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What is Iran?

What is Iran?
ID : N-1075 Date : 2018/01/17 - 09:22

(PersiaDigest)-RezaMoradiGhiasabadiSome questions are simple superficially but complicated as they unfold. One of the most complicated issues in historical studies is clarifying the meanings of countries’ proper names. There are three reasons for this complexity: first, differences in phonetics and pronunciation of names in different languages; second, the evolution of names in written and oral language; and third (but most important), changes in the subject that a name denotes and use of one name for another important thing.


The names Iran and Persia have an interesting history full of changes in pronunciation, meaning, and application. Here we rely upon the available resources to track the evolutionary course of these names and find an answer to the question, “What is Iran?”

1. Names of Iran in ancient Eastern documents

Ancient Eastern texts contain names that may be connected to Iran or Arya. A clay tablet in Sumerian script, created in the early centuries of the third millennium B.C. is now kept in Istanbul Museum. It tells us that Enmerkar, the second ruler of the Uruk dynasty in south Mesopotamia had asked the ruler of Aratta (not named) for building stones made of azure and agate, and that the ruler of Aratta had sent him the stones in return for grain.

According to this clay tablet, Aratta was a mountainous region to the east of Uruk, separated by seven mountain ranges including one called Anshan.

No linguistic link has yet been found between Aratta and Iran or Arya. No other version of this name has been found in other languages for phoneme comparison. Both names, however, may have the same origin and denote the same subject. This name, Aratta, is also found in Herodotus’ histories, where it has been considered a more ancient name of Persians.

Names related to Iran or Arya are also seen in other Sumerian texts. The name Aren is used for “Eastern soldiers,” in a Sumerian language tablet dating back to the era of king Amar-Sin, about 4,000 B.C. The word Ern or Erin has been used as a geographical name for areas lying east of the Tigris. Sumerians also knew Susa as Inanna-Erinki. The first part of this name refers to goddess Inanna (or Nahid) and the last part is apparently connected to Aryan or Arya. Elam may have the same origin as Iran or Arya.

2. Names of Iran in Achaemenid documents

Three mentions of proper names connected with Iran/Arya have been found in stone inscriptions of the Achaemenid king, Darius the Great. The first mention appears in the Behistun inscription, the second in an Elamite version of the same inscription, and the third in the fifth inscription of Darius the Great in Susa.

The first mention of Arya by Darius the Great is found in the last paragraph of the fourth column of the Behistun inscription: “King Darius says: ‘I wrote this with the assistance of Ahura Mazda. In addition, I wrote it in Arya (Aryan).’” Although the exact meaning of Arya in this inscription is not clear, comparing it with the Kushan inscription of King Kanishka shows that it denotes a script or language called Aryan or attributed to Aryans.

The second mention of this word is found in Elamite language in the same inscription. As the text shows, Arya was pronounced “harya” in Elamite. The third mention of the word by Darius the Great is in his fifth inscription in Susa (Dse). In the second paragraph of the clay inscription, which is in three languages, Darius the Great mentions his ancestry and calls himself “Aryan” and of “Aryan stock” in a manner which had no precedence or recurrence:

“I am Darius, the great king, king of kings, king of lands with different peoples, king of this great and vast land, son of Vishtasp, an Achaemenid, a Persian, son of Persian, Aryan (Arya), and from the Aryan tribe.”

The pronunciation of Arya in this inscription is somehow different from that in the Behistun inscription. While a long ending vowel is used in the latter, a short vowel is used here. The words “Aryan, from Aryan stock” are not mentioned in the Babylonian translation of the inscription, but the Elamite inscription refers to them as “Harya” or “Hariya.” It is, therefore, similar to the same word recorded in the Elamite version of the Behistun inscription. Here, Darius first mentions his father, followed by his family and tribe. At the end, he uses the word “Arya.”

