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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 15
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Armenia

by Vahan M. Kurkjian

published by the
Armenian General Benevolent Union of America

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 17

 p100  Chapter XVI
Persian Civilization

Mitanni were Indo-Iranian

The Persians, the Medes and most of the other peoples of ancient Iran belonged to the Iranian race of "Aryan" (Indo-European) origin; which, in other words, means that it was a branch of the Indo-European group. The time of their settlement in Iran is not known, but there is ample evidence to show that the region northwest of Mesopotamia had been inhabited in the fourteenth century B.C. by the Mitannian people, whose kings had Indo-Iranian names, and who worshipped Indo-Iranian gods.

The primitive Iranian language was closely connected with Sanskrit. It has two dialects; first, the "ancient Persian" — the speech of Fars or Persian proper — which is the language of Achaemenid inscriptions; second, the Zend, representing a speech of Media, which was the language of the Mazdean Bible, the Avesta. A more recent form of the Iranian was Pehlevi, the language of the Parthians and Sassanians.

Emergence of Medes and Persians

The first Iranians emerging in history were the Medes, inhabiting the present Iraq-al‑Ajami. In 612 B.C. their king Cyaxares (625‑584) took Nineveh and destroyed the Assyrian Empire, which was divided between the Medes and their allies, the Babylonian-Chaldeans and the Syrians. In 550 B.C. the Median Empire was overthrown by the other great Iranian people, the Persians, whose King, Cyrus (Kuros), thereupon annexed all Media, Asia Minor, eastern Iran as far as the Indus River, and finally, the Babylonian Empire, including Syria. His dynasty, the Hakhemenish (Achaemenid),  p101 ruled until 330 B.C. One of its kings, Cambys, also conquered Egypt in 525. Shortly after this, the throne was occupied by Darius I (Darayavush) (521‑486 B.C.), of a collateral branch of the Achaemenids. This monarch and his son, Xerxes I, vainly attempted to conquer Greece. Their successors were forced to satisfy themselves only with meddling in the brawls among Greek cities, until the day when Persia's last king, Darius III, was defeated by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C., and his empire lost forever.

The ancient Persians have always been regarded as one of the nobler peoples of the East — loyal, chivalrous and humane. "Young Persians," said Herodotus, "are taught three things — to ride a horse, to shoot with the bow, and always to tell the truth."

Indo-Iranian Religions

Before the separation of the Iranians from the Indians, the Indo-Iranian tribes worshipped two groups of divinities; the Deva — "Celestials" — and the Asura or Ahura — "Lords" or "Masters." After their separation, Iranians and Indians treated these two categories differently. The people of India deified the Deva, redu­cing the Ahura to the status of mere titanic enemies of the gods, presently becoming demoniacal. The Iranians, on the contrary, made demons (dev) of the Deva, recognizing the Ahura as the only true gods. According to the inscriptions of Darius I, the Iranians of the Achaemenid period had gone even further; one of the Ahura, worshipped under the name of "the Wise Lord," Ahura-Mazda, was recognized as the "greatest of the gods," if not indeed the Supreme Being of the Universe. The Achaemenid kings appealed to Ahura-Mazda alone, thus approaching monotheism. An essential feature of this religion was the lighting of fire upon an open-air altar. Many sculptures on Achaemenid tombs picture the sovereign in front of the lighted altar, with Ahura-Mazda appearing above as a winged genie. Mithra, once a social god, was then assimilated with a solar deity. Along with this dynastic religion, there existed the sacerdotal caste of the Magi (Magu).


Scholars place Zoroaster's epoch in the seventh century B.C. Born in Media, he retired into seclusion at the age of twenty, began to preach at thirty and converted to his new faith Vishtaspa, the King of Bactria, who had thrown him into prison. At 77 he was slain by  p102 Turanian invaders. The Gatha, the first texts of the Avesta, seem to belong to the founder's epoch. This religion is based upon a sort of dualism — the principle of light and the good, Ahura-Mazda, the only god, as opposed to the principle of Darkness and evil, Angra Manyu, the Mazdeian Satan. The first created all good things, the second all bad things in existence. Some hypostasis appearing as angels in Christianity as affiliated with Ahura-Mazda; the six "immortal Saints," or the Amesha-Spenta, personified as Vohu-Mano, "the Good Thought;" Asha-Vahishta, "the Best Virtue," etc. Below these genii are the Yazata, in the front rank of which we meet Atar, "the fire," "the son of Ahura-Mazda;" also Apo, the water; Hvare, the Sun;º servant of the Benevolent god Mithra; the Fravashi (hreshtak in Armenian), guardian angels as well as the divine substance of the soul; Verethragna (Bahram, the Vahagn of Armenia), the angel of victory, etc.

