IRAN, the chief scene of Firdausi’s Shahnama, is bounded on the north by the Steppes, the Caspian Sea, and the Kur and Rion rivers, on the south by the Indian Ocean, on the east by the valley of the Indus, and on the west by that of the Tigris and Euphrates, and by the Persian Gulf. At present it includes Persia, Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and small portions of Russia and Turkey.
It is a lofty and for the most part a rainless tableland traversed by numerous mountain-ranges divided from each other by flat plains and falling away toward the centre, which is a desert white with salt scurf or dun with powdery dust. The mountains are highest round the edges of the tableland and intercept most of the rainfall. Some moisture, however, finds its way even into the rainless region, where it gathers during winter on the higher hills in the form of snow. This snow-water is carefully husbanded, and distributed by means of underground water-courses. The interior is, however, drying up, and city, village, and cultivated field are being gradually overwhelmed in dust and shifting sands.
Possibly as late as early historical times very different conditions prevailed. The lower plains and depressions once formed a series of lakes that suggested the appearance of an inland sea, and such names as island, port, lighthouse, and etc., are said to still survive in places as a relic and indication of the old state of things, while a considerable body of water is still to be found in the eastern half of the central depression on the frontier between Persia and Afghanistan. This region is now known as Si’stan, but in ancient times was called Drangiana or the lake-country, a name which survived much later in its former capital Zarang, and as “Zirih” is still used in connection with its lake.
From April till late in the autumn the sky, save for an occasional thunderstorm among the mountains, is an unclouded azure, in winter a good deal of snow falls, and in spring the thunderstorms are heavy and frequent. The air is, as a rule, remarkably healthy, but on the borders of the deserts the inhabitants have sometimes to live shut up for weeks together to avoid the pestilential blasts.
The favoured regions are those that front west and north respectively. They are splendidly wooded and extremely fertile, all the ordinary flowers and fruits of Europe do well, while in the district between the Alburz Mountains and the Caspian, and known as Mazandaran, the climate is semitropical and the vegetation most luxuriant. Here rice, the sugar-cane, the vine, the orange, and the olive flourish. In the few watered valleys of the long southern coast the climate is tropical in character. The tamarisk and mimosa are largely represented, and here and there are groves of date-palms.
The immediate neighbourhood of the salt-deserts is the haunt of the wild ass or onager and of the antelope, the slope of the mountain-ranges of the wild sheep or argali, and their summit of the wild goat or ibex. The tracts artificially reclaimed and watered are the favourite home of the sandgrouse, and the highlands of the eagle, the vulture, the falcon, the raven, the crow, and the nightingale — the bulbul of the poets. The acorns of the western slopes attract the wild swine, which in turn tempt the lion from the reed-beds of the Tigris and the cover of its tributaries. Swine, too, abound in Mazandaran and afford food for the tiger which flourishes there, the dense undergrowth and vegetation of that region affording it as good shelter as an Indian jungle. Here, too, are found deer, buffalo, swan, waterfowl, woodcock, and pheasant. Speaking of the country more generally we may add to this list leopards, wildcats, wolves, bears, hyaenas, foxes, snakes, scorpions, vipers, lizards, the partridge, and the lark. The chief domestic animals are the ox, the sheep, especially the fat-tailed variety, the horse, the camel, and the mule.
Iran is a land of sharp contrasts, of intense heat and cold, of sudden and abnormal changes of temperature, of dead level and steep ascent, of splendid fertility hard by lifeless desolation, of irrigation and dust. Its natural characteristics find expression in the ancient cosmogony of its people. We are told that — Urmuzd the Good Principle — created earth as a lovely plain bathed in a mild perpetual radiance, fanned by soft temperate airs, bounteously provided with fresh sweet waters, and clad in a smooth and harmless vegetation. Here the First Man and the First Ox dwelt in peace and happiness. Ahriman — the Evil Principle broke into this fair scene and all was changed. Gloom minged with light, the seasons’ difference began, the seas turned salt, the streams dwindled, the vegetation grew rough and thorny, drought came and dust and desert; mountain-ranges sprang up from the plain, and the man and ox were stricken with disease and died; but from the body of the former sprang the first human pair from whom all the earth was overspread, and from the body of the latter all other harmless, useful, and beautiful animals, while Ahriman in opposition to these created all noisome and hideous insects, reptiles, and creatures sharp of fang or claw.
