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Iran Handbook: A Pre-Collegiate Guide

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Iran Handbook: A Pre-Collegiate Guide

Foreword

When we search for the roots of our common heritage, we invariably come across certain peoples whose traditions, customs, religions and cultural achievements we recognize as the foundation on which we stand today as civilized human beings. Egypt, China, India, Babylon, Chaldea, Judea, Ethiopia, Greece, Persia, Rome and many others belong to this order. Some of these civilizations exist today and in them we detect a continuity that joins our present values and beliefs to our intellectual past. Others, now extinct, are known to us through the symbols and signs of the culture and civilization they had once built. Because they interacted on many levels, these ancient peoples developed in ways that were not all too different. That is why the basic ideas and ideals we have inherited from them, ideas we wish to emulate, have so much in common.

Not unlike men and women who live long during turbulent periods, countries with long histories also experience many successes and failures. In the West, we are naturally more familiar with some of these fluctuations and not enough with others, because of our own historical continuities. The rise and fall of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, for example, are better known to us, because for centuries poets, essayists, novelists, artists and historians have emphasized the images and concepts that bind us to these civilizations. The Judeo-Christian tradition stands out as the source and system of values that bestow meaning on life and death for a majority among us. Often, however, the stronger lines that extend across history connecting us to our specific pasts obscure the cultural interactions that have nourished the values that stand out so prominently in our consciousness. Consider, for example, how deeply Judeo-Christian thought has been affected by Zoroastrian ideas of paradise and of good and evil. Or, conversely, how much of early Christianity penetrated Parthian and Sasanian Iran and affected Zoroastrian practice. And how obvious are the intellectual liaisons between Islam and Judaism, or between ancient Iranian traditions and Hindu and Buddhist lore.

By presenting Iran–A Precollegiate Handbook, the Foundation for Iranian Studies hopes to bring an example of some of these similarities–the shared components of the common human heritage–to young men and women in the United States. We believe that the wealth and diversity of traditions that are reflected in the student body of typical American high schools can potentially turn any student meeting into an important medium for intercultural dialogue. Thus, the handbook is not only intended as a source of information on Iran, but also as a means of intercultural discourse. We hope that similar handbooks on other societies and cultures will be introduced to make the program more representative.

As an idea, Iran–A Precollegiate Handbook has a long history at the Foundation and in many other learning institutions. As a project, it took definite shape during a meeting of the representatives of the Outreach Councils of Columbia University, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, University of Washington and the Foundation for Iranian Studies at the MESA conference in Toronto, Canada, in November, l988. Each of the participants had previously worked on the preparation of teaching material on Iran for use in secondary schools and was aware of the lack of pedagogical tools available to secondary school teachers. They concluded that there was a need for a comprehensive packet of basic information and guidelines and agreed to act as a coordinating committee to help launch the project. The Foundation for Iranian Studies was designated as the organization responsible for the production and distribution of the handbook. A list of collaborators for various sections was drawn and Charlotte Albright accepted to edit the entire packet.

I asked Ms. Nazi Heyat to accept the task of raising funds from the Iranian community in Washington, D.C. to support the preparation of the handbook–a mission she took on with grace and performed with alacrity and success. Ms. Heyat also contacted a friend in Iran who provided us with copies of a current map which she purchased and donated to the project.

Mr. James A. Blair of the National Geographic kindly agreed to show hundreds of the slides he had taken in Iran in the 1970s and helped me select the twenty images that represent the various aspects of the country and its people. He then followed through with the National Geographic and helped us obtain permission to use copies of the slides for inclusion in the handbook.

Mr. Iraj Gorgin produced the audio-tape with samples of Persian classical, folk and popular music and readings in Persian and English of samples of poetry.

Mr. Hossein Tabnak, a foremost Iranian calligrapher, presented the project with samples of his work, representing the alphabet, popular American names, and appropriate greetings and salutations, to be used or copied by students in classrooms. Mr. Fred Assa drew the emblem and pictures in the Noruz section.

Copies of Ms. Badri Borghei’s painting of the haft-seen (a collection of seven items starting with the letter s, constituting an important component of the Iranian new year ceremony) were purchased by the Foundation for Iranian Studies for inclusion in the Noruz segment.

I wish to thank coordinating committee members Sandra Batmanghlitch, Mary Martin and Latifeh Yarshater, whose principled and diligent cooperation made this work possible. On their behalf, I would like to thank all the artists, writers and scholars who contributed to the preparation of this handbook and the supporters of the project, without whose intellectual and financial contributions we would not have been able to accomplish this task.

Our special thanks to Professor Ehsan Yarshater who read the history section and to Professors Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Brian Spooner who read the entire work and offered a number of useful suggestions.

My deepest personal thanks to Charlotte Albright for her patience, hard work and understanding. It has been a pleasure working with her and I hope our cooperation will continue in the future on similar projects of mutual interest.

The present packet is part of an ongoing project. We are aware that there may be shortcomings in the presentation or the selection of topics or other aspects of the work at hand. We welcome suggestions from teachers, users, students and other interested persons and hope to improve the packet with time and with the feedback we will receive from the actual classroom use of the material.
Mahnaz Afkhami
Project Director

How to use materials

These units on Iran are designed to be used by middle school students. With teacher preparation, however, students in elementary and high schools will find materials useful as well.

Each of the units on geography, history, literature, and so forth, in this handbook is designed to stand alone. That is, the teacher and students can use and understand the unit of religion without having to read each of the other units. In some cases we have cross referenced material in the units.

Additionally, most of these units are designed to take one or two days to complete. The exception to this rule is the unit on history. Since Iran’s history spans several thousand years, compressing it into four pages including illustrations would have resulted in a unit too superficial to be worth reading. Hence, it is longer.

For several topics, we have presented two versions of the units: one for teachers and one for students. Throughout the handbook, materials for students are printed on white paper and materials for teachers are on blue paper. The teachers’ versions of the units are intended to go into more detail on the topic at hand.

Along with the units for students and teachers, several enrichment items have been included in the Handbook. These are a wall map of Iran, 20 slides with descriptions, and a tape. the tape contains readings in the original Persian and the English translation of some of the poems in the literature units as well as the musical exampples referred to in the music unit.

A note on terminology: Until the twentieth century, English speakers referred to the country we now call Iran as Persia. Iranians called the country Iran for hundreds of years and, finally, in the twentieth century, made Iran the official name for the country. Nonetheless, many people, Iranians included, still prefer to call Iran “Persia”. Both names are correct and both are used in the units in this Handbook, depending on the preference of the author. Likewise, both adjectives Iranian and Persians are correct.

And a note on the Handbook on the Web. The handbook on the Web is not yet complete. The student sections need to be coordinated with accompanying slides, descriptions, and music for internet use. That is why in most cases they are not yet uploaded. They will be completed and made ready for Internet use shortly.

Physical Geography

Charlotte Albright

Iran is a land of varied climate and topography. It varies from mountains to flatlands, from wet and tropical to arid salt desert. Iranian compensate for aridity of much of the country by surrounding their houses with gardens filled with cyprus trees, fruit trees, and rose gardens and city streets are lined with shade trees where possible.

Iranians who have come to the United States to live say that our southwest reminds them of home. That is, parts of New Mexico and Arizona remind them on Iran. Let’s get a more accurate mental picture of Iran by learning something about its physical geography- elevation, rainfall, and so forth.

Teacher

Where is Iran?

Look at a map of Asia and Iran. You will see that it is located in the southwestern corner. Refer to a small map in this unit (Illustration 1) to see the modern boundaries of Iran. You can see that Iran has many neighbors. Starting in the north of Iran and moving clockwise, Iran’s neighbors are the Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan (from what used to be the Soviet Union), Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Turkey. Iran is also bordered by the Caspian Sea in the north and the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to the south. Iran covers 636,294 square miles (1,648,000 kilometers). That means Iran is more than twice the size of Texas.

Topography

The north and west borders of Iran are quite mountainous (see illustration 2). Several peaks are over 14,000 feet high and Mt. Damavand, which lies between the Caspian Sea and the capital Tehran, is 18, 375 feet high). Much of the interior of the country is a plateau lying above 3,000 feet. Almost all of the cities in Iran are within sight of some mountain range and most of the farming is done in the mountain valleys or in the broad plains closest to the mountains, where irrigation is possible.

In the central part of the country are two large basins covering an area of over 300,000 square miles, or over half the land area of Iran. These inhospitable places are very hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and sometimes covered with salt deposits left by the evaporation of ancient lakes. In some places the basin are only 1000 ft. above sea level.

Precipitation

As you know, when clouds are blown of oceans onto land, they often drop most of the moisture they contain when they run into the mountains. With this information in the mind, you might suspect that most of the rain and snow in Iran would fall on or around the mountains, and you would be right! This pattern is particularly true for the clouds that blow south from the Caspian Sea onto the Elburz Mountain ranges from 1000 to 1500 mm (about 40-60 in.). Just a few miles to the south in Tehran on the south side of the mountains, the average annual rainfall is less than 100 mm. Since many people live in areas that receive 200-300 mm of rain a year, they have to rely on irrigation.

Irrigation

Irrigation to provide water for crops and for home use has been used in Iran for thousands of years. Traditionally, people have used three main methods of irrigation. They have taken water directly from streams, sometimes after damming the streams, they have dug wells, or the have used qanats (see Illustration 3).

Qanats were apparently invented in the Iranian plateau and have been used in use in Iran for thousands of years. To build a qanat, landowners dug a well until water was found. Once found, a series of shafts were dug to lead the water to the village or fields where it was needed. Then a tunnel was dug to connect the shafts. Some of these qanats are engineering marvels that bring water from hills 25 miles distant to a village. The qanats require regular maintenance since they may cave in or be damaged by floods. Today some qanats are lined with concrete pipes to reduce damage.

When qanats reach a village the water may still be underground. In this case a staircase is built down to the water where people can fill their water jugs.

Of course, in modern times dams have been built on the larger rivers and water is piped to individual houses in cities and towns.

Earthquakes

Iran lies at a point where two of the earth’s tectonic plates, the Arabian and Eurasian, are pushing together. This means that people living in this area have suffered from devastating earthquakes throughout history. Since 1960, Iran has experienced 12 earthquakes that have measured greater than 7.0 on the Richter scale. The earthquakes cause landslides, ruin irrigation systems, and cause many buildings to collapse to collapse. In a recent earth in Iran in June 1990, it was estimated that as many as 30,000 people lost there lives.

Resources

Iran’s major natural resources are oil and natural gas. The oil fields lie mainly in the southwest part of the country along the Persian Gulf ad next to Iraq. Iran has about 50 billion barrels of proven oil reserves (compared to 168 billion in Saudi Arabia and 27 billion in the U.S.). Sale of oil and natural gas have financed much of Iran’s development in this century.

Oil in Iran was first discovered in the early 1900’s by British prospector, William D’Arcy. The British controlled access to Iranian oil for many years and used it to fuel their fleet during both World Wars. In 1951, Iran took over operation of its own oil fields. Several of the fields and refineries were badly damaged during the Iran/Iraq War which lasted from 1980 to 1988.

In addition to rich oil and gas reserves, Iran has extensive underground resources of coal, iron ore, copper, lead, zinc, aluminum, titanium, and chromite, among others.

Iranian farmers grow wheat, barley, rice, sugar beets, many kinds of fruit, cotton, tea, and tobacco. They also produce sheep and goats for meat, milk, and wool products. Iran has not been self sufficient agriculturally since 1970. Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iranian farmers are producing more food, but population growth has literally eaten up any gains in production.

Iran’s major export commodity is, of course, oil and natural gas. Additionally, Iran exports carpets, usually handmade by women and children.

Iran: Statistical Picture of the People

To understand the physical features of Iran, we have looked at maps that show us altitude, rainfall, and so forth. We can get an idea of Iranians themselves by looking at some statistics (also see unit on Iranian people and culture). The population of Iran is about 60 million people, growing at a rapid rate of 3.23% annually. This rate of growth means that Iran’s population will double in 22 years. Take a look at illustrations 4, 5, and 6, charts showing population and age distribution. Compare the charts showing age distribution.

Several different ethnic and religious groups live in Iran. The majority (63%) of Iranians use Persian as their mother tongue, while nearly all Iranians use it as their literary and intellectual language. The remaining 37% are Turkic, Kurdish, Baluchi, and Arab. By far the majority of Iranians (98%) are Muslims. The main form of Islam practiced in Iran is Shi’i Islam, although some groups, such as Baluchis and Kurds are Sunni Muslims. The remaining 2% of Iranians are Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha’i.

The average Iranian will live to about 60 years of age. According to the 1986 census 61.7 percent of Iranians are literate, but the literacy rate for women is fifty-two percent. The per capita income has dropped sharply in recent years. In 1978 is was about $2300, whereas now it is about $700.

Study Questions

1. Which part of the United States would most remind an Iranian from Rasht of home? Which part of the United States would remind an Iranian from Tehran of home? Why?

2. Name two mountain provinces in Iran.

3. Name two techiques Iranians use for irrigation.

4. What statistics in the last three charts reflect real or potential problems for Iran’s economic development? Explain your choice.

5. How are the age distrubution charts from Iran and the USA different?

History

Gholam Reza Afkhami

I. The Origins

Iranians are of Indo-European origin. At the dawn of history, they lived in Central Asia in the north and west of the Caspian Sea. Sometime around 2000 B.C. they began to move southward as a part of the great Indo-Iranian migration. Some of them went over the mountains of Hindukush in present day Afghanistan, through valleys between Hindukush and the Himalayas, to India. They interacted with the indigenous population and became the forefathers of the people now living in India. Others went to the Iranian plateau and gradually settled in western, southern and northeastern parts of present Iran. The name Iran is derived from the Aryan origin of these early settlers.

By 1000 B.C. the Iranian plateau had been mostly populated by Iranians. Next to them had already been established a number of advanced civilizations, such as the Assyrians and the Babylonians, in the area historically called Mesopotamia, meaning between two rivers. The two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, run through present day Iraq. Some historians and philosophers consider the period between 1000 and 500 B.C. to be very important in human history, because it corresponds to the emergence of sages and religious figures who through their teachings and writings mapped out the course of humanity’s moral and spiritual history. This is the period of the Prophets in Israel, Confucius and Lao-tse in China, and Buddha in India. The Iranian prophet, Zoroaster, is said to have lived some time between 1000 and 600 B.C. Zoroaster is important not only because of his impact on the history of Iranians, but also because of his influence on other religions.

Zoroaster taught that two fundamental principles, Good and Evil, compete to achieve dominion over human life. The Good was the domain of Ahura Mazda, the Creator of the world; the Evil, the domain of Ahriman. It was the function and duty of each individual to help Ahura Mazda win by fighting against evil. Men and women could help the principle of Good by pursuing good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Zoroaster believed in the ultimate unity of creation and preached that Good shall finally prevail over Evil. Ahura Mazda was thought to be a tolerant God, which meant that Iranians were tolerant of other religions.

Iranians were good horsemen, a quality that allowed them later to develop exceptional fighting skills. Armed with their religion and military ability, they slowly settled over the territory, established a relatively sophisticated agricultural civilization, and soon began to interact with their neighbors. By about 900 B.C. three main Iranian groups had emerged, each occupying an area of its own: the Medes in the northwest in the areas now known as Kurdistan and Azarbaijan, the Persians in the south in an area now known as Fars and Khuzistan, and the Parthians in the northeast in the area now called the Greater Khurasan. The Medes were the first to come into contact with stronger neighbors.

In the very beginnings of Iranian history, probably around mid-8th century B.C., the Assyrians, a people of Semitic background living in the mountainous areas around the River Euphrates, moved eastward toward the newly settled Medean territories and, being an older and better organized society, subdued many of the Medean tribes. The Assyrians were a war-like people who had already subjugated many of their neighbors, including the Sumerians and the Babylonians. By the end of the 7th century B.C., however, the Medeans had become strong enough to challenge the Assyrian kingdom. They joined the Babylonians and together they conquered Assyria. This is the beginning of the Medean empire and also the beginning of the establishment of Iranian power in the ancient Middle East.

II. The Age of Empire (558 B.C.-651 A.D.)

The Medean empire, although comparable in power and territorial extent to the empires of Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians, remained relatively small compared with the Persian Empire that succeeded it. As mentioned before, the Persians were one of the main Iranian peoples who settled in the southern part of present day Iran. At first they were dominated by the Medes, but slowly their political and military power grew as their culture and economy developed. United under the leadership of one of their chieftains, Cyrus of the Achaemenid clan, they challenged their Medean suzerain and after many wars they finally defeated the Medean king Astyages in 550 B.C. in the battle of Pasargadae.

The Iranian tribes, united by Cyrus the Great into a single state, conquered much of the then civilized world, including Assyria, Lydia, Palestine, Syria, the Greek littoral cities by the Mediterranean in the west and the neighboring areas to the east of Iran. Later, under Cyrus’s son Cambyses, Egypt became an Iranian province in 525 B.C. Darius the Great who succeeded Cambyses in 521 B.C. expanded the Iranian borders to Greece.

Thus, in a brief space of a single generation, a previously obscure and secluded clan became the master of the greater part of the world. We can only guess at the reasons for this success from the evidence at our disposal. Certainly, Iranians proved themselves on the battle field. They excelled as horsemen and were particularly good with bows and lances. This is reflected in the Achaemenid bas reliefs, where kings are usually depicted with a bow in their hand. But there were other reasons.

Religion played a very important role in the lives of the ancient peoples. Most of these peoples believed in many gods, which they insisted should take precedence over the gods of other peoples. Only two nations believed in one God at this time, the Jews who worshiped Jehovah, and the Iranians, who, as indicated before, worshiped Ahura Mazda.

Unlike other warriors who disparaged the religion of the people they defeated, Cyrus respected and paid homage to other nations’ deities by praying at their altars. In Babylonia, he freed the Jewish people who had been kept captive there for many years. That is why he is mentioned in the Old Testament as ordained of God. It was also in Babylonia, over 500 years before the birth of Christ, that he issued his important proclamation about the right of all peoples to live freely and to worship freely according to the dictates of their conscience.

The Achaemenids introduced to the world the art of large scale administration. The most renowned in this respect is Darius the Great, who continued and consolidated the work of his predecessor, Cyrus. He divided the empire into a number of provinces to be governed by their own rulers, but watched by his representatives. He developed a remarkable system of mail and communication that connected all parts of the empire to the capitals in Shusha, Ecbatana and Persepolis.

The concept of shahanshah, king of kings, which became the official title of the Achaemenid king and thereafter of most Iranian kings, suggested to the Achaemenids that the empire contained many countries, each with its own culture, norms, customs and government. The Achaemenids thought that their system should respect these special features and, to the extent practical, they established ways of preserving and defending them.

The Achaemenids ruled Iran until 330 B.C., when their last king, Darius III, was defeated by Alexander the Great of Macedonia. Indeed, a greater part of Iran’s foreign relations during their reign was with the Greek city-states, particularly Athens and Sparta. Greeks called Iran Persia, the land of the Persians, and since it was through Greek historians, like Herodotus or Xenephone, that Iran became known to the West, the West also called Iran Persia for the greater part of Iranian history.

Until Alexander welded the Greeks into one nation, the Iranians usually had the upper hand, sometimes invading Greek islands and cities, at other times being called in by the feuding Greek cities to intervene. The most important Iranian expeditions to Greece took place under Darius I in 490 B.C. and Xerxes I in 480-479 B.C. The Iranians were defeated in two critical battles, Marathon under Darius and the sea battle of Salamis under Xerxes. The present day long-distance running event called Marathon takes its name from a feat accomplished by a Greek long-distance runner taking the news of Greek victory in the fields of Marathon to Athens.

