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A brief history of names
Superficial isolated discussions about the name of the Persian Gulf are misplaced

Fouad Kazem
December 20, 2004

Many Iranians from all stripes, fascists, monarchists, nationalists, reformists, liberals, even some leftists, and some religious hardliners, whether in Iran or abroad, have been swept up by a nationalistic fervor. And, what, you may ask, is the root cause of this rare moment of unity among Iranians? It is the fact that the latest atlas published by the National Geographic included in parentheses the words "Arabian Gulf" next to "Persian Gulf". Thus a campaign to convince the world that the true name is the Persian Gulf.

It is a fact that by all accounts, the Persian Gulf has always been called the "Persian Gulf", in most recorded history. It is also true that in the same region there is the "Sea of Oman", and next to that there is the "Arabian Sea". There is no reason to change the name "Persian Gulf" to the "Arabian Gulf", for that would create more confusion.

However, should those interested in Iran's progress and democracy focus their time and energy on teaching everyone in the world about the name of a gulf? Would it not be more productive to devote efforts to make the historical connections between Iran, Iranian, Farsi, and Persian? Would it not make more sense to study the basic facts of Persian and world history so we can change the present and work towards a better future?

At this point, the vast majority of non-Iranians do not even know that Iranian, Farsi, and Persian refer to the same civilization and language. At best they think Persia is a region larger than Iran; at worst they think Persian is a civilization that disappeared along with the Hittites (who used to live in today's Turkey) or Babylonians (who used to live in today's Iraq). They think Farsi is a new dialect remotely related to Persian. They think Persian is a type of cat, a style of rug, or a flying carpet from somewhere exotic in the East.

Basic facts of Persian history need to be clarified, before we focus on teaching people about the name "Persian Gulf". Even if we succeed in convincing everyone in the world (including every Saudi sheikh in his harem) to use the name "Persian Gulf", the connection of that name with Iran will still be problematic in the minds of many.

To be clear, in Persian we call the Persian Gulf, Khalij-e "Fars". Persia's government in 1935 asked the world to stop using the word, "Persian" and use the word "Iranian" instead (1). And yet in English we want it to be called the "Persian Gulf". Why the confusion over the names Persian and Iranian? For the last 2600 years, up to the year 1935, following a naming convention that was started by the ancient Greeks, in all Western languages today's Iran was known as "Persia", a word that was different from the word used in Persian, which was always "Iran".

There are many other examples of such naming conventions in the world. Indians call their country "Bharat", Egyptians call their land "Missr", in Finland they call their country "Suomi", the Japanese call their country "Nihon", and Germans call their country "Deutschland" (2).

By the same token, the language of Persia (Iran) has always been internationally known as Persian. The naming conventions for Persia (aka Iran) changed in 1935. The suggestion for the name change from Persia to Iran is said to have come from the Persian ambassador to Germany, who was a Nazi sympathizer.

In 1935 Germany was ruled by Hitler. Aryanism was equated by the Nazis as the highest level of human civilization, in an article of faith based on a vulgar Hegelian hyperbola. Apparently the Persian ambassador was persuaded by his Nazi friends that Persia would be better off as an ally of Nazi Germany. Moreover, he became convinced that the country should be called by its Persian name, Iran, in Western languages.

This was to signal a new beginning and bring home to the world the new era in Iranian history, one that would emphasize the Aryan aspect of its people. The name Iran is a cognate of the old word Aryan. The Persian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent out a memo to all foreign embassies in Tehran, requesting that the country be called "Iran."

Unfortunately "Iran" sounded alien to non-Iranians, and many failed to recognize its connection with the historic Persia. Some (Westerners) thought that it was perhaps one of the new countries like Kuwait or Jordan carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, or like "Pakistan", carved out of India. Even today many confuse Iran with Iraq.

