The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Iran, Cultural Crossroads for 2,500 Years
A 1971 "UNESCO COURIER" SPECIAL ISSUE
WITHOUT the genius of Iran the culture of mankind would have
been exceedingly impoverished. Between 546 and 331 B.C. the great Achaemenid
Empire, built by Cyrus and consolidated by Darius (521486 B.C.), continued and
perfected, on a far larger scale than had ever been known, the ordering and
interchanges of an Imperial state whose beginnings had been traced by the
Babylonians and Assyrians.
Once the latter had been conquered by the Iranians, the
"law of the Medes and Persians” which changed sheltered the development
of civilization from the Aegean Sea to the Indian Ocean.
Significantly, the Achaemenids supplied their own word for
"law", data which passed into Armenian, Hebrew and Akkadian, to
signify what it meant by its root meaning, "to arrange" or "put
The ancient languages, which adopted this word, indicate the
Achaemenid Empire's dominance over an area, which included the Caucasus and
Armenia, Israel on the Mediterranean seaboard, and the Tigris-Euphrates Basin.
It also stretched into Central Asia in the northeast, and Asia Minor In the
From the crossroads the Medes and then the men of Persis,
Cyrus and Darius, marched along routes, which quartered the compass, to create
the model of the universal, cosmopolitan state.
During the reign of Artaxerxes I (466-424 B.C.) Greek
historians and man of science travelled in the Empire to acquire the learning of
the East. Had Democritus (d. 361 B.C.) no met Babylonian scholars and
mathematicians under the aegis of the Achaemenid Empire, he would probably not
have worked out his atomic theory. His father had entertained the Emperor Xerxes
when the Iranian "Great King" had been in Thrace in about 460 B.C.
Leaving those ancient eras when Iran set the style for
uniting nations, the more recent Islamic culture can be cited as a phenomenon
which would riot have existed without contributions made in cities such as
Baghdad, Bukhara, Herat, Ray, Esfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz from the 8th to the
17th centuries A.D. There the poetry, faience, architecture, metalwork,
miniature painting and calligraphy which are the characteristic adornments of
Moslem culture were perfected.
The ethos of all these cities was Iranian, so extensive had.
former Persian empires been. Baghdad, from 750 to 1258 the seat of the Caliphs
of Islam, who were Islam's religious and juridical heads, is near the site of
Ctesiphon on the Tigris, and Ctesiphon’s great arch still stands as the
memorial of the splendour of the winter capital of the Persian Sasanid Empire
(224-651 A.D.). Bukhara and Herat were jewels in northeastern Iran, where
Achaemenid and Sasanid influence reached the Oxus and Hindu Kush, and the
Persian language prevails to this day.
Islam was the faith revealed in the seventh century to the
Arabian Prophet Mohammed. Shortly after his death the Arabs' expansion at Iran's
and Byzantium's expense made Islam inheritor of an Iranian civilization whose
beginnings are traceable to 4000 B.C. Then a pottery existed on the Iranian
Plateau with designs which reveal that the leap from realism into abstract
stylization had already been made; made first of all by prehistoric Iranian
From this discovery it is evident how In the clear atmosphere
characteristic of Iran, man's genius was early diverted from observation and
imitation of natural objects to transmuting observation into the ordering of
Objects seen -- animals poised to spring, birds in flight--
were transformed Into universal concepts by the ingenuity of prehistoric
Iranians, and Iranians have maintained this capacity to universalize the
particular in their arts ever since, thus displaying the highest mark of
The art of those first potters can be seen again in the
bounding gazelles and partridges on the wing that decorate the pages of
sixteenth century manuscripts as motifs incidentally to more fully developed
scenes, of princes carousing or embattled against backgrounds of landscapes
which are in a Chinese style and include tents from the Steppes of Central Asia;
or of philosophers such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina), discoursing to pupils on theme
preserved from defunct Greek schools but taught in medieval Iranian college
The clarity of the Iranian climate is in great part the key
to this type of achievement in the visual arts, as later it will be seen to have
been to the development of religious attitudes.
It is a special quality of Iranian conditions, by which all
comers are captivated and mentally and spiritually enhanced. To it should be
added the abrasive quality of rugged mountain topography and parched plains
dramatically relieved by the luxuriance of gardens and coppices in places where
carefully husbanded, sparse water supplies meet cultivable soil.
