A Short Survey of Iran’s Pre-Islamic Political and Cultural History

The millennium between the emergence of the Seleucid empire, the collapse of the Sasanian empire and the advent of Islam must be considered one the most significant in the history of Iranian-speaking peoples. It is a period during which the Iranians, who had been defeated by a military conquest, gradually rose to assert their ethnic and cultural identity. They succeeded not only in preserving the traditions inherited from the Medes and the Persians, but also in spreading and propagating their distinct culture among many neighboring societies. For some eight centuries Iran continued to be one of the four major civilizing forces active in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages: Greco-Roman (including Byzantine), Iranian, Indian, and Chinese.

Initially it appeared as if the conquest of Alexander and the Greek penetration heralded a decisive change of cultural direction; but in retrospect the Greek impact can be seen to have been ultimately transient. True, the Iranian ruling elite were hellenized for a while, and a symbiosis of Greek and Iranian cultures produced hybrid offsprings, noticeably in the fields of religion and art; but Iran retained enough vitality and vigor in the long run to absorb some of the alien cultural elements and to shed others, surfacing once again with a genuine spirit of its own.

Set at the crossroad between the Mediterranean world, China, and India, Iran was an effective intermediary for the communication of goods and ideas. Not only did her culture strongly affect Central Asia, Caucasia, and Mesopotamia, but her impact was felt in countries as far away as China and Rome. When Iran fell to the Arabs, still her cultural heritage proved of immense value for the enrichment of Islamic civilization.

Ehsan Yarshater
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