The Islamic World to 1600
The Iranian plateau, much of the territory of present-day Iran, was first populated in the 9th century BCE, when the Medes people migrated there from Central Asia. The Medes were followed by the Persians in the 8th century BCE, and these two groups laid the foundation for a series of empires that arose on the Iranian plateau over the next thousand years. Around 750 BCE the Medes people formed their own kingdom, called Media, in the northwest plateau, becoming powerful enough by 612 BCE to defeat the older Assyrian Empire to the west. In 550 BCE, however, the Persian leader Cyrus the Great led the Persians into battle against the ruling Medes people, resulting in the unification of the two groups under the name of the victor, the Persians. Cyrus also captured the city of Babylon on the Euphrates River and freed the Jewish captives there, earning himself a place in the Book of Isaiah. The first Persian Empire, the Achaemenid, emerged from Cyrus' victories, and lasted until the 2nd century BCE. The Achaemenid Empire was the largest empire yet seen in the ancient world, extending at its height as far east as the Hindu Kush mountains in present-day Afghanistan. Economically, the Achaemenids established an efficient trade system throughout their empire. Persian words for many commodities spread throughout the region as a result of this commercial activity, some of which are still used in English today. Examples include bazaar, shawl, sash, turquoise, tiara, orange, lemon, melon, peach, spinach, and asparagus.
The Greeks of the eastern Aegean coast were the first western subjects of the Achaemenid Empire, bringing the Greek and Persian cultures together for the first time. It was the start of a long relationship between the two, which would later result in frequent military conflict as their respective empires grew. Religiously, the Achaemenid Empire featured a variety of polytheistic religions, or those that worship more than one god. What its followers claimed was the world's first monotheistic religion developed on the Iranian plateau, though, based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster (also called Zarathustra). By the time of the Achaemenid Empire, Zoroastrianism - which most religious scholars now categorise as dualism, not monotheism - was gaining converts among the Persians.
By the 4th century BCE, Macedonia had become a strong force in the west, challenging first Greece, then lands further east. About 330 BCE, Alexander the Great of Macedonia invaded Persia and sacked the capital at Persepolis, ending the Achaemenid Empire. Although Alexander has achieved almost mythic status in western history, the Persian view of him is understandably quite different. Persia did not regain its Achaemenid-era power until the Sassanid Empire rose in the 3rd century CE. In the meantime, Persia was ruled by weaker dynasties, the Seleucid and the Parthian, a period sometimes called the Hellenistic period in Iran because of the Greek cultural influence. Greek statues and temples from this era have been found as far east as Punjab and the Persian Gulf region. Anti-Greek sentiment that began under the late Parthian Empire and continued under the Sassanids, however, has led to a poor memory of this period of Persian history. As we shall see, the influence was not only one way; Persian culture, and especially religion, would also have a great effect on many Judeo-Christian ideas.
|Proceed to the Sassanid Empire|