No later instance of Darius using this word has been found, and his son, Xerxes, calls himself an “Aryan” only once. Xerxes uses the same phrase as his father in the eighth inscription of Persepolis (Xph), calling himself “Persian, son of a Persian, Arya, and of Aryan stock” after mentioning his father. None of the inscriptions attributed to Darius or to kings succeeding Xerxes mention Iran or synonymous words.

Darius’s Behistun inscription and many other Achaemenid inscriptions mention a country to the east of the Achaemenid Empire called Hara-ivah. This corresponds to present-day Herat in Afghanistan. Many researchers believe that this is another deflection of Aryan. It is written as a-ri-e-mu in the Babylonian version and har-ri-ma in the Elamite version and.

Since words related to Iran or Arya are rarely found in Achaemenid inscriptions, and since they are short words, it is difficult to know exactly what Darius and Xerxes meant by ari-ya or ary-ya. One of them refers to handwriting or language while the other introduces their ancestry. It is not clear whether that ancestry denotes a specific geographical location, social institutions such as a tribe, or a cultural and civilizational identity. In none instance do these names indicate a political entity or geopolitical situation. The Achaemenids have never used such descriptions as the Iranian king, the king of Iran, Aryan monarch, or the Iranian monarchy.

3. Name of Pars in Achaemenid documents

According to their inscriptions, the Achaemenids had no specific name for the country they ruled. Darius the Great (and Cyrus the Great in his inscription) indicated his country by mentioning names of smaller realms that had been distinct political entities before his rule. Interestingly, such listing of subordinate countries has been repeated only once, in the eighth inscription attributed to Xerxes in Persepolis (Xph), and has not been observed in other Achaemenid inscriptions.

 Darius the Great appears to have decided after the early years of his rule to call his entire country by the name Pars, which was previously the name of a subordinate region. His decision was embraced by others. Owing to the Achaemenids’ political power, the name Pars was soon accepted to mean the entire country and was used in history books and Western languages.

Inscriptions attributed to Cyrus II (the Great), however, make no mention of Pars or synonymous terms just as they do not use the name Iran. In lines 12 and 21 of his Charter, which is in the new Babylonian (Akkadian) language, Cyrus calls himself and his forefathers “king of An-sa-an” before adding other titles such as “king of the world,” “king of Sumer,” “king of Babylon,” “king of Akkad,” and “king of four corners of the world.” The titles of “king of An-sa-an” and “king of Pars” are used for him in the new Babylonian inscription. The land of Anshan has been located to the west and southwest of present-day Iran, neighboring Elam.

4. Names of Pars in ancient eastern documents

Names connected to Pars have been detected in more ancient inscriptions found in Mesopotamia. Parashi, Parahashi, and Marhashi are the names used for a land in the East. The most ancient of these documents is an inscription by Lugal-Anne Mundu, the Sumerian king of Adab who lived in about the middle of the third millennium B.C. The inscription mentions the name Parashi. Thereafter, the name is repeated in other Mesopotamian inscriptions. Inscriptions attributed to Sargon I, the king of Akkad in the fourth century of the second millennium B.C., uses such names as Barakhshum, Barakhshi, Parashi, Marhashi, and Markhashi.

Parhasi is mentioned in Strabo’s report as an early form of Persian. Such names as Pars and Parth seem to have the same origin, having been derived from a more ancient origin as Partha. The name Pars has been also seen in Assyrian inscriptions. Names denoting Pars were recorded in a number of Assyrian inscriptions such as those of Shalmansar/Salmansar III (843 B.C.), Shamashi AD IV (821 B.C.), and Sargon II (714 B.C.). The Sargon II inscription, which is a report of war in Urartu, mentions Pars four times as Parsuash. Parsuash was the place where Sargon crossed or met some people.

Different word structures related to Pars continued in such languages as Babylonian, Assyrian, and Elamite. Then, such variations as Parsua, Parsavah, Parsava, Parsavash, Parsumash, and Parsavan appeared. The Assyrian cuneiform usually adds a differentiating sign for all these deflections, which clearly shows that all these names were used for a country and its people, not a tribe or a town.

