Persian Contraction From 1700 to 2000
Persia represented an important link between East and West. It held the Middle position and in geopolitical terms, this position meant a lot as the Industrial Age began to get underway in the modern era. Persian territory was viewed with envious eyes by other nations that saw the strategic location Persia occupied. The decadence of the Ottoman Empire, a series of wars, power plays, globalization, cultural changes and influences, and diaspora have all impacted Persia and accounted for its contraction between 1700 and 2000. This paper will analyze these factors and show how in these three hundred years, changes in the way of the world, such as the influence of technology and industry, had a direct effect on the shape of Persia and its geographical location.
Persia in the 18th Century
The Suffavean dynasty was founded in the 16th century and it lasted for roughly two centuries, when the Afghans invaded Persia and took possession of it 1722. While the Afghans only ruled for less than a decade, they brought such tyranny to Persia that the people were very upset. Nadir Shah overthrew the Afghans and ruled for a decade but following his death, disorder took hold. This was the beginning of nearly half a century of instability and chaos in Persia as revolution followed revolution. The Kadjar dynasty finally put Persia back in order for a time. Persia then proceeded to be engaged in conflict with Russia, which took the Caucuses, as well as in conflict with Britain. Military rule was the order of the day at places like Shiraz.[footnoteRef:1] Civil order had broken down and Persia was weakened as a whole as a result. Indeed, as David Morgan notes, “the eighteenth century was not a happy period for Persia.”[footnoteRef:2] The major nations of the world all had sights set on the Middle East as it was a major central location between East and West and with the advent of the Industrial Revolution fast approaching, oil wars would began, with various geopolitical power plays going into affect all around and in Persia. [1: Christopher Werner, “Taming the Tribal Native: Court culture and politics in eighteenth century Shiraz,” Court Cultures in the Muslim World: Seventh to Nineteenth Centuries, edited by Albrecht Fuess and Jan-Peter Hartung (NY: Routledge, n.d.), 223.] [2: David Morgan, Medieval Persia: 1040-1797 (London: Longman, n.d.), 152.]
As Hassan Bashir notes, Iran came to the point where it could enter into the “age of modernization” if it wanted to do so.[footnoteRef:3] Qanun, for instance, was a newspaper published in London that promoted “unity, justice, progress” and advocated social reform.[footnoteRef:4] That this paper was published abroad and not in Persia proper indicates the extent to which external factors were bearing on Persia and causing it to constrict. The globalization of trade that was effected by the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century and the expansion of oil wars had brought Persia directly into the cross-hairs of major Easter and Western powers. Sloganeering, progress, reform, democracy — all of this was supported by Western countries seeking to undermine powers in the Middle East and to break apart and splinter what remained of dynasties and empires so that it could install its own colonial outposts and control the movements of the state (as well as the resources in the ground beneath the feet of the state). [3: Hassan Bashir, “Qanun and the Modernisation of Political Thought in Iran,” Global Media Journal, vol. 8, no. 14 (Spring 2009), 1.] [4: Hassan Bashir, “Qanun and the Modernisation of Political Thought in Iran,” Global Media Journal, vol. 8, no. 14 (Spring 2009), 1.]
The Expansion of Foreign Powers and Their Impact on Persia
Persians were suspicious of outsiders as Persian “voyagers” often saw how “the world is a prison for a believer and a paradise for an unbeliever” and that Europe was becoming increasingly mesmerized by Persian society and what was happening in Persia, as though it meant to have some sway in the region.[footnoteRef:5] Indeed with the rise of technology like the printing press, the spread of European Protestant Evangelicalism, and the advent of Industrialization, Persia faced an insurmountable wall of odds that in due to time would cause it to shrink within itself as a flood of Western seismic shifts and fluctuations came to bear on the region.[footnoteRef:6] As Green notes, Stanhope’s iron handpress revolutionized the way that book production was organized. The printing press was about to be industrialized, which would mean more manuscripts and more ideas could spread more easily across borders, proliferating propaganda, not just from one government or group of individuals but from many. The conflict of ideas and cultures was inevitable, and as always the dominant culture would prevail. [5: Mohammad Tavakoli-Targhi, “Eroticizing Europe,” Society and Culture in Qajar Iran, Studies in Honor of Hafez Farmayan, edited by Elton J. Daniel (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2002), 316.] [6: Nile Green, “Persian Print and the Stanhope Revolution: Industrialization, Evangelicalism, and the Birth of Printing in Early Qajar Iran,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 30, no. 3 (2010), 473.]
