Archaeological excavations have shown that the Neolithic period in the Iranian context dated from around 7000CE. Evidence of copper smelting pottery making and textile production has been found, along with proof that the potter's wheel was introduced around 3500 CE. The sites of Tell-i Iblis and Tepe Yahya, east of Kirman, have provided artifacts and clear signs of settlement dating from the so-called Proto-Elamite period, 3200-2800BCE and a recently published survey of archaeological investigation carried out in the 1970s reveals that the region between Susa and Malyan is rich in surface finds from the 4th millennium BCE.

Susa - Zigurat Temple

Trading contracts with the Sumerians of Mesopotamia (now Iraq) increased as the Elamite centers of Susa and Haft Tepe were established. For today's visitor, the most important and visual evidence of the Elamite civilization is at Choga Zanbil, the remains of a stepped pyramid temple in a huge complex. Political interference by the Mesopotamians into Elamite territory led to armed confrontation, and in 2006BCE the Elamite army captured the last king of Ur, exiling him to Anshan (modern Malyan, southeast of Izeh). They never, however, controlled all of Iran. In the northwest of the country below the Caucasus, archaeological finds from Haftavan and Dinkh Tepe, near Lake Orumiyeh, reveal the settlements here also traded with Mesopotamia. Here, too, there was technical innovation, with fine zoomorphic pottery vessels such as those found in the Hasanla excavations, dating from c1350UCE. The extensive military campaigns of the Assyrian king. Ashurbanipal, in 639AE, spelled the end of most if not all of these settlements cast of the Zagros Mountains Little is known of eastern Iran during this time, but with the decline of the Assyrian Empire control of western Iran was assumed by two (tribal?) families, the Medes (from the region of Media) and the Persians (from Pars, the region around Shiraz), linked tentatively by marriage. However, instead of accepting Median rule, the Pars commander, known in western sources as Cyrus II (the Great), defeated the Median ruler -- his maternal grandfather - at Pasagarda. and extended his territorial control to include Elamite settlements in the south. This was the start of the Achaemenid dynasty.



The Achaemenids (550-330BCE) From Iran, the Achaemenid Empire stretched west into the Balkans and eastwards perhaps as far as the Tian Shan Mountains, today's Chinese frontier, all controlled from the northern summer capital of Hamadan (Ekbatana of Alexander the Great), the winter capital of Susa in the south, Pasagarda, and later Persepolis. Cyrus brought Lydian Anatolia into his lands in 547BCE and then took Babylon and Syria in 5391CE, earning a reputation for justice and religious tolerance by allowing the Jews to return from Babylonian exile and reinstalling the Babylonian divine images to their shrines. Central Asia was the next goal but there Cyrus met his end, in c529BCE, followed by the death of his son Cambyses four years later. Not everyone concurred with the selection of Darius, one of Cambyses's relatives, as successor, and his victory over these enemies is recorded at Bisitun.

Surf in Fars Province


Campaigns extended Achaemenid control into Ethiopia from Egypt, Afghanistan, and India, and west into Europe along with the Danube and into Greece, while Darius I the Great (d486 ) also undertook a massive road and canal-building program (including the precursor to the Suez Canal), and the construction of great palace complexes such as Persepolis. His numerous subject peoples were not required to accept Zoroastrianism and his rule was associated with tolerance and prosperity. A banking system, uniform weights and measures standard, and a merchant navy were established.
The military momentum continued but as supply lines stretched to breaking point the vassal lands gradually slipped from Darius's control Alexander the Great (the Macedonian) timed his invasion well. Although he survived only seven years after taking Persepolis in 330HCE, Alexander has passed into Iranian history as a great man, responsible for building a wall to protect civilized people (Iranians) from Barbarians in the north and cast.

-The Seleucids

The Seleucids (323-c240BCE) Alexander's sudden death stunned his men; he had seemed so invincible. His military generals and governors strove to retain control over the conquered territories, with Seleucid I taking charge of the Iranian lands, ruling from Cresiphon (south of today's Baghdad). Greek settlements and temples were established - but from around 310BCE the remnants of Alexander's army slowly withdrew from the eastern provinces in order to defend the Seleucid regime west of the Euphrates. The frontier between the west and the east came to be located very definitely west, not east of the Zagros Mountains. The Seleucids finally succumbed to Rome after the Battle of Magnesia in 180BCE.

