Photograph by Simon Norfolk National Geographic August 2008
Archaeological evidence indicates that Iran—a Middle Eastern country bordered by Iraq and Pakistan and touched by the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea—has been inhabited for approximately 30,000 years. By 6,000 B.C. people there were farming, and by around 4200 B.C. they'd established the city of Susa, thought to be one of the first urban centers in the world. The first pre-Islamic dynasty in the land known to the ancient Greeks as Persia, the Achaemenid Empire, lasted from 530 to 330 B.C. and was followed by the brief reign of Alexander the Great and then by the Parthian (250 B.C. to A.D. 226) and Sassanid dynasties (224 to 641). Arabs invaded Persia during 641 and 642 as part of the larger Arab conquest, which led to a Persian Islamic renaissance in medicine, literature, law, and religion. Later Persia was invaded by the Seljuk Turks (1040 to 1157) and the Mongols (1221 to 1501), but then Persians regained control of their land. The Safavid dynasty ruled from 1502 to 1736, followed by three more dynasties: the Zand (1750-1794), the Qajar (1795 to 1925), and the Pahlavi (1925 to 1979). The country continued to be known as Persia until 1935, when the government asked the world to begin calling it Iran, a cognate of Aryan and the name its people had always used.
Iran's last king, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown in 1979 when conservative Shiite clerics and their associates took control of the government in a religiously inspired popular uprising. Ayatollah Khomeini, the "supreme leader" of the new Islamic government, was succeeded in 1989 by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who continues to serve in that role. The current president of the civil government, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected in 2005.
Today the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country of 1.65 million square kilometers (636,313 square miles) and a population of 71.2 million, has large reserves of natural gas and oil—its proven conventional oil reserves are second only to those of Saudi Arabia. For eight years, from 1980 to 1988, Iran was embroiled in a war with Iraq over oil and borders. Iraq's widespread use of chemical weapons led to protests by Iran and by the United Nations. The war ended in a truce negotiated by the UN. Exact casualty figures are not available, but some sources indicate that as many as 200,000 Iraqis were killed and 375,000 wounded and that 300,000 Iranians were killed and another 500,000 wounded.
The current Iranian government has been accused by the U.S. and other Western countries of sponsoring terrorism, particularly in Iraq, Lebanon, and the West Bank. Several UN members also claim that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. President Ahmadinejad says the nation's nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes and argues that Iran is entitled to have such a program. But his government has repeatedly defied the International Atomic Energy Commission as it has tried to investigate Iran's nuclear program, and it has yet to satisfy the international community that its efforts are exclusively peaceful. These concerns have led to international sanctions on Iran's banking industry and a freeze on many Western exports to Iran.
Ahmadinejad, who was once mayor of Iran's modern capital, Tehran, claims to have broad support within his country. His ultraconservative administration harks back to the days of Ayatollah Khomenei and is backed by a regular army of 350,000 and an additional 125,000 men and women in the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The corps—which also controls the Basij Resistance Force, a paramilitary group made up of approximately one million volunteer conscripts—is reportedly involved in channeling arms to Iraq and training terrorists there and elsewhere.
In the 1990s Iran had a more open government that granted journalists increased freedom, but the liberal press was targeted by hardliners in the religious sector, the government, and the military. After Ahmadinejad's election the hardliners began repressing free speech and closing down more-vocal publications. Some independent media remain, but the major news service, the IRNA, and the top newspapers are all outlets for the government. There are also several conservative daily newspapers and a state-run broadcasting service, Iran Broadcasting, or IRIB.
Yet millions of Iranians have access to the Internet, a major communications outlet both for dissidents and those more comfortable with the policies of the current regime. Internet censorship is possible, but the government claims its efforts are aimed primarily at preventing pornography and attacks on Islam. Weblogs number in the tens of thousands, and even President Ahmadinejad writes a blog under his own name, in which he addresses the citizenry. Expatriate TV and radio programs are also broadcast to Iran and can be received through satellite antennae.
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Last updated: June 25, 2008
Thousands of important sites, many still to be excavated, sprinkle Iran's landscape—archaeological treasures that reveal the nation's complex history of invasions and power struggles. Over the course of more than 5,000 years, Iran has shown a remarkable ability to assimilate different religions and rulers, from the early settlers who arrived in the Zagros Valley around 6,000 B.C. to the Arabian tribesmen who conquered ancient Persia in the seventh century A.D. The legacies of Bronze Age peoples, Elamites, Achaemenids, Alexander the Great and the Seleucids, Parthians, and Arabs are all woven into the fabric of today’s Iran. Below is a list of some of the nation’s richest archaeological finds.
The Zagros Valley In western Iran, the Zagros Valley, a highland region with limited resources near the Fertile Crescent of the Mediterranean and Middle East, was an important early pastoral center. About 8,000 years ago herders based in villages began living nomadically as they moved sizeable herds over large areas—the first stages of nomadic pastoralism. Recent excavations have indicated that animal domestication could have started in the Zagros region; they’ve also uncovered important stone artifacts.
Konar Sandal The development of agriculture eventually led to the urban civilizations of the Bronze Age. Excavations that began in 2000 near the modern-day city of Jiroft have revealed exciting new clues about a possible Bronze Age civilization at Konar Sandal (ca 3000 B.C.). Archaeologists believe they may have found a stepped, mud-brick platform and a citadel mound constructed by Bronze Age contemporaries of the great builders of Mesopotamia.
Susa Located on the Susiana plain, Susa was an important Bronze Age city—it was once a capital of Elam—with structures that date back 4,000 years. It was destroyed by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal around 640 B.C. and rebuilt a century later, becoming a favored residence of Persia’s King Darius I. After the fall of the Achaemenid Empire in the fourth century B.C. and the brief reign of Alexander the Great, Susa became part of the Seleucid Empire; it would remain an administrative center until its decline in the 13th century A.D.
Dur Untash The Elamites who lived in southwestern Iran (ca 2400 to 539 B.C.) are often divided into groups: Old, Middle, and Neo-Elamite. Members of one of the world’s early civilizations, the Elamites constructed an impressive ziggurat, or pyramidal tower, in the city of Dur Untash. Among the largest in the world, the ziggurat has been partly restored. Locals call it Choga Zanbil, or basket mound, since its shape resembles an upside-down basket.
Cyrus Cylinder Cyrus the Great founded the first Persian Empire (ca 530 B.C. to 330 B.C.). During the course of 200 years, its rulers subjugated numerous realms in a region that stretched from the Indus River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, making Persia the largest empire the world had yet seen. The cosmopolitan kingdom of the Achaemenids tolerated many of the local customs of the groups it absorbed and conquered.
Known as the King of the Four Quarters, Cyrus freed the Jews from Babylon and was admired as a champion of human rights. He respected the customs of those he conquered, allowing him to absorb many people into his empire with much less bloodshed than previous conquerors. The Cyrus Cylinder—a cuneiform clay cylinder bearing words Cyrus wrote to describe his treatment of the people of Babylonia after the Iranian conquest—has been called the first charter of human rights. Today it’s in the British Museum in London; a copy is displayed at UN headquarters in New York.
Pasargadae The tomb of Cyrus the Great, about 25 miles northeast of the ancient city of Persepolis, is located in Pasargadae. Archaeologists are striving to restore the building’s roof, but industrial pollutants from nearby factories are eating away at the stone.
Isfahan Famous for its handicrafts, including silks, cotton weaving, pottery, and metalwork, the city of Isfahan was likely in existence during the Achaemenian period; it was also a Parthian capital during the rule of Artabanus V in the third century A.D. Isfahan, meaning "place of the army,” was used as an army camp and gathering place. Arabs conquered the city around A.D. 640, and the Ummayads and Abbassids controlled it until A.D. 931. The Mongols overtook it in 1397. The Safavid ruler Abbas I rebuilt it in 1598 and erected impressive mosques, leading to a new golden age for the capital. Today it’s home to the important Islamic monument Masjed-e Jami, or Great Mosque of Isfahan, a giant complex.
Persepolis Often referred to as a ceremonial capital built by Darius the Great, who reigned from 522 to 486 B.C., Persepolis is the site of ruins that speak to a past shrouded in mystery: Its function is still debated by scholars. One theory says it could have been a residential palace; another, an administrative center. Yet the mountainous geography of the remote capital would have made it an inconvenient residence, and scholars generally agree that the capitals at Susa, Babylon, and Ecbatana were used more often.
