IRAN: Historical Introduction
The timetable, which is only approximate, is arranged to facilitate the understanding of the 6 major periods of recorded history of Iran.
The origin of the Elamites and the other prehistoric settlers is not clear. Starting with Achaemenian rule and ending with the Arab conquest, all dynasties were of Aryan background.
1. Mesopotamia and Elam
The development of human organization can be traced through Iranian and Mesopotamian archaeology, starting with the society of Paleolithic hunters in the caves of Kurdistan and the Caspian Coast. Society progressed "here in the nursery of modern man" to gathering and neolithic agriculture, within a radius of few miles at most from the Belt and Hotu caves. With the introduction of irrigation, most probably in the highlands of Kurdistan, the social system changed from loose tribal family groups to complex city societies with forceful leadership.
The cooperation within large societies created wealth, fostered knowledge and highly complex religious practices and fathered accounting and writing.
The Iranian Plateau straddles the crossroads of our world, providing a continuously snow free route between Europe, the Mediterranean and Egypt, India and lands East. The summer road over the Iranian plateau leads to Transoxiana and beyond to China. The winter road crosses South Iran to the Indus. The states along this route profited from the trade, often becoming dependent on it, and their isolation was reduced.
The history of the entire area is one of constant conflict for supremacy. The control of the water upstream is vital for irrigation. The control of the city downstream important for trade. Looting increased wealth, the enslaving of citizens of neighboring cities, a work-force. As the access to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean became easier, the profits were increased. A pattern of construction, destruction and reformation of empires followed.
At the same time there was everlasting danger from the nomadic Semitic tribes of the Arabian Desert and, Inter, from the people pushing towards Mesopotamia from Central Asia through the mountains of Iran. Whenever there was any weakness in the defense of the Mesopotamian cities and states, nomads took over. Whenever a new wave of immigration the pressure on Mesopotamia was increased. The conquerors created new dynasties, but in so doing accepted the luxuries of city life, bowing to the immutable necessities of settled agricultural society and irrigation farming and were assimilated.
The geography of the area along the lower reaches of Tigris and Euphrates seems to have differed greatly from today (although some geologists dispute this). The Mesopotamian Euphrates and Tigris and the Iranian Karun and Karkheh each entered separately into the Persian Gulf, the first two close to the city of Ur below modern Baghdad, and the Iranian pair further down the coast. The swamps reached further upstream than today and separated Sumer from Elam. The silting process, especially from the swift flowing Karun draining from the Zagros Mountains, continued over the centuries - as it still continues - turning shallow gulf water into marshes and marshlands into terra firma until today's situation arose.
Animal husbandry started in the Iranian highlands with the domestication of the sheep and moved down onto the great alluvial pastures as the herds multiplied. Primitive agriculture began in the lush Caspian belt, irrigation developed from damming in the pleasant highland vales fed by easily controlled mountain streams and as population increased and engineering technology improved, moved down to the great rivers.
The Sumerians migrated to the region of Ur most likely from the east, from the drying-up highlands of Iran, or possibly from the Indus Valley, to establish the first large city civilization. The origin of the Elamites of Southwest Iran is completely unclear. The Sumerian language is not related to any language spoken today. Elamite probably also bears no relation to living languages, but not enough of it is known to be certain.
The cultural development or Sumer and Elam ran parallel. A script was in use in Elam (Kerman) simultaneous to the first pictorial writing in Ur (3000 B.C.). Temple structures in both areas had the same ziggurat form, the man-made mountain reminiscent of their highland origins. Many cultic and religious habits were the same throughout Mesopotamia; the snake cult of Elam however was distinct and foreign.
Elam controlled the plain between the Zagros Mountains and the swamps of the two rivers as well as the entire Iranian Plateau to the great salt desert. This gave the Elamites great advantages, as suppliers of gold, timber, stone and other basic raw materials which had to be imported by the civilizations in the alluvial plain. At times, when the lowlands of Elam were overrun by invaders from Mesopotamia, indigenous Elamite dynasties recovered the loss after weathering the storm by withdrawing to the mountains. While dynasties and population groups in Mesopotamia changed drastically, Elam retained continuity.
Metallurgy and the introduction of the chariot introduced revolutionary changes. Dependence on horses and metals from the mountains of Iran and Eastern Anatolia grew, and control of the source was vital. Larger armies could be formed and greater distances covered. The spoils accrued by successful war became ever more luring.
The basic policy however remained the same and the cruelty displayed in the magnificent relieves of Khorsabad and Nineveh bears mute witness: heaps of bodies floating down river, burning cities, enslaved populations, beasts loaded with loot underscore the terror. The king is glorified for his prowess with the chariot and his skill in killing lions.
