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Persian Letters

Persian Letters

Assume that Montesquieu was trying to send a message to his readers about French politics under the Bourbon monarchy when he published The Persian Letters in 1721. Was it a message of reform, i.e., did he think it was possible to correct the flaws in the system left behind by Louis XIV at his death in 1715? Or was he suggesting something more radical?

Could someone provide me with some details on Montesquieu's intellectual formation, the censorship he faced and to what social class did he belong. How can I show that he is developing a measured critique but carrying the seed for more radical repercussions ?

Baron de Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat

Montesquieu was one of the great political philosophers of the Enlightenment. Insatiably curious and mordantly funny, he constructed a naturalistic account of the various forms of government, and of the causes that made them what they were and that advanced or constrained their development. He used this account to explain how governments might be preserved from corruption. He saw despotism, in particular, as a standing danger for any government not already despotic, and argued that it could best be prevented by a system in which different bodies exercised legislative, executive, and judicial power, and in which all those bodies were bound by the rule of law. This theory of the separation of powers had an enormous impact on liberal political theory, and on the framers of the constitution of the United States of America.

Ancient Persian Warfare

The ancient Persian military evolved from the earlier armed forces of the Medes which, in turn, developed from the warrior class of the indigenous people of the Iranian Plateau, the Aryan migrants (including the Persians) who later settled there, and the Assyrian army which was defeated by the Medes. The Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 BCE) took the best aspects of these earlier models to create one of the most effective military forces in the ancient world.

Certain aspects of their model would be changed by the Parthian Empire (247 BCE - 224 CE) and improved upon by the Sassanian Empire (224-651 CE) which skillfully integrated the various aspects of their predecessors in forming a military so effective it was able to withstand repeated invasions by the legions of the Roman Empire. The Sassanian Empire only finally fell when its army was faced with a different, and more effective, military paradigm in the form of the Arab cavalry.


Early Military & Development

Information on the earliest armed forces of the region, those who would have been associated with the ancient civilization of Elam and Susiana, is unavailable. According to scholar A. Sh. Shahbazi of Encyclopedia Iranica:

Source materials for a study of pre-Islamic Iranian military concerns fall into four categories: textual evidence archeological finds of actual specimens of martial equipments documentary representations (on monuments and objects of art) and philological deductions for organizational matters. The availability and value of these categories vary according to different periods. (Army, 1)

There must have been some form of military for defense of the cities of the region, however, as the Sumerian King of Lagash, Eannatum (r. c. 2500-2400 BCE) conquered the area and his inscriptions suggest he met resistance in doing so. Sargon of Akkad (r. 2334-2279 BCE) suggests the same in defeating Luh-ishan, son of Hishiprashini, King of Elam c. 2300 BCE.


Whatever weapons, uniforms, and organization characterized these early armies, they were defined by the 1st millennium BCE as comprised of separate citizen units under the command of a tribal chief who could call upon them to fight in times of war. These armies carried a spear, mace, short sword, simple bow and 30 arrows, a dagger, animal-hide or wicker shield, and a poleaxe.

Aryan tribes had migrated to the region at some point prior to the 3rd millennium BCE and, by the 1st millennium BCE, had established themselves in various areas. The Persians settled east of Elam in the territory of Persis and would later expand from there. The Persians, like the Medes and other Aryan tribes (“Aryan” understood as referencing Indo-Iranians), were superb horsemen, and through them, the concept of cavalry was introduced to the region.

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The Persians offered their services as mercenaries to the various kings who found them effective in hit-and-run engagements. Cavalry units could strike and retreat quickly, inflicting maximum casualties on the opponent while suffering minimal losses. The use of horses in battle was further enhanced by another innovation also brought to the region by the Aryans: the chariot.

Median Standing Army

In the 8th century BCE, the disparate tribes of the Medes were united under their first king Dayukku (known to the Greeks as Deioces, r. 727-675 BCE). His grandson, Cyaxares (r. 625-585 BCE), expanded Median territory and was instrumental in the fall of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians had steadily expanded their empire since the reign of Tiglath Pileser III (745-727 BCE) but had overextended themselves to the point where they had few resources for defense when the Babylonians and Medes led the coalition against them in 612 BCE which would topple their cities.


According to Herodotus, Cyaxares was able to accomplish this by reforming the military:

[Cyaxares] was the first to divide his troops into regiments and to make separate units out of the spearmen, archers, and horsemen, who had previously all been jumbled up indiscriminately. (I.103)

The earlier model of drawing up an army was now replaced by the spada – a standing army – which was trained under the direction of the king and led by him. Cyaxares' new army was equipped with spear, bow, short sword, and dagger. The units were separated into infantry, archers, and cavalry chariots were only used for transportation, not in battle. Cavalry units wore a shirt and trousers under a light leather tunic with a girdle-harness around the waist holding weapons. Their headgear was a cloth tiara possibly worn over a leather helmet. Infantry seem to have worn a similar uniform.


Rise of the Achaemenid Army

C. 550 BCE, Cyrus II (the Great, r. 550-530 BCE) overthrew his grandfather, Astyages of Media (r. 585-550 BCE) and founded the Achaemenid Empire (named in honor of Cyrus' ancestor Achaemenes). Cyrus II defeated the Median army and then conquered Lydia (546 BCE), Elam (540 BCE), and Babylon (539 BCE) with an army raised on the levy system known as the kara. Scholar Stefan G. Chrissanthos explains:

Initially, the Persian army consisted of a militia of the king's Persian subjects. However, not all Persians participated. Only those with sufficient wealth to procure their own military equipment were liable for service therefore, the levy, or kara, represented the wealthier elements of Persian society. (21)

This was not a standing army – like the Assyrians or the Medes had formed – but continued the model of the earlier practice of a chieftain (now the king) calling on those who owed him allegiance to fight. Once Lydia, Elam, and Babylon had been conquered, Cyrus the Great had a great many more resources available to him and, while keeping the kara system, established the standing army of the spada, whose ranks were filled with conscripts from the different satrapies (provinces) of the empire under the command of their satrap (governor). Chrissanthos writes:

As the empire grew, the kara remained the backbone of the army, but now an imperial levy conscripted not only poorer Persians but also subjugated ethnic groups into the army. Herodotus gives a detailed list of the various ethnic contingents that served in the Persian army, and the list includes practically every group in the empire. (21)

The closer a subject people were to the Persians, the less tribute they were required to pay to the king but they were expected to supply more soldiers. The Medes, closely associated with the Persians, were part of the elite units and served as officers – as with the rank of the hazarapatis – a commanding officer of a given unit – along with Persians.



