PERSIA (pûr'zha, Heb. pāras, Gr. Persis). As a geographical term Persia may be taken to mean the Iranian plateau, bounded by the Tigris Valley on the west and south, the Indus Valley on the east, and by the Armenian ranges and the Caspian Sea to the north, comprising in all something near one million square miles (2.5 million sq. km.). The plateau is high and saucer-shaped, rimmed by mountains rich in mineral wealth, but with wide tracts of arid desert in the interior. The land lies across the old road communications of Europe and Asia, a fact that has done much to determine Persia’s ethnology and history. It is seldom possible to separate history and geography, and the term Persia has signified both less and more than the geographical and general meaning just given. The original Persia was a small area north of the Persian Gulf, known as Persis, the modern Fars. It was a rugged area with desert on its maritime borders, its chief town known to the Greeks as Persepolis. The Medes lay to the north, Elam was on the west, and Carmania to the east. This small province was the original home of the Iranian tribe that finally dominated the whole country and founded the vast Persian Empire, which at the time of its widest extent stretched from the Aegean Sea, the Dardanelles, and the Bosporus to the Indus River, and from north to south extended from the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, the Oxus, and the Jaxartes to the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the cataracts of the Nile. This was the imperial power, described by Herodotus, that clashed with the Greeks at the beginning of the fifth century before Christ and that Alexander overthrew a century and a half later. This, too, was the imperial Persia of the OT, which rose on the ruins of Babylon, which is seen in the life of Esther, and which formed the background of the events described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The Persians belonged to the race or group of nations that speaking hypothetical Indo-European language, so called and conjectured because most of the languages of Europe together with the Indic languages descended from it. The Iranian dialects formed a southern group. A common linguistic ancestry, and therefore, in all probability, a common homeland, can be demonstrated for all this group. Migrations during the third and second millennia before Christ—mainly west, east, and south—appear to have spread tribal groups who spoke a common language through the European peninsulas, into India, and into the northern Middle East. The picture is complex. Britain itself, for example, experienced three waves of invasion—Celtic (itself multiple), Roman, and Teutonic (Angles, Saxons, Danes). Infiltration into the Middle East was just as tangled a process. Just as the inhabitants of an enclave by the Tiber, speaking a minor Italic dialect, imposed their will on the whole of Italy and began the process of historical evolution that produced the Roman Empire, so the Persians emerged to dominate the whole complex of the Iranian tribes, twelve in number according to Xenophon, ten according to Herodotus. A ninth-century Assyrian inscription mentions Parsua as a northern country adjoining Media. This may be the first historical reference to the Persians before their movement south into Anshan and Parsa, the Persis mentioned above. The Assyrian reference may catch the Iranian tribe in the process of its migration. In Persis, the Persians were at first subject to the power of their northern neighbors, the Medes, although Elam, encroaching from the west, tended to form a buffer state between them. If reasons are sought for historical processes, it could have been the stimulus of Elam that caused Persian expansion.

Through Elam, Persis had contact with the developed civilizations of the Euphrates Valley. On the other hand, it may have needed no more than the emergence of a masterful personality to initiate the process. Such a person was Cyrus, second of that name from the ruling family of the Achaemenids. Cyrus is the Latinized form of Greek Kyros, Persian Kurash. According to tradition, Cyrus was related to Astyages, king of Medea. Rising against his relative, Cyrus threw off the Median hegemony and established the Persians as the dominant tribe in 549 b.c. Some form of governmental partnership appears to have been established, for Medes held privileged posts in the new administration. Cyrus then moved west to defeat the Lydian Empire of Croesus in 545, and south to defeat Nabonidus of Babylon in 538. The conquest of Lydia gave Cyrus Asia Minor; the overthrow of Babylon made him master of the Euphrates River plain, Assyria, Syria, and Palestine. Thus arose the greatest West Asian Empire of ancient times. It was indeed the first of the world’s great imperial organizations, a foreshadowing of the system of Rome, beneficent and humane when compared with the Assyrian Empire, but too loosely held and geographically divided to survive. The conflict between Samaria and Jerusalem, depicted in the life of Nehemiah, is an illustration of the indiscipline that could reign in remoter corners. Nehemiah was working by royal decree and yet found his work hampered by armed interference. Ezra’s fear (Ezra.8.22) suggests similar pockets of anarchy.

