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Ancient Persian-Iranian History Gives Foundation to Current Stories: Author of Upcoming Book on Islam Gives This Preview
George H. Hassanzadeh -- Expert in Islamic Matters George H. Hassanzadeh -- Expert in Islamic Matters
Los Angeles , CA
Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Ancient Persian-Iranian History Gives Foundation to Current Stories: Author of Upcoming Book on Islam Gives This Preview

In an effort to bring a bit of historical perspective to what is now the country of Iran, Nezam, who is about to release a series of books on Islam and Iran, offers the following text about Iran in Pre-Islamic Times and Pre-History. Many of the themes in the upcoming book and the state of affairs in the Middle East today are impacted by ancient history and thus he this bit of history from Encyclopaedia Iranica.  

Iran in Pre-Islamic Times

A primary factor that initially affects the course of a people's history is the geographical setting, the terrain, and the climate: Life in Mongolia could not be the same as in the Aegean or in the Amazon forests. But once geographical factors have given shape to a general mode of life, determining whether a people would be gatherers, stock breeders, or fishermen, then it is the human factor—a people's inborn and cultivated capabilities—that more than any other is responsible for later developments. A third factor is age. Some communities start on a course that leads to a relatively long lasting and flourishing culture.

The reasons for this are complex and unclear. Toynbee's theory of a "golden means of difficulty," such as prevailed on the shores of the Nile or in Mesopotamia, does not adequately explain the emergence of a culture, for it focuses solely on the geographical conditions. Such communities pass from a crude and barbaric beginning, marked by unruly courage and fierce clan solidarity, well described by Ebn ?aldun (1332-1406) in his Prolegomena (Rosenthal, tr., pp. 249-50, 278, 345-47), to a dynamic and well-ordered society, poised to wield power, explore natural and human resources, acquire wealth, enjoy leisure, and develop arts and crafts, giving birth in the process to a distinct culture. The culture thus created develops as long as the community possesses its inner strength and creative power. It has to maintain and safeguard itself against external enemies and internal dissent and subversion. The comfort, leisure, and luxury, and, more importantly, the sheer weight of time that corrodes and enfeebles every dynasty, social order, and culture, eventually sap the energy and exhaust the cultural potentials of the community.

Personal concerns take precedence over public ones; corruption becomes rampant, and stagnation sets in. The very struggle to uphold the viability of a given culture over a long stretch of time consumes in the end its inner resources, and the culture begins to decline. The society can no longer defend itself against claimants from within or without, poised to establish a new ruling power and possibly start a new culture. Finally the community becomes subservient to a new, rising culture and drifts along as its cultural or political client. The total defeat of Elam and the sack of Susa by Aššurbanipal (q.v.; 668-626) in 639 B.C.E., the capture of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 B.C.E., the conquest of Egypt by Cambyses (qq.v.) in 525 B.C.E., the fall of Rome at the hand of Germanic invaders in 476 C.E., and the Arab conquest of Sasanian Persia in the 7th century C.E. represent the outcome of cultural fatigue induced by old age.

Modern Persians and Greeks hardly show the same creative energy and possess the same moral fiber that characterized them in the heydays of their ancestral civilizations. The geography had not changed, but the peoples had: they had aged. Individual dynasties follow the same trajectory, except that often their decline and fall does not presage the end of a culture, only their own rule. The fall of the Achaemenids in 330 B.C.E., of the Ummayads in 750 C.E., of the Persian branch of the Ghaznavids in 1186, of the Tudors in 1603, or the extinction of the Bourbon pretenders to the throne of France in 1883, did not toll the bells signaling the end of their respective cultures.

It is within the paradigms of this theoretical framework that Iranian history is reviewed here.


The lowlands of Khuzestan, the Iranian plateau, and western Central Asia, where Iranian culture developed, are relatively arid lands, but endowed in part with enough precipitation and rivers to produce fertile valleys and plains. The basins of such rivers as the Karun, Oxus, Hilmand, Safidrud, and Zendarud provided favorable conditions for human habitation and eventually the growth of agriculture and the domestication of animals. In their basins or valleys population increased, settlements developed, and villages and townships came into being, while nomadic life and tribal organization continued in most parts of the land.

Archeological excavations continue to enhance our understanding of the material culture of this period. A jar once filled with resinated wine from the "kitchen" of a Neolithic building (4500-4000 B.C.E.) at Haji Firuz Tepe in northern Zagros (on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) attests to the wine-making technique that had developed in the area around 4000 B.C.E. In Susa, Khuzestan, Elamite painted pottery dating from circa 3500 B.C.E. shows an advanced stage of geometrical designs and stylized human and animal forms.

Of the original inhabitants of the Iranian plateau prior to the invasion and domination of the Aryan or Indo-Iranian people, we know very little, and the prehistory of Iran is shrouded in mystery. In the Khuzestan plain and parts of the province of Fars, the Elamite culture began with a strong political and religious influence from Sumer in southern Mesopotamia. A number of Sumerian deities were also worshiped in Elam, which gradually came under the impact of the Semitic empires of Akkad and Babylon, but in 2004 B.C.E. Elam was strong enough to bring down the Ur Empire. The Elamite civilization during the period of its prosperity was in many ways on a par with Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations and a worthy rival to them. Elam repeatedly challenged Assyrian power, but eventually in 639 B.C.E. it was vanquished by Aššurbanipal, who made Elam part of the Assyrian Empire. It never rose again as an independent power.

