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History of Iran

WARNING: International disputes with Iran are ongoing, please read this travel warning before going!

People have inhabited the region of modern day Iran for hundreds of thousands of year. Over the years the region has been home to numerous advanced civilizations for their time and the country is riddled with archeological sites from these various times.

In 646 BC the Assyrian Empire took over the region from nearby Mesopotamia. However, as the Assyrians took power in the west, the eastern tribes united to form a resistance from their rule, forming the Deioces Empire. This led to wars and the eventual takeover of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital and the establishment of the Medes Empire in 612 BC.

The Medes Empire was one of the most powerful empires of the region and become the Achaemenian Empire, which began its rule in 550 BC with the rule of Cyrus the Great. Cyrus further expanded the empire and took over the Babylonians and others, pushing the borders of the country to its greatest lengths, stretching to Egypt and forming the largest kingdom in the world up to that point. Two kings later was Darius the Great, who further pushed the empires power and prestige.

Under Darius the Great the Greeks fought and rebelled against their control, leading to the Greco-Persian Wars in the 400s BC. The Persians proved so dominate at the time they actually took the city of Athens, however this success was short lived and soon they Greeks had re-taken their city. Likewise, the Egyptians rebelled in the 400s after Darius's death, re-claiming their lands.

In the 300s BC the Greeks returned under Macedonian King Alexander the Great who took most of the Achaemenian Empire. However after Alexander's death the empire fell apart and Persia fell under the rule of one of his generals, Seleucus, who founded the Seleucid Dynasty. Under this dynasty religious tolerance was accepted as Buddhism was introduced and replaced Zoroastrianism and Greek became the language of communication among the elite.

The Seleucid Empire didn't last long though and in the 200s BC the Parthian Empire took power in the region. They ruled until the 200s AD, when the Sassanid Empire took control from the west. The Sassanids, essentially a Persian empire, had been in the west for centuries and continuously expanded the empire, eventually incorporating most of the Middle East from Turkey to Arabia to today's Pakistan. They also found themselves on Rome's eastern border during much of their rule, at times at war with the Romans. It was under the long and stable rule of the Sassanids that much of modern day Persian culture and art were established.

The western rule of the Sassanids eventually fell to the combined Roman and Byzantium forces, then in 632 AD they fell to the Arabs who had arrived with the spread of Islam in the Battle of al-Qadisiyah. The Sassanian rulers completed fell by 674 as the Muslims destroyed Zoroastrianism and introduced Islam. Over time Islam and the Arab rulers took full control over the Persian people.

This invaded party, the Umayyad Caliphate, adopted many Persian customs and as Islam grew it grew with that Persian influence. However, the Umayyads tried to force the Arabic language on the people and they resisted. This led to a unique version of Islam in Persia, one that incorporated their historic culture with this new religion, more so than most people who converted to Islam.

In 743 the Umayyad Caliph Hisham ibn al-Malik died, launching the region into chaos. This led to the takeover of the Abbasid dynasty in 750. After they took over they moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad, which fell in under Persian influence. The Abbasids slowly brought the Persians back into power, replacing the former ruling Arabs and due to them being ethnic Persians, the people were more willing to convert to Islam under their rule. However in the 800s their power began to wane as the Turkish people from Central Asia came in and slowly took power. Additionally, smaller kingdoms took over power in various regions of their empire over this time, including the Seljuk Turks. This power finally came to an end in 1258 when the Mongols took the city of Baghdad, overthrowing the Persian Abbasid rulers.

The Mongols came loudly as they killed many people in the country with their arrival. However only 50 years after their arrival, many of the Mongol rulers began to convert to Islam and actually allowed numerous aspects of Persian culture to thrive. After Mongol rule came the rule of the Timurid dynasty. Timur invaded Persia in 1381 and took nearly the whole of it and his descendants continued to rule Persian until 1452. Like the earlier Mongols, after an initial mass murder to obtain power, Timur and his dynasty slowly adopted many Persian customs.

In the early 1500s the Safavid Dynasty came to power over Persia and began converting the people, who were primarily Sunni Muslim, to Shia Muslim. The Safavid rulers, who were Azeri-Kurdish took Persia back to its former glories. The Safavid dynasty overtook many of Persia's neighbors, greatly expanding their borders through the 1500s and 1600s.

By the late 1600s though the Safavid rulers were losing power as neighboring people came in and took pieces of land, including the Ottoman Turks and the Russians. This decline ended in 1736 with the end of the Safavid Empire. After the further takeover of some land, the bulk of the region was taken over by the Qajar Dynasty, who ruled from 1796 to 1925.

By the late 1800s the Qajar dynasty had weakened and the people began to revolt. This led to a constitution and an elected governmental body in 1906. Just two years later the Qajars lost more power when oil was discovered in Iran and the Russians and the British showed their interest by meddling with Persia's domestic affairs. Eventually, the Russians and Brits divided the region between themselves until 1919 when revolution in Russia forced them to leave.

Due to this outside influence and the slow decline of the welfare of the people, in 1925 Reza Shah Pahlavi took power in the country. Under Reza Shah the country became more closed off as he attempted to create a strong hold on power, but also introduced numerous changes in the social and economic realms; schools, roads, and technology were introduced en masse. However his changes also upset the religious conservative as women were encouraged to stop wearing the hijab and men were told to wear western clothing.

The conservative people's anger continued to rise until World War II when the Persians forced Reza Shah to abdicate his power. The British preferred his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who welcomed the British who wanted the country's oil supplies. Throughout WWII the country was friendly to Britain and hosted the Tehran Conference in 1943 between Josef Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill.

After WWII relations with Britain soured when the Persians sought to nationalize their oil industry. Despite this, relations with Britain and other western power slowly improved throughout the 1900s. Also during this time there were also repeated attempts to give the people more power in the form of parliament, but political instability in the parliament prevented this.

However, by the 1960s hostilities again rose, primarily in the form of religion versus politics when people began speaking out again the shah, including Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenini, who was arrested for his speeches.

In the 1970s Iran went to war with Iraq over border disputes, which led to the expulsion of Iranian nationals from Iraq and increased tensions between the two nations. However, more than tensions with Iraq, at the end of the 1970s revolution erupted in Iran when the Islamic Revolution, led by Khomenini took power in 1979.

Under the new Islamic Theocratic government, Khomenini became absolute ruler as politics and religion were intertwined and the religious leaders made all final decisions. Shortly after the Shah left Iran he was admitted to a hospital in the United States to received cancer treatment; it was at this time that the United States Embassy in Tehran was occupied and all hostages were held until January 1981 when Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. Since this time official relations between the two countries have ceased to exist.

In 1980 Saddam Hussein of Iraq attacked Iran, leading to war. His attack was believed to take advantage of a country in flux, but the Iranians fought back by 1982.

In 1989 Khomeini died and he appointed Ali Khamenei the next supreme leader. Meanwhile on the presidential side of the political spectrum, the country brought numerous leaders to power as the 1990s and 2000s were a time of slowly growing political stability. In 2005 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President. He was re-elected in 2009, which led to massive protests in Iran, however the government clamped down and few protests have taken place since.

Today Iran remains in flux as the country boasts one of the world's youngest populations. Much of the youth seeks political changes, but to what degree is questionable. Meanwhile the government claims it is seeking nuclear abilities in order to create nuclear power plants, however numerous foreign countries question this as their true motivation. Finally, Iran has been very vocal about destroying the state of Israel and this has led to great tensions, as well as threats by both side, although violence in large measures has yet to be undertaken.

This page was last updated: March, 2013