In times before now, things happening in the world were unconnected. These days history is like a single body; happenings in Italy, Africa, Asia or in Greece are interwoven, becoming one thing.

Polybius, Histories I.3 [c200-118 BCE]

Earliest times

The destruction of Susa, capital of the Medes, by the Assyrians

Assyrians destroy Susa, capital of the Medes

Basics: a first meeting

The Iranians: land, people, language, origins.

The beginnings:

Who are the Iranians and where did they come from? DNA evidence.

Earliest civilisations

Fascinating and mysterious pre-Iranian societies revealed by archaeology

Ancestors of the Iranians?

Marlik, Mannaeans, Hasanlu

Babylon and Assyria

Powerful predeccessors; These two earlier empires provided a template for the Persians in establishing and consolidating their rule. They inherited from them profound cultural influences - on art and iconography, architecture, administration - and adopted their writing system.

Ashurbanipal kills a lion: an image adopted by the Persian kings

Assyrian lionkiller: image adopted by the Persians


The earlier non-Iranian rulers of western Iran; conquered and then absorbed by the Persians.


Lake Van, centre of the kingdom of Urartu

Lake Van

A strong power centred around Lake Van which succumbed to the Medes.

The Medes

The Persians' closest competitors - eventually defeated and assimilated. 'Mede' became a synonym for 'Persian' to the Greeks and Romans.

Earliest Times: go

Empires of Ancient Iran

An archer in the imperial Persian guard

The Achaemenids

A dynasty of kings tracing their descent from Cyrus the Great (Koroush, Kūruš), 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.

The Greek interlude

Alexander 'the Great' invades and occupies the Achaemenid empire. After his premature death his general Seleucus and his successors continue to rule an ever-diminishing share of Alexander's empire. (331 -247 BCE)

The Parthians (Arsacids)

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. (247BCE - 224 CE)

The Sasanians

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. (224BCE - 651CE)

Art & Architecture

Selected essays on Iranian art and architecture of this period.

A gold drinking cup or rhyton

Cyrus the Great: go

The Book of Kings

The princess Shirin is surprised by Kay Khusrau

The Iranian National History

One of the strange features of Iranian history is that from the time of the Sasanians, a rather different version of their national history was told by the Iranians themselves. This story, rather than the one told by modern historians, became central to the Iranians' view of themselves.

Abolqasem Firdowsi finished The Shahnameh ("Book of kings") in around 1010 CE. It's based on a Persian prose compilation deriving from an Arabic version of the Khwaday-Namag ("Book of Lords") but includes legends and stories from other sources. He wove it into a long epic poem in Persian. telling the story of the 60 kings who ruled from the beginning of the world up to Khusrau II.

It combines fact, legend and myth into a national Iranian narrative, which emphasises the importance of good kings, whose farr (divine grace) leads them with the help of Ahura Mazda and other divine powers to fight off the challenges of the evil Ahriman and his henchmen. The history is seen as four eras:

The World Kings

The early kings, with the help of their farr from Ahura Mazda invent and discover numerous good things for mankind. The 1000 year reign of the vile demon Zahhak, is a setback- but he's overthrown by the heroic blacksmith Kaveh. The rule of the legitimate kings resumes - but Feraydun lays up trouble by dividing the world between his sons.

The Heroes

The struggle between Iran and Turan continues. Heroes like Sam, Zal and Rustam battle against the evil Afrasiyab of Turan.

The Kayanians

Rustam lives on to support the Kayanian dynasty.The last is Dara (the historical Darius III) whose kingdom passes to his half-brother Alexander.

The Ashkanians and Sasanians

The Ashkanians are the historical Arsacids or Parthians. The 500 years between the death of Alexander (Sekander) in 323 BC and the beginning of the Sasanian period are dismissed in 20 couplets by Firdowsi!

The Shahnameh: go

Islamic Iran

The Lutfullah mosque in Isfahan

The Arab Conquest

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.(661-750).

The Abbasids

Opponents of the Umayyads unseat them in a carefully planned revolution to replace the Caliph with one descended from Abbas, uncle of the prophet Muhammad. The focus moves east, with a new capital in Baghdad. (750 -1258)

The Seljuqs

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. (1038 - 1220)

The Mongols

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 Il-khans succeeded Genghis, whileTimur was followed by the Timurids, who oversaw some of the finest Islamic art and architecture.(1220 - 1506)

The Safavids

The Safavids began as a religious cult among theTurkmen tribes in Azerbaijan. Their warriors, led by a 12-year-old god-king aconquered Iran, and eventually defined the geographical, political and religious (Shi'i) 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. (1501 - 1722)

Modern Iran

 The emblem of the Islamic Republic

The Afsharids & 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..(1736 - 1925)

The Pahlavis

The Cossack Brigade was Iran's elite fighting force. After the Russian revolution in 1917, its Russian officers had been dismissed and replaced by Iranians. A sergeant in the brigade, a man of humble origins, was promoted to lead it. He was 42-year-old Colonel Reza Khan. He rose to become war minister, premier and finally shah. He was responsible for much modernisation (the first railway, metalled roads, education), symbolised by the country's officila name-change from Persia to Iran.

Suspected of Nazi sympathies, He was deposed in favour of his son, whose increasingly despotic rule was ended by the 1979 revolution. (1925 - 1979)

The Islamic Republic

In 1953 Muhammad Mossadegh had tried to diminish the power of the Shah, and take control of the internationally important oil industry way from western intersts. The USA and Britain ensured the failure of his attempts, and it was another 20 years before the Shah was overthrown, by a popular revolution.

Although the revolution was supported by most of the population, it soon fell under the spell of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who masterminded the drafting of a specifically Islamic constitution. Its effect was to concentrate power in the hands of senior clerics, with Khomeini appointed supreme leader with authority over the law, the army and foreign policy.

The USA was held responsible for the defeat of Mossadegh, and for supporting the Shah. Students occupied the US embassy and took the 52 staff as hostages. America was unable to resolve the crisis, which lasted for 444 days. The following years have seen ever-worsening relations between Iran and the West.


An Armenian church on an island in Lake Van, Turkey

The Iranian plateau was never a secure self-contained entity. All Iran's rulers experienced the porous nature of their borderlands. From the west they were vulnerable to Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, Ottomans... From the north and east the peoples of Central Asia and the Steppes constantly tried to copy what the Medes, Persians and Parthians themselves had successfully done: move permanently on to the plateau. The threat from the south seemed minor: but it was from here the eventual successors originated.

It was always desirable to have control over these borderlands, whether by conquest or alliances.

Neighbours to the north and west

Starting with the northern Steppes, home of the elusive Scythians,we move on to Armenia and its neighbours - the strategic centre-ground between the northern Steppes and the Caucasus, the Anatolian peninsula, Mesopotamia and Iran itself.

Neighbours to the south and east

The Persian dynasties had little direct contact with the various Arab peoples - even those just across the Persian Gulf - until the Sasanian period, although Arabs had been drifting northwards into the Levant since Parthian times (and Oman had been a Persian outpost since the Achaemenids). They relied on their Lakhmid allies as a buffer between them and the Romans and Byzantines - and the desert Arabs to the south. Despite some belated interest in Yemen (Arabia Felix) the Sasanians were completely off guard when the armies of Islam attacked in the 7th century AD.

The Parthians opened the Silk route to open relations with China; India and Afghanistan were at times occupied at least in part by Iranian dynasties. Horses on the Eurasian steppes surrounded by poppies

Horses on the Eurasian steppes