MYTH vs. FACT: The History and Culture of Iran

By Anuj Krishnamurthy, Research Associate

MYTH:  Iran has contributed little in the way of culture or history

Persian Calligraphy has set the standard in Muslim art. This particular piece from Nasirolmolk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran, celebrates the country's rich poetic heritage.

It’s startling, and more than a little disconcerting, how many people actually believe that Iran has failed to contribute to world culture or history.  And yet, one need look no further for an example than recent remarks made by Representative Steve King of Iowa on the first day of the Republican convention, July 18, 2016:

“I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you're talking about, where did any other subgroup of people [beyond the Western world] contribute more to civilization?”

In King’s uninformed conception of history, only peoples in “Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world” have made genuine contributions to humanity.

Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. In fact, Iran is one of the richest counterexamples to King’s historical revisionism. Heir to a vibrant history and the innumerable achievements of ancient empires, Iran has long been one of the world’s premier centers of learning, thought, art, and culture. So let’s the set the record straight – with some facts.

FACT: Iran descends from a civilization that controlled enormous tracts of territory and wielded enduring cultural influence.

For most Americans, and avid fans of Hollywood, Iranian history begins with the Battle of Thermopylae, depicted in the 2006 film 300, during which a legion of brave Spartans are seen repelling wave after wave of Emperor Xerxes’ immortals. It’s true – the Battle did happen; the defenders did fight courageously, but were ultimately overwhelmed; the Persians did reach Athens and burn it down; and the Greeks, in a truly improbable turn of events, did finally drive off the invaders.

The history of Iran, though, does not start and end at Hollywood’s profiteering discretion.

The Persian civilization first emerged around 550 B.C.E., over one thousand years before the birth of Islam, and two centuries before Alexander the Great developed a taste for bloodthirsty globetrotting. At its pinnacle, the Persian Empire spanned from Turkey and Egypt all the way to Central Asia and northern India – the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen. King Cyrus, one of history’s greatest rulers, rose to power in 539 B.C.E. and established the Achaemenid dynasty. Throughout his reign, he masterfully combined administrative sophistication with unprecedented compassion. For example, he emancipated the Hebrews, once held as slaves in Babylon; Isaiah reportedly called Cyrus “God’s shepherd.” Furthermore, his empire minted standardized coins, operated a royal infrastructure and mail network, and organized the territory into twenty provinces to facilitate taxation and conscription.

The Sasanian Empire took root in 224, struggled against Roman and Byzantine encroachments, and practiced Zoroastrianism until the arrival of Islam in 636. Sasanian art reflects a robust Greco-Roman influence, no doubt introduced through the region’s flourishing trade routes. Luxury arts, like textiles, silver vessels, and ceramics, and architecture became defining components of Sasanian culture.

Iran soon came under the control of the Rashidun dynasty, the first of the major Islamic caliphates. (The Rashidun caliphate initiated the expansion of Islam, then a fairly young religion, throughout central Asia[K1] .) The Rashidun culture was Arab, and the language Arabic – but, apart from the decline of the Zoroastrian faith, Iran never lost its essential Persian origins. In fact, the opposite occurred: the people of Persia made indelible contributions to Islam and the caliphate. For instance, the Persian language enjoyed an incredible renaissance in the ninth and tenth centuries – elaborate traditions of religious poetry found new audiences, and Persian quickly became instrumental in the preservation of Islamic history.

Persians made significant advances in the discipline of medical science, too. During the reign of the Sasanian Empire, Persians studied anatomy, medicine, and physiology. They made critical discoveries long before the Greeks, and even established an academy at Gondi-Shapur, a city located in the southwestern region of modern-day Iran. When Baghdad became the center of the Islamic world, Persian scientists and doctors implemented their skills in novel ways, translating important medical texts from Greek to Arabic and thereby providing the foundation for Islam’s golden age of medicine. (During the medieval period, Europeans drew considerable inspiration from Muslim medical discoveries[K2] .) Indeed, the Persian intellectual tradition dramatically changed the course of Islamic and Arab history. Some scholars have even suggested that “one might be entitled to designate the Islam which came into being in the tenth and eleventh centuries as Iranian Islam using the Arabic language.”[K3] 

It’s easy for our generation, directly familiar only with recent history, to think that Iran rose to international importance after young revolutionaries took American embassy workers hostage in 1979 – as depicted by the 2012 Academy Award-winning film Argo[K4] . But the Islamic revolution, in fact, is but a small chapter – a short passage, really – in the extraordinary history of the Iranian people, and those that came before them.

FACT: Iran is home to world-renowned artists, including poets, novelists, and filmmakers.

