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Past present: The Persian prowess

October 14, 2012


History collects, documents and narrates events but cannot determine the truth behind events which is bound to change with the discovery of new sources and formulation of new theories.

Nietzsche believed that history may not tell the truth because perspectives change with social and political situations.

An interesting example in history is of the Persians whose representation has changed over time. Herodotus, in his documentation of the Greek wars with the Persians,  favoured the Greek point of view. He viewed it as a war between democracy of the west and despotism of the east. This binary contradiction still continues.

The differences between the east and west originated in the Persian and Greek wars in the fourth century BC. Although the Persians defeated the Spartans in the battle of Thermopylae, Herodotus described the heroic encounter of the Spartans, as a ‘glorious defeat in history’. Later, many films on the subject depicted the Spartans as heroes and the Persians as cowards who defeated their enemy.

Another Greek historian, Thucydides carried this image forward and hence Western historiography inherited the false image of Greek victories against the Persians with a sense of pride. The tragedy being that the Persians had no tradition of history writing and their voice was never heard.

When Alexander of Macedonia invaded and defeated the Persians, he emerged as a great conqueror while on the other hand, the Persians suffered again because of their lack of history writing.

Nations suffer when they do not document their own history which presents their point of view. After the Greeks, the Persians were further humiliated by the Arabs who defeated them and occupied their territories. As Arabs dominated history, the Persian point of view remained absent.

However, after conversion to Islam but finding no equal status in the Muslim society, the national pride of the Persians was injured and they launched the sha’biyyah or nationalist movement in an effort to restore their lost status. They supported the Abbasids against the Umayyads and brought a revolution which integrated them with the Muslim society on the basis of equality. Once in power, the Persians transformed the Arab Caliphate into the Sassanid Empire. Baghdad, the capital became Persianised with the introduction of court etiquette and festivals including Nauroz, the spring festival.

After the disintegration of the Abbasid Caliphate, ruling dynasties like the Ziyarids, the Saffarids, the Samanids, and the Ghaznavids which emerged in Central Asia adopted ancient Persian traditions and modelled themselves on the Sassanid rulers of Persia.

In India, Sultan Balban claimed lineage to the family of the legendry king Afrasiyab in order to legitimise his rule. During the Mughal period, Persian nobles would arrive in India seeking better economic opportunities and enjoyed privileges and high status.

Firdousi’s Shahnama which traced the history of ancient Persia, giving them a historical identity became the Bible of Persian nationalism. It is regarded a sacred book for Persians and is found in every Iranian home.

Modern Iranian historians are trying to correct their historical image by presenting their point of view on the Persian and Greek war of the ancient period and the invasion of Alexander, who is now considered an invader as opposed to his Western image of a hero.

Historical identity is important for modern Iran. Tracing the roots of their ancient history and their contribution to human civilisation indicates that they are a nation capable of sustaining crisis after crisis. Instead of relying on their image created by foreign historiography, they are writing their own history and have successfully changed their negative image as depicted earlier by Western historians.

In the modern period, surrounded by hostile neighbours and struggling against the imperial hegemony of United States, the only thing which supports Iran is their historical identity and national pride.