Civilization's Ancient Trailblazer
Hail Iran, thou land of ancient splendor
Hail Iran, thou realm of golden light
Iran, thou art the mother
And domain of fabled heroes -
Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes -
History's legends, men of might.
So put away thy torpor, O' Iran.
Shake off thy slumber.
Forget thou not thy glory
In thy youth. Recall the sight
Of Apadana's pillars
And the walls of Ecbatana
And the Gateway to the Nations
Thru which disputes were put to flight.
So strike once more the harp.
Beat the timbrel. Sound the cymbals.
Raise again the rhyton,
of Artaxerxes, golden bright.
And recall thou wert the mother
of Man's first civilizations.
So kindle thou the torch
to safeguard against the night.
Iran, the name evokes different feelings among different groups of people. Today, largely thanks to the media, most Americans and Europeans think of Iran's nuclear program when they hear the word. Traditionally, however, before the age of 'news bytes' and round-the-clock coverage, the images evoked were quite different.
In the 19th century, for example, when Westerners heard the word, 'Persia,' (the name, by which Iran was then known,) they thought of bejeweled silken rugs, intricately illuminated books of poetry and the poignant song of the nightingale. Like mirages rising from the desert's shimmering horizon, images arose of verdant Persian gardens, perfumed with drifts of jasmine and cooled by the diamond spray of fountains.
Such images were not the products of 19th century orientalists' fancies. They did - and still do - exist and are an integral part of the country and civilization of Iran. Fabulous silk rugs are still being woven by hand. Books of poetry rendered in intricate calligraphy can still be found and perfumed Persian gardens - both public and private - still abound, providing cool respite from the fierce rays of the desert sun.
But just as Iran entails much more than the news outlets' latest political spin would have us believe, it also encompasses a great deal more than Medieval poetry and science -- or the fantastic One Thousand and One Nights culture promoted by Hollywood. One group limits Iranian culture to the parameters of the latest political debacle, while another thinks of it only in terms of the 'Golden Age of Islam' and the third categorizes it in terms of fairytales -- complete with flying carpets and magic lamps. All three assumptions are erroneous, with the first giving a completely skewed -- and the second two, only a partial -- image of Iran. No wonder Westerners are confused.
For over two millennia, the country and its culture have been misrepresented. This is particularly true of ancient Iran, which has traditionally been portrayed as corrupt, backward, lacking in initiative and despotic, whereas archaeologists have since found strong indications that the opposite was true.
When looking at ancient Iran, we must keep in mind that our only sources of information were histories written by Greeks, Iran's arch-enemies at the time. Just imagine, for a moment, if the Nazis (during the Second World War,) had written a history of England and that was the only account the world had to go by. Just how accurate would that portrayal be? That is exactly what happened with Iran. It was all the Western world had for over two thousand years. It was only in the 20th century that archaeological discoveries began revealing an entirely different picture.
The Persian (Achaemenid) Empire, founded by Cyrus, the Great, was comprised of 127 provinces, stretching from Libya to Afghanistan and from the Russian steppes to India. This vast empire, at the height of its power, spanned three continents (Asia, Africa and Europe,) and covered eight million square kilometers. Moreover, this enormous stretch was well and efficiently governed.
Far from being the popularly depicted collection of conquered lands ruled by a dictator, the Persian Empire was actually an ancient precursor to the European Union -- or the United States. It consisted of a group of individual states or satrapies, each with its own customs, beliefs, unique people and ruler/government, answerable to one of four centralized governments in what was then, Iran. These capitals were located in Pasargadae, Ecbatana, Babylon and Susa.
It might be noted that numbers of the empire's member-states joined voluntarily. Life was dangerous in the ancient world. City-states and countries were constantly subject to attack and ancient warfare often meant either the annihilation or enslavement of an entire nation. Membership in the Persian Empire meant protection by the empire's vast army. At the same time, Persian engineers built networks of roads and highways, linking the vast empire and facilitating travel.
One such highway, stretching from Susa to Sardis, was 2,500 kilometers long. These roads were not left unattended. The central government maintained their upkeep and the military guarded them, keeping them free of brigands. The people of the member states thus enjoyed a degree of freedom and security previously unheard of in the ancient world.
