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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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Medes, the inhabitants in ancient times of one of the most fruitful and populous countries of Asia, called Media, the precise boundaries of which it is not easy, if indeed it is now possible, to ascertain. Winer defines it as the country which lies westward and southward from the Caspian Sea, between 35° and 40° of N. lat. Nature has divided Media into three great divisions. On the north is a flat, moist, and insalubrious district, stretching along the Caspian Sea, which is made a separate portion by a chain of hills connected with Anti-Taurus. In this plain and on these mountains there live uncultivated and independent tribes. The country is now known under the names of Masanderan and Gilan. South of this mountain range lies the country which the ancients denominated Atropatene, being separated on the west from Armenia by Mount Caspius, which springs from Ararat; and on the south and south-east by the Orontes range of hills, which runs through Media. South and south-east of the Orontes is a third district, formerly termed Great Media, which Mount Zagros separates from Assyria on the west, and from Persia on the south: on the east it is bordered by deserts, and connected on the north-east with Parthia and Hyrcania by means of Mount Caspius, being now called Iraq-Ajemi. This for the most part is a high hilly country, yet not without rich and fruitful valleys, and even plains. The sky is clear and bright, and the climate healthy. Media Atropatene, which corresponds pretty nearly with the modern Azerbijan, contains fruitful and well-peopled valleys and plains. The northern mountainous region is cold and unfruitful. In Great Media lay the metropolis of the country, Ecbatana, as well as the province of Rhagiana and the city Rhagae, with the plain of Nisaeum, celebrated in the time of the Persian Empire for its horses and horse-races. This plain was near the city Nisaea, around which were fine pasture lands producing excellent clover. The horses were entirely white, and of extraordinary height and beauty, as well as speed. They constituted a part of the luxury of the great, and a tribute in kind was paid from them to the monarch, who, like all Eastern sovereigns, used to delight in equestrian display. Some idea of the opulence of the country may be had when it is known that, independently of imposts rendered in money, Media paid a yearly tribute of not less than 3000 horses, 4000 mules, and nearly 100,000 sheep. The races, once celebrated through the world, appear to exist no more; but Ker Porter saw the Shah ride on festival occasions a splendid horse of pure white. Cattle abounded, as did the richest fruits, as pines, citrons, oranges, all of peculiar excellence, growing as in their native land. Here also was found the Silphium (probably assafoetida), which formed a considerable article in the commerce of the ancients, and was accounted worth its weight in gold. The Median dress was proverbially splendid; the dress, that is, of the highest class, which seems to have gained a sort of classical authority, and to have been at a later period worn at the Persian court, probably in part from its antiquity. This dress the Persian monarchs used to present to those whom they wished to honor, and no others were permitted to wear it. It consisted of a long white loose robe, or gown, flowing down to the feet, and enclosing the entire body. The nature and the celebrity of this dress combine with the natural richness of the country to assure us that the ancient Medians had made no mean progress in the arts; indeed, the colors of the Persian textures are known to have been accounted second only to those of India. If these regal dresses were of silk, then was there an early commerce between Media and India; if not, weaving, as well as dyeing, must have been practiced and carried to a high degree of perfection in the former country ().

The religion of the Medes consisted in the worship of the heavenly bodies, more particularly the sun and moon, and the planets Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury, and Mars. The priestly caste were denominated magi; they were a separate tribe, and had the charge not only of religion, but of all the higher culture.

The language of the ancient Medes was not connected with the Shemitic, but the Indian; and divided itself into two chief branches, the Zend, spoken in North Media, and the Pehlvi, spoken in Lower Media and Parthia; which last was the dominant tongue among the Parthians.

