AN ANCIENT LAND
To many Westerns, the word Persia at once evocate the image of a land of far away and from long ago, of ancient monuments and beautiful works of art – carpets, tiles, fine ceramics, miniatures and metal work. On the other hand, it evokes a present reality in the heart of Asia, a land of joining both geographically and spiritually the Mediterranean world with the Indian subcontinent. And Persia is indeed such a reality, a world ancient and contemporary, linking the heartland of Asia and the cradle of Western civilization, a bridge between East and west. Moreover, through the heart of its traditional culture, it has always been a bridge between heaven and earth, reflecting the color of its luminous skies and of its most famous stone, the turquoise, the stone for which Persia has always been known throughout the world.
The country is bound on the north and south by two bodies of water, the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. It is bordered on the east by Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the west by Turkey and Iraq and on the northeast and northwest by the five newly independent republics of Central Asia.
Persia is marked by remarkable natural contrasts. The traveler will experience within distances of a few miles major changes of season – snow on one side of a mountain range and sweltering heat on the other. There is also a great difference in vegetation and landscape between the fertile littoral provinces along the Caspian Sea and the dry lands of the Central Desert.
Persia is richly blessed in natural resources – the land is agriculturally rich although water is spares except in few provinces. The stretches of sand and stone of the Persian desert have also hidden in their depths some of the richest mineral resources of the world.
The people and races that have populated the Persian plateau and provided the human substance for its culture have been a lot and diversified and yet unified in a most remarkable manner. The plateau, originally peopled by races whose origin stretches into the unknown millennia of prehistory, became the home of the Aryan tribes who settled in it after several waves of invasion from about two thousand B.C. Having absorbed the earlier peoples, they made the plateau thoroughly Aryan in language and culture; hence the name Iran by which the people have called themselves since the dawn of recorded history.
The waves of invaders throughout its long history- the Greeks accompanying Alexander, the Arab armies during its Islamization, the Turkish tribes which forced their way westward from central Asia, and finally the Mongols, all left their mark upon the people of Persia but they, in turn, were assimilated into its cultural world.
The Persians see their history as a series of distinct periods separated by major events and a long continuous process. They see before them a vast prehistoric past whose epochs have been extended even further in time through archaeological excavations, a past which led finally to the foundation of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great at the dawn of recorded history. Then there is second period comprised of several phases identified
with the rule of Achaemenians, Seleucids, Parthians and Sassanids, the era of the great Persian Empire, terminating with the rise of Islam, its spread into Persia and the transformation it brought about. The last fourteen centuries of Persian Islamic history is marked by such colossal events as the rise of Turkish dynasties, including the Seljuqs and Ghaznavids, the Monogl and Timurid invasions, the re-Establishment of order by the Safavids, Western domination during the Qajar period and finally the foundation of modern Persia, culminating in the social upheaval that led to the Islamic Revolution which turned Iran into Republic.
This vision of Persian history separated by distinct periods yet unified within a whole is most directly reflected in religion, the backbone of Persian culture in every phase of its existence.
The vast majority of Persians are Muslims, today mostly of the shi’ite sect, which became the state religion of Iran during the Safavid period. Yet, before the Islamization of Persia they were for some fifteen hundred years Zoroastrians or Manichaeans or followers of some other Iranian religion. Persians are aware of these phases of history and different spiritual world, but while thoroughly embracing their Islamic culture they have not rejected their ancient past. This wedding of Islamic spirituality and the Persian mind released vast intellectual powers which soon made Persia the philosophic, literary and scientific center of the medieval world.
Today, in the midst of major transformation on the material plane, they are ever seeking ways to retain those qualities and traditions of perennial value which have preserved their identity and made of Persia a crossroads, a bridge between East and west, a haven reflecting the azure color of its luminous skies.