Let us now turn from the land to the people. For us there is no occasion to discuss questions of race from any very modern standpoint. For us it is rather what ethnical views obtained in ancient Iran and moulded its traditions. As to these there is happily little room for doubt, Darius Hystaspis, the founder of the Persian empire and the greatest of its historic Shahs, having decided the matter for us. On the rock of Bihistun he recorded his great achievements in a trilingual inscription, the languages employed being ancient Persian, Babylonian, and Scythian. The obvious explanation of his proceeding is, that he recognised in the population of his vast empire three distinct races of mankind, and, regarding language as distinctive of race, used it to emphasise that great political fact. In thus distinguishing he followed a true philological instinct, and his distinctions still largely obtain at the present day. Each of his three languages represents a great division of human speech. His view, as we shall see, agrees with the traditions and legends of his race, and if some modern Shah were to restore the empire of Darius, and wished to imitate the example of his great predecessor, he would still have to choose languages typical of the same three divisions. In what follows, therefore, language is made the basis of classification, and the divisions thus classified are commonly called the Indo-European, the Semitic, and the Turanian respectively. It is with peoples of the first division that we are chiefly concerned, and only so far as these came into contact with peoples of the other two divisions are we concerned about the latter.
At the dawn of history we find peoples speaking languages which, theoretically at all events, may be traced back to one primitive tongue, holding similar religious notions and organised politically as independent self-governing tribes, in possession of large geographical areas both in Europe and Asia. They thus fall into two great divisions — an European and an Asiatic — and are generally known as the Indo-European race. The Asiatic branch seems to have occupied in early times the neighbourhoods of Balkh, Harat, Marv, and possibly. of Samarkand. It described itself as Aryan or noble, as opposed to all those with whom it came into contact, much as the Greeks divided mankind into Hellenes and Barbaroi. It was organised into three orders or castes — priests, warriors, and husbandmen. Its religion was a frank worship of personified natural forces. Its priests were fire-priests, and fire was an especial object of adoration along with the other beneficent powers of nature — Mitra or Mithra, Yama or Yima, Trita, Traitana, and others. Opposed to these were the malignant spirits of drought and darkness, as, for instance, Azi or Azhi, also known as Dahaka — the biter, the serpent-fiend. Water was ever growing scarcer, and drought or plenty turned in the imagination of a primitive people on the struggle of the good and evil spirits for its possession. The former appeared in the lightning-flash, while the gloomy con-volutions of the thunder-cloud suggested the idea that fiends in serpent-form were striving to carry off the precious fluid — the heavenly waters as distinguished from the earthly waters — and hinder it from descending to the help of man. The cloud — the rain-bringer — was perversely regarded as the rain-stealer. The good spirits hastened to the rescue, the lightning-flash clove the cloud, and the demons dropped their booty. The serpent-fiend had to be combated for other reasons too, for his bite brought fever, disease, and death. Accordingly the divine physician appeared side by side with the divine hero, Trita with Traitana, and became, as we shall see later on, merged into a single personality in Iranian legend. Sacrifices were offered, and the drink-offering of the juice of the Soma or Homa plant was poured forth. The plant is usually identified as being the Asclepias acida or Sarcostemma viminale. The Aryans also worshipped the spirits of their ancestors, and were believers in what is called sympathetic magic. They thought that injury done to anything in the remotest way connected with their own persons would affect themselves injuriously. Even the knowledge of their name might be turned to their hurt, and we shall find instances in the poem of children being brought up unnamed to avoid that contingency.
