History's first superpower sprang from ancient Iran

Under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, Persia ruled the world's first true empire, centered in Iran and stretching from Europe to Egypt to India.

Distinguished by their headdresses, Median and Persian soldiers parade across this relief from the Apadana (Audience Hall) at Persepolis, illustrating how the empire valued diversity.
Courtesy Simon Norfolk/NB Pictures/Contacto

I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world . . . Found on a cylindrical tablet in the 19th century, these words commemorate Persia’s conquest of Babylonia and the taking of its capital city, Babylon, in 539 B.C. (Babylon was the jewel of the ancient world.)

After Cyrus came to power in 559 B.C., Persia expanded its holdings to become the world’s original empire. Previously, other peoples such as the Assyrians had held sway over vast tracts of Mesopotamia, but none had reached the geographical extent as Persia, whose territory stretched from eastern Europe to the Indus River. Strengthening the empire, Cyrus’s policy of tolerance toward the conquered allowed local peoples to maintain their languages, traditions, and religions, which in turn allowed Persian culture to benefit from a truly global exchange.

Cyrus’s construction of an imperial identity made up of many religions and languages continues to inspire the modern world. As the Greek historian Xenophon wrote, “Cyrus eclipsed all other monarchs, before or since.”

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