Cyrus’s great empire was organized by him and by Darius (Dariavaush, 521-486 b.c.), who succeeded him, after a period of revolt and dynastic trouble. Coming to terms with geography, Cyrus and Darius sought to combine a measure of local autonomy with centralization in a supreme controlling power, a difficult task even where communications are swift and efficient. The empire was cut into provinces, each under the rule of a satrap, who might be a local ruler or a Persian noble. With the satrap were military and civil officials directly responsible to the king, who was also kept informed on local matters by means of his “eyes,” or his itinerant inspectors. This was an attempt to check maladministration in the satrapies and to anticipate such challenges to the royal power as that described by Xenophon in his Anabasis. All provinces were assessed for monetary and manpower contributions to the central treasury and armed forces. An attempt was wisely made to preserve efficient forms of local government, and Greek city-states on the Ionian seaboard still functioned, with religion, language, and civic government intact. Inscriptions suggest that there were three official languages—Persian, Elamitic, and Babylonian. Darius further unified his empire by an efficient gold coinage, state highways, and a postal system, arrangements that became famous for their usefulness. The four books of the OT in which Persia forms a background (Ezra, Esther, Ezekiel, and Daniel) all illustrate the royal tendency to delegate special authority to individuals for specific tasks.

Cyrus and the Achaemenid kings were Zoroastrians, worshipers of Ahura Mazda, “the Wise Lord.” The Magi of the Medes appear to have been reorganized by Cyrus into a Mazdaist priesthood. Zoroaster taught that Ahura Mazda, together with his holy spirit, warred against an evil spirit, Ahriman. There was an element of messianism in the cult, for it taught that after the earthly life of a future savior, God will finally triumph over evil, and that all souls pass over the “bridge of decision” and enjoy eternal bliss, though some must first go through a purgatory of fire. Zoroaster stressed truth and mercy. Isa.45.7 is supposed by some to be a reference to Zoroastrian religion. The context is a tribute to Cyrus, and in contrast with the crude paganism of other peoples, the Persian monotheism may have appeared to the Hebrews to contain elements of divine insight. The notable favor shown to the religion of the Lord in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah may illustrate the same affinity from the other side. It will be useful in conclusion to list the Persian kings whose reigns have significance in OT history:

2. Cambyses, 529-522 b.c. Some have suggested that Cambyses is the mysterious Darius the Mede of Dan.5.31; Dan.6.9, Dan.6.25; Dan.9.1; Dan.11.1. Others think this obscure person was Gobryas, governor of Media, who exercised authority for Cyrus in Babylon.

3. Gaumata, a usurper, who held brief royal authority until put down by Darius, 522-521 b.c.

4. Darius I (Hystaspis), 521-486 b.c., the great imperialist, whose seaborne attack on Greece was defeated at Marathon in 490. He is known for his trilingual inscription at Behistun, famous in linguistic studies. This is the Darius mentioned by Ezra under whose protection permission was given for the temple to be built.

5. Xerxes I (Ahasuerus), 486-465 b.c. This is the mad king who in a mighty combined operation sought to avenge Marathon and whom the Greeks defeated at Salamis (480) and Plataea (479). The feast and assembly of Esth.1.3 is plausibly equated with Herodotus 7:8, while Esth.2.16 is a reference to the events of Herodotus 9:108-Esth.2.9.

6. Artaxerxes I (Longimanus), 464-424 b.c. It was this monarch who permitted Ezra to go to Jerusalem to restore the affairs of the Jewish community (Ezra.7.1-Ezra.7.28-Ezra.8.1-Ezra.8.36), and who promoted the mission of his cupbearer Nehemiah, thirteen years later. (In Ezra.4.1-Ezra.4.24 chronology is broken and it is a matter of some difficulty to identify and arrange events. The IVF Commentary [in loco] deals with the matter well.) See Neh.2.1; Neh.5.14; Neh.13.6. Note: Darius the Persian (Neh.12.22) is Codomannus, the last king of Persia, overthrown by Alexander in 330.

Bibliography: A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, 1948; E. Porada, Ancient Iran, 1965; B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine, 1968; R. N. Frye, The Heritage of Persia, 1975.——EMB


PERSIA (Old Pers. pārsa, Elamite, parsin, Akkad. parsua, Heb. פָּרַס, H10594; late Egyp. pars(a), followed by Syr., Coptic, et al.). The Gr. shows various traditions concerning the name—the most common are: Περσω̂ν, Περση̂ς, and Περσία. The name Iran was instituted by Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-1941). It is derived from the term in the Avesta, airyana, Middle Iranian, ’ry’n, “Aryān,” New Persian, Ïrān.

