Category: Persia


A vision of the afterlife is articulated by every culture, ancient or modern, in an effort to answer the question of what happens after death, and this was as true for the ancient Persian view of the afterlife as for any other ancient civilization. Ancient Persia had the same interest in what happens after death as any culture in the present day and provided one of the most interesting, and compassionate, answers.

The human concern with mortality informs not only the scriptures of world religions but the greatest literary works. The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh – considered the oldest epic tale in the world – is centered on finding meaning in life in the face of inevitable death and innumerable works since have explored the same problem.

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IN the year 330 BCE Alexander the Great (l. 356-323 BCE) conquered the Achaemenid Persian Empire following his victory over the Persian Emperor Darius III (r. 336-330 BCE) at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE. After Darius III’s defeat, Alexander marched to the Persian capital city of Persepolis and, after looting its treasures, burned the great palace and surrounding city to the ground, destroying hundreds of years’ worth of religious writings and art along with the magnificent palaces and audience halls which had made Persepolis the jewel of the empire.

Persepolis was known to the Persians as Parsa (‘The City of the Persians’), and the name ‘Persepolis’ meant the same in Greek. Construction on the palace and city was initiated between 518-515 BCE by Darius I the Great (r. 522-486 BCE) who made it the capital of the Persian Empire (replacing the old capital, Pasargadae) and began to house there the greatest treasures, literary works, and works of art from across the Achaemenid Empire. The palace was greatly enhanced (as was the rest of the city) by Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE, son of Darius, and would be expanded upon by Xerxes I’s successors, especially his son Artaxerxes I (r. 465-424 BCE), although later Persian kings would add their own embellishments.

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ANCIENT Persian religion was a polytheistic faith which corresponds roughly to what is known today as ancient Persian mythology. It first developed in the region known as Greater Iran (the Caucasus, Central Asia, South Asia, and West Asia) but became focused in the area now known as Iran at some point around the 3rd millennium BCE. This region was already inhabited by the Elamites and the people of Susiana whose beliefs are thought to have influenced the later development of Persian religion.

The Persians arrived as part of a large-scale migration which included a number of other tribes who referred to themselves as Aryans (denoting a class of people, not a race, and essentially meaning “free” or “noble”) and included Alans, Bactrians, Medes, Parthians, Scythians, and others. The Persians settled near the Elamites in Persis (also given as Parsa, modern Fars), which is where their name comes from, and religious rituals were instituted shortly after.

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THE Ten Thousand Immortals were the elite force of the Persian army of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 BCE). They formed the king’s personal bodyguard and were also considered the shock troops of the infantry in Persian warfare. Their name comes from the policy of always keeping their number at exactly 10,000; if one of their number were killed or could not otherwise fulfill his responsibilities, another was chosen to replace him, thus giving the impression that they could not be killed and so were immortal and invincible.

They are first mentioned by Herodotus (l. c. 484-425/413 BCE) in his Histories (VII.83.1, VII.211.1, VIII.113.2), and later writers who mention them such as Heracleides of Cumae (c. 350 BCE) or Athenaeus of Naucratis (l. 2nd/early 3rd century CE) and others are thought to have drawn on Herodotus’ work. Whether writers such as Xenophon (l. 430 – c. 354 BCE) or Polyaenus (l. 2nd century CE) who also mention them drew on Herodotus as well seems unlikely since they both provide information not found in Herodotus’ Histories. Xenophon, who fought as a mercenary in Persia for Cyrus the Younger (d. 401 BCE) would have no doubt heard stories of the Immortals.

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PERSIA (roughly modern-day Iran) is among the oldest inhabited regions in the world. Archaeological sites in the country have established human habitation dating back 100,000 years to the Paleolithic Age with semi-permanent settlements (most likely for hunting parties) established before 10,000 BCE. The ancient kingdom of Elam in this area was among the most advanced of its time (its oldest settlement, the archaeological site of Chogha Bonut, dates to c. 7200 BCE) before parts of it were conquered by the Sumerians, later completely by the Assyrians, and then by the Medes.

The Median Empire (678-550 BCE) was followed by one of the greatest political and social entities of the ancient world, the Persian Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE) which was conquered by Alexander the Great and later replaced by the Seleucid Empire (312-63 BCE), Parthia (247 BCE-224 CE), and the Sassanian Empire (224 – 651 CE) in succession. The Sassanian Empire was the last of the Persian governments to hold the region before the Muslim Arab conquest of the 7th century CE.

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THE Peace of Callias (aka Kallias) refers to a possible peace treaty made in the mid-5th century BCE between Athens and Persia following the Persian Wars. The existence of such a treaty is not agreed upon by all historians, and if it did exist, its precise terms are also disputed. Even the possible date of such a treaty continues to be debated amongst scholars, with either the 460s BCE or c. 449 BCE being the most popular suggestions. The treaty is named after the wealthy Athenian statesman Callias who may have led the Athenian ambassadors during the peace discussions. Even if a treaty by this name was never drawn up, it is true that there was an end to the hostilities between Athens and Persia in the mid-5th century BCE.

The existence of a peace treaty between The Achaemenid Empire of Persia and the Greekcity-state of Athens called the ‘Peace of Callias’ is not known for certain, primarily because the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 413 BCE) does not mention it and, more significantly, Thucydides (c. 460 – c. 398 BCE), who is our principal contemporary source on the end of the Persian Wars, does not mention it explicitly either. However, scholars point out that neither author gave very much attention to the precise period in question and suggest that certain passages in Thucydides’ work do constitute indirect evidence that there was such a treaty between the two powers. 

Even so, doubts have existed going all the way back to Theopompos in the 4th century BCE. That Greek historian had perhaps seen a copy of the treaty but, because he thought it an original and it was written in the more recently used Ionic alphabet, did not think it genuine (although Ionic Greek was used on occasion in 5th-century BCE documents). On the other hand, the existence of some sort of agreement between Athens and Persia is noted by such ancient figures as the Athenian orators Demosthenes and Lycurgus in the 4th century BCE, as well as later authors like Plutarch and Aelius Aristides writing in the 2nd century CE.    

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CAMBYSES II (r. 530-522 BCE) was the second king of the Achaemenid Empire. The Greek historian Herodotus portrays Cambyses as a mad king who committed many acts of sacrilege during his stay in Egypt, including the slaying of the sacred Apis calf. This account, however, appears to have been derived mostly from Egyptian oral tradition and may therefore be biased. Most of the sacrileges attributed to Cambyses are not supported by contemporary sources. At the end of his reign, Cambyses faced a revolt by a man who claimed to be his brother Smerdis, and he died on his way to suppress this revolt.

Cambyses was born to Cyrus the Great and his wife Cassandane, a sister of the Persian nobleman Otanes. Cambyses had a younger brother named Smerdis, from the same mother and the same father. As early as 539 BCE, when Cyrus conquered Babylon, Cambyses held the position of crown prince. He is mentioned on the Cyrus Cylinder, along with his father Cyrus, as receiving blessings from the Babylonian supreme god Marduk. In Babylonian documents dating between April and December 538 BCE, Cambyses is described as ‘king of Babylon’, while Cyrus was given the title ‘king of the lands’. Cambyses may have been appointed king of Babylon in preparation for his succession to the Persian throne.

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Portraits of Zahra Khanom Tadj es-Saltaneh, the beauty symbol of Persia for whom 13 men committed suicide when she refused to marry them.

Just before Iran, 16 rare and fascinating pictures that capture daily life of Persia in early 1935.

40 amazing vintage portraits of Persians taken by Antoin Sevruguin from the 19th century.