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Our place in history
The world is discovering the contributions of the Iranians to humanity, and high time you did too



Shahriar Mostarshed
December 7, 2006

I just discovered your article "Not that special: Persia and Persians before and after Islam" and I was struck at how contrary to the established facts, it was, especially with regards to Pre Islamic Iran.

First a misconception, that has confused many, and judging from your article, you too. Iranians have always referred to their land as Iran, the land of Aryans, but Westerners have always referred to it as Persia, since their Greek and Roman sources referred to Iran as persis or the land of the parsian. Reza Shah, did not like the fact that the British referred to Iran as Persia and wanted to change the international name for Persia to Iran. This would be equivalent to the English insisting that we call their country England and not Engelestan. Needless to say, his attempt failed and has caused confusion, the world over.

In Western literature the Persians are the Achamanid and the Sassanid and are distinct from the Parthians. The country of Iran after Islam is called Persia with no attachment to the pre-Islamic meaning. To complicate matters more, we call our language Farsi (Arabized for Parsi) but in English it is Persian and there is no substitute for it, although the seemingly enlightened want to call it Farsi (Bill Gates being one).

The Aryans or the Indo Europeans were large groupings of people who migrated from the Euro-Asian steppe to the various countries (India, Iran, Armenia, Greece, Italy, the area know as Eastern Europe and as far North as England and Ireland). The Iranians were the largest of these groupings which included the Persians, the Medes, the Scythians, the Sarmatians, the Massagetae, the Saka, and the the Parthians who belonged to the Scythian stock. They were warriors who introduced the horse into the Middle East and introduced the concept of savaran or the cavalry as an organized force for combat. Till late into the Sassanid dynasty, the position of the Savaran was esteemed highly and only the nobility, of Aryan descent, were allowed to join in.

The reason the Parthians have never been known as Persians or mentioned in the context of the Persian Empire is because they were not Persian in the tribal sense. They were Iranians, who defended the integrity of the Iranian plateau and of Mesopotamia or the land between waters, known as Arak to Persians (meaning low lands in Persian; Araqh in Arabic) for 500 years against the Roman Empire. The very first empire, on the plateau, started about 100 years before Cyrus the Persian created his, and belonged to the Medes. The Greeks referred to it as the Median Empire and, out of disrespect for the Persians, referred to the Persian Empire as the Median Empire for quite some time after Cyrus had established his empire.

Your assessment of the influence of the Iranians on the rest of civilization is also in error. Zoroastrianism, the first monotheistic religion which may have originated amongst the Parni (the Parthians) as early as 1500 B.C., influenced the Greek, redefined Judaism in the 3rd century B.C., influenced Christianity and Islam. Mithraism, which was the official religion of the Roman Empire before 350 AD, was an Iranian influence, through the Parthians. The military practices of the Iranians, the Achamenids , the Sassanids, and of the Parthians set the military standards for the known world at the time, and also for the medieval European nations, over a thousand years later.

What little is known of the Sassanids and the Achamenids, indicates that both courts had a lot of interest in the fine arts and embraced the high culture of the time (it is hard to say what they contributed since very little evidence of it, survives). What evidence does survive indicates that the art known as Christian art or the medieval art originated from the art of the Sassanid era. Hymn singing and candle light vigils made it over to Christianity from Zoroastrianism.

The Iranians were known as the inventors of civil engineering, and invented many of the techniques for building structures which survive to this day. The dome which made it into the Arab masjid and the arched support, which the Romans had not discovered, was also Iranian in origin. Evidence for other material advancements such as production of perfumes, jewelry and artifacts exist.

Evidence also exists for highly sophisticated orchestral arrangements and theater from the late Sassanid period. No books or direct evidence, from pre Islamic Iran exists, because the Arabs did not think anything outside of the word of the Koran needed to be said and destroyed all books, which were concentrated in a few literary centers (proliferation of books was not common place as the loss in the library of Alexandria proved; all the books perished without the possibility of replacements).

The height of philosophical achievement in pre Islamic Iran can be found in the teachings of Mazdak (the first socialist uprising) and Mani. Building highways and bridges and a mail courier system were Iranian, which the Romans utilized efficiently. Car and van are both derived from the Persian word caravan, which facilitated bulk movement of merchandise over an entire continent, with regular stops known as caravan sara.

