A short history of Iran
Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilizations, with historical and urban settlements dating back to 3200 BC. The geographical area where Iranian civilization flourished is sometimes called Iran’s cultural continent and roughly corresponds to the territory surrounding the Iranian plateau, stretching from the Caucasus to the Indus River, or that of the two Persian empires (Achaemenes and Sassanid), and conforms to the historical understanding of the full territory of “Iran.” Traditionally, and until recent times, ethnicity has never been a defining separating criterion in these regions. In the words of Richard Nelson Frye: “Many times I have emphasized that the present peoples of central Asia, whether Iranian or Turkic speaking, have one culture, one religion, one set of social values and traditions with only language separating them.” Only in modern times did western colonial intervention and ethnicity tend to become a dividing force between the various regions of Iran’s cultural continent. It should be noted that Iran’s cultural continent has been more a cultural super-state, rather than a political one. In the following pages, we have tried to give you a glimpse of Iran’s Cultural Heritage and wonderful ancient sites.
World’s earliest charter of human rights
“The worship of Marduk, the king of the gods, he [Nabonidus] [chang] ed into an abomination. Daily he used to do evil against his city [Babylon] … He [Marduk] scanned and looked [through] all the countries, searching for a righteous ruler willing to lead [him] [in the annual procession]. [Then] he pronounced the name of Cyrus, king of Anshan, declared him to be[come] the ruler of all the world. From [Babylon] to Aššur and (from) Susa, Agade, Ešnunna, Zambian, Me-Turnu, Der, as far as the region of Gutium, the sacred centers on the other side of the Tigris, whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time, I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there [i.e., in Babylon], to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings.” The Cyrus Cylinder is regarded as the first human right charter in history. It is a document issued by the emperor Cyrus the Great of Persia inscribed in Babylonian (Akkadian) cuneiform on a clay cylinder. Passages in the text, express Cyrus’ respect for humanity, and as promoting a form of religious tolerance and freedom. There are three main premises in the decrees of the Cyrus Cylinder: the political formalization of racial, linguistic, and religious equality, slaves and all deported peoples were to be allowed to return home; and all destroyed temples were to be restored. The inscription was translated into all six official U.N. languages in 1971. A replica of the cylinder is kept at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City in the second-floor hallway, between the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council chambers.
There are records of numerous ancient civilizations on the Iranian plateau before the arrival of Iranian tribes from central Asia during the early Iron Age. The earliest archaeological artifacts in Iran were found in the Kashafrūd and Ganj Par sites that date back to Lower Paleolithic. Mousterian Stone tools made by Neanderthal man have also been found. There are also 9000-year-old human and animal figurines from Teppe Sarāb in Kermanshah Province among the many other ancient artifacts. There are more cultural remains of Neanderthal man dating back to the Middle Paleolithic period, which mainly has been found in the Zagros region and fewer in central Iran at sites such as Shanidar, Kunji, Bīsotūn, Tamtama, Warwasi, Palegawra, and Yafteh cave. evidence for Upper Paleolithic and Epipaleolithic periods are known mainly from the Zagros region in the caves of Kermanshah and Khoramābād. In the 6th millennium BC, the world developed a fairly sophisticated agricultural society and proto-urban population centers. The southwestern part of Iran was part of the Fertile Crescent where most of humanity’s first major crops were grown. beautifully painted ceramic vessels, stone tools, and clay figurines are expressions of the thoughts and beliefs of the people of the Neolithic period. One of the major Neolithic Iranian settlements was Iran’s central plateau, particularly the southwest regions. The early Bronze Age saw the rise of urbanization into organized city-states and the invention of writing (the Uruk period) in Mesopotamia. One of Iran’s main civilizations of this time was the Elamite civilization. During this period, a new chapter was opened in Iran’s history by the immigration of Aryan tribes to the Iranian Plateau.