The name Parsavan has continued into our time as Parsivan or Farsivan among a group of people who call themselves by that name and speak Persian. They live in the northwest of present-day Pakistan, close to the Afghanistan border. Diakonov considers such names as Pashtu or Pashtun, now used for a language in south Afghanistan, to have derived from Parsava and Parsavan.

The name Pars has also been mentioned in new Babylonian inscriptions. One such inscription recording the chronology of the Nabunid/Nabunidus’ kingdom (the last king of new Babylon) and the first year of the rule of Cyrus the Great refers to Cyrus as “king of Anshan” and “king of Pars.” The name of Cyrus is first mentioned as the “king of Anshan” in this inscription and it comes chronologically in the sixth year of Nabunid’s rule (550–549 B.C.). For the second time he is called “king of Pars” in a record of events in the ninth year of Nabunid’s rule (547–546 B.C.).

The name Persia became common after it was introduced by Achaemenid kings and used through the dynasty’s history. It also found its way into Western and Eastern languages after some phonetic changes. Persian and Arabic texts dating back to the middle centuries of the third millennium B.C. have usually recorded the name as Fars which is apparently an evolved (not Arabized) form of the ancient term Pars.

5. Name of Iran and Pars in post-Achaemenid documents

As far as we know, the name Iran or its synonyms are seldom used in Seleucid, Ashkanid, or Parthian inscriptions. Nobody knows by which name the Ashkanids called their country. Some researchers like Gutschmid, Joseph Marqurat, or Ernest Herzfeld believed read the name Arya on a coin minted by the Ashkanid king Gotarzes II (40–51 AD). Later studies, however, have shown that they had misread the name Arashk.

According to Marqurat, the name Arik corresponds to Khorasan in the geography book written by Moses of Chorene (Armenian historian of the 5th century AD). The combination of Arik Parth (Aryan Parth/Iranian Parth) has also been common. Despite the Parthian’s relative silence about the name of Iran/Aryan, their eastern neighbor, Kushans, did use this name. Kanishka, the Kushan king in the first century AD, used the name Arya (Aryan/Iranian) for one of the two languages mentioned in the inscription.

Although sources are limited, the name of Iran has been frequently found to be used in Sassanid texts since the beginning of the era, when Ardeshir Babakan started his rule, up to its end. Most sources of the Sassanid era, however, are not useful for us because, at that time, the names Iran and Iranshahr denoted a simplistic political concept of the country of Iran. However, some of instances deserve mention.

The first and most ancient Sassanid inscription containing the word Iran belongs to Ardeshir Babakan’s Naqsh-e Rostam inscription. It depicts a bas-relief of Ardeshir riding a horse in front of Ahura Mazda, who is also riding a horse and delivering the symbol of the kingdom to Ardeshir. A stone inscription above Ardeshir’s horse reads in three languages (ANRm-b), “Ardeshir is king of kings of Iran who is blessed by God. (He is) the son of Babak Shah.”

Such phrases as “king of Iran,” “king of kings of Iran,” and “king of Iran and Aniran” appear frequently in many Sassanid inscriptions. Pronunciation of this name in Sassanid inscriptions and texts is interesting. It has been recorded as Eran in Pahlavi texts and inscriptions. The Parthian version of Pahlavi calls it Aryan. The difference raises the question of whether the Parthians called their country Aryan. Although the term Eran has been used as their country’s name most frequently in Sassanid inscriptions, Pahlavi texts of that time have also used Eranshahr.

Unlike Sassanid kings who called their country Eran or Eranshahr, Manicheans preferred Pars. Relying on Mary Boyce’s account and Hening’s translation of Manichean text M42, which uses “Shahriari Pars” for Iran in the Parthian language, Gherardo Gnoli argues that Manicheans preferred using a more ancient phrase, Kingdom of Pars. He also highlights the use of the word Persis, which is equivalent to Iran, in Manichean texts. Pars has been recorded as Perzeren in two Manichean texts, Kephalaia and Homilios Zaradroust.

