history of iran
Parthian Queen from
Hatra (Modern Iraq),
2nd century AD
|The ancestors of the Persians had migrated to the Iranian plateau, with the other Indo-European tribes that descended the steppes of Southern Russia, beginning around 2000 BC. In earlier times, they had the same ancestors as Indians and are identified as proto-Indo-Iranians. From the fourth to the third millennium BC, these semi-migratory people forged a profound religious tradition, later known as Zoroastrianism. This is the oldest of the revealed world religions and has directly and indirectly influenced the other religions in the area, i.e. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and a host of Gnostic faiths (i.e. Northern Buddhism, Brahmans of India). Also, to this day, elements of Zoroastrianism are preserved in many aspects of the lives of ordinary Iranians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The Zoroastrian scriptures are known collectively as the ‘Avesta’ (loosely meaning ‘Authoritative Utterance’). They were compiled at different times, with Gathas being the most ancient and the only part that is attributed to the prophet Zoroaster himself. The rest of the surviving Avesta consists of liturgical texts preserved in various later stages of the same language (Avestan), but not in exactly the same dialect. There are also additions and interpretations added during the later Iranian dynasties, i.e. Parthian (Mid-Second Century BC) and Sassanian (Third Century AD). Zoroaster’s date is not precisely known. The archaic language of the Gathas and its closeness to the Indian Rig Veda (around 1700 BC), have helped establish the educated guess that Zoroaster lived sometime between 1700 and 1000 BC.
Many of the present day rituals and ceremonies of birth, death and marriage are a continuation of the ancient faith and customs. Many religious observances such as ‘sofreh’, a traditionally female religious gathering, and ‘rawzeh’ (reciting and chanting religious verses) are Zoroastrian in origin. The ‘sofreh’ feasts are specific to the Iranians and are not shared by other Muslims. The marriage ceremony is very similar to its pre-Islamic days. So are the observances and terminology used in rituals of death such as ‘cheleh’ (40th), ‘hafteh’ (7th), ‘sal’ (year) etc. Renewal festivals such as No Ruz (Persian New Year), jumping over the fire (Chahar Shanbeh Suri), Shab e Cheleh and Mihregan are also deeply rooted in the ancient tradition. Although most have lost the religious significance of Zoroastrianism, many festivals and rituals have maintained the same structure as they did before the advent of Islam in the 7th century AD.
The first wave of Iranians; ancient Medes and Persians, entered Western Iran beginning around the first millennium BC.
By the 7th Century BC the Medes had established themselves, made an alliance with Babylon and overthrown the Assyrian Empire. In 549 BC, the Persians, led by Cyrus the king of Anshan, rebelled, defeated the Medes, and founded the Achaemenian Empire. Anshan is the old oriental name for the center of the eastern part of the Elamite Empire on the southwestern Iranian upland in a region that roughly covers the territory the Persians later gave their name, Parsa.
The term Iran is derived from the Sasanian concept of Eranshahr (‘Empire of the Aryans) in the third century AD, and exists in variant forms in Avestan and ancient Persian. By using Eranshahr, the Sasanians created a new ‘identity’ for themselves and their subjects, one that became the political, cultural and religious home of all living there. In the context of the Nazi perversion of the word ‘Aryan’ into a racial concept and its interpretation as ‘of German and related stock’, it should be mentioned that the word ‘Aryan’ has meaning only as a linguistic term designating the eastern part of the Indo-European family of languages. It has nothing to do with race and is simply a linguistic connotation.
In its ethno-linguistic and religious respects, the word Ariya, which forms the basis for the Middle Persian ‘Eran,’ can be traced back to the Achaemenid period and even earlier. In their inscriptions, Achaemenian kings talk about their Aryan origin and speak of Ahura Mazda (the Zoroastrian Sovereign God and Lord of Wisdom) as the’ God of the Aryans’. However, they put more emphasis on being Persian than Aryan, and as Persians they separate themselves from the Medes, Bactrians (parts of Afghanistan) and other Iranian-speaking people.
With the coming of the Achaemenid in the 6th century BC, an efficient administration, new civil centers and a powerful military machine were created. Temple cults were established and for the first time an organized priesthood was formed; this new ecclesiastical hierarchy replaced the loosely connected family priests. Their Empire extended from India to North Africa. The result was the creation of a state structure on an unprecedented scale, characterized by ethnic, religious and cultural heterogeneity. Their reign ended when the Macedonian King Alexander succeeded in breaking the Iranian resistance to his eastern expansions into the Asian continent in 330 BC.
