Persian Empire Language, Writing and Scribes

Persian Empire Language Writing ScribesPersian Empire Language, Writing and Scribes

The Persian Empire was vast, over 3,000 miles wide, the world’s first superpower, starting with Cyrus the Great around 550 BC.

Persian rulers were tolerant and allowed different languages, laws, religions, and customs to continue in their conquered regions.  Scribes used different languages and writing systems, usually based on the region and type of record. Most surviving records were engraved using a reed stylus on clay tablets.

In 1935, Persia was internationally renamed to Iran (Land of the Aryans), its original name before the Greek name was used.

Modern Persian language is also referred to as the Farsi language, originating in the Fars province, the historic homeland of Persia. It is known as Dari or Afghan Persian dialect in Afghanistan. It is written using a modified Arabic alphabet.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great painting

Cyrus the Great

King Cyrus the Great from Persia (reigned 559–530 BC) conquered neighboring kingdoms in central Asia to create the first Persian Empire (Achaemenid Empire).

The empire started as a group of semi-nomadic tribes who raised sheep, goats, and cattle on the arid Persian plateau.  It lasted about 200 years, to 330 BC.  Eventually, it stretched from current-day Greece and Libya in the west, to Afghanistan and India in the east.

Cyrus Cylinder

Cyrus Cylinder

Cyrus the Great is immortalized in the story of how he conquered Babylon, inscribed in clay in 539 BC on the Cyrus Cylinder.  It champions tolerance and equality and is considered to be the first Declaration of Human Rights.  A replica is on display at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Cyrus the Great Tomb

Cyrus the Great Tomb

According to Hebrew scriptures, in 539 BC, Cyrus freed the Jewish people from captivity in Babylon and allowed them to return to Jerusalem.  He helped them to rebuild their temple.

Cambyses and the Lost Persian Army

King Cambyses, son of Cyrus, (reigned 530–522 BC) conquered Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Egypt to expand the empire. 

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the Lost Persian Army of 50,000 elite soldiers disappeared in 525 BC in a hurricane-force sandstorm in the Great Sand Sea of Egypt’s Western Desert, on their way to capture the Siwa Oasis, home to an oracle of Ammon.  Sandstorms may last for days. 

Despite several searches in Egypt, the mysterious disappearance remains unsolved.  See the video, Lost Army of King Cambyses.

Darius the Great and the Royal Road

Persian gold coin Achaemenid daric

Persian daric gold coin

Later Achaemenid Empire kings included King Darius I (Darius the Great) (reigned 522-486 BC), a cousin of Cyrus.  He introduced a standard currency using a gold coin (daric), worth 20 times more than a silver coin (siglos), weights and measures, a legal code, built roads, canals, ports and banking houses, and made Aramaic the official language.

Persepolis Aramaic tablet

Persepolis Aramaic tablet

Aramaic originated in the region of Aram (grandson of Noah), meaning highlands, now Syria, and spread to Babylonia. It is similar to Hebrew and written in a script derived from the Phoenician alphabet, composed of 22 letters, with no vowels.  Vowels were implied by the context of the words.

Aramaic became popular because it was simpler, with fewer characters than other languages. It could be written quickly with ink on animal skins, parchment or papyrus, using a brush or pen, rather than requiring slow, complicated cuneiform impressions made with a wedge-shaped stylus on soft clay tablets.  Aramaic became the language of official documents, diplomacy, and commercial transactions.

The ability to write Aramaic on lightweight, flexible material, rather than clay tablets, enabled documents and messages to be easily transported over long distances.  A quick writing system also saved time when making copies by hand.  But documents made of flammable, organic material were not durable like clay or stone and did not survive the centuries, except under ideal archive conditions.

Jesus preached in Aramaic, and parts of the Old Testament were written in Aramaic language.  Aramaic is still spoken today in some social, academic and religious communities, but it is not available in Google Translate.

Under Darius, the Old Persian language was created, to record his achievements. It was not used much for literature or recordkeeping. It had 42 signs and was influenced by Aramaic.

The Behistun Inscription is a three-language inscription and large rock relief established by Darius in a limestone cliff at Mount Behistun near Kermanshah in western Persia. The same text of empire history was written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (a variety of Akkadian). It was crucial to deciphering cuneiform script like the Rosetta Stone was key to decoding Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Darius extended the empire to the Indus Valley Civilization and developed the world’s first postal service.  Couriers on horseback rode on the Royal Road, 1600 miles in 7 days.  Relay stations every 15 miles, with military guards, provided food, shelter, supplies and fresh horses.  The Pony Express of 1860 AD resembled the Persian relay station system of 500 BC.

Herodotus wrote that “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 courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”. The motto was chiseled in granite centuries later on a U.S. Post Office in New York.

Herodotus also wrote that it was customary for representatives of conquered nations to bring token gifts of “earth and water” to show their surrender and submission to the rule of Persian kings.

Darius started an imperial navy, with personnel including Phoenicians, Egyptians, Cypriots, and Greeks.

Alexander the Great Conquers the Persian Empire

Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the first Persian Empire in 330 BC.  He replaced Aramaic with Greek as the official language.

Zoroastrianism Religion

The first Persian Empire was shaped by the Zoroastrianism religion, named after the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra).  Zoroastrianism was the world’s first monotheistic religion.  It believes in mankind’s free choice between good and evil, the final judgment, heaven, hell, and an almighty, kind, loving and forgiving God.

Cyrus ruled by the Zoroastrian law of asha (truth and righteousness), but he did not impose his religion on the people of Persia’s conquered territories.