Although Sassanids frequently used such names as Iran and Iranshahr, Pars or its inflections were not often used. At few instances, it denotes the country and people of Iran and rarely a specific geographical expanse. “Towns of Iran” is a Pahlavi text introducing 60 towns in Iran, but it omits the word Pars. In other Pahlavi texts, the name Pars or Persians usually denotes Iran and Iranians.

This method has been seen in Islamic era history and geography books, in which Iran, Iranshahr, Pars, Fars, Faras, or Ajam have been used interchangeably to denote the people and land of Iran.

Pars or Fars has been occasionally used in Sassanid texts for a region south of present-day Iran. This is known from the presence of the term Pars or Fars in the sentence, but the usage is not always clear.

Although a 3rd century AD Sassanid text, called Nameh Tansar, uses “Eranshahr” for the country and kingdom, its Persian translation by Ibn Esfandiyar uses Pars/Fars interchangeably with Eranshahr. This shows that Fars was more common in Ibn Esfandiyar’s era (6th to 7th centuries AH). Mary Boyce, however, maintains that Pars and Fars were used for separate purposes in Pahlavi literature, especially in Nameh Tansar; the former was used for a southern province, while the latter denoted the entire kingdom. After the Sassanid dynasty and in early Islamic centuries, both Iran and Fars (especially Iran) became obsolete names and were rarely used except in literature or history books.

Since the third century AH, the historical memory of Iran was revived in such regions as the Caspian Sea, present-day Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and others. Ample evidence of this revival exists in poems written during the reigns of the Samanid, Ghazavid, Shervanshah, and Atabak dynasties by poets like Rudaki, Ferdowsi, Farrokhi Sistani, Nezami Ganjavi, Sanaei, and Khaghani Shervani. They reveal that kings called themselves “king of Iran,” “great king of Iran,” or “monarch of Iran.” Thus, without being a political concept, the historical memory of Iran was popular enough to find its way into those poems. The geographical dispersion of such poems results from the number of Persian-speaking poets in various regions, with many such poems being written in Central Asia and present-day Afghanistan.

After the advent of Islam, the name Iran and its political concept became widespread under the Ilkhani rulers. Following the Mongol invasion and their domination over Abbasid rule, the political concept of Iran was revived and Iranian kings again called themselves “king of Iran.”

After the fall of the Ilkhans, the political concept of Iran continued into the eras of the Timurid, Safavid, and Qajar dynasties. Safavid rulers stressed more on the name of Iran at the time when a land east of Iran gained its independence from present-day Iran that was then under Ahmad Shah Abdali Dorrani (1773–1747 AD). That land had also been known as Iran. Later, however, it became known as Afghanistan, a name previously used only for the Waziristan region and some Pashtun-speaking provinces in the south and southeast.

Western scholars used Iran as one of the names belonging to Pars family (including Persia). Amanollah Shah and Reza Shah later requested that other countries call their respective countries Afghanistan and Iran. This measure, however, only increased the ambiguities surrounding ancient names.

6. Name of Iran and Pars in the Avesta

The name Iran or Arya or their synonyms are not mentioned in any part of the Gathas, which are the most important part of Zoroastrian holy scriptures. In many other parts of the Avesta, such as Farvardin Yasht, Mehr Yasht, Zamiad Yasht, Aban Yasht, Teshtar Yasht, Art Yasht, Bahram Yasht, and so on, Arya/Iran occurs with its various variations: “Aeir-yana,” “Aeir-yanam,” “Aeir-yu,” and “Aeir-ya.” Clearly, Iran abounds, with no mention of Pars or other names synonymous with it.

Paragraph 43 of Farvardin Yasht is apparently the most ancient text to mention Iran in the Avesta. Here, Satavis prays for rain to come down on “Iranian lands.” In Articles 142 and 143, male and female Farvahars from these lands are eulogized along with male and female Farvahars from other lands. The phrase “Iranian lands” appears in the fourth paragraph of Mehr Yasht as well: “We pray to Mehr, the owner of vast plains; he who has given peace and happiness to all the Iranian lands.” This phrase becomes “Iranian households” in paragraph 13 of the same Yasht.

