Project Canterbury

Mary Bird in Persia

By Clara C. Rice

London: Church Missionary Society, 1916.

Chapter II. Ancient Persia

PERSIA seems a large "setting" for one woman! But the present Persia is so closely linked up with the past that a brief summary of its ancient rulers and its ancient yet still prevailing faiths, will not be out of place. Miss Bird, too, is representative of hundreds of British men and women who, for one reason or another, live and work in this ancient land, which is more closely connected with the West than ever before.

It is claimed that Persian history can be traced back for some six thousand years, during which period the region known, to its own people as Iran, or the Aryan land, and to the West as Persia, has been inhabited by various races and nations, and has come in contact with a large number of foreign Powers. Here it will suffice to recall some of the comparatively modern, outstanding dates and facts, the latter being essential to the clear understanding of the Persia of to-day.

The country and its rulers from the eighth century B.C. to the seventh century A.D. largely affected the then known world. In the seventh century B.C. the Medes of Ecbatana, the ruins of which city still exist, revolted against Assyria, allied themselves with Babylon, and formed an independent kingdom. This in time was merged into a Medo-Persian kingdom by Cyrus, King of Anshan, who captured Ecbatana in 550 b.c.

No one event in ancient times was so important and central to the Kingdom of God as the surrender of Babylon to Cyrus in 538 B.C. [Dan. v. 28.] Again, no one figure was so central and so closely related to the restoration of the Hebrews to Palestine, and the preservation of the true faith, as Cyrus, the king of the Persians. The Medes and Persians were never idolaters, no images profaned the severe simplicity of the Iranic temples, and it was only after the lapse of ages and in connexion with foreign worship that idolatry crept in. Monotheism seems to have been a strong bond of sympathy between the Jews and Persians in the time of Darius, and for centuries after. The Jews, usually so intolerant of a foreign yoke, never rebelled against the Persians, who in their turn, in spite of pride of race and place, respected and protected the Jews. This great fact related Persia very closely to the Jews long before the coming of Christ. Her fidelity, though so imperfect, was acknowledged by God; the surrounding nations as foretold have suffered desolation and complete destruction, while Persia, who was not so denounced, is still a nation, retaining not only the Persian stock, but the Israelite colonies planted twenty-five centuries ago in Mesopotamia and Media. Cyrus the Great largely extended the boundaries of Persia, while the fame of its warriors and merchants was widespread. [Ezek. xxvii. 10 and xxxviii. 5.] Darius Hystaspes made vast improvements in the government and general well-being of the country, and Xerxes, desiring still greater power, attempting in 480 B.C. with his army of over two millions to conquer Greece, met with disaster. At this time the Persian empire covered two and a quarter million square miles.

The next years that claim attention are 334-331 B.C. when Alexander the Great of Macedon made himself master of the Persian empire. The ruins of the Halls of Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes at Pasargadse and Persepolis to-day, bear dumb but eloquent testimony to his powers of annexation and destruction.

At his death, Alexander's empire was divided among his four generals. After this Persia was less prominent for a time, and for some centuries formed part of the Parthian realm until, with the dynasty of the Sasanidae, a new Persian empire arose under Artaxerxes in A.D. 226, the extent of which was only two-thirds of what it had been in the reign of Darius.

During the rule of this exclusively Persian dynasty, which lasted until A.D. 641, many religious forces were in conflict. The Jews had grown powerful during the time of the Parthians and that of the Seleucidse, and had their great school of tradition and Talmudic learning in Babylon. The old heathenism still lingered on in Mesopotamia.

Christians were numerous. Tradition says that Thaddaeus and Simon the Canaanite preached and taught in Western Persia. The Parthian was tolerant in religious matters, and there was an open door to the eastward. The missionary activity of the Church and the progress of the Gospel under the Parthian rule of the East, was as great as under the Roman rule of Europe during the same centuries-Dominant over all was the ancient state religion of Zoroastrianism. Under the Sasanian kings, who were purely Persian, this also purely Persian faith was revived with a fierce intolerance seldom equalled in the West. Some of the later Sasanian rulers were favourable to Christianity, but the national tendency was towards the teachings of Zoroaster. Though thousands of Persians became Christians, the stronghold of Zoroastrianism did not yield. An indigenous Persian Church arose, but worshipping m the Syriac language and without the Bible in the vernacular, the nation as a whole was not leavened as might have been the case. Much hindrance was caused by the Jews, who incited the Magi against the Christians. The third century saw peaceful progress, but the fourth was full of conflict and persecution; with "an open door, but many adversaries." During this period pious monks from Egypt and Syria were unceasing in their efforts; many churches in Mesopotamia and among the Nestorians still bear their names. About A.D. 302 under the preaching of St. Gregory the Illuminator, the King of Armenia and his Court were baptized. The growth of Christianity was very rapid, and Armenia was the first kingdom in which Christianity was adopted as the state religion. Before long both Nestorians and Armenians were under Persian rule. When Christianity was accepted by Constantine in A.D. 312 it was stigmatized by the rival empire of the East as "the religion of the Romans." National sentiment united with religious zeal led to bitter persecution of Christians, which continued for centuries in Persia after its cessation in the Roman empire. The sufferings of the Christians under Shapur II were as terrible as any experienced under Diocletian, and the advance of Christianity met with more obstacles in the East than in the West. In the fifth century the Eastern Christians were separated from the Western through the bitter controversies in the Church. The Council of Ephesus, A.D. 431, resulted in a schism which reached Persia; and the final separation of the main body of Persian Christians was completed in A.D. 499. The reasons for this were partly political, as it satisfied the Persian power to know that its subjects had broken their connexion with Rome, and so persecution ceased. In the seventh and eighth centuries the Persian Church was very active in propagating its faith in regions beyond, among the savage hordes inhabiting the deserts to the East, even in China, and to the remotest shores of Asia.

