There are records of numerous ancient civilizations on the Iranian plateau before the arrival of Iranian tribes from Central Asia during the Early Iron Age. The earliest archaeological artifacts in Iran were found in the Kashafrud and Ganj Par sites that date back to Lower Paleolithic. Mousterian Stone tools made by Neanderthal man have also been found. There are also 9000 year old human and animal figurines from Teppe Sarab in Kermanshah Province among the many other ancient artifacts. There are more cultural remains of Neanderthal man dating back to the Middle Paleolithic period, which mainly have been found in the Zagros region and fewer in central Iran at sites such as Shanidar, Kobeh, Kunji, Bisetun, Tamtama, Warwasi, Palegawra, and Yafteh Cave. Evidence for Upper Paleolithic and Epipaleolithic periods are known mainly from the Zagros region in the caves of Kermanshah and Khoramabad.

In the 6th millennium BC the world developed a fairly sophisticated agricultural society and proto-urban population centres. The south-western part of Iran was part of the Fertile Crescent where most of humanity’s first major crops were grown. 7000 year old jars of wine excavated in the Zagros Mountains (now on display at The University of Pennsylvania) and ruins of 7000 year old settlements such as Sialk are further testament to this. Two main Neolithic Iranian settlements were the Zayandeh Rud civilization, Ganj Dareh. One of main civilizations of Prehistoric Iran was the Elam to the east of Mesopotamia, which started from around 5000 BC, and lasted well into the 6th century BC. The Early Bronze Age saw the rise of urbanization into organized city states and the invention of writing (the Uruk period) in the Near East. One of Iran’s main civilizations of this time was the Jiroft Civilization in southeastern Iran.

Around 1000 BC Zoroasterianism started in Iran and throughout the pre-Islamic history of Iran was the main religion of the people of Iran.

Greater Iran

Greater Iran consists of the area from the Euphrates in the west to the Indus River and Jaxartes in the east and from the Caucasus, Caspian Sea, and Aral Sea in the north to the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in the south. It includes the modern nations of Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, the eastern part of Turkey, and Iraq. It is one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilizations, covering thousands of years, from the ancient civilization on the Iranian plateau, Mannaeans civilization in Azarbaijan, Shahr-i Sokhta (Burned City) near Zabol in Sistan va Baluchestan, and the ancient Kingdom of Jiroft in Kerman followed by the kingdom of Elam and the Median, Achaemenid, the Parthian, the Sassanian dynasties and following Empires to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Once a major empire of superpower proportions, Persia has been overrun frequently and has had its territory altered throughout the centuries. Invaded and occupied by Arabs, Turks, Mongols, British and Russians, and others — and often caught up in the affairs of larger powers.

The first true empire of global proportions of Persia blossomed under the Achaemenids in (559 – 330 BC). The dynasty was founded by Cyrus the Great, who merged the various tribes and kingdoms into one unified entity. Following the Hellenistic period (300 – 250 BC) came the Parthian (250 BC – AD 226 ) and the Sassanid (226 – 651) dynasties.

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Pre-Islamic history

Modern Iranians are descendants of early Proto-Iranians. Having descended from the Proto-Indo-Iranians, the Proto-Iranians separated from the Indo-Aryans around in the early 2nd millennium BC. The Proto-Iranians are traced to the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, a Bronze Age culture of Central Asia. By the 1st millennium BC, Medes, Persians, Bactrians and Parthians populated the Iranian plateau, while others such as the Scythians, Sarmatians, Cimmerians and Alans populated the steppes north of the Black Sea. The Saka and Scythian tribes remained mainly in the south and spread as far west as the Balkans and as far east as Xinjiang. During the Neo-Assyrian Empire the Persians and the Medes were vassals of Assyria and paid tribute. In the second half of the 7th century BC, the Median tribes gained their independence and were united by Deioces. In 612 BC the Babylonian king Nabopolassar, along with Cyaxares the Mede, finally destroyed Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and Assyria fell. The Medes are credited with the foundation of Iran as a nation and empire, and established the first Iranian empire, the largest of its day until Cyrus the Great established a unified empire of the Medes and Persians leading to the Achaemenian Empire (648–330 BC).


After his father’s death in 559 BC, Cyrus the Great became king of Anshan but like his predecessors, Cyrus had to recognize Mede overlordship. In 552 BC Cyrus led his armies against the Medes until the capture of Ecbatana in 549 BC, effectively conquering the Median Empire and also inheriting Assyria. Cyrus later went on to conquer Lydia and Babylon. Cyrus the Great created the Cyrus Cylinder, considered to be the first declaration of human rights and was the first king whose name has the suffix “Great”. After Cyrus’ death, his son Cambyses ruled for seven years (531-522 BC) and continued his father’s work of conquest, making significant gains in Egypt. A power struggle followed Cambyses’ death and, despite his tenuous connection to the royal line, Darius was declared king (ruled 522-486 BC). He was to be arguably the greatest of the ancient Persian rulers.

 The Arg-e Bam citadel, built before 500 BC. A great example of Iranian castles of the time. Darius’ first capital was at Susa, and he started the building programme at Persepolis. He built a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea, a forerunner of the modern Suez Canal. He improved the extensive road system, and it is during his reign that mention is first made of the Royal Road, a great highway stretching all the way from Susa to Sardis with posting stations at regular intervals.


Major reforms took place under Darius. Coinage, in the form of the daric (gold coin) and the shekel (silver
 coin) was introduced to the world, and administrative efficiency was increased. The Old Persian language appears in royal inscriptions, written in a specially adapted version of cuneiform. Under Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great, the Persian Empire eventually became the largest empire in human history up until that point, ruling and administrating over most of the then known world. Their greatest achievement was the empire itself.

The Persian Empire represented the world’s first global superpower, and was based on a model of tolerance and respect for other cultures and religions. In 499 BC Athens lent support to a revolt in Miletus which resulted in the sacking of Sardis. This led to an Achaemenid campaign against Greece known as the Greco-Persian Wars which lasted the first half of the 5th century BC. During the Greco-Persian wars Persia made some major advantages and razed Athens in 480 BC, But after a string of Greek victories the Persians were forced to withdraw. Fighting ended with the peace of Callias in 449 BC. In 404 BC following the death of Darius II Egypt rebelled under Amyrtaeus. Later Egyptian Pharaohs successfully resisted Persian attempts to reconquer Egypt until finally in 343 BC Egypt was reconquered by Artaxerxes III.


In 334 BC-333 BC Alexander the Great, also known in the Zoroastrian Arda Wiraz Nâmag as “the accursed Alexander”, defeated Darius III in the battles of Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela, swiftly conquering the Persian Empire in 333 BC. Alexander’s empire broke up shortly after his death, and Alexander’s general, Seleucus I Nicator, tried to take control of Persia, Mesopotamia, and later Syria and Asia Minor. His ruling family is known as the Seleucid Dynasty. However he was killed in 281 BC by Ptolemy Keraunos before he could conquer Greece and Macedonia. Greek language, philosophy, and art came with the colonists. During the Seleucid Dynasty throughout Alexander’s former empire, Greek became the common tongue of diplomacy and literature. Overland trade brought about some fascinating cultural exchanges. Buddhism came in from India, while Zoroastrianism travelled west to influence Judaism. Incredible statues of the Buddha in classical Greek styles have been found in Persia and Afghanistan, illustrating the mix of cultures that occurred around this time.

Parthian Empire (248 BC – 224 AD)

Parthia was led by the Arsacid dynasty, who reunited and ruled over the Iranian plateau, after defeating the Greek Seleucid Empire, beginning in the late 3rd century BC, and intermittently controlled Mesopotamia
 between ca 150 BC and 224 AD. It was the second native dynasty of ancient Iran (Persia). Parthia was the arch-enemy of the Roman Empire in the east; and it limited Rome’s expansion beyond Cappadocia (central Anatolia). The Parthian armies included two types of cavalry: the heavily-armed and armoured cataphracts and lightly armed but highly-mobile mounted archers. For the Romans, who relied on heavy infantry, the Parthians were too hard to defeat, as both types of cavalry were much faster and more mobile than foot soldiers. On the other hand, the Parthians found it difficult to occupy conquered areas as they were unskilled in siege warfare. Because of these weaknesses, neither the Romans nor the Parthians were able to completely annex each other.

The Parthian empire lasted five centuries, longer than most Eastern Empires. The end of this long lasted empire came in 224 AD, when the empire was loosely organized and the last king was defeated by one of the empire’s vassals, the Persians of the Sassanian dynasty.

Sassanian Empire (224 – 651 AD)

The first Shah of the Sassanian Empire, Ardashir I, started reforming the country both economically and militarily. The empire’s territory encompassed all of today’s Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Afghanistan, eastern parts of Turkey, and parts of Syria, Pakistan, Caucasia, Central Asia and Arabia. During Khosrau II’s rule in 590-628, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon were also annexed to the Empire. The Sassanians called their empire Erânshahr (or Iranshahr, “Dominion of the Aryans”, i.e. of Iranians).

A chapter of Iran’s history followed after roughly six hundred years of conflict with the Roman Empire. During this time, the Sassanian and Romano-Byzantine armies clashed for influence in Mesopotamia, Armenia and the Levant. Under Justinian I, the war came to an uneasy peace with payment of tribute to the Sassanians. However the Sassanians used the deposition of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice as a casus belli to attack the Empire. After many gains, the Sassanians were defeated at Issus, Constantinople and finally Nineveh, resulting in peace. With the conclusion of the Roman-Persian wars, the war-exhausted Persians lost the Battle of al-Qâdisiyah (632) in Hilla to the invading forces of Islam, (present day Iraq).

The Persian general Rostam Farrokhzad had been criticised for his decision to face the Arabs on their own ground, suggesting that the Persians could have prevailed if they had stayed on the opposite bank of the Euphrates. The first day of battle ended with Persian advances and the Arab force appeared as though it would succumb to the much larger Sassanian army. In particular, the latter’s elephants terrified the Arab cavalry. By the third day of battle, Arab veterans arrived on the scene and reinforced the Arab army. In addition the Arab horses were decorated in costume succeeded in frightening the Persian elephants. When an Arab warrior succeeded in slaying the lead elephant, the rest fled into the rear, trampelling numerous Persian fighters. At dawn of the fourth day, a sandstorm broke out blowing sand in the Persian army’s faces resulting in total disarray for the Sassanian army and paving way for the Islamic conquest of Persia.

The Sassanian era, encompassing the length of the Late Antiquity period, is considered to be one of the most important and influential historical periods in Iran, and had a major impact on the world. In many ways the Sassanian period witnessed the highest achievement of Persian civilization, and constituted the last great Iranian Empire before the adoption of Islam. Persia influenced Roman civilization considerably during Sassanian times, their cultural influence extending far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India and also playing a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asiatic medieval art. This influence carried forward to the Islamic world. The dynasty’s unique and aristocratic culture transformed the Islamic conquest and destruction of Iran into a Persian Renaissance. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture, architecture, writing and other contributions to civilization, were taken from the Sassanian Persians into the broader Muslim world.
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Caliphate and Sultanate era
Islamic Conquest

Muslims invaded Iran in the time of Umar (637) and conquered it after several great battles. Yazdegerd III fled from one district to another until a local miller killed him for his purse at Merv in 651. By 674, Muslims had conquered Greater Khorasan (which included modern Iranian Khorasan province and modern Afghanistan, Transoxania, and Pakistan). The Islamic conquest of Persia led to the end of the Sassanid Empire and the eventual decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Persia. The majority of Iranians gradually converted to Islam. However, the most of the achievements of the previous Persian civilizations were not lost, but were absorbed by the new Islamic polity. As Bernard Lewis has quoted:

“These events have been variously seen in Iran: by some as a blessing, the advent of the true faith, the end of the age of ignorance and heathenism; by others as a humiliating national defeat, the conquest and subjugation of the country by foreign invaders. Both perceptions are of course valid, depending on one’s angle of vision.”

Umayyad dynasty
After the fall of Sasanian dynasty in 651, the Umayyad Arabs adopted many of the Persian customs especially the administrative and the court mannerisms. Arab provincial governors were undoubtedly either Persianized Arameans or ethnic Persians; certainly Persian remained the language of official business of the caliphate until the adoption of Arabic toward the end of the 7th century, when in 692 minting began at the caliphal capital, Damascus. The new Islamic coins evolved from imitations of Sasanian coins (as well as Byzantine), and the Pahlavi script on the coinage was replaced with Farsi.

During the reign of the Ummayad dynasty, the Arab conquerors imposed Arabic as the primary language of the subject peoples throughout their empire. Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, who was not happy with the prevalence of the Persian language in the divan, ordered the official language of the conquered lands to be replaced by Arabic, sometimes by force. In Biruni’s From The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries for example it is written:

“When Qutaibah bin Muslim under the command of Al-Hajjaj bin Yousef was sent to Khwarazmia with a military expedition and conquered it for the second time, he swiftly killed whomwever wrote the Khwarazmian native language that knew of the Khwarazmian heritage, history, and culture. He then killed all their Zoroastrian priests and burned and wasted their books, until gradually the illiterate only remained, who knew nothing of writing, and hence their history was mostly forgotten.”

There are a number of historians who see the rule of the Umayyads as setting up the “dhimmah” to increase taxes from the dhimmis to benefit the Arab Muslim community financially and by discouraging conversion. Governors lodged complaints with the caliph when he enacted laws that made conversion easier, depriving the provinces of revenues.

In the 7th century AD, when many non-Arabs such as Persians entered Islam were recognized as Mawali and treated as second class citizens by the ruling Arab elite, until the end of the Umayyad dynasty. During this era Islam was initially associated with the ethnic identity of the Arab and required formal association with an Arab tribe and the adoption of the client status of mawali. With the death of the Umayyad Caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik in 743, the Islamic world was launched into civil war. Abu Muslim was sent to Khorasan by the Abbasids initially as a propagandist and then to revolt on their behalf. He took Merv defeating the Umayyad governor there Nasr ibn Sayyar. He became the de facto Abbasid governor of Khurasan. In 750, Abu Muslim became leader of the Abbasid army and defeated the Umayyads at Battle of the Zab. Abu Muslim stormed Damascus, the capital of the Umayyad caliphate, later that year.

Abbasid dynasty and Iranian Semi-independent governments

The Abbasid army consisted primarily of Khorasanians and was led by an Iranian general, Abu Muslim Khorasani. It contained both Iranian and Arab elements, and the Abbasids enjoyed both Iranian and Arab support. The Abbasids, who overthrew the Umayyads in 750.

One of the first changes the Abbasids made after taking power from the Umayyads was to move the empire’s capital from Damascus, in Levant, to Iraq. The latter region was influenced by Persian history and culture, and moving the capital was part of the Persian mawali demand for less Arab influence in the empire. The city of Baghdad was constructed on the Tigris River, in 762, to serve as the new Abbasid capital. The Abbasids established the position of vizier like Barmakids in their administration, which was the equivalent of a “vice-caliph,” or second-in-command. Eventually, this change meant that many caliphs under the Abbasids ended up in a much more ceremonial role than ever before, with the vizier in real power. A new Persian bureaucracy began to replace the old Arab aristocracy, and the entire administration reflected these changes, demonstrating that the new dynasty was different in many ways to the Umayyads.

By the 9th century, Abbasid control began to wane as regional leaders sprang up in the far corners of the empire to challenge the central authority of the Abbasid caliphate. The Abbasid caliphs began enlisting Turkic-speaking warriors who had been moving out of Central Asia into Transoxiana as slave warriors as early as the ninth century. Shortly thereafter the real power of the Abbasid caliphs began to wane; eventually they became religious figureheads while the warrior slaves ruled. As the power of the Abbasid caliphs diminished, a series of dynasties rose in various parts of Iran, some with considerable influence and power. Among the most important of these overlapping dynasties were the Tahirids in Khorasan (820-72); the Saffarids in Sistan (867-903); and the Samanids (875-1005), originally at Bokhara. The Samanids eventually ruled an area from central Iran to Pakistan. By the early 10th century, the Abbasids almost lost control to the growing Persian faction known as the Buwayhid dynasty (934-1055). Since much of the Abbasid administration had been Persian anyway, the Buwayhid were quietly able to assume real power in Baghdad. The Buwayhid were defeated in the mid-11th century by the Seljuk Turks, who continued to exert influence over the Abbasids, while publicly pledging allegiance to them. The balance of power in Baghdad remained as such – with the Abbasids in power in name only – until the Mongol invasion of 1258 sacked the city and definitively ended the Abbasid dynasty.


