The arrival of the Persians and the Medes, the new kids on the block


Mt. Damavand in northern Iran, a special, mythical mountain to the ancient Persians and Medes
Mt. Damavand in northern Iran, a special, mythical mountain to the ancient Persians and Medes

In many ways, the ancient Middle East was not all that different thousands of years ago than it is today. This region was the birthplace of many civilizations, each with their own culture, language, religion and way of life. Like today, many of these groups vied for political power and domination over the others, which then, as unfortunately is the case now, often led to terrible violence. In the region known as Mesopotamia, a number of early city-states developed along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. In fact, the word Mesopotamia means “land between two rivers” in the ancient Greek language.




Kingdoms and civilizations of the ancient Near East around 1400BCE
Kingdoms and civilizations of the ancient Near East around 1400BCE

One of the more historically important ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia was that of the Sumerians, whose city-state was called Sumer. The Sumerians built gigantic temples, called ziggurats, and traded with the other peoples in the region. They also developed cuneiform, the first known system of writing. Their civilization flourished for centuries, but as is generally the case, eventually their dominance came to end as other, more powerful city-states overshadowed them in wealth and influence.

Akkadian relief of Naram-Sin commemorating his victory against the Lullubi people from Zagros mountains in southwest Iran in 2260 BCE
Akkadian relief of Naram-Sin commemorating his victory against the Lullubi people from Zagros mountains in southwest Iran in 2260 BCE

Around 2250 BCE, a group known as the Akkadians became the major force in Mesopotamia and created what is believed to have been the region’s first empire, stretching from Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Their stronghold was the city of Akkad, believed to be somewhere near modern-day Baghdad. Not only did they defeat the Sumerians, but also other neighboring peoples including the Elamites, a semitic people who inhabited what is now southwest Iran. The Akkadian empire was relatively short-lived and collapsed around 2125 BCE. Other city-states came to the forefront, including Ur, near modern Nasiriyah in Iraq. Ur also extended its dominion to the Zagros mountains in Iran. Alas, like those before them, Ur’s civilization too fell from grace in the complex dichotomy that is the Middle East. By 2000 BCE, a civilization known as the Babylonians emerged as a major player in Mesopotamia and built what became the fabled and wealthy city and kingdom of Babylonia. Babylonia competed fiercely with the Assyrians for power and influence in the region, the later becoming the more powerful of the two by 1000 BCE.

Winged bull from the palace of the Assyrian King Nimroud, now in the British Museum
Winged bull from the palace of the Assyrian King Nimroud, now in the British Museum

You can start to see a pattern here in the region. Civilizations kept rising and falling, only to be replaced by other, more powerful ones as time passed. All of these civilizations had their roots in Mesopotamia for millenniums. Most city-states had their own distinct language, culture and even patron deity, though over time and with better communication, many similarities developed between all of these groups. However, around the time of Assyrian dominance in 1000 BCE, a new group of nomads began to appear on the fringes of Mesopotamia. These people were an Indo-European and spoken in languages unrelated to those of Mesopotamia. They were the Aryans.

Though scholars debate the exact origin of the Aryans, the evidence, both archaeological and linguistic, seems to point to their homeland being northeast of the Caspian Sea in modern-day Kazakhstan and southern Russia. Being horsemen and nomads, the Aryans spread out across the steppes of Central Asia and split up into several groups. Some headed north through Russia and into Eastern Europe and the Balkan peninsula. Other tribes moved southward. It is believed that when they reached what is today the Pamir range in Tajikistan, they split yet again, one group going towards India and the other southwest to the Iranian plateau. It is this later group of Aryan tribes who became the Persians and the Medes.

Both the Persians and the Medes came into contact with civilizations that had already been living on the Iranian plateau for centuries. One of these peoples were the Elamites, who ruled over the important cities of Susa and Anshan. The other of course where the Assyrians who at the time ruled over what is now Syria, Iraq and parts of Anatolia. They had mostly conquered all of Babylonia and the cities around it. As the Assyrians expanded east and the Medes moved west, they two peoples eventually clashed. The Assyrians first wrote of “the mighty Medes” around the 9th century BCE, and most of their campaigns against them were for the purpose of acquiring their horses. 1 The Assyrians, being more powerful than the Medes, forced them to pay tribute. Having no gold or precious metals, the Medes paid in horses, camels and sheep. Many were also taken from their homeland and relocated to Assyria where they worked as slaves. The Assyrians also ventured further south into Persis, the area occupied by the Persians.

Head of winged-bull found under a mosque in the area of the city of Mosul, Iraq (1990)
Head of winged-bull found under a mosque in the area of the city of Mosul, Iraq (1990)

In the seventh century BCE, tribes of horsemen known as Scythians from lands to the north began to cause trouble for the Assyrians and Medes. For a short while, they even controlled Medea. However unlike the Assyrians, the Scythians were an Indo-European people with a similar language and culture to that of the Medes. The two peoples eventually became allies against the Assyrians.

In 626 BCE, the Babylonians openly revolted against their Assyrian masters and within ten years, they were able to secure control of their lands and invaded Assyria to the north. The Medes under their king Cyaxares seized the opportunity that the Babylonians had created and joined them in their war against Assyria, invading the city of Ashur. Then, the combined forces of the Babylonians, Medes, Scythians and others came together to decisively defeat the Assyrians. In 612 BCE, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was sacked with the Medes and their allies carrying off the city’s vast riches and turning “the city into a ruin heap.” 2

Median art - bull's head
Median art – bull’s head

It was good to be a Mede in those days. With the war’s end and the destruction of the Assyrian Empire, Medea and Babylonia carved up the old Assyrian lands. Medea took the Assyrian homeland and the Babylonians were awarded most of the remaining parts of Mesopotamia. In the years that followed, Cyaxares conquered new lands to the north for the Medes including areas of the Caucasus Mountains and the lands between the Black and Caspian Seas. He also expanded his empire into eastern Anatolia and the borders of the wealthy Kingdom of Lydia. A peace treaty was signed between the two states in 585 BCE and the arranged marriage of the Lydian king’s daughter to Cyaxares son, Astyages. The following year, Cyaxares passed away and Astyages became the ruler of all Medea. Wanting conquests of his own, he turned his banner men to the east, the lands of the Persians.

As mentioned earlier, the areas that the Persians and Medes moved into were home to many civilizations before their arrival. One of these was the Kingdom of Elam. In 647 BCE, the brutal Assyrian king Ashurbanipal attacked Elam and razed their capital city of Susa to the ground. It was his way of wreaking vengeance on the Elamites for supporting his enemies. Like ISIS in modern Syria and Iraq, Ashurbanipal made no apology for this atrocities towards those which he deemed were his enemies. He boasted of his brutality as such:

Susa, the great holy city, abode of their gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed… I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt.” 3

The Assyrian King Ashurbanipal sacking the Elamite city of Susa
The Assyrian King Ashurbanipal sacking the Elamite city of Susa

Though the Elamites had another capital city called Anshan, in their weakened state after being defeated by the Assyrians, there was little that they could do in order to prevent themselves from being overtaken by their Persian neighbors, which is eventually what happened. The Persians under a dynasty founded by a certain Teispes, son of Achaemenes, came to the throne and became lord over what was left of old Elam.

As mighty as the Persians may have been, the Medes were even mightier, so much so that Teispes’s grandson, Cambyses I, was forced into an “alliance” with them. Cambyses married Astyages daughter, Mandane. The couple eventually, had a son, Koroush, better known to the world by his Greek name, Cyrus.


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