Geography & Natural Resources of Ancient Iran

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  • 0:06 Persia or Iran?
  • 0:57 Geography of Iran
  • 3:40 Natural Resources
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ancient Iran, or Persia, owes a lot of its development to its geography. In this lesson we'll see how geography and natural resources impacted Iranian ancient history.

Persia or Iran?

Here's a quick history quiz: which had more abundant resources, ancient Iran or Persia? It's a tricky question. Iran, a country located in what we call the Middle East between the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf, was known for most of its history as Persia. The Persian Empire was one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world, characterized by wealth, education, invention, and trade. They also had a pretty stellar military, which was useful for that whole imperial conquest thing. So, how did Persia become so powerful? Well, no state ever develops without being influenced by its geography, and Persia's history is no exception. The landscape, the climate, and the natural resources of Persia were important factors in its development, and are important parts of Iranian heritage to this day.

Geography of Iran

Persia, today Iran, is located pretty much in the direct center between Africa, Europe, and Asia. To its north is the Caspian Sea, which is actually below sea level, and to its south is the Persian Gulf, which connects to the Arabian Sea. The western part of Iran connects to the river systems that sustained ancient Mesopotamia, today Iraq, and the center is a high-elevation plateau. For the most part, however, Iran is characterized by rugged and mountainous terrain. In fact, several peaks extend up to roughly 9,000 feet high. So from the Caspian Sea to these mountains, there's a fair amount of elevation change across Iran.

This landscape had some major impacts on the first settlements of what is now Iran, then Persia. The first permanent societies developed in mountain valleys and basins where fresh water collected and made the land more suitable for agriculture. Over the centuries, the rough terrain kept many of these villages fairly isolated from one another, and they developed strong regional and town-based identities. As far as agriculture is concerned, only about 1/3 of the country actually has enough water and proper soil conditions to sustain farming, but those areas did fairly well throughout history. Many crops were being domesticated and harvested by around 5000 BCE, including grapes, peaches, and spinach. The first things to be domesticated in Persia, however, were actually goats, which did much better than crops in the mountainous terrain and dry climate. Goats may have been domesticated in Persia as early as 10,000 BCE. The ancient Persians were among the first to domesticate chickens as well.

Persia's geography influenced those early societies in a few other ways as well. For one, the lack of water in many parts of the region encouraged invention and innovation. In the first millennium BCE, ancient Persians invented one of the earliest forms of underground aqueducts, called a qanat. These subterranean channels tapped into the ground water within a mountain, and transported it to human settlements. Persians also invented the windmill to help process grain in the 7th century CE.

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