Bronze statue of a Parthian
Bronze statue of a Parthian nobleman from the sanctuary at Shami in Elymais (modern-day Khūzestān Province, Iran, along the Persian Gulf),
now located at the National Museum of Iran. Dated 50 BC-150 AD, Parthian School.

-The Parthians

The Parthians (c238BCE-224CE) The early history of this family (also known as the Arsacids) and its founder Arsaces is shrouded in mystery, but we know that as the Seleucids withdrew the power vacuum was filled by the Parni, a tribe moving down from the Central Asian steppes in c238BCE. Preoccupied with defending Syria, the Seleucids failed to challenge Arsaces of Parni, and in 210 CE he was recognized as a powerful vassal ruler in Parthia in the northeast and the southern Caspian regions; the southwest provinces remained largely under the control of the Elymais (c147BCE-C225CE) who paid an annual tribute to the Parthian shahs. This regional power group is known for its coinage and a few inscriptions and was probably the last remnants of earlier Elamite authority.
The Parthian shah Mithridates 1 (c171-139BCE) campaigned against the Seleucids, winning control of Media by 148BCE, but in the east, the Scythian tribes were causing serious problems, a threat implicitly recognized in the location of the first Parthian capital, Nisa (now in Turkmenistan). As internal security was established, so trade on the Silk Road flourished, carrying Chinese silk westwards in payment for glass, jade, and the 'blood sweating horses of Ferghana, Central Asia. By 113BCE Mithridates II (c124-87CE) had moved into eastern Syria and the Caucasus against Rome, but family squabbles after his death stopped further advance. Rome moved into action, only to have half its forces slain and a further 25% captured Nevertheless, continuing family feuds prevented the Parthian command from taking advantage. An uneasy truce dramatically ended with the invasion of Mesopotamia by the Roman Emperor Trajan in 114. His death three years later, as foretold by the oracle at Baalbek, Lebanon, prompted Hadrian to accept the Euphrates as the frontier, but peace was in name only. Major campaigning recommenced in 195, with the Parthians losing most of Mesopotamia but inflicting a massive defeat on the Roman army in 217. However, there was another challenger, the emerging Iranian family of Sasan, and, in April 224, at the Battle of Golpaygan, the Parthian rule was brought to an end by the Sasanids.
The Parthian dynasty lasted 474 years but remarkably little of its civilization and culture is visible to the visitor in Iran; one has to journey to Hatra in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. Apart from the striking bronze Shami statue, there are only a few eroded low-reliefs and fragmentary archaeological finds. Later occupation of the major Parthian settlements of Damghan, Rayy, Hamadan, and Ctesiphon destroyed the architecture, and until recently officialdom had other archaeological priorities. However, its military skill has been recorded throughout Europe and the cast, with depictions of the famed Parthian shot, in which the warrior on horseback turns back in the saddle, drawing his bow. Renowned also were the Parthian trousers, dismissed by the Roman military as 'effeminate' sarb, but carefully portrayed in all their finery by 2nd- and 3rd-century sculptors of Palmyra (Syria) and Hatra (Iraq). As with the Achaemenids, the Parthians were Zoroastrian and established a firm association between the priesthood and kingship by constructing 'coronation' fire temples and developing the cult or temple fire.


-The Sasanids

The Sasanids (224-658CE) Tradition holds that Sasan, who gave his name to the dynasty, was the high priest at the Zoroastrian shrine of Anahita, at Istakhr near Persepolis. Claiming family ties with the Achaemenids, one of Sasan's descendants, Ardashir (d255), then in control of Shiraz and Kirman regions, defeated the last Parthian ruler, Artabanus V (see page 9), and established a dynasty that ruled Iran for over 400 years. The main Sasanid sites of Bishapur, Firozabad, and Taq-i Bustan reveal little of the efficient administration, which included town planning, irrigation systems, and a system of schools, colleges, and hospitals But the kings exploits are recorded in the Persian poem, the Shah-name which later inspired many Iranian artists. The regime was responsible for gathering together what remained of the Zoroastrian scriptures after Alexander the Great's destruction of the royal archives, but this formalization of the faith was accompanied by persecution of the existing Jewish, Manichaean and Christian communities in Iran: such intolerance sowed the seeds of its own destruction.
The political and military rivalry with Rome, and later Byzantium, continued. The Sasanid army, from their capital, Ctesiphon, headed west, almost reaching the walls of Constantinople (Istanbul) and temporarily occupying Syria and Egypt. Its victories over Rome were recorded in huge rock carvings as at Bishapur but the campaigns exhausted both empires which levied ever-increasing taxes to finance the wars.

