This article intends to examine the relationship between Iranian culture and its natural environment.




Iranian culture is inseparable from the geographical space within which it was formed and crystallized, and from which, during the Achaemenid period, it expanded considerably to bordering regions. Later it was caught in the powerful grip of invasions by Arabs and Turks—the last great mass movements which re-drew the ethnic map of Eurasia and North Africa in a relatively short span of time. Yet Iranian culture was able to preserve its identity, even finding in modern times, in its contemporary Persian form, a venue for renewed vigor. This article intends to examine the relationship between Iranian culture and its natural environment and to analyze, in the context of the historical geography of the Iranian lands, the original foundations that contributed to its genesis, vitality, and capacity for resistance and self-preservation.

Geographical elements relating to Iranian culture. The geographical framework of this culture is generally acknowledged today to include the entire Iranian plateau and its bordering plains (see GEOGRAPHY), notwithstanding the original and specific location where the Iranian branch first distinguished itself from other Indo-European languages. It may be that the most ancient evidence is to be found in lower Central Asia with the Late Bronze Age Indo-Iranian culture of Andronovo during the third-second millennia B.C.E. It is in any case impossible to make too fine a distinction between this particular culture and that of the much larger whole which one might call a culture of the steppes, one common to very diverse linguistic families (Iranian, Turco-Mongol, Finno-Ugric, and even Tibetan) and one which is very different from Iranian culture in the more restricted sense of the term. The actual routes taken by the Iranian tribes to their first historical sites remain controversial (Ghirshman), but in any case it is only on the Iranian plateau and within its mountainous limits that we perceive for the first time what one may call an Iranian culture represented in historical texts. These date to the 6th-5th centuries B.C.E., the period of the major royal Achaemenid inscriptions and shortly before the time when Herodotus (q.v., ca. 490–425), gave us his unforgettable account of this civilization.

This culture was a stable one, rooted in a well-defined, if not already clearly delineated, geographical environment; and this aspect distinguished it from steppe cultures, although it was not yet itself wholly sedentary. Ever since a great warlike and nomadic civilization completed its formation of an independent lifestyle in the Eurasiatic steppes toward the end of the 2nd millennium B.C.E., this aforementioned stable culture clearly stood in contra-distinction to it, although a large number of peoples speaking Iranian languages (“Scythians” in the wider sense) still participated in steppe cultures and although sites of the Iranian sedentary and urban culture were to flourish in lower Central Asia. This differentiation already displayed the never-ending contrast between Irān and Turān.

The Iranian plateau, the specific site of this culture, offers very striking contrasts: from high mountain chains benefiting from plenty of rainfall, particularly in the west and north, originally covered with thick forests (q.v.) and valleys amenable to cultivation by relatively simple means of irrigation (leveled terraces irrigated by little diversion cuts in the alluvium), to desert or semi-desert basins (kavir, lut) mostly unsuitable for human habitation. Between these two kinds of environment there are intermediary fringes of foothills, well provided with arable soil and within easily accessible lines of communication, but depending on complicated technical means of irrigation. The development of the technique of building underground channels (kāriz or kārēz, an old Iranian term replaced in central and western Persia by the originally Semitic equivalent, qanāt; see DRAINAGE) began in the northwestern Iranian plateau (modern Azerbaijan and Armenia) at the start of the 1st millennium B.C.E. It enabled populations to spread from the foothills—a process which continued gradually during the entire first half of the 1st millennium B.C.E.

The most ancient base for the political organization of Iranian lands, prior to the great phase of occupation of these foothills, could therefore only be in the well-watered mountains, the western Zagros; this area was favorable to the early immigration of Iranian-speaking agro-pastoral tribes during their arrival in the second half of the 2nd millennium B.C.E., at a time when they had not yet perfectly mastered kāriz irrigation. Political expression there in the first half of the 1st millennium B.C.E. took the form of the Median empire. Its power rested on semi-nomadic tribes, which led a pastoral life, with short-range seasonal movements to mountain pastures, and practiced irrigation agriculture on terraced fields in the depths of the valleys and in the lowlands. Among them urban life played a subordinate part, except for isolated centers in some easily farmed inter-mountain basins (e.g., Ecbatana, q.v.). The shift of power towards Fārs (q.v.), a much dryer land, where the mountainous chains slope lower and spread out to wind around vast, already semi-arid basins, indicates the development of the population of the foothills; this process was already in full expansion thanks to the spread of kāriz. This shift is in evidence with the appearance of the Achaemenids, who sprang from Persian tribes, and their empire at the end of the first half of the 1st millennium B.C.E. The advance in irrigation enabled human settlement and occupation of the plateau, especially to the east and southeast (thus reconnecting with the ancient population centers in Bactria and lower Central Asia); until then settlements here had been based on limited irrigation of the foothills using dams to divert water from mountain streams. After the Greek period, the reappearance of an Iranian political power in these eastern areas (Khorasan), under the auspices of the Parthians, clearly shows that the unification of the Iranian cultural lands had been accomplished.

