A short history of the Iranians
October 30, 2003
From "The Iranians" by Bernard Lewis
published in 2001 by Tel Aviv University's Mushe Dayan
Center. Lewis is Professor of Near Eastern
Studies at Princeton University. His most recent books are The
Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror and What
Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response.
Thanks to Mahvash Shahegh for emailing this article.
attempting to attain some perspective on Iran in history, I begin, as
I think one must, with the Arab-Islamic conquests in the seventh
century-that series of epoch-making events following the advent
of Islam, the mission of the Prophet Muhammad
and the carrying of his message to vast areas
east and west from Arabia, and the incorporation
of many lands, from the Atlantic and the Pyrenees to the
borders of India and China and beyond, into the new Arab-Islamic empire.
events have been variously seen in Iran: by some as a
blessing, the advent of the true faith, the end of the age of
ignorance and heathenism; by others as a humiliating national
defeat, the conquest and subjugation of the country by foreign invaders.
perceptions are of course valid, depending on one's angle of
What I would like first to bring to your attention
is a significant and indeed remarkable difference between what
happened in Iran
what happened in all the other countries of the Middle East
Africa that were conquered by the Arabs and incorporated in
the Islamic caliphate in the seventh and eighth centuries.
other countries of ancient civilization, Iraq, Syria, Egypt,
North Africa, were Islamized and Arabized
in a remarkably short
Their old religions were either abandoned entirely or dwindled
small minorities; their old languages almost disappeared. Some
survived in scriptures and liturgies, some were still spoken
in a few
remote villages, but in most places, among most people, the previous
languages were forgotten, the identities expressed in those languages
were replaced, and the ancient civilizations of Iraq, Syria,
Egypt gave way to what we nowadays call the Arab world.
Iran was indeed Islamized, but it was not Arabized.
Persians. And after an interval of silence, Iran reemerged as
separate, different and distinctive element within Islam, eventually
adding a new element even to Islam itself. Culturally, politically,
and most remarkable of all even religiously, the Iranian contribution
to this new Islamic civilization is of immense importance.
of Iranians can be seen in every field of cultural endeavor,
including Arabic poetry, to which poets of Iranian origin composing
their poems in Arabic made a very significant contribution.
sense, Iranian Islam is a second advent of Islam itself, a
sometimes referred to as Islam-i Ajam. It was this Persian
Islam, rather than the original Arab Islam, that was brought
and new peoples: to the Turks, first in Central Asia and then
Middle East in the country which came to be called Turkey,
course to India.
The Ottoman Turks brought a form of Iranian
civilization to the walls of Vienna. A seventeenth-century Turkish
visitor who went to Vienna as part of an Ottoman embassy, notes
curiosity that the language which they speak in Vienna is a corrupt
form of Persian. He had of course observed the basic Indo-European
kinship between Persian and German, and the fact that the Germans
say ist and the Persians say ast, almost the same thing, for the
be," present indicative third-person singular.
By the time of the great Mongol invasions of the
Iranian Islam had become not only an important component; it
become a dominant element in Islam itself, and for several
the main centers of Islamic power and civilization were in
that were, if not Iranian, at least marked by Iranian civilization.
For a while this supremacy was challenged by the
last center of power
in the Arab world, the Mamluk Sultanate based in Egypt. But
last stronghold disappeared, after the contest between the
Persians and the Ottomans to decide which should conquer Egypt
success in what might call the preliminary elimination bout.
Islam under Arab sovereignty survived only in Arabia and in
remote outposts like Morocco.
The center of the Islamic world
Turkish and Persian states, both shaped by Iranian culture.
centers of Islam in the late medieval and early modern periods,
centers of both political and cultural power, such as India,
Asia, Iran, Turkey, were all part of this Iranian civilization.
Although much of it spoke various forms of Turkish, as well
local languages, their classical and cultural language was
Persian. Arabic was of course the language of scripture and
law, but Persian
was the language of poetry and literature.
The Iranian Exception
Why this difference? Why is it that while the ancient civilizations
of Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, were submerged and forgotten, that
survived, and reemerged in a different form?
Various answers have been offered to this question. One suggestion
that the difference is language. The peoples of Iraq, Syria,
Palestine, spoke various forms of Aramaic. Aramaic is a Semitic
language related to Arabic, and the transition from Aramaic to
was much easier than would have been the transition from Persian,
Indo-European language, to Arabic.
There is some force in that
argument. But then Coptic, the language of Egypt, was not a
Semitic language either, yet this did not impede the Arabization
Coptic survived for a while among the Christians, but eventually
even among them, except as a liturgical language used in the
of the Coptic Church.
