Since Iran has one of the most ancient histories and civilizations in the world, with some of the most powerful Empires, it takes too long going into detail about the history of the country. However, for tourists, who travel to Iran to enjoy and admire its historical sites and its rich culture, it is important to know more about the history of the country.
Wherefore, Iranviva Group has attempted to provide a brief history of Iran in the present article, from the early civilization of Iran and the first Persian Empires to the current Islamic Republic.
PART 1: Early Civilizations in Iran
1. Civilizations in Iran, The Proto-Elamites and Elamites (3400 BC – 640 BC)
As the oldest civilization in Iran, the Proto-Elamite civilization marks the beginning of the cultural history of Iran. These ancient pre-Iranian civilizations were centered in the west and southwest of the modern-day Iran, known as Elam, and the capital was the Proto-Elamite city of Susa (Shush).
The Elamites, under Mesopotamian domination for a long time, was closely tied to Mesopotamia culturally, and gradually adopted their language, the cuneiform writing, as well as their gods and temple.
The massive ziggurat of Chogha Zanbil, an ancient Elamite complex in the Khuzestan province of Iran, is one of the few existing and best preserved ziggurats in the world. This monument was from the Elam Civilization which was disappeared by the Assyrians.
2. Civilizations in Iran, The Medes (678 – 549 BC)
The Medes were the ancient Indo-Aryan people who spoke the Median language and inhabited between western and northern Iran, known as Media. These Indo-European people are the origin of the first Iranians, the Medes and the Persians. The Medes, the pastoral tribes settled in modern-day Kurdistan, united against the Assyrians. They founded a great and rich Empire and called their land “Iran”, literally meant “home of Aryans”. Zoroastrianism and Mithraism were the main religions in Iran at that time.
PART 2: The Persian Empires
An Empire started in Persia by the unification of Persia and Media. However, the Persia came to power when the powerful Mesopotamian state of Babylon was defeated by Cyrus in 539 BCE. The Persian Empire grew over the next century.
1. Civilizations in Iran, The Achaemenid Empire (550 – 330 BC)
The rise of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, also called the First Persian Empire, was under the leadership of the first Achaemenid Emperor, Cyrus the Great who founded Persia and built a great Empire after the unification of the Medes and the Persians.
The Achaemenid Empire was one of the largest and greatest Persian Empires in the ancient world, which expended from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River Valley. Cyrus the Great founded Pasargadae, in Pars, as the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Thanks to him, the Achaemenid Empire was the first ancient multicultural Empire that respected the cultural diversity of about 20 different ethnic groups, with their own culture, language, and religion, with Zoroastrianism as the main religion. Ruled by Persians, it was a vast Empire, extending from Anatolia and Egypt across western Asia to northern India and Central Asia.
Darius the Great, was the fourth Achaemenid King of Persia in 522 BC – 486 BC, who ruled the Empire at its peak times. He built his palace in Susa and Persepolis. Darius III, as the final Achaemenid king (336 BC to 330 BC), was defeated by Alexander the Great.
2. Civilizations in Iran, From Alexander the Great to the Sassanians (330 BC – 224 BC)
The Macedonian ruler, Alexander the Great, took Achaemenids cities one by one, from Susa to Babylon, and ordered to burn down Persepolis in 330 BC. After assassinating the Persian king of the time, Darius III, Alexander proclaimed himself king of the Persian Empire. He died less than 10 years later in Babylon at the age of 32, leaving no apparent heir or appointed successor. In more than 40 years of internecine conflicts after his sudden death, his territory was disintegrated in vying for succession. Eventually, his Empire was divided among his four generals, Lysimachus, Cassander, Ptolemy and Seleucus. In 323 BC, Seleucus I Nicator, founded the Seleucid Empire, which covered Syria, Babylon, Persia, and India.
Later in rebellion against the Seleucid Empire, Arsaces I of Parthia, the leader of the Parni tribe, conquered the region of Parthia in Iran’s northeast and founded the Parthian Empire in the mid-3rd century BC.
