Long ago, when the women of Persia were honored and revered by their culture, they often held influential and dynamic positions in society. Aside from being mothers, they played many roles—teacher, politician, business owner, even soldiers. In fact, ancient women warriors of Persia were so powerful, neighboring male-dominated cultures in both Greece and Rome viewed them with a mixture of horror and fascination. Fortification tablets at the Ruins of Persepolis have proven men and women of the time were equally represented in all facets of life, and the battlefield was no exception. In Iran, DNA tests have revealed some 2,000-year-old bones of an entombed warrior found with a sword in hand actually belonged to a female warrior. Artifacts, research, and ancient tales clearly indicate some Persian women fought hard for their causes and claimed just as much glory on the battlefield as their male counterparts.
Women of ancient Persia once enjoyed considerable gender equality before their history was overshadowed by a pernicious, backward regime that destroyed their way of life. From 539 B.C. to 331, the Persian Empire was the most powerful state in the world. What was once Iran stretched from Egypt to India, boasting rich resources of water, fertile soil, and precious metals like gold. The Persians even had their own powerful god called Zoroaster who had lived in their hearts and minds since 1000 B.C..
When the Arab conquest of Persia occurred in 651, it was the end of their empire and the Zoroastrianism religion they had embraced for so long. The rise of the Muslim faith managed to take hold in Persia because they had exhausted their human and material resources fighting with the Byzantine Empire for decades. When the Arabs came along, they were able to take advantage of this significant political, social, economic, and military weakness and deteriorate the empire, implementing their own religious codes and edicts. And sadly for the women of Persia, this meant no more swords and no more battles. Although the Arab interlopers denounced privilege and restored overall equality, it was only for free, adult Muslim men. While millions of people in the world today still believe in the teachings of Mohammed, there’s no denying this adherence to his principles stripped Persian women of their right to bear arms and kick some much-deserving ass.
Regardless of religious beliefs, many say it is essential for Arab women to know and understand their powerful history because it is one of the key factors in their hope for a liberated future. Freedom and equality do not come without struggle, and they will need to return to the battlefield of politics and revolution if they ever hope to regain their old distinction in the Arab world.
Warrior Queen Tomyris
Regarded as one of the most ferocious warriors ever to live, Tomyris had zero tolerance for those infringing on her territory or her rights. She was wise, tough, and savage, recognized specifically for her brutal military tactics. Very little is known about Tomyris outside of her role as a warrior, but it has been said her methods were so brutal that she had been known to slice off the penis of her enemy and violate them with their own lopped-off appendage.
Banu, Wife of Babak
Way back in 816, Banu and her husband Babak fought with the revolutionary resistance against the Arab Caliphate, who had been occupying their land. Banu was known to be a temperamental woman, but she was also a very skilled archer whose arrow could find any target. She and her husband held their position on the hill and fought for 23 long years against the invading Arabs, killing over 500,000 of their enemies together. They never actually lost a battle but were betrayed by a trusted officer and handed over to the enemy. Banu was spared but forced to watch her beloved husband’s public execution. His legs and hands were first cut off before he was sewn into a cow’s skin to be slowly crushed as the hide dried out.
Artemisia, Warrior-Queen Of Halicarnassus
The Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. unleashed close to 1,000 battleships on the Aegean Sea. The great Persian King Xerxes was about to win the naval battle against the Greeks as his 800 ships began to overrun the mere 370 triremes desperately fighting for position. Artemisia, a commander on one of the Greek ships, began to lure the Persian fleet into the narrow waters of the strait, where they were unable to maneuver successfully. She, along with the other commanders, then launched a furious attack, ramming and sinking many of the Persian vessels. Xerxes was so outraged at the loss of this pivotal battle that he declared, “My men have become women, and women men.”
Also known as Syria’s Rebel Queen, Zenobia ruled the Palmyrene Empire in the 1st century and was one of the few people ever to challenge the authority of Rome. Also known as The Imperial Crisis, this was a time of constant civil war, as various Roman generals fought for control of her empire. Through clever political ploys, Zenobia managed to strike a painful blow to Rome by absconding their territory of Palmyra and essentially cutting off their supplies. Her strong relationships with military and business leaders at the time was unprecedented for a woman and gave her legendary status in a country known for its male-dominant views.