Two important changes occurred after 1000 B.C. The rivers pushed the land further out into the Persian Gulf and fused to form the Arvand Rood. The swamps receded down river. This changed and weakened the strategic position of Elam.
By 850 additional small tribal groups of Aryan stock, including Persians and Medes, infiltrated the mountains of Kurdistan and Fars, ringing Elam. The pattern of their nomadic life centered around herding of animals from the warm winter pastures on the fringes of the plain to the rich green meadows of the mountains in summer, thus avoiding the parched land and heat of the lowlands of Mesopotamia and Elam in summer.
Internecine strife between small tribal bands over migration routes, water-holes and better pastures prevented any large-scale concerted action. However, groups banded together to raid the trade caravans bringing goods to the plains. Occasionally small settlements were robbed. The association with established cultures of Urartu, Elam, Babylonia and Assyria affected tribal life but little. Tribal manpower however was used as levies in the armies and the naturally truculent tribesmen learned the finer arts of warfare.
The supply of horses and metals from the mountains was so crucial that the superpower of the day (800-600 B.C.), Assyria, was forced to take steps to protect its trade routes. Attempts were made to control the entire axis of the Mediterranean harbors and the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Great successes were achieved by Assyria under great leadership. It is known from the clay-tablet records, with details often filled in by archaeological excavations, that the Babylonians and Elamites formed a defensive union and prolonged war started. Assyria, after successfully attacking Egypt, launched a large-scale amphibian invasion with a substantial fleet through the head waters of the Persian Gulf on the shores of Elam. This invasion was repelled (698), but a new attack was mounted two generations later, when there was serious internal strife and conflict over the royal succession in Elam. The Elamites army with its Persian tribal levies was decisively defeated in the battle of the Ulai River (652). Shortly thereafter Babylon was invested, Elam completely destroyed (639) and the Chaldeans of Ur were pushed into the swamps.
This did not overcome Assyria's problem with the Iranian mountain tribes, the roving Sumerians and Scythes and Medes, nor with the urbanized Urartians. The trade routes through Asia Minor remained insecure. Assyrian armies assaulted the mountains, roaming far and wide, through Kurdistan, Armenia, to Mount Ararat. They destroyed the cities of the established highland civilizations, weakening especially Urartu.
The tribes eluded them completely, fading into the mountains on the news of the arrival of any large army. Tribal life however was markedly changed. A tribal leader was elected, the migration routes controlled, internecine strife quelled. The destruction of the controlling forces of urban-agricultural Urartu and Elam liberated the tribal Persians and the Medes from many restrictions and the nomadic population and power grew by leaps and bounds. Great areas which were until that time under intense cultivation are still today nomadic grazing grounds, and the political problem created by the decline of Elamites power is still being felt. The tribal leaders now accepted the title of Kings. (It is important to note that the king always had to be of royal family. The fate of the tribe, however, is so important that it cannot be handed to just any member of the family. The best possible man is selected by consensus from several royal candidates. This explains the rather startling shifts in family relationship amongst the early Achaemenian kings).
Achaemenes had become king of the Persians just prior to the showdown between the Assyrians and Elamites (700). The Assyrian commander who destroyed Elam (639) met with Cyrus I in the area of today's city of Behbahan and accepted his son as hostage. The Persians were biding their time. Their enlarged kingdom was temporarily divided between two grandsons of Achaemenes - Cyrus I and Ariaramnes - as kings, respectively, of Parsumash and Parsa.
Assyria had extended its power to the limits. The Chaldean kings of Sumer revitalized Babylon. A Babylonian and Medic coalition attacked Nineveh and Khorsabad and destroyed the royal Assyrian cities and Assyrian power (612). Neobabylonia expanded, opened the sea route through the Mediterranean, fruitlessly attacked Egypt but did not attempt to force the mountains where Cambyses, son of Cyrus I, had inherited the crowns of Parsumash and Parsa and reigned as King of Anzan (600-559).
2. The Achaemenian Empire
Cyaxares of Media - Ahasuerus of the Bible, Book of Daniel - had unified his tribes and allied them with Babylonia to take Nineveh and destroy Assyria. He furthered his realm by investing Urartu and pushing towards Lydia. His son Astyages - the biblical Darius the Mede of the Book of Daniel - allied his land with the Persians by marrying his only daughter to Cambyses, the King of Anzan (Persia). Their son Cyrus, heir of the thrones of Persia and Media, was destined to become the founder of the Empire.
