In Iran, 2: The empire at the center of the world
It has now been seven weeks since our return from Iran, and relations between that country and my homeland, the USA, have become even more histrionic. I can’t pretend to know what President Trump thinks about the country, or if he does (I rather doubt it), but his advisers appear to expect the Islamic Republic to buckle under US pressure, by causing such pain that Iranians will no longer tolerate its policies. If they really believe that, there is a very long history to suggest that they are sorely mistaken.
On our second day in Iran, Saturday, September 7, we visited the Archaeological Museum in Tehran. This gave us our first glimpse of what had been the empire at the center of the world, the most extensive that had ever existed to its day (c. 550 – 330 BC), containing an estimated 44% of the entire population of the world. In the following days, we would see more of the remains of that great empire, including on one of our last days, the great Achmaenid capital of Persepolis.
It would be hard to overstate the powerful influence of that history, first on all the lands that were part of it and secondarily on everything that has developed in the western world, northern and eastern Africa and South Asia, and from there to everywhere down to our day. From Libya to Bactria (now Afghanistan), to Thrace and Macedonia, and including all of Armenia, Anatolia (Turkey, today), Syria and Palestine, almost all of what is today Egypt, and north to Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Georgia, urban development, writing, and architectural techniques (including the arch and the dome, later adopted by the Greek and Roman empires) were developed and diffused. (For much more detail, see article on Cyrus the Great, link below.)
Not only was it big — very big, the biggest the world had ever known — , it was also at the very center : Any merchandise, idea, literature, technical innovation (wheel, chariot, etc., to name a couple), or religion, no matter where invented, whether in East Asia or Northern Europe or Southern or Eastern Africa, had to pass through the Achmaenid Empire to get to anywhere else. And in the course of passing through (if it was not some idea that had been invented within the empire itself, as many things were), it was transformed by artisans of any of the many cultures encapsuled in the empire.
I had only a vague notion of its size and splendor before our visit, from reports mainly from the Greeks, who inherited and further spread many of its innovations and who I had mistakenly assumed had originated them. The Persians may not have been any more intelligent or inventive than their neighbors, and in fact ethnic Persians (from the Greek term for people from the province of Parsis; they called themselves Aryān — Iranians) were only one of the many ethnic groups in the empire. Their unrivaled influence derived from, first, as Jared Diamond has convincingly argued, their location on the Mesopotamian plateau with all its advantages for agriculture, animal domestication and mobility, all conducive to urbanization and agricultural development; and secondly, the skill of some of their leaders, both military and political .
More on all that later. Here I just want to say that, with all that history, very well known in Iran and part of the national consciousness, this is not a people likely to buckle under pressure or to submit quietly to anyone so ignorant of their culture and achievements.
National Museum of Iran (Archaeological Museum)
The first Persian empire, 550 – 330 B.C – Highbrow
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel