One of the oldest civilizations in history, Persia has a played a role on the world stage for thousands of years. In her fall class, Melanie Urban traces the origins of present-day Iran including its rich history, art, culture and more. We visited with her to find out more about this fascinating ancient culture.
WIH Reporter: What do we need to know about your upcoming class?
Urban: We will be covering 4,000 years of Persian history and culture. Iran today is as much a product of its Persian legacy as it is influenced by its Islamic heritage. Iranians consider themselves separate and apart from their Arab co-religionists, and we will talk about the reasons for this separate identity as well as how that plays into their current political position.
WIH Reporter: What about Persian culture?
Urban: The legacy of Persia in its culture and art has influenced both east and west, and we will talk about those aspects of its identity as well. Persia was strategically located to take advantage of the trade and cultural exchanges east to west and vice versa. Trade and exchange along the land-based Silk Road fostered the spread of ideas and religions, as well as art and technology.
WIH Reporter: What would surprise us to know about the topic of your class?
Urban: There are many delightful and surprising aspects to the study of Persian history and culture. For instance, did you know that the tombs of Esther and her uncle Mordecai lie in Hamadan in the western part of Iran? You can find her story in the Old Testament, along with that of other prophets who lived and worked in Achaemenid Persia. Cyrus, who founded the great Achaemenid dynasty, sent the Jews of the diaspora back home to Israel and gave them money from his own treasury to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. When the Romans started expanding their empire at the end of the first millennium BCE, who stopped that expansion into Asia beyond the Levant? The Persians, of course, and they fought the Romans to a standstill on many occasions over the following centuries. Memorials to these victories were carved in stone, and still stand today in wonderful detail.
Another constant source of amazement for me is the high level of Persian culture and artistic endeavor during the early part of the second millennium CE, at a time when Western Europe was struggling to survive. The contrast is instructive and explains, in part, why Persian tradition plays a central role in the Iranian identity even today. These are simply examples, a few of many, that will reward a participant in my lecture series on Iran.
WIH Reporter: What mistaken impressions might we have about the subject of your class?