Dimitris Stamatios | December 19, 2022


The Medes (Hebrew: מָדַי) were an ancient Iranian people who lived in a region in northwestern Iran. Around 1100-1000 BC, they occupied the mountainous region of northwestern Iran and the northeastern and eastern region of Mesopotamia located in the area of Hamadan (Ecbatane). Their emergence in Iran is thought to have occurred between 800 BC and 700 BC. By the 7th century BC, all of western Iran and some other territories were under Mede rule, but their precise geographical extent remains unknown.

Although it is generally recognized as having an important place in the history of the ancient Middle East, this people has left no textual sources that allow us to reconstruct its history. It is known only from external sources, Assyrian, Babylonian and Greek, as well as from a few Iranian archaeological sites, which are supposed to have been occupied by Medes.

Herodotus” accounts of the Medes have left the image of a powerful people, who are said to have formed an empire in the early seventh century B.C. that lasted until 550 B.C., playing a decisive role in the fall of the Assyrian Empire and competing with the powerful kingdoms of Lydia and Babylon. However, a recent reassessment of contemporary sources from the Medes period has changed scholars” perceptions of the “Mede kingdom.” This state remains difficult to perceive in the documentation, which leaves many doubts about it, some scholars even proposing that there never was a powerful Medes kingdom. In any case, it appears that after the fall of the last Mede king to Cyrus II of Persia, Media became an important and prized province of the empires that successively dominated it (Achaemenids, Seleucids, Parthians and Sassanids).

The Medes are an Iranian people, who settled in the north-western part of present-day Iran, between the mountainous regions of the western Zagros and the Elbourz, southern Mazandaran, towards the last centuries of the 2nd millennium. They came there from Central Asia, probably at the same time as the Persians who are related to them. When they appear in the textual documentation, in the middle of the ninth century, they had probably been present in this region for a long time.

The present name of the Medes derives from the ancient Greek Mêdos (Μῆδος). The Assyrians spoke of the “Medes country,” KUR Mada, Mata, or Manda, and the Babylonians referred to them as Ummān-manda. Because of their proximity to the Persians, Greek authors sometimes had difficulty distinguishing them from them, as evidenced by the phrase “Median Wars.”

It must be noted that this people remains elusive by modern archaeologists and historians, primarily for its cultural traits. Assyrian and Greek sources indicate that they occupied a region located in the central-western part of present-day Iran, bordered to the north by the country of the Manneans, to the south by that of Ellipi, and to the west by the territories of Urartu and Assyria; its eastern limit is unknown. But the fact that Iranian place names and people are found in neighboring regions indicates that there was no ethnic homogeneity in western Iran of this period, as Medes could be found over a wide area. It is likely that Iranian groups become increasingly important during the first half of the first millennium.

The Medes language

The origin and characteristics of the Medes language are still under discussion. Few certainties exist in the absence of texts found in this language and with only a few words, toponyms, anthroponyms attributed to the Medes language, its grammar cannot be reconstructed. However, it is clear that it is an Iranian language, close to Old Persian and presented as a potential ancestor of modern Northwestern Iranian languages. Some passages of Greek authors present words attributed to Medes: thus, comparing the Mede and Persian languages, Herodotus mentions the word spaka (“dog”, still present in the present Iranian languages such as Kurdish and Talysh, and different from Persian). Some Old Persian words have also been sought to be identified as borrowings from Mede, especially those concerning politics, war, or religion; for example: xšayaθia “king,” uvaspa- “with good horses,” zūra “evil.” The term “satrape” may have been taken over by the Greeks from its Mede form (* xšaθra-pā) and not its Old Persian form (xšaça). There have been proposals for reconstructions of Mede roots from Old Persian words assumed to be borrowed from Mede. The differences between Old Persian and Mede are in any case poorly established: the former is known from royal inscriptions, which may have used a different language from that spoken by the Persians of the time, and it may be marked by significant borrowings from Mede.

