Iran's 5,000 Years of Recorded History

By Curtiss, Richard H. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 3, 1996 | Go to article overview

Iran's 5,000 Years of Recorded History


Curtiss, Richard H., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Iran's 5,000 Years of Recorded History

By Richard H. Curtiss

The written history of Iran begins some 5,000 years ago, but the archeological record begins long before that. Obsidian flakes found under alluvial deposits from the last glacial epoch show that humans traversed Iran's great central plateaus in the Paleolithic period. More flint implements show hunters again were present at the end of the last glacial period some 10,000 years ago.

By 4,000 B.C. small villages existed in the valleys where the mountains met the plains, and the designs on clay pots show plant and animal motifs indicating the inhabitants were at least partly settled agriculturalists. Layers of ashes and abrupt changes of pottery styles indicate that the earliest inhabitants were conquered and perhaps absorbed from time to time by waves of invaders.

Written records of the inhabitants of present day Iran begin with their neighbors to the west in the Mesopotamian plains. These were the Sumerians, who created the world's first cities and invented cuneiform writing, followed by the Semitic Akkadians and Amorites who eventually dominated the area of present-day Iraq and created Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations.

The Mesopotamian people of all of these early civilizations were in contact with the Elamites, whose principal city was Susa in present-day Khuzestan. The Elamites had adopted their own system of cuneiform writing by 3,000 B.C., and at various times over the next 2,000 years they both conquered the ancient Sumerian city of Ur and the later Amorite capital of Babylon, and were conquered themselves by invaders from Mesopotamia. The earliest settled inhabitants of present-day Iran developed an agriculture based on qanats, stone-covered tunnels that conducted precious water from the mountain ranges well out into fertile but otherwise waterless plains. They also had unique cultural practices, many aspects of which were preserved much later in the Avesta, the sacred scripture of the Zoroastrian religion, which developed in Persia and still is practiced by tiny minorities in Iran and by Iranian emigrants to India, the Parsees.

The Persians and the Medes

Nomads speaking Indo-European languages began moving into Iran from Central Asia between 1,500 and 1,000 B.C. They belonged to three major groups. The Scythians established themselves in the northern Zagros mountains and remained semi-no-madic raiders of other tribes and settled villages. The other two major Indo-European groups, the Persians and the Medes, entered continuously recorded history in 836 when the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser III received tribute from kings of "Parsua," west of Lake Urumia, near the present Turkish border, and reached the lands of the "Mada" southeast of the lake. The annals of a subsequent Assyrian ruler recorded the two peoples south of modern Kermanshah in 820 and a later invading Assyrian king received tribute from Median chiefs near Mount Demavend in 737 B.C.

These two groups of primarily pastoral Iranians were spreading throughout present-day Iran, settling into the valleys, producing some agricultural products, and occasionally paying tribute to the neighboring Assyrian empire when it was at its height and ruled the Middle East from present-day Iran to Egypt.

By the seventh century B.C. the Medes had settled over a huge area ranging from modern Tabriz in the north and Isfahan in the south, with the Median capital at Ecbatana, present-day Hamadan. Cyaxares, son of Phraortes, founder of Median power, was one of the kings who conquered Ninevah in about 612 B.C., breaking the Assyrian hegemony.

During the same period the Persians had established themselves south of Lake Urmia, on the northern border of the Elamites and in the area of modern Shiraz, a region to which they gave the name Parsa, encompassing present-day Fars province. Their seventh century leader was Hakamanish, called Achaemenes by the Greeks.

The Achaemenid Empire, 550-330 B. …

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