Iran & Iranians — a bit of distant history
Iranian cultures and arts are rich and diverse, and have their roots in the ancient civilizations that developed as early as the fourth millennium BCE — about 4,000 years before any theistic religion came to existence — across the Iranian plateau.
Iran has a long and complex history. Cyrus the Great (~ 600 BC – 530 BC), king of Persia during Achaemenid dynasty and the founder of Persian empire, conquered much of the known civilizations and expanded the Persia which spread from parts of Europe and North Africa to much of the Middle East, all the way to Central Asia. The Persepolis ruins near Shiraz of a bitter-sweet reminder of those glorious days.
Cyrus was a great military strategist and government administrator, but at the same time he was an advocate of human rights and promoted racial and religious tolerance in all his conquests. After conquering Babylon and freeing the enslaved Jews, he declared the first human rights in the famous Cyrus Cylinder, a model of which resides in the United Nations building, as a charter of human rights. His name appears in Bible a number of times. For more on Cyrus refer to “Cyrus the great, a conqueror or a human rights advocate?“
Persian empire under Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid dynasties lasted well over a thousand years during which it was invaded time and again by the Turks, Mongols (Chengis Khan), the Romans (Alexander the Great), and the Arabs that the brought in Islam. However Persia and Iranians managed to not survive and preserve its language and culture, but also influence the invaders.
Ancient Persian Scholars
Throughout the ages, Iran has produced mystics, poets, philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, chemists and physicians whose writings and discoveries contributed to the world civilizations and human knowledge in significant ways. Here are just a few notable names:
- Poet and scholar Rudaki (858 – 941), a literary genius of modern Persian and the founder of Tajik/Persian classical literature.
- The great Ferdowsi (940 – 1020) who spent 30 years writing Shahnameh (the book of kings), the national epic book of poetry, in pure Persian (free of any Arabic word) in a monumental effort to preserve the Parsi or Persian language. See Shahnameh: The Book of Kings, by Dr. Dick Davis of Ohio State University.
- Poet and mystic Hafez (1310 – 1390) whose musical and beautiful poetry has been recited and put to music for centuries by Iranians. Refer to Dr. Dick Davis’ beautiful book, Faces of Love: Hafez & the Poets of Shiraz (2013) for English translation of his poetry.
- World renowned mystic/sufi, Mowlana a.k.a Rumi (1207 – 1273), whose poetry and spiritualism is studied, revered and celebrated all around the world 800 years later today.
- Saadi (1184 – 1283), the great socially conscious poet and author of Bustan and Golestan, who was quoted by President Obama in his Nowruz address, that all humans are part of the same body.
- Scholar, philosopher, chemist and physician, Zakariya Razi (865 – 925) who made significant contributions to the many field of science, specially his primary field of medicine. He is also credited with the discovery of alcohol.
- Polymath Omar Khayyam (1048 – 1131), one of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period, and the author of the most important work on algebra before modern times, also a great philosopher and poet, whose poetry is read and song world-wide.
- Polymath Ebn Sina a.k.a Avecina (980 – 1037), the greatest physician and philosopher of his time, also an astronomer, chemist, geologist, physicist, and logician, among other things, who wrote over 450 treatise in various disciplines, and is considered the father of modern medicine.
Persian Arts and Music
Asia. Iranian music has its roots in early Iranian civilizations in Achaemenid empire (550 – 331 BC) and especially Sassanid dynasty (224 – 651), the golden age of Persian music, with Barbod, the celebrated musician of his time. The Persian miniature painting goes back to 13th century.
For much more detail on Iran’s history, refer to the comprehensive Encyclopedia Iranica that is still under development under the leadership of professor Ehsan Yarshater from Colombia University, a notable Iranian scholar and historian in his own right.
Iranians are ethnically diverse. In the West, the names Iranian and Persian are often used interchangeably. Many Iranians abroad in fact prefer Persian to Iranian as they feel the former has less negative connotation. Also Persian for some may speak to the pre-Islamic roots of Iranians. However, the proper term is Iranian as not all Iranians are Persians. According to the CIA World Factbook on Iran, Persians only make up about half of Iranians (51%). The other ethnic groups are Azaris (24%) concentrated in the Northwest, Gilakis and Mazandaranis (8%) in the North along the Caspian Sea coastline, and Kurds (7%) in the Northwest and West. There are also Arabs, Baloch, Lurs, and Turkmen (2-3% each). These ethnic groups also speak their own languages, Persian and its dialects, Turkic (or Azari), Kurdish, Luri, Balochi, and Arabic among others such as Assyrians and Georgians.
Long before Islam came to existence, Zoroastrainism (6th century BC) was the ancient Iranian religion that advocated good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. It survives to this day as a minority religion among Iranians. There are practicing Zoroastrians in Iran and abroad, and there are a number of Zoroastrian temples in US including one in San Jose, CA. According to Dr. Abbas Milani of Stanford University, the influence of Zoroastrianism can be seen in Iran’s brand of Islam, Shi’ism.
Though Iran has been ruled by a Islamic fundamentalist regime since the 1979 revolution, there is religious diversity among Iranians. While a large majority are born into Islamic faith (89% Shiite/Shia, 9% Sunni), many are fairly secular. The remaining are Jewish, Assyrians and Armenians who are Christians, Zoroastrians and Baha’is.
For more detail on the demographics of Iran, refer to the Wikipedia page here.
Despite the much troubled times throughout the centuries — invasions, wars, revolutions, dictatorships, incompetent leaders, and more — we have continued to thrive as a people — in Iran and abroad. Today we have Iranian scientists, doctors, engineers, scholars, business leaders, and world-renown musicians, working away in their respective fields in leading companies, research labs, and universities around the globe, and contributing t various disciplines, and the collective knowledge, arts, and the welfare of humanity in general.
With estimates of well over one million Iranians in North America, mostly concentrated in major metropolitan areas, we are one of the most educated and affluent minorities in USA and Canada. See this for demographic data on Iranian-Americans. There are also hundreds of thousands of Iranians who live in Europe (especially Western Europe and Scandinavian countries), Australia, and other Asian countries.