It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering.
The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond.
The direct legacy of the ancient Iranians can be found across the Middle East, the Caucasus and Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.
In the 6th century BC, Iran was home to the first world empire. The Achaemenids ruled a multicultural superpower that stretched to Egypt and Asia Minor in the west and India and Pakistan in the east. They were the power by which all other ancient empires measured themselves. Their cultural homeland was in the Fars province of modern Iran. The word Persian is the name for the Iranian people based on the home region of the Achaemenids – Pars.
Some of the richest and most beautiful of the archaeological and historical heritage in Iran remains there. This includes Parsgardae, the first Achaemenid dynastic capital where King Cyrus(c. 590-529BC) laid down the foundations of law and the first declaration of universal rights while ruling over a vast array of citizens and cultures.
Nearby is the magnificent site of Persepolis, the great palace of the Achaemenid kings and hub of government and administration. Architecturally stunning, it is decorated with relief sculptures that still today leave a visitor in awe.
Seleucid and Parthian Iran
When the Achaemenids fell to the armies of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, what followed was great upheaval and also one of the most extraordinary moments in human history. The mixing of Persian and eastern Mediterranean cultures created the Hellenistic Age. The Macedonian King Seleucus (died 281BC) and his Persian wife Apame ruled a hybrid kingdom that mixed Greek, Persian, Jewish, Bactrian, Armenian, Sogdian and Aramaean cultures and religions.
With new cities, religions and cultures, this melting pot encouraged the rise of a thriving connectivity that linked urban centres in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Syria (where many of the Hellenistic sites (such as Apamea) have been devastated in recent years by war and looting). The great city of Seleucia-on-Tigris/Ctesiphon, just south of Baghdad on the Tigris river in modern Iraq, became the western capital and centre for learning, culture and power for a thousand years.
Hellenistic rulers gave way to Parthian kings in the 2nd century BC and the region was ruled by the Arsacid dynasty whose homeland, around Nisa, was the northern region of the Iranian world. The Parthian Empire witnessed growing connectivity between east and west and increasing traffic along the silk routes. Their control of this trade led to conflict with the Romans who reached east to grasp some of the resulting spoils.
It was also a time of religious transition that not only witnessed the rise of Buddhism, but also a thriving Zoroastrian religion that intersected with Judaism and developing Christianity. In the biblical story of the birth of Christ, who were the three kings – the Magi with their gifts for Jesus – but Persian priests from Iran coming to the side of child messiah, astronomers following the comet.
The last great ancient kingdom of the Iranians was the Sasanian empire based around a dynasty that rose out of the final years of the Arsacid rule in the 3rd century AD. The Sasanians ruled a massive geopolitical entity from 224-751AD. They were builders of cities and frontiers across the empire including the enormous Gorgan wall. This frontier wall stretched 195km from the Caspian Sea to the mountains in Turkmenistan and was built in the 5th century AD to protect the Iranian agricultural heartland from northern invaders like the Huns.
The wall is a fired-brick engineering marvel with a complex network of water canals running the whole length. It once stood across the plain with more than 30 forts manned by tens of thousands of soldiers.
The Sasanians were the final pre-Islamic dynasty of Iran. In the 7th century AD the armies of the Rashidun caliphs conquered the Sasanian empire, bringing with them Islam and absorbing much of the culture and ideas of the ancient Iranian world. This fusion led to a flowering of early medieval Islam and, of the 22 cultural heritage sites in Iran that are recognised by UNESCO, the 9th century Masjed-e Jāmé in Isfahan is one of the most stunningly beautiful and stylistically influential mosques ever built.
This was a thriving period of scientific, artistic and literary output. Rich with poetry that told of the ancient Iranian past in medieval courts where bards sang of great deeds. These are stories that we now believe reached the far west of Europe in the early medieval period possibly through the crusades and can only emphasise the long reach of the cultures of ancient and medieval Iran.
Iranian cultural heritage has no one geographic or cultural home, its roots belong to all of us and speak of the vast influence that the Iranians have had on the creation of the world we live in today. Iran’s past could never be wiped off the cultural map of the world for it is embedded in our very humanity.