Modern Iranians are descendants of early Proto-Iranians. the Proto-Iranians are traced to the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological complex, a bronze Age culture of Central Asia. by the first millennium bc, Medes, Persians, Bactrians, and Parthians populated he Iranian plateau, while others such as the Scythians, Sarmatians, Cimmerians and Alans populated the steppes north of the Black Sea. During the climax of the power of the neo-Assyrian empire, the Persians and the Medes were vassals of Assyria and paid tribute. In the second half of the 7th century BC, the Median tribes gained their independence and were united by Deioces. In 612 bc the Babylonian king Nabopolassar, along with Cyaxares the Mede, finally destroyed Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and Assyria fell. the Medes are credited with the foundation of Iran as a nation and empire and established the first Iranian empire, the largest of its day until Cyrus the Great established a unified empire of the Medes and Persians leading to the Achaemenid empire (550–330 BC.) After his father died in 559 BC, Cyrus the Great became king of Anshān but like his predecessors, Cyrus had to recognize Mede over lordship. but he led his armies against the Medes, and conquered the Median empire and also inherited Assyria. thus it was that the unified Persian empire was founded in 550. Cyrus later went on to conquer Lydia and Babylon. Cyrus the Great created the Cyrus Cylinder, considered to be the first declaration of human rights. After Cyrus’ death, his son Cambyses ruled for seven years (531-522 BC)
and continued his father’s work of conquest, making significant gains in Egypt. A power struggle followed Cambyses’ death and despite his tenuous connection to the royal line, Darius was declared king (ruled 522-486 BC). he was to be arguably the greatest of the ancient Persian rulers. Darius’ first capital was at Susa (Shūsh), and he started his building program at Persepolis. he built a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea, a forerunner of the modern Suez Canal. he improved the extensive road system, and it is during his reign that mention is first made of the Royal Road, a great highway stretching from Susa to Sardis with posting stations at regular intervals. Major reforms took place under Darius. coinage, in the form of the ‘daric’ (gold coin), and the ‘shekel’ (silver coin) was introduced (coinage had already been invented over a century before in Lydia ca. 660 BCE), and administrative efficiency was increased. At this time, Persians invented a cuneiform script of their own which appears in Old Persian inscriptions under Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great, the Persian Empire eventually became the largest empire in human history up until that point, ruling and administrating over most of the then known world. their greatest achievement was perhaps a model of tolerance and respect for other cultures and religions first expressed by Cyrus the Great. In 334 bc-331 BC Alexander the Great, defeated Darius III in the battles of Granicus, Issus, and Gaugamela, swiftly conquering the Persian empire by 331 bc. Alexander’s empire broke up shortly after his death. Alexander’s successors, known as the Seleucids ruled Iran for about half a century. During the Seleucid dynasty, Hellenic culture exercised some influence in Iran. but as the Parthian tribes—one the three major branches of Aryan people — gained power in northern Iran and subsequently expelled the Seleucids from most of the country, time was right for a revival of Iranian culture.
Parthian Empire (248 BC – 224 CE)
Parthia was led by the Arsacid dynasty, who reunited and ruled over the Iranian plateau, after defeating the Greek Seleucid Empire, beginning in the late 3rd century BC, and intermittently controlled Mesopotamia between ca 150 BC and 224 AD. It was the second native dynasty of ancient Iran (Persia). Parthia was the arch-enemy of the roman empire in the east, and it limited Rome’s expansion beyond Cappadocia (central Anatolia). The Parthian armies included two types of cavalry: the heavily-armed and armored cataphract and lightly armed but highly-mobile mounted archers. For the Romans, who relied on heavy infantry, the Parthians were too hard to defeat, as both types of cavalry were much faster and more mobile than foot soldiers. On the other hand, the Parthians found it difficult to occupy conquered areas as they were unskilled in siege warfare. Because of these weaknesses, neither the Romans nor the Parthians were able to completely annex each other. The Parthian empire lasted five centuries, longer than most eastern empires. The end of this long lasted empire came in 224 AD when the empire was loosely organized and the last king was defeated by one of the empire’s vassals, the Persians of the Sassanid dynasty.
