Media, Persia,
Parthia, and Irân

Philosophy of History

The Parthian Arsacids,
248 BC-227 AD

Parthia independent, 248; Arsacid (Parthian) Era Begins, 248/247 BC
Arsaces Ic.250-248
Tiridates I248-211
Artabanus I/
Arsaces II?
Parthians expand into
eastern Iran, 185
Phraates Ic.176-171
Mithridates Ic.171-139
Parthians take Media, 141;
Parthians take Persia, 139
Phraates IIc.139-129
Artabanus IIc.128-124
Parthians take Babylonia, 126
Mithridates II
the Great
Treaty with Rome, 92
Gotarzes Ic.90-80
Orodes Ic.80-77
Phraates IIIc.70-57
Orodes IIc.57-39
Battle of Carrhae, Triumvir Crassus killed, 53 BC; 34,000 legionnaires captured or killed
Mithridates IIIc.57-55
Pacorus Id.38
Phraates IVc.37-3 BC
Tiridates IIc.30-25 BC
Phraates V/
3 BC-3 AD
Orodes IIIc.4 AD-7 AD
Vonones Ic.7-12
Artabanus IIIc.11-38
Vardanes Ic.39-45
Gotarzes IIc.43-50
Vologezes Ic.50-76
Treaty with Rome, Arsacid installed in Armenia, 63
Vologezes II77-78
Pacorus II78-86
Artabanus IV79-80
Vologezes II89-90
Pacorus II92-95
Vologezes III111-146
Trajan occupies Mesopotamia, takes Ctesiphon, 114-117
Pacorus II113-114
Mithridates IVc.130-147
Vologezes IV148-190
War with Romans, 161-166, Ctesiphon sacked & burned, 166
Vologezes V190-206
War with Romans, 197-198, Ctesiphon sacked, 198
Vologezes VI207-221
Artabanus Vc.213-227
The dating and even sequence of the Arsacids is uncertain, largely known from coins. There is little epigraphic and, as far as I know, no documentary evidence from the period. This list is based on E.J. Bickerman, Chronology of the Ancient World [Cornell University Press, 1982, p. 130-131] and Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq [Penguin, 1964, 1992, pp.515-516]. Bickerman says, "The identity of some kings who issued coins...remains uncertain," and, "not all pretenders and temporary rulers are mentioned in this list," though a fair number of overlapping reigns do seem to be mentioned. Things seem a bit tidier in Roux, and several Vologozes's are apparently combined, but Roux also leaves out several undoubted rulers, resulting in some gaps. Since he doesn't discuss the problems of Arsacid chronology, I have retained all of Bickerman's rulers.

The modern Persian word for "Parthian" is , Pahlavi, the name chosen for the late dynasty of Shâhs. Pahlavi is also often applied to the middle Persian language, although I think most materials in this language are from the Sassanid period, not from the Parthian. Although without Greek epithets (Eugertes, etc.), the Parthian kings appear rather more Hellenistic and philhellene than the Sassanids, who were deliberately engaged in a Persian revival.

Parthian genealogy is very poorly known, as the number of question marks above indicates. It is also unfortunate that when an Arsacid dynast is installed in Armenia, we don't know his relationship to the contemporaneous Parthian King, Vologezes I.

The Parthians were famous for their heavy cavalry, called "cataphracts" (Latin cataphractus, Greek , katáphraktos, "mail-clad," or Latin clibanarius, from Greek , klíbanos or kríbanos, an earthen or iron pot or pan). These were shock troops, a little unusual until the armored knights of the Middle Ages. Below is one of the few contemporary images of a cataphract, armed with a lance (12 feet long was standard), from a graffito at Dura Europus on the Middle Euphrates -- the conical hat and chain mail over the whole head makes him look like someone from the Ku Klux Klan. The Parthians also had light cavalry, armed with bows, using tactics of riding in, shooting, and riding away -- "Parthian arrows." This harrying could not, all by itself, win battles against disciplined Roman Legions; but if their victims were otherwise discomfited, cut-off, tired, hungry, thirsty, or demoralized, discipline could break, formations could loosen, and, as in cavalry tactics in all ages, a sudden attack, especially by the cataphracts, could break apart the infantry defense.

The battle of Carrhae (53 BC), where 20,000 out of 36,000 legionaires may have died, the greatest Parthian victory against Rome, was a very bad moment in Roman history and a very good moment in Parthian history. Even more intriguing, however, is how it may also represent a moment in Chinese history. There are Chinese records about a subsequent battle between the Chinese and the Parthians in Central Asia, where the Chinese describe apparent Roman Legionary tactics -- i.e. locking shields to make a wall. The Parthians may have been using captured Romans to fight where they could not simply desert and return to Rome. The Chinese, as it happened, captured a number of these soldiers themselves and returned to China with them. This, indeed, would have been an extraordinary fate in the 1st century BC, to have been a Roman legionnaire, captured by the Parthians, then captured by the Chinese, and then living out one's life in China. If this is what actually happened, it is shame not to have some memoires from the men themselves. Since Han China and Rome traded silk for gold by way of Parthia, which endeavored to conceal knowledge of each from each other, any occasions for common knowledge would be extraordinary.

