The Persian Empire is the name given to a series of dynasties centered in modern-day Iran that spanned several centuries—from the sixth century B.C. to the twentieth century A.D. The first Persian Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great around 550 B.C., became one of the largest empires in history, stretching from Europe’s Balkan Peninsula in the West to India’s Indus Valley in the East. This Iron Age dynasty, sometimes called the Achaemenid Empire, was a global hub of culture, religion, science, art and technology for more than 200 years before it fell to the invading armies of Alexander the Great.
At its height under Darius the Great, the Persian Empire stretched from Europe’s Balkan Peninsula—in parts of what is present day Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine—to the Indus River Valley in northwest India and south to Egypt.
The Persians were the first people to establish regular routes of communication between three continents—Africa, Asia and Europe. They built many new roads and developed the world’s first postal service.
The ancient Persians of the Achaemenid Empire created art in many forms, including metalwork, rock carvings, weaving and architecture. As the Persian Empire expanded to encompass other artistic centers of early civilization, a new style was formed with influences from these sources.
Early Persian art included large, carved rock reliefs cut into cliffs, such as those found at Naqsh-e Rustam, an ancient cemetery filled with the tombs of Achaemenid kings. The elaborate rock murals depict equestrian scenes and battle victories.
Ancient Persians were also known for their metalwork. In the 1870s, smugglers discovered gold and silver artifacts among ruins near the Oxus River in present-day Tajikistan.
The artifacts included a small golden chariot, coins and bracelets decorated in a griffon motif. (The griffon is a mythical creature with the wings and head of an eagle and the body of a lion, and a symbol of the Persian capital of Persepolis.)
British diplomats and members of the military serving in Pakistan brought roughly 180 of these gold and silver pieces—known as the Oxus Treasure—to London where they are now housed at the British Museum.
The history of carpet weaving in Persia dates back to the nomadic tribes. The ancient Greeks prized the artistry of these hand-woven rugs—famous for their elaborate design and bright colors. Today, most Persian rugs are made of wool, silk, and cotton.