The defeat of Xerxes’s expedition was probably the turning point in the history of the Achaemenid empire. When Alexander took his army to Iran over a century later, the aging Iranian empire had already fallen in disarray and was no match for the youthful zest and military genius of the Macedonian conqueror.

Alexander thought of himself as heir to the Iranian throne and dreamed of a Greco-Iranian world government. He adopted many Iranian customs and encouraged the intermarriage of Greeks and Iranians. His conquest of Iran opened the country to the influence of Greek culture, which remained a part of Iranian life for the next 200 years. But he died before he could consolidate his empire. After him, his possessions were fought over by his lieutenants. And Iran finally fell to Seleucus Nicator.

Thus began the first of many foreign dynasties that would rule Iran during its long and turbulent history. The Greeks, however, were the only conquerors of Iran who could boast of an equal culture. Greek thought and architecture left a lasting effect on Iranian society. Even after the Selucid dynasty was overthrown by the Parthian tribes that had united in northeast Iran, Greek dress, coins and language survived in the royal court and among the upper class Iranians for at least a century. The effect, however, was not as pronounced among the common people.

The history of Iran during the long Parthian rule (247 B.C.-225 A.D.) is not well documented. The Parthian society resembled a feudal system. The king’s power was limited by the power of local lords and important families who not only participated in governing the realm, but also in selecting the royal successor. Provinces and cities enjoyed substantial autonomy. Religion did not play as important a role in the life of the people or in Iran’s international relations as it did under the Achaemenids or the Sasanians. Thus, non-Iranian religions, particularly Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism, but also paganistic rites such as animal worship and totemic practice flourished.

The Parthians were the first Iranian dynasty to come into contact and conflict with the Romans. From about 90 B.C. Iran and Rome became neighbors, though in certain strategic areas they were separated by buffer states such as Armenia and Georgia.

Christ was born in Bethlehem when Parthians ruled in Iran. The three wise men, the Magi, famous in Christian legends for predicting Christ’s birth and for seeking his birthplace, are said to have been Zoroastrian priests from Iran. The idea of a messiah had been foreseen in Zoroastrian scriptures. As a result, certain Zoroastrians developed an affinity for early Christian faith. Indeed, as we shall see, Mani, or Manes, an important Iranian prophet who preached Manichaeism in 3rd century A.D., thought of himself as Christ’s vicar. But there was more. Mithra, the “good spirit” and ruler of the world in Avesta, Zoroastrians’ sacred book, was introduced into Rome about 68 B.C., and by about 3rd century A.D. Mithraism had become a great rival to Christianity in the Roman world. Mithraism resembled Christianity in many respects, including the reverence for love and humility and belief in the immortality of the soul, resurrection and the last judgement. The two religions resembled each other also in certain rites, such as the use of holy water, rite of communion, adoption of December 25, Mithra’s birthday, as a holy day, and also the adoration of the shepherds at Mithra’s birth. These similarities facilitated the conversion of Mithra’s followers to Christian faith.

Very important for Iranian history was the gathering during this period of legends that many centuries later served as an important source for the Iranian national Epic, the Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings–the account of the values, mores and deeds of Iranian heroes and kings, many of whom were of Parthian origin.

After nearly half a millennium of rule, the Parthians began to lose control of parts of the empire and, finally, in 225 A.D. succumbed to Ardeshir I, a Persian of the House of Sasan, who claimed to be a successor of the Achaemenid royal house. Thus, Iran reverted back to the rule of the Persians.

Unlike the Parthians whose powers were decentralized, the Sasanians reasserted the imperial power of the king, who now ruled in great pomp and ceremony. Centralized power marked the Sasanian rule. Ctesiphon, the last capital of the Parthians, became also the capital of the new Persian empire and grew into one of the world’s splendid cities. Its ruins stand on the Tigris near present-day Baghdad in Iraq.

Religion was a pillar of the Sasanian government. During this period, the Zoroastrian clergy achieved unprecedented power, exerting influence over all aspects of social life. Society became more rigidly stratified, thus making it difficult for people to move up the social ladder. Since religion played such an important role in everybody’s life, it was natural for many religious movements to take shape. We have already mentioned Mani (3d century A.D), whose religion was probably the most important and influential offshoot of Zoroastrianism. He combined Zoroastrian, Christian and Buddhist principles and thought of himself as the legitimate successor to Zoroaster, Buddha and Christ. Mani was executed by the order of the king, under clerical pressure. Manichaeism, however, traveled far outside of Iran, and became a popular religion throughout the Roman provinces in the west as well as Turkic and Chinese lands in the east. St. Augustine, the great 4th century Christian thinker, was a Manichaean for many years before he embraced Christianity.

A second important religious movement during the Sasanian period was Mazdakism. Mazdak preached a form of communal sharing of wealth and a more equitable distribution of social privileges. He also advocated limitations on polygamy. Qobad (Kavadh I), the reigning Shahanshah, apparently favored Mazdak and, in some accounts, accepted his teachings, a matter that could not have found favor with the religious hierarchy. Qobad was dethroned, but was later reinstated after he had renounced Mazdak. Mazdak and his followers were routed in 528 A.D. by the order of Qobad’s heir, Khosrau Anushiravan, who, paradoxically, is known to history as “the Just.”

These episodes demonstrate the extent of the influence of the religious hierarchy and the nobles in the Sasanian Iran. For the first time in Iranian history, already almost a millennium old, religious intolerance became state policy. Iranian Christians came under political pressure after Rome adopted Christianity as the state religion. Their situation, however, improved once they established the Nestorian church, which to this day is the official religion practiced by the Assyrians in Iran.

Iran, nevertheless, grew in power and wealth. The empire expanded to the limits reached by the Achaemenids. In the early phases of the Sasanian rule, the world of the Mediterranean and West-Asian cultures was divided between the Romans and Iranians. Later, when Rome was divided and the western empire sacked by barbarians, the wars and the rivalry continued with the Roman successors in Byzantium. From 527 A.D. on, the wars almost never stopped. Iran and Byzantium both became weak and vulnerable, drained of resources, with empty treasuries always in need of replenishment, requiring the imposition of unpopular taxes on a tired and impoverished population.

In Iran, the political situation progressively deteriorated. Between 629 and 632 A.D., eleven royal pretenders, including two women, Purandokht and Azarmidokht, sat on the Sasanian throne. The last Sasanian monarch, Yazdegerd III (632-651), inherited a nation in disarray. Despite their own bravery and the splendor and potential power of their country, Yazdegerd and his generals succumbed to a much inferior Arab force, because they had lost the ability to mobilize the support of their people.

III. Islam in Iran

The Prophet Mohammad announced Islam in 610, during the reign of the Sasanian king Khosrau Parviz. In 632, the year the Prophet died and the last Sasanian king ascended the throne, the first Arab squadrons prepared to enter Iranian territory. In 637 they defeated the main Iranian army in the battle of Qadesiya and took Ctesiphon, the Sasanian capital, with all its treasures. The king, Yazdegerd III, fled to Medea, where his generals attempted to organize a resistance; but the Iranian defeat in the battle of Nahavand put an end to that effort. Thereafter, Yazdegerd sought refuge in one province after another, till, finally, in 651, he was assassinated in Merv, a city in Parthia, by a miller who coveted his jewels.

Now began a new era in Iranian history. The Arabs had come armed with a vibrant religion that preached the worship of one God, Allah, demanded the recognition of Mohammad as the last and the seal of God’s prophets, and promised peace for everyone who accepted Islam. But except for their religion, the Arabs had little to offer as culture or as statecraft. They were thus unprepared for the responsibilities of administering the vast empire they had acquired. It fell mostly on the Iranians to supply the experience and the know-how required for managing the new Islamic state.

For the next 800 years, until the dawn of the Safavid power in 1500, Iranian culture was a catalyst and Iran a melting pot, where Islam, the Persian language and culture and the Turkic and Mongol traditions blended to produce some of the finest ideas and most magnificent artistic creations the world has known.

1. Iran under the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphs

The Prophet Mohammad died in the Arabian city of Medina in 632. His mantle passed to four of his close disciples who were among the first to accept his message–Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman and Ali, respectively. There were those among the faithful who believed that Mohammad had designated Ali, his nephew and son-in-law, as his successor, and therefore considered the other three usurpers. These objectors constituted the Party of Ali, or, in Arabic, the Shi`a of Ali. Their position became the basis of the principal division in Islam, i.e., the division between the Sunni Muslims (now constituting a majority of Muslims everywhere except in Iran and Iraq) who believe in the rightfulness of the four aforementioned Caliphs, and the Shiis (also known as Shiites), who believe in the legitimacy of Ali and his descendants, known as Imams.

The Shii ideas blend with the traditional Iranian beliefs and practices. For example, the Shiis believe that through the Prophet’s blood God’s glory is passed to the Imams. This is similar to the idea of “divine glory,” which was the cornerstone of the legitimacy of the pre-Islamic Iranian kings, and which was believed to devolve on those who were at once worthy and of royal blood. Moreover, Iranians believe that one of Ali’s sons, Hossein, who is revered by Shiis as the “lord of the martyrs,” married a daughter of the last Sasanian king, Yazdegerd III. Thus, the line from Hossein is also legitimated in Iranian eyes by the dynastic continuity that this marriage confers on the house of Ali.

The Arab dynasties that followed the first four caliphs, the Umayyads (661-750 A.D.) and the Abbasids (750-1258 A.D.), adopted many important features of the Sasanian government, including their court protocol, administrative and financial rules, and military organization. Arabic remained the official language of the court, government, and the literati, but the concepts were often Iranian or were developed by Iranians. Iranians codified Arabic grammar. Persian words for objects and concepts that had not existed in Arab society and culture entered the Arabic language. This is true not only of the arts and philosophy, or of the affairs of state, but also of Islam itself. Arabs, however, remained governors and field commanders, wielding military and political power.

Despite the political repression and material destruction the Iranians suffered at the hand of the Arabs, the Arab conquest changed the Iranian society in ways that favored subsequent Iranian economic and cultural development. The rigidity of the Sasanian social stratification gave way to greater social mobility, where people of low origin reached high social, political, economic or military positions. The change from a centralized administration to a many-headed and multi-layered governmental system meant that literary figures, scientists, philosophers and religious thinkers could escape social and religious repression by seeking shelter and support in the courts of rival rulers. The challenge of Arab domination forced many Iranians to seek distinction in fields open to them–in literature, science, crafts and commerce.

The rivalry between the Arab pretenders to the caliphate opened the way to the centers of power for many Iranians. In the middle of the 8th century the Umayyad dynasty fell largely because of the help their rivals, the Abbasids, received from Iranians. The early Abbasid caliphs often killed their Iranian generals and chancellors in order to prevent them from becoming threats to their rule. But the fact that they depended on them to achieve power raised Iranians’ self-confidence and encouraged them to rise in rebellion.

The first and most important territory to achieve nominal independence from the Arabs was Khurasan, an area in east of Iran which included what is now Tajikestan and parts of Afghanistan. Balkh, Bukhara, Samarqand and many other legendary cities were part of this resurgence–cities that in the following centuries would play such an important role in Iran’s cultural renaissance. Khurasan is where the first Iranian military and political leaders rose, first to help the Abbasids to overthrow the hated Umayyads and later to establish governments under Iranian rule.

From the early 9th century, when a Taherid dynasty was established in Khurasan, the Caliph’s power became progressively limited to the spiritual domain. In the first century of the Abbasid rule, Iran was divided among various local rulers, some of whom, like the Saffarids in the Iranian southeast, challenged the very existence of the caliphate. It is with the Saffarids and, later, Samanids that Persian becomes the preferred language at the court of the local kings. Local leaders rose also in other areas, including Azerbaijan in northwest, Tabarestan by the Caspian, and Esfahan in the center. Some, like the Saffarids, came from lowly origins; others, like the Ziarids in Tabarestan or the Samanids in Khurasan, belonged to traditional ruling families.

The 10th and 11th centuries saw the rise of Turkic dynasties in Iran, the two most important of which, the Ghaznavids and the Seljuks, established an empire almost as vast as the Sasanians’. These dynasties were founded by Turkish slaves who had been brought to work at the court of the caliphs in Baghdad or in the courts of emirs and sultans in various parts of the country. The Ghaznavids, for example, rose to power within the court of the Samanid emirs. At about the same time an Iranian Shii dynasty, the Buyids, rose in Central Iran to dominate government and politics in the Caliphate. The Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad now lost all political power as his survival depended on the good will of the Buyid, Ghaznavid and Seljuk kings.

The most powerful Ghaznavid monarch was Mahmud, a warrior king whose court was a haven for writers and poets. Ferdowsi, the great 11th century poet who composed the Shahnameh, Iran’s great epic of kings and heroes, lived during his time. Mahmud defeated the Tatars of Central Asia, wrested Khurasan from the Samanids, and established his rule over the greater part of Iran. His repeated invasions of India were a reason for the spread of Islam as well as Persian language and Iranian culture in that country; also, they were a means of replenishing his treasury by plundering India’s rich Hindu temples.

Mahmud’s successors were not as energetic and by 1055 another dynasty of slaves, the Seljuks, had spread its authority over all of Iran, including Baghdad, the seat of the caliphate. For the first time since the Arab conquest of the Sasanian empire Iran had become unified under a government whose authority extended westward into Asia Minor and eastward to India and Central Asia. The Seljuk system, however, was essentially military. Soon, the military governors the Seljuk kings had sent to the provinces rose in rebellion and established small dynasties in various parts of Iran. One among these dynasties in Asia Minor became the forerunner of the Ottoman empire. Another was the Khwarazmshahis, the first of whose line was a slave in the Seljuk court sent to govern the northeastern province of khwarazm. By the time Genghis Khan, the Mongol warrior, invaded Iran in mid-13th century, the Khwarazmshahs had established themselves over the larger part of the country.

The period from the fall of the Sasanian empire in the 7th century to the Mongol invasion of Iran in the 13th corresponds roughly to the Middle Ages in Europe. Unlike in Europe, however, where an important part of this period is referred to as the dark ages, in Iran there evolved a new and splendid culture, not to be surpassed in the country’s later history. We have already mentioned fabulous cities in the Greater Khurasan area, such as Tus, Merv, Samarqand and Bukhara, all of which fell to the Mongol armies of the “Golden Horde.” There were also talented people whose contributions in different fields became the foundation of philosophical and scientific discourse throughout the world for many centuries. Poets like Rudaki, Ferdowsi and Khayyam, Sufi mystic masters like Attar and Rumi, historians like Tabari, physicians like Razi and mathematicians like Biruni have contributed not only to literature and science in Iran , but to the advancement of knowledge throughout the world. Perhaps the most renowned among them in this period was Avicenna, whose writings on medicine and philosophy remained classics for centuries and whose books and treatises on Aristotle facilitated the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy in Europe.

2. Iran under the Mongols

Mongols moved into Iran, destroying everything on their way. Great historical cities were ruined and emptied of people. Men, women and children were slaughtered. Agricultural land was laid to waste. Factories and workshops were destroyed. Libraries were burned. That part of Iran that fell to Genghis Khan and his army was ruined.

But Iran survived. Slowly, the Mongol rulers became familiar with Iranian culture and began to adopt it. The first Mongol who ruled all of Iran was Hulaku, who in 1258 captured Baghdad and killed the last Abbasid Caliph. The ablest of Hulaku’s successors was Ghazan Khan, during whose time the Mongols in Iran were converted to Islam. Ghazan’s brother and successor, Mohammad Uljaitu, became a Shii, and thus received the title of “Servant of God” from the Shii leaders.

After Mohammad Uljaitu the Mongol empire fell in disarray and soon was divided into a number of principalities. This allowed another conqueror, Teymur (Tamerlane), to invade Iran at the end of the 14th century. Teymur moved from one victory to another, but his rule was never unchallenged. After him, his sons ruled in various parts of the country, often in domestic warfare, until the end of the 15th century, when the Safavids established a new dynasty and a new empire in Iran.

The waves of Mongol invasion produced paradoxical results. On the one hand, the country was devastated under military attacks; on the other hand, Mongol domination of the vast Asian continent opened the frontiers and thus facilitated not only material, but also artistic and intellectual commerce. Hulaku’s rule in Iran coincided with that of his uncle Kubla Khan, the story of the splendor of whose court in China was brought to Europe by Venetian Marco Polo. Marco Polo passed through Iran to China in 1271, and on his way back, many years later, he was commissioned to accompany a lady of the Great Khan’s court who traveled to Iran to marry Ghazan Khan.

Hard times prepared the ground for significant intellectual and artistic creativity. After Hulaku, the Mongol kings reverted to the old Iranian tradition of supporting poetry and the arts. The art of the book flourished and reached perfection under Teymur’s successors. The best lyric poets in Iranian history, Saadi, Hafiz and Jami, lived and wrote during this period. Under Ulugh Beg, Teymur’s descendent, magnificent buildings were erected in Samarqand, and in his name the famous astronomical tables were drawn up, probably the greatest legacy in this area the East has bequeathed to the West. And Sultan Hossein Bayqara, one of the last of the Teymurids, was the patron of a very great period, rivalling that of Renaissance in Europe–the period of Jami the poet, Behzad the painter, and Mirakhund the historian.

IV. From the Safavids to the Pahlavis

1. Iran under the Safavids (1501-1736)

The Safavids traced their descent to the seventh Imam of the Shiis. Through the line of the Imams and the already mentioned legend of the third Imam’s marriage to the last Sasanian king’s daughter they claimed descent from both the Prophet and the Sasanian kings. Already in the 14th century Safi-u-din, from whom the dynasty received its name, had amassed a large following as a renowned mystic Sufi. His grandson, Esma`il, established the Safavid dynasty when he conquered Tabriz in 1499. As heirs to Safi-u-din’s mystical mantle, Esma’il and his successors were revered by their followers as at once saint and king. It is also from Esma`il’s reign that Iranian monarchs reassumed the title of Shah.

The Safavid period corresponds with an era of historically significant change in Europe. The dynasty came to power at the beginning of a new era, shortly after the Middle Ages had come to an end with the Ottomans’ capture of Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, in 1453. The Ottomans now posed a serious threat to Europe, which was undergoing a renaissance in art, philosophy and science. In the first century of the Safavid rule in Iran Machiavelli, Galileo, and Luther revolutionized political, cosmological and religious thought in Europe. The first seeds of nationalism were sown as nation-states began to take form. Economic matters became more important as bases of political and military power. Empires began to be built, as new waterways and continents were discovered. The age represented the beginning of Europe’s leap forward; what happened in the East, including Iran, at this time, therefore, would crucially affect the East’s future ability to deal with the West on an equal basis.

In Iran, the Safavid period had its moments of glory, but in historical terms it failed to prepare the country for “modern times.” Iranian independence was maintained against the Uzbeks in the east and Ottomans in the west by emphasizing Iranian Shiism against the Sunni orthodoxy. Esma`il’s war with the Ottomans in 1514, particularly the battle at Chalduran, might have changed the history of the Middle East, had the Iranians won, but they did not and as a result, the king and his people lost heart. The Ottomans then were free to occupy a greater part of the Islamic world.

During the reign of Shah Abbas the Great (1587-1629) Iranian frontiers reached those of the pre-Islamic empire. Roads were built and magnificent buildings and monuments were erected in Esfahan and other places, which even today dazzle the imagination. In general, however, these were steps within the traditional framework. Even that part of thought that during the Safavid reign reached its most sublime, the philosophy of eshraq, a particularly Iranian synthesis of religion and philosophy, was basically a perfection of traditional thought. The kind of “worldly philosophers” who appeared in Europe and who represented the great qualitative change that had occurred in history–Bacon in the 16th century, Hobbes in the 17th, Adam Smith in the 18th, Marx in the 19th–never appeared in Iran, partly because the religious foundation laid down in the Safavid period proved too strong to overcome.

