In the footsteps of the Persian Empire (26 Feb to March 11, 2012)

Before I begin, based on the input received from my readers, I’m breaking down this travelogue into smaller posts. So this is the first section. I might have separate posts going ahead, or add the next section to this post, so eventually it will become a complete travelogue in the end. Please view the accompanying album from my trip here. Also, please subscribe to this website by using the link on the right of this screen, with which you will be automatically notified about my next post.

Let me take the liberty to put things in perspective. This whole section before my actual day-to-day travelogue provides you with a detailed description of my observations about Iran, through my study and my travel there. First a little bit about my ties with Iran. My paternal grandfather and grandmother are from western Punjab, areas which are very close to present day Afghanistan. Apart from Punjabi and Seraiki, Farsi was also spoken and was the language of education in those areas. Farsi or Persian is the language of Iran. I’ll speak about Farsi in a bit. Till around mid 1800s, Farsi was the official language of most of Mughal India. Urdu gradually took over and replaced Farsi; you can read about that transition in my article on Urdu here. After the partition of India, western Punjabis migrated to mainland India and learnt Hindi. Gradually, Farsi became alien to modern India, even though there is a department of Persia at the University of Delhi and Mumbai even today. So in short, the distance to present day Iran from my paternal native place is much lesser than the distance to Bombay.

I’ve always been fascinated by Indo-Persia. Both are ancient and great civilizations. I have done a fair amount of study on these regions, and both civilizations extended their sphere of influence over neighbouring areas. Punjab, in essence was the melting pot of the Indo-Persian culture. Persia (now called Iran, which is a rough derivative of Aryaan..the land of Aryans) has a history of 7000 odd years. Its hey dey was when the Achaemenid emperor Cyrus (Korush) and his son Darius (Dariush) ruled the great Persian empire stretching modern day Turkey to the Sindhu (Indus) river in Punjab. View the map of the Achaemenid empire here. Zoroastrianism was the pre-dominant religion in Persia during those times. In the 7th century, the Islamic Arabs invaded and plundered Persia. Persia at that time was ruled by the Sassanids. In less than half a century, the mighty Persian empire crumbled under the barbaric attacks of the Arabs. Though Arabs could never make Persians as themselves, they did manage to convert most of them to Islam, albeit a slightly moderate version, Shia Islam.

Iran is the only major Shia Islamic country in the world. Since the 7th century, Zoroastrians and other religious minorities including Hindus/Buddhists (from north east Iran, a region called Bactria) were systematically persecuted and forced to convert. A few Zoroastrians migrated to the Indian state of Gujarat, and we today know them by the name Parsis (of Pars). Today 98% of Iran is Shia Islamic, although the figure does not indicate the truth there. Another religious sect, the Baha’is were also persecuted and as of today, it is illegal to be a Baha’i in Iran. The Baha’is too fled to India amongst other places, and the famous lotus temple in Delhi is a Baha’i place of worship. Because at the heart of it, Persia has the history of a great civilization, like India, the people of that great civilization somehow manage to exhibits traits of their ancestors. Great traits.

In the 1900s, the Pahalvis (whose lineage is commonly referenced in Hindu texts, the Parthavas AKA Parthians) ruled Persia. The country was officially named Iran, the land of the Aryans and the king assumed the title of Aryamehr, the light of the Aryans. Till the 1970s, Iran was an extremely free and ‘westernized’ nation, too westernized if I may call it that. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers forced the King into exile and established the modern day Islamic Republic of Iran. The movement is known as the Islamic Revolution. The flag of Iran changed from the Shir-e-Khorshid to the modern symbol of Allah, and so did the national anthem. A large number of Iranians immigrated all over the world during and after the Islamic revolution, to escape the new found god’s rule. A chunk of them immigrated to India, and we recognize them today as Iranis (not Parsis). I will not dwelve too much into the intricacies of the revolution, as it is a complex and detailed subject. Since 1979, Iran is ruled by Shariah (Islamic) law, which makes it one of six countries in the world to be ruled by Shariah law, and probably the most civilized amongst the six. I will spend some time discussing the impact of this on Iran, and this is based on my research and my travel to Iran. Iran is called an Islamic theocracy, a very interesting model of governance, where the Majlis (the religious parliament, there are two parliaments in a way) plays the ‘guiding’ role.

