Parthian Queen from
Hatra (Modern Iraq),
2nd century AD
The ancestors of the Persians had migrated to the Iranian plateau, with the other Indo-European tribes that descended the steppes of Southern Russia, beginning around 2000 BC. In earlier times, they had the same ancestors as Indians and are identified as proto-Indo-Iranians. From the fourth to the third millennium BC, these semi-migratory people forged a profound religious tradition, later known as Zoroastrianism. This is the oldest of the revealed world religions and has directly and indirectly influenced the other religions in the area, i.e. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and a host of Gnostic faiths (i.e. Northern Buddhism, Brahmans of India). Also, to this day, elements of Zoroastrianism are preserved in many aspects of the lives of ordinary Iranians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The Zoroastrian scriptures are known collectively as the ‘Avesta’ (loosely meaning ‘Authoritative Utterance’). They were compiled at different times, with Gathas being the most ancient and the only part that is attributed to the prophet Zoroaster himself. The rest of the surviving Avesta consists of liturgical texts preserved in various later stages of the same language (Avestan), but not in exactly the same dialect. There are also additions and interpretations added during the later Iranian dynasties, i.e. Parthian (Mid-Second Century BC) and Sassanian (Third Century AD). Zoroaster’s date is not precisely known. The archaic language of the Gathas and its closeness to the Indian Rig Veda (around 1700 BC), have helped establish the educated guess that Zoroaster lived sometime between 1700 and 1000 BC.
Many of the present day rituals and ceremonies of birth, death and marriage are a continuation of the ancient faith and customs. Many religious observances such as ‘sofreh’, a traditionally female religious gathering, and ‘rawzeh’ (reciting and chanting religious verses) are Zoroastrian in origin. The ‘sofreh’ feasts are specific to the Iranians and are not shared by other Muslims. The marriage ceremony is very similar to its pre-Islamic days. So are the observances and terminology used in rituals of death such as ‘cheleh’ (40th), ‘hafteh’ (7th), ‘sal’ (year) etc. Renewal festivals such as No Ruz (Persian New Year), jumping over the fire (Chahar Shanbeh Suri), Shab e Cheleh and Mihregan are also deeply rooted in the ancient tradition. Although most have lost the religious significance of Zoroastrianism, many festivals and rituals have maintained the same structure as they did before the advent of Islam in the 7th century AD.
The first wave of Iranians; ancient Medes and Persians, entered Western Iran beginning around the first millennium BC.
By the 7th Century BC the Medes had established themselves, made an alliance with Babylon and overthrown the Assyrian Empire. In 549 BC, the Persians, led by Cyrus the king of Anshan, rebelled, defeated the Medes, and founded the Achaemenian Empire. Anshan is the old oriental name for the center of the eastern part of the Elamite Empire on the southwestern Iranian upland in a region that roughly covers the territory the Persians later gave their name, Parsa.
The term Iran is derived from the Sasanian concept of Eranshahr (‘Empire of the Aryans) in the third century AD, and exists in variant forms in Avestan and ancient Persian. By using Eranshahr, the Sasanians created a new ‘identity’ for themselves and their subjects, one that became the political, cultural and religious home of all living there. In the context of the Nazi perversion of the word ‘Aryan’ into a racial concept and its interpretation as ‘of German and related stock’, it should be mentioned that the word ‘Aryan’ has meaning only as a linguistic term designating the eastern part of the Indo-European family of languages. It has nothing to do with race and is simply a linguistic connotation.
In its ethno-linguistic and religious respects, the word Ariya, which forms the basis for the Middle Persian ‘Eran,’ can be traced back to the Achaemenid period and even earlier. In their inscriptions, Achaemenian kings talk about their Aryan origin and speak of Ahura Mazda (the Zoroastrian Sovereign God and Lord of Wisdom) as the’ God of the Aryans’. However, they put more emphasis on being Persian than Aryan, and as Persians they separate themselves from the Medes, Bactrians (parts of Afghanistan) and other Iranian-speaking people.
With the coming of the Achaemenid in the 6th century BC, an efficient administration, new civil centers and a powerful military machine were created. Temple cults were established and for the first time an organized priesthood was formed; this new ecclesiastical hierarchy replaced the loosely connected family priests. Their Empire extended from India to North Africa. The result was the creation of a state structure on an unprecedented scale, characterized by ethnic, religious and cultural heterogeneity. Their reign ended when the Macedonian King Alexander succeeded in breaking the Iranian resistance to his eastern expansions into the Asian continent in 330 BC.
Following Alexander’s death the Empire was divided between his heirs and the Seleucid dynasty of Iran was formed. Alexander’s policies were followed through political marriages with the non-Greek dynasties, and through calling upon natives for military and administrative tasks. Persian and Mesopotamian models were adopted by the Seleucid in their choice of residences, patterns of personal relations, in the court art relating to the king and above all in the royal ideology. At the same time, Greek art, philosophy and sciences were introduced into the Persian territories.
Cyrus’s Cylinder, 6th century BC. British Museum
The Macedonian domination of Iran lasted until the Mid-Second Century BC, when simultaneous pressure from the east (Parthia) and the west (Rome) weakened their rule and they were defeated by the Next Iranian dynasty, the Parthian or Arsacid, named after Arsaces, the founder of their dynasty. Originally, from Parthia in Northeast Persia, they ruled over a great multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society and exerted great influence over Armenia, Syria and Asia Minor.
Achaemenid and the following dynasties, Seleucid and Arsacid (Parthian), did not create theocratic states, though they did encourage religious institutions, build magnificent temples and introduce major changes with respect to calendar and scripture. This was first attempted by the Sasanian, but was completed and achieved by the later Muslim dynasties. From the Sasanian times onwards, Iranian culture became increasingly religious. These people were the hereditary guardians of a great temple of Anahita (Nahid, a major female deity) at the city of Istakhr in Pars. Ardeshir, the first major king from this dynasty made great use of religious propaganda as a mean to establish his rule over the vast Empire he conquered in the Third Century AD.
The result was the establishment of a single Zoroastrian church, under the direct and authoritarian control of Persia. A single canon of Avestan texts ‘Dinkard’ was established and replaced by the fraternity of regional texts and communities. A strong, unified and growing body of disciplined priests strengthened the church and implemented the religious codes and observances with great efficiency. Gradually these priests managed to dominate many aspects of the private and public lives of the ordinary citizens.
The conquest of Persia by the Muslim forces from Arabia in the 7th century introduced many changes. Politically the country became fragmented; the powerful centralized state was lost. For centuries the country was ruled by different feudal and warlords from Arab, Turkish, Mogul and occasionally Persian origins. Semi-autonomous kingdoms were formed, with the Muslim caliphs in Damascus in Syria or Baghdad as the ultimate source of authority. Wars for Independence were fought and lost. Culturally, significant attempts were made to preserve the language, heritage and the national identity. Through the unprecedented translation movement of the 8th to 10th centuries AD, a great variety of books on sacred and secular sciences were translated from Persian, Syriac, Greek and Indian sources into Arabic to preserve ancient knowledge and national identities throughout the Muslim Empire.
The advent of Islam slowly but drastically changed the religious character of the country. Some of the most important doctrines of Islam – such as belief in Heaven and Hell, the end of the world and the Day of the Judgment – were derived indirectly but ultimately from Zoroastrianism. As a result, they were disarmingly familiar, as were certain Muslim practices: the five times of daily prayer (also adopted from Zoroastrianism), and the injunction to give alms. However, there were major changes in doctrine, and use of Arabic for all religious and administrative functions and the new fate could have meant the loss of national identity altogether. Persians survived by adopting the Arabic script (Aramaic in origin) while maintaining the phonetics and thus saving the ancient language from extinction.
Conversion meant changes not only in doctrine but also in practices and rituals. The many kindly deities (eyzads) to whom the Zoroastrians had turned for help had to be renounced. Instead of the celebration of holy days—with many joyful observances, feasts, music, plays and parties—there were Friday prayers at the mosques, confronting a stone facing ‘qibla’ (direction to Mecca) instead of a bright leaping flame. There were no public dancing or music, theaters were closed down, and the veiling and segregation of sexes was introduced.