Sumeria, Ancient Sumeria (Sumer), A history of Ancient Sumer Including its Contributions

Ancient Sumeria

Primary Author: Robert A. Guisepi

Portions of this work Contributed By:
F. Roy Willis of the University of California

1980 and 2003

* The History of Ancient Sumeria including its cities, kings and religions

Now, I swear by the sun god Utu on this very day — and my younger brothers shall be witness of it in foreign lands where the sons of Sumer are not known, where people do not have the use of paved roads, where they have no access to the written word — that I, the firstborn son, am a fashioner of words, a composer of songs, a composer of words, and that they will recite my songs as heavenly writings, and that they will bow down before my words……

King Shulgi (c. 2100 BC) on the future of Sumerian literature.

Mesopotamia: The First Civilization

Authorities do not all agree about the definition of civilization. Most accept the view that “a civilization is a culture which has attained a degree of complexity usually characterized by urban life.” In other words, a civilization is a culture capable of sustaining a substantial number of specialists to cope with the economic, social, political, and religious needs of a populous society. Other characteristics usually present in a civilization include a system of writing to keep records, monumental architecture in place of simple buildings, and an art that is no longer merely decorative, like that on Neolithic pottery, but representative of people and their activities. All these characteristics of civilization first appeared in Mesopotamia.

The Geography Of Mesopotamia Continue reading Sumeria, Ancient Sumeria (Sumer), A history of Ancient Sumer Including its Contributions


Atossa, the Celestial and Terrestrial Lady of Ancient Iran
By: Shirin Bayani

Portrait of a Persian lady (from Persepolis)
Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great, wife of two Achamenian kings, Cambyses and Darius and mother of Xerxes is the most prominent lady in the history of ancient Iran. Not much is known about her life, except that she has witnessed the reign of the four first Achamenian kings and that she has played a decisive role in the long period of turbulence and significance.

The first mythological-historical personality encountered with the same name, namely Atossa, alternatively Hutossa or Hutos, is the wife – or according to some sources – the daughter of Garshasb, a Kiyani ruler.

In Iran’s history of pre-Islamic era, marriage to close relatives, including daughters and sisters, was a common practice with the simple reason to keep up the blood and relation in the monarchial and aristocratic family. The mythological Hutossa Kiyani and the historical Achamenian Atossa might have been the first cases of getting married to their kin. Hutossa and Hutaosa (as mentioned in Avesta), who desired to get married to Goshtasb was eventually married to him and gave birth to several babies. She was, meanwhile, the first political figure who converted to Zoroastrian religion. Zoroaster called on Hutaosa of righteous deed and dignity to orient her thinking trend and her words and behavior towards religion and to convert to Mazda’s beliefs. Zoroaster then declared, “She is converted to my Mazdyasna’s beliefs.” Meanwhile, Hutossa called on her husband Goshtasb to convert to Zoroastrian belief. Since then the Zoroastrian belief was officially accepted. Thus the mythological Hutossa was introduced into the history as a politician and sacred lady of high influence and authority. From then on the Persian girls were called by the same name as a sign of respect for her, the first and most significant among whom might be Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus. The sister and wife of Ardeshir II and the wife of Ardeshir III are other royal ladies called Atossa.

The Political Life of Achamenian Atossa
Despite having already admitted that our knowledge on Atossa is quite limited, we can trace part of her political and even cultural activities during her long lifetime. No other lady was ever competitive to her in the course of ancient Iranian history as far as her noble status in the family was concerned. That’s why, as already mentioned, she was the second female personality who was titled a “Lady”, which was a religious title, after Anahita. Since then such a title was gradually granted to some queens. Aeschylus, the 5th century (BC) Greek dramatist, in his famous play titled “The Iranians”, which is the story of Xerxes’ war with the Greek and the significant victory of the Greeks, has called Atossa “The Ladies Lady”.

Atossa’s mother, the Cassandane Queen, Pharnaspes’s daughter and a Persian lady of noble birth was the favorite wife of Cyrus the Great. That’s why among Cyrus’s children those born to the Cassandane Queen had preference to those from his other wives. Cassandane passed away during the lifetime of Cyrus who not only deeply lamented the demise of her beloved wife, but ordered all the tribes and nations subject to his reign to participate in the mourning ceremony as well. One might imagine that considering Cyrus’s open-mindedness on the one hand and the advanced trend practiced by the Persians in educating their children and youth on the other, as recorded in Xenophon’s – the 4th century (BC) historian – book titled Cyropedy, Atossa must have had a distinct character of merit. Given that Atossa had learned how to write and read, she played a decisive role in educating and training her own as well as those of other aristocrats and courtiers.