3. Civilizations in Iran, The Sassanid Empire (224 BC – 651)
The last pre-Islamic Persian Empire, under which the Persian culture and traditions flourished, was the Sassanid Empire, officially known as the Empire of Iranians. As one of the world’s strongest Empires at that time along with the Roman-Byzantine Empire, the Sassanid Empire was named after the House of Sasan, a priest of Anahita Temple in Istakhr (Fars), who was considered the eponymous ancestor of the Sasanian Dynasty. His grandson, Ardashir I, “King of the kings”, was the first King of the Sassanian Dynasty.
In the Sassanid era, as one of the most important and most influential historical periods in Iran, the highest achievements of Persian civilization were reached in many ways, an efficient administration was established and important cities were built, with the Persian art flourishing.
The Empire was weakened by revolutions and famines for over 40 years by the end of the Sassanian era, before stability was brought back by Khosrow I, the king of the time. His descendant Khosrow II, also known as Khosrow Parviz, was the last great Sasanian king of Iran. He was famous for his rightfulness, and the story of his love for the Aramean or Roman princess Shirin has created one of the most romantic stories of Persian literature.
His assassination marked the end of the Persian Empires.
PART 3: Islam’s Conquest of Persia
1. Civilizations in Iran, The Umayyad Caliphate (661–750)
Arab conquests started after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims quickly won a victory over the Persians in 637. By 674, Muslims had conquered Greater Khorasan (modern Iranian Khorasan province and modern Afghanistan, Transoxania) and this conquest led to the fall of the Sasanid Empire of Persia and eventually the decline of the Zoroastrian religion and the emergence and growth of Islam in Iran. However, the Islamization of Iran was hard to achieve due to the resistance of the population, especially in the Caspian Sea region.
Then, in 747, the Abbasid Caliphate rose in rebellion against the Umayyads and deposed them. The Abbasid Caliphal court was heavily influenced by Persian customs and they contributed in the development of arts and literature.
Over these 300 years, several Empires rose, including the Seljuk Empire, Turko-Persian Sunni Muslim dynasty, which established many religious schools (madrasas), built Persian mosques, and adopted Persian as their official language.
2. Civilizations in Iran, Mongol Invasion of Iran (1194 – 1501)
After the collapse of the Seljuk Empire, a Persianate Sunni Muslim dynasty of Turkic mamluk origin founded the Khwarezmid Empire governed by Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad that ruled over all of Persia in the early 13th century. Mongol invasion and conquest of Persia took place in the early 13th century, too. When one of his emissaries was killed, Genghis Khan, the Mongol leader, sent his troops to invade and conquer Persia.
The Mongol Empire of the Ilkhanid dynasty was founded in 1215. This era is known for Mongols’ cruelty and cannibalism, destroying many villages and killing thousands of inhabitants. However, this large Empire was responsible for the expansion of Islam to China. They also deeply affected Persian arts like carpets, decorative arts, and miniature. The Ilkhanid Empire was succeeded by Tamerlane and the Timurids who dominated the region for more than a century until the rise of the Safavid Empire.
PART 4: The Rebirth of a Persian Empire: The Safavid Empire
1. Civilizations in Iran, The Safavid Empire (1501 – 1722)
As the beginning of the modern history of Iran, the Safavid Empire, is one of the greatest Persian Empires. This Empire, founded by Shah Ismael I, originated from the Azerbaijan Province. Shah Ismael’s ancestor, Sheikh Safi al-Din, was a significant Sufi figure and was buried in a shrine in Ardabil.
With the Safavid Empire, a politic autonomy emerged in the realm for the first time. They declared Shia Islam as the official religion. Shah Abbas the Great is considered as one of the greatest Persian rulers, who could bring back the ancient glory of the Empire. A central power was established in his time, along with religious freedom, and commerce development.
In fact, Shah ‘Abbas was restless, ruthless, decisive and intelligent. He ordered the assassination of several of his sons and grandsons so that they would not overthrow him. As a result, his Empire was possessed by the corrupt civil servants.