The prominent religion of Persia from primeval days claims some further mention here. The faith held by the Zoroastrians, fire-worshippers, or Parsis, is supposed to have been inculcated by Zoroaster or Zardusht, a native of Rhages, who afterwards lived in the East of Iran, or Persia, in the region known as Bactria, famous to-day for its camels. His date is unknown. Some Greek writers have suggested five thousand years before the Siege of Troy! Modern scholars vary in placing him between 600 and 800 B.C. Zoroaster may have been a leader in a schism in the old Aryan race, the result of which was that the religion of one branch of the race developed into Vedism and Hinduism in India, while the other was the origin of the dualistic system, which still bears the name of Zoroaster, and which took root in Persia.

Certainly Zoroaster was one of the world's great teachers, seeing far into things spiritual, yet always longing for more light. Probably the Magi who worshipped at the manger in Bethlehem, were some of his followers. According to the tenets of the faith he taught, the world is the battlefield of two contending spirits, eternal and creative in their origin and action; the wise God, Ormuzd, and the evil spirit, Ahriman. The conflict is not hopeless, and is not destined to be perpetual. Modern Parsis recognize the existence of vast hierarchies of good and evil spirits. Their sacred books are spoken of collectively as the Zend-Avesta. The word zend means "interpretation," and the Avesta is a literature which developed with the life of the people. The collection of hymns is attributed to Zoroaster himself. In later ages, much liturgical matter was added, and what may be called the "priestly code" of the fire-worshippers. The light, the sun, the fire, are the symbols of Ormuzd, therefore the sacred fire is always burning in the temples, and when men pray, they face the sun. They now deny the assertion that they worship the fire or the sun, but say that they worship the pure and shining One Whose presence and character are symbolized by light and its sources. Their religion exerts very little influence over the Parsis of the present day, who are practically materialists; they are liberal and public-spirited and not wanting in philanthropy. They have contributed few converts to Christianity, but those, in India especially, are men and women of mark and influence.

In the early centuries of the era, Christianity failed to overthrow Zoroastrianism in Persia, but to this mighty religion which threatened at one time to supersede all others, a fatal blow came suddenly and in an unexpected way. In the middle of the seventh century the Persian Emperor one day received a letter bidding him abjure the faith of his ancestors and confess that "there is no God but God, and Mohammed is the Prophet of God." The indignant monarch tore the letter to atoms and drove the Arab messenger from his presence. But in less than a decade the Arab hordes had driven the Persian sovereign from his throne, and the whole ancient system had fallen with a crash. Mohammedanism has from that day to this ruled in Persia. The rnobeds of Magiism became the mullds of Islam. The Arabian domination continually increased in power and extent. Persia was sometimes a province, at others the centre of the Arabian Empire, under successive rulers of Arab, Turk, or Mongol origin. Mohammedanism completely captured the life and permeated the thought of the people, and Persia became the cradle of Moslem philosophy. The Persian is the only Aryan race that has accepted Islam.

From A.D. 632 to 1258 the Saracens ruled in Persia, during part of which time the Seljuk Turks exercised considerable power. A prominent man among the latter was Omar Khayyam, the mathematician and free-thinking poet of the 11th century. Though Persia seemed bound by the iron rule of Islam, which knows no change, another wave of conquest, this time from the East, swept over the country in A.D. 1258 when the Mogul Tartars established themselves under Changis Khan as the masters of Iran. This change was for a time favourable to Christianity, as the rulers openly declared themselves as Christians, or as friendly to the faith. An alliance with the Western Church was hoped for: but after a time of vacillation the Moguls found Islam more suited to their rough and sanguinary methods, and the Emperor decided in favour of Mohammedanism. A time of persecution followed, and the Christian faith, instead of holding the fair fields of Central Asia, was left with only a remnant of its adherents. In 1420 the confusion began to clear, and the national religion underwent a change from the orthodox Sunni faith to the heterodox doctrines of the Shiahs, to which it has adhered ever since.

From 1492 to 1722 the Safavi dynasty was in power; its climax being reached during the reign of Shah Abbas the Great, a ruler who did much for his country. Among other things he brought five thousand Armenian families from Julfa in Armenia to the vicinity of Isfahan, then one of the largest and most magnificent cities in the world, and at that time the Persian capital, and gave them land on which to build and settle down, so that they might teach their arts and crafts to the Persians. This settlement they called New Julfa after their home on the Araxes. With the downfall of the Safavi dynasty and the accession of Nadir Shah in a.d. 1736, the last native Persian dynasty passed away. He was a warrior ruler who invaded India in 1739 and entered Delhi. After his death in 1747 a period of anarchy, followed by short reigns of various despots, ensued, until in 1794 Agha Mohammed, the first of the present reigning Turkish dynasty of the Kajars, ascended the throne.

Think in this batter'd caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate night and day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.


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