In ancient times, Persia - or Iran as it should more properly be called - was one of the great civilizations of the Near Last, ranking alongside Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Levant and Egypt. From prehistoric times onwards many parts of the country were home to rich and prosperous cultures, and in the sixth and fifth centuries BC the kings of Persia conquered the whole of the Near East. This westward expansion brought them into conflict with Greece, and the ensuing Graeco-Persian wars are recorded at length in classical sources. It is largely because of these classical accounts that Iran is often referred to in the West as Persia, but strictly speaking Persia should be used to describe one part of the country only namely the modern province of Fars in southwest Iran (ancient Parsa or Greek Persis). In the West, the country has been officially known as Iran only since 1935, but the Iranians themselves have used the term Iran for many centuries. The name is actually of ancient origin, meaning ‘land of the Aryans’. Thus, in his famous inscription at Bisitun, Darius refers to himself as an Aryan, and the Sasanian monarchs called themselves kings of Iran. At that time, though, the land of Iran (Eranshahr) covered a much larger area than it does today Iran is a land of extraordinary diversity, geographically, climatically and ethnically. The central part of the country is a great plateau, mostly between 1000 and 2000 m above sea level, situated between the Caspian Sea in the north and the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in the south. In the central and eastern parts of the plateau are two great salt deserts, the Dasht-i Lut and the Dasht-i Kavir. These are dried-up former lakes, where settlement is practically impossible. On the west, Iran is divided from the lowland plains of Mesopotamia by the high Zagros Mountains, and in the north the Elburz range, with the majestic peak of Demavend in the centre, separates Tehran from the Caspian Sea. In the northeast the Khorasan Mountains, an extension of the Elburz chain, form a barrier between the plateau and what is now Turkmenistan. To the east the boundaries between Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan respectively are less well defined, but here too there are mountain ranges marking the eastern edge of the Iranian plateau.
In a land the size of Iran there are, naturally; many regional variations in scenery and climate. Khuzistan in the southwest, for example, is essentially an extension of the lowland plains of Mesopotamia and enjoys the same warm, arid climate. In the north the strip of land around the Caspian Sea is clothed with dense, jungle-like vegetation that thrives in the subtropical climate. In Sistan, a depression centred on Lake Hamun on the Afghan border, the stifling heat of summer and the high winds make living conditions very unpleasant. However, most of the plateau enjoys a pleasant continental climate, warm but not intolerably hot in the summer and with snow for two to three months in the winter.
Modern Iran is composed of many diverse ethnic elements. In addition to Persians, who form the largest group, there are Turks, Kurds, Lurs, Baluchis and Arabs, as well as a number of ethnic minorities. There must haee been a similar situation in antiquity, with the country occupied by different groups with different backgrounds and speaking different languages. This is reflected in the archaeological record, which shows evidence of different cultures often with their own distinctive art styles. In antiquity Iran was not a homogeneous unit, and contacts were not confined to the borders of modern Iran. For example, at different periods southeast Iran had close connections with Afghanistan, Khuzistan (part of ancient Elam) had close connections with Mesopotamia, and northwestern Iran (Azerbaijan) had links with the cultures of the Caucasus. Not until the Achaemenid period (550-330 BC) was the country united in a meaningful sense, and even then the society was probably very mixed, allowing for the continuation of local art styles and traditions.
Map of Iran showing some of the principal ancient sites and modern towns mentioned in the text.