The land

Persia is a rugged land of climatic and geographical extremes, situated in southwestern Asia and bordered on the N by the Soviet Union and the Caspian Sea, on the S by the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Gulf of Oman. Iraq and Turkey lie on the western border whereas on the E Persia is bordered by Afghanistan and West Pakistan. The total land area is about 630,000 square m. with about 1,600 m. of coastline. The term Iran has been traditionally applied to this land area plus Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and West Turkistan. The Pers. expanse is divisible into four geographic regions. Most of the land lies on a great triangular plateau with the longest side running from NW to SE for almost 800 m. through the middle of the country. This plateau has an elevation of nearly 4,000 ft. and is bordered by numerous ridges and mountains. This plateau and the Zagros and Elburz mountain ranges are the two largest geographic regions. The third region is the desert, which is divided by mountains and some fertile valleys into the northern Dasht-i-Kavir and the more southern Dasht-i-Lut. These are rock strewn wastes coated in many areas with alkali salts. The fourth and smallest environ is the flat, barren Khuzistan Plain. It lies at the N end of the Persian Gulf between the Tigris-Euphrates watershed and the Zagros Mountains. This is the site today of Iran’s oil reserves, which are shipped out through the seaport of Abādān. The mountains effectively block rain clouds from crossing the central plateau so that the foothills of the ranges yield the best crops. The temperatures are extremely variable, ranging across the land from below 32oF. in winter to well over 112oF. in summer. Most of the available lake water is not suitable for agricultural purposes, as it has a high degree of salinity, since many bodies of fresh water lose fifty percent of their volume during the summer months. By far the biggest prohibition to habi tation in many parts of the land is the lack of water. Although there are many types of grazing and herding animals, in the more remote areas deforestation has continued from remote antiquity and trees are found in very few areas at present. Only in the coastal lowlands S of the Caspian are there extensive areas of natural vegetation. Aside from the petroleum deposits there are those minerals found in desert and arid locations. On the sea coasts and in such inland bodies as Lake Urmia and the larger rivers, fishing is a major industry.

The people

Although no Neanderthal sites prior to the late Stone Age have yet been excavated in Iran, it is certain that men of such antiquity and racial types must have lived in this area of Asia. Little archeological information, however, has been published from a number of recent excavations made in Iran. Over eighty-five percent of the present population of approximately 21,000,000 live in villages, whereas about seventy-five percent are directly engaged in agriculture, a considerable segment as herdsmen. The major population since antiquity have been of the caucasoid type, whereas in the NW the Kurds and other subgroups of the caucasoids have made their home. In other parts of the country, the tribespeople, Lurs, Bakhtiyaris, Qashqais, Kamsehs, and Arabs are found. Near the eastern borders some Afghanis and Armenians are settled, and in the W some villages of Turkomens. There are also some mixed groups, however, such as the Mandaians and the Jewish-Persian offshoots. The summation of most of these groups into the general term Indo-Aryan or Indo-Iranian, although not technically accurate, does best describe the populace because the great migrations of antiquity that brought racial and cultural types into this plateau are ultimately of Indian and even South Indian origin.


Systematic excavations, which were begun in Iran as early as the 19th cent., were not consistently carried forward until after the Second World War and the modernization of the political system under the present government. Recent excavations and translations of ancient records, carried on largely by native Iranian experts, have aided reconstructions of the early and middle periods of Iran’s history.


The cultural finds from various excavations carried on at widely distributed sites throughout Iran have shown that the types of assemblages were in the main similar around the country until the migrations and invasions of the Neolithic peoples of India and Mesopotamia which began during the sixth millennium b.c. The palaeolithic of Iraq, particularly of the Zagros foothills is also found in those same regions, where they extend into western Iran. Mousterian industries have been found at the cave near Bīsetūn, on the Iranian frontier, similar to the finds at Ḥazar Merd, Shanidar, and other such sites in Iraq. Major mesolithic remains of the food-gathering cultures have been located on the S shores of the Caspian. The great difficulty of making cross cultural chronological judgments based on pottery sequences is apparent in Iranian prehistory. It seems that there were two great routes of migration and cultural innovation coming from W to E and originating in the upper reaches of the Tigris valley. The earliest evidence of such is a soft ware similar to that of pre-Jarmo levels from Iraq and found at Tepe Guran in the area called Luristan, S of the Diyala River. Subsequent to this are ceramics directly related to the Jarmo and Hassuna levels of Iraq. These are located in Iran at Sarab, Ali Kosh, Hajji Firuz, and Hotu; they are definitely Neolithic, dating after 6000 b.c. From the southern ’Ubaid, later protoliterate and subsequently Sumer. culture of Iraq, a strong influence is apparent in the Susiana culture of Iran, which ultimately led to the historic Elamite civilization. This branch seems to have continued on down the western slopes of the Zagros to the gap in the ridge at Bakun. From there a branch went S to the gulf coast in the area of Khuzistan and another continued still SE to the Kermān area. From the northern area of Mesopotamia a strong cultural current, the N ’Ubaid, influenced the mountain peoples below Lake Urmia and the archeological site at Pisdeli. A further extension of this branch went through the mountains to Sialk, one of the foremost sites in Iran, just S of the lake Darya-yi-Namak, the modern city of Kāshān. From there another northern extension went on to Tepe Hissar and Hotu and ultimately to Nishapur, the most northeasterly site in Iran.

Medo-Persian ascendency.