Some have seen this difference as due to the possession by the
Persians of a superior culture. A higher culture absorbs a lower
culture. They quote as a parallel the famous Latin dictum: "conquered
Greece conquers its fierce conquerors"-in other words the
adopt Greek culture.
It is a tempting but not convincing parallel.
The Romans conquered and ruled Greece, as the Arabs conquered
ruled Iran, but the Romans learned Greek, they admired Greek
civilization, they read, translated, imitated Greek books. The
did not learn Persian, the Persians learned Arabic. And the direct
Persian literary influence on Arabic is minimal and came only
Perhaps a closer parallel would be what happened in England after
1066, the conquest of the Anglo-Saxons by the Normans, and the
transformation of the Anglo-Saxon language under the impact of
French into what we now call English.
There are interesting parallels
between the Norman conquest of England and the Arab conquest
Iran-a new language, created by the breakdown and simplification
the old language and the importation of an enormous vocabulary
words from the language of the conquerors; the creation of
a new and
compound identity, embracing both the conquerors and the conquered.
remember as a small boy at school in England learning about
the Norman conquest, and being taught somehow to identify with
sides-with a new legitimacy created by conquest, which in the
Iran, though not of course of England, was also buttressed
by a new
religion based on a new revelation. Most of the other conquered
peoples in Iraq, in Syria, in Egypt, also
had higher civilizations than that brought by the nomadic invaders
from the Arabian desert. Yet they were absorbed, as the Persians
not. So we may have slightly modified or restated the question;
haven't answered it.
Another perhaps more plausible explanation
the political difference, the elements of power and memory.
These other states conquered by the Arabs-Iraq, Syria, Palestine,
the rest-were long-subjugated provinces of empires located
elsewhere. They had been conquered again and again; they had undergone
then political, then cultural, and then religious transformations,
long before the Arabs arrived there. In these places, the
Arab-Islamic conquest meant yet one more change of masters,
more change of teachers.
This was not the case in Iran. Iran
been conquered by Alexander, and formed part of the great Hellenistic
Empire-but only briefly. Iran was never conquered by Rome,
and therefore the cultural impact of Hellenistic civilization in
much less than in the countries of the Levant, Egypt and North
Africa, where it was buttressed, sustained and in a sense imposed
through the agency of Roman imperial power.
The Hellenistic impact
Iran in the time of Alexander and his immediate successors
doubt considerable, but it was less deep and less enduring
the Mediterranean lands, and it was ended by a resurgence,
national, political and religious, and the rebirth of an Iranian
polity under the Parthians and then the Sasanids. A new empire
in Iran which was the peer and the rival of the empires of
later of Byzantium.
This meant that at the time of the Arab conquest and immediately
after, the Persians, unlike their neighbors in the West, were
sustained by recent memories, one might even say current memories,
power and glory. This sense of ancient glory, of pride in identity,
comes out very clearly in Persian writings of the Islamic period,
written that is to say in Islamic Persian in the Arabic script,
a large vocabulary of Arabic words.
We see the difference in
of ways: in the emergence of a kind of national epic poetry,
has no parallel in Iraq or Syria or Egypt or any of these other
places; and in the choice of personal names. In the Fertile
Crescent and westwards, the names that parents gave their children
names from the Qur'an or from pagan Arabia-Ali, Muhammad, Ahmad,
the like. These names were also used in Iran among Muslim Persians.
But in addition, they used distinctively Persian names: Khusraw,
Shapur, Mehyar and other names derived from a Persian past-a
Persian past, that of the Sasanids, but nevertheless Persian.
not find Iraqis calling their sons Nebuchadnezzar or Sennacherib,
Egyptians calling their sons Tutankhamen or Amenhotep. These
civilizations were indeed dead and forgotten.
The Persian sense
pride did not rest on a history retained and remembered,
because their history too, except for the most recent chapters,
forgotten, no less than the ancient glories of Egypt and
that they had was myth and saga; a sketchy memory of only
recent chapters of the pre-Islamic history of Iran, none
at all of
the earlier periods.
The Islamic view of history may serve as an explanation of this-why
does one bother to study history, what is the importance of history?
History is the record of the working out of God's purpose for
humanity, and from a Muslim, particularly a Sunni Muslim point
view, it has a special importance as establishing the precedents
the Prophet, the Companions and the early "rightly-guided" rulers
Islam, who set the pattern of correct law and behavior.
course that the only history that matters is Muslim history,
history of picturesque barbarians in remote places, even of
picturesque barbarians who may happen to be one's ancestors,
moral or religious value, and is therefore not worth retaining.
the time the Persians recovered their voice, after the Islamic
conquest, they had lost their memory-though not, as we shall
The history of ancient Iran prior to the Sasanids, the immediate
predecessors of Islam, was obliterated by successive changes.
language was replaced by Muslim Persian, the ancient scripts
forgotten and replaced by the Arabic script modified to suit
phonetic needs. The old language and script survived among the
dwindling minority who remained faithful to the Zoroastrian religion,
but that was of little importance.