In this setting, a system of exploiting the soil developed from which Iran was to draw great strength and which in turn was to make it a major power in the Middle East under the Achaemenid empire. The foundation for this was the formation of intensely irrigated agricultural nuclei that initially appeared in the bottoms of mountain valleys and where rivers debouch from the mountains (Isfahan). Later, through the spread of the system of kāriz, areas all along the perimeter of the foothills could be cultivated. From these lands one could obtain a plentiful harvest of grains 30 to 40 hundredweight per hectare, using complex crop rotations then unique in the world. There was no need of a fallow, thanks to the manure from livestock (or sometimes of pigeons, as in the oasis at Isfahan), which were well fed on alfalfa fodder; thereby uninterrupted cultivation of the same plot without resowing was possible for a period up to seven years. This system of cultivation (Planhol, 1964; 1993, p. 483) accounts for the military might of the Achaemenids; the alfalfa fields also fed a matchless cavalry, which in turn explains the relative ease of its great successes. Numerous cities (q.v.) soon arose out of these bases of irrigation agriculture, where the population rapidly grew in density. Innovative house designs soon became usual in the foothills. Buildings were modeled according to the shape of the irrigated plots, taking into account the slope of the ground (Planhol, 1993, p. 493). They were connected with gardens likewise designed on the basis of water flow—a system already greatly admired by the Greeks (Bazin, 1973, p. 87); and there developed a refined quality of life that survives to this day. Zoroastrianism, which itself contributed in a decisive manner to the cultural unification of the Achaemenid empire, with its emphasis upon the opposition between good and evil, clearly expresses the contrast between well-protected, irrigated lands, prosperous under the effect of good governance, and the external, steppe-like terrain, a wilderness where young Persians were to be initiated, frugally, sustaining themselves on pistachios and almonds from wild trees (Strabo, 15.3.18). The Achaemenid ruler who reigned over this empire, was as much a cultivator as a warrior (Briant, 1996, pp. 224-50). He had to be a skilful gardener, take an interest in vegetation, and plant trees (Xenophon, Oeconomica 4.13-14, 20–23). Iran was undoubtedly during this period the only place on earth where land was as important as the gods. From this land a consistent, vigorous, and unique civilization was born.

Political and cultural expansion. Like all mighty civilizations, the Iranian too was expansionist in outlook, seeking to spread its domination and extend its borders. This political expansion, an expression of military force, reached its peak during the Achaemenid period. Iranian supremacy encompassed the entire Middle East (Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Levant), Asia Minor to the Aegean Sea, Egypt and Cyrenaica, and it stretched as far as the Persian Gulf. In Central Asia, it extended to Bactria and Sogdiana, establishing its border on the Syr Darya (Jaxartes), exerting its influence on the Iranian-speaking Sakas or Massagetae nomads beyond the river. Towards India, the Achaemenid empire seems to have been well established as far as the Indus (Briant, pp. 774-78). In total, during this period when the unification of China had not yet been achieved, the Achaemenid empire was by far the most extensive on earth.

