Persia was one of the great empires of the ancient world. It was the dominant culture in Europe and the Near East between the ancient Egyptian era and the Greco-Roman era and although it doesn’t the same press as these great civilizations it was just as great, influential and powerful in it way. [Source: Marguerite del Giudice, National Geographic, August 2008]

The Persian Achaemenid Empire (559-334 B.C.) was established by Cyrus and taken to the height of its power under Darius. The Persians were able to defeat the declining Neo-Babylonians with relative ease. Their kingdom was the greatest power in Europe and the Middle East, embracing Egypt and the Greek colonies in Asia Minor. Only the early kingdoms of China rivaled it.

The Persians began as a small clan in the Fars region of Iran. They grew to become the rulers of a great empire in a little over a hundred years. The empire reached its greatest extent around 500 B.C. when it stretched to the Indus River in the east and embraced most of modern-day Iran, Iraq, Syria, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Pakistan. Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. At other times it controlled Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Greece and parts of India. The empire was the largest the world had seen up to that point. It endured for about two hundred years until Alexander the Great defeated it.

The ancient Persians are sometimes called the Achaemenids, the name of a dynasty of Persian kings. Persepolis was the ceremonial and diplomatic capital of the empire. It was built during Darius’s rule. Other important cities included Susa, Pasargadae and Ecbatana. Marguerite del Giudice wrote in National Geographic, “Persia was a conquering empire but also regarded in some ways as one of the more glorious and benevolent civilizations of antiquity. Even today “Iranians seem particularly proud of their capacity to get along with others by assimilating compatible aspects of the invaders’ ways without surrendering their own — a cultural elasticity that is at the heart of their Persian identity.”

In a number of Hollywood films — such as Oliver Stone’s “Alexander the Great” and “300", the film about the Spartans triumphant last stand at Thermopylae — the Persians are the bad guys, sort of like the Nazis of the classical world. A lot of young Iranians both in and out of Iran resent the way the Persia has been portrayed. One young Iranian rapper told National Geographic, “The Greeks were portrayed as heroic, innocent and civilized. The Persians were shown as ugly savages with method of fighting that was unfair.”

Persian People and Their Language

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Xerxes Inscription
Iranians (Persians) are an Indo-European people who descended from Aryan tribes as many Indians and Europeans have. They are not Arabs or Turks and are offended if they are confused with Arabs. Over the centuries modern Iranians have mixed and intermarried with the people of South Asia, Central Asia and the Arab Peninsula and people who traveled on the Silk Road between China and Europe.

Persian (Farsi) is the official language of Iran. It is an Indo-European language, like English, French and German, and is spoken in Iran, much of northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan. There are also many Persian words and influences in Turkish, Urdu and other languages. Persian, in turn, has many Arabic words and influences.

Unlike Arabic, Farsi has hard and soft G, P and B sounds. Dari, the Persian language spoken in Afghanistan, is regarded as purer and closer to the original Persian than Farsi spoken in Iran because it has been less influenced by Arabic. Farsi is written with its own script.

Bisotoun Rock (20 miles from Kermanshah) is one of the most important archeological sites in the world. Located at a 4000 feet high on an ancient highway between Mesopotamia and Persia, it is a cliff face carved with cuneiform characters that describe the achievements of Darius the Great in three languages: Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamatic. A sort of Mesopotamian version of the Rosetta Stone, it allowed Sir Henery Rawlinson to decipher the Babylonian and Assyrian languages

Bisotoun Rock also contains reliefs of Darius fighting nine rebel kings, which he defeated early in his rule; a sculpture of Hercules reclining on a lion; and bas reliefs from other eras. At the foot of the mountain are what are believed to be the three oldest Parthian reliefs. They are badly weathered.

Persian Calendar and Holidays

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The official Iranian calendar, the Solar Hijrat, is a 365-day solar calendar that begins on the Persian New Year (No Ruz) on the spring equinox on March 21. A lunar calendar, the Lunar Hijat, is used primarily for religious purposes. Both calenders begin on A.D. 621, the year the Prophet Mohammed took his followers to Mecca from Medina.

“No Ruz “ is the Persian New Year. Widely celebrated in Central Asia as well as Iran, it has its origin in the Zoroastrian religion and marks the spring equinox according to the solar calendar. To symbolize the arrival of spring, goldfish are brought into homes. Animals are often slaughtered and people visit local shrines. This is the biggest family holiday of the year. People often return to their home towns or villages. Ayatollah Khomeini tried to diminish the importance of the holiday but with little success.

Early Persians

The original Persians were members of Aryan tribes that arrived from the Central Asia and the Caucasus with sheep and horses in the 2nd millennium B.C., driving out an earlier agricultural civilization. They made their home on Iranian plateau at a time when the Middle East was dominated by ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Assyria. These people spoke an Indo-European language and called themselves “Irani” . The name “Persian” comes from Greek geographers who named them after the province Parsa, or Persis.

