The Iran Letters – Part III: A Survey of ‘Iran Profound’
Beyond the constant squabbling between Tehran and the outside world, there lies another Iran. A product of millennia, “Iran Profound” houses magnificent Zoroastrian fire temples and towers of silence; brilliant badgirs and qanats (wind towers and underground aqueducts, respectively, that have provided cool air and fresh water to Iranians since ancient times); architecturally breathtaking mosques; equally beautiful churches; humbling hospitality in homes and streets; fine craftsmanship of artisans; superb Iranian cuisine (not easy to find in Tehran; too many fast food joints); and peaceful public gardens.
Unfortunately, that picture of the Middle Eastern country hardly gets any coverage in the media, Western or Iranian. Too many observers are so stuck with the nuclear program and the high price of oil and natural gas that it seems Iran has nothing else worth talking about.
That is why I will discuss “Iran Profound,” a term I have devised, to explain Iran’s ability to sustain its cultural uniqueness in the face of time.
In the 1880s, when the U.S. Congress was discussing benefits of exchanging diplomatic missions with Iran, a Congressman advocated the need to foster relations between “the world’s youngest republic and the world’s oldest nation.”
From an historian’s perspective, “the world’s oldest nation” does not make much sense as a phrase. But if “oldest” were to make sense, Iran is certainly one of those countries qualifying for that sort of superlative.
Here’s why: First urban settlements within the borders of present-day Iran started around the 3rd millennium BCE (Before Common Era, previously known as BC) in the southwest, in the land of Elam. Between the 12th and 10th centuries BCE, Indo-European peoples began to arrive from the Caucasus. Two of these groups, the Medes and the Persians, eventually became the most formidable political actors in the region.
In 540 BCE, the Achaemenids (a Persian clan named after King Achemenes) defeated Babylon, the greatest of Mesopotamian kingdoms, and liberated the Jews from that kingdom’s captivity in 540 BCE. Soon, Achaemenid domains extended from present-day Western Turkey into what is now Pakistan.
Two Achaemind shahs stood apart from others: Cyrus the Great (Cyrus II) and Darius the Great (Darius I). Cyrus (Achemenes’s great-grandson) elevated Persia to the status of world empire by expanding its borders while Darius (a relative of Cyrus) consolidated his predecessors work. By the end of the latter’s life (486 BCE), the Persian Empire covered the area between the Danube and India. Moreover, Darius ordered the construction of the marvelous city of Parsa (Persepolis), which, though an architectural relic today, still gives a clear idea of Iran’s past splendor.
More importantly, Persians endorsed Zoroastrianism as their official religion. As the first monotheistic religion together with Judaism, Zoroastrianism made a significant impact on other Middle Eastern religions that succeeded it, specifically Christianity and Islam. (Many contemporary Iranians are proud of that fact. Even the Islamic government seems comfortable with Iran’s Zoroastrian heritage: the presence of Zoroastrian symbols in many government buildings, such as those on the Iranian Foreign Ministry in downtown Tehran, is a case in point.)
To be sure, ancient Persians were not all-powerful: for example, they failed to fully subdue the Greek city-states in Western Anatolia and Ancient Greece. (Parts of that story still capture audiences. As depicted in a frivolous movie of recent, the mighty armies of the Persian Empire failed to defeat the 300 Spartans and about 900 of their allies from other Greek cities in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE.)
Nonetheless, the Persians remained predominant in this part of the world until 330 BCE, when Alexander the Great overran them. Even though Alexander’s conquest of Persia ended the First Persian Empire, it also ushered one of the most interesting cultural fusions in history: With the mixture of Greek and Persian life styles, the Hellenistic age came to life
Although Alexander originally intended to “civilize” the Persians by imposing Greek culture on them, the profundity of his capture struck him instantly. On the one hand, the Greco-Macedonian emperor adopted Persian court and administrative practices, which were far more advanced than what he and his predecessors had ever known. More importantly, Alexander’s effort to blend East and West created cultural centers like Pergamom (present-day Bergama in Western Turkey) and Alexandria in Egypt, which housed the two largest libraries in the world at the time (Pergamom Library housed 200,000 volumes while the one in Alexandria would eventually accumulate 700,000 volumes). With the exception of Persepolis, many Persian cities retained their political, intellectual, and economic importance.
Alexander took even more practical steps to unify Greeks and Persians by encouraging thousands of his officers to marry Persian women. (Looking at the beauty of Iranian women today, I think those Greek officers hardly needed any encouragement, but that is a topic that warrants another essay.)
Upon Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, in the era of what can be called the Second Persian Empire(s), “Iran Profound” resuscitated. Until the 7th century CE (Common Era, formerly AD) Iranian empires (Seleucid, Parthian, and Sassanid) managed to counter-balance the Roman and Byzantine empires.
With the Arab conquest in 651 CE, the Second Persian Empire came to an end and Iranians began to convert to Islam. In the centuries ahead, Turks, Mongols, Afghans, Russians, Britons, and Iraqis either overran parts of Iran or gained control in full.
Seemingly incessant invasions, however, did not preclude Iranian culture from dominating the region. As life sometimes takes a turn for the Foucauldian, the country that got conquered took control of its overlords eventually. In this case, Iranian culture affected Islamic societies so strongly that Iranian arts, architecture, and literature, took deep root in Muslim domains beyond Iran. In the lands from Samarkand to Istanbul and from Baku to Delhi, Persian remained the lingua franca of government and literature. In fact, even to this day, despite the legacy of nation builders endeavoring to “purify” their mother tongues by cropping out foreign lexicon, Persian words maintain a significant presence in the languages around Iran.
As a language, Persian has been so powerful that even those who are not ethnically Persian have embraced it. Within the last 500 years, of the various dynasties that ruled Iran, three (Safevid, Qajar, and Pahlavi) were founded by Turkish-speaking monarchs. As soon as they assumed control of Iran, however, leaders of all three groups gave up their linguistic differences and embraced Farsi. As in the case of Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1925-1941), some even turned into staunch Iranian nationalists.
Iran’s ethnic makeup makes such idiosyncrasies all the more interesting. Merely 55% of the nation of Iran is made up of Persians, while 25% claim Azeri (a Turkic group that lives in Northwest Iran, whose language is closer to Turkish than to Farsi) heritage. Another 10% of Iranians are ethnically Kurdish. Smaller ethnic and tribal groups constitute the rest. Among these groups, the pride in “Iran Profound” still weighs more heavily than the problems of the country. Although quite a few Iranians have complained to me about the political and economic situation in their country today, almost none of them expressed dissatisfaction about being “Irani.”
When we think of “Iran Profound,” then, we are talking about 5,000 years of recorded history, a very productive culture, and a resilient national identity.
This essay is not meant to address current political issues, but it does have a germane implication for international politics. As outlined above, Iran has faced massive invasions since ancient times by myriad groups: Greco-Macedonians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Afghans, Russians, Britons, Iraqis, and others. In the end, Iran not only survived, but emerged rejuvenated from its ordeals.
I hope that point will inform the thinking of present-day leaders on all sides: for those in Tehran, it will give them some sense of security, and for those abroad, enable them to make more prudent decisions.
Bar?n Kayao?lu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Virginia and a regular contributor to the Journal of Turkish Weekly.