Organization of the army was based on the decimal system, meaning each unit was comprised of ten lesser units:

  • 10 men = a company
  • 10 companies = a battalion
  • 10 battalions = a division
  • 10 divisions = a corps

Each company, battalion, division, and corps had a commanding officer and the whole army was led by a supreme commander, either the king or a noble Persian or Mede who was in the king's trust. The army was divided into infantry (foot-soldiers, archers, slingers) and cavalry and the cavalry further into those who used horses (the asabari – horse-borne) and those who used camels (the usabari – camel-borne). Chariots were also employed in battle but their use depended on the era and ruler. The chariot was commonly used by the supreme commander and the standard-bearers who were responsible for the symbols of the gods Ahura Mazda and Mithra as well as the sacred divine fire which accompanied the troops into battle. The elite of the infantry were the 10,000 troops which made up The Immortals, the king's trusted guard, so-named because, if one fell in battle or could not – for whatever reason – fulfill his duties, another would take his place so their number remained the same, giving the impression they could not be killed.

Different units were identified by different colored uniforms (among the Persians, purple, yellow, and blue). The Immortals wore felt caps (tiaras), brightly-colored, sleeved tunics over shirts and trousers, breast-plate-armor, and carried wicker shields, bows, quivers and arrows, short spears, and daggers (Herodotus 7:61). By the time of Darius I (the Great, r. 522-486 BCE), their spears were longer and ornamented at the bottom by a gold or silver knob.

Training & Battle

Training for the army began at the age of 15 (five for Persian nobility). Youths were divided into 50 classes for military training under an instructor or instructors which included horse grooming and horsemanship, hunting, running, swimming, archery, javelin-throwing, swordsmanship, martial arts, military discipline (such as forced marches, long watches, battle drills, living off the land), and were also expected to contribute to the community by developing agricultural skills. Sons of the king and nobility were also taught to cultivate administrative skills. Military service began at the age of 20 and professional soldiers were allowed to retire at 50 conscripts served for the duration of an engagement or campaign and then, if they survived, could return home until called up again.

Prior to any engagement, a war council was held with the senior staff to solidify the battle plan. Once the enemy was met, archers held the center front of the line with infantry – slingers and foot soldiers – flanking and cavalry on the wings. The archers would begin the battle with support from the slingers hurling small stones and lead pellets and the cavalry would then try to break the enemy lines from either side.

When Darius I invaded Greece in 490 BCE, this was the basic formation which only failed because the Greeks were undeterred by the rain of arrows and, further, had better shields and armor. The Persian army did not pay much attention to body armor or the quality of their shields prior to engagements with the Greeks because, previously, the armies they met had more or less the same equipment and used the same tactics they did. The Macedonian-Greek phalanx, however, was far more effective than the Persian line of formation and the wicker-reed shields of the Persians were no match for the great Greek shields and body armor.

This same basic paradigm held in 480 BCE when Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE) invaded Greece in retaliation for Darius I's defeat. The Greeks stopped the Persians at Thermopylae and could have held them there indefinitely if not for their betrayal by one of their own. At Platea, the Persian army was defeated, in part, because of the inferiority of their shields and body armor compared to the Greeks.

Persian Navy

Under Darius I, the Persian navy was expanded. This fleet was not built, nor was it manned, by Persians but by the subject nations of the empire. Cyprus provided 150 ships, Cilicia sent 100 as did Pamphylia, Caria sent 70, and others more or less depending on their resources. The Egyptians and Anatolian Greeks provided a large number but a third of the fleet – at times more but never less – was Phoenician. The Anatolian Greeks, Egyptians, and Phoenicians supplied the great triremes, warships manned by 200 sailors, while other nations shipped and manned smaller vessels, among the most popular being the 50-oar vessel manned by 80 sailors. In battle, in order to prevent defection, 30 Persian Marines were assigned to each ship.

The Persian navy, especially the Phoenician ships, were instrumental in Darius I's campaign to crush the rebellion of the Ionian Greeks which had spread to Cyprus and other regions starting c. 498 BCE. As the revolt was encouraged and funded, in part, by Athens, Darius I launched his massive campaign against Greece in 490 BCE, in which the navy also played a pivotal role but was defeated at the Battle of Marathon. Ten years later, Xerxes I would employ the fleet in his invasion of Greece. The Persian navy was defeated at the Battle of Salamis owing to its reliance on the heavy triremes which were easily outmaneuvered by the smaller and more agile Greek ships.

Parthian Innovations

The Achaemenid Empire fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BCE and, after his death in 323 BCE, was succeeded by the Seleucid Empire (312-63 BCE). The Seleucid Empire was severely compromised following its defeat by the Romans at the Battle of Magnesia in 190 BCE and the resultant Treaty of Apamea in 188 BCE through which they lost most of their territory. The Parthians, who had risen in revolt against the Seleucids in 247 BCE under their king Arsaces I (r. 247-217 BCE), took note of this as well as one of the central reasons for the fall of the Achaemenid Empire to Alexander: unevenly matched weaponry, armor and shields, and tactics. Further, the Parthians realized their own revolt had been able to succeed because the Seleucid military had been unable to respond quickly enough.