I have had inquries about my source for this information. Unfortunately, I heard of if from my colleague in the History Department at Los Angeles Valley College, Gunar Freibergs. He had simply heard it in a paper at a history conference and so is not actually able to cite the primary research any more than I can. Hopefully the scholar who gave the paper will eventually publish or post his research in an accessible form.

Happily, I now have suddenly discovered the source for this account, thanks to an article in The Economist of December 18, 2004. The theory was originally that of Homer Dubs, a professor of Chinese at Oxford University, proposed in 1955. According to him, about 10,000 Romans may have been captured by the Parthians. Pliny the Elder said that some of these were used as guards on their eastern frontier. According to Dubs, some of these may have escaped to join the Huns (this probably means the Hsiung-nu, or Xiongnú). There we get to Chinese records. Dubs says that in 36 BC, a Chinese assault on the Hun ruler Zhizhi netted some prisoners, including 145 Romans. However, the Chinese records do not actually say that these were Romans, just that they fought in a "fish-scale formation," i.e. overlapping shields, which presumably only the Romans were using at the time. They were settled at a frontier post in Kansu (Gansu), called "Liqian," which at some point was the Chinese word for "Rome," now supposedly the village of Zhelaizhai. This theory has had enthusiasts in China, including local officials in Gansu, and a Chinese scholar, Guan Yiquan, who spent the last 20 years of his life (from 1978) writing an unpublished book on the topic. None of this is decisive as evidence, but there is enough local enthusiasm (for tourism) that a statue of a Roman soldier (or at least the local impression of what a Roman soldier would look like) stands in the nearby town of Yongchang. Some Chinese in the area now claim to be descendants of the Romans.
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Copyright (c) 1996, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2004, 2013, 2016 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Sassanid Shâhs (Great Kings),
224-651 AD

The Sassanids replace the Hellenophile Parthian dynasty, with the program of deliberately reviving the Zoroastrian Achaemenid Persian Empire, aspiring to recover all the former provinces of the Achaemenids (Egypt, Syria, Anatolia). However, it is not clear what the Sassanids knew about the Achaemenids, since there was no tradition of Iranian historiography and so actually no surviving documents or accounts of the earlier times -- the cuneiform cliff inscriptions could no longer be read. The information we have is from the Greek historians. Thus, the Sassanids may have believed themselves the heirs, not of Darius, but of the legendary Jamshîd -- whose legend would later would be recounted in the Shâh-nâma. Even today, the ruins of the great palace at Persepolis, burned down by Alexander the Great, are known as the Takht-e Jamshid, , the "Throne of Jamshid."

Things got off to a bang when Shapur I defeated and captured the Roman Emperor Valerian in 260, one of only two Roman Emperors ever captured in battle by a foreign enemy -- the other being Romanus IV, captured at Manzikert in 1071. Valerian was kept prisoner and subject to various humiliations until executed. His skin was then flayed, dyed red, stuffed, and kept for later display to Roman emissaries. In any case, this is what we are told by later Romans, such as Lactantius, and questions have been raised about the reliability of these accounts.
Artashir I224-240
Shapur I240-272
defeats and captures
the Roman Emperor
Valerian, 260
Hormizd I272-273
Varahran I273-276
Mani crucified, 276
Varahran II276-293
Varahran III293
Hormizd II302-309
Shapur II309-379
Siege & capture of
Amida on the Tigris,
359; Emperor Julian
killed invading
Mesopotamia, 363
Ardashir II379-383
Shapur III383-388
Varahran IV388-399
Yazdagird I399-421
Varahran V421-439
Yazdagird II439-457
Hormizd III457-459
execution of leading Jews, 467; ban on Jewish teaching and practice, 468; abolition of post of Jewish "Exilarch," 470; killed in Battle of Gurgan with Hephthalites, the White Huns, 484
Kavad I488-496
Kavad I
prophet Mazdak executed, 528; Expulsion of the Jews, 529
(Chosroes) I
Sack of Antioch, 540;
builds palace with
the Great Arch of
Ctesiphon, c.550-560
Hormizd IV579-590
Varahran VI
Khusrau II
Invades, conquers Syria, Egypt, & Asia Minor, 607-616; siege of Constantinople with Avars, 626; then defeated by Heraclius, overthrown by nobles, 624-628
Kawadh II,
Siroy, Siroes
Ardashîr III628-630
Bôrân 630-631
Hormizd V631-632
Khusro III631-632
Yazdagird III632-651
Mesopotamia lost to Arabs, 637; defeated by the Caliph 'Umar, 642; Persia overrun by Islâm, by 651
We do see Valerian in captivity in a relief of Shapur at Naqsh-e- Rostam at right. Valerian is standing in the background while another Roman Emperor, perhaps Philip I, kneels before Shapur on horseback. The Persian offensive at the time, however, was blunted by the Roman client state of Palmyra, and Roman boundaries were then restored by Aurelian. The Emperor Carus captured Ctesiphon in 283. A real shift in power came when the Emperor Julian was killed during an ambitious but poorly planned invasion of Mesopotamia in 363. The peace that was then hastily made by the Emperor Jovian advanced the Persian frontier and gave the Sassanids the upper hand over Armenia, which by 428 had become a Persian province.

