A brief history of names
Superficial isolated discussions about the name
of the Persian Gulf are misplaced
December 20, 2004
Many Iranians from all stripes, fascists, monarchists,
nationalists, reformists, liberals, even some leftists, and some
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
words "Arabian Gulf" next to "Persian Gulf".
Thus a campaign to convince the world that the true name is the Persian
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.
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).
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
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.
is a Turkic name (K¸i = riverbank + ev = settlement).
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
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.
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.
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.