The Persian Empire(s)

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Podcast Transcript

Located roughly in the territory of the modern-day nation of Iran is the ancient land known as Persia. 

Persia sat at the strategic crossroad between South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula, and Asia Minor.

It was not only influenced by all of the great civilizations around it, but it was the birthplace of many of the great empires of antiquity. 

Learn more about the Persian Empires on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

When we talk about Persia, we are talking about the territory, which is primarily the modern-day country of Iran. 

As I’ve discussed in a previous episode, Persia was a name given to the people by the Greeks. Iran is the modern name, but it actually stems from the ancient name the people who lived there called themselves. 

As I am trying to distinguish periods in history, I’ll refer to Persia whenever I’m referring to some past kingdom, empire, or government, and Iran whenever referring to anything more modern, in particular, the 20th century to today. 

However, it should be kept in mind that I am basically referring to the same people and the same place. 

That being said, Persia stands alongside other great civilizations in world history. It wasn’t simply a matter of having had a large empire like the Mongols or having a very old civilization like Egypt.

In no small part to its strategic location, Persia has both ancient roots and continued relevance over a span of millennia. 

The reason I wanted to do this episode was because the term “Persian Empire” can be a bit confusing. There wasn’t a single Persian Empire. There were many of them. 

They weren’t necessarily a single continuous institution like with the Roman Empire and later the Byzantine Empire. Nor was it like China which had different dynasties basically ruling the same area over time. 

My goal in this episode is to briefly go over the many empires which ruled over Persia. The sweep of history that I’ll be going over very long and it would be impossible to cover everything. 

In between empires, there were often smaller kingdoms and sultanates. 

The borders of what constitutes Persia were historically never well defined. They might have gone north into Central Asia, east into modern-day Afghanistan or Pakistan, and west into the Levant. 

Likewise, the borders of other non-Persian Empires may have gone into Persia, especially from the west in Mesopotamia.

All of the individual empires I’ll be covering are potential topics for future episodes. 

With that, we’ll start with who the Persians were before they were called Persians, the Medes. 

The Medes originally hailed from Northwest Iran and parts of the Caucuses in the area around modern-day Azerbaijan. 

The Medes, beginning in the 9th century BC, began to coalesce as people and established a kingdom known as Media.  As the kingdom of Media became larger, it was the world’s first example of Big Media. 

The Medes joined forces with the Babylonians to overthrow the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC, destroying the Assyrian capital of Nineveh.

After the end of the Assyrians, the Kingdom of Media became a major power. They had a centralized government and a complex bureaucracy. They became known for having a top-notch cavalry.

Around the year 550 BC, a Mede by the name of Cyrus took control of the kingdom and established the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus is known to history as Cyrus the Great.

If someone refers to “the” Persian Empire, this is the empire they are probably referring to. 

The Achaemenid Empire was one of the largest empires in ancient history. It extended from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the east, through the Iranian plateau, the Levant, Turkey, much of the coast of Greece, and the Crimean Peninsula, as well as conquering Egypt all the way to modern-day Libya. 

The Achaemenid Empire also saw the rise of a religion that was particular to the region known as Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism became the state religion of the empire and the dominant religion of the region for more than 1,000 years. 

The Achaemenid Empire was large and diverse and, over time, became extremely decedent. Despite being able to muster a massive army, they were left extremely weak, and that weakness was exploited by Alexander the Great. 

The Greeks and the Persians had clashed many times in the past, but from 334 to 330 BC, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian King Darius III.

Alexander the Great was arguably the greatest general in the ancient world. The empire he created subsumed the Persian empire and even went further. He adopted many Persian customs and made his top generals marry Persian wives.

However, he died in 323 BC, less than 10 years after conquering Persia. 

Alexander’s massive empire was short-lived and didn’t survive his death. The empire was split between his top generals. The general who ended up with most of Persia was named Seleucus. 

The Empire he and his successors ruled was known as the Seleucid Empire. 

The Seleucid Empire was saddled with conflicts in the west with Ptolemaic Egypt and in the east with the Gupta Empire in India.  

Ultimately, an Iranian people from Central Asia, known as the Parthians, conquered the Seleucid Empire. 

The Parthians ruled for about 500 years and are best known as being the foil of the Roman Empire, just as the Achaemenid Empire was with the Greeks. 

The Romans never conquered Parthia, and Parthia was responsible for some of the most famous defeats of the Romans. Most notably, the Battle of Carrahae, where the Parthians defeated a Roman army led by one of the members of the first Triumvirate, Crassus. 

A sort of frenemy stalemate developed between Parthia and Rome. Eventually, both Rome and Parthia went into decline. 

Around the year 224, Parthia was conquered by the Sasanian Empire. The Sasanian Empire was established by Ardashir I, who defeated the Parthians at the Battle of Hormozdgan in 224.

As with the term Persian, the term Sasanian is one given by outsiders and historians. The name of the empire to those who lived there was simply “the Empire of Iranians.”  It is called the Sasanian Empire by historians after Sasan, who was a Zoroastrian high priest who was the ancestor of the royal family.

It is also sometimes called the Neo-Persian Empire or the Second Persian Empire.

