THE SPLENDOR OF PERSIA
The Great Kings
by: Robert Payne
EVEN TODAY, though the archeologists have been at work for a hundred years, we do not know where the Persians came from or how they brought about the beginnings of their empire. All we know of them is that about 1400 B.C., when Mycenae and Troy and Cnossus were falling to the Greeks, a small army of tribesmen emerged out of the great plains north of the Black Sea and the Caspian and made their way by slow stages towards the Persian Gulf. We know that they came with horses and short stabbing swords and lances, and that they were an Aryan people with long heads, high foreheads and thin noses, and their blood may have already been mixed with a slight Mongol strain. They were brothers of the Scythians and the Medes, who also emerged from the great grasslands. Yet the tribesmen who were later to be called Persians --the Assyrians knew them as the Parsua-- seem to have been of finer build than the Medes or the Scythians, slighter, hardier, and more warlike.
At the beginning they can have numbered only a few hunvdreds. In time they were to conquer all the known world: Greece, Egypt, all of Asia Minor, all that was contained in the Assyrian empire, much of southern Russia and Afghanistan and northern India were to -fall under their sway.
We shall never know the names of the first Persians who set the tribesmen on the path of kingship. They had no writing and no arts except pottery-making and no records have come down to us except obscure phrases in Assyrian inscriptions which may or may not refer to them. For a while we catch glimpses of them occupying the lands to the west and south of Lake Urmiya. Here they seem to have carved out a small principality for themselves, and the records of the reign of the Assyrian King Shamsi-Adad (823-810 B.C.) speak of a sudden raid against them and the destruction of 1,200 of their cities, which may mean no more than the destruction of fortified huts. A little later we find them forcing their way through the Zagros Mountains and settling on the southern slopes, living in the shadow of the mountains. By this time they have become hardy warriors, and cylinder seals show them riding to battle with gay plumes in their helmets, the heads and breasts of their horses adorned with jewels.
We find them living in primitive wooden huts, looking after their horses, watching over their flocks, tilling their fields and sacrificing to their gods occasionally we find them living in magnificent stonewalled, manytowered buildings. Like nearly all the other tribes in this area they seem to have worshipped a Divine Mother who wore on her breast the badge of the Sun and they reverenced the ibex whose curved horns were sacred to the moon.
They were a frontier people, living on the edge of the desert, with memories of having passed through the forbidding territories of the Kings of Elam, who ruled from Susa. They were good hunters and excellent warriors, proud of their independence; having no culture of their own, they were beginning to borrow from Assyria and Elam and the neighboring Kingdom of Urartu and even perhaps from the Egyptians through traders. Herodotus says they had no luxuries. They despised comfort, unlike the Medes who lived in the northeast and were closely related to them in race. Already the Medes had acquired a written language and were compiling the great code of laws which the Persians were to take over. Meanwhile the Persians were living strenuously in their fortified huts or in castles which were usually built on high plateaux. The princes who ruled them possessed absolute power; there were no slaves; every man had his appointed place in the community. They give the impression of people deliberately and quietly training themselves for conquest.
The opportunity came in 596 B.C., when the Kingdom of Elam was destroyed by an invading army of Assyrians. Susa was plundered and razed to the ground, the royal sepulchres were desecrated and the images of their gods were carried away. Ezekiel tells the story: "There is Elam and all her multitude round about her grave, all of them slain, fallen by the sword, which are gone down uncircumcised into the nether parts of the earth, which caused their terror in the land of the living; yet have they borne their shame with them that go down to the pit." (Ezek. 32:24) The great empire of Elam vanished from the map, and into this vacuum, when the Assyrian armies withdrew, the sturdy Persians marched with their prince Teispes (675-640) at their head. They captured Anshan, once a stronghold of Elam, and Teispes began to call himself "King of the City of Anshan." It was the first of the Persian victories: there were to be many others.