This was essentially a step towards the conflict of ideation, of how cultures and territories projected themselves, the ideas they wanted to spread, the objectives they wanted to achieve, the persons and leaders they wanted to undermine. The globalization of printing presses was soon at hand and the London Missionary Society was quick to assert that the press was “an instrument of immense value and we hope the moral benefits diffused through its medium among the inhabitants of this land will be very extensive and permanent.”[footnoteRef:7] In other words, the press would be used to spread British Protestantism around the world, even as far as the Middle East. [7: Nile Green, “Persian Print and the Stanhope Revolution: Industrialization, Evangelicalism, and the Birth of Printing in Early Qajar Iran,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 30, no. 3 (2010), 477.]
Persia had stretched into Delhi under Nadir Shah in the 18th century before shrinking back due to the empire’s inability to consolidate its gains and maintain internal order and structure in the face of the modernizing world, where Empire building was underway by Britain and France. Now the printing press would allow the English to take charge in India and spread its influence to Persia’s neighbors, influencing not only the Indians but those in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well. Even China would feel the threat of the English invasion and would move to take Tibet so as to have a buffer zone between the English in India and their own mainland to the east. Persia, however, had no real buffer zone.
The Power of the Press
Moreover, Persia had not taken advantage of the industrialized use of the printing press to spread its own ideas about faith and religions, society and development within its cultural framework and was exposed to a flood of material from outside cultural that would ultimately play a part in its destiny and its contraction during this period. The evangelicals from London alone were out-printing Persian society for the people in the Middle East it meant to influence. Thus “by the time the first Arabic and Persian books were printed in Egypt and Iran about 1820, the Bible Society alone had printed tens of thousands of Arabic and Persian Bible portions.”[footnoteRef:8] In short, Persian society was at risk of losing its identity and cultural stronghold to foreign missions, representing a different religion as well as a different country with its own national interests at stake. Those interests could readily be seen in India just next door, where Britain was already exploiting the nation’s natural resources and reshaping the region to its own liking and desire. [8: Nile Green, “Persian Print and the Stanhope Revolution: Industrialization, Evangelicalism, and the Birth of Printing in Early Qajar Iran,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 30, no. 3 (2010), 478.]
The Persian language was actually Britain’s means of exerting influence and control over India: indeed, the English “sought mastery of Persian as the prime language of command and means of rule over India” beginning in the late 1700s onward.[footnoteRef:9] This was a business/nationalist venture that saw Britain’s East India Company successfully “appropriating Indian languages to serve as a crucial component in their construction of a system of rule.”[footnoteRef:10] Persian was the language of Iran and had been used by the other countries with which it had come into contact, such as in India. But with Britain now taking command of these languages and using them to influence the local indigenous populations (printing British propaganda in the Persian language, for instance) the English were able to drive a wedge between the local indigenous groups and the culture that had supplied them the very language that the Imperialists were now commandeering thanks to their progress with the industrialized printing machines. [9: Michael Fisher, “Teaching Persian as an Imperial Language in India and in England during the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries,” Literacy in the Persianate World: Writing and the Social Order, edited by Brian Spooner and William Hanaway (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2006), 328.] [10: Michael Fisher, “Teaching Persian as an Imperial Language in India and in England during the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries,” Literacy in the Persianate World: Writing and the Social Order, edited by Brian Spooner and William Hanaway (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2006), 332.]
