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Culture and Religion of Ancient Iran


In the first half of the first millennium BC. e. in Eastern Iran or in Central Asia, Zoroastrianism emerged — a religious teaching, the founder of which was Zoroaster. It can be argued that he lived even before the conquest of Central Asia by the Persians. Achaemenid domination is known to have had a profound impact on the culture of all the peoples of the Persian Empire. But in the Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians, there are no Achaemenid terms. There is also no mention of money, the tax system, and other advanced social concepts and state institutions, nor of the Indian or Achaemenid kings. In general, the material culture of the Avesta is archaic, because it does not know iron, urban life and large state entities.

Archers of Darius I. Susa. Achaemenid period

Archers of Darius I. Glazed brick. Susa. Achaemenid period.

However, the Avesta is a multi-layered monument. Its oldest parts (the Ghats) differ significantly in form and content from the rest of the Avesta. They are composed in verse form and are the sermons of Zoroaster himself. The largest part of the Avesta is the so-called Junior Avesta. The compilation of its core began, apparently, in the last quarter of the V century BC. e. Many works of Young-Avestan literature belong to an even later, Arsacid time, approximately to the III century BC.

Since its inception, Zoroastrianism has experienced a complex evolution over a long period of development. The teachings of Zoroaster himself are reflected in the Ghats. According to this work, Zoroaster received from the god Ahura-Mazda (in the Greek transcription — Ormuzd) the order to renew the religion, after which he broke with the ancient beliefs. He carried out a radical religious reform, announced to the world a new faith, a belief in the ultimate victory of Ahura Mazda, rejected some of the ancient tribal gods (devas), and put others below the new deity.

The essence of the teachings of Zoroaster

Ahura-Mazda, according to the teachings of Zoroaster, is the only omnipotent and omnipresent god of good, a symbol of light, life and truth. He existed before the creation of the world and is its creator. But along with him from ancient times there was also a spirit of evil — Anghro Manyu (in the Greek transcription — Ahriman), who personifies darkness, death and together with his accomplices (devas) creates evil. Ahura-Mazda continuously struggles with him and in this struggle relies on his assistants, who carry good-mindedness, truth and immortality (the triad of Zoroastrian ethics). Man is created by Ahura-Mazda, but he is free to choose between good and evil, and therefore is open to the influence of evil spirits. With his thoughts, words, and deeds, one must fight against Anghro Manyu and his deva followers.

In addition, Zoroaster appeals to his followers to protect their herds from the raids of nomadic tribes. He opposes the extermination of cattle, against blood sacrifices, and makes it a duty for every believer to raise and preserve animals. In the Ghats, which reflected the process of disintegration of pre-class society in the Eastern Iranian and Central Asian regions, echoes of the struggle of pastoralists and farmers against the powerful tribal nobility are also heard.

The Zoroastrian priests created a complex eschatological teaching, according to which the world history lasts 12 thousand years. The first 3 thousand years were a golden age-then there was no cold, no heat, no disease, no death, no old age. The land abounded in cattle; this was the period of Ahura Mazda’s rule. But then the golden age ended, and Anghro Manyu gave birth to famine, disease, and death. However, a saviour (saoshyant) of the Zoroastrian race will appear in the world, and eventually good will triumph over evil, and an ideal kingdom will arise, where Ahura-Mazda will reign supreme, both in heaven and on earth. The sun will shine forever, and evil will disappear forever.

The gate of all nations. Persepolis. 5th century BC

“The Gate of all Nations”. Persepolis. V century BC.

The spread of Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism began to spread to Media, Persia, and other countries of the Iranian world. Apparently, during the reign of the last Median king Astyages (the first half of the VI century BC), Zoroastrianism had already become the official religion in Media. According to Herodotus, the court priests of Astyages were magicians who were the priests of the Zoroastrian cult, the guardians of the religious traditions of the Medes and Persians.

