Welcome back to Past to Paper! I hope you’re all donning splendiferous outfits to celebrate the New Year coming in (or are we celebrating the fact that 2016 SHALL DIE? Ahem). In any case, sit ye self down because we’re about to take a jolly dalliance into the mysteries of PERSIA.
Past to Paper is a monthly feature on Upside-Down Books run by a young, Australian history buff. History can be an intimidating topic for many and knowledge of the past is severely limited for the majority. This features aims to make history fun, spark interest, and increase awareness of the past and how it could be brought to paper in an enjoyable way other than the sometimes unapproachable genre of Historical Fiction. It’s time to learn.
Persia is a wonderful part of history. It is an empire that no longer exists but by golly! It’s fun to say isn’t it? Persia. Yes I thought so, too. But where’s the literature? Where are my Persian dragons made entirely out of silk who breath the fire of melted coins? NO WHERE, I TELL YOU.
The world has become stuck on repeated retellings of 1001 Nights – or Arabian Nights as you might know it – but hark! The sound of opportunity flutters by your ear. Let us explore what was this wonderful part of history truly has to offer us because whilst I love me some sassy Arabian Nights retellings, I want those affluent silk dragons too.
As always, this is an era of history loved by historians and historical fiction writers, but today we’re going to explore how the elements of Persia’s relatively short existence could be manipulated into different stories that still educate you quietly on Persia’s history but do it through genres more people read.
Name: Persian Empire, or, Achaemenid Empire
Founded: 559 B.C.
Ended: 330 B. C.
First ‘official’ King: Cyrus I
World Wonder: Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
The Persian Empire, although wildly famous (and by famous I mean, you probably didn’t start reading this going: what on earth is Persia? Or maybe you did . . . in which case, sorry) it only lasted about 200 years. The dates I’ve given to you above come from a timeline provided by the National Geographic.
Persia is located in the modern day area you might most easily identify as the middle east. Except not – it’s a little higher, pull that gaze upwards a bit closer to Turkey. There you go. The most common name that pops up in its history is Cyrus II, but at that point your general knowledge likely fails you.
Fear not! That is why I’m here, isn’t it? Well to start with Cyrus II was the one who made the empire really big. It went from being in pretty much just Iran, to all spread over Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia and Azerbaijan. A pretty impressive resume, if I might say so myself.
So, Persia has an interesting history set in the cradle of civilisation and last for about 200 hundred years. It saw the rule of several kings beginning with Cyrus II, then Cambyses II, Darius I, Xerxes I before Alexander the Great swoops in and ruins all their fun. I’m sure there’s a rhyme out there somewhere to help you remember that . . .
Cyrus the Second builds the Empire,
Cambyses the Second sets Egypt on fire.
Darius the First introduces Persepolis,
But Xerxes the First leads Persia to a precipice.
Alexander the Great swoops in last,
And the strength of his army puts Persia in the past.
How was that? Yes alright, I won’t try poetry again.
Something that I think YA literature lacks at the moment is a good evens-Stevens balance of leading ladies and leading men. Whilst there are many strong male characters out there, I personally think there are not enough. Persia is a great opportunity to have fun with this.
Now I’d really love it if someone wrote some hardcore sci-fi that began with “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 . . . but I was born in the 20th century.” That first part actually comes from a cylindrical tablet that was found – but you can see the potential right? There’s nothing better than spinning a tale from one sentence of truth.
What I particularly like about Cyrus was his policy of tolerance. He is unique in his ruling for his acceptance of the continued existence of foreign cultural tidbits going on in his empire. I like that quality in him even though I’m sure he was probably a strange and horrible man (I mean, have you ever met a nice conquerer?)
Another powerful man who could make a beautifully corrupted villain is Astyages – Cyrus II grandfather. Why a villain? Because he sounds like someone who could either secretly be a vampire or a warlock. Obviously. Astyages ruled over Media which, after various tiffs, had influence over Mesopotamia. Which is a big deal. But, he decided that he wanted to marry off his daughter, Mandane, to a guy named Cambyses I who was the king of Persia (or what was Persia before it properly became the Persian Empire).
So, raise your hand if you’re confused. Thought so. Basically, all-powerful dude marries his daughter off to man of choice and TAHDAH Empire is born. Someone fetch Ryan Graudin and tell her she needs to rewrite history so we can find out what would have happened if Mandane said no (successfully). THAT would be an excellent story. But we’re talking about men, so more on her Mandane later.
A lot of people talk about Herodotus. If you’ve never studied Ancient History there’s a good chance you were never plagued by this guy’s name. Herodotus is an ancient historian. And he spins a few tales about Cyrus’ birth. I think an excellent fantasy retelling of Persian history would be to imagine Herodotus in present time who write magic stories that come to life – to imagine Persian history as simply something of his invention.
