When the Greeks (from whom European civilization descend) first came across the Iranians, Persian Iranians were ruling that country as the Persian Empire. It was not a surprise for them to call it “Persis” while for the Persians who first came into contact with Ionian Greeks to call the entire Greek land “Ionia”. To this day Iranians refer to Greece as Ionia (Yunan).
Persia was only part of Iran insofar as the Persians made up one of the Iranian people. Yet at times it had an even wider meaning than Iran because what was historically known as Persia or the Persian empire included not only a much wider territory than present-day Iran also encompassed non-Iranian countries and peoples such as Egypt. “Persia” remained the European term for Iran until 1935 when the Iranian government insisted that all countries should officially call the country by the latter name. But “Persia” survived and still for so many western people, “Persia” has a much wider historical and cultural connotation than is conveyed by “Iran”, which they sometimes used to confuse with Iraq. Many no longer know that Iran and Persia are the same, thinking that Iran is also an Arab country!
Present-day Iran is part of the much larger Iranian plateau, the whole of which at times formed part of the Persian empire. The country is vast, bigger than Britain, France, Spain and Germany combined. It is rugged and arid and, except for two lowland regions, is made up of mountains and deserts. There are two great mountain rangers, the Alborz in the north, stretching from the Caucasus in the north-west to Khorasan in the east, and the Zagros, which extend from the west to the south-east. The great deserts, Dasht-e-Kavir and Dasht-e-Lut, both in the east are virtually uninhabitable. The two lowland areas are the Caspian littoral, which is below sea level, has a subtropical climate and is thick with rainforests, and the plain of Khuzestan in the south west, which is a continuation of the fertile lands of Mesopotamia and is watered by Iran’s only great river, the Karun.
Thus land is plentiful but water scarce, unlike a country such as Holland where land is scarce and water plentiful. The scarcity of water has played a major role not just in influencing the nature and systems of Iranian agriculture but also a number of key sociological factors including the cause and nature of Iranian states. The extent of mountain and desert has naturally divided the Iranian population into relatively isolated groups. But aridity played an even greater role in this, and at the level of the smallest social units. In most of the country arable cultivation and the keeping of livestock was possible only where natural rainwater, a small stream, a subterranean water channel, known as Qanat, or a combination of these provided the minimum necessary supply of water. Qanat or Kariz is an ingenious development of ancient times, dating back to well before the foundation of the Persian empire. From an existing underground water table in the upland, a tunnel is dug under the ground, sloping downwards to the lowland (near the surrounding farms) where it comes to the surface. The water which flows from the source by the pull of gravity is then distributed via narrow canals to where it is needed for irrigation and other purposes.
The Iranian People
Originally, Iranians were more of a race than a nation, the Persians being only one people among many Iranians. Apart from the country that is today called Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan also belong to the wider Iranian entity in historical as well as cultural terms, and the Iranian cultural region is even wider than the sum of these three countries, extending to parts of north India, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, the Caucasus and Anatolia: this is now described as the Persianate world.
Persian is only one of the Iranian languages, there have been many others, of which Kurdish, Pashto, and a few local languages in Iran still survive as living tongues; while other, non – Iranian, languages are also spoken in Iran, notably Turkish and Arabic. On the other hand, other varieties of Persian are spoken both in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, so that the people of these three countries can understand each other in conversation as well as literary communication. And many more Persian dialects are spoken in Iran.
No discussion of the history of Iran, its economy, society and polity may be sufficiently realistic and complete without taking full account of its nomads, beginning with the Persians who built its first empire to the Qajars who ruled until the twentieth century. Looking for greener pasture, a variety of Iranian as well as Turkish peoples of different origins were attracted to the region from the north, north-east and east, and once they were established they had to face the menace of other incoming hordes. Aridity and/or the pressure of population in their own lands were cause of their migration to Persia, and aridity in Iran was the cause of their internal movements from their winter to their summer quarters and back every year.
What gave them the advantage over sedentary people was that they were both martial and mobile, and more numerous than villages which they raided. It was also this marital and mobile quality that enabled a tribe or a federation of tribes to subdue the others and form a central state, which was therefore able to collect, directly or by proxy, the entire surplus agriculture product for its finance and become a colossal state, capable of policing, administering and defending vast territories of land. And it was precisely because of their nomadic nature and origins that most Iranian rulers were on the move for much of the time, so that the Achaemenids had three capitals, Susa, Persepolis and Ecbatana – four if Babylon is included. All Iranian states, from the beginning to the twentieth century, were founded by nomadic tribes which, after turning into a state, had to face the not infrequent challenge of other existing and incoming nomads.
Historically, Iran has been the crossroad between Asia and Europe, East and West. People, goods as well as beliefs and cultural norms and products have passed through it, usually, but not always, from east to west. The eastern influence was such that even much of ancient Iranian myths and legends originated in eastern Iranian lands, although Islam and the Arabs came from the opposite direction. This peculiar geographical location gave rise to what may be termed “the cross-road effect”, both destabilizing and enriching the country; both making its people hospitable and friendly towards individual foreign persons and highly self-conscious in general.
One product of the crossroad effect is the fact that Iran now inhabits a variety of ethnic and linguistic communities which include those whose mother tongue is Persian, as well as Kurds, Turks, Arabs, Baluchis, and so forth. Turkic-speakers are encountered in the north-western region of Azerbaijan, now divided into several provinces, bordering Turkey and Caucasus. Other Turkic-speaking peoples, such as the Turkmans of the central north-east, and tribal Turkic- speakers, such as Qashqai s in the south, are of Turkish extraction. But Turkic is spoken also in other parts of the country, not least in some of the villages in the central-north regions near Tehran. Kurds, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims, are an Iranian people and their language is an Iranian language. They live in the Kurdistan region in western Iran, but there are people of Kurdish origin also in the north-east. Iranian Arabs are Shia and almost entirely located in Khuzestan next to the Iraqi border. This does not exhaust the list of ethnic and linguistic Iranians, which includes small numbers of Armenian, Assyrian and Jewish peoples. Lors and Bakhtiyaris, for example, are still partly tribal.