The Iranian Cultural Area
Defining Post Number I
Note: This is the first of three posts that explain the initial scope and purposes of the blog. Later visitors can, of course, develop new directions.
Iranian civilization has had a remarkable continuity within a large area that includes the southern part of Central Asia and the southern Caucasus on the north, extends through Pakistan and far into India on the east, and into Iraq and Turkey on the West. The Achaemenid Empire that existed between 600 and 300 B.C. reached at its greatest extent into Egypt on the West, far out into Central Asia, and the Indus Valley in the east. The Parthian and better established Sassanian empires that lasted until the victory of Islam in the seventh century covered much the same ground, although in the west, they were in continual struggle with the Roman Empire, a struggle centering on Syria, eastern Anatolia, and western Iraq. These Empires generally extended their sway into the Caucasus to Georgia, including what are now the independent states of Armenia and Azerbaijan. To the south, their rule extended down the south side of the Persian Gulf, and even to Yemen. In the eighth century, the Abbassid Empire developed to the eastern part of the Islamic world under heavy Iranian influence. As the Abbassids weakened a new Persian language and culture developed in the east to replace the old Pahlavi. In the classical Iranian region, the dominant culture (if not political system) became the new Iranian. This was true from the Mughal Courts of Delhi to the Ottoman court in Istanbul. Persian was only driven from its place as the official language in India in the 19th century by the British. Bukhara and Samarqand in present-day Uzbekistan were noted centers of Persian learning.
Today the influence of Persian culture within the historical Iranian region is much less than it was. If we look at existing Iranian languages, we find that Iranian languages are divided into Western and Eastern. Modern Persian, in the first group, is spoken by nearly all people in Iran as a first or second language, and Dari (sometimes called Tajik) spoken by about a third of Afghans as a first language, by perhaps two thirds as a second language. Modern Persian is the literary language of the country. In Tajikistan, the principal language is called Tajik. These three (Persian, Dari, and Tajik) are quite similar, and the written language of all three is essentially the same. Tajik has, however, had many Russian words incorporated into the language and the official script is Cyrillic. although there are movements to go back either to Perso-Arabic or a Latin script used between the 1920s and the 1950s.
There are many other dialects of Western Iranian. The most important are those we might group together either as “Kurdish” or Balochi. These are more distinct from Modern Persian and one another than Persian, Tajik, and Dari, and only in Kurdish is there significant publication. In the Eastern Iranian group we find Pashto, the dominant spoken, if not written, language of Afghanistan and the NWFP of Pakistan. Again, there are many dialects of Eastern Iranian, including Ossetic in the Caucasus.
There are still Persian speakers in Pakistan and Uzbekistan, and Persian literature still plays a role in the cultural life of many peoples along the periphery. This is perhaps most evident in Azerbaijan. The northwest portion of modern Iran is called Azerbaijan, and Azeri is the spoken language of most of the people living there. But the people are highly Persianized. The same people make up the great majority of those in the independent country of Azerbaijan across what was formerly the border of the USSR. In addition, the Armenian language has incorporated so many loan words from Modern Persian, that at one time it was thought to be an Iranian language. (It is actually more closely related to Greek.)