A History of Iran

Empire of the Mind


By Michael Axworthy

Formats and Prices




$16.99 CAD



  1. ebook $12.99 $16.99 CAD
  2. Trade Paperback $19.99 $24.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 24, 2016. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

The definitive history of Iran, from the ancient Persian empires to today

Iran is a land of contradictions. It is an Islamic republic, but one in which only 1.4 percent of the population attend Friday prayers. Iran's religious culture encompasses the most censorious and dogmatic Shi'a Muslim clerics in the world, yet its poetry insistently dwells on the joys of life: wine, beauty, sex. Iranian women are subject to one of the most restrictive dress codes in the Islamic world, but make up nearly 60 percent of the student population of the nation's universities.

In A History of Iran, acclaimed historian Michael Axworthy chronicles the rich history of this complex nation from the Achaemenid Empire of sixth century BC to the revolution of 1979 to today, including a close look at Iran's ongoing attempts to become a nuclear power. A History of Iran offers general readers an essential guide to understanding this volatile nation, which is once again at the center of the world's attention.




Zoroaster, the Achaemenids, and the Greeks

                        O Cyrus . . . Your subjects, the Persians,

                        are a poor people with a proud spirit

—King Croesus of Lydia, according to Herodotus

The history of Iran starts with a question: Who are the Iranians? The question concerns not just the origins of Iran, but echoes, in one form or another, in the history of the country and its people down to the present day.

The Iranians were one branch of the Indo-European family of peoples who moved out of what are today the Russian steppes to settle in Europe, Iran, Central Asia, and northern India, in a series of migrations and invasions in the latter part of the second millennium BC. This explains the close relationship between the Persian language and other Indo-European languages—particularly Sanskrit and Latin, but also modern languages like Hindi, German, and English. Any speaker of a European language who is learning Persian soon encounters a series of familiar words: pedar (father, Latin pater); dokhtar (daughter, girl, German tochter); mordan (to die, Latin mortuus, French mourir, le mort); nam (name); dar (door); and perhaps the most familiar of all, the first-person present and singular of the verb to be, the suffix—am (I am—as in the sentence “I am an Iranian”—Irani-am). An English-speaker who has attempted to learn German will find Persian grammar both familiar and blessedly simple by comparison. There are no genders or grammatical cases for nouns. Persian, like English, has evolved since ancient times into a simplified form, dropping the heavily inflected grammar of old Persian. It has no structural relationship with Arabic or the other Semitic languages of the ancient Middle East (though it took in many Arab words after the Arab conquest).

Long before the migrants who spoke Iranian languages arrived from the north, there were other people living in what later became the land of Iran. People lived on the Iranian plateau as early as 100,000 BC, in what is known as the Old Stone Age, and by 5000 BC agricultural settlements were flourishing in and around the Zagros mountains—the area to the east of the great Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia. Excavation of one of these settlements, at Hajji Firoz Tepe, has produced the remains of the world’s oldest-known wine jar, complete with grape residue and traces of resin that were used as a flavoring and a preservative, indicating that the wine would have tasted something like Greek retsina.1 Before and during the period of the Iranian migrations, an empire—the empire of Elam—flourished in the area that later became the provinces of Khuzestan and Fars, based in the cities of Susa and Anshan. The Elamites spoke a language that was neither Mesopotamian nor Iranian, but they were influenced by the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, and transmitted elements of their culture on to the later Iranian dynasties. Elamite influence spread beyond the area usually associated with its empire. An example of this is in Tepe Sialk, just south of modern Kashan, where a ziggurat—an ancient Mesopotamian temple—shows all the forms of an Elamite settlement. This ziggurat at Tepe Sialk has been dated to around 2900 BC.

Recent DNA-based research in other countries has tended to emphasize the relative stability of the genetic pool over time, despite conquests, migrations, and what look from historical accounts to be mass settlements or even genocides. It is likely that the Iranian settlers or conquerors were relatively few in number, compared to the pre-existing peoples who later adopted their language and intermarried with them. And probably ever since that time, down to the present day, the rulers of Iran have ruled over at least some non-Iranian peoples. From the very beginning then, the Idea of Iran was as much about culture and language—in all their complex patterns—as about race or territory.