Thus, although Iranian pressure on the Ottoman flank reduced Ottoman pressure on Europe, it had the negative effect of emphasizing religion as a pillar of Iran’s national integrity. Consequently, religion and state became increasingly intertwined, resulting in the repression of novel and unorthodox ideas. Many poets and writers migrated to India to the court of the Mughal emperors who welcomed and favored Iranian culture, particularly Persian poetry. Persian became the language of the literati in India. Soon, it became the official language of the government and the court, a place it maintained until 1857 when it was replaced by English.

The Safavids ruled Iran for more than two centuries. The last ruling Safavid monarch, Shah Sultan Hossein, was a weakling, a firm believer in astrological signs. During his reign the Afghans of the eastern provinces invaded Iran. Twice they were repulsed by local governors and were about to retreat when they received offer of money from the Shah, which they correctly interpreted as the Shah’s weakness. They then surrounded the capital, Esfahan, and took it when the Shah surrendered without a fight. But, lacking in popular and logistical support, they were in no position to hold the country and were forced to retreat when faced with a resurgence of Iranian patriotic feeling.

In the meantime, the Ottomans had taken advantage of the confusion and penetrated deep into Iran, occupying many cities, including Tabriz. The Russians, now modernizing under Peter the Great, moved down the western shore of the Caspian and entered the city of Rasht. This was the first of many subsequent Russian invasions of Iran.

The man to rise in this hour of need was Nader, a warrior of the Afshar tribe, who in the name of Tahmasp, the young Safavid prince, mobilized the Iranians and after many campaigns drove out the Afghans, the Ottomans and the Russians. He then assumed the title of Shah in 1736 and thus the Safavid dynasty came to an end.

Nader was the last Asian conqueror and his reign was the apogee of Iranian military power in modern times. He invaded India and entered Delhi with little difficulty, appointing his vassals in various Indian provinces. The campaign afforded Iran great wealth, some of which are still in Iran as part of the famous Iranian “crown jewels.” After the Indian campaign Nader’s personality changed. Despite military successes everywhere, he became suspicious of everybody, including his own sons. As the years passed he became progressively worse, putting to death many of his trusted friends. Finally, one evening in 1747, he was assassinated by his own body guards.

The death of the great warrior threw the country into chaos. Tribal leaders rose everywhere to claim power. The most active among them at this time were the Qajars in the north and the Zands in the south. In the wars that pursued, the Zand leader, Karim Khan, won.

Karim Khan chose Shiraz, a city near the ruins of Persepolis in the south of Iran, as his capital. He never took the title of Shah; rather, he preferred to call himself the Regent or Protector of the People. He was a kind and gentle man. During his regency Iran was relatively quiet, recuperating from the turbulence and hardship of war. His death in 1794, however, led to a resumption of civil strife and the old rivalry between the Zands and Qajars. After many battles the Qajar leader, Agha Mohammad Khan, defeated the Zand successor and thus began the reign of the Qajar dynasty in Iran.

2. Iran under the Qajars (1794-1925)

The end of the 18th century witnessed two important revolutions–American and French–that changed the American and European societies and transformed the shape of Western politics. The French Revolution was partly the culmination of intellectual changes that are referred to as the enlightenment. New ideas, mostly the result of this progressive intellectual fermentation, were instrumental in bringing about new social covenants by which Western society was to be politically organized. In some countries, e.g., England, change occurred gradually; in others, such as France, political change was more abrupt and took the form of revolution. In either case, it was the beginning of a new era, a new social contract, whereby laissez-faire economics and secular democracy became the recognized progressive creed. As later developments showed, imperialism was also a result of these cumulative changes.

Whereas Europe looked forward to greater technological capability, military power, political freedom and economic progress, Iran began a period of social and economic regression. At the beginning of the Qajar period, Iran was in economic and political disarray, but still able to protect itself militarily and diplomatically. By the end of the Qajar period, Iran was almost totally at the mercy of foreign powers–specifically, Russia and Great Britain.

The first Qajar monarch, Agha Mohammad Khan, was a despot who was good at war. He fought the Georgians who, encouraged by the Russians, had taken advantage of Iranian wars of succession and occupied the territory west of the Caspian. Agha Mohammad Khan repossessed Georgia for Iran, but, after only three years of rule, was assassinated by his servants.

The Iranian situation grew worse during the reign of his heir, Fath-Ali Shah, which corresponded to the Napoleonic era in Europe. European rivalries encouraged Iran to wage two wars with Russia–the first lasted ten years and ended in 1812, the second, one year, ending in 1828–both disastrous for Iran. Iran lost many important cities north of the River Aras–cities that now constitute the Republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Just as important, it became clear that Iran’s power was diminishing and that Iran no longer was able to hold its place in international power politics.

The Iranian political, social and economic conditions deteriorated progressively. After Fath-Ali Shah his grandson Mohammad Shah ascended the throne and after him, his son Nasereddin Shah. The latter ruled Iran for nearly 50 years, from l848 to 1896, when he was assassinated by a modernist revolutionary.

During Nasereddin Shah’s reign many new ideas were introduced in Iran, but none was seriously followed by the Shah or his government. An opportunity for the country to move forward was stifled when the young Nasereddin ordered his able chancellor, Mirza Taqi Khan (Amir Kabir) executed. Amir Kabir, holding office about the same time as Meiji in Japan, tried to implement policies that might have brought Iran out of its economic and cultural doldrums. But it was not to be. His death not only stopped short his plans, but also discouraged others from following his path.

The society, however, was in ferment. Princes of the court, members of the landed and commercial aristocracy began to travel to Europe, bringing back new ideas. They were rebuffed by the traditional elements, which constituted a majority everywhere. But the orthodoxy, social and political, was being punctured as stories of the way other peoples lived and managed themselves began to circulate.

The ferment was also experienced in the realm of religion. Many religious movements, such as Sheikhism and its later offshoots, Babism and Baha’iism, flourished, challenging the Shii orthodoxy. Some, like the Sheikhis, were grudgingly accepted into the mainstream; others, like the Babi and Baha’i creeds, were persecuted and driven out to find followers and refuge in other countries, particularly Israel, which was then Palestine, and the United States. The Shii orthodoxy remained in power, more or less unified, until the Constitutional Revolution of l905, when a number of religious leaders participated in curtailing the power of the king. Indeed, the clergy had already shown its political power when it forced the government to rescind a foreign tobacco concession by issuing a fatwa (religious edict) forbidding the use of tobacco by believers. It is said that even Nasereddin Shah’s wives had honored this religious order.

3. The Constitutional Revolution (1905-1906)

Nasereddin Shah’s son, Mozaffareddin, was already old when he ascended the throne, and not in very good health. His father’s long, uninspired rule had impoverished the country. The Qajar princes and government officials ruled a hapless people with impunity. The Shah’s powers, though theoretically unbounded, were in practice insufficient to check the power of the official potentates.

Little by little, people among the budding intelligentsia, bazaar merchants, and even the aristocracy began to voice their grievances against the system. They realized that they needed help from the more enlightened clergy if they were to succeed. At the beginning they asked the Shah to redress specific wrongs by establishing a house of justice. Soon, however, the demand developed into a genuine movement for constitutional government. Underground organizations began to distribute revolutionary pamphlets; many people sought refuge in religious shrines and foreign embassies, embarrassing the Shah and the government; others took up arms, directly challenging the regime. The turmoil spread to many cities, but it was particularly pronounced in Tehran, the capital of the nation, and in Tabriz, the traditional seat of the Qajar crown prince. After a year’s struggle, the Shah signed the Constitutional Order and opened the first Assembly in October of 1906. A few days after, he died.

The Constitutional Revolution is a landmark in Iran’s modern history. Even though the resulting constitutional document acknowledged the supremacy of religious law, known as the shari`a, nevertheless, it formally introduced modernity in Iran, including the ideas of popular sovereignty, limited government, separation of powers, and human rights.

Iran at this time was not ready for the implementation of a modern, basically Western, constitution. The population was poor, illiterate, superstitious and immobile, controlled politically by the clerics, merchants and landed gentry, whose interests were better served if the status quo was maintained. Furthermore, Iran was under great pressure by its powerful neighbors, Russia and England.

Since the reign of Peter the Great in the 18th century, Russia had sought access to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. Whenever Iran became weak and vulnerable, Russian pressure increased. By the end of the 19th century, Russian influence in Iran had reached its zenith.

The British, on the other hand, had acquired great interest in India, which made them particularly sensitive to any move by any country that might endanger these interests. Wary of Russian intentions, they had decided that they needed to control Iran in order to thwart Russian plans to move south toward the Persian Gulf. Iran, therefore, became a zone of competing influence, where Russia and England fought out their diplomatic wars at the expense of Iranians. In 1907, a year after the establishment of constitutional government, Russia and England made an agreement that formally divided Iran into their respective zones of influence. The agreement offended the Iranians greatly.

The combination of internal backwardness and foreign pressure stifled constitutional government in Iran. Slowly, many Iranian modernizers concluded that they needed a strong government that could at once hold out against foreign pressure and change the socioeconomic and cultural foundations of the society. Whether they realized it or not, such a system would lead to a breach of constitutional principles. This indeed happened, when a strong man, Reza Khan, rose to power to modernize Iran by fiat, despite the Constitution and its spirit.

V. The Pahlavis (1921-1979)

1. Reza Shah (1925-1941)

In 1921 there was a coup d’etat in Iran, whereby two men, a journalist named Seyyed Ziaeddin Tabatabai, and a brigadier named Reza Khan, came to power. Seyyed Ziaeddin lasted three months. Reza Khan, however, remained to play a pivotal role in Iran’s future development.

Reza Khan’s rise to power had a lot to do with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia. The Iranian armed forces had mostly been commanded and led by Czarist Russian officers until the Bolshevik Revolution. After the Revolution, the Bolsheviks called back the Russian officers. This opened the way for a number of Iranian officers, including Reza Khan, to rise quickly through the ranks. By 1921, Reza Khan was in command of the forces in the city of Qazvin, near Tehran. He was thus positioned to move into the capital.

Once in control of the capital, Reza Khan was appointed by Ahmad Shah, the last Qajar king, as Sardar Sepah, or general of the army. Later, he was also made minister of war. By l925 Reza Shah had reestablished central control over tribal khans and provincial potentates whose rebellious behavior threatened to dismember the country. He had also strengthened his political control by astutely playing various factions, including the clergy, against each other. Thus, he made himself indispensable: the question was whether Iran would become a republic with him as president, or it would remain a monarchy, with him as king. At the end, the clergy tilted the scale in favor of monarchy because they feared the antireligious policies a republic might adopt. On December 15, l925, Reza Khan took the oath of office before a constituent assembly that had elected him king and on the 16th he was publicly proclaimed the first of the Pahlavi dynasty.

As the new king of Iran, Reza Shah set out to reform some of the basic structures of Iranian government and society. He was helped by a group of outstanding individuals who formulated and administered the new policies. They introduced a new system of law based on French jurisprudence. They reformed the structure of governmental administration, particularly in finances and taxation. And in education, which was hitherto the province of the Shii clergy, they introduced secular curricula, modeled after the European system. For the first time in modern Iranian history, a university was established in Tehran, which became the forerunner of other institutions of higher learning in the country.

Iranian women, like women in most parts of the world, had lived under strenuous social and legal confinements throughout their history. The political awakening of Iranians during the Constitutional Revolution and after also entailed sporadic demands for social, legal and cultural rights for women. These demands emphasized education for girls, who, in the past, had been systematically kept out of existing religious schools. Now, with the introduction of modern schools and curricula, women’s education became possible and parents were encouraged to send their daughters to school. Parallel to this, steps were taken to train teachers for both boys and girls. But the most daring step taken by Reza Shah was the unveiling of women in 1936. The religious hierarchy never forgave Reza Shah for this act, which it considered to be a sacrilege.

Recognizing the importance of education for the future of Iran, Reza Shah sent many students to Europe to learn modern science and technology. These students returned to Iran and formed the nucleus of the Iranian intellectual society after the Second World War.

Reza Shah ruled Iran with an iron fist. He followed the letter and form of the constitution, but not its spirit. He directed and supervised everything personally. He held everyone accountable to his person for the affairs of state. The parliament, regularly elected by the people, ratified only the policy favored by the Shah. Nevertheless, during his reign Iran made significant social and economic progress, until the march was interrupted by the Allied occupation of Iran in 1941.

2. Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1979)

When the Second World War broke out Iran declared its neutrality. Nevertheless, the Allies entered Iran after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza, who became king at the age of 22, when the country was under foreign occupation.

The war was hard on Iran. It devastated the country economically. Politically, the tight discipline of the Reza Shah period gave way to a form of popular democracy bordering on chaos. Numerous political parties emerged–some of them were established by the new ideologues of the right and the left, but most by the traditional notables or, even, by ordinary people. Newspapers mushroomed. It was an exciting but also dangerous time.

Iran’s old foes, England and Russia, now the Soviet Union, were again present on the scene, this time as occupiers. For the first time, Americans had also come to Iran in force. Many Iranians wished to engage them in Iranian politics as a “third force,” to offset the dangers posed by the Soviets and the British.

The Russians had a long history of imperialism in Iran, which brought them into head-on opposition with Iranian nationalism. During the War, the Soviet Union helped establish the Communist Tudeh Party and organized various separatist movements, particularly in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. At the end of the War, contrary to the agreements made with Iran and the Allies, the Soviets refused to leave the country unless they received certain concessions in oil and other commodities. The controversy lasted many months, but at the end, a strong ultimatum by the United States coupled with an imaginative Iranian diplomatic maneuver convinced them to leave Iran in l946. Immediately afterwards the secessionist governments collapsed before the advancing Iranian army.

Freed of Soviet occupation, Iranian nationalism had to face the challenge of British colonialism. The British had an old concession on Iranian oil which they managed under the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This concession was contrary to Iranian interests, not only economically, but also politically since the British used it to influence Iranian politics. Under the leadership of the nationalist leader, Mohammad Mosaddeq, Iranians abrogated the concession, which led at once to domestic and international turmoil.

Iran nationalized its oil but was not able to market it, because the United States joined Britain in opposing any country that wished to buy Iranian oil. Mosaddeq insisted on the letter and spirit of the law of nationalization. Meanwhile, the Iranian national economy and government finances grew progressively worse. The communists grew in power. Many of Mosaddeq’s former allies left him, because they feared an impending national disintegration that would lead to a communist take-over. The fear of a communist take-over was also shared by the U.S. and British governments, which joined Mosaddeq’s Iranian foes in urging the Shah to take action. The Shah finally dismissed Mosaddeq in the summer of 1953, but Mosaddeq refused to leave office. The Shah left the country, and for three days there was chaos. On the fourth day Mosaddeq’s government fell and soon after the Shah returned to Iran.

Although Mosaddeq’s fall was a result of diverse economic and political causes, many Iranians considered the U.S. involvement, in particular the CIA, as the deciding factor. The episode created a rift in the Iranian body politic that was never healed. It came back to haunt Iran a quarter of a century later at the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1978-79. But in between these years Iran experienced a remarkable economic and technological development.

Returning to Iran, the Shah decided to take power into his own hands. By the early 1960s he seemed firmly in command. In 1963 he introduced a six-point reform program, which he called the “White Revolution.” Among other things, the program proposed to use military conscripts to promote literacy, hygiene and nutrition, and agricultural productivity in the Iranian villages.

The most controversial and consequential principles of the White Revolution were land reform and women’s suffrage. Large private land holdings as well as large tracts of land in religious endowments were distributed among certain categories of peasants. The women’s right to vote became a springboard for far reaching policies to improve the condition of women in the country. Women suffrage encouraged women to work harder to achieve more equal rights and treatment for women. Some of the women groups united to form the Women’s Organization of Iran–an institution that influenced the passage of laws and took other appropriate measures to bring about greater participation for women in socioeconomic and political spheres. Coupled with an influx of western values, these movements and policies elicited the clergy’s united opposition. Some, like the fundamentalist radicals, voiced their opposition openly and dramatically. Others, following the Shii doctrine of taqiyyeh, or dissimulation, which allows acquiescence under duress, nurtured their opposition quietly.

During these years Iran’s economy developed significantly. In the 50 years between 1926 and 1976 Iran’s gross national product (GNP) rose 700 times, per capita income rose 200 times, and domestic capital formation increased by a factor of 3400 times. Much of this growth had occurred since 1960. By 1978, Iranian per capita income, about $85 in 1941, had reached nearly $2,400 and was projected to reach $6,000 by the mid-1990s. Most important, Iran seemed to have achieved a minimum nucleus of scientific cadres that would allow it to engage in productive and innovative scientific work inside the country.

Iranian economic and social development, however, occurred in a difficult international milieu. Marxist-Leninist doctrines were still used as powerful ideological weapons, and the Soviet Union played an aggressive role on the international scene. Nevertheless, the relations with the Soviet government improved over the years as Iran pursued a policy of “positive equilibrium” between the two superpowers. But Iran was in the Western camp and, given its geographic proximity and historical experience with the Soviet Union, used American power to offset the Soviet threat. The resulting close relationship between Iran and the United States irked the Soviet Union, which, in turn, made Iran wary of Soviet intentions. The Soviet and communist threat, in turn, was used as an excuse to limit political freedom in Iran.

Thus, during the 1970s, the Shah and his government came under increasing attacks by the left and the right. They reacted by accelerating the rate of economic growth, which led to high inflation, and by moving toward a one-party political system, which reduced political freedom. These policies made the regime politically weak and vulnerable to serious challenge. The pressure was intensified when the United States, under President Jimmy Carter, adopted a policy of promoting human rights. Faced with forces that were united by the Ayatollah Khomeini under the banner of religion, and unwilling to use the full might of its armed forces to quell the opposition, the Shah’s regime fell in February of 1979.

VI. The Islamic Republic of Iran (1979- )

The Revolution of 1978-79 led first to Mohammad Reza Shah’s departure from Iran on January 16, 1979, and then to the collapse of the 2600 year-old Iranian monarchy on February 11, 1979. The leading force in this revolution was the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shii fundamentalist religious leader who had fought for many years against the Shah and his regime. A new regime, named the Islamic Republic of Iran, was established under an Islamic Constitution.

The distinguishing characteristic of the current constitution is the formal insistence on the primacy of Islam in all matters relating to the individual and society. This principle was encapsulated in the concept of the velayat-e faqih, which, loosely translated, means the government of the religious jurist. The Shii fundamentalists argue that all man-made laws must conform to the law of God as revealed in the Holy Book. Sine only the trained religious jurists know the external and the “hidden” meanings of the revealed law, they have the final authority to determine the validity of all human decisions, including the decisions about government and politics. This interpretation of law and politics has become a matter of contention between the regime and those Iranians who believe that individuals have the right to come together in a civil society and, as sovereign citizens, make their own laws on the basis of mutually agreed democratic principles and procedures.

The new regime was determined to destroy the existing political, social, economic and military structures. It executed many of the leaders of the prerevolutionary system, including many among its military personnel. Contrary to the Shah’s regime which sought international ties, the new regime denounced both the East and the West, particularly the United States, which it condemned as the “Great Satan.” One outcome of this attitude was the taking of the American diplomats in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran as hostage in 1979. Another was that Iran became a pariah in the international community of nations.

