The article “The Median Dynastic Empire” was originally written by Gianpaolo Savoia-Vizzini in 2004 and revised in 2006 and published in the CAIS (Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies) venue. Excepting one map (drafted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav, the director of CAIS) all other images, maps and their accompanying captions do not appear in the original CAIS publication.
The Medes (New Persian mādhā), were an Iranian people who lived in the north, western, and northwestern portions of present-day Iran. The Medes are credited with the foundation of Iran as a nation and an empire. their domain was corresponding to the mainland-Iran, nowadays northern-Iraq and Eastern-Turkey.
The inhabitants, who were known as Medes, and their neighbors, the Persians, spoke Median languages (of the Western-Iranian group of languages), that was closely related to Old Persian (Aryan). Historians know very little about the Iranian culture under the Median dynasty, except that Zoroastrianism as well as a polytheistic religion was practiced, and a priestly caste called the Magi existed.
Spear-wielding Mede (left) and Persian (right) soldiers as portrayed in the 5th century BCE at the northern stairway of the Apadana palace at the Achaemenid palace at Persepolis, Iran (Source: Public Domain).
The coming of the Iranians
An isolated groups of speakers of Iranian languages had appeared and disappeared in western Iran in the 2nd millennium BCE, however, it was during the Iron Age that the Iranians rose to be the dominant force on the plateau.
By the mid-9th century BCE, two major groups of Iranians appear in cuneiform sources: the Medes and the Persians. Of the two, the Medes were the more widespread and, from an Assyrian point of view (known as mādāyu), the more important group. When Assyrian armies raided as far-east as Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), they found only Medes. In the more western Zagros, they encountered Medes mixed with indigenous of non-Iranian origins.
Early in the 1st millennium BCE, Iranian Medes already controlled almost all of the eastern Zagros and were infiltrating, if not actually pushing steadily, into the western Zagros, in some areas right up to the edge of the plateau and to the borders of lowland Mesopotamia.
A 8th century BCE gold-filigree Protoma with bull-head motif housed at the National Museum, Warsaw (Source: Vert and/or Anonymous (Median Empire) in Public Domain).
Persians also appear in roughly the same areas, though their exact location remains controversial. At times they seem to have settled in the north near Lake Urmia, at times in the central western Zagros near Kermanshah, later certainly in the south-western Zagros somewhere near the borders of Elam, and eventually, of course, in the province of Fars. It has been argued that these various locations represent a nomadic tribe on the move; more likely they represent more than one group of Persians. What is reasonably clear from the cuneiform sources is that these Medes and Persians (and no doubt other Iranian peoples not identified by name) were moving into western Iran from the east. They probably followed routes along the southern face of the Alburz Mountains and, as they entered the Zagros, spread out to the north-west and south-east following the natural topography of the mountains. Where they could, as, for instance, along the major pass across the mountains from Hamadan to Kermanshah, they infiltrated farther west. In doing so, they met resistance from the local settled populations of Non-Iranian origin, who often appealed to Urartu, Assyria, and Elam for assistance in holding back the newcomers. Such appeals were, of course, most welcome to the great powers, who were willing to take advantage of the situation both to advance their interests at each other’s expense and to control the Iranian threat to themselves.
It has been suggested that the introduction of grey and gray-black pottery into western Iran from the north-east, which signals the start of the Iron Age, is the archaeological manifestation of this pattern of a gradual movement of Iranians from east to west. The case is by no means proved but is a reasonable reading of the combined evidence. If it is so, then the earliest Iranians in the Zagros can be dated to Iron Age I times, about 1300 BCE.
Diachronic map of migrations in Asia ca. 1250-750 BCE (Source: Indo-European Info). For more on this topic see … An Overview of the Rise of Indo-Aryan and Iranian Languages …