Iran through the ages: civilization's eternal crossroads
Parsing Persian genetics
Related: Pre-Persian Iran: from the invention of agriculture to the Aryan onslaught, We are all Zoroastrians: how Persian empires of the mind touched all humanity and and One door closes, another opens: the Persian Empire’s end and the rise of the Persianate world..
Western civilization began with the Classical Greeks, but ancient Greek civilization is incomprehensible without the context of their endless conflict with the Persians starting in 500 BC, arguably history’s first civilizational world war. The unity of the Hellenes as a nation coalesced through their resistance to Persian aggression, and Athens’ rise was a direct consequence of its leading role in that fight. Greek victory over the early Achaemenids, Darius I and Xerxes I, not only shaped Greek culture, Persia’s later backing of Sparta over Athens helped decide the Peloponnesian War. Alexander the Great solidified this legacy of Greek entanglement with Persia at the end of the 4th century BC by defeating the last Achaemenid, Darius III, and conquering his empire. But Greece’s campaign to swallow Iran failed. In the end, Alexander’s dream of fusing the Greeks and Persians into the ruling race of a world empire died with him. Still, his shattering of the Achaemenid domains had the lasting impact of spreading across the Eastern Mediterranean a Greek culture forged centuries earlier during the Persian Wars, planting resilient seeds of Hellenic civilization as far east as India.
For the Classical Occident, Persia was the first great Other, the standard against which the West measured itself. Persia was there at the beginning of the West, a bête noire, the original Orient. But Herodotus’ and Xenophon’s is but one aspect of the story of Persia; the alternate tale is one of resilience in the face of political and military defeat and an endless cycle of the ancient culture surviving successive batterings to revive and resurge again. After Alexander’s conquests, Persia reemerged under the leadership of the Parthian Arsacid dynasty in the 2nd century BC. For three centuries, the Arascids warred with the Roman Empire, before the Sasanians succeeded them in the early 3rd century AD. The new Sasanian Persian Empire eventually came to match in size the Achaemenids’ domains at their peak, reaching the Aegean Sea and Egypt in the west by the early 7th century AD. And yet much as the Achaemenids were felled by Alexander, the Sasanians collapsed after defeat by the Arabs at Al-Qadisiyyah in 636 AD. By the 8th century, the last Sasanian princes were reduced to providing color as exotic dignitaries in the Xian court of China's Tang Emperor.
Where Alexander’s conquests began a century-and-a-half interregnum of foreign rule destined to quickly be forgotten, leaving little lasting impact, under the Arabs, Iran was enduringly transformed. Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of the Achaemenids and their successors, declined in the face of Islam, and the Persian language was set aside for the Koran’s Arabic. But the Iranians persisted as a nation, holding fast to their ancient history and unique language, making Islam their own and giving the young Dar-al-Islam (“Abode of Islam”) its greatest philosophers and jurists. Despite absorbing a vast trove of the Arabic lexicon into Persian, the Iranians retained their separate linguistic identity, with the poet Ferdowsi producing their national epic, The Shahnameh (“The Book of Kings”), 350 years after the humbling of the Sasanians by the Islamic conquest. Greek, Egyptian and Aramaic all faded as Arabic became the lingua franca of the western Near East, but in the east Persian evolved and reinvented itself. As late as three hundred years ago, the great Islamic Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals were all united both in their patronage and elevation of Persian high culture and their use of Ferdowsi and Rumi’s language.
But the roots of Persia and the Iranian world go much further back than even the historical memory of the Greeks. The cultural bedrock of the Achaemenid Empire was deep, reaching back 2,500 years before the time of Pericles and Leonidas. The history of what would become Iran begins with the dawn of written history and the rivalry between Mesopotamia’s first civilization, Sumeria, and Elam to its east. Just as the later Persians have been seen through the eyes of the Greeks, their western enemies, so Elam is known mostly from the clay-tablet records of their Mesopotamian enemies, the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians. Ancient Elam was situated in the southwest of modern Iran, and overlapped with what became Fars, homeland of the earliest Persians. Darius the Great’s own mother Irdabama was a wealthy Elamite descended from the region’s native aristocracy. In some measure, to be Persian was to have been Elamite.
The Persians, leaders of the Iranian peoples, were geographically liminal to the great civilizations of the Mediterranean and Asia. They represent the east for those to their west, and the west for those to their east. They have held such a position at equipoise for thousands of years, even back into prehistory and from the dawn of agriculture. The language of Iran binds it to the history of the Eurasian steppe, but Persian genes and culture root it in the deserts and mountains between India and Mesopotamia. The Persians are a bridge between the deep past and the present, a people as ancient as the Jews and Greeks, but with a lineage running even further back, to forgotten Elam.