The archaeological sites of the Medes

The material culture of the Medes is a little better identified than their language, even if there too, grey areas and especially many doubts remain. The “gray ware” found at sites in the Gorgan region and at Tepe Sialk at the end of the 2nd millennium has sometimes been seen as a mark of the “Proto-Iranians”, or even of the “ProtoMedes” who arrived in the region at this period. In fact, the attribution of a type of ceramic to an ethnic group remains questionable. For the Medes period proper, the 9th-7th centuries, there is still debate as to the material traits of the culture of this people. R. D. Barnett tried to identify in 1962 objects representative of a “Medes art”. It turned out that none of the objects had a definite archaeological context and therefore could not be taken into account as artistic evidence of the culture of the Medes.

Archaeological explorations of sites in the region where the Medes developed have brought more elements to the discussion, but have not resolved it, far from it, since there is never the certainty that an excavated site was indeed inhabited by the Medes, except for Ecbatane, but no level of the Medes period has yet been unearthed there. This is further complicated by the fact that there is a certain artistic and architectural homogeneity among the different peoples of northwestern Iran during this period, which sometimes makes it uncertain and even improbable that a certain type of object or construction can be attributed to a specific people. It is therefore impossible to speak of a “Mede art” with certainty.

This generally leads to the attribution to the Medes of sites excavated for the period and the region that we know from Assyrian sources that they populated. The sites commonly considered to be representative of the Medes and their culture are all located in the region of Hamadan, the ancient Ecbatane, thus in the region which the various sources agree is the center of the Mede settlement: Godin Tepe, Nush-i Jân, Baba Jân and Tepe Ozbaki, to which can be added Gunespan, more recently uncovered. These small fortresses bear witness to common architectural practices, strongly inspired by those of Anatolia or Urartu and prefiguring Achaemenid architecture, already attested in northwestern Iran in the large site of Hasanlu (generally attributed for this period to the Manneans, a neighbouring people of the Medes) and also presenting affinities with Tell Gubbah in the Iraqi Zagros and even Ulug Depe in Turkmenistan. The status of Kerkenes Dagh, located in the province of Yozgat in Turkey, is debated: some want to see the fortress of Pteria mentioned by Herodotus, controlled by the Medes kingdom following its conquests in eastern Anatolia, an opinion far from unanimous.

Godin Tepe, located near Hamadan, was inhabited from the end of the Neolithic period, and developed through commercial relations with Elam. After a phase of abandonment between the end of the 2nd millennium and the beginning of the 1st millennium, it was populated again by Iranian populations around 750 A.D. They then built a fortress on high ground. A powerful rampart protected the citadel on its northern side. To the east was an arsenal. In the center, a gallery with two rows of columns was built, leading to the kitchens, and a building that could be a fire temple. The west side contains the main part of the fortress, the palace. It is a large hypostyle hall, where the throne of the master of the place is located. Later, a second, smaller columned hall was built to the west. This site is probably then the residence of a Mede kinglet. It was abandoned in the middle of the 6th century.

Tepe Nush-i Jân is located north of Hamadan. It is built high on a hill. The fortress is divided into four areas. A “fort” is located to the west. The lower floor of this building was found to contain warehouses. A staircase attests to the presence of an upper floor. At the other end, a fire temple was built, before being partially covered by a columned building. Between the columned hall and the fort, a second fire temple was built (see below). In the seventh century, the inhabitants of the site covered the buildings with stones, probably in order to preserve them for repair. But the site was then abandoned.

Baba Jan, located near Nurabad (Lorestan), is a very old site, which undergoes a new development from the end of the 9th century, at the beginning of period III. It was given a monumental architecture in the next level of period III: its main building is a “manor house”, 33 × 35 meters on a side, protected by corner towers. In the seventh century, the site was burned down and restored shortly thereafter (last phases of period III). It is possible that the inhabitants who settled there were Medes, unless they were already there at the end of the 9th century.