Cyrus’s son and heir, Cambyses (522-525 BC) took reign concurrent to getting married to her sister Atossa. According to Herodotus, the Greek historian, before then marriage to the kin (sisters) was not practiced among the Persians. Nonetheless, owing to his falling deeply in love with his sister, Cambyses gathered all the Persian judges and made them to give such a marriage a legitimate and legal aspect, which authorized him to do so for the first time.

It might be guessed that Atossa, besides enjoying a special social status, high potential and efficiency, should have been marked with great beauty as well.

Based on Herodotus’ written history, once Cambyses left Iran to take over Egypt, in an attempt of conspiracy, one of the rulers of his court enjoying influence and status, known as Gaumata, supported by the clergies abused his absence to introduce himself as Bardiya, Cambyses’ brother, on account of his close resemblance to him, and seized the Achamenian throne of monarchy. This was a quite risky measure marking the early stages of the Persians rule. Bardiya who enjoyed great popularity, was eventually assassinated by Cambyses in secret on the verge of his trip to Egypt in order to get rid of him and to have peace of mind. Gaumata or the fake Bardiya decided to get married to Atossa in order to take full charge of the affairs and to consolidate the legitimacy of his reign. Nonetheless, he confined her to the women’s sanctuary (haremsara) to keep his mystery from coming to light. The aggressive ruler was well aware of Atossa’s potentials. It was obvious to him that her being on loose could have entangled him in plenty of difficulties. Besides the ladies imprisoned in the haremsara were kept separately to prevent their getting into contact with one another.

Once Darius, an Achamenian prince, known in the history as Darius the Great, was informed on the mystery of the fake Bardiya through one of the ladies of Cambyses’ haremsara, he decided to return monarchy to his own family. On the other hand, given that Cambyses on returning home from Egypt after his victory passed away in a mysterious way, the throne should have been passed on to an Achamenian prince. Eventually Darius managed to kill the aggressive Gaumata and take charge of the affairs. Then, despite having a wife and numerous children, he got married to Atossa for many reasons.

1- Given that Darius came from an origin of Achamenian dynasty, which was not entitled to rule, he decided to get married to the daughter of Cyrus the Great and Cambyses’ sister and wife in order to legitimize his rule. The decision was not only to his advantage politically, but the children who would be born to her would be marked for the blood of a monarchial origin flowing in their veins.

2- Atossa who was marked for her character of high culture, potential, political expertise and gift, could serve as an effective assistant to Darius under the risky period of the time.

3- Given that Atossa was an ambitious and power-seeking woman who had been through lots of difficulties, she totally agreed with such an arrangement. Since as the spouse of Darius, the new monarch, she could have materialized her own ambitious goals and to gain a proper political and social status. That’s how Atossa became “The Ladies Lady” at the climax of the Achamenian power and glory. Ever since a lady was selected officially among the monarch’s spouses as a queen Atossa was crowned and took possession of a separate courthouse. Despite the insufficient and vague information available, it can be realized that Atossa had a say in the administration of the state political and cultural affairs. This is despite the fact that traditionally and legally she had no right to vote.

According to Herodotus, “Atossa was of great authority, and during the Greek war initially recommended by her, Darius made use of her advice. She was even interested in accompanying her husband in the process of war.”

“It seems so strange that despite all your might and power you are sitting still without embarking on any war, conquering any land and enlarging Iran’s territory and increasing its glory,” added Herodotus quoting Atossa. “A young monarch as rich as yourself deserves to embark on making some achievements and prove to the Iranians that a great man is ruling over them,” added Atossa. Though what is said by Herodotus seems an exaggeration, it reflects the reality of Atossa’s influence on her husband.

It was mentioned that Atossa was well informed on the cultural affairs of her time and made full use of the frequent visits of the Greek and other nationalities and tribes to the court. Democdes, the Greek physician, who was taken to Iran during the Achamenians war in the Asia Minor, stayed in the court of Darius and was supported and respected by the monarch. Having treated the queen’s and the king’s serious diseases, he became their special physician.

