What Have the Persians Ever Done For Us?

Based on the podcast  of the same name, The Rest is History is a whistle-stop tour through the past – from Alexander the Great to Tolkien, the Wars of the Roses to Watergate. Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook take on the most curious moments in history, answering the questions we didn’t even think to ask.

So run your Egyptian milk bath, strap up your best Spartan sandals, and prepare for a journey down the highways and byways of the human past as we find out …

 

 

The Rest is History - internal from Persian chapter What, asks John Cleese’s revolutionary Judean in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, have the Romans ever done for us – apart from provide sanitation, irrigation, educa- tion, medicine, wine, security and public baths?

But while the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians continue to play an outsized role in our understanding of antiquity, the Persian/Iranian contribution to human civilisation has often been overlooked.* There is, of course, far more to its ancient culture than the modern imagery of besieged embassies, toppled shahs and burning Stars and Stripes might suggest…

With some help from Professor Ali Ansari, very much a friend of the show, professor of Iranian Studies at St Andrews University and author of Iran: A Very Short Introduction, here are the main ways in which Iran has been the unacknowledged midwife to things that are taken for granted in the West in the 21st century.

* Many historians use the terms ‘Persian’ and ‘Iranian’ interchangeably. As Darius the Great, the fifth-century BC ruler put it, he was Achaemenid by family, Persian by tribe and Iranian in terms of his people.

 

1.    They invented history

In the early 20th century a nationalist Iranian historian read Shahnameh: The Book of Kings, Abo’l-Qâsem Ferdowsi’s epic 10th-century poem, and claimed that his country was 10 billion years old. This is a bold claim, given that Earth is around 4.5 billion years old.

However, there is a more convincing argument that Iran is, in fact, the oldest country in the world.

There were three significant Persian empires before people in Britain had got rid of the Romans and started making up stories about King Arthur.

The first Persian Empire, from 559 BC to 330 BC, made famous by Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes, was the earliest example of universal, imperial rule. After a brief Hellenic interlude following the victory of Alexander the Great, the second Persian Empire, the Parthian Dynasty, lasted until around AD 224, at which point the Sasanian Dynasty took over until the mid-seventh century, when it was overthrown by the armies of the Muslim Caliphate.

The Persians converted to Islam – but Persia retained its distinctive cultural identity, and profoundly influenced the evolution of Islamic culture.

As Hegel, the great German philosopher, argued, history begins with the Persians – although he rather spoilt his point by going on to say that history also left them behind.*

* Europeans in the 18th century found it difficult to categorise Persia, which in their eyes was neither ‘barbarian’ nor entirely ‘civilised’. This led to the idea that the Persians were struggling because they had become over-civilised. As Prof. Ansari puts it: ‘We’re so good at civilisation that it died.’

 

2.    They massively shaped the history of religion

Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islamic religion of Persia, has had a significant influence on Western thought, including the notion of the end of times, which has helped shape Jewish and Christian philosophy.

When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BC, he liberated the Judaeans from their captive river-based weeping, enabling them to weave Zoroastrian tropes into books such as Isaiah and Daniel. The Biblical Beast in the Book of Revelation, with its 10 horns and seven heads, is remarkably similar to the Zoroastrian Dragon King, with its three mouths and six eyes, both of them heralding the end of the world.

Perhaps more pertinently, it was the Persians who turned Islam from what was essentially an Arab religion to a global, universal creed. Although nominally conquered by the Arabs, Persia played a pivotal role at the heart of a newly formed Muslim civilisation. As Prof. Ansari puts it, ‘She took prisoner her conquerors.’

 

3.    They invented gardening – and paradise

Persian kings were great gardeners, although we don’t know if they spoke to their plants like Charles III.

There’s a wonderful story told by Xenophon, a fourth- century BC Greek philosopher,* about a Spartan king visiting Cyrus the Younger in his governor’s palace in Sardis. Lovely garden, said the Spartan king. You must congratulate your slaves. Oh no, replied Cyrus, to the Spartan king’s shock. I did it all myself.

