In a recent article entitled “Iranian Identity, the 'Aryan Race,' and Jake Gyllenhaal” Mr. Reza Zia-Ebrahimi presents us with a well written and for the most part informative piece about the unfortunate fact that a strong form of racism fueled by historical ignorance exists among some modern day Iranians, both outside and inside of the borders of Iran. Using the example of the controversy that rose over the movie “Prince of Persia,” Mr. Zia-Ebrahimi provides a detailed description of how the racist beliefs, what he refers to as “Aryan syndrome,” exist among Iranians and has even reached the level of well known intellectuals! He attributes the genesis of these ideas to a certain level of historical ignorance, which in turn has its origins in what is called an Orientalist historiography.
On the other hand, at least as far as ancient history, the core of his argument, is concerned, the discussion suffers from two major problems. One is a lack of original familiarity with the historical evidence, and second is a disregard for some rather established facts. The second issue seems to be a matter of convenience, undertaken in an attempt to push forward and prove a certain point, which although basically correct, should not be proven by sacrificing important details. To be clear, I principally agree whole heartedly with many of the major observations of the article. These include the issue of modern Iran and the unfortunate rise of Aryanism, among others. Indeed, I myself can furnish many examples, based on my personal encounters with fellow Iranians, to the same effect. So, I agree with the basic promise of Mr. Zia-Ebrahmi’s work and his pin-pointing of how and why “Aryan syndrome” took hold in Iran and among Iranians.
Personally, I have experienced that for most Iranians interest in an Aryan heritage has nothing to do with historical reality. Instead, it is more about disliking the rest of the Middle Easterners, particularly the Arabs, and wanting to be like Europeans. Consequently, the issue is more about a sort of antagonism and inferiority complex than one actually concerned with any real understanding of historical mechanism. Thus I am as angered and frustrated as Mr. Zia-Ebrahimi with what can only be labeled as bigoted racism. However, in demonstrating the depth of this ignorance, one would do better in actually considering historical details than dismissing them wholesale or ignoring what they actually do depict. Unfortunately this is exactly what has happened in the article in question. The facts about the usage of the term Ariya, it being synonymous with the term Aryan, the meaning that the term had for those who used it in ancient times, and most importantly the connection between the term Ariya and the name of Iran (Ērān in Middle Persian) all have been either misrepresented or ignored.
To start, it is not a fallacious claim that Iranians referred to themselves as Ariya and allowing for word morphology, the term Aryan, no matter when it was “coined” is actually quite an exact English translation of the Iranian word Ariya. The term Ariya is not only repeated a handful of times and it is not only limited to Iran either. The term has a Sanskrit equivalent, used indeed as an ethnic name, and was used outside the borders of “Iran” (the modern country) by rulers such as Kanishka the Great, the Kushan Emperor. One could argue that the possibility of it being an ethnic label is very strong and almost self evident. Not only does Darius says that he is “Aryan” and that he is writing in the “Aryan language,” but he even specifies that he is from the “Aryan stock” and thus gives the word a very clear and strong ethnic tone. I do understand that by relying on the seminal work of Prof. Gherardo Gnoli, the author tries to argue that the term might designate a class, rather than an ethnic, distinction, but we have to notice that Gnoli’s idea is indeed a hypothesis. In this way, it cannot be taken to “prove” anything, and the hypothesis that Ariya in fact is designating a larger grouping cannot be ignored. Considering the context, where Darius starts labeling himself as part of a family (an Achaemenid), a tribe (a Persian), the designation for the next term (an Ariya) can only be a grouping larger than a “tribe” (the Persians), qualifying it as an ethnic name. This is in particular true since this sort of self-identification has parallel evidence elsewhere in the ancient Near East.
Mr. Zia-Ebrahim argues that Iran could not have meant land of Aryans since if that was the case then it would mean that the inhabitant of the ancient Iran had the same racial awareness, and thus must have behaved in the same manner, as the Europeans of 19th century. He further cites the existence of many different people in the Iranian Plateau as the proof that no such mentality and name could have existed.
First of all this claim is not a very logical one and it is an argument that is self contradictory. The basic suggestion is that since the people of ancient Iran did not behave like the Europeans of 19th century, then by default they could not have known about their racial and ethnic differences is itself based on an Orientalistic outlook. It essentially suggests that events should be played out based on the European experience and no other alternative scenario could exist.