The Parthians decentralized the Persian government, instituting a feudal system in which each satrap, who had sworn loyalty to the king, was responsible for a levy of soldiers in times of crisis but no standing army garrisoned, primarily, in a single city (such as at Persepolis under Darius I and Xerxes I) which then had to be mobilized and sent against an enemy. The system of the levy allowed satraps to mobilize an army in their own region and respond directly to a threat, then notify the king of the situation afterwards.

To address the problem of the better body armor and tactics of the Greeks and Romans, the Parthians reduced their reliance on infantry and concentrated their efforts on cavalry. The Parthians, famous for their skills as horsemen, created a powerful force of light and heavy cavalry troops with smaller infantry units for support. The Parthian light cavalry was armed with a bow and arrows, a sword, and probably a dagger and was used in hit-and-run engagements as well as raids and the early stage of battle but they could not contend head-on with heavily armored troops.

In battle, the Parthians relied on their mounted warriors known as cataphracts. These units wore steel helmets and chain mail tunics which went from their necks to past their knees and down the sleeves of the shirt worn under them. They carried composite (compound) bows, which had greater reach and accuracy than the simple longbow, swords, daggers, and a lance. Their horses were equally well-protected with their own chainmail armor.

The most famous battle tactic of Parthian warfare was the Parthian shot in which light cavalry would engage the enemy and then feign retreat, drawing the opponents after them, then turn and fire their arrows back at the enemy, while at full gallop (even more impressive in that they did not have the stirrup). Even after this tactic became known to opposing forces, it still remained effective. Once the enemy was reeling from the shower of arrows, the cataphracts would engage.

The Great Sassanian Army

The Parthian army remained a powerful force but could not finally save the empire from an unexpected threat. The Parthian Empire was not toppled in battle by a superpower like the Roman Empire but by one of its own vassal kings, Ardashir I (r. 224-240 CE), a great warrior who revolted against the Parthian king Artabanus IV (r. 213-224 CE) and founded the Sassanian Empire. Ardashir I was a brilliant general and able statesman and administrator, who learned from the lessons of the past and combined the most effective elements of the Achaemenid, Seleucid, and Parthian empires as well as the tactics of the Romans and the Greeks.

Ardashir I centralized the government and reorganized the military according to the Achaemenid decimal system, bringing it directly under his control. He utilized both the Seleucid and Parthian body armor, kept the Parthian cavalry units, expanded his infantry (again, in line with the Achaemenid system), employed Roman tactics, and also made use of their technology of siege engines and other devices. He also revived the navy, which the Parthians had neglected, although it would play a relatively minor role, after Ardashir I's reign, in battle. Ardashir I's army was so well organized and effective that, under his son, Shapur I (r. 240-270 CE), the Sassanian army not only expanded the empire but defended it against Rome successfully, even capturing the Roman Emperor Valerian (r. 253-260 CE) who was then forced to serve as Shapur I's footstool when he mounted his horse.

Under the later king Kosrau I (also known as Anushirvan the Just, r. 531-579 CE), the Sassanian military was placed under the command of the Minister of Defense who acted in the king's interests. Kosrau I, considered the greatest of the Sassanian kings, continued Ardashir I's basic paradigm for the military and it remained an effective fighting force until the invasion of the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century CE. The Arab armies employed hit-and-run tactics similar to the Parthians, were able to muster larger armies and employ camel-mounted cavalry in greater numbers which performed better than horses on uneven or sandy terrain, and used fast-moving infantry archers, armed with the compound bow, to devastating effect. The Sassanians, last of the ancient Persian empires, fell to the Arabs in 651 CE, and their army and navy were disbanded. In its time, however, the Sassanian army represented the best version of the Persian military, among the greatest fighting forces of the ancient world.

Persian Letters

How did the UNESCO Archives come to hold a letter signed by the very hand of Mohammad Mossadegh, one of the most famous names in the history of contemporary Iran?

In October 1927, Dr. Sanjurjo d’Arellano, chargé de mission for the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, was sent on a fact-finding mission to Tehran by Julien Luchaire, Director of the IICI. D’Arellano’s task was to make contact with scientific, artistic, literary and educational institutions, as well as eminent intellectuals who could possibly organize and preside over a “Persian Commission for Intellectual Cooperation” for the Institute. It appears one of those eminent personalities was no other than Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh (1882-1967), who went on to be elected Prime Minister of Iran between 1951 and 1953. During that short space of time, he nationalized the Iranian oil industry and was nominated Time Man of the Year for 1951, only to be overthrown by a coup d’état backed by the CIA and the UK.

Although the file does not contain further information about the endeavour, the letter (link below) shows that Mossadegh was most keen to take up the challenge and organize the commission to bring an intellectual rapprochement between Persia and other members of the international community.

Read Mohammad Mossadegh's letter here.

Coryn Lang, Acquisitions Librarian

4,000-Year-Old Ancient Babylonian Tablet is Oldest Customer Service Complaint Ever Discovered

A clay tablet from ancient Babylon reveals that no matter where (or when) you go, good customer service can be hard find. So it was revealed by the irate copper merchant, Nanni, in 1750 B.C. The merchant’s aggravation is evident, spelled out in cuneiform on a clay tablet now displayed in The British Museum.

In what is said to be the oldest customer service complaint discovered, Babylonian copper merchant Nanni details at length his anger at a sour deal, and his dissatisfaction with the quality assurance and service of Ea-nasir.

Forbes reports, “The letter implies that Nanni had dispatched his personal assistants to Ea-nasir Fine Copper at least once looking for a refund, only to be rebuffed and sent home empty handed – and through a war zone!”