-Islam and the Arab conquests

 The Western perception of the spread of Islam is largely based on 19thcentury opinion: fanatical Muslims cager to attain paradise by dying in battles against the 'infidel'. However, this fails to explain the staggering speed of the territorial conquests after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 in Arabia: averaging 16-19km a day, Syria was taken in 636, Egypt in 611, Mesopotamia in 648. The answer is to be found in centuries of religious intolerance pursued by both the Byzantine and Sasanid regimes, and the heavy taxes levied on their subject peoples. By contrast, the Muslims offered freedom of religious practice to the People of the Book (ie: Jews and Christians) and lower taxes.

6 Days Pilgrimage Tour

The Sasanid army was defeated in 637 in Iraq, with the last Sasanid shah finally tracked down and killed in 651, but it was some 350 years before the Persian Pahlavi script was totally abandoned for the Arabic script and language The administration of the Islamic Empire, which in its heyday stretched from Spain Portugal and North Africa in the west to the Great Wall of China in the cast, was run first from Syria, and later from Iraq (Baghdad) under the Abbasid Caliphate (749-1258). Islamic history is tortuously complicated with territorial boundaries changing almost every campaign season today's borders were fixed only during the mid-20th century. When the opportunity arose, warlords throughout the empire took advantage of weak caliphs paying only lip-service to Baghdad, so from 800CE various families were in virtual control of certain parts of Iran, the most important in this context being the Seljuk house. Despite such fragmentation, this early medieval period (750-1200) was a time of flourishing trade and commerce with Europe and the cast, and of great scientific and technological advancements in most fields. By contrast, Europe was in the Dark Ages.

Seljuk period Jame mosque of Isfahan
Seljuk period Jame mosque of Isfahan

-The Seljuks

The Seljuks (1038-c1220) From around 800, numerous Turkic-speaking tribes spread into the Islamic regions from Central Asia, most to act as mercenaries, one of these was the Seljuk family (also spelled Seljuq) which entered the service of the Khwarizm (today Turkmenistan) ruler in the 1020s. Quickly tiring of taking orders, the family turned the tables and by 1043 had firm control of Nishapur and the eastern provinces. Its authority spread south and westwards, with control of the regions shared among the family. The Seljuk sultans gained a reputation for being firm but just rulers of Sunni Islam, and great patrons of the arts and sciences, constructing mosques and tomb towers, colleges, and Caravanserais. Exciting artistic and technological developments in architecture, ceramics, metalwork, and textiles took place, influencing work for centuries after. Trade and commerce also flourished; it looked as if peace, territorial unity, and continuity had finally arrived. The invading roughnecks of the 12th century, the Crusaders, were a mere irritation in the Seljuks' western provinces. More problematic were the so-called Assassins of the Ismaili Shiis assassinating political and military leaders, and, even more dangerous, the advancing Mongol armies.


-The Mongols
The Mongols (c1220-c1340) The first Mongol invasion in 1218 virtually destroyed Seljuk's authority. Although modern Mongolian commentators promote Genghis Khan as a statesman and military hero, all the 13th-century Persian and Arabic chroniclers portrayed him and his men as a totally destructive force. Even if their accounts were exaggerated, many historic cities were definitely razed to the ground and the country's water irrigation system destroyed, with only southern Iran escaping unscathed. The second invasion of the 1250s under Genghis Khan's grandson, Hulagu, finished Abbasid authority in Baghdad and eradicated the Assassin threat. In time, the Mongols - who came to be known as the Il-Khanids in Iran - were converted to Islam and an exquisite monument survives as evidence of their patronage: the Mausoleum of Oljeitu at Sultaniyeh. Commerce and trade recovered too, as noted by Marco Polo, though the other Mongol legacy, the black death, endured for centuries.
However, Iran experienced political fragmentation: a commander in the Mongol army seized control over central Iran (Isfahan, Yazd, and later Kerman and Iraq). His Muzaffarid dynasty was short-lived (1314-93), but a small Sunni Madrasas in Isfahan shows artistic quality and craftsmanship. In northern Iraq and Azerbaijan, a Mongol tribe, the Jalayrids, took control (1336) but yielded authority to the house of Timur Leng in the closing years of the 14th century.