But was this construction, originating from Iranian lands, and made possible by the vigor of the civilization it created, Iranian, or ‘Aryan’ as such? In reality, far from it. At no point during this period was there any reference to any political Iranian identity. The political concept of Iran did not exist during the time of the Achaemenids (Gnoli, 1988). One would have to wait until the Ariana of Strabo (15.2.8) to witness the appearance of a corresponding geographical designation (peoples of Persia, Media, and the Iranian plateau). Admittedly, Darius and Xerxes at times presented themselves as “Aryan of pure Aryan stock” (the term essentially implying the pair Persia-Media) in several royal inscriptions (although in fact the designation is rare and may imply an archaizing tendency); and some lists of countries isolate Iranian countries (or some among them); but, above all, Darius proclaims himself, “Persian, son of Persia” (Briant, pp. 193-95). The empire, above all, is “Persian.” It is Persia alone that enjoys privileged status, although the Iranian peoples, due to this Iranian quality, seem to have an advantage over others (Herrenschmidt, p. 59). However, Herodotus (3.97) specifies that only the country where the Persians live benefits from immunity. Moreover, this superiority of the Iranian peoples, who according to Strabo (15.2.8) speak more or less the same language with some variations (homóglōttoi parà mikrón), remains conjectural. At no point is there any sign of a policy of cultural assimilation. Linguistic and political acculturation remains very weak (Briant, p. 88, pp. 523-28). Diodorus Siculus (17.53.4), places emphasis on the linguistic diversity of the empire. The official language of the chancellery was to remain Aramaic. The policy of deportation of people as a consequence of rebellions or for strategic reasons such as the protection of borders that the Achaemenid empire inherited from the Assyrians is at no point in time dictated by ethnical or cultural concerns (Briant, pp. 521-23). In the religious context itself, facts remain quite obscure, and it is truly difficult to discern in the religion of the first Achaemenids the role that ‘Iranian’ traditions played (Boyce, pp. 50-60; Boucharlat, pp. 124-26; cf. Briant, pp. 105-8, 923). There was nothing Aryan about Ahura Mazdā, whose preeminence was assured by Darius (Schmitt).

It is not surprising therefore that the cultural influence of Iran upon the vast lands that the Achaemenid empire annexed remained very weak. Towards the west, it became negligible. It made its by mark by the dissemination of certain techniques, such as the kāriz, whose introduction into the Syrian desert extending to Egypt seems to be related to the Achaemenid period (Planhol, 1990). However, this consisted only of isolated instances of settlement, and no massive development of irrigated spaces can be associated with this empire. Moreover, the geographical borders between the Iranian system of exploitation of the soil (based upon intense cultivation of core lands) which from this period on included Armenia, and the system of pluvial cultures predominant in inner Anatolia, were in no way modified. As for the east, where facts are even less clear, it does not seem to have been otherwise. All the archeological evidence in lower Central Asia suggests that the substantial network of channels in Bactria owe hardly anything to the Achaemenids and long predate them (summary of this discussion in Briant, pp. 772-74). Control of territory within the Achaemenid empire was assured by a highly coordinated and well maintained network of royal routes, and by establishment of garrisons—especially along the borders—at times in tandem with the establishment of cities (such as upon the Syr Darya; see CYROPOLIS), but without a specifically organized system of populating the lands. The Achaemenid empire limited itself to imposing upon the countries that it dominated a framework of military occupation and despotic administration entrusted largely to the indigenous peoples of the various provinces, without any fundamental concerns other than strategic and financial ones (collection of tributes and taxes).

Thus, from the period of its great imperial expansion, we notice an important trait of Iranian identity asserting itself. Though the empire was associated with considerable power during this period of political and military dominance, no distinct force that one might associate with expansion manifested itself. Iran was not a colonizing force, nor was it ever to really become one. It did not export its own identity beyond its own borders. This is an intriguing issue in the history of humanity. One cannot resist comparing the situation with that of the Roman empire, or with that of China, where political rule, in both cases, resulted in vast linguistic and cultural propagation. Here, all events occurred as if the Iranian civilization had once and for all discovered, in the geographical region where it was originally formed and crystallized, its exclusive, deep-rooted settlement.

It was not to be otherwise during the new phase of indigenous military dominance of the country under the Parthians and Sasanians. However, a critical new element emerged during this period: the dynastic construction that dominated the country asserted its Iranian provenance under the Sasanians. Šāpur took the title of Šāhanšāh Ērān, rendered in Greek as Basileùs Basiléōn Arianōn “King of King of the Aryans (Iranians).” The cultural identity of Iran was henceforth recorded on the map—all the more remarkable therefore to note the absence of any undertaking of Iranian colonization in lands of the Sasanian empire. The part of the Mesopotamian basin extending to the Euphrates that they ruled remained Aramean in culture, and it was the Roman prisoners who were employed there for major restoration work. In Oman too, long integrated into the Sasanian political sphere and where occupation of the terrain progressed mainly due to the irrigation technique of kāriz imported from Iran (Wilkinson), one does not find traces of ethnic penetration. Toward the east, in what is now Afghanistan, confronted by Turkish invasions (Hephtalites; q.v.) the “Iranian-ness” from this period onwards begins to retreat. During these times, under the ever-increasing influence of Mazdeism, when the religious and spiritual individuality of Iran continued to assert itself and when the empire at the peak of its power was politically aggressive, it took a defensive stance in cultural terms.