Atossa and the Monarchy of Xerxes
Four sons were born to Darius and Atossa, among whom the oldest was named Xerxes. As told earlier, Darius who had another wife before getting married to Atossa had some other sons from his first wife. Given that Xerxes was not the oldest son and according to customs, a monarch had to be replaced by his first son, a lot of arguments took place between them. Xerxes claimed that his mother is the “Savior of Persian Tribe” in view of her being the daughter of Cyrus. Besides when she was born her father was the Monarch, while his older brothers were born earlier. On the other hand, Atossa’s influence and authority was quite effective in the decisions made by her husband and other officials in this respect, disregarding the absence of any legal and inheritance right to this effect. Eventually, the 35-year-old Xerxes was appointed as the crown prince, while the unprecedented measure reflected the high authority of “The Ladies Lady”. That’s how Xerxes, the grandson of Cyrus the Great took reign after his father (486-465 BC), while Darius’ older son from his other wife was the best candidate deserving to replace his father and had already been trained for it.

Atossa’s three other sons were also given important army and administrative positions. That was actually the period when Atossa enjoyed the greatest authority of her long lifetime. As a woman in her middle ages and with high expertise and having been through a lot of ups and downs, she made use of her influence in the state affairs as the queen mother. As stated earlier, Aeschylus has made frequent references to her in his play titled “Iranians”. It might even be said that Atossa played the second most decisive role at Aeschylus’ play after Xerxes, which actually reflects the reality. Seems like Atossa didn’t find Xerxes’ war with Greece reasonable and she was apparently one of the opponents of entering into such a conflict. She had been quite upset while the monarch was on his way to Greece. Once she heard about the defeat of her son, she got really disturbed and exasperated. She had realized that there is no consequence to the war. Based on one of the episodes of Aeschylus’ play, “Iran’s Ladies Lady, the respected mother of Xerxes, the wife of Darius, – having fastened her belt (which is reminiscent of Anahita) – Oh, Thou hast been the spouse of a monarch and Thou hast gave birth to another monarch, provided that the star of the fate of this ancient tribe has not lost its luck.” Then quoting the Ladies Lady it continued, “This is similar to the same fright which made me leave the royal night residence and Darius’ bedroom. I am full of concern and worries.”

Aeschylus then goes on to describe the detailed story of the war while Atossa had just heard about the failure from a newly arrived messenger. Then he illustrates Atossa’s coming face to face with her son and gives his play a tragic dimension by being partial towards the Greek.

Nothing is known on the conclusion and details of Atossa’s demise. Nonetheless, as already witnessed, based on the existing evidences, it might be realized that she has had a long life and has been alive until Xerxes returned from Iran-Greece war front (479 BC). Thus she might be guessed to have lived more than 70 years. Neither anything is known about her mausoleum. She might have been buried at Darius’ mausoleum in Naqsh-e Rostam and next to her spouse. According to some unknown source, the Zoroastrian Mausoleum is known as her special point of burial, while others take the mausoleum as Anahita’s temple. It is strange to notice that at the conclusion of the article, Atossa’s name has been intertwined with that of Anahita, similar to its outset. This marks the fact that the two theological and worldly female personalities were distinguished by their similar significance and authority, rather than being of the same importance and potential.

Parthian Empire

(250 BC–AD 226)

The Parthian Empire.

Metallic statue of a Parthian prince (thought to be Surena), AD 100, kept at The National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