In paragraph 17 of Aban Yasht, the ancient concept of Iran Vij has been used to mean the expanse of Iran. “The Creator Ahura Mazda lauded him in Iran Vij and on the banks of Vangohi Daeitia River.” Another mention of Iran in the Avesta is in the sixth paragraph of Teshtar Yasht where a brief reference is made to Arash the Archer.

The ninth paragraph of this Yasht mentions Satavis as the provider of water and rain to Iranian lands: “When Satavis wants to give rewards, he gives water to seven countries. That beauty goes to all corners of the countries to bring a good year to all people and make a happy year for all the Iranian lands.” In Paragraph 36, after eulogizing the Tashtar star, a question is posed, “Will all Iranian lands have a good year?”

Paragraphs 42 and 43 of Ashi Yasht praise Keikhosro as the “hero of Iranian lands and promoter of solidarity in the country.” The same description is found with a variation in Paragraph 32 of Ram Yasht where a unique phrase, “Iranian forests,” has been used.

As shown above, Pars is not used in any Avestan texts, but the name Iran or Iranian is frequently used in ancient Yashts, except Zamiad Yasht and Bahram Yasht. Although none of these can be a decisive proof of the name of Iran, the name seems to denote a geographic expanse and people living in it, but has no connection with its political identity. Considering other geographical names that have been used along with it, Iranian lands mentioned in the ancient parts of the Avesta have included the eastern part of present-day Iran, all of Afghanistan, western Pakistan, and western Central Asia.

7. Name of Iran and Pars in Shahnameh

The names Iran and Pars are used synonymously in the Shahnameh, as in many other Islamic texts. Unlike the Avesta, Shahnameh (popularly known as Shahnama) uses the names Iran and Pars in many places but with varying frequency. It mentions Iran about 2,000 times and Pars/Fars about 100 times (meaning Iran or some areas south to present-day Iran).

Iran’s geographical distribution in the Shahnameh is ambiguous, with no clear definition of the country or land of Iran. However, the book focuses more on the eastern parts of present-day Iran and largely ignores the western parts, as do some sections of the Avesta.

Such cities or regions as Khorasan, Herat, Balkh, Marv, Nishapur, Sistan, and Zabolestan are mentioned more frequently in the Shahnameh. Territories mentioned in Shahnameh as part of Iran correspond to territories and peoples known as Aryans or Aryana. Research thus far has not found “Arya” and “Aryan” mentioned anywhere in Shahnameh.

It seems that the name Iraj in the Shahnameh is an alternative for Iranvij in the Avesta and indicates the territory of Iran. The legendary Fereidoun divided the known world between his three sons, giving Iranvij to his son, Iraj. This is reminiscent of “Xvanirath,” located in the midst of six other countries.

8. Name of Iran and Pars in Roman and Greek history books

The name Pars appears frequently in Roman and Greek history books. There, as in Achaemenid inscriptions, it denotes the entire Achaemenid territory. The name Pars has also been used for the southern sea of Iran. Due to its frequent usage and clear concept, Pars requires no further research in such texts. However, we do need to examine these texts for names connected to Iran and Arya.

Herodotus (5th century B.C.) presents an account of Arizanti, one of the Medean tribes, and says that the Mede considered themselves Aryans, though they later opted for a new name: Medes or Mada. Herodotus also discusses the origins of the name of Persians, stating that the name derives from Perses, the son of Perseus who was a son of the great Greek God, Zeus. He also notes that before being called Persians, they had two more ancient names: Kephen or Kephe, which was used by Greeks, and Arta, which was used by Persians who called themselves Artaioi. This name is very similar to Aratta mentioned in the Sumerian inscription.