Following Alexander’s death the Empire was divided between his heirs and the Seleucid dynasty of Iran was formed. Alexander’s policies were followed through political marriages with the non-Greek dynasties, and through calling upon natives for military and administrative tasks. Persian and Mesopotamian models were adopted by the Seleucid in their choice of residences, patterns of personal relations, in the court art relating to the king and above all in the royal ideology. At the same time, Greek art, philosophy and sciences were introduced into the Persian territories.
Cyrus’s Cylinder, 6th century BC. British Museum
The Macedonian domination of Iran lasted until the Mid-Second Century BC, when simultaneous pressure from the east (Parthia) and the west (Rome) weakened their rule and they were defeated by the Next Iranian dynasty, the Parthian or Arsacid, named after Arsaces, the founder of their dynasty. Originally, from Parthia in Northeast Persia, they ruled over a great multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society and exerted great influence over Armenia, Syria and Asia Minor.
Achaemenid and the following dynasties, Seleucid and Arsacid (Parthian), did not create theocratic states, though they did encourage religious institutions, build magnificent temples and introduce major changes with respect to calendar and scripture. This was first attempted by the Sasanian, but was completed and achieved by the later Muslim dynasties. From the Sasanian times onwards, Iranian culture became increasingly religious. These people were the hereditary guardians of a great temple of Anahita (Nahid, a major female deity) at the city of Istakhr in Pars. Ardeshir, the first major king from this dynasty made great use of religious propaganda as a mean to establish his rule over the vast Empire he conquered in the Third Century AD.
The result was the establishment of a single Zoroastrian church, under the direct and authoritarian control of Persia. A single canon of Avestan texts ‘Dinkard’ was established and replaced by the fraternity of regional texts and communities. A strong, unified and growing body of disciplined priests strengthened the church and implemented the religious codes and observances with great efficiency. Gradually these priests managed to dominate many aspects of the private and public lives of the ordinary citizens.
The conquest of Persia by the Muslim forces from Arabia in the 7th century introduced many changes. Politically the country became fragmented; the powerful centralized state was lost. For centuries the country was ruled by different feudal and warlords from Arab, Turkish, Mogul and occasionally Persian origins. Semi-autonomous kingdoms were formed, with the Muslim caliphs in Damascus in Syria or Baghdad as the ultimate source of authority. Wars for Independence were fought and lost. Culturally, significant attempts were made to preserve the language, heritage and the national identity. Through the unprecedented translation movement of the 8th to 10th centuries AD, a great variety of books on sacred and secular sciences were translated from Persian, Syriac, Greek and Indian sources into Arabic to preserve ancient knowledge and national identities throughout the Muslim Empire.
The advent of Islam slowly but drastically changed the religious character of the country. Some of the most important doctrines of Islam – such as belief in Heaven and Hell, the end of the world and the Day of the Judgment – were derived indirectly but ultimately from Zoroastrianism. As a result, they were disarmingly familiar, as were certain Muslim practices: the five times of daily prayer (also adopted from Zoroastrianism), and the injunction to give alms. However, there were major changes in doctrine, and use of Arabic for all religious and administrative functions and the new fate could have meant the loss of national identity altogether. Persians survived by adopting the Arabic script (Aramaic in origin) while maintaining the phonetics and thus saving the ancient language from extinction.
Conversion meant changes not only in doctrine but also in practices and rituals. The many kindly deities (eyzads) to whom the Zoroastrians had turned for help had to be renounced. Instead of the celebration of holy days—with many joyful observances, feasts, music, plays and parties—there were Friday prayers at the mosques, confronting a stone facing ‘qibla’ (direction to Mecca) instead of a bright leaping flame. There were no public dancing or music, theaters were closed down, and the veiling and segregation of sexes was introduced.