Conversion to Islam, Shu’ubiyya movement and Persianization process
Islamization was a long process by which Islam was gradually adopted by the majority population of Iran.
Richard Bulliet’s “conversion curve” indicates that only about 10% of Iran converted to Islam during the relatively Arab-centric Umayyad period. Beginning in the Abassid period, with its mix of Persian as well as Arab rulers, the Muslim percentage of the population rose. As Persian muslims consolidated their rule of the country, the Muslim population rose from approx. 40% in the mid 9th century to close to 100% by the end of 11th century. Although Persians adopted the religion of their conquerors, over the centuries they worked to protect and revive their distinctive language and culture, a process known as Persianization. Arabs and Turks participated in this attempt.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, non-Arab subjects of the Ummah created a movement called Shu’ubiyyah in response to the privileged status of Arabs. Most of those behind the movement were Persian, but references to Egyptians, Berbers and Aramaeans are attested. Citing as its basis Islamic notions of equality of races and nations, the movement was primarily concerned with preserving Persian culture and protecting Persian identity, though within a Muslim context. The most notable effect of the movement was the survival of the Persian language to the present day.

The Samanid dynasty was the first fully native dynasty to rule Iran since the Muslim conquest, and led the revival of Persian culture. The first important Persian poet after the arrival of Islam, Rudaki, was born during this era and was praised by Samanid kings. The Samanids also revived many ancient Persian festivals. Their successor, the Ghaznawids, who were of non-Iranian Turkic origin, also became instrumental in the revival of Persian.

The culmination of the Persianization movement was the Shahname, the national epic of Iran, written almost entirely in Persian. This voluminous work, reflects Iran’s ancient history, its unique cultural values, its pre-islamic Zoroastrian religion, and its sense of nationhood. According to Bernard Lewis:

“Iran was indeed Islamized, but it was not Arabized. Persians remained Persians. And after an interval of silence, Iran reemerged as a separate, different and distinctive element within Islam, eventually adding a new element even to Islam itself. Culturally, politically, and most remarkable of all even religiously, the Iranian contribution to this new Islamic civilization is of immense importance. The work of Iranians can be seen in every field of cultural endeavor, including Arabic poetry, to which poets of Iranian origin composing their poems in Arabic made a very significant contribution. In a sense, Iranian Islam is a second advent of Islam itself, a new Islam sometimes referred to as Islam-i Ajam. It was this Persian Islam, rather than the original Arab Islam, that was brought to new areas and new peoples: to the Turks, first in Central Asia and then in the Middle East in the country which came to be called Turkey, and of course to India. The Ottoman Turks brought a form of Iranian civilization to the walls of Vienna…”

Turkish dynasties

In 962 a Turkish governor of the Samanids, Alptigin, conquered Ghazna (in present-day Afghanistan) and established a dynasty, the Ghaznavids, that lasted to 1186. The Ghaznavid empire grew by taking all of the Samanid territories south of the Amu Darya in the last decade of the 10th century, and eventually occupied much of present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India. The Ghaznavids are generally credited with launching Islam into Hindu-dominated India. The invasion of India was undertaken in 1000 by the Ghaznavid ruler, Mahmud, and continued for several years. They were unable to hold power for long, however, particularly after the death of Mahmud in 1030. By 1040 the Seljuks had taken over the Ghaznavid lands in Iran.

The Seljuks, who like the Ghaznavids were Turks, slowly conquered Iran over the course of the 11th century. The dynasty had its origins in the Turcoman tribal confederations of Central Asia and marked the beginning of Turkic power in the Middle East. They established a Sunni Muslim dynasty that ruled parts of Central Asia and the Middle East from the 11th to 14th centuries. They set up an empire known as Great Seljuk Empire that stretched from Anatolia to Pakistan and was the target of the First Crusade. Today they are regarded as the cultural ancestors of the Western Turks, the present-day inhabitants of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan, and they are remembered as great patrons of Persian culture, art, literature, and language. Their leader, Tughril Beg, turned his warriors against the Ghaznavids in Khorasan. He moved south and then west, conquering but not wasting the cities in his path. In 1055 the caliph in Baghdad gave Tughril Beg robes, gifts, and the title King of the East. Under Tughril Beg’s successor, Malik Shah (1072–1092), Iran enjoyed a cultural and scientific renaissance, largely attributed to his brilliant Iranian vizier, Nizam al Mulk. These leaders established the observatory where Omar Khayyám did much of his
 experimentation for a new calendar, and they built religious schools in all the major towns. They brought Abu Hamid Ghazali and other eminent scholars to the Seljuk capital at Baghdad and encouraged and supported their work.


When Malik Shah I died in 1092, the empire split as his brother and four sons quarrelled over the apportioning of the empire among themselves. In Anatolia, Malik Shah I was succeeded by Kilij Arslan I who founded the Sultanate of Rûm and in Syria by his brother Tutush I. In Persia he was succeeded by his son Mahmud I whose reign was contested by his other three brothers Barkiyaruq in Iraq, Muhammad I in Baghdad and Ahmad Sanjar in Khorasan. As Seljuk power in Iran weakened, other dynasties began to step up in its place, including a resurgent Abbasid caliphate and the Khwarezmshahs. The Khwarezmid Empire was a Sunni Muslim dynasty that ruled in Central Asia. Originally vassals of the Seljuks, they took advantage of the decline of the Seljuks to expand into Iran. In 1194 the Khwarezmshah Ala ad-Din Tekish defeated the Seljuk sultan Tugrul III in battle and the Seljuk empire in Iran collapsed. Of the former Seljuk Empire, only the Sultanate of Rüm in Anatolia remained.

A serious internal threat to the Seljuks during their reign came from the Ismailis, a secret sect with headquarters at Alamut between Rasht and Tehran. They controlled the immediate area for more than 150 years and sporadically sent out adherents to strengthen their rule by murdering important officials.

