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The Persians are an Iranian ethnic group that make up over half the population of Iran.[1][2] They share a common cultural system and are native speakers of the Persian language,[3][4][5] as well as closely related languages.

Persians
Regions with significant populations
 Iran49,312,834 (61–65% of the total population)[1][2]
Languages
Persian and closely related languages.
Religion
Shia Islam (predominantly), Irreligion, Christianity, Bahá'í Faith, Sunni Islam, Sufism, and Zoroastrianism.
Related ethnic groups
Other Iranian peoples.

The ancient Persians were originally an ancient Iranian people who migrated to the region of Persis, corresponding to the modern province of Fars in southwestern Iran, by the ninth century BC.[6][7] Together with their compatriot allies, they established and ruled some of the world's most powerful empires,[8][7] well-recognized for their massive cultural, political, and social influence covering much of the territory and population of the ancient world.[9][10][11] Throughout history, the Persians have contributed greatly to art and science,[12][13][14] and own one of the world's most prominent literatures.[15]

In contemporary terminology, people of Persian heritage native specifically to present-day Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are referred to as Tajiks, whereas those in the Caucasus (primarily the present-day Republic of Azerbaijan), albeit heavily assimilated, are referred to as Tats.[16][17] However, historically, the terms Tajik, Tat, and Persian were used synonymously and interchangeably.[16] Many of the most influential Persian figures hailed from outside Iran's present-day borders to the northeast in Central Asia and Afghanistan and to a lesser extent to the northwest in the Caucasus proper.[18][19] In historical contexts, especially in English, "Persians" may be defined more loosely to cover all subjects of the ancient Persian polities, regardless of ethnic background.

Contents

Ethnonym

Etymology

The term Persian, meaning "from Persia", derives from Latin Persia, itself deriving from Greek Persís (Περσίς),[20] a Hellenized form of Old Persian Pārsa (𐎱𐎠𐎼𐎿), which evolves into Fārs (فارس) in modern Persian.[21] In the Bible, it is given as Parás (פָּרָס) within the books of Daniel, Esther, Ezra, and Nehemya.

A Greek folk etymology connected the name to Perseus, a legendary character in Greek mythology. Herodotus recounts this story,[22] devising a foreign son, Perses, from whom the Persians took the name. Apparently, the Persians themselves knew the story,[23] as Xerxes I tried to use it to suborn the Argives during his invasion of Greece, but ultimately failed to do so.

History of usage

Although Persis (Persia proper) was only one of the provinces of ancient Iran,[24] varieties of this term (e.g., Persia) were adopted through Greek sources and used as an exonym for all of the Persian Empire for many years.[25] Thus, especially in the Western world, the names Persia and Persian came to refer to all of Iran and its subjects.[25][6]

Some medieval and early modern Islamic sources also used cognates of the term Persian to refer to various Iranian peoples and languages, including the speakers of Khwarazmian,[26] Mazanderani,[27] and Old Azeri.[28] 10th-century Iraqi historian Al-Masudi refers to Pahlavi, Dari, and Azari as dialects of the Persian language.[29] In 1333, medieval Moroccan traveler and scholar Ibn Battuta referred to the people of Kabul as a specific sub-tribe of the Persians.[30] Lady Mary (Leonora Woulfe) Sheil, in her observation of Iran during the Qajar era, states that the Kurds and the Leks would consider themselves as belonging to the race of the "old Persians".[31]

On 21 March 1935, former king of Iran Reza Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty issued a decree asking the international community to use the term Iran, the native name of the country, in formal correspondence. However, the term Persian is still historically used to designate the predominant population of the Iranian peoples living in the Iranian cultural continent.[32][33]

History

Persia is first attested in Assyrian sources from the third millennium BC in the Old Assyrian form Parahše, designating a region belonging to the Sumerians. The name of this region was adopted by a nomadic ancient Iranian people who migrated to the region in the west and southwest of Lake Urmia, eventually becoming known as "the Persians".[6][34] The ninth-century BC Neo-Assyrian inscription of the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, found at Nimrud, gives it in the Late Assyrian forms Parsua and Parsumaš as a region and a people located in the Zagros Mountains, the latter likely having migrated southward and transferred the name of the region with them to what would become Persis (Persia proper, i.e., modern-day Fars), and that is considered to be the earliest attestation to the Persian people.[35][36][37][38][39]

 
Ancient Persian costumes worn by soldiers and a nobleman. The History of Costume by Braun & Scheider (1861–1880).
 
