IRAN is the name its people call a country that was known in English, until the 1930s, as Persia. A country quite distinct from the Arab lands, and also from Turkey.
Iran, or Persia, was founded just over two and a half thousand years ago by a charismatic first emperor, Cyrus the Great, whose tomb still survives near the country’s ancient ceremonial capital at Persepolis: a site Cyrus may have chosen.
The name Persepolis comes from the surrounding region, the heartland of old-time Iran, a district known as Parsa when Cyrus founded the Persian empire in the time of the Spartan and Athenian Greeks, with whom his successors soon quarrelled.
It’s from Parsa that the name ‘Persia’ comes, though for centuries past and indeed even in ancient times Iranians from all provinces called themselves Iranians, reserving Persian only for the inhabitants of the ancient province.
Founded more than 2,500 years ago, Iran (or Persia) is, along with Greece and Armenia, one of only a handful of countries known in the biblical world that still exist on the same spot, and speaking pretty much the same language.
Iran was regularly invaded and conquered. But, just as often, it spread its culture outward into neighbouring lands, partly by means of the sword but also by example.
Many neighbouring peoples were nomadic horse-warriors originally: people such as the Turks, the Arabs and the Mongols. Such peoples didn’t have any urban or metropolitan culture of their own. When they did settle down, they tended to look to Persia for guidance on how to build cities, mosques, and all the other refinements of civilisation.
The countries that surround Iran generally have names that end in -stan. This is a Persian suffix meaning ‘here are’ or ‘land of’. Uzbekistan is the land of the Uzbeks, and Pakistan the land of the Pure.
Names ending in -stan are the most obvious litmus-test of a ‘Persianised’ national culture. But the Persian influence is massive even in countries whose names don’t end in -stan, countries such as Turkey and the Arab countries, and even in much of modern-day India.
One example of Persian influence in India is the Taj Mahal, built in the Persian style by Jahan, an Indian ruler who also called himself Shah, the Persian word for king: Shah Jahan.
Persia was a land whose cultural mana extended far beyond its usual borders, and also helped to carry it through the times when it was, itself, invaded and occupied by others.
A short slideshow about the cultural beauty of Iran, with background sound from the Isfahan Music Museum
Where did that culture come from? Well, oddly enough, some say that it came from carpet-weaving: a skill for which the Persians are famous. The words ‘Persian’ and ‘carpet’ go together in the same way as ‘French’ and ‘cuisine’.
Indeed, the association between Persians and carpet is more longstanding. The oldest surviving carpet in the world, the Pazyryk Carpet, was woven by the Scythians, a sister-people of the Persians, sometime around 400 BCE. It’s already quite a sophisticated product; in ways that imply that the Persians were already weaving Persian carpets in the time of Cyrus the Great.
Carpet-weaving, with ever-more ingenious patterns, may have helped to create a culture that looked positively on innovation, mathematics, and the search for patterns in nature and society, rather than on force like the Spartans.
It also led more directly to a fantastic yet mathematically-inspired, form of architecture and a general love of beauty; something that is often closer to the appreciation of mathematics, technology and science than is generally realised.
Another invention of the Persians was monotheism, in the sense that it appears in Judaism, Christendom and Islam. That is to say, a god of light who battles the forces of darkness; as opposed to the sorts of religions where there were lots of gods and goddesses quarreling with one another in a universe that was a bit more random.
Monotheism, in this sense, first appeared in the form of the Persian indigenous religion of Zoroastrianism (though one Egyptian Pharaoh had also, earlier, attempted to elevate the sun-god to supreme status). Founded by the prophet Zoroaster, or more correctly, Zarathustra, Zoroastrianism directly influenced the Jewish faith, and from there, Christianity and Islam.
This is recognised by the Islamic Republic, which extends toleration to Zoroastrians, followers of the Jewish faith, and Christians, on the grounds that their prophets are all recognised as forebears of Muhammad.
And here’s one last thought on the durability of Persian culture. The tomb of Cyrus the Great still exists. It’s said to have once borne an inscription in which Cyrus asks visitors from the inconceivable future, such as myself, not to begrudge a man who was once the king of a vast realm the small patch of earth he now occupies.
All in all, like many Old World countries, Iran possesses a strong sense of its own historical past and a ‘slow culture’, as opposed to an impatient one.
To be continued . . . If you want the whole story more quickly, check out my short book Iran: Make Love not War, now on sale with 281 pictures and maps. Click on this image for a link to where you can get a copy. I also have my first book, A Maverick Traveller, available as a free download on my website a-maverick.com if you sign up for the newsletter.
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