In the VI and V centuries BC, the masses of Persia worshipped the ancient deities of nature-Mithra (the god of the Sun and light), Anahita (the goddess of water and fertility), etc., honoring, in other words, light, Sun, Moon, wind and other natural forces. Cyrus II and Cambyses were still held captive by the ancient religious beliefs of the Iranian tribes, and the supreme place in their pantheon probably belonged not to Ahura Mazda, but to Mithras. Zoroastrianism began to spread in Persia only at the turn of the VI-V centuries BC, during the reign of Darius I. The Persian rulers, appreciating the advantages of the teachings of Zoroaster as a new official religion, nevertheless did not abandon the cults of the ancient gods worshipped by the Iranian tribes. If in Zoroaster Ahura-Mazda was essentially the only god, then in the Persian kings, starting with Darius I, he became the supreme deity. In the Achaemenid period (VI-IV centuries BC), Zoroastrianism had not yet become a dogmatic religion with firmly established norms, and therefore various modifications of the new religious teaching appeared. One of these forms of early Zoroastrianism was the Persian religion, which dates back to the time of Darius I.

The policy of the Persian kings in relation to religions

The absence of a dogmatic religion explains the toleration of the Persian kings. For example, Cyrus II patronized the revival of ancient cults in conquered countries and even ordered the restoration of temples destroyed by the Chaldean conquerors in Babylonia, Elam, Judea, etc. After capturing Babylonia, he offered sacrifices to the supreme god of the Babylonian pantheon, Marduk and other local gods, honored them and restored their sanctuaries. After the conquest of Egypt, Cambyses was crowned according to Egyptian customs, participated in religious ceremonies in the temple of the goddess Neith in the city of Sais, worshipped and offered sacrifices to other Egyptian gods. Similarly, he was crowned king of Babylon, performing the ancient sacred rites and accepting the throne “from the hands of Marduk.”

Declaring himself the son of the goddess Neith, Darius I built temples to Amun and other Egyptian deities, dedicating rich donations to them. In the same way, the Persian kings worshipped Yahweh in Jerusalem, the Greek gods in Asia Minor, and the local gods in other conquered countries. In their temples, sacrifices were made on behalf of the Persian kings, who sought to achieve a benevolent attitude on the part of supernatural forces.

Central Hall of Darius I. Persepolis. 5th century BC

Central Hall of Darius I. Persepolis. V century BC.

The Persians also deified mountains and rivers. The gods of the Iranian pantheon appeared in the Persepolis texts much less frequently than the Elamite gods, and judging by the size of the sacrifices and libations, they did not occupy a privileged position.

The worship of the gods of the conquered peoples by the Persian kings was not only an act of political calculation, which made it possible to avoid difficulties on the way to world domination. Although the Achaemenid kings considered their Ahura-Mazda the most powerful god, they also believed in the gods of the conquered peoples, prayed to them and sought their indulgence and protection. However, when a revolt broke out in Babylonia in 482 BC against Persian rule, Xerxes destroyed the main temple of this country, Esagil, and ordered the statue of the god Marduk to be taken from there to Persia. During the Greco-Persian wars, Xerxes also destroyed some Greek temples.

In Iran itself, Xerxes carried out a religious reform aimed at centralizing religious worship. With this reform, he seems to have sought to destroy the temples of Mithras, Anahita, and other ancient Iranian gods rejected by Zoroaster. However, the reform was unsuccessful, since by the time of the reign of Artaxerxes II (405-359 BC), the deities who had been overthrown were again officially recognized. Although the Achaemenid kings did not infringe on the religious feelings of the conquered peoples, they sought to prevent excessive strengthening of the temples. To this end, after the conquest of Egypt, Cambyses stopped issuing from public funds numerous gifts to the temples of the country, which they had received before, before the arrival of the Persians. In Egypt, Babylonia, and other satrapies of the empire, temples were taxed by the state and had to send their slaves to the royal household.

Culture of Persia

Expanding ties between the peoples of the Persian Empire

The Persian conquests, which united more than eighty nations into one power, contributed to the expansion of cultural and geographical knowledge. This was a period of intense ethnic mixing and syncretism of cultures and religious beliefs of various peoples. Contacts between different countries have become more regular than in the previous period.

