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Iran: Persia: Ancient and Modern

Iran: Persia: Ancient and Modern

by Helen Loveday, Bruce Wannell, Christoph Baumer, Bijan Omrani

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Iran, or Persia as it was formerly known, has been a melting pot of civilizations for centuries. The Islamic revolution in 1979 and the subsequent Iran–Iraq war reduced tourism to a trickle, but in the last decade the country’s global significance with


Iran, or Persia as it was formerly known, has been a melting pot of civilizations for centuries. The Islamic revolution in 1979 and the subsequent Iran–Iraq war reduced tourism to a trickle, but in the last decade the country’s global significance with

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Airphoto International Ltd.
Publication date:
Odyssey Illustrated Guides Series
Edition description:
Fourth Edition
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

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Persia: Ancient and Modern

By Helen Loveday, Bruce Wannell, Christoph Baumer, Bijan Omrani, Caroline Eden, Anthony Cassidy

Odyssey Books & Guides

Copyright © 2010 Airphoto International Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-962-217-812-0


Irân — A Brief History

"As a beginning you must know precisely what the material of the elements was in origin. God created matter out of nothingness in order that his power might be manifested; out of it was produced the substance of the four elements, without effort and without expenditure of time ... When these four elements were once in existence they came together to form the fleeting abode of the world. With sea, mountain, desert and meadow the earth became as bright as a shining lamp. With the mountain towering high, waters coalesced and the heads of the growing plants reared upwards ... Overhead, the stars displayed their wonders, casting their brightness on the earth. Fire ascended, water poured down and the sun revolved around the earth ..."


Prehistoric Irân

Fifteen thousand years before the beginning of the present era, whilst glaciers lay deep upon the face of Europe, the land of Irân, or much of it, was covered by the waters. Rainfall, at that time, was heavy, and near perpetual; lakes stood even in the highest of the mountain valleys; and on the central Plateau of Irân, where now extends a great and hostile desert, an inland sea once rested, collecting the rivers as they flowed down from the heights.

Towards the end of this age, described by geographers as the 'pluvial period', we find the first evidence of man's habitation on the soil of Irân. The rains became less frequent, the inland sea began to recede, and along its coasts or in the foothills of the mountains dwelt early man as a hunter, taking shelter in the caves. Professor Roman Ghirshman, the French archaeologist, leading a campaign of excavation in 1949, unearthed the remains of one of these early settlers at Tang-e Pabda, near Shustar in the Bakhtiâri Mountains. These ancient inhabitants carried implements of bone and already possessed a coarse variety of dark pottery, using weapons fashioned from stone, axes and hammers, to seek after and dismember their prey. It is perhaps also during this period, around 6000 BC, that the first experiments were made in the cultivation of crops. Cereals, such as wild emmer, the ancestor of wheat, already grew native on the mountain slopes of Irân, and it was a small but important step — taken, many conjecture, by the sedentary women whilst the men were absent on the chase — to collect their seeds, sow them, and harvest their fruits in an organised fashion. It is from these small beginnings that agriculture, as we know it today, began to grow.

As the climate changed, so civilisation evolved. The inland sea dried out fully and disappeared. In its wake was left an earth of rich and heavy silt, fertile for vegetation and attractive to animals. Man too, seeing the newly-uncovered pasture-lands, productive in plant-life and abundant in game, made his way down on to the Irânian Plateau, and across it took up his abode. Fully-fledged settlements appear for the first time. One of these, at Siyalk near Kâshân, inhabited from around 5000 BC into the historical period, reveals the story of man's development. Crude huts made from the branches of trees give way to houses constructed of compacted earth, and later of mud-brick. Their inner walls are painted white; beneath their hearths are buried the bones of the family dead. Outside the houses begins the domestication of animals; cattle, sheep and oxen, are herded and bred. In the field of pottery, a new red ware is now introduced, to which is applied a white slip, decorated with geometrical patterns in imitation of woven baskets. Stone and finely carved animal bone is used for the manufacture of tools; when of the latter, the handles are sometimes exquisitely fashioned also into abstract forms or the heads of animals. Pebbles, bone, and even turquoise are incorporated into necklaces and other pieces of jewellery; personal adornment goes even as far as the application of cosmetics, crushed and prepared in a pestle and mortar.