The Persians and their close relatives the Medes dominated present-day Iran beginning around 1000 B.C. They were described in cuneiform records from that time.

In 612 B.C. an alliance of Medes, Scythians and Chaldeans defeated the Assyrians by besieging and destroying the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. The Medes then created an empire that ruled the Persians to the East and the Assyrians to the west. It was the first of many great Persian empires.

Immigration of the Medes and the Persians

Small groups of nomadic, horse-riding peoples speaking Indo-European languages began moving into the Iranian cultural area from Central Asia near the end of the second millennium B.C. Population pressures, overgrazing in their home area, and hostile neighbors may have prompted these migrations. Some of the groups settled in eastern Iran, but others, those who were to leave significant historical records, pushed farther west toward the Zagros Mountains.[Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Three major groups are identifiable — the Scythians, the Medes (the Amadai or Mada), and the Persians (also known as the Parsua or Parsa). The Scythians established themselves in the northern Zagros Mountains and clung to a seminomadic existence in which raiding was the chief form of economic enterprise. The Medes settled over a huge area, reaching as far as modern Tabriz in the north and Esfahan in the south. They had their capital at Ecbatana (present-day Hamadan) and annually paid tribute to the Assyrians. The Persians were established in three areas: to the south of Lake Urmia (the tradional name, also cited as Lake Orumiyeh, to which it has reverted after being called Lake Rezaiyeh under the Pahlavis), on the northern border of the kingdom of the Elamites; and in the environs of modern Shiraz, which would be their eventual settling place and to which they would give the name Parsa (what is roughly present-day Fars Province).*

During the seventh century B.C., the Persians were led by Hakamanish (Achaemenes, in Greek), ancestor of the Achaemenid dynasty. A descendant, Cyrus II (also known as Cyrus the Great or Cyrus the Elder), led the combined forces of the Medes and the Persians to establish the most extensive empire known in the ancient world.*

Achaemenid Empire


Hamadan (250 miles southwest of Tehran) is one of Iran’s oldest and highest cities. Located in the central Zagros mountains at an elevation of 1,800 meters on ancient road between Persia and Babylon, it was capital of the Medes empire before it united with Persia and was reportedly founded by the legendary King Jamshid. In those days it was known to Iranians as Hagmatana and to the Greeks as Ecbatana. Under the Persians it became an important provincial capital, enriched by trade to the West and filled with palaces, temples and walls, reportedly coated with gold and silver.

The only thing that remains from the ancient Persian period is Sang-e-Shir, 4th century B.C. statue of a lion believed to have guarded the city gate in the Median and Parthian eras. The tomb of Esther and Mordecai is surrounded by elegant gardens and has traditionally been a pilgrimage site for Jews. According to legend Esther helped establish an early Jewish colony in Persia in the Hamadan area. She later became a wife of King Xerxes. Visitors are allowed to enter the crypt which lies behind a thick granite door and contains Hebrew inscriptions, including the Ten Commandments. Scholars believe that the remains here do not belong to Esther but belong to a Jewish queen that lived much later.

Archeological excavations carried out in the Hagmatana hills have unearthed the remains of Median and ancient Persian administrative buildings. Ganj-e-Nameh (20 miles west of Hamadan) is the regions oldest ancient Persian rock craving. Located in a green valley below the slopes of Mount Alvabd, it is comprised if two stone panels with cuneiform inscriptions in old Persian describing the achievements of Darius the Great and Xerexes I. Ganj-e-Nameh means “Treasure Book.” Kangavar (between Hamadan and Kermanshah) is a small town and home of the a temple dedicated to mother goddess Anahita, a deity worshiped by bother Persians and Seleucid Greeks, Built around 200 B.C., the temples features enormous blocks of dress stone with an imposing entrance with staircases that may have been inspired by the Apadana at Persepolis.


Around a 3000 B.C., during the early Bronze Age, Indo-European people began migrating into Europe, Iran and India and mixed with local people who eventually adopted their language. In Greece, these people were divided into fledgling city states from which the Mycenaeans and later the Greeks evolved. These Indo European people are believed to have been relatives of the Aryans, who migrated or invaded India and Asia Minor. The Hittites, and later the Greeks, Romans, Celts and nearly all Europeans and North Americans descended from Indo-European people.