The Mede religion

The religion of the Medes is known by archaeology. The site of Nush-i Jân contained the best example of a fire temple, thus typical of a Mazdean type of religion. It is a cruciform tower of 14.5 × 16 meters. An antechamber opens onto a vaulted room covering an altar and a basin. From there, one reaches a staircase leading to an upper floor, or cella, where the fire altar is located. Another older temple had been built at the other end of the site and another may have been located at Godin Tepe as mentioned above.

The only written source on the Mede religion remains Herodotus, whose testimony is not known to be a reliable indicator of reality. According to what he reports, the Medes have a priestly caste, the Magi, who would be one of the six tribes of this people. They would act in particular as soothsayers, since it is them who interpret the dreams of king Astyage relating to the future taking of power by Cyrus II. In reality, magicians are also found among the priests attested in Persia, and nothing shows that they are specifically Medes.

On the basis of this meagre information, the question arose as to whether or not the Medes were Zoroastrians, as claimed by classical authors. While it seems likely that the inhabitants of Media practiced a Mazdean type of religion in the two centuries preceding the Achaemenid period, the available documentation does not allow us to affirm that they followed the religion reformed by Zarathustra, or even that this current was widespread during the period of the Mede kingdom.

The practice of a Mazdean type of religion in Media during the Achaemenid, Hellenistic and Parthian periods is in any case assured by Greek accounts. Thus, a temple is dedicated to the great Iranian goddess Anahita at Ecbatane, mentioned by Berossus who reports its construction by the Achaemenid king Artaxerxes II, and it is still mentioned in the Parthian period by Polybius and Isidore of Charax. The latter mentions another great temple of this goddess (which he assimilates to the Greek Artemis) in Media, at Kangavar, whose ruins have been excavated (see Temple of Anahita).

Early evidence during the Assyrian expansion in the Zagros

The ancestors of the Medes probably arrived in NW Iran at the end of the 2nd millennium, or much later, around the beginning of the 1st millennium. Traces of these migrations are perhaps to be found at sites such as Tepe Sialk (levels V and VI), but the material culture of these “Proto-Medes” is not easy to identify, if it is possible to associate a material culture with an ethnic group.

The Medes appear with certainty in the annals of the Assyrian king Salmanazar III (859-824), who leads in his twenty-fourth year of reign (835), a campaign in the region of the Western Zagros. He then subjected thirty-six “kings” mèdes, that it is necessary to consider rather as chiefs of tribes. His successor Shamshi-Adad V (824-811) took the Mede city of Sagbitu, whose chief Khanesiruka he defeated in 815. Other Assyrian kings fought against Mede groups thereafter: Adad-nerari III (811-783) on six occasions, Teglath-Phalasar III (745-727), who deported 65,000 inhabitants of the Zagros, and Sargon II (722-705) on four occasions, notably during his eighth campaign in 714. The latter installed deportees near the border with the Medes. His son Sennacherib (704-681) confronted the king of Ellipi, a non-medic kingdom located in the vicinity of Luristan, and then confronted some Medes groups. The two Assyrian rulers created three provinces to support their control over the Western Zagros region: Parshuash, Kisheshin (renamed Kar-Ninurta) and Kharkhar (renamed Kar-Sharruken). The exact location of the confrontations between the Assyrians and the Medes is unclear, although it is generally agreed that the heart of the region inhabited by the Medes was around Mount Alwand, where Godin Tepe, Nush-i Jân and Ecbatane are located. Mount Bikni is a place that often appears in Assyrian sources concerning the Medes country, and its location is still debated: is it Mount Alwand, or Damavand further east? In general, the information provided by the Assyrians on the Medes is very vague and not very obvious to analyze.

The warriors of this people are often fought at the same time as other peoples: the Manneans, evolving in the region of the lake of Orumieh, and the Persians, being in the same place around the ninth century, before migrating to the south-east towards the future Persia. It seems that from the ethnic point of view, the Iranian element underwent a continuous progression during the period of struggle against Assyria. The “tributes” that the Assyrians claim to have taken in this region, and which may also sometimes be the result of simple commercial exchanges, are essentially made up of livestock, especially horses, in the breeding of which the Medes are specialized, as well as lapis lazuli, produced in Afghanistan (a region accessible by the commercial routes passing through the Medes” country), or copper.