Even the personal names to
alluded a moment ago were forgotten, except for the most recent.
Thus, for example, the name of Cyrus, in modern times acclaimed
the greatest of the ancient Persian kings, was forgotten. The
Persians remembered the name of Alexander in the form Iskandar,
they did not remember the name of Cyrus. Alexander was remembered
better among the Persians than were the Persian kings against
Iran, Greeks and Jews
What little information survived about ancient Iran was that
was recorded by two peoples, the Jews and the Greeks, the only
peoples active in the ancient Middle East who preserved their
memories, their voices and their languages. Both the Greeks and
Jews remembered Cyrus; the Persians did not. The Greeks and the
alone provided such information as existed about ancient Iran
comparatively modern times, when the store of information was
increased by Orientalists, that is to say European archeologists
philologists who found a way to recover the ancient texts and
decipher the ancient scripts.
Let me pause for a moment to look at the image of Iran as preserved
in the Bible and the Greek classics, that is to say, as preserved
the Jews and the Greeks. The Greek view, as one would expect,
dominated by the long struggles, beginning with the Persian invasion
of Greece and culminating in the great Greek counter-attack by
Alexander. This is a major theme in ancient Greek historiography;
contrast between Greek democracy and Persian autocracy also forms
important theme of Greek political writings.
But despite the
that the history was mainly one of conflict, the tone of ancient
Greek writing about Persia is mostly respectful, and sometimes
compassionate, notably for example in the play The Persians by Aeschylus, himself a veteran of the Persian wars, who shows
compassion for the defeated Persian enemy.
The Bible gives us a uniquely positive picture of ancient Iran,
literature which does not normally deal indulgently with strangers,
nor even with its own people. The earliest occurrences of the
Persia, Paras, are in the Book of Ezekiel, where Paras is listed
along with other exotic and outlandish names to indicate the
limits of the known world.
Paras has something like the significance
of ultima thule in modern usage. The name makes a
more dramatic appearance in the story of the writing on the
wall at Belshazzar's
feast, where the inscription Mene mene, tekel upharsin informed
hapless Babylonian monarch that he was weighed in the balances
found wanting, and that his realms would be shared by the Medes
And then of course comes Cyrus, mentioned more particularly in
later chapters of Isaiah, what the Bible critics call Deutero-Isaiah,
that part of the Book of Isaiah dating from after the Babylonian
captivity. The language used of Cyrus is little short of astonishing.
He is spoken of in the Hebrew text as God's anointed, messiah,
is accorded greater respect, not only than any other non-Jewish
ruler, but almost any Jewish ruler.
Inevitably the question arises-why? Why does the Bible speak
glowing terms of this heathen potentate? There is of course one
obvious answer, that Cyrus was, so to speak, the Balfour of his
He issued a declaration authorizing the Jews to return to their
and restore their political existence. But that doesn't really
the question; it merely restates the question. Why did he do
series of conquests had brought a multitude of ethnic groups,
say nowadays, under Persian rule, Why should Cyrus take such
on behalf of one of them? We only know the Jewish side of this,
don't know the Persian side, and one can only venture a guess
My suggestion is that there was, shall we say, a
perceived affinity, between those who professed two spiritual,
ethical religions, surrounded on all sides by ignorant polytheists
and idolaters. One can see this sense of affinity in the latest
of the Old Testament, and also in subsequent Jewish writings.
notes for example a number of Persian words, some already in
Bible, many more in the post-Biblical Jewish literature.
This encounter between Iranian religion and Jewish religion was
far-reaching significance in world history. We can discern
unmistakable traces of Persian influence, both intellectual and
material, on the development of post-exilic Jewry, and therefore
of Christendom, and corresponding influence in the late Greco-Roman
and Byzantine world, and therefore ultimately in Europe.
Let me just take a few examples, first on the practical side.
early Arabic sources tell us that the Persians invented a new
for riding, a device called the stirrup, previously unknown.
easily see why this device, which revolutionized transport,
communications and also warfare, created so great an impression.
mounted soldier in armor, on an armored horse, with a lance,
launch a much more devastating charge with stirrups than without
them, when he was in imminent danger of being dismounted. We
vivid stories, specially
from the Byzantine writers, of the advent of this new and devastating
instrument of warfare, the mounted, armored horseman, the cataphract.
stirrup also helped the Persians to develop the postal system.
