The Medes and the Persians: from the 9th century BC

Of the two main Indo-european tribes moving south into Iran, it is at first the Medes who play the dominant role. With a capital at Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), they establish themselves as powerful neighbours of Assyria. In 612 they combine with Babylon to sack the Assyrian capital at Nineveh. Their spoils are northern Assyria and much of Anatolia, where the Halys river becomes the border between themselves and Lydia.

The Medes already control much of Iran including Fars, in the southwest. This is the heartland of the Parsa or Persians, whose king is a vassal of the Medes - and from whose name the region has until recently been known as Persia in the west.

Cyrus the Great: 559-530 BC

The balance between the Medes and the Persians rapidly changes after Cyrus II becomes king of the Persians in 559 BC. He rebels against the Medes in 553. Three years later he captures their king and their capital city, Ecbatana. He then presses west to secure and expand his new empire. He seizes the Lydian capital, Sardis, in 546, together with Croesus, its famously rich king. His armies then continue west to dominate the Greek cities of Ionia, extending his power to the shores of the Aegean.

Babylon and Mesopotamia fall to him next, in 539. The basis of the first Persian empire (the Achaemenid empire) has been set in place within a mere eleven years of Cyrus defeating the Medes. He has earned his title 'the Great'.

Cyrus is a politician as well as a conqueror. He presents himself as liberator of Babylon, releasing the people from the yoke of an unpopular king, and he is received as such. He makes a point of respecting the Babylonian religion. He allows the Jews to return from their Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem, and encourages the rebuilding of their Temple.

There is in these actions a genuine basis for his reputation. But Cyrus also uses propaganda more successively than any previous ruler, to spread and reinforce his fame. People succumb to this conqueror partly because they believe it in their interest to do so.

Cyrus dies in 530, campaigning against nomadic tribesmen in the northeast, near the Oxus and Jaxartes rivers. He is buried in the place which he has made his capital, Pasagardae.

His tomb, massive but superbly simple, stands today as an impressive monument to the emperor - though now in parched surroundings where once everything was well watered, in an early version of a Persian garden. Its interior, in which the body lies in a gold sarcophagus on a gold couch, is broken into and stripped two centuries after his death during the campaign of Alexander the great.

The brief reign of Cyrus's son, Cambyses II, includes another important extension of the empire. He defeats the Egyptians in battle, at Pelusium in 525, and enters their capital city at Memphis. Egypt becomes the province of a Persian satrap.

In Cambyses' absence the throne in Persia is seized by a rebel. On the way home to challenge him, Cambyses dies. A cousin of his leads the attack, kills the impostor and takes the throne. He is Darius.

Darius: 522-486 BC

During the long rule of Darius I, the conquests of Cyrus and Cambyses are consolidated and the Achaemenid empire reaches its greatest extent - from Macedonia in the west to northern India in the east. Never before has such a large area, including so many people of different cultures and traditions, been controlled under a single system.

The genius of Darius lies in creating a workable structure for the empire. This depends on such details as a sustainable system of Taxation; a Communication network based on good roads and efficient message-carrying; a single language, Aramaic, used in government documents throughout the empire; and firm control in the Armed forces.

The Persian empire: c.500 BC

The Persian system of taxation is tailored to each satrapy (the area ruled by a satrap, or provincial governor). At differing times there are between 20 and 30 satrapies in the empire, and each is assessed according to its supposed productivity. It is the responsibility of the satrap to collect the due amount and to send it to the emperor, after deducting his expenses. (The expenses, and the power of deciding precisely how and from whom to raise the money in the province, offer maximum opportunity for rich pickings.)

The quantities demanded from the various provinces give a vivid picture of their economic potential.

Babylon is assessed for the highest amount, and for a startling mixture of commodities - 1000 silver talents, four months' supply of food for the army, and 500 eunuchs. India, clearly, is already fabled for its gold; the province is to supply gold dust equal in value to the very large amount of 4680 silver talents. Egypt is known for the wealth of its crops; it is to be the granary of this empire (as later of Rome's) and is required to provide 120,000 measures of grain in addition to 700 talents of silver.

This is exclusively a tax levied on subject peoples. Persians and Medes pay no tax. But they are liable at any time to serve in the army.

The Persian army: c.500 BC

The regular army of the Persian empire contains an elite corps involving a brilliant element of propaganda. These crack troops are known as the Immortals, for the simple and inspired reason that there are always 10,000 of them (in theory as soon as one dies, another soldier is ready to take his place). At the heart of this 10,000 are an even more special thousand - the royal bodyguard.

The army is precisely decimal. Divisions of 10,000 are divided into battalions of 1000, companies of 100 and squads of 10. The bow is the chief Persian weapon, and the armies' tactics are based on rapid movement and light armour.

In a crisis the Persian standing army is reinforced by a levy on the subject people of the vast empire. The recruits, of widely different origins, fight according to their own customs and with their own weapons, but under Persian officers. Because the Persian empire is on the whole benevolent, the system works well in most circumstances.

But the Persian armies will prove no match for something new in history - the world's first citizen armies, put into the field by the Greek city states.

Imperial communication: 522-486 BC

Darius extends the network of roads across the Persian empire, to enable both troops and information to move with startling speed. At the centre of the system is the royal road from Susa to Sardis, a distance of some 2000 miles (3200 km). At intervals of a day's ride there are posting stations, where new men and fresh horses will be available at any moment to carry a document on through the next day's journey. The Greek historian Herodotus marvels at these Persian couriers.

By this method a message can travel the full distance of the road in ten days, at a speed of about 200 miles a day. A similar road goes down through Syria to the Mediterranean coast and Egypt. Another goes east to India.

Many different tongues are spoken in the Persian empire, from Egypt to India. But all the official messages travelling on the imperial roads are in one language, Aramaic. This Semitic tongue, deriving from a tribe in northern Syria, first spreads through Assyria. Then Babylonian merchants carry it further afield until, by the 6th century, it is in general use as a lingua franca throughout Mesopotamia.

As a language for the Persian civil service, Aramaic also has a practical advantage. It uses the Phoenician alphabet, a language to which it is related. So its letters can be written on Papyrus (easily portable) instead of needing to be pressed with a Cuneiform stylus into wet clay.

The architecture of empire: 522-486 BC

As well as setting in place the administrative structure of the empire (and adopting Zoroastrianism as the state religion), Darius proves himself the greatest builder of the Achaemenid dynasty. In 521 he moves his capital to Susa, building there an audience hall and a palace. An inscription found at Susa reveals his pride in his far-flung empire of craftsmen.

