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The ancient Persian Empire included areas far beyond modern Persia, now called Iran. At times the Persians controlled much of the Middle East — they were a main antagonist of Ancient Greece a few centuries BCE, and later the Roman Empire. They ruled Egypt at one point — as well as much of the Caucasus and Central Asia and parts of what are now Pakistan and India. At the height of its power, more than 40 per cent of the world's population were Persian subjects, a higher ratio than any other empire ever.



In Western canon, the Persian Empire was famous for the liberation of Jews from Babylon, as well as the Persian Wars with Ancient Greece.

Perhaps the longest on-again-off-again war in recorded history was between the Persian and Roman empires beginning with an ill-fated expedition under Crassus in the first century BCE, enduring past the replacement of Parthian with Sassanian Persia and the fall of the Western Roman Empire and only coming to a close with the defeat of Persia (much weakened by a then recent fight with Rome) at the hands of Muslim invaders.

Persia has been conquered three times: by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, by Arabs during the great expansion of Islam in the 7th century CE, and by the Mongol Empire in the 13th. Every time, it has risen again to create another Persian Empire. The Sunni-Shia split coincides with the Arab-Persian cultural split to a large extent (historically Persian lands being largely Shia) and some argue that the cultural differences rather than religious or theological ones are the main reason for the sectarian violence in modern times.

Persia had a huge influence on Central Asia, much of which they ruled for centuries. Marco Polo, for example, describes cities like Bukhara and Balkh as Persian. Even today, one dialect of Persian is the main language of Tajikistan and another is widely used in Afghanistan. They also had a tremendous influence on South Asia which was repeatedly invaded by Persian speakers, from Darius taking Gandhara in the 6th century BCE to the Mughal Empire which ruled much of the subcontinent from the 16th century CE into the 19th.

The modern game of chess is believed to have originated in the Persian game shatranj, which also gave rise to other chess variants in parts of the world such as Chinese Xiangqi, Japanese Shogi, and the Korean and Thai variants. While shatranj originated in the Indian game chaturanga, it was the Persian version that spread to other parts of the world and gave rise to all the modern-day national and international chess variants. Some chess terms also originate in Persian; "checkmate" comes from "shah mat" or "the King is dead", and the "rook" takes its name from the Persian word "rukh", meaning "chariot".

Persia also had a strong influence on religion in various areas; for one thing, the ancient Persian faith Zoroastrianism still exists, mainly in India and Iran. As for Christianity, the empire supported the Church of the East, apparently mainly for political reasons; the Persians did not want a church with strong ties to either Byzantium or Rome becoming too influential in their territory. Shi'a Islam was made the state religion in the 16th century and today, Iran is considered to be its main centre.

That church never accepted the condemnation of Nestorius as a heretic by the western bishops. It sent missionaries east along the Silk Road to spread its Nestorian version of the Gospel. They reached China and Korea by the 7th century, hundreds of years ahead of other Christians. Later, Persia sent Muslim missionaries along the same routes.



Old Persian was only one of many languages spoken and used officially by the First Persian Empire, the Achaemenid, along with Babylonian, Elamite, Aramaic and even Greek. This multilingual approach to governance continued during the course of the Parthian and early Sasanian Empires. By the late Sasanian however, Middle Persian had emerged as the prestige and dominant language in the Greater Iranian sphere, which over the centuries evolved into Modern Persian and kept its dominance to the modern day.

The main dialects of modern Persian are Farsi in Iran, Tajik in Tajikistan and Dari in Afghanistan. They are different enough to create difficulties, but not to completely prevent understanding.


Map of Persian Empire


Peak of the Achaemenid Empire

At its peak, around 500 BCE, the empire was enormous. These areas retained Persian culture for centuries:

  • Afghanistan has always shown a strong Persian influence
  • Bactria has been a center of trade for several thousand years
  • Iran was the center of the empire
  • Sogdia was the northernmost part of the empire a few centuries BCE
  • Gandhara, a civilization centered in what is now Pakistan, with much fine Buddhist art

Around 330 BCE Alexander the Great conquered all of this empire. The Seleucid Empire, founded by one of Alexander's generals, ruled Persia and some nearby areas for a few hundred years after that



See Iran#Cities for other modern towns there.

