The Persianate World: an introduction

From ancient Persia through medieval Iran to the Islamic Republic.


Tehran, Iran's most recent capital.

Tehran: capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran with a population of over 14 million. Photo AMW

Ancient, medieval and modern Iran…

Iran,the World's First Superpower,this website, will guide you through Iran's history and culture from the earliest times (from around at least 5,500 BC) through to 2021 AD and the JCPOA ('The Iran Nuclear Deal').
There are pages covering the empires, under the Persian Achaemenid kings (558 - 330 BC), Alexander and the interval of Greek control (330 - 125 BC), and the return to Iranian rule under first the Parthians (247 BC - AD 225) and then the Sasanians (AD 225 - 651), whose rule was ended by the Arab conquest.
Pages cover the Islamic rulers of Iran from the conquest and early Arab rule from Damascus in Syria (under the Umayyads, AD 637 - 750), giving 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 The Turkish Seljuqs who superseded them also keenly embraced Persian traditions and culture - and continued to accept the Abbasid caliphs as heads of Islam.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 (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 the 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 is constantly in the news - and not always in a good way. The west has constructed its own image of Iran since ancient times - rarely has one of the world's earliest and greatest civilised powers been seen on its own terms. The ancient Greeks called the Iranians "barbarians" but criticised them for extravagance and love of luxury; Americans today call them "terrorists" but fear their scientific expertise and cultural influence. In between times they've been seen as "exotic", "oriental" …

Not surprisingly, Iranians often see the west as devious, untrustworthy, interested only in money and power…

The record of recent dealings between Iran and the west has not helped to soften this view: view this record of misunderstanding and betrayal from 1813 onwards: Iran and the West

This website has three objectives, to make better known:

  • Iran at the centre of the globe Iran's historical place in the world
  • Iran's achievements in the past
  • Iran's contributions to civilisation.

Until AD 1492, when the discovery of America unexpectedly 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 ancient 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, some of 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 today.

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.

On the map, Iran looks secure inside its barriers of mountain ranges and sea: in reality, though, it has been continuously vulnerable to attack and invasion - from  the north, from Turkmenistan, and over the Caucasus, from the east through Afghanistan and from the west, through Armenia.

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 Demavand

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.

One Thousand  Years!

Following the failed invasions of Greece in 490 and 480 BC, the Iranian empires were consistently on the receiving end of western aggression. After Alexander and the interlude of Greek domination, such attacks - from Rome and the New Rome (Constantinople) were rarely more than briefly effective. Not until the 7th century AD did the Iranian Empire strike again at the west.

Iran and its neighbours