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
Yes, we are talking about Iran and the Iranians, also known worldwide as Persia and Persians, respectively.
Introduction to Iran
Most people in the West are unfamiliar with Iran and its people. Others who have heard about Iran don’t always have the most positive image of the country. You can’t really blame them. Many media outlets often portray it as the antithesis of Western values, culture, democracy and modernity. Films such as 300 depict Persians as barbarians while others such as Not Without My Daughter and Argo depict Iranians as religious fanatics. Sure, everyone is entitled to creative freedom and the right to make movies the way that they want. The problem occurs when this is the only representation of Iran and Iranians that they come across.
I hope that this page will help to change that. Like the quote above states, Iran and Iranian civilization are both extremely old, influential and complex. The best way to get to know Iran and it’s ancient culture is to visit the country and interact with Iranians. Only then will one get beyond news headlines and get to witness for themselves the hospitality, curiosity and mutual respect that Iranians generally show towards outsiders.
As an American of Iranian descent, I especially feel that it is my duty to help show others the true nature of the country of my ancestors and my people. Though I love the country and its people, I also believe strongly in facts and seeking out what is true. Thus, I’ll do my best to be as objective as possible.
And with that, let’s get to it! Let’s have some fun learning about Iran!
A Look at Iran
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.
Most Iranians are proud of their rich history and culture and are deeply pained by the distorted portrayal of these by many media and government outlets, especially by the Trump administration. In ancient Europe, the Persians were seen as the chief rivals of the Greeks and later on the Roman and Byzantine empires. This image has probably held up throughout the centuries up to our own time.
Iran though is viewed more positively in Asian countries because of historical and commercial ties between it, the Middle East, Central Asia, India and as far as China. 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.).
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
The Persian Empire: An Introduction
The Elamites and the first state in Iran
The Lost City of Susa
New kids on the block: the arrival of the Persians and the Medes
The Kingdom of Anshan: Ancient Persia before Cyrus the Great
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
There are a plethora of his historical and cultural attractions in Iran that one should check out if given the opportunity. Below are just a few of them, the “must-sees” if you will.
Isfahan (Esfahan)There is a Persian proverb that goes “Isfahan is half the world.” Honestly, it’s true. I think that if all of those people who currently think that Iranians/Persians are barbaric and uncultured went to Isfahan, they’d be in shock. Venturing into Naqsh-e Jahan Square and seeing all of the beautiful blue-tiled mosques, palaces and the grand bazaar is like entering another world. Other than maybe India’s Taj Mahal, there are few examples of Islamic architecture that are as beautiful as what one can see in Isfahan. Perhaps that’s because the architect of the Taj Mahal was originally from Isfahan.
Persepolis (Takht-e Jamshid)
The ruins of ancient Iran’s greatest empire, Persepolis still inspires awe and pride in both Iranians and visitors alike. It’s one of those places that you have to experience to really know what I’m talking about. Until then, you can learn more about Persepolis here.
ShirazAs the capital of the Persian heartland, i.e. the province of Fars), the city of Shirazis a must-see for any visitor. It is arguably the cultural capital of Iran. Known historically as the city of wine, nightingales and poets, Shiraz is the birth and final resting place of two of the Persian language’s most famous lyricists, Sa’adi and Hafiz.
YazdYazd is one of Iran’s more traditional and fascinating cities. It is known for its handicrafts, silk weaving, famous wind towers and as one of Iran’s strongholds of Persian Zoroastrian religion and culture. Visit this page for more on Yazd.
Films and Documentaries
Iran, Yesterday and Today by Rick Steves
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