Survival among Greeks, Arabs, and Turks. Due to an extraordinary capacity for resistance, drawing strength from the geographical formation that had explained its mighty origins, Iran was able to assure its existence and permanence in the face of three formidable successive threats.

Of these three external forces, the first, the Greek was the least serious. Greek cultural influence was minimal. A telling sign is the rarity of linguistic influences: a few dozen words were transmitted from Greek into Persian, excluding the larger number of loan words that were later integrated through Arabic. Moreover, the political domination of the Greeks on Iranian lands from Alexandria across all of Iran during the period of the Seleucids, then until the first centuries of the Christian era in the “Greco-Buddhist” Bactria (q.v.), did not result in any significant exploitation of the land and physiognomy of the country.

Admittedly, Mediterranean features are present in the natural environment and human milieu, as far as northern Afghanistan (Rathjens), but these seem to have been developed well before the Greek conquest. The spread of the grapevine and of wine in Iranian lands took place before the Achaemenids, and there are abundant references to the consumption of wine in the earlier part of their reign (Esther 1:7; Herodotus, 7.27; Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 1.3.8-9; Anabasis 1.9.25). The olive tree to this day is only grown in certain regions, and its name derives from Aramaic. Its introduction from Mesopotamia was quite ancient. The same is true of the fig tree. The only cultivation whose development could be related to the Greek period seem to be those of certain kinds of aromatic and balsamic plants, perhaps linked to the scientific progress in medicine of the newly arrived. However, the absence of industrial-cultural contributions has been noted (Laufer, p. 294). Linen, used in Greece as a textile, was not adapted for this purpose in Iran, where cotton remained exclusively an oil-producing crop. On the whole, the agricultural use of the soil remained unchanged. As for kinds of settlement, those that were typical of Greek civilization did not suit the Persian lifestyle or habits well enough to be incorporated naturally. It is very telling that attempts to create settlements perched on hillsides in the midst of pluvial plantations, widespread in Mediterranean lands, never succeeded: settlements such as in Ray, at the western limit of the ante-Alburz, soon re-integrated into the plain after the establishment of settlements by the Seleucids at higher altitude. The typical sites of Iranian cities, in the depths of terraced valleys or in foothills near the flow of the irrigation channels and therefore abundant water, were not abandoned; and the Mediterranean technique of rooftop cisterns that would have enabled settlements at high altitude was not adopted (Planhol, 1981). Iranian lands remained mostly impervious to Greek colonization.

The failure of Arabization. It is decidedly surprising that effects of the Arab conquest, and of the Islamization which followed as a direct consequence, were not more significant, and this in spite of intense cultural and linguistic pressure. The adoption of a religion (entirely new in fact), and the establishment of an exclusive learned ruling class in cities, resulted in an imperious lexicological acculturation which for many centuries threatened to wipe out Iranian culture and its own language. One figure suffices as an illustration: the percentage of words in Persian vocabulary, either partially or entirely of Arab origin, is on the order of 42 percent (census up to the beginning of the 20th century based on a word count in F. Steingass, Persian-English Dictionary, where Arabic etymologies are identified). Moreover, during some three centuries, forms of literary expression in the Iranian region were almost exclusively in Arabic. However, in spite of this radical impregnation, Iranian culture was ultimately able to successfully defend itself and, ever since the 10th century, enjoy a glorious renascence. How was this possible? The answer is to be sought in the natural Iranian environment and its resistance to the massive settlement of Arab invaders. This was a victory for the Iranian terrain.