The lifespan of the Sassanid Empire may be taken to perfectly match the last years of Ancient Times and the first of the Middle Ages that together have come to be considered the age of Late Antiquity -- an expression that implies a segment of Ancient history but that, given the special and transitional features of the early Middle Ages, often encompasses time down as late as 751 or even later. The neglect of this period in much popular and even academic discourse, which devalues Imperial Roman history after its first couple of centuries and is positively dismissive and scornful of the early Middle Ages, as overwhelmed by darkness, religion, barbarians, and ignorance, effectively removes all of Sassanid history from serious consideration. Yet there is little of the "Dark Ages" about Sassanid Persia, and the Empire is not seriously compromised by any equivalent of barbarian invasion until the Arab Conquest. Thus, all of Sassanid history illuminates the time of Late Antiquity and puts into sharp relief the transformations of Roman history from Alexander Severus to Constans II.

The greatest surviving monument of the Sassanids is the façade of the palace containing the Arch of Ctesiphon, Tâq-e-Kesrâ (i.e. the "Arch of Khusro"), built by Khusro I after he sacked Antioch in 540. The Arch is still the largest brick vault in the world, 115 feet high and 82 feet wide, and until recently was the highest parabolic arch, period (the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is much larger) -- as impressive now as it was to the Abbasid Caliphs in nearby Baghdad. The first image shows the building as it still appeared just before the flood of 1888. This should be an additional reminder that the "Dark Ages" were a phenomenon of Western Europe, not of the Middle East.

In flooding during 1888, one whole wing of the façade and large part of the Arch collapsed, as can be seen in the modern image below, which also shows the remaining Arch itself better. This is actually all that remains visible of the entire city of Ctesiphon, which had served both the Parthians and Sassanids.

The Sassanid period is the only time that a vigorous Zoroastrianism was a state religion in Iran, without the polytheistic remnants (e.g. the cults of Mithra and Anahita) that were tolerated by the Achaemenids. However, the strongest expressions and expositions of Zoroastrian doctrine were written rather as apologetics and polemics after the Islamic Conquest. This is what we see in the Dênkart (or Dênkard -- dên, "religion," borrowed into Arabic -- as , dîn -- and kart, which still exists in Modern Persian kardan, , "to do, make"), which argued that, while Zoroastrianism is the "Good Religion," simply requiring us to choose between Good and Evil, none of the "99 Names of God" in Islam is "the Good." R.C. Zaehner's classic, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism [1961], poignantly characterizes the Sassanid period as the "twilight." What should have been the central time of Zoroastrian ascendency was obscured by the Hellenism of both the Hellenistic states and of the Parthian kingdom.

The language of the Dênkart is Middle Persian, often called Pahlavi or "Parthian." The language, however, was the dialect of Persia proper, or Pârs, and not of Parthia. A Parthian connection, on the other hand, is found in the most common writing system, which was a continuation of the Aramaic alphabet as it had been previously adapted to write the Parthian dialect of the Arsacids. Middle Persian, with many changes, derived from the Old Persian of the Achaemenids, which represented a major branch of the Indo-Iranian languages. Under the Islamic dominion, the language, its alphabet, and Zoroastrianism declined to practical extinction. New Persian, in the Arabic script and heavy with Arabic and Islamic influence, began to appear under the Sâmânids.

"Zoroaster," of course is the Prophet's name from Greek, . In Avestan, transcribed phonetically, it was
Zarautra, with the /z/ as in English, the in as English "thin," and as English "sh." Nietzsche's German Zarathustra would actually get the /sh/ right, but would have German /ts/ for "z" and /t/ for the "th." In Modern Arabic and Persian there are a variety of renderings of his name:  Zartot, Zardat, Zardohat, Zarâdot (), etc. The last is not common but preserves more of the feel of the original [note].