Although by 4000 BC we note the appearance of further innovations — copper, both hammered and smelted; the potter's wheel; vases with patterns now also in black — it is more the evolution of trade that has a bearing on the history of the region, rather than the advancement of technology. Merchants, guaranteeing their goods with the newly-invented stamp seal — and later, the cylinder seal — dispatched their wares over international distances; not just luxury items, such as lapis lazuli mined from the mountains of distant Badakhshân, but also more every-day commodities, such as barley, and wheat. The importation of these crops to the Mesopotamian Plain (modern-day Iraq), more fertile and more hospitable for habitation with the onset of time, was to have an important effect. The dwellers in the settlements along the great rivers of antiquity, the Tigris and Euphrates, aided by the introduction of the art of agriculture, were soon to outstrip the inhabitants of the Irânian Plateau. Although it is to the latter that we must look for the invention of farming, it is to the former that we owe the subsequent steps in the progress of civilisation: writing, art, science, and the emergence of the great cities.

Persian Poetry

Poetry has always been one of the richest expressions of Persian creativity. Strongly influenced in its composition and vocabulary by Arabic poetry, Persian poetry is also the heir to a very ancient tradition of bardic verse. The first verses written in literary New Persian appear in the ninth century in Khorâsân; in the tenth century, the official encouragement of the use of Persian at the Sâmânid court, rather than Pahlavi (Middle Persian) or Arabic, stimulated the development of a written literature in that language. From that time on, the use of the Persian literary language spread to the entire plateau, gradually replacing the local dialects.

The official role played by poetry in the royal courts explains the appearance very early on of the panegyric qasida which proclaimed, according to well-defined models, the virtues and courage of the ruler or of a patron. Among the numerous poets of panegyric qasida were Anvari (died around 1187) and Khaqani (died in 1199), known for the subtlety of their images and themes.

A lyric form was developed from the qasida, the ghazal, a much shorter form used mainly to express love, both mystic and human. The ghazal flourished from the 12th century, and led to the uncontested masters of this form, Sa'adi (died around 1290) and Hâfez (died in 1389), whose use of language and subtlety of thought are unrivalled.

The rubâ'i, which became famous in Europe in the 19th century with Edward Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyâm's poetry, and the do-beiti are both four-line poems which differ from one another in their rhythm. They deal with mystical, philosophical or romantic themes, and their form imparts the impression of both spontaneity and elegant precision. There are few Persian men of letters who have not written at least one rubâ'i, but the very number of these poems, which were rarely signed, makes it difficult to attribute them with any accuracy to a specific poet.

Apart from these short, precise poetic forms, there exists also a tradition of rhyming couplets, masnavi, used for narrative and epic poetry or for various forms of didactic works ranging from history to medicine. The epic dates back to the pre-Islamic period in Irân; Ferdosi himself was inspired by older epic works when he wrote his Shâhnâmeh. After Ferdosi, the epic poem was best developed by Nizami (1141–1209), the author of five long dramatic romantic epics, among which is The Book of Alexander, which tells of the feats and wisdom of the Macedonian conqueror, and Khusro and Shirin, which narrates the lifes and love of the Sasanian king and an Armenian princess. But the masnavi was also used with great success by Sufi poets, in particular by Farid od-Din Attâr (died around 1220) in his Conference of the Birds, which is considered one of the master-pieces of Persian literature, and by Jalâl od-Din Rumi (1207–1273) in his Masnavi Manawi.

The State of Elam: 3000–645 BC

The ready abundance of water and the supply of food, the ease of travel over the plains and the navigable rivers, the nearby presence of the sea, the need for learned men and stable governments to administer and coordinate the irrigation of the land — through these conditions, in all of which the Irânian Plateau was quite deficient, came into being on the Plain of Mesopotamia the first great urban centres of civilisation. In the southern territory of Sumer began to rise the towns of Erech, Ur, and Larsa. In the northern land of Akkad appeared the settlements of Sippar, Kish, and Babylon. While these progressed as pioneers of mathematics, of literature, and law, the scattered communities on the Plateau of Irân — where oases were few, rivers were scarce, and journeys were difficult — continued as before, unchanging in their ways. Nonetheless, such was not the case for the whole of Irân. Below the mountains in the south-west, the environment was more benign. As with Mesopotamia, though less significant in scale, a number of rivers — the Kârun and the Karkheh — watered a region by the sea, low-lying and fertile. And, as with Mesopotamia, in these surroundings cities also began to grow, and from those cities, the first great empire in the history of Irân: the State of Elam.