It seems that Achaemenes, the father of Teispes, had prepared the ground and was chiefly responsible for training a hard-hitting force of cavalry, since forever afterwards the Persians regarded Achaemenes with a respect bordering on the reverence they paid to their gods. But they rarely spoke of his achievements. The man who gave his name to the royal line of Achaemenian Kings vanishes in the mist of history, and all we know of Teispes is that he extended the Kingdom and at his death divided it into two parts, giving the northern part to his son Ariaramnes and the southern part to his son Cyrus. Ariaramnes called himself "great King, King of Kings, King of the land of Parsa." Cyrus, more modest, or perhaps less powerful, contented himself with the title "great King of Parsumash." Within a few years Ariaramnes vanishes from the scene, but not before he had caused to be written in an ancient cuneiform script on a gold tablet which still survives the proudest of all the boasts uttered by the Persian Kings. Remembering that the hardy Persians had depended upon their horses for victory, he wrote:
Ariaramnes was the first to call himself "King of Kings," a title which Persian sovereigns have continued to employ until the present day, but we do not know how he lost his kingdom to his brother. For a few brief years Cyrus rules over Parsumash, Anshan, and Parsa He is followed by his son Cambyses, who married into the royal family of Media. From the union between the gentle King Cambyses and Princess Mandane was born a son called Kurush, whom we know as Cyrus the Great.
At great length and in enormous detail Herodotus and Xenophon have depicted the births the upbringing, and the military conquests of Cyrus, who captured Sardis and Babylon and ended for a thousand years the rule of the Semites in Western Asia. His childhood gamed his table manners, how he walked and how he addressed his soldiers --all these are recorded for us. He is the first Persian to be presented to us in three dimensions. We know that he was so handsome that long after his death Persian sculptors continued to model his features because they represented an ideal of physical beauty. He was tall and slender, with a straight nose, a firm chin, and thick lips. He had high coloring and walked a little stiffly, and was much given to laughter. He took his kingly duties seriously, but he was perfectly capable of being informal with his soldiers. He was merciful and deeply religious, but sometimes his enormous eyes flashed with anger and then the rage of kingship would descend upon him. At such moments he would drive himself and his armies into dangerous campaigns which swept him halfway across Asia, to die at last fighting some obscure tribesmen who, though a potential threat, were not worth conquering. Like Alexander he carved out a great empire, and like Alexander he did not live to organize it.
who often tells the truth when he seems to be telling extravagant stories,
records that as the consequence of a dream interpreted to mean that the
boy would command all Asia, his Median grandfather ordered him to be
killed at birth. The herdsman Mithradates received the boy and was about
to put him in a box and leave him in the hills for animals to eat when he
learned that his own wife had just given birth to a stillborn baby. The
dead baby was substituted for Cyrus, who grew up to become a handsome and
impudent herdboy. One day, when he was ten, Cyrus was playing the game of
"Kings" in the same village street where Mithradates kept his
oxen. Cyrus was elected "King" by the village boys and
immediately set about distributing tasks among his subjects. One boy he
ordered to build a palace, another became his bodyguard, a third was his
prime minister, and a fourth his herald. It happened that one of the
village boys playing the game was the son of a distinguished Mede. He
refused the commands of Cyrus, who ordered his arrest and decreed a
punishment?a savage beating with whips. The boy escaped, ran to his
father's house and complained about the behavior of the son of a herdsman.
The boy's father complained to the King, who summoned Cyrus into his
presence. "I did what I had to do," Cyrus said, "and if you
are going to punish me, I am ready for it!" The King was troubled. He
recognized that no son of a herdsman would dare to speak in this way, and
he saw that the boy bore an extraordinary resemblance to himself. He asked
for the herdsman to be brought before him. Soon the whole story came out,
and then once again the King summoned his magicians and asked what should
be done: should the boy be kept at the Court, or killed, or exiled?
