Interview with Ashk Dahlen, author of The Persian Empire


Interview with Ashk Dahlen, author of The Persian Empire

Antikens Persien by Ashk Dahlen

Ashk Dahlen was born in Tehran in 1972
and has lived most of his life in Sweden. He is Associate Professor in Iranian
Languages at Uppsala University and his field of study covers Persian
literature, Iranian history of religion and philosophy. Ashk Dahlen is the
author of several books and articles on Iranian history and among his recent
publications is

Antikens Persien
(in Swedish).

Ashk Dahlen


The Persian Empire ruled from about 550 BC, when Cyrus the Great liberated the
Persians from the Medes to about 220 years later when Alexander the Great
defeated Darius III and put an end to the era. Another name for the kingdom is
the Achaemenid Empire since the Achaemenids was the ruling dynasty among the
Persians. The Achaemenid epoch is best known for its great kings such as Cyrus,
Darius, and Xerxes, famous battles against Greece and the building of
Persepolis, nowadays a World Heritage Site. The empire was the greatest the
world had seen, covering 5.5 million km2 and stretching from India and Central
Asia in the east to the Balkans and Libya in the West.

The Persian Empire usually only gets no more than a short mention in
the chapter on ancient Greece in general history books. Why is it so?

The Persian Empire has fallen into oblivion because most of its territory lay in
Asia and the focus of Western historians has been on Europe, which is quite
natural. The so-called Persian Wars was also a real turning point in the Greeks’
own history. When they began to write down their history, it coincided with
their encounter with the Persians. Therefore, the history of the Greeks from the
beginning concerned their relationship to the Persian Empire. From the
perspective of Athens, the Persians were an enemy, at least politically. Western
historians have therefore often started in Greece, which they perceived as the
cradle of European culture and only touched upon the Persians when the Greeks
were involved. Over time, the Persians were reduced to an “Eastern” enemy that
the Greeks were fighting against. Nothing can be more misleading historically

The perception that Greeks and Persians were enemies is simply wrong. The
military conflict between them was short-lived and there were actually often
more Greeks in the multi-ethnic Persian army than in the Greek army. Moreover,
no unified Greece existed so for political and economic reasons many Greeks
preferred to support the Persians instead of Athens. The Greek city-states that
became part of the Persian Empire received, in addition to peace guarantees,
access to a huge network of trade routes and an opportunity to extensive
scientific and cultural exchanges. In this respect I think for instance of the
achievements and innovations of the Middle East in the fields of technology,
medicine, mathematics and astronomy. Last but not least, Athens was perceived as
a foreign colonizer in the eyes of many Greeks. Since many historians hailed
from or resided in Athens, its ideological perspective had nonetheless an
enduring impact on Greek writings.

It has to be problematic to deal with such biased sources?

Unfortunately the Persians have not left us any preserved history writing
since they primarily transmitted their historical traditions orally. This
resulted in history being mixed with myths and legends. In the 20th century,
archaeologists in Iran discovered immense archives with economic and
administrative texts from the Achaemenids that have provided important
information on many matters we previously did not know. Not only have we learned
much more about law, finance and governance in the empire, but also about its
social, cultural and religious conditions. Since the 1980s, high-level research
has focused on comparing these new sources with the Greek accounts. The main
purpose has not been to generally falsify the reports of Herodotus and other
Greek historians, but to re-examine their texts with critical eyes. New material
from Babylon, Asia Minor, Bactria and Egypt continually contribute to new
research findings offering a more nuanced picture of ancient Iran. Last but not
least, some important information can be found in the Old Testament where the
Persians are mentioned even though much of this material best can be described
as fictional.

What in a few words are the most distinctive traits of the Persian

If we start by looking at Cyrus the Great, he appears as a brilliant military
commander and a highly pragmatic ruler. His policymaking was governed by
political realism as well as humanistic ideals. Characteristically, he embraced
everything in other cultures that he believed was useful and could contribute to
generating effective governance and political cooperativeness. The Persians were
initially pastoral nomads, lacked sophisticated urban culture and thus came to
learn and inherit many traits of civilization from other peoples. They developed
the Old Persian cuneiform under influence from the Elamites. They learned to
mint coins from the Lydians and adopted the Median court life, royal costume and
city planning. The Persian Empire was marked from the very beginning by cultural
pluralism and, more importantly, a cosmopolitan vision of intercultural
cooperation. Cyrus spared the lives of his defeated enemies, such as Astyages of
Media, Nabonid of Babylon and Croesus of Lydia, and kept them as court advisors
utilizing their political know-how and experience.