From the beginning there was always a division (albeit a fuzzy one) between Iran’s nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples and its settled, crop-growing agriculturists. Iran is a land of great contrasts in climate and geography, and in addition to areas of productive agricultural land (expanded by ingenious use of irrigation from groundwater), there are more extensive areas of rugged mountain and semi-desert, worthless for crops but suitable for grazing, even if only for a limited period each year. Over these lands the nomads moved their herds. The early Iranians seem to have herded cattle in particular.

In the pre-modern world, pastoralist nomads had many advantages over settled peasant farmers. Their wealth was their livestock, which meant their wealth was movable and they could escape from threats of violence with little loss. Other nomads might attack them, of course, but peasant farmers were always much more vulnerable. If threatened with violence at harvest time, the farmers stood to lose the accumulated value of a full year’s work and be left destitute. In peaceful times nomads were happy to trade meat and wool with the peasants in exchange for grains and other crops, but the nomads always had the option of adding direct coercion to purely economic bargaining. Nomads have had the upper hand from the time the Indo-European pastoralist Iranians first entered the Iranian plateau, right up to the twentieth century.

From such circumstances a system of tribute—what the twentieth-century Mafia would call protection—developed. The peasants paid a portion of their harvest in order to be left alone. From another perspective, augmented with a bit of presentational subtlety and tradition, this system could be called government taxation. Most of the historical rulers of Iran originated from the nomadic tribes (including from non-Iranian nomads who arrived in later waves of migration), and animosity between the nomads and the settled population has persisted into modern times. The settled population (particularly later, when towns and cities developed) regarded themselves as more civilized, less violent, and less crude. But the nomads saw the settled population as soft and devious, while considering themselves, by contrast, as hardy, tough, and self-reliant, exemplifying a kind of rugged honesty. There would have been elements of truth in both caricatures, but the attitudes of the early Iranian elites partook especially of the latter.


The Iranian-speakers who migrated into the land of Iran and the surrounding area in the years before 1000 BC were not one single tribe or group. In time some of their descendants became known as Medes and Persians, but there were Parthians, Sogdians, and others, too, who only acquired the names known to us later in their history. And even the titles Mede and Persian were themselves simplifications, lumping together shifting alliances and confederacies of disparate tribes.

From the beginning, the Medes and Persians are mentioned together in historical sources, suggesting a close relationship from the very earliest times. The first such mention is in an Assyrian record of 836 BC—an account of an extended military campaign by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III and several of his successors that was waged in the Zagros mountains and as far east as Mount Demavand, the high, extinct volcano in the Alborz range. The accounts they left behind listed the Medes and Persians as tributaries—those paying tribute to the stronger Assyrians. The heartlands of the Medes were in the northwest, in the modern provinces of Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Hamadan, and Tehran. In the region of the Zagros south of the territories occupied by the Medes, the Assyrians encountered the Persians in the region they called Parsuash, which has been known ever since as Pars or Fars.2

Within a century or so, however, the Medes and Persians were fighting back, attacking Assyrian territories. Later traditions recorded by Herodotus in the fifth century BC mention early kings of the Medes, called Deioces and Cyaxares, who appeared in the Assyrian accounts as Daiaukku and Uaksatar; and a king of the Persians called Achaemenes, who the Assyrians called Hakhamanish. By 700 BC the Medes—with the help of Scythian tribes—had established an independent state, which later grew to become the first Iranian Empire. In 612 BC the Medes destroyed the Assyrian capital, Nineveh (adjacent to modern Mosul, on the Tigris). At its height the Median Empire stretched from Asia Minor to the Hindu Kush, and south to the Persian Gulf, ruling the Persians as vassals as well as many other subject peoples.


But before the first mentions of the Iranians and their kings appear in the records, another important historical figure lived—Zoroaster or Zarathustra (modern Persian Zardosht). It is generally accepted that Zoroaster lived and was not just a man of myth or legend. His dates are unknown and experts have disagreed radically about when he lived. Compared with Jesus, Mohammad, or even Moses, Zoroaster is a much more indistinct figure. Little is known for sure about his life—the best evidence suggests he lived in the northeast, in what later became Bactria and later still, in Afghanistan. But another tradition has suggested he came from what is now Azerbaijan, around the river Araxes. As a religious thinker and a key figure in the history of world religions, Zoroaster certainly ranks in importance with the other prophets. But for the same reason that the details of his life are obscure, it is also difficult to establish the precise import of his teaching. The Zoroastrian religious texts that are the main source for both (notably the Avesta) were written down in the form they are known to us only much later, in the Sassanid period.3 The stories about Zoroaster they contain are little more than fables. Some of the stories correspond with information from classical Greek and Latin commentators and show their genuine antiquity. For example, there is the story that at birth the infant Zoroaster did not cry, but laughed. And the theology combines what are undoubtedly ancient elements with innovations that were incorporated and developed much later.