In particular, sources indicate frequent trips of government officials from Egypt, Babylonia, Lydia, India, Bactria and other countries to Susa and Persepolis. It has also become possible to travel from one country to another for trade or other purposes and live there permanently or for a long time. For example, from Elam to Babylonia, even mercenaries were sent to perform seasonal agricultural work, and after harvesting they returned home. There were also trips to collect scientific information. We can mention the famous Herodotus, who was in Babylonia, Phoenicia, Egypt and other countries of the Achaemenid empire, collecting material for his “History”.

A lion mauling a bull. The palace staircase. Persepolis. 5th century BC.

A lion tormenting a bull. The relief that adorns the palace staircase. Persepolis. V century BC.

Writing and its monumental monuments

Iran, which has been a mediator in the transfer of cultural property since time immemorial, continued this mission under the Achaemenids. But the people of Iran have created their own original and highly developed civilization. One of her great achievements is the ancient Persian cuneiform script, which has only 43 characters, in contrast to the Akkadian cuneiform script with its 600 characters. However, the Persian script was used mainly for royal solemn inscriptions, which decorated the tombs of rulers, walls and columns of palaces, or were carved on metal dishes, weapons, stone vases and seals. The most famous of these inscriptions is the Behistun inscription, which tells about the events of the end of the reign of Cambyses and the first years of the reign of Darius I.

Its height together with the relief is 7.8 m, width-22 m. Like most other Achaemenid inscriptions, it is composed in Ancient Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. In addition, fragments of the Aramaic version of this inscription were found on the island of Elephantine, and in Babylon — a large fragment of stone, which preserved part of the Akkadian version of it. The trilingual text of the inscription is carved on the Behistun rock, located between the cities of Hamadan and Kermanshah, at an altitude of 105 m. above the road that in ancient times connected Babylonia with Media and other countries to the east of it.

Artaxerxes I on the throne, supported by the peoples of the

chaemenid kingdom
Artaxerxes I on the throne, supported by the peoples of the Achaemenid kingdom.

A relief rises above the inscription. The god Ahura-Mazda, who hovers above the other figures, extends his left hand with the ring to Darius, symbolically handing him the royal power, and with his raised right hand blesses the king. Darius is depicted in full size in the royal crown. His right hand is stretched out in a prayer gesture towards Ahura Mazda, and in his left hand he holds a bow. With his left foot, Darius tramples on the fallen, writhing in agony magician Gaumata, who seized the throne during the life of Cambyses. To the left, behind Darius, are two of his courtiers — the spearman Gobryas and the archer Aspatin. Immediately behind the Gaumata are depicted eight rebellious impostors who decided to rebel at the accession of Darius to the throne, and the leader of the Saka tribe Tigrahuda. Their hands are tied behind their backs, and they are chained together with one long chain.

Other inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings are found in Naqsh-i-Rustam, Persepolis, Susa, Ecbatan, and in Egypt. Most of them are accompanied by reliefs. The Naqsh-i-Rustam inscriptions are placed on the tomb of Darius I, 5 km northwest of Persepolis. This tomb is built at a height of about 20 m. It is hollowed out in the rock in the style of ancient Iranian traditions. In the tomb, to which the door leads, in huge niches are three massive sarcophagi, in one of them rested the remains of Darius, and in the other two-the ashes of members of his family. Sculptural images rise above the portico. Darius, surrounded by his courtiers, sits on the throne, held by representatives of 30 peoples of the Achaemenid empire, depicted with a detailed transfer of their characteristic anthropological and ethnographic features. The images are accompanied by inscriptions — “labels” indicating the ethnicity of each of them. In the left hand the king holds a bow, the right hand is raised to the Ahura Mazda, as if hovering over the entire monument. On the right is an altar with a sacred fire.

Relief from the palace in Persepolis. 4th century BC

Relief from the palace in Persepolis. IV century BC.

Three inscriptions of Darius I describe the construction of a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea on his orders. They are found on the former isthmus of the Suez Canal and are composed in Egyptian, Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. All three stelae in the Egyptian text have similar images: both halves of Egypt are symbolically connected to the oval, where the name of Darius is inscribed. The inscription mentions 24 countries subject to Darius; representatives of each country are depicted in separate ovals facing the oval with the royal name.