Ancient Persian and Greek soldiers as depicted on a color reconstruction of the 4th-century BC Alexander Sarcophagus.

The ancient Persians were initially dominated by the Assyrians for much of the first three centuries after arriving in the region. However, they played a major role in the downfall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.[40][41] The Medes, another group of ancient Iranian people, unified the region under an empire centered in Media, which would become the region's leading cultural and political power of the time by 612 BC.[42] Meanwhile, under the dynasty of the Achaemenids, the Persians formed a vassal state to the central Median power. In 552 BC, the Achaemenid Persians revolted against the Median monarchy, leading to the victory of Cyrus the Great over the throne in 550 BC. The Persians spread their influence to the rest of what is considered to be the Iranian Plateau, and assimilated with the non-Iranian indigenous groups of the region, including the Elamites and the Mannaeans.[43]

 
Map of the Achaemenid Empire at its greatest extent.

At its greatest extent, the Achaemenid Empire stretched from parts of Eastern Europe in the west to the Indus Valley in the east, making it the largest empire the world had yet seen.[7] The Achaemenids developed the infrastructure to support their growing influence, including the establishment of the cities of Pasargadae and Persepolis.[44] The empire extended as far as the limits of the Greek city states in modern-day mainland Greece, where the Persians and Athenians influenced each other in what is essentially a reciprocal cultural exchange.[45] Its legacy and impact on the kingdom of Macedon was also notably huge,[10] even for centuries after the withdrawal of the Persians from Europe following the Greco-Persian Wars.[10]

During the Achaemenid era, Persian colonists settled in Asia Minor.[46] In Lydia (the most important Achaemenid satrapy), near Sardis, there was the Hyrcanian plain, which, according to Strabo, got its name from the Persian settlers that were moved from Hyrcania.[47] Similarly near Sardis, there was the plain of Cyrus, which further signified the presence of numerous Persian settlements in the area.[48] In all these centuries, Lydia and Pontus were reportedly the chief centers for the worship of the Persian gods in Asia Minor.[48] According to Pausanias, as late as the second century AD, one could witness rituals which resembled the Persian fire ceremony at the towns of Hyrocaesareia and Hypaepa.[48] Mithridates III of Cius, a Persian nobleman and part of the Persian ruling elite of the town of Cius, founded the Kingdom of Pontus in his later life, in northern Asia Minor.[49][50] At the peak of its power, under the infamous Mithridates VI the Great, the Kingdom of Pontus also controlled Colchis, Cappadocia, Bithynia, the Greek colonies of the Tauric Chersonesos, and for a brief time the Roman province of Asia. After a long struggle with Rome in the Mithridatic Wars, Pontus was defeated; part of it was incorporated into the Roman Republic as the province of Bithynia and Pontus, and the eastern half survived as a client kingdom.

Following the Macedonian conquests, the Persian colonists in Cappadocia and the rest of Asia Minor were cut off from their co-religionists in Iran proper, but they continued to practice the Iranian faith of their forefathers.[51] Strabo, who observed them in the Cappadocian Kingdom in the first century BC, records (XV.3.15) that these "fire kindlers" possessed many "holy places of the Persian Gods", as well as fire temples.[51] Strabo, who wrote during the time of Augustus (r. 63 BC-14 AD), almost three hundred years after the fall of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, records only traces of Persians in western Asia Minor; however, he considered Cappadocia "almost a living part of Persia".[52]

The Iranian rule collapsed in 330 BC following the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great, but reemerged shortly after through the establishment of the Parthian Empire in 247 BC, which was founded by a group of ancient Iranian people rising from Parthia. Until the Parthian era, the Iranian identity had an ethnic, linguistic, and religious value. However, it did not yet have a political import.[53] The Parthian language, which was used as an official language of the Parthian Empire, left influences on Persian,[54][55][56] as well as on the neighboring Armenian language.

