A review of “The Idea of Iran: An Essay on Its Origin”, by Gherardo Gnoli. (Roma, Italia: Istituto Italiano Per Il Medio Ed Estremo Oriente, 1989.)
This is a major study that explores the ethno-religious and political conception of Iran, more accurately Aryan-ness, among the early inhabitants of what is historically known as Media, Persia, and the Hindukush regions from the early and mid first millennium B.C. up until the formation of the Sassanian empire in the early third century A.D. and its eventual fall in the mid seventh century.
Gnoli's opening chapter, “The Aryans in Western Iran,” deals with the historicity of the notion of Aryan-ness among the peoples of the two ancient Median and Achaemenian empires. He first clarifies that a political concept of Aryan-ness never existed during this period of Iranian history. Hence, the idea of an “Empire of the Aryans” during this era is misconceived. Yet, there existed an Aryan awareness in the mind of the Persian or the Mede for that matter.
To the latter, arya was an ethno-religious term; to the former in a similar fashion it referred to three socio-historical factors: (1) the royal lineage of the Achaemenian kings, (2) the greater language family to which the Old Persian belonged, and (3) the worshippers of Ahuramazda — the great god that was worshipped by other arya peoples that lived beyond the imperial borders.
Thus, Gnoli summarizes the notion of Aryan-ness in his use of the German term “Gesamtvolk,” which denotes “total-nation” — pointing to the fact that there was an awareness, among the Medes and Persians, of the existence of a larger unit of people (greater than their own national populace) with which they could identify.
In his second chapter, titled “The Avestan Aryans,” Gnoli addresses the question that is unavoidably raised by the end of the first chapter, namely, why arya had an ethnic significance among the Medes and Persians, but also among other peoples that lived on the Iranian plateau. To answer this question, he defines the Younger Avestan term airya as people who identified themselves with the reformist teachings of Zarathustra and who spoke one of the Indo-Iranian languages.
These people lived in an area that stretched from the Hindukush regions down to the area that during the Achaemenian period was called Drangiana and Arachosia, to the west of the Indus and to the east of Iranian Sistan. In addition, it is possible to state with some measure of certainty that the majority of these people had Indo-Iranian origin. Living in no centralized imperial state, however, these Avestan Airyas were only one among the diverse peoples, Indo-European or otherwise, that populated the same geographical area side by side.
Having placed Zarathustra and the inception of his reform movement three to four centuries (or in another alternative five to six decades) prior to the formation of the Achaemenian state, Gnoli emphasizes that the new “super-national” religion “zoroastrianized” the Aryan-ness of its believers, hence paving the way for the formation of even stronger and extra-national awareness of some of the inhabitants in the Achaemenian state.
The third chapter of the book, “The 'Aryan' Tradition until Alexander the Great,” is the continuation of the discussion of the previous two chapters. In this section, the author rejects the popular theory of the north-south migration of the Medes and Persians in the late second and early first millennium B.C. and argues that the direction of the migration — and this was a gradual penetration of the Airyan population over centuries — was east-west, to and then beyond the western edges of Iranian Sistan, hence the connection between the Airyans of the east and the Aryans of the west.
There is therefore a distinction between “Aryas” and “Irano-Aryans” on the great plateau: the former refers to the Medes, the Persians, and the Avestan Airyas whereas the latter describes all the Indo-Iranian peoples that lived on the plateau and spoke one of the Indo-Iranian languages.
Then, Gnoli clarifies that the connection of the Medes, the Persians, and the Airyas of the Avesta was not merely linguistic and ethnical; it was moreover religious because the religion of the Younger Avesta was modified (very likely over a course of three to four centuries) into the western and later the Achaemenian Mazdeism (i.e. a state religion) that was in line with the political ideas of the Persians.
His next chapter, “The 'Aryan' Tradition under the Seleucids and the Arsacids,” explores the continuity of and change in the awareness of Aryan-ness among the inhabitants of the great plateau. He readily dismisses the probability of an “Empire of the Aryans” during the Arsacid period and shows that having come from outside the Aryan people and tradition, the Parni marked a break in the Aryan tradition that was characteristic of the self-rule of the native peoples of the Iranian plateau.
Yet, this is not all: in fact, the Arsacids, having gone through a process of acculturation (one might even suspect an unconscious, self-imposed deculturation), thought of themselves as Parthian, claimed Achaemenian origin, and preserved Zarathustricism from falling into obscurity. Therefore, as much as it is paradoxical to conceive a philhellenic dynasty like the Arsacids of being implicitly conscious of an Aryan tradition, it is historic to consider the Arsacids as an important link in the chain that runs from the inception of Media until the Sassanians.