Thus the printing press and the rise of technology acted as a noose around the neck of the Persian Empire as it began to lose power and influence among its neighbors. Once the English had come in, they had no intention of leaving, and soon they were right next door on the other side of Persia, with Lawrence of Arabia entering into the region to set up another Imperialist outpost for the British Empire. In other words, Persia was hemmed in on both sides by the new global power — Britain. Its dominance in the region was threatened as a result and to push back would be to face a power it had no way of really defeating.
The European Invasion
Nasir al-din Shah situated the plight of Persia during this time period best when he noted that “if only no European had ever set foot in my country, we would have been spared all of these tortures.”[footnoteRef:11] But Russia also posed a threat to Persia in the 19th century, as Mana Kia notes: “After the Napoleonic wars, Russia emerged as Britain’s main imperial rival in Central Asia.”[footnoteRef:12] In short, the globalization of industrial power was now causing everything that was not of its level of power to shrink, and that included Persia. Land in the Middle East was up for grab to those with the biggest hands and the biggest muscle to take it. Thus Persia had not only to combat internal rebellions, it had the new world order to deal with. That world order came crashing down on the Middle East in the 20th century with WW1 and WW2 as first the Ottomans fell and then the British invaded again to take more lands and annex more territories. Iran was now cut off on both sides and hedged in. The League of Nations and then the United Nations took matters into its own hands and began parceling out land to certain groups — as Palestine was given to the Jews and a greater Israel began to take shape, its leaders vowing constant threats against Iran, which was itself being invaded by Western agencies like the CIA. [11: Maryam Ekhtiar, “Nasir al-din Shah and the Dar al-Funum: The Evolution of Institution,” International Society for Iranian Studies: Qajar Art and Society, vol. 34, no. 1/4 (2001), 153.] [12: Mana Kia, “Limning the Land: Social Encounters and Historical Meaning in Early Nineteenth-Century Travelogues between Iran and India,” 54.]
The 20th century was essentially devastating for Persia, as its borders were manipulated by Western intelligence agencies and its politicians used, created, discarded, run out of the region, threatened, overthrown, etc. There was, of course, a backlash to the veritable domination of Iran by the West following WW2. The backlash emanated from the Persian culture, the Shi’ite religion that had stood the test of time and served as the foundation of the Persian society for a great many people, along with the Persian language and the Persian sense of identity. As Babak Rahimi notes, the backlash against the Western encroachment that saw Persia shrinking more and more within itself as more lands were acquired and “formed” by Western support (in an effort to isolate the region, divide it and conquer it, for the sake of oil, pipelines, water and gas — the resources needed to drive the modern industrial world, the resources worth starting wars over) — all of this resulted in a resistance among Shi’ite clerics and the Shi’ite populace, who sought an anti-Western stance and found it in men like Ahmadinejad. Rahimi states, “The victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardliner political candidate in Iran’s 2005 presidential election, has marked a major development in the consolidation of the Islamic Republic.”[footnoteRef:13] This was exactly the type of consolidation that Persia had been needing for years and had been unable to acquire. Unlike the rest of the modernizing world, Iran had fallen behind. Not until it could muster the internal strength, leadership and organization to overcome obstacles, could it begin to address its geopolitical position in the world and its right to assert its own national independence from foreign invaders. With the 21st century now here, Persia looks to strengthen its foothold in the Middle East as it allies with Russia and Syria to develop a Shi’ite crescent separating the Sunni area of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. [13: Babak Rahimi, “The Politics of the Internet in Iran,” Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with globalization and the Islamic state, edited by Mehdi Semanti (NY: Routledge, n.d.), 37.]