As early as 2000 b.c., Indo-Aryans from the steppes of southern Russia and the valley of the Indus had begun to settle in Iran and the Black Sea coast. These people, usually styled Indo-Europeans, affected the kingdoms of the Hittites and Hurrians and became the overlords of Mitanni. By 1600 b.c. they had reached the more primitive cultures of the Balkan peninsula and triggered the rise of Greece. Strange as it may appear the Persians and the Greeks who later would be locked in deadly combat for centuries both arose from the same origins and carried with them similar languages, cultures, and customs throughout their history. Two of these Indo-European tribes settled on the Elamite borders and to the E of the Zagros range. There they were discovered by the expeditionary forces of Shalmaneser III (858-824 b.c.); in his inscrs. they were first noted as the Parsua (Persians) and Madai (Medes). Other still more obscure Indo-European tribes were settling in the Iranian plateau: Zikirtu (Sagartians), Parthava (Parthians), and various branches of the Medes. The Persians, however, under pressure by the recently strengthened kingdom of Urartu, moved S along the ridges of the Zagros. Numerous Assyrian rulers fought against Urartu and frequently came up against Pers. towns and mercenaries allied with their enemies. In the face of the continual attacks of the Assyrian King Sargon II (721-705 b.c., Isa 20:1), the loosely organized Median tribes appear to have united under the chieftain Daiakku (Deioces) and to have begun their rise to national statehood. This trend was set back by the violent invasions of another wave of Indo-Europeans consisting of the Cimmerians and Scythians, who overthrew the small Neo-Hittite kingdoms of northern Syria-Anatolia—the Phrygians, Urartians, and numerous lesser states—and finally settled in the area of modern Azerbaijan. Daiakku was carried off into captivity by Assyria in 715 b.c. He was succeeded by his son—the legendary Uvarkhshatra (Cyaxares I), who paid tribute to Sargon II. He in turn was succeeded by his son Khshathrita, Assyrian Kashtaritu, (Phraortes) who died in battle against Ashurbanipal. The fortunes of Media were drawing to a close, soon to be eclipsed by the House of Hakhamanish. See Media.

Achaemenid era.

The generous and benevolent character of Cyrus’ administration has been lauded since antiquity. He was the founder of the satrapical system whereby each province (Pers. satrapy) was governed by an official answering to the great king but allowing a remarkable degree of autonomy and freedom of religion and customs for the vassal states. His enormous empire with its roads, cities, postal system, legal codes, metaphysical religion, and innate sense of humanity have been his enduring memorial. His greatest building effort was the capital at Pasargadae where innumerable styles and decorations learned from the subjected peoples were blended into the early “Achaemenid” style. As with all Pers. palace compounds, the paradayadām, “retreat” or “park” was a major construction. This notion passed into Gr. and ultimately into Eng. as “paradise.” Throughout the palace and its many buildings, the simple but artistic lines and the alternate use of black and white building materials lent themselves to the variations in the sun’s rays throughout the course of the day. In 530 b.c. the kingdom passed to Cyrus’ son, Cambyses II, who immediately had to put down various attempts to take over the throne, and his zeal in fulfilling this necessity earned him the title “despot.” He carried out his father’s plan to attack Egypt, and with the help of many native Semites of the S of Arabia he overcame the city of Pelusium, under the Pharaoh Psammetichus III, the son of Amasis, and the Gr. mercenaries Egypt had employed. He planned a campaign against Carthage, the reigning “queen” of the Mediterranean, but was unable to hire the necessary shipping to transport his army. In his solidification of his kingship, Cambyses had slain his brother Smerdis, whereas in Egypt, a Magian noble, Gaumata, had proclaimed himself the true Smerdis and revolted, usurping the throne. Cambyses may have committed suicide; he died in 522 b.c. The army then supported a distant cousin of Cambyses, a descendant of Ariaramnes named Darayavaush (Darius), son of Vishtaspa (Hystaspes), and he initiated a new era of the House of Hakhamanish. After winning his throne from all the pretenders he carved his victory inscr. high on the rock face at Behistan, one of the most extensive royal inscrs. of antiquity. His experience under the preceding king as commander of the Pers. shock troops, the fabled Ten Thousand Immortals, stood him in good stead. With their help he held the empire. He built the palaces at Susa, the ancient Elamite city, and his own capital at Persepolis (q.v.). The turmoil of his early regnal years caused him to initiate conservative and restrictive policies in his administration of the subject peoples, but he did not have a large enough army or sufficient majority to force his subjects to obedience to Persia.

