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In the Western world, Persia (or its cognates) was historically the common name for Iranmarker. In 1935, Reza Shah asked foreign delegates to use the term Iran (the historical name of the country, used by its native people) in formal correspondence. Since then, in the Western World, the use of the word "Iran" has become more common. This also changed the usage of the names for the Iranian nationality, and the common adjective for citizens of Iran changed from Persian to Iranian. In 1949, the Iranian government announced that both "Persia" and "Iran" could officially be used interchangeably. Nonetheless, the word "Iran" has replaced "Persia" in the common usage.

Etymology of Iran

The name of Iranmarker derives immediately from Middle Persian Ērān, Pahlavi ʼyrʼn, first attested in the inscription that accompanies the investiture relief of Ardashir I at Naqsh-e Rustammarker. In this inscription, the king's Middle Persian appellation is ardašīr šāhān šāh ērān while in the Parthian language inscription that accompanies the Middle Persian one the king is titled ardašīr šāhān šāh aryān (Pahlavi: ... ʼryʼn).

The gentilic ēr- and ary- in ērān/aryān derives from Old Iranian *arya- (Old Persian ariya-, Avestan airiia-, etc.), meaning "Aryan," in the sense of "of the Iranians." This term is attested as an ethnic designator in Achaemenid inscriptions and in Zoroastrianism's Avesta tradition, and it seems "very likely" that in Ardashir's inscription ērān still retained this meaning, denoting the people rather than the empire.

Notwithstanding this inscriptional use of ērān to refer to the Iranian peoples, the use of ērān to refer to the empire (and the antonymic anērān to refer to the Roman territories) is also attested by the early Sassanid period. Both ērān and anērān appear in 3rd century calendrical text written by Mani. In an inscription of Ardashir's son and immediate successor, Shapur I "apparently includes in Ērān regions such as Armeniamarker and the Caucasus which were not inhabited predominantly by Iranians." In Kartir's inscriptions (written thirty years after Shapur's), the high priest includes the same regions (together with Georgia, Albania, Syria and the Pontus) in his list of provinces of the antonymic Anērān. Ērān also features in the names of the towns founded by Sassanid dynasts, for instance in Ērān-xwarrah-šābuhr "Glory of Ērān (of) Shapur". It also appears in the titles of government officers, such as in Ērān-āmārgar "Accountant-General (of) Ērān" or Ērān-dibirbed "Chief Scribe (of) Ērān".

Etymology of Persia

The Greeks (who tended earlier to use names related to "Median") began in the fifth century BC to use adjectives such as Perses, Persica or Persis for Cyrus the Great's empire (a word meaning "country" being understood). Such words were taken from the Old Persian Pārsa - the name of the people whom Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid dynasty first ruled (before he inherited or conquered other Persian Kingdoms) and of whom he was one. This tribe gave its name to the region where they lived (the modern day province is called Fars/Parsmarker) but the province in ancient times was larger than its current area. In Latin, the name for the whole empire was Persia.

In the later parts of the Bible, where this kingdom is frequently mentioned (Books of Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah), it is called "Paras" (Hebrew פרס), or sometimes "Paras u Madai" (פרס ומדי) i.e. "Persia and Media".

The two names in the West

The name Persia was the official name of Iran in the Western world before 1935, but the Iranian people inside their country since the time of Zoroaster (probably circa 1000 BC), or even before, have called their country "Aryānām" (the equivalent of "Iran" in the proto-Iranian language) or its equivalents. It is not exactly clear what the Iranian people called their country during the Median (728 BC-559 BC), Achaemenid (550 BC–330 BC) or Parthian (250 BC– 226 CE) empires, but evidently from the time of the Sassanids (226–651 CE) they have called it Iran, meaning "the land of Aryans". In Middle Persian sources, the name "Iran" is used for the pre-Sassanid Iranian empires as well as the Sassanid empire. As an example, the use of the name "Iran" for Achaemenids in the Middle Persian book of Arda Viraf refers to the invasion of Iran by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. The Proto-Iranian term for Iran is reconstructed as *Aryānām (the genitive plural of the word *Arya) and the Avestan equivalent is Airyanem (as in Airyanem Vaejah). The internal preference for "Iran" was noted in some Western reference books (e.g. the Harmsworth Encyclopaedia, circa 1907, entry for IRAN: "The name is now the official designation of Persia.") but for international purposes, "Persia" was the norm.

On 21 March 1935, the ruler of the country, Reza Shah Pahlavi, issued a decree asking foreign delegates to use the term "Iran" in formal correspondence.

