Prince of Persia Strikes Back

Revisionism in both nationalist and anti-nationalist camps


Prince of Persia Strikes Back
by Sara Mashayekh

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.



From a pure persian-Iranian nationalist

by Iraniandudee3 on

I don't agree with this guy, especially about bigotry in Iran, since most of the ethnic groups get along fine and even intermarry eachother all the time in Iranian cities.


First of all, aryan just means noble and was refered to the Persian people cause they were considered as a noble people during the times of the Persian empires by others and ourselves also, second, We can't build nationalism on such an identity, since it's not an actual identity, but by using this to refer to our identity you're just making people more confused. I'm not saying don't use it at all, if you have to use then do but atleast use Persian or Iranian to refer to your main identity and base your nationalistic ideologies on that and build upon it, rather than "Aryan", since Iranians-persians aren't the only supposed "Aryans" so that sort of nationalism would be not only weak and divided but also fragile on many levels.


Btw, you wanna see how Iranians looked during the old days? just take a look at the statues in Perspolis and pasargad, they look like your average Iranians today with the same features, how hard is that? if anything, the arabs probabely have more persian blood then them since we ruled the mid-east for a thousand years, and don't you think in all that time our kings and soldiers didn't marry Arab women and other mid-eastern folks? Just look at Pakistan, there's a reason why they are light skinned even though most of them are from the same racial group as the Indians (Dravadians)


Further more, i left many things out cause I wrote this reply in a hurry.


Thanks Mimi, I understand

by Ashavan on

Thanks Mimi,

I understand now your point and you are right.  I also agree with you on the article of Mr Zia-Ebrahimi, which is just there for attention seeking. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to explain, how seriously he wouldn't see the woods for the trees.

But I found the article of Sara Mashayekh a very good counter to Zia-Ebrahimi to invalid his point.




by mimi.shishi on

Aziz, seems like you are the one jumping to conclusions, I DID read both this article and the article by Zia Ebrahimi it was replying to... and I DO get emotional when I read these articles from attention seeking scholars, who for the most part reside in their western cocoons and then start analyzing Iran, for no other reason but that no one takes them seriously if they use their intellect to analyze their   immediate western surroundings, so they need to blabber on and on about Iran and point out its many defects to be taken seriously by those western eyes they sooooo want to be accredited by, so they have to give them what they want to hear to make them feel better about themselves. The article goes on length to prove something that is evident, that Arya and Aryan have NOTHING to do with Hitler's  Supremecy theory...DUH! Did we need to read an article to know Hitler was born 2500 years after?!!These people are deaf and dumb to the VERY REAL racism existing today in western countries where they live and yet are  ignorant enough and  have the audacity to call one of the most tolerant nations racist!!! A nation in which not a SINGLE SOUL has EVER BEEN murdered based on the color of the skin or  lynched or NEVER has had 'segregated public areas' based on skin color in it's 7500 years of history!  Please save your articles to point to the direction of REAL racism which only went underground in the past couple of decades in the west and is pretty much alive and kicking today...


Read the article before getting emotional

by Ashavan on


 I really think you havent read the article at all, have you?
Why are we Iranian get hot blooded just by reading a line of a article and imagine the rest of it? ;o)

This article explains the misunderstanding of the Aryan definition through the Europeans in 19 century and that it bears no race Supremacy.  It has really nothing to do with what you thought it would say.  The article is a scientific one and is quoating very well on top of it.

Next time please read the article and then write a comment.






by mimi.shishi on

Iranian so called scholars who talk ENDLESSLY about Iranian racism, are suffering from a massive attack of 'INFERIORITY COMPLEX' and are in denial, in that they have to prove to the racist blue-eyed eurpoeans that they too are as liberal and progressive minded, not taking into context that racism never existed in Iran , due to iran's long history of being conquered ( READ RAPED) over and over again by different tribes, if you call making jokes and laughing at ourselves, or even haji firooz signs of racism you  seriously need to see a therapist! when was the last time people were burnt in death camps a la auschwitz in iran b/c of their skin color?!! when was the last time people were lynched in iran b/c of their skin color? when was the last time that people were not allowed to sit in a bus b/c of their skin color in Iran?!! when has skin color ever been a problem in our national memory?!!! you ask me how come?!! simply b/c the majority of Iranians never had  ivory white skin and blue eyes, get real folks!! and why is it that these super sensitive 'scholars' on racism ONLY converse about it in english?!!! how come there are no evidence of racism in iran?!!....get off your high horses and stop looking at your self through the lenses of the western blue eyed mind set who finds fault in anything oriental in an attempt to cover their own atrocities,  the same blue-eyed people you SOOO badly want to identify with...only then will  you see the true beauty of Iran.


Excellent article

by Ashavan on

Sara, this was an excellent article.

I agree on most of your points.  It is senseless to become racist toward anyone. Racism is a sense of weakness in my point of view.

I also totally agree that Aryans were in the recorded Persian history as you have perfectly presented. In fact it is the Europeans that distorted the Aryan into being "Blond and blue eyes" from what it really was.  There were Aryans, but there were none-blond. As simple as that.  There is nothing racists to say our roots goes back to Aryans, neither shall it be understood as a racial superiority, it is a simple fact. But it doesnt also change the fact that most of us don't take a shower every day, we don't tolerate other point of views and have less respect for women. hence it doesnt make us superior.

Nonetheless I am suprised that you claim between your lines that the nationalist, such as my self claiming to be liberal nationalist, are racists. I have never come across any racist article written by liberal nationaists. In contrary I think there is very little done to understand our past.

Islamic Republic has tried since 32 years to eliminate our Persian roots. Just recently Ahmadinejad reduced Noruz holidays by three days to add it to Islamic Fetr holiday, why? how about Mullahs resistance to Charshanbe Suri? Check Youtube for Khalkhali speech against that festival. etc etc

By understanding our history, who we were and who we are now, is incredibly helpful to find a future path. I am sure you would agree with me that most Iranians do not know their history and their roots. By knowing the history, only then we know what Mullahs and Islam did to us. And how we have to find the strengths to fight this forced superstitions and to wake up.

Thank you for your article,



It's just an entertainming

by RapSound on

It's just an entertainming movie . . .

Darius Kadivar

FYI/ Georges Dumezil on Indo European languages and Myths (1984)

by Darius Kadivar on

Probably the greatest authority in academia on the subject:

HISTORY OF IDEAS: Georges Dumezil, on Indo European languages and Myths (Apostrophes,1984)