Khawlah bint al-Azwar
Khawlah bint al-Azwar was a woman of unusual strength and conviction, who served as both a healer and a warrior during the Islamic Conquest, which sought to spread the word of Allah throughout Persia in the 7th century. During a raging battle against the Byzantine Empire, she watched helplessly from the ridge as her brother was knocked from his horse and dragged off by the enemy. At this point, she threw off her nurse’s garb, wrapped her face in a green scarf, and grabbed a heavy spear and scimitar, riding out fearlessly into the ranks to blast the Byzantine lines. Inspiring her comrades, she turned the tides of the battle, rescued her brother, and brought home countless prisoners.
Apranik The Sassanid Warrior
Apranik was the daughter of a Persian general, raised to love military life and the excitement of a heated battle. Like her father, she became a professional soldier, eventually progressing to a full commander in her father’s army. When her homeland was invaded by the Rashidun Caliphate, she took command of a major battalion and began employing military tactics. Traditional strategies did not work on the Caliphate, as they often melted into the desert after unexpected attacks. In response, she led her army in “hit-and-run” style raids that inflicted maximum damage in a short time. While the Empire was never restored, she is remembered as an inspiring resistance fighter who died in the glory of combat.
Queen Samsi Of Arabia
Queen of The Syrian Desert in the 8th century, Samsi was a wily woman who feared no one, not even the great kings of neighboring Assyria. She traded spices and incense with these influential men and pledged allegiance to their power by the mighty sun and the gods of Persia. However, Samsi was a mercurial woman and changed her mind when she joined forces with the ruler of Damascus to overthrow the Assyrians. Very bold indeed. The battle was fierce and she lost many citizens, camels, oxen, and soldiers as a result. After much bloodshed, she eventually lost the war and fled into the desert, but she was soon captured as a prisoner. Instead of receiving punishment, the Assyrians restored her to the throne out of adoration and reverence for her extraordinary female strengths.
Sura Of Parthia
Sura lived in the 1st century as the daughter of the Parthian Empire’s last king. She was considered her father’s right hand and was devoted to furthering his military efforts. When her father was suddenly killed in a great war against King Ardeshir, Sura became wild with anger and set her sights on revenge. In waging her battles, she became famous for weakening and exhausting her enemy before closing in for victory. Consumed with war and retribution, her soldiers were her only friends. She died valiantly on the battlefield in her undying goal to redeem her father’s name.
Nusaybah bint Ka’ab
Known as the First Woman Warrior of Islam, Nusaybah was a strong believer in the new religion and committed herself to helping the cause. During the Battle of Uhud, she was busy bringing water to thirsty fighters and tending the wounded until she noticed the archers had disobeyed the command and were quickly turning their victory to defeat. She went forward with her sword unsheathed and a bow in hand, joining the small group who were standing firmly together. When her son suffered a serious wound, Nusaybah went after the assailant and sliced him across the hamstring, leaving him crippled and bleeding. This allowed the other warriors to rush in and tear him apart.
Serving as a Persian commander during the reign of Cyrus the Great in the 6th century, Pantea worked tirelessly to secure the rule of her homeland. Once Cyrus conquered the Babylonian Empire, she and her husband established an elite force known as The Immortals, who were one of the most formidable standing armies in Persian history. They were considered such because they always kept 10,000 strong, no matter what. When a soldier died, they were instantly replaced by a corps of already trained fighters who made sure the army never weakened—always vigilant.
And the rest is history.
6 Comments Add yours
Artemisia fought for, not against the Persians.
A very good presentation, but all the Iranian and proto-Iranian speaking ladies were put into one Persian sack, although some of them fought against Persia as a Massagetae ‘queen’ (the Scythian league nomadic tribes had own specific social system) Tomyris.
Btw. Female warriors were nothing unusual in Scythian tribes, especially in a case of young unmarried women (the famous Saka Golden Man was probably a Golden Virgin too), as well as their cruelty was a norm of the Scythian cultures. Their nomadic life was rather tough and even top widows were usually strangled to share a kurgan grave with their men (but important females also were accompanied by strangled men, at least their servants).
Generally the Persian/Achaemenid (Cyrus the Great)-Scythian fights lasted over 20 years and finished with so called Bastards’ War (returning home Scythian troops were ‘welcomed’ by the armed youth – sons of their cheating wives with their servants that took their property). A Scythian golden ‘bong’ (yes, they were dope users) that was discovered ca 2 yeas ago in South Russia presents the part of a poorly known Euroasian history.
Gabriela, you seem to know a lot about history and feel strongly on the subject. Hopefully you are putting this enthusiasm to good use in your own creative pursuits. For more details on my approach, meet the Raven.
A rather embellished take on things…most of the fighting was actually done by the men…the women queens were queens but not so much warriors as they never led from the front…
Wonderful information. I never knew about the Persian women warriors until now. Thanks.