The basis for this was a bio-geographical factor. The Iranian plateau is a land of high altitudes and cold winters, where the dromedaries, principal means of transport for nomadic tribes and the only means of Arab penetration into the countryside, could not adapt to the environment. With the exception of the Iranian section of the Mesopotamian basin, which was very quickly subjected to Arab influence, the presence of the invaders was limited to a narrow littoral fringe of the “hot lands” (garmsir, q.v.), along the Persian Gulf up to Sind. Some Arabic-speaking tribes have been able to sustain themselves there to this day by preserving their linguistic integrity, particularly those peoples included in the mixed ethnic confederation of the Ḵamsa, where they co-exist with Persian- and Turkish-speaking tribes. However, even in these lowlands along the Persian Gulf, a substantial part of the Arab elements, unable to pasture their dromedaries on the “cold lands” (sardsir), were assimilated by Iranian-speaking tribes, most notably by the Baluch, after the Turkish invasion. Within the Ḵamsa itself, in the very precise system of using trails in Fārs that determines their successive appropriation in time and space during the course of seasons, the Arabic-speaking tribes remain, at a certain times, at lower altitudes in strata below the Iranian and Turkish tribes (Barth, 1959-60, 1961). This inability to occupy the higher terrain proved decisive. The settlement of Arab tribes on the plateau (notably after political deportations extending to Khorasan and lower Central Asia, where to this day there exist a few Arabic-speaking tribes in Bactrian villages) was periodic and relatively minor. Whereas cities were attractive sites for “Arabization,” rural regions remained closed to the newcomers. This helps us understand the present-day striking contrast in the linguistic assimilation of most of the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, and much of North Africa, by the Arabs, while the Iranian identity remains intact.

Turko-Iranian symbiosis. The Turks, on the other hand, posed a formidable threat: their penetration into Iranian lands was considerable, to such an extent that vast regions adapted their language. This process was all the more remarkable since, in spite of their almost uninterrupted political domination for nearly 1,000 years, the cultural influence of these rough nomads on Iran’s refined civilization remained extremely tenuous. This is demonstrated by the mediocre linguistic contribution, for which exhaustive statistical studies have been made (Doerfer). The number of Turkish or Mongol words that entered Persian, though not negligible, remained limited to 2,135, i.e., 3 percent of the vocabulary at the most. These new words are confined on the one hand to the military and political sector (titles, administration, etc.) and, on the other hand, to technical pastoral terms. The contrast with Arab influence is striking. While cultural pressure of the Arabs on Iran had been intense, they in no way infringed upon the entire Iranian territory, whereas with the Turks, whose contributions to Iranian civilization were modest, vast regions of Iranian lands were assimilated, notwithstanding the fact that resistance by the latter was ultimately victorious. Several reasons may be offered.

The first explanation for this may be found in the already well-established supremacy of the urban Iranian civilization—in all its components—at the time of the earliest Turkish invasions (see CITIES), as well as in the obvious attractions of cities for the newcomers, who embraced their different aspects with great enthusiasm. Deeply Arabicized linguistically, and having for many centuries been permeated with the new spiritual ambience brought by Islam, Iranian cities nevertheless preserved key elements of their organization and physiognomy and could exert considerable powers of assimilation on the Turko-Mongol newcomers (Planhol, 1993, pp. 493-94). The Turks were seduced by the lifestyle developed in the Iranian oases. These shepherds, who above all sought green pastures to pitch their tents, amused themselves in cities intersected with numerous canals and gardens, where running water and greenery suited their taste for simple pastoral pleasures. They returned to the cities with delight after their raids or conquering expeditions in the much hotter lower lands of the Persian Gulf or India. One need only hear the famous Bābor (q.v.), founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, singing the praises of Kabul, and its “excellent air” and pleasant clime, and exclaiming that “if the world has another so pleasant, it is not known,” (Bābor, tr., Beveridge, pp. 201, 203) to realize that the Turks very easily and naturally adapted to this attractive environment. In almost all cases, they settled directly in pre-existing communities that they found convenient, and their contributions to the urban geography of Iran were rather insignificant (Planhol, 1974). Transfers of sites, unlike in Anatolia, where they were the rule, were here altogether exceptional and ephemeral (Planhol, 1974, pp. 156-57). A notable exception from the Mongol period is Solṭāniya, erected by Arḡun Khan (q.v.) at 1,700 meters altitude, where water resources were plentiful (ibid., pp. 154-55), on a vast grass plateau, suitable for riding and pasturing herds. The Turks chose to settle in the cities and not in the outskirts around them; and within these cities they clearly felt the impact of a civilization whose assimilative power could be exercised fully in an urban setting. This proved to be one of the main reasons for the Iranian cultural resilience.