According to science site ABC Science , a translation of the tablet text is available in the book “ Letters from Mesopotamia : Official, Business and Private Letters on Clay Tablets from Two Millenni ” by Assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim. The book includes translations of letters written in ancient Akkadian from many walks of life “from poverty-stricken women to their generous brothers, from pregnant slave girls and yes, between merchants, manufacturers and traders.”

The translation lays out Nanni’s displeasure:

“Tell Ea-nasir: Nanni sends the following message:
When you came, you said to me as follows : “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them if you do not want to take them, go away!”
What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Samas.
How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.
Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.”

The complaint letter, written 3,750 years ago was found at the city of Ur. Ur (present day southern Iraq) was one of the most important Sumerian city-states in ancient Mesopotamia in the third millennium B.C. Mesopotamian society was an advanced culture. They had knowledge of medicine, astronomy and agriculture, and had invented technologies such as glass-making, irrigation, textile weaving and metal working, notes ABC Science.

The ancient system of writing called cuneiform involved pressing patterns into soft clay tablets by means of a stylus, generally a blunt reed or stick. The scribe would use the stylus to create wedge-shaped markings in the clay, and the soft tablet was then fired to preserve the message. Cuneiform writing died out as it was replaced with the Phoenician alphabet around 200 A.D, and it became a lost written language. It was deciphered by modern researchers in the 19 th century.

A sample of cuneiform from an extract from the Cyrus Cylinder (lines 15–21), giving the genealogy of Cyrus the Great and an account of his capture of Babylon in 539 B.C.E.

Because the writing system was used for more than three millennium, there remain many preserved samples of such tablets. The BAS Library reports that there are close to half a million cuneiform tablets in the world’s museums, but only 30,000 to 100,000 have been translated.

Cuneiform inscription by Xerxes the Great on the cliffs below Van castle, Turkey. It's several meters tall and wide, 25 centuries old, and the message comes from the Persian king Xerxes . Wikimedia Commons.

The king Xerxes says: the king Darius, my father, praised be Ahuramazda, made a lot of good, and this mountain, he ordered to work its cliff and he wrote nothing on it so, me, I ordered to write here.

Archaeologists have discovered countless other ancient tablets revealing much about the beliefs and lifestyles of various historic cultures. Curse tablets were attempts to hamper or harm enemies, while other tablets recorded beautiful ancient songs . The Babylonian Cyrus Cylinder is believed to be an ancient declaration of early human rights.

It is fascinating to see an ancient artifact— an item so rare, delicate, and important that we protect it at all costs—detailing the comical mundanity of life and everyday business. It is interesting to read about the workings of ancient trade and war via first-hand testimony. Finally, it is surprising to see that humanity, through thousands of years, hasn’t changed much at all. To this day we still fire off letters, tweets and emails to businesses that we feel haven’t provided the best service. Will our descendants in 4000 years’ time be reading our current-day complaints?

Featured Image: Clay tablet letter from Nanni to Ea-nasir complaining that the wrong grade of copper ore has been delivered after a dangerous voyage, misdirection, and delays. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Liz Leafloor is former Art Director for Ancient Origins Magazine. She has a background as an Editor, Writer, and Graphic Designer. Having worked in news and online media for years, Liz covers exciting and interesting topics like ancient myth, history. Read More

Christianity in Ephesus

Ephesus played a vital role in the spread of Christianity. Starting in the first century A.D., notable Christians such as Saint Paul and Saint John visited and rebuked the cults of Artemis, winning many Christian converts in the process.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is thought to have spent her last years in Ephesus with Saint John. Her house and John’s tomb can be visited there today.

Ephesus is mentioned multiple times in the New Testament, and the biblical book of Ephesians, written around 60 A.D., is thought to be a letter from Paul to Ephesian Christians, although some scholars question the source.

Not every Ephesian was open to Paul’s Christian message. Chapter 19 in the Book of Acts tells of a riot started by a man named Demetrius. Demetrius made silver coins featuring the likeness of Artemis.

Tired of Paul’s attacks on the goddess he worshipped, and worried that the spread of Christianity would ruin his trade, Demetrius plotted a riot and enticed a large crowd to turn against Paul and his disciples. Ephesian officials, however, protected Paul and his followers and eventually Christianity became the city’s official religion.

Ancient Persian Symbols

The ancient Persian symbols have always been magnificent and mystic. These symbols are not only visible dominantly in the ancient lithographic scriptures but have carried on their legacy in the present times as well. The fact that these symbols are used all over the country signifies the importance of these over time.

The Ancient Persian Culture

The land of ancient Persia, as we know today, was located in the region now identified as Iran and Afghanistan. The human civilization is known to have existed as early as 1200 BC. The first Persian state was established in 700 BC. This ancient land is imprinted with successful invasions of a number of ambitious conquerors the most significant dynasties being the Greeks, the Arabs, the Turks and the notorious Mongols. The empire was constantly expanded through regular military conquests.

The Persians were highly advanced. This can be clearly concluded from the fragmented remains of the ancient Persian capital Persepolis which shows the use of complex geometrical mathematics and astronomy in its creation. Along with geometrical shapes, the art of the time focused on stylised representation of both real and imaginary creatures including lions, peacocks, griffins, and phoenixes. With time, these mythical elements along with the ancient deities came to be regarded as highly significant pillars of the history of the region.

The Religions Practised By Ancient Persians

The ancient Persians followed Zoroastrianism started by the prophet and the teacher Zoroaster. Founded in 600 BC, Zoroaster helped unite the empire through this religion. He preached worship of a single God named Ahura Mazda rather than multiple idols worship. The religion emphasized the battle between the good and the evil and the triumph of the former over latter. Highly dominant in the previous eras, there are only a few Zoroastrians now.
The ancient Persians were fascinated by mythical creatures and gave them the utmost importance as can be seen below.