The Shâh-nâma, , Book of Kings, of Firdawsî (9401020) [note] contains a striking dream image, of four men pulling at the corners of a square cloth, but not tearing it. This is interpreted to mean that the four men are the Prophets Moses, Zoroaster, Jesus, and Muhammad, while the cloth is the Religion of God. That Zoroaster figures along with Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad is an unmistakable clue that we are dealing with a Persian source. Otherwise, Muslims do not go out of their way to include Zoroaster, certainly not on equal footing, with the other three -- the Qur'ân mentions the "Magians," , al-Majûs [22:17], but not among the tolerated "People of the Book." Also, as a statement about religion it is un-Islâmic and subversive in that it implies an equality, despite the conflict, between the four attendant religions. The Islâmic view is that only Muhammad delivers an uncorrupted revelation, with his definitive version replacing that of the earlier prophets -- who in turn are accused of "corrupting" their own scriptures. Nevertheless, the origin of Islâmic Law in Abbasid Iraq seems to have involved many Persian converts, whose influence may be evident in provisions such as for a Zoroastrian practice of five prayers a day, where the Qur'ân only specifies three, and for the execution of apostates.

After steady conversion, only about 20,000 Zoroastrians remain in modern Iran; and they have recently been prohibited from practicing their distinctive "sky burial," i.e. laying out the dead on "Towers of Silence" to be eaten by birds. A much larger and more vigorous Zoroastrian community is found in the refuge of India, where it is still known by the Middle Persian word for Persian, "Parsi" (). The Parsis, however, do not accept converts, and the intermarriage of community members outside of India has resulted in a decline in their numbers. As their Towers of Silence have become surrounded by modern Bombay, vultures have become more reluctant to service them. Nevertheless, a friend of mine who once lived nearby said that the occasional body part dropped into her garden.

While the official religion of Sassanid Persia was Zoroastrianism, there was also a Christian community, whose line of Patriarchs of the East, usually referred to as "Nestorians" by historians, continues to the present; and refugee pagans were accepted from the increasing intolerance of Christian Rome. Most noteworthy in that respect were the last Scholarch of Plato's Academy, Damascius, his colleague Simplicius, and other scholars, who fled to Persia after the Emperor Justinian closed the Academy in 529. Khosro I took great interest in the refugees, who nevertheless became homesick and returned to Romania. Justinian, after all, had promised them pensions for a quiet retirement.

While Romans found some religious toleration under the Sassanids, the founder of another religion did not. This was Mani, the eponymous Savior of Manicheanism, who claimed to be both Christ and the Buddha, and was crucified, either under Hormizd I or slightly later, as shown. Mani preached a Zoroastrian conflict between good and evil, but then (like the Gnostics) regarded matter as evil. Served by a celibate and vegetarian priesthood, Manicheanism spread both East and West. To the East, it was adopted by the Sogdians and Uighurs (under Bugug Khan, 759-780), until the advent of Islâm, and spread all the way to China. Marco Polo's description of a Christian community in China which had actually forgotten it was Christian may actually refer to a group of Manicheans. In the West, Manicheanism became familiar in the mix of religions of Late Antiquity. It is often said that there were Manichean remnants in Mediaeval Europe, like the Cathari exterminated by the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229). Also Jews were not always tolerated by the Sassanids. There were Jewish executions in 467, a ban on Jewish teaching and practice in 468, and abolition of post of Jewish "Exilarch" in 470. Then they were expelled in 529, which may have supplied a cadre for the Jewish influence that grew among the Khazars.

An artifact of Zoroastrian and Manichean influence in China is the Chinese character , which is defined by Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary as, "A term used during the T'ang Dynasty to denote the god of the Zoroastrians; it was also adopted by the Manicheans" [Harvard University Press, 1972, character #2657 -- note]. From this we also get the combinations , "the fire-god of Zoroastrianism," and , "Zoroastrianism." Of course, there was no "fire-god" of Zoroastrianism; but the Zoroastrian fire altars were widely identified with the religion, and we can imagine that the Chinese just got the wrong idea. Even more intriguing is the definition in the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary of the combination as, "a Nestorian" [John DeFrancis, University of Hawai'i Press, 2003, p.1032]. Since this merely adds the character , "follower, disciple," to "Zoroastrianism," we would expect the phrase to mean "a Zoroastrian." If it was used to mean "a Nestorian," this may be another case where the Chinese got the wrong idea again, identifying Nestorian missionaries with the previous Western religions, Zoroastrianism and Manicheanism, that had come down the Silk Road from Central Asia. Later, by the Ming, Christians and Jews, as the , would be confused with Muslims and with Islâm, the -- the next religion to come through Central Asia.