In those days Lydia was at the height of her power. All the Greek cities of Asia Minor paid tribute to the King, Croesus. The Lydians had invented banking (it is now believed, however, that banking was invented by a coalition of prostitutes and priests in Babylonia for the purpose of fund-raising for their temples) and almost possessed a monopoly of trade in the Eastern Mediterranean; wealth and treasure poured into the capital city of Sardis. Croesus seems to have been an able monarch with an affection for philosophers and no particular love for ostentation, though he is remembered for his wealth. Once when the Athenian lawgiver Solon came to visit him, Goesus asked him who was the happiest of men, and Solon answered that the happiest man he had known was an obscure Athenian called Tellus who had brought fine sons into the world and lived to see his grandchildren around his knees, only to die gloriously in a battle against the city of Eleusis and to receive a public funeral at the place where he died. "Until a man is dead," said Solon, "one should not use the word happy, it is better to use only the word lucky."
Croesus was unlucky. He had recognized very early the formidable power of Cyrus. He tried to awaken Egypt and Babylonia to the common menace and succeeded in procuring an alliance between them against Persia. Before the armies could move, Cyrus was marching against Asia Minor. The first battle, near the Halys, was indecisive. Winter was approaching. Croesus assumed that Cyrus would withdraw his forces and returned leisurely to Sardis, then believed to be an impregnable fortress, guarded by the best equipped soldiers in all Asia. The Lydians were excellent cavalrymen; so were the Persians. But Cyrus possessed camels and decided to throw them into the battle for Sardis, believing that the presence of the camels would frighten the enemy's horses, for everyone knows that horses are instinctively afraid of camels. The ruse succeeded. Croesus's horses turned and fled, but the Lydians hurled themselves off their horses and fought on foot. They were brave, but no match for the Persians, who sent them fleeing behind the high, stern walls of the city. Then the city was besieged. For fourteen days it held out. At last the walls were breached, and the Persians poured through.
The strength of Cyrus lay in his own character and in the character of the army he led. His soldiers were accustomed to privations, but they possessed an inner fire. "The Persians are proud, too proud, and they are poor," Croesus said once, unwittingly explaining the reasons which brought about his own defeat. Unlike the Lydians, they despised armor: they wore only leather breastplates. They lived simply, and were close to the earth.
It had been hammered into them from their earliest childhood that they had only three tasks to perform well in life --to ride well, shoot straight, and speak the truth, by which it was meant that they should speak the true words of the prophet Zarathustra and worship the god Ahuramazda and the other gods. Half-enviously, Herodotus recounts the stern simplicity of their ceremonies; there were no flute-players, no garlands, no pouring of wine. Before worshipping, a Persian would simply stick a spray of myrtle leaves in his headdress. For a few more years this spartan simplicity remained; then, as more plunder fell into their hands, the Persians learned to enjoy magnificence.
could hardly have been otherwise. With all the treasure of Lydia in his
hands, and with the Lydian army marching under his own generals, Cyrus
turned his attention to Babylonia, then ruled by the scholarly King
Nabonidus, whose chief interest seems to have been antiquarian research.
Cyrus was in a mood for conquest. He was also exalted by his successes in
Lydia, and when he reached the river Gyndes and one of his sacred white
horses entered the water and attempted to swim across and was drowned, he
showed for the first time that sullen, determined rage which overcame him
often in later years. He decided to make war on the river, saying that for
daring to kill his beautiful high-spirited horse he would reduce the river
to a stream in which a woman might enter without wetting her knees. He
held up the march against Babylon, divided his army into two parts, marked
out on each side of the river a hundred and eighty channels running ofl
from it in various directions, and ordered the men to set to work and dig.
The river squandered its force in three hundred and sixty channels, and
having defeated the river, Cyrus marched on to Babylon.
After the great triumphal march in Babylon, he settled down to the enjoyment of his empire. He saw the dangers of luxury and did his best to combat them, but gave his officers the utmost licence, saying they deserved to do as they pleased and to adorn themselves in costly Median costumes and wear high-heeled shoes, so long as they continued to practice their military exercises strenuously. He made no attempt to invade Egypt. In the ten years that remained to him there were no revolts throughout his vast dominion. He showed an astonishing forbearance to his enemies and was notable for his zeal in gifts. He allowed the Jews, whom Nebuchadnezzar had transported to Babylonia, to return to Palestine and declared according to the Jewish records that it was his divine mission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews owed their new existence as a nation entirely to his magnanimity, and called him the "anointed of God." He was tolerant of all religions. He returned the gods which the Babylonians had carried off to their own shrines. He was one of those rare men who remain human when cloaked in majesty.
