The Axial Age and Persia

The Persian Empire emerged suddenly during the Axial Age. It was unlike the older civilizations that had developed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. Indo-Europeans migrated into the highlands of what today is called Iran over the centuries, establishing small kingdoms of Medes, Persians, Elamites, and others. Cyrus, a prince of Persia, was able to establish power over his neighbors around the beginning of the Axial Age. After conquering the wealthy kingdom of Lydia (in what today is called Turkey), he led his forces into Mesopotamia and lay siege to the mighty city Babylon. According to ancient historians, Cyrus had his army divert the water of the Euphrates River into mad-made lakes so they could capture the city of Babylon by marching down the dry riverbed under the walls of the city. The book of Daniel in the Bible confirms that the city fell suddenly to the Persians. They lay claim to the entire Babylonian Empire, although they had to fight numerous battles to consolidate their control over what Babylon had previously claimed.

Cyrus died on the battlefield. His son Cambyses was fighting to retain Egypt when, according to ancient historians, he heard that his younger brother had seized the throne back home. Saying, “That’s impossible—I had my brother killed before I came to Egypt,” Cambyses rushed to return home. In his hurry, he accidently cut his leg with his own sword and eventually died of gangrene. A distant relative named Darius denounced the false younger son of Cyrus and had him killed. (The Persian historians of his time appear reluctant to consider the possibility that the son was genuine and that Darius was lying. Thus, historians have an unsolvable puzzle regarding this event in Persian history.) Taking hold of the kingdom, Darius established its borders and its administrative policies. He attempted to add European Greece to his holdings in 490 BCE; his son Xerxes led a similar invasion ten years later. Greek victories over Persian invaders are vital episodes in Greek history, though the setbacks mattered less to the Persians.

The Persian Empire was divided into satrapies. The ruling satraps were Persian, but the rest of government was locally managed. So far as people paid their taxes and did not violate major Persian laws, the Persian authorities gave them local autonomy. Local languages, religions, customs, and practices were allowed and even encouraged. Earlier empires, including the Assyrians and Babylonians, maintained control of conquered lands by displacing populations (much as the United States did to American tribes and China still does to its citizens today). Persians even allowed people like the Jews to return home, rebuild their cities and temples, and honor their gods. To allow rapid communication through the empire (and rapid movement of the Persian army when needed), the Persian government built highways throughout the lands they controlled. These highways were used by travelers and merchants, beginning a network of trade that would soon link major civilizations of three continents. Government messengers would travel these highways, exchanging horses at each station along the way; this practice, revived in the United States, was known as the Pony Express. Advisors to the government were called Magi. Like the Cabinet of the United States presidency, magi were experts in a variety of areas, including science, history, social studies, religious texts, and law. Their influence as a class of advisors to kings and government officials would remain long after the Persian Empire had fallen to pieces.

The official religion of the Persian Empire was Zoroastrianism. Founded by a man known both as Zoroaster and Zarathustra, this religion has always taught that only one god exists and that all competing gods are liars and demons, not truly gods. Zoroastrianism acknowledges the existence of a secondary evil being who opposes the true god; people in the world must choose between supporting the good or the evil. Support for the good includes piety, unselfishness, care for neighbors, and care of the environment. Support for the evil includes ignorance about god, selfishness, abuse of other people, and destruction of the environment. Those who have supported the good find, at death, that they travel a broad avenue to Paradise; those who have supported the evil find that avenue narrow—in some cases, as narrow as the blade of a knife—and they risk falling off the avenue into unending fire. Because the world currently is balanced between good and evil, each human choice influences the outcome of the world. However, most Zoroastrians are convinced that, in the end, good will overcome evil.

Respect for the environment includes maintaining the purity of the elements—earth, water, air, and fire. Various fire ceremonies are part of Zoroastrian practice. A person who dies cannot be buried (polluting the earth), burned (polluting air and fire), or thrown into the sea (polluting the water). Instead, their bodies are left on platforms to be consumed by birds of the air, nourishing nature and recycling the physical part of human existence while increasing the likelihood of a safe journey to Paradise.

Some historians identify Zarathustra as an Axial Age teacher; others say he lived centuries before the Axial Age. Darius appears to be the first Persian Emperor to endorse Zoroastrianism formally. If Zarathustra was not born until around the time of Cyrus, he may well have been influenced in his beliefs by Israelites relocated into his vicinity by the Assyrian Empire. If he lived much earlier, his ideas may have helped shape Hebrew belief, thus contributing to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings.