In 518 he moves them all - stone cutters, masons, carpenters, sculptors - some 250 miles (400 km) to the southeast, to start work on an even grander creation. It will become known to history by its Greek name, Persepolis, the city of the Persians.

Persian carpets: 6th century BC

Persian emperors of the 6th century BC are among the first to make a display of lavish floor coverings. Carpets becomes one of the characteristic art forms of people living on the high plateau of west Asia, from Turkey through Iran, where winters can be extremely cold.

They are a particularly important form of wealth and comfort for the nomadic tribes which live in these regions and in the steppes to the north. One of the earliest true carpets to survive (woven with a knotted pile, and Persian in origin) belongs to a tribal ruler in about 500 BC. It is discovered in his frozen tomb at Pazyryk.

Rivalries with Greece

Darius and the Greeks: 514-486 BC

Amid all the successes of Darius's reign, his only real failure is at the hands of the Greeks.

It is one of profound significance for Persia's future. Since about 545 Greek-speaking Ionia (modern southwest Turkey) has been part of the Persian empire. To protect this western region against nomads raiding from the north, Darius attempts in 514 to extend his power in this direction. He crosses the Bosphorus and pushes northwest. By the time he withdraws, Thrace and Macedonia are within the empire. Greece itself is now clearly under increasing threat from Persian intentions.

In 499 BC the cities of Ionia rebel against their Persian satrap. They are supported to a limited extent by Athens. The rebellion continues fitfully until finally put down in 493. But this region is now established as an area of friction between Persia and Greece. Geographically Ionia seems a natural extension of Persia's great land empire. But culturally the Ionians are linked to all the other Greek-speaking peoples round the Aegean Sea.

Athens becomes the main target of the Persian emperor's hostility - partly because of her support for the Ionian rebels, but also because the tyrant Hippias, expelled from Athens, is at the Persian court offering treacherous encouragement. In 490 Darius launches his attack.

The astonishing Greek victory at Marathon causes the Persians to withdraw. They have every intention of returning. But Darius dies in 486, and his death delays the renewed invasion of Greece. It is eventually launched in 480 by Darius's son and successor, Xerxes I. It has an early success (the capture and destruction of the city of Athens) but soon ends like its predecessor in total disaster, after defeat at Salamis and Plataea.

The defiance of the emperor by the small independent Greek states severely damages Persia's aura of invincibility - a significant loss in the difficult matter of controlling any far-flung empire.

Lesser emperors: 486-334 BC

The reign of Xerxes marks a change in the ruling house of Persia, following a pattern familiar in the story of many empires. The hard men who create empires tend to be followed by descendants growing up in isolated splendour, pampered by palace eunuchs and surrounded by intrigue and corruption.

Xerxes is murdered in 465 by a palace official, and two of his successors in the following century suffer the same fate. Meanwhile other emperors are weakened by a succession of rebellions - usually by ambitious provincial satraps, but on one occasion by the emperor's younger brother.

Cyrus and Xenophon: 401 BC

The attempt by Cyrus the Younger to seize the Persian throne (from his elder brother Artaxerxes II) is famous, beyond its importance, because it is the subject of the world's first book of eyewitness history.

In 401 Cyrus gathers at Sardis (in western Turkey) an army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries. Among them is Xenophon. Cyrus marches east with his army. Only when he reaches Mesopotamia does he reveal to the Greeks that his treacherous purpose is to topple his brother. They meet the imperial Persian army at Cunaxa, and in the battle Cyrus is slain. The defeated Greeks are a thousand and more miles from home. Xenophon, in his Anabasis, tells the story of their five-month trek to safety.

The main effect of the escape of Xenophon and his army, from a distant and supposedly powerful Persian province, is on the Greeks rather than the Persians. The gossip now in the streets of Greece, full of exciting anecdote and often based on direct personal experience, is that the great empire to the east is soft-centred.

The smouldering Greek resentment of Persia, the bully of the neighbourhood, is eventually carried forward into decisive action by the Macedonians - themselves rough provincials in the eyes of civilized Greece. In 334 Alexander the Great marches east from Macedonia and crosses the Hellespont, entering the empire now ruled by Darius III.

The destruction of the Persian empire: 333 - 330 BC

Within a mere eighteen months Alexander has cleared the Persians out of Anatolia, which they have held for two centuries. The conqueror now moves south along the coast through present-day Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The ports here are the home bases of the Persian fleet in the Mediterranean. By occupying them he intends to cripple the fleet and deprive it of contact with the cities of the empire, including Persepolis. Most of the Phoenician towns open their gates to him. The exception is the greatest of them all, Tyre, which he besieges for seven months (see the Siege of Tyre).

By the autumn of 332 Alexander is in Egypt. The Persian governor rapidly surrenders.

Alexander spends the winter in Egypt. His actions there are the first indication of how he will set about keeping control of distant conquests, places with their own cultural traditions. One method is to establish outposts of Greek culture. In Egypt he founds the greatest of the cities known by his name - Alexandria.

Another method, equally important, is to present himself in the guise of a local ruler. To this end he carries out a sacrifice to Apis, a sacred bull at Memphis, where the priests crown him pharaoh. And he makes a long pilgrimage to a famous oracle of the sun god Amon, or Amen-re, at Siwa. The priest duly recognizes Alexander as the son of the god.

In the spring of 331 Alexander is ready to move northeast into Mesopotamia, where he meets and defeats the Persian emperor Darius in the decisive battle of Gaugamela. His way is now open to the great Persian capital city of Persepolis.

In a symbolic gesture, ending conclusively the long wars between Greeks and Persians, he burns the palace of Xerxes in 330 (legend maintains that he is prompted to this act of vandalism by his Athenian mistress, Thaïs, after a drunken party). To make plain who now rules the Persian empire, Alexander adopts the ceremonial dress and court rituals of the emperor.

The legacy of Alexander: from 323 BC

Alexander dies in Babylon in 323. He has no heir, so after his death his generals set about carving up the new Hellenistic empire (see the Hellenistic Age).

After prolonged warfare two of them emerge with sizable portions. Ptolemy establishes himself in Egypt. And Seleucus wins control of a vast area - Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Persia and the eastern part of the empire, including at first even the territories in India.

The region acquired by Seleucus proves impossible for his descendants to hold, even with the help of new Greek cities. These are established in strategic places and are populated with soldiers and administrators imported from Greece and Asia Minor.