In Susa, a statue of Darius I was found, which once stood at the monumental gate to his grand palace. The king is depicted on a rectangular pedestal in the image of the Egyptian god Atum (the deity of the setting sun), but in Persian clothing. The statue had the magical purpose of guaranteeing Darius eternal benefits from the Egyptian gods. A four-lingual inscription has also been preserved on the monument.


At least as early as the sixth century BC, the Ancient Persian calendar appeared. It was a lunar calendar that consisted of 12 months of 29 or 30 days. The 12 lunar months were 354 days. Thus, the ancient Persian calendar had a year 11 days shorter than the solar year. After three years, the difference between the lunar and solar calendar reached 30-33 days, and in order to eliminate this difference, after three years, it was necessary to add an additional (leap) thirteenth month to the year. The names of the months were associated with agricultural work (for example, the months of cleaning irrigation channels, collecting garlic, severe frost) or with religious holidays (the month of fire worship, etc.).

In Iran, there was also a Zoroastrian calendar, in which the names of the months and days are derived from the names of the Zoroastrian deities (Ahura Mazda, Mithras, Anahita, etc.). The year of this calendar consisted of 12 months of 30 days each, to which 5 more days were added (365 days in total). The Zoroastrian calendar appears to have originated in Eastern Iran as early as the Achaemenid period. But at this time it was used only for religious purposes, and later (at least under the Sassanids) it was recognized as the official state calendar.


The Tomb of Darius I. 5th century BC

Tomb of Darius I. Naqsh-i-Rustem. V century BC.

In the Achaemenid period, the peoples of Central Asia and northwestern India first became familiar with the Aramaic script, which, as noted, was used mainly in the state chancellery. Under the Achaemenids, standard formulas for the transmission of Aramaic terms and clerical expressions in various Iranian languages were developed, and the Parthian, Middle Persian, Sogdian and Khorezm ideographic writing systems subsequently emerged from clerical Aramaic, which played a major role in the cultural history of the Iranian peoples. The borrowing of many ancient Iranian words in Sanskrit also dates back to the Achaemenid period. These were primarily terms of socio-economic, military, and administrative vocabulary.

Architecture and construction

The majestic monuments of Persian architecture are the palace complexes in Pasargadae, Persepolis and Susa. Pasargadas are built at an altitude of 1,900 m above sea level on a vast plain. The buildings of the city, which are the oldest monuments of Persian material culture, are built on a high terrace. They are lined with light sandstone, beautifully granulated and reminiscent of marble, located among parks and gardens. The most remarkable monument of Pasargad is the still-preserved tomb in which Cyrus II was buried. Seven wide steps lead to a burial chamber 2 km wide and 2 km long. Many similar monuments directly or indirectly go back to this tomb, including the mausoleum of the governor of Caria, Mausolus, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the world in ancient times. By the way, the modern word “mausoleum”also comes from the name of this governor.

The vessel. Persia. 1st century BC

The vessel. Yarym-Tepe. 90 BC.

The construction of Persepolis began around 520 BC and lasted until about 450 BC. Its area is 135 thousand square meters. m. At the foot of the mountain, an artificial platform was built, for which it was necessary to level about 12 thousand square meters of uneven rock. Built on this platform, the city was surrounded on three sides by a double wall of mud bricks, and on the eastern side was adjacent to an impregnable mountain cliff. Persepolis was reached by a wide staircase of 110 steps. The grand palace of Darius I (Apadan) consisted of a large hall with an area of 3,600 square meters. The hall was surrounded by porticos. The ceilings of the hall and porticos were supported by 72 slender and elegant columns of stone. Their height exceeded 20 m.