Opposing this army of the good was the army of the bad, created by Angra-Manyu, in which are the daeva (dev in Armenian) and other figures of the Indian pantheon — the demons, the druj or ghouls, and the pairika (peris) or fairies. World history is that of the endless duel of the Good and the Bad. The Mazdeians believed in the immortality of the soul. After death, one must, according to one's conduct in life, cross the Bridge of Judgment, either to the Abode of the Blessed or to Hell. This ensemble of dogmas has an optimistic finale. At the end of time there will appear a sort of Messiah, Saoshyant, the son of Zoroaster, who will preside at the resurrection of the dead. A deluge of molten metal will overwhelm the world and bring about the Last Judgment. All wicked beings will be destroyed and all the good preserved. While the Achaemenid kings buried their dead, orthodox Mazdeists exposed theirs, lest the touch of the corpses defile the holy principle of the fire, of the earth or of water.

Achaemenid Liberalism

No monarchy could have been more liberal than the Achaemenid, the administrative organization of which was the work of Darius I. He divided his enormous domain into twenty provinces, each headed by three royal functionaries — the satrap, the secretary or chancellor, and the commander of the forces. Envoys were sent periodically to inspect the provinces. The centralization thus attained did not do away with nationalistic groups; the Persians permitted  p103 all existing cultures to continue. Their tolerance towards the religions of subject peoples was remarkable by contrast with the intolerance of other conquerors. The Assyrians, as it were, waged war against foreign deities, taking into captivity, along with the worshippers of each, Yahveh of Israel, Bal of Tyre, Marduk of Babylon, Sushinah of Susa, Amon of Thebes and Khaldis of Urartu. The later Mazdeian fanaticism of the Sassanid epoch was unthought of in the time of the Achaemenids, Cyrus became almost a national hero for them, and Esther, a Jewess, sat on the throne beside a legendary King Ahasuerus, 519‑465 B.C.a

A regulated system of taxes replaced the arbitrary ransoms imposed by the Assyrians upon their subject peoples. A network of main highways, with couriers speeding over them put all quarters of the empire in close touch with each other. Wars between races, peoples and cities ceased. Peace, the "Achaemenid Peace," similar to the Pax Romana of a later date, was established for about two centuries, in all the East; the Caucasus — from the Bosporus and Cyrenaica to the Jaxartes and the Indus Rivers.

That the Persians did not attain the military and cultural high level of the Greeks does not justify their being regarded as specimens of Asiatic "barbarism." On the contrary, they eminently represented Aryanism in the Oriental world. They and the Romans were the only ancient peoples able to maintain for very long a great empire — a task in which the Greeks, despite their brilliant qualities, failed.

In a literary way, the cuneiform script was quickly adopted by the Achaemenids, with simplifications which brought the number of symbols to thirty-six. All their inscriptions are written in the cuneiform, whether edited in the old Persian or in texts engraved in trilingual form — ancient Persian, Elamite-Anzanite, and Chaldean. As to material civilization, the Achaemenids became the heirs of the old monarchies of the Tigris and Euphrates. It may be said that the capture of Nineveh by the Medes and of Babylon by the Persians resembles the conquest of Iran by the old nucleus of the Chaldeo-Assyrian civilization.

Achaemenid Art and Architecture

The Achaemenids made innovations in the entire artistic domain, beginning with architecture. Instead of the Assyrian brick basement with stone fa­cing to receive the bas-reliefs, they founded  p104 their palaces on strong stone sub-structures still visible today. They borrowed from Egypt the stone column as well as the idea of rock sepulchres. The Mazdeian religion did not require temples. The two Achaemenid architectural ensembles, Susa and Persepolis, are therefore only palace groups. In sculpture, the Persians had Assyria as their teacher, although they soared high in the reproduction of details in the sphere of pure thought and abstract speculation. The Assyrian garb was sumptuous and heavy. Among the Iranians, dress was simpler. The Mazdeian theology inspires representations of divinity, but instead of the multiple gods of Chaldeo-Assyrian sculpture, only the image of Ahura-Mazda (or of the royal Fravashi) is found in Persepolis. This image, a new representation of the Master of Wisdom, really fits into a spiritualism more refined than that of the Hebraic, and as transcendent as that of Plato. Only under the Sassanids did Mazdeism, instead of this winged figure, prefer an equestrian Ahura-Mazda, a copy of the image of the Great King himself.

Reminding us of the Sargonids, the Achaemenid king appears in various attitudes: in adoration before a fire-altar, in the pose of a conqueror, with his enemies in chains, and in the act of striking down a monster. In all these scenes the Achaemenid king, like Ahura-Mazda, wears on his head a tiara with a sort of bonnet, partly of cloth, rising from it, larger at the top than at the bottom. He wears the wide "Medianº robe, with long, slowing sleeves reaching to his feet.

The royal throne was supported by a throng of subject peoples, each one in its own peculiar type and costume. The enameled bricks found by the Morgan expedition in Susa, show the development in beauty of this art, originally Assyrian. The archers were armed with bows, quiver and spear, garbed like the kings in a loose, long, wide-sleeved tunic, wearing on their heads a sort of calotte (skull-cap) held by a cord.

Thayer's Note:

a The subject of religious toleration under Cyrus, however, should be looked at carefully and dispassionately, with regard for the truth and the Persian documents; see the pages on the Cyrus Cylinder at Livius.

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Page updated: 15 Dec 06