Iranians adapted by shaping a tradition, which made Islam, appear as a partly Iranian religion, i.e. the Iranian Shi’ite movement. These people believed that the caliphate belonged rightly to Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. The Iranians supported the cause. A legend was created that Husayn, the martyred son of Ali, had married captive Sasanian princess Shahrbanu, the ‘Lady of the Land’. This wholly fictitious figure, whose name appears to be derived from a cult-epithet of the Iranian goddess Anahita, was held to have borne Husayn a son. Iranians organized, opposed the Umayyad Caliphs and eventually led the house of ‘Abbas’, relatives of Ali, to victory in 750 AD. Once in power, the ‘Abbasids’ betrayed the Iranians, murdered their leaders and at the same time revived the magnificence of the ancient court and imitated Sassanian authoritarianism in religious matters. Massive persecutions and forced conversions into Islam took place everywhere and it was during this period that Islam took root and flourished in Iran.
Alexander defeating Darius III, the Achaemenid king at the battle of Issus, 333 BC
Alexander Mosaic from Pompii.
In the process, Islam grew steadily more Zoroastrianized, with adaptations of funerary rites, purity laws, and a cult of saints (12 Imams) springing up in place of the veneration of the 12 major deities, the eyzads. The Zoroastrian figure, Saoshyant, who comes at the end of the time to save the world finds a place too and is replaced by the Time Lord, Imam Zaman; the venerated 12th Shi’ite Imam. Such developments and adaptations made it possible for the Iranians to preserve many of their ancient rituals and traditions, while new ones were adopted and incorporated into the belief system as well. In the end, even though Zoroastrianism was reduced to a minority religion in Iran itself, its structure and rituals in particular found a place in the new religion and are still practiced and revered by most Iranians.
The Tenth Century AD, marks the advancement of the Turkish tribes moving into Persian and Byzantium territories and eventually dominating all of these areas including Baghdad itself. The Mogul invasion in the Twelfth Century devastated the region and the subsequent rule by their descendents divided the country further, thereby creating decades of civil war between competing rulers. The Tamerlanes’ conquest (14th century) worsened the political and economic situation. Nevertheless, Islam remained and all the Asian conquers and their dynasties were converted to Islam. Persian became the court language in Turkey and India, while her art, science and literature dominated the royal courts in these countries.
The next major change occurred in the 16th century with the Safavid dynasty. Descendents of a major mystical leader and of Turkish and Iranian ancestry, they united the country, improved the economy and adopted Shi’ism as the state religion. They also created a powerful religious institution with thousands of preachers with different ranks dominating and controlling every aspect of the lives of ordinary citizens. Some rituals and practices were adopted and copied from the Christians and incorporated as genuinely Shi’ite practices, such as self-beatings with chains. The well-respected religious authority, Alameh Majlessi, collected and produced his extensive work, ‘Bihar al Anwar’ (Oceans of Light) at this time. The text became the standard for Shi’ite religious observances and is very similar to Sasanian codes of observances outlined in the pre-Islamic texts of Dinkard and Vandidad. A religious doctrine was firmly set in place and fixed with many Persian elements and rituals that has lasted and is still practiced today.
The 19th Century saw the beginning of modernization in the country. After centuries of oppression and abuse by political and spiritual leaders, change was demanded on every front. The results were the constitutional revolution of the 1906 and the subsequent coming to power of the charismatic, western-oriented Reza Pahlavi. The last Quajar king was forced to abdicate in 1925 and Pahlavi reign started in 1926. For the first time since the Islamic conquest, secularization took place and attempts were made to establish a civil society based on a European model and to create a truly Iranian identity. Ancient Persia was glorified, improving economics; modern schools and universities created a large and secular middle class with a powerful centralized State and administration.
The attempt to strengthen the bond between the royalty and the masses failed for many reasons and processes of secularization were met with persistent resistance amongst the religious hierarchy and the very religious masses. Moreover, the absence of political institutions hindered political growth. Thus, the 1979 Revolution saw the end of the monarchy and the formation of a theocratic state, based entirely on Islamic legal code and practices. The eight years of war with Iraq, worsening economic conditions and very restrictive Islamic codes resulted in massive emigration of the Iranians.
For the first time, a massive Iranian Diaspora was formed outside the country. According to the Islamic Republics’ statistics, currently almost four million Iranians reside outside Iran. There are many refugees and others who have not registered with the Islamic authorities; therefore, no one knows what the exact figure is.
This site is intended for Iranians living in North America with English as their first or second language. Their sheer numbers have created a great demand for preserving their past and, for the new generation, knowing about their culture has become a serious priority.