The artistic traditions of Iran, from ancient Persia to the modern-day, are utterly exquisite in their intricacy and in their global appeal. Consider poetry, easily one of the most compelling products of Iranian culture. A scholar of the Royal Asiatic Society, the United Kingdom’s oldest learned society of Asian affairs, wrote in 1843:

“The history of the Persian poets is the history of the Persian nation; it is the biography of their greatest men, whose lives, whose actions, whose feelings, and whose tastes, are all, in a greater or less degree, associated with poetry and influenced by poetic impulse… Lives have been sacrificed, or spared—cities have been annihilated, or ransomed—empires subverted, or restored—by the influence of poetry alone.”

In contemporary Iran, old passages of poetry are more than just souvenirs from a storied past. As Neima Jahroni wrote in The New Yorker last year, “The great works of Persian poetry are more than a heap of pretty images; in the depths of these lines, Iranians hear the echoes of their historical selves.” Indeed, in modern Iran, poetry is in many ways as significant as the Quran. In fact, some bookshops in Iran sell the Quran and the works of Hafez – the legendary fourteenth-century poet, who wrote about love and protest – in a two-book set.

This poetry has found ardent fans in the West, too. Jalaluddin Rumi, a Persian poet of the twelfth-century, topped the bestseller lists in 1997 – a time when the Islamic revolution still reverberated in the American consciousness, and when diplomatic conciliation was only a dream – with his transcendent and mystical writing. Take these brief stanzas, an excerpt taken from a poem entitled, “This World Which is Made of Our Love for Emptiness”:

These words I’m saying so much begin to lose meaning:
Existence, emptiness, mountain, straw:
Words and what they try to say swept
out the window, down the slant of the roof.

Such self-effacing poetry, apparently cognizant of the limitations of mankind’s language, feels welcome in a twenty-first century filled with forceful, usually self-centered, tweets. But the majesty of Persian poetry has resiliently stood the test of time – and, in all likelihood, will endure long after we are gone.

Yet, Iranians have attained worldwide acclaim in younger mediums, too. One of the greatest graphic novels of this millennium, Persepolis, published over a decade ago, in 2003, was written by an Iranian woman. A much-needed tapestry of political history, humor, and autobiography, the author, Marjane Satrapi, elevated, in one the stroke, the graphic novel to an entirely new caliber of artistic expression. A 2005 review, in the New York Review of Books, nicely encapsulates the magnitude of Satrapi’s achievement:

“Like a pair of dancing partners, Satrapi’s text and images comment on each other, enhance each other, challenge, question, and reveal each other. It is not too fanciful to say that Satrapi, reading from right to left in her native Farsi, and from left to right in French, the language of her education, in which she wrote Persepolis, has found the precise medium to explore her double cultural heritage.”

And, like graphic novelists, Iranian filmmakers have also seen tremendous success. The Iranian film industry produces roughly 100 movies every year, as many as Great Britain. And, while censorship restrictions are tight, Iranian cinema does not indulge the ideological or political designs of the state. In fact, the state is the largest sponsor of Iranian filmmakers – and a large selection of their movies explore the sexual intrigue of urban life in Iran.

Hollywood has taken notice. In 2009, representatives from Hollywood traveled to Iran, where they spoke with Iranian actors, filmmakers, and screenwriters and exchanged ideas about cinema and culture. Sid Ganis, then the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said that the language barrier was no obstacle to genuine dialogue. “We spoke the same language,” Ganis said. “The language of movies.”

In 2012, A Separation, an Iranian film by director Asghar Farhadi, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. During his acceptance speech, Farhadi lauded the fact that his nation’s film industry finally achieved international recognition:

“At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us, and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or a filmmaker, but because at a time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”

In the end, Farhadi’s remarks reflect the Iranian people’s profound appreciation of their historical origins and contemporary culture. And, today, the country’s appetite for creative goods is outpacing the state’s ability to limit its citizens’ cultural exposure. For example, Shahrzad, a new Iranian series that explores the intrigue of the 1953 coup, has achieved incredible popularity in Iran. But the show isn’t like normal Iranian television; it is privately produced, minimally compliant with censorship guidelines, and streamed once-a-week, Netflix-style. Shahrzad effectively offers what conventional state television does not: intricate sets and ornate costumes; serious critiques of politics and politicians; and, above all, a fuller picture of mid-century Iranian culture.

Today, Iran is undergoing drastic changes, as it adapts to a new position on the world stage. And Iranians, under the influence of a very real twenty-first century renaissance, are pioneering new frontiers of thought and art. But, in many ways, Iran is merely a modernized version of what it’s always been: an ancient people, living on an ancient land; misunderstood, perhaps, by strangers from far-off shores; but always mindful of where they’ve been – and always at peace with whatever the future holds.