The Persian Water Goddess Anahita

Anahita is the Persian goddess of water. She is also known as the Fertility Goddess, the Lady of the Beasts and the Goddess of the Sacred Dance. Anahita dominated the waters and ruled the stars and the fate. She depicts the creative principle of females. Perceived with wings and accompanied by mighty lions, Anahita is often pictured with a bejeweled diadem of stars. She is also associated with lakes, rivers, and waters of birth. She is the patroness of women and war goddess.

Anahita means “the immaculate one”. She is pictured as a virgin, donning a golden cloak and ornate in a diamond tiara. Her sacred animals are the dove and the peacock. In the ancient Persia, Anahita was very popular and is considered amongst The Great Goddess appearing in many eastern religions.

The Sun And The Lion

This ancient Persian symbol comprises two images- a lion and the sun. The lion represents divinity, royalty and the mighty lineage of the kings, much like the astrological constellation Leo. The image of the sun symbolizes the ruler of heaven. This is a very famous symbol and has been used by rules all over the history as banners since ancient times.

The Bird Of The Paradise: Huma

The Huma bird is a legendary mythical creature from the Sufi fables. It is said to never land and live its entire life during flight. It flies invisibly high above the earth, impossible to spot through the human eyes. Also referred to as the bird of fortune, the Huma bird is a compassionate creature and symbolizes happiness. According to the Sufi lore, once you catch a glimpse of Huma or its shadow even, happiness will ensue for the rest of your life. The prominent Sufi preacher Inayat Khan portrays the spiritual dimension of this bird. According to him, it represents the evolution of a thought to the zenith where it breaks all limitations. “Huma” in the Persian language stands for the fabulous bird. It was believed in the olden times that if this legendary creature sat on the head of an individual, then it was an omen to the person becoming a king. In the word Huma, “hu” represents the spirit and the word “mah” is Arabic which represents “water”. In the older traditions, it was believed that the Zoroaster was born of the Huma tree which speaks for the bible verse “Except a man be born of Water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”

In some altered versions, Huma bird is depicted similar to the Phoenix. It consumes itself in the fire after a few hundred years and rises anew from its own ashes. This bird is also referred to as the Bird of Paradise. It consists of the physical features of both male and female in one body. Each nature consists of one wing and one leg. Catching an Huma bird is impossible as the legends explain. According to the Sufi religion, the Huma bird cannot be caught alive and a person who kills it dies in forty days.

The Legendary Griffins

The Griffins are popular mythical creatures used extensively in the movies and fiction novels. The Griffin is a chimera or hybrid mythical creature. These legendary creatures have the body of a lion and the wings and head of eagle thus representing the kings of both animals and the birds. They may also bear ears of a horse. Traditionally known for guarding treasures and possessions, griffins are protectors from evil, slander, and witchcraft as well. Sculpted in some churches, the Griffin is known in Christian symbolism and depicts both the divine and the human.

In heraldry, Griffin stands for courage, leadership, and strength. Pictured as fierce, they have gained respect for overages too. They appear regularly on the coats, arms, flags of the noble and highly respected important families in Europe. The roots of this fascinating mythological creature reach from Western Europe to the Eastern edges of the Indian subcontinent and beyond.

Powerful and majestic, the griffins guarded gold and treasure. In the medieval era, they came to be regarded as symbols of monogamous marriage. They discouraged fidelity. Known to be strictly loyal to its partner, in the event of the death of one partner, the other griffin never mated again. They started representing Jesus As they were able to traverse in both air and earth with equal ease which symbolized the human and divine nature of the Christ.

The Griffins represent both power and wisdom. They are commonly associated with strength during the war. The Genoa republic used griffins as symbols to all its seafaring ships in the middle ages.

Mount Damavand

This mountain is the highest peak in Iran and all over the Middle East. It is an active volcano and is represented heavily in the Persian mythology and folktales. It stands as a symbol of the Persian resistance from the foreign rule. It is said to possess magical healing powers due to its hot thermal water springs which treat skin ailments and chronic wounds. The mountain is printed on the back side of the Iranian 10, 000 Rials banknote.


Simurg (alternatively spelled as Simurgh, Simorgh, Simoorgh, Simour, and Senvurv) is an ancient Persian mythological bird. This immortal, gigantic, female winged creature is usually described as having a scale-covered body, with a dog’s head and foreparts, lion’s claws and peacock’s wings and tails. It is also depicted sometimes with a human face.

The Simurg was considered a benevolent guardian figure with protective and healing powers. It was believed to purify the waters and the land and bestow fertility. It was also seen as a messenger or mediator between the Sky and the Earth, and symbolic of their union. The Simurg is mentioned quite frequently in classical as well as modern Persian literature, used specifically in Sufi mysticism as a metaphor for God.

The mystical bird appears in several old tales of creation. According to Persian legends, the Simurg was very old, so much so that it had witnessed the world’s destruction thrice.

Persian Letters - History

2 Chronicles 36:23 - Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath the LORD God of heaven given me and he hath charged me to build him an house in Jerusalem, which [is] in Judah. Who [is there] among you of all his people? The LORD his God [be] with him, and let him go up.

List of the Kings of Persia from 550 BC to 330 BC
Persian Kings Period of Reign (Approx)
Cyrus II "the Great" 550-529 BC
Cambyses II 529-522 BC
Darius I 522-486 BC
Xerxes I 486-465 BC
Artaxerxes I 465-425 BC
Xerxes II 425-424 BC
Darius II 423-404 BC
Artaxerxes II 404-359 BC
Artaxerxes III 359-338 BC
Arses 338-336 BC
Darius III 336-330 BC

This chart reveals the Kings of the Persian Empire ( Achaemenid ). The Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great who conquered Babylon in 536 BC. The Persian Empire succeeded the Babylonian Empire and it was Cyrus, who issued the famous decree for the Jews to return to their homeland to rebuild their Temple. Under Darius the second Temple of Zerubbabel was completed and under Xerxes, or Ahasuerus, the events recorded in the Book of Esther in the Bible happened under Artaxerxes the Jewish state was reformed by Ezra, and the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt by Nehemiah. The capital of the Persian Empire was Shushan. The Empire lasted a little more than 200 years, and came to an end in 330 BC.