The creation of Assyrian provinces on the bangs of the Zagros, with the establishment of fortresses, does not necessarily show that Assyria perceived this region as a potential threat to be controlled; it could only indicate a desire to obtain more horses and military means to face the more certain threats represented by Urartu and Elam. In any case, the seventh century seems to see the Mede country organized into increasingly strong political entities, as evidenced by archaeological sites, which bear witness to increasingly powerful local powers, which Assyrian texts refer to as “city leaders” (bēl āli). Assarhaddon (680-669) led an expedition to the Zagros in 676, which took him to the country of Patusharri, at the foot of Mount Bikni, where those he called the “distant Medes” lived. Two years later, three Medes chiefs ask him for military help: Uppis of Partakka, Zanasama of Partukka and Ramateia of Urukazabarra. He granted their wishes in exchange for their submission and the payment of a tribute. This undoubtedly reflects dissensions among the Mede chiefs on the attitude to be had towards the Assyrians. The Mede chiefs allied to Assarhaddon then swore oaths of loyalty (adû) to him, the interpretation of which is debated: they are traditionally seen as treaties of vassalage involving all their subjects, but they could be promises of the loyalty of the soldiers these Mede chiefs send to the Assyrian court to form a guard serving the king and his son and designated successor, Assurbanipal (668-627), a role reminiscent of that of the “Barbarians” in the service of the Roman emperors. Once he ascended the throne, the latter in turn led a campaign in the Medes country, which was still not pacified. Nevertheless, everything seems to indicate that the Assyrians progressively lost control over the provinces of Parshuash, Kisheshin and Kharkhar, while their offensives still undermined several political entities in the region, notably the Manneans and the Ellipi. This may have helped to make room for the development of a unified Mede kingdom, which is however never mentioned in Assyrian sources, which do not document this region for the years that would be those of the assertion of Cyaxare”s power.

The elusive Mede kingdom

The exact conditions of the foundation of the Mede kingdom remain inaccessible in the current state of the documentation available on this subject. According to the tradition reported by the Book I of the Histories of Herodotus, it is a character named Dejoces who succeeds by the ruse to be proclaimed king of his people, and founds a great organized kingdom, with Ecbatane for capital. He would have reigned over the various united Mede tribes: the Buses, Paratacenians, Struchates, Arizantians, Budians, and the Magi. None of this is indicated in the textual sources of the time, nor in the archaeological finds; the Mede levels of Ecbatane having not been excavated, it is impossible to locate a process of state building in the Mede capital. An Iranian kinglet named Daiukku is attested in the Assyrian war stories of the time of Sargon II, but he is probably not the Mede king mentioned by Herodotus, since the events mentioned would have taken place around the lake of Orumieh and not in the Mede country. The story that Herodotus tells is clearly a myth, which aims to present an image of a model king.

According to tradition, the second Mede king is Phraortes, son of Dejoces, who is said to have subdued the Persians, and died fighting an Assyrian king, identified with Assarhaddon. His existence is no more certain than that of his supposed father. For these periods, the Assyrian sources relating to the Medes only mention a group with vague contours, led by several kinglets as seen above, instead of the constitution of a powerful kingdom. The history of the Medes kingdom as reported by Herodotus thus seems too simplistic, even if the names it gives are indeed Medes.