Their system, described with admiration by the Greeks, consisted
a network of couriers and relay stations all over the realm. It
known in Arabic as barid, which comes of course from the Persian
burdan, meaning to carry. The post-horse was the paraveredos,
which comes the German Pferd.
Another innovation credited to
though the evidence here is conflicting, is the mill, the
use of wind
and water to generate power. This was the first and for millennia
only source of energy other than human and animal muscle.
area the Persians are accredited with the invention of board
particularly chess, which still uses a Persian terminology
and also the game which is variously known as trik-trak,
shich-besh, backgammon and other names.
We are on stronger ground in ascribing to Persians- and here
back to the theme of cultural history-the book, that is the book
the form of a codex. The Greco-Roman world used scrolls, and
so did much of the ancient Middle East. The codex, stitched and
in the form which
know as a book, seems to have originated in Iran. The cultural
of such an innovation was obviously immense.
But let me turn to what is ultimately the more important theme,
that is the influence of ideas. From Iran, from Iranian religion,
comes the concept of a cosmic struggle between almost equal forces
good and evil. The Devil, as you know, was Iranian by birth,
he is now given a local habitation and a name in the Western
The idea of a power of evil, opposite and almost
is characteristic of ancient Persian religion: Ahriman is the
predecessor of Satan, Mephistopheles, or whatever else we may
to call him. Linked with
that was the idea of judgment and retribution, of heaven and
and here I would remind you that paradise is also a Persian
para is the same as the Greek peri; peridesos in ancient Persian
means walled enclosure.
Messianism too seems to have Persian antecedents, in the doctrine
that at the end of time a figure will arise from the sacred seed
Zoroaster, who will establish all that is good on earth. It
without significance that the Messianic idea does not appear
Hebrew Bible until after the return from Babylon, that is to
after the time when the Jews came under Persian influence.
importance of messianism in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is
obvious. Linked with this is the idea and the practice of a religious
establishment-a hierarchy of priests with ranks, under the supreme
authority of the chief priest, the Mobedh Mobedhan, the Priest
Priests. And by the way, that form of title, the Priest of Priests,
the King of Kings, and the like, is characteristically Iranian.
used in many Iranian titles in antiquity; it
was adopted into Arabic: Amir al-Umara-the Amir of Amirs, Qadi
al-Qudat-the Qadi of Qadis.
Perhaps even the title of the Pope
Rome: the Servant of the Servants of God-Servus Servorum Dei-may
ascribed to indirect Iranian influence. The whole idea of a
church, not in the sense of a building, a place of worship, but
under a supreme head, may well owe a good deal to Zoroastrian
The ancient religion of Iran survives. Zoroastrianism is still
faith of small, dwindling, but not unimportant minorities, in
in Pakistan, and to some extent in Iran. They preserved the ancient
writings, in the ancient script, and a knowledge of the ancient
language, and it was these which enabled the first European
Orientalists to learn Middle Iranian and to use it to rediscover
still more ancient languages of Iran.
Iran and Shi'ism
For at least a millennium, Iran has been associated with Islam,
in the more recent centuries with Shi'ite Islam, which some have
as an expression, a reappearance of the Persian national genius
an Islamic disguise. Some have gone even further-nineteenth-century European writers like Gobineau claimed to see the triumph of
as the resurgence of the Aryanism of Iran against the Semitism
Islam. Such ideas are rather discredited nowadays, though they
popular at one time, and still have their adherents.
The difficulty about such theories is that Shi'ism, like Islam
itself, was brought to Iran by Arabs. The first Shi'ites in Iran-and
for a long time this remained so-were Arabs. The city of Qom,
stronghold and center of Iranian Shi'ism, was an Arab foundation,
the first settlers in Qom were Arabs. (I remember being taken
Qom by a Persian friend who pointed to the deserts that surround
and remarked: "Who but an Arab would build a town in a place
this?") Shi'ism was reintroduced and imposed by the Safavids
centuries later, and they, I would remind you, were Turks. Until
Iran was a largely Sunni country. But no doubt that with the
establishment of the Shi'ite Safavid state a new era began, one
distinctively Iranian Shi'ite character.
The accession of the Safavids marks a new era in Persian history
the establishment, for the first time in many centuries, of
dynastic state. The Safavids brought certain important new features.
One I have already alluded to-unity. Under the first Arab conquerors
of Iran was under one rule, that of the Caliphs situated in Medina,
then in Damascus, then in Baghdad.
