Iranian History - The Medes
The little we know of the Medes comes solely from mention of them in Assyrian and Babylonian records, the writings of ancient historians and their appearance in two chapters of the Bible.
The Medes themselves left no written records and remains from the pre-Achaemenid period that would have been concurrent with their empire have not yet been definitively ascribed to a single material culture.
However, it is reasonably certain that during the early part of the 1st millennium BC, Indo-Iranian nomads began to settle in western and north-western Iran and began to infiltrate the native population.
The first mention of the Medes in Assyrian records associate them with the Scythians with whom they shared tribal names, suggesting a definitive link between the two peoples. The borders of their lands were never fixed but coincided roughly with what is west and north-western Iran, bordering Mesopotamia in the east, stretching south to the Persian Gulf (Elam, Parthia) and limited in the north by the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus.
Assyrian reliance on the Silk Road trade area made Media a target for empire building and military diplomacy. Records tell us that Median tribes paid tribute to their powerful neighbours but were never completely conquered by them. It is likely that it was this aggression that served to unite the various Median tribes, creating a formidable military power that in turn began to threaten Assyrian lands.
The writings of the 5th century Greek historian Herodotus tell of four kings named Deioces, Phraortes, Cyaxeres and Astyages who ruled a united Media from the beginning of the 7th century BC to the middle of the 5th.
However, the nature of his account and inconsistency with other sources throws doubt on this. It is likely that Herodotus simplified a complex oral tradition that told of the origins of the later Achaemenid Empire, reifying a myth about the origins of a civilisation as historical fact.
What is certain is that by the time of the reign of Cyaxares, Media had developed from being a loose confederation of tribal groupings into a nation under a single king who exacted tribute from Persians, Armenians, Parthians and Aryans.
That the name of the Median capital, Ecbatana, meant "place of assembly" adds further weight to the tribal confederation explanation of the origins of the empire.
Elamite soldier shown behind Persian archer in a bas-relief from Apadana Palace.
Cyaxares dealt a decisive blow to the Assyrian Empire by destroying their religious capital Ashur in 614 BC. Two years later, while allied with Babylon, the Assyrian capital Nineveh also fell to the Medes.
The Median Empire was at its peak at this time, encompassing Armenia, Assyria and Cappadocia (now Eastern Turkey) in the west and stretching as far as the Oxus River in the east.
However, Astyages, the son of Cyaxares, was to be the last of the great Median kings. In response to the growing power of a coalition of tribes under the leadership of King Cyrus of Anshan, Astyages sent an army to Persia (modern day Fars province). After brief skirmishes, the army deserted their king, captured him and delivered him up to Cyrus in 550 BC.
Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari