Look at a map of Iran, and you can begin to understand why the country has had such a dramatic history. It sits between the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Ambitious empires that have wanted to link Europe and Asia have had to conquer this large, mountainous country first. The Iranians themselves have also built empires, bringing them into conflict with Asian and European peoples.
AN ANCIENT EMPIRE
The first great kingdom based in the country we today call Iran appears in the Bible with the name Elam. The people who created this kingdom called it Haltamtu. The Elamites, the people of Elam, were great rivals of the civilizations that developed along the rivers Tigris and Euphrates to the west, such as the Sumerians and the Babylonians. Elam was eventually conquered by another great civilization to the west—the Assyrians. The capital of the Elamites, Susa, was destroyed.
Iran used to be known as Persia. This name comes from the ancient people called the Parsa. They settled in Iran around the year 1500 bc. The Parsa and a related people called the Medes spoke a language that is the ancestor of that spoken in Iran today. In 550 bc a dynamic and ambitious ruler, Cyrus, became ruler of the Persians. He built an empire that extended from Asia Minor (the region today occupied by Turkey) to the borders of India. The rulers of the Persian Empire, called the Achaemenids, built a great capital, Persepolis. The magnificent ruins still stand today. To the west the Persians came up against the well-armed states of Ancient Greece. The Persians were never able to overwhelm Greece, and in the year 330 bc Persepolis fell to Alexander the Great, the ruler of the Greek kingdom of Macedonia. The Persian Empire crumbled.
THE COMING OF ISLAM
After the fall of the Achaemenids, Iran came under the rule of a succession of empires. A rich and diverse culture developed. Many Iranians were followers of a religion called Zoroastrianism. This faith was founded by a religious prophet called Zoroaster. His followers believed that two forces, one good and one evil, were struggling for control of the universe. The Parthians, who ruled until ad 224, had contacts with both the Roman Empire and with China. However, it was difficult to rule an empire that covered such a large area and that had no well-defined borders. In 641 the Muslim Arabs conquered Iran. The new religion of Islam began to win converts from Zoroastrianism.
Although the country was under Arab rule, Iranian culture survived and flourished. Many great poets wrote in the Persian language. One of the most famous was Omar Khayyam, who was not only a poet but also an astronomer and a mathematician. Many Iranians followed a version of Islam called Shi’ism. This set them apart from most Muslims, who followed the version called Sunni Islam. In the early 16th century a new dynasty emerged in Iran called the Safavids. They created a Shia (Shi’ism) empire, with a magnificent capital in Eşfahān.
IRAN AND EUROPE
During the 19th century, Britain and Russia became great rivals in central Asia. The British were anxious to protect their empire in India from Russian expansion. The two powers competed to increase their influence over Iran.
The British won power in Iran by buying “concessions” from the shah, the ruler of the country. These concessions gave Britain the power to develop trade and industry in Iran, in return for a large share of the profits. To many Iranians it seemed that their country was being sold off to pay for the lavish lives of their rulers. Religious leaders were angry that non-Muslims were being given power in their country. In 1890 the shah put the production and sale of Iran’s tobacco crop in the hands of a British company. When Iranians learnt about this there were huge demonstrations against the shah, and many Iranians gave up smoking until the concession was withdrawn.
THE SHAH AND THE AYATOLLAHS
After World War II, Iran was ruled by Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. He allied his country closely with the United States, and concentrated power in his own hands. Iran’s abundant oil made some Iranians rich, but many remained poor. The westernized attitudes and behaviour of the shah and his supporters offended conservative Muslims. Political opposition was suppressed by the Shah’s feared secret police, called the Savak. An exiled religious leader (or “ayatollah”) called Ruhollah Khomeini became a hero for many Iranians. In 1979 the Shah was overthrown and Khomeini returned to Iran.
AN ISLAMIC STATE
Under Khomeini, Iran became a theocracy—a country run by religious leaders. The rulers of other countries in the Middle East were worried that religious revolution would spread. Between 1980 and 1988 Iran fought a terrible war against Iraq, which had invaded Iran. More recently, some Iranian leaders have tried to make Iran more open to the West. This has led to conflict with conservative Muslims who want to preserve Islamic government in Iran.