Neighbours and (sometimes) Friends


The Iranian plateau was never a secure self-contained entity. The great ruling dynasties - the Achaemenids, the Arsacids (Parthians) and Sasanians all experienced the porous nature of their borderlands (as also did the Macedonian interlopers, the Seleucids). From the west they were vulnerable to Greeks, Romans and Byzantines - and in due course Crusaders, Ottomans, and eventually British, Germans and Americans. From the north and east the peoples of the Steppes constantly tried to copy what the Medes, Persians and Parthians themselves had successfully done: move permanently on to the plateau. First were Scythians, Saka - and then Huns, Turks, Mongols - and more recently Russians. The threat from the south seemed minor: but it was from here the eventual successors to the ancient dynasties emerged.

It was always necessary for the rulers of Iran (Eranshahr) to have control over these borderlands, whether by conquest or alliances. We shall visit the disputed territories on the fringe of the Iranian world in order - moving roughly anticlockwise, and starting with the northern Steppes, home of the elusive Scythians, and then moving on to Armenia and its neighbours - the strategic centre-ground between the northern Steppes and the Caucasus, the Anatolian peninsula, Mesopotamia and Iran itself.


Archaelogists detect commmon cultural practices among Steppe peoples from Moldova to Manchuria between roughly 600 BC and AD 300. The Greeks knew those they encountered on the Eurasian Steppe as Scythians, the Persians as Saka or Saca. They were Iranian speaking - and presumably related to the Iranian peoples who had descended on to the Iranian plateau from around 1000 BC - the Persians themselves, the Medes, and the nation later known as Parthians.

Horses in Kazakhstan

Summer on the Kazakh Steppes

the scythians in more detail here


Closely related to the Scythians - they replaced them as controllers of the Steppes north of the Black Sea, and were later driven westward under pressure from Goths and Huns.



The last of the Iranian-speaking Indo-European peoples to move westwards from the Steppes of Central Asia - they followed and superseded the Scythians and the Sarmatians - with whom they had culturally and artistically much in common.



The highlands between Mesopotamia and the Caucasus, home since ancient times to a distinctive people with a distinctive language.

St Gregory's church, Ani

St Gregory's church (AD 994) in the abandoned Armenian city of Ani on the border between Turkey and modern Armenia. Photo AMW

The Armenian language is Indo-European - but appears to be more closely related to Greek than to other Indo-Iranian languages. At the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, Armenia was home to the civilisation known to the Assyrians as Urartu. The Urartians were most probably not the ancestors of the Armenian people whose home has been there since the end of the reign of Urartu around 550 BC - certainly their language was not Indo-European. It was nominally part of the Achaemenid and then the Seleucid empire, but was largely ignored by them. From the time of the Parthians, however, Armenia was fought over by the Romans/Byzantines to the west and the Parthians/Sasanians to the east. Armenia became the first Christian country in AD 301 (before Constantinople), although many Armenians remained Zoroastrian.

Armenia coninued to be fought over or traded between the larger powers surrounding it - Romans and Sasanians, Ottomans and Safavids, Russia and Turkey … Ani Fire Temple

Remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple in the Armenian city of Ani (first half of 1st century AD). Photo AMW

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Armenia's immediate neighbours included:


The area along and south of the Caucasus mountains, connecting the Black Sea with the Caspian. In ancient times it comprised Colchis (later Lazica) and Iberia (together making Georgia) and Albania (northern Azerbaijan). It had great strategic significance for the Persian empires and later for the Romans and Byzantines - it was an area where cultures constantly clashed. Control was necessary to protect Armenia to the south.

Scenery in Dagestan, ancient Albania

Typical scenery in Dagestan, Russia - ancient Albania

More on Colchis, Iberia and Albania here.

Media Atropatene or just Atropatene

Modern Iranian Azerbaijan - a remote and mountainous area between Lake Urmia and the Caspian Sea, originally the northwestern part of the Achaemenid satrapy of Media.

Lake Urmia, the western border of Atropatene

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A small region, once part of the Assyrian empire, in what is today Iraqi Kurdistan, east and south of Mosul. Its capital was Arbela (modern Arbil, or Irbil).