The powers of satraps were balanced by royal military commanders and tax officials in each province, not unlike the commissar system of later oriental potentates. No doubt he expanded the empire in the E, but the limit is not known. He built a commercial empire as well as political and even considered cutting a canal through to the Red Sea. He attempted a great campaign against the Scyths of south Russia; his army crossed the Danube but was thwarted before the Dniester River. On his return, Darius conquered the Greek coastal cities of Asia Minor, forcing on all the Greek cities the issue of whether or not to ally with Persia. Athens went against Persia, and the stage was set for the Pers. defeat at Marathon in August of 490 b.c. The real conflict between Persia and Greece lies more in the realm of Kultur-kampf. Persia was the last of the great archaic religious states in which civilization had its birth and first formulation, and had been the last vestige of the elaborate state-pantheon cultus of antiquity. It had simplified the complex cuneiform to the most efficient of all syllabaries. On the other hand, Greece had entered a new era. It had produced some form of democratic state, the medium of the alphabet, the popular lit., and citizen army—all of which were harbingers of the social systems to come. In effect the conflict was that between old and new forms of human life, more direct and more bitter than many less crucial conflicts in history. In 486 b.c., Egypt revolted against Persia to spite the colonies of mercenaries that had been stationed around its borders, such as the Jewish garrison at Elephantine (q.v.). During Darius’ reign, the religion of Mazdaism began to spread. With Darius’ death in 485 b.c., the high point of the Achaemenid dynasty had been reached. Xerxes, the eldest son of Darius and his queen, Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus, ascended to the throne in 485 b.c. and dealt harshly with a new Egyp. revolt. He reduced Egypt to slavery and placed over it his brother Akhaimemesh. Xerxes, under the W. Sem. transliteration of his Old Pers. name—Xshayarshan, Akkad. hisi’arsa, Heb. אֲחַשְׁוֵרֹ֑ושׁ, is the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther. After building a double bridge across the Hellespont, he invaded Greece in 480 b.c. The Persians defeated the Spartan rear guard at the Pass of Thermopylae and finally occupied Athens in the latter part of the year, but their fleet was defeated in the monumental naval battle at Salamis under the horror-stricken eyes of Xerxes himself. This ended Persia’s last hope to conquer Greece. The next year the Persians were again defeated, at Platea, which left Athens to enjoy the glories of the Age of Pericles but finally to face destruction in her fratricidal war with Sparta. The reigns after Xerxes experienced increasing rebellion and declining central authority, a list of incompetent rulers. The final scenes of the Achaemenids comprised harem intrigues, assassinations, plots, and counter plots, which left the way open for the total collapse that was at hand.

Alexandrian and Seleucid era.

The Greeks were convinced from 480 b.c. on that only a great campaign of all the Gr. cities could forever remove the threat of Pers. conquest. The adventures of Xenophon and the group of Gr. mercenaries who marched across Asia Minor after the battle of Cunaxa following one of the dynastic feuds of the Pers. monarchy in 401 b.c. only demonstrated the decadence of Achaemenid rule. Athenian orators and intellectuals called for an invasion of Persia, and their pleas were heeded by Philip of Macedonia who planned such a venture. At his death Alexander took up the crusade to bring Persia under Gr. domination. In 334 b.c., Alexander set out with his forces and met and defeated the Pers. army at Granicus. In quick succession Sardis, Caria, Lycia, Pamphylia, Pisidia, Halicarnassus, and Phrygia fell to the Macedonian. In November of 333 b.c., Alexander met Darius III Codomannus at Issus in one of the decisive battles of the world’s history, which the Macedonians won against incredible odds. Thus ended the House of Hakhamanish and so began the Hel. age when Gr. language, customs, and manners triumphed over all others. The coup de grâce was delivered at Arbela in 331 b.c. when the king fled and Alexander occupied Susa, Persepolis, and Pasargadae. The Greeks took as booty gold and silver worth at least $100,000,000, with which they financed their newly won empire. Darius III was murdered by his rebellious subjects, and Alexander conquered the Asian provinces of Persia, marrying the daughter of the satrap of Bactria. His nobles followed suit and took Pers. wives. After the death of Alexander in 323 b.c., his generals divided and fought over the empire. Most of the former area of Persia fell to Seleucus I Nicator, the founder of the House of Seleucus. He was assassinated by an Egyp. Gr. in 282 b.c., and his realm passed to Antiochus Soter, who lost some of the more distant Asiatic provinces. A new power arose slowly and began to assert its political independence of the corrupt Seleucids.

Arsacid (Parthian) era.

The origins of the Parthians prob. are to be sought among the Scythian nomads who poured down from Russia in antiquity and overran the great civilizations of Asia Minor. Many settled in the province of Parthava and were simply called “Parthians” by their enemies. Their ruling house was descended from the Arsacidae, from which came the name of their dynasty—Arsacid. They began the long series of conquests that built their power in 249/248 b.c. They solidified their home fortresses in the Elburz Mountains. For almost a cent., the fortunes of the declining Seleucids continued to recede until the dynasty was virtually a puppet of the Rom. republic, whereas the Parthian advance continued. In 170 b.c., a new ruler, Mithradates I, came to the throne. Exceedingly able, he expanded the borders of Parthia on all fronts. It seems that the later Parthians actually traded with China and possibly made the Romans and other western Europeans aware of the Middle Kingdom. In 51/50 b.c., the Parthians invaded Syria-Palestine but withdrew quickly; however, they invaded the coast again in 40 b.c., looted Jerusalem, and pillaged the countryside. Meanwhile Herod and the royal harem fled to Masada, a visit that assured Herod of the rock’s impregnable nature as a fortress. After the Peace of Brundisium, which established the Second Roman Triumvirate, Antony was awarded the former Asiatic provinces. He defeated the Parthians in a series of battles and restricted them to their own borders. In the days of Caesar Augustus, a standoff existed between the two great powers and some trade was actually carried on. Internal feuds in Parthia, however, allowed the Romans to subvert the ruling house and set up a rival federated state in Armenia. Throughout the early decades of the Christian era, Rome increased her power in the E, and in a.d. 66, Nero had sufficient authority actually to invest Tiridates as king of Parthia. In the next cent., the barbarian Alans poured through the Caucasian passes and forced the Parthian monarch to buy them off on his borders. In a.d. 161, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the king of Parthia (Volagases III) again invaded Armenia which had continued to be allied to, if not supported by, Rome. After a quick victory, the Parthians went on to invade Syria. As Rome began to descend into the anarchy and civil war that led to the barbarian invasions, Parthia was first of all allied with various claimants for the imperial throne. Slowly Parthia drifted further out of the Rom. orbit as the empire began to shrink, and in a.d. 226 was completely overthrown by a series of battles with a resurgent Pers. monarchy. This victorious rebirth of ancient Persia was to produce the Sassanian dynasty, which returned the rule of Iran to the remnants of the ancient Pers. nobility.

Sassanian era.

The culture of Parthia, like most of the other oriental kingdoms established on the shambles of Alexander’s empire, was Hellenized completely. Greek art, literature, language, and religion were all practiced with the usual eclecticism of the Near E. Although hardly any written materials in the Parthian dialect have been located, their use of the Gr. language reveals increasing barbarism as Parthia pulled away from its Hel. origins. On the other hand, the Sassanian era was a return to the Indo-European culture and a rebirth of Mazdaism, the last segment of the Zoroastrian worship of the Achaemenids. The first king and founder of the Sassanian dynasty was Ardashir, under whose direction the Avesta was revised. The chief religious official seems to have been the great Magi who ruled the elaborate ecclesiastical organization as an autocrat. Under his successor, Shapur (Sapor), outside influences and foreign religions were tolerated. A later king, Bahram, however, became more conservative and sent the prophet Mani, founder of Manichaenism, to the Magi, who executed him in a.d. 273. Probably the most important trend to develop under the Sassanians was the rise and expansion of Mithraism. The Sassanians carried on considerable trade through the peoples of Ural-Altai extraction with China and Mongolia. The ultimate spread of Manichaenism to Turkestan and the persecution of both Armenian and Persian Christians after Constantine’s approval of Christianity as the state religion of the Eastern Empire, demonstrates the severity of pagan intent in the Sassanian era. In a.d. 309, Shapur (Sapor) the Great was born and began his rule when still a youth. He saw the passage of nine Rom. emperors and won for the neo-Pers. rulers the greatest era of power and wealth and a peace with Rome as an equal. His death in a.d. 379 initiated the decline in the Sassanian system that signaled its final conquest by Islam. The last cent. of Sassanian domination was wracked by invasions of the White Huns and Slavic peoples from the steppes and the internal strife among the Christians after the council of Nicea’s rejection of oriental Arianism became acute. The use of the Pahlavi script and the archaic dialect that developed into modern Pers. became fixed in this period. The 6th and 7th centuries saw increasing disorganization in the E as the dark ages closed over the W. The armies of Islam fresh from their conquests of Syria-Palestine turned toward the rich cities of Iran which lay on their route to India and China. At Kadisiya in a.d. 636 only fourteen years after the Hegira the decisive battles were fought.

Islamic (medieval) period.

The Muslims of Arabia who overthrew Persia placed it under the Caliphate that ruled all the Islamic world. In a.d. 661 it passed under the government of the Omayyads; however, internal frictions and fratricidal struggles led to the establishment of a separate sect of Islam within Persia, the Shia. Unlike the orthodox sects, the leaders, mujtahids, of the Shia made original interpretations of the Islamic law and in fact philosophized to a degree that much of the metaphysics of the long past Manichaenism was absorbed into Persian Islam. While the Persians utilized the difficult Arab. syllabary to write their Indo-European language, the Arabs were learning much more from the ancient culture of Persia. Although Persia was ruled by the different national Muslim rulers who triumphed in long succession over Islam, yet the language and philosophy of the ancient period continued to make its appearance to the end of the Muslim era. The culture of Byzantium was in evidence even under the Caliphates, but ultimately with the rise of the Abbasid Dynasty in a.d. 750, it was Persia that took preeminence beyond the Zagros. Even the magnificent Kufic script, which was permissible on strictly conforming Islamic documents on which idolatrous images were forbidden, were decorated by the Pers. scribal flourish. In the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries, Pers. science, medicine, and lit. came to represent the height of Islamic learning. For all intents and purposes the Arab domination ended in a.d. 819 when the period of smaller divisions under local rulers began. In a.d. 1258, the Mongols sacked Baghdad and poured over Iran. Subsequently, they ruled the country for two and a half centuries. Until the mid-18th cent. Turks, Mongols, and Russians intervened into the affairs of Iran and both aided and hindered the native regimes.