As for the rural areas, geographical division of Turkish sectors and of those regions where Iranian culture was able to preserve itself provides the basis for analysis. A major frontier emerges, in the form of mountain obstacles, be it the Caucasus, ranges in Khorasan, or the Hindu Kush. To the north of these great chains, in territory until then occupied almost exclusively by Iranian culture, and where sedentary life predominated, the “Turkification,” accompanied by widespread transformation to nomadism, had been almost total from the 9th century, and vestiges of Iranian languages were limited. Along the northern side of the Caucasus, the Ossetes, enclosed by valleys in the mountains on a very narrow stretch of the piedmont, are the only remnants of the ancient Scythian nomads who once dominated the steppes for almost 3,000 years. To the immediate east of the Caspian, the steppes of Atrak (q.v.) had been for many centuries a zone of conflict between nomadic and sedentary lifestyles, where periods of increasing nomadism had followed phases of sedentary colonization, although never quite calling into question the population’s Iranian identity (Arne). From the 9th century, these areas as well as the neighboring Karakum desert had been entirely “Turkified”; the ethnogenesis of the Turkmen (Torkaman) was evidently in en masse settlement of nomadic Turkish tribes, among whom Iranian elements may have been included but seem negligible.

On the other hand, Iranian elements remained more numerous farther to the east in lower Central Asia, in the prosperous, irrigated sites that developed in the valleys of the Amu Darya and the upper Syr Darya, up to the northern piedmont of the Hindu Kush. The formation of the Uzbek population took place from the 13th century. This was the expression of an infinitely more complex phenomenon. It did not fully assert itself until after the Mongol invasion, which was a key episode in the “Turkification” that, in the 11th-12th centuries in Ḵvārazm, had remained far from completion. This region, a land of predominantly sedentary life under Turkish political domination, remained an integral part of Iranian civilization. It is only during the Timurid period that the emergence of a literary Turkish language, Chaghatay (q.v.), demonstrates the ethnogenesis of a new people, the Uzbek, whose eponym can be traced to the first half of the 14th century but whose name does not really take on an ethnonymic value until the end of the 15th century. A composite community was formed then under the influence of the emirs of Transoxiana, reuniting “Turkicized” Mongols with the Turks of the region, immigrant Turks from the Golden Horde (q.v.), and the old Iranian populations of the oases, the Sarts (Zhakubovskiĭ; Krader, pp. 60-63). The disappearance in Uzbek, a language learned by the indigenous, of the vocal harmony typical of Turkish languages, expresses the predominant tendency of this Iranian population base and its material culture, originating from the intensive agriculture of the irrigated regions, in the formation of a new ethnic group. Iranian languages were only able to preserve their dominance in the mountainous regions of the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs, where they found political expression in present-day Tajikistan; but the linguistic Turkish transformation of almost all the lower lands cannot veil the persistence of a sizeable pre-existing human stock in a symbiotic process that resulted in a victorious resistance of the older agricultural tradition of the Iranian territories. The Uzbek ethnogenesis was inseparable from the progressive sedentary process of nomadic Turkish groups, who were gradually attracted to the orbit of the Shaybanid emirate established in cities that dominated the countryside. In those lands the Uzbek, who still appeared as pure nomads at the beginning of the 16th century, begin already on the eve of the 17th century to practice irrigated agriculture (Krader, p. 92).

This victory of the Iranian material culture, a brilliant success in most of lower Central Asia in spite of linguistic integration, was to be even more impressive in Iran proper. If the waves of Turkish nomads were able to submerge almost all of the lower steppe, conquering the foothills of the great mountainous barrier extending from the Caucasus to the Hindu Kush, it was not able to seriously undermine the Iranian plateau, where the ethnic transformation, as accomplished in Ḵvārazm, ultimately failed. However, the Turko-Mongol tribes traversed the entire land en masse and were stationed there for an extended period before invading Anatolia. Unlike the Arab tribes, they were not confronted with a bio-geographical obstacle to their expansion. With their Bactrian camels, they possessed a marvelous vehicle to penetrate the mountainous milieu, and the practice, undoubtedly originally invented in Turkmenistan or in northern Iran and developed by at least as early as the 10th century (Masʿudi, Moruj III, p. 4), of the cross-breeding of camelidae, enabled them to adapt easily to all climatic transitions (Planhol, 1993, pp. 53-54). Politically they dominated this Iranian plateau almost uninterruptedly from the time of the Saljuqs in the 10th century until the re-emergence of a truly Iranian dynasty, the Pahlavi in the 20th century (except for the Zand dynasty in the second half of the 18th century). Moreover, these Turko-Mongol dynasties always favored the spread of nearby tribes. Great in number, these nomads also penetrated everywhere. Indeed the only region closed to them was the humid and wooded fringe of the Caspian, impenetrable to their camels due to insalubrious conditions, where the bio-geographical proved to be a determining factor (Bazin and Bromberger, p. 88). With a few exceptions, one finds accounts and vestiges of their presence more or less throughout Iranian territory and during every period.

This arrival, whether in gradual infiltration or in brutal invasions, never ended. In the heart of the plateau, in the region of Qom, the Ḵalaj, though sedentarized for a long time, speak an archaic Turkish language very different from that of other groups in Iran, and are doubtless the product of their very early settlement, perhaps ever since the 10th century (Minorsky, 1940; Doerfer, 1968). Moreover, similar elements undoubtedly constituted one of the essential factors, before their linguistic integration, for the large Pashtun ethnic group, the Ḡilzi (q.v.), whose name points to their Turkish origin. Almost a thousand years later, during the Russian colonization of lower Central Asia in 1880, again one finds large numbers of Turkmen seeking refuge in Khorasan, such as the Nukurli who were to establish themselves in the Kopet Dag (Vasileva; Findeisen).

As to the distributive patterns of the Turks and the Mongols, we find place names indicating Mongol presence extended to the very heart of Kurdistan (Minorsky, 1957). In the mountains, however, they preferred already deforested sectors, where vast pastures were readily available. Thus in the mountainous arc of Afghanistan, whereas the eastern Hindu Kush remained populated by the purely Iranian Tajiks, the Turks largely penetrated sectors of the center and the west, lower in altitude and less humid. In the center, they definitely contributed to the genesis of the Hazāra (q.v.), and in the west, to an even larger extent, to that of tribes reunited in the confederation of the Čār Aymāq (see AYMĀQ); the Mongol linguistic groups were able to preserve themselves here and there (Schurmann; Ferdinand). If the abundantly watered western side of the Zagros on the whole repelled them, they were especially numerous in dryer regions to the south and southeast, where the mountain chains lowered and spread out. There they formed close-knit groups numerically and politically predominant within the Iranian population, and were structured in confederations organized by the Safavids (the Afšār; q.v.) and Qajar (the Qašqāʾi) authorities.

As a whole, however, they remained a minority in almost all areas, preserving to this day small, individual linguistic islands without dominating entire regions. In only one region of the Iranian plateau did they constitute large enough numbers, as in lower Central Asia, to achieve linguistic integration: in northwest Iran, greater Azerbaijan, from the eastern Transcaucasus (dry, in contrast to the abundantly watered western region, where the Georgian ethnic group maintained itself) up to Qazvin, to the gates of Tehran and Hamadān (q.v.). It was from these regions that large numbers of Azeri tribes left, mainly as part of the Safavid policy of buttressing the defense of their borders, and spread out in various parts of Iran in the 17th and 18th centuries, as far as Khorasan (Perry, 1974).

This unique aspect of Azerbaijan, the only area to have been almost entirely “Turkicized” within Iranian territory, is the result of a complex, progressive cultural and historical process, in which factors accumulated successively (Sümer; Planhol, 1995, pp. 510-12) The process merits deeper analysis of the extent to which it illustrates the great resilience of the land of Iran.

The first phase was the amassing of nomads, initially at the time of the Turkish invasions, following the route of penetration along the piedmont south of the Alborz, facing the Byzantine borders, then those of the Greek empire of Trebizond and Christian Georgia. The Mongol invasion in the 13th century led to an extensive renewal of tribal stock, and the Turkic groups of the region during this period had not yet become stable. In the 15th century, the assimilation of the indigenous Iranian population was far from being completed. The decisive episode, at the beginning of the 16th century, was the adoption of Shiʿite Islam as the religion of the state by the Iran of the Safavids, whereas the Ottoman empire remained faithful to Sunnite orthodoxy. Shiʿite propaganda spread among the nomadic Turkoman tribes of Anatolia, far from urban centers of orthodoxy. These Shiʿite nomads returned en masse along their migratory route back to Safavid Iran. This movement was to extend up to southwest Anatolia, from where the Tekelu, originally from the Lycian peninsula, returned to Iran with 15,000 camels. These nomads returning from Ottoman territory naturally settled en masse in regions near the border, and it was from this period that the definitive “Turkicization” of Azerbaijan dates, along with the establishment of the present-day Azeri-Persian linguistic border—not far from Qazvin, only some 150 kilometers from Tehran. Here in 1654 the renowned Ottoman traveler, Evliya Çelebi (VII, p. 102) observed the borderlines of the two languages. A few small enclaves where Iranian dialects (Tāti) are still spoken have survived as the last vestiges of the pre-Turk substrate of Azerbaijan. Elsewhere, the mixing of newcomers with the local population resulted in the Azeri Turkish (see AZERBAIJAN viii.) known to us today. The final episodes consisted mainly of stabilization and integration, such as the organization of the large confederation of the Šāhsevan, evolving between the highlands of Azerbaijan (notably the huge massif of Savalān) during summer and the lower lands of the Araxes and Transcaucasus in winter. The annexation of the latter by Russia with the treaty of Torkamanāy, in 1828 fixed the political borders of the Iranian state, in an artificial manner, by dividing the Azeri ethnic group but without really affecting the profound unity of a common cultural space, marked by the Shiʿite affiliation and the resonance of Iranian civilization.