As the New York Times explained at the time,
"At the suggestion of the Persian Legation in Berlinmarker, the Tehran government, on the Persian New Year, March 21, 1935, substituted Iran for Persia as the official name of the country.
In its decision it was influenced by the Nazi revival of interest in the various Aryan races, cradled in ancient Persia.
As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs set forth in its memorandum on the subject, 'Perse', the French designation of Persia, connoted the weakness and tottering independence of the country in the nineteenth century, when it was the chessboard of European imperialistic rivalry.
'Iran', by contrast, conjured up memories of the vigour and splendour of its historic past."
A few years later some Persian scholars also protested to the government that changing the name of the country in Western languages had separated the country from its past and its culture.

To avoid confusion between the two neighboring countries: Iran and Iraq, which were both involved in WWII and occupied by the Allies, Winston Churchill requested from the Iranian Government during the Teheran Conference for the old and distinct name "Persia to be used by the United Nations [i.e., the Allies] for the duration of the common War." His request was approved immediately by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The American side, however, continued using "Iran" as it had at the time little involvement in Iraq to cause any such confusion.

In 1949 Mohammad Reza Shah announced that both "Persia" and "Iran" could officially be used interchangeably.Nowadays both terms are common; "Persia" mostly in historical and cultural contexts, "Iran" mostly in political contexts.

In recent years most exhibitions of Persian history, culture and art in the world have used the term "Persia" (e.g., "Forgotten Empire; Ancient Persia", British Museum; "7000 Years of Persian Art", Vienna, Berlin; and "Persia; Thirty Centuries of Culture and Art", Amsterdam). In 2006, the largest collection of historical maps of Iran, entitled "Historical Maps of Persia", was published in the Netherlands.

History of the debate

Serious argument on this matter began in the 1980s, when Professor Ehsan Yarshater (editor of the Encyclopædia Iranica) started to publish articles on this matter (in both English and Persian) in Rahavard Quarterly, Pars Monthly, Iranian Studies Journal, etc. After him, a few Persian scholars and researchers such as Prof. Kazem Abhary, Prof. Jalal Matini and Pejman Akbarzadeh followed the issue. Several times since then, Persian magazines and websites have published articles from those who agree or disagree with usage of 'Persia' and 'Persian' in English.

It is the case in many countries that the country's native name is different from its international name (see Exonym), but for Persians/Iranians this issue has been very controversial. Main points on this matter:

  • Persia is the western name of the country, and Iranians were calling their country "Iran" for many centuries.
  • Persia evokes the old culture and civilization of the country.
  • Persia and the name of a province of Iran (viz., "Pars") are from the same root, and may cause confusion.
  • The name Persia comes from 'Pars' but the meaning shifted to refer to the whole country.
  • In Western languages, all famous cultural aspects of Iran have been recorded as "Persian" (e.g., Persian carpet, Persian food, Persian cat, Persian pottery, Persian melon, etc.)

There are many Persians (Iranians) and non-Persians in the West who prefer "Persia" and "Persian" as the English names for the country and nationality, similar to the usage of La Perse/persan in French. According to Hooman Majd, the popularity of the term "Persia" among the Persian diaspora, stems from the fact that "`Persia` connotes a glorious past they would like to be identified with, while `Iran`, ... says nothing to the world [outside of Iran] but Islamic fundamentalism."

However, the name has presented problems for some Iranian ethnic groups who do not identify themselves as Persian, or whose native language is not Persian.

See also


  • The History of the Idea of Iran, A. Shapur Shahbazi in Birth of the Persian Empire by V. S. Curtis and S. Stewart, 2005, ISBN 1845110625


  1. Liddell and Scott, Lexicon of the Greek Language, Oxford, 1882, p 1205
  2. But not the rulers and emperors of Iran.
  3. Arda Viraf (1:4; 1:5; 1:9; 1:10; 1:12; and etc.)
  4. Oliver McKee Jr., New Names of Places: Change of Santo Domingo to Trujillo City Recalls Others, The New York Times, 26 June 1933, p. XX9.
  5. Iransaga, "Persia or Iran, a brief history".
  6., Iranian & Persian Art.
  7. Majd, Hooman, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ : The Paradox of Modern Iran, by Hooman Majd, Doubleday, 2008, p.161


  1. Liddell and Scott, Lexicon of the Greek Language, Oxford, 1882, p 1205
  2. But not the rulers and emperors of Iran.
  3. Arda Viraf (1:4; 1:5; 1:9; 1:10; 1:12; and etc.)
  4. Oliver McKee Jr., New Names of Places: Change of Santo Domingo to Trujillo City Recalls Others, The New York Times, 26 June 1933, p. XX9.
  5. Iransaga, "Persia or Iran, a brief history".
  6., Iranian & Persian Art.
  7. Majd, Hooman, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ : The Paradox of Modern Iran, by Hooman Majd, Doubleday, 2008, p.161

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