Apadana symbolized the power and greatness of the king and served for important state receptions, including the reception of ambassadors. It was connected to the private palaces of Darius I and Xerxes by special entrances. Two staircases led to apadana, on which reliefs with images of courtiers, the king’s personal guard, cavalry and chariots were preserved. On one side of the stairs, for example, there is a long procession of representatives of the 33 nations of the state, carrying gifts and taxes to the Persian king. This is a real ethnological museum with the image of the characteristic features in the appearance, clothing, weapons of various peoples and tribes, including facial features. Persepolis was also home to the palaces of other Achaemenid kings, servants ‘ quarters, and barracks.

A bottle with a pattern. Sasanian period

An eagle with a gazelle. Drawing on the bottle. The Sasanian period.

Under Darius I, great construction was also carried out in Susa. The inscriptions tell of the construction of several palaces there by his order. For this purpose, the necessary materials were delivered from 12 countries and artisans from many regions of the country were engaged in construction and decorative work. Cedar, in particular, was brought from Lebanon, teak wood – from Gandhara and Carmania, gold-from Lydia and Bactria, gems, lapis lazuli and carnelian – from Sogdiana, turquoise-from Khorezm, silver and ebony – from Egypt, ivory – from Ethiopia, India and Arachosia. Among the artisans, craftsmen, and architects were the Ionians, Lydians, Medes, Egyptians, and Babylonians.

Toreutics and glyptics

A vessel with the image of a face and a hunt. Sasanian period

A vessel with a picture of a face and hunting scenes. The Sasanian period.

A remarkable achievement of the peoples of the Achaemenid empire is the art, known not only for the monuments of Pasargad, Persepolis, Susa and other cultural centers, but also for the numerous works of toreutics (coining on metal) and glyptics (carving on precious or semiprecious stones). However, the subjects of this art are very monotonous and limited. These are primarily images of the ruler at the altar with a flaming fire, the struggle of the hero-king with various kinds of fantastic monsters, scenes of military triumphs and hunting of sovereigns and their nobles. Achaemenid art remained mainly court monumental art, which symbolized the power and greatness of the royal power.

Achaemenid style

Its defining features are formed at the turn of the VI-V centuries BC. This is a strict canonization, the desire for symmetry, the mirror construction of the same scenes. In particular, these features characterize the reliefs of Persepolis. For example, the doorways of palaces have not only identical scenes on both sides of the jambs, but also precisely repeated explanatory inscriptions. The canons created under Darius I are not violated in the later palaces of Persepolis, in the architectural decoration of the rock tombs of the Persian kings, on the monuments of Toreutica of the V-IV centuries BC, although they are supplemented with new motifs and images. In Persepolis, the imperial Achaemenid style was created, which later spread widely, creating a unity of culture from the Indus to the coast of Asia Minor and even further west, to Egypt. The works of toreutics, especially the rhitons, executed by Indian, Asian and Eastern Iranian masters, are canonical in form, ornament, and even in size, regardless of their place of origin.

Medallion with a portrait of the Parthian king. Sasanian period

Medallion with a portrait of the Parthian king. Silver. The Sasanian period.

When analyzing the monuments of Achaemenid art, the influence of Urartian methods of erecting buildings on huge artificial platforms in the design of columns is noticeable. But at the same time, Achaemenid art is not the sum of borrowing. The introduced forms quickly lost their original qualities and functions in it. In other words, although the details of this or that image, this or that architectural building are known from past eras and different countries, the image itself is different from everything known and is specifically Achaemenid. Therefore, despite the borrowing, all the essential aspects of Achaemenid art remain original and, in general, it is the result of specific historical conditions, a certain ideology and social life.

Achaemenid art is characterized by a virtuoso representation of an isolated object. Most often, these are metal bowls and vases, goblets carved from stone, ivory rhytons, jewelry made by jewelers, and sculptures made of lapis lazuli. Art craft has reached a high level, with monuments depicting domestic and wild animals (sheep, lions, wild boars, etc.). Cylindrical seals carved from agate, chalcedony, and jasper are of considerable interest. These seals with the image of kings, heroes, fantastic and real creatures still amaze the viewer with the perfection of forms and the originality of the plots.

Iran in the Parthian period

Relief on a platter. Sasanian period

Eagle and gazelle. Relief on a platter. The Sasanian period.