The word Elam in the Assyrian language signifies "mountain", and originally denoted only the area to the north, where ran the ranges of the Zagros. The land by the sea where the cities were established was known to the Classical geographers as the Plain of Susiana, taking its name from Susa, the principal city in the district. In early times, the Plain and the mountains were distinct entities. It was only when Susa, in the third millennium BC, began to extend the sphere of its influence to include the mountainous territories to the north, that the name "Elam" came to describe the state in its entirety.

Of the Elamites, we know the names of their principal cities — Susa, Madaktu, and Khaidalu. We know that these cities were governed by Patesis, or Priest-Kings. We also know that their principal god — Inshushinak, or "the Susian", for his real name was never to be uttered — was worshipped in sacred groves, to which the priests and Patesi alone had access. Of these, the holy places of the Elamites, we perhaps have a portrait in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where the hero and his companion Enkidu set out to destroy their enemy Humbaba, who dwells in such a haven:

"Together they went down from the gate and they came to the green mountain. There they stood still, they were struck dumb; they stood still and gazed at the forest. They saw the height of the cedar, they saw the way into the forest and the track where Humbaba was used to walk. The way was broad and the going was good. They gazed at the mountain of cedars, the dwelling-place of the gods, and the throne of Ishtar. The hugeness of the cedar rose in front of the mountain, its shade was beautiful, full of comfort; mountain and glade were green with brushwood."

Aside from Inshushinak in his sanctuaries, a multitude of other gods and lesser deities were worshipped with ceremonies not dissimilar to the Babylonian. And, moreover, as with the other empires in Mesopotamia, the Elamites would leave for them votive offerings and plaques, inscribed in their own language and a script of their own devising: proto-Elamite, which still today awaits to be deciphered.

For all this, however, the Mesopotamians looked down on the Elamites, considering them to be backward, dangerous, and a threat to their stability. The history of the state, as far as the sources allow us to unravel it, is one of endless conflict with the neighbouring empires. Indeed, one of the earliest-known letters in existence, written in Sumerian around 3000 BC, is a complaint by a priest of the mother-goddess Ninmar that a band of Elamites had ravaged a territory belonging to his city, Lagash, and that he had scattered them only with the grievous loss of his own men. Fearful of the Elamites, but looking greedily at the natural wealth with which their land abounded — timber, copper and gold — it became the policy of the empires which flourished on the Mesopotamian plain to subdue the Elamites, and hold them as a tributary. The first ruler to achieve this feat was Sargon of Akkad, perhaps around 2300 BC; not long after, hegemony over Elam, and also over Mesopotamia, passed into the hands of the Sumerians, and the third dynasty of Ur. The Elamites, however, managed to shake off the yoke of foreign domination towards the end of that millennium. Their resurgent power and the wars they waged against the other cities are thought to have caused more general instability in the area, the movement of refugees, and also — as it was formerly held by many — the flight of Abraham "from Ur of the Chaldees to go into the land of Canaan."

It was at this point, at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, that the Elamite state attained its apogee. Free from the rule of outsiders, its boundaries extended as far as the Tigris in the west, and under its authority came all the areas encompassed by the modern Irânian provinces of Khuzestân, Luristân, and Fârs. However, its golden period was to be short-lived. Again, it was overcome, this time by Hammurabi, King of Babylon (author of the famous code of law) avound 1700 BC, and despite various periods in the ascendant, particularly around the 12th century BC, it was never again able to obtain its former prominence. When, in 750 BC, the Assyrian Empire came to be the dominant nation in the Mesopotamian Plain, a perennial conflict was joined against Elam; the Assyrians held them responsible for stirring up the inhabitants of subject cities to revolt. The strength of the Elamites was fatally damaged at the battle of Tulliz in 659 BC, and not long after, the state having been rendered irredeemably unstable, Assurbanipal, King of the Assyrians, was able to sack the capital Susa in 645BC, denude it of its treasures, and raze it to the ground. On the obliteration of this once-great empire, the Prophet Ezekiel wrote:

"There is Elam and all her multitude round about her grave, all of them slain, fallen by the sword, which are gone down uncircumcised into the nether parts of the earth, which caused their terror in the land of the living; yet have they borne their shame with them that go down to the pit."

