THE PERSIANS & OTHER CONTENDERS

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Contenders for Mesopotamia

Contenders for territory in the 6th century BC

'As soon as the cities of the plain had been made to flourish [the result of a gentle sloping landscape in the lower Tigris-Eurphrates valley that carried irrigation water for miles] they became tempting objects of plunder to the barbarous peoples of the country round about'. (W H McNeill)

If asked to give a name to this geographical region, which includes parts of Europe and Africa as well as Asia, you'd probably say "The Middle East". Our "Middle East" should lie between the "Near East" (not much used today - it once meant Greece and Turkey) and the "Far East" (China and Japan), because western Europeans have always seen themselves as the centre of things. But Europe was way off in the "Far West" when civilised life was starting to evolve in this region.

Mesopotamia

It's obvious that the centre of the region is Mesopotamia (now mostly in Iraq) - a fertile lowland area surrounded by mountains or desert, with two massive navigable rivers running through it. No wonder that it was here in the "Fertile Crescent" that the world's earliest cities appeared, and where agriculture began. No wonder everyone wanted a piece of it. No wonder that in Jewish tradition it was the site of the "Garden of Eden":

… And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food …

Before the Persians emerged as contenders in the 6th century BC, great civilisations had flourished and faded away since at least 3500 BC, including most recently: The Assyrians and the Elamites. By 600 BC, however, they were no longer contenders:

The Assyrians (911 to about 608 BC)

An Assyrian They’d had a very long  earlier period of dominance, and a more recent second go. They had controlled most of the territory marked on the map above as Lydia, Median Empire and Babylonia. They had been very aggressive, utterly ruthless, and extremely successful - terrorising the peoples between the Mediterranean coast and the Zagros mountains. With leaders like Sennacherib they seemed unstoppable - cities were wiped off the map. But when they started fighting among themselves, their empire began to break up. The Medes, Babylonians and Lydians took over their territory, and destroyed their capital at Nineveh in 612 BC. But their art, architecture, language (and script) as well as their skills in fighting and organisation had a deep influence on the Persians, when they became the super-power.

The Elamites (around 4000 - 616 BC)

Elamite head As the Elamites occupied much of the territory later ruled by the Persians, there's a full section about them here. Their centre was in Khuzistan, to the west of the Zagros mountains, and their capital was at Susa. They had competed with the Assyrians and Babylonians for control of Mesopotamia - but finally lost out to the Assyrians in 616 BC - until they in turn fell to the Medes.

From around 650 BC, part of their territory, Anshan in the southern Zagros mountains, had been taken by the expanding Persians.

By the end of the 7th century (say 600 BC), the Assyrians and Elamites were no longer contenders. Any people wanting to dominate Mesopotamia would now have to confront:

… The Babylonians (about 612 to 539 BC)

BabylonianThey had also had had earlier success – always in rivalry with the Assyrians. The founder of the first and rather brief Babylonian empire, Hammurabi (died c.1750 BC),produced one of the world's earliest codes of laws. Dominated for a long time by the Assyrians, who had destroyed their capital at Babylon, they finally shook them off, and, under Nebuchadnezzar II, rebuilt their city. Its size and beauty made it the most famous in the world. Under Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and took the people of Judaea as prisoners to Babylon. Then the Medes appeared …

… The Medes (about 612 to 550 BC)

Mede and PersianThe Medes were very closely related to the Persians. Allied with the Babylonians, they finished off the Assyrians. Herodotus tells us that, from their capital at Ecbatana (Hamadan), they ruled an empire which bordered Lydia in the west and stretched as far east as Afghanistan, and included Persis. However, the extent and even the existence of a unified Median empire is now disputed by scholars. But, in any case, the Medes' rule was brief. Their conqueror, according to Herodotus, was to be the son of a Mede princess - and a Persian father (unless he was an Elamite) ... The Medes and Persians were henceforth united under a single ruler. 

Then came the Persians …

The Persians (from 550 BC)

At first hardly contenders at all - just a harmless group of horse-riding cattle-raising nomads who had been peacefully settled in an area south-east of the Zagros Mountains today called Fars, for perhaps 500 years. Its people called it Parsa (Greek Persis). Around 650 BC, they appear to have conquered the Elamite territory of Anshan to their north-west. Their rulers called themselves kings of Anshan, perhaps showing they wished to be seen as successors to the Elamites. But now they had a new king: Cyrus (as the Greeks called him; Kurush or Kurash in his own language) …

NEXT: CYRUS - PERSIA EMERGES