Cyaxare is on the other hand a character well attested in the Babylonian historical sources, in particular the Chronicle of the fall of Nineveh which relates the disappearance of Assyria. According to Greek authors, Cyaxare would have considered avenging his father Phraortes by raising a large army to defeat the Assyrians, but he would have been defeated by the Scythians, who would then have dominated the Medes for twenty-six years. The Near Eastern sources mention a Scythian invasion in this region of the world for this period, which makes it possible to envisage the submission of the Medes to this people. Cyaxare would have succeeded in chasing away the invaders before building a powerful army. The Babylonian sources present him well as the leader of a powerful army, but they do not dwell on his territorial bases. The years of his supposed rise to power are hardly documented by the Assyrian sources, which have only ever left the image of a politically fragmented Mede country. The archaeological findings are in contradiction with the idea of the construction of a Mede kingdom, since the period supposedly for this phenomenon is on the contrary marked by the (apparently peaceful) abandonment of sites attributed to the Medes. It remains therefore difficult to postulate the constitution of a powerful and structured Mede kingdom by Cyaxare, who would have rather confined himself to gather around him a powerful army by taking advantage of the Assyrian withdrawal from the Zagros.

The only thing certain about Cyaxare thanks to the crossing of Herodotus” account and Babylonian sources is that he is a major actor in the fall of Assyria. Indeed, he comes to the aid of king Nabopolassar of Babylon from 615-614 in his struggle against the Assyrian empire, which had already lasted for about ten years. Although the Assyrians had been driven out of Babylonia, the Babylonian army was still unable to attack them to the heart of their country. It is then that the Medes troops enter the scene and tip the balance against the Assyrians. They take several of their capitals: Assur in 614, then Nineveh in 612 with the Babylonian troops. In 609 finally, the allies subject the last Assyrian resistants to Harran.

The reason for the arrival of the Medes in Assyria remains debated. Did they have a will of conquest or a simple aim of plunder? They are more and more presented above all as destroyers, having played a great role in the sack of the great Assyrian capitals, but hardly willing to stay there, letting the Babylonians annex the ancient heart of Assyria. It must be noted that almost nothing is known of a division of this region between the two conquerors, and that only meager traces of Babylonian presence are attested there. The role of the Median mercenaries present in Assyria for several decades in the fall of their former master is also difficult to determine: they could have constituted a destabilizing element in the Assyrian army, creating a sort of internal revolt (without necessarily having received significant support from Medes from Media?).

According to the story told by Herodotus, the Medes and the Babylonians would then have become close allies, and Berossus, a Babylonian priest writing in Greek, reports the marriage of Nebuchadnezzar II, son of Nabopolassar, with Amytis, daughter of Cyaxare, who would be, among other things, at the origin of the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The context could in fact have become tense between the two victors, now face to face, even if one sees in Babylonian sources of the time merchants of this region possessing a counter in Ecbatane. The relations between the two nations remain badly known, the Medes being ultimately very little present in the sources of contemporary Babylonia. According to Herodotus, Cyaxare would have continued his conquests, by subjecting Eastern Anatolia (what implies that it then completed with the passage what it remained of the kingdom of Urartu), before facing in 585 the king of Lydia, Alyatte II. This battle would have remained undecided, and an eclipse of sun would have occurred, frightening the belligerents. The latter would then have made peace, with Nebuchadnezzar as intermediary, and established their border on the river Halys, the present Kızılırmak. In fact, the westward expansion of the Medes remains debated, in the absence of concrete evidence. Cyaxare died soon after, and was succeeded by his son Astyagus, the last known Mede king.

The Mede “empire” is thus a political entity that remains elusive, so much so that the reality of its existence is denied by some scholars, and this more and more commonly, even if the traditional positions closer to Herodotus” account still have defenders. Nothing is known about the organization of this political entity. It has often been assumed that the structures of the Mede kingdom were largely taken over by their Persian successors, but this remains highly speculative, and the Elamite legacy is now considered more decisive in the formation of the Persian empire. The absence of royal inscriptions from the Medes, as well as the absence to date of archaeological evidence showing the existence of an important state in Media at this period, all of this encourages the view that the Mede kingdom was a poorly elaborated political construction. The most radical and minimalist view considers that the Medes never formed a solid kingdom, but always remained divided, the incursions into Assyria being nothing more than raids carried out largely by Mede mercenaries who were part of the Assyrian army and united for the occasion. Others maintain the image of a powerful and structured Mede kingdom, which would have had an influence on the Persian empire and its culture, in particular because of the importance that the Medes seem to have held in the Achaemenid empire.