He died mysteriously --Herodotus says it was during a border-raid against the Massagatae who lived on the shores of the Caspian-- and was buried at Pasargadae in a great limestone tomb raised on a platform above the ground. The tomb remains, empty of every vestige of its imperial owner. We know that the King was placed on a golden couch and wore his vestments and his tiara, but nearly two hundred years after his death, when Alexander the Great reached Pasargadae, he found the body lying on the floor of the tomb, plundered of all the royal ornaments. Such was the fate of the greatest of the Persian Kings, the man who was called "the Father of his people" by the Persians, and who called himself "the King of the World."
IF you look at a modern map of Persia, you will see how it stretches like a great arrowhead from the Capian Sea to the Indian Ocean, and lies between India and Russia. Afghanistan, the Turkmen Republic, Turkey, Iraq, and Arabia are its neighbors. Then turn to an ancient map --such a map as the Emperor Darius, "the King of Kings," might have looked upon twenty-four centuries ago-- and you will see the Persian Empire stretching into the eastern Mediterranean, including large parts of Greece and all of Egypt, and reaching out include vast areas of southern Russia and making deep inroads into Central Asia, Pakistan, and northern India. The Persian Empire swallowed up the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires, and went beyond them. It was the greatest empire the world had ever known, and for two centuries its capital was the capital of the world. Today only the core of this empire remains. But the Persians, who rarely regret the past, do not believe the glory has departed. Speaking quite confidently, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, they will say: "Glory lay over this land from the beginning."
For them Persia is far more than a country: it is a place of splendor, where the gods dwell and the ancient heroes still walk in the land, where the remote past and the immediate present live side by side. For them all other lands are disappointing, for the sun does not shine so brightly elsewhere and there are almost no buildings beyond the boundaries of Persia which shine so brightly as their blue-tiled mosques. The Persian sky, scintillating with the dust of the vast deserts or washed clean by the heavy rains, makes everything appear brighter than it really is. Outlines are sharper, colors clearer, shadows more sombre than elsewhere. It is a country of violent contrasts, the snow mountains looking down on endless deserts, bitter cold and intense heat, Switzerland and Arabia stirred together. Two thirds of Persia is mountain and desert. It is no wonder that the Persians in their rare oases have a passionate love for gardens.
The mountains and the deserts formed the Persians: the glittering snows, the endless empty spaces of the desert where nothing grows and no animals can live have formed their minds and toughened their spirits. They have the hardiness of mountaineers and the contemplative instincts of the desert-dwellers.
There is nothing essentially Asiatic about them: they are the Europeans of the East, with high foreheads, straight noses, and fresh coloring. They are Aryans, and today they call their country Iran, which is only another way of spelling Aryan. Because they originally spoke an Aryan tongue, even today their language is close to ours in feeling and a surprising number of words are common to Persian and English. But if they can be compared with any other race, we must turn to the French, who have the same dancing attitude to life, the same quick wits, the same love for decoration, the same sense of glory and splendor. There are moments, walking in Teheran, when you can almost imagine yourself in some southern French town near the Pyrenees.
splendor . . . these are the words which come most often to one's lips in
describing the Persians. Partly, of course, it derives from the memory of
the great empires which spread out of Persia, the luxury of the courts,
the palaces flashing with jewels, Persepolis, the Thousand and One Nights.