Sassanid Empire (224 – 651 CE)
The first Shah of the Sassanid empire, Ardashīr I, started reforming the country both economically and militarily. The empire’s territory encompassed all of today’s Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Afghanistan, eastern parts of Turkey, and parts of Syria, Pakistan, Caucasia, Central Asia, and Arabia. During Khosrau ii’s rule in 590-628, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon were also annexed to the empire. The Sassanid called their empire Irānshahr (lit. “Dominion of the Aryans”, i.e. of Iranians). A chapter of Iran’s history followed after roughly six hundred years of conflict with the Roman empire. During this time, the Sassanid and Romano-byzantine armies clashed for influence in Mesopotamia, Armenia, and the Levant. under Justinian I, the war came to an uneasy peace with payment of tribute to the Sassanid kings. However, the Sassanid used the deposition of the byzantine emperor Maurice as a casus belli to attack the empire. After many gains, the Sassanid army was defeated at issues, Constantinople and finally Nineveh, resulting in peace. A new religion appeared in the Arabian Peninsula around the same. it was, of course, Islam; which would become Iran’s official religion in the coming centuries. The Sassanid were defeated by the Muslim Arab army. The Sassanid era, encompassing the length of the Late Antiquity period, is considered to be one of the most important and influential historical periods in Iran, and had a major impact on the world. in many ways the Sassanid period witnessed the highest achievement of the Persian civilization and constituted the last great Iranian empire before the adoption of Islam. Persia influenced Roman civilization considerably during Sassanid times, their cultural influence extending far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as western Europe, Africa, China, and India and also playing a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asiatic medieval art. This influence carried forward to the Islamic world. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture, architecture, writing, and other contributions to civilization, were taken from the Sassanid Persians into the broader Muslim world. ii is to be noted that although the government of Iran was changed after the Islamic conquest of Persia, cultural and political systems set by the Sassanid survived well into the Islamic period, constituting a big proportion of Islamic culture and polity.
Iran and the Islamic Culture and Civilization
conversion to Islam in Iran was to yield deep transformations within the cultural, scientific, and political structure of Iran’s society: The blossoming of Persian literature, philosophy, medicine, and art became major elements of the newly forming Muslim civilization. Inheriting a heritage of thousands of years of civilization, and being at the “crossroads of the major cultural highways”, contributed to Persia emerging as what culminated into the “Islamic Golden Age”. During this period, hundreds of scholars and scientists vastly contributed to technology, science, and medicine, later influencing the rise of European science during the Renaissance. The most important scholars of almost all of the Islamic sects and schools of thought were Persian or live in Iran including most notable and reliable Hadith collectors of Shia and Sunni like Shaikh Saduq, Shaikh Kulainy, Imam Bukhari, Imam Muslim and Hakim Al Nishaburi, the greatest theologians of Shia and Sunni like Shaykh Tūsī, Imam Ghazālī, Imam Fakhr al-Rāzī, and Al-Zamakhsharī, the greatest physicians, astronomers, logicians, mathematicians, metaphysicians. philosophers and scientists like Al-Fārābi, Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā), and Nasīr al-Dīn alTūsī, the greatest Shaykhs of Sufism like jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī and Abdul-Qadir Gilani. ibn Khaldun narrates in his Muqaddimah:
“It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars…in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs, thus the founders of grammar were Sibawaih and after him, al-Farsi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar. great jurists were Persians. Only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the prophet (Muhammad) becomes apparent, “If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven the Persians would attain it” …The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them…This was the case with all crafts…This situation continued in the cities as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorāsān and Transoxiana (modern Central Asia), retained their sedentary culture.”