The Medes originally consisted of six tribes, of which the Magi were one. Being overcome by Ninus, they formed a part of the great Assyrian empire, which, however, lost in course of time the primitive simplicity of manners to which its dominion was owing, and fell into luxury and consequent weakness; when Arbaces, who governed the country as a satrap for Sardanapalus, taking advantage of the effeminacy of that monarch, threw off his yoke, destroyed his capital, Nineveh, and became himself sovereign of the Medes, in the ninth century before the Christian era. According to Diodorns, this empire extended through nine monarchs. enduring 310 years, until Astyages, son of Cyaxares, was dethroned by Cyrus in the year of the world 3495, when Media became a part of the Persian Empire, sinking from the same inevitable causes as those which enabled it to gain over the Assyrian power the dominion of Asia. The account given by Herodotus varies from that now set forth. We do not propose to subject the diversities to a critical investigation, believing that little, if any, good could result, at least within our narrow space. Dates, names, and dynasties may be more or less uncertain, but the facts we have given are unimpeached. The magnitude of the Median Empire is another important fact equally well ascertained. Being in their time the most valorous, as well as the most powerful nation of Asia, the Medes extended their power towards the east and the west beyond any strictly definable limits, though, like dominion generally in Oriental countries, it was of a vague, variable, and unstable kind. That they regarded the Tigris as their western boundary appears from the fact that they erected on its banks strongholds, such as Mespila and Larissa; but that they carried their victorious arms still farther westward, appears from both Herodotus (i. 134) and Isaiah (). The eastern limits of the empire seem to have been different at different periods. Heeren inclines to the opinion that it may have reached as far as the Oxus, and even the Indus. Many, however, were the nations and tribes which were under the sway of its sovereigns. The government was a succession of satrapies, over all of which the Medes were paramount; but the different nations exerted a secondary dominion over each other, diminishing with the increase of distance from the center of royal power, to which ultimately the tribute paid by each dependent to his superior eventually and securely came. Not only were the Medes a powerful, but also a wealthy and cultivated people; indeed, before they sank, in consequence of their degeneracy, into the Persian Empire, they were during their time the foremost people of Asia, owing their celebrity not only to their valor, but also to the position of their country, which was the great commercial highway of Asia. The sovereigns exerted absolute and unlimited dominion, exacted a rigid court-ceremonial, and displayed a great love of pomp. Under the Persian monarchs Media formed a province, or satrapy, by itself, whose limits did not correspond with independent Media, but cannot be accurately defined. To Media belonged another country, namely, Aria, which, Heeren says, took its name from the river Arius (now Heri), but which appears to contain the elements of the name in the Zend language, which was common to the two, if not to other Eastern nations, who were denominated Indians by Alexander the Great, as dwellers in or near the Indus, which he also misnamed, but who were known in their own tongue as Arians. Subsequently, however, from whatever cause, the Arians were separated from the Medes, forming a distinct satrapy in the Persian Empire. Thus the name of a clan, or gens, became the name of a nation, and then of an individual tribe. It may be added that Schlosser holds it as a fundamental fact, that the Medes and Persians formed in reality one kingdom, only that now one, now another, of the two elements gained predominance: whence he thinks himself enabled to explain the discrepancies which the ancients present as to the names and succession of monarchs.

The Medes are not mentioned in sacred Scripture till the days of Hoshea, king of Israel, about 740 B.C., when Shalmaneser, King of Assyria, brought that monarch under his yoke, and in the ninth year of his reign took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, placing them in Halah and in Habor, by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. Here the Medes appear as a part of the Assyrian Empire; but at a later period Scripture exhibits them as an independent and sovereign people (;;; ). In the last passage their kings are expressly named: 'The Lord hath raised up the kings of the Medes; for his device is against Babylon to destroy it.' 'Prepare against her (Babylon) the kings of the Medes, the captains thereof, and all the rulers thereof.' It has been conjectured that soon after the time of Arbaces they again fell under the dominion of the Assyrians; but availing themselves of the opportunity afforded by the distant expeditions which Sennacherib undertook, they gained their freedom, and founded a new line of kings under Dejoces. Indeed, so sudden and rapid are the changes of government, even to the present day, in Oriental monarchies, that we need not be surprised at any difficulties which may occur in arranging the dynasties or the succession of kings, scarcely in any ancient history, certainly least of all in the fragmentary notices preserved regarding the kings of Media and other neighboring empires. According, however, to other historical testimony, we find the Medes and Persians united as one people in holy writ (;;;;; ), in the days of Cyrus, who destroyed the separate sovereignty of the former. To the united kingdom Babylon was added as a province. After the lapse of about 200 years, Media, in junction with the entire Persian monarchy, fell under the yoke of Alexander the Great (B.C. 330); but after the death of Alexander it became, under Seleucus Nicator, the Macedonian governor of Media and Babylonia, a portion of the new Syrian kingdom (), and, after many variations of warlike fortune, passed over to the Parthian monarchy (; Strabo, 16, p. 745).

The ancient Medes were a warlike people, and much feared for their skill in archery. They appear armed with the bow in the army of the Persians, who borrowed the use of that weapon from them. Those who remained in the more mountainous districts did not lose their valor; but the inhabitants of the cities and towns which covered the plains, in becoming commercial lost their former hardy habits, together with their bravery, and, giving way to luxury, became in process of time an easy prey to new aspirants to martial fame and civil dominion.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Medes'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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