Iran is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, and has been among the world’s most thoughtful and complex civilizations from the very beginning. There are aspects of Iranian civilization that, in one way or another, have touched almost every human being on the planet. But the story of how that happened, and the full significance of those influences, is often unknown and forgotten. 1
– Michael Axeworthy
Introduction to Iran
When people think of Iran today, they often imagine a country that is the antithesis of Western values, culture, democracy and modernity. Whether it is the portrayal of Persia and Persians as barbarians in movies such as 300 or in the modern media as supporters of terrorism and instability in the world, the Iran (the land that was former called Persia) and its people are seen as an existential threat to Western civilization at worst and a global nuisance at best.
Those who cast Iran and Iranians into such a negative context are actually extremely ignorant of both the history of both the Middle East and Western civilization. Iran has been one of the historical and cultural centers of the world for well over 2500 years. Throughout history its borders have literally straddled both East and West and has influenced all of the civilizations that it has both come in direct contact with and many far beyond. Despite what the Republican neocon idiots will have one believe, the influence of Persian civilization on civilization, both Eastern and Western, cannot be dismissed.
Most Iranians today are deeply pained by the distorted portrayal that many in the West have of their country, history and culture. Most don’t see the current government of Iran as a representation of Persian culture and values any more than the Communist government represented the Russian people during the Cold War. They know that their history goes back way before the Islamic Republic to a time when Iran, through successive empires, was the envy of the civilized world. Iran is viewed more positively in Asia countries since their history has been more intertwined with it. In fact many perceive Iranian civilization with the same respect and reverence as those in the West do for ancient Greece. That is because for many of the peoples of Asia – not just Persians but Indians, Turks, Central Asians, western Chinese and even those along the Mediterranean Sea, Persian civilization is often viewed as the “fountainhead of civilization.” 2 From pre-Islamic and Zoroastrian time up until the Middle Ages, Persian influence on the literature, art, architecture, customs, philosophy, dress and other aspects of life amongst such peoples is hard to ignore. The native Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism, which predates both Christianity and Islam with its belief in monotheism, Heaven and Hell, a Day of Judgement and of a savior or Messiah to come at the end of time, is arguably one of the most influential bodies of religious thought in history.
In many ways the knowledge of Western civilization that was lost in Europe during the “Dark Ages” was actually preserved by Persian scholars and historians, not Arabs as many assume. Arabic during the Abbasid Caliphate was the scholarly language at the time and so Persian as well as Indian and other Islamic scholars wrote in it at the time. 3
Iranian civilization and Persian culture today extend far beyond the borders of the present-day country of Iran. There are two other officially Persian-speaking countries in the world today, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. There are also large Persian-speaking populations in many Central Asian republics including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Eastern Chinese Turkestan. The Kurds are also from the same cultural and lignitic family as the Iranians, as are the Ossetes and Tat people of the Caucasus mountains. It is clear that what we now consider “Iran” is really just a part of the greater Persian world.
Though Iranians and Persians are a motley group, there are several common and defining features that made up their identity as a people. One is the their language known as Persian or Farsi. In fact, the Persian language has not just been the method of communication for Persians; it was the lingua-franca for most of Asia, especially in India, until the arrival of the British and its replacement with English. There are still millions of Persian speakers outside of Iran, like like their are many within Iran whose mother-tongue is actually not Persian but something else (Azeri, Baluchi, Kurdish, etc.).
The language though is only part of what makes up Persian identity. The other is a shared history dating back to the time before written history began. Much of this (legendary) history is embodied in the Persian epic poem the Shahnameh, or “Book of Kings.” Composed by the poet Ferdowsi for the (Turkish) Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, the Shahnameh is “a repository of cultural memory” and has been “every bit as popular in Turkey, Central Asia and India.” 4
The aim of this guide is to go beyond the headlines and news bites and explore what Iran and the Iranian people are really about. You may be shocked at just how cultured and hospitable Iranians really are.
History of Iran
Ancient and pre-Islamic History
Introduction and Early History
Cyrus II and the Founding of the Persian Empire
Cyrus II and the conquest of Lydia
Cyrus the Great and the conquest of Babylon
Cyrus the Great and the Conquest of all of Iran
The Death of Cyrus the Great
The Arsacids (Parthians)
Iran:Places to Visit/Things to See and Do
Films and Documentaries
Iran, Yesterday and Today by Rick Steves
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