After Cyrus, the most distinguished Persian is Darius the Great. He carried out
a series of effective state reforms that rendered the empire its administrative
solidity and political stability. Darius fortified the empire’s external borders
and created peaceful conditions within its realms that lasted for almost two
hundred years, commonly known as Pax
. This was no small achievement if we compare with, for example,
Alexander whose empire fell apart immediately after his death. Darius separated
the military and civil powers, instituted a royal law and introduced an
international currency. But most importantly, he developed the so-called satrap
system according to which each province was ruled by a satrap that often hailed
from the local elite and was subordinate to the central government. The word
satrap comes from the Old Persian
that can be translated as “governor”. There was a high degree of self-governance
in the satrapies, not least when it came to legislation and this, I believe, was
the key to the territorial unity of the empire.

languages were mainly spoken in such a multicultural empire covering such a vast

 One might imagine that Old Persian was
the dominant language, but it was not. Actually Aramaic functioned as a lingua
franca or common language since many court scribes were Arameans. The Persian
Empire was highly multilingual, and for instance Greek was adopted in Macedonia,
Thrace and the western parts of Asia Minor, alongside Aramaic and Old Persian.
Modern Persian is a continuation of Old Persian but you must be a linguist in
order to understand it. An educated Iranian can understand single words or
stylistic nuances in Old Persian, but no more. Most words have been modified or
replaced such as the Old Persian baga
(“god”) that has been substituted by khodā
in Modern Persian. We encounter the old word much later in the Persian city name
Baghdad, which means “the gift of God”. Old Persian ceased to exist a few
hundred years after Alexander overthrew the last Achaemenid, Darius III, and it
developed into Middle Persian, which is the direct precursor of contemporary

the empire as heterogeneous when it comes to religion?

Yes, the same pluralism existed with regard to religions. The Iranian peoples
had a rich variety of gods and religions or rather cults. They worshiped
different gods for different purposes, much like in Old Norse religion. Typical
for the Persians was that they adapted to other people’s religious customs and
assimilated them into their own traditions. They were not afraid of loosing of
their ethnic or religious identity, but on the contrary consciously created
bridges between cultures and considered it natural to embrace valuable
traditions from other peoples. A famous example is when Cyrus the Great’s son
Cambyses conquered Egypt. He proclaimed himself Pharaoh, began worshiping Apis
and donated gifts to the Egyptian temples. The cultural openness of the Persian
elite testifies to a high degree of political realism, the realization that in
order to rule a foreign territory one must adapt to its customs. But their
fundamental attitude was rooted in ancient Iranian religious philosophy. They
saw Ahura Mazda as the highest principle or spirit of worship. Ahura Mazda
literally means “Majesty Wisdom” and his order or creation was therefore a
“rational” one. This meant that the Persians were not hostile to other gods they
came into contact with as long as the local rulers were loyal to Achaemenid
royal power. When Xerxes the Great came to Asia Minor, he began to worship the
goddess Artemis and he continued to do so after the Greek expedition.

did the citizens of the Persian Empire have in common in terms of identity?

It is quite natural that the inhabitants of such a large empire lived more or
less isolated from each other, especially since the majority did not leave their
own home territory. At the same time the Persian Empire united all regions from
the Balkans and Libya in the west to India and Central Asia in the east for the
first time. The cosmopolitan policies of the empire generated favourable
conditions for international trade and also for social, cultural and scientific
exchange. Different peoples began to mix with each other on a hitherto unseen
scale through travel and mixed marriages. Greek artisans were brought to large
building projects and served as mercenaries in the Persian army. When they
returned to Greece, they brought with them new experiences and skills that were
passed on to their society. As I mentioned, the legal system was designed
differently in the various satrapies. The only thing that really determined
whether a society was part of the Persian Empire or not was if the local ruler
acknowledged the sovereignty of the Great King and collected tax and tribute to
the central administration famous for keeping meticulous records at all levels.

Persepolis is the site that tells us most today about the Persian Empire. What
do we know about the purpose of its construction?

This is an issue that has been disputed for a long time. The Great King had four
different capitals that he lived in during the various seasons. He sojourned in
Persepolis in winter since it was the warmest region. Many scholars believe that
Persepolis was built with the aim of exhibiting the unity and diversity of the
empire in an architectural sense. All ethnic groups that were part of the empire
are portrayed on the city’s palace walls, porticos, stairs, and bas-reliefs. The
fact that the multicultural character of the empire was reflected in its
monumental architecture was a deliberate policy. Persepolis bears witness to the
cosmopolitan attitude of its rulers and incorporated artistic elements from the
different cultures of the empire, particularly Media, Babylon, Egypt and Greece.
The Fortification and Treasury Archives also proves that Persepolis was the
administrative heart of the empire. When Alexander conquered the city, he burned
down much of the constructions, especially the buildings erected by Xerxes. This
can be explained by the fact that Xerxes invaded the Attic Peninsula and burned
down Acropolis. Alexander did however spare the Palace of Darius the Great. With
all its wealth and luxury Persepolis was a powerful symbol of the Achaemenids
and maybe he felt compelled to destroy the city in order to assert himself as
the new ruler of Iran.