This article is part of our series of explainers on key moments in the past 100 years of world political history. In it, our authors examine how and why an event unfolded, its impact at the time, and its relevance to politics today.
To understand what caused the Iranian Revolution, we must first consider the ongoing conflict between proponents of secular versus Islamic models of governance in Muslim societies.
It all began with the British colonisation of India in 1858, which precipitated the collapse of classic Islamic civilisation. By early 20th century, almost the entire Muslim world was colonised by European powers.
The Ottoman Empire, the last representative of the classic Islamic civilisation, collapsed after world war one in 1918. So, the first half of 20th century saw Muslim nations fight to regain their independence.
It was the secular-nationalist, western, educated elites who first led these movements, gaining political control and leadership of their respective countries. These leaders wanted to mimic Europe’s progressive leaps that took place after diminishing Christianity’s grip on society and politics. They believed Muslim societies would progress if the Islam was reformed and its influence on society reduced through separating religion and state.
A key reform enforced by the new secular Republic of Turkey, for example, was to remove the Ottoman Caliphate (the religious and political leader considered the successor to the Prophet Muhammad) from his position in 1924, sending shockwaves across the Muslim world.
This caused the emergence of alternative grassroots Islamic revivalist movements led by the ulama (Muslim scholars), who believed the very existence of Islam was in jeopardy.
These movements were non-political in their inception and gained mass support at a time when Muslim masses needed spiritual solace and social support. In time, they developed an Islamic vision for society and became increasingly active in the social and political landscape.
The impact of the Cold War
By the end of the second world war, Muslim countries had largely escaped from the constraints of western colonisation, only to fall victim to the Cold War.
Iran and Turkey were key countries where Soviet expansion efforts were intensified. In response, the United States, provided both countries with economic and political support in return for their membership in the democratic Western block. Turkey and Iran accepted this support and became democratic in 1950 and 1951 respectively.
Soon after, Mohammad Mosaddeq’s National Front became the first democratically-elected Iranian government in 1951. Mosaddeq was a modern, secular leaning, progressive leader who was able to gain the broad support of both the secular elite and the Iranian ulama.
He was helped by a growing disdain for Shah (king) Reza Pahlavi’s reigning monarchy and Iranian anger at the exploitation of their oil fields.
Mosaddeq made the bold move to address this issue through nationalising the previously British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). This did not work out in his favour, as it attracted British and US economic sanctions. This in turn crippled the Iranian economy.
Not only did this intervention leave Iranians with a sense of bitter humiliation, betrayal and impotence, its impact also reverberated within the wider Muslim world.
It sent the message that a democratically-elected government would be toppled if it did not fit with Western interests. This narrative continues to be the dominant discourse of Islamist activists to this day, used in explaining world events that affect the Muslim masses.
Looking more closely at the developments in Iran between 1953 and 1977, the Shah relied heavily on the US in his efforts to modernise the army, Iranian society and build the economy through what he called the White Revolution.
Shari’ati, a French-educated intellectual, was inspired by the Algerian and Cuban revolutions. He called for an active struggle for social justice and insisted on the prominence of Islamic cultural heritage instead of the Western model for society. He criticised the Shi’ite scholars for being stuck in their centuries-old doctrine of political quietism – seen as a significant barrier to the revolutionary fervour.
The barrier was broken by Ayatollah Khomeini, who rose to prominence for his outspoken role in the 1963 protests and was exiled as a result. His recorded sermons openly criticising the Shah were circulated widely in Iran.
Influenced by the new idea of an Islamic state in which Islam could be implemented fully, thus ending the imperialism of the colonial West, Khomeini argued it was incumbent on Muslims to establish an Islamic government based on the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad.
In his book Wilayat-i Faqih: Hukumat-i Islami (Islamic Government: Guardianship of the Jurist), Khomeni insisted that in the absence of the true Imam (the only legitimate leader from the linage of Prophet Muhammad in Shi’ite theology) the scholars were their proxies charged to fulfil the obligation by virtue of their knowledge of Islamic scriptures. This idea was an important innovation that gave licence to scholars to become involved in politics.
With the conditions ripe, the persistent protests instigated by Khomeini’s followers swelled to include all major cities. This culminated in the revolution on February 1, 1979, when Khomeini triumphantly returned to Iran.
The impact of the revolution
The Iranian revolution was a cataclysmic event that not only transformed Iran completely, but also had far-reaching consequences for the world.
It caused a deep shift in Cold War and global geopolitics. The US not only lost a key strategic ally against the communist threat, but it also gained a new enemy.
Emboldened by developments in Iran, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. This was followed by the eruption of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980, designed to bring down the new Iranian theocratic regime. The US supported Saddam Hussein with weapons and training, helping him clinch his grip on power in Iraq.
These two conflicts and the series of events that followed – Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, two Gulf-Wars, the emergence of Al-Qaeda, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on World Trade Centre and subsequent war on terror – defined geo-politics for the last three decades and continues to do so today.
The Iranian revolution also dramatically altered Middle Eastern politics. It flamed a regional sectarian cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The revolution challenged Saudi Arabia’s monarchy and its claim for leadership of the Muslim world.
The religious and ideological cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia continues to this day with their involvement in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts.
Another impact of the revolution is the resurgence of political Islam throughout the Muslim world. Iran’s success showed that establishing an Islamic state was not just a dream. It was possible to take on the West, their collaborating monarchs/dictators and win.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Islamic political parties popped up in almost all Muslim countries, aiming to Islamise societies through the instruments of state. They declared the secular model had failed to deliver progress and full independence, and the Islamic model was the only alternative. For them, the Iranian revolution was proof it could be a reality.
Was the revolution a success?
From the perspective of longevity, the revolution still stands. It has managed to survive four decades, including the eight-year Iran-Iraq war as well as decades of economic sanctions. Comparatively, the Taliban’s attempt at establishing an Islamic state only lasted five years.
On the other hand, Khomeini and his supporters promised to end the gap between the rich and the poor, and deliver economic and social progress. Today, the Iranian economy is in poor shape, despite the oil revenues that holds back the economy from the brink of collapse. People are dissatisfied with high unemployment rates and hyper-inflation. They have little hope for the economic fortunes to turn.
The most important premise of Islamism – making society more religious through political power – has also failed to produce the desired results. Even though 63% of Iranians were born after the revolution, they are no more religious than before the revolution.
Although there is still significant support for the current regime, a significant proportion of Iranians want more freedoms, and disdain religion being forced from above. There are growing protests demanding economic, social and political reforms as well as an end to the Islamic republic.
Most Iranians blame the failures of the revolution on the never-ending US sanctions. Even though Iran trades with European powers, China and Russia, they believe the West does not want Iran to succeed at all costs.
Ultimately, the world geopolitics is a competitive business driven by national interests. The challenge before Muslim societies is to develop models that harmonises Islam and the modern world in a way that is appealing and contributory to humanity rather than seen as a threat.
Hard social and political conditions and forces of time have an uncanny ability to test and smooth ideologies. While the struggle between secular and Islamic models for society continues in Iran and the greater Muslim world, it is likely that Iran will evolve as a moderate society in the 21st century.
Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University
It is a little-known piece of history that Saddam Hussein was a great fan of ancient Mesopotamian literature. His enthusiasm for epics written in cuneiform – the world’s oldest known form of writing – can be seen in his own efforts at writing political romance novels and poetry. Hussein’s first novel, Zabibah and the King, blended the Epic of Gilgamesh with the 1001 Nights, and was adapted into a television series and a musical.
Indeed, the Iraqi dictator was said to be so immersed in his novel-writing that he left much of the military strategising to his sons leading up to the 2003 war. He continued writing in prison, using a card table as a writing desk. This example from the modern genre of “dictator literature” provides an unusual insight into the diverse reception of cuneiform literature in the modern day.
The decipherment of cuneiform in the late 18th century, a tale of academic virtuosity and daring, revealed a “forgotten age” and challenged the traditional, biblical view of history. One scholar was even put on trial for heresy for the wonders he uncovered in the translated script.
