The Land and The People

Robert Payne


[Map of Iran] IF you look at a modern map of Persia, you will see how it stretches like a great arrowhead from the Capian Sea to the Indian Ocean, and lies between India and Russia. Afghanistan, the Turkmen Republic, Turkey, Iraq, and Arabia are its neighbors. Then turn to an ancient map --such a map as the Emperor Darius, "the King of Kings," might have looked upon twenty-four centuries ago-- and you will see the Persian Empire stretching into the eastern Mediterranean, including large parts of Greece and all of Egypt, and reaching out include vast areas of southern Russia and making deep inroads into Central Asia, Pakistan, and northern India. The Persian Empire swallowed up the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires, and went beyond them. It was the greatest empire the world had ever known, and for two centuries its capital was the capital of the world. Today only the core of this empire remains. But the Persians, who rarely regret the past, do not believe the glory has departed. Speaking quite confidently, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, they will say: "Glory lay over this land from the beginning."

For them Persia is far more than a country: it is a place of splendor, where the gods dwell and the ancient heroes still walk in the land, where the remote past and the immediate present live side by side. For them all other lands are disappointing, for the sun does not shine so brightly elsewhere and there are almost no buildings beyond the boundaries of Persia which shine so brightly as their blue-tiled mosques. The Persian sky, scintillating with the dust of the vast deserts or washed clean by the heavy rains, makes everything appear brighter than it really is. Outlines are sharper, colors clearer, shadows more sombre than elsewhere. It is a country of violent contrasts, the snow mountains looking down on endless deserts, bitter cold and intense heat, Switzerland and Arabia stirred together. Two thirds of Persia is mountain and desert. It is no wonder that the Persians in their rare oases have a passionate love for gardens.

The mountains and the deserts formed the Persians: the glittering snows, the endless empty spaces of the desert where nothing grows and no animals can live have formed their minds and toughened their spirits. They have the hardiness of mountaineers and the contemplative instincts of the desert-dwellers. [Mount Damavand] There is nothing essentially Asiatic about them: they are the Europeans of the East, with high foreheads, straight noses, and fresh coloring. They are Aryans, and today they call their country Iran, which is only another way of spelling Aryan. Because they originally spoke an Aryan tongue, even today their language is close to ours in feeling and a surprising number of words are common to Persian and English. But if they can be compared with any other race, we must turn to the French, who have the same dancing attitude to life, the same quick wits, the same love for decoration, the same sense of glory and splendor. There are moments, walking in Teheran, when you can almost imagine yourself in some southern French town near the Pyrenees.

Glory, splendor . . . these are the words which come most often to one's lips in describing the Persians. Partly, of course, it derives from the memory of the great empires which spread out of Persia, the luxury of the courts, the palaces flashing with jewels, Persepolis, the Thousand and One Nights.

[Tehran] If the Persians were the first world-conquerers, they were also among the most tolerant empire-builders the world has ever seen. They worshipped the god Ahuramazda, Lord of the Sun and of the Shining Heavens, but they never attempted to proselytize and allowed astonishing freedom of self-government among the subject peoples. They released the Jews from the Babylonian captivity, restored their ritual vessels and assisted them to rebuild the Temple. They even rebuilt the walls from Athens to the Piraeus which the Spartans had levelled. For over two centuries they maintained a world of law, peace and justice over an area which extended from the Indus and the Oxus to the Nile and the Aegean. When the Greeks spoke of the Persians, it was always with awe mingled with envy and the desire to imitate. When Alexander the Great became master of the Persian Empire, he assumed quite naturally the robes and the powers of the Persian Emperors and consorted more with Persians than with Greeks. He borrowed the design of a worldempire from Darius, and modelled himself on Cyrus. There was nothing capricious in his choice of a model. There is a sense in which the wars between the Greeks and the Persians were civil wars, fought by two superbly gifted peoples of the same race.