At a period which cannot be put at less than four thousand years ago the Aryans themselves divided, and while a portion descended to the Indus and became the dominant race in India, the rest remained and gradually took possession of all that was habitable in the vast region that consequently became known as the land of the Aryans or Iran. The Aryans thus became separated into two branches — an Eastern and a Western. With the former we are but little concerned; the legendary story of the latter is the theme of the Shahnama.
Of these Western Aryans the two most famous peoples have ever been the Medes and Persians.
The Medes, whose modern representatives, if any, seem to be the Kurds, appear in ancient times to have been a loose confederation of kindred tribes broken up into numerous settlements, each under its local head-man or chief. They seem to have had no supreme political head or king to unite the race under one central authority. Their common bond, if any, was a religious one under their priests, the Magi. According to their own traditions the original seat of the race was Iran-vej, i.e., “Iranian seed,” and this has been well identified with the district of Karabagh, the ancient Arran, the ‘Apiavia of the Greeks, between the Kur and the Aras, where the Anti-Caucasus forms the true north-western scarp of the tableland of Iran. In historical times, however, we first find the Medes in possession of the province of Azarbijan, or, to give it its ancient title, Atropatene. The Persians occupied from time immemorial the country on the eastern shores of the Persian Gulf, now represented by the modern provinces of Farsistan and Laristan, and were ruled by kings of the house of Achaemenes. These two peoples, closely connected as they were by language and race, became in the days of Darius Hystaspis dominant in Iran, and to this domination the Medes appear to have contributed the religious, the Persians the political, element. Between the Medes and the Persians lay in ancient times, as we learn from Assyrian and Babylonian records, other kindred — peoples the kingdom of Elam, with its capital at Susa, some twenty-five miles west of the modern Shuster, and the kingdom of Ellipi, in the neighbourhood of the modern Hamadan. The Iranians as a whole were bounded on the west by Semitic and on the north by Turanian peoples. On the east they were conterminous with the Aryans of India, and ultimately they came into contact with the Western Indo-Europeans as well, notably with the Greeks and Romans. As the cosmogony and religion of the Iranians were largely derived from their physical, so was their tradition from their ethnical, environment. We are concerned with all three, but especially with the last — their tradition. The remainder of the present chapter will therefore be devoted to a brief, and necessarily dry, summary of their historical relations with the Semites as represented by the Assyrians in early and the Arabs in later times, with other Indo-European races represented by the Greeks and Romans in the west and by the Hindus in the east, and with the Turanians as represented by the Kimmerians, Scythians, Parthians, Huns and Turks.
The Irdnians and the Semites. — In the numerous contemporary records of the Assyrians we find many references to the Iranians. The whole of the western frontier of f ran, from the Medes in the north to the Persians in the south, seems to have been subjected at one point or another to almost constant aggression, at first by mere raids but later on by attempts at permanent conquest, at the hands of the great warrior-monarchs of Nineveh — Shalmaneser II. (B.C. 858-823), Samas Rimmon II. (B.C. 823-810), Rimmon-nirari III. (B.C. 810-783), Tiglath Pilesar III. (B.C. 745-727), Sargon (B.C. 722-705), Sennacherib (B.C. 705-681), Esarhaddon I. (B.C. 681-668), and Assurbanipal (B.C. 668-626). The attempts at permanent conquest date from the reign of Sargon. The long reign of Assurbanipal falls into two periods, a former of great extension and conquest, and a latter when the tide began to turn and the Assyrian empire, overstrained and exhausted, showed signs of decay. Finally, in the reign of Esarhaddon II., Nineveh fell (B.C. 606), overwhelmed by a confederacy which included the Medes. Probably no empire was ever less lamented by the world at large, for we have the Assyrians’ own word for it that their warfare was attended with every circumstance of cruelty and horror. They hold indeed a bad pre-eminence in that respect over all the other nations of antiquity.