The Medes under Achaemenid rule

Between 553 and 549, the Persian king Cyrus II rises against the Medes and succeeds in defeating Astyage. This event is reported to us by Babylonian sources, in particular the Chronicle of Nabonidus, and Greek authors, such as Herodotus and Ctesias, who present different versions in their course, even if it is often put forward that the victory was difficult, and helped by the betrayal of a part of the Medes army (by Harpage in the Greek sources). This conflict would be a revolt, since the Greek authors make of Cyrus the vassal of Astyage and even his grandson. These two aspects are questioned by current researchers; because of the uncertainties on the nature of the Mede kingdom and its eastern extension, this question cannot be decided. In any case, this victory was a stepping stone to glory for Cyrus, who then followed a series of victories and built the powerful Achaemenid empire.

The Persian domination in Media is shaken by an important revolt at the beginning of the reign of Darius I, which takes place among a series of rebellions occurring at the time of the seizure of the power in the violence of this king. According to the accounts left by the latter, notably on the Behistun inscription in Media, a certain Phraortes, who claimed to be a descendant of Cyaxare, sought to re-establish the independence of the Medes and succeeded in seizing Ecbatane in 522. The Persian victory would have been particularly difficult: if one relies on the numbers given by the inscriptions of Darius, between 40 000 and 50 000 people would have died during this conflict, figures apparently excessive, but which can reveal a bitter conflict. Phraortes had in particular succeeded in rallying Parthian troops. In spite of his initial successes, he was defeated, tortured and executed in Ecbatane. Thereafter, Media rises again against Persians in 409-407.

After the Persian conquest and the pacification, Media became a province of the new empire, a satrapy, of which Ecbatane remained the center. The latter even remains a royal city according to the Greek authors. According to Strabo, it was their summer residence. During the excavations of the site, several finds of this period were made, in particular various inscriptions attesting the activity of Persian kings in the city. It is thus assured that Artaxerxes II erected a palace in this city, but there was probably another one before. An important royal treasure was located there. Greek accounts of the Macedonian conquest of the Persian Empire, especially those of Polybius, present Media as a rich and important region for this state. Horse breeding is a strong point of the region, as it was already the case in Assyrian times, and royal stud farms of prime importance had been created there. Media is one of the central regions of the Persian Empire, along with Persia and Susiana, and the Medes seem to have a privileged position among the other subjugated peoples because they are Iranian (of Aryan stock), like the masters of the empire. They appear among the peoples contributing to the construction of the great palaces of the Persian capitals, notably in Susa where it is said that they participate in the realization of the bas-reliefs and bring gold. Herodotus” account of the Median Wars presents the Mede troops in the first rank among the elite units, alongside the Persian contingents.

Media from the Hellenistic period to the Arab conquest

After the fall of the Achaemenid Empire, the sources encourage one to speak of Media as a region rather than Medes as a people. If the region is still occupied in large majority by Iranians, they are no longer designated as Medes and must rather speak a Persian dialect, even an ancestor of Kurdish.

During the events leading to the fall of the Persian Empire to the troops of Alexander the Great, Media saw several crucial events take place. After his defeat at Gaugamela in the autumn of 331, the Persian king Darius III took refuge in Ecbatane while the Macedonian army headed for Babylon. It counts then on the resources of the treasure of Ecbatane and Media to mobilize the provinces which are still faithful to him, constituting the East of its empire. It fails because of the treason of satraps of the Eastern provinces, and it is starting from Ecbatane that Alexander organizes his victory on those, by mobilizing in particular the resources of the treasure of the city and the royal stud farms of Media. After the death of Alexander in 323, his generals, the Diadoques, dispute the spoils of his empire. Antigone the One-Eyed establishes in Ecbatane one of his faithful, the strategist Nikânor, who is then entrusted with the direction of the Eastern provinces of the old Persian Empire, which begin to be designated under the term of “High satrapies” (in particular Media, Bactria and Sogdiana). Nikanor was dislodged by Seleucus between 311 and 310, who then took control of Media and the High Satrapies. During these conflicts, the northern part of the Persian satrapy of Médie had been entrusted to Atropatès, a Persian. This one succeeds in making it independent of Diadoques, and founds the kingdom of the area which then takes its name, Médie Atropatène.

