Unique Facts About The Ancient Persian Empire

The Persian Empire covers a series of dynasties that were centered around modern-day Iran which stretched from the 6th century BC and into the 20th century. The first Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great and grew to become one of the largest and most powerful empires in all of history. From there, the empire evolved considerably throughout its numerous dynasties, establishing itself as a global power, and shaping the course of history. Check out these lesser-known facts about one of history’s most significant empires.

The Man Who Started It All

Painting of Cyrus the Great
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In the beginning, the Persian Empire was a conglomeration of tribes residing in the Iranian plateau who raised livestock and lived semi-nomadic lifestyles. One man, named Cyrus the Great, was a ruler of one of these tribes and began defeating neighboring kingdoms including, Babylon, Lydia, and Media.

He then united them, forming the first Persian Empire, otherwise known as the Achaemenid Empire in 550 BC. The First Persian Empire established itself as the world’s first superpower encompassing Mesopotamia, Egypt’s Nile Valley, and India’s Indus Valley.

A Mix Of Different Cultures

Relief of Cyrus the Great
Twitter/Universidad San Damaso
Twitter/Universidad San Damaso

With an empire so large under Cyrus the Great, many would assume that he forced those he conquered to submit to him and change their ways of life to fit the rest of the empire. However, this wasn’t necessarily the case, quite the opposite.

Under Cyrus the Great, the Persians allowed the people they conquered to continue on with their lives and follow their culture’s way of life. of course, there was a catch, which was that they had to pay their taxes and obey their Persian rulers. Because of this, the empire was a melting pot of different people and cultures.

Persians Created The First-Ever Human Rights Charter

The cylinder in a museum
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

While the Greeks may have invented democracy, that doesn’t mean that they necessarily cared all that much about human rights. It was actually the Persians who drafted the first human rights charter, which was decreed by Cyrus the Great in 539 BC.

Shaped like a cylinder, its contents weren’t unlike any of the modern-day core values in relation to human rights. Written in the Akkadian language and known as the Cyrus Cylinder, it covers concepts such as equality for all races, religions, languages, and more.

They Practiced A Monotheistic Religion

Relief of Zoroaster
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

The Persians were one of the first, if not the first people to follow a religion that was monotheistic. Zoroaster was an ancient Iranian spiritual leader who founded the religion now known as Zoroastrianism, a religion followed by many people in the Persian Empire.

Although the Persian Empire was incredibly diverse and people followed all sorts of religions, Zoroastrianism is considered to be one of the most defining aspects of the empire. Unlike the Ancient Greeks at the time, the Persians did not believe Gods to be similar to men.

They Controlled Almost Half Of The World’s Population

Map of the empire
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By 480 BC, the population of the Persian Empire was over 50 million people. At the time, there were approximately 112.4 million people in the world, meaning that the Persian Empire controlled around 44%.

Starting out small, it didn’t take long for the empire to expand outwards to places such as Central Asia, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and some European territories. They conquered everything in their path, adding to their empire with each step that they made. To this day, that is the highest population of any empire in history.

They Had A Bureaucratic System Of Ruling

Satrat talking to the king
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Considering how large and powerful the Persian Empire was, it was essential that they had a strong and effective system of government. The division of classes in the Persian Empire was made perfectly clear. The Kin, or King of Kings, ruled the entire empire which was made up of provinces. Each province was in turn ruled by a governor known as “The Satrap.”

This system was initially established by king Darius as an effort to ensure that one region didn’t become too powerful and try to overthrow him. Although the Satraps helped enforce law and order, that didn’t necessarily mean that the king trusted them.

We Owe The Concept Of Paradise To The Persians

Paradise Gardens
Heico Neumeyer
Heico Neumeyer

The concept of an earthly paradise came about during the Achaemenid Dynasty when they began creating beautiful gardens throughout the empire known as Paradise Gardens. The word for beautiful, well-maintained gardens was “pairi-daeza”, which is where the English word for paradise is derived from.

They built these gardens to escape the brutal climate conditions that they lived in and the fact that they were difficult to tend to make them all the more impressive. Founded by Cyrus the Great, these were areas where both humans and animals could take refuge together, truly making it into a type of paradise.

The Color Purple Was Highly Valued

Purple cloth
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During the time of Ancient Persia, one of the most sought after materials, even by the King of Kings was purple dye. Typically, the dye was extracted from murex shells found in the ocean, which were not cheap by any means. Supposedly, this natural and “pure” dye was so popular among the royalty and nobles, that even cheaper alternatives were far too expensive for the common people.

The value of clothes that contained this purple dye was so valued, that many people hoarded such clothing for fear of losing or ruining it. One of these stashes was discovered by Alexander the Great, who gifted each of his close companions with a cloak of the color.

They Had An Elite Class of Soldiers Known As The Immortals

Soldiers walking in a line
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Part of the Achaemenid Empire, the Immortals were an elite class of heavily armed soldiers. Known for being vibrantly dressed, they were the Achaemenid King’s personal division who were selected from the regular army for their physical prowess and accomplishments in battle.

The name “Immortals,” wasn’t given to them because they couldn’t be killed, but because there were exactly 10,000 of them at all times. If a soldier was killed or fell sick, their spot was ready to be replaced at any moment so their numbers would remain the same.

They Were One Of The First To Discover Refrigeration

Picture of a Yakhchal
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Although we can’t say that modern-day refrigerators were inspired by the Persian Empire, the Persians were certainly creative. They invented a form of technology which they called Yakhchals, which translates to mean “ice pit,” and were used to preserve food.