The destruction of the military organization, domestic turmoil and international isolation on the one hand, and the regime’s belligerent revolutionary propaganda against other regimes, on the other, made the country weak and a target of foreign aggression. Taking Iran to be an easy prey, Saddam Hussein of Iraq attacked Iran in 1980. The war lasted eight years, killing and maiming millions on both sides, and destroying much of Iran’s economic infrastructure.

Women particularly suffered as a result of the Islamic Revolution. They lost many of the rights they had gained during the previous years. Their participation in government and business was curtailed. They were segregated from men in public places and were forced, once again, to wear the veil. They were publicly flogged for failing to observe adequately the dress code set by the regime.

When Khomeini died in 1989, the Iranian economy was a shambles. There was high inflation and high unemployment. Many factories were closed or worked at much less than full capacity. Instead of improving over the years, per capita income had dropped from about $2400 before the revolution to a figure below $800. Population was rising at one of the highest rates in the world, while academic standards and facilities had drastically fallen. Millions of Iranians had left the country to live as political refugees in foreign lands, mostly in Europe and the United States.

Since the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in the summer of l989, the regime has taken certain steps toward moderation in domestic economic policy and international diplomacy. The Allies’ strong reaction to Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait seems to have accelerated the softening of the Islamic rules. The foundation of politics, however, is still the Islamic constitution and the principle of velayat-e faqih.

Study Questions

1. Why do you think the borders of Achaemenid empire stopped where it did?

2. What skill did the Persians have that made them good adminstrators for the Arabs in the Abbasid court?

3. Name at least two things the Safavid rulers did that left a permanent mark on Iranians and on Iran.

4. Before 1906, what kind of control do you think people in Iran had over Oajar kings?

5. Overall, how did the development of the oil fields in Iran affect its economy in the 20th century?

6. How did the government of Iran change after the Islamic Revolution of 1979?

Language and Literature

Teacher

Jerome W. Clinton

The Persian Language

Persian is an Indo-European language. Although geographically it is a language of the Middle East, its grammar and basic vocabulary are simiar to those of major languages of Europe, including English.

Modern Persian is the name used to distinguish the language currently in use in Iran from two earlier forms of Persian: Old Persian (about 500 B.C. to 350 B.C.) and Middle Persian (about 350 to 650 C.E.). Old Persian was one of the official languages of the court of Cyrus and Darius, but it survives in only a few monumental inscriptions. If there was a literature in Old Persian, we have no direct evidence of it. There was an extensive literature in Middle Persian, but it has survived only insofar as it was translated into Modern Persian and other languages.

Modern Persian, or New Persian as it is sometimes called, is the form of the language that became current after the Arab and Islamic conquest of Iran in the seventh century. After the conquest, the Arabic language gained currency among the Iranian elites and had a profound and far-reaching impact on the languages of ordinary life as well. Modern Persian is essentially an Arabized and Islamized development of Middle Persian that is written in the Arabic alphabet. It grew up as a camp and court language which served as the means of communication between Arabs and Iranians, and between the speakers of various Iranian dialects who came together in the courts of the Arab rulers and their Muslim Iranian clients.

Our earliest examples of Modern Persian date from the ninth century. By the end of the tenth it was already richly varied literary language, and such it has remained down to the present day. There have been significant alterations in the grammar, syntax, and lexicon of Modern Persian throughout this period , as is inevitable in any living language. As a consequence, the language of classical Persian literature – 10th and 15th centuries – is enough unlike the language of present day Iran to be better described as a dialect, much as the language of Shakespeare is a different dialect than that of twentieth century America. Different, that is, but widely studied and understood.

At present Modern Persian enjoys the statusof official language in three countries: Iran, where it is called farsi and is the native language of over half the population; Afghanistan, where it is called dari, or farsi dari and shares official status with Pushtu; and the Republic of Tajikstan, where it is called tojiki, and is the official “national” language of the republic. In addition, Persian is studied as one of the major vehicles of Islamic cultur in universities from Morocco to Indonesia, and enjoys particular esteem in India where it was displaced by English as the official language of education and government only in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Persian Literature

Persian literature has a long, complex and remarkable history. There were poets of note at the courts of Cyrus and Darius in the 5th century B.C., and many of the stories of the Iranian national epic, the Shahnameh, seem to belong to an even earlier time. Unfortunately, originals of most of the stories and poems from these earlier periods of Iran’s history, like the originals of most the stories and poems from these earlier periods of Iran’s history, like the languages they were writte in, have largely been lost, although some were preserved through translation into Greek, Arabic, and New Persian. The only period of Persian literature which we know in detail is that which begins after the Islamic conquest of Iran in the seventh century C.E. This period is a vast one and obviously can be subdivided into more comprehensible units.

First there was a period of transition that extended for two centuries after the conquest, when virtually nothing was written and when Modern Persian was in the process of being formed. Next there was a classical or golden age when many of the most famous works of Persian letters were composed. The golden age begins with Rudaki (d. 940-1), a master of both lyric and narrative poetry whose work has only survived in very fragmentary form, and ends with Hafez (d. 1390) the greatest master of short lyric poem (ghazal) in Persian.

The golden age was followed by a silver one whose poets, though often remarkably fluent, are not now so highly esteemed as their predecessors. This silver age, which dates roughly from the time of Jami (d.1492), continued on through the nineteenth century and is marked by the importation of such western literary forms as the novel, short story and play, and the modernization of the Persian literary language.

In the pre-modern or classical period, literature really meant poetry, but poetry took a number of forms. The first of these to produce a work of genius was the national epic, a long narrative poem known as the Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings. The Shahnameh is a momumental work of nearly 50,000 couplets, which contains several cycles of stories about shahs, both legendary and historical, who ruled Iran, the heroes who served them and the villains who challenged their rule. The poet who gave the Shahnameh its definitive poetic form was Abolqasem Ferdowsi (d. 1020). So comprehensive and brilliant was his rendering of these stories that his Shahnameh has come to stand for the whole tradition.

The only story from the Shahmaneh that is best known in the west is that of the tragic encounter between Sohrab, who was separated from his father at birth, sets out while still a youth to seek him. Rostam, the greatest hero of the poem, knows that he has a son, but does not know that he has already grown to maturity. When they meet, neither is willing to reveal his true identity to the other since each suspects the other of deceit. Only after Rostam has given Sohrab a mortal wound does he learn that it is his son he has slain. This passage from Ferdowsi’s The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam describes their first battle.

Upon the Field of war they chose a narrow

Space to meet, and fought with shortened lance. When neither points nor bindings held,

They reined their horses in and turned aside,

And then with Indian swords renewed their fight,

Sparks pouring from their iron blades like rain.

With such blows they shattered both their polished swords.

Such blows as these will fall on Judgement Day.

And then each hero seized his heavy mace.

The battle had now wearied both their arms.

Although their mounts were panting and both heros

Were in pain, they bent them with their might.

The armor flew from their two steeds; the links

That held their coats of mail burst wide apart.

Both mounts stood still; nor could their masters move.

Not one could lift a hand or arm to fight.

Their bodies ran with sweat, dirt filled their mouths,

And heat and thirst had split their tongues. Once more

They faced each other on that plain – the son

Exhausted and the father weak with pain.

Oh, World! How strange your workings are! From you

Comes both what’s broken and what’s whole.

Of these two men, not one was stirred by love.

Wisdom was far off, the face of love not seen.

From fishes in the sea, to wild horses on

The plain, all beasts can recognize their young.

But man, who’s blinded by his wretched pride,

Alas, cannot distinguish son from foe. (675-688)

Persian has a number of lyric forms, but most notable of these is ghazal, which has striking similarities with the English sonnet. Like the sonnet, the ghazel is essentially a love poem that depends for its success on the skillful manipulation of highly refined language and conventional metaphors – cheeks like roses, teeth like pearls, and so on. Unlike the sonnet, it is permeated by a mysticism in which the beloved that the poet yearns for so eloquently is a metaphor of the divine. Virtually every Persian poet has tried his hand at ghazal, but by common consent the most remarkable master of the form is Hafez of Shiraz. Unfortunately, the qualities that mark his poems as exceptional are so intimately and essentially a part of the Persian language itself that no one yet has been able to translate his works into English with much success. This version by Elizabeth Daryush, from Arberry’s HafizFifty Poems, captures something of the lyrical intensity of the original, however.

Where is the piou doer? and I the estray’d one, where?

Behold how far the distance, from his safe home to here!

Dark is the stony desert, trackless and vast and dim,

Where is hope’s guiding latern? Where is faith’s star to fair?

My heart fled from the cloister, and the chant of the monkish hymn,

What can avail me sainthood, fasting and punctual prayer?

What is the truth shall light me to heaven’s strait thoroughfare?

Whither, o heart, thou hastest? Arrest thee, and beware!

See what a lone adventure is thine unending quest!

Fraught with what danger! Arrest thee, and beware!

Say not, O friend, to Hafez, “Quiet thee now and rest!”

Calm and content, what are they? Patience and peace, O where?

Although the quatrain (roba’i) is a briefer, less highly regarded form of ghazal, it is because of FitzGerald’s astonishingly successful translation of The Rubiat of Omar Khayyam, the Persian lyric form best known in the west. Khayyam (1048-1131) was, in fact, more famous in his own time as a mathematician and astronomer, and many of the poems that bear his name were written by other poets, but in English his name stands for Persian poetry itself.

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night

Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:*

And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught

The Sultan’s turret in a Noose of Light.

*Flinging a Stone into a cup was the signal for “To Horse!” in the desert. (FitzGerald note.)

Come, fill the Cup, and the Fire of Spring

The winter garment of Repentance fling:

The Bird of Time has but little way

To fly – and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

Jalaluddin Rumi, the greatest Persian mystical poet, is best known for his Masnavi, a vast and rich compendium of mystical tales that is widely known throughout the Islamic world. Rumi, however, was a prolific author, who was also a master of shorter lyrics, including both the ghazal and roba’i.

Friend, our closeness is this:

Anywhere you put your foot, feel me

In the firmness under you.

How is it with this love,

I see your world and not you?

I reach for a piece of wood. It turns into a lute.

I do some meanness. It turns out to be helpful.

I say one must travel during the holy month.

Then I start out, and wonderful things happen.

Mysticism, or Sufism, is also an essential element in romantic and didactic Persian narrative poetry. And there are essentially two streams, the mystical romance and the collection of short tales. The best example of the former is surely Nezami’s Layli and Majnun, a tale of star-crossed lovers that is widely popular in the East as Romeo and Juliet is in the West. In the latter category, the first real masterpiece of the form is the Manteq ot-Tayr of Farid od-Din Attar, and the most famous work by far is the Masnavi by Jalaloddin Rumi (d.1273), already mentioned. The following anecdote is taken from Attar’s work. This examples from Darvandi and Davis’s translation of The Conference of the Birds retells an incident from the story of Joseph, which appears in the Qur’an as well as the Old Testament.

The Old Woman Who Wanted to Buy Joseph

When Joseph was for sale, the market place

Teemed with Egyptians wild to see his face;

So many gathered there from dawn to dusk

The asking price was five whole tubs of musk.

An ancient crone pushed forward – in her hand

She held a few threads twisted strand by strand;

She brandished them and yelled with all her might:

“Hey, you, seller of the Canaanite!

I’m mad with longing for this lovely child-

I’ve spun these threads for him he drives me wild!

You take the threads and I’ll take him away-

Don’t argue now, I haven’t got all day!”

The merchant laughed and said: “Come on, old girl,

It’s not for you to purchase such a pearl-

His value is reckoned up in gold and jewels;

He can’t be sold for threads to ancients fools!”

“O, I knew that before,” the old crone said;

“I knew you wouldn’t sell him for my thread-

But it’s enough that everyone will say

‘She bid for Joseph on that splendid day’.”

The heart that does not strive can never gain

The endless kingdom’s gates and lives in vain;

It was pure aspiration made a king

Set fire to all he owned – everything –

And when his goods vanished without a trace

A thousand kingdoms sprang up in their place.

When noble aspiration seized his mind,

He left the world’s corrupted wealth behind –

Can one who craves the sun be satisfied

With petty ignorance? Is this his guide?

 

Persians have long taken delight in the tale which teaches a moral, especially when the tale is vividly told and the moral has wide application. The most popular example of this kind of literature is the Golestan (Rosegarden) of Saadi (d. 1292), a work that is widely read and imitated. Emerson wrote a preface to the first American publication of Saadi’s Rosegarden, and some of his pithy homilies even found their way in to Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. The tales vary in length a good deal, and all contain a mixture of poetry and rhymed prose. The virtues they celebrate are ones we all recongize and respect- honesty, justice, generosity, humor, and a quick wit.

Study Questions

1. In the poem by Rudaki, what doe he mean “for every rope a noose, though the noose be long enough for some”?

2. What do you think Ferdowsi is trying to tell us in the excerpt from the Shahnameh about haw deceit and pride affect our lives? Do you think Rostam and Sohrab waould have fought is they had known they were father and son?

3. Look up the passages in the Bible (Book of Genesis from Chapter 37 to the end) and the Koran (Sura XII) concerning Joseph. How do they differ?

4. In the passage from Mantiq ut-Tayr quoted here, which lines are humorous? What is the moral of the story?

5. In the poem by Farrokhzad, she compares people and a bird. Why is she apparently envious of the bird?

Student

Literature

Persian poetry has been one of the primary art forms in Iranian Culture for the past eleven hundred years. Iranians have always deighted in teling tales and giving moral lessons through poetry. Many people, even people with little formal education, memorize huge amounts of poetry and enjoy reciting it at family gatherings or for their friends. The poems may be enjoyed by themselves or they may be used to illustrate events in people’s lives. Poets are so revered that in all the larger cities, some streets have been named sfter famous poets, such as Ferdowsi or Saadi.

The Persian that is spoken in Iran today began to spoken after the Arab conquest in the seventh century A.D. The language is called Modern Persian. During these times poets often lived in the courts of the kings where their job was to tell stories, glorify kings, and give lessons and advice to the kings, princes, and other powerful people about how to be good and just. The earliest remaining examples of poetry in Modern Persian come from ninth century. One of these eary poets was Rudaki, who wrote:

Young or old we die

For every neck a noose

Though the rope be long for some,

Struggle or calm

Broke or a king

Life’s but wind- And a dream

Perhaps describing

Some other thing

And with the end

All will be the same again

And all will be well.

One of the greatest and best-known Persian poets was a man Abolqsem Ferdowsi, who lived about 1000 A.D. He put into verse the old legends of Iranian before the Arab conquest and before their conversion to Islam in a monumental epic poem called the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. It is 50,000 couplets long (a couplet is a poetic unit of two lines, rhyming at the end). The poem includes stories from the old Persian legends in which kings and heros sometimes dressed in animal skins and fought with demons, dragins, and all kinds of real and mythical beasts. The poetic story continues on up to historical times and ends with the Arab conquest of Iran. For Iranians the Shahnameh has always been one of their most beloved poems. The poem has also long been associated with Persian identity, distinuishing them from their neighbors from a time even before the advent of Islam.

One of the most famous of the stories in the Shahnameh concerns two legendary heros, Rostm and Sohrab, both enormously strong, courageous fighters. Rostam is Sohrab’s father, but the two have never met- they have never even seen pictures of one another. Each knows about the other, but when they face each other for the first time, it is on opposing sides of the battle field. Neither is willing to reveal his true identity to the other because each suspects the other of deceit. Only after Rostam has given Sohrab a mortal wound, does he discover it is his son he has slain. The following excerpt from the poem describes the fierce battle:

Upon the Field of war they chose a narrow

Space to meet, and fought with shortened lance. When neither points nor bindings held,

They reined their horses in and turned aside,

And then with Indian swords renewed their fight,

Sparks pouring from their iron blades like rain.

With such blows they shattered both their polished swords.

Such blows as these will fall on Judgement Day.

And then each hero seized his heavy mace.

The battle had now wearied both their arms.

Although their mounts were panting and both heros

Were in pain, they bent them with their might.

The armor flew from their two steeds; the links

That held their coats of mail burst wide apart.

Both mounts stood still; nor could their masters move.

Not one could lift a hand or arm to fight.

Their bodies ran with sweat, dirt filled their mouths,

And heat and thirst had split their tongues. Once more

They faced each other on that plain – the son

Exhausted and the father weak with pain.

Oh, World! How strange your workings are! From you

Comes both what’s broken and what’s whole.

Of these two men, not one was stirred by love.

Wisdom was far off, the face of love not seen.

From fishes in the sea, to wild horses on

The plain, all beasts can recognize their young.

But man, who’s blinded by his wretched pride,

Alas, cannot distinguish son from foe. (675-688)

 

Persians have written poetry on many subjects: love (both romantic love ad love of God), fate, and philosophy, for example. Most poetry is serious, but some contain an element of humor. Mystical poetry, or poetry exploring the relationship of humans to God and how humans know and love God, has been the subject of a great deal of Persian poetry. Farid un-Din Attar, a 13th century poet from eastern Ira, wrote many works on mysticism. His best known poem is called Manteq ot-Tayr, or Conference of the Birds. In this allegorical poem, a flock of birds go searching for their leader (a symbol for God). When, after many trials and difficulties, the flock finally reaches the leader, they see the beauty and the greatness of the leader reflected in all of them! Manteq ot-Tayr is full of moral lessons as well. Here is a sample based on the story of Joseph which occurs in both the Old Testament in the Bible and the Muslim holy book, the Koran. (Like the Shahnameh, this poem is all in end-rhyming couplets. Here, the talented transator has transformed rhyming Persian into rhyming English!)

The Old Woman Who Wanted to Buy Joseph

When Joseph was for sale, the market place

Teemed with Egyptians wild to see his face;

So many gathered there from dawn to dusk

The asking price was five whole tubs of musk.

An ancient crone pushed forward – in her hand

She held a few threads twisted strand by strand;

She brandished them and yelled with all her might:

“Hey, you, seller of the Canaanite!

I’m mad with longing for this lovely child-

I’ve spun these threads for him he drives me wild!

You take the threads and I’ll take him away-

Don’t argue now, I haven’t got all day!”

The merchant laughed and said: “Come on, old girl,

It’s not for you to purchase such a pearl-

His value is reckoned up in gold and jewels;

He can’t be sold for threads to ancients fools!”

“O, I knew that before,” the old crone said;

“I knew you wouldn’t sell him for my thread-

But it’s enough that everyone will say

‘She bid for Joseph on that splendid day’.”

The heart that does not strive can never gain

The endless kingdom’s gates and lives in vain;

It was pure aspiration made a king

Set fire to all he owned – everything –

And when his goods vanished without a trace

A thousand kingdoms sprang up in their place.

When noble aspiration seized his mind,

He left the world’s corrupted wealth behind –

Can one who craves the sun be satisfied

With petty ignorance? Is this his guide?

 

Another collection of moral tales that is very popular with Iranians down to the preset day is the Golestan of Saadi, a poet wh lved in the city of Shiraz in the 13th century. Golestan means ‘rose garden’ and the title means that the collection of short poems and rhymed prose is like a bouquet of sweet-smelling flowers. The tales celebrate virtues we all recognize and respect- honesty, justice, generosity, and quick wit. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a preface to the first american Emglish translation of Saadi’s Golestan, and some of his pithy stories even found their way into Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Here is one rose for you to smell:

An unjust king once asked a dervish, “What kind of worship is best?” “For you, sleep,” the dervish replied, “so the people may have some rest from your tyranny.”

I saw a tyrant once who slept for half the day. “Sleep on!” I said, ” so your evil may doze as well.” He was a better ruler aleep than awake! Suck kings should seek their rest beneath the earth.

