By the 6th century B.C.E., under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, Persia had become the first land empire of the ancient world, stretching from the Mediterranean to India. Darius the Great, who ruled from 522 to 486 B.C.E., introduced Zoroastrianism as the state religion and built Persepolis as the empire's ceremonial capital -- a site for imperial tribute and the celebration of rituals such as No Ruz (New Year). In 330 B.C.E., Alexander the Great conquered Persia, ending Cyrus' Achaemenian dynasty and burning Persepolis to the ground. Only the pillars, gates, and other masonry features of the city still stand in the desert 40 miles northeast of Shiraz. Seen here is the "Gate of All Nations," a ceremonial entrance built by Darius' successor, Xerxes, guarded by "lamasu" -- bulls with the heads of bearded men.
Persepolis has played contrasting symbolic roles for 20th century leaders. For the Shah, it was central in his bid for legitimacy based in an affirmation of the historic greatness of the Iranian nation; Ayatollah Khomeini, on the other hand, viewed the ruins simply as a symbol of the monarchy, and during the Revolution razing the site was seriously considered. The ruins were neglected until after Khomeini's death, when President Hashemi Rafsanjani recuperated Persepolis as a symbol of national dignity, incorporating the legacy of the classical Persia as part of the culture of modern Iran.
CREDIT: Afshin Marashi
After Alexander's victory, the Greek Seleucids held Persia for less than a century. By 247 B.C.E. the Parthians had retaken the area and had again begun to build a Persian empire, heavily influenced by Greek models. The Sassanian dynasty, established by Ardeshir in 208 C.E., was built on Parthian successes, but reestablished a sense of Persian identity along with the Zoroastrian religion. Ardeshir built a world power that challenged Rome, and in 260 C.E., his successor, Shapour I, took Rome itself. The Sassanians continued their expansion until the beginning of the 7th century when, exhausted by centuries of warfare, their empire fell to Arab forces.
Though Sassanian Persia was a strict hierarchy, its control over and dependence on the Silk Road trade route that linked China and India with Rome and Arabia made it a largely tolerant and inclusive society. Seen here is Ardeshir's palace, outside of the trading city of Firuzabad. Its arches and domes, typical of Sassanian buildings, were later adopted by and became characteristic of Muslim architecture.
CREDIT: Afshin Marashi
Following the collapse of the Sassanian empire, Persia was ruled by a succession of conquerors -- the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Turks, and the Mongols -- until the beginning of the 16th century. In 1500 Ismail I overthrew the Turks and established the Safavids dynasty. The Safavids, originally a Sufi brotherhood, adopted mainstream Shiism and mobilized it to reconstitute a distinctly Persian identity, much as the Sassanians had utilized Zoroastrianism nearly a thousand years earlier, establishing the role of the Shah (king) as leader, spiritual guide, and divine ruler.
After nearly a century of expansionist warfare, Abbas I, who ruled from 1557 to 1629 C.E., established a peaceful, multi-ethnic, and prosperous Safavid empire. Isfahan, which became the capital and Iran's cultural and intellectual center in 1598, is the material manifestation of this historical period. The city's many mosques, schools, gardens, and boulevards -- planned around the central square, or Maidan, seen here -- integrate the religious, commercial, classical, and royal strands of Iranian history.
CREDIT: Afshin Marashi
Poetry has long been one of the pillars of Iranian identity. Poets were a fixture at the imperial courts, and in contemporary Iran the deaths of prominent poets are cause for national mourning.
A crucial period for Iranian literary culture was the late 10th and early 11th century reign of Mahmud of Ghazan, in whose court Abdul Qasim Mansur -- known as Ferdowsi -- authored Iran's principal poetic work, the epic Shahnameh (Book of Kings). Twice the length of Homer's Iliad, the Shahnameh -- which recounts the history and mythology of Iran's kings -- is the central literary expression of Iranian historical and national identity. Pictured is a page from a 16th century illuminated Shanameh commissioned by Shah Tahmasp.
Ferdowsi is only one of the poets whose works are vital to the cultural legacy of Iran. Three other Persian-language poets are ranked among the greatest in all of Islamic literature: the Rubaiyat (quatrains) of 11th and 12th century mathematician, astronomer, and poet Omar Khayyam is one of the most widely known and translated works in world literature; the 13th century poet Rumi's work is one of the foundations of Sufi philosophy and belief; and Hafiz, the 14th century Sufi, was not only a scholar of Persian literature and the Qur'an but one of the greatest lyric poets of all time.
