Emergence of Iranian Identity and Evolution of the Concept of State in Iran



Extended Abstract

Introduction: Whither Iran?
It is widely believed that a combination of ancient Greco-Roman and Persian civilizations is a major contributor to what culturally constitutes ‘West”. Later in the Sassanid period, the inter-linked notions of state, territory, and boundary developed substantially, coming quite close to their contemporary forms. On the other hand, considering that 'justice' was the corner stone of ancient Persian political philosophy, the idea that the ancient Persian spatial arrangement might have contributed to the evolution of the concept of democracy in the West may not be too difficult to contemplate.
The term Iran has constituted the official name of the country or state known by that name at least since the emergence of the Achaemenid federative state in the 6th century BCE. The West came to know this country as Persia through the Greeks of the city-states, which in the 6th century BCE, were not as yet familiar with the concept of state–cum–country. They named Iran Persia in accordance with their on-going tradition of naming places after the name of the dynasties or the ethnicities ruling them, in much the same way that Iranians – and through them, the entire Muslim world - named Greece Yunan in their historiography of that entity, simply because in antiquity, the Iranians first came into contact with the Ionian ethnicity of Greece. Thus, it is obvious why the Greeks named Iran Persia, which originally was and still is but a province in southern Iran where the ancient Achaemenid and Sassanid dynasties had emerged. The term Persia, however, became more solidly founded in Western culture when it entered biblical texts and became somewhat sanctified. Nevertheless, the term Iran maintained its place in Western cultural thinking in more obscure forms such as a feminine name; i.e. Iran in the Persian language; Irene in Latin, Germanic, Armenian, and other Western languages, while its prefix ‘ir’ representing the mysticism of the land of Aryans, is to be seen in country names like Ireland, which comes from Eire of Proto-Celtic origin, reflecting its Proto-Indo-European roots. In today’s common and official usage of the variation, it is worth noting that while the language and literature, art and culture are all Persian, the civilization and the name of the country are attributed to the term Iran.

State & Border: ancient Iranian concepts
In an empirical methodology of research into the emergence and evolution of the concept of state no doubt remains that ancient civilizations were familiar with the notion of state in connection with an elementary form of territoriality and its frontier characteristics. The Great Wall of China, the Hadrian Wall of Roman Britain, and Sadd-e Sekandar (Alexander’s Wall) in northeast Iran (1) might indeed have been parts of wider peripheral zones of contact in the ancient world (Taylor 1989), yet, it is certain that even in that capacity, these walls represented the notion of a ‘line’ in space designed to separate the proverbial ‘us’ from ‘them’. Indeed, there are references in ancient Persian literature to modern-like conceptions of state, territory, and border. Similarly, when considering the extent of both belligerent and peaceful contacts between Rome and Iran, the likelihood exists that these Persian notions could have influenced Roman civilization.
The Achaemenian concept of state was more culturally oriented than concerned about the exactness of physical space. Various satrapies were defined along the lines of cultural and ethnic divides. Indeed, eminent scholars like Will Durant (trans.1988: 412) and Pio Filippani-Ronconi (1978:67) maintain that the concept of ‘state’ is an original Iranian invention, which was later adopted by the West through the Romans. A.H. Nayer-Nouri, an eminent writer on ancient Persian civilization, quotes T.R. Glover on Persian civilization as saying:The Persians set new ideas before mankind, ideas for the world's good government with utmost unity and cohesion combined with the largest possible freedom for the development of race and individual within the larger organization (Nayer Nouri, 1971: 196).

The concept of state seems to be much older than its contemporary variation since its modern version exists only because its legitimacy is tied to normative territorial ideas; as Alexander Murphy(2003) reminds us, “…(t)he pattern of modern states reflects the pattern of nations.” Hence, there is little doubt that modern concepts of state and territory developed in medieval Europe; nevertheless, it is difficult not to note that they are rooted in the periods prior to the emergence in Europe of nation-states.
Taking into consideration the extent to which Greek and Roman civilizations interacted with that of ancient Iran, little doubt remains as to the validity of Jean Gottmann’s assertion in his letter (1978) to this writer that:
Iran must have belonged to the 'Western' part of mankind, and I suspect that this was what Alexander the Great of Macedonia, a pupil of Aristotle, therefore, in the great Western philosophical tradition, found in Iran and that attracted him so much that he wanted to establish a harmonious, multi-national cooperation between the Iranians and Greeks within the large empire he was building.