As early as 305, within the lifetime of Seleucus, the Indian conquests of Alexander the great have to be abandoned. Within the next half century much of Anatolia asserts its independence (of many small new states Pergamum is the most significant), soon to be followed by Parthia and Bactria to the northeast. But the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia are at first secure.

New routes to the west: from 300 BC

The presence of Greeks in Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean encourages a new trade route. To ease the transport of goods to Greece and beyond, Seleucus founds in 300 BC a city at the northeast tip of the Mediterranean. He calls it Antioch, in honour of his own father, Antiochus. Its port, at the mouth of the river, is named after himself - Seleucia.

Here goods are put on board ship after arriving in caravans from Mesopotamia. The journey has begun in another new city, also called Seleucia, founded in 312 BC by Seleucus as the capital of his empire. It is perfectly placed for trade, at the point where a canal from the Euphrates links with the Tigris.

Doura-Europus a frontier town: from the 3rd century BC

The first major stopping point for the caravans on the route from Mesopotamia to Syria is the old Babylonian town of Doura, on the west bank of the Euphrates. Rebuilt by Seleucus in about 300 BC, it is given the new name of Europus.

This settlement later becomes of great importance as a frontier post, when the Euphrates is the boundary between successive empires.

Doura-Europus becomes a Persian frontier town when the Parthians take it from the Seleucid greeks in about 100 BC. It is subsequently a Roman frontier town, being annexed for Rome in AD 165. It is abandoned after being overrun by the Sassanians soon after 256.

Buried in the sand of the desert and lost to history, Doura-Europus comes to light again after a British officer accidentally discovers wall paintings there in 1921. Excavation has revealed an archaeological site of extraordinary interest, providing evidence of the wide diversity of Middle Eastern themes and religions at this meeting place between east and west.

At this international crossroads there are remains of buildings devoted to the worship of the Greek Zeus, the Egyptian Adonis, the Persian Mithras, the Jewish Yahweh and the Palestinian Jesus.

The Mithraeum, the synagogue and the church are all extensively decorated with murals. The synagogue is particularly interesting, in that later Jewish tradition tends to accept the biblical ban on graven images. But here, in the 3rd century AD, there are detailed narrative scenes showing the crossing of the Red Sea, Elijah working miracles, and even the Ark of the Covenant being dragged along on its carriage by two oxen with gilded horns.

The Christian building is significant not only for its murals (more damaged than those of the synagogue) but for its very existence. It is a baptistery, consisting of a long rectangular room with a painted wooden roof and images connected with baptism on the walls.

This is in no sense a secret place, unlike the Christian Catacombs in Rome with their very similar murals. It is usually the practice, until the time of Constantine, for Christians to worship discreetly in private houses. But certainly in Doura-Europus, by the mid-3rd century, there is a building devoted specifically to the Christian cult.

Palmyra: from 300 BC

The other great staging post on the route to Antioch is also an important site, and today a much more visible one. It is Palmyra, famous as one of the great ruined classical cities.

From Doura-Europus, on the Euphrates, the caravans strike west through the desert to the Mediterranean coast. Palmyra is an oasis half way across this difficult terrain. Its wealth derives from its position on the east-west axis from Persia to the coast, in addition to being on the older routes up from Mesopotamia. In the 1st century BC, when Palmyra is on the verge of its greatest prosperity, a rich new supply of goods begins to arrive from the east along the Silk road. But by now neither Persia nor Mesopotamia are Greek.

The dwindling Greek presence: 3rd-1st century BC

From the middle of the 3rd century BC the Seleucid empire is under constant pressure from Ptolemaic egypt in the south, from the increasing might of Parthia to the east and from Rome, a new power in this region, to the west. It is gradually reduced until it comprises just Syria.

Eventually Rome and Parthia squeeze the Seleucids to extinction. Their dynasty officially lasts until the Romans annexe Syria in 64 BC. The Euphrates then becomes the dividing line between the Mediterranean Empire of rome and the Persian empire of the Parthians. The frontier town of Doura-Europus, on the Euphrates, bears witness to the rich blend of cultural influences in this historic region.

Parthians and Byzantines

The Parthians: 3rd century BC - 3rd century AD

The origins of the Parthian dynasty lie with a tribe of nomads, the Parni, in the steppes near the Caspian. After gradually infiltrating to the south, they overthrow the Seleucids and take power as a royal house in Parthia in about 247 BC. The founder of their line is Arsaces I, and the dynasty is sometimes known as Arsacid.

The Parthians never lose touch with their origins as horsemen of the steppes, and their brilliance in fighting from the saddle is a large part of their fame. It brings them a great victory over the Romans at Carrhae in 53 BC. The 'Parthian shot', in which a horseman fires an arrow over the rump of the horse as he gallops away, becomes a favourite image of the ancient world.

An agreed boundary with the Parthians is one of the achievements of the peaceful foreign policy of the emperor Augustus. He even recovers for Rome the imperial standards captured by the Parthians at Carrhae, the loss of which has been a cause of deep shame. Negotiations result in the Parthians recognizing Roman sovereignty over Armenia, while Rome agrees not to challenge Parthian rule in Mesopotamia east of the Euphrates.

These friendly arrangements do not prevent Rome from meddling in the affairs of the Parthian royal dynasty by underhand means, in the extraordinary affair of an Italian slave girl, Musa.

Pressure from the east: 1st century BC - 1st century AD

While engaged in the evenly matched tussle with Rome in the west, the Parthians are subject to much more relentless pressure from the east. Just as the Parthians themselves moved down from the steppes into Persia, nomadic tribes from north of the Himalayas are now pressing on the eastern part of the empire. By the 1st century BC the Yueqi are settled in Bactria.

This pressure from the east, combined with the lush appeal of Mesopotamia, has the effect of transferring the centre of Parthian rule westwards. By the 1st century BC they are developing Ctesiphon as their capital, on the opposite bank of the Tigris from the Greek city of Seleucia.

Decline of Parthia: 2nd - 3rd century AD

On several occasions during the 2nd century the Romans invade Parthia, sometimes even reaching Ctesiphon and beyond. They are never able to hold for long any territory which they gain beyond the Euphrates, but their incursions weaken the Parthian royal dynasty.

In keeping with their nomadic origins, the Parthians rule in a feudal fashion - as leaders of a loose hierarchy of powerful local dynasties. One such dynasty, that of the Sassanians, brings the Parthian empire to an end. Repeating a pattern eight centuries old (when Cyrus overthrew the Medes), the rebellious feudal vassal comes from the most ancient land of Persia, the kingdom of Fars, known at this time by the Greek name of Persis.

