How do we know about the ancient past of Iran?

In southern Iran, not far from the beautiful city of Shiraz, is a vast World Heritage Site …


dawn over columns

This site – a huge stone platform larger than several football fields dotted with ruined buildings, fallen columns and intriguing sculpture – was, and still is, known in Iran as Takht-I Jamshid ("the throne of Jamshid"), or Chilminar ("the thousand columns").

Local people had no idea who built it, when it was built, or what it was for. So they made up stories about it, or perhaps attached existing stories to it. In the 12th century AD, Omar Khayyam, an Iranian mathematician and poet, referred to this site. He wrote:

“They say the lion and the lizard keep
The courts where Jamshid gloried and drank deep”


An imaginary view of Takht-i Jamshid
inspired by Omar Khayyam's lines

Who was Jamshid? And where was his court? According to the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) written by the poet Firdowsi and based on earlier stories and traditions, he was supposed to have been ruler of the world, who after numerous successes (including the discovery of alcohol) overreached himself and fell from favour.

He was given a golden throne (takht) by the higher powers, where he sat shining like the sun. People from all over the world came to do him honour at a newly-introduced festival: Now Ruz (New Year) celebrating the end of winter and the start of new growth on 21st March (a festival still celebrated by Iranians all over the world).

After reigning well for 300 years, Jamshid began to go off the rails. He offended the higher powers, starting to believe he could rule without them. He lost his army, and his kingdom descended into chaos, and was taken over by the powers of evil, led by Zahhak. The vile Zahhak ruled for 1000 years, terrorising mankind with the two snakes that grew from his shoulders, who demanded a daily ration of human brains. He was finally captured and imprisoned under Mount Damavand.

And so the great site, which must have belonged to a mighty ruler, became known as Takht-I Jamshid: the Throne of Jamshid.

But then…

From about 1500  AD, travellers from Europe began visiting Iran, where the kings of the Safavid dynasty were creating a state whose culture and sophistication eclipsed anything in Europe at that time.

Some of these visitors had studied Latin and Ancient Greek at school, and could tell the Iranians things they’d learned about the ancient Greeks and their wars with the Persians. Things that Persians at the time did not know – as their ancient history was known only through the stories told by the poets.

Because they knew Greek, Europeans seemed to know more about Persian history than the Persians.

The Ancient Greeks had known not only who built Tahkt-I Jamshid, but who destroyed it. Not so surprising - it was them!

So we call the World Heritage Site in Iran by its Greek name – the one by which it is generally known today:



It’s a deadly name. It's Greek, of course, for "the City of the Persians". But in Greek it also means “sacker of cities”, “destroyer of civilisation” – a name that aptly describes the first Greek leader to visit: the same one who destroyed it - Alexander of Macedon. Earlier it had been the Greeks' turn to be scared when the Persians had threatened them: persai in Greek means “Persians” but also “to destroy”.

How could the Persians not know their own history while the Greeks (and hence educated Europeans) did?

Mainly through luck. The ancient Persians were very unlucky. Their own writings disappeared – because They wrote on leather, a substance which soon decays if it’s not very carefully looked after – and they were unlucky that no one who came later did preserve it. Not everything was lost though. Once the Persians became aware of their history, inscriptions, objects and - most importantly - thousands of baked clay tablets were found, which can tell a very great deal about the “missing” history of Persia.

Clay tablet in Old Persian

The ancient Greeks were lucky. Their writing on flimsy papyrus - old-fashioned and primitive technology compared with the Persian leather - would similarly have been lost except for two things: in ancient Egypt (hot and dry then as now) papyrus was preserved in the sand, mainly in ancient “landfill”. It was considered rubbish. Egyptians recycled the backs of papyri on which Greek plays, poetry and history had been written – for their shopping lists, love-letters, school exercises and other everyday needs. Then threw them away. After 2000 years of being buriedin the sand, the rubbish dumps are being dug up and the ancient Greek papyri are being read.

But only a tiny percentage of ancient Greek writing survives this way.  Most of it – hundreds and hundreds of books – poems, plays, history, philosophy, novels, books on geography, astronomy, economics, travel, farming, bee-keeping: you name it – survived although the original papyrus perished 2000 years or more ago.

Sophocles in Arabic

The Greek poet Sophocles - illustration from an Arabic translation

They survived because – luckily – their successors kept copying them out – generation after generation. This was something that was not done by the successors to the ancient Persians. Some of the survival was a very close run thing: many manuscripts were preserved by Christian monks  in monasteries (during centuries when very few people could read or write) , and – ironically – much of the Greeks’ learning, especially in  science – was preserved because Persian and Arab scholars translated it into their own languages, at a time when hardly anyone in Europe could understand ancient Greek - or had any interest in science and maths.

Then, starting in the 14th century AD, came the Renaissance. Europeans suddenly realised what they’d been missing with the disappearance of the writings of the ancient Greeks (and Romans too) – and the search was on. Manuscripts were tracked down – and before long, the ancient writings were being circulated through the new technology of printing. Arabic translations of Greek writing on science and maths were retranslated into Latin.

Today anyone can read the writings of the Greeks in their own languages – for example, Homer’s Odyssey is read in translations from Greek not only throughout Europe and the English-speaking world, but in Japan, Brazil, China – and Iran.