Indo-Europeans is the general name for the people speaking Indo-European languages. They are the linguistic descendants of the people of the Yamnaya culture (c.3600-2300 B.C. in Ukraine and southern Russia who settled in the area from Western Europe to India in various migrations in the third, second, and early first millenniums B.C.. They are the ancestors of Persians, pre-Homeric Greeks, Teutons and Celts. [Source:]

Indo-European intrusions into Iran and Asia Minor (Anatolia, Turkey) began about 3000 B.C.. The Indo-European tribes originated in the great central Eurasian Plains and spread into the Danube River valley possibly as early as 4500 B.C., where they may have been the destroyers of the Vinca Culture. Iranian tribes entered the plateau which now bears their name in the middle around 2500 B.C. and reached the Zagros Mountains which border Mesopotamia to the east by about 2250 B.C...

Aryan Charioteers from Northern Iran

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Around 1500 BC, Aryan (Indo-European) charioteers from the steppes of northern Iran conquered India. Aryan tribes also gave birth to early civilizations in Greece, Europe and India and were master charioteers. The Aryans were a loosely federated, semi-nomadic herdsmen people who spread both east and west from Central Asia, taking their sky gods with them. The Aryans first settled in the Punjab and later moved on to the Ganges Valley. They are also ancestors of Persians, pre-Homeric Greeks, Teutons and Celts.

Aryans are defined as early speakers of Vedic Sanskrit, an Indo-European language that provided the basis for all the languages in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as the majority those in Europe. Based on linguistic evidence Aryans are believed to have originated from the steppes of Central Asia. They were led by a warrior aristocracy whose legendary deeds are recorded in the Rig Veda. The term “arya” in Sanskrit means “noble.” The Aryans introduced the horse-drawn chariot, the Hindu religion and sacred books known as the Vedas to present-day India.

The term “Aryan” has been used by European writers since 1835 but fell into disfavor in the mid 20th century because of its association with Nazi propaganda, which described the people of northern and central Europe as being the purest representatives of an “Aryan race.” Today, historians and ethnologist who discuss Aryans make it very clear they are taking about speakers of Aryan languages and are not taking about Aryan blood, hair, eyes or other features.

Between 2000 and 1000 B.C. successive waves of Aryans migrated to India from Central Asia (as well as eastern Europe, western Russia and Persia) . The Aryans invaded India between 1500 and 1200 B.C., around the same time they moved into the Mediterranean and western Europe. At this time the Indus civilization had already been destroyed or was moribund.

The Aryans had advanced bronze weapons, later iron weapons and horse drawn chariots with light spoked wheels. The native people the conquered at best had oxcarts and often only stone-age weapons.

Medes and Persians at Persepolis
"Charioteers were the first great aggressors in human history," the historian Jack Keegan wrote. About 1700 BC, Semitic tribes known as the Hykos, invaded the Nile Valley, and mountain people infiltrated Mesopotamia. Both invaders had chariots. Around 1500 BC, Aryan charioteers from the steppes of northern Iran conquered India and the founders of the Shang Dynasty (the first Chinese ruling authority) arrived in China on chariots and set up the world's first state. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

In India, Aryan settlers cultivated some wheat and barely but they were primarily horsemen and cattle herders. They cleared small patches of forest and set up villages and small towns. They didn’t occupy large towns or cites and didn’t leave any great ruined cities behind.. They didn’t really establish any towns of any size or practice settled farming until the Indian Iron Age begining about 700 B.C.

In India, The Aryans were led by a hereditary king and were divided into five major tribes. They remained warriors. They fought against non-Aryans and fought one another. They even persuaded non-Aryans to help fight against other Aryan tribes. War itself was described as the “search for cows.”

Earliest Evidence of Chariots

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “In ancient graves on the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan, archeologists have uncovered skulls and bones of sacrificed horses and, perhaps most significantly, traces of spoked wheels. These appear to be the wheels of chariots, the earliest direct evidence for the existence of the two-wheeled high-performance vehicles that transformed the technology of transport and warfare.[Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 22, 1994]

“The discovery sheds new light on the contributions to world history by the vigorous pastoral people who lived in the broad northern grasslands, dismissed as barbarians by their southern neighbors. From these burial customs, archeologists surmise that this culture bore a remarkable resemblance to the people who a few hundred years later called themselves Aryans and would spread their power, religion and language, with everlasting consequence, into the region of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India. The discovery could also lead to some revision in the history of the wheel, the quintessential invention, and shake the confidence of scholars in their assumption that the chariot, like so many other cultural and mechanical innovations, had its origin among the more advanced urban societies of the ancient Middle East.

Analysis of material from the graves shows that these chariots were built more than 4,000 years ago, strengthening the case for their origin in the steppes rather than in the Middle East. If the ages of the burial sites are correct, said Dr. David W. Anthony, who directed the dating research, chariots from the steppes were at least contemporary with and perhaps even earlier than the earliest Middle East chariots. The first hint of them in the Middle East is on clay seals, dated a century or two later. The seal impressions, from Anatolia, depict a light, two-wheel vehicle pulled by two animals, carrying a single figure brandishing an ax or hammer.

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painting of Cyrus the Great at Versailles

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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