Ezra 1:1 - Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom

Map of the Persian Empire from Cyrus to Darius.

Scriptures related to Persia

Ezra 4:7 - And in the days of Artaxerxes wrote Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of their companions, unto Artaxerxes king of Persia and the writing of the letter [was] written in the Syrian tongue, and interpreted in the Syrian tongue.

Ezra 4:3 - But Zerubbabel, and Jeshua, and the rest of the chief of the fathers of Israel, said unto them, Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God but we ourselves together will build unto the LORD God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us.

Ezra 9:9 - For we [were] bondmen yet our God hath not forsaken us in our bondage, but hath extended mercy unto us in the sight of the kings of Persia , to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God, and to repair the desolations thereof, and to give us a wall in Judah and in Jerusalem.

Ezra 6:14 - And the elders of the Jews builded, and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they builded, and finished [it], according to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the commandment of Cyrus, and Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia .

2 Chronicles 36:23 - Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia , All the kingdoms of the earth hath the LORD God of heaven given me and he hath charged me to build him an house in Jerusalem, which [is] in Judah. Who [is there] among you of all his people? The LORD his God [be] with him, and let him go up.

Daniel 10:1 - In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia a thing was revealed unto Daniel, whose name was called Belteshazzar and the thing [was] true, but the time appointed [was] long: and he understood the thing, and had understanding of the vision.

Ezra 1:2 - Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia , The LORD God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which [is] in Judah.

Esther 1:3 - In the third year of his reign, he made a feast unto all his princes and his servants the power of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, [being] before him:

Ezra 3:7 - They gave money also unto the masons, and to the carpenters and meat, and drink, and oil, unto them of Zidon, and to them of Tyre, to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea of Joppa, according to the grant that they had of Cyrus king of Persia .

Ezra 4:24 - Then ceased the work of the house of God which [is] at Jerusalem. So it ceased unto the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia .

Daniel 10:20 - Then said he, Knowest thou wherefore I come unto thee? and now will I return to fight with the prince of Persia : and when I am gone forth, lo, the prince of Grecia shall come.

Esther 10:2 - And all the acts of his power and of his might, and the declaration of the greatness of Mordecai, whereunto the king advanced him, [are] they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia ?

Daniel 11:2 - And now will I shew thee the truth. Behold, there shall stand up yet three kings in Persia and the fourth shall be far richer than [they] all: and by his strength through his riches he shall stir up all against the realm of Grecia.

Esther 1:14 - And the next unto him [was] Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, [and] Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, which saw the king's face, [and] which sat the first in the kingdom)

Esther 1:18 - [Likewise] shall the ladies of Persia and Media say this day unto all the king's princes, which have heard of the deed of the queen. Thus [shall there arise] too much contempt and wrath.

Ezra 1:8 - Even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah.

2 Chronicles 36:20 - And them that had escaped from the sword carried he away to Babylon where they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia :

Ezra 7:1 - Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia , Ezra the son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah,

Ezekiel 27:10 - They of Persia and of Lud and of Phut were in thine army, thy men of war: they hanged the shield and helmet in thee they set forth thy comeliness.

Daniel 8:20 - The ram which thou sawest having [two] horns [are] the kings of Media and Persia .

Ezekiel 38:5 - Persia , Ethiopia, and Libya with them all of them with shield and helmet:

Ezra 1:1 - Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia , that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia , that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and [put it] also in writing, saying,

2 Chronicles 36:22 - Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia , that the word of the LORD [spoken] by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia , that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and [put it] also in writing, saying,

Ezra 4:5 - And hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia , even until the reign of Darius king of Persia .

Daniel 10:13 - But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me one and twenty days: but, lo, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me and I remained there with the kings of Persia .

Persian Letters - History

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      • Charles Louis de Secondat Montesquieu (1689-1755): Persian Letters, No. 11 and No. 12, 1721 [At William and Mary]
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        A European Experience of the Mughal Orient: The I'jaz-i Arsalani (Persian Letters, 1773-1779) of Antoine-Louis-Henri Polier

        Antoine-Louis-Henri Polier was a Swiss Protestant of French descent who served in the army of the British East India Company. The major part of his service was in northern India, beyond the area under formal British control. There he immersed himself deeply in Indian society as he pursued a career which involved him closely with Indians varying in eminence from the Mughal emperor to the numerous clerks and craftsmen whom he personally employed. Constantly on the move, Polier maintained a copious correspondence in Persian with those Indians with whom he had dealings. The I'jaz-i Arsalani ('the wonders of Arsalan', from Polier's Mughal title, Arsalan Jang, 'lion of the battle') was the name given to his Persian letter-book of copies of some 2000 of the letters that he wrote, or to be more exact, that his munshis wrote at his command. The munshis put the letters into the form appropriate to the kind of message that was to be conveyed and to the status of the intended recipient. The volume under review is a translation of half of them, written between 1773 and 1779.

        The letter-book was acquired by the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. French academic institutions and the scholars attached to the French embassy in Delhi have been the generous patrons of the project for publishing the manuscript. They entrusted the work to two very well qualified scholars, Muzaffar Alam, until recently of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, now at the University of Chicago, the leading authority on Islam in India in the eighteenth century, and Seema Alavi of the Jamia Millia Islamia, who has written a valuable book about the Company's army in North India.

        How to present the manuscript evidently raised formidable problems. A full literal translation was for very understandable reasons rejected. The editors have chosen instead to give 'a summary translation of the text without ignoring any substantive part of the translation' (p. 74). Most of the elaborate embellishments and allusions that politeness in Persian letter writing required, but which would have extended the translations to unmanageable length, have been omitted along with the 'figurative and grandiose language' of certain formal congratulatory letters. Editing the text in the conventional sense of providing the reader with some sort of apparatus of notes to elucidate the letters has not been attempted either. As is made clear on the title page, readers are offered a translation and an introduction, but nothing else. They must cope with the letters as best they can.