Azeri material culture, a result of this multi-secular symbiosis, is thus a subtle combination of indigenous elements and nomadic contributions, but the ratio between them is remains to be determined. The few researches undertaken (Planhol, 1960) demonstrate the indisputable predominance of Iranian tradition in agricultural techniques (irrigation, rotation systems, terraced cultivation) and in several settlement traits (winter troglodytism of people and livestock, evident in the widespread underground stables). The large villages of Iranian peasants in the irrigated valleys have worked as points for crystallization of the newcomers even in the course of linguistic transformation; these places have preserved their sites and transmitted their knowledge. The toponymy, with more than half of the place names of Iranian origin in some areas, such as the Sahand, a huge volcanic massif south of Tabriz, or the Qarā Dāḡ, near the border (Planhol, 1966, p. 305; Bazin, 1982, p. 28) bears witness to this continuity. The language itself provides eloquent proof. Azeri, not unlike Uzbek (see above), lost the vocal harmony typical of Turkish languages. It is a Turkish language learned and spoken by Iranian peasants.

Azerbaijan therefore has remained an Iranian territory. It is true that novel features are not lacking, and some among them could certainly be attributed to the penetration of Anatolian influences. Thus, Azerbaijan shares with Asia Minor the use in the countryside of a heavy two-wheeled cart; this is unknown elsewhere in Iran, which remains almost entirely a country which prefers manual transport of loads. At harvest time the use of animal-drawn tools (the threshing board and the threshing wheel, often in combination) is much more widespread in Azerbaijan. In the rest of Iran, these devices are not unknown, but use of the flail or threshing under animal feet predominates (Wulff, pp. 273-77; Digard, 1981, p. 87). However, given the current state of our knowledge, it is difficult to identify the spread of these particular features as being strictly limited to the Azeri ethnic group; moreover, we cannot eliminate the hypothesis of an earlier penetration of Mediterranean influence owing nothing to the return of the Turks from Anatolia.

Thus Turkish nomads, in spite of their deep penetration throughout Iranian lands, only slightly influenced the local culture. Elements borrowed by the Iranians from their invaders were negligible. Only in some areas relating to lifestyle and pasturing techniques did they exert any real influence, as evident in the spread all over northern and central Iran of the etymologically Turkish terms yeylāq and qešlāq to designate summer and winter living quarters, that replaced their Persian equivalents, sardsir and garmsir (q.v.) still preserved in the fringes of the Persian Gulf; Iranian terms are found in Baluchistan as well. Again, we notice that this Turkish influence was exercised mainly at higher altitudes, in summer mountain pastures. Only there, for example, and rarely so, did Turkish words enter into vocabulary of the Baḵtiāris (Digard et al., 1982), Iranian nomads issued from ancient, semi-nomadic peasants converted to nomadism during the troubles caused by the Turko-Mongol invasions. Indeed, only by this generalized transformation of lifestyles and by the prolonged, deep retrogression of sedentary life (Planhol, 1968, pp. 210-19), did the Turks considerably affect use of Iranian lands. Yet, they in no great measure profoundly changed the nature of the forms of exploitation. Moreover, as soon as they descended into their winter quarters in the depths of the mountain valleys or in the urbanized piedmont, they entered the orbit of a superior civilization whose power of assimilation proved to be irresistible.

In the final analysis, in spite of their linguistic Turkicization, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan are noteworthy examples of the extraordinary capacity of the Iranian lands for resistance, imposing upon their conquerors a system of exploiting the soil which is the very foundation of a civilization they strengthened, and that is undoubtedly, at least in its material components, the most ancient in the world.



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(Xavier de Planhol)

Originally Published: December 15, 2004

Last Updated: March 29, 2012

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Vol. XIII, Fasc. 2, pp. 204-212