The Sassanians: 3rd - 7th century AD

The founder of the Sassanian dynasty, Ardashir, has strong links with the ancient Persian religion. His father is in charge of a temple to Zoroaster in the region of the ruined Persepolis before he kills the local ruler and takes his place. Ardashir inherits this petty kingdom and enlarges it - by defeating and killing local princes - until he is in a position to be crowned king of Fars in about 208.

A continuous process of slow expansion, at the expense of the Parthians, brings him to Ctesiphon. He enters the Parthian capital in triumph in about 224 and is crowned 'king of kings'. The new king is proud of one particular ancestor, Sassan; his dynasty becomes known as Sassanian.

Near Persepolis, at Naqsh-e-Rustam, Ardashir commissions a great relief sculpted high in the rock face. It depicts him on horseback, with a dead Parthian beneath his horse's hooves, while he receives the royal crown from Ahura mazda.

With the restoration of the first authentically Persian dynasty since the Achaemenids, the cult of Ahura mazda becomes again the official state religion. There is now a ritual hierarchy throughout the empire, with chief priests for each major district and a supreme priest wielding overall authority.

In the Sassanian period the main features of Zoroastrian ritual become established. The most important duty of a priest is to maintain the sacred flame of Ahura mazda. Elaborate ceremonies are carried out to ensure its purity; the priest's mouth is even covered to avoid pollution from his breath. On important holy days, such as Nauruz (the Persian new year), the fire is displayed on a rock or high place to each community.

The need for purity also lies behind the Zoroastrian treatment of the dead. Corpses are exposed on mountain tops, to vultures or wild dogs, until the bones are clean and dry for burial. Only in this way can earth, water or fire be preserved from pollution by dead human flesh.

In the following centuries the Sassanian empire is at its greatest extent in two periods: under Ardashir's son Shapur, when Antioch is captured and the Roman emperor Persepolis taken prisoner (in 260); and in the time of Khosrau I, who raids into Byzantine Syria, again takes Antioch (in 540) and carries off its famous craftsmen to work on his palace at Ctesiphon (famous for its spectacular Spring Carpet). In both reigns the empire includes territories across the Persian Gulf, in Arabia.

But though there may be brief triumphs, as in the double capture of Antioch or similar Roman successes at Ctesiphon, the overall effect of this long contest between Persia and Rome (or Byzantium) is debilitating to both.

Byzantium and Persia: 6th - 7th century AD

The final and most destructive chapter in the rivalry between the Byzantine empire and Persia begins in an improbable way. In591 both emperors find themselves fighting on the same side.

Khosrau II has fled from Persia after the murder of his father. He enlists the support of the Byzantine emperor, Maurice, who marches east to restore Khosrau to his inheritance - in return for some useful territorial concessions in Armenia and Mesopotamia. The result is peace between the two sides until 602, when Maurice is murdered in a Byzantine upheaval. Khosrau, seeing his own opportunity, moves to avenge his friend's death. In the next few years the Persians devastate the Byzantine cities of the Middle East.

The first Christian city to fall to Khosrau's armies is Antioch, in 611. Damascus follows in 613. In the spring of 614 a Persian army enters Palestine and moves through the countryside, burning churches. Only the church built by St helena in Bethlehem is spared; the Persians recognize themselves in the costumes of the Magi, seen bringing their gifts to the infant Jesus in a mosaic above the entrance.

The army reaches Jerusalem in April. The Patriarch urges the inhabitants to surrender, so as to avoid bloodshed, but they resist for a month. When the city falls, it is said that some 60,000 Christians are massacred and another 35,000 sold into slavery.

From the point of view of the Christian hierarchy, far away in Constantinople, the Persians commit one even greater affront. After sacking Jerusalem, they carry off to Ctesiphon the most holy relic of Christendom, the True cross of Christ.

Its restoration to Jerusalem becomes an urgent matter of state.

Recovering the relic: AD 622-629

Under the emperor Heraclius, Byzantium has been quietly regaining its strength. In622 Heraclius feels ready to take the field against the Persians. His successes are as rapid and spectacular as the reverses of the previous decade. By 624 he has swept through Asia Minor and Armenia to reach Azerbaijan, to the north of Persia between the Black Sea and the Caspian.

Here, as if avenging the violation of the True Cross, he destroys one of the most sacred fire temples of Zoroastrianism.

In the next few years the swings of fortune become even more extreme. In 626 a Persian army reaches the Bosphorus, but fails to cross the water to support a siege of Constantinople's massive walls by a barbarian horde of Slavs and Avars. In 627 a Byzantine army under Heraclius penetrates Mesopotamia far enough to defeat the Persians at Nineveh and destroy Khosrau's palace at Ctesiphon.

From a position of strength Heraclius negotiates the return of the True Cross. He takes it back to be displayed in Constantinople, and then personally returns it, in 629, to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. But the relic proves powerless against the next threat to Jerusalem in 638.


The Arab conquests: 7th century AD

One of the most dramatic and sudden movements of any people in history is the expansion, by conquest, of the Arabs in the 7th century (only the example of the Mongols in the 13th century can match it). The desert tribesmen of Arabia form the bulk of the Muslim armies. Their natural ferocity and love of warfare, together with the sense of moral rectitude provided by their new religion, form an irresistible combination.

When Muhammad dies in 632, the western half of Arabia is Muslim. Two years later the entire peninsula has been brought to the faith, and the Arab nomads are Muslim in the desert to the east of Palestine and Syria.

The great Christian cities of Syria and Palestine fall to the Arabs in rapid succession from635. Damascus, in that year, is the first to be captured. Antioch follows in 636. And 638 brings the greatest prize of all, in Muslim terms, when Jerusalem is taken after a year's siege.

It is a moment of profound significance for the young religion, for Islam sees itself as the successor of Judaism and Christianity. The city of the people of Moses, in which Jesus also preaches and dies, is a holy place for Muslims too. Moses and Jesus are Muhammad's predecessors as prophets. A link with Muhammad himself will also soon emerge in Jerusalem.

Muslim Persia: AD 637-751

Persia falls to the Arabs as a consequence of the battle of Kadisiya, close to the Euphrates, in 637. After their victory the Arabs sack the city of Ctesiphon (carefully sharing out the famous Spring Carpet). The last Sassanian emperor, Yazdegerd III, is five at the time. He and his court escape to the east, but he is eventually assassinated, in 651, at Merv. His name remains, even today, in use in the chronology of the Parsees. They number their years from the start of his reign in 632.

