The Noble Persians

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The Persian Empire from about 500 BC

Persia was one of the highest civilized regions from the earliest antiquity. The world of ancient Persia extended far beyond the current border of Iran. The region over which Persian influence was spread was contained within the four rivers of ancient mythology: The Tigris and the Euphrates in the west, and the Oxus and the Indus in the east. The south is bordered by the Persian Gulf and the north by a line from the Caspian Sea as far as the Aral Sea. It encompassed the mountains of Azerbaijan, the Zagros Mountains and the Elburgy range and in the southeast adjoins the folds of Baluchistan and the awesome heights of the Hindu Kush.

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Cyrus II

During the reign of Cyrus II  (Kurash) the Persians came into world prominence when, in 550 BC, they rebelled against the Median King Astyages. From 546 Cyrus II attacked the powerful kingdom of Lydia, capturing Sardis before going on to subdue the rich Greek cities of Ionia. This made Cyrus master of all Asia Minor. Then he turned his attention on the eastern frontier, crossing the Oxus and the Jaxartes rivers, building fortresses to keep out the nomads of Central Asia.

In 539 BC he attacked the capital city of Mesopotamia and was welcomed as a liberator by the Jewish exiles. The respect he showed for the religions of others earned him respect and homage.  He was called the “Father of all Persians”. The Greeks thought of him as a worthy leader. The Jews regarded him as “God’s anointed”. Cyrus was a genius, diplomat, leader of men, strategist. He conquered Babylonia and convinced the Babylonians that Marduk, their supreme deity, had led him to Babylon.

In the space of 20 years he held sway over all the kingdoms of the Near and Middle East, assembling the greatest empire the world had ever seen. He had his sights set on Egypt when he was killed in battle in 530 BC. He was buried at Pasargadae and when Alexander the Great came to Persia, he paid homage at Cyrus’s grave.

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After Cyrus II’s death the Achaemenian Empire was established.  When Darius I (Daryavush, The Great King) was defeated by Greece in the first Persian War at the Battle of Marathon, 490 BC, it was only a minor upset for the master of this gigantic empire, but this incited the hostility of the Greek city states and the Ionians who mounted a revolt against Persia.

In 481 Xerxes, son of Darius, set out to expunge the Persian defeat at Marathon. He built a pontoon bridge in order to get his troops across the Hellespont, seized Macedonia and marched toward Attika. The Greeks and Spartans put up a heroic resistance at Thermopylae but were defeated. Athens was taken and pillaged, the Parthenon burned. The Persian victory was short lived however when their fleet was defeated at Salamis and their army routed.

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These defeats marked the end of the Persian expansion and rebellions grew more frequent. Under Artaxexes, the satrap of Bactria seceded, then Syria, and Egypt. By 370 the satraps revolted. Finally the great grandson of Darius II mounted the throne under the name Darius Codomannus. Years later, defeated by Alexander’s army and betrayed by his troops, Darius would be murdered by his own men.

Meanwhile, Philip II of Macedon succeeded uniting the various city states after the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. He founded the League of Corinth and proposed they should go to war against Persin. However, in 33t BC he was assassinated and his son, Alexander was declared king.

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Philip had already sent troops to Asia Minor, so Alexander, at the age of 20, took over his father’s mission of revenge and set out to conquer the Persian Empire. He followed a policy of integration between the Greeks and Persians encouraging marriages and applying the same magnanimity and generosity which had formerly brought success to Cyrus II.  In 13 years of fighting, the Greek forces subjugated the largest empire that had ever been known to the world of antiquity.

The Persians were mystics and concerned with the meaning and objectives of life. Rooted in tolerance, flexibility, devotion to truth and other lofty principles on which their empire was based. Their system of education was comparable with Greece. Boys underwent a rigorous course of training which was chivalrous with great stress on valour, physical accomplishment. Based on the tenets of Zoroasterism, it was geared to a concept of pride, an essential element of Persian character. The Persians regarded themselves as “by far the best of men” (according to Herodotes) emphasising virtue, and love of truth.

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The traditional religion was Zoroasterism. He was a native of Media. His message: the existence of two principles: The Truth (good, light) and the Lie (evil, darkness). The first Persian texts going back to the 7th century BC refer to the god Ahuramazda, the Wise Lord, creator of all things. This ancient divinity, preached by Zoraster, was a monotheistic religion worshipped in a way that was completely spiritual. It was prohibited to raise statues to Ahura Mazda was depicted as a bearded man crowned ith a tiara encircled in a winged solar disc. Religious prayers were offered in front of a lit fire altar in the open air, symbolizing the uino with the solar godhead, represented wy a winged disc. When he set up his capital at Pasargadaea, Cyrus II had creaeted a high terrace so fire ceremonies could be held on top of it.  The Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroaster was said to have been destroyed by Alexander when his army occupied Persepolis and burned the temple there.

The Magi (priests) were a hereditary caste who was not only holy men but star seers. Without a Magus, the Persians could not sacrifice.

In SHADOW OF THE LION, two of the fictional characters who play important roles in the story are the old Chaldean Magus and the Persian court advisor, Nabarzanes, who become like a surrogate father to the young son of Alexander the Great. While researching for the novel I did extensive research on the ancient Persians and found it one of the most fascinating aspects of writing this story. I wanted the Persians to have a strong voice in the story and leave a lasting impression on the reader. These two fiction characters soon became ‘real’ to me and I based their characters on two real people I know: one was my father, a spiritual man and preacher; the other an artist from Baghdad who became my friend.

There are several historical Persians included in the cast of SHADOW.  The tragic princesses, Stateira and Drypetis, daughters of Darius III; Barsine, widow of Memnon of Rhodes, daughter of a Persian satrap who becomes Alexander’s mistress and gives birth to his eldest (illegitimate ) son, Herakles; and Roxana, who was from Soghdiana, part of the Persian Empire, and Alexander’s wife, mother of his only legal heir who she calls by his Persian name, Iskander.

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