Persian Empire Royal Capitals

Five cities served as royal capitals as the empire evolved. Cyrus built Pasargadae in Persia province, near the Persian Gulf, to commemorate his victory over the Medes in the north, but it was too remote.  Cyrus then rebuilt Babylon in the west when affairs brought him to Babylonia.

Darius I moved the capital east to Susa, the capital of the Elamites.  It was a hub for road and water transportation but it was too hot in the summer. The capital moved north to a cooler location at Ecbatana, the old capital of the Medes in the Zagros Mountains. Finally, around 518 BC Darius began construction of a new capital at Persepolis, south of Pasargadae.

Sardis was also an important city, the capital of the conquered ancient wealthy kingdom of Lydia, now in western Turkey. It formed the west end station for the Persian Royal Road which began in Persepolis.

Persepolis cylinder seal lapis lazuli

Persepolis lapis lazuli cylinder seal

Persian Empire Scribes and Records

Each province (satrap) was headed by a governor. A state secretary kept the official records.  Scribes kept extensive government and military records.

From the reign of Darius, general land registries recorded by notaries kept track of private land ownership. Sales tax was due on the transfer of real estate.

Persian Empire Persepolis ring stamp seal

Persepolis ring seal, stamp seal

Nobles, scribes and high-ranking public officials were literate. Scribal schools taught reading, writing, grammar, mathematics, and astronomy. In Achaemenid Babylonia, scribes included the sons of shepherds, fishermen, and weavers.  School texts included Sumerian-Babylonian dictionaries, tablets with cuneiform signs, and examples of grammatical usage and exercises.

Elamite clay tablet Louvre Paris

Elamite clay tablet Louvre Paris

The Elamite language of the Elam region of the Persian Plateau is considered a language isolate, unrelated to neighboring languages.  Elamite cuneiform was largely a syllabary of some 130 glyphs (character symbols).

The development of writing in Elam paralleled that in Sumer.  As early as 8,000 BC, different shapes of clay tokens were used to represent grain, livestock, alcohol, and manufactured goods for record-keeping and transactions.

Old Persian cuneiform script was used mainly for royal triumphal inscriptions.  Few examples have survived.

The Royal Road through the Persian Empire was part of the Silk Road trade route from Rome to China.  Foreign scribes in the state chancery wrote mostly in Aramaic, used widely in trade.  Many documents were written on perishable parchment and papyrus. They did not survive, except under very dry conditions and by avoiding fire.

Aramaic scribes (sēpiru) are frequently attested as agents of the provincial and imperial government.

Babylonian (Akkadian) was used in Mesopotamia for literature, religion, and recordkeeping.

In Elephantine, on the upper Nile River near Aswan in Egypt, Achaemenid military colonists usually signed their own names in Aramaic when serving as witnesses to contracts.

Persepolis Fortification Archive

Old Persian clay tablet Persepolis

Old Persian clay tablet Persepolis

Parsa was renamed Persepolis (City of Persians) by the Greeks.  Although the city was burned by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, the heat of the fire hardened the clay tablets.  Then a wall fell and covered a storage room, preserving thousands of tablets for centuries.  Over time, the location became covered with wind-blown sand and forgotten.

Records and libraries were also deliberately destroyed when Persia was conquered by the Arabs starting in 633 AD and by the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan starting in 1220 AD.

Persepolis seal impression meeting king

Persepolis seal impression meeting king

In 1933, archaeologists from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, working at the ancient Persian capital, found thousands of clay tablets, written in several languages. The collection is known as the Persepolis Fortification Archive (PFA).

Persepolis Gate of All Nations

Persepolis Gate of All Nations

Video, Lost City of Persepolis

Lost Worlds: Persepolis is a 50-minute documentary video, released in 2002, telling the story of the Persian Empire and showing images of the capital city.

Persian Royal Ensign

Cyrus the Great eagle flag royal ensign

Cyrus the Great eagle flag royal ensign

The Greek historian Xenophon wrote, in The Expedition of Cyrus, that the royal ensign of the Persian Empire was a golden eagle with wings extended, resting on a spear.

When the Persians conquered the Medes, the Persian royal ensign was a ram with two horns, one higher than the other, representing the dominant Persian dynasty.

Ammianus Marcellinus (in his work Roman History, Book 19,1.3) wrote that Persian King Šāpūr II (309-379), the tenth king of the Sasanian Empire, wore a ram’s head battle helmet at the siege of Amida, “The king himself upon a chargeṛ . . . wearing in place of a diadem (crown) a golden image of a ram’s head, set with precious stones.”

The ram’s head symbol is still seen on the pillars of Persepolis and on ancient Persian coins.  Wall carvings at the Apadana royal reception hall at Persepolis depict delegates from an imperial province bringing rams as a tribute to Darius the Great.

Muslim Conquest of Persia

The Sasanian Empire was the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam.  Persia was weakened after several decades of warfare with the Byzantine Empire.  The Muslim conquest of Persia started when Arab armies began invading the political and economic center province in Mesopotamia in 633 AD.  Following several waves of attacks, the Arab conquest of Persia was completed in 651 AD.

Image Credits

1. Persian Empire map, Cyrus the Great artwork with wings, Persepolis soldiers, Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Creative Commons, Wikipedia
2. Cyrus the Great painting, Cyrus Cylinder, daric gold coin,, fair use for education
3. Persepolis Aramaic writing, blue cylinder seal in lapis lazuli, stamp seal, ring seal, seal impressions, clay tablets, Persepolis Fortification Archive, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, fair use for education
4. Elamite clay tablet, public domain, Wikipedia, from Louvre Museum, Paris
5. Persian flag, golden eagle, royal ensign, Creative Commons, Wikipedia

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