 
A bas-relief at Naqsh-e Rustam depicting the victory of Sasanian ruler Shapur I over Roman ruler Valerian and Philip the Arab.

The Parthian monarchy was succeeded by the Persian dynasty of the Sasanians in 224 AD. By the time of the Sasanian Empire, a national culture that was fully aware of being Iranian took shape, partially motivated by restoration and revival of the wisdom of "the old sages" (dānāgān pēšēnīgān).[53] Other aspects of this national culture included the glorification of a great heroic past and an archaizing spirit.[53] Throughout the period, Iranian identity reached its height in every aspect.[53] Middle Persian, which is the immediate ancestor of Modern Persian and a variety of other Iranian dialects,[54][57][58][59] became the official language of the empire[60] and was greatly diffused among Iranians.[53]

The Parthians and the Sasanians would also extensively interact with the Romans culturally. The Roman–Persian wars and the Byzantine–Sasanian wars would shape the landscape of Western Asia, Europe, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Mediterranean Basin for centuries. For a period of over 400 years, the Sasanians and the neighboring Byzantines were recognized as the two leading powers in the world.[61][62][63] Cappadocia in Late Antiquity, now well into the Roman era, still retained a significant Iranian character; Stephen Mitchell notes in the Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity: "Many inhabitants of Cappadocia were of Persian descent and Iranian fire worship is attested as late as 465".[64]

Following the Arab conquest of the Sasanian Empire in the medieval times, the Arab caliphates established their rule over the region for the next several centuries, during which the long process of the Islamization of Iran took place. Confronting the cultural and linguistic dominance of the Persians, beginning by the Umayyad Caliphate, the Arab conquerors began to establish Arabic as the primary language of the subject peoples throughout their empire, sometimes by force, further confirming the new political reality over the region.[65] The Arabic term ʿAjam, donating "people unable to speak properly", was adopted as a designation for non-Arabs (or non-Arabic speakers), especially the Persians.[66] Although the term had developed a derogatory meaning and implied cultural and ethnic inferiority, it was gradually accepted as a synonym for "Persian"[65][67][68] and still remains today as a designation for the Persian-speaking communities native to the modern Arab states of the Middle East.[69] A series of Muslim Iranian kingdoms were later established on the fringes of the declining Abbasid Caliphate, including that of the ninth-century Samanids, under the reign of whom the Persian language was used officially for the first time after two centuries of no attestation of the language,[70] now having received the Arabic script and a large Arabic vocabulary.[71] Persian language and culture continued to prevail after the invasions and conquests by the Mongols and the Turks (including the Ilkhanate, Ghaznavids, Seljuks, Khwarazmians, and Timurids), who were themselves significantly Persianized, further developing in Asia Minor, Central Asia, and South Asia, where Persian culture flourished by the extension of Persianate societies, particularly those of Turco-Persian and Indo-Persian blends.

The Iranian hegemony was reestablished after over eight centuries of foreign rule within the region by the emergence of the Safavid Empire in the 16th century,[72] after which a number of modern Iranian monarchies emerged, ending up with the downfall of the Pahlavi dynasty, who ruled Iran until the 1979 Revolution.

Anthropology

In modern Iran, the Persians make up the majority of the population.[1] They are native speakers of the modern dialects of Persian,[73] which serves as the country's official language.[74]

Persian language

The Persian language belongs to the western group of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. Modern Persian is classified as a continuation of Middle Persian, the official religious and literary language of the Sasanian Empire, itself a continuation of Old Persian, which was used by the time of the Achaemenid Empire.[58][54][57] Old Persian is one of the oldest Indo-European languages attested in original text.[57] Samples of Old Persian have been discovered in present-day Iran, Armenia, Egypt, Iraq, Romania (Gherla),[75][76] and Turkey.[77] The oldest attested text written in Old Persian is from the Behistun Inscription,[78] a multilingual inscription from the time of Achaemenid ruler Darius the Great carved on a cliff in western Iran.