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 unify Iran were thwarted until after Mithridates I advent to the Parthian throne in about 170 BC.
The Parthian Confederacy shared a border with Rome along the upper Euphrates River. The two polities became major rivals, especially over control of Armenia. Heavily-armoured Parthian cavalry (cataphracts) supported by mounted archers proved a match for Roman legions, as in the Battle of Carrhae in which the Parthian General Surena defeated Marcus Licinius Crassus of Rome. Wars were very frequent, with Mesopotamia serving as the battleground. The family of the Persian Empire now goes by the name of Rahbar.
During the Parthian period, Hellenistic customs partially gave way to a resurgence of Persian culture. However, the empire lacked political unity. The administration was shared between Seven Parthian clans who constituted the Dahae Confederation, each of these clans governed a province of the empire. Suren-Pahlav Clan, Karen-Pahlav Clan and Mihran Clan were the most influential ones. By the 1st 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.
Parthia, now impoverished and without any hope to recover the lost territories, was demoralized. The kings had to give more concessions to the nobility, and the vassal kings sometimes refused to obey. Parthia’s last ruler Artabanus IV had an initial success in putting together the crumbling state. However, the fate of the Arsacid Dynasty was doomed when in AD 224, the Persian vassal king Ardashir revolted. Two years later, he took Ctesiphon, and this time, it meant the end of Parthia. It also meant the beginning of the third Persian Empire, ruled by the Sassanid kings. Sassanids were from the province of Persis, native to the first Persian Empire, the Achaemenids.

Sassanid Empire (226–651)

‘The Sassanid Persian Empire’ in 610.

The ‘Sassanid Empire’ or ‘Sassanian Dynasty’ ( []) is the name used for the fourth imperial Iranian dynasty, and the second Persian Empire (226–651). The Sassanid dynasty was founded by Ardashir I after defeating the last Parthian (Arsacid) king, Artabanus IV ( ”Ardavan”) and ended when the last Sassanid Shahanshah (”King of Kings”), Yazdegerd III (632–651), lost a 14-year struggle to drive out the early Islamic Caliphate, the first of the Islamic empires.
Ardashir I, led a rebellion against the Parthian Confederacy in an attempt to revive the glory of the previous empire and to legitimize the hellenized form of Zoroastrianism practised in south western Iran. In two years he was the Shah of a new Persian Empire.
The Sassanid dynasty (also Sassanian) (named for Ardashir’s grandfather) was the first dynasty native to the Pars province 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 Roman Emperor Valerian in 260.
The Sassanid Empire, 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 Eastern Orthodox Church was particularly persecuted, but this was in part due to its ties to the Roman Empire. The Nestorian Christian church was tolerated and sometimes even favored by the Sassanids.
The wars and religious control that had fueled The Sassanid empire’s early successes eventually contributed to its decline. The eastern regions were conquered by the White Huns in the late 5th century. 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. Between 605 and 629, Sassanids successfully annexed Levant and Roman Egypt and pushed into Anatolia.
However, a subsequent war with the Romans utterly destroyed the empire. In the course of the protracted conflict, Sassinid armies reached Constantinople, but could not defeat the Byzantines there. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius had successfully outflanked the Persian armies in Asia Minor and attacked the empire from the rear while the main Iranian army along with its top Eran Spahbods were far from battlefields. This resulted in a crushing defeat for Sassanids in Northern Mesopotamia. The Sassanids had to give up all their conquered lands and retreat. This defeat was mentioned in Qur’an as a “victory for believers,” referring to the Romans, who were monotheists, in contrast to the pagan Sassinids. (Note: The official religion of the Sassanid empire was Zoroastrianism. It is not an Abrahamic/Semitic religion like Christianity or Islam, so it would be classified as “Pagan” by the followers of those religions even though it was monotheistic).
Following the advent of Islam and collapse of Sassanid Empire, Persians came under the subjection of Arab rulers for almost two centuries before native Persian dynasties could gradually drive them out. In this period a number of small and numerically inferior Arab tribes migrated to inland Iran. [3]
Also some Turkic tribes settled in Persia between the 9th and 12th centuries.[4]
In time these peoples were integrated into numerous Persian populations and adopted Persian culture and language while Persians retained their culture with minimal influence from outside.[5]





This title, applied sporadically in the Middle Kingdom to non-royal
women, became a major honor given only to the wives, mothers, and daughters
of kings in the Eighteenth Dynasty, and celibate daughters of kings in the
Third Intermediate Period.  Although
the same title was used in all three periods, it would probably be best to
treat them separately for what we say about the office in one period may not
apply in the other.  We know
almost nothing about the office in the Middle Kingdom so we will look at the
evidence for the New Kingdom and for the Third Intermediate.



The first of the royal women to bear the title was Ahhotep,
but it was under her daughter, Ahmose-Nefertari, that the office achieved
importance.  King Ahmose made a
deal with the priesthood of Amun whereby his wife and her heirs would hold
the title in perpetuity.  Along
with it came its own estate and officials. 

