Iran has one of the oldest and most influential civilisations in the world. Iranian culture dominated Central Asia and the Middle East from the time of Cyrus the Great to the Islamic Conquests and in some ways continues to do so.
Greater Iran includes the countries and peoples who speak Iranian languages, from the Euphrates to Indus Rivers. These include:
- Persians (Iran)
- Kurds (Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria)
- Tajiks (Tajikstan, Afghanistan)
- Pashtuns (Afghanistan, Pakistan)
Other nations that were once a part of Iranian empires but today have different cultures include Iraq, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. ‘Stan’ is the Persian word for land.
Persia is the old Greek world for Iran and its English name until 1932. The modern Persian language swapped the P sound for F, so ‘Persia Proper’ is today Iran’s Fars province. The Persian language is Farsi. The Zoroastrians who fled to India when the Muslims took over before the language changed are called the Parsi.
‘Iran’ comes from the Sassanian name for Persia, ‘Eran-Shahr’ which derives from ‘Aryan’. All Persians are Iranian but not all Iranians are Persian.
Five Dynasties ruled Iran before Islam. They mainly followed the teachings of Zoroaster, a Bronze Age prophet:
- Medians (non-Persian Iranians, 678 – 549 BC)
- Achaemenids (Cyrus, Darius etc, 559 – 330 BC)
- Seleucids (Macedonian, 305 – 63 BC)
- Arcasids (Parthians, 247 BC – 224 AD)
- Sassanians (Persians, 224 – 651 AD)
As Western civilisation grew out of Rome, and Chinese out of the Han Dynasty, Iranian civilization sprang from the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Cyrus the Great conquered most of the known world and established an administration system that lasted centuries. Even Alexander the Great, who conquered it, retained the Persian system.
The Muslims who conquered Iran in the 600s ushered an age of foreign rule. Arabs, Turks and Mongols ruled Iran. Although the foreigners adopted elements of Persian culture, they were still considered foreigners. The greatest scientific advances of the Islamic Golden Age were made by Persians like Avicenna and Al Khwarezemi.
The Safavid Dynasty restored native rule in the 1500s. They retained Persian culture, made Persian, not Arabic, the country’s official language and made Iran the centre of the Shia Muslim world. In 1979 clerics overthrew the last Shah, Reza Muhammad of the Pahlavi Dynasty, and replaced the monarchy with a theocratic republic, ending 2,500 years of imperial rule.
Though Greater Iran is overwhelmingly Muslim today, it has given the world four religions:
- Zoroastrianism (900s BC -)
- Mithraism (200s BC – 300s AD)
- Manichaeism (200s AD – 1400s)
- Baha’i (1800s -)
Central to the Iranian philosophical and religious tradition is an emphasis on truth and spiritual purity.
Historically Persia lay between the eastern and western halves of Eurasia. The Silk Road ran through it meaning Chinese inventions like chess, gunpowder and silk came to Europe via Persia.
Among other things, Persia has given the world:
- ice cream
- armoured knights
- poetry of Hafez and Rumi
- The Shahnameh (Book of Kings)
- Avicenna, father of modern medicine
While the Syrian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures were largely subsumed into Arabic, Iran retained its unique identity. Modern Islamic civilisation is arguably a mixture of Arabic and Persian influences. The Persian example helped internationalise Islam and allow it to spread as far as it has today. Sir Muhammad Iqbal, the spiritual father of Pakistan, claimed:
“If you ask me what is the most important event in the history of Islam, I shall say without any hesitation: “The Conquest of Persia.” The battle of Nehawand gave the Arabs not only a beautiful country, but also an ancient civilisation; or, more properly, a people who could make a new civilisation with the Semitic and Aryan material. Our Muslim civilisation is a product of the cross-fertilisation of the Semitic and the Aryan ideas. It is a child who inherits the softness and refinement of his Aryan mother, and the sterling character of his Semitic father. But for the conquest of Persia, the civilisation of Islam would have been one-sided. The conquest of Persia gave us what the conquest of Greece gave to the Romans.”
Sources: Richard N Frye – The Heritage of Persia (1962), Iran Review