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Persia and Persians before and after Islam


November 14, 2006

Because of various historical manipulations, especially for the past 70 years or so, ever since Reza Khan started his plan of modernising Iran, Iranians have often led to believe "facts" about their country which have lacked consistency and objectivity. That would be nothing unusual for a Middle-Eastern dictatorship, but there is no reason why we couldn't see things differently, other than what various dictators would want us to see. What has been presented to Iranians, by official historical and scientific manipulation and especially through textbooks at schools, has been that Iran was a grand empire, a force for good (with some minor and unimportant and irrelevant exceptions) that for more than 2,500 years strived for civilisation and human excellence.

The story goes that Iranians were Aryan tribes that came to the Iranian plateau thousands of years ago and they have been strong enough to stay relatively "pure" and "superior" to their immediate neighbourhood and beyond. This sounds absurd to me, and some others, but that's what the textbooks and Iranian recent history has been trying to convey to the Iranians. Now I am not trying to prove that this kind of nationalism, or maybe racism, is wrong (which it is), but to prove that it is based on extremely faulty grounds, which misses so many details, rendering it (the theory described above) absolutely ridiculous.

Before the Muslim invasion of Iran there were three major "Iranian" dynasties who ruled the Iranian plateau and beyond, the Achaemenid (Hakhamaneshi), the Parthians (Ashkani), and the Sassanid (Sasanian). The Parthians were not from Persis. They were probably from present-day Khorasan or Afghanistan. So, the Persian empire, as Westerners used to refer to it, disappeared for a while, not just during Macedonian rule but also during Parthian rule. Westerners recognised Persia when Persians ruled the Iranian plateau, not when Parthians did, though Parthians may very well have spoken a close dialect of Persian.

Has anyone ever visited the British Museum where Middle-Eastern objects and artifacts are exhibited? There are huge statues cut intact and carried from Mesopotamia and brought all over to London. They are from the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian periods. None of these peoples were Iranians and as a matter of fact their civilisations were far ahead of the Persian civilisation. Long before Persia was recognised as a great country or civilisation Mesopotamia was famous for its great buildings, monuments and culture. The objects shown at the British Museum are not simply similar to those that are found at Persepolis, they are almost identical.

The statues of lions with wings and many other imaginary mixtures and man and animals are extremely similar to those that are found in historical sites in present-day Iran, where the Persian empire had its headquarters and where Persians originally came and ruled. This is clearly a sign that Persians borrowed, or copied, writing, architecture, and of course many other social and cultural aspects of life from Mesopotamia. This is not to prove the inferiority of the Persians, or the Iranians, but simply to show some facts that have intentionally been overlooked for the purpose of arousing nationalistic sentiments, which were copied (unfortunately never truly departed from, even after the Islamic revolution) from Northern European, Mainly German, propaganda methods.

Old Persia was a great military power though, but it was never similar to the cultural and social prowess or originality of the Egyptians, the Greek, the Mesopotamians or the Chinese.

The post-Islamic Persia never reached the same extent or power of the lost Persian empire. Many rather small "Persian" independent states were built in defiance of Arab occupation and within a couple of hundreds of years, Arabs, due to their internal corruption and weakness, started to lose ground to locals in Persia, but before Persians could start to come together and realise what had happened Iranian plateau become the turf of the Turks rather than the Persians. Ever since the departure of the Arab rulers various Turkic tribes gained and lost Iranian territories to one another, and permanently fought over it. Persia was ruled by Turks, especially Oghuz Turks (whose descendants are the Anatolian Turks and the Azerbaijani Turks), with very few exceptions, until the Pahlavi gained control in 1925.

However the Safavid, starting by Shah Ismail (who was also a famous 15th century Azerbaijani poet with the name Khatai), came up with a new idea that proved most successful, to build the new Persia, not out of Persians, but out of a religion, so he fought the Ottomans and other rivals and built the new Persia, ruled by Turks, and based on Shia religion. After the fall of the Safavid all the other rulers also tried to emulate the Safavid strategy though rather unsuccessful in the long term. Thus the modern Persia became a multi-cultural and multi-national country based on Shia religion.

The Iran that is left to us now, despite the Pahlavi propaganda that has left deep emotional effects on most Iranians, is little related to the pre-Islamic Iran. The pre-Islamic Persian empire, which was ruled by Aryan peoples (mostly Persians) who lived in the Iranian platou, included Pashtuns, Tajiks, Kurds and many others who if asked now never feel anything like belonging to Iran! Why? Because they are those who have been persecuted for centuries by almost all Iranian Turkic, and also Persian (Zand dynasty), rulers because they did not accept Shiism.

As mentioned earlier, the intention is not to prove anything bad to Iranians or about Iranians. Any nation must first understand, and come to terms, with its past before moving forward and facing the future. And many historical mistakes and wrongs often haunt a nation's present. What Iranians had before the Pahlavi was chaos, poverty and humiliation in front of the British and the Russians. It was a country almost ungoverned where the Qajar king had no ambition but to survive as long a royal life as possible.

Reza Khan brought new ideas, borrowed from the West, that turned the Iranian society upside down, some with good effects and others with catastrohpic effects. The good effects were of course the modernisation of Iran. No other ruler ever since has been able to do so much in such a short time with so little resources. The catstrophic effects are related mainly to social issues. Transforming Iran from a united Shia society into a united Aryan society did not just weaken religion, but actually pushed it toward radicalism and extremism. Comment


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Ben Madadi



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