The confusion has been made worse by the usage of the word Farsi, which is the Persian word for Persian, just as "Deutsch" is the German word for German. To make matters worse, for marketing purposes Rumi and other Persian poets are presented by American book publishers as Sufi poets and not as Persian poets (3).

It is generally known that Dante was Italian and Shakespeare was British. But most Americans know Rumi as a "Sufi poet" from somewhere in the East, as if Sufi were a nationality. As the references in a large body of European texts (Examples: texts by Schopenhauer, Nietzche, Hegel, Montesquieu, etc.) indicate Persian civilization has been very well known in European philosophy and culture for centuries.

For today's Persians (Iranians), the name "Iran" refers to a rich and historic civilization. For most non-Iranians, Iran is a country in the Middle East with a more or less Islamic identity, and with no clear connection with the historic "Persia".

Let us look at another interesting example: the name of the Caspian Sea. Today in most Middle Eastern languages including Persian and Turkish, the Caspian Sea is called the Sea of the Khazar. The name refers to the Khazar people who inhabited an area extending from the Caucus Mountains to Central Ukraine from the 5th to the 13th century and whose civilization disappeared after successive attacks by the Mongols.

The Khazars were a Turkic people who had originated in Central Asia. In the beginning, the Khazars believed in Shamanism, spoke a Turkic language, and were nomads. Later, the Khazars adopted Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and settled in cities and towns that they built throughout the north Caucasus and Eastern Ukraine. The Khazars had a tradition of religious tolerance. Kiev, the capital city of modern Ukraine, was largely founded by the Khazars. Kiev is a Turkic name (K¸i = riverbank + ev = settlement).

The Hungarian-Jewish writer, Arthur Koestler, argued in his carefully researched work, The Thirteenth Tribe (1976) that large portions of the Khazars converted to Judaism. He also documents that the Khazars were forced to migrate to Eastern Europe under attacks from the East by the Mongols in the 13th Century. Through an interesting twist of history, Westerners today refer to the Caspian Sea with the old Latin name for the historic city of Qazvin (in today's Iran), while Persians and Turks refer to it as the Sea of the Khazar, named after a proud civilization that disappeared long ago.

Superficial isolated discussions about the name of the Persian Gulf are misplaced. They distract us from more basic problems. If something is to be done from a naming point of view to promote a better understanding of Persian culture and history, it would be far more sensible to officially change the name of Iran back to Persia, Farsi and Iranian back to Persian, in all Western languages.

That can be achieved through a campaign that will educate people about Persian civilization in a clear progressive manner, through a dialogue that will highlight Persia's contributions to the world, without attacking, or claiming superiority over other peoples of the Middle East: the Arabs, the Turks, the Jews, the Armenians, the Kurds.

The Persian rug, the Persian cat, the Persian Empire, the Persia that Alexander the Great was so proud to have defeated, the Persia that the Greek historian, Herodotos, wrote about in his world classic, The Persian Wars, the Persian civilization that Hegel wrote about in his world classic, Philosophy of History, Scheherazade who told stories to the Calif of Baghdad in the tales of A Thousands and One Nights, Ibn-e Sina (aka Avicenna) whose works of medicine were taught in Europe for centuries, Hafez who was admired by Goethe, the great astronomer and poet, Omar Khayyam, Rumi (Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi) were all Persians, they were from Persia, the same country that has been known in the West as Iran since 1935, through a strange accident of history.

In Western Europe, after long periods of warfare and violence (culminating in the savagery of World War II), they finally opted for cooperation among nations and the formation of a European Union. A time may come when the peoples of the Middle East will overcome the existing cultural backwardness and live in harmony and rich cultural exchange with each other. They will learn to collaborate not claim superiority over each other.

(1) cf. Article by Ehsan Yarshater, professor at Columbia University in New York and editor of the Encyclopedia Iranica.

(2) Deutschland, Germany, and Allemagne all refer to the same country in different languages: German, English, and French.

(3) Presumably because these publishers believe pointing out Rumi's national origins will dampen the sales efforts.

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