So although Zoroastrian tradition places Zoroaster’s birth at around 600 BC, most scholars now believe he lived earlier. It is still unclear just when, but it is reasonable to think it was around 1200 or 1000 BC, at the time of, or shortly after, the migrations of Iranian cattle herders to the Iranian plateau. This view is based on the fact that the earliest texts (the Gathas, traditionally considered to be hymns first sung by Zoroaster himself) show significant differences with the later liturgical language associated with the period around 600 BC. Other clues come from the characteristics of the pastoral way of life reflected in the texts, and the absence in them of references to the Medes or Persians or the names of kings or other people known from that later time.

It seems plausible that Zoroaster’s religious revelation arose in the context of the changes, new demands, and new influences associated with the migration, including the self-questioning of a culture faced with new neighbors and unfamiliar pressures. The religion, then, was the result of an encounter with a new complexity. While it was to some extent a compromise with that new complexity, it was also an attempt to govern it according to new principles.

Other evidence supports the view that Zoroaster did not invent a religion from nothing. Instead, he reformed and simplified pre-existing religious practices (against some resistance from traditional priests), infusing them with a much more sophisticated philosophical theology and a greater emphasis on morality and justice. This view is supported by the existence of an early tradition that held writing to be alien and demonic—suggesting that the Iranians associated it with the Semitic and other peoples among whom they found themselves in the centuries after the migration.4 More evidence that Zoroaster reformed pre-existing religions is that the Persian word div—cognate with both Latin and Sanskrit words for the gods—in the Zoroastrian context was used for a class of demons opposed to Zoroaster and his followers, suggesting that the reforming prophet reclassified at least some previous deities as evil spirits.5 The demons were associated with chaos and disorder—the antithesis of the principles of goodness and justice represented by the new religion. At the more mundane level the demons also lay behind diseases of people and animals, bad weather, and other natural disasters.

At the center of Zoroaster’s theology was the opposition between Ahura Mazda, the creator-god of truth and light, and Ahriman, the embodiment of lies, darkness, and evil.6 This dualism became a persistent theme in Iranian thought for centuries. Modern Zoroastrianism is much more strongly monotheistic, and to make this distinction more explicit many scholars refer to the religion in this early stage as Mazdaism. Other pre-existing deities were incorporated into the Mazdaean religious structure as angels or archangels—notably Mithra, a sun god, and Anahita, a goddess of streams and rivers. Six Immortal archangels (the Amesha Spenta) embodied animal life, plant life, metals and minerals, earth, fire, and water. The names of several of these archangels—for example Bahman, Ordibehesht, Khordad—survive as months in the modern Iranian calendar, even under the Islamic republic. Ahura Mazda himself personified air, and in origin paralleled the Greek Zeus, as a sky-god.

The modern Persian month Bahman is named after the Mazdaean archangel Vohu Manu—the second in rank after Ahura Mazda, characterized as Good Purpose and identified with the cattle who were the second class of beings to be created by Ahura Mazda, after man himself. Part of the creation myth in Zoroastrianism holds that after all was created good by Ahura Mazda, the evil spirit Ahriman (accompanied by six evil spirits matching the six Immortals) assaulted creation, murdering the first man, killing the sacred bull Vohu Manu, and polluting the pure elements of water and fire. The importance of cattle to the nomadic early Iranians is shown by the frequent appearance of bulls and cattle in sculpture and iconography from the Achaemenid period—but many of these images may have a more specific religious significance, referring to Vohu Manu.

The name Ahura Mazda means Lord of Wisdom, or Wise Lord. The dualism went a long way toward resolving the problem of evil that presents such difficulties for the monotheistic religions (the origin of evil in the world was Ahriman, against whom Ahura Mazda struggled for supremacy) and at least initially permitted a strong attachment to the ideas of free will (arising out of the necessity of human beings choosing between good and evil), goodness emerging in good actions, judgment after death, and heaven and hell. Some scholars have suggested that within a few centuries (but before 600 BC) Mazdaism developed a theory of a Messiah—the Saoshyant, who would be born miraculously at the end of time from a virgin mother and the seed of Zoroaster himself.7 But the dualism implied other difficulties, which emerged later. One was how Ahura Mazda and Ahriman themselves came into existence. To explain this, some later followers of the Iranian religion believed in a creator-god, Zurvan (identified with Time or Fate), who prayed for a son and was rewarded with twins. The twins became Ahura Mazda and Ahriman. This branch of Mazdaism has been called Zurvanism.