The world often confuses Iran with the Arab world. Iranians largely hate the Arabs, because most of them are aware of the fact that Arabs invaded and ruined their far superior civilization. A few things that the Arabs could not achieve is killing the language (Iran DOES NOT speak Arabic, where as Iraq or Egypt…the other major civilizations that the Arabs conquered do), and killing the local customs. This means that most of Iran’s customs are pre-Islamic. The most important festival is Nowruz (New Year), which is very close to the Hindu new year if anything. The implementation of the Shariah law in Iran is also very different from say a Saudi Arabia. For example, the Iranian hejaab for women is very different and often consists of a jeans, top, long coat, and a scarf. Couples are commonly seen roaming around in most Iranian cities. Another important point is that women have a major role to play in public life in Iran, which is something very unique to Iran as compared to any of its neighbours. Be it banks, or shops, or even taxi drivers, there are women everywhere; and they are generally well respected. I will elaborate on this subject in a bit.

When we think of an Islamic country, we often imagine a state of oppression. Oppression exists in Iran, which I will talk about throughout my travelogue, but as compared to any other Shariah law ruled nation, it is very limited. At an individual level, the government does very little to harass you. Major issues for men include non-availability of liquor (cigarettes are Allah compatible), very limited access to internet and the world television (everything is regulated or blocked), no say in choosing the government, and no right of religion, and no wearing shorts in public! For women, add the compulsory hejaab, some harassment by the religious police for non-compliance, limited rights to travel outside the nation alone, limited rights to marry outside the nation, and no right to pass on citizenship to a child whose father is a non-Iranian. Despite these issues, the government does a good job in what it is supposed to do, govern. Infrastructure and all other public matters are almost at par with a developed nation in Iran. What this results in is that you have a government which you can’t choose, but the government does a better job (at least tangibly) than a government that you can choose, say in India. So despite religious oppression, people perhaps are not that frustrated in Iran, as they should be, to result in a revolution against the regime.

The Islamic government of Iran tries its best to keep all non-Islamic elements of Iranian culture (which continue to be the dominant elements, because Islam roughly translates to Arab from the point of view of culture) out of sight. This includes renaming roads, renaming places, renaming people! Making everything sound look and sound Arab, putting up Quranic verses everywhere, giving no religious freedom, making apostasy (leaving Islam) punishable by death (yes if you are a Muslim, you CANNOT leave Islam!) and extending support to the Palestinians. Iran for some reason (the government feels that Palestinians are Muslim so they are brothers) feels the needs to help Palestinians and murder Jews. Throughout my interactions with Iranians on this subject, most people have no idea why the government is so concerned about the Palestinians, who for that matter are Arabs! And the Islamic argument falls flat because then Iran should help the Chechnyan rebels in Russia, the Uighurs in China, the Muslims in India etc. So, largely on matters of religious totalitarianism, the Iranian people and the government are on opposite sides. I found a large number of Iranians who verbally abuse the government and some times even Islam. Many others explain that it is a matter of convenience for Iranians to be Shia Muslims, because if you are not one, the government makes your life very difficult.

The government has also made Arabic compulsory in schools, as it is the language of the Quran. Some areas in southern Iran near the Persian gulf and western Iran, near the Iraq border, exhibit a stronger Arabic influence. Iran has been ruled by different sets of dynasties, and they were centered in different regions of Iran. For example, the Achaemenids, whom we look at today as the ‘real Persians’ (Parsians) were centered around modern day Yazd and Shiraz. Their influence is even today very visible in those regions. I will talk about it when I talk about my visit to Yazd and Shiraz. I forgot to mention that the alernate name of Iran (central at least) was Pars (from which Parsia/Persia has evolved). Since Arabic doesn’t have the syllable Pe, they called it Fe, so Pars became Fars (Fars is a major province in Iran whose capital is Shiraz), Parsi becamse Farsi, Espahaan became Esfahaan etc.

