The Persian empire once stretched from the Nile River in the west to the Indus River in the east and included present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and parts of modern Greece, Syria and Israel and Egypt.
The names of the great Persian rulers have survived through the millennia: Cyrus the Great (reigning from 558 to 529 BCE) conquered immense territories from the Mediterranean coast to modern Pakistan and built the ancient city of Pasargad. Darius I (522 to 486 BCE) added to the empire in the east, secured control over Egypt and built the great city of Persepolis, but was stopped by the Greeks at the famous battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. His son, Xerxes (486 to 465 BCE), avenged his father's defeat by capturing and burning Athens, only to later watch the destruction of the Persian fleet at Salamis in 480 BCE and the beginning of the gradual disintegration of Persian greatness. The tomb of Cyrus the Great can be visited near Pasargad. The tombs of Darius, Xerxes and later kings are carved into a rock face at Naqsh-e Rostam near Persepolis.
In 331 BCE, Alexander the Great invaded Persia, carried off the vast wealth of Persepolis and burned the city. To this day, Alexander is not considered very "great" among the modern Iranians, descendants of the Persians that fell before Alexander's armies. Alexander, however, was only the first in a long series of invaders. In succeeding centuries, Persia was conquered by the Parthians, the Arabs, the Mongols and various Turkish dynasties.
This slide show covers a period of almost a thousand years including the Achaemenian Empire (558-331 BCE) when Pasargad and Persepolis were built; the Seleucid Dynasty (312-44 BCE) when parts of Persia were ruled by descendants of Alexander the Great's generals; the overlapping Parthian Dynasty (250 BCE to 224 CE), during which the Greeks and Romans were finally driven from Persia; and the Sassanian Empire (224-642), which eventually succumbed to the Arab invasion that began in 642.
During this period, the main religion of Persia was Zoroastrianism, an indigenous faith that had taken root sometime before the Achaemenian era and is often credited as the world's first monotheistic religion. The Zoroastrian God is Ahura Mazda and is depicted on ancient carvings throughout Iran. Tahkt-e Soleiman (the misnamed "Solomon's Throne") in northwestern Iran was built during the Sassanian era as a repository for the sacred Zoroastrian fire that must be kept burning at all times. The Sassanians also left important carvings at Naqsh-e Rostam (near Persepolis) and Taq-e Bostan (in modern Kermanshah), designed to show that they received their right to govern directly from the Zoroastrian God, Ahura Mazda. The Zoroastrian religion is still practiced in Iran today, particularly in the area around Yazd where a fire temple now contains the sacred flame.
For convenience, the slide show above (which includes all of the "Ancient Persia" photos) has been divided into two shorter shows below that will run in a separate pop-up window. All of the shows present the photos in roughly chronological order based on the dynasty that constructed the archeological site.
To continue the tour of Persian history, go to: Islamic Persia.