Strabo (1st century B.C.) gives an account of the Parthian territory (without naming it) and introduces a region close to it as “Arya.” He says that Arya borders Margiyaneh (Mary) on the one side and Bactriana on the other. This place corresponds to present-day Herat. Both names are very similar to Aryao, which is mentioned in the inscription by the Kushan king, Kanishka. Strabo uses Ari and Aryan in several places to describe the region of Arya. He also notes that Arya had two rivers, Ario/Arios and Margo/Margos. Most likely, Ario is the present-day Harirud River which crosses Herat, while Margo is Marv/Marvrud/Marghab River, which flows north of Herat toward Margiyaneh or Marv. Strabo also mentions another region, Aryana, which is geographically different from Arya and Aryan despite some apparent similarities. Strabo reports this when quoting Eratosten or Eratosthenes (3rd and 2nd centuries B.C.).

In Strabo’s geographical accounts, Arya is a region northwest of present-day Afghanistan and includes Herat and its suburbs, while Aryana is a region including the western part of present-day Pakistan, Sistan, Baluchestan, and Kerman provinces of present-day Iran, and three southern provinces of present-day Afghanistan: Kandahar, Helmand, and Nimruz.

Strabo calls the people living in Aryana “Arbies.” He also mentions a people called Parrhasi living on the western coast of the Caspian Sea, who are now called Persians. This proves the accuracy of the information found in Babylonian, Assyrian, and Elamite inscriptions. Pelini (1st century AD) confirms the difference between Arya and Aryana, and states that the Aryas lived in the eastern regions of Parth while Karmania and Aryans lived to its south.

In addition to Strabo and Eratosten, other classical Roman and Greek works have mentioned names synonymous with Arya. These include works by such authors as Eodemus of Rhodes (4th century BC), Diodorus of Sicily (1st century BC), Ptolemy (2nd century AD), Megasthenes (3rd and 4th centuries AD), and Dameshqi (6th century AD). It seems that Alexander’s conquests were the main reason for the introduction of such names into Greek texts. Other variations of Arya, such as Aryana, Aryani, Ario, Arya, and Arik, have been used for other territories with uncertain borders to the east of present-day Iran. Names of Arya and Aryan territories or Aryavarta were used in the Vedas for an unspecified territory and its people, but they lack any political connotation.

9. Conclusion

The names synonymous with Iran and Pars along with their roots, deflections, derivatives, and combinations were quite common since the middle centuries of the third millennium B.C., and they remain in use today. They are very ancient, common words, and we cannot identify their exact meanings in the early or middle centuries after they were introduced. Even our best information falls short of explaining every application of these names, but we can classify them by era. The names Iran and Fars and their older varieties such as Arya, Ari, Aryan, Aeirya, Parsa, Parsua, Parashi, and Parasis were common since about 4,500 years ago in such areas as the western parts of Mesopotamia, middle Anatolia, north Caucasus, around Kharazm (Aral) Lake up to Fergana, and in the west of China down to the Punjab and Indus basin. This does not mean, though, that they have the same origin.

When conquests were at their peak in the early and middle centuries of the first millennium B.C., such names related to the dominant army. Since the Achaemenids lived in a region that carried a name from the Pars family of names, they adopted it to describe their territory.

Later, names synonymous with Iran became more common. Vast territories to the east of present-day Iran were called by such names as Arya or Aryana. At the beginning of Sassanid rule, these names were pronounced as Eran and Eranshahr to denote political identity with the territory of a country that was already called Pars. Pars continued to be used for the region outside that territory while Eran or Eranshahr were more commonly used for areas located inside it.

After the Sassanid rule, since the early centuries after Islam, Iran and Pars were used in such forms as Iran, Iranshahr, Fars, Faras, and Ajam in geography books. They denoted historical concepts relating to those names and were used by some poets to address the kings of those times. In these poems, however, Iran was just a historical memory and had nothing to do with any political identity.

Iran’s political identity as a country was revived under the rule of Ilkhans, about 700 years following the fall of the Sassanid dynasty. In the 12th century AH, another territory whose name had been related to Iran for many centuries, gave up that name in favor of a new one: Afghanistan. At the beginning of the 14th century AH, kings of both countries announced official names of their respective countries, for both domestic and foreign use, as Iran and Afghanistan, the names by which we know them today.


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