        This decision is again a perfectly understandable one. Attempting to identify the vast numbers of people mentioned in the letters would have been a dauntingly formidable task. To give an example of the difficulties, some European names, such as those of Major Marsack, Dr Thomas or John Bristow, are given in forms that anyone reasonably familiar with the period will be able to identify others are rendered in ways that makes them virtually unrecognisable. Who, for instance, is 'Mr Math' (perhaps Thomas Motte), 'Dr Chue' or 'Major Hang' (probably Major Hannay)? A huge number of Indians, many of them relatively humble people, are mentioned, often with variations in their names. The letters also contain many apparently abstruse Persian terms, for instance for the names of kinds of textiles, of plants and birds or of revenue procedures. A glossary has been added, which is valuable as far as it goes, but perhaps inevitably due to the vast range of the subject matter of the letters, many Persian terms seem not to be covered by it. Each letter is dated according to the Hijra era without an equivalent in the Christian era.

        How much readers will be able to derive from the great quarry of material that is being presented to them will of course depend on the expertise that they bring to it. Some of the letters will be instantly accessible to anyone with an interest in the period. These will include the letters to and about Polier's two bibis or his children by them. On a trip to Calcutta away from his household at Faizabad, Polier commiserates with the senior bibi: 'It is due to your love for me and your anxieties, as well as your loneliness which has made you averse to eating and suffer from insomnia. . However, I will soon be back . Do not lose heart and be careful about your regular food and timely sleep. Remain happy' (p. 182). Equally accessible are his accounts of situation of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam, which he witnessed at first hand on an extended visit to Delhi. The Sikhs and the Afghans were taking control of the emperor's lands, but 'Here in Delhi there is nothing except negligence and thoughtlessness. . There is only confusion, anxiety and sleeplessness. I am surprised and worried. I do not know what there is in store for the country' (p. 336). 'There is nothing left of the empire except the veneer of its name' (p.337). Those who know Polier as a collector and connoisseur will be rewarded by a series of letters concerning the painter Mehrchand, who was taken to Delhi under Polier's patronage.

        The great bulk of the letters, however, deal with very complex matters in which finance and politics were closely linked. Polier was an entrepreneur on a very large scale. He acted in partnership with other Europeans, notably Claude Martin and Dr Baladon Thomas, and employed a staff of European clerks and a huge retinue of Indian gumashtas, sarkars and other agents. To fulfil his ambitions, Polier needed to maintain his position in three Indian courts, those of the wazirs of Awadh at Faizabad and later at Lucknow, that of the emperor in Delhi and the establishment maintained by the great lord Najaf Khan. In addition, he needed to keep a sharp eye on the internal politics of the Company's Supreme Council in Calcutta and on the disposition of its Residents at Lucknow. Much of Polier's correspondence therefore reflects his need for political intelligence.

        If court or Company politics turned against Polier he had much to lose. Hence his obvious sense of outrage at the report of what seem to have been slighting remarks about him made by Asaf-ud-Daula. Shuja-ud-Daula was much too 'polite and cultured' to have done such a thing (p. 371). Polier drew salaries from the wazirs for his skills as an engineer and as an experienced officer in the field, notably in expelling the Jats from the fort at Agra. He engaged in elaborate building projects for them. He seems to have raised troops for the wazirs. He supplied their courts and imperial Delhi with luxury European goods shipped up from Calcutta. He traded in elephants. He was also a provider of girls and slave children. He hoped, for instance, to deliver to Delhi a girl that he had acquired in repayment of a debt owed to him by her father (p. 371). He evidently traded on a large scale in commodities like opium and cotton cloth, trading that required court protection if it was not to be interrupted by local officials.

        The ultimate success of all these operations depended on getting paid for them. Payment from an Indian ruler usually meant the granting of a tankhwah or assignment on the revenue of the government. It was, however, one thing to obtain such a grant, but quite another to get it realised. A very large part of this volume consists of letters referring to the seemingly endless struggle to make Shuja-ud-Daula and later Asaf-ud-Daula or Najaf Khan honour their obligations to him. Greater financial security might come by obtaining direct access to revenue collections through the personal grant of a jagir. Polier brought off a considerable coup in getting a jagir awarded to him in person by the emperor, only to find that Najaf Khan's agents obstructed his collection of the revenue.

        The editors very properly hope that their translation will be a valuable source for the 'economic and social history of the eighteenth century' (p. 74), and, they could add, for its now somewhat unfashionable political history as well. It is very much to be hoped that it will fulfil this laudable intent. Yet if the outline of Polier's activities at this stage of his life is reasonably clear, to elucidate the detail seems to require a large endowment of prior knowledge. Could the editors have made their material more accessible without an investment in scholarly endeavour that would probably have been disproportionate to the ultimate value of the text? The answer is probably no, but some things could perhaps have been attempted that would have given some support to the reader at no great cost to the editors. First of all, it regrettably has to be said that adequate proof reading would have been a significant help. The number of typographical and other errors reflects badly on all concerned. Secondly, it is no doubt deplorably Eurocentric not to be able readily to convert Hijra into Christian dating, but the scholars who compiled the old Calendar of Persian Correspondence did pander to weakness by putting Christian dating in the margin. These scholars also tried to standardise spellings and, in their later volumes, to produce an index with identifications of at least the more prominent Indians mentioned. The index to this volume is perfunctory in the extreme.