Persian poets wrote poems on themes and topics discussed so far in the 1800s. Then as Iranians became familiar with Western literatures, they began to use prose as well as poetry to express their ideas in writing. By the twentieth century, Iranian writers had begun to write novels, short stories, plays and essays, as well as poetry. Now, in addition to some of the traditonal poetic themes, writers of poetry and prose discuss the struggle for greater freedom, social justice, and women’s rights.

One of the most famous twentieth century poets was a women, Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967). Her poems discuss how she felt about being a girl and a woman in Persian society, and many of her poems are critical of that society. Many people were outraged at the frankness with which she talked about her feelings in the poems; other people regarded the poems as revolutionary. Unfortunately, Farrokhzad died in a automobile crash when she was only 32 years old.

The Bird was Only a Bird

The bird said: “What smells what sunshine, ah spring has come/ And I will go searching for my mate.”/ The bird flew away from the portico’s edge/ Like a message it flew off and disappeared.

The bird was small/ The bird did not think/ The bird did not read the paper/ The bird was not in debt/ The bird did not know people.

The bird flew through the air above the red lights/ At the height of oblivion/ And experienced madly/ Blue moments.

The bird, ah, was only a bird.

Persian Proverbs

The bowl is hotter than the stew.

He got out of the pit and fell into the well.

Wherever there is a stone, a lame foot will find it.

The drowning man is not troubled by the rain.

The arrow that has left the bow will never return.

Death is the camel that lies down at every door

No lamp burns ’til morning.

Behind every smile lies two hundred tears.

Don’t make a rope of hair.

Walls have mice and mice have ears.

Don’t sell the bearskin before you have caught the bear.

The dog is a lion in his own house.

He who treats his mother badly will do worse to another.

When the snake is old, the frog will tease him.

I speak to the door, but the wall may listen.

The mud that you throw will fall on your head.

The snake must be straight to enter the hole.

When the cat and the mouse agree, the grocer is ruined.

Distance preserves friendship.

You cannot clap with one hand.

Glossary

Epic poem– A long narrative poem.

Allegory– a story or a picture which illustrates an idea.

Musk– A greasy secretion of the male musk deer used in perfume.

Pithy– Speech which is precise and short.

Crone– An old lady.

Prose– Ordinary unpoetic speech or writing.

Dervish– A member of a Muslim religious order.

Portico– A kind of porch or walkway.

Arts

Teacher

Art and Architecture in Iran

Massoumeh Farhad

Architecture: Pre-Islamic (pre-7th century)

Most of the surviving architecture of pre-7th century was built by order of kings of the Achaemenids or their successors, the Sasnians. The structures are primarily palaces, ceremonial buildings, tombs, and inscriptions on rock walls.

The most impressive example of ancient Iranian architecture is undoubtedly Persepolis or Takhte-Jamshid (see slide of Persepolis in the slide set), located in the south-western Iran near the modern city of Shiraz.

Persepolis was completed in the 5th century B.C. by three different rulers. It was constructed out of huge blocks of stone on a platform that measured about thirty-three acres and in some places reached sixty feet in height. The palace complex included a treasury, private royal residences and two very large audience rooms. One was called the Apadana, where the king could receive as many as ten thousand people, and the other, the Hall of a Hundred Columns, served as the throne room. It has been suggested that the Persepolis was built mainly to celebrate Noruz, the Persian New Year, held on the first day of spring.

Apart from its grand scale, Persepolis also stands out for its architectural decoration. Gigantic mythological creatures guarded various entrances, while processions of men bringing gifts from various parts of the vast Iranian empire were carved on the walls. The most impressive example of such a procession can still be seen on the large staircase leading to the platform. Originally, many of these low-relief carvings were painted gold, red, blue, and green, much like Greek architectural decoration.

When Alexander the Great invaded Iran in the 4th century B.C., he burned down Persepolis, but enough of the structure has survived to show how ancient Iranian kings used architecture to express the power and grandeur of their rule.

Architecture: Islamic architecture in Iran

The introduction of Islam to Iran called for the constitution of different types of buildings, primarily religious ones. Although royal palaces were still built, they were not on the same scale as Persepolis and a few of them have survived.

The most important religious buildings in Iran is the mosque where people gather not only for prayer but also to meet and rest. The earliest Iranian mosques were quite simple and consisted of a hall supported by columns. From the end of the 11th century, however, Iran developed its own mosque style. This consisted of an open courtyard surrounded by a vaulted arcade on all four sides (see slide of the Shah’s mosque in Isfahan). In the center of each side was a hall known as eyvan that opened into the courtyard. The eyvan’s arched entrance was set in a brick frame to add to its height. These eyvans have also given their name to this particular mosque-plan which is known as the four-eyvan plan.

During prayer, Muslims are required to face the direction of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. This direction is known as the qibleh, and was marked by a niche, or mehrab, built on the qibeh wall. The chamber of sanctuary is reached through one of four eyvans which is usually larger than the other three as in the impressive Friday Mosque of Isfahan.

Another feature of Persian mosques are their tall minuets. People used to give the call for prayer from these towers. Finally, a small pool in the center of the mosque courtyard allows worshipers to perform the necessary ablutions (ritual washings) before prayer.

The most common no-religious structure in Iran was the caravanserai, providing accommodation for merchants and other travelers up into this twentieth century. Caravanserais were located either in town near the bazaar or along the various trade routes throughout the country. Like a typical Iranian mosque, the caravanserai had a large open courtyard in the center, often with a pool, surrounded by a one or two-storied arcade. It also included a larger hall (eyvan) with mehrab served as place for prayer. The building also had space for stables, stores-rooms, baths, and latrines to accommodate the travelers’ every need.

One of the most important characteristics of Iranian architecture is its decoration. For instance, baked brick was used not only for construction but also to create complicated geometric patterns and bands of calligraphy on the inside and outside of buildings. Another important decorative feature of some Iranian buildings is the muqarnasMurqarnas are pointed niches placed in rows one above the other in order to hide the transition of a square hall to its domed ceiling. Because these niches appear to be hanging in space, they are often compared to stalactites.

In the 13th century, bricks glazed in a variety of colors such as blue, green, white, yellow were introduced to add color to Iranian architectural decoration. They were painstakingly cut, and like a mosaic, combined into a variety of designs and patterns. The most celebrated of these is called the arabesque. It consists of intricate, intertwined scrolls of flowers, buds and leaves, often covering entire buildings. Later, Iranian architects and craftsmen also decorated their buildings with multi-colored tiles. This second technique was less time-consuming and laborious then creating designs out of individual glazed bricks.

The Art of the Object

Except for the surviving sculptural decorations of pre-Islamic period, Iran never developed an art of sculpture such as exists elsewhere. Instead, artists concentrated on portable objects made in ceramic, wood, metal, glass, and decorated these with calligraphy, arabesque designs, human and animal figures.

The best known Iranian portable “objects” are the famed rugs and textiles (see rugs in slide set) that have been appreciated in the west for a long time. Iranian carpets are made up of knotted strands of wool, silk, or a combination of the two; the smaller the knot the finer the quality of the rug. Some rugs have a pile, while others, known as kilim, are flat woven, much like a tapestry.

Rug designs show a tremendous variety: They can be geometric as in the case of kilims or carry intricate arabesque designs. Others resemble a typical Iranian garden with a “waterway” dividing the carpet into squares filled with different types of real or imaginary flowers and plants. Still others combine figures, animals and abstract designs in most imaginative ways. In traditional houses, these rugs were used not only as the main floor but also as the main furnishing. Rugs also served as floor covering outside the house.

The Art of the Book

The book holds a special significance in Iran because of its association with the Koran, the Muslim holy script that contains God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad. The central importances of the Koran to the Muslims meant that utmost care went into its writing or calligraphy is the most highly regarded art in Iran and other Muslim countries.

The earliest copies of the Koran were written in an angular script known as Kufic. Later this script was replaced by the more legible cursive script that is still in use today. The Koran was never illustrated but its pages, in particular those at the beginning, were often decorated with abstract designs in gold. These decorations are known as illumination and ca also be seen in texts other than the Koran.

Contrary to common belief, the Koran itself does not prohibit the painting of human figures. Some later theologians, however, did try to ban such representations in order to prevent idol worshipping. Figural painting never appeared in religious buildings, but could be seen in royal palaces and private houses. Most importantly, they were included in manuscripts (hand-written books), except the Koran and other purely religious texts.

Traditional Iranian painting consists primarily of book illustrations. (Iranian artists only began painting with oil paints in the18th century when they became increasingly familiar with Western art.) Because the size of traditional Iranian paintings depended on that of the book, they were relatively small and are commonly known as miniatures. These illustrations were either set in a “window” within the text itself or filled an entire page.

Among the most outstanding features of these paintings are their rich colors and last minute details. Instead of creating the effect of light and shade as in Western works of art, the Iranian artists showed their figures in bright, even light, creating jewel-like surfaces. Elegant figures, dressed in sumptuous costumes, were shown in lush landscape setting or in elaborately decorated buildings. Hunting expeditions, scenes of battle as well as royal receptions were also common. Unlike Western or Chinese artists, Iranian miniature painters rarely painted pure landscape compositions.

The most frequently illustrated work in Iran was the Shahnameh or the Book of Kings, the Iranian national epic. Its stories deal with the life and deeds of real and mythical kings and heroes of Iran’s ancient past. Other poetic works, medical, and scientific texts and histories were also illustrated.

Copying and illustrating a Shahnameh or any other work was very time-consuming and expensive. These manuscripts were usually specifically ordered by the ruler, his family or other important and wealthy individuals. Many Iranian kings and princes had their own team of painters, calligraphers, and illuminators who were attached to their library. They were supervised by the head librarian.

The production of the manuscript was very much a collaborative effort and involved numerous members of the library. First, the paper was chosen and burnished with a smooth stone or agate. The calligrapher would then press thin lines into the surface in order to help him write. After he had made his ink and cut his reed pen, he would start copying the text, leaving room for the illustrations. Once he had completed his work, either he or another artist would decorate the boarders of the text with fine colored rulings. At this stage, the blank pages were handed over the painter.

Like the calligrapher, the painter was also responsible for his materials. He had to prepare his colors, which included grinding gold, copper, semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli. He also made his own paint brushes and some of these consisted of only a few squirrel or kitten hairs, set into a quill (the main shaft of a feather).

The artist would first paint a faint outline of the composition and only then start applying color leaving the details to the end. If he wanted to correct his initial design, he could use white paint. Once his composition was completed, he would burnish the surface of the page for a last time in order to bring out the brightness of the colors, in particular the metallic ones. Having completed the text and its illustrations, the pages were sown into a beautiful binding, also carefully tooled and decorated. Only then was the illustrated manuscript ready for presentation.

Religion

Student

Islam in Iran

Bibliography

  • Chelkowski, Peter J., ed. Taziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran . New York University Press, 1979.
  • Danner, Victor. The Islamic Tradition. Warwick, N.Y. : Amity House, 1988.
  • Denny, Fredrick Mathewson. An Introduction to Islam. New York : Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985.
  • Kelly, Marjorie, ed. Islam: The Religious and Political Life of a World Community. New York : Praeger, 1984.
  • Tabataba’I, S.M.H. Shi’ite Islam. Albany : SUNY Press, 1975.

Further Study

  1. Although Iran is the only nationin the world where Shi’I Islam is the state religion, large numbers of Shi’is live in other Muslim countries. See if you can find three other countries where Shi’is are a majority or significant minority.
  2. Look at the section on “Teachings” in this section. See if you can name three ways in which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are similar.
  3. Look up the word “mysticism” in a dictionary or encyclopedia. See if you can find out something about mysticism in two other major religions.
  4. What other religion(s) has passion plays associated with it? To what country might you travel to see them?

Charlotte Albright

Islam is the religion of a majority of people in a band of countries extending from northern Africa, through the Middle East, Central Asia, and Pakistan, to Indonesia and the southern Philippines . Iran is one of the countries in that group. The more than one billion Muslims of the world can be divided into two major groups: Sunni and Shi’i. Most Iranians are Shi’I Muslims. To understand how these two major groups of Muslims came into existence, we need to look first at the origins of Islam itself, then Shi’I Islam as practiced in Iran .

The Origins of Islam

Before the advent of Islam in the 7th century C.E. (Christian Era, the same as A.D.) the Arab people were divided into a large number of tribes. Most of them were nomads, while a few lived in towns. They knew about the Jewish prophets and the Christ, and some followed Judaism and Christianity, but for the most part they worshipped idols carved from stone.

According to Islamic belief, God chose Muhammad to be the Last of the Prophets. God sent the angel Gabriel to Muhammad to reveal his message. After Muhammad’s death the revelations to Muhammad from God were written in a book known as the Koran, or Qur’an (the “Recitation”). Because Muhammad spoke Arabic and because the Koran was revealed and then written in Arabic, Arabic became the sacred language of Islam. All Muslims know at least a few words of Arabic so that they can say their required prayers in that language. During most of their history scholars in Muslim countries have considered Arabic to be the primary language of learning.

When Muhammad, commonly called “the Prophet,” began preaching the new religion to the inhabitants of his home town of Mecca , most people made fun of him. When some people accepted his message, the others began to persecute him and his followers. Gradually the clarity of his teachings and his ownprime example attracted a large number of people to his cause. One of the first to accept the new faith was his young cousin Ali. In 622 C.E., the Prophet migrated to Medina, a town north of Mecca . The year of his migration to Medina (called hijra in Arabic) marked a major turning point for the new religion because there Muhammad established the first community of believers and he became a ruler in addition to being a prophet. The year of the hijra became year 1 of the Muslim calendar.

Ultimately, Muhammad and the Muslims returned victorious to Mecca . By the time of his death in 632, most of the Arabs in the Arabian peninsula had accepted Islam and the Arab tribes were united for the first time in recorded history. Those inhabitants of Arabia who were already “People of the Book,” meaning Jews and Christians, were asked to convert.

The Origins of the Sunni/Shi’I Split

After the Prophet’s death, the community of Muslims faced the difficult task of finding a successor to rule. The majority elected Abu Bakr, one of the oldest and wisest of the Muslims, to be Muhammad’s successor. A minority of the Muslims believed that Muhammad had appointed the Prophet’s cousin Ali, who was now also his son-in-law, to rule the community. The majority view prevailed and Abu Bakr was chosen to be the first successor, or Caliph.

The Muslims who followed Abu Bakr as Caliph came to be called Sunnis. “Sunnah” means “customary or habitual procedure” in Arabic. Therefore, Sunnis are those who believe they follow the “customary procedure” of Muhammad. About 90% of Muslims worldwide are Sunnis. The Muslims who believed that Ali had been appointed to be the ruler of the Muslims came to be known as Shi’is. “Shi’I” comes from the Arabic word for “party” (as in political party) and is short for “shi’at ‘Ali,” or “party of Ali.”

Teachings

The word “Islam” means literally “submission” to God’s will. “Muslims” are those who submit to God’s will in following the teachings of Islam. After Muhammad’s death scholars of Koranic law studied the Koran and the teachings of Muhammad to determine God’s will for Muslims. The result of their study and deliberations was a code of Islamic law called “shari’a,” literally “the way,” or “path”. Ultimately, different schools of Islamic law developed in different major centers of scholarship. Today there are four Sunni schools of law and three Shi’I schools.

Islamic teachings can be divided into three basic categories: practical, doctrinal, and spiritual. Practice refers to what people do, doctrine to what they believe, and spirituality to their understanding of God and God’s love. The most important practices are called Islam’s “five pillars” and all come from the shari’a: People are expected to:

  1. acknowledge that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is his Messenger;
  2. perform the ritual prayer five times a day;
  3. fast by refraining from all food and drink during the daylight hours of Ramadan (one of the months of the Islamic calendar);
  4. donate a portion of their wealth each year to the poor and needy; and
  5. make a pilgrimage to the holy sanctuary of Islam (called the Ka`ba) in Mecca once in their lifetimes if they have the means to do so. Islamic law also provides guidelines for activities such as preparing food, buying and selling, marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

On the level of doctrine Islam tries to instill an understanding of the nature of reality. Here it sets down “three principles”: (1) God is one, (2) God sent prophets or messengers to mankind, and (3) human beings, having heard the words of God’s messengers, are responsible for their own actions. Muslims believe that God sent many thousands of prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, to remind people of their responsibilities toward him and toward other human beings. If people fail to observe their duties as God’s servants and representatives, the entire world, which has been entrusted to their care, will be corrupted and destroyed. After death, individuals will be asked to account for their actions. On the Day of Judgment, they will go to heaven or hell depending on how well they have fulfilled their responsibilities.

On the spiritual level Islam aims to have people love God above all else. Muslims would strive to desire for themselves only what God would desire for them. Love of God is seen as the basis for all human goodness, compassion, and justice.

Among the religions of the world there are many examples of mysticism, or the search for Knowledge of God. The general term for mysticism in the Muslim world is Sufism, and there have been many forms of Sufism throughout Muslim history and in different parts of the Muslim world. As with their mystics, Sufis (people who join one or another of the Sufi group) believe that there is a contrast between the appearance of the material (that is, physical) world and the reality of the inner, spiritual world. For Sufis, God is at the center of this inner world. But like the kernel of fruit, God is hidden. For a person to truly know God, he or she must cast off the outer, material world and embark on an inner, spiritual journey. Most people seeking to be Sufis find a master to help them find the way to God, which will also reveal to them their own true nature. An example of a Sufi group known to many people in the west are the Mevlevi, or whirling, dervishes of Turkey . Their twirling dance is part of their process for reaching a deeper understanding of the nature of God.

Islam in Iran

We will now turn our attention to some of the beliefs and practices that make Shi’I Islam in Iran unique. As you now know, Islam originated in the Arabian peninsula during the seventh century. The Sasanian empire, which controlled what is today Iran and parts of Caucasia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and modern Iraq at the time, fell to the Arab Muslims in 636 C.E. For over 800 years, most Iranian Muslims followed the Sunni branch of Islam. Then, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Shah Ismail, the founder of the Iranian Safavid dynasty, declared that, henceforth, Iran would be a Shi’I nation.

We have already seen that some Muslims, who later came to be called Shi’I, wanted Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali to be the leader after Muhammad died. Ultimately, Shi’is dropped any allegiance to the Sunni Caliphs and followed Ali and his descendants. Ali was not called “Caliph” by his Shi’I followers, rather he was called an “Imam,” and so were his descendants. Today in Iran , religious teachers may be called mujtahid, ayatollah or imam (with a small “I”).

Iranian Shi’is believe that there were 12 Imams. The first, of course, wa Ali. The second and third were his sons, Hasan and Husayn. The twelfth, known as “al-Mahdi,” is not supposed to have died, but rather disappeared. It is said that he will come again at the end of time as messiah. Shi’is have built beautiful shrines over the tombs of some of the Imams. Those in Mashhad in Iran and Karbala in Iraq are important places of pilgrimage for Shi’I Muslims.

Iranians tell an interesting story concerning the fall of the pre-Islamic Sasanians and the advent of Islam in Iran . According to legend the third Imam Husayn married the daughter of the last Sasanian king, Yazdegerd III. This marriage would have conveniently bestowed Persian royal legitimacy on Husayn and his heirs. People’s belief in this legend may have influenced the first Safavid Shah, Ismail, when he decided to declare Iran a Shi’I state. He probably also made this decision to distinguish Iran from its arch-rival, the Sunni Ottoman empire.

Muslims around the world observe Ramadan, the month of fasting, Eidl-e Fitr, the feast that marks the end of the month of fasting, and Eid-e Qurban, the feast of the Sacrifice. Shi’is also commemorate the death of Ali and the massacre of Husayn, Ali’s martyrdom took place during the month of Muharram in 680 C.E in what is today Iraq .