2. Civilizations in Iran, From Nader Shah to Karim Khan (1722 – 1794)
The realm slowly declined economically and ethically. The rebellious Afghans defeated the Safavids and besieged Isfahan in 1722. Then Nader Shah arose and deposed Afghans, and took the throne of Iran after two centuries of Safavid control. He founded the Afsharid Dynasty of Persia. When Nader Shah was assassinated in 1747, the country fell into civil war. There were at least four rivals for his throne, among which Karim Khan Zand succeeded. He was the founder of the Zand Dynasty. He chose Shiraz as the capital city and led a peaceful and enlightened regime. A civil war started again after his death, and a new dynasty, Qajar, rose to power in Persia.
PART 5: The Foundation of Modern Iran: The Qajar and Pahlavi Empires
1. Civilizations in Iran, The Qajar Empire (1779 – 1925)
The Qajar era is considered as a major period of Iranian history. In this era the borders of the country were established almost as they are today. With the rise of Aqa Muhammad, the first Qajar king, the country found stability again. The new king chose Tehran as the capital city and united the country.
Persia became a battleground in the war between Russia and Great Britain under the reign of Fath Ali Shah, Aqa Muhammad’s grandson. Iran lost many parts, including Armenia and Afghanistan, in favor of these two powerful countries.
Naser al-Din Shah continued offering the commercial monopolies like mines, petrol, and tobacco to the Russians and British. It caused a huge dissatisfaction among the population who protested against the Shah, leading to the Constitutional Revolution of 1905. The revolution resulted in the establishment of a Parliament in Iran, the Majles. Iran stated its neutrality during the World War I but it remained a battlefield for Russia and Great Britain. Eventually, at the end of the battle, Iran was ruined with the constant revolts and chaos.
2. Civilizations in Iran, The Pahlavi Empire (1925 – 1979)
Pahlavi era was the start of modernity in Iran. Reza Khan, the founder of Pahlavi dynasty was the Minister of War of the Qajar Empire. He came into power after a coup d’état supported by Britain in 1921. He declared himself the king of Iran and named his dynasty as Pahlavi after the ancestral Middle Persian Language.
Reza Shah introduced many reforms during his reign to modernize the country, developing industries, railways, non-religious schools, but he also enforced westernization in the society. He officially changed the international name of the country from “Persia” to “Iran” in 1935. During the Second World War, despite its neutrality, the country was invaded by the United Kingdom and Reza Shah capitulated in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza, the last king of Iran.
PART 6: Modern history of Iran
1. The Last King of Iran
The country slowly fell under the influence of the United States in Mohammad Reza Pahlavi era. The USSR, using the communist party, Tudeh, tried to interfere in the country’s internal affairs. The democratic election of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1949 was a turning point in the history of Iran. His decision to nationalize the oil led to a coup d’état supported by the CIA. Mosaddegh was arrested and dismissed, and the Shah, who fled the country, came into the power again.
In 1961, the Shah’s “White Revolution” was formulated and implemented to continue the modernization brought by his father, with no success in stopping corruption and poverty. His distance from the reality of people’s lives, forcing westernization, and repressing freedom of speech caused social distress in the country. Protests against the Shah, led by the Mollahs, in 1978, were repressed violently by Mohammad Reza Shah, but eventually led to his exile in 1979.
2. The Islamic Republic of Iran (From 1979)
The Islamic Revolution of Iran, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an opponent to the Shah, is a major event happened in the 20th century. Exiled in 1964, Khomeini found a refuge in Iraq and then in France, Neauphle-le-Château, where he launched his media campaign in 1978.
Two weeks after Mohammad Reza Shah’s exile, Khomeini came back to Tehran, where thousands of people were waiting to welcome him. The Islamic Republic was proclaimed on April 1st, in 1979.
One year later, Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, declared war against Iran. The war lasted 8 years and about 400,000 people were killed, ending up with a ceasefire neither proclaiming a winner nor changing the frontiers!
After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became the new Supreme Leader of Iran. Since the Islamic Republic, seven presidents were elected for Iran, the latest being Hassan Rouhani, elected twice in 2013 and 2017.
What you just read was a summary of the long and complicated history of Persia, Iranviva group has provided for you to acquaint you more with the history of Iran, before traveling to Iran.
Now that you know Iran as a country with a rich and long history, you can use a variety of Iran tour packages across Iran, provided and designed by Iranviva Group. Just don’t hesitate to contact us at Iranviva.