559-530 BC — Cyrus the Great established the Persian Empire in 550 BC, the first world empire. His respect for local traditions, laws, languages, and religions set the foundation of a relatively benevolent empire.
539 BC — Babylonia surrendered peacefully to Cyrus the Great. Welcomed as a liberator because of his compassionate policies, Cyrus freed the Jews from captivity and assisted them to migrate to their homeland and to reconstruct their temple in Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, in the Book of Isaiah, Cyrus is hailed as the Shepherd of the Lord. I am Cyrus, King of the World. When I entered Babylon I did not allow anyone to terrorize the land. I kept in view the needs of its people and all its sanctuaries to promote their well being. I put an end to their misfortune. The great God has delivered all lands into my hand, the lands that I have made to dwell in peaceful habitation.
522-486 BC — The reign of Darius the Great marked the zenith of the Persian Empire. Upholding the tradition established by Cyrus, Darius valued the rights of all people under his rule. The following inscription appears on his tomb: By the favor of the great God I believe in justice and abhor inequity. It is not my desire that the weak man should have wrong done to him by the mighty….Darius’ goal was to be a great law-giver and organizer. He structured the empire under the satrapy system (similar to national and local governments). He built many roads, ports, banking houses (the word “check” comes from Old Persian), elaborate underground irrigation systems and a canal to link the Nile to the Red Sea (an early precursor of the Suez Canal). In the 19th century, archeologists in Egypt discovered an inscription by Darius commemorating the completion of the canal: I am a Persian. I commanded to dig this canal from a river by name of Nile which flows in Egypt….After this canal was dug, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, thus as was my desire.
Darius revolutionized mankind’s economic activities by introducing one of the earliest (certainly the first on such a massive scale) forms of common coinage in history, the darik. This initiative, along with the standardization of weights and measures and the codification of commercial laws, stimulated world trade and elevated the Persian Empire’s economy to new levels of prosperity.
Reflecting the wealth and the multi-cultural dimension of the Persian Empire, Darius initiated the building of the Persepolis palace. For its construction, artisans and materials were gathered from different corners of the empire. Another project undertaken by Darius was the royal road, the world’s longest, extending 1,500 miles (see map). Due to an extensive network of relays, postmen could travel the road in six to nine days, whereas normal travel time was three months. The motto of the Persian postal service became memorable: stopped by neither snow, rain, heat or gloom of night. The US postal service also adopted this motto and the famous Pony Express mail delivery resembled the original Persian design. The origins of polo date back to this time. Persian nobility played an early form of polo for both sport and combat training.
490-479 BC — In their wars with Persia, the Greek city-states were never a threat to the Persian heartland. What Persia did not achieve through war, it obtained through diplomacy. After the Persian-Greek wars ended, Persian kings successfully played the Athenians and Spartans against each other for 150 years. Persia’s financial and naval assistance was instrumental in Sparta’s victory over Athens in the Great Peloponnesian War. Afterwards, Persia began supporting the Athenians. The Persian influence over the two Greek city-states was such that the Persian King Artaxerxes II was asked to mediate between them, leading to the King’s Peace of 387 BC.
550-334 BC — The Persian Empire became the dominant world power for over two centuries. It made possible the first significant and continuous contact between East and West. It was the world’s first religiously tolerant empire and consisted of a multitude of different languages, races, religions and cultures. Prior to the rise of the Roman Empire, it set a precedent for the importance of the rule of law, a powerful centralized army and an efficient and systematic state administration. However, the greatest legacy of the Persian Empire was that it demonstrated for the first time how diverse peoples can culturally flourish and economically prosper under one central government.