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 Mongol invasions

The Khwarezmid Empire only lasted for a few decades, until the arrival of the Mongols. Genghis Khan had unified the Mongols, and under him the Mongol Empire quickly expanded in several directions, until by 1218 it bordered Khwarezm. At that time, the Khwarezmid Empire was ruled by Ala ad-Din Muhammad (1200-1220). Muhammad, like Genghis, was intent on expanding his lands and had gained the submission of most of Iran. He declared himself shah and demanded formal recognition from the Abbasid caliph an-Nasir. When the caliph rejected his claim, Ala ad-Din Muhammad proclaimed one of his nobles caliph and unnsuccessfully tried to depose an-Naisr.

The Mongol invasion of Iran began in 1219, after two diplomatic missions to Khwarezm sent by Genghis Khan had been massacred. During 1220–21 Bukhara, Samarkand, Herat, Tus, and Neyshabur were razed, and the whole populations were slaughtered. The Khwarezm-Shah fled, to die on an island off the Caspian coast. Before his death in 1227, Genghis had reached western Azarbaijan, pillaging and burning cities along the way.

The Mongol invasion was disastrous to the Iranians. Although the Mongol invaders were eventually converted to Islam and accepted the culture of Iran, the Mongol destruction of the Islamic heartland marked a major change of direction for the region. Much of the six centuries of Islamic scholarship, culture, and infrastructure was destroyed as the invaders burned libraries, replaced mosques with Buddhist temples. The Mongols killed many civilians. Just in Merv and Urgench (Gorganj) about 2.5 million civilians were slaughtered. Destruction of qanat irrigation systems destroyed the pattern of relatively continuous settlement, producing numerous isolated oasis cities in a land where they had previously been rare. A large number of people, particularly males, were killed; between 1220 and 1258, the total population of Iran may have dropped from 2,500,000 to 250,000 as a result of mass extermination and famine.

After Genghis’ death, Iran was ruled by several Mongol commanders. Genghis’ grandson, Hulagu Khan, was tasked with expanding the Mongol empire in Iran in 1255. Arriving with an army, he established himself in the region and founded the Ilkhanate, which would rule Iran for the next eighty years. He seized Baghdad in 1258 and put the last Abbasid caliph to death. The westward advance of his forces was stopped by the Mamelukes, however, at the Battle of Ain Jalut in Palestine in 1260. Hulagu’s campagains against the Muslims also enraged Berke, khan of the Golden Horde and a convert to Islam. Hulagu and Berke fought against each other, demonstrating the weakening unity of the Mongol empire.

The rule of Hulagu’s great-grandson, Ghazan Khan (1295-1304) saw the establishment of Islam as the state religion of the Ilkhanate. Ghazan and his famous Iranian vizier, Rashid al-Din, brought Iran a partial and brief economic revival. The Mongols lowered taxes for artisans, encouraged agriculture, rebuilt and extended irrigation works, and improved the safety of the trade routes. As a result, commerce increased dramatically. Items from India, China, and Iran passed easily across the Asian steppes, and these contacts culturally enriched Iran. For example, Iranians developed a new style of painting based on a unique fusion of solid, two-dimensional Mesopotamian painting with the feathery, light brush strokes and other motifs characteristic of China. After Ghazan’s nephew Abu Said died in 1335, however, the Ilkhanate lapsed into civil war and was divided between several petty dynasties – most prominently the Jalayirids, Muzaffarids, Sarbadars and Kartids.

Iran remained divided until the arrival of Timurlane, who is variously described as of Mongol or Turkic origin. After establishing a power base in Transoxiana, he invaded Iran in 1381 and conquered it piece by piece. Timerlane’s campaigns were known for their brutality; many people were slaughtered and several cities were destroyed. His regime was characterized by its inclusion of Iranians in administrative roles and its promotion of architecture and poetry. His successors, the Timurids, maintained a hold on most of Iran until 1452, when they lost the bulk of it to Black Sheep Turkmen. The Black Sheep Turkmen were conquered by the White Sheep Turkmen under Uzun Hasan in 1468; Uzun Hasan and his successors were the masters of Iran until the rise of the Safavids.

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 Iran and the Islamic culture

The Islamization of Iran was to yield deep transformations within the cultural, scientific, and political structure of Iran’s society: The blossoming of Persian literature, philosophy, medicine and art became major elements of the newly-forming Muslim civilization. Inheriting a heritage of thousands of years of civilization, and being at the “crossroads of the major cultural highways”, contributed to Persia emerging as what culminated into the “Islamic Golden Age”. During this period, hundreds of scholars and scientists vastly contributed to technology, science and medicine, later influencing the rise of European science during the Renaissance.

The most important scholars of almost all of the Islamic sects and schools of thought were Persian or live in Iran including most notable and reliable Hadith collectors of Shia and Sunni like Shaikh Saduq, Shaikh Kulainy, Imam Bukhari, Imam Muslim and Hakim al-Nishaburi, the greatest theologians of Shia and Sunni like Shaykh Tusi, Imam Ghazali, Imam Fakhr al-Razi and Al-Zamakhshari, the greatest physicians, astronomers, logicians, mathematicians, metaphysicians, philosophers and scientists like Al-Farabi,
 Avicenna, and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, the greatest Shaykh of Sufism like Rumi, Abdul-Qadir Gilani.
 Ibn Khaldun narrates in his Muqaddimah:

It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars…in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs, thus the founders of grammar were Sibawaih and after him, al-Farsi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar. Great jurists were Persians. Only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the prophet (Muhammad) becomes apparent, “If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven the Persians would attain it”…The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them…as was the case with all crafts…This situation continued in the cities as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxiana (modern Central Asia), retained their sedentary culture.

Sunnis in Iran

Sunnism was dominant form of Islam in most part of Iran from the beginning until rise of the Safavid empire.
 Nizamiyyas were the medieval institutions of Islamic higher education established by Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk in the eleventh century. Nizamiyyah institutes were the first well organized universities in the Muslim world. The most famous and celebrated of all the nizamiyyah schools was Al-Nizamiyya of Baghdad (established 1065), where Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk appointed the distinguished philosopher and theologian, al-Ghazali, as a professor. Other nizamiyyah schools were located in Nishapur, Balkh, Herat and Isfahan.

Shiism in Iran

The domination of Sunnis did not mean Shia were rootless in Iran. The writers of The Four Books of Shia were Iranian as well as many other great Shia scholars.

Shiaism in Iran before Safavids

The domination of the Sunni creed during the first nine Islamic centuries characterizes the religious history of Iran during this period. There were however some exceptions to this general domination which emerged in the form of the Zaydis of Tabaristan, the Buwayhid, the rule of Sultan Muhammad Khudabandah (r. Shawwal 703-Shawwal 716/1304-1316) and the Sarbedaran. Nevertheless, apart from this domination there existed, firstly, throughout these nine centuries, Shia inclinations among many Sunnis of this land and, secondly, original Imami Shiism as well as Zaydi Shiism had prevalence in some parts of Iran. During this period, Shia in Iran were nourished from Kufah, Baghdad and later from Najaf and Hillah. Shiism were dominant sect in Tabaristan, Qom, Kashan, Avaj and Sabzevar. In many other areas merged population of Shia and Sunni lived.

The first Zaidi state was established in Daylaman and Tabaristan (northern Iran) in 864 C.E. by the Alavids; it lasted until the death of its leader at the hand of the Samanids in 928 C.E. Roughly forty years later the state was revived in Gilan (north-western Iran) and survived under Hasanid leaders until 1126 C.E. After which from the 12th-13th centuries, the Zaidis of Daylaman, Gilan and Tabaristan then acknowledge the Zaidi Imams of Yemen or rival Zaidi Imams within Iran.

Twelvers came to Iran from Arab regions in the course of four stages. First, through the Asharis tribe at the end of the first (AH)/seventh(AD) and during the second (AH)/eighth(AD) century. Second through the pupils of Sabzevar, and especially those of Shaykh Mufid, who were from Ray and Sabzawar and resided in those cities. Third, through the school of Hillah under the leadership of Allama Hilli and his son Fakhr al-Muhaqqiqin. Fourth, through the scholars of Jabal Amel residing in that region, or in Iraq, during the 10th(AH)/16th(AH) and 11th (AH)/17th(AH) centuries who later migrated to Iran.


On the other hand Ismailis sent Da’i (missioners) during Fatimid caliphate to Iran as well as other Muslim lands. When Ismailis divided into two sects, Nizaris established their base in Iran. Hassan-i Sabbah conquered fortresses and captured Alamut in 1090 AD. Nizaris used this fortress until Mongol raid in 1256 AD.

After the Mongol raid and fall of the Abbasids Sunni hierarchies suffered a lot. Not only did they loose the caliphate but also Sunni was not official madhab for a while. Furthermore many libraries and Madrasahs were destroyed and some of the Sunni scholars migrated to other Islamic lands like Anatolia, India and Egypt. On the other hand Shia whose center wasn’t in Iran at that time didn’t suffered and for the first time it could invite other Muslims openly. Even several local Shia dynasties like Sarbadars were established during this time.
 Sufism played a major role in spread of Shiism in this time.

Shiaism in Iran after Safawids

Ismail I initiated a religious policy to recognize Shi’a Islam as the official religion of the Safavid Empire, and the fact that modern Iran remains an officially Shi’ite state is a direct result of Ismail’s actions. Unfortunately for Ismail, most of his subjects were Sunni. He thus had to enforce official Shi’ism violently, putting to death those who opposed him. Under this pressure, Safavid subjects either converted, or pretended to convert, but it is safe to say that the majority of the population was probably genuinely Shi’ite by the end of the Safavid period in the 18th century, and most Iranians today are Shi’ite, although Sunni populations do exist in the country. Safavids has done systematic efforts to establish Shiism as the religion of its state.

Immediately following the establishment of Safavid power the migration of scholars began and they were invited to Iran… By the side of the immigration of scholars, Shi’i works and writings were also brought to Iran from Arabic-speaking lands, and they performed an important role in the religious development of Iran… In fact, since the time of the leadership of Shaykh Mufid and Shaykh Tusi, Iraq had a central academic position for Shi’ism. This central position was transferred to Iran during the Safavid era for two-and-a-half centuries, after which it partly returned to Najaf. Until before the Safavid era Shi’i manuscripts were mainly written in Iraq, and with the establishment of the Safavid rule these manuscripts were transferred to Iran.

This led to a wide gap between Iran and its Sunni neighbors until 20th century. During the early days of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini endeavored to bridge the gap between Shiites and Sunnis by forbidding criticizing the Caliphs who preceded Ali — an issue that causes much animosity between the two sects. Also, he declared it permissible for Shiites to pray behind Sunni imams.

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The birth of modern Iran
Persia underwent a revival under the Safavid dynasty (1502-1736), the most prominent figure of which was Shah Abbas I. Some historians credit the Safavid dynasty for founding the modern nation-state of Iran.
Iran’s contemporary Shia character, and significant segments of Iran’s current borders take their origin from this era (e.g. Treaty of Zuhab).
Safavid Empire (1502-1736)

The Safiviyeh came to be led by a fifteen-year old Ismail I. To establish political legitimacy, the Safavid rulers claimed to be descended from Imam Ali and his wife Fatima (the daughter of Prophet Muhammad) through the seventh Imam Musa al-Kazim. To further legitimize his power, Ismail I also added claims of royal Sassanian heritage after becoming Shah. Persia underwent a revival under the Safavid dynasty (1502-1736), the most prominent figure of which was Shah Abbas I. Some historians credit the Safavid dynasty for founding the modern nation-state of Iran. Iran’s contemporary Shia character, and significant segments of Iran’s current borders take their origin from this era (e.g. Treaty of Zuhab).

Shah Ismail soon conquered and unified Iran under his rule. Soon after, the new Iranian Empire conquered most of the modern day Afghanistan and Iraq.

The greatest of the Safavid monarchs, Shah Abbas I the Great (1587–1629) came to power in 1587 aged 16. Abbas I first fought the Uzbeks, recapturing Herat and Mashhad in 1598. Then he turned against the Ottomans recapturing Baghdad, eastern Iraq and the Caucasian provinces by 1622. He also used his new force to dislodge the Portuguese from Bahrain (1602) and the English navy from Hormuz (1622), in the Persian Gulf (a vital link in Portuguese trade with India). He expanded commercial links with the English East India Company and the Dutch East India Company. Thus Abbas I was able to break the dependence on the Qizilbash for military might and therefore was able to centralize control. The Safavid dynasty soon became a major power in the world and started the promotion of tourism in Iran. Under their rule Persian Architecture flowered again and saw many new monuments.

Civil wars and impermanent governments

A faltering Safavid court eventually gave way to the conqueror Nadir Shah who restored order and implemented policies for safekeeping the territorial integrity of Iran. He was one of the last great conquerors of Asia and in a short period conquered Afghanistan and India and giving a huge boost to Iran’s economy. The Afsharids were then followed by the Zand dynasty, founded by Karim Khan. Zand dynasty was a period a peace for Iranians specially under the rule of Karim Khan.

Qajar dynasty (1795-1925) and colonial era

By the 17th century, European countries, including Great Britain, Imperial Russia, and France, had already started establishing colonial footholds in the region. Iran as a result lost sovereignty over many of its provinces to these countries via the Treaty of Turkmenchay, the Treaty of Gulistan, and others.

A new era in the History of Persia dawned with the Constitutional Revolution of Iran against the Shah in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Shah managed to remain in power, granting a limited constitution in 1906 (making the country a constitutional monarchy). The first Majlis (parliament) was convened on October 7, 1906.

The discovery of oil in 1908 by the British in Khuzestan spawned intense renewed interest in Persia by the British Empire. Control of Persia remained contested between the United Kingdom and Russia, in what became known as The Great Game, and codified in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which divided Persia into spheres of influence, regardless of her national sovereignty.

Finally, the Constitutionalist movement of Gilan and the central power vacuum caused by the instability of the Qajar government resulted in the rise of Reza Shah Pahlavi and the Pahlavi dynasty in 1921.

During World War I the country was occupied by British and Russian forces but was essentially neutral. In 1919, Britain attempted to establish a protectorate in Iran, aided by the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1921. In that year a military coup established Reza Khan, a Persian officer of the Persian Cossack Brigade, as dictator and then hereditary Shah of the new Pahlavi dynasty (1925).

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Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979)

Reza Shah Pahlavi ruled for almost 16 years, at the beginning mostly secretly aided by the British, installed the new Pahlavi dynasty, thwarted the British attempt at control, and pushed to have the country developed. Under his reign, Persia (Iran) began to modernize and to secularize politics, and the central government reasserted its authority over the tribes and provinces.

World War II

During World War II, Iran was a vital oil-supply source and link in the Allied supply line for lend-lease supplies to the Soviet Union. The then-Shah’s tacit pro-German sympathies led to British and Indian forces from Iraq and Soviet forces from the north occupying Iran in August 1941. In September, the British forced Reza to abdicate in favour of his pro-British son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who ruled until 1979.

At the Tehran Conference of 1943, the Tehran Declaration guaranteed the post-war independence and boundaries of Iran. However, when the war actually ended, Soviet troops stationed in northwestern Iran. During this time two short-lived national states in the northern regions of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan established, the Azerbaijan People’s Government and the Republic of Kurdistan in late 1945.
United States and the Shah

Initially there were hopes that post-occupation Iran could become a constitutional monarchy. The new, young Shah Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi initially took a very hands-off role in government, and allowed parliament to hold a lot of power. Some elections were held in the first shaky years, although they remained mired in corruption. Parliament became chronically unstable, and from the 1947 to 1951 period Iran saw the rise and fall of six different prime ministers.

In 1951 Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq received the vote required from the parliament to nationalize the British-owned oil industry, in a situation known as the Abadan Crisis. Despite British pressure, including an economic blockade, the nationalization continued. Mossadegh was briefly removed from power in 1952 but was quickly re-appointed by the shah, due to an overwhelming majority in parliament supporting him, and he, in turn, forced the Shah into a brief exile in August 1953. A military coup headed by his former minister of the Interior and retired army general Fazlollah Zahedi, with the active support of the intelligence services of the British (MI6) and US (CIA) governments – including mass propaganda leaflet dropping (slogans such as; “Up with Communism, Down with Ala” and “Down with Islam, up with Communism” – designed specifically to turn the population against Mossadegh, as well as the agents of CIA and MI6 (dressed as Mossadegh supporters) spurting machine guns into crowds (known as Operation Ajax), forced Mossadegh from office on August 19. Mossadegh was arrested and tried for treason by an un-official military tribunal, (Mossadegh was imprisoned and his foreign minister, Hossein Fatemi, executed) while Zahedi succeeded him as prime minister, and suppressed opposition to the Shah, specifically the National Front and Communist Tudeh Party.