Amun acquired a great deal of wealth; the king acquired a position of
considerable prestige and power for a queen or princess.

dynasty God’s Wife might have worn priestly garments (short wig, a thin
square of cloth hanging in a knot from the back of the head, and a belted or
unbelted sheath dress) or, the dress and regalia appropriate to her standing
as a royal princess or queen. 

From the reign of Hatshepsut there is a scene in which the God’s
Wife participated in temple ritual along with a male priest, a scene in
which she led male priests into the sacred lake for purification and one
where she followed the King into the inner court of the temple. 

So much wealth and prestige was attached to the office that we must
wonder if there was not more to it than the performance of a few rituals. 
There is absolutely no sign of sacred prostitution anywhere in
Ancient Egypt so we can safely assume that despite the title there was
nothing sexual about the office.  The
following have been suggested:

  1. It
    is possible that she was, perhaps through the playing of music, supposed
    to make Amun happy and stimulated enough to carry out the reproductive
    activity necessary for the continued survival of Egypt. 
    This could account for the word wife without involving any sexual
  2. The
    Egyptians did see everything in pairs—good and evil, order and chaos,
    day and night, etc.—so that one was never possible without the other. 

    It has been suggested that the God’s Wife could participate in
    worship along side the King as a sort of matching pair. 
    The problem with this suggestion is that the office was not
    always held by a King’s Great Wife and yet the chief queen was a much
    more natural match for a king. 

  3. Others
    have suggested that a fear of the rising power of the Amun priesthood
    existed as early as the end of the Seventeenth and the beginning of the
    Eighteenth Dynasties and that Ahmose hoped that by planting a trusted
    female relative in a position of power at the center of the Amun temple
    he could curb the pretensions of the male priesthood. 
    This argument is strengthened by the fact that throughout the
    Eighteenth Dynasty princesses were forbidden to marry anyone but the
    king himself.  This
    prevented the dispersal of royal wealth and hence of political power. 
    Whatever authority and prestige a royal woman possessed came
    entirely from the King, allowing no one to set up a rival power base
    simply through association with a King’s daughter.

  4. If
    a queen or princess is the wife of Amun then the god might have fathered
    any children she produced.  Pharaohs
    liked to claim that they were sons of the divine. 
    The claim was always made retroactively: after they ascended the
    throne they could point out that their mother had been the wife of the god.



authority broke down once again in the Third Intermediate Period. 
Unlike the first two such periods, fragmentation was not seen as a
particularly bad thing.  The
power and size of each region fluctuated over time and there were moments of
intense rivalry that could include war, but the four-century period was more
stable than one might expect.

Egypt was essentially a theocracy under the control of the god Amun and his
priests; Lower Egypt (the Delta) was further divided into several
principalities.  For most of the
time all parts of Egypt pretended to accept a single ruler, usually the King
of Tanis, as the supreme Pharaoh, but this individual rarely demanded or
received obedience outside of his own corner of the country. 

the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms one of the Pharaoh’s most important jobs
was that of leading the worship of the gods in order to maintain Ma’at. 

By the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period the Amun priesthood
had succeeded in transferring that responsibility to itself, at least in the
area of Upper Egypt.  If the
king was not needed to propitiate the gods, he was certainly not needed to
appoint men to important civic offices like the Vizier, Treasurer, and
Commander of the Army.  At times
a Pharaoh based in Tanis would have his daughter appointed as God’s Wife
of Amun.  By having a celibate
daughter carry out the traditional ceremonies by which the monarch appealed
to the gods to help Egypt, the Pharaoh could pretend to rule the whole
country without the Amun priesthood actually having to give up any real
power, though it is possible there were occasions when the balance shifted
and the God’s Wife actually exercised some genuine authority.

Towards the end of this period the kings of Kush controlled the God’s
Wife.  New Kingdom Pharaohs had
taken great pains to control Nubia, but over the course of the 20th

Dynasty Egypt’s physical presence disappeared. 
By the middle of the Eighth Century BCE the roles were
reversed and Nubia controlled Upper Egypt. 
Although the King of Kush called himself the Pharaoh of Egypt, his
authority seldom extended north of Memphis and was often exercised through
the office of God’s Wife of Amun.

