The world's first superpower
Tehran: modern capital of Iran with a population of over 14 million. Photo AMW
Introducing the website…
This website is for anyone who wants a clear and authoritative introduction both to Iran's pre-Islamic past, and to the succeeding centuries of Islamic rule.
It will guide you through Iran's history and culture from the first evidence of civilised living (from around at least 5,500 BC), through the vast Persian empire under the Achaemenid kings (558 - 330 BC), the interval of Greek control (330 - 125 BC), and the return to Iranian rule under the Parthians (247 BC - AD 225) and the Sasanians (AD 225 - 651), whose rule was ended by the Arab conquest. The early Arab rule from Damascus in Syria (under the Umayyads, AD 637 - 750) gave way to a more Persianised dynasty, the Abbasids (750 - 1040). The Turkish Seljuqs who superseded them also keenly embraced Persian traditions and culture - and continued to accept the Abbasid caliphs as heads of Islam. Then the Mongols invaded (AD 1218) and suddenly it seemed that everything could be lost. But even the descendants of Genghis Khan eventually succumbed to the lure of Persian culture - and a restoration of ancient glories ensued under Turkmen Safavids. In the modern period, Iran has suffered from the competing attention of foreign powers - Great Britain, Russia, Germany and the United States, but is currently attempting, as an independent power, to reassert its influence over the Greater Middle East.
Iran today is frequently in the news - and not always in a good way. Few people have any clear knowledge of Iran's historical place in the world, or of Iran's achievements in the past, or Iran's contributions to civilisation. Until AD 1492, when the discovery of America suddenly shifted the centre to Europe (previously a backwater), Iran and Central Asia had been at the heart of the civilised world - the essential link between north and south, east and west.
From the Earliest Times…
The Eurasian steppes from which the Persians and Medes emerged had been home to human communities for 50,000 years. Around 10,000 years ago, communities in the Zagros mountains in western Iran were among the world's first farmers. Around 5000 years ago, their descendants migrated north of the Caucasus to the Steppes, where they mixed with local hunter-gatherers and soon mastered the horse, and the cart. Within 500 years this new people, pastoral nomads called the Yamnaya, were expanding in all directions - taking with them their language - eastwards across the Steppes, westwards into Europe and southwards into India. By 3000 years ago, as Iranians, they had arrived on the plateau which bears their name.
Before the arrival of Iranian settlers, the Iranian plateau was home to several fascinating civilisations - seeing the development of agriculture, writing and pottery.. Earlier empires to the west of the plateau had considerable influence on the way the Persians developed, especially the Babylonians, Assyrians and Elamites.
Sculpted relief from Persepolis, the mighty palace built by the Achaemenid kings
A dynasty of kings tracing their descent from Cyrus the Great, who in 30 years or so, conquered territories from the Mediterranean to India, from the Caucasus to Arabia - the Achaemenid empire was the world's first superpower: ruling lands in Europe, Africa and Asia. Unlike predecessors such as the Assyrians, they were thought of as fair and tolerant rulers - and a Greek (Herodotus) may have the explanation:
The Persians are readier than all other peoples to adopt foreign ideas - they wear Median fashion because it looks better, and they use Egyptian armour in battle. They are keen to seek out the pleasures of all nations.
It was ended by an invasion from the west under Alexander of Macedon.
A dynasty from north eastern Iran who reclaimed Iranian territory from Alexander's successors, and held the Roman empire at bay for 500 years. Communication with China and the east began in the Parthian period - the Silk Road was opened.
A new Persian dynasty who took over from the Parthians. They continued to resist interference from the west, as well as holding back Huns and other invaders from the east. They finally succumbed to a force from an unexpected quarter - Arabs from the south.
After the conquest, the Arabs' religion swiftly conquered the Iranian world. But a dispute over the true successor to Muhammad (still reflected today in the rivalry between Sunni and Shi'a) led to the overthrow of the Syrian-based regime of the Umayyads and its replacement by the Abbasid dynasty, who traced their descent from an uncle of the Prophet. The Abbasids moved their centre to the east, allowing Iranian traditions, culture and language to reestablish themselves.
The Seljuq Turks
The Great Mosque in Isfahan, the second Seljuq capital. Photo AMW
Originating as nomads from an area to the north-east of the Iranian plateau, the Seljuqs profited from the fragmentation of the once mighty Abbasid empire. But once in power their sultans were keen to preserve what they found, and became in many ways completely persianised. Importantly, they continued to respect the religious authority of the Abbasid caliphs. They were, though, already in decline when the Mongols invaded in AD1218.
The Iranian world fell swiftly to two brutal Mongol conquerors, Genghis Khan in the 13th century, and Timur (Tamerlaine) in the 14th. Both were ruthless destroyers - but both were followed by regimes that were open to Persian culture and traditions - the Ilkhans succeeded Genghis, and the Timurids followed Tamerlaine.
The Safavids began as a religious cult of Turkmen tribes in Azerbaijan. Their warriors conquered Iran, and eventually defined the geographical, political and religious (Shi'a) unity that demarcates Iran today. Under Shah Abbas I, a prosperous and sophisticated civilisation evolved, which was the equal of anything in Europe or elsewhere.
The Afsharids and the Qajars
As the Safavids' power faded, two other groups of Turkmen rose to dominance: first the Afsharids who drove out a brief Afghan dynasty, and, under Nader Shah, seemed on the point of making Iran an imperial power. His reign, though, ended in chaos - eventually allowing a rival tribe of Turkmen, the Qajars, to seize power. Qajar shahs ruled an Iran dominated by rival imperial ambitions of Britain and Russia until 1925. The discovery of oil in 1908 was to transform Iran's importance in the world.
A brief democratic interlude brought the ambitious and charismatic Reza Khan, from a military background, to rule as dictator of Iran until his Nazi sympathies led to his fall in 1941, when he was succeeded by his son Muhammad Reza. Both Pahlavis successfully promoted modernisation and westernisation, but failed to undermine the influence of Islam among those who had not benefited from economic progress.
The Revolution 1979
Britain and the US failed to recognise the importance of democratic and nationalist opposition to the shah in 1953 - preparing the ground for a popular revolution in 1979 orchestrated by senior clerics - who realised their long-nurtured ambition to create a constitution where the religious leaders had the final say.
A European bias (active since ancient times) has prevented the ancient Iranian empires and their achievements being considered as important as the Roman. The longevity of Iranian civilisation is perhaps surprising, in view of over A thousand years of effort expended by the Romans and Byzantines to subdue and destroy it. The coming of Islam transformed the Iranian world - just as Christianity had changed the world of Rome. But still Iranian culture, language and traditions survived to captivate Arabs, Turks, Mongols and Turkmen.
Mount Damavand - visible from Tehran, the modern capital of Iran (on a clear day). It is the highest mountain in Iran (and a dormant volcano) - and in Iranian poetry a symbol of the people's love of independence and hatred of tyrants.