The effect of the waning force of Western colonialism and the rise of Israeli statehood has prompted a response in Persia that could be identified as Persian nationalism. But it is also identified as Arab nationalism, and this could prove to be part of the pivot upon which Iran swings in order to regain its strong position in the Middle East. The most vociferous Arab Nationalist was Egyptian president Gamal Nasser. He confronted British, French and Israeli forces in a battle over control of the Suez Canal, and he ridiculed the arrogance of U.S. military advisors like Kermit Roosevelt, who thought Nasser’s loyalties could be bought. Nasser accepted Western money, but his loyalty was to Egypt: he wanted enough arms to be able to secure Egypt’s borders. Since the U.S. was not as forthcoming in this department as Nasser wished, he turned to the Soviets.
The loss of Palestine to the Israelis is presented clearly in any map of the region. Israel, under leaders like Ben-Gurion, Sharon, and Netanyahu, has conducted an extreme offensive against its Arab neighbors. It has overstepped its UN mandate, believing itself to have one greater from God, and it has painted its Iranian neighbors as evil, radical terrorists who seek only to destroy Israel — when in reality, it is quite the opposite: it is Israel that is committing genocide on its Arab neighbors and ethnically cleansing the lands it illegally occupies. Iran is watching and waiting and uniting itself with the aims and objectives of powers who are opposed to the terroristic regimes that are influencing many world events. The time for a strong, more authoritative Persia may be fast approaching. The time for contraction may have ended with the 20th century. Three hundred years of constriction may have been enough, and with the rise of a new and viable threat in Israel, it might be that Persia now takes the lead in dictating policy in the Middle East.
Still, the effects of the Persian diaspora are still felt. The Parsis in India are one example of this. There may be more binding that occurs between nations in the region before all is said and done. As Hinnels observes, “Indian Parsis are, of course, a diaspora, having migrated from Iran to India, and despite their successful settlement and commitment to India they retain a strong emotional link with their ancestral land.”[footnoteRef:14] Many people of the Persian background and culture emigrated to new lands over the time period of Persian contraction. Now, however, there might be some return of individuals to their homeland, at least in spirit and mind. The strengthening of ties and alliances will surely play a part in that. [14: John Hinnells, “Parsis in India and the Diaspora in the Twentieth Century and Beyond,” 265.]
In conclusion, the time period from 1700 to 2000 saw a contraction of Persia due to a number of factors, such as the rise of technology, industrialization, globalization, new global powers emerging and seeking to dominate the region, and a number of internal and external wars that destabilized Persian society. However, even as Persian shrank inwards, its populace remained fundamentally in tune with its native ethnic beliefs and today Iran looks to assert itself in the face of global hegemonic threats from Western powers still looking to take advantage of the region and exert their own military influences. Iran’s alliances with Russia and Syria may be just what Persia needs to restore the lustre of its old faded glory from centuries ago — but, of course, it will take time and effort.
Bashir, Hassan. “Qanun and the Modernisation of Political Thought in Iran,” Global
Media Journal, vol. 8, no. 14 (Spring 2009).
Ekhtiar, Maryam. “Nasir al-din Shah and the Dar al-Funum: The Evolution of Institution,” International Society for Iranian Studies: Qajar Art and Society, vol. 34, no. 1/4 (2001).
Fisher, Michael. “Teaching Persian as an Imperial Language in India and in England
during the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries,” Literacy in the Persianate World: Writing and the Social Order, edited by Brian Spooner and William Hanaway. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2006.
Green, Nile. “Persian Print and the Stanhope Revolution: Industrialization,
Evangelicalism, and the Birth of Printing in Early Qajar Iran,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 30, no. 3 (2010).
Hinnells, John. “Parsis in India and the Diaspora in the Twentieth Century and Beyond.”
Kia, Mana. “Limning the Land: Social Encounters and Historical Meaning in Early
Nineteenth-Century Travelogues between Iran and India.”
Morgan, David. Medieval Persia: 1040-1797. London: Longman, n.d.
Rahimi, Babak. “The Politics of the Internet in Iran,” Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with globalization and the Islamic state, edited by Mehdi Semanti. NY: Routledge, n.d
Tavakoli-Targhi, Mohammed. “Eroticizing Europe,” Society and Culture in Qajar Iