Iran's History: Culture & The Middle East

Instructor: Andrew Peterson

Andrew has a PhD and masters degree in world history.

The nation of Iran is the modern descendant of some of the most prosperous and expansive empires in world history. Iran's unique culture has roots stretching back thousands of years to the mighty Persian Empire.

The Uniqueness of Iran

Iran is culturally unique in modern world history. For example, the predominant language spoken in Iran is not Arabic, but Persian (or Farsi), which is a member of the Indo-European language group. As such, Persian has more in common with the English language than it does Arabic. To take another example, while the religion of Iran is overwhelmingly Muslim, most Iranians follow the Shia branch of Islam. Shia is a minority branch of Islam and constitutes as little as 10% of the global Muslim population.

Map of modern Iran showing its borders with Iraq and Afghanistan
Iran Map

But Iran is perhaps most unique in that it is one of the only theocratic governments in existence. In a theocratic system of government, religious and political leadership are combined into a single organization or person--church and state become one and the same.

Let us explore Iran's cultural history to find how it became such a unique nation.

Ancient and Classical Heritage

Historically speaking, the first unique element of Iranian culture to develop was language. Roughly 5,000 years ago speakers of early Indo-European languages began to arrive in the region that constitutes modern-day Iran. These migrants created the foundations for a unique Indo-Iranian language group that would eventually evolve into the Persian language currently spoken in Iran as well as many other modern languages spoken in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A stone relief found at Persepolis, the capital of classical Persia
Stone Ruin at Persepolis

Politically speaking, Iran is the descendant of a series of immense and powerful empires, the most famous of which was the Persian Empire. Lasting roughly from the 500s BCE to the 600s CE (over 1,000 years) the Persian Empire was one of the most powerful and culturally influential empires in Asia and the Middle East. The territory of Persia stretched from the main capital cities of Persepolis and Isfahan into Egypt and Anatolia in the west and all the way out to India and the Himalayas in the east. Western history remembers the Persian Empire largely for its intermittent wars with classical Greek civilization.

The Coming of Islam

The Persian Empire was displaced by the arrival of Islam in the 600s and 700s CE. The rapid expansion of Islam eventually led to the creation of vast Muslim empires, or caliphates, that covered all of the former Persian Empire and many more lands besides. The briefly lived Umayyad Caliphate (661 - 750 CE) and the much more prosperous Abbasid Caliphate (750 - 1258 CE) ruled over what is today Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, and even parts of Southwestern Europe.

A map showing the territorial extent of the Abbasid Caliphate
Abbasid Caliphate Map

These Caliphates played prominent roles in forging modern Iranian cultural identity. Not only did they establish Islam as the dominant religion, but an early succession struggle within the Umayyad Caliphate led to the creation of the Shia branch of Islam--a minority sect of Islam that is dominant in Iran today.

The last great empire to rule over Iran was the Muslim Safavid Dynasty (1501 - 1736). Although its territory was much less extensive than the caliphates of the past, the Safavid dynasty was a powerful state in its own right and dominated the commerce and politics of much of the Persian Gulf and Middle East.

Iran's Cultural Revolution in the 20th Century

Today, the nation of Iran has grown into a key player in regional affairs and global politics. However, much of the recent history of Iran has centered on its conflict with the United States and a series of rapid cultural and political revolutions.

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