Throughout the Third Intermediate Period the God’s Wife of Amun was always
celibate; she might have been the daughter of a king or a high priest, but
she was never a king’s wife.  She
was always pictured wearing a queen’s costume and never the dress of a
princess or priestess.  Paintings
show her performing rituals that had hitherto only been carried out by a
Pharaoh: making an offering or libation to a god; being embraced by a god;
receiving the symbols of kingship from a god. 

A relief from North Karnak even shows a God’s Wife celebrating a
Sed Festival, traditionally the thirtieth anniversary of a king’s reign.



Standing figure of a
22nd Dynasty God’s Wife of Amun. Photo used with the kind
permission of Jon Bodsworth


Achaemenid Empire (550 BC–330 BC)

Apadana Hall, Persepolis: Angra Mainyu kills the primeval bull, whose seed is rescued by Mah, the moon, as the source for all other animals.

The earliest known record of the Persians comes from an Assyrian inscription from c. 844 BC that calls them the ”Parsu” (Parsuash, Parsumash) and mentions them in the region of Lake Urmia alongside another group, the ”Madai” (Medes). For the next two centuries, the Persians and Medes were at times tributary to the Assyrians. 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.
(”Hakhamanish”), chieftain of the Persians around The Achaemenids were the first to create a centralized state in Persia, founded by Achaemenes700 BC.
Around 653 BC, the Medes came under the domination of the Scythians, and Teispes, the son of Achaemenes, seems to have led the nomadic Persians to settle in southern Iran around this time — eventually establishing the first organized Persian state in the important region of Anshan as the Elamite kingdom was permanently destroyed by the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal (640 BC). The kingdom of Anshan and its successors continued to use Elamite as an official language for quite some time after this, although the new dynasts spoke Persian, an Indo-Iranian tongue.
defeated the forces of Astyages, who was then captured by his own nobles and turned over to the triumphant Cyrus, now Teispes’ descendants may have branched off into two lines, one line ruling in Anshan, while the other ruled the rest of Persia. Cyrus II the Great united the separate kingdoms around 559 BC. At this time, the Persians were still tributary to the Median Empire ruled by Astyages. Cyrus rallied the Persians together, and in 550 BCShah of a unified Persian kingdom. As Persia assumed control over the rest of Media and their large empire, 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 standards of a benevolent conqueror by issuing the Cyrus Cylinder, the first charter of human rights. Cyrus was killed in 530 BC during a battle against the Massagetae or Sakas.

Darius I of Persia.

Achaemenid empire at its greatest extent.

Cyrus’ son, Cambyses II, annexed Egypt to the Achaemenid 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. A punitive raid against Greece was halted at the Battle of Marathon. His son Xerxes I tried to subdue the Greeks, but his army was defeated at the Battle of Plataea 479 BC.
The Achaemenid 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 satrapies (provinces) supervised by satraps, or governors, many of whom had personal ties to the Shah. He instituted a systematic 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.
Darius improved the famous Royal Road and other ancient trade routes, thereby connecting far reaches of the empire. He may have moved the administration center from Fars 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.

Persian and Median soldiers with Farvahar in center.

It may have been during the Achaemenid period that Zoroastrianism reached South-Western Iran, where it came to be accepted by the rulers and through them became a defining element of Persian culture. The religion was not only accompanied by a formalization of the concepts and divinities of the traditional (Indo-)Iranian pantheon but also introduced several novel ideas, including that of free will, which is arguably Zoroaster’s greatest contribution to religious philosophy. Under the patronage of the Achaemenid kings, and later as the ”de-facto” religion of the state, Zoroastrianism would reach all corners of the empire. In turn, Zoroastrianism would be subject to the first sycretic influences, in particular from the Semitic lands to the west, from which the divinities of the religion would gain astral and planetary aspects and from where the temple cult originates. It was also during the Achaemenid era that the sacerdotal Magi would exert their influence on the religion, introducing many of the practices that are today identified as typically Zoroastrian, but also introducing doctrinal modifications that are today considered to be revocations of the original teachings of the prophet.
The Achaemenid Empire united people and kingdoms from every major civilization in south west Asia. For the first time in history, people from very different cultures were in contact with one another under one ruler.

Ancient Persia Empire

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.