Moving back to Cyrus though, our clear protagonist, he’s responsible for the famed return of the Jewish people to Babylon. These shows of goodwill certainly don’t inspire the image of a tyrant, rather a hero – but nonetheless he’s certainly an interesting character in history who deserves to surface in fiction a bit more.
I must not finish this male section without giving due credit to Darius I as well. I think his role in expanding the empire even further afield – beyond Egypt and also up the Danube (a river in Europe) allow him some merit in being a relatively cool guy. He was said to be quite intelligent too. Oh boy, how are authors not leaping at the opportunity to have fun with these stories and characters yet?
But of course I’m not saying ‘down with feminism!’ by talking about men. He for She, right? I want both. So let’s cast an eye to the abundance of opportunity for whipping up a few more Shahrzads . . . except not that story again.
Here’s a good example for you. This fine fighting fellow we’ve come to know at Cyrus II had a rather . . . disgusting demise. On an expedition (I promise this is actually about women), shall we say, he lost his life fighting against a local tribe when the queen of that tribe, Tomyris (who’d just lost her own son), drowned him in a pail of blood. Nice, huh? But the point is, who is this Tomyris? How awesome does she sound? Yes indeed, we need a fully fledge Persian fantasy novel amidst the sweeping sands of the desert and Lo! A bold lady emerges from the shadows ready to take on the world.
Of course this is simply one of many stories that exist for Cyrus’ death – but I like this one. Tomyris was an epic queen – she ruled over an area that covered modern day Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, western Uzbekistan, and southern Kazakhstan. The actual name of her country was called Massagetae. I don’t know how to pronounce it either.
But of course we need to talk about Mandane, arguably the key player to allowing such an empire (being the mother of the ambitious dude and all that). So, she was a Median princess (the territory of her father). One of the interesting things around her is the strange dreams her father had that led him to be fearful of her child (which turned out to be fair when Cyrus took his kingdom #Karma?).
The story goes on that Mandane’s son, Cyrus, was taken from her to be killed – except he wasn’t because the guy sent to do it just couldn’t bring himself to (quick! someone write a novella for this guy). The name
Eternal in Persian, also. Which is quite cool (Mandana is another version of Mandane).
Another leading lady was Cassandane Shahbanu – a noblewoman and Cyrus’ (second) wife. She had four children her eldest, Cambyses II, eventually to be his father successor. When she died the entire empire went into mourning because she was so beloved – and Cyrus didn’t recover from her death for nearly a whole decade after. The name
Creation of Glory in Old Persian and
She who entangles men in Greek. I couldn’t tell you too much more about her than that – but what an interesting life she must have led.
One of my personal favourites is Pantea Arteshbod – one of the greatest Persian commanders during Cyrus II’s rule (go woman power!). She played a key role in keeping law and order in Babylon after it was conquered. Apparently she also wore an ‘intimidating’ battle mask not only to protect her face, but to stop men falling in love with her. I like her already. Her name means
Strong in Old Persian and
all the gods or
all the flowers in Greek.
A few more notable mentions (but let’s not make this too long) are;
- Atusa Shahbanu – Darius the Great’s wife – who was Cyrus’s daughter;
- Artunis who was the Commander of the Achaemenid Persian Army;
- Phaidyme Shahbanu the daughter of a nobleman and is involved in a legend involving magic;
- Irdabama who was a successful business woman and a formidable landowner – she had a huge ass workforce (in fact Irdabama is really cool so read THIS if you like);
- Amestris Shahbanu was a noblewoman come queen and then (a bloodthirsty) empress, *raises eyebrows*;
- Grand Admiral Artemisia was the grand admiral of the Persian army and was Xerxes’ great love;
- Esther was the wife of Xerxes and the first Jewish queen and heroine of the Biblical Book of Esther – she has a pretty interesting story;
- Parysatis was a queen (illegitimate daughter of someone called Artaxerxes I who was the half-sister of Xerxes II, whew);
- Sisygambis was a queen and mother of Darius III, she was involved with Alexander the Great’s advance on the Persian Empire;
- Roxana was a noblewoman come queen – she married the King of Macedonia (you know, Alexander the Great) and was eventually assassinated;
- The Amazons because according to some people (and this was news to me) the women referred to as the Amazons existed, or at least graves of women buried with swords etc.
There were a lot of awesome women within the period of the Persian Empire I’m discussing today and beyond. So make sure you head over to THIS website to read more about them if you’re interested!