Whatever its function, the complex of colossal stone buildings and columns was designed by Darius to symbolize Achaemenian power and rulership, dramatized by powerful symbols of lions and winged bulls with human heads. The Gate of All Lands served as an entry hall into the city; winged stoned bulls with human heads, called lamassu, protect its inner doorway. Inside Persepolis, a monumental stairway led to the Tripylon, a magnificent throne hall. Enormous stone doorways and false windows, once adorned with fabric window decorations, are nearly all that remain of Persepolis, but in its day it "was a brilliant advertisement for the measured rule of the Achaemenid kings,” says David Stronach, professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. At Persepolis, carved staircases show Persian elites holding hands, perhaps symbolizing their fraternity.
Contemporary Iran retains a strong Persian identity. Builder Hossein Sabat modeled his Dariush Grand Hotel on the island of Kish after Persepolis. Some of the artwork blends Persian mythology with contemporary themes, in a style the New York Times described as "more Las Vegas than Disneyland.”
Naqsh-e Rostam Near Persepolis, a wall of rock called Naqsh-e Rostam contains tombs that once held the bodies of Darius and his immediate successors. The cubelike building in front of the tombs may have played a role in Achaemenid coronations, according to Stronach’s recent research.
Rayy One of the great cities of Iran, Rayy dates from the third millennium B.C. and was famous for its silks and ceramics, including fired brick and glazed earthenware. An early Zoroastrian document calls it a sacred place. Rayy was taken by the Muslim Arabs in A.D. 641 and grew to be an important city under the Muslim caliph al-Mahdi in the eighth century. Other significant cities of the time included Damascus and Baghdad. Religious rivals brought down Rayy in the 12th century, and the Mongols destroyed it in 1220.
Nishapur Destroyed and rebuilt many times, Nishapur, a capital of Iran, is said to have been the wealthiest city in Iran during the ninth century A.D. It produced impressive Islamic ceramics, particularly in the tenth century A.D., with bold, symmetric motifs that showed links to Sassanid and Central Asian craftsmanship, including images of black and ochre birds and green and white painted lines. In 1037 A.D. the first Saljuk king made Nishapur his capital, turning it into a center of learning by creating a dozen libraries and a university.
From Darius the Great to Ardashir, Iran has adapted to many styles of rule. The accomplishments of these historic figures can still be seen today. Below is a list of some of Iran's most remarkable leaders.
Alexander the Great and the Seleucids Called Eskander the Accursed by some Iranians, Alexander the Great plundered Persepolis around 330 B.C., burning down much of the city. He conquered the Persian Empire but died in Babylon shortly afterward, in 323 B.C. With his general Seleucus in control, Alexander's successors continued to spread Greek influence over Asia, before eventually losing power to the Parthians.
The Parthians The Parthians (247 B.C. to A.D. 224) were tribal warriors from northeast Persia who created what's been called the second Persian Empire, which challenged Rome's power.
The Sassanids The Sassanids (ca A.D. 224 to A.D. 641) formed a new ruling family that became the third Persian Empire—a golden era of city building and art. Firuzabad (built after A.D. 224) was the palace of Ardashir I, founder of the Sassanid dynasty. Major design elements of the palace include an arched open-fronted hall, or iwan, that leads to an inner domed chamber. Centuries later these same two conspicuous elements still distinguished classic Islamic mosque architecture, according to the University of California's David Stronach. The Sassanid dynasty was the last flowering of ancient Iranian culture before the Arabs conquered it in 641 A.D.
Zoroastrianism, the state religion of the Sassanid dynasty, had likely been observed since the beginning of the first Persian Empire. The mostly monotheistic religion influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The teachings of Zoroaster were celebrated during the autumnal festival of Mehregan, which is still observed by about 30,000 people in Iran. About 200,000 people practice Zoroastrianism today, though most live in India—only about 30,000 Iranians practice Zoroastrianism.
The Arab Conquest In 641A.D. Arab nomads spreading Islam brought Persia under Arab rule, but Persian identity remained a strong cultural force in the Muslim world.
The Abbasids The Abbasids (ca. 750 -1258 A.D.) were among the great dynasties of the Muslim empire. They ruled from the eighth century A.D. until the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. The Abbasids embraced Persian heritage, and their international empire blended elements of Islamic and Persian thought. An early focus on literary, artistic, and scientific achievement elevated the Abassid Empire. The dynasty ultimately fell to the Mongols during a siege of Baghdad, the Abbasid capital.
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Last updated: July 9, 2008