CREDIT: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase, F1996.2
Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who became Shah in 1941, found it difficult to secure political legitimacy -- he ruled dictatorially, stepping beyond his defined role as a constitutional monarch. Even his modernizing gestures such as the 1963 "White Revolution," which included land reforms, women's suffrage, and economic incentives, failed to satisfy the Shah's critics, who saw him as beholden to the West. The Shah turned to the Persian legacy, in 1967 crowning himself -- as seen in the ceremony pictured here -- as King of Kings and Emperor of Iran. His resurrection of the Persian cultural legacy continued with an extravagant celebration of at Persepolis in 1971, marking the 2,500-year anniversary of the Persian empire and asserting his place in an unbroken lineage of Persian kings. Further gestures such as replacing the Islamic lunar calendar with the Zoroastrian solar calendar may have appealed to Persian nationalism but did little to build support for continued royal rule, especially in the face of an opposition movement that had grown increasingly Islamic and resented Pahlavi's appeals to ancient royalty as much as they had his secularism. By 1978, widespread protests forced the Shah into exile, opening the way for the Islamic Revolution.
CREDIT: Dmitri Kessel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Long before Christ, the prophet Zoroaster, who lived in Persia around the 7th century B.C.E., preached a monotheistic faith inclucing many features -- a battle between good and evil, devils and angels, and concepts of heaven and hell, redemption, resurrection, and a last judgment -- that influenced the Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. As a state religion, Zoroastrianism also played a crucial role in the history of the great Persian empires.
Zoroastrianism is still practiced in Iran today, though by less than 1 percent of the population. Pictured here is a Zoroastrian man praying in a temple in Chak Chak, near Yazd, as part of a religious pilgrimage in June 2001. Like other revealed, monotheistic religions that predate Islam, Zoroastrianism is tolerated in Iran, though not without some prejudice, and the community has a representative in the Majles (parliament).
CREDIT: Damir Sagolj/Reuters
The goldfish is one of the symbols of No Ruz, the Iranian New Year, a huge national feast and celebration that dates back to the days of Zoroastrianism and the Persian Empire. The celebrations -- affirmations of rebirth, health, and patience -- encompass 13 days surrounding the spring equinox. The first day of the festival is a large family get-together and is the most widely celebrated part of the festival. Families clean their houses and buy new clothes for the children. Tables are set with a mirror, a goldfish in a bowl, colored eggs, and seven items whose names begin with "s" in Persian. Religious families put the Qur'an on the table, while more secular families often substitute a collection of the works of Hafiz. Most businesses close and most people do not work. The festivities conclude on the 13th day with a nationwide outing, as most Iranians head out to the countryside on picnics.
Although No Ruz is Zoroastrian in origin, it is the most widely recognized national holiday, celebrated by many of the country's minorities as well as by its Islamic majority. Initially, the Islamic Revolution tried to stamp out No Ruz festivities, calling them "superstitious" and "anti-Islamic." But the Iranian people's will and more than 2,500 years of tradition have prevailed, and the festivities have grown every year since 1979.
CREDIT: Vahid Salemi/Associated Press
Chahar Shanbeh Soori
The Festival of Fire -- Chahar Shanbeh Soori -- celebrates the eve of the last Wednesday of the year. On Tuesday evening, raging bonfires are built in an observance that originated in a Zoroastrian ritual welcoming and protecting the returning souls of ancestors visiting the living. The young light fireworks and jump over these fires, shouting wishes for good health in a purification rite that draws on the beneficial effects of fire and light to chase away illness. Children wrap themselves in shrouds meant to represent the visiting spirits and rush through town banging pots and pans with spoons to ward off the bad luck of the lingering winter. They also knock on doors and ask for treats. Some make wishes on this night then eavesdrop on the conversations of passersby, in the hope that overhearing positive and optimistic details will improve the chances of their wishes being granted. Many of the deeper religious and historic meanings of these practices have been lost with time, and with the exception of Zoroastrians, the Festival of Fire is a secular festival for most Iranians. While the festivities have been fostered as a positive expression of national culture, Islamic purists tend to view them as a superstitious tradition, linked to the Shah, and have in the past sentenced a very few people to jail for disrupting public order during the celebration.
CREDIT: Hasan Sarbakhshian/Associated Press