Related groups

There are several ethnic groups and communities that are either ethnically or linguistically related to the Persian people, living predominantly in Iran, and also within Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, the Caucasus, Turkey, Iraq, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.[79]

The Tajiks are a people native to Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan who speak Persian in a variety of dialects.[16] The Tajiks of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are native speakers of Tajik, which is the official language of Tajikistan, and those in Afghanistan speak Dari, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan.

The Tat people, an Iranian people native to the Caucasus, more specifically the Republic of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Russian republic of Dagestan, speak a language (Tat language) that is closely related to Persian.[80] The origin of the Tat people is traced to an Iranian-speaking population that was resettled in the Caucasus by the time of the Sasanian Empire.[81][82][83][84][85][86][87]

The Lurs, an ethnic Iranian people native to western Iran, are often associated with the Persians and the Kurds.[88] They speak various dialects of the Lurish language, which is considered to be a descendant of Middle Persian.[89][90][59]

The Hazaras, making up the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan,[91][92][93] speak a variety of Persian by the name of Hazaragi,[94] which is more precisely a part of the Dari dialect continuum.[95][96] The Aimaqs, a semi-nomadic people native to Afghanistan,[97] speak a variety of Persian by the name of Aimaqi, which also belongs to the Dari dialect continuum.[73][98]

Persian-speaking communities native to modern Arab countries are generally designated as Ajam,[69] including the Ajam of Bahrain, the Ajam of Iraq, and the Ajam of Kuwait.

Culture

From the early inhabitants of Persis, to the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian empires, to the neighboring Greek city states,[99] the kingdom of Macedon,[10] the caliphates and the Islamic world,[100][13] all the way to modern-day Iran and Western Europe, and such far places as those found in India,[101] Asia,[14] and Indonesia, Persian culture has been either recognized, incorporated, adopted, or celebrated.[100][102] This is due mainly to geopolitical conditions, and its intricate relationship with the ever-changing political arena once as dominant as the Achaemenid Empire.

Art

The artistic heritage of the Persians is eclectic, and includes major contributions from both the east and the west. Persian art borrowed heavily from the indigenous Elamite civilization and Mesopotamia, and later from the Hellenistic civilization. In addition, due to the central location of Greater Iran, it has served as a fusion point between eastern and western traditions.

Persians have contributed in various forms of art, including carpet-waving, calligraphy, miniature-painting, illustrated manuscripts, glasswork, lacquer-work, khatam (a native form of marquetry), metalwork, pottery, mosaic, and textile design.[12]

Literature

The Persian language is known to have one of the world's oldest literatures,[15] with prominent medieval poets such as Ferdowsi (author of Šāhnāme, Greater Iran's national epic), Rudaki, Rumi, Hafez Shirazi, Saadi Shirazi, Nizami Ganjavi, Omar Khayyam, and Attar of Nishapur.

Not all Persian literature is written in Persian, as some consider works written by Persians in other languages—such as Arabic and Greek—to be included. At the same time, not all literature written in Persian is written by ethnic Persians or Iranians, as Turkic, Caucasian, and Indic poets and writers have also used the Persian language in the environment of Persianate cultures.

Prominent writers such as Sadegh Hedayat, Forough Farrokhzad, Ahmad Shamlou, Simin Daneshvar, Mehdi Akhavan-Sales and Parvin E'tesami have also had major contributions to contemporary Persian literature.

Architecture

The most prominent examples of ancient Persian architecture are the work of the Achaemenids hailing from Persis. The quintessential feature of Achaemenid architecture was its eclectic nature, with elements from Median architecture, Assyrian architecture, and Asiatic Greek architecture all incorporated.[103] Achaemenid architectural heritage, beginning with the expansion of the empire around 550 BC, was a period of artistic growth that left a legacy ranging from Cyrus the Great's solemn tomb at Pasargadae to the structures at Persepolis, and such historical sites as Naqsh-e Rustam.[104]

During the Sasanian era, multiple architectural projects took place, some of which are still existing, including the Palace of Ardeshir, the Sarvestan Palace, the castle fortifications in Derbent (located in North Caucasus, now part of Russia), and the reliefs at Taq-e Bostan. The Bam Citadel, a massive structure at 1,940,000 square feet (180,000 m2) constructed on the Silk Road in Bam, is from around the 5th century BC.[105]

Modern contemporary architectural projects influenced by the ancient Achaemenid architecture include the Tomb of Ferdowsi erected under the reign of Reza Shah in Tus, the Azadi Tower erected in 1971 at a square in Tehran, and the Dariush Grand Hotel located on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.