After Iran officially became a Shi’I nation in the early 16th century, Iranians began to observe the martyrdom of Husayn and his family in several ways. During the Muslim lunar month of Muharram, men would parade through the streets chanting poems of mourning and sometimes carry a bier (or casket) symbolizing Husayn’s death. Women could gather in a home to hear the stories of Husayn’s death chanted. Passion plays (special dramas to commemorate someone’s death) called ta’zieh were staged and became very popular. In thee dramas the people who killed Husayn and his family, such as Caliph Yazid and his generals and soldiers, wore red. Husayn and his family and followers wore green and black. The killers always spoke their lines, whereas the good characters sang their.

A Shi’I school of law started to be applied to guide Muslims in Iran . The founder of this school had been Jafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam. This school of law differs in some areas of marriage and inheritance law from Sunni schools of law. In addition teachers of the Jafari school (as well as other Shi’I schools of law) believe that certain individuals can, even today, reinterpret Koranic law, whereas most Sunni jurists, at least until this century, relied on the interpretations handed down by their teachers.

(For a discussion of the Islamic Republic of Iran, see the section on Iranian History)

Cuisine

Teacher

Iranian Foods

M.R. Ghanoonparvar

In all ancient cultures, food and food preparations are highly developed traditions. Iran is no exception. Delightful recipes have been handed down from generation to generation and now make Iranian food is on subtlety of flavor, combining a wide variety of fruits, herbs, vegetables, nuts, grains and meat. On the whole, the ingredients in Iranian foods are common to Americans, but the combinations of ingredients and the way certain ones are used in recipes are different, which is what makes this cuisine (this is, a characteristic style of preparing food) so interesting.

The Importance of Rice

Probably the one important food or ingredient in various dishes is rice. High-quality long-grain rice is most often used and this type of rice is grown in northern Iran is areas around the Caspian Sea. In addition to plain white rice, which is called chelo, there are several categories of rice dishes, depending on how they are cooked and what kinds of things are added to them.

Rice is generally prepared by boiling the uncooked rice in a large pot filled with very salty water, then draining the salty water off when the rice s almost fully cooked. The rice is then placed in a pot with melted butter on the bottom, topped with butter and simmered over low heat. As the rice simmers, it forms a crispy crust at the bottom called tadiq, which is a favorite of all children in a household, and adults too. If the tadiq turns out well, this is a sign of a good cook. Sometimes thin, flat bread which is something like a flower tortilla, is placed at the bottom of the rice pot (on top of the melted butter, of course) and sometimes potatoes are sliced and placed at the bottom of the pot for a tasty change in the flavor of the tadiq. Once the rice is cooked, it is served topped with various stew-like sauces called khoresh, which are mixtures of meat and vegetables or fruits.

Generally, rice prepared as plain white rice, chelo, or mixed with other ingredients, polo, must be fluffy. In other words, the grains should not stick together. There are some categories of rice, however, that are sticky. Even when rice is not the main feature of a meal, it is used widely in such dishes as ash, which is the name of a variety of very thick soups or porridge. Ash is eaten mostly in the winter and includes meats, beans, herbs, and fruits.

To prepare a meal, traditionally Iranian housewives must spend hours cleaning, chopping and cooking. Sometimes several neighbors or relatives gather in one place and share the work. The socializing makes these rather boring tasks more fun.

Types of Bread

Bread is also an extremely important part of the Iranian diet. There are dozens of flat bread varieties. Sangak and taftun are eaten for supper; in the summer months, lighter foods such as yogurt, feta cheeses, fresh herbs, cucumbers, and plenty of fruit, including several varieties of melons and grapes, all served with flat bread, are more appetizing in late evening.

Snacks

In addition to regular meals, Iranians enjoy snacks, sometimes in mid-morning and often in the afternoon hours mostly fresh fruits and vegetables. Lettuce dipped in a sweet-and-sour mint syrup is, for example, a common summer snack foods. Another favorite is cucumbers sliced lengthwise and rubbed with salt and pepper and powered rose petals. Fruits on the whole are extremely important in the Iranian diet. In fact, hardly a day gors by for an Iranian without having some fruit, the variety of which depends on the season.

Holiday Meals

As in most cultures, special holidays and celebrations usually call for special dishes. During Noruz, the Iranian New Year, which corresponds with the first day of spring, for example, fish is served with rice mixed with a variety of green herbs and vegetables, such as leeks, parsley, and coriander, and many delightful confections are an important play of the festivities. And on Winter Solstice night, the longest night of the year, which is usually on or about December 21, Iranians celebrate with a watermelon, the last of the season, which has been put away and saved especially for this occasion, along with a variety of sweets and mixed nuts. Sweets, such as cookies and pastries, are usually reserved for guests.

Study Questions

  1. What two foods are most important to the Iranian diet? What two foods are most important in the American diet?
  2. What foods are most common for traditional Iranian snacks?
  3. In what other cuisine does rice play a major role?
  4. Climate affects the availability of food products as well as the diet of the inhabitants of a region. What do you think are the basic differences between the diets of people who live along the Caspian Sea and those who live in the desert climate of Iran? Are there any differences in the foods eaten in different regions of the United States?

Student

Iranian Foods

M.R. Ghanoonparvar

In all ancient cultures, food and food preparations are highly developed traditions. Iran is no exception. Delightful recipes have been handed down from generation to generation and now make Iranian food is on subtlety of flavor, combining a wide variety of fruits, herbs, vegetables, nuts, grains and meat. On the whole, the ingredients in Iranian foods are common to Americans, but the combinations of ingredients and the way certain ones are used in recipes are different, which is what makes this cuisine (this is, a characteristic style of preparing food) so interesting.

The Importance of Rice

Probably the one important food or ingredient in various dishes is rice. High-quality long-grain rice is most often used and this type of rice is grown in northern Iran is areas around the Caspian Sea. In addition to plain white rice, which is called chelo, there are several categories of rice dishes, depending on how they are cooked and what kinds of things are added to them.

Rice is generally prepared by boiling the uncooked rice in a large pot filled with very salty water, then draining the salty water off when the rice s almost fully cooked. The rice is then placed in a pot with melted butter on the bottom, topped with butter and simmered over low heat. As the rice simmers, it forms a crispy crust at the bottom called tadiq, which is a favorite of all children in a household, and adults too. If the tadiq turns out well, this is a sign of a good cook. Sometimes thin, flat bread which is something like a flower tortilla, is placed at the bottom of the rice pot (on top of the melted butter, of course) and sometimes potatoes are sliced and placed at the bottom of the pot for a tasty change in the flavor of the tadiq. Once the rice is cooked, it is served topped with various stew-like sauces called khoresh, which are mixtures of meat and vegetables or fruits.

Generally, rice prepared as plain white rice, chelo, or mixed with other ingredients, polo, must be fluffy. In other words, the grains should not stick together. There are some categories of rice, however, that are sticky. Even when rice is not the main feature of a meal, it is used widely in such dishes as ash, which is the name of a variety of very thick soups or porridge. Ash is eaten mostly in the winter and includes meats, beans, herbs, and fruits.

To prepare a meal, traditionally Iranian housewives must spend hours cleaning, chopping and cooking. Sometimes several neighbors or relatives gather in one place and share the work. The socializing makes these rather boring tasks more fun.

Types of Bread

Bread is also an extremely important part of the Iranian diet. There are dozens of flat bread varieties. Sangak and taftun are eaten for supper; in the summer months, lighter foods such as yogurt, feta cheeses, fresh herbs, cucumbers, and plenty of fruit, including several varieties of melons and grapes, all served with flat bread, are more appetizing in late evening.

Snacks

In addition to regular meals, Iranians enjoy snacks, sometimes in mid-morning and often in the afternoon hours mostly fresh fruits and vegetables. Lettuce dipped in a sweet-and-sour mint syrup is, for example, a common summer snack foods. Another favorite is cucumbers sliced lengthwise and rubbed with salt and pepper and powered rose petals. Fruits on the whole are extremely important in the Iranian diet. In fact, hardly a day gors by for an Iranian without having some fruit, the variety of which depends on the season.

Holiday Meals

As in most cultures, special holidays and celebrations usually call for special dishes. During Noruz, the Iranian New Year, which corresponds with the first day of spring, for example, fish is served with rice mixed with a variety of green herbs and vegetables, such as leeks, parsley, and coriander, and many delightful confections are an important play of the festivities. And on Winter Solstice night, the longest night of the year, which is usually on or about December 21, Iranians celebrate with a watermelon, the last of the season, which has been put away and saved especially for this occasion, along with a variety of sweets and mixed nuts. Sweets, such as cookies and pastries, are usually reserved for guests.

Recipes

Fesenjan

(Braised poultry in walnut and pomegranate sauce served over rice)

8-10 Servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups of walnuts, finely ground

2 medium onions

1/4 cup butter or olive oil

4 1/2-5 lbs. chicken or duck, cut in servig size pieces

1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 teaspoons salt

4-5 teaspoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons of lemon juice

3-4 tablespoon sugar

2 1/2 cups of water

1/4 cup bottled pomegranate syrup (or substitute 1 can of cranberry jelly, in which case you would not add the sugar)

Directions

  1. Brown the walnuts in a heavy skillet, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Transfer walnuts to a 5-6 quart pot.
  2. Saute the onions lightly in butter or oil. Remove onions ith a slotted spoon and add to the walnuts. Set the skillet aside.
  3. Add all the remaining ingredients except the chicken or duck to the walnut onion mixture. Mix well. Simmer over low heat for 10 minutes.
  4. Brown poultry in a skillet, adding more butter if necessary. Add the meat to the sauce, cover, and simmer about more, stirring occasionally to prevent to prevent sticking. (For a shortcut, the poultry can be browned and then cooked in a pressure cooker and added to the simmered sauce, then simmer together for 10 mintues more.)

Ranginak

(Date and nut sweet)

25-30 pieces

Ingredients

2 lbs. pitted dates, chopped

1 lb. walnuts, chopped

2 tablespoons cinnamon

1 lb. flour (4 cups)

1/2 lb. butter (1 cup)

Sugar

Directions

  1. Mix together the dates and walnuts.
  2. Heat the mixture in a skillet over low heat and stir until it is well mixed.
  3. Sprinkle cinnamon on a flat dish or cookie sheet. Spread the date and nut mixture on it. Even out the surface with a spatula.
  4. Put the flour in a pot over medium heat. Stir until it becomes light brown in color.
  5. Add the butter; stir until butter is completely melted and mixed with four and the flour is well browned.
  6. Spread this mixture in a layer on top of the dates. Even out the surface with a spatula.
  7. Sprinkle lightly with sugar.
  8. When cool cut into pieces.

Holidays

Teacher

Holidays and Celebrations

Charlotte Albright

Noruz (New Year)

Imagine celebrating New Year not in the dead of winter, but at the beginning of spring, with return of the birds and flowering trees. This has been the custom for Iranians for thousands for of years! For Iranians the New Year or Noruz begins at the vernal equinox, the precise time in the spring when the sun crosses the equator making the day and night equal length. The vernal equinox usually falls on March 21. Noruz means “new day” in the Persian language and is pronounced “no rooz.” Today Noruz is a celebration lasting from Tuesday evening before the vernal equinox until the 13th day afterward. For this happy festival families enjoy getting together, preparing special food, and decorating their houses with special symbolic objects.

Origins

The Noruz festival is rooted in Iran’s ancient past. According to legend the mythical king Jamshid first taught his people to build, weave, mine, and make weapons. He then conquered demons build him a crystal carriage which carried him across the sky. Iranians began to celebrate Noruz to commemorate the flight of the crystal carriage.

Whatever the legends, many people around the world have celebrations at the beginning of the growing season to welcome warmer weather, wish for abundant crops and flocks, and to say goodbye to the harsh winter months. The Iranian Noruz festival has much in common with these agricultural celebrations.

Before Iranians converted to Islam (see inset) in the seventh century A.D., they had been Zoroastrians for nearly 1600 years. Zoroastrianism emphasized that people should try to be good and avoid evil. It was during the centuries when the Iranians were Zoroastrians that the celebrations for Noruz were formalized. The Noruz feast was only one of 23 religious feasts celebrated during the year. It is one of the few of those old Zoroastrian feasts that is celebrated by Iranians today.

Char Shanbeh Suri

Today begin the festival of Noruz the Tuesday evening before the vernal equinox. The day and the event are called “Char Shanbeh Suri.” Families light small bonfires and everyone is supposed to jump over them. As they jump, people say, “My yellowness to you, your redness to me,” meaning that the fire should burn up people’s winter paleness and sickness and give back a rosy complexion and good health.

Getting Ready

In preparation for the New Year’s celebrations Iranians give their homes a thorough cleaning: rugs and drapes are washed, furniture cleaned, the house repaired. Everyone is supposed to get new clothes and shoes.

The Noruz Table

Iranians say the new year has began the exact moment when the earth enters Aries (see inset article on the calendar) on New Year’s day. A special table is prepared for this moment. Families place lighted candles or a lamp on the table, along with a mirror, special food prepared to eat on this day, colored eggs, a holy book (depending on the family’s faith), and often a bowl of water with a goldfish in it. The goldfish symbolizes life.

In addition, the family sets out a plate containing seven items that all begin with the letter “S”. These “seven S’s” are (with some variation from region to region): sib (apple), sabzeh (greens), sir (garlic), serkeh (vinegar), senjed (Bohemian olive), and sonbol (hyacinth).

At the moment the new year begins, family members all hug and kiss one another and exchange gifts and money. The family may then eat the special food that they have prepared. The food often includes steamed rice mixed with herbs and fried fish. In the days following New Year’s day, family members visit one another and also visit the older members of their families first- grandparents and older aunts and uncles, and then the younger family member. Other special events sometimes take place: young boys may have wrestling matches, or groups of clowns and acrobats parade through streets and perform for the public.

Sizdeh Bedar

On the thirteenth day after New Year’s Day everyone who possibly can packs up a huge picnic lunch and heads outside, preferably out of town. It is considered unlucky to sped this day, called Sizdeh Bedar, inside. Families spend the day outside along the banks of a stream or in green fields eating their picnic feast, drinking tea, and playing games. Sometimes the young unmarried girls will tie knots in the grass and wish for a husband during the coming year. On this day people throw out the greens that they grew for New Year’s Day. If possible, the greens are thrown into running water- a tradition followed because the greens should take away the family’s bad luck. With all the excitement of the Noruz festival- the special food, gifts, and family activities, you can see why Noruz is the most joyous Iranian holiday and one particularly laved by children.

Fascinating Facts About the Iranian Calendar

Iranians use two calendars, a solar and a lunar calendar has 365 days and is divided into 12 months, each named for constellation, based on the signs of the zodiac. The zodiac is an imaginary belt in the sky extending for eight degrees on either side of the apparent path of the sun and including the paths of the moon and principal planets. Each month runs from approximately the 21st to the 20th of each of our month. You can see how the Persian months line up next to the western names for the signs of the zodiac in this chart:

Signs (Months) of the Zodiac

DateLatin NamePersian Name
March 21AriesFarvardin
April 21TaurusOrdibehesht
May 21GeminiKhordad
June 21CancerTir
July 21LeoMordad
August 22VirgoShahrivar
September 22LibraMehr
October 21ScorpioAban
November 21SagittariusAzar
December 21CapricornDey
January 21AquariusBahman
February 21PiscesIsfand

Iranians use the solar calendar to mark national holidays and the beginning of the year.

By contrast, the lunar calendar is used to mark all the special days for Muslims in Iran (as well as other Muslim nations). The lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar calendar, or 354 days. Since the lunar year is shorter than the solar year, the lunar months do not coincide with the solar months and religious events observed on the lunar calendar occur 11 days earlier each successive year!

The first year for both the solar and lunar calendars in Iran is 622 A.D. Why? The paragraphs below give the answer, but also look at the unit on “Religion” in the handbook.

Islam- A Brief Definition

Islam is a religion in which believers submit to one God (the same God as the god of the Christians and Jews) and accept Muhammad, the founder of Islam, as his prophet and messenger. Today there are probably one billion Muslims around the world divided into main groups of Muslims: Sunni and Shi’a. Muslims in Iran are primarily Shi’a Muslims.

In 622 A.D. the Prophet Muhammad moved with his followers from Mecca, in the Arabian peninsula, to the city of Medina to the north. In Medina, Muhammad became both the religious and political leader of the community of Muslims. Muslims count time beginning with this date, so that 622 A.D. is year 1 both in the Islamic calendar and the Iranian solar calendar.

Jashn-e Sadeh (The Sadeh Festival)

Hamid Dabashi

Jashn-e Sadeh (Persian for “The Sadeh Festival”) began as an ancient Iranian festival celebrated by kings and commoners on the tenth of Bahman (the thirteenth of January) every year. The word Sadeh means “the hundredth”. There are different legends and traditions, having survived the test of time, explaining the nature and significance of this festival. According to one tradition, Kayumarth, the legendary Persian king, celebrated the birth of his hundredth child by calling for a huge fire and communal festivities. According to another legend Adam’s offspring reached one hundred on this day. Yet another story considers this festival to have been occasioned by the first one hundred days of Adam’s earthly life. Perhaps more logical explanations of this festival occasion its inception some fifty days and fifty nights before the Iranian New Year, Noruz. It has also been considered as the celebration of one hundred days after the beginning of winter in the ancient Persian calendar in which the cold season was marked by a five month period.

Whatever its origin or etymological root, jashn-e sadeh is today a winter fire festival which Iranians have celebrated since the time immemorial. According to tradition, people observe it “to strengthen the sun and to help bring back the warmth and light to the world” (1). According to historical sources, this festival was an annual occasion for singing and dancing, and communal eating and merriment around the fire. Iranians believed that the warmth of their communal fire and friendship banished the brutality of winter and helped plants and the rest of living creatures survive the cold season. The supreme enemy of life was identified with Ahriman (see section of Zoroastrianism) who through his active agency, the winter, achieved a partial victory. The symbol of life, Rapithwin, had sought refuge in its subterranean haven. By making a huge fire, Iranians, nobles and commoners, thought they were helping Rapithwin to survive its temporary defeat and preserve the continuity of life (2).

In many Iranian villages and towns even today, the jashn-e sadeh is celebrated with song and dance, eating and merriment. Today, as perhaps in older times, the sadeh festival is a communal celebration of the people’s endurance of the winter hardship and their anticipation of spring and hopes for a bounteous crop. According to one eye witness account (Shakourzadeh, 3), a few days before the festival, villagers, old and young, go to fields and collect thorns and dead branches for fire. They bring these back to the village and pile them into a huge heap. On the night of the celebration , some villagers tie a heap of dried bushes, called Kolluk, to a string, set it on fire and, while running into the field and singing appropriate songs, swing the firey ball around their head. In the meantime, around the main heap of dried branches, bushes, and thorns, the villagers gather and the elders have the honor of setting the heap on fire. The young villagers and the children, helping their elders and those who are weak or sick, hold their hands together, circle around the fire, while singing and dancing all the while. A popular sadeh song in part reads:

Sadeh, Sadeh, O Sadeh! Laughter and dance we choose.

Hundred days to the crop, just fifty to Noruz.

Unmarried women you may soon get your wishes!

Married women will be washing all their dishes.

Young girls in their houses, thinking of new clothes.

Young girls in their houses, wishing for their spouses.

