A BRIEF HISTORY OF.. IRAN; ..from the Cradle of Civilisation to Hostage-Taking Crucible of Terror in 9,000 Years (Featuring Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini and Salman Rushdie)

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IRAN'S President Ahmadinejad hailed his nation's "proud" history after releasing 15 British hostages last week. Now, with the eyes of the world still on Iran, we tell the story of those turbulent 9,000 years - from cradle of civilisation to sponsor of terror...

7,000 BC First ancient cultures in Iran - then called Persia. Persian is one of the oldest languages still in use today.

728-550 BC Persia becomes the first "superpower", building the biggest empire the world had seen, covering most of modern Turkey and Egypt. Richly-decorated Persian carpets are traded across the globe and are still made today.

480 BC Spartan King Leonidas fights Persian King Xerxes in the Battle of Thermopylae. Hugely outnumbered, the Spartans hold out for three days in one of history's most famous last stands. The story is told in this year's blockbuster film 300.

333 BC The country - arch-enemy of the Roman Empire - is conquered by Alexander The Great. They battle for 600 years. Roman general Mark Antony loses 32,000 men in one disastrous campaign. Music, art and architecture flourish, and Persian gardens are famed the world over. The English word paradise is thought to come from the Persian "pardis", used to describe these gardens. Today, examples of ancient architecture can be seen in the ruins at Persepolis and Susa. Persia has three major religions - including Zoroastrianism, which is practised centuries later by Queen singer Freddie Mercury! In the 7th and 8th Century, Islam replaces Zoroastrianism.

1218 AD Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes conquer Persia, but convert to Islam over the following centuries.

1786 Agha Mohammed Khan names himself king of Tehran, which becomes capital of Persia. He tries to build a new empire but is assassinated in 1797.

1800s Britain and Russia battle for control of Persia.

1907 A French-brokered peace plan divides Iran up into Russian and British zones of influence.

1908 Brit William Knox D'Arcy leads a team which finds oil in Khuzestan, in south-west Iran.

1909 The Anglo-Persian Oil Company is founded, which later becomes BP (British Petroleum). The discovery of oil focuses Western interest - and fuels rivalry between Britain and Russia over the country.

1921 Reza Khan - head of the country's Russiantrained Cossack regiment - stages a coup to take over the "Peacock Throne" as Shah of Persia. Russia gives up its claims to the country.

1935 The country asks to be known as Iran - its local name - instead of Persia.

1941 Britain and Russia occupy neutral Iran at the height of World War Two amid fears it is too close to Nazi Germany. The Shah goes into exile and his son takes over.

1951 A nationalist riot brings Mohammed Mossadegh to power. He nationalises oil and adopts anti-British and U.S. policies.

1953 The young Shah returns in a U.S. …