Meanwhile the Arabs win another victory over Persian forces at Nahavand in 641. They capture Isfahan in 642 and Herat in 643. Persia becomes, for a century, part of the Umayyad caliphate.

The final push eastwards for Islam, in the central Asian plateau, is in more difficult terrain and is more protracted. Throughout the second half of the 7th century there is fighting in and around the Hindu Kush, but by the early years of the 8th century the Arabs control the full swathe of territory from the Arabian Sea in the south (they enter Sind and move into India as far north as Multan by 712), up through Kandahar and Balkh (either side of the Hindu Kush) to Bukhara and Samarkand in the north, beyond the Amu Darya.

At this northern extreme they are neighbours of the T'ang Chinese. The eventual clash between these two powers, an encounter won by the Arabs, comes in 751 at the Talas river.

The Abbasid caliphate: from AD 750

Persia is the region in which resistance comes to a head against the caliphate of the Umayyads in damascus. The uprising is partly a simple struggle between Arab factions, each of impeccable pedigree in relation to the pioneers of Islam. A revolt in Persia in 747 is headed by descendants of al-Abbas, an uncle of the prophet Muhammad. Their new caliphate, established in 750, will be known as Abbasid.

The involvement of Persia is also significant. The Umayyad caliphate in Damascus derives from the early days of Islam when all Muslims are Arabs. But many Muslims in the east are now Persian, and Persian sophistication is beginning to divert Muslim culture from its simple Arab origins.

Abbasid forces reach and capture Damascus in 750. Abul Abbas is proclaimed the first caliph of a new line. Male members of the Umayyad family are hunted down and killed (though one survives to establish a new Umayyad dynasty in spain).

The centre of gravity of the Muslim world now moves east, from Syria to Mesopotamia. In 762 a new capital city, Baghdad, is founded on the Tigris. It is about twenty miles upstream from Ctesiphon, one of the leading cities of the preceding Persian dynasty, the Sassanians.

Baghdad: 8th century AD

In their new city of Baghdad the Abbasid caliphs adopt the administrative system of the long-established Persian empire. Persian Muslims are as much involved in the life of this thriving place as Arab Muslims. Here Islam outgrows its Arab roots and becomes an international religion. Here the Arabic and early Persian languages coalesce to become, from the 10th century, what is now known as Persian - combining words from both sources and using the Arabic script. Here Mesopotamia briefly recovers its ancient status at the centre of one of the world's largest empires.

At no time is this more evident than in the reign of the best-known of the Abbasid caliphs, Harun al-Rashid.

The luxury and delight of Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad, in the late 8th century, has been impressed on the western mind by one of the most famous works of Arabic literature - the thousand and one nights. Some of the stories are of a later date, but there are details in them which certainly relate to this period when for the first time a Muslim court has the leisure and prosperity to indulge in traditional oriental splendour.

The caliphate is now at its widest extent, with reasonable calm on most borders. The international fame of Harun himself can be judged by the emphasis of Charlemagne's biographers on the mutual esteem of these two contemporary potentates, who send each other rich gifts.

Zoroastrians and Parsees: from the 7th century AD

For three centuries after the Muslim conquest of persia, Zoroastrianism remains of importance in the region. But gradually the majority of Persians convert to the religion of the new ruling caste, whether for reasons of conviction or convenience. A minority of Zoroastrians seek greater liberty elsewhere. They move to India, where they establish themselves in Gujarat as the Parsees (the Persian word for 'Persians').

A few Zoroastrians remain in Iran, to be found even today in the remote desert cities of Yazd and Kerman. They have been known to Muslims until recently as gabar, probably a version of the Arabic kafir ('infidel').

An increasingly nominal caliphate: from the 9th century AD

From the 9th century the rule of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad is often, in many parts of the Muslim world, more nominal than real. In Palestine and Syria there are uprisings from supporters of the previous Umayyad dynasty, whose base was Damascus. In the rich province of Egypt, governors are increasingly unruly (as many as twenty-four are appointed and then dismissed during the 23-year caliphate of Harun al-Rashid).

In the further extremes of the empire independence from the Abbasids is even more marked. Spain is ruled by Umayyads. North africa has Berber dynasties from 790. And eastern Persia, by about 870, is in the hands of Persians hostile to Baghdad.

The weakness of the caliphs tempts them into a measure which makes the problem worse. They acquire slaves from the nomadic Turks of central Asia and use them in their armies. The slaves, who become known as Mamelukes (from the Arabic mamluk, 'owned'), are excellent fighters. They distinguish themselves in the service of the caliphate and are often given positions of military responsibility. Well placed to advance their own interests, they frequently take the opportunity.

One of the first Mamelukes to seize power is Ahmad ibn Tulun. In the early 870s he takes control of Egypt. By 877 he has conquered the Mediterranean coast through Palestine and up into Syria.

This half of the Fertile Crescent has been ruled from Egypt at many periods of history. Separated from Mesopotamia by a broad swathe of desert, it is easier to control from Cairo than from Baghdad.

Palestine and Syria remain under Egyptian dominance for most of the next two centuries. The Tulunid dynasty, founded by Ahmad ibn Tulun in the 870s, rules the region until 905. The Ikhshidids, another Turkish dynasty, control it from 935 to 969, when they in their turn are replaced by the Fatimids - masters of an even broader swathe of Mediterranean coastline.

Persian independence from Baghdad: 9th century AD

From about 866 the whole of eastern Persia, to Kabul in the north and Sind in the south, is gradually overrun by a Persian from a family of metal-workers; he is known as al-Saffar ('the coppersmith'), giving his short-lived dynasty the name of Saffarids. In 876 he is strong enough to march on Baghdad, though he is prevented from reaching it by the army of the caliph.

In 900 the Saffarids are defeated by another Persian dynasty, the Samanids. The new rulers are aristocrats, descended from a nobleman by the name of Saman Khudat. They preside over the first conscious revival of Persian culture since the Arab conquest.

The Samanids make their capital at Bukhara, bringing this city its first period of splendour. Their court becomes famous for its celebration of Persian (as opposed to Arab) history and traditions. The patronage of Saminid sultans launches the classic period of Persian literature, soon to find its highest national expression in the Shah-nama of Firdausi.

But the Samanids make the same mistake as the caliphs in Baghdad. They entrust provincial power to Turkish governors. In 999 the ruling family is driven from Bukhara by Turks, and in 1005 the last in the Samanid line is assassinated. Ironically the Shah-nama is not complete until 1010. Firdausi presents it not to a Samanid Persian but to Mahmud the Turk, ruler of Ghazni.

