Fifteen thousand years before the beginning of the present era, whilst glaciers lay deep upon the face of Europe, the land of Iran, or much of it, was covered by the waters. Rainfall, at that time, was heavy, and near perpetual; lakes stood even in the highest of the mountain valleys; and on the central Plateau of Iran, where now extends a great and hostile desert, an inland sea once rested, collecting the rivers as they flowed down from the heights.
Towards the end of this age, described by geographers as the 'pluvial period', we find the first evidence of man's habitation on the soil of Iran. Archaeological excavations have shown that the Neolithic period in the Iranian context dated from around 7000 BC. Professor Roman Ghirshman, the French archaeologist, leading a campaign of excavation in 1949, unearthed the remains of one of these early settlers at Tang-e Pabda, near Shustar in the Bakhtiari Mountains. These ancient inhabitants carried implements of bone and already possessed a coarse variety of dark pottery, using weapons fashioned from stone, axes and hammers, to seek after and dismember their prey. It is perhaps also during this period, around 6,000 BC, that the first experiments were made in the cultivation of crops.
As the climate changed, so civilisation evolved. The inland sea dried out fully and disappeared. In its wake was left an earth of rich and heavy silt, fertile for vegetation and attractive to animals. Man loo, seeing the newly-uncovered pasturelands, productive in plant life and abundant in game, made his way down on to the Iranian Plateau, and across it took up his abode.
Iran has been home to organised urban settlements since at least 4000 BC. One of these, at Siyalk near Kashan, inhabited from around 5,000 BC into the historical period, reveals the story of man's development. Crude huts made from the branches of trees give way to houses constructed of compacted earth, and later of mud-brick. Their inner walls are painted white; beneath their hearths are buried the bones of the family dead. Outside the houses begins the domestication of animals; cattle, sheep and oxen, are herded and bred. In the field of pottery, a new red ware is now introduced, to which is applied a white slip, decorated with geometrical patterns in imitation of woven baskets. Stone and finely carved animal bone is used for the manufacture of tools; when of the latter, the handles are sometimes exquisitely fashioned also into abstract forms or the heads of animals. Pebbles, bone, and even turquoise are incorporated into necklaces and other pieces of jewellery; personal adornment goes even as far as the application of cosmetics, crushed and prepared in a pestle and mortar.
Although by 4,000 BC we note the appearance of further innovations - copper, both hammered and smelted; the potters wheel; vases with patterns; textile production - it is more the evolution of trade that has a bearing on the history of the region, rather than the advancement of technology. Merchants, guaranteeing their goods with the newly-invented stamp seal-and later, the cylinder seal-dispatched their wares over international distances; not just luxury items, such as lapis lazuli mined from the mountains of distant Badakhshan, but also more every-day commodities, such as barley, and wheat. The importation of these crops to the Mesopotamian Plain (modern-day Iraq), more fertile and more hospitable for habitation with the onset of time, was to have an important effect. The dwellers in the settlements along the great rivers of antiquity, the Tigris and Euphrates, aided by the introduction of the art of agriculture, were soon to outstrip the inhabitants of the Iranian Plateau. Although it is to the latter that we must look for the invention of farming, it is to the former that we owe the subsequent steps in the progress of civilisation: writing, art, science, and the emergence of the great cities.
The sites of Tell-i Iblis and Tepe Yahya, east of Kirman, have provided artefacts and clear signs of settlement dating from the so-called Proto-Elamite period, 3200-2800 ВС and a recently published survey of archaeological investigation carried out in the 1970s reveals that the region between Susa and Malyan is rich in surface finds from the IV millennium BC.
From those times, the history of Iran has been intertwined with the history of the region as a whole. Initially the Elamites and Medes paid tribute to the greater Mesopotamian powers of Sumeria and Neo-Assyria. But for about 1100 years from 550 BC a succession of Iranian empires were the superpowers that dominated the region from Egypt, the Mediterranean and the borders of Europe in the west to the Indus River in the east. It began with the Achaemenids, was interrupted by Alexander the Great and the Seleucids, and continued with the Parthian and Sassanid dynasties.
The arrival of the Arabs in AD 633 was a turning point in Iranian history. The Zoroastrian religion was soon replaced by Islam, but the more advanced aits, sciences and administration that had defined Persian civilisation were absorbed into Islamic life. What followed was a pattern that would recur for hundreds of years: a strong ruler creates an empire, his death begins the slow fragmentation of control and another strong ruler sweeps the weakened state aside to begin his own empire. The players included the Arabs, several local and Turkish dynasties and the Mongols. Through it all the Persian national, political and cultural identity survived and, indeed, was largely adopted by the invader.
In 1502 the Safavid dynasty reestablished Iran as an independent state, adopted Shia Islam as the official religion and expanded the empire across much of the region. Their demise in 1722 led to another round of short-term dynasties before the Qajars, and later the Pahlavis, continued royal rule until the 1979 revolution brought with it the Islamic Republic.
The Silk Road
Silk first began moving westward from China more than 2000 years ago when the Parthians became enamoured with the soft, fine fabric. By about 100 ?? the Parthians and Chinese had exchanged embassies, and silk, along with myriad other goods, was being traded along the route. Trade grew after the Romans developed a fixation with the fabric after their defeat at Carrhae in 53 ??. Eventually silk would become more valuable than gold to the Romans, who fixed the supply issue when Emperor Justinian sent teams of spies to steal silk-worm eggs in the VI century.
It took many months to traverse the 8000km Silk Road route, which was not a single road but rather a web of caravan tracks dotted with caravanserais a day's travel apart - roughly 30km. These were fortified rest stops with accommodation for traders, their camels and goods. The network had its main eastern terminus at the Chinese capital Ch'angan (now Xian). Caravans entered present-day Iran anywhere between Merv (modern Turkmenistan) and Herat (Afghanistan), and passed through Mashhad, Neishabur, Damghan, Semnan, Rey, Qazvin, Tabriz and Maku, before finishing at Constantinople (now Istanbul). During winter, the trail often diverted west from Rey, passing through Hamadan to Baghdad.
Unlike the Silk Road's most famous journeyman, Marco Polo, caravanners were mostly short- and medium-distance hauliers who marketed and took on freight along a given beat. Goods heading east included gold, silver, ivory, jade and other precious stones, wool, Mediterranean coloured glass, grapes, wine, spices and - early Parthian crazes -acrobats and ostriches. Going west were silk, porcelain, spices, gems and perfumes. In the middle lay Central Asia and Iran, great clearing houses that provided the horses and Bactrian camels that kept the goods flowing.
The Silk Road gave rise to unprecedented trade, but its glory lay in the interchange of ideas. The religions alone present an astounding picture of diversity and tolerance: Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism and shamanism coexisted along the 'road' until the coming of Islam.
The Silk Road was eventually abandoned when the new European powers discovered alternative sea routes in the XV century.