The Elamite language (see ELAM v.) and ethnicity are not related to any known language or race. The Elamites developed a cuneiform script that rendered syllables rather than single sounds. They have left inscriptions and monuments in Khuzestan and Fars, including the remnants of a ziggurat at Co?a Zanbil. Darius I's inscription at Bisotun (q.v.; 521 B.C.E.) includes also an Elamite version besides Old Persian and Babylonian. Old Persian cuneiform seems to have been based on the Elamite cuneiform. The extent of Elamite territorial authority is not entirely certain. It appears that it extended north as far as the Caspian littoral and east as far as the Persian central desert and Sistan.

Their language was still spoken at least until the advent of the Achaemenids, who used their script for some of their records, as evidenced by a mass of Elamite tablets found in excavations at Persepolis (see atiranica.com); they consist mostly of lists of rations and wages of the workers and throw considerable light on Achaemenid economy and administration. In the end the Elamite territories came under the suzerainty of the Medes and later the Persians, powers that rose in the wake of the Aryan invasion and conquests. The Elamite civilization exerted considerable influence on the Achaemenids and their culture (Briant, 1996, pp. 37-38).

The historical site of Jiroft, located southwest of Tepe Ya?ya in the Persian province of Kerman, is one of the most artifact-rich archeological sites in the Middle East. In January 2001 a group of Iranians from Jiroft stumbled upon an ancient tomb. Inside they found a large quantity of objects decorated with highly distinctive engravings of animals, mythological figures, and architectural motifs. At the time they did not realize the true magnitude and implications of their archeological discovery: one that may alter the accepted notions of the early development of civilizations in the Middle East between the fourth and third millennia B.C.E. The objects and their iconography are unlike anything ever seen before by archeologists. Many are made from chlorite, a gray-green soft stone; others are in copper, bronze, terracotta, and even lapis lazuli (J. Perrot et al. in Jiroft: Fabuleuse Découverte en Iran, Les Dossiers d'Archéologie, no. 287, October 2003).

The Aryan invasion. Aryans or Indo-Iranians belong to the Satem group of Indo-European peoples, linguistically closest to the Slavic people, who had moved eastward, possibly from Kazakhistan, into Western Central Asia. (It seems that earlier a group of Kentum [Centum] Indo-Europeans, the Tokharians, had moved towards the borders of China.) Pressed by the growth in population, the Indo-Iranians began a southward drive in search of fresh pastures for their cattle and horses.

A wave of them reached the western borders of what is now called Iran and formed the ruling class of the Mitanni kingdom in northern Mesopotamia by about the middle of the second millennium. In 1907 a large number of clay tablets were found in the palace archives of Boghazköy, the capital of the ancient Hittites in the north of the Anatolian plateau. These tablets from the mid-14th century contain the first mention of the Indo-Iranian deities Mitra, Varu?a, and the Nasatyas, invoked as protectors of a treaty between the Hittites and their neighbor, the Mitanni, an Asianic people centered in Azerbaijan.

Other successive waves of Indo-Iranian tribes drove southward, subduing native inhabitants. At some point these tribes, who had lived together for many centuries and shared the same language and religious beliefs, separated: Some took the route through Afghanistan to India, defeated the Dravidian inhabitants of north and northwest India, and settled in the conquered regions, spreading their culture. Vedic hymns, the oldest extant documents of an Indo-European language, represent their religious beliefs and rituals.

Another branch, consisting of different but related tribes, overwhelmed the native populations of the Iranian plateau and established their dominion over them. For a while at least those who were settled in western Persia came under the suzerainty of the Assyrian kings, who made numerous raids into Iranian territories and defeated the Iranian tribes, who had adopted many cultural features from the more advanced Mesopotamians. Some of the Iranian tribes in the south were ruled over by the Elamites; later they achieved autonomy.

The oldest part of the Avesta (the ?athas), ascribed to Zoroaster himself, is linguistically very close to Vedic Sanskrit and shows the closeness in time between the people who produced these texts. Both scriptures show that Indo-Iranians used chariots driven by horses, a fact that must have helped them in their southward drive and conquests. They both use a highly inflected language, the ancestor of later Iranian and Indian languages. The Indo-Iranian tribes worshiped a variety of deities, mostly representing aspects or forces of nature, such as the sky, thunder, earth, fire, wind, and waters, or some social or moral principle.

Mitra, for example, was the guarantor of pacts and promises, and Varu?a, possibly represented by Ahura Mazda on the Iranian side, safeguarded or symbolized the good order of the world and the moral principle (Ved. ?ta, Av. a?a; q.v.) guiding it which was to be followed also by men. Great emphasis was placed on sacrifice as a means of appeasing the gods and insuring their benevolence towards humans, and also on the meticulous performance of rituals and pronunciation of mantras.

Magic was also widely practiced in different forms to dispel evil spirits and obtain various benefits. The correct performance of all rituals and the preparation of the sacred and intoxicating liquid, Skt. Soma, Av. Haoma obtained by pressing a special plant, the identity of which has remained controversial, was the charge of the priestly caste: the Magi in Iran and the Brahmans in India. The spirits of ancestors were revered, and family worship centered around the hearth.

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