What is hidden behind the present name of Iran?

What is hidden behind the present name of Iran?

Ancient cities, some still thriving in the modern age and some abandoned millennia ago, testify to the key role played by this proud land between East and West. Names like Persepolis and Isfahan resonate down the centuries.

Antiquity, crowned with ups and downs, centuries of cultural and secular dominance, with centuries of material and spiritual decline - Iran, one of the descendants of the Persian Empire. Country which was known as Persia until 1935.

Nowadays it is the second biggest country in the Middle East bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan to the east, Turkmenistan to the north-east, Caspian Sea to the north, Azerbaijan and Armenia to the north-west, Turkey and Iraq to the west and the Persian Gulf to the south-west.

The capital, Tehran, has only been a major centre for the last two centuries, and here we start to lose the flavour of the East and find more Middle Eastern and Arab influence. The northern suburbs are home to wealthy apartments, exclusive designer shops and restaurants. Higher up the mountainside, they look down on the smog choking the rest of the city.

The world-famous site of Persepolis lies 45km northeast of Shiraz on the edge of the Marvdasht Plain. While the other capitals of the Achaemenid rulers were well known to the outside world, Parsa, as it was called at the time, was a secret ritual city. The important ancient Zoroastrian spring festival of No Ruz, or New Year, was celebrated here.

Shiraz is a major settlement even before Persepolis existed. It continues to be the great centre of Fars province. It developed after the Arab conquest and became the sanctuary of Iranian poetry and philosophy in the 13th and 14th centuries. The great poet Sa’adi was born here at the end of the 12th century and is said to have lived for over 100 years.

Another remarkable place is Naqsh-e Rustam, where Darius and his three successors are buried. He was one of the greatest leaders of the Persian Empire, ruled from 522 to 486 BC. During this time he extended the frontiers of the Empire to Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Libya and the banks of Danube. Tributes from all these peoples can be seen on the famous Apadana staircase at Persepolis. Communications and movement of troops over such a vast territory was facilitated by the building of the Persian Royal Road, running from Persia to western Turkey, sections of which certainly evolved into the Silk Road. Rebellions were frequent and ruthlessly put down, but it is the battles with his Greek neighbours for which he is mainly remembered.

The religion in Iran is 98% Islam, from which 91% belong to Shia sect, and the rest is spread between Christianity and Zoroastrian community.

Zoroastrian philosophy was the main religious belief system of the ancient Iranians until VII-th century when the Arabs conquered the Persians and imposed Islam as main religion. It is uncertain exactly where the early prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra to the Persians) came from, but it was somewhere in the Eastern Persian or Afghanistan region, around 1000 BC. He preached that there was just one God, called Ahura-Mazda (Wise Lord).

Caliphs and Imams – these two words appear in many different contexts, and it is often difficult fully to understand their uses. Caliph means “successor” (of the Prophet Muhammad), and as such is the title of a Muslim chief, civil and religious ruler. The Omayyid Caliphate was the dynasty of Sunni rulers based in Damascus just a few years after the death of Muhammad.

An Imam can be a religious leader within a mosque or community, or one of the leaders of the Shia sect known as the Twelve Imams, greatly revered in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. An Imamzade is a shrine or tomb honouring one of the Twelve Imams or one of their descendants. The great split in Islam occurred at Karbala in AD 680, when Caliph Yazid killed Imam Hussein.

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