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The Median Empire was formed by the Medes, the indigenous Iranian populace that settled in the northern of present-day Iran. The empire spanned across northern, northwestern, and western Iran, parts of Iraq, and southeastern Anatolia.

The Medes were related to the neighboring Persian civilization, and both spoke the Median language. The Median language is classified by linguists as belonging to the Western-Iranian languages and is believed to be close to the Aryan language (archaic Persian).

Foundation of the Median Empire
The inhabitation of Iran dates as far back as 3000 BC, but it was not until the rise of the Medes in the ninth century BC, that a powerful empire came into prominence in this land. The celebrated Greek historian, Herodotus, believes that King Deioces founded the Median Empire in 728 BC. He established the capital city of the Median Empire, Ecbatana. Deioces ruled until 675 BC, and Phraortes, Deioces son, took over the reigns of the kingdom after his father.

The Medes and the Persians had lived in relative peace although the Medes far outnumbered the Persians and were more widespread as well. Assyrian records show that the Medes had occupied all of the eastern regions including Ecbatana and most of the western Zagros Mountains. Phraortes dreamed of ruling a vast empire of Medes. He conquered the Persians and invaded Assyria. Phraortes ambition remained unfulfilled as he died in his Assyrian mission.

The Reign of Cyaxares
Cyaxares ruled the Medes from 625 BC to 585 BC, and has been hailed as the greatest among the Median kings. In a dramatic intrigue, Cyaxares invited the Scythian lords to a party where they were murdered. The Scythians withdrew, leaving the Medes unrivaled.

Cyaxares was a diplomat. He forged alliances with Babylonia and betrothed his granddaughter to Nebuchadnezzar II. He thus secured the military might of Babylonia and proceeded to deal with the Assyrians.

Nebuchadnezzar II reorganized the Median Army and created specialized divisions for the cavalry and infantry. He then attacked Ashur. The fall of Ashur was a great blow to the Assyrian might. He captured parts of eastern Anatolia, but this brought the Medes into conflict with the Lydians. The Median Wars with the Lydians came to an end in 585 BC, and the Kizil River was agreed upon as the boundary separating the two kingdoms.

Decline of the Medes
Cyaxares was succeeded by his son, Astyages, who reigned from 585 BC to 550 BC. Deteriorating relations with Babylonia and the rise of Cyrus II spelled the end of the Median Empire in Iran.

Historical Records and Corroboration
Much discrepancy is found between the records of Herodotus and the records of Assyria with regard to the rule of Deioces. The Assyrians believed that Herodotus record was simply a local legend. Some historians believe that Deioces was a captive and slave of Sargon II, who was banished to Assyria and went on to rule as Daiaukku. Others consider this theory far-fetched and highly unlikely.

Phraortes invasion of Assyria, however, closely corresponds with Assyrian court records. The Assyrian records talk of a Median king, Kashtariti, who waged war on the Assyrians and was repelled by King Esarhaddon. Historical evidence proves with certainty that the rise of the Scythians and the dominance of the Medes did pose a threat to the Assyrians in the seventh century BC.

Zoroastrianism and the Medes
Historical records show that Zoroastrianism has its origins in the Median Empire. The worship of fire that forms the core of Zoroastrianism was popular in the Median Empire. Fire altars found in Tepe Nush-e Jan are testimony to the religious rites performed by the Medes.

A priestly cult called the Magi performed the priestly duties for the Medes and the Persians alike. The occupation of the Magi was passed on from father to son. Historians and theologists, however, are divided in their opinions about the origin of Zoroastrianism in Media. Some believe that the religion practiced by the Medes was Mithra, which was similar to Zoroastrianism.