Journeys often present new rewards, new horizons. With that comes a need for knowledge. As this is Crystal Cruises’ maiden call to Iran, a capsule history of this magnificent country might help orient us to the context of Iran today. And what a history it is. Iran’s location, at the crossroads of the world’s earliest civilizations, has rewarded it with as rich a cultural past as any country on earth. In fact, Iran bears witness to urban settlements dating back 6,000 years. Learning its history is a daunting task and worthy of a closer look than this thumbnail sketch provides.
Iran and Persia
“Iran” is derived from the word Aryanam meaning “land of the Aryans” in the language brought to the region by Aryan tribes from Russia and Ukraine in the 10th century. Prior to that event the Greeks had referred to this area, defined then by the empire of Cyrus The Great, as “Perses.” To the Latins, the next to weigh in on the topic, the land ultimately became known as “Persia.”
In the western world, “Persia” was the official diplomatic name of the empire although inside the country it was always referred to as “Iran.” In 1935, Reza Shah Palavi, an admirer of Hitler’s Germany, asked western diplomats to begin using “Iran” because the Nazis revived interest in the Aryan races, which had flourished in ancient Persia. This decision was at least partially responsible for Allied pressure to replace the Shah and his ideas with his west-leaning son in 1941.
Winston Churchill successfully requested that “Persia” be used as the official designation during World War II to avoid confusion with Iraq, curiously. Then finally, in 1949, Mohammad Reza Shah Palavi declared that the two terms could be used interchangeably, and that was that. Since then, “Iran” is most often used in a modern political context, while the term “Persia” lives on in the historical context.
Iran and Islam
The gradual Islamization of Persia began in the 8th century when Arab Muslims from Iraq started to exercise their domination over the territories of Iran. During a succession of both Arab and Persian rulers, more and more of the population converted to Islam, and by the close of the 11th century, it’s claimed that 100% of the population was Muslim.
The Safavid dynasty established Shi’a Islam as the official religion in 1501, and the country was ruled as a monarchy until it became an Islamic Republic following the fall of the Shah in 1979. During the reign of the Reza Shahs, the government acted aggressively in its attempt to preserve a secular state, much like today’s Turkish Republic. However, in pressing for cultural changes like the requirement to wear western dress and the mixing of the sexes, they ran afoul of the still powerful clergy. The Shah went into exile and the republic was taken over by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini (not to be confused with the current Supreme Leader Ali Khameni, or the former president Mohammad Khatami).
Iran and The West
Being a non-secular state as well as an oil-rich state, and having a rich cultural history that reinforces a strong sense of nationalism, plus having been exploited and demeaned by a variety of (not just western) invaders, the leadership of Iran feels just the slightest bit prickly when dealing with the world community. As a western traveler, though, you’re unlikely to experience any of the tension that marks Iran’s relations on an international political level. In fact, it’s in Iran’s interest to be seen as something other than a rogue state. The man in the street will probably act as graciously as any other host in the many countries you visit.
Time To See The Sights
Your encounter with this vibrant cultural history begins in Bandar Abbas. Sitting astride the Strait of Hormuz, it’s currently the home base of the Iranian Navy and in that narrow body of water is a place where the military forces of Iran and the west rub together.
The city has been, from ancient times, a key trading post linking the Arab world with the riches of the Mediterranean, Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Far East. Much of that history has been preserved on the nearby offshore island of Qeshm. Thought by some to be the site of the Garden of Eden, Qeshm has become a major stop on the ecotourism circuit. The Hara marine forests are said to host 1.5% of the world’s entire bird population in the course of a year. The island also features a number of dramatic canyons and valleys for resolute trekkers, the ruins of an ancient Portuguese fort, as well as several historic mosques and other important Islamic sites.
If you venture inland to the ancient capital city of Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage site, or Ishfahar, a showplace of Islamic art and architecture, you’ll be immersed in a purer version of the culture that many nationals believe sets Iran apart from some of its Arab neighbors, and which Iranians proudly feel puts them on an equal footing with any of the world’s leading nations. At the end of the day, you’re likely to agree.
Karyn L. Planett