A little bit about women in Iran. Pre-Islamic revolution, and perhaps even now, a girl child was far more treasured than a boy child in Iran. I was heartened to see the role that women play in Iran, despite Islam essentially considering women as the lesser sex. The difference between Iran and any of its Islamic neighbours is startling. Women work, drive, study, prosper and even marry when they want. The average age for marriage in Iranian cities for women is 27! Young couples are common in the cities, and of course depending on the families, love marriages are as common as India. Most of the ills for women are largely the contribution of the Arabs, for example the hejaab, or the evil practice of Mut’ah (temporary marriage…read the link at your own risk) which results in women being used as religiously approved prostitutes. A woman’s testimony in the court of law is not considered at par with that of a man, again an Islamic Arab practice which exists in Iran too. There is representation of women in the Parliament (although the parliament itself is a symbolic institution for me…the real power rests with the religious leaders where of course there are no women). Men can have a second wife without the consent of the first wife, although again I must stress that Iranians are very family oriented people and having more than one wife is not a very common practice in Iran. Most women have access to good quality education, and almost all the women I interacted with had university education. By law there is sex segregation at public places such as beaches, swimming pools, schools, libraries, cafes, restaurants, hairdressers or sport halls. According to the law, there should be separate sections for the sexes at political meetings, conferences, weddings and funerals, and even men and women should form different queues. Though these laws exist, they are not strictly implemented. For example, I traveled even in a city bus with my Iranian lady friend within Tehran and visited almost all the places listed above with her without any problem.

Couples often walk hand in hand in big cities. But if you are caught, then you will land up in trouble. One last point about women in Iran that I must make, is that the respect women command in public is commendable and at par with any developed nation. Men generally give priority to women, and signs of sexual objectification were low. When a woman speaks to a man, the man pays complete attention to her and extends all possible help. This has NOTHING to do with the Islamic law as Islamists would like to point out, but has everything to do with the extremely evolved culture and liberal mindset of the Iranian population. I consider the treatment and role of women in a society as a very important aspect to rating its social development. If Iran was freed from the clutches of religion (which is what the people want and that is why the government tries everything possible to prevent it), women in Iran would have a role to play at par with most western countries. Especially on this count, Iran fares far better than India.

Farsi, the language of Iran, is a very old language. It has gone through several transitions and the one that is used now is called modern Farsi or modern Persian. It is the mother language of Urdu, and its dialects are spoken in Azerbaijan, Turkey, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Despite the fact that modern Farsi is very Arabized and uses the Arabic script, it is language which has a rich history of culture and learning. Even in India, great texts like the Din-e-Akbari were written in Farsi. Innumerable poetry and novels exist in Farsi. These include the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam or the Diwan-e-Hafez by the famous Persian poet Hafez. It is possible to almost place Farsi at the same level as Sanskrit, though old Farsi was heavily influenced by Sanskrit. A very important aspect is that Farsi unites people in Iran. Education is in Farsi, which means you can do your PhD in Mechanical Engineering studying in Farsi throughout. This is something which we have lost in India, and forget Sanskrit, we can’t even study in Hindi. So the usage of English is very limited, although most educated youth speak conversant English. Major sign boards are in Farsi and in English.

My trip to Iran was for multiple reasons. Apart from sightseeing and meeting some important people, I wanted to do a first hand study of the culture and the present civilization. I was not disappointed. When I mentioned to my folks that I am traveling to Iran, every one was a little worried thanks to the air about ‘Iran’ in the media, which of course is all rubbish. Some one asked me about terrorism in Iran…and I was like terrorism? Haha, the last act of terror happened over a decade ago. Iran is also one of the only Islamic majority country that has not stepped into any war, and was at the receiving end of the brutal Iraq-Iran war in the 90s. Iran is historically divided into four distinct regions, inhabited by four distinct sets of people. The north west was Media, with its capital at Ecbatana, or modern day Hamadaan. The central part was Parthia, with its capital at Persepolis/Parthagade/Shiraz, all in modern day Fars, and the north-east was Bactria, centered around the city of Bactria and Gandhara. This region till quite recently was heavily influenced by Hindu/Buddhist cultures.

I won’t dwelve too much more into the history as it is never ending, but today Iranians are quite homogeneous, mainly speak Farsi with certain regions speaking Turkish, Khuzestani, and Baluchi. For a complete list of languages that are spoken in Iran, check this. My plan was to cover north central and central Iran. This stretches from the capital city of Tehran to the historic city in the central south, Shiraz. It is easily the most popular route amongst tourists in Iran. I had also thought that if I have the time and the energy, I will visit Zanjaan and Hamadaan, north west of Tehran, towards the tail end of the trip. Iran has a moderate to severe winter, with temperatures consistently remaining below zero in north and north west Iran till about March. So, Feb 26 to March 11 was not going to be warm by any stretch of imagination. Let’s board the flight for the capital of Iran, Tehran, then…in part 2.


5 thoughts on “In the footsteps of the Persian Empire (26 Feb to March 11, 2012)

  1. Aviram

    That is a great start to your Iran travel blog, very interesting read.
    Please send on the other parts when you have done with your last edits, I am always interested in learning new ideas about countries and their religion and people.



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