It is very true, and one of my personal sources of pride as someone who studies ancient Iran, that the Iranian Plateau was home to many diverse people in the past three thousand years and that even Darius in his inscription mentions a word that can be translated as multicultural/multiethnic. However, I do not see the evidence of multiculturalism as evidence of ignorance about racial and ethnic differences. Darius does a good job of showing that these two concepts could mutually exist. While clearly mentioning his own Persian tribal affiliation, and even his Aryan designation, he also goes on to name all the constitutions of his realm, from the Medians to the Babylonians and Phoenicians, before concluding that it is a multicultural society.
It is wrong and anachronistic to imply that Darius, if intending a racial meaning from the term Ariya, was then harboring some manner of pro-Aryan tendency and racist ideology the way Europeans of 19th century did. It is equally wrong, however, to claim that he did not have any awareness of his own ethnicity and race or that the idea of being Aryan did not occupy his mind only because he did not go about it the way Europeans of 19th century did.
It is interesting to note that here the use of history by Mr. Zia-Ebrahimi is actually quite similar to how the same history is used by the same ultra-nationalists that he is criticizing. Focusing on the Achaemenid history of Iran (550-333 BCE) is in fact the major pitfall of the extreme Iranian nationalists, ignoring almost all of the ancient and “mediaeval” history of the country, and fast-forwarding to the Pahlavis in the 20th century. A conscientious study of Iranian history would reveal many facts related to this argument many centuries and even millennia before the emergence of any Orientalist ideas. In fact, for better tracking the use of the variants of the term Ariya and their geographical and ethnic usage, one should look into the Sasanian and early Islamic history of Iran, instead of focusing on the Achaemenids.
While Darius refers to himself as Aryan, the Sasanian kings go even farther and refer to their people as Aryans, Ērān, and call themselves the king of kings of the Aryans, Šāhān Šāh Ērān. They obviously even have a clear idea of what the term means and who it should be used for, since depending on whether or not they are ruling over certain territories, they also add the title non-Aryan, An-Ērān, to their name: Šahān Šāh Ērān ud Anērān (king of kings of Aryans and non-Aryans) as depicted coins of the early Sasanian kings such as Shapur I.
To this effect, we should notice that the modern name of the country of Iran is derived from the Middle Persian term Ērānšahr, meaning “the dominion of the Ēr (Ariyans).” To be clear, this is not a hypothesis or a scholarly conclusion, it is a linguistic fact. Ērān itself is the plural of the term Ēr, a natural Middle Persian development of Old Iranian Ariya-. So, the fact that the modern name is not a fabrication and certainly not one which was done under the influence of the Germans, should be clear. Furthermore, we have numerous references to the term, and its use in the political sense, during the “mediaeval” and pre-modern period, from the Samanid (9th and 10 centuries CE) to the Qajars (18th-20th centuries). One can see this on coins, in narrative histories, and most famously in works of literature.
It was not the term Aryan which was the result of 18th and 19th century European ideologies rather the belief that Aryan means a blond person who essentially looks northern European. In fact, it is a fallacious way of approaching the simplistic suggestion that “Aryans had blonde hair and blue eyes” by suggesting that the whole Aryan “identity” was a 19th century European fabrication. The correct way would be to demonstrate that Aryans, people who named themselves as such, existed before the 19th century Europeans came to notice them and the term they used to call themselves. The catch, then, is that these Aryans never did have “blonde hair and blue eyes”! The point is not, and should not be, whether Aryans existed, rather that the idea of racial purity, indeed created in 19th century Europe, designated to them is false. The Achaemenid and the Sasanian kings who called themselves and their people Aryans, never suggested that they belong to any manner of “pure” Aryan blood, and not even a “select” class (as Zia-Ebrahimi suggests based in Gnoli).
That the term Aryan was used by people of Indo-Iranians origin and that it had an ethnic meaning to it as well is not a myth. The most we could argue is that it was resurrected by the modern Iranians under the influence of European ideology, not that it did not exist in the first place. To claim that the root of this term is in 19th century Europe is only possible if we believe that the rulers and the people who lived in Iran and India and in between, including Darius, Kanishka and Ardaxšīr I to name a few, were all influenced by racist 19th century beliefs of the Europeans.
While simplistic and ignorant claims such as “we all looked like Jake Gyllenhaal before the Muslim invasion,” deserve all the sharp criticism that they have received, they should not be used as an excuse to dismiss well establish historical facts no matter how badly we want to battle such ridiculous and racist claims. Fear of the ugly racism that has and continues to plague Europe should not be an excuse for ignoring solid historical and linguistic facts. In order to educate, and maybe even wake up the public, we should not tell them that we didn’t look like Jake Gyllenhaal because we never said we were Aryans, rather because Aryans never looked like Jake Gyllenhaal in the first place!
Sara Mashayekh holds a MA in Ancient Iranian History from University of California, Irvine.
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