From Taherian to Timurids
After the advent of Islam, many revolutions took place in different social, cultural, political, religious arenas in Iran. Iranians who were dissatisfied with the current class differences in their country accepted Islam with no hesitation and they even endeavored to preach and develop it. However, they did never hide their opposition against the Omavids and Abbasids and their rule on the land of Iran. They established many nationalist movements, which resulted in the rise of governments such as the Taherian (826-881 AD) and Saffarian (866-903 AD). For the first time after the victory of Islam, Taherian could bring independence to the land of Khorasan. It was Saffarian who used the Persian language as their official language for the first time after the victory of Islam and the rule of Arab governments in Iran. The modern Persian script developed in the Samanian Period (819-999 AD) rulers of Al-e- Bouyeh (945-1055 AD) headed towards Baghdad after conquering shiraz and establishing their government and they occupied the city. Ghaznavids (977 -1186 AD) introduced themselves as Ghazi or the Muslim fighters and invaded lands such as India. Seljuks (1038-1194 AD) established their government and overcoming the Ghaznavid dynasty, they brought the entire sections of Iran under their dominance. Furthermore, they could stabilize their power in Iran with the help of the great Iranian ministers and scientists. However, they disappeared finally. During the reign of Kharazmshahian (1077-1231 AD), a big calamity was to befall Iran: The Mongol invasion. The result was the fall of Kharazmshahian and the depredation of cities and the massacre of the people of Iran, following the destruction of the economy and agriculture of the country. Besides, Mongols invaded Baghdad, killed the Abbasid’s caliph, and abolished the Islamic reign (1228 AD). In 1370 AD, a descendent of Genghis Khan, namely Tamerlane, invaded Iran and created another scene of attack and invasion. The reign of Timurids continued until 1507 AD when Iran was reunited as an independent state under the rising Safavids.
The birth of modern Iran
Persia underwent a revival under the Safavid dynasty (1502-1736), the most prominent figure of which was Shah Abbas I. Some historians credit the Safavid dynasty for founding the modern nation-state of Iran. Iran’s contemporary Shia character takes its origin from this era.
Qājār dynasty (1795-1925)
By the 17th century, European countries, including Great Britain, Imperial Russia, and France, had already started establishing colonial footholds in the region. Iran, as a result, lost sovereignty over many of its provinces to these countries via the Treaty of Turkmenchay, the Treaty of Gulistan, and others. A new era in the History of Persia dawned on the constitutional Revolution of Iran against the Shah in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Shah managed to remain in power, granting a limited constitution in 1906 (making the country a constitutional monarchy). The first Majlis (parliament) was convened on October 7, 1906. The discovery of oil in 1908 by the British in khūzestān spawned an intense renewed interest in Persia by the British empire. Control of Persia remained contested between the United Kingdom and Russia, in what became known as the great game, and codified in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which divided Persia into spheres of influence, regardless of her national sovereignty. Finally, the constitutionalist movement of Gīlān and the central power vacuum caused by the instability of the Qājār government resulted in the rise of Reza Shah Pahlavi and the Pahlavi dynasty in 1921. During world war I the country was occupied by British and Russian forces but was essentially neutral. In 1919, Britain attempted to establish a protectorate in Iran, aided by the Soviet union’s withdrawal in 1921. In that year a military coup established Reza Khan, a Persian officer of the Persian Cossack Brigade, as a dictator and then hereditary Shah of the new Pahlavi dynasty (1925).
Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979)
Reza Shah Pahlavi ruled for almost 16 years, at the beginning mostly secretly aided by the British, installed the new Pahlavi dynasty. under his reign, Persia (Iran) began to modernize and to secularize politics, and the central government reasserted its authority over the tribes and provinces.
World War II
Soldiers surround the Parliament building in Tehran on August 19, 1935. During World War II, Iran was a vital oil-supply source and link in the Allied supply line for lend-lease supplies to the Soviet Union. The then-Shah’s tacit pro-German sympathies led to British and Indian forces from Iraq and Soviet forces from the north occupying Iran in August 1941. In September, the British forced Reza Shah to abdicate in favor of his pro-British son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who ruled until 1979.
The Islamic Revolution of Iran was the revolution that transformed Iran from a monarchy under Mohammad Reza Shāh Pahlavi, to the Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic. Its period can be said to have begun in January 1978 with the first major demonstrations and concluded with the approval of the new constitution — whereby Imam Khomeini became the Supreme Leader of the country — in December 1979. In between, Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi left the country for exile in January 1979 after strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country, and on February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehrān to a greeting of several million Iranians. The final collapse of the Pahlavi dynasty occurred shortly after on February 11 when Iran’s military declared itself “neutral” after guerrillas and popular troops overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shāh in armed street fighting. Iran officially became the Islamic Republic on April 1, 1979, when Iranians overwhelmingly approved it in a national referendum.