarkand and other cities of the northeast.
Genghis' grandson, Hulagu Khan, finished what Genghis had begun when he conquered Persia, Baghdad, and much of the rest of the Middle East in 1255-1258. Persia became the Ilkhanate, a division of the vast Mongol Empire.
In 1295, after Ilkhan Ghazan converted to Islam, he renounced all allegiance to the Great Khan. The Ilkhans patronized the arts and learning in the fine tradition of Persian Islam; indeed, they helped to repair much of the damage of the Mongol conquests.
In 1335, the last Ilkhan's death spelled the end of the Ilkhanate. It splintered into a number of small states. This left Persia open to still more conquest at the hands of another conqueror connected with the Mongol Empire: Timur the Lame or Tamerlane. He invaded Persia beginning around 1370 and plundered the country until his death in 1405. Timur was an even bloodier conqueror than Genghis had been. In Isfahan, for instance, he slaughtered 70,000 people so that he could build towers with their skulls. He conquered a wide area and made his own city of Samarkand rich, but he made no effort to forge a lasting empire. Persia was essentially left in ruins.
For the next hundred years Persia was not a unified state. It was ruled for a while by descendants of Timur, called the Timurid emirs. Toward the end of the 1400s Persia was taken over by the Emirate of the White Sheep Turkmen (Ak Koyunlu). But there was little unity and none of the sophistication that had defined Persia during the glory days of Islam.
A new Persian empire: the Safavids
The Safavid Dynasty hailed from Azerbaijan, at that time considered a part of the greater Persia region. The Safavid Shah Ismail I overthrew the White Sheep Turkish rulers of Persia to found a new Persian empire. Ismail expanded Persia to include all of present-day Azerbaijan, Iran, and Iraq, plus much of Afghanistan. Ismail's expansion was halted by the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, and war with the Ottomans became a fact of life in Safavid Persia.
Safavid Persia was a violent and chaotic state for the next seventy years, but in 1588 Shah Abbas the Great ascended to the throne and instituted a cultural and political renaissance. He moved his capital to Isfahan, which quickly became one of the most important cultural centers in the Islamic world. He made peace with the Ottomans. He reformed the army, drove the Uzbeks out of Persia and into modern-day Uzbekistan, and captured a Portuguese base on the island of Ormus.
The Safavids were followers of Shi'a Islam, and under them Persia became the largest Shi'ite country in the Muslim world, a position Iran still holds today.
Under the Safavids Persia enjoyed its last period as a major imperial power. In the early 1600s, a final border was agreed upon with Ottoman Turkey; it still forms the border between Turkey and Iran today.
Persia and Europe
In 1722 Safavid Persia collapsed. That year saw the first European invasion of Persia since the time of Alexander: Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, invaded from the northwest as part of a bid to dominate central Asia. To make the situation truly hopeless, Ottoman forces accompanied the Russians, successfully laying siege to Isfahan.
The country was able to weather the invasions; neither the Russians nor the Turks gained any territory. However, the Safavids were severely weakened, and that same year (1722), the empire's Afghani subjects launched a bloody revolt in response to the Safavids' attempts to convert them from Sunni to Shi'a Islam. The last Safavid shah was executed and the dynasty came to an end.
The Persian empire experienced a temporary revival under Nadir Shah in the 1730s and '40s. Nadir drove out the Russians and confined the Afghans to their present home in Afghanistan. He launched many successful campaigns against Persia's old enemies, the nomadic khanates of Central Asia; most of them were destroyed or absorbed into Persia. However, his empire declined after his death. His rule was followed by the weak and short-lived Zand dynasty. Persia was left unprepared for the worldwide expansion of European empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Persia found relative stability in the Qajar dynasty, ruling from 1779 to 1925, but lost hope to compete with the new industrial powers of Europe; Persia found itself sandwiched between the growing Russian Empire in Central Asia and the expanding British Empire in India. Each carved out pieces from Persia that became Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenia, Tajikestan, Uzbekistan, and parts of Afghanistan.
Although Persia was never directly invaded, it was gradually made economically dependent on Europe. Britain and Russia each created a sphere of influence in which the colonial power had the final say on economic matters. So, when the first Middle Eastern oil strike was made in 1908 at Masjid-al-Salaman in southwest Persia, Britain quickly took up the rights to the oil finds. Persian oil became one of the major commodities to flow into Britain.
After World War I and the Russian Revolution, Britain claimed Persia as a protectorate and took tighter control over the increasingly lucrative oilfields. In 1925, Reza Shah Pahlavi seized power from the Qajars and established the new Pahlavi dynasty. However, Britain and the Soviet Union remained the influential powers in Persia into the early years of the Cold War.
By the 1930s Persia was not the world power it had once been; it was a weapon in the political battles of the West. By the time the second-to-last Shah, Reza Pahlavi, asked the world to call the country Iran in 1935, it was clear that the Iran of his day was no longer mighty empire of ancient times.
List of Kings and Emperors of Persia
This comprehensive list covers almost 5000 years, even though Persia is much older than that.
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13