At last, Gnoli closes the chapter with two significant observations: (1) that by the Sassanian period there existed no historic memory of the Medes, the Achaemenians, and the Arsacids in Iranian national history, and (2) that in Fars, the southwest region on the Iranian plateau home to the ancient Achaemenians and the subsequent Sassanian kings, there existed some conception of Aryan-ness.
In his last chapter, “The Sassanians and the Birth of Iran,” Gnoli deals with the emergence of the politicized conception of Aryan-ness among the Sassanians and the inhabitants of their empire. The introduction of the all-encompassing royal title ShahanShah Iran on the one hand and Iranshahr, as the Sassanian state that is being inhabited mostly by Aryans, on the other shows the extent to which the notion of Aryan-ness, which we might now call Iranian-ness, was propagated during this period.
There are two possible reasons for this. First and perhaps most important was the Sassanian political propaganda through which they, by virtue of their Aryan origin and adoption of Zarathustricism as the state religion, emphasized their right to power against their hellenized predecessors who were after all under the influence of Greek culture and tradition; it was through the same process that the image of the “Greek” Alexander was demonized permanently throughout the width and breadth of Iranshahr.
The second reason, which can be deduced but is most difficult to have hard evidence for, is the socio-cultural transformation of the majority of the peoples on the Iranian plateau. This explains that the conception among the peoples of Iranshahr of Iran and their Aryan link, if not origin, was not a superficial one, and it in actuality existed in the mind of the citizen of the Iranshahr.
Gnoli employs in his study the works of a great number of historians so much so that one suspects whether there is any literature that was left out in his research. His primary sources for his study of the idea of Iran in the early first millennium B.C. up until the fall of the Achaemenians includes the Avesta and the Elamite and Old Persian inscriptions along with such Greek sources as Herodotus and Damascius. He also compares terms such as arya with its equal Sanskrit versions and roots.
For the period from the Alexanderian conquest until the decline of the Sassainans, he uses the Middle Persian texts and inscriptions, the contemporary Avestan literature, and the Greek and Roman accounts of the Iranian history. He further shows his familiarity with the Arabic, the modern Persian, and the Hebrew texts and uses them invariably to further his points.
The range of the utilization of his secondary material is wide as well. He brings into account the literature produced by scholars in Germany, France, the US, Iran, and certainly Italy. He furthermore builds on what he has studied thus far in his previous essays and monographs.
Generally speaking, his use of these texts, whether primary or secondary, is pertinent to the subject he covers in the book, and he takes a relevant position to his theme and either accepts the previously developed arguments or refutes them. In the latter case, he consistently shows why he rejects certain theories and analysis — which, to use his wording, are based on improbable generalizations.
Gnoli's organization is immaculate. He works his idea through different stages of ancient Iranian history and illustrates how the concept of Iranism developed linearly in time. His flawless organization goes hand in hand with the wealth information he is presenting in each chapter on every topic that he discusses.
Further, his presentation shows the extensive research that was undertaken on the part of the author to produce this book. It is impossible not to commend him for introducing a half a dozen of relevant studies on every other, if not on every single, page and for summarizing the main points and relevant discussions of each.
Yet, Gnoli does not only refer to other scholars' works. He refers the reader to his own previous studies and at times refutes his own statements that were made years ago. This imparts the soundness of his present argument. Nonetheless, the serious student of Iranian history would lament the absence of an index at the end of the book to enable him to readily look up a given name or topic.
In addition, direct quotations from the original texts, whether primary or secondary, without any translation or English paraphrase presume extensive language skills, which might not be easy to deal with. Besides that, the translation of the book from the Italian, while conveying the meanings of the text, contributes to its obscurity with long sentences, bad word choice and sentence structure, and syntactical problems.
What Gnoli concludes is that Iran, “as an idea with political connotations”, “cannot go back further than the reign of Araxshir I [225-240 A.D.]” but Iran or Aryan-ness “as a definition which is to some extent ethnical and as a religious idea” dates back to the early first millennium B.C (175). Therefore, Gnoli makes a clear distinction between a conscious political awareness of being of Aryan origin and an innate cultural, religious, and linguistic connection to a unit of people who in early first millennium B.C. called themselves of Aryan stock.
This book as a major research in Iranian studies is indispensable, for it explores the twin, and at times paradoxically complementary, processes of change and continuity in Iranian history. Change because geographic Iran and the basis of its political structure were anything but certain; continuity because it retained to some extent some measure of cultural, religious, linguistic, and even in a broad sense ethnic stability throughout its history.