We are all Zoroastrians: how Persian empires of the mind touched all humanity
Iran at the center of the Axial Age
Related: Iran through the ages: civilization's eternal crossroads, Pre-Persian Iran: from the invention of agriculture to the Aryan onslaught and One door closes, another opens: the Persian Empire’s end and the rise of the Persianate world.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, genetically, we are all Africans. Evolutionarily, our upstart species is undeniably young, emerging on the order of 200,000 years ago, before the intrepid ancestors of most of today’s humans trooped out of Africa some 65,000 years ago to radiate across the planet’s remaining continents. And yet, civilizationally, we are clearly vastly younger. If evolutionarily we are all African, as meme machines, I would argue that the vast majority of us are…Persian. In this project of pieces about our human origins, my mission is generally to square these past two decades of genomic discoveries with centuries and even millennia of surmises from archeology, historical linguistics, paleontology, literature and legend. But this piece is a rare exception to that formula, simply because I would be remiss in exploring who the Persians are and have been to the rest of humanity, if I limited myself to their genetic influence on the globe. This cycle includes three pieces on Iranian history and genetic origins. But today’s installment marks a detour into the uniquely universal impact ideas born in Persia have had on the last few millennia of human societies. Iranian concepts have clearly marked the religions that dominated the last few millennia of civilizations from Rome to Jerusalem to Mecca. But it goes further; the volcanic social movements divisive enough to rend our global civilization also have their roots in Persian concepts. A global messianic political ideology like communism, with its fixation on an ultimate and final utopia, finds its roots in Zoroastrian eschatology. In the five centuries between Nineveh’s fall and Rome’s rise, faith and devotion matured past rote rhythms of ancestral tribal memory; religion reoriented itself, beyond blind worship of god-kings and idols, towards an ethics-driven life. The sparks Zoroaster kindled would go on to burn eternally in minds across the breadth of Eurasia.
But a precondition for these cultural empires was the rise of the first political empire, that of the Persian Achaemenids. In 538 BC, Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, reversed Babylonian policies of deportation and exile, freeing the Jews to return to their homeland. The Hebrew Bible records this event and the efforts of priests like Ezra and nobles like Nehemiah to roll back Palestine’s culture to its pre-Babylonian Exile state, as the Jewish people returned from Mesopotamia, rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple. In the end, they failed; the Hebrews became a diasporic people, and Judaism a global religion that would transcend its origins as a narrow Levantine cult. An obscure set of tribes under a jealous God became a nation that would seed a worldwide religious revolution. By the time Cyrus issued his edict, generations of Hebrews had been born and raised in Babylon, and the Persian conquest would allow them to flourish even more. Men like Nehemiah, who rose to become the cupbearer of the 5th-century Persian king, Artaxerxes, saw their fortunes wax under the rule of the Achaemenids and attained wealth and power unimaginable as mere princes of Judah. But the Persians fostered not only the success of individual Jews, the shelter and indulgence of Iranian powers also played an instrumental role in the rise to prominence of the Jewish people in world history.
Of the great Jewish diaspora cultures of antiquity and the medieval world, Westerners rarely delve beyond the influential community of Alexandria, which produced the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that forms the original basis of the Old Testament, or the Sephardim of Spain, who gave us the polymath rabbi Moses Maimonides. But before 1000 AD, the world’s wealthiest and most intellectually productive Jews were Mesopotamian. Here, Babylonian Jews had prospered under Iranian rule, whether Achaemenid, Parthian or Sasanian. Under the Sasanians, in the 6th century AD, they compiled the Babylonian Talmud, a compendium of religious law and commentaries that has become the heart of Jewish practice, numbering some 22 volumes in English. This Jewish culture continued to be vigorous under both early Arab Caliphates, the Umayyads and then the Abbasids.
The Jewish relationship with Iranian rule, the source of their liberation, was fundamentally different from Greece’s traumatic engagement with invading Persians. The Iranians were the anvil against which the hammer of Greco-Roman civilization wrought the West. But for Jews and Muslims, the Persians were more than simply a measure of themselves and a source of existential adversity. Iran’s indigenous Zoroastrian religion powerfully shaped both the thought and practice of Jews and Muslims, from the Jewish understanding of divinity to the Islamic practice of faith.
Persia’s conquest of Babylon took the Jews from a peculiar, but tolerated, tribe to a favored subaltern nation in a world empire. The Persian influence on the Jews echoes into Christian theological beliefs, guiding how they viewed the devil and the afterlife. Centuries later, the Arab conquest of Persia triggered a series of events that would lead to the transformation of Islam under Iranian influence, transmuting it from the parochial sect of a closed ruling caste to a universal religion for all peoples. Persians helped give Islam form, from its most influential legal scholar, Abu Hanifa, to its most brilliant philosopher, Avicenna.
Between the Achaemenids in the 6th century BC and the Safavids in the 16th century AD, Persia went from wielding the scepter of temporal power to becoming what the late Persianist Michael Axworthy called an “empire of the mind.” Cyrus and his successors created the first multinational state to break beyond civilizational boundaries, encroaching on the borders of Greece and swallowing the northwestern fringe of India. This first Persian Empire was replicated in form by the Achaemenids’ Sasanian successors, as well as the two Arab Caliphates. And though the Abbasids were the last geopolitical resurrection of the Achaemenid domains, they would sow the seeds for a millennium of Iranian cultural hegemony. The Arabs brought a new religion, and with it a new language which, in the form of the Koran, became the literal word of God. Nevertheless within a few centuries of the Arab conquest, Persian resurged as the language of secular culture in the Muslim world, the medium of poetry and diplomacy for new Iranian kingdoms.
But the Iranian intermezzo was to be short-lived. After 1000 AD, the Turks conquered the Iranian world, from the rivers of Central Asia to the plateaus of eastern Anatolia. The native peoples of Iran had lost the scepter of power. And yet Persian remained the language of the court, relegating Turkic dialects to the military camps. Cyrus and Darius’ speech, once the words that moved whole armies, metamorphosed into a refined vehicle for persuasion and politesse. When Turkic and Afghan Muslims invaded India and set up their sultanates in the subcontinent, they introduced Persian as the language of elite discourse, inviting Iranians to administer and preach in their Hindu domains. The latter role is how Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandfather, Sayyid Ahmad Musavi Hindi, came to be born in northern India. Undergirding the Persianate world was a widespread network of Iranian communities that spread outward, speeding the deployment of their language and culture for purposes both utilitarian and aesthetic. The rise of Turkish and Indian nationalism in the 20th century has overwritten Persian’s five-century-long role as both lingua franca and cultural glue for the Islamic world’s most populous region, until as recently as 1800 AD. Today, few recall that the last millennium saw the most explosive growth of Iranian cultural domination, an empire of thought as extensive as the Achaemenids’ empire of the sword, a march of poets and thinkers as potent as one of soldiers and generals.
But the roots of this dominion reached back long before the rise of the Turks, deep into antiquity, before the Muslims, before the Romans, even before the Greeks. Cyrus the Great might have grandly proclaimed himself “King of the Four Corners of the World,” and his successors may have accrued harems hundreds-strong, with concubines from every province, but it was their cultural heirs that would produce the true legacy of Persia. Iranians enabled Judaism’s leap into a global religion and fashioned Islam into a universal one. Zoroastrian teachings left their indelible mark on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Muslims may address God in Arabic, but their faith is Persianate to its core. At the nexus of Europe, India and China, Iran has been at the forefront of facilitating a common Eurasian civilization for nearly three millennia, building empires of memes whose impact far outstrips that of genes, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.