The Sasanian Empire was arguably the high point of ancient Persian culture. The Sasanians were known for their large-scale construction projects. They also marked the high point of Zoroastrianism as a religion. 

Prior to its end in the 7th century, the Sasanian Empire reached an extent rivaled only by the Achaemenid Empire. They ruled from Egypt to Turkey to Turkmenistan to Pakistan as well as all the lands on either side of the Persian Gulf.

The end of the Sasanian Empire marked a dramatic turn in the history of the region. In 632, the empire was conquered by the Muslim armies that burst out of the Arabian peninsula. 

This began a six-hundred-year rule by Islamic Caliphs who were not Persian. 

I’m not going to go into too much detail because I’ll be covering the caliphates separately in another episode, but they were successively ruled by the Rashidun Caliphate from 632 to 661. The Umayyad Caliphate from 661 to 750, and the Abbasid Caliphate, which ruled from 750 to about 1050. 

The important thing to take away is that the conquest by the Caliphates turned Persia from a Zoroastrian region to an Islamic one. Moreover, the branch of Islam which was practiced at this time was predominantly Sunni Islam. 

Moreover, while Persia had been conquered, they had a great deal of influence on Islamic art and architecture. 

Around the year 1050, a new force invaded from the Asian Steppes in the north, the Seljuk Turks.  The Seljuks, like the Arabs before them, were Sunni Muslims. Their origins were Turkic, their society ultimately became a Persianate society which was dominated by Persian language and culture. 

In 1190, a former vassal kingdom of the Seljuks rose up and conquered much of the Seljuk lands. This was known as the Khwarazmian Empire.

The Khwarazmian Empire were culturally Persian Turkic people like the Seljuks and were extremely expansionist. 

However, their expansion was extremely short-lived as they ran into the irresistible force that was the Mongol Empire. 

From 1219 to 1221, the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, systematically dismantled the Khwarazmian Empire. 

As the Mongol Empire was so large, it was split into parts to be ruled separately. The Persian part was known as the Illkhanate. 

The Illkhanate lasted a little over 100 years and was replaced by the descendants of the Mongol conquers to form the Timurid Empire in 1370. 

The Empire was founded by Timur, also known in English as Tamerlane, from whom the empire got its name. 

As with so many previous conquerors, they adopted Persian customs and the Persian language. The Timurid Empire, at its greatest extent, had a footprint pretty similar to other Persian Empires, centered on modern-day Iran but with territory extending into Iraq, Central Asia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. 

They ushered in a cultural renaissance, with Herat in present-day Afghanistan becoming a prominent center of Persian literature, art, and architecture.

The Timurid Empire lasted only about 125 years. They were overthrown by Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid Empire.

The Safavid dynasty marks a huge turning point and is often referenced as the start of modern Iranian history. 

For starters, it was the first time in almost 900 years that Persia wasn’t ruled by outsiders like Araba, Turks, or Mongols. 

Second, they were the first empire to refer to itself as Iran since the Sasanians. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they made Shia Islam the state religion. The dominant form of Islam still practiced in Iran today. 

The Safavid Empire was one of three great Islamic Empires of the period, which have been dubbed the Islamic gunpowder empires.  The Safavid Empire was right in the middle of the other two: the Ottoman Empire to the west and the Mughal Empire to the east in India. 

The Safavid Empire lasted until 1722, with two brief restorations that took place in the 18th century. 

There was a brief period of rule by the Afsharid Dynasty in the 18th century until the Qajar Dynasty came to power in 1796. 

At this point, it wasn’t so much an empire anymore as just a royal house that ruled Iran. 

The Qajar Dynasty ruled through the 19th century and into the early 20th century. There were seven rulers who held the title of the Shah of Iran.

They were overthrown in 1925 by Reza Shah Pahlavi, an Iranian soldier from an aristocratic family.

He was forced to abdicate the throne in 1941 after the joint British-Soviet invasion of Iran, which was designed to remove Iran as a potential base of operations for Germany.

He was replaced by his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was to be the last Shah of Iran. 

As we are now into contemporary history, many of you know the story. The Shah was extremely unpopular with his people and was overthrown in 1979 and was replaced by an Islamic Revolutionary Government, which was led by a Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The modern history of Iran since the end of the second world war is a subject for a future episode. 

There is a saying that the three most important things in real estate are location, location, and location. 

The same holds true with geopolitics. 

Whether they were the conquerors or the conquered, the location of Iran at the intersection of the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent has made it relevant for three thousand years of world history. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Must Listen Podcast!!!! on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Must Listen Podcast

Everything Everywhere is a must-listen podcast. For me, it is the intellectual equivalent of eating candy. Every episode is interesting, even if you have no interest in the topic. And Gary does an amazing job of making even the most mundane or esoteric topics interesting, fun, and easily understandable. Do yourself a favor and listen to this podcast. You will not regret it!

Thanks, Must Listen!  That is a great review, but I do have one quibble. Listening to this podcast isn’t like candy, which is nothing but empty calories that will rot your teeth. This podcast is more like a home-cooked meal consisting of food that will help you grow.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.