How this came about is not quite clear. It is sure that Astyages had introduced Babylonian and Assyrian court ceremonial, with its worship of the god-like king, into Media, which was repugnant to his tribes. Cyrus renounced his vassalage and stopped paying tribute. The Median army was defeated close to Parsagad (Pasargadae) when much of it defected to Cyrus, and the Persians and Medes were united (533 B.C.). Cyrus accepted his Median grandfather as senior advisor, incorporating his Medes as equal partners into the empire and then negotiated the federation of Elam and Urartu as first satrapies, setting the peculiar pattern of the "federal" Empire which followed. The Medes and Persians comprised the nobility and ruling caste and did not have to pay taxes, in return for which exemption they formed and recruited the bulk of the army.
Croesus, King of Lydia, used the news of the civil war in Iran to attack the Median border provinces. Cyrus responded by leading his army through northern Mesopotamia. A battle was joined at the Cilician Gates, which after heavy losses on both sides ended with a draw. Cyrus feinted withdrawal, Crocuses returned to Sardis and disbanded his army, since winter had set in and snow could be expected at any moment. Cyrus waited for several weeks and then marched his army in forced marches to Sardis, to surprise Croesus completely. Herodotus reports that Cyrus' progress was so swift that he "arrived his own messenger". The Lydian cavalry rallied and attacked with desperate force only to be foiled by another Cyrus stratagem. Knowing that horses shied away from camels and that no infantry levies were available to Croesus at the time, he put his camel troops into the first line of battle. He thus invested all of Lydia (547) and secured Asia Minor as well as the strategically important area north of Syria. Unlike his Mesopotamian predecessors, who executed the conquered kings, Cyrus incorporated the old rulers into his government and the humbled Croesus, whose egotism and wealth are a favorite subject of Greek legend, became a major advisor. From King of the Persians, king of Anzan, Cyrus had become King of Kings. King of All Lands. The attack on Mesopotamia was mounted, Babylon was taken in 538 and within 14 years after the unification of Persians and Medes the empire encompassed the entire Persian highland, Mesopotamia and Transoxiana in Central Asia.
During his ensuing eastern campaign Cyrus defeated Vistashpa, King of Chorasmia and first convert of the prophet Zoroaster, incorporating his land into the Persian Empire. Cyrus died later in the same campaign in 530 B.C. in battle against the Amazon Queen of the Sogdians in Transoxiana.
The Persians did not come only as conquerors, but as revolutionary innovators. They brought stability and order through the famed Laws of the Medes and Persians, as well as an unheard-of respect for existing religious institutions, which guaranteed freedom of worship and accepted the religions of all peoples. They permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem and granted them aid funds to reconstruct their temple, or to settle wherever they wanted in the Achaemenian Empire. Large Jewish communities still exist in Iran from that time. (Isfahan and Shiraz are modern cities believed to have grown out of original Jewish settlements). A general tax of 10% was charged which guaranteed security and freedom from military service - a system adopted 1,000 years later by Islam.
In arid areas the Persian method of irrigation - the qanat system - was introduced and large areas of land made fertile. This proved a resounding success in the Egyptian oases, and in westernmost China. Safe roads permitted unrestricted travel and commerce between the Indus River, Transoxiana, Siberia, and the Mediterranean. Trade was facilitated by one monetary unit, the Daric, of equal value and grade in all parts of the empire.
It should therefore not be astonishing that many of the small Greek trading communities in Asia Minor supported Persian rule and believed they had everything to lose by Greek nationalism. There was a strong "Persian" party In Athens The Persian Wars between "civilized" Greece and "barbarian" Persia were started, according to the Greek father of history Herodotus, by the "mischief" of the Athenians, looting Lydian cities under Persian protection, for profit.
The unity of the Persian homeland was strengthened by the development of three capitals. For winter, the reception of foreigners and general business: Susa in Elam. For summer and the archives: Median Hamadan, the Ecbatana of the Bible. For the spring festival and New Year's celebration: Persepolis - whose very existence was unknown to foreigners. Pasargadae continued to be used for the coronation ceremonies of new kings.
A system of royal governors (satraps) was worked out, nobles who were related to the king by blood, or who had proven their merit. The centrifugal tendencies in such a great empire were combated by an intelligence service of trusted servants of the king, sent to control the administration of the provinces and reporting at least once a year directly to him - probably at the New Year's festival in Persepolis. The military administration of each province was under an army general, directly responsible to the king rather than to the local satrap. The basic structure of this highly original administration was initiated by Cyrus the Great and perfected by Darius the Great after he had to combat revolutions in almost all satrapies.