Essentially, they worked as evaporative coolers with the above-ground structures being dome-shaped, covering a subterranean storage space. These were used to store ice and sometimes food, with the heat-resistant cover and subterranean chambers keeping the inside insulated all year round.

The War Against The Greeks

King Xerxes with his army
Print Collector/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Print Collector/Heritage Images via Getty Images

During his reign, the Persian King Darius wanted to conquer the Greeks whom he felt were causing unrest within his empire. In 490 BC, Darius attacked Greece, and although he managed to capture some city-states, he was defeated while trying to take Athens in the Battle of Marathon.

In 480 BC, Darius’ son, Xerxes I, made an attempt to finish what his father had started, with the mission to conquer all of Greece. He assembled an army of hundreds of thousands and faced-off against Sparta and some other city-states in the Battle of Thermopylae. Ultimately, Xerxes prevailed, although his fleet was later defeated in the Battle of Salamis, forcing him to leave Greece.

The Decline of The The Achaemenid Empire

Portrait of Alexander the Great
Bettann/Getty Images
Bettann/Getty Images

The Persian Empire entered a period of turmoil and decline after King Xerxes unsuccessfully attempted to conquer all of Greece. The defeat of Persia’s massive army led to a depletion of the empire’s funds, resulting in heavier taxes on its subjects.

The Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian Empire, finally fell after they were conquered by the invading armies of Alexander the Great from Macedon in 330 BC. Though following dynasties tried to restore Persia to its former glory, none managed to restore the empire to what it used to be.

They Built The Original Suez Canal

Map of Canal of Pharaohs
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

During his reign, King Darius ordered the construction of a canal that would connect the Nile to the Red Sea using the Wadi Tumilat. Known as the Canal of the Pharaohs, the Ancient Suez Canal, or Necho’s canal, it followed a different course than the modern Suez Canal, but with the same purpose.

Although according to Suez inscriptions and the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the canal was opened during the reign of King Darius. However, Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and other historians claim that he failed to complete it under his reign.

Cyrus The Great Established A Tax System

Cyrus the Great entering a city
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Since people first started ruling over one another, they have been paying tribute to their king as a sign of good faith and respect. While this was nothing new during the time of Cyrus the Great, he did something that nobody had ever seen before. He established the empire’s first taxation system in which his subjects would pay the empire and not directly him.

He then used that money to help fund public programs, build roads, grow his army, build irrigation systems and more. Although it seemed strange at the time, it turned out to be extremely effective.

They Harnessed The Power Of The Wind

Ancient windmills
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The inventions of windmills came about after the discovery that the wind could be used to power and maneuver ships with sails. Yet, it is believed that the first form of wind power used for daily tasks such as pumping water or grinding grain was actually created by the Persians.

The first documented panemone windmill design, or vertical axis windmill, is Persian and over 1,500 years old. Built from bundled reeds or wood, they would move like revolving glass doors with the wind, generating enough power to help with day-to-day jobs.

Mothers Cared For Their Sons Until They Were Five

Relief of an archer
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images

Like most other feudal societies, the Ancient Persians had strict cultural practices, especially when it came to the nobility. According to historian Herodotus, young boys of nobility were raised by their mother until the age of five, when they were then handed over to their fathers.

Then, between the age of five and 20, the boys learned essential skills such as learning how to ride a horse, becoming skilled with a bow and arrow, how to fight, as well as read and write. Most boys were expected to join the military from the age of 20 to 24, although they remained liable for service until the age of 50.

They Heavily Influenced The Roman Military

Saravan
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The tradition of using mounted warriors as a key part of the military can be traced back to some Iranian tribes and was later adopted by the Achaemenids. However, this type of soldier was most prominent under the Parthians and later Sassanids. These soldiers were known as Savaran, who were chosen from the noble class, and were more respected than typical soldiers.

This type of warrior influenced the Eastern Romans who created their own similar class of warrior. This practice of a class of noble soldiers on horseback is also believed to have inspired the knights of the middle ages.

They Started The Concept Of Military Uniforms

Relief of soldiers
Vivienne Sharp/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Vivienne Sharp/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Although uniforms are synonymous with the military, that wasn’t always the case. While the Iranian people have always been known for their unique and bright style of clothing, they were the first to come up with the idea of using uniforms in their military.

It wasn’t long until the classical Greeks adopted this system as well, which has since become an established practice by almost every military on the planet. They also introduced the seamed fitted coat, a style that became popular across the globe.

The World’s Greatest Center For Knowledge

Tower at the academy
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

Arguably one of history’s most notable centers of learning and knowledge was the Academy of Gondishapur. The academy was at its height under Sasanians and was a hub for knowledge, the arts, and more, which would eventually heavily influence the Arabs and eventually the Europeans.

On top of being one of the greatest centers for learning in history, it is also credited with creating the hospital system. While training to be a doctor, students didn’t only shadow and apprentice, but they also worked at the hospital as modern-day residents do.

They Established A Massive Road

Map of the Royal Road
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

Reorganized and rebuilt under Darius I, the Royal Road was a highway of sorts that was built to enable quick communication throughout the empire from Susa to Sardis. Supposedly, mounted couriers of the Angarium would be able to travel the 1677 miles from Susa to Sardis in just nine days or ninety days on foot.

According to the historian Herodotus, “There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers […] Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”