Persia peeks out

by November 30, 2010

The Cyrus Cylinder (c. 539-530 BC), carved after the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great

Nations delineated on a world map have an attractive but misleading simplicity: marked out with a single name and a single colour, we tend to ascribe one-word attributes to them as well. But one doesn’t have to look hard to perceive the complexity that really makes up any given country, and sometimes additional layers of identity assert themselves forcefully without having to be sought.

In Iran — a nation that outsiders typically summarize with a pat phrase like “Muslim theocracy” — the separate layers of national and religious identity have recently become easier to discern, as political leaders play up Iran’s ancient imperial history as distinct from its more modern (i.e. since the seventh-century Arab conquest) identity as an Islamic state. Though this is certainly not unprecedented — the twentieth-century monarchy of Reza Shah Pahlavi leaned heavily on a secular nationalism based on Persian history and culture — recent strains in Arab-Iranian relations and Iranian political dynamics may both be contributing to its current incarnation. Writes Nima Tamaddon, deputy editor of the Iran program at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting:

Some believe President Ahmadinejad’s administration is placing more emphasis on Iran’s ancient and unique heritage these days, marking a shift away from the previous stress on a Muslim sense of community with the Arab world.

In the last few months, Ahmadinejad and his allies have used a variety of tactics to foster the perception that they are distancing themselves from the clerical establishment.

For example, the president and his chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei have played up an exhibition of the Cyrus Cylinder which opened in Tehran in September.

On loan from the British Museum, the inscribed clay cylinder dates from the reign of the 6th century BC Iranian monarch Cyrus the Great.

In remarks justifying Iran’s right to develop a nuclear programme, Ahmedinejad described the cylinder as “as an embodiment of human values and cultural heritage for all humanity”. Mashaei, meanwhile said he endorsed “the Iranian rather than Islamic school of thought”.

Read the rest here. A useful and easy-to-digest overview of Iranian nationalism is also available in Youssef M. Choueiri’s A Companion to the History of the Middle East (read here, via Google Books), and a translation of the Cyrus Cylinder is available on the British Museum’s website here.