This road system made possible another Iranian innovation - the 'Pony Express,' which was a rapid, highly efficient mail delivery service. Letters could be written, or edicts delivered in one city and a rider would take the bag containing them, jump on his horse and ride 'hell for leather' to a designated relay station, where he would change horses and hit the road again. Further down the line, he would hand the bag to a fresh rider, who would perform the same task and so on until the mail reached its destination. It was said that a letter could be written on one end of the empire and reach the other end in 10-to-15 days. That was some accomplishment for 2,500 years ago.
The fact is that roads in the Persian Empire were both good and safe so commerce flourished. In order to aid it still further, however, Darius, the First, placed the economy on a system of standardized gold and silver coinage and introduced a regulated banking system. Banks also ventured into giving loans for business ventures and weights and measures were standardized. Trade grew to such an extent that tariffs on transported goods became one of the empire's main sources of revenue.
The Achaemenids also encouraged shipping and sea trade. Ports were established along the coasts of the Persian Gulf and Darius, the First, had a canal dug (the first completed Suez Canal project,) linking the Nile River to the Red Sea, which would enable shipping from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The Greek historian, Herodotus, informs us that Darius' canal, which took four days to travel, was wide enough to allow two triremes (ancient warships) to pass each other with oars extended.
Darius' commemoration stelae on the banks of the Nile read in part, “Saith Darius: I am a Persian. Setting out from Persia ….I ordered this canal dug from the river called the Nile... to the sea that begins in Persia. When the canal had been dug... ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, even as I intended.”
Obviously, life in the Persian Empire was safe, dynamic and could be financially lucrative. So, why have the ancient Persians been given such a bad image?
The answer lies in who wrote the histories - the accounts, which were perceived as fact for over two thousand years and were taught to generations of schoolchildren.
The original surviving histories were written by Greeks, foremost of whom, was Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who lived in the 5th century BC (484-425 BC.) It might be noted that his 'histories' of the Persian Empire, which included a portrayal of ancient Persian society, were written mere decades after the conclusion of the Greco-Persian wars (which took place in 490 and 480-479 BC.)
To put it plainly, Herodotus' accounts were written when anti-Iranian sentiments in Greece were still running high. We must keep this fact in mind when reading his chronicles and those of other ancient Hellenic sources. As has been mentioned, archaeological discoveries have already disclosed some of the fallacies of these accounts and future findings may reveal still more.
Therefore, at this point, let's take a brief look at some of the so-called 'facts' we were traditionally taught about the ancient Persians in light of archaeological findings.
Firstly, the Persians were portrayed as despotic, intolerant and cruel- as opposed to the Greeks, who were depicted as democratic, tolerant and freedom-loving. In reality, the Persians were incredibly tolerant for an ancient people, allowing the empire's various member-states, (both those, who joined voluntarily and those, who were annexed by conquest,) a great deal of self-rule as well as the right to retain their own customs and beliefs.
The Greeks, on the other hand, (when in a similar position following Alexander's conquests,) showed themselves to be remarkably intolerant towards the local customs and beliefs of subject peoples. In fact, they ran into a number of conflicts during their attempts to 'Hellenize' everyone.
Another common misconception is that the Persians were corrupt, indolent and often two-faced, whereas even Herodotus admits that young Persian boys from the age of 5 to 20 were instructed in three things, to ride a horse, draw a bow and speak the truth. That hardly sounds conducive to a life of sloth and deceit.
In fact, Herodotus comments, “...the most disgraceful thing in the world (the Persians) think, is to tell a lie.” Just stop for a moment and compare that high code of personal integrity with the Greek examples of heroes, such as Odysseus and others, who used deception to defeat Troy.
In conclusion, the ancient Persians had a remarkable civilization that has, over the centuries, been greatly misunderstood due to biased sources. To acknowledge the magnificence of this society is to, by no means, denigrate the Greeks, who wrote about it. A great civilization also arose in Greece - one, which was so scintillating that the world, two millennia later, still views it with awe.
The point is that we have long been aware of the contributions made by the Greeks, whereas those made by the Persians - which were many and equally brilliant -- have remained, for the most part, unrecognized. That is an oversight that needs to be corrected.