Wine and genius may be said to be natural to Iran, whose
middle position between eastern and western continents has always ensured that
its genius had much to feed on, much to transmute into something vital and new.
From Herodotus onwards, Iranian adaptability and quickness to
borrow from others have frequently been commented on. But rarely has this been
done with enough emphasis on the original genius and absolute and unchanging
characteristics distinctly Iranian, to make "borrowing" fresh,
hitherto unthought-of development, mere imitation being out of the question.
The record can be corrected when it is recognized that the
toughness of Iranian conditions, combined with the possibilities of achieving
great refinement of living. art and intellect, have forged a human resilience
and presence of mind to which others have invariably succumbed, never succeeding
in erasing the influence and effects of Iranian talent, however calamitously
they may have assaulted the Iranian land.
Thus, to a greater extent than a rival Greek might have seen
fit to report, Iranians have received less than they have exported, or given to
their not always invited guests. Invaders have been of inferior culture,
attracted by Iran's superior civilization and quickly conquered by it. From
Arabs out of the desert and nomads from the Asiatic steppes Iran could hope to
receive little but an influx of fresh vitality and the arduous challenge of
refining it into the Iranian way of life.
This is to speak as if Iran had always been, and that not
successfully, on the defensive. On the offensive against the ancient Greeks,
Iran came into Europe and in its turn provided the challenge which broadened the
Hellenes' honzon and, for example, in Xenophon's Cyropaedia, gave the world a
Greek philosophical tale, based qn the examples furnished by Iranian monarchy,
and, interestingly enough, written in a strikingly Persian style of exemplary
Iranians brought Europe lucerne, the fodder of their famous
cavalry, and also the domestic fowl, the white dove, and the peacock. Darius had
fruit trees from his eastern provinces transplanted to regions west of the
Euphrates. The pistachio was taken to Syria, rice to Mesopotamia, and sesame to
Egypt, all within the confines of ancient Iranian empires. The Shahanshah's
favourite wines, however, failed to flourish in Damascus.
Salted fish from the Persian Gulf was eaten in Asia Minor and
part of Egypt's tribute to Iran was paid in revenue from the Mediterranean and
Nile fisheries; the statecraft of the Achaemenid King of Kings accomplished and
maintained in balance the first and one of the vastest of amalgams of human
Iranian initiative has repeatedly revived this dream of the
universal state. Alexander the Great himself, to win his subordinates' approval,
after they had reproached him for having become too Iranian in outlook,
destroyed the Achaemenid's cosmopolitan amalgamation in 331 B.C.
Long afterwards, when through Iranian intrepidity and that of
Iranized Arabs the Moslem Caliphate of Baghdad rose in 750 A.D., the stage was
set for another far-reaching amalgamation of human forces and global resources:
the Perso-Moslem unity.
. Geography has endowed the occupants of the Iranian uplands
with a very wide theatre in which to spread the operations and influence of
their genius. They overlook the Oxus basin and plains of Asia in the north-east,
the Tigris-Euphrates valley and Arabian Desert in the south-west, the Hindu-Kush
and Indian Sub-Continent in the east and south-east.
The Caucasus rises in the north and the Persian Gulf girdles
the southern shores of what is a many-doored caravanserai, the middle realm
between Europe and Asia, Africa and Siberia. Through Iran came the silk and
paper of China, the Indies' gold and spices, the horses and hides of Central
Asia, to reach the Roman sea.
When an Iranian empire of old expanded, it followed the
ancient world's primary arteries of trade between east and west. It supplemented
its wealth by tolls on merchandise, upon whose raw materials it placed the stamp
of Iranian craftsmanship. It touched the goods passing through its hands with
the quickening luminosity of the Iranian mind; with that art which the early
potters on the Persian plateau had practised.
Not only were designs and images passed on, so that patterns
were spread on - cloth or woven into carpets- to speak the world over of
how an Iranian weaver sees flowers, the delicate poplar, the bird on the bough,
the very colours of Iranian soil and Iranian contrasts of red, deep blue and
green. Religious ideas were also exported, to lie deep in Judaism, Christianity,
and profoundly to shape the Islamic faith Iran took as its own.