  • 1 Anshan (Iran). Ancient city of Elam and home of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian empire. Anshan Persia (Q569107) on Wikidata Anshan (Persia) on Wikipedia
  • 2 Baku (Azerbaijan). For much of its history, was a Persian city, and its old core's architecture reflects this fact. Baku (Q9248) on Wikidata Baku on Wikipedia
  • 3 Balkh. Former capital of Bactria, now a town in northern Afghanistan with interesting buildings Balkh (Q182159) on Wikidata Balkh on Wikipedia
  • 4 Bokhara (Uzbekistan). Great trading city on the Silk Road Bukhara (Q5764) on Wikidata Bukhara on Wikipedia
  • 5 Ctesiphon (Iraq). Now a ruined city on the eastern banks of the Tigris river, was capital of the empire until the Islamic conquest of Persia. Ctesiphon (Q192541) on Wikidata Ctesiphon on Wikipedia
  • 6 Derbent (Dagestan). "The Barred Gates" in Persian, often identified with the legendary Gates of Alexander, was intermittently controlled by the Persian monarchs, starting from the 6th century BC. Its beautiful fortress is thought to date from the reign of Khosrau I. Derbent (Q131416) on Wikidata Derbent on Wikipedia
  • 7 Herat. Now Afghanistan's westernmost city, it's heavily influenced by Persia and sometimes part of the empire Herat (Q45313) on Wikidata Herat on Wikipedia
  • 8 Isfahan. Capital of Persia under the Safavids from the 16th to 18th centuries. It features a world heritage listed square surrounded by historic buildings including a fine mosque, the royal palace and a huge bazaar. Isfahan (Q42053) on Wikidata Isfahan on Wikipedia
  • 9 Pasargadae, 90 km northeast of Shiraz (Iran). The capital of the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great (559–530 BC), who ordered its construction. The world heritage archaeological site covers 1.6 km2 (0.62 sq mi) and includes a limestone structure commonly believed to be the mausoleum of Cyrus, the fortress of Toll-e Takht sitting on top of a nearby hill, and the remains of two royal palaces and gardens. Pasargadae Persian Gardens provide the earliest known example of the Persian chahar bagh, or fourfold garden design. Pasargadae (Q230025) on Wikidata Pasargadae on Wikipedia
  • 10 Persepolis (Iran). Now only ruins, was the empire's capital in its days of glory Persepolis (Q129072) on Wikidata Persepolis on Wikipedia
  • 11 Samarkand (Uzbekistan). Silk Road city and once capital of the empire's northernmost province, Sogdia Samarkand (Q5753) on Wikidata Samarkand on Wikipedia
  • 12 Shiraz (Iran). A city with a vast array of historic buildings, was the capital of the Empire under the short-lived Zand dynasty. Shiraz (Q6397066) on Wikidata Shiraz on Wikipedia
  • 13 Susa. Captured by Cyrus the Great during his conquest of Elam (Susiana), of which it was the capital. Susa was chosen by Darius as an administrative capital of Achaemenids due to its geographical position, its splendid history and its closeness to Mesopotamian areas. Therefore, Darius was the first Achaemenid king who designated Susa as his royal residence. During the two centuries of Achaemenid Empire, Susa remained their most important administrative center; later, in the Seleucid era, it lost its function as the administrative capital, but remained a prosperous regional centre. Today, the ancient center of Susa is unoccupied, with the population living in the adjacent modern Iranian town of Shush to the west and north of the historic ruins. Shush (Q4168823) on Wikidata Shush, Iran on Wikipedia
  • 14 Tehran. The capital of Iran under the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties and an Islamic Republic since 1979, the city features a royal palace inscribed as a world heritage site. Tehran (Q3616) on Wikidata Tehran on Wikipedia
  • 15 Zaranj (Afghanistan). Near the border of Iran, this city has seen the birth of Ya'qub ibn al-Layth al-Saffar, who founded the Saffarid dynasty when it was the capital during the 9th century. Zaranj (Q475802) on Wikidata Zaranj on Wikipedia



See also

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History of Iran