        Will the long Introduction be of help to those trying to extract meaning from the text? In some respects it certainly will. There is, for instance, a valuable section that puts Polier's letter-book into the context of the evolving conventions of epistolary style in Mughal India. Much of the rest of the Introduction is, however, concerned less with elucidating the text than with, as the blurb on the cover puts it, locating it 'in the social and cultural world of the period'. This reviewer has to confess sadly that he finds much of that unconvincing and on occasions misleading.

        The Introduction seeks to make several points about Antoine Polier. Beginning on the first page, he is throughout described as 'French'. It is assumed that he suffered discrimination in the British Company's service because of his Frenchness (pp.3, 5). Although the editors do not go so far as to argue that Polier openly identified himself as French, they do attribute to him without any apparent evidence a nostalgia for a French empire in India (p. 30), and they see him as adopting on occasions a 'European' identity different from a 'British' one (pp. 31-2). This seems to lead the editors to conclude that Polier was part of a 'European understanding of eighteenth-century India [which] contested with English Orientalist underpinnings of colonial rule' (p.73). Hence presumably the significance of 'European' in the title of the book it is to signify a non-British and therefore a different 'Experience of the Mughal Orient'.

        All these propositions invite a degree of scepticism. 'French' was clearly an elastic term in the eighteenth century. Polier, although evidently completely fluent in English and willing to assume the name 'Anthony Polier' in the Company's records, was no doubt French-speaking by choice. But he was not a subject of the king of France. He called himself of 'a family of French origin but established and naturalised in Switzerland' and was called a 'Swiss' by a French contemporary (Sanjay Subrahmanyam, 'The Career of Colonel Polier and late eighteenth-century Orientalism' Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3 rd ser. X (2000), 45, 48). It is most unlikely that his British contemporaries thought of him as French. Warren Hastings gave him permission to become engineer and architect to the wazir to prevent the job going to Gentil 'and the other Frenchmen under him' (Bengal Secret Consultations, 19 Dec. 1774, Oriental and India Office Collections, P/A/23, p. 463). For the British Polier would have been a 'foreign Protestant', a category that they understood very well. Officers with Huguenot, Dutch, Swiss or German Protestant backgrounds had long served successfully in the British army. One of them, Lord Ligonier, was commander-in-chief of the British army during the Seven Years War, when there was extensive recruitment of foreign Protestants to fight both in America and India. Polier's uncle was commissioned in the Swiss infantry of the Company in 1751. Antoine went to India as a cadet no doubt to benefit from his patronage. During the war the Company also recruited a lot of French soldiers and a few genuine French officers like Martin, who deserted from the defeated army of Lally. Foreign Protestants were generally well treated. An act of parliament of 1762 extended naturalisation to those who had served for two years in America. One or two of them rose to high office. The Swiss Frederick Haldimand, who became Governor of Quebec, was the most conspicuous example. By contrast, the East India Company imposed a restriction on the promotion of foreign officers beyond the rank of Major in 1766. There is, however, no evidence that this was a specifically anti-French measure. It is likely that the directors wished to ensure that lucrative senior rank went to people within the British world of patronage. Polier suffered by this prohibition, until it was later circumvented in his favour, but in other respects he seems to have made a successful career until he was caught out by the seismic shift in Calcutta politics brought about by the arrival of the new councillors in 1774. They disliked Warren Hastings's informal and, they believed, corrupt diplomacy in northern India. Evidently assuming that Polier was Hastings's, agent they ordered his recall. He resigned the service in protest, but nevertheless, with the evident connivance of all sides in Calcutta, he was permitted to remain in Awadh on an unofficial basis to pursue his various enterprises.

        If it seems unlikely that Polier thought of himself or was thought of by others as French, it seems even less likely that he regarded himself as a 'European' in the sense that this was a category from which the British were excluded. None of the evidence cited in the Introduction supports that assumption and it seems to have been a concept totally alien to eighteenth-century usage. 'European' was an inclusive term for the whole continent of Europe and for all white men or firangis in India. In his own eyes and in those of others, Polier was undoubtedly 'a foreigner', even if a favoured one, in the British world. Foreigners, however, came in many different forms rather than constituting a single category and it is surely as an individual rather than as part of some larger entity that Polier should be assessed.

        If Polier differed from his British contemporaries in his response to India, the explanation for any difference is more likely to lie in his personal experience of India than in any sense of identity that can be retrospectively attributed to him. At a time when relatively few Europeans lived for any length of time in northern India Polier almost certainly immersed himself more deeply in the Indo-Persian culture of its elite than did any of his contemporaries. The I'jaz is probably therefore a unique record. Martin seems to have kept something similar and it is perhaps possible that Richard Johnson or William Palmer did the same. It was not, however, until some years later that men like Ochterlony or William Fraser were to make themselves as thoroughly at home in Delhi as Polier had done in Faizabad or Lucknow.

        The assumptions that the editors seem to be making that there was a 'sharp contrast' (p. 57) between the outlook of the 'European' Polier and of his British contemporaries seem to rest on distorting generalisations about the British. The British are said to have been excessively concerned with high culture rather than with 'ordinary folk and the subaltern classes' (p. 39), to have 'compartmentalized' Indians into rigid categories of Hindus or Muslims or Hindu castes and to have 'shunned the Mughal regime as despotic and abstracted from Indian society' (p. 65). None of these propositions stands up to close examination. The collections of books and pictures by Hastings and Johnson were, for instance, as 'eclectic' as Polier's. Hastings's admiration for the what he called 'the original constitution' of the Mughal imperial system is made clear in his minute commending Gladwin's translation of the Ain, and his reverence for those who occupied the Mughal throne was to be demonstrated by his reception of the prince Jawan Bukht at Lucknow in 1784.

        Polier was a remarkable man and his I'jaz is a work of great interest. What potential readers need is not dubious interpretations of Polier's milieu, but as much help as possible from editors who are singularly well qualified to enable the letters and the man to speak for themselves. It is very much to be hoped that the editors will soon be able to follow this volume with a second to complete the project.

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