The full Sassanid program of restoring the Achaemenid Empire was ultimately achieved, briefly, by Khusro II, between 607 and 616. The brilliant counter-invasion of Iran, from 624-628, by the Emperor Heraclius, however, undid all of this and resulted in the overthrown of Khusro and a period of anarchy. After Heraclius' first campaign in Persia in 624-625, a Persian army reached the Bosporus in 626 and attempted to invest Constantinople with the help of Avar allies on the European side. The Avars, despite the use of some modern siege equipment, made no headway against the Walls of Theodosius, and the Roman navy prevented Persian forces from crossing from Asia. The siege was thus memorably repulsed; and when Khusro ordered his commanding general, Shahrvarâz, executed, Shahrvarâz reached an understanding with Heraclius and ceased operations against him.

This monumental conflict came at a very bad time. The Bubonic Plague struck in the middle of it (627), with terrible effects on the population, on top of the other dislocations and costs of the war. Neither side had much opportunity to rest and restore themselves before the forces of Islâm snatched Syria and Egypt from Romania and completely overthrew Sassanid Persia. Yazdagird III, like the luckless Darius III, spent his last days unsuccessfully fleeing towards Central Asia, before being murdered. We have no record of Yazdagird's murder being avenged as Alexander did that of Darius. For a while, Persian language and culture simply disappeared under the cloak of Arabic and Islam. The culture began to revive under the Sâmânid Amirs, who claimed descent from the Sassanids, but the Sâmânids themselves were swept away by Turkish migration. A true national monarchy did not revive until the Safavids -- themselves at first, ironically, Turkomen.

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Sassanid Shâhs (Great Kings), 224-651 AD; Note 1

The devotionalistic image of Zoroaster at right is from a photocopy I made many years ago, around 1970, when photocopies were pretty primitive, from a book in the UCLA University Research Library (the URL, now the YRL, the "Young" Research Library, named after former Chancellor Young).

I don't think I would have a chance of finding that book again (I certainly didn't note the title or author, if it wasn't Zaehner). For a long time it surprised me that I was unable to find this same image on the Internet or in the materials that Zoroastrian students supplied me. Indeed, most of the images I see now appear to have a much more recent provenance and remind me of images of the Caliph and Imâm 'Alî that a friend used to bring back from Irân. This image may be a style that was more in vogue with the Parsis in India, and I think the Prophet is shown in Parsi dress.

Checking again in 2017, versions of this image, some in color, have now appeared on the Internet; and I am relieved to update the display with the image at left. I have found an attribution for it, that it is from the History of the Parsis by Dosabhai Framji Karaka (1829-1902). The image there is supposed to be based on the sculpture at Tâq-e Bostân. The form of this representation is dramatically different from most of the others, which still look like modern Iranian products. This is not surprising if it is a Parsi product from more than a century ago. But the book is evidently still in print.

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The Sassanid Shâhs (Great Kings), 224-651 AD; Note 2

The , nâmah, in Shâh-nâma means "book." However, "book" in Modern Persian is generally the borrowed Arabic word , kitâb, whose Persian pronunciation is ketâb. The usage of Firdawsî is said to be "New" Persian but not "Modern" Persian. Meanwhile, , nâmah, has come to be pronounced , nâmeh, and now means "letter" rather than "book." Also , rûznâmeh, "day letter," means "newspaper," which is neither a book nor a letter. With these changes, , Shâh Nâmah, is now often read , Shâh Nâmeh, despite the inappropriateness of the meaning of the modern word. Since nâmah doesn't exist in Modern Persian, perhaps this substitution is understandable, especially for people who don't understand that the language has changed.

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The Sassanid Shâhs (Great Kings), 224-651 AD; Note 3

The formation of the character is of some interest. It is not of the common "radical and phonetic" nature, where one part of the character gives a clue as to meaning (and is the index for Chinese dictionaries) and the other gives a clue about pronunciation. Instead, this is an example of a "Compound Indicative" or a "Logical Aggregate," where each part of the character contributes meaning, without any clue to pronunciation. The left hand part, which here is the Radical (in dictionary terms, Radical 113), is the character , "omen; to manifest, proclaim, show, indicate." We also see this, with apparently the same contribution to meaning, in , "the sprit of the earth, earth god, spirit, deity." We get a compound , "spirits of heaven and earth," literally, "high, low, god, earth god."

On the right part of we get , "heaven, sky, celestial, divine, God." Thus, the character for the "god of Zoroastrianism" (or Manicheanism, or Nestorian Christianity) is a compound of chacacters in Chinese that are already associated with deities. But then where does its pronunciation come from? The pronunciation, as it happens, is identical to that of , "an immortal, a fairy, a genie," which is particularly associated with the "Eight Immortals," , the deities of Taoism. So it is not just the parts of the character, but the word itself, that is connected to divine beings. One is left curious how a rare character like this, with such specialized application, got formulated in the first place.

