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Who wins writes history, but is it true? Interview a scientist: Uzume Zoë Wijnsma


What is your name?

Uzume Zoë Wijnsma

Where are you currently doing your research?

I am currently working for Leiden University, within the Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS). In August I will continue my work at the Ludwig Maximilans University of Munich.


What is the topic of your research?

My research focuses on the Persian Empire (ca. 550 - 330 BC). In the 6th to 4th centuries B.C., the Persian Empire covered a large portion of western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. At its height, its borders stretched from Macedonia to Afghanistan, and from Sudan to Georgia. It is also known as the first "world empire" in history. Within this Empire, I am particularly interested in the regions of Egypt and Babylonia (present-day southern Iraq), specifically in the Egyptian and Babylonian rebellions fought against the Persians.

How did you become interested in this topic?

My interest in the Persian Empire began in high school. In fact, in grammar school we read Greek texts from the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the time of classical Athens. Think of Herodotus, who is known as the first historian in history, or the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Some of these authors mention the Persians and their gigantic empire. Indeed, the Persians were a great threat to the Greeks, who struggled to maintain their independence from the Persian Empire. While studying Ancient Cultures of the Mediterranean World in Leiden, I further developed my interest in the Persians. I wanted to know what we knew about the Persians based on non-Greek sources, and how the Persian Empire was experienced by people who actually lived within Persian borders.


Could you tell a little more about the rebellions that took place in Persian Egypt and Iraq?

The first uprisings occurred in about 522 B.C. when there was a succession crisis in Iran. The Persian king, Cambyses, had died, his brother was assassinated, and a man only remotely related to the royal family, Darius I, claimed the throne. During this political chaos, rebellions broke out in various parts of the empire, including Egypt and Babylonia. The rebellions were eventually put down by the armies of Darius I. After the crisis of 522 B.C. Babylonia rebelled twice more and Egypt about four more times. The goal each time was to gain independence from the Persian Empire and to live under a local ruler.


What the exact reasons were behind the revolts are difficult to determine. However, a number of changes that the Persians made in Egyptian and Babylonian society undoubtedly played a role. First, both countries - like other provinces in the Persian Empire - had to pay large amounts of tribute and taxes to the Persian government. Second, the highest posts in the army and civil administration were mostly held by Persians; the power of Egyptian and Babylonian officials became more limited. Third, more attention was paid to festivals, rituals, and monumental construction in Iran-the center of the Persian Empire-while such matters became increasingly marginal in Egypt and Babylonia. The latter element went hand-in-hand with deportations, by which large groups of Egyptians and Babylonians were put to work in Iran. It is important to mention that the uprisings may have exacerbated this situation. In fact, most rebellions were put down by Persian armies, after which repercussions followed. Insurgents were executed, buildings were destroyed, and local officials suspected of participating could be removed from their posts. Only one rebellion was successful. In roughly 400 B.C., more than a century after the Persian conquests, Egypt managed to gain independence from the Persian Empire. However, a few decades after independence, the Persians recaptured the province.

How do you research this?

When you study the Persian Empire, there are numerous sources at your disposal. One source group I have already mentioned: the Greek texts from the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. Other sources are the Old Testament (the Persian Empire is also mentioned there), and, of course, everything that has been excavated in the former Persian area in recent centuries. Think of inscriptions on palace walls in southwest Iran, clay tablets in Iraq, papyri in Egypt, inscribed potsherds in Israel, and tombs in Turkey. For my research on the Egyptian and Babylonian revolts, Greek texts, Persian royal inscriptions and sources excavated in Egypt and Iraq are especially important. In doing so, I primarily use sources that have been published. To consult these I have to go to the library, and open dusty books (although, thankfully, more and more are being put online). However, I have also on occasion stumbled upon sources that are unpublished, but proved relevant to my research. Think of a cuneiform tablet in a European museum, or a rock inscription in the desert of Egypt. At times like that, my knowledge of hieroglyphs and cuneiform came in handy - that's when you have to start translating! Those are often the most enjoyable moments.


What is the most surprising/noteworthy thing you discovered?

Among historians of the Persian Empire, the rebellions in Babylonia are well known. This is largely due to the enormous amount of sources excavated there: we have thousands of Babylonian texts at our disposal, some of which can be linked to the uprisings. Thus we know which regions of Babylonia revolted, which layers of the population were most involved, and how long the revolts lasted. With the Egyptian rebellions, the situation is different. Most of these revolts are mentioned by Greek historians, whose reliability has been questioned. Egyptian sources that can be linked to the uprisings are relatively few. The result is that the Egyptian uprisings have sometimes been trivialized: they would not have lasted as long as Greek historians claim, and they would have affected only a small part of Egypt. My research, however, has shown the opposite. When we study the Egyptian sources in depth, it becomes clear that most of the revolts lasted several years (vs. a few months in Babylonia), and that they had an impact on large parts of Egypt. This conclusion obviously changes our understanding of Persian Egypt.

What can we learn from this history?

The Persian Empire was an important period in human history. For example, with its enormous size, the Empire was a crucial part in the globalization of the world. Never before had so many people been united under one state. Large-scale migration - both voluntary and forced - increased interaction between ethnic groups, and facilitated the exchange of knowledge, ideas and stories. With my research I hope to contribute to a better understanding of the genesis and functioning of this global empire. How was it that the Persians managed to conquer such a large area, while previous states had failed to do so? And how did they manage to hold it together for two centuries?

Where can we find more about your research?

My PhD research is part of a larger project in Leiden called Persia and Babylonia. On the website of the project (http://persiababylonia.org) you can find a lot of information, such as lectures, blogs, and publications from me and my colleagues. I also write a blog from time to time about my research for Faces of Science, a project of Nemo kennislink and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (https://www.nemokennislink.nl/facesofscience/wetenschappers/uzume-zoe-wijnsma/). Are you interested in antiquity and looking for accessible information? Then take a look!


What is your favorite beer/drink?

It varies with the season - but at the moment I love Ginger Beer. Incidentally, that's also the only kind of beer I don't say no to (I've always been more of a wine person).


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