17 Days Iran History Tours


-The Timurids
The Timurids (1375-c1415 in western Iran; until c1500 in eastern Iran) Today's Uzbekistan Republic is also promoting a tireless warrior with blood-stained hands as a national hero: Amir Temur or Timur Leng (Tamerlaine). Claiming direct descent from Genghis Khan, this Turkic chief dreamt of re-establishing the Mongol Empire. Ruling from Samarkand, he led annual campaigns into Syria, Anatolia, India (sacking Delhi in 1399). Russia (up to the gates of Moscow), and even China, before his death in 1405. Family squabbles resulted in territorial fragmentation but by 1420 his son Shah Rukh (d1447) controlled most of the Iranian provinces from his Herat capital, and it is in eastern Iran around Mashhad, where much Timurid architecture, with its distinctive ceramic tiled exteriors and ribbed Vaulting, still survives.
In western Iran, power had passed in the late 14th century to two Shi'i tribal confederations, the Aq Qoyunlu and the Qara Qoyunlu (White and Black Sheep, respectively). The heartland of Aq Qoyunlu's authority was in today's eastern Turkey, and by 1470 it had taken control of Qara Qoyunlu's Azerbaijan and Iraqi territory, Expansion continued into southern Iran and eastwards, which explains the Aq Qoyunlu buildings in Isfahan. A resounding defeat in 1473, however, against the Ottomans, meant that it was only a matter of time before the new political force, the Safavid family, took center stage.

Safavid_dynasty Isfahan Jame mosque

-The Safavids
The Safavids (1501-1736) Safavid court historians were so successful in manufacturing ancestral links for this dynasty that little is certain about the family's actual origins. The story goes that a famous Sufi shaikh, Safi al-Din (d1334), was a popular Sunni mystic and teacher at Ardabil, on the western Caspian shores, and as the two Qoyunlu confederations battled for supremacy and the Ottomans attacked, people looked to this Turkish-speaking 'guru' for spiritual and political leadership. During the 15th century, his followers became known for their commitment to Shi Islam and so the lines of future dynasties rivalry were drawn: the Sunni Ottoman sultanate and the emerging Shri Safavid dynasty. The Muslim pilgrimage centers of Mecca and Medina passed into Ottoman authority, so in their place, the Safavid shahs promoted the Shii shrines of Kerbela, Mashhad, and Ardabil, after proclaiming Itina Ashari Shi'ism as the state religion. Sultan and shah fought constantly for control of the Zagros Mountain regions and their populations, while the Uzbek tribes carried out damaging raids in the northeast, and the Afghans attacked from the east. Despite such troubled times, the European traders in Iran were aware only of the magnificence and wealth of the Safavid court. They marveled - as do today's visitors - at the turquoise domes of Isfahan, the soaring tiled portals first seen in Timurid constructions, while its fine textiles and carpets attracted hundreds of merchant adventurers vying for trading privileges awarded by the shah.

The Safavid Capital Tour


-The Afsharids
The Afsharids (1736-c1750) The Sunni population of Afghanistan increasingly questioned Safavid authority and found a leader in Mir Ways, the former Safavid governor Attacks began in earnest in 1722, with many Iranian towns falling to the Afghani rebels until Nadir Khan, a Safavid general from eastern Iran, took control. By 1727 Nadir Khan had recaptured territory seized by the Afghans and been rewarded with governorships that amounted to the complete control of all of Iran except Azerbaijan, Isfahan, and the southwest. Three years later he forced the Ottoman army out of Hamadan, Azerbaijan, and the Caucasus. Tired of installing Safavid puppet rulers, he took the crown and title with the dynastic name of Afshari in 1736 and proclaimed Sunni Islam as the state religion from his Mashhad capital. The campaigning continued even into India, exhausting the Iranian people and an economy already disrupted by Afghan incursions, famine, and plague. He was assassinated in 1747, and once again Iran's territorial unity was divided among various regional warlords.