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THE SHÂHS OF IRÂN, 1501-1979

Esmâ'il I1501-1524
nationalist Persian monarchy established on basis of Shi'ite (Twelver) ideology
T.ahmâsp I1524-1576
Esmâ'il II1576-1578
Moh.ammad Khodâbanda1578-1587
'Abbâs I1587-1629
Persians & English expel Portuguese from Hormuz, demolish fort, English factory at Bandar Abbas, 1622
'Abbâs II1642-1666
S.afi II/Solaymân I1666-1694
H.osayn I1694-1722
Afghans Occupy Irân
T.ahmâsp II1722-1732
k. 1740
'Abbâs III1732-1736
k. 1740
Afshârid rule, 1736-1750
Solaymân II at Mashhad1750
Esmâ'il III in Es.fahân1750-1765
d. 1773
The Safavids were actually of Turkomen origin and established themselves first at Tabriz, which had been the capital of the Mongol
Il Khans, in Turkish speaking Azerbaijanistan. At first religion was much more important than any ethnic identity, and Esmâ'il created a powerful Shi'ite identity for his dynasty and state. This became a unifying and militant force in Irân, especial vis à vis Orthdox Turkey, right down to the present. Abbas I, however, moved the capital to Es.fahân, and the state began to take on more of a Persian than a Turkish character. In retrospect, what the Safavids did was to succeed in establishing a new Persian national monarchy.

After the Arab Conquest, Persian disappeared briefly as a written language -- although Zoroastrian literature, like the Dênkart, apparently continued for a while, written in Middle Persian or Pahlavi -- with references to Islam that indicate its date. The spoken language then reappeared in writing, revived and remade as "New Persian," under the Sâmânids, now written in the Arabic alphabet and with a large Arabic vocabulary. This Persian, however, had some sounds that Arabic did not, and so four letters were added to the alphabet. Since a number of Arabic letters already only differed by the addition of different numbers of dots to the same "chair," this device was easily expanded to accomodate new letters. At the same time, Arabic had a number of sounds that did not exist in Persian. Consequently, three different letters from Arabic came to be pronounced "s" in Persian, and no less than four were pronounced "z." The Persian pronunciation of these letters would be inherited by Turkish, Urdu, and Malay. This reflects the influence of literary Persian on those languages, whose own extensive Arabic vocabulary is thus often borrowed by way of Persian mediation.
Nâder Shâhregent since 1732
Looting of Delhi; Peacock Throne brought back, 1739
'Âdel Shâh1747
Shâh Rukh1748-1750;
1750 &
in Khorâsân
Nâder Mirzâ in MashhadKhorâsân, 1796-1803

It is now common to hear people call the Persian language Fârsi -- and there are even dictionaries and grammars that say they are for "Farsi."
This is indeed the name of the language in Persian, , from the Arabic word for "Persia," Fârs, . Standard Persian is based on the dialect of the city of Shirâz, which is in Fârs. Spoken, however, "Farsi" is typically mispronounced, with the wrong quality for the "a" and with the accent on the first syllable rather than on the second. The use of "Farsi" seems to be a combination of affectation, to show one's familiarity with the language (although this is most often done by people who don't know the language -- although I suppose we can't say that about the dictionaries), and political correctness, on the basis that only local names for things should be used -- this from people who rarely say al-Qâhira for Cairo or even Roma for Rome. The result, like most affectations, is silly.

The older pronunciation of the word Fârsi, as , Pârsi, is preserved in India, where English travelers and officials learned it with the dialect of Persian that had become established at the Moghul Court. Also, the word persists as the name of the community of Zoroastrian refugees from Iran, the Parsis. The Parsis have been in decline since they do not accept converts or marriages outside their religion. It is not clear whether newer refugees from Iran, which has renewed the persecution of Zoroastrians, are accepted either.

Persian wrote standard Arabic vowels but pronounced them differently. Arabic "i" became Persian "e"; Arabic "î," Persian "i"; Arabic "u," Persian "o"; and Arabic "û," Persian "u." Arabic "a" is fronted as "æ," which is close to the English "a" in "bad" (as in , bæd, meanining, of all things, "bad"); and Arabic "â" is pushed back until it is close to the short English "o" in "cot." As discusssed on the page for Urdu, Persian words are often transcribed with the Arabic notation for their vowels. That is not done on this page. Also, Arabic consonant distinctions, written but not pronounced in Persian, are retained, as they are indeed in Persian writing.

(without Khorâsân)
Karim Khânregent for
Esmâ'il III
Abu'lFath1779 in Shirâz
Moh.ammad 'Ali
Moh.ammad S.âdiq1779-1781
in Shirâz
'Ali Morâd1781-1785
in Esfâhân
in Esfâhân,
then Shirâz
Lut.f 'Ali1789-1794
in Shirâz
Before a long period in which the monarchy weakens and the country begins to fragment, Nâder Shâh puts a memorable Iranian mark on the history of India with a spectacular raid that captures Delhi. This humiliation of the declining Moghuls, which netted the famous Peacock Throne, also turned out to be the last hurrah of the early vigorous Iranian monarchy. Nâder Shâh's descendants soon become confined to Khorâsân, while a new dynasty, the Zands, come to rule the western side of the country.