Egypt was added to the empire under Cambyses (529-522). A canal was dug between the Nile and the Red Sea, facilitating transport between the Mediterranean and the eastern shore of Africa and India.
The system worked excellently until sloth and maladministration, incapable rulers, continuous blood letting amongst the nobles, neglect and incompetence of military leadership led to its collapse under Alexander's thrust in 330 B.C.
3. Alexander and The Seleucids
Alexander conquered the Achaemenian Empire systematically. He moved from Asia Minor to Syria, Palestine and Egypt, to Mesopotamia, to Iran proper, on to Afghanistan, Transoxiana and finally to Achaemenian India, investing one satrapy after the other, against continuous resistance, to leave no remnant that could reconstitute Achaemenian power. It must be realized that in conquering the "world" he never went beyond the reaches of Achaemenian Persia. When he tried to do so in India, his troops refused to go no. They had done what they set out to do, to conquer Persia. What more did he want? How much longer should they be away from home?
Alexander had no time to consolidate his power administratively, although he tried to go one step further than the Persians by advocating integration and racial mixing by mass intermarriage. The empire of Alexander after his death in Babylon was divided amongst his successor generals into several parts, of which central Iran under his infant son by his Persian wife was one.
4. Parthian (Arsacid Dynasty)
The division of the Achaemenian and short-lived Alexandrian Empire weakened the defensive position of central Iran. The successors of Alexander could not hold on more than a few decades. A northern Iranian tribe from Transoxiana, the region of today's Turkmenistan, the Parthians, invaded and under the family of Arsaces steadily imposed its rule. By 220 B.C. they controlled all of central Iran and Mesopotamia, separating the Greek Empire in Bactria and India from the Seleucid Empires in Syria, Asia Minor and Egypt. The Parthian kings, legitimizing themselves as heirs of Alexander, called themselves on their coins "Philhellene", lovers of Greek culture.
The trade routes for Chinese silk and other Far Eastern merchandise went through Parthian Iran. Slowly and one by one the Mediterranean supremacy of Rome replaced Greek governments in Asia Minor. The confrontation between Rome and Parthian intensified to control the trade routes between Syria and the Persian Gulf or through the Black Sea and Armenia to the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea and Transoxiana. The Roman advance to the East was stopped at Carrhae, where the Roman legions under Crassus were annihilated by the Parthian horsemen. Crassus, one member of the Triumvirate, was killed. Rome, plunged into civil war between Caesar and Pompeii, could do nothing to recuperate the loss. The border stabilized finally at a line extending from the Eastern Black Sea, through present day Armenia and the upper Euphrates along the western fringe of the great Arabian desert. For short periods, small independent kingdoms nourished in the buffer zones - such as Palmyra. Occasional raids of Roman legions reached the area of Baghdad. Parthian counter-attacks reached the Mediterranean and sacked Antioch, but neither side was capable of holding on for long to conquered territory. The Parthians remained in control of the overland route to China and Chinese silks reached Rome and Roman wares reached China through Parthian and later Sassanian.
The Achaemenian kings could rule their vast empire only because they respected and officially accepted the religions of the different city states and countries as their own and satisfied the clergy in the conquered countries. In places where this was neglected at certain times- as for instance Egypt under Cambyses - revolts occurred. The Aryan tribes had accepted Zoroastrianism by the time of Cyrus but without imposing it on other nationalities. The palaces at Persepolis served the Zoroastrian spring festival and New Year's rites and bear numerous Zoroastrian symbols.
Zoroastrian religious thought was an expression of Iranian tradition. It proclaimed the holiness of fire, water, air and earth, which could not be defiled by anything unclean. The world and the heavens were in a fight of good (Hormuzd) against evil (Ahriman), of the truth against the lie, of light against darkness. It was hoped that the good side would win, but this victory was not a foregone conclusion, and the active participation of the committed individual was required. The Parthian kings accepted Zoroastrianism, which continued to be practiced in Iran. At the same time several new religions prospered, foremost Christianity, which started to take a hold in Egypt and in the Greek portion of the Roman Empire, and flourished in the Parthian Empire among the Assyrians and among the Armenians. Christianity was tolerated in Parthia in the same way all other religions were, receiving no special preference or prejudice.
One of the most important places where Zoroastrianism was practiced was the city of Istakhr, outside Persepolis. One of the Zoroastrian high priests, Sassan, lived there (A.D. 180). He was succeeded by Papak who established himself as King of Fars under the Parthian King of Kings. This occurred during a period of internal dissension amongst the Parthians and continuous fights with the Romans on the western border. Papak's son Ardeshir, announced his independence from Artabanus V, symbolically, by building a palace of royal pretensions at Firuzabad during one of the more successful wars of the Parthians with Rome. Artabanus turned cast to quell the rebellion only to lose his life in A.D. 224 in a battle with the forces of Ardeshir.