It was a characteristic of the new religion that philosophical concepts or categories became personified as heavenly beings or entities—indeed these seem to have proliferated, a little like characters in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. One example is the idea of the daena. According to one later text, a beautiful maiden appeared to the soul of a just man after his death. She was the personification of all the good works he had done in life, and she said to him,

           For when, in the world, you saw someone sacrificing to the demon, you instead started adoring God; and when you saw someone carrying out violence and robbery and afflicting and despising good men and gathering in their substance with evil actions, you instead avoided treating creatures with violence and robbery; you took care of the just and welcomed them and gave them lodgings and gifts. Whether your wealth came from near or from afar, it was honorably acquired. And when you saw people give false judgments and allowed themselves to be corrupted with money and commit perjury, you instead undertook to tell the truth and speak righteously. I am your righteous thoughts, your righteous words, your righteous actions, thought, spoken, done by you.8

Elsewhere the word daena was used to signify religion itself. Another example of personification in Mazdaism is the identification of five separate entities belonging to each human being—not just body, soul, and spirit, but also adhvenak and fravashi. Adhvenak, the heavenly prototype for each human being, was associated with semen and regeneration. The fravashi were more active, associated with the strength of heroes, the protection of the living in life (like guardian angels), and the collection of souls after death (rather like the Valkyries in Germanic mythology). These and other personifications prefigure the role of angels in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but also have obvious connections to the idea of forms in Platonism. Many scholars believe Plato was strongly influenced by Mazdaism.

Paralleling Ahura Mazda and Ahriman were two principles, sometimes translated as good and evil but more precisely as Truth and the Lie—asha and druj. These terms recur insistently in the Avestan texts, along with the concept of justice. They also show up in surviving inscriptions (in old Persian, the words became arta and drauga) and in Western classical texts describing Iran or events in Iran. In the centuries after Zoroaster, there were different currents and separate sects within the Mazdaean tradition, representing both innovations and survivals from the pre-Zoroastrian religions, as well as various compromises between them. The priestly class, the Magi (listed by Herodotus as a distinct tribe within the Medes) survived from before the time of Zoroaster. As all priests do, they interpreted and adapted doctrine and ritual to suit their own purposes, while remaining remarkably faithful to the central oral tradition.

The history of the relationship between Iranians and Jews is almost as old as the history of Iran itself. After the conquest of the northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians around 720 BC, large numbers of Jews were removed to Media, among other places, setting up long-lived Jewish communities, notably in Ecbatana/Hamadan. A second wave of deportations, this time to Babylonian territory, took place in the 590s and 580s BC under Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the temple of Solomon in 586. Babylon came under Persian control in the 530s, and thereafter many of the Jews eventually returned home. Some scholars believe that Judaism changed significantly under Mazdaean influence in the period of the Babylonian exile (the logical corollary, the possibility of Judaic influence on Mazdaism, seems to have received less attention). The trauma of the Babylonian exile was never forgotten, and it marked a watershed in Jewish history in several ways. One of the leaders of the return from Babylon, the scribe Ezra, is believed to have been the first to write down the books of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses). He did so in a new script different from the one used by the Jews before the exile. This is the Hebrew script used ever since. Post-exile Judaism laid greater emphasis on adherence to the Torah, and on monotheism.

For hundreds of years thereafter, first under the Persian Empire and later under Hellenistic rulers, diaspora Jewish and Mazdaean religious communities lived adjacent to one another in cities all over the Middle East.9 It seems plain that many religious ideas became common currency, and the Qumran scrolls (the Dead Sea scrolls) indicate some crossover of religious concepts from Mazdaism.10 It is a controversial subject, and the relative obscurity of Mazdaism and Zoroastrianism in Western scholarship until recent times has helped to conceal the influence of Mazdaism on Judaism; but as further work is done, the more significant it is likely to be found. Perhaps the strongest indicator is the positive attitude of the Jewish texts toward the Persians.