The Qajars reunify the country and usher in a long period in which there is at least a national government legitimized by durability.

Agha Moh.ammad1779-1797
1794, southern Persia
1796, Khorâsân
Fath. 'Ali1797-1834
Nâser odDin1848-1896
the Bâb executed, 1850
Muz.affar odDin1896-1907
Moh.ammad 'Ali1907-1909
Since the Shâhs of Irân were always regarded as deputies of the Hidden Imâm of Twelver Shi'ism, a significant date approached in 1849, the 1000th anniversary of the disappearance of the the Twelfth Imâm (in 878 AD -- 1000 years on the lunar Moslem calendar is less than 1000 years on the solar Julian or Gregorian calendars). As one might expect, people appeared claiming to be the returned Imâm. One of these, called the Bâb ("Gate, " ) acquired a following, leading to the subsequent new Bâbi and Bahâ'i religions. Since both of these groups were regarded as apostate by most Islâmic authorities, they were sporadically persecuted in Irân and then erased from the country (largely by emigration, fortunately) and their holy sites demolished by the Islâmic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Rez.â [Rid.â] Shâh1925-1941, d.1944
Persia is officially styled Irân, 1935; Shâh deposed as pro-German by Russians and British
Moh.ammad Rez.â1941-1979, d.1980
Celebrates the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire, 1971; goes into exile, 1979
The Pahlavi, , Dynasty begins as a military coup, a kind of Iranian Young Turks rebellion, but then quickly became more like a traditional change of dynasty. A story about Shâh Rez.â is that he was informed one day about about a mullah who was preaching in favor of the Veil and, by implication, against the Shâh. Rez.â immediately rode down to the mosque with some troops and personally nailed a veil to the forehead of the mullah. Although such an endorsement of Westernization was relatively mild compared to what Atatürk was doing in Turkey, it would ultimately prove too much for the country.

In World War II Iranian neutrality, and what may have been Rez.â's sympathy for Germany, led to the Russians and British occupying the country and deposing the Shâh. This opened a transport route to the Soviets and also secured Allied control of Iranian oil. A similar problem of getting caught in the middle of geopolitics occurred in 1953, after prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh tried nationalizing the Iranian oil industry. This was regarded not only as hostile, but as effectively pro-Soviet. In 1953, as in 1941, Shâh Rez.â's son, Moh.ammad Rez.â, was more amenable to Western interests. A coup, with American support, took out Mossadegh. In the demonology of anti-imperialism, this is counted as one of the primal sins of American foreign policy. The Soviet occupation in 1941 apparently doesn't rate the same indignation.

Over the years, the Shâh seemed to go from success to success. Iran became a kind of Great Power in the Persian Gulf, and with expensive pageantry the Shah's belated coronation and then the supposed 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire were celebrated. Since the "2500th Anniversary" was observed in 1971, this was a little confusing. 2500 years before 1971 was 530 BC, the year of the death of Cyrus the Great. Is that really what was being observed? Cyrus came to the Throne of Persia in 559 BC. 2500 years later was 1942. This was close to when the Shâh himself came to the Throne of Iran in 1941. Indeed, some sources say that 1941 itself was the 2500th anniversary. This may have resulted from the confused mathematics of simply subtracting 559 from 2500 -- confused because mathematically 559 BC must be treated as -558 AD. There is no year zero in the use of "BC" counting, but adding and subtracting requires the use of zero. Thus, the year that follows 1 BC is 1 AD, but you cannot get "1" for 1 AD by either adding or substracting "1" to the "1" of 1 BC. The year 1 BC must be treated mathematically as 0 AD. If the Shâh wanted 1941 to be 2500 years after 559 BC, however, this is probably because he wanted to compare his whole reign to that of Cyrus. In fact, he did rule longer, but then he did not come to the same kind of admirable end.