If the Persians were the first world-conquerers, they were also among the most tolerant empire-builders the world has ever seen. They worshipped the god Ahuramazda, Lord of the Sun and of the Shining Heavens, but they never attempted to proselytize and allowed astonishing freedom of self-government among the subject peoples. They released the Jews from the Babylonian captivity, restored their ritual vessels and assisted them to rebuild the Temple. They even rebuilt the walls from Athens to the Piraeus which the Spartans had levelled. For over two centuries they maintained a world of law, peace and justice over an area which extended from the Indus and the Oxus to the Nile and the Aegean. When the Greeks spoke of the Persians, it was always with awe mingled with envy and the desire to imitate. When Alexander the Great became master of the Persian Empire, he assumed quite naturally the robes and the powers of the Persian Emperors and consorted more with Persians than with Greeks. He borrowed the design of a worldempire from Darius, and modelled himself on Cyrus. There was nothing capricious in his choice of a model. There is a sense in which the wars between the Greeks and the Persians were civil wars, fought by two superbly gifted peoples of the same race.
If by some magical means we could be transported to Persia at the time of Darius, what kind of people would we see? It happens that we know the answer, because hundreds of portraits of Persians survive at Persepolis, carved in long relief on the great stairway, and the faces we see there are the same faces we see today in Isfahan and Shiraz, and even more in the mountain villages. Again we see those faces in the carvings of the Sasanians, who reigned a thousand years after Darius. We recognize them again in the thousands of portraits that have survived from the time of the Emperor Shah Abbas, who ruled over Persia during the reign of England's Queen Elizabeth.
There is an extraordinary continuity in the Persian face: lean, intense, with wide eyes, firm chin, delicate nostrils, and with the suggestion of a strange inner excitement. So little has changed that sometimes you have the feeling that the people are only waiting to step back into the remote, unobtainable and dazzling past. Every morning the Tehran radio begins the day's work with a recitation from a poetic epic on the ancient Persian heroes --the
Shah Nameh of Firdausi. It is almost as though the British radio were to begin every morning with a recitation from Beowulf.
There are good reasons for the continuity of Persian features and Persian character. Invaders have swept over the land: Arabs, Mongols, Greeks, Turks, and Scythians. They came in floods, stayed for a little while, and then the floods subsided, leaving the original Persians unharmed. Again and again in Persian history we come upon periods of confused wars, with perhaps ten armies rampaging across the country: then the smoke clears, and we discover there is a new Emperor on the throne claiming descent from the ancient Achaemenian Emperors. After periods of confusion, the ancient and familiar patterns of government emerge again. Eventoday, in the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, we can observe patterns of government which derive from the time of Darius. In any other country such a fantastic continuity would be a sign of weakness: in Persia it is a sign of strength.
Given the nature of the land, this continuity is easily explained. It is a hard and bitter land, with few rivers and few trees except in the Caspian and western provinces. Here quite suddenly on a narrow strip of shore, the normal order of nature in Persia is reversed. Here swiftly flowing rivers drop from the high mountains into an inland sea, and there are rich agricultural lands and vast forests teeming with game. As a consequence Mazanderan and Gilan on the shores of the Caspian Sea have tempted raiders from the time of the Vikings in the tenth century to the Bolsheviks in 1920.
It is partly the fault of the language, which is soft and resonant and tends to carry the speaker away into the wildest improvizations, a language wonderfully suited to the audacious. This crisp and enticing language convinces easily: as musical as Italian and as neat as French. Americans who say they know no Persian know more than they think they know. Over a hundred and fifty English words have been borrowed from the Persian. Here are sixty words in common use which we have taken from them:
If you will say some of these words softly, with a slight singsong intonation, you will have some idea of the sound of Persian, a language curiously like English, having many words which we share with them. Mother is mader, father is pedar, brother is barader. Two is do, six is shesh, is is ist. Persian belongs to the great group of Indo-Aryan languages, our own language being the very last to be developed. Coming back to Persian is like coming back to the source. Like English, Persian is a language which cries out for poets: there has been no dearth of poetry in Persia.
the Persian poet most familiar in the West is one of the least typical.
