The world's first superpower


Tehran, Iran's most recent capital.

Tehran: modern capital of Iran with a population of over 17 million. Photo AMW

Introducing the web site ...

This website is for anyone who wants a clear and authoritative introduction to Iran's pre-Islamic past, and the early centuries of Islamic rule.

It will guide you through Iran's history and culture from the first evidence of civilised living (from around at least 5,500 BC), through the vast Persian empire under the Achaemenid kings (558 - 330 BC), the interval of Greek control (330 - 125 BC), and the return to Iranian rule under the Parthians (247 BC - AD 225) and the Sasanians (AD 225 - 651), whose rule was ended by the Arab conquest. The early Arab rule from Damascus in Syria (under the Umayyads, AD 637 - 750) gave way to a more Persianised dynasty, the Abbasids (750 - 1040). The Turkish Seljuqs who superseded them also keenly embraced Persian traditions and culture - and continued to accept the Abbasid caliphs as heads of Islam. Then the Mongols invaded (AD 1218) and suddenly it seemed that everything could be lost.

Iran is frequently in the news - and not always in a good way. Few people have any clear knowledge of Iran's historical place in the world, or of Iran's achievements in the past, or Iran's contributions to civilisation. Until AD 1492, when the discovery of America suddenly shifted the centre to Europe (previously a backwater), Iran and Central Asia had been at the heart of the civilised world - the essential link between north and south, east and west.

Early times

Before the arrival of Iranian settlers, the Iranian plateau was home to several fascinating civilisations - seeing the development of agriculture, writing and pottery - and much more.


Sculpted relief from Persepolis, the mighty palace built by the Achaemenid kings

The Achaemenids

A dynasty of kings tracing their descent from Cyrus the Great, who in 30 years or so, conquered territories from the Mediterranean to India, from the Caucasus to Arabia - the Achaemenid empire was the world's first superpower: ruling lands in Europe, Africa and Asia. Unlike predecessors such as the Assyrians, they were thought of as fair and tolerant rulers - and a Greek (Herodotus) may have the explanation:

The Persians are readier than all other peoples to adopt foreign ideas - they wear Median fashion because it looks better, and they use Egyptian armour in battle. They are keen to seek out the pleasures of all nations …

It was ended by an invasion from the west under Alexander of Macedon.

The Parthians

A dynasty from north eastern Iran who reclaimed Iranian territory from Alexander's successors, and held the Roman empire at bay for 500 years. Communication with China and the east began in the Parthian period - the Silk Road was opened.

The Sasanians

A new Persian dynasty who took over from the Parthians. They continued to resist interference from the west, as well as holding back Huns and other invaders from the east. They finally succumbed to a force from an unexpected quarter - Arabs from the south.

The Arabs

After the conquest, the Arabs' religion swiftly conquered the Iranian world. But a dispute over the true successor to Muhammad (still reflected today in the rivalry between Sunni and Shi'a) led to the overthrow of the Syrian-based regime of the Umayyads and its replacement by the Abbasid dynasty, who traced their descent from an uncle of the Prophet. The Abbasids moved their centre to the east, allowing Iranian traditions, culture and language to reassert themselves.

The Seljuq Turks

Isfahan Mosque

The Great Mosque in Isfahan, the second Seljuq capital. Photo AMW

Originating as nomads from an area to the north-east of the Iranian plateau, the Seljuqs profited from the fragmentation of the once mighty Abbasid empire. But once in power their sultans were keen to preserve what they found, and became in many ways completely persianised. Importantly, they continued to respect the religious authority of the Abbasid caliphs. They were, though, already in decline when the Mongols invaded in AD1218.

Did you know?

The ancient Iranians :
built a canal linking the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean;
loved gardens (paradise is a Persian word - peach means "the Persian fruit");
made agriculture possible in the deserts with underground canals called qanats;
wove carpets when European floors were covered in rush mats;
traded overland with China long before Marco Polo.
And very probably played chess - and certainly polo and backgammon.


Mount Demavand

Mount Damavand - visible from Tehran, the modern capital of Iran (on a clear day). It is the highest mountain in Iran (and a dormant volcano) - and in Iranian poetry a symbol of the people's love of independence and hatred of tyrants.

Read Ode to Damarvand by Mohammed Taghi Bahar