In the midst of the merriment, young men throw fiery balls high into the dark sky, and as they fall they throw them back, defying, in the heat of their joy, the biting touch of the fire. As the restless young paint the dark canvas of the night with the yellow and red of their fires, the elderly watch calmly, believing the sight will bring them health and happiness in the year to come. It is commonly believed that as sparkles of fire come down from the heavens they bring Divine grace and benevolent bounty with them. The fire festival continues for three nights. Every night, the ashes are left for the next round, hoping that a mid-winter rain, as a sign of Divine mercy, will wash the ashes away, and thus signal the coming of a prosperous year.

Study Questions

  1. Words to look up in the dictionary: equinox, vernal, zodiac
  2. If we celebrated the 4th of July, or Independence Day, two years in a row on the lunar calendar, what day would the holiday fall on the second year?
  3. Does Noruz remind you of any holiday? Which one and why?
  4. What symbolic meals do we prepare? (Hint: either for national holidays or personal important days.)
  5. In what special or symbolic ways are foods prepared and eaten by Christians, Jews, or Muslims?

Student

Holidays and Celebrations

Charlotte Albright

Noruz (New Year)

Imagine celebrating New Year not in the dead of winter, but at the beginning of spring, with return of the birds and flowering trees. This has been the custom for Iranians for thousands of years! For Iranians the New Year or Noruz begins at the vernal equinox, the precise time in the spring when the sun crosses the equator making the day and night equal length. The vernal equinox usually falls on March 21. Noruz means “new day” in the Persian language and is pronounced “no rooz.” Today Noruz is a celebration lasting from Tuesday evening before the vernal equinox until the 13th day afterward. For this happy festival families enjoy getting together, preparing special food, and decorating their houses with special symbolic objects.

Origins

The Noruz festival is rooted in Iran’s ancient past. According to legend the mythical king Jamshid first taught his people to build, weave, mine, and make weapons. He then conquered demons build him a crystal carriage which carried him across the sky. Iranians began to celebrate Noruz to commemorate the flight of the crystal carriage.

Whatever the legends, many people around the world have celebrations at the beginning of the growing season to welcome warmer weather, wish for abundant crops and flocks, and to say goodbye to the harsh winter months. The Iranian Noruz festival has much in common with these agricultural celebrations.

Before Iranians converted to Islam (see inset) in the seventh century A.D., they had been Zoroastrians for nearly 1600 years. Zoroastrianism emphasized that people should try to be good and avoid evil. It was during the centuries when the Iranians were Zoroastrians that the celebrations for Noruz were formalized. The Noruz feast was only one of 23 religious feasts celebrated during the year. It is one of the few of those old Zoroastrian feasts that is celebrated by Iranians today.

Char Shanbeh Suri

Today begin the festival of Noruz the Tuesday evening before the vernal equinox. The day and the event are called “Char Shanbeh Suri.” Families light small bonfires and everyone is supposed to jump over them. As they jump, people say, “My yellowness to you, your redness to me,” meaning that the fire should burn up people’s winter paleness and sickness and give back a rosy complexion and good health.

Getting Ready

In preparation for the New Year’s celebrations Iranians give their homes a thorough cleaning: rugs and drapes are washed, furniture cleaned, the house repaired. Everyone is supposed to get new clothes and shoes.

The Noruz Table

Iranians say the new year has began the exact moment when the earth enters Aries (see inset article on the calendar) on New Year’s day. A special table is prepared for this moment. Families place lighted candles or a lamp on the table, along with a mirror, special food prepared to eat on this day, colored eggs, a holy book (depending on the family’s faith), and often a bowl of water with a goldfish in it. The goldfish symbolizes life.

In addition, the family sets out a plate containing seven items that all begin with the letter “S”. These “seven S’s” are (with some variation from region to region): sib (apple), sabzeh (greens), sir (garlic), serkeh (vinegar), senjed (Bohemian olive), and sonbol (hyacinth).

At the moment the new year begins, family members all hug and kiss one another and exchange gifts and money. The family may then eat the special food that they have prepared. The food often includes steamed rice mixed with herbs and fried fish. In the days following New Year’s day, family members visit one another and also visit the older members of their families first- grandparents and older aunts and uncles, and then the younger family member. Other special events sometimes take place: young boys may have wrestling matches, or groups of clowns and acrobats parade through streets and perform for the public.

Sizdeh Bedar

On the thirteenth day after New Year’s Day everyone who possibly can packs up a huge picnic lunch and heads outside, preferably out of town. It is considered unlucky to sped this day, called Sizdeh Bedar, inside. Families spend the day outside along the banks of a stream or in green fields eating their picnic feast, drinking tea, and playing games. Sometimes the young unmarried girls will tie knots in the grass and wish for a husband during the coming year. On this day people throw out the greens that they grew for New Year’s Day. If possible, the greens are thrown into running water- a tradition followed because the greens should take away the family’s bad luck. With all the excitement of the Noruz festival- the special food, gifts, and family activities, you can see why Noruz is the most joyous Iranian holiday and one particularly laved by children.

Fascinating Facts About the Iranian Calendar

Iranians use two calendars, a solar and a lunar calendar has 365 days and is divided into 12 months, each named for constellation, based on the signs of the zodiac. The zodiac is an imaginary belt in the sky extending for eight degrees on either side of the apparent path of the sun and including the paths of the moon and principal planets. Each month runs from approximately the 21st to the 20th of each of our month. You can see how the Persian months line up next to the western names for the signs of the zodiac in this chart:

Signs (Months) of the Zodiac

DateLatin NamePersian Name
March 21AriesFarvardin
April 21TaurusOrdibehesht
May 21GeminiKhordad
June 21CancerTir
July 21LeoMordad
August 22VirgoShahrivar
September 22LibraMehr
October 21ScorpioAban
November 21SagittariusAzar
December 21CapricornDey
January 21AquariusBahman
February 21PiscesIsfand

 

Iranians use the solar calendar to mark national holidays and the beginning of the year.

By contrast, the lunar calendar is used to mark all the special days for Muslims in Iran (as well as other Muslim nations). The lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar calendar, or 354 days. Since the lunar year is shorter than the solar year, the lunar months do not coincide with the solar months and religious events observed on the lunar calendar occur 11 days earlier each successive year!

The first year for both the solar and lunar calendars in Iran is 622 A.D. Why? The paragraphs below give the answer, but also look at the unit on “Religion” in the handbook.

Islam- A Brief Definition

Islam is a religion in which believers submit to one God (the same God as the god of the Christians and Jews) and accept Muhammad, the founder of Islam, as his prophet and messenger. Today there are probably one billion Muslims around the world divided into main groups of Muslims: Sunni and Shi’a. Muslims in Iran are primarily Shi’a Muslims.

In 622 A.D. the Prophet Muhammad moved with his followers from Mecca, in the Arabian peninsula, to the city of Medina to the north. In Medina, Muhammad became both the religious and political leader of the community of Muslims. Muslims count time beginning with this date, so that 622 A.D. is year 1 both in the Islamic calendar and the Iranian solar calendar.

People

Teacher

Mary Martin

Who are Iranians? They may speak one or more of several languages- Persian, Kurdish, Azeri Turkish, Arabic, Baluchi, Gilaki, Armenian, Aramaic, or one of the other Iranian and non-Iranian languages of Iran. They may be Muslim (Sunni or Shi’i), Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, or Bahai. They may live in a large urban area, a small town, a village, or a nomadic camp. They may be tribesmen and know the names of their ancestors for several generations, or they may remember no one before their grandfathers. Their occupations may vary. In rural areas, they may raise crops and animals, act as game guards to protect the natural environment, work in mines, in oil fields, or on boats in the gulf. In cities, they may be traffic policemen trying to unravel Tehran traffic jams, filmmakers, artists, pollution experts, or carry out a host of other occupations.

The ties of language, religion, social structure and economy combine in a variety of ways in the rural and urban areas to give Iran its own particular social flavor. Especially in the capital city, Tehran, there is a great deal of ethnic and social variation. Certain regions in the country are distinctive because of special characteristics of the population. (See map showing ethnic groups in Iran). The story of each of these various people is an exciting piece in the puzzle of Iran. Each has a different history concerning how they came to be where they are today and how they relate to the country as a whole. The diversity in Iran makes it unique and exciting country.

Religion links Iranians to peoples in other countries of the Middle East and beyond. For example, as an Islamic country, its people share historical and emotional ties to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem in Israel with other Muslims. In addition, because it is primarily a Shi’i Muslim country, it has spiritual ties to the Shi’i shrines of Najaf and Kerbala in Iraq. For Jews everywhere, Iran is the site of the tombs of Ester and Daniel. Zoroastrians and Bahais look to Iran as the place where their religions originated. For Armenian Christians, it is the site of the Black Church, the principal religious shrine for the world’s Armenian Christians visited by thousands of pilgrims each year. For Assyrian Christians, Iran is the haven of Eastern Christianity.

Another cultural factor which links Iran to neighboring countries is language. For example, the Persian language is also spoken in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Many Pakistanis and Indians still learn Persian because of its important literary role in their countries especially in previous centuries. For the Ottoman Turks, Persian was an important literary language until the beginning of the Turkish republic when Turks switched from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet.

Rural-Urban Distinctions

Until recently over half the population of the Iran lived in rural areas, often in small villages. Unlike the United States, where farms are scattered throughout the countryside, Iranian farmers live together in villages, which are often located near the opening of the qanats (discussed in the section on geography).

The urban-rural distinction has more significance in Iran and other developing nations than it does in the west. There are still areas of the country in which schooling does not go beyond the sixth grade. In some places there is no access to electricity or the VCRs which often accompany it. Without the homogenizing influence of extensive schooling and the urban and Western behavior models from television and film, regional languages and cultural pastimes remain strong. In certain regions, such as the land along the south shores of the Caspian Sea, rainfall is abundant and tea and rice are the main crops. People here are known for their distinctive styles of architecture, dress, and language.

Despite the differences, the rural and urban areas of Iran have always had certain shared cultural traditions, with distinctions between urban and rural forms. For example, in many rural areas people raise sheep and goats and wheat and barley. It is not surprising then that throughout the country there is an emphasis on certain foods, such as flat wheat bread, clarified butter, other special dairy products, and lamb.

Carpet making also illustrates the variation between urban, village, and nomadic traditions. Iran is famous for its beautiful carpets of floral design, woven in special workshops in the cities of Isfahan, Kerman, Kashan, Tabriz, and Qom. These are the carpets of the palace, the mosque, individual families. Villagers in Iran today are caught between the two traditions. Some weave geometric tribal designs passed down from their mothers in their own homes or camping areas. Other weave floral patterns on upright looms for sale in the city.

Tribes

Within the rural areas of Iran, the population lives primarily in villages. However, in some areas, where rainfall is scarce and agriculture difficult, pastoral nomadism is the major adaptation. It is in these areas where most of the major tribal groups exist. The most well-known tribal groups are the Baluch, the Bakhtiari, the Kurds, the Lurs, the Shahsavan, the Turkmen and the Qashqa’i. Those who are nodamic pastoralists of herdsmen must follow their animals from one area to another in search of pasture. Access to this pasture is given by being a member of a tribal group. Not all members are nomadic. The elite of many tribal groups, such as the Bakhtiari, held agricultural land and educated their families in Europe. They may play important national roles, as did Soraya, the second wife of the late Shah, and Shahpur Bakhtiar, the last prime minister under the Pahlavi Shah.

The tribal groups of Iran have a distinctive political relationship to Iranian culture and society. Throughout Iranian history, the tribes have sought to maintain their cultural sovereignty in relation to the state. Thus, there is an ongoing tension between the tribes and the state whether it is led by a Qajar monarch, a Pahlavi Shah, or an Islamic Republic. Although tribes have become more and more a minority element in Iranian society, they have links to the state which are absent in America. For example, native American tribes represent a way of life in North America before the colonization by Europeans. Iranian society grew out of tribally organized society (see the History sections).

Tribal groups have always played a strong role in Iranian politics. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, dynastic ruling families, including the Safavids, Afshars, and Qajars, grew from tribal ranks and relied upon tribal support. In particular, tribal leaders of the Turkmen, Bakhtiari, and Qashqa’i served as key figures in Iranian politics. Qashqa’i leaders were instrumental in the formulation of the national policies and commercial interests of the British in Iran in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Turkmen rulers played a key role in determining Russian policies in regions of northern Iran.

The relationship of tribe to state is sometimes problematic. In the past tribes occasionally disrupted caravans and interrupted the flow of trade. Seasonal migrations might take a group across national boundaries and animals sometimes strayed into local fields. Although the state sometimes relies on tribes to repel invaders, tribal groups have also been forcibly resettled as the state has attempted to counter rebellion or to exert control over a tribe’s economic and political autonomy. The Kurds now living in the northeast of Iran were moved in the last century to defend borders.

In their attempts to avoid the authority of a central government, tribally organized nomadic pastoralists or herdsmen benefited from the flexibility of their lifestyles, which enabled them to retreat into the desert or to high mountain pastures. Nonetheless, they moved for ecological reasons. When Reza Shah attempted to settle the tribes as a part of his modernization plan for Iran in the 1930s, it meant ecological disaster for the herds. Eventually the nomads were able to resume their migration.

The Turkmen tribal peoples in the northeast have migrated for both ecological and political reasons: to follow good pasture and escape the control of the central government. Today, as the government extends more services to the rural areas and as more pasture land is turned to agriculture, some tribal families are making the decision to stop migrating and settle down. The tension involved for the group is vividly desribed in anthropologist Lois Beck’s book Nomad: A Year in the Life of a Qashqai Tribesman of Iran.

Urbanization and Westernization

Iran is becoming more and more urbanized and the urban areas are more and more the center of political and cultural influence. Earlier some of the differences between urban and rural populations were noted. Another important difference is that the urban areas have more access to Western culture. In urban areas, where members of many middle and upper class families have been educated in the West or have learned about the West or have learned about the West from book and films, the cultural flavor, especially until the Revolution of 1979, was becoming more and more Western. Since the Revolution there has been a determined effort by the Islamic regime to reject elements of Western culture considered incompatible with Islam, particularly in relation to women’s dress and relationships between men and women.

Certain traditions are retained in rural and poorer areas of the towns and cities that illustrate the influence of the West in another way. For example, where Western medicine is not readily available, older systems of medicine remain, which have links to Iran’s past and cultures of ancient India and Greece, and which utilize combinations of herbs and a concept of balancing “hot” and “cold” states. These earlier traditions are often combined with Western medicine to obtain the most effective cures.

Throughout time Iranians have been faced with other cultural traditions, whether from the Greeks, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Seljuk Turks, or now from Europe and America. They have always sought to work out their own solution to the problem of what to take in and what to reject from other cultures in an attempt to fit these influences into an Iranian mold. Iranian Christians, for example, rejected Western Christianity and retained their own form of Christianity until today. Individuals caught between two or more cultural influences at a particular time may find the situation to be a painful one. Both the struggles and solutions are what make Iranian cultural history a fascinating one.

Language

Language is a cultural factor that may cut across urban-rural, tribal-non-tribal, and even national boundaries. The national language of Iran is Persian, a language which, like English, belongs to the Indo-European family. For many Iranians, Persian is not their first language. For example, in the southwest along the Iraqi border and in areas along the Persian Gulf, much of the population speaks Arabic, a Semitic language. In Azerbaijan, in the northwest, Azeri (a variant of Turkish, which is form the Ural-Altaic language family) is the major first language. As Azeri-Turkish speaking people from this area migrate throughout the country, the extent of Turkish languages in Iran has increased. For example, it is common to hear Azeri-Turkish spoken in Tehran. Turkmen tribal peoples in the north and the Qashqa’i in the southwest speak other variants Turkish.

In addition to these major language groups, there are many small linguistic communities which speak Iranian or Turkic languages, many of which have not yet been studied by linguists. Government policy has been to stress Persian in the schools, and, hence, all Iranians have a shared language and tradition of poetry and epic. Islamic education added Arabic, the language of the Quran, to the curriculum. Minorities are allowed to learn languages which play a role in their religious ritual.

Certain tribal groups, such as the Baluch, have special oral traditions of epic and poetry in their own languages. Many of these populations are closely related to others living over the national boundary. For example, in the northeast the Turkmen are a tribal group, settled and nomadic, who speak Turkomeni (a Turkish language), are Sunni Muslims, and are related to Turkmen population across the Iranian border in Afghanistan and in Turkmenistan. In the southeast, the tribally organized Baluch, who speaks Baluchi (an Iranian language) are Sunni Muslim and are related to populations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Arabs is southwest share language and religion, but not nationality, with the Shi’i Iraqis. Azerbaijanis share religion and language (Azeri Turkish) with the people in the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Religion

Religion adds another major element of unity and diversity to the peoples of Iran. Although at least four out of five Iranians are Shi’i Muslim, and Shi’i Islam is the state religion, certain tribal groups, such as Baluch, the Turkmen, and Kurds are predominately Sunni (See unit on Islam in Iran). There are also minority groups practicing religions which in most cases predate Islam. For example, a small number of Zoroastrians remain in Iran (See teachers information on Zoroastrianism).

The Assyrians and Armenians are the main Christian groups of Iran. Assyrians speak Syriac (a variant of Aramaic, which is a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and Arabic). The Armenians speak Armenian, an Indo-European language. Assyrian Christianity evolved from the Christianity of the Nestorians, who separated from the Orthodox Church after the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century. Armenian Christianity also has roots that go back to early Christianity in the region.

Iranian Jews have a long history in Iran. There have been Jews in Iran even longer than there have been Christians, ever since conquest of the Babylonian Empire by the Achaemenid king, Cyrus, in 539 B.C. The Jews in Iran are the descendants of those Jews who remained in the area after the period of the exile ended.

The Bahai religion originated in Iran in the nineteenth century. Since it derived from Islam, many Muslims have considered the Bahai religion to be heretical.

The various religious groups in Iran have different religious calendars, but they are united by the Iranian solar calendar, and by holidays such as Persian New Year.

Conclusion

So who are Iranians? They may be rural or urban, speak only Persian or Persian and one or more languages. They will be affiliated with one of the religions practiced in Iran. They may be members of a Tribe. The way these various factors combine and recombine leads to a rich variety in the culture of Iran. This Iranian culture developed out of the various customs of the many groups which have moved into the area over several thousands of years.

Study Questions

  1. What languages are spoken in Iran?
  2. Compare the lives of a high school student in a city and in the rural area of the US. What do the lives have in common? How might they be different? Using the information in this unit, try to do the same for city and village students in Iran.
  3. What is Urbanization? What is Westernization? How have they affected Iranians?

Student

Mary Martin

Who are Iranians? They may speak one or more of several languages- Persian, Kurdish, Azeri Turkish, Arabic, Baluchi, Gilaki, Armenian, Aramaic, or one of the other Iranian and non-Iranian languages of Iran. They may be Muslim (Sunni or Shi’i), Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, or Bahai. They may live in a large urban area, a small town, a village, or a nomadic camp. They may be tribesmen and know the names of their ancestors for several generations, or they may remember no one before their grandfathers. Their occupations may vary. In rural areas, they may raise crops and animals, act as game guards to protect the natural environment, work in mines, in oil fields, or on boats in the gulf. In cities, they may be traffic policemen trying to unravel Tehran traffic jams, filmmakers, artists, pollution experts, or carry out a host of other occupations.

The ties of language, religion, social structure and economy combine in a variety of ways in the rural and urban areas to give Iran its own particular social flavor. Especially in the capital city, Tehran, there is a great deal of ethnic and social variation. Certain regions in the country are distinctive because of special characteristics of the population. (See map showing ethnic groups in Iran). The story of each of these various people is an exciting piece in the puzzle of Iran. Each has a different history concerning how they came to e where they are today and how they relate to the country as a whole. The diversity in Iran makes it unique and exciting country.