Much Fighting, Many People
One of the greatest settings that this era has to offer is the battles and fighting – the collapsing of smaller empire that were absorbed into the Persian Empire. Just think of the fun you could have with that. What I think is most unique about this empire is that is allowed traditional languages and beliefs to remain amongst ethnic groups (etc) that they conquered. Why? Because if an empire is tolerant of such things, it’s much easier to fasten your rule around their necks.
With so many different cultures all within the one empire there are opportunities for Persian retellings of Romeo and Juliet GALORE or perhaps an alien invasion that studies the Persian empire to learn as much of the world as it can because of it being a melting pot.
Persia was the world’s original empire. No other empires before it had reached so far abroad. What if someone wrote a book and meshed time together so that various different empires co-existed all over the world? The British, Ottoman and Persian empire all fighting at each other’s necks? Such glories await on the pages there.
There is an abundance of opportunity for looking at different battles as well – whether just in historical fiction or as I wish, in other genres too. Cyrus conquered Media (his grandfather’s place) and Lydia (in Turkey), he imposed Persian control over Ionia which was a Greek territory then and after that he conquered Babylon. He’s just everywhere. Then when his successor comes along, Cambyses II, he conquers Egypt (525 B.C.) but after his death Darius I comes along and pushes the territory out even further.
Cyrus’ battle and conquest over Lydia is a particularly famed one. It occurred after the battle of Pteria which isn’t too far away on a map. Cyrus defeated his opponents despite being outnumbered approximately 2:1. He had planned to catch the Lydian king unprepared, the battle itself involved both chariots and camels, so, yeah. I imagine it would have been fairly spectacular to witness.
The Architectural Opportunities
There is one World Wonder that I would classify as belonging to this era, and that’s the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (destroyed by an earthquake). However, according to National Geographic the Persians were not especially accomplished builders at this point. Cyrus used the manpower of the people he conquered to play some catchy-up with the rest of the medieval world.
A particular phrase used by Nat Geo is their description of Persepolis. So one of the emperors, Darius I, founded this city because one can never have too many big cities in an empire but there is always need for a big one. Persepolis is described as “a byword for luxury”. Are your bookish brains thrown into override? Are you more than ready to have someone spangle up this luxurious city in the best fantasy novel of the year? Yes, yes you are.
In addition to architecture, the coinage system that we use today is based off the one invented in Lydia (Turkey) which was renowned for its commerce. There were some clashes here too because it was such a tempting prize – a battle that required the aid of the Spartans, Egyptians and Babylonians – and eventually the prize was caught. Leading onto openings towards Greece. But the historical element of commerce in this Turkish hub is a setting I dare say could be quite adventurous – steampunk, anyone?
There are many archeological sites in Babylon too that could be great opportunities. Imagine if someone wrote a story about Cyrus conquering ‘Babylon’ but unlike the biblical city we’ve come to know it turns out to be some epic sci-fi or fantasy sort of city to match its real mythical reputation. I mean, let’s not even get me started on the potential possible with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Tower of Babel. Sheesh.
Persian History in Literature
As I said, Persian History usually presents itself loud and clear through many retellings of 1001 Nights. And they’re fabulous and great, let’s not begrudge them that. I don’t know about you, however, but I’m itching for some clever authors to take a trip into all the other awesome things that happened within the Persian Empire and do something really great with them.
Genres I Want to See This In:
There are so many options with sci-fi when it comes to history. Implant an alien and make them walk around like a local, have an invasion, time travel, you name it! So much fun could be had by throwing a little bit more chaos into the mix.
I think we all know I’m going to say that Persian history could be successfully spiced up with the addition of dragons. I mean, that’s a given. But fantasy in general is a great genre to visit historical eras in – you don’t even need to specify that it’s Persia, just take an influence of it. Or, flat out shove some magic into the history.
Alternate Historical Fiction
SOMEONE WRITE A BOOK ABOUT MANDANE SAYING NO TO THE MARRIAGE.
A dystopian world where the British, Ottoman, Persian and even Roman empires overlap and result in the end of the world because of too many chefs and not enough cooks. Sounds like a fantastic synopsis to me.
Like I said, someone write me a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in Persia between a family in Persepolis and one in Ecbatana, or something. I’m all
Because Steampunk should always be an option
Examples of Books
A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini
The Wrath and the Dawn
by Renée Ahdieh
by Donna Jo Napoli
by Susan Fletcher
Thank you all for joining me on this adventure! I had a lot of fun digging into this niche of history and I hope you did too. I think my next trip to the bookstore will have me eagerly seeking out some unique stories in this setting, perhaps. See you next month!
The Great Fire of London
Missed last Month?