Once part of the Persian empire, after the collapse of the Seleucids, Adiabene became a semi-independent kingdom, under the loose overall control of the Parthians. In the 1st century BC, its ruling family converted to Judaism. It was made into the Roman province of Assyria by Trajan in AD 115 - but given up two years later by Hadrian. It remained under Sasanian rule until the Islamic conquest.

More detail on Adiabene

Map of Roman-Parthian frontier kingdoms

Gordyene (sometimes Cordyene)

A very small kingdom, to the north of Adiabene, and south of Armenia; situated east of the Tigris and south of Lake Van. It is largely mountainous, and is now part of eastern Turkey.

Another independent kingdom that emerged in the Parthian period as Seleucid control lessened. It was the home of Xenophon's Kardouchoi - believed by some to have been the ancestors of the Kurds. It was later fought over by the Armenians, Romans and Persians, changing hands frequently.

Looking south into Gordyene from Lake Van

Looking south towards Gordyene from Alkmar island in Lake Van

West of Armenia stretched the massive Anatolian peninsula - modern Turkey:

Anatolia (Asia Minor)

The whole of Anatolia was part of the Achaemenid empire, divided into geographically coherent satrapies, ruled by a satrap directly responsible to the Great King, but with much local power. It was all lost to the Persians as a result of the invasion by Alexander. The Seleucids tried to devolve power while retaining overall control. This policy was not successful. The western satrapies began to fall under the influence of Rome, while the more easterly ones looked towards Persia. Some won at least temporary independence. The more westerly the region, the more strongly it reflected the the language (Greek) and eventually the religion (Christianity) of the west.

More on the Achaemenids' western satrapies.


Pontic Alps

Distant view of the monastery of Sumela in the Pontic Alps. It was founded by the Roman emperor Theodosius I (AD 375 - 395). Photo AMW

Pontus is the Greek word for "sea" - used as a shorthand for the Black Sea. The region known as Pontus varied in extent - but refers to the land along the eastern half of the southern coast of the Black Sea (ie north-eastern Anatolia), cut off from the Anatolian interior by a high mountain range - the Pontic Alps. The coastal area began to be colonised by Greeks from about the 8th century BC. It probably wasn't actually called "Pontus" until it became a Roman province.

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The eastern central region of the Anatolian peninsula, cut off from the Mediterranean to the south by the Taurus mountains, and by mountains to the north from the Black Sea. It was already independent by 302 BC.

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Part of the south-eastern coastal area of Anatolia, with Cappadocia and mountains to the north and northern Syria to the east. The narrow pass known as the Cilician Gates through the Taurus mountains linking the coast with the Anatolian plateau has been an important route since very ancient times: one the world's earliest forts once guarded it. Later Xenophon and Alexander both used it - and it's still a vital communications link in modern Turkey. It was part of the Achaemenid empire until the conquests of Alexander.

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The largest island in the Mediterranean and of great strategic importance. Its attempts to be independent were not on the whole successful - and it was caught in the crossfire between Greeks, Egyptians and Persians.

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The Kingdom of Commagene, comprising the western half of the Achaemenid satrapy of Commagene, broke away in 163 BC.


Rumkale fortress on the Euphrates, close to the site of ancient Zeugma, Commagene. Photo AMW

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Syrian Orthodox church

Inside a Syrian Orthodox church in Diyarbakir (Amida), the main city of Sophene. The black basalt blocks were used for the city walls, and most public buildings in the city. Photo AMW

A small kingdom sandwiched between Commagene to the west, Osrhoene to the east and Armenia to the north. It was strategically important, controlling the routes into Anatolia via the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, complementing Commagene on the west bank of the Euphrates.

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Osrhoene (Edessa)

Edessa citadel

View of the citadel of Edsssa (Sanliurfa), the principal city of Osrhoene. Photo AMW

Between the Euphrates and the Tigris, south of the Taurus mountains, but north of Mesopotamia proper. It became an independent kingdom in 132 BC, when a dynasty of Nabataean Arabs detached it from the Seleucids in Syria.

