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The Persian Empire

Several hundred years passed before the area became important enough for another empire to try to conquer. The region became vitally important to Persia because it helped expand trade into the north by providing passage over land and over sea. It contained lush farmland that could be settled. It also had a long coast on the Caspian Sea that allowed Persia to develop a strong navy. By 521 B.C. all but the far western edge of modern-day Caucasia had enough people and was an important enough trade route that it was conquered by Darius the Great and made a satellite of the Persian Empire. In fact, Azerbaijan’s name is derived from the Persian word azar, meaning fire. This refers to the Zoroastrian temples that contain fires fueled by naturally occurring crude oil near the earth’s surface. Zoroastrianism was the primary religion in the Persian Empire and the sacred fire symbolized the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda. Many of these temples are still visible today and some even have burning fires. By 500 B.C., the Persian Empire extended from the Balkans and North Africa in the west to India in the east. It was the largest and most powerful empire of the ancient world. The state of Armenia was a Persian satrapy (province) that included what today is northeastern Turkey, all of Armenia, and parts of Azerbaijan.

The Caucasus region played a key role in the Persian Empire’s collapse. As soon as culture began to develop in western Europe, it began to migrate to the Black Sea coasts. The remains of Greek trading posts have been found from as early as the sixth century B.C. Persia, under Cyrus II the Great (r. 559–530 B.C.), conquered the area on the coast, known as Ionia, as a way to gain a foothold on Europe but the residents proved very difficult. Around 500, the Ionian city of Miletus began a revolt that spread to all the Ionian cities. Miletus sought help from Greece and was granted some ships. However, the rebellion ultimately failed, and Ionia became a tribute-paying part of the Persian Empire. Until the Greeks liberated the area in 479 B.C.

The Greek king Alexander the Great (r. 336–323) was able to use this toehold as a launching pad to conquer the Persian Empire by 329 B.C. He defeated the Persians quickly and seized most of their empire for Macedonia. By the time of his death in 323 B.C. at the age of 33, he had conquered the entire known civilized world and created an enormous empire that spread from Greece to India. After Alexander the Great died, his empire quickly fell apart. For the Caucasus, this meant a period of bouncing back and forth between rulers. The land and its boundaries changed hands many times, most often floating between Roman and Persian rule as the two states continually tried to steal land from each other.