In return for the US support the Shah agreed, in 1954, to allow an international consortium of British (40% of shares), American (40%), French (6%), and Dutch (14%) companies to run the Iranian oil facilities for the next 25 years. The international consortium agreed to a fifty-fifty split of profits with Iran but would not allow Iran to audit their accounts to confirm the consortium was reporting profits properly, nor would they allow Iran to have members on their board of directors. In 1957 martial law was ended after 16 years and Iran became closer to the West, joining the Baghdad Pact and receiving military and economic aid from the US. The Iranian government began a broad program of reforms to modernize the country, notably changing the quasi-feudal land system.

However the reforms did not greatly improve economic conditions and the liberal pro-Western policies alienated certain Islamic religious and political groups. From the mid-1960s the political situation was becoming increasingly unstable, with organisations such as Fadaian Khalgh and Mujaheddin-e-Khalgh, emerging. In 1961, Iran initiated a series of economic, social, and administrative reforms that became known as the Shah’s White Revolution. The core of this program was land reform. Modernization and economic growth proceeded at an unprecedented rate, fueled by Iran’s vast petroleum reserves, the third-largest in the world.

The Premier Hassan Ali Mansur was assassinated in 1965 and the internal security service, SAVAK, became more violently active. It is estimated more than 13,000 people were killed by the SAVAK during this period of time, and thousands more were arrested and tortured. The Islamic clergy, headed by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (who had been exiled in 1964), were becoming increasingly vociferous.

International relations with Iraq fell into a steep decline, mainly due to a dispute over the Shatt al-Arab waterway which a 1937 agreement gave to Iraq. Following a number of clashes in April, 1969, Iran abrogated the 1937 accord and demanded a renegotiation. Iran greatly increased its defense budget and by the early 1970s was the region’s strongest military power. In November, 1971 Iranian forces seized control of three islands at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, in response Iraq expelling thousands of Iranian nationals.

In mid-1973, the Shah returned the oil industry to national control. Following the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973, Iran did not join the Arab oil embargo against the West and Israel. Instead it used the situation to raise oil prices, using the money gained for modernization and to increase defense spending.

A border dispute between Iraq and Iran was resolved with the signing of the Algiers Accord on March 6, 1975.

Prelude to the Islamic Revolution

In October 1971, the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire was held at the site of Persepolis. Only foreign dignitaries were invited to the three-day party whose extravagances included over one ton of caviar, and preparation by some two hundred chefs flown in from Paris. Cost was officially $40 million but estimated to be more in the range of $100–120 million. Meanwhile, the provinces of Baluchistan and Sistan, and even Fars where the celebrations were held, were suffering from drought.

By late 1974 the oil boom had begun to produce not “the Great Civilization” promised by the Shah, but an “alarming” increase in inflation and waste and an “accelerating gap” between the rich and poor, the city and the country. Nationalistic Iranians were angered by the tens of thousand of skilled foreign workers who came to Iran, many of them to help operate the already unpopular and expensive American high-tech military equipment that the Shah had spent hundreds of millions of dollars on.

The next year the Rastakhiz party by Shah was created. It became not only the only party Iranians could belong to, but one the “whole adult population” was required to belong and pay dues to. Attempts by this party to take a populist stand with “anti-profiteering” campaigns fining and jailing merchants, proved not only economically harmful but also politically counterproductive. Inflation was replaced by a black market and declining business activity. Merchants were angered and alienated.

In 1976, the Shah’s government angered pious Iranian Muslims by changing the first year of the Iranian solar calendar from the Hijri to the ascension to the throne by Cyrus the Great. “Iran jumped overnight from the Hijri year 1355 to the royalist year 2535.” The same year the Shah declared economic austerity measures to dampen inflation and waste. The resulting unemployment disproportionately affected the thousands of recent poor and unskilled migrants to the cities. Culturally and religiously conservative and already disposed to view the Shah’s secularism and Westernization as “alien and wicked”, many of these same people went on to form the core of revolution’s demonstrators and “martyrs”.

In 1977 a new American President, Jimmy Carter, was inaugurated. In hopes of making post-Vietnam American power and foreign policy more benevolent, he created a special Office of Human Rights which sent the Shah a “polite reminder” of the importance of political rights and freedom. The Shah responded by granting amnesty to 357 political prisoners in February, and allowing Red Cross to visit prisons, beginning what is said to be ‘a trend of liberalization by the Shah’. Through the late spring, summer and autumn liberal opposition formed organizations and issued open letters denouncing the regime. Later that year a dissent group (the Writers’ Association) gathered without the customary police break-up and arrests, starting a new era of political action by the Shah’s opponents.

That year also saw the death of the very popular and influential modernist Islamist leader Ali Shariati, allegedly at the hands of SAVAK, removing a potential revolutionary rival to Khomeini. Finally, in October Khomeini’s son Mostafa died. Though the cause appeared to be a heart attack, anti-Shah groups blamed SAVAK poisoning and proclaimed him a ‘martyr.’ A subsequent memorial service for Mostafa in Tehran put Khomeini back in the spotlight and began the process of building Khomeini into the leading opponent of the Shah.

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Islamic Revolution

The Iranian Revolution also known as the Islamic Revolution was the revolution that transformed Iran from a monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic. Its time span can be said to have begun in January 1978 with the first major demonstrations, and concluded with the approval of the new theocratic Constitution — whereby Ayatollah Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the country — in December 1979.

In between, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left the country for exile in January 1979 after strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country, and on February 1, 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran to a greeting of several million Iranians. The final collapse of the Pahlavi dynasty occurred shortly after on February 11 when Iran’s military declared itself “neutral” after guerrillas and rebel troops overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah in armed street fighting. Iran officially became an Islamic Republic on April 1, 1979 on a national referendum.

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