Iran and the West

A Talk by

Dr. Abbas Milani

at the World Affairs Council

In 1935, at the suggestion of Persia's misguided ambassador to Nazi Germany, the country's name was changed to Iran. Those were of course the heyday of Aryan supremacy, and the word Iran does literary mean the land of the Aryans. Something of a breach began to appear in the Western consciousness. Persia, with all its romantic resonance, with all the aura of past glory indelibly attached to it, was replaced by Iran; in English a novice of a word, one often confused with Iraq, one that conjured only a distant, troubled, if not troubling, country at the end of the earth. My task here today is to try to remind you of all that past eminence, of the share Persian culture has had in the development of Western civilization.

Persia has some two thousand five hundred years of often splendid recorded history and in the time allotted me here, I must be rather schematic--hitting only high notes of what is otherwise a wondrously long symphony called Persian history. I will argue that in each important phase of the Western culture, Persia has played an important, sometimes crucial, role in shaping western consciousness.

If it is true that in the beginning was the word, then it is no less true that the word is filled with praise for Persia. Indeed in the "Book of Ezra," the lord of the Old Testament speaks through the proclamations of Cyrus, King of Persia, who declares, "The Lord God of Heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem." In other parts of the Old Testament, Cyrus is often referred to as God's "anointed" and "Chosen" ruler. The profuse praise is not just because of Cyrus' role in freeing Jews from their Babylonian captivity, but also because the vast Persian empire was at the time a paragon of religious and cultural tolerance. Many historians have argued that Cyrus was in fact the first ruler to have issued a declaration of human rights, predating the Magna Carta by more than a thousand years. It was Cyrus who first created a truly "multi-cultural" empire, allowing the conquered lands their linguistic, religious and cultural autonomy.

At the same time, many Biblical scholars have shown that a plethora of important theological ideas, like the notion of the devil, of angels, of demons and of heaven and hell, and finally the resurrection of the body were all parts of Persian, or more specifically Zoroastrian influences on the Bible. Furthermore, the very idea of a millennium, and the significance afforded to a thousand year cycle in history found its way to Christianity through Zoroastrian religion. On the significance of Zarathustra, let me quote Hegel, considered by many as the apex of the Western philosophic tradition. He writes, "Persians are the first Historic people...In Persia first arises that light which shines itself and illuminates what is around...The principle of development begins with the history of Persia; this constitutes therefore the beginning of history." Hegel wrote these lines at the later part of the 19 century, around the time when Nietzsche was writing his masterpiece called Thus Spoke Zarathusrta. As we near the end of a millennium, so strong are Persian influences in the millennial fever, and in New Age ideas that Harold Bloom, the preeminent American critic, writes in his recent book Omens of Millennium that the last decade of our ending century should be called the age of Zoroastrian revival.

Another very important spiritual movement in old Persia was called the Mithraic religion. Again many scholars of religion, including Karl Gustav Jung, have traced some of the ideas and rituals of Christianity, including the notion of a heavenly savior sent down from heaven, the ritual of baptism, of sharing in the body and the blood of Christ back to Mithraic rites.

Interesting as these religious influences are, Persia's role in the development of the Greco-Roman sense of cultural identify is no less significant. More than four hundred years before the birth of Christ, Herodutus, often called the father of Western history, wrote his Histories to chronicle the wars between the Greeks and the Persians. Incidentally, in what must be the first clear instance of smug Euro-Centrism, Herodutus calls Persians "Barbarians". Let me quote the opening paragraph of his narrative that is, in tone and texture, in some ways reminiscent of Huntington's recent controversial book, The Clash of Civilizations. Herodutus writes: "In this book... I hope to do two things: to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievement both of our own and of the Asiatic peoples; secondly, and more particularly, to show how the two races came into conflict." He goes on to explain that by Asians he means all the lands dominated by Persia. Herodutus leaves no doubt that the West cemented its own sense of cultural identity in opposition to Persia. Yet another indication of Persia's significance in the formative years of Western culture is the fact that of all extant works of Greek tragedy, the only one that is about a non-Greek subject is Aeschelus's play called Persians. Furthermore, Herdodutus himself could not help but marvel at some of the accomplishments of the much maligned Persians. He writes of Darius as the discoverer of much of Asia, as the king who mapped for the first time many of the seas and rivers of the world, and finally, as the king who attempted, to build, but did not complete a waterway where 24 hundred years later, the Suez Canal was eventually constructed. The same Darius is of course the king that helped built the great city of Persepolis, one of the wonders of the old world, burnt in a moment of drunken stupor by Alexander the great. The ruins of that great city are till considered one of the most awe-inspiring historic cites to visit in the world.

It has already taken the bulk of my time to barley hit the high notes of the first five hundred years of Persian history; I have offered but an overture to the symphony I had promised. If as is often the case, matters cultural were not subdued and overshadowed by matters political, then I would have told you of the role Mani, another Persian prophet, after whose name the word manichean is coined, played in the development of Christian theology, particularly in the writings of St. Augustine. I would have described the singularly significant role Persians played in shaping between the ninth and the twelth century what has come to be called the Golden Age of Islam. Many of the most luminous theologians, philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers and scientists of that age were Persian. I would have told you about Avicena and Biruni whose works on medicine and astronomy were standard texts in European universities well into the 19 century. I would have narrated the role these philosophers played in preserving, and commenting about the works of Aristotle, and I would have reminded you that as a result of the Crusades, Europeans, ironically, rediscovered Aristotle through the Islamic world and this discovery helped spur the Renaissance. I would have refereed to the works of the Persian mathematician, Kharazmi whose name is synonomous with Algebra. I would have talked about the formative role Persians played in the development of Sufism, the Islamic brand of mysticism. I would have told you about the influence these Sufi poets had in the development of 19 century Romanticism. I would you have told you about Hafez, Persia's master lyricist. Goethe, one of the greatest Romantic poets of 19 century, wrote that he reached a new "mountain peak of his life" when he first encountered the poetry of Hafez. Goethe went on to write his Eastern Divan as a homage to Hafez. I would have reminisced about Khayam and his loaf of bread and jug of wine, and I would have told you about the 11th century Persian poet, Rumi, who is now by far the best-selling poet in America. I would have described some of the wonders of the city of Isfahan, a city that in 16th century captured the imagination of so many European travelers who were awed by its grand mosques, its sumptuous bazaars, its tree-lined boulevards and its splendid gardens. Versailles in France is said to have been at least partially inspired by these gardens. I would have enumerated some of the Persian words--from the sublime "paradise" and its Persian Pardis to the mundane "lemon" from the Persian "limou"-- that have found their way into the English vocabulary. I would have invited you to read Sackville-West's delectable memoirs of her trip to Iran, and finally, I would have asked you to read again Moby Dick, Mellvile's great American novel, and see the role Persia played in Melville's cosmology. But of course even Captain Ahab could not do all of this in the course of ten minutes, and thus all I can do is to thank the World Affairs Council for the chance to share with you these brief, albeit allusive, notes.

March 30, 1998

Courtesy of Dr. Abbas Milani (

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