From a tribal chief and King of Fars, Ardeshir became King of Kings. This, of course, could give ideas to any other tribal chief in the area. Therefore, everywhere in Fars, especially in places of importance such as along highways, next to water sources, on places of veneration. Stone outcropping were smoothed and carved to show the transfer of power from Hormuzd, the god of light and goodness, to Ardeshir inscribed with such as "the effigy of that Mazda-worshiping divinity, Artakhshatr (Ardeshir), King of Kings of Iran of spiritual origin from the Gods, son of Papak the King". This particular inscription at Naqsh-e Rustam was accompanied by a Greek translation as well. The Parthian Arsacids were denounced as foreign interlopers and their monuments destroyed. The House of Sassan claimed direct descent from Achaemenes. The successes of his son, Shapur, who took the Roman Emperor Valerian prisoner (A.D. 260), consolidated the power of the dynasty. Utmost propaganda use was made of this event. Many separate rock carvings in Fars depict the defeat of the Romans, at Shapur and Darab; the capture of Valerian, Naqsh-e Rustam, and Shapur; the destruction of Gordian, at Naqsh-e Rustam, Shapur; and the peace mission of Philip the Arab. Zoroastrianism takes a much more central part in Sassanian politics than in any previous dynasty as the kings descend from a family of Zoroastrian priests. The religious climate of the Middle East had changed drastically with the advent of Christianity, its impact in the Roman Empire, and its direct relation of man to god rather than to king. In Mesopotamia Mani formed and propagated the Manichean faith which spread rapidly and collected numerous followers. Also Jewish communities spread over the entire Sassanian Empire and flourished. (One must realize that only a minority of the Jews had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and many other members of the Jewish community remained in Babylon or spread through the main cities or the Achaemenian Empire, where they maintained their religious identity and independence.)
Shapur followed the Iranian tradition of tolerance for other religions. He checked the power of his High Priest, the priest of priests, Kartir. His two weak successors however had to rely greatly on this remarkable man, who was granted the royal privilege of a rock carving of his own at Naqsh-e Rajab. His contribution to the cleansing of the Zoroastrian faith, the suppression of foreign religions (Manicheism) and probably the killing of Mani himself, were honored. This introduced the first elements of religious strife.
The acceptance of Christianity as the state religion in Byzantium under Constantine produced a severe crisis. Christian minorities, especially in the border region of Armenia, were thus members of a faith of the major enemy power and therefore assumed to be under its influence. Suppression in Iran was severe, until a modus vivendi was found. Complete peace never was restored. The war between Iran and Byzantium over Christianized Armenia became perennial.
Another divisive factor was the caste system of the Aryans. Classes of nobility, priests, farmer-landowners, warriors, scribes and artisans formed the state-supporting groups. This subdivision was not as rigid as in India and constant mixing occurred. Priests, for example, could be landowners as well as warriors.
Wealth and ownership was accepted as something good by the Zoroastrians and respected as such. Landholdings became more and more consolidated into a few hands and the socialistic ideas of' Christianity, Manicheism and, later on, Islam were undermining the foundations of society.
The fifth century brought the interesting revolution of Mazdak, a priest who convinced the reigning Sassanian King Kavad that all evil came from possessions and that equal division of property was the only just means of continuation of the empire. King Kavad agreed and tried to implement the Mazdakian reforms. Needless to say, he failed to overcome the resistance of the priests and aristocracy. Mazdak was killed and Kavad dethroned. The Sassanian kings continued to govern in the traditional way until the advent of the Islamic challenge.
A small band of Arabs under determined and brilliant leadership, with a revolutionary social message of materialistic and spiritual nature, defeated several Persian armies and conquered the Sassanian Empire. The king was killed, but his family with his nobles and his court reached China through Transoxiana, where for some decades they maintained a court in exile and tried unsuccessfully to make a comeback. (This event can be traced through the peculiar Chinese and Japanese face masks, showing the enormous Persian noses, and other Sassanian arts and artifacts in the Japanese Imperial Repository, the Shosoin, in Nara). The court artisans accompanied the Sassanian princes to the Chinese capital, Chang-An and Chinese pottery and textile design was profoundly influenced by Sassanian motifs, as was the derivative Japanese art.
Islam changed the entire social structure of Iran in a way persisting to our day. The Arabs and the Caliphate, however, could not maintain their conquest for a long time. Iran retained and regularly reasserted its identity despite Arab, Tatar and Mongol invasions.