One of the critical international issues on the minds of Westerners today is the question of Iranian atomic capabilities. Is Iran developing an atomic bomb? If so, should we do something to stop it? Who is “we,” and precisely what would “something” be? How much would “something” cost, and to whom? Would Iran attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz? What would it cost the West to force a reopening? How far into the Indian Ocean is Iran willing to attempt to reach to strike at US military assets? Would Iran attack Israel? How effectively could it carry out a terror campaign in the USA?
All of these questions are worth considering. To consider them rationally, we need to know who the Iranians are, and what underlying agendas they have. What do they want, and how much are they willing to pay for it?
When we look at Iran today from the Western world, it’s easy to be confused by what we see and by what the Iranians say. When we see the politically unsophisticated and socially primitive government of Iran behaving like a mob of unsupervised first grade boys, it’s easy to get an inaccurate impression of who the Iranian government might actually be, and what the people of Iran might be like or might think.
Long before the poorly educated, megalomaniac “ayatollah” Khomeini returned to Iran to drag it back into an eighth century style of government, there was a country called Iran. Long before there was a country called Iran, there was a place called Persia, and the history that took Iran from the stone age to a modern nation is worth considering if we are wondering what the people of Iran might think about what’s occurring in their country.
Before seeking to understand Iran today, let’s glance at their past. They have a long and complicated history.
c. 800,000 B.C.
Evidence of Neanderthals has been discovered in Kashafrud in Khorasan (northeastern Iran). Stone tools made from quartz were found there. Archeologist C. Thibault dated the tools to 800,000 B.C. The National Museum of Iran agrees with the dating.
100,000 B.C. – 60,000 B.C.
Neolithic tools have been located in at least three distinct major sites in modern Iran. The dating of the tools remains somewhat controversial. Estimates range from between 100,000 to 60,000 years in age, depending on which archeologist we ask. Even if we take the most recent date of 60,000 B.C., humans have been in Iran for a long time. Neanderthal skeletal remains were discovered in Shanidar cave in what is today an area of modern Iraq.
Some scientists theorize that, in order to escape the effects of arid weather cycles in the area, villages formed on the coast of Iran and along the beds of major rivers. Given the changes in shore lines and the massive, periodic, route-changing floods that occurred on the major rivers of Iran, it is difficult to locate archeological evidence with which to investigate such early prehistoric cultures.
Claims have been made of a 15,000 B.C. wine vase being unearthed in Iran, but I have been unable to verify it from multiple well-respected scientific sources. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. It just means I’m only willing to spend so much time investigating one artifact claim.
However, wine vases from the Zagros mountains of Iran date from 7,000 B.C., proving that, although black market English, Canadian, and American whiskey now enters Iran via small boats every night, booze has been there for a long time.
For simplicity’s sake, let us define ancient Iran as being the land between the Caspian Sea, the Indus river, the Euphrates River, and the modern Iranian coast. Within various parts of this land, modern human artifacts, including jewelry, refined pottery, and metal tools, have been found and dated back to 9,000 B.C. Nearly eleven thousand years before Boston artisans crafted Paul Revere’s tea set, skilled artisans in ancient Persia were living in a complex enough civilization to create sophisticated and intricate jewelry. Some folks in Iran had refined tastes and had the wealth to pay for it.
Villagers in Choga Bonut (western Iran) farm and make high quality clay pottery.
Neolithic evidence is left behind at a place that would later become Susa, and that Iranians today call Shush.
Villagers in Choga Mish (near Choga Bonut) inhabit a regional trade center and practice agriculture. They leave behind rich evidence that was being explored at the time of the “Iranian Revolution.”
The “revolutionaries” felt threatened by science and saw the practice of archeology as a heresy so they destroyed the dig site and the artifacts that they stole. Fortunately, work from the dig site had been published in respected publications prior to the 1979 Khomeni-induced hysteria.
Someone in Susa is making painted pottery.
Early bronze age sites attributed to the Jiroft agricultural civilization date from roughly 4,000 B.C. to 3,000 B.C.
The Jirofts irrigate their crops and produce well-developed jewelry and metal tools, and they are involved in East-West trade.
Claims have been made of a written language for this culture, but recognized experts in early languages agree that the evidence was fake. Those ancient people may not have written, but they had a well-established civilization.
3,100 B.C. – 2,900 B.C.
Clay tablets with Sumerian Cuneiform writing are used in Iran.
The dates of their earliest use in areas that are now Iran are still debated. This early writing in Iran co-dates the Mesopotamian city building in Iraq and the fringes of Iran.
For comparison, the Brits are building Stonehenge, and in North America, Cochise people are just beginning to cultivate corn, but still lack cultivated squash and beans. The Egyptians are building large cities and monuments.
The Elamites (non-Semitic people) establish a kingdom in western Persia with Susa as its capital. The Elamites introduce complex government with power shared by three family members and regional authority relegated to under-lords. Trade is controlled by a central system, and regions are tasked with producing the products that are best suited to their natural resources and local talents.
This inter-regional economy is highly productive and supports a higher standard of living for people within the kingdom. The Elamites prefer trade with their neighbors beyond their borders, but they maintain well-organized military forces, and they are able to resist invasion by powerful neighbors In Mesopotamia.
The game of chess is invented in Persia.
Hammurabi of Babylonia conquers most of the Elamite kingdom. The Elamites survive in the mountains beyond Hammurabi’s reach.
c. 1730 B.C.
The Elamites deal a devastating defeat to armies of Hammurabi’s son, Samsuiluna, and regain their kingdom. Western Iran enters a period of two hundred years of comparative isolation from the outside world.
1,500 B.C. to 1,250 B.C.
The Anzanite faction of the Elamites establishes a strong dynasty, and the Elamite empire grows toward Mesopotamia and what had become a strong Assyrian empire.
King Tululti-Ninurta dies, and Assyria falls into internal strife and conflicts for succession to the throne. The Elamites seize the opportunity and campaign against the Assyrian armies. They capture Babylon, and the famous Hammurabi Stela containing the inscribed code of Hammurabi is taken to Susa.
c. 1150 B.C.
Nebuchadnezzar I unites northern and central Babylon (what we call modern Iraq) and attacks and defeats the Elamite empire. Again, the Elamites retreat to mountainous areas and survive.
In the next blog, we will look at Iranian history up to the 7th century Islamic invasion.