Darius's vines transplanted to Damascene soil may not have
taken there, but aspects of the ritual of Iran's ancient Zoroastrian religion
have their place in the wine of the Christian Eucharist.
The heavenly galaxies nightly shine more brightly on a land
most of which is over four thousand feet above sea level, than they do on
mistier, more low-lying regions. There is never a day without the light of the
sun in the country whose mythical king Hushang discovered how to produce fire,
his son Jamshid making the festival of Nowruz, the New Year, mark the vernal
Iran's brightness is reflected in the enamel-like brilliance
both of its visual arts and the imagery of its exquisite poetry. The sense of
Heaven being almost within reach has developed the Iranian spiritual genius to a
degree which makes the Persian people naturally religious, so that their
literature and art seem always unavoidably communicative of the Grace of God.
Their spirituality confers on therm both their innate and
abiding yearning for a greater perfection than the world immediately offers. and
their peculiar power to lend lustre to whatever they handle. It offers them the
hope of grace, but also engender pessimism and scepticism about the mortal
state. Nevertheless, in Iran spirituality and pragmatism are so balanced that to
its poetry the world may turn for enlightenment and consolation when other
sources of inspiration fail to assuage human despair.
Asia and Europe are fortunate to be bridged by a land whose
brightness could supplant the Mongols' clouded superstition by vision, so that
as an Iranian ruler, even a descendant of Chingiz Khan, Ghazan (l295-1304),
became a polymath and, while dismissing the vanities of alchemy, kept its
processes, aware of the scientific value of experiment.
It was the Iranian brightness which taught Mohammed the
Prophet's successors that they were not only the keepers of Moslem law. Theirs
also to keep was a revelation which answered man's most exalted spiritual
aspirations. The Iranian Sufi mystics have kept clear for mankind the concept
which the example of Mohammed, God's Chosen Apostle, conveyed: that men's hearts
when purified may become the mirror of God's unblemished light.
The bridging role has, however, brought vicissitudes. The
Iranian spirit's strength and resilience have often been severely tried. It is
well for the world that they have emerged from these trials as keen, flexible
and unbreakable as well-tempered steel, for the world can still derive a great
deal from Iran that is beneficial in the cultural and political spheres.
A crossroads is a vantage point from which to observe the
ways of men in their different regions and contexts. It is also the place in
which a people possessed, through a long and eventful history, of an almost
unparalleled experience of human affairs can set up the signposts commonly to be
found at crossroads.
At the Iranian junction of history, cultures and indigenous
aptitude, Europe can be explained to Asia and Asia can teach Europe. Iran's
windows are like the faces of janus. Iran is a sharp-eyed, keenly observant
Modern Iran now possesses resources and has regained the
self-confidence lost in the thraldom and period of foreign domination and
exploitation which began in 1 722 when the Safavid dynasty lost power.
Now Iran again commands international respect. It both can
and does play a positive role in world affairs. As a member of the United
Nations it sets the pace for other developing countries, and has become the
obvious milieu for international conventions for the discussion of such topics
as nutrition, agricultural development, illiteracy, the rights of women.
It is thus once more the centre where ideas and techniques
may be pooled, to meet the problems of the less technologically advanced Orient
with the experience and skills of the more technologically advanced Occident,
Iran acting as the catalyst.
Seekers of solutions to the world's problems could have no
more generous and perfect hosts than the Iranians, whose courtesy is rightly
proverbial and has been almost since time began; but whose long experience as
the guardians of civilization against the encroachment of desert sands, of
rapacious enemies, of chaos and disorderliness makes them more than gracious
The slightest realization of what Iran has achieved in
improving its own domestic well-being since 1960, and this measured against the
former drain of its old resources, and its incapacity for over a century during
modern times to act independently, will demonstrate that the potentiality
alluded to here is not exaggerated.
A wider ranging study of Iran's history, and a proper understanding of its geographical position in a world in which the East is stirring into new life, will amply reinforce the argument that confidence in Iran's capacity for showing initiative and vitality, and willingness to accord it the respect it deserves, could procure for the world the contribution of a stabilizing force that a region which might easily become greatly disturbed urgently requires.
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