But with the break-up of the
Caliphate, Iran broke up into its various regions, under local
of one kind or another. The Safavids for the first time created
united realm of Iran, more or less within its present frontiers-not
just diverse regions, Pars and Khurasan and the rest of them,
single realm with a single ruler. It has remained so ever since,
spite of the immense ethnic diversity which characterizes that
country to the present day.
If you look, for example, round the
periphery, starting in the north-west, you have the Turkish-speaking
Azarbaijanis. To the south of them are Kurds, to the south
are more Turks, the Qashqais, to the south of them, in Khuzistan
Arabs, in the south-east the Baluchis and then the Turkmen.
These form a periphery, all around the center, of peoples speaking
different non-Persian languages. Nevertheless, the culture
Persian language and the distinctive Shi'ite version of Islam
to maintain the unity that was imposed by the Safavids and
Shi'ism brought a second important feature, and that is
differentiation from all the neighbors: from the Ottomans in
west, from the central Asian states in the north-east, from the
Indian-Muslim states in the south-east. Practically all of these
Sunni states. True, Persian was used as a classical language,
literary language and even at times a diplomatic language by
three neighbors, the Ottomans, the Central Asians, and the Indians.
But the crucial difference between the Sunni and Shi'ite realms
Another interesting development of the period, particularly under
late Safavids and their successors, is the emergence of the notion
Iran. I have been using the terms Persia and Persians, to speak
the land and the people, as was customary in Western languages
recently. The name Iran is ancient, but its current use is modern.
first find the word in ancient Persian inscriptions. In the
inscription of Darius for example, in the ancient Persian language,
he describes himself as King of the Aryans.
Iran is the same
Aryan; it means "noble" in the ancient languages of
Iran and of
India. The King was the King Aryanum, which is a genitive plural,
King of the Aryans. It survives in the myths and sagas of the
medieval period, in the Shahnama and related stories of the great
struggle between Iran and Turan; it reappears in the nineteenth
century as the name of the country in common rather than official
It did not become official usage until much later, probably
under the influence of the Third Reich. The German government
time, which needed various facilities and help from Iran,
some pains to assure the people of that country that they
were Iranians, which is the same as Aryans, that they were
therefore different from and superior to all their neighbors,
that the Nuremberg Laws did not apply to them. It was at
that the name of the country, in foreign languages as well
Persian, was officially changed to Iran.
Let us look at another turning-point in history, the Islamic
Revolution, and its creation the Islamic Republic. This was indeed
revolution. The word revolution has been much used in the Middle
in modern times, to designate a whole series of coups d'itat,
revolts, assassinations, civil wars and the like. What happened
Iran, for better or for worse, was a real revolution, in the
that the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution were real
revolutions. And like them, the Iranian revolution had a tremendous
impact in all those countries with which it shares a common universe
of discourse, in other words in the Islamic world.
As with these earlier revolutions, there are contrasting views
Islamic revolution in Iran. In one of them, we see actions and
statements which have made the name of Iran, even the name of
stand for a regime of bloodthirsty bigots, maintained by tyranny
home and by terror both at home and abroad. In the other, that
they themselves prefer to present, we see an alternative diagnosis
and an alternative prescription for the ills and sufferings of
region, an alternative, that is, to the alien and infidel ways
have long prevailed, and a return to authenticity.
At the present time, with the ending of direct outside rule and
rapid diminution even of outside influence, a familiar pattern
beginning to reemerge in the Middle East. Today there are again
major powers in the region, this time the Turkish Republic and
Islamic Republic of Iran. In the sixteenth century, in the same
countries, two rival powers, the Ottoman Sultan and the Safavid
representing the Sunni and the Shi'ite versions of Islam, fought
the headship of the Islamic world.
A thousand years earlier, in the sixth century, in the same
countries, two rivals, the Byzantine emperors and the Sasanids
Iran, embodied rival civilizations and rival visions of the world.
Both Sasanids and Byzantines were conquered and overwhelmed by
Both the Ottoman Sultans and the Safavid Shahs were swept aside
new forces from outside and also from inside their realms.
Today the rivals are two regimes, both established by revolution,
both embodying certain basic ideologies, secular democracy in
Islamic theocracy in Iran. As in earlier times, neither is impervious
to the temptations of the other. In Turkey we have seen a religious
party win a fifth of the votes in a free election and play an
important role in national politics.
We do not know how many
would prefer secular democracy, since in an Islamic theocracy
are not permitted to express that preference. But from various
indications one may say that their number is not inconsiderable.
The struggle continues, within these two countries and elsewhere,
between two different versions of what was originally a common
civilization. The outcome remains far from certain.
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