Modern era.

The hold of the last feudal alliance of Islamic rulers was broken by the Turkish defeat in the First World War. The liberation of the ancient Christian kingdoms of the Balkans and the Near E had actually begun as early as the Napoleonic wars, and the peoples subject to the Turkish overlordship of Muslim culture followed suit. The rebirth of nationalism came to the fore in 1925 with the installation of Reza Shah Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne.

Religious history.

The deep-seated dualism, possibly as consistent as any human philosophy ever devised, seems to have dominated not only ancient Pers. religion but every religion absorbed by the Iranian population. The precise character of early Achaemenian religion, however, has not yet been determined. The later royal inscrs. and Avesta have Indo-European divine names similar to those found among the Indo-European overlords of Mari and similar to those in the Rig-Veda. Although innumerable other factors enter into the cultic rituals, the basic philosophic core remained the same for centuries. The linguistic and semantic factors of the Avesta are thought to indicate an East Iranian origin (cf. M. J. Dresden, IDB Vol. III, 746). In all periods, the ecclesiastical officials held enormous political power, and it is very probable that the theologic power necessary to harmonize life with the “good” was available only through magic or ritual known only to the religious initiates. Mani, Arius, and the Muslim scholars all fell under the spell of Iran’s ancient lore and its meditative philosophy. The full system of Manichaenism, like its written documents, is largely beyond recovery. The discussions of the patristic writers, however, make it plain that it was highly philosophic, and the extant Manichaean texts reveal an elaborate cosmology framed in the form of myth and the ancient pre-Socratic notion of form/idea versus physical/matter, which is solved by man’s recognition of his supra-human origin and nature, that through this knowledge man may find salvation. The Islamic sects grew rapidly in such soil and three groups emerged—Shia, Sufi, and a fatalistic sect following Firdausi. Persia’s greatest Islamic scholar was Al-Ghazali, whose concept of “the unique unknowable deity” has profoundly influenced both Islam and Judaism.


The magnificence of Pers. art, literature, and science has left a vast impact on the European world. Persian textiles, ceramics, and jewelry were valued highly in Renaissance Europe. The first concrete advances beyond ancient natural science were made by Pers. physicians such as Rhazes and mathematicians like ’Umar Khayám, who also wrote the one Pers. poem known in the W through many trs., the Rubáiyát. Persian is still used as a major creative vehicle in the Islamic world by such renowned authors as the Pakistani poet, Muhammad Iqbal, and others.

Art and architecture

Persian art of all periods is marked by its hard lines and highly polished finishes. The Assyrian art was largely two-dimensional, whereas the sculpture of Iran achieved a magnificent three-dimensional effect in monumental reliefs. The anatomy of the body and the treatment of the draperies in all forms are considerably more naturalistic than anything previous. Persian art is definitely the continuation of the oriental tradition, whereas its great opposition, that of Gr. art, sought a new and original simplicity. Persian architectural embellishment is concerned with the repetition and replication of simple patterns. Some of the great friezes consist of many figures of animals and/or men in simple square compositions. This ability with the sculptured surface came to its full bloom in the working of metals. The Persian craftsmen utilized the wild zoomorphic and botanomorphic figures in vogue among the Ural-Altai of central Asia. They combined these motifs with the time-honored forms of the ancient Near E. Thus they brought the graphic arts of miniature painting and repoussé to the service of Islam. This outlet for the creative artists allowed a vast effusion of works of art within the strictures of Islamic law. The Kufic and other scripts with illuminated initials became an art form rarely equalled in the history of book making. The Pers. garden with its manifold forms of animal and plant life were all represented in Pers. art and used as an integral part of Pers. architecture. Landscaping was developed for its own sake, and great palaces and enormous porticos were constructed with gardens within them.

Christianity in Persia

The first great Christian establishment in Persia was at Edessa, and Eusebius tells an apocryphal incident about the correspondence between the Prince of Edessa and the disciple, Thaddaeus. It is most likely that Christianity was brought to Persia by Syrian Christians and that their impact continued even under the Muslim rulers. The great Nestorian missionary and patriarch, Mar Aba, was persecuted by his Zoroastrian contemporaries because he was converted to the orthodox faith. The invasion of the Muslims drove the Syrian missionaries on until they finally entered China in the 7th cent. a.d. After centuries of oppression, only small groups of Nestorians and Armenian orthodox believers survived into the 19th cent. Many of these had long before fled to other parts of the world. The Russian orthodoxists with the political aid of the czarist government attempted to attract these churches into Russia, and the Rom. church worked among the hill people of Iran. The Eng. missionary Henry Martyn (1781-1812) worked in Persia and made some Bible trs. into the language. Much of the work among the Nestorians and Muslims prior to the 20th cent. was carried forward by churches of the Reformed system. In recent decades, complex eclectic religions such as Baha’i, which began in Iran in 1844, have again brought Persia’s ancient tendency to absorb and combine external religious teachings to the fore. With modernization and considerable foreign travel, Christian missions and churches in Iran will undoubtedly show an increase as long as they can avoid the ancient pitfall of accommodation.