Turks and Mongols

Mahmud of Ghazni: AD 999-1030

Mahmud's rule coincides with the crumbling of the Samanid dynasty in Persia. From999, when the Samanid emperor loses his capital city (Bukhara), Mahmud treats Ghazni as his own kingdom. Over the next thirty years he greatly extends his territory, until it reaches to Isfahan in the west.

It also stretches eastwards into India, where Mahmud regularly campaigns from 1000 onwards. His incursions begin the process by which northern India falls to a succession of Muslim invaders. But his own empire in Afghanistan and eastern Iran succumbs soon after his death to a new wave of Turkish tribesmen pressing in from the north. The newcomers in this case are the Seljuks.

The rise of the Seljuks: 10th - 11th century AD

Seljuk is the chieftain of a group of Turkish tribes who migrate, in the late 10th century, from the steppes to the northern borders of the Persian empire - in the region around the Syr-Darya river. They embrace Islam, and are expected to play their part in the frontier defences of the Muslim world. But in the recurrent pattern of Barbarians in the suburbs of civilization, they have their own ideas. They fancy a more central position.

The obvious stepping stone towards greater power is the newly formed Turkish realm, founded by Mahmud and centred on Ghazni. Mahmud, an experienced conqueror, dies in 1030. His son, Mas'ud, becomes the focus of Seljuk attention.

Mas'ud is campaigning in the eastern part of his empire, in India, when Togrul Beg, a grandson of Seljuk, strikes in the west. Mas'ud hurries home to confront this threat. He meets the Seljuk army in 1040 at Dandandqan, to the northeast of Mashhad, and is defeated.

The Seljuks establish their base in this border region between modern Iran and Afghanistan, while Togrul Beg looks further west for even greater prizes. Persia is in a state of anarchy, ruled by many petty princes (the majority of them Shi'as). The authority of the Sunni Caliph in baghdad is no more than nominal.

Togrul Beg gradually fights his way westwards through Persia. By 1055 he is in a position to enter Baghdad itself. He does so without violence, being welcomed by the caliph as a liberator from the Shi'as. The caliph gives him the title of sultan and an ambitious task - to overwhelm the Fatimids, the Shi'ite dynasty controlling the caliph's Egyptian territories.

This is beyond the powers of Togrul Beg and his still somewhat unruly Turkish tribesmen. But for the next two generations the Seljuk dynasty retains control in Baghdad and governs a Persian empire restored to extensive boundaries.

Togrul Beg is succeeded by his nephew and then by his great-nephew, Alp Arslan and Malik Shah. By the time of Malik Shah's death in 1092, the empire stretches from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. Most significant of all, Turkish tribes loosely under Seljuk control have spread through Anatolia.

After Malik Shah's death the Seljuk inheritance is shared between so many family members that the empire loses all cohesion. Only in Anatolia does the Turkish presence have a lasting effect - as a result of the campaign conducted from 1064 to 1071 by Malik Shah's father, Alp Arslan. In Persia the collapse into chaos is hastened by an alarming new sect, the Assassins.

Assassins: 11th - 13th century

It is not known why their contemporaries give the name Assassins to the Nizari Ismailis who become promiment in the 11th century. All that is certain is that the political activities of the Nizari amply justify the subsequent use of 'assassin' in its modern meaning. (The old theory that the word comes from hashish, which the Assassins supposedly use to get in the mood for murder, derives from Marco Polo and other western writers but seems to have little basis.)

The Assassins first show their hand when they begin to seize strongholds in Persia in the late 11th century, particularly the almost impregnable fortress of Alamut. In the 12th century they also acquire bases in Syria.

The Assassins train terrorists and employ a network of secret agents in the camps and cities of their enemies. These enemies are legion. Foremost among them are the Seljuk turks and the Caliphs in baghdad (the Assassins murder two caliphs). But the terrorists also act against their fellow Ismailis, the Fatimids in Cairo. They assassinate at least one prominent crusader. Most eccentrically of all, they make two attempts on the life of Saladin.

No way is found to eliminate this troublesome sect until the Assassins are finally crushed between two great rival powers in the 12th century - the Mameluke sultans of Egypt and the Mongols, led by Hulagu.

Mongols in Persia and Mesopotamia: from AD 1256

Hulagu crosses the Amu Darya river in January 1256, beginning the Mongol campaign against Islamic Persia. The region has been terrorized in recent years by the Assassins, but this extremist Ismaili sect meets its match in the Mongols. One by one Hulagu takes the Assassin fortresses, including the supposedly impregnable Alamut.

At the end of 1257 Hulagu presses further to the west, into even richer lands. He and his horde move into Mesopotamia - the territory of the Caliph, and as such the ostensible centre of the Islamic world.

The Caliph in Baghdad, al-Musta'sim, risks the impossible. In January 1258 he sends an army against the approaching Mongols. The Muslim army is routed by Hulagu, who orders the Caliph to appear before him and to destroy the walls of the city. When the Caliph declines, Hulagu besieges and sacks Baghdad.

It is said that 800,000 of the inhabitants are killed, including the Caliph - who is executed by being kicked to death.

In 1259 Hulagu and the Mongols take Aleppo and Damascus. The coastal plain and the route south to Egypt seem open to them. But in 1260 at Ayn Jalut, near Nazareth, they meet the army of the Mameluke sultan of Egypt. It is led into the field by Baybars, a Mameluke general.

In one of the decisive battles of history Baybars defeats the Mongols. It is the first setback suffered by the family of Genghis Khan in their remorseless half century of expansion. This battle defines for the first time a limit to their power. It preserves Palestine and Syria for the Mameluke dynasty in Egypt. Mesopotamia and Persia remain within the Mongol empire.

The Il-khans of Persia: AD 1260-1335

After defeat by the Mamelukes at Ayn jalut, Hulagu and his descendants make their capital at Tabriz, on the trade route from the east to the Black Sea. They rule as Il-khans ('subordinate khans'), accepting the great khan in Mongolia as their overlord. They make several further attempts to wrest Syria and Palestine from the Mamelukes, but the Euphrates remains the western border of their empire.

It is the western extreme of a very large territory. The Il-khans rule as far as the Indus in the east, and from the Amu-Darya in the north down to the Indian Ocean.

The last Il-khan in Hulagu's line dies in 1335. His death is followed by a succession of petty rulers in different parts of Persia, until the arrival of another conqueror from the steppes of central Asia - a man accustomed to a horizon almost as broad as the one claimed by Genghis khan.