Gardens

Xenophon, in his Oeconomicus,[106] states:

The Great King [Cyrus II]...in all the districts he resides in and visits, takes care that there are paradeisos ("paradise", from Avestan pairidaēza) as they [Persians] call them, full of the good and beautiful things that the soil produce.

For the Achaemenid monarchs, gardens assumed an important place.[106] Persian gardens utilized the Achaemenid knowledge of water technologies,[107] as they utilized aqueducts, earliest recorded gravity-fed water rills, and basins arranged in a geometric system. The enclosure of this symmetrically arranged planting and irrigation, by an infrastructure such as a building or a palace created the impression of "paradise".[108] Parthians and Sasanians later added their own modifications to the original Achaemenid design.[106] Later on, the quadripartite design (čārbāq) of Persian gardens was reinterpreted within the Muslim world.

Today, examples of these traditional gardens can be seen in such places as the Tomb of Hafez, Golshan Garden, Qavam House, Eram Garden, Shazdeh Garden, Fin Garden, Tabatabaei House, and the Borujerdis House.

Music

 
Dancers and musical instrument players depicted on a Sasanian silver bowl from the 5th-7th century AD.

According to the accounts reported by Xenophon, a great number of singers were present at the Achaemenid court. However, little information is available from the music of that era. The music scene of the Sasanian Empire has a more available and detailed documentation than the earlier periods, and is especially more evident within the context of Zoroastrian musical rituals.[109] In general, Sasanian music was influential, and was later adopted in the subsequent eras.[110]

Iranian music, as a whole, utilizes a variety of musical instruments that are unique to the region, and has remarkably evolved since the ancient and medieval times. In traditional Sasanian music, the octave was divided into seventeen tones. By the end of the 13th century, Iranian music also maintained a twelve interval octave, which resembled the western counterparts.[111]

Traditional instruments used in Iranian music include the bowed spike-fiddle kamanche, the goblet drum tonbak, the end-blown flute ney, the large frame drum daf, the hammered dulcimer santur, and the four long-necked lutes tar, dotar, setar, and tanbur. The European string instrument violin is also used, with an alternative tuning preferred by Iranian musicians.

Carpets

Carpet weaving is an essential part of the Persian culture,[112] and Persian rugs are said to be one of the most detailed hand-made works of art.

Achaemenid rug and carpet artistry is well recognized. Xenophon describes the carpet production in the city of Sardis, stating that the locals take pride in their carpet production. A special mention of Persian carpets is also made by Athenaeus of Naucratis in his Deipnosophistae, as he describes a "delightfully embroidered" Persian carpet with "preposterous shapes of griffins".[113]

The Pazyryk carpet—a Scythian pile-carpet dating back to the 4th century BC, which is regarded the world's oldest existing carpet—depicts elements of Assyrian and Achaemenid design, including stylistic references to the stone slab designs found in Persian royal buildings.[113]

Observances

The Iranian New Year's Day, Nowruz, which translates to "new day", is celebrated by Persians and other peoples of Iran to mark the beginning of spring on the vernal equinox on first day of Farvardin, the first month of the Iranian calendar, which corresponds to around March 21 in the Gregorian calendar. An ancient tradition that has been preserved in Iran and several other countries that were under the influence of the ancient empires of Iran,[114][115] Nowruz has been registered on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.[116] In Iran, the Nowruz holidays (incl. Charshanbe Suri and Sizdebedar) begin on the eve of the last Wednesday of the preceding year in the Iranian calendar and last on the thirteenth day of the new year. Islamic festivals are also widely celebrated.

References

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External links