“Paradise” is a loan-word from the Hebrew language. So is “Satan”—Satan is the prosecuting attorney in a Persian court of law. (For Christians, Jesus is a defense attorney, an Advocate before the Father.)  The images of Paradise for the good and unending fire for the evil have been adopted from Zoroastrianism into Christian and Muslim thought. One branch of Christianity, called Manichaeism, deliberately blended Zoroastrian and Christian beliefs. Manichaeism was rejected by early Christians (including Augustine of Hippo, who in his earlier years had been a Manichee). It was seen as placing too much responsibility for human salvation and for the world’s future condition on human behavior and decisions, rather than trusting the promises of an Almighty God and the victory won by Christ on the cross. Modern Christian preachers who stress the beauty of heaven and the horrors of hell and who call upon their listeners to choose between them reflect Manichaean theology rather than that of the Bible. J.

An ancient Persian puzzle

From ancient Persia comes a historic mystery that is as compelling as questions about who planned Watergate or who shot President Kennedy. This Persian account contains conspiracies, lies, murder, and—best of all—more than one plausible interpretation of the facts. Historians still debate one another about what really happened.

Persia is located in the mountains and plains of modern Iran. It was a small kingdom for centuries before Cyrus made Persia great. He expanded in various directions, eventually capturing the wealthy kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia, where Turkey exists today. With new wealth to hire and equip soldiers, Cyrus then turned south, sacking the city Babylon (which is also a fascinating story) and claiming the Babylonian Empire for the Persian government. He had to continue to fight to maintain control of the various nations conquered by the Babylonians. Cyrus died on the battlefield July 530 B.C. at the approximate age of seventy.

Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, inherited the empire. He also inherited the struggle to keep all the pieces together as one empire. The biggest prize was Egypt, that ancient civilization in the northeast corner of Africa that had been conquered by the Babylonians. After Babylon fell, Egypt declared its independence. Cambyses took his Persian armies to Egypt to show the Egyptians that they still belonged to the Persian Empire.

After much fighting, the Persians were successful. While they were still mopping up the campaign, though, word came from Persia that Bardiya—the younger brother of Cambyses—had seized power. Reportedly, when Cambyses heard this news, he exclaimed, “That’s impossible! I had Bardiya killed before I left home to keep this kind of thing from happening!” Cambyses began to return to Persia with his army, minus those troops left in Egypt to keep law and order in Persian hands. But Cambyses did not return home alive. Injured in the leg by his own sword, he developed gangrene and died of the infection.

One of the generals who had fought with Cambyses in Egypt was a cousin to the royal family, a man named Darius. When he had returned to the Persian homeland, Darius announced that Bardiya was fake. Darius even named names. He declared that the phony Bardiya was actually a mage named Gaumata, and Darius also named the six magi who had conspired with Gaumata to seize the government. (Magi were scholarly experts in all important matters: biology, chemistry, astronomy and astrology, history, religion, languages, and more. They were advisors to royalty. The Magi were like a combination of a university faculty of professors and the American President’s Cabinet.) With the support of the army, Darius revolted against the new emperor. In his inscriptions Darius merely says that he slew Gaumata; later historians told an exciting tale of hand-to-hand combat between Gaumata and Gobyras, a mage who was loyal to Darius and was, in fact one of his friends. Darius had to choose whether to interfere, risking the life of his friend, or to let them fight. With a lucky stroke of his sword, Darius managed to kill Gaumata without harming Gobyras.

Both sons of Cyrus were dead, and Darius had the support of the Persian army. Since he was of royal blood, he was crowned emperor of Persia. No one at the time questioned his identification of the supposed Bardiya as the mage Gaumata. At the same time, apparently no one but Darius had heard the claim of Cambyses that he had killed his brother.

Was Darius a hero who rescued the empire from conspiracy? Or was he a liar who struck down the true son of Cyrus to claim the throne? During his lifetime, no one challenged his claims. No one would have dared. Today historians are not so sure. For some, the official version of the story as told by Darius (and carved into rock in Persia) is as believable as any other possibility. To others, the official version is highly suspicious. No one expects to find a signed confession from Darius countering his original version of the story. More than likely, we will never know the truth. J.