The Parni tribes, who roamed the steppes between the Amu Darya and the Caspian Sea, invaded the Nisei region in the Atreka Valley around 250 BC. Turkmenistan) and around 247 BC proclaimed Arshak king (after his name, the rulers of the dynasty are called Arshakids). Having created their own state, the Parnae challenged the Seleucid rulers, the rulers of a huge power that stretched from Syria to Central Asia. In 239 BC. The Parnae captured the province of Parthiene, which had previously belonged to the Seleucids, and subsequently completely merged with the Parthian tribes who lived there, who were related to them.

Around 171 BC, Mithridates I became the king of Parthia, under whom this state became a powerful power, which became the heir to the political power of the Achaemenids and to some extent their culture.

The Parthian empire was not homogeneous. In particular, in the south of Iran, in Fars, at the beginning of the third century AD, there were several semi-independent small principalities. At the head of one of them was Sasan, from whom the rulers of the Sasanian dynasty later received their family name. Artashir, a descendant of Sasan and one of the rulers of these principalities, began to expand his possessions. Having united all the regions of Fars under his rule, he also annexed the regions of Kerman and Khuzistan to the kingdom. The Parthian king Artabanus V, alarmed by the success of Artashir, decided to oppose him. However, in 224 AD. he was defeated by Artashir. Two years later, in 226, Artashir captured the city of Ctesiphon, located in Mesopotamia and previously owned by the Parthians. In the same year, he proclaimed himself king of Iran and was solemnly crowned. Thus, the Parthian empire ceased to exist, and a new Iranian empire — the Sassanid empire-emerged in the ancient homeland of the Achaemenid kings.

The significance of Iranian culture

The king is surrounded by servants. Relief on a platter. Sasanian period

The king is surrounded by musicians and servants. Relief on a platter. The Sasanian period.

Interest in the achievements of the ancient culture created by the Medes, Persians and other related Iranian peoples has always been great in our country and in Europe. Starting from the XV century, European travelers began to be interested in the reliefs of the Persepolis palaces and to deliver copies of ancient Persian inscriptions to their countries. In 1621, the pioneer of Italian Oriental studies, Pietro della Balle, described the ruins of Persepolis and copied one of the inscriptions. But it took European scientists two centuries to decipher the cuneiform script. In 1836. At the same time, several researchers claimed priority in deciphering the ancient Persian cuneiform script. Soon, thanks to the trilingual Behistun inscription, the Assyro-Babylonian cuneiform script was also deciphered. This in turn made it possible to read Sumerian, Elamite, Urartian, Hittite, and many other ancient texts.

As early as the beginning of the 18th century, European scholars became interested in the Avesta. The Frenchman Anquetil Duperron penetrated among the Parsis, the worshippers of Zoroastrianism in India, studied Avestan works with them for many years, and in 1762 brought their manuscripts to Paris. In 1771, he published a translation of a number of books of the Avesta. But this translation was full of gross errors, and the great philosopher Voltaire attacked Duperron with sharp attacks, saying that he either slanders Zoroaster by attributing nonsense to him, or these works themselves, if they really belong to Zoroaster, are devoid of any meaning and therefore there is no need to translate them into French. A man who spent many decades of his life trying to obtain manuscripts of Zoroastrian works was also unanimously criticized by Sanskrit scholars. However, it was thanks to Sanskrit, a related Avestan language, that scientists gradually managed to understand the Zoroastrian works.

Naturally, not all the achievements of ancient Iranian culture have come down to us, although a number of works of ancient Iranian literature have been translated into Arabic, Syriac and other eastern, and later into Western languages. Among such works, there were also Iranian ones, such as the Shahnameh of the great Firdousi, and translated ones-Kalila and Dimna, etc.

Flautist on the fabulous beast. Sasanian perio

Flautist on the fabulous beast. Fragment of a dish. The Sasanian period.

Since ancient times, the history of Iran has been closely linked to the history of our country. Cultural contacts and trade relations between Iran and Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Southern Russian steppes were almost never interrupted throughout antiquity.

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