The army of Timur reaches northern Persia in 1383.

Timur's conquests: AD 1383 - 1405

Timur begins his campaign with the capture in 1383 of Herat, a city on the border of Afghanistan and Iran which will later, under his own descendants, become a great centre of Persian culture. In the next two years he subdues the whole of eastern Persia.

By 1394 he has extended his rule throughout Persia and Mesopotamia and up between the Black Sea and Caspian into Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In 1396 he storms into Russia and occupies Moscow for a year.

Timur's rule is brutal. In Persia frequent uprisings are put down with a severity similar to that of Genghis khan. Populations of entire cities are massacred, and Timur develops an effective new form of memento mori. The skulls of the dead form the masonry for towers, firmly cemented together to stand as cautionary tales.

In 1398 Timur outdoes one of Genghis khan's expeditions. He invades India, but unlike his predecessor he does not stop at the Indus. He marches on to Delhi and devastates the city. He then spends several months collecting treasure, which he carries home on 120 elephants.

Home is Samarkand, the city closest to his birthplace. Timur is busy turning it into a great centre of Muslim architecture and art. Together with the Indian elephants come the best craftsmen of Delhi, who will be set to work in Samarkand - where they join, in 1399, a community of skilled captives from previous expeditions.

The conqueror himself, now in his mid-sixties, has more practical business to attend to. Before the end of 1399 he marches west, to restore order in his outlying provinces.

Home is Samarkand, the city closest to his birthplace. Timur is busy turning it into a great centre of Muslim architecture and art. Together with the Indian elephants come the best craftsmen of Delhi, who will be set to work in Samarkand - where they join, in 1399, a community of skilled captives from previous expeditions.

This is connoisseurship of an unusually violent kind, but it is a genuine passion. Inherited by Timur's descendants, in less rapacious form, it results in a great Timurid tradition in the visual arts.

The Timurid tradition: AD 1405-1510

Shahrukh, Timur's favourite son, is his family's greatest patron of the arts. From about 1405 he rebuilds Herat, devastated by his father in 1383, and actively encourages the Persian school of Miniature painting - which has already begun to flourish under the patronage of the Mongol Il-khans.

With some difficulty Shahrukh maintains control over the empire conquered by his father in central Asia and Persia. In subsequent generations the descendants of Timur fight constantly among themselves over their shared inheritance, weakening their joint defence against their enemies. But Herat remains a centre of Timurid civilization until it falls, in 1510, to the founder of the new Safavid dynasty.


Ismail I and the Safavids: AD 1501-1524

After four centuries of dominance by powerful intruders (Seljuk turks, Mongols), Persia acquires in the 16th century a new dynasty from the heartland of the classical Persian empire.

Azerbaijan was the territory of the Medes, founders of Iran's first empire. Recently it has become the centre of a a Sufi sect, established by Sheikh Safi al-Din. His descendants, known from his name as the Safavids, govern the city of Ardabil as a small theocratic state. In the 15th century they develop a passionate commitment to the Shi'a version of Islam (the family claims descent from one of the twelve Shi'a imams - see the Shi'as). The characteristics of Iran in the late 20th century have their roots in Azerbaijan 500 years ago.

One of the sheikh's descendants, Ismail, drastically enlarges the family's power in the early 16th century. At the age of fourteen he leads the local tribes in the capture of Tabriz, where he is enthroned in 1501 as the shah of Azerbaijan. (Ismail is not alone in teenage achievements of this kind; four years previously Babur, also aged fourteen, briefly captures Samarkand.)

Ismail extends his control over much of Mesopotamia and Persia, using the Shi'a faith as a rallying cry. By the end of his reign Shi'ism, a minority sect within Islam, has become the faith of the majority of Persians. In this process conversion and compulsion often go together. But a newly defined nation is now able to identify its enemies as the Sunnis.

Sunnis are pressing against Persia from both west and east, but the more immediate threat is from the east. Uzbek tribes, under the leadership of Shaibani Khan, are moving southwest from Samarkand and Bukhara. By 1507 Shaibani has reached Herat, which he captures in that year.

Ismail confronts the Uzbeks at Merv in 1510 and wins a resounding victory. Shaibani is taken and killed (his skull, set in gold, becomes one of Ismail's favourite drinking cups). Another Sunni ruler to the east of Persia is Babur, now established in Kabul. But Babur has no aggressive intentions against Persia. Ismail contents himself with diplomatic efforts to convert him to the Shi'a faith.

The real Sunni threat now comes from the Artillery. Recent military successes have secured the western boundary of their empire, in the Balkans. Now they find they have a strong and aggressive neighbour in Persia, heretical in his religious beliefs and with his power base (Azerbaijan) and his capital (Tabriz) close to their own regions of Anatolia.

A clash is inevitable. It occurs at Çaldiran in 1514. Ismail is defeated; his tribesmen are no match for the highly trained janissaries, and unlike the Turks he has no Babur. But this encounter between Ottoman and Persian is only the beginning of a long struggle, in which Persian fortunes in the east are intimately linked to those of the Balkans in the west.

Abbas I: AD 1587-1629

When Shah Abbas begins his reign in 1587, at the age of sixteen, he is confronted by exactly the problem which his great-grandfather Ismail i faced eighty years previously. Ottoman turks are pressing in from the northwest at the same time as Uzbeks from the northeast.

The young shah's solution is to make a disadvantageous treaty with the Turks, in 1590, surrendering valuable territory but leaving himself free to confront the Uzbeks. But first he undertakes a reorganization of the Persian army, replacing a feudal system of tribal levies with professional troops paid from the imperial treasury.

The military reforms benefit from Persia's experience against the better trained and better equipped Turks, and also - rather oddly - from the practical advice of an Englishman, Sir Robert Shirley, who arrives as a member of an English embassy in 1599 and stays in Persia for eight years.

The resulting army has three specialist regiments - cavalry, musketeers and artillerymen. Their successes enable Shah Abbas to extend the Persian empire as far as Kandahar in the east, while in the west recovering Mesopotamia and the regions ceded to the Turks in the treaty of 1590.

The proximity of the Turks has made Tabriz, the original base of the Safavid dynasty, dangerously insecure. In 1548 the capital has already been moved southeast to Kazvin by Tahmasp I, son of Ismail i.