Under the domination of the Seleucid dynasty, Media remained a satrapy of first rank, its satrap being also the “strategist of the High Satrapies”, having under his responsibility the eastern part of the kingdom. The rich stud farms of Media are praised by several Greek authors, thus continuing to play an important role for those who dominate this region. Several Greek colonies are founded in Media, like Laodicea of Media, the current Nehavend, or Kermanshah (unknown ancient name) and Ecbatane, which is already a monetary workshop of foreground, becomes a colony under Antiochos IV Epiphanes, which gives it its name, Epiphaneia. Media remains however little Hellenized. Its wealth and its remoteness compared to the successive centers of the Seleucid Empire (Babylonia then Syria), as well as the difficulties encountered by its kings, undoubtedly reinforce the power of the satraps of Media, whose powers are already considerable. In 222, one of them, Môlon, revolts by taking advantage of the disorders related to the assassination of Séleucos II, and involves with him several Eastern provinces, of which Perside whose satrape is his own brother, and even Médie Atropatène. It is painfully defeated by the troops of Antiochos III, which in the stride succeeds in making the king of Atropatene its vassal. In 162, the satrap Timarch tries in his turn to make secession, proclaiming himself “king of Media”, manages to invade temporarily Babylonia, before being overcome by the army of Demetrios Ier in 160.

The revolts which shake the kingdom séleucide towards 150 profit with the king parthe Mithridate Ier, which seizes Media and Atropatène towards 148

During the conflicts marking the end of the Parthian Empire, Media served as a base for Artaban V against his brother Vologesis VI, but does not seem to have offered any resistance to the Persian Ardashir when he eliminated the Parthian dynasty in 226 AD to found the Sassanid dynasty. Nevertheless, an inscription of the next king, Shapur I, refers to the suppression of a revolt of the “mountain Medes,” apparently in Atropatene. The province of Media (Mād) was then divided into several districts, notably those organized around Ecbatane

The Medes language is traditionally classified by linguists in the group of northwestern Iranian languages, which also includes Parthian, and then recent languages such as Kurdish, Zazaki, Baluchi, Gilaki, etc., a model that is discussed. According to H. Borjian, “the linguistic interpretation of Old Mede (already with many dialects) can be expanded by considering it as an ancestor of Parthian and all other Northwest Iranian languages, including the central dialects, the Tatian and Caspian groups, Gorani-awromani and Zaza.”

Present-day languages categorized in the northwestern group of Iranian languages are referred to by some scholars as “Medes” (or “New Medes”), primarily on geographical grounds, because the region corresponding to ancient Media does not seem to have undergone major migratory waves, and therefore linguistic continuity can be assumed. The fact that the ancient Median language is not well known, however, makes the reconstruction of the links between these languages complicated. Thus, according to G. Windfuhr, one can consider that “the modern languages of Azerbaijan and central Iran, located in ancient Media atropatene and Media proper, are ”Mede” dialects, even though Old Mede is mainly known through Old Persian medisms. This is for example the case of the “Mede” dialects still spoken nowadays in the region of Kashan, although in strong decline compared to Persian.

The Kurds in particular often claim the Medes as their ancestors. Wadie Jwaideh, a professor of history at the University of California, states that “the Mede Empire, one of the well-known ancestors of the Kurdish people, was the only major national state that can be said to have been founded by the Kurds. According to G. Astarian: “The view of the Mede origin of the Kurds has been an important element of Kurdish social and political discourse since their national awakening. The genetic affiliation between the Kurds and their language and the ancient Medes has always been considered an absolute and unquestionable truth for most Kurdish authors. The main historical argument in this direction is the fact that in late medieval Armenian sources the Kurds are sometimes referred to as “Medes” (markʿ) or “a tribe of the Medes” (azgn maracʿ), which is seen rather in academic circles as a further manifestation of the habit of medieval authors to refer to peoples contemporary with them by the names of ancient peoples who lived in roughly the same place. A linguistic filiation has been put forward by V. Minorsky. From the point of view of recent linguistic research, there is no reason to consider that there are particular affinities between the Medes language and Kurdish among the group of northwestern Iranian languages to which the two languages are attached, the ancient history of the Kurdish language remaining obscure and subject to discussion.