The Ayatollâh Ruhollah KhomeiniSupreme Leader, 1979-1989
Abolhassan Banisadr1980-1981, Impeached
Mohammad Ali Rajai1981, Assassinated
The Ayatollâh Ali Khamenei1981-1989
Supreme Leader, 1989-present
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani1989-1997
Mohammad Khatami1997-2005
Mahmoud Ahmad-i-Nejad2005-2013
Hassan Rouhani2013-present
Meanwhile, however, Iranian students demonstrating aginst the Shâh, often with bags over their heads, were becoming a familiar sight in the West. Reasonable complaints about an undemocratic and oppressive government, however, soon got linked to a particular alternative, the "Islamic Republic" proposed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was living in exile. As demonstrations spread to Iran itself, the Shâh abdicated and left the country. The Ayatollah returned and assumed power. Murder, fanaticism, and a Mediaeval night of religious oppression descended on Iran. The slaughter of royal military officers tempted Saddam Hussein of Iraq to attack, just as Stalin's slaughter of his officers tempted Hitler. As it happened, Hitler did rather better, at least in the short run. With human wave attacks that provided reefs of martyrs for Iranian cemeteries, Iran at least held Hussein to a stalemate of mutual exhaustion. Khomeini said he would rather drink poison than make peace with Hussein, but, just before his death, he did. Meanwhile, the Shâh, sick with cancer, did not survive a year in exile -- a bitter pill for everyone eager to assassinate or execute him.

Thus passed the last Emperor in the European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern world, as Cyrus the Great, or perhaps Sargon of Akkad, had been the first. Of the two traditional empires that were contemporaneous with the last Shâh -- Ethiopia and Japan -- only the office of Japanese Emperor survives. Iran, meanwhile, for a while seemed caught between a popular but timid liberalization and an institutional check of reactionary zealots that was carefully put in place by Khomeini. Now, however, with the election of President Ahmad-i-Nejad in 2005, any thought of liberalization seems to have been forgotten and Iran's nuclear program has become a matter of international concern.

The Ayatollah became the "Leader of the Revolution," , Rahbar-e Enqelâb or, less formally, the "Supreme Leader," , Rahbar-e Mo'azzam. This office continues over and above the Presidency and secular (such as it is) government of Iran. It is noteworthy that the conception and the terminology, for all the reactionary nature of the regime, do not reflect Islamic tradition. The original Islamic executive and military title was simply amir, , "commander," later "governor" or "prince." We thus see the influence, not of Islamic history, but of modern Western political ideology -- unfortunately of the totalitarian variety. Rahbar, , "Leader," a term unknown in Islâmic history or jurisprudence, thus, betraying its origin, significantly joins the other titles meaning "leader" in the Fascist tradition:  Duce, Führer, Caudillo, and Líder.

Iran is a police state where newspapers are shut down for daring to ask if it is illegal to laugh in public. Iranian Jews fled the country. Bâbis and Bahá'ís, regarded as apostates from Islâm, were driven out, while their institutions and holy places were literally and completely destroyed. The remaining Zoroastrians in Iran were prohibited from the traditional "sky burial" of their dead, on the "Towers of Silence." Although the public seemed to tire of all this, the election of Ahmad-i-Nejad means either that they have not or that the reactionaries rigged the election. Nevertheless, the inspiration of Islamic Fascism spreads to other causes.

In 2009 there was a new presidential election. Ahmad-i-Nejad was offically reelected; but, since he was announced the winner before votes had even been counted, there was immediately an outpouring of protest. We learned that much of the urban population, at least, was weary of the reactionaries, and there was suddenly mass chanting, not of marg be Amrika ("death to America") but of marg be diktator ("death to the dictator"). We then learned how much of a police state Iran now is, as the protests were suppressed and many dissidents arrested. The regime evidently has enough support that it can use its numbers to suppress protest. There is also the problem that the rural population, still a considerable force in the country, may be more blindly loyal to the mullahs. There is no telling how this will play out next.

In 2015 the desperation of Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for a deal with Irân has resulted in a treaty on nuclear weapons that is supposed to do no more than delay Irân's program to build them -- with an enforcement mechanism pathetically unable to do any real enforcing. This was not even presented at the United States Senate as a treaty, since it would certainly not have been ratified. It is no more than an executive agreement, which can be immediately abrogated by the next President. However, Obama and Kerry seem to hope that the process can create enough "facts," by lifting sanctions and allowing connections to be made in Europe, that much of the deal will survive by default. Since the mullahs have vowed to nuke Israel and kill all the Jews at the first opporunity, Israel and other powers, including many Arab states, will need to be prepared to strike first. Since the rationale for the approach of Obama and Kerry was to forestall an arms race in the Middle East, the certainty of conflict created by the deal with Irân renders the whole project senseless.

Meanwhile, Irân and Russia have been working together to support the Assad regime in Syria, with Iranian supported Shi'ite militias, and actual Iranian military, moving into the vaccuum left by Obama's complete withdrawl of American forces from Iraq. Some American aid in the defense of Iraq against the Islamic State (ISIS) has not altered the dynamic that most support of the Shi'ite government in Iraq now comes from Irân. Obama has done so much to further Iranian political and stratigic goals that he and John Kerry almost seem to now be agents of Irân. Jimmy Carter was less of an embarrassment to American foreign policy.

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