Iran history is often thought to have begun as early as the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), approximately 10,000 years BCE when the first semi-permanent settlements had been established across the Iranian Plateau. Evidence of human settlement has been found in the Zagros Mountains (a region close to the border with Iraq).

The territory of the modern nation of Iran might have been one of the first areas in the world where humans practiced agriculture.

Join us as we set out to explore the long history of Iran, an ancient homeland of some of the most powerful empires in the history of the world.

History of Iran Begins With the Rise of Elam

The first kingdom to be founded in the area, which was later known as Persia and Iran, was Elam. This ancient polity was centered on the eponymous region in ancient Iran, roughly corresponding to the modern-day provinces of Ilam and Khuzestan.

Very little is known about the Elamites. Elamites used a cuneiform script like the Sumerians with whom they were likely in contact, but their language is still a mystery.

The Name ‘Elam’ Comes From Akkadian and Sumerian Languages

Today, historians and archeologists believe that the Elamites were people indigenous to the Iranian Plateau who developed their culture over several thousands of years. The neighboring Mesopotamia was likely to have exerted a strong cultural influence on Elam.

The Proto-Elamite period lasted roughly from c. 3200 to 2700 BCE, followed by the Old (c. 2700 – c. 1600 BCE), the Middle (c. 1500 – c. 1100 BCE), and the Neo-Elamite Period (c. 1100 – 539 BCE). The name Elam seems to have been borrowed from the Sumerian and Akkadian words for highlands.

The Elamites: A Federation of Different People

In the region between the Zagros Mountains and the Persian Gulf, the ancient Elamites built many cities, of which Susa had been the most prominent. As a federation of many different peoples with different ethnic backgrounds, Elamites lived in city-states ruled by kings, as was the case in nearby Mesopotamia.

Trade: Networking with Levant, Mesopotamia, and India

Evidence of the prosperity of Elamites cities is based on the great number of Elamite items found in far-off places. Artifacts from India, the Levant, and various Mesopotamian cities were excavated at the ruins of Susa.

A well-developed trade network between Elamite city-states and the outside world is evidence of a highly-developed culture that needed goods from distant lands.

Most Important Cities of Ancient Elam

After Susa, cities such as Awan, Dur Untash, Borahshi, and Hidalu held a prominent place in regional power politics and competed for hegemony. Throughout the Old and Middle Periods, Elam frequently found itself at war with Mesopotamian cities.

Hammurabi of Babylon (ruled 1792 – 1750 BCE) sought the help of the Elamites in his conquest of Mesopotamia but later turned on them, conquered, and incorporated Elam into his empire. Elam’s religion was strongly influenced by Mesopotamia, although much of Elamite beliefs still present a mystery.

The First Iranian Empire

Towards the end of the Middle Period, the Sutrukid Dynasty (c. 1200 – 1100 BCE) succeeded in building a powerful Empire which included much of Elam and large parts of southern Mesopotamia. King Shutrukh-Nakhunte, a great builder, was the most powerful ruler in Elam’s history.

He conquered a number of Sumerian cities, defeated the Kassites in Babylonia, placing his son on the throne of Babylon. The King began large construction projects in his capital, Susa, which he envisaged as the seat of a great empire. Soon after his death, however, the Assyrians checked Elamite expansion in the north, and the Empire collapsed due to infighting between his heirs.

Aryan Migrations and the Arrival of the Persians

Various Aryan tribes migrated to the Iranian Plateau sometime during the 3rd millennium BCE. The term ‘Aryan’ refers primarily to the name of the country rather than an ethnic or a racial group.

The name ‘Iran’ is thought to have been derived from ‘Aryan.’ It is not known where the Aryan tribes came from. Still, they brought a new religion that later evolved into Zoroastrianism and various other faiths based on dualistic principles – the eternal struggle between light and darkness.

The Persians: Settling Across the Iranian Plateau

Among the many Aryan tribes to settle in Iran were the Medes, Alans, Bactrians, Parthians, and the Persians. By the 1st millennium BCE, the Medes united under their ruler Dayukku. They expanded into Elam to become a dominant power in the Iranian Plateau.

How Was Iran Formed?

The Persians were a minor tribe whose kingdom was centered on the city of Anshan that served as their capital. Under King Teispes (r. 675 – 640 BCE), they settled in a region east of Elam, called Persis (known as Fars today), that subsequently gave name to their empire and the country. Initially, the Persians were vassals of the Medes, then a dominant power in the region.

Cyrus the Great: The Foundation of the Achaemenid Empire

Iranian history truly began with the overthrow of the Median Empire by Cyrus the Great (r. 550 – 530 BCE). Taking advantage of the conflicts between the Medians and Babylonians against the Assyrians, Cyrus defeated the Median ruler Astyages around 550 BCE.

A string of impressive conquests would ensue, from Lidya (a kingdom in ancient Anatolia, corresponding to modern-day Turkey), to Elam and Babylon. By 539 BCE, Cyrus controlled a vast territory stretching from the highlands of Anatolia in the west to the borders of the Indian subcontinent in the east. Much of the ancient Near East was under his dominion.

Cyrus: The Tolerant and Humanitarian

The founder of the first Iran Empire was well-known for his tolerance. Cyrus proclaimed that his subjects were freed to live as they wished, providing they lived in peace with others, paid taxes, and served in his armies.

Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Judah (one of the ancient Hebrew kingdoms) from Babylonian captivity. The King had established a powerful, well-organized empire that relied on effective administration to govern over vast, ethnically, and culturally heterogeneous territories.

The Height of the Achaemenid Empire and Its Fall

Ancient Persia had reached the peak of its glory under the rule of Achaemenid kings. Under Cyrus’ heirs, the Empire continued to expand with the conquest of Egypt and parts of Libya, Central Asia, and Europe.

Darius I attempted an invasion of Greece but failed to win a decisive victory over the Greek states. Xerxes I (r. 486 – 465 BCE) raised an ever-larger army in his attempt to defeat the Greeks. Persian forces were defeated in a naval Battle of Salamis (480 BCE), after which they made no further attempts to conquer Greece.

Alexander the Great Defeats the Persians

In 334 BCE, Alexander, the King of Macedon, crossed the Hellespont into Asia, in a move the Persian King Darius III (336 – 330 BCE) chose to ignore. Alexander eventually managed to inflict a series of crushing defeats on the Persians, resulting in the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire.

The Seleucids Controlled Iran for More Than a Century

Alexander’s death in 323 BCE threw his empire into chaos, as his generals fought each other for control of territory. His successors were known as the Diadochi, and their rivalries would fuel a series of wars that lasted for more than a century.

The territory of ancient Iran fell under the control of Seleucus I Nicator (r. 305 – 281 BCE) who ruled over Syria, much of the Levantine coast, Mesopotamia, the Iranian Plateau, and parts of modern-day Afghanistan. The period of Seleucid rule over Iran was characterized by Hellenization.

Seleucus retained many Persian traditions, administrative apparatus, and religious policies but appointed Greeks in government offices. Greek became the primary spoken language at court and was used in government.

The Parthians Restore Native Rule in Iran

For a time, the Seleucid Empire thrived until King Antiochus III’s defeat at the hands of the Romans in 190 BCE. The weakening of Seleucid power corresponded with the rise of the Parthians, who were nomadic people who settled south of the Caspian Sea.

From their position as a small state in the interior of the Iranian Plateau, the Parthians rose to prominence, resulting in their overthrow of the Seleucid rule.

Under King Mithridates II: The Parthian Empire at Its Peak

Having established themselves as the torchbearers of Persian civilization, the Parthians set about re-establishing their control over former Achaemenid lands. By the reign of King Mithridates II (124 – 91 BCE), the Empire expanded towards northern Anatolia and the Caucasus.

The waning power of the Seleucids, now ruling over a rump kingdom in Syria, would soon be replaced by that of the Roman Republic. The Romans gained control over western Anatolia (Asia Province), obtained a foothold in Syria, and appointed vassal kings in Judaea.

Rome and Parthia: Three Centuries of Rivalry

By the end of the 1st century BCE, the political and military situation in the Near East had largely stabilized. The Roman Empire controlled the Levantine coast from Syria to Palestine, Egypt, and large areas of Anatolia, while the Parthians maintained control over much of Mesopotamia and the Iranian Plateau.

Control over the Kingdom of Armenia remained a bone of contention between the two empires for several centuries. No side had managed to gain the upper hand; however, Armenia became a buffer zone between Rome and Parthia.

New Golden Age of Persia: Under the Rule of the Sassanian Dynasty

Weakened by internal strife, the Parthian Empire ended when Ardashir I defeated the last Parthian King Artabanus IV and established the Sasanian Dynasty. A local ruler from Pars, Ardashir established a stable new regime inspired by the old Achaemenid Empire. Under the Sassanians, Persian culture experienced a golden age. As the most powerful native dynasty in Iran before Islam, the Sassanians made Persia into one of the wealthiest empires in the world.

Struggles With Rome and the Nomadic Peoples From the North

The Sassanians were much more warlike than their Parthian successors. Wars with the Roman Empire lasted for more than three centuries.

For a while, the Sassanians had managed to gain the upper hand and wrestle control over Syria and parts of Anatolia from the Eastern Roman Empire. The Hephthalites, a nomadic people who were probably related to the Huns, remained a constant threat. Raids into Persian territory were frequent, but the Sassanians were able to keep them at bay.

The Fall of the Sassanian Empire and the Arrival of Islam

The near-constant warfare between the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires had weakened both powers. Persian forces laid siege to Constantinople in 626, ultimately failing to take the city and suffering severe losses.

Only six years later, the army of the new Islamic Rashidun Caliphate inflicted a decisive defeat on the Sassanids in the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah. Within a few decades, the new Islamic state conquered the entirety of the Sassanian Empire and Byzantine Egypt, Syria, and parts of Anatolia.

Persian Culture Left a Lasting Influence on Islamic Civilization

Iran and Persia, now a part of the wider Islamic world, strongly influenced Islamic civilization. Persian linguistic, cultural, legal, and artistic influences were a vital component of the new Islamic way of life.

Medieval History of Iran

Various Islamic dynasties ruled parts of Iran for almost a thousand years. Islamization of Iran was by no means complete by the beginning of Abbasid rule.

Towards the end of the 11th century, the majority of the Persian population had converted to Islam. Persia’s rich artistic, philosophical, and scientific heritage significantly contributed to Islamic Golden Age.

The Mongol Conquest

In 1219, the Mongols began their conquest of Iran; within a decade, they succeeded in subduing most of the country. The Mongols dominated Iran for the next two centuries, culminating with the rule of the vast Timurid Empire (1370 – 1507).

The Shia Branch of Islam as the Official Religion of Iran

The Safavids were the first native dynasty to rule Iran after several centuries of foreign dominance. Shah Ismail I, the founder of the dynasty, expanded his power base from Azerbaijan to most of modern-day Iran, establishing a new Persian Empire.

Shiism Becomes the Dominant Religion

Ismail I’s triumph had the adoption of Shia Islam as its most important consequence. The conversion of Persia to Shiism was the defining event in Iranian history, without which it’s impossible to imagine the modern history of Iran.

Safavid to Qajar Dynasty

Safavid Empire was embroiled in a series of costly wars with the neighboring Ottoman Empire, fueled by religious division (the Ottomans followed Sunni Islam), as well as rivalry over the control of Mesopotamia. Best on all sides, the Safavid Empire fell in 1736 and was replaced by two short-lived dynasties (Afsharid and Zand).

Qajar Dynasty: A Period of Instability

More than a century of Qajar rule in Iran was marked by internal strife, wars with the powerful Russian Empire, and economic difficulties. Persia entered the 20th century as an impoverished and divided country in desperate need of reform.

Modernization Attempts During the Pahlavi Era

The Pahlavi Dynasty (1925 – 1979) ruled Iran for much of the 20th century. Reza Shah and his son Mohammad-Reza Shah sought to modernize the country according to the Western model but achieved limited success.

Foreign powers such as Great Britain controlled much of the country’s oil resources, causing widespread resentment. Persia and Iran have been used to refer to the country until the mid 20th century until Reza Shah insisted that the name Iran be used as the official endonym of the country.

Iranian Revolution of 1979

Deeply unpopular, the Shah was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, beginning the contemporary period of Iranian history. Modern Iran has a unique form of government, an Islamic republican theocracy that combines Islamism, democracy, and republicanism.

Conclusion

The history of Iran is an impressive testimony to the creative genius of the Iranian people. Since the time of Cyrus the Great, Iran has been one of the world’s most advanced countries and a beacon of high culture.

Below are some of the most important events in Iran history timeline:

  • 550 BCE: Cyrus the Great established the Achaemenid Empire
  • 330 BCE: Alexander’s conquest of the Near East
  • 247 BCE, 651 AD: Parthian and Sassanid rule
  • 633 – 654 AD: Muslim Conquest of Iran
  • 1501: the Rise of the Safavid Dynasty and conversion to Shiite Islam
  • 1979: Modern Iran is established

As one of the world’s oldest cultures, Iran is bound to play an important part in the future of the Middle East.

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