Persia and the Bible

Persia is the setting for the story of Esther and the opening scene in the account of Nehemiah. In addition, Persia’s Achaemenid king, Cyrus, by virtue of his command to the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem is linked throughout the OT with Judaism. Mention is made also of various Pers. customs and officials as well as the immutable Pers. decrees (Dan 6:8; et al.) and the many languages of the empire (Esth 8:9; et al.).

The much more important question is whether any Pers. religious notions were incorporated into the Jewish ritual and tradition. The DDS and the Apoc. and Pseudep. display an involved angelology with layers of mythical tradition derived from the Zoroastrian cosmology. The question as to whether or not the concept of apocalyptic lit. is ultimately derived from Pers. sources is certainly to be decided in the negative. In the OT is a deeply rooted and consistent Messianic expectation involving both an earthly “servant” of the Lord (Isa 52:13) and a heavenly “son of man” (Dan 7:13) as integral aspects. No such Messianism has ever been demonstrated from Pers. sources. Since Aram. was the language of the western section of the Achaemenid empire its use spread into all branches of Judaism; e.g., the military colony at Egyp. Elephantine. Undoubtedly the use of some Pers. concepts framed in subliminal mythologic terms, such as the contrast of light with dark in the DDS and the NT, indicates the degree of impact that Persia left upon Judaism. The Persians are not mentioned in the NT, but the Medes, Parthians, and Elamites are all mentioned in the account of Pentecost in Acts 2:9.


The lit. on Persia, its languages and history is very extensive. The two basic publications dealing with ancient Persia are: Mémoires de la Délégation en Perse (1900-1912) and the sequel, Mémoires de la Mission Archéologique en Iran (1943- ) and Iranica Antiqua.

The following is a general bibliography of works covering the major aspects of Iranian studies and including separate bibliographies: F. H. Weissbach, Die Keilinschriften der Achämeniden (1911); P. Sykes, A History of Persia, Vol. I (1915); W. Bosset, Die Religion des Judentums im späthellenischen Zeitalter, 3rd. ed. (1926); A. Christensen, Die Iranier, Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft 3. Abt., 1 T., 3 Bd., Kulturgeschichte des Alten Orients 3. Abschn., 1 Lief. (1933); G. G. Cameron, History of Early Iran (1936); N. C. Debevoise, A Political History of Parthia (1938); ed. A. U. Pope, A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present, Vols. I-IV (1938); D. E. Mc Cowan, The Comparative Stratigraphy of Early Iran (1942); A. Christensen, L’Iran sous les Sassanides, 2nd. ed. (1944); G. G. Cameron, Persepolis Treasury Tablets (1948); A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (1948); R. G. Kent, Old Persian Grammar, Texts, Lexicon (1950); ed. A. J. Arberry, The Legacy of Persia (1953); R. H. Dyson, “Relative Chronology of Iran, 6000-2000 b.c.,” in Chronology in Old World Archaeology (1954), 215-256; R. Ghirshman, Iran (1954); G. Widengren, “Juifs et Iraniens à l’époque des Parthes,” in Supplements to Vetus Testamentum, IV (1957), 197-240; Iranistik, Erster Abschn. Linguistik, Handbuch der Orientalistik, Vol, IV, no. 1 (1958); G. Vanden Berghe, “Archéologie de l’Iran ancien” (1959) in Documenta et Monumenta Orientis Antiqui, Vol., VI; M. Lambert, “Littérature élamite,” in L’Histoire générale des littératures (1961), 36-41; S. Lloyd, The Art of the Ancient Near East (1961); R. C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (1961); A. Bausani, Die Perser (1962); A. R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks (1962); M. J. Dresden, “Persia” in The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, K-Q (1962), 739-747 (contains excellent bibliography); S. H. Taqizadeh-Festschrift (1962); W. Hinz, “Persia c. 2400-1800 b.c.,” Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. I, chap. xxiii (1963); R. Labat, “Elam c. 1600-1200 b.c.,” Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. II, chap. xxix (1963); E. Porada, Iran Ancien (1963); W. Hinz, “Persia c. 1800-1550 b.c.,” Cambridge Ancient History, Vol., II. chap. vii (1964); R. Labat, “Elam and Western Persia, c. 1200-1000 b.c.,” Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. II, chap. xxxii (1964); ed. H. Bengtson, Griechen und Perser, Die Mittelmeerwelt im Altertum, I., Fischer Weltgeschichte, Bd. 5 (1965); W. Culican, The Medes and Persians, Ancient Peoples and Places, Vol. 42 (1965); D. A. E. Garrod and J. G. D. Clark, “Primitive Man in Egypt, Western Asia and Europe,” Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. I, chap. iii (1966); B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine (1968).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

W. St. Clair Tisdall