A few decades earlier, Xerxes, son of Darius, had been encouraged to invade Greece because it boasted some lovely trees and plants – as if he were planning a military invasion of a garden centre. (He was defeated.)

It wasn’t just the rulers who enjoyed nature. The Persians developed vast irrigation networks, as well as walled gardens, a refuge from the troubles of the world.

Paradise comes from pairidēza, an ancient Persian word meaning ‘enclosed garden’. The English inherited the word from the Greeks, who took their etymological cuttings from the Persians.

  • Xenophon wasn’t noticeably xenophobic, despite sounding like he was. His name means ‘strange voice’, whereas xenophobic means ‘fear of the unfamiliar’.

 

4.   They invented chivalry (and maybe the stirrup, too)

A lot of civilisations – including the Franks and the Carolingians – claim to have invented the stirrup.

The Persians also have a convincing case: Sasanian-era friezes found in Naqš-e Rostam, in southern Iran, depict knights in heavy armour able to hold themselves upright on horseback. Unfortunately, they developed this practice too late to avoid being defeated by Alexander the Great.

As well as maybe inventing stirrups, the Persians also have a decent claim on chivalry and courtly love. Although these concepts are associated with the eleventh and twelfth centu-ries in the West, they have even older roots in the epic Persian poetry of the Sasanian era.

 

5.    They invented spaghetti

The traditional legend is that Marco Polo, a thirteenth- century Italian merchant, brought pasta back to Italy via the noodles he enjoyed in China. However, there is an argument that Polo never made it to China. Instead it was the Persians who refined the noodles of the Mongol Empire, which Polo took home with him.

Some Iranians also like to claim that they invented hummus, but this upsets the Lebanese.

 

6.    They invented high heels, trousers and suits

In the seventeenth century an increasing number of European travellers went to Iran and admired the high heel worn in the stirrups that Iranians might or might not have invented. This could account for the extravagant high heels worn by Charles II and his cousin, Louis XIV.*

A more certain Persian sartorial influence that arrived in Europe via France in the seventeenth century was the Persian coat, a suit jacket with lapels, absorbed by Louis XIV’s court and written about by the English diarist John Evelyn.

Fortunately, the Persians also invented trousers to go with the jacket, thereby avoiding the Covid-era Zoom look. The Ancient Greeks thought the Persians hilariously effeminate because they refused to wear skirts

  • Charles II spent time in exile in France while waiting for the Restoration. He was over six foot tall without his heels, whereas Louis was only five foot four inches. Charles’s father, Charles I, was less than five foot tall – before he lost his head.

 

7.    They inspired the British Civil Service

The Mughal Empire, which Britain slowly picked apart and turned into the Indian Raj, was based on a Persian model and administered in the Persian language.

The modern British Civil Service is at least partly influenced by the Persian culture of the Indian Civil Service. To take one example, purdah, the short period before British general elec- tions when restrictions are placed on government activity, derives from the Persian word pardah, meaning curtain or veil.

 

8.    They invented pretty much everything else

At the risk of sounding like the character in the 1990s’ sketch show Goodness Gracious Me who tells his son that everything is Indian, there is also a case for saying that the Persians codified chess, invented backgammon and polo, and made significant contributions to the worlds of algebra and astronomy.

That might give the suit-wearing, spaghetti-eating, Bible- bashing presidents of the USA something to think about the next time they engage with modern-day Iran.

 

ABOUT THE REST IS HISTORY PODCAST

Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook - The Rest is History book and podcastHistorians Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook are interrogating the past and attempting to de-tangle the present.

They discuss every historical topic under the sun: the birth of modernity, Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and whether Richard Nixon was more like Caligula or Claudius.  

They’re distilling the entirety of human history, or, as much as they can fit into about fifty minutes.

Follow the pod over on Twitter/X @TheRestHistory.

Visit their website

Author: Tom and Goalhanger; Holland Podcasts Holland

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Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Bloomsbury

ISBN: 9781526667748

RRP: $34.99

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