History of Iran: Achaemenids

Iranian history, to many of us in the West, is something of an unknown. We know that the civilization of Iran is an ancient one, and that various Persian Empires have contested the great powers of European history, but beyond that–nothing (or worse than nothing, in the case of the recent movie “300”). In a series of posts, I hope to acquaint you with some basic information about some of the dynasties that have controlled what is now Iran over the past 2500 years, with some context to show their relevance to world history.

While it would be ideal to proceed chronologically, I will instead be working in the order of sites we visit. Fortunately, we started our trip in Shiraz, nearby some of the greatest relics of the Achaemenid and Sassanid Empires, which come fairly early in Persian history, and it is those two periods I wish to cover in this and the next post.


The Achaemenids came to power around 550 BC, when Cyrus the Great consolidated rule over now Iran. Cyrus was able to extend his empire as far east as Pakistan and Central Asia and as far west as Egypt and the Greek cities of Asia Minor (now Turkey). Soon after Cyrus’s reign was Darius the Great’s, who was in turn followed by his son Xerxes–all names familiar to Western readers as the foes of the Greeks. The Achaemenid Persian Empire was arguably the first great empire of the world, incorporating many nations in a wide stretch of the Near East.

Perhaps the greatest construction of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, and a great source of pride for Iranian people of today, was Persepolis, which lies approximately an hour from the modern city of Shiraz. Not a true city, but more a religious or festival complex, the site was constructed for the celebration of Nowruz, or the Persian New Year, which is still celebrated around the time of the Spring Equinox in Iran and Central Asia. [All of the pictures in this post are from Persepolis and nearby tombs.]

Gate of All Nations, Persepolis

A symbol of Nowruz–a lion attacking a bull

During the Nowruz celebrations, representatives of all of the nations within the Persian Empire would come to Persepolis to pay tribute to the Persian emperor. Our guide noted that the gifts brought were not necessarily the most valuable items from a given region but the items that were most locally distinctive. The procession of the nations is recorded in reliefs that have survived in near pristine condition.

Note how each delegation is led (on left), hand in hand, by a Mede or Persian–the two “home” nations of the Persian Empire.

The Lydian delegation, carrying bowls and vases

The Achaemenids were followers of Zoroastrianism, said by some to be the world’s first monotheistic religion. [Post on Zoroastrianism (including its survival in modern Iran) to come.] However, the Achaemenids permitted freedom of worship within the empire, and Persians proudly state that Cyrus “invented” human rights in a famous charter known as the Cyrus Cylinder. The Achaemenid rulers called themselves Kings of Kings, and recognized that they were rulers over a multiethnic and multilingual domain.

The faravahar, a symbol of Zoroastrianism

Inscriptions at Persepolis and other Achaemenid sites are in three languages, Elamite, Neo-Babylonian and Old Persian, all written in cuneiform.

The Greeks were among the Persians’ greatest foes, and the Achaemenids suffered famous defeats at Marathon in 490 BC and at Salamis in 480 BC. The Empire persisted, however, until the rise of Macedonian Alexander the Great, whose armies swept over Asia as far as now Pakistan. Alexander defeated the Persian Empire around 330 BC, commencing a period of Greek control of now Iran that lasted through around 250 BC. Persepolis was destroyed by a fire at the time of Alexander’s conquest, although it is not known whether this was deliberate (as revenge for Xerxes’ destruction of Athens) or accidental.

The acinaces, a dagger used by Persian soldiers. We were told that the length of these daggers was a great strategic disadvantage relative to the Greeks’ longer swords. Note at the bottom the row of twelve-petaled flowers, a symbol representing the twelve months of the year that is repeated everywhere in Persepolis.

Four of the Achaemenid emperors were buried near Persepolis, at a site now called Naqst-e Rostam. The tomb on the right belongs to Darius the Great.

Detail of carvings above tomb. Note the emperor above being supported by the 28 nations of the Persian Empire while paying respect toward the faravahar and another symbol of Zoroastrianism, the fire of the fire temple.

One thought on “History of Iran: Achaemenids

  1. Great pics and descriptions. I’m jealous I’m not there.

    Speaking of people named Darius in government, an Iranian-American with the same name is running for Congress in Albany, New York. If elected, he would be the highest ranking Iranian-American in a government position in the United States. The current highest is reported to be the mayor of Beverly Hills. (For info on Darius’s campaign, see http://www.dariusforcongress.com/.)

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