The Coming of the Aryans

The balance of power in Irân and the Plains of Mesopotamia was irredeemably to be altered with the arrival from the east of a new and vigorous people: the Aryans. Their place of origin, which they themselves called 'Aryanem-Vaejo', is thought to have been the steppe land between the Oxus and the Jaxartes (the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya), and that a change in climate after 2000 BC compelled them to leave their native territories to seek out a new and more congenial home. The first wave of Aryan immigrants is believed to have arrived in the north of Mrân not long after the beginning of the second millennium BC, meking their way to the foothills of the northwest by way of the northern coast of the Caspian. Erupting from this district perhats as little as a hundred years later, a new empire — the Kassite — likely to have been composed of an Aryan aristocracy with a native subject population, was able to dominate the region of southern Mesopotamia until 1100 BC. Indeed, it is the presence of this new people — of whom we know little except that they revere a Sun-God, Suryash — that prevented the Elamite realm from an} expansion beyond the bounds of the Tigris during this time.

It was in 1500 BC that a second and significant tide of Aryans began to quit Aryanem-Vaejo. This time, making their way directly south across the Oxus, they sojourned for a time in the vicinmty of Herât and, as their legends would have it, Balkh "of the beautiful high-lifted banners", before splitting into two groups. The former continued its way through the land of modern-day Afghânistân, taking the road south of the Hindu Kush to reach Arachosia (Qandahâr) before crossing the Bolan Pass to debouch into India. The latter, on the other hand, proceeded westwards, spreading out across the Plateau of Irân, making it, along with the mountainous terrain of the Zagros and the Alborz, their new and more permanent home.

The incoming settlers were, for the most part, nomadic in their way of life, deficient in many of the arts of civilisation which had, by then, come into being in the Mesopotamian world. Nonetheless, they are thought to have had an advantage over the original population of the Plateau in one important respect: a proficiency in horsemanship. With the aid of this ability and by other means as well, by expulsion, by massacre, and by assimilation, they were able to supplant and surpass the primeval inhabitants of the country, learning from them agriculture and the use of settlements, whilst causing the Aryan language to replace those which had come before it.


Excerpted from Irân by Helen Loveday, Bruce Wannell, Christoph Baumer, Bijan Omrani, Caroline Eden, Anthony Cassidy. Copyright © 2010 Airphoto International Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Odyssey Books & Guides.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Helen Loveday has a BA in Chinese and a PhD in Chinese archeology from Oxford University. Following time spent in Central Asia, she became attracted by Iran and began studying Farsi, the national language. She is interested in the Islamic architecture of ancient Persia and Sino-Iranian cultural exchanges. She currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland, where she is a curator of the Baur Collection museum.

Bruce Wannell read Modern European Languages at Oriel College Oxford, but later grew interested in the Iranian and Islamic world, living and traveling in Iran and
Afghanistan for several years. Aside from leading tour parties to India, Africa and the Middle East, he has worked as a translator and researcher for William Dalrymple, and also writes as an expert on Islamic Mysticism. He lives in York, England.

Dr. Christoph Baumer studied philosophy, psychology and history of art at the University of Zurich and holds a doctorate. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland and of the Explorers Club, New York. Since 1971 he has travelled extensively in Central Asia, China and Tibet and publishes books and articles on themes relating to the history, archaeology and religions of these areas. In 2008 he published, Traces in the Desert. He lives in Switzerland.

Bijan Omrani attended Lincoln College, Oxford. His first book, Ticking Tom and the Tornado, was published when he was 10 years old, which he followed with contributions to The Spectator as an undergraduate. His research interests include Euripides, mysticism, Henry Purcell and the history of the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. He is the author and editor of various works on Central Asia including Asia Overland: Tales of Travel on the Trans-Siberian and Silk Road (Odyssey Books & Guides), and also a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and the Royal Geographical Society. He teaches Classics at Westminster School.

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