Religion links Iranians to peoples in other countries of the Middle East and beyond. For example, as an Islamic country, its people share historical and emotional ties to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem in Israel with other Muslims. In addition, because it is primarily a Shi’i Muslim country, it has spiritual ties to the Shi’i shrines of Najaf and Kerbala in Iraq. For Jews everywhere, Iran is the site of the tombs of Ester and Daniel. Zoroastrians and Bahais look to Iran as the place where their religions originated. For Armenian Christians, it is the site of the Black Church, the principal religious shrine for the world’s Armenian Christians visited by thousands of pilgrims each year. For Assyrian Christians, Iran is the haven of Eastern Christianity.

Another cultural factor which links Iran to neighboring countries is language. For example, the Persian language is also spoken in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Many Pakistanis and Indians still learn Persian because of its important literary role in their countries especially in previous centuries. For the Ottoman Turks, Persian was an important literary language until the beginning of the Turkish republic when Turks switched from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet.

Rural-Urban Distinctions

Until recently over half the population of the Iran lived in rural areas, often in small villages. Unlike the United States, where farms are scattered throughout the countryside, Iranian farmers live together in villages, which are often located near the opening of the qanats (discussed in the section on geography).

The urban-rural distinction has more significance in Iran and other developing nations than it does in the west. There are still areas of the country in which schooling does not go beyond the sixth grade. In some places there is no access to electricity or the VCRs which often accompany it. Without the homogenizing influence of extensive schooling and the urban and Western behavior models from television and film, regional languages and cultural pastimes remain strong. In certain regions, such as the land along the south shores of the Caspian Sea, rainfall is abundant and tea and rice are the main crops. People here are known for their distinctive styles of architecture, dress, and language.

Despite the differences, the rural and urban areas of Iran have always had certain shared cultural traditions, with distinctions between urban and rural forms. For example, in many rural areas people raise sheep and goats and wheat and barley. It is not surprising then that throughout the country there is a emphasis on certain foods, such as flat wheat bread, clarified butter, other special dairy products, and lamb.

Carpet making also illustrates the variation between urban, village, and nomadic traditions. Iran is famous for its beautiful carpets of floral design, woven in special workshops in the cities of Isfahan, Kerman, Kashan, Tabriz, and Qom. These are the carpets of the palace, the mosque, individual families. Villagers in Iran today are caught between the two traditions. Some weave geometric tribal designs passed down from their mothers in their own homes or camping areas. Other weave floral patterns on upright looms for sale in the city.

Tribes

Within the rural areas of Iran, the population lives primarily in villages. However, in some areas, where rainfall is scarce and agriculture difficult, pastoral nomadism is the major adaptation. It is in these areas where most of the major tribal groups exist. The most well-known tribal groups are the Baluch, the Bakhtiari, the Kurds, the Lurs, the Shahsavan, the Turkmen and the Qashqa’i. Those who are nodamic pastoralists of herdsmen must follow their animals from one area to another in search of pasture. Access to this pasture is given by being a member of a tribal group. Not all members are nomadic. The elite of many tribal groups, such as the Bakhtiari, held agricultural land and educated their families in Europe. They may play important national roles, as did Soraya, the second wife of the late Shah, and Shahpur Bakhtiar, the last prime minister under the Pahlavi Shah.

The tribal groups of Iran have a distinctive political relationship to Iranian culture and society. Throughout Iranian history, the tribes have sought to maintain their cultural sovereignty in relation to the state. Thus, there is an ongoing tension between the tribes and the state whether it is led by a Qajar monarch, a Pahlavi Shah, or an Islamic Republic. Although tribes have become more and more a minority element in Iranian society, they have links to the state which are absent in America. For example, native American tribes represent a way of life in North America before the colonization by Europeans. Iranian society grew out of tribally organized society (see the History sections).

Tribal groups have always played a strong role in Iranian politics. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, dynastic ruling families, including the Safavids, Afshars, and Qajars, grew from tribal ranks and relied upon tribal support. In particular, tribal leaders of the Turkmen, Bakhtiari, and Qashqa’i served as key figures in Iranian politics. Qashqa’i leaders were instrumental in the formulation of the national policies and commercial interests of the British in Iran in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Turkmen rulers played a key role in determining Russian policies in regions of northern Iran.

The relationship of tribe to state is sometimes problematic. In the past tribes occasionally disrupted caravans and interrupted the flow of trade. Seasonal migrations might take a group across national boundaries and animals sometimes strayed into local fields. Although the state sometimes relies on tribes to repel invaders, tribal groups have also been forcibly resettled as the state has attempted to counter rebellion or to exert control over a tribe’s economic and political autonomy. The Kurds now living in the northeast of Iran were moved in the last century to defend borders.

In their attempts to avoid the authority of a central government, tribally organized nomadic pastoralists or herdsmen benefited from the flexibility of their lifestyles, which enabled them to retreat into the desert or to high mountain pastures. Nonetheless, they moved for ecological reasons. When Reza Shah attempted to settle the tribes as a part of his modernization plan for Iran in the 1930s, it meant ecological disaster for the herds. Eventually the nomads were able to resume their migration.

The Turkmen tribal peoples in the northeast have migrated for both ecological and political reasons: to follow good pasture and escape the control of the central government. Today, as the government extends more services to the rural areas and as more pasture land is turned to agriculture, some tribal families are making the decision to stop migrating and settle down. The tension involved for the group is vividly desribed in anthropologist Lois Beck’s book Nomad: A Year in the Life of a Qashqai Tribesman of Iran.

Urbanization and Westernization

Iran is becoming more and more urbanized and the urban areas are more and more the center of political and cultural influence. Earlier some of the differences between urban and rural populations were noted. Another important difference is that the urban areas have more access to Western culture. In urban areas, where members of many middle and upper class families have been educated in the West or have learned about the West or have learned about the West from book and films, the cultural flavor, especially until the Revolution of 1979, was becoming more and more Western. Since the Revolution there has been a determined effort by the Islamic regime to reject elements of Western culture considered incompatible with Islam, particularly in relation to women’s dress and relationships between men and women.

Certain traditions are retained in rural and poorer areas of the towns and cities that illustrate the influence of the West in another way. For example, where Western medicine is not readily available, older systems of medicine remain, which have links to Iran’s past and cultures of ancient India and Greece, and which utilize combinations of herbs and a concept of balancing “hot” and “cold” states. These earlier traditions are often combined with Western medicine to obtain the most effective cures.

Throughout time Iranians have been faced with other cultural traditions, whether from the Greeks, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Seljuk Turks, or now from Europe and America. They have always sought to work out their own solution to the problem of what to take in and what to reject from other cultures in an attempt to fit these influences into an Iranian mold. Iranian Christians, for example, rejected Western Christianity and retained their own form of Christianity until today. Individuals caught between two or more cultural influences at a particular time may find the situation to be a painful one. Both the struggles and solutions are what make Iranian cultural history a fascinating one.

Language

Language is a cultural factor that may cut across urban-rural, tribal-non-tribal, and even national boundaries. The national language of Iran is Persian, a language which, like English, belongs to the Indo-European family. For many Iranians, Persian is not their first language. For example, in the southwest along the Iraqi border and in areas along the Persian Gulf, much of the population speaks Arabic, a Semitic language. In Azerbaijan, in the northwest, Azeri (a variant of Turkish, which is form the Ural-Altaic language family) is the major first language. As Azeri-Turkish speaking people from this area migrate throughout the country, the extent of Turkish languages in Iran has increased. For example, it is common to hear Azeri-Turkish spoken in Tehran. Turkmen tribal peoples in the north and the Qashqa’i in the southwest speak other variants Turkish.

In addition to these major language groups, there are many small linguistic communities which speak Iranian or Turkic languages, many of which have not yet been studied by linguists. Government policy has been to stress Persian in the schools, and, hence, all Iranians have a shared language and tradition of poetry and epic. Islamic education added Arabic, the language of the Quran, to the curriculum. Minorities are allowed to learn languages which play a role in their religious ritual.

Certain tribal groups, such as the Baluch, have special oral traditions of epic and poetry in their own languages. Many of these populations are closely related to others living over the national boundary. For example, in the northeast the Turkmen are a tribal group, settled and nomadic, who speak Turkomeni (a Turkish language), are Sunni Muslims, and are related to Turkmen population across the Iranian border in Afghanistan and in Turkmenistan. In the southeast, the tribally organized Baluch, who speaks Baluchi (an Iranian language) are Sunni Muslim and are related to populations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Arabs is southwest share language and religion, but not nationality, with the Shi’i Iraqis. Azerbaijanis share religion and language (Azeri Turkish) with the people in the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Religion

Religion adds another major element of unity and diversity to the peoples of Iran. Although at least four or five Iranians are Shi’i Muslim, and Shi’i Islam is the state religion, certain tribal groups, such as Baluch, the Turkmen, and Kurds are predominately Sunni (See unit on Islam in Iran). There are also minority groups practicing religions which in most cases predate Islam. For example, a small number of Zoroastrians remain in Iran (See teachers information on Zoroastrianism).

The Assyrians and Armenians are the main Christian groups of Iran. Assyrians speak Syriac (a variant of Aramaic, which is a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and Arabic). The Armenians speak Armenian, an Indo-European language. Assyrian Christianity evolved from the Christianity of the Nestorians, who separated from the Orthodox Church after the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century. Armenian Christianity also has roots that go back to early Christianity in the region.

Iranian Jews have a long history in Iran. There have been Jews in Iran even longer than there have been Christians, ever since conquest of the Babylonian Empire by the Achaemenid king, Cyrus, in 539 B.C. The Jews in Iran are the descendants of those Jews who remained in the area after the period of the exile ended.

The Bahai religion originated in Iran in the nineteenth century. Since it derived from Islam, many Muslims have considered the Bahai religion to be heretical.

The various religious groups in Iran have different religious calendars, but they are united by the Iranian solar calendar, and by holidays such as Persian New Year.

Conclusion

So who are Iranians? They may be rural or urban, speak only Persian or Persian and one or more languages. They will be affiliated with one of the religious practiced in Iran. They may be members of a Tribe. The way these various factors combine and recombine leads to a rich variety in the culture of Iran. This Iranian culture developed out of the various customs of the many groups which have moved into the area over several thousands of years.

Student Activities

  1. Find out if there is a Persian restaurant in your area. If possible, try some Persian food (also check unit in this Handbook on food). Try to find out if the food you try is eaten all over Iran or if it is a regional speciality.
  2. Visit a Persian carpet store which carries rugs from Iran.. Talk to the owner about the carpet designs. Are they floral or geometric? Were the rugs woven in town or by nomads?

Glossary

  • Armenian- An ethnic group, language, and religion, all of which trace their origins back to early Christian era in northwestern Iran and eastern Turkey.
  • Assyrian- A language and religion allied with Nestorian Christians found today in parts of Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
  • Bahai- A religion which originated in Iran in the nineteenth century.
  • Bakhtiari- A tribal group in central part of Iran.
  • Baluch- A tribal group, whose language is Baluchi, living in the southeast part of Iran.
  • Gilaki – Refers to the people of the province of Gilan, as well as their dialect of Persian.
  • Kurd – A tribal group, whose language is Kurdish, an Indo-European language, living in the western part of Iran.
  • Lur – A tribal group in southwestern Iran.
  • Qashqa’i – A tribal group in southern Iran; also their dialect of Turkic.
  • Qajar – The dynasty that ruled Iran from the end of the eighteenth to the early twentieth century.
  • Safavid – The dynasty that ruled Iran from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.
  • Turkmen – A tribal group in the northwestern part of Iran and their language.
  • Zoroastrian– A person who practices the Zoroastrian religion which originated in Iran.

Music

Teacher

Charlotte Albright

Music in Pre-Islamic Times

We know from written records, pictures of musicians on ancient silver dishes and sculptures, and more recent Islamic period paintings, that Persians have always enjoyed music. Herodtus, the 5th century B.C. Greek Historian, mentions chanting Zoroatrian priests among the Achaemenids, who ruled Persia until 330 B.C. During the time of the Sasanians, whose empire lasted from the third to seventh centuries C.E. (Christian era, same A.D.), one musician, Barbad, was particularly famous for being both a great preformer on his instrument, but also for composing huge quanities of music. Musicologists (people who study music) in Iran give credit to Barbad for developing the idea of modes (sets of musical scales and rules for their performance) which is still used in Iran today.

Music Since the Advent of Islam

After the Arabic conquest of the Sananians, it seems clear that Persian musicians had considerable influence on the musical tastes of their conquerors. Persian musicians were famous in the Abbasid court at Baghdad and the Umayyad court at Cordoba. It also seems clear, however, that after the Arabic conquest, there was a general sharing of musical ideas among musicians all over the Muslim world, as far away as Muslim Spain and the West and the Moghul empire in India.

Twentieth Century Music

Classical Music:

Today several types of music are preformed in Iran: classical music, regional music, and popular music. Classical music comes from the ancient tradition of music preformed for the rulers of Persia. The music was preformed for court anquets, and sometimes accompanied by singing and dancing. Singing and dancing also formed a part of some Sufi rituals (See unit on Islam in Iran). Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing to the present day Persian classical music was orgaized into suites called dastgahs. Each dastgah has a particular modal orientation. The pieces were arranged and taught in a specific order, called radif (literally “row”). The radif now has several different versions depending on who taught it and for which instrument it was intended. Originally, this music was all taught orally; that is, the teacher played music and the student imitated the teaher until he learned his lesson perfectly.

Today many people believe that the oral method is still the best way to learn this music. Duing this century, however, a great deal of this music has been written down using western notation.

Typically, Persian classical music is performed by a small group of musicians and often one singer. The instruments are stringed instruments. Two of these are plucked: the setar and tar; one bowed: the kermanche; and one played with two delicate mallets: the santur. The one wind instrument is a kind of flute called a nay. The rhythm-keeper for the group in a drum called tonbak. The illustrations in piture 1 show what some of these intsruments look like. Today the western violin is frequently added to this group. The ud (an instrument closely related to the western lute), clarinet, piano, and even accordian, may sometimes be found in these ensambles (groups). Examples 1 and 2 on the tape in this unit are examples of Persian classical music.

Regional Music:

Each region of Iran has its own favorite music. The music is often associated with the ethnic group that lives in the region. Along the western border of Iran in and around the cities of Hamadan and Kermanshah, Kurdish music is most common. In the northwest provinces of East and West Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani music is the most common. Near Isfahan you may hear music of the Bakhtiari tribe and farther south, near Shiraz, you may hear music of of the Qashqai, another tribe. You could find a unique kind of regional music in almost every province of Iran. Musicians in these regions have their own traditional musical instruments. In Azerbaijan, village and townspeople enjoy listening to a special knd of singer called an ashiq. He sings accompanying his his songs on a stringed instrument called a saz. Picture 2 shows a Azerbaijani ashiq.

Example 3 on the tape is a folk song featuring Monir Vakili.

All over Iran weddings, particularly those in small towns and villages, may have musicians performing for people to dance. The musicians most often play a kind of double-reed instrument (a distant relative of the oboe) called zuma and some kind of drum , called davul. Obviously, this music has to be loud to carry over the noise of the wedding celebration and the sounds of dancing. Picture 3 shows the two musicians playing zurna and duval and the dancers ready to dance.

Popular Music:

Of course, there are many musicians who sing and play popular songs. In their songs they may combine elements of western popular music (using electric guitars and rum sets, for instance) with their own popular music or regional music styles. People all over the country listen to this music, but it is very popular with young people in the big cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz. Persian pop music performed by andy and Kouros is Example 4 on this tape.

Student

Music in Pre-Islamic Times

We know from written records, pictures of musicians on ancient silver dishes and sculptures, and more recent Islamic period paintings, that Persians have always enjoyed music. Herodtus, the 5th century B.C. Greek Historian, mentions chanting Zoroatrian priests among the Achaemenids, who ruled Persia until 330 B.C. During the time of the Sasanians, whose empire lasted from the third to seventh centuries C.E. (Christian era, same A.D.), one musician, Barbad, was particularly famous for being both a great preformer on his instrument, but also for composing huge quanities of music. Musicologists (people who study music) in Iran give credit to Barbad for developing the idea of modes (sets of musical scales and rules for their performance) which is still used in Iran today.

Music Since the Advent of Islam

After the Arabic conquest of the Sananians, it seems clear that Persian musicians had considerable influence on the musical tastes of their conquerors. Persian musicians were famous in the Abbasid court at Baghdad and the Umayyad court at Cordoba. It also seems clear, however, that after the Arabic conquest, there was a general sharing of musical ideas among musicians all over the Muslim world, as far away as Muslim Spain and the West and the Moghul empire in India.

Twentieth Century Music

Classical Music:

Today several types of music are preformed in Iran: classical music, regional music, and popular music. Classical music comes from the ancient tradition of music preformed for the rulers of Persia. The music was preformed for court anquets, and sometimes accompanied by singing and dancing. Singing and dancing also formed a part of some Sufi rituals (See unit on Islam in Iran). Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing to the present day Persian classical music was orgaized into suites called dastgahs. Each dastgah has a particular modal orientation. The pieces were arranged and taught in a specific order, called radif (literally “row”). The radif now has several different versions depending on who taught it and for which instrument it was intended. Originally, this music was all taught orally; that is, the teacher played music and the student imitated the teaher until he learned his lesson perfectly.

Today many people believe that the oral method is still the best way to learn this music. Duing this century, however, a great deal of this music has been written down using western notation.

Typically, Persian classical music is performed by a small group of musicians and often one singer. The instruments are stringed instruments. Two of these are plucked: the setar and tar; one bowed: the kermanche; and one played with two delicate mallets: the santur. The one wind instrument is a kind of flute called a nay. The rhythm-keeper for the group in a drum called tonbak. The illustrations in piture 1 show what some of these intsruments look like. Today the western violin is frequently added to this group. The ud (an instrument closely related to the western lute), clarinet, piano, and even accordian, may sometimes be found in these ensambles (groups). Examples 1 and 2 on the tape in this unit are examples of Persian classical music.

Regional Music:

Each region of Iran has its own favorite music. The music is often associated with the ethnic group that lives in the region. Along the western border of Iran in and around the cities of Hamadan and Kermanshah, Kurdish music is most common. In the northwest provinces of East and West Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani music is the most common. Near Isfahan you may hear music of the Bakhtiari tribe and farther south, near Shiraz, you may hear music of of the Qashqai, another tribe. You could find a unique kind of regional music in almost every province of Iran. Musicians in these regions have their own traditional musical instruments. In Azerbaijan, village and townspeople enjoy listening to a special knd of singer called an ashiq. He sings accompanying his his songs on a stringed instrument called a saz. Picture 2 shows a Azerbaijani ashiq.

Example 3 on the tape is a folk song featuring Monir Vakili.

All over Iran weddings, particularly those in small towns and villages, may have musicians performing for people to dance. The musicians most often play a kind of double-reed instrument (a distant relative of the oboe) called zuma and some kind of drum , called davul. Obviously, this music has to be loud to carry over the noise of the wedding celebration and the sounds of dancing. Picture 3 shows the two musicians playing zurna and duval and the dancers ready to dance.

Popular Music:

Of course, there are many musicians who sing and play popular songs. In their songs they may combine elements of western popular music (using electric guitars and rum sets, for instance) with their own popular music or regional music styles. People all over the country listen to this music, but it is very popular with young people in the big cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz. Persian pop music performed by andy and Kouros is Example 4 on this tape.

Bibliography:

Maqam: Music of the Islamic World and its Influences. New York: The Alternative Museum, 1984

Zonis, Ella. Persian Classical Music. Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1973.