Thursday, January 05, 2006

Early history and the Median and Achaemenian Empires (3200 BCE – 330 BCE)

Dozens of pre-historic sites across the Iranian plateau point to the existence of ancient cultures and urban settlements, centuries before the earliest civilizations arose in nearby Mesopotamia.

The written history of Persia (Iran) begins around 3200 BCE with the Proto-Iranian civilization, followed by the Elamites. The arrival of the Aryans (Indo-Iranians) in the third and second millennium BCE and the establishing of the Median dynasty (728–550 BCE) culminated in the first Iranian Empire. The Medes are credited with the foundation of Iran as a nation and empire, the largest of its day, until Cyrus the Great established a unified empire of the Medes and Persians leading to the Achaemenian Empire (648–330 BCE), founded by Cyrus the Great.

After Cyrus's death, his son Cambyses continued his father's work of conquest, making significant gains in Egypt. A power struggle followed Cambyses' death and, despite his tenuous connection to the royal line, Darius was declared king (ruled 522-486 BCE). He was to be arguably the greatest of the ancient Persian rulers.

While Darius's first capital was at Susa, he also initiated the construction of Persepolis. He then built a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea, a forerunner of the modern Suez Canal. It is during his reign that mention is first made of the Royal Road (shown on map), a great highway stretching all the way from Susa to Sardis with posting stations at regular intervals.

Under Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great, the Persian Empire eventually became the largest and most powerful empire in human history up until that point, ruling over most of the known world. Their greatest achievement was the empire itself. The Persian Empire represented the world's first global superpower, and was based on a model of tolerance and respect for other cultures and religions.

The borders of the Persian empire stretched from the Indus and Oxus Rivers in the East to the Mediterranean Sea in the West, extending through Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and Egypt. But in 499 BCE, one of the cities along the cost of Anatolia, Miletus, ruled by a Greek tyrant named Aristagoras, staged a revolt and turned to the Athenians for aid. Until then the Persians had no plan or desire to go into Europe. Subsequently, an Athenian assault on a major Persian province culminated in the sacking and burning of the city of Sardis. It is this event that escalated into what is known as the Greco-Persian Wars, which included encounters such as the Battle of Thermopylae. In 494 BCE the Persians defeated the Greeks at the battle of Lade, and the coast of Anatolia was once again peaceful.

Alexander of Macedon known as "Arda Wiraz Namag", "the accursed Alexander" in the Zoroastrian Middle Persian work, brought an end to the Achaemenid empire, and conquered Persia in 333 BCE burning and looting many cities until his death in the Persian capital of Babylon, only to be followed by two more vast and unified Iranian empires that further shaped the pre-Islamic identity of Iran and Central Asia: the Parthian (250 BCE-226 CE) and Sassanian (226-650 CE) dynasties.