External links


  1. Mèdes
  2. Medes
  3. a et b (en) G. Windfuhr, « Dialectology and Topics », dans G. Windfuhr (dir.), The Iranian Languages, Oxon et New York, 2009, p. 5-8.
  4. Brown 1990, p. 619-620.
  5. a et b (en) R. Zadok, « The Ethno-Linguistic Character of Northwestern Iran and Kurdistan in the Neo-Assyrian Period », dans Iran 40, 2002, p. 89-151
  6. a et b (en) G. Asatrian, « Prolegomena to the Study of the Kurds », dans Iran & the Caucasus, 13/1, 2009, p. 21-22.
  7. a et b « the linguistic interpretation of Old Median (already with many dialects) can be made as broad as to consider it an ancestor to Parthian and all other Northwest Iranian languages, including Central Dialects, the Tatic and Caspian groups, Gorani-Awromani, and Zaza. » : (en) H. Borjian, « Median Succumbs to Persian after Tree Millennia of Coexistence: Language Shift in the Central Iranian Plateau », Journal of Persianate Studies, vol. 2,‎ 2009, p. 70.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Bibellexicon, pp. 641-642.
  9. ^ Erodoto, Storie, VII, 62, 1.
  10. E. E. Kuzʹmina, J. P. Mallory, The origin of the Indo-Iranians. Brill, Leiden, the Netherlands (2007). ISBN 978-90-474-2071-2.
  11. In recent years, a number of scholars have cast considerable doubt on the historicity of a Median empire as presented in Classical sources, particularly Herodotus. They have emphasized the absence of any archaeological evidence for the Herodotean account of Media, and a perceived lack of consistency between this account and contemporary treatments of the Medes in Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian documentary sources. A conference held in Padua in 2001 provided the opportunity for a comprehensive review of the sources on which modern reconstructions of the Median kingdom have been based. In their summing up of the proceedings, the editors (Lanfranchi et al., 2003: 397—406) noted that recent re-examinations of the sources relating to Media have led to a radical reduction of the extent of the ”Median empire” before it was incorporated into the Persian empire. But they observed that opinions still vary between two extremes — a ”maximalist” and a ”minimalist” view. The former ”might extend Median power from the west of the former kingdom of Urartu to the borders of Fars and from the western outliers of the Zagros mountains on the plains of eastern Assyria to the fringes of the central Iranian desert beyond Rayy”, while the latter ”would abandon the whole of the north, east and central western Iran to bands of nomads roaming freely over an extensive territory, and consider Median influence to be negligible”. The ”truth”, the editors say, may well lie between these extremes. Bryce (2009)
  12. While elements of Herodotus” story agree with the bits of information we have on the Medes from Assyrian and Babylonian sources, the whole is a fictional account. No Median empire ever existed. Why was it concocted then? Herodotus imagined there had been a sequence of world empires in Asia before the Persian one that the Greeks confronted. He knew about Assyria and Persia, but in between them was a void. This he filled with the Medes, and thereby he created a phantom empire whose image is still widely accepted today. Mieroop (2015)
  13. Дьяконов И. М. История Мидии. М.-Л., 1956.
  14. Мидяне // Большая советская энциклопедия : [в 66 т.] / гл. ред. О. Ю. Шмидт. — 1-е изд. — М. : Советская энциклопедия, 1926—1947.
  15. Геродот. Книга 1. Клио. 101.
  16. Страбон. География. 11:13:1
  17. Страбон. География. 11:13:9
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