For over 3,000 years, cuneiform was the primary language of communication throughout the Ancient Near East (roughly corresponding to the Middle East today) and into parts of the Mediterranean. The dominance of the cuneiform writing style in antiquity has led scholars to refer to it as “the script of the first half of the known history of the world”. Yet it disappeared from use and understanding by 400 CE, and the processes and causes of the script’s vanishing act remain somewhat enigmatic.
Cuneiform is composed of wedge-shaped characters and was written on clay tablets (often likened to marks made by a chicken scratching in the mud). Unlike other ancient writing media, such as the papyri or leather scrolls used in Ancient Greece and Rome, cuneiform tablets survive in great abundance. Hundreds of thousands of tablets have been recovered from ruined Mesopotamian cities.
The discoveries yielded from the recovery of cuneiform writing continue to unfold in unexpected and exciting ways. In August this year, mathematicians at an Australian university made international headlines with their discovery involving a 3,700-year-old clay tablet containing a trigonometric table. The researchers said the cuneiform table reveals a sophisticated understanding of trigonometry — in some ways more advanced than in modern-day mathematics!
Lost in translation
It is difficult to overstate the influence of cuneiform literature in the ancient world. Many languages throughout a vast geographical span over thousands of years were written in cuneiform, including Sumerian, Hittite, Hurrian and Akkadian. Among these, Akkadian (an early cognate of Hebrew and Arabic) became the lingua franca of the Near East, including Egypt, during the Late Bronze Age.
Cuneiform was used to preserve the official royal correspondences between leaders of empires, but also simple transactions and record-keeping that were part of daily life. Over time, the skill of writing moved outside the main institutions of cities, such as temples and scribal schools, into the hands of citizens, as well as into private homes.
Despite its dominance in antiquity, the use of cuneiform ceased entirely at some point between the first and third centuries CE. The great empires of the Ancient Near East experienced a long decline over many centuries, which ultimately resulted in the loss of Egyptian hieroglyphs and cuneiform as written languages.
Cuneiform’s sphere of influence shrank after the sixth century BCE, before vanishing entirely. The disappearance of cuneiform accompanied, and likely facilitated, the loss of Mesopotamian cultural traditions from the ancient and modern worlds.
There are several schools of thought surrounding the disappearance of cuneiform, including competition with alphabetic languages (where letters correspond to sounds) such as Aramaic and Greek, and the decline of writing traditions. However, the process of the transition from cuneiform to alphabet is yet to be clearly understood.
Deciphering the code
The resurrection of cuneiform writing systems was described by legendary Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer as an “eloquent and magnificent achievement of 19th century scholarship and humanism”.
In the 15th century, cuneiform inscriptions were observed in Persepolis (in modern-day Iran). The script’s patterned dashes were not immediately recognised as writing. The name “cuneiform” (a Latin-based word meaning “wedge-shaped”) was given to the undeciphered writings by Oxford professor Thomas Hyde in 1700.
Hyde viewed the cuneiform markings as decorative rather than conveying language — a widely held view in academic circles of the 18th century. Despite some efforts to popularise the name “arrow writing”, “cuneiform” gained general acceptance. Yet cuneiform remained cryptic, and its ancient masterpieces buried and inscrutable.
The modern-day decipherment of cuneiform owes a great debt to the rulers of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty, who reigned in what is modern-day Iran in the first millennium BCE. These rulers made cuneiform inscriptions recording their achievements.
The most important of these inscriptions for the decipherment of cuneiform was the Behistun inscription, which recorded the same message in three languages: Persian, Elamite and Akkadian. This trilingual inscription was carved into the face of a cliff in Behistun in what is now western Iran.
Detailing the successes of King Darius I of Persia, the Behistun inscription was inscribed on rock some 100 metres off the ground around 520 BCE. In 1835, Henry Creswicke Rawlinson was training troops of the Shah of Iran when he encountered the inscription. In order to reach the writings and transcribe them, Rawlinson needed to dangle from the cliffs, or to stand on the very top rung of a long ladder. From these precarious positions, he copied as much of the inscription as possible.