Shah Abbas goes further in the same direction when he moves the capital in 1598 to Isfahan. Here he creates, during the remaining 30 years of his life, a splendid city of elegant domes. Isfahan comes to symbolize the Persian style in the same way as the Shi'a doctrine, introduced by Abbas's great-grandfather, becomes part of the nation's identity. This region has had 2500 years of richly varied history, but modern Iran is essentially a Safavid creation.

Isfahan: 17th century AD

Isfahan is already a city of ancient history and considerable wealth when Shah Abbas decides, in 1598, to turn it into a magnificent capital. It has a Masjid-i-Jami, or Friday Mosque, dating from the Seljuk period (11th-12th century), still surviving today and noted for its fine patterned brickwork. And it has a thriving school of craftsmen skilled in the making of polychrome ceramic tiles.

Shah Abbas favours in architecture what comes to seem almost the theme of his city - gently curving Domes covered in a glorious array of Isfahan's coloured tiles.

The new centre of the city is a vast rectangular space, the Maidan-i-Shah (Royal Parade), designed for parades and polo. At its southern end there rises the most magnificent of Isfahan's swelling blue Domes, on the Masjid-i-Shah (Royal Mosque). The tiles are shaped where necessary to fit the curve of the dome, as are those which clad the mosque's circular minarets. The dome is reflected in a great pool in the courtyard.

On the east of the Maidan-i-Shah is a smaller blue dome, on the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah - built by Shah Abbas in honour of his father-in-law and used as his private chapel. There are other glorious buildings in Isfahan, but these Domes have become the trademark of Persian Islamic architecture.

Pampered heirs: 17th century AD

In both Turkey and Persia a major change is made in royal protocol during the first half of the 17th century. The development is the same in each place, and it has a profound effect on future sultans and shahs.

In Turkey it has been an official policy of state for each new sultan, on achieving power, to kill his brothers and nephews. Without a system of primogeniture, the crown goes to the strongest among the candidates within the ruling family. Once a winner has emerged, this drastic measure is a way of ensuring an untroubled reign. The sultan Mehmed III, winning power in 1595, murders his unusually large family of nineteen brothers.

In Persia this principle of violence is not enshrined in law, but in practice the result is similarly brutal. Shah Abbas, ruling in the early 17th century, blinds and imprisons his deposed father, his two brothers and one of his sons.

Shah Abbas in Persia and his contemporary, Ahmed I, in Turkey independently put in place a more merciful system. Abbas decrees that in future all royal princes will live in the harem, out of harm's way, until such time as the ruling shah dies. Ahmed's solution in Turkey is similar, but each prince here is to have a pavilion of his own in a walled garden (the merciful Ahmed was five, in 1595, when his father killed his nineteen uncles).

The result is the same in both empires. Less royal blood is shed but the standard of leadership declines. Sultans and shahs, previously on the battlefield from their teens, learning the harsh ways of the world, now emerge in a state of sheltered ignorance to take up the responsibilities of power. The politics of the harem impinge upon, and sometimes even replace in importance, the politics of the real world (see Harems and Eunuchs).

In Persia the Safavids retain the throne for a century after this change. In Turkey the royal line survives three times as long, to the end of the Ottoman empire. But the heyday of each dynasty has passed.

Decline of the Safavids: AD 1722-1736

The first major threat to the enfeebled Safavid dynasty comes in 1722 when Afghan rebels march west and capture Isfahan. This disaster is soon followed by the simultaneous invasion of Persia by Russia and Turkey. Each is determined to prevent the other gaining an advantage in this strategic region, but in 1724 they agree to divide the spoils. Both remain in possession of part of the Persian empire.

The shah is briefly saved from this unwelcome situation by Nadir Quli Beg, leader of a gang of tribal brigands. By birth a Turk, from the Meshed region, he brings 5000 men to the support of the shah in 1726.

The brigand proves a brilliant general. Transforming the Persian army, he leads a disciplined body of men to victory over the Afghan rebels holding Isfahan. He then drives the Turks out of the western regions of Persia. And by the mere threat of war he persuades the Russians to relinquish the territories they have seized.

But brigands acquiring this much power are not easily controlled. In 1736 Nadir Quli Beg deposes the last Safavid shah and takes the throne for himself, changing his name to Nadir Shah.

Nadir Shah: AD 1736-1747

Nadir Shah, in a reign of eleven years, devotes himself to conquest with the single-minded determination of Timur, the last great conqueror to sweep through these regions.

First, after a long siege in 1736, he recovers Kandahar - the stronghold of the Afghan chieftains who have until recently been in possession of Isfahan. With Afghanistan safely back under imperial control, Nadir Shah is next tempted further east (like Timur before him) into the fabulously wealthy empire of India. The Moghul dynasty, possessing probably a greater number of precious stones than any other ruling family in the world, is itself in a feeble state. A visit to Delhi is irresistible - as is Nadir Shah himself.

In December 1738 Nadir Shah crosses the Indus at Attock. Two months later he defeats the army of the Moghul emperor, Mohammed Shah. In March he enters Delhi. The conqueror has iron control over his troops and at first the city is calm. It is broken when an argument between citizens and some Persian soldiers escalates into a riot in which 900 Persians are killed. Even now Nadir Shah forbids reprisals until he has inspected the scene. But when he rides through the city, stones are thrown at him. Someone fires a musket which kills an officer close to the shah.

In reprisal he orders a massacre. The killing lasts for a day. The number of the dead is more than 30,000.

Amazingly, when the Moghul emperor begs for mercy for his people, the Persian conqueror is able to grant it. The killing stops, for the collection of Delhi's valuables to begin.

Untold wealth travels west with the Persians. The booty includes the two most spectacular possessions of the Moghul emperors - the Peacock Throne, commissioned by Shah Jahan, and the Koh-i-Nur diamond. Nadir Shah is able to send a decree home from Delhi remitting all taxes in Persia for three years. In addition to the jewels and the gold, he takes with him 1000 elephants, 100 masons and 200 carpenters. The parallel with the visit of Timur, 341 years previously, is almost exact.

But Timur was at least creating a capital city at Afghanistan. Nadir Shah has little interest in any activity other than conquest. He takes Bukhara in 1740 and continues to campaign (though with diminishing success and increasing ferocity) until his death in 1747, stabbed in his tent by an assassin.

Nadir Shah's achievement has been to reassemble by conquest the Persian empire. After his death it rapidly falls apart again. The eastern part now begins its separate existence as Timur. The west enjoys a rare period of peace under a leader of the Zand tribe, Karim Khan, who rules from 1757 to 1794 with his capital at Shiraz. He is followed by the last of Persia's lengthy dynasties, the Qajars.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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