If by some magical means we could be transported to Persia at the time of Darius, what kind of people would we see? It happens that we know the answer, because hundreds of portraits of Persians survive at Persepolis, carved in long relief on the great stairway, and the faces we see there are the same faces we see today in Isfahan and Shiraz, and even more in the mountain villages. Again we see those faces in the carvings of the Sasanians, who reigned a thousand years after Darius. We recognize them again in the thousands of portraits that have survived from the time of the Emperor Shah Abbas, who ruled over Persia during the reign of England's Queen Elizabeth.

There is an extraordinary continuity in the Persian face: lean, intense, with wide eyes, firm chin, delicate nostrils, and with the suggestion of a strange inner excitement. So little has changed that sometimes you have the feeling that the people are only waiting to step back into the remote, unobtainable and dazzling past. Every morning the Tehran radio begins the day's work with a recitation from a poetic epic on the ancient Persian heroes --the Shah Nameh of Firdausi. It is almost as though the British radio were to begin every morning with a recitation from Beowulf.

There are good reasons for the continuity of Persian features and Persian character. Invaders have swept over the land: Arabs, Mongols, Greeks, Turks, and Scythians. They came in floods, stayed for a little while, and then the floods subsided, leaving the original Persians unharmed. Again and again in Persian history we come upon periods of confused wars, with perhaps ten armies rampaging across the country: then the smoke clears, and we discover there is a new Emperor on the throne claiming descent from the ancient Achaemenian Emperors. After periods of confusion, the ancient and familiar patterns of government emerge again. Even today, in the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, we can observe patterns of government which derive from the time of Darius. In any other country such a fantastic continuity would be a sign of weakness: in Persia it is a sign of strength.

Given the nature of the land, this continuity is easily explained. It is a hard and bitter land, with few rivers and few trees except in the Caspian and western provinces. Here quite suddenly on a narrow strip of shore, the normal order of nature in Persia is reversed. Here swiftly flowing rivers drop from the high mountains into an inland sea, and there are rich agricultural lands and vast forests teeming with game. As a consequence Mazanderan and Gilan on the shores of the Caspian Sea have tempted raiders from the time of the Vikings in the tenth century to the Bolsheviks in 1920.

[Ferdowsi] [...]
While poetry has been the main force responsible for keeping Persian traditions alive, it is mother wit which helps the Persians to face the present. In the early years of the last century James Morier, the British representative at the court of Persia, wrote a book called The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan. Hajji Baba is always putting his nose into affairs that do not concern him, and always getting involved in difficulties from which he extricates himself by a triumphant display of wit and resourcefulness. He is no respecter of persons. He talks with Kings as insolently as he talks with women, landlords, and viziers. Gregarious and friendly, he scorns the world's malice and comes up laughing in the end. Persians are sometimes inclined to regard the book with suspicion, on the grounds that it gives too many of their secrets away. No one who has ever been to Persia can forget the fierce gentleness of their wit and their addiction to stories so adroitly embroidered that the teller is drowned in the embroidery.

It is partly the fault of the language, which is soft and resonant and tends to carry the speaker away into the wildest improvizations, a language wonderfully suited to the audacious. This crisp and enticing language convinces easily: as musical as Italian and as neat as French. Americans who say they know no Persian know more than they think they know. Over a hundred and fifty English words have been borrowed from the Persian. Here are sixty words in common use which we have taken from them:

        azure		jasmine		naphtha		satrap
        bazaar		jasper		narcissus	scarlet
        candy		julep		orange		scimitar
        caravan		jungle		palanquin	seersucker
        cheque		khaki		paradise        shawl
        chess		lemon		peach		sherbet
        cinnabar        lilac		peacock		spinach
        cypress		lime		pear		sugar
        dervish		Magi		puttee		taffeta
        divan		magic		pajama		tapestry
        exchequer	margarine	rice		tiara
        gazelle		marguerite	rook		tiger
        henna		muscadel        saccharine      tulip
        jackal		musk		saffron		turban
        jargon		myrtle		sash		verandah

If you will say some of these words softly, with a slight singsong intonation, you will have some idea of the sound of Persian, a language curiously like English, having many words which we share with them. Mother is mader, father is pedar, brother is barader. Two is do, six is shesh, is is ist. Persian belongs to the great group of Indo-Aryan languages, our own language being the very last to be developed. Coming back to Persian is like coming back to the source. Like English, Persian is a language which cries out for poets: there has been no dearth of poetry in Persia.