Zand_dynasty Vakil Mosque

-The Zand
The Zand family (1750-94) Eagle-eyed readers have spotted the word "family in this heading. The Zand rulers, especially its founder Karim Khan Zand (d1779), never assumed the title 'shah', stating that they were acting as regents (vakil) for the Safavids. An army officer of the last Safavid shah, Karim Khan assumed control of southern Iran in the chaotic years following Nadir Shah's assassination and reintroduced Shiism. After his death, the usual family disputes broke out which, despite the reassertion of authority by the able Lutf Ali Khan Zand, enabled the Qajar family powerful in the northern provinces to extend southwards. Agha Mohammed Qajar captured Lutf Ali Khan in Bam and executed him in 1794. It was the end of Zand rule - noted then and now for its justice and moderation, especially in Shiraz, the former Zand capital, which retains charming examples of Zand architecture.

Qajar Dynasty Golestan Palace

-The Qajar Dynasty
The Qajar Dynasty (c1757-1924) The Turkoman Qajar family of the Caspian region had fought for the Safavid dynasty on the battlefield so, as that regime disintegrated, the Qajar family seized authority in Azerbaijan, took Isfahan from the Zands and moved into the eastern Iranian provinces, re-establishing Shi'i Islam. The man in charge was Agha Mohammed, whose brutality was attributed to his forced castration by an Afsharid shah. His sadism proved too much even for his courtiers, who contrived his murder in 1797. Establishing Tehran as the capital, his nephew and successor, Fath Ali Shah (d1834), proved politically astute, surviving the interventionist policies and expansionist ambitions of Napoleonic France, Victorian England in India, and Tsarist Russia, while fighting off Ottoman campaigns in the Zagros range and Afghan incursions in the east. It was no easy task; the Treaty of Turkomanchay (1828) alone resulted in Iran losing its Caucasian lands to Russia and paying a massive war indemnity, bankrupting the state.

Qajar Dynasty Golestan Palace

As with the Ottoman sultans, the Qajars saw the reorganization of the army and administration as a solution to their problems. To the shals, these reforms presupposed centralization of power in royal hands, but others argued they should lead to democratic constitutional rule, free from foreign interference. The argument raged throughout the final years of the 19th century. culminating in the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. Shortly before his death in 1907. Shah Muzaffar al-Din was forced (when the Shii theologians withdrew support) to agree to a constitution on Belgian lines, but his successor was hostile. Nationalist forces seized Isfahan and then Tehran, deposing the new shah in favor of his son, a minor. Fortunately, the Great Powers were to occupied by World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution to take advantage of the political turmoil. In Iran Reza Khan, a brigade commander, quickly rose in authority becoming prime minister in 1923. Two years later the National Assembly declared the end of Qajar rule. Calls for a republic on the lines of newly established Kemalist Turkey gathered strength and, worried that this would inevitably mean increased secularism, Iranian theologians pressed Reza Khan to become shah.

7 Days Iran Tour Briefly


-The Pahlavi Dynasty
The Pahlavi Dynasty (1926–79) Reza Khan adopted "Pahlavi' as the dynastic name, we are told, because it was a popular title for an unbeatable warrior, a champion wrestler, and recalled the pre-Islamic language and script of Iran. Whatever one's personal views of Reza Shah's rule - his tomb in Rayy was quickly destroyed in the early days of the Islamic Revolution - like Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, he managed to save the country from being totally absorbed by one or other of the Great Powers, other leaders were not so successful. Much of his reform program was aimed at welding Iran into one nation (compulsory school teaching in Farsi, dress reform, etc) while establishing a national system of schools and hospitals, and constructing roads and railways (in the 1910s only two all-weather roads existed in Iran). When he was ousted in 1941 by Britain and the Soviet Union - because of his pro-German leanings - in favor of his son, Mohammed Reza, Iran was very different from when he assumed control. His personal finances had also undergone a great change, increasing from one million rials in 1930 to 680 million (then 27 million sterling) in 1941.
After the war, British influence at court paled as the USA increasingly exerted its authority, while Soviet military withdrawal from the Tabriz region after World War II meant pressure from that quarter lessened. However, within Iran xenophobia remained. After Prime Minister Mossadegh nationalized Iran's oil and petroleum industry in the early 1950s, the young shah was forced into exile, but the CIA soon engineered his return and the fall of Mossadegh. Various reform programs were introduced including the so-called White Revolution, designed to reassign land ownership to the peasantry. Lauded then by many Western commentators, recent appraisals argue that it was disastrous, increasing the hardship for farmers while safeguarding the wealthy.

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