A “Kurdish boy”, whose name seems to be lost to history, assisted the daring endeavour. The boy was said to have used pegs dug into the rock wall as anchors to swing across the cliffs and reach the most inaccessible parts of the writing. Returning home, Rawlinson began working to unlock the secret of the lost script, perhaps with his pet lion cub by his side.
Of the three languages, the Old Persian was the first to be decoded by Rawlinson. Scholars working on deciphering the script gained a sense of the chronological placement of the inscription and recognised some repeated signs, thereby gleaning something of the content and structure of the writings.
The presence of king lists in the Behistun inscription, which could be compared with lists in Herodotus’ Histories, provided a point of reference for deciphering the signs. Other Greek historians, and the Bible, were also consulted in the process. Through the contributions of a number of scholars in the first half of the 19th century, cuneiform slowly began to reveal its secrets.
The significance of the Behistun inscription in the translation of cuneiform is often likened to the importance of the Rosetta Stone for deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. In recent years, the inscription has been the focus of restorative efforts, after sustaining various types of damage — notably when Allied troops used the inscription for target practice during World War II. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As the deciphering went on, divisions developed in the academic community over whether efforts to unravel cuneiform had proven successful. Part of the controversy stemmed from the extreme intricacy of the writing system. Cuneiform languages are made up of a collection of signs, and the meaning of these signs shows a great deal of variety.
In the Akkadian language, for example, a cuneiform sign may have a phonetic value — but not always the same phonetic value — or it may be a logogram, symbolising a word (such as “temple”), or a determinative sign, such as for a place or an occupation. This gives the translation of cuneiform a puzzle-like quality. The translator must select the value of the sign that appears best suited to the context.
Some scholars probably had sensible reasons for questioning the deciphering of cuneiform. Others held the inaccurate view that ancient Assyrians would have lacked the capacity to comprehend such a difficult writing system. To resolve the controversy, the British scientist W.H. Fox Talbot suggested a kind of cuneiform competition.
The British Royal Asiatic Society held the contest in 1857. Four scholars – Fox Talbot, Rawlinson and a Dr Hincks and a Dr Oppert – made unique translations of a single, previously unseen, cuneiform inscription. Each scholar then sent their translation in strict confidence to the society for comparison. After opening the sealed letters and examining the four translations, the society decided that the similarities between them were sufficiently compelling to declare cuneiform deciphered.
The rediscovery of cuneiform literature was not without further controversy. Fierce debates were conducted in eloquent handwritten letters over who had contributed to the discovery and decipherment of texts, and who deserved credit for the achievement.
As well as this, the content of the literature caused friction in the academic communities of the 19th century. Prior to the rediscovery of cuneiform, the most prominent source for the Ancient Near East was the Hebrew Bible. The ability of cuneiform literature to provide a new perspective on the rich history of Egypt and Mesopotamia was embraced by many, but viewed with suspicion by others. For some, the translation of the long-forgotten writings raised the possibility of conflict between cuneiform sources and biblical literature.
Perhaps one of the most overt examples of these tensions in scholarly circles can be seen in the career of Nathaniel Schmidt from Colgate University. Schmidt was tried for heresy in 1895, due to the view that many of his translations of cuneiform appeared contrary to biblical traditions. He was dismissed from his position at Colgate in 1896. Following his dismissal, the eminent scholar was recruited by Cornell University (his controversial departure from Cornell made his appointment something of a “bargain”), where he taught Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Coptic, Syriac and many other ancient languages.
From cuneiform to the stars
The recovery of cuneiform has provided access to an embarrassment of textual riches, including hundreds of thousands of legal and economic records, magico-medical texts, omens and prophecies, wisdom literature and lullabies.
Cuneiform has also aided scientific mysteries. Babylonian records of a solar eclipse, written in cuneiform, have helped astronomers figure out how much Earth’s rotation has slowed.
The decipherment of the cuneiform script has reopened a timeless dialogue beyond ancient and modern civilisations, providing continued opportunities to better understand the world around us, and beyond.
Note: This essay contains details from the article “Comparative Translations”, in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 18, 1861. My grateful thanks to the Royal Asiatic Society for generously allowing access to their collection.