The History Channel presented a documentary, recently, on this topic which I hope you watched, because it seems to me it would benefit you immensely. Here is the introduction to the program:

“The Persian Empire was one of the most mysterious civilizations in the ancient world. Persia became an empire under the Cyrus the Great, who created a policy of religious and cultural tolerance that became the hallmark of Persian rule. Engineering feats include an innovative system of water management; a cross-continent paved roadway stretching 1500 miles; a canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea; and the creation of one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Mausoleum of Maussollos. The rivalry between Persia and Athens led to a 30-year war known as the Persian Wars, the outcome of which helped create the world we live in today. Peter Weller hosts.”

So you can stop flogging yourself. What little evidence there is, suggests an Iran full of culture and humanities with world wide contribution and influence. The world is discovering the contributions of the Iranians to humanity, and high time you did too.

In passing, and for historical correctness I have put the existence of culture on the Iranian plateau and Mesopotamia, into perspective. The non semite Sumerian culture of 6000 years ago, probably the most advanced ever, predates the Greeks, the Egypcians and the Chinese. After moving North West from their original settlements at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, they came into contact with the semite people of Akkad . The constant wars between Sumer, Akad and non semite Elamites (Ilam; on the Iranian plateau), resulted in the destruction of the Sumerian civilization, but gave birth to the Babylonian culture.

The Indo European Hittites, from present day Turkey, took over Babylon but then it fell into the hands of the Cassites form the Iranian plateau from 1800 to about 1200 B.C. The Assyrians who had been overshadowed by Sumer and Akkad, subdued the kingdom of Babylon from about 900 B.C. The Assyrians then gave way to the Medes, the new masters of the middle East. Babylonians were not a race but a mix of peoples which included Sumerians, Akkadians, Elamites, Cassites, and Hittites.

All of that predates the Persian Empire and the Greek Civilization which you compare with Egyptian, Chinese and Babylonian civilizations. Each has its own place in history and has its share of contributions to humanity. One could not have achieved as much without exchange with the other. The value of the contribution for each civilization is the legacy it leaves behind and the world is now becoming aware of the Iranian share of it.

Your brief account of the history of Iran after Islam, is also flawed. During the Arab invasion, it was Arab racism, especially directed towards Iranians, that was rampant. Arabs considered it beneath themselves to work and all the specialized technical work of the Arab empire was assigned to Iranians. The so called Arab numerals are Persian in origin and the concept of Zero, which is now contributed to Arabs, was also a Persian invention. The Arabian, the world renowned horse, was of Iranian origin known as the Nissian horse and was bred originally by the Medes in the city of Nisa.

After Abu Muslim toppled the last of the Bani Ummayeh Khalifs and fascilitated the Bani Abbas Khalifet, Iranian influence initiated the relocation of the capital city of the Arab Empire from Damascus to an area in Iraq close to Tisphoon (the Parthian and Sassanid capital city). A city was built called Baghdad or Bagheh Dad which in Persian means The Garden of Justice. It was in this garden that most of what became known as Muslim science, philosophy and literature was developed, by Iranians.

After all the killing and the slave taking was over (Iranian men and women were being sold in the slave markets of Mecca and Damascus), whole tribes of Arabs were relocated to Iran to force the Arab culture and language on Iranians. One of the large population centers for Arabs was ironically, Qom. Within one generation, the Arabs became the new Iranians and were absorbed by the Iranian culture. So the only point you are right about is that after Islam a monolithic Iranian race did not exist anymore, but what you are wrong about, is that a multifaceted Iranian culture did survive which, btransformed the Mongols and the Turks who followed Arabs, into the new Iranians, and which is the back bone of the identity of every Iranian national, today.

This was not a new culture, invented by Reza Shah or borrowed from the West. It was purely Iranian in origin that had become de-emphasized after the enforcement of the Shiite doctrine in Iran, since the 15th century. So you can, ignorantly say that Iran became westernized in the twentieth century, or that the West became Iranized, a long time ago, and that Iran found its own identity for a brief period in the 20th century.

By the way, the word trouser, which is Scottish, refers to another Persian invention the pajameh (literally leg dress), which is the origin of the word pajama. Comment




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