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South of the Taurus mountains stretched the Mesopotamian plain, crossed by two great rivers: the Euphrates and the Tigris. For most of the period up until the Arab conquest, the border between the Roman/Byzantine and the Persian spheres was the Euphrates. East of the Euphrates - modern Iraq - lay the heartland of the Parthian and Sasanian empires - as it became for the Abbasid caliphs.


Syria was the name used by the Greeks (possibly derived from"Assyria") to describe the area bounded by Arabia to the south, the Mediterranean to the west, the mountains of Anatolia (Taurus range) to the north and the river Euphrates to the east. It probably had no separate political existence until the Persian conquest in 539 BC by Cyrus: its earliest inhabitants were Canaanites, who developed the civilisation based on Ugarit between 1800 and 1200 BC. Their language was Semitic, and used writing from about 1400 BC - for literature, not just accounting. The territory was disputed between Egyptians, Hittites and Assyrians for many centuries, falling to the Assyrians (around 911 BC). Assyrian rule was ended in 605 BC at the Battle of Carchemish, when the Babylonian force of Nebuchadnezzar II defeated the Egyptians.

Syria's most important contibution to the region was its language: Aramaic, the language, first recorded around 1000 BC, of the Aramaeans, a group of Canaanites who had once, like their Phoenician relatives, tried to maintain an independent state. Aramaic became (from around 700 BC) the language of trade and administration for the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires.

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The Mediterranean coast. Periodically Persia tried to get a foothold on the Mediterranean. The Achaemenids were initially successful, with expansion including western Anatolia, Greece and Egypt. But once these territories were lost, the Persian empires only occasionally and temporarily managed to reach the sea to the west:


A Greek name (meaning the " land of the purple people") for the Levantine coastal city-states of the Canaanites - roughly corresponding to the coastal area of modern Lebanon plus a little of Syria to the north and Israel to the south. The cities were at their wealthiest and most powerful between around 1200 BC (when the mysterious "Sea Peoples" brought an end to the regional dominance of the Hittites and Egyptians) and c. 800 BC, when they founded Carthage in North Africa. They traded throughout the Mediterranean - most notably in purple dye (hence their Greek name). The Phoenician cities were part of Cyrus' conquests, and thereafter provided ships and sailors for the Persians. After Alexander, Phoenicia was hotly contested between his successors, the Seleucids and the Ptolemies, finally becoming part of Seleucid Syria. In 65 BC, Phoenicia was incorporated in the Roman province of Syria. Damascus was the Arab Umayyads' base after the conquest.

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Judaea, looking east

Looking east into Judaea from Herodion. Photo AMW

Originally the name for a small community of Canaanites living in the area of Jerusalem, later becoming the Roman name for their somewhat larger province, which was also known by its Greek name of Palestine - after the Philistines, a people (possibly descended from the "Sea Peoples"who attacked Egypt in 1177 BC) and who developed 5 cities on the southern coastal strip beween Jaffa and Gaza.

After a period of unity under their kings David and Solomon, (builder of the First Temple), there arose two monarchies - the northern kingdom of Israel (925 - 721 BC) which fell eventually to the Assyrians (although its name was revived in 66 AD and again in 1948). Its inhabitants were deported to Assyria [27,290 according to Assyrian accounts, see also 2 Kings 18.11] and Israel ceased to exist - the territory became Samaria.

The southern, much smaller, kingdom of Judah (925 - 586 BC) - was in turn overthrown by the Babylonians under king Nebuchadnezzar II, its population dispersed, and its temple in Jerusalem destroyed.

Later it was ruled by Persia, and then after Alexander's conquest, fought over by the Macedonian Ptolemies and Seleucids. A brief interval of independence from Greek rule was followed by incorporation into the Roman orbit.

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Thanks to the annual flooding of the Nile, which provided a constantly renewed fertile strip both sides of the river, Egypt from very early times (around 3500 BC) became a successful, wealthy and centralised monarchy. Its geography and wealth made it vulnerable to attack - and it came under foreign rule several times before succumbing to the Persians, Macedonians, Romans and Arabs.

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A region of North Africa in which Greek influence preponderated - but it became part of the Achaemenid empire until the conquests of Alexander returned it to Greek rule.

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The kingdom of Kush (Sudan, Ethiopia) was probably not a satrapy of the Achaemenid empire, but contributed "gifts" to Persia.

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