Unfortunately the Persian poet most familiar in the West is one of the least typical. Omar Khayyam is recognized in his own country as an excellent mathematician and astronomer, and the hero of some curious legends, but he is given no very high place as a poet. Edward Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat describes only one aspect of the Persian character: their love of wine and women, a raw anguish at the thought of the impermanence of the world. In English the poem has the sound of trumpets, but in the original Persian it has more of the sound of muffled drums, a slow lament.
So it is that nearly all translations from Persian fail: we miss the softness of the Persian syllables and the sound like running waters that goes through all their poetry. We miss much in an English version of the Ruhaiyat, and forget that when he is talking about the Tavern he means the House of Love, and when he is talking about grapes and wine, he means the Truth which God pours out upon the heads of men, though he also means real grapes pressed into real wine -for the poem is to be read on many levels. We do gain at moments an astonishing insight into the Persian character with its defiance, its sense of the splendor of the visible world and its mysticism and reliance upon God, at once in this world and out of it. And though Omar Khayyam is not typical, and he is often pedestrian in the Rubaiyat, there are moments when he is completely convincing, as when he celebrates the Prophet Mohammad:

        The mighty Mohammad, the victorious Lord,
        That all the misbelieving and black Horde
        Of fears and sorrows that inflict the soul
        Scatters and slays with his enchanted Sword.

It is the typical Persian attitude towards Mohammad, in whose name they were conquered by the Arabs. Refusing to accept orthodox Islam, they transformed it into something closer to their heart's desire and clothed it in enchantment. They turned orthodox Islam upside down, spun fairy tales around it, elevated Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, almost above the Prophet himself, and came to believe in time that the sacred cities of Islam were in Persia itself. In their poctry enchanted swords are everywhere.

We owe a debt to Persia we can never repay. So much that is bright and glittering and desirable was invented by them. They were the first to invent angels, which the Jews borrowed during the Babylonian captivity, and the Christians borrowed from the Jews. The most beautiful of all decorated domes are in Persia. They invented chess and polo, and the first known highways for whecled traffic were the royal roads built by Darius. And half our fairy tales have Persian origins. Their intellectual and spiritual contributions to the world derive from the enchanted interpretation of the world they saw before their eyes: for them the world was a flame, forever quivering, forever bright, forever leaping. For them the world was magic. The very word magic comes from their [allegely] fire-worshipping priests, the Magi who attended upon Xerxes and Darius. And remembering the Magi who attended the birth of Christ, the third century theologian Sextus Julius Africanus wrote: "Our first knowledge of Jesus came from Persia."

We shall understand Persia best by looking at her long history, where the rise and decline of four great dynasties seems always to follow the same pattern, as though the Persians themselves had remained unchanged through all recorded time, reacting in the same way to the challenges thrown down by succceding dynasties. And as we look at their history unfolding before us, it seems sometimes that there is little change: Xerxes and Shapur and Shah Abbas might be brothers. Centuries separated them, but it is their likeness to one another that we remember. Perhaps it could hardly be otherwise. Persia lay at the crossroads between the East and the West, and at the same time the country was almost inaccessible with its huge deserts and barricades of mountains. An invading army does not enter such a country lightly. Those who invaded Persia brought suppleness and strength, and the Persians themselves had to acquire suppleness and strength to resist them. Being conquerors themselves, they became a hardy, earthy people, devoted to their land and their memories of conquest, delighting in the world around them, cultivating the arts, generous in conversation, living as much in the past as in the present, and always dreaming the same dreams those dreams that wore the colors of human majesty, so that every Persian saw himself in some way as a King. Thus they brought into being Kings who were very much like themselves, but touched with a more fiery light than that which shone on their own faces.



Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes --all had worshipped the Lord of Wisdom, Ahura Mazda, and taken their strength from him and ruled in his name. He was lord of the rivers and mountains and the furthest reaches of the earth: he was a god who revealed himself in every flame, but he was also the god who breathed life into the Persians, guarded their cattle, protected them from enemies, gave them nourishment and peace and fair children. He spoke strenly out of the thundercloud, and in a more gentle voice beside running streams. He owed his position among men to the claim made for him by Zarathustra, the greatest of the prophets Persia has given to the world.
Zarathustra --the name means "with golden camels"-- was the son of Pourashaspa ("son of grey horses") and Dughdora ("she who has milk-white cows.") The family name was Spitama, meaning "white."
[Zarathustra] { some words have amazingly remained almost the same through centuries:
zara = zar = gold;
ustra = oshtor = shotor = camel;
spitama = sepid = white;
aspa = asp = asb = horse;
dugh = dairy? }

It was this young prophet who gave form and substance to the strenuous worship of the god Ahuramazda, proclaiming that he was above all gods. A hundred years after Isaiah and a hundred years before Buddha, he brought into existence a monotheistic religion of extraordinary purity, possessing in the words of Albert Schweitzers "an astonishing affinity to Christianity."

In time, and perhaps even while Zarathustra was still living, the doctrine became more complex. At first he spoke of the blinding glory of Ahuramazda, and from there he had gone to speak of the abstract virtues streaming from the god's contenance: Truth, Empire, Purity, Piety, Immortality, Perfection, the Blaze of Light.
[Faravahar] Gradually these abstract virtues became identified as angels. The first of the angels was Sraosha, representing obedience to the divine law. His dwelling-place, according to the Avesta written long after the death of Zarathustra, was a palace supported by a thousand pillars which glowed with their own light, the roof of the palace being spangled with stars. Sraosha drove in a chariot drawn by four white horses "swifter than the winds or the rain or the winged birds." He wore the shape of an unconquerable youth.

Mithra was another of the angels, and his history was perhaps the oddest of all, for in earlier days he was regarded as the greatest among the gods. Displaced from his supreme position, he became the leader among angels, the captain of the host against Evil (Ahriman), his place so high in the hierarchy that sometimes he was invoked together with Ahuramazda.
From him comes life and increase; to him women prayed for sons, he was the fatness of cattle and piety of priests. As Sraosha represented Truth, Mithra represented Empire. His single glance could hurl spirits of evil into distant corners. His spies incessantly reported him the affairs of earth: he could decide at his pleasure whether there would be peace or war between nations. In time, the cult of Mithra was to shake itself free of Zarathustraism entirely, and to extend throughout the Roman Empire: there were temples to Mithra even in London.

Together with Mithra, often standing very close to him, was the goddess Anahita. She dwelt in the starry heavens, and her function was to watch over creation as the shepherd watches over his flock. She was the protectress, the gentle goddess from whom there flowed an ever-widening stream of blessing. She too had her chariot with four white shining horses. [Anahita] She was associated with rivers and all flowing things, and represented as a young and beautiful maiden, high-breasted and gold-sandaled, wearing a robe of pure gold and a cloak made of three hundred beaver skins. [...] Inlater Achaemenian times there were statues to her in all the big cities of Persia. She tempered the appalling majesty and power of Ahuramazda.

In the time of the Sasanians the books of Zarathustra were edited and vast commentaries were compiled, only to be destroyed by the Arabs when they invaded Persia. A small part was carried secretly away. Today in Yazd and Kerman and Bombay, the ancient texts are still recited.

The importance of Zarathustra'a teachings is not to be measured by the number of his living disciples. In all ages the Persian mind has been saturated with the peculiar morality derived from him. Long ago he became a part of the fabric of their imaginations, and they can no more escape from him than they can escape from themselves.
(not to mention his influence on Judaism and Christianity)



Title:   The Splendor of Persia
Author:  Robert Payne
Imprint: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957