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  • 12/11/2011

Iran, a Brief History

part 1


The ancestors of the Persians had migrated to the Iranian plateau, with the other Indo-European tribes that descended the steppes of Southern Russia, beginning around 2000 BC. In earlier times, they had the same ancestors as Indians and are identified as proto-Indo-Iranians. From the fourth to the third millennium BC, these semi-migratory people forged a profound religious tradition, later known as Zoroastrianism. This is the oldest of the revealed world religions and has directly and indirectly influenced the other religions in the area, i.e. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and a host of Gnostic faiths (i.e. Northern Buddhism, Brahmans of India). Also, to this day, elements of Zoroastrianism are preserved in many aspects of the lives of ordinary Iranians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The Zoroastrian scriptures are known collectively as the ‘Avesta’ (loosely meaning ‘Authoritative Utterance’). They were compiled at different times, with Gathas being the most ancient and the only part that is attributed to the prophet Zoroaster himself.

The rest of the surviving Avesta consists of liturgical texts preserved in various later stages of the same language (Avestan), but not in exactly the same dialect. There are also additions and interpretations added during the later Iranian dynasties, i.e. Parthian (Mid-Second Century BC) and Sassanian (Third Century AD). Zoroaster’s date is not precisely known. The archaic language of the Gathas and its closeness to the Indian Rig Veda (around 1700 BC), have helped establish the educated guess that Zoroaster lived sometime between 1700 and 1000 BC.

Many of the present day rituals and ceremonies of birth, death and marriage are a continuation of the ancient faith and customs. Many religious observances such as ‘sofreh’, a traditionally female religious gathering, and ‘rawzeh’ (reciting and chanting religious verses) are Zoroastrian in origin. The ‘sofreh’ feasts are specific to the Iranians and are not shared by other Muslims. The marriage ceremony is very similar to its pre-Islamic days. So are the observances and terminology used in rituals of death such as ‘cheleh’ (40th), ‘hafteh’ (7th), ‘sal’ (year) etc. Renewal festivals such as No Ruz (Persian New Year), jumping over the fire (Chahar Shanbeh Suri), Shab e Cheleh and Mihregan are also deeply rooted in the ancient tradition. Although most have lost the religious significance of Zoroastrianism, many festivals and rituals have maintained the same structure as they did before the advent of Islam in the 7th century AD.

The first wave of Iranians; ancient Medes and Persians, entered Western Iran beginning around the first millennium BC.

By the 7th Century BC the Medes had established themselves, made an alliance with Babylon and overthrown the Assyrian Empire. In 549 BC, the Persians, led by Cyrus the king of Anshan, rebelled, defeated the Medes, and founded the Achaemenian Empire. Anshan is the old oriental name for the center of the eastern part of the Elamite Empire on the southwestern Iranian upland in a region that roughly covers the territory the Persians later gave their name, Parsa.

The term Iran is derived from the Sasanian concept of Eranshahr (‘Empire of the Aryans) in the third century AD, and exists in variant forms in Avestan and ancient Persian. By using Eranshahr, the Sasanians created a new ‘identity’ for themselves and their subjects, one that became the political, cultural and religious home of all living there. In the context of the Nazi perversion of the word ‘Aryan’ into a racial concept and its interpretation as ‘of German and related stock’, it should be mentioned that the word ‘Aryan’ has meaning only as a linguistic term designating the eastern part of the Indo-European family of languages. It has nothing to do with race and is simply a linguistic connotation.

In its ethno-linguistic and religious respects, the word Ariya, which forms the basis for the Middle Persian ‘Eran,’ can be traced back to the Achaemenid period and even earlier.

 In their inscriptions, Achaemenian kings talk about their Aryan origin and speak of Ahura Mazda (the Zoroastrian Sovereign God and Lord of Wisdom) as the’ God of the Aryans’. However, they put more emphasis on being Persian than Aryan, and as Persians they separate themselves from the Medes, Bactrians (parts of Afghanistan) and other Iranian-speaking people.

With the coming of the Achaemenid in the 6th century BC, an efficient administration, new civil centers and a powerful military machine were created. Temple cults were established and for the first time an organized priesthood was formed; this new ecclesiastical hierarchy replaced the loosely connected family priests. Their Empire extended from India to North Africa. The result was the creation of a state structure on an unprecedented scale, characterized by ethnic, religious and cultural heterogeneity. Their reign ended when the Macedonian King Alexander succeeded in breaking the Iranian resistance to his eastern expansions into the Asian continent in 330 BC.

Following Alexander’s death the Empire was divided between his heirs and the Seleucid dynasty of Iran was formed. Alexander’s policies were followed through political marriages with the non-Greek dynasties, and through calling upon natives for military and administrative tasks. Persian and Mesopotamian models were adopted by the Seleucid in their choice of residences, patterns of personal relations, in the court art relating to the king and above all in the royal ideology. At the same time, Greek art, philosophy and sciences were introduced into the Persian territories.

To be continued ...

Other Links:

Jade in Iran (part 4)

History of Iranian-Georgian Reations (part 1)

History of Iranian-Georgian Reations (part 2)

History of Iranian-Georgian Reations (part 3)

History of Iranian-Georgian Reations (part 4)

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