It is important to emphasize that there is relatively much preserved of
Persepolis compared to other ancient ruins. In addition to the Palace of Darius
many bas-reliefs and other sculptural art, such as double-animal capitals, has
been preserved. Numerous art objects can be seen in museums in Chicago, Paris,
Cambridge, and Tehran. The damage caused by visitors did not end with Alexander
and unfortunately it has continued all the way into modern times. For example,
until very recently film recordings were made on the location causing
destruction from actors and vehicles. During the Iranian Revolution, militant
Islamists departed for Persepolis with bulldozers with the aim of demolishing
the ancient site. Local inhabitants prevented them and in 1979 UNESCO named it
as a World Heritage Site.

the symbols from the Persian Empire have come to play a role in modern Iranian

 Yes, many Iranians in the diaspora as
well as in Iran have come to see the Persian Empire as a symbol of “genuine”
Persian culture. For example, the Farvahar, the tomb of Cyrus and the Cyrus
Cylinder are all used as motifs on necklaces, t-shirts, tattoos, etc. They have
become powerful expressions of a contemporary national identity, sometimes in
opposition to Iran’s Islamic heritage. As such they are also embraced and abused
by ultranationalists who want to create a divided society based on ethnical
purism. This is very regrettable not least because Iran has a small Arab
minority that is as much Iranian as the country’s other citizens. Before the
revolution, the Iranian state was very proud of the Persian Empire and school
children were taught about the glorious achievements of the Achaemenids. The
Shah of Iran evoked this historical period in his imperial ideology and
portrayed himself as a successor to Cyrus and Darius. Today, Iranians are better
informed generally about their ancient past and the Persian Empire is
increasingly present in popular art, literature and music as well as festivals,
movies and TV shows.

are the major trends and challenges in contemporary research on the Persian

Today there is a lot of focus on philological and iconographic analysis of
archaeological findings, such as reliefs, seals and cuneiform tablets. New
cultural artefacts are being excavated in various parts of the Persian Empire,
especially present-day Turkey, Central Asia and Afghanistan. In my view the most
exciting research is currently made up of interdisciplinary studies combining
knowledge from archaeology, history, linguistics, numismatics, and historical
geography. There are few fields of research that involve researchers from so
many different disciplines and cover so many different types of written and
material sources as Achaemenid Studies. We are still working on the Greek texts
but they have lost their central importance. The attention has shifted to
material culture and textual sources from Babylon, Bactria and Persia itself.
This transformation has given rise to new perspectives and filled gaps in our
knowledge about societal developments, the everyday life of ordinary people and
the position of women in the Persian Empire.

you have any recommendations for our readers who want to learn more about the
subject? Is your Swedish book “Antikens Persien” a good start?

Yes, it is aimed as an introduction for anyone who wants to discover more about
this vital period of Iran’s history. At the end of the book I have provided an
extensive list of secondary literature for those who wants to read more. I want
to recommend Maria Brosius’ The Persians
and Josef Wiesehfer’s Ancient Persia
that one can find in larger Internet bookstores. They are both very informative
and easy to digest. And then there is of course Pierre Briant’s tour de force
History of The Persian Empire covering
almost everything related to the Achaemenids on 1200 pages. In addition, there
exists a number of exhibition catalogues with unique material that make it
easier to connect to the Persian Empire and presents a vivid picture of how its
citizens lived in everyday life.

final words to our readers?

I want to emphasize that the Persian Empire was not just multi-ethnic but a
truly cosmopolitan and inclusive world power. The Achaemenid elite realized that
all peoples and cultures had valuable contributions to give to the development
of human society, or in Old Iranian terms, the renovation of existence (ōkereti,
“making excellent”). I find it interesting when we study contemporary
discussions on, for example, the future of the European Union, and theories and
policies on European integration, that there are lessons to learn from history.
We see that ultranationalists, in dealing with difference and diversity within
their own changing societies, reject transnational cooperation and fight any
form of multiculturalism. In this situation we should remind ourselves that
globalization was as real for the ancients as it is for us today. The
Achaemenids were the first to operate and interact among peoples on a truly
international level and their contributions to the evolution of human
civilization is a reminder that humanity always has benefited immensely from
transnational interaction and collaboration in the spheres of culture,
economics, science, technology, and philosophy.

… Payvand News – 05/14/19 …

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