Persia


Persia
   A conventional European designation for Iran, in general use in the West until 1935, although the Iranians themselves had long called their country Iran. Persia is still widely used as an alternate for Iran. From its founding in the sixth century B.C . until its conquest by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C ., Persia was the dominant power of the ancient world. After an interlude of Greek rule lasting a century or so, Persian power revived under two native dynasties: the Arsacid, or Parthian, and the Sassanian, or neo-Persian. Persia held at bay the empires of Rome and Byzantium for more than seven centuries before finally succumbing to the rising power of Islam in the middle of the seventh century A.D .
   The Islamic conquest was aided by the material and social bankruptcy of the Sassanids; the native populations had little to lose by cooperating with the conquering power. Moreover, the Muslims offered relative religious tolerance and fair treatment to populations that accepted Islamic rule without resistance. It was not until around 650, however, that resistance in Iran was quelled. Conversion to Islam, which offered certain advantages, was fairly rapid among the urban population but slower among the peasantry. The majority of Iranians did not become Muslim until the ninth century. One important legacy of the Arab conquest was Shia Islam. It was not until the sixteenth century, under the Safavids, that a majority of Iranians became Shias. Shia Islam became the state religion.
   After the death of Malik Shah in 1092, Iran once again reverted to petty dynasties. During this time, Genghis Khan brought together a number of Mongol tribes and led them on a devastating sweep through China; and in 1219, he turned his forces west and quickly devastated Bukhara, Samarkand, Balkh, Merv, and Neyshabur. Before his death in 1227, he had reached western Azarbaijan, pillaging and burning cities along the way. The Mongol invasion was disastrous to the Iranians. Destruction of qanat irrigation systems destroyed the pattern of relatively continuous settlement, producing numerous isolated oasis cities in a land where they had previously been rare. A large number of people, particularly males, were killed; between 1220 and 1258, the population of Iran dropped drastically. The Safavids (1501–1722), who came to power in 1501, were leaders of a militant Sufiorder. The rise of the Safavids marks the reemergence in Iran of a powerful central authority within geographical boundaries attained by former Iranian empires. The Safavids declared Shia Islam the state religion and used proselytizing and force to convert the large majority of Muslims in Iran to the Shia sect. The Safavid Empire received a blow that was to prove fatal in 1524, when the Ottoman Sultan Selim I defeated the Safavid forces at Chaldiran and occupied the Safavid capital, Tabriz.
   In 1794, Agha Mohammad Qajar established the rule of the Qajar dynasty that lasted until 1925. The Qajars revived the concept of the shah as the shadow of God on earth and exercised absolute powers over the servants of the state. Early in the nineteenth century, however, the Qajars began to face pressure from two great imperial powers, Russia and Britain. Britain’s interest in Iran arose out of the need to protect trade routes to India, whereas Russia’s came from a desire to expand into Iranian territory from the north. In two disastrous wars with Russia, which ended with the Treaty of Gulistan in 1812 and the Treaty of Turkmanchay in 1828, Iran lost all its territories in the Caucasus north of the Aras River. Then, in the second half of the century, Russia forced the Qajars to give up all claims to territories in Central Asia. Meanwhile, Britain twice landed troops in Iran to prevent the Qajars from reasserting a claim to Herat. Under the Treaty of Paris in 1857, Iran surrendered to Britain all claims to Herat and territories in present-day Afghanistan.
   The two great powers also came to dominate Iran’s trade and interfered in Iran’s internal affairs. They enjoyed overwhelming military and technological superiority and could take advantage of Iran’s internal problems. Iranian central authority was weak; revenues were generally inadequate to maintain the court, bureaucracy, and army; the ruling classes were divided and corrupt; and the people suffered exploitation by their rulers and governors. During World War I, Britain and Russian, now allied against the Central Powers, occupied the country and used it as a base of operations against the Ottoman Turks.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Ansari, Ali. Iran. New York: Routledge, 2004;
    Arberry, A. J. The Legacy of Persia. Oxford: Clarendon, 1953;
    Daniel, Elton L. The History of Iran. New York: Greenwood, 2000;
    Ghirshman R. Iran from the Earliest Times to the Islamic Conquest. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954;
    Olmstead, A. T. History of the Persian Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948;
    Payne, Robert. The Splendor of Persia. New York: Knopf, 1957;
    Shuster, M. W. The Strangling of Persia. Washington, D.C., 1987. Reprint of 1912 edition.
   JITENDRA UTTAM

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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