Omar Khayyam is recognized in his own country as an excellent
mathematician and astronomer, and the hero of some curious legends, but he
is given no very high place as a poet. Edward Fitzgerald's translation of
the Ruhaiyat describes only one aspect of the Persian character: their
love of wine and women, a raw anguish at the thought of the impermanence
of the world. In English the poem has the sound of trumpets, but in the
original Persian it has more of the sound of muffled drums, a slow lament.
The mighty Mohammad, the victorious Lord,
We owe a debt to Persia we can never repay. So much that is bright and glittering and desirable was invented by them. They were the first to invent angels, which the Jews borrowed during the Babylonian captivity, and the Christians borrowed from the Jews. The most beautiful of all decorated domes are in Persia. They invented chess and polo, and the first known highways for whecled traffic were the royal roads built by Darius. And half our fairy tales have Persian origins. Their intellectual and spiritual contributions to the world derive from the enchanted interpretation of the world they saw before their eyes: for them the world was a flame, forever quivering, forever bright, forever leaping. For them the world was magic. The very word magic comes from their fire-worshipping priests, the Magi who attended upon Xerxes and Darius. And remembering the Magi who attended the birth of Christ, the thirdcentury theologian Sextus Julius Africanus wrote: "Our first knowledge of Jesus came from Persia."
We shall understand Persia best by looking at her long history, where the rise and decline of four great dynasties seems always to follow the same pattern, as though the Persians themselves had remained unchanged through all recorded time, reacting in the same way to the challenges thrown down by succceding dynasties. And as we look at their history unfolding before us, it seems sometimes that there is little change: Xerxes and Shapur and Shah Abbas might be brothers. Centuries separated them, but it is their likeness to one another that we remember. Perhaps it could hardly be otherwise. Persia lay at the crossroads between the East and the West, and at the same time the country was almost inaccessible with its huge deserts and barricades of mountains. An invading army does not enter such a country lightly. Those who invaded Persia brought suppleness and strength, and the Persians themselves had to acquire suppleness and strength to resist them. Being conquerors themselves, they became a hardy, earthy people, devoted to their land and their memories of conquest, delighting in the world around them, cultivating the arts, generous in conversation, living as much in the past as in the present, and always dreaming the same dreams those dreams that wore the colors of human majesty, so that every Persian saw himself in some way as a King. Thus they brought into being Kings who were very much like themse, but touched with a more fiery light than that which shone on their own faces.
THE DIVINE RADIANCE
was this young prophet who gave form and substance to the strenuous
worship of the god Ahuramazda, proclaiming that he was above all gods. A
hundred years after Isaiah and a hundryears before Buddha, he brought into
existence a monotheistic religion of extraordinary purity, possessing in
the words of Albert Schweitzers "an astonishing affinity to
was another of the angels, and his history was perhaps the oddest of all,
for in earlier days he was regarded as the greatest among the gods.
Displaced from his supreme position, he became the leader among angels,
the captain of the host against Evil (Ahriman), his place so high in the
hierarchy that sometimes he was invoked together with Ahuramazda.
Together with Mihtra, often standing very close to him, was the goddess Anahita. She dwelt in the starry heavens, and her function was to watch over creation as the shepherd watches over his flock. She was the protectress, the gentle goddess from whom there flowed an ever-widening stream of blessing. She too had her chariot with four white shining horses.
She was associated with rivers and all flowing things, and represented as a young and beautiful maiden, high-breasted and gold-sandaled, wearing a robe of pure gold and a cloak made of three hundred beaver skins. [...] Inlater Achaemenian times there were statues to her in all the big cities of Persia. She tempered the appalling majesty and power of Ahuramazda.
In the time of the Sasanians the books of Zarathustra were edited and vast commentaries were compiled, only to be destroyed by the Arabs when they invaded Persia. A small part was carried secretly away. Today in Yazd and Kerman and Bombay, the ancient texts are still recited.
importance of Zarathustra'a teachings is not to be measured by the number
of his living disciples. In all ages the Persian mind has been saturated
with the peculiar morality derived from him. Long ago he became a part of
the fabric of their imaginations, and they can no more escape from him
than they can escape from themselves.