There are a number of contradictions between the later practice of Zoroastrianism, as it has come down to us in the written scriptures, and the apparent norms of the Mazdaean religion at this earliest stage. Many of the problems are difficult to resolve. It is a complex picture. But the concepts of heaven and hell, of free human choice between good and evil, of divine judgment, of angels, of a single creator-god—all appear to have been genuine early features of the religion, and all were hugely influential for religions that originated later. Mazdaism was the first religion—in this part of the world, at least—to move beyond cult and totemism to address moral and philosophical problems with its theology, emphasizing personal choice and responsibility. In that limited sense, Nietzsche was right—Zoroaster was the first creator of the moral world we live in. Also sprach Zarathustra.


Around 559 BC a Persian prince named Cyrus (modern Persian Kurosh), claiming descent from the royal house of Persia and from its progenitor Achaemenes, became king of Anshan upon the death of his father. Persia and Anshan, at that time, were still subject to the Median Empire, but Cyrus led a revolt against the Median king Astyages, and in 549 BC captured the Median capital, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan). Cyrus reversed the relationship between Media and Persia—he crowned himself king of Persia, making Persia the center of the empire and Media the junior partner. But he did not stop there. He went on to conquer Lydia, in Asia Minor, taking possession of the treasury of King Croesus, legendary for his wealth. He also conquered the remaining territories of Asia Minor, as well as Phoenicia, Judaea, and Babylonia. This created an enormous empire that stretched from the Greek cities on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea to the banks of the river Indus—in extent perhaps the greatest empire the world had seen up to that time.

Cyrus’s empire took on much of the culture of previous Elamite, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires, notably in its written script and monumental iconography. But without romanticizing Cyrus unduly, it seems that he aspired to rule an empire different from others that had preceded it in the region. Portentous inscriptions recording the military glory of kings and the supposed favor of their terrible war-gods were commonplace in the Middle East in the centuries preceding Cyrus’s accession. In the nineteenth century an eight-sided clay object (known since as the Taylor Prism, after the man who found it), measuring about 15 inches long by 5.5 inches in diameter, covered in cuneiform script, was discovered near Mosul. When the characters were eventually deciphered, it was found to record eight campaigns of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705 BC–681 BC). An excerpt reads:

           Sennacherib, the great king . . . king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters . . . guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the needy, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the flame who consumes those who do not submit, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt; the god Assur, the great mountain, has entrusted an unrivaled kinship to me . . . has made powerful my weapons . . . he has brought the black-headed people in submission at my feet; and mighty kings feared my warfare. . . .

                In the course of my campaign, Beth-Dagon, Joppa, Banaibarka, Asuru, cities of Sidka, who had not speedily bowed in submission at my feet, I besieged, I conquered, I carried off their spoils. . . . I approached Ekron and slew the governors and nobles who had rebelled, and hung their bodies on stakes around the city. . . .

                As for Hezekiah the Jew, who did not submit to my yoke: 46 of his strong, walled cities . . . by means of ramps and by bringing up siege-engines . . . I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. . . .11

The way the pharaohs of Egypt celebrated their rule and their victories was very similar to this, and although Hezekiah, the king of Jerusalem, appears on the Taylor Prism as a victim, some parts of the Bible describing the Israelites and their God smiting their enemies do not read very differently, either.

By contrast, another clay object, about 9 inches by 4 inches, also discovered in the nineteenth century and covered in cuneiform script, tells a rather different story. The Cyrus cylinder, now in the British Museum, was found where it had been deliberately placed—under the foundations of the city wall of Babylon. It has been described as a charter of human rights for the ancient world, which is an exaggeration and a misrepresentation. But the message of the cylinder, particularly when combined with what is known of Cyrus’s religious policy from the books of Ezra and Isaiah, is nonetheless remarkable. The kingly preamble from the cylinder is fairly conventional:



  • "Michael Axworthy's deft untangling of the country's history, from the advent of Zoroastrianism to the 1979 revolution, is a stunning achievement."—Observer
  • "The best available single-volume introduction to Iran's history."—New Statesman
  • "A beautifully distilled retelling of Iranian history that flashes with insight on every page."—Financial Times
  • "An engrossing, powerfully argued, and elegantly written history of a country which finds itself again at the center of international affairs."—Justin Marozzi, author of Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World

On Sale
May 24, 2016
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books

Michael Axworthy

About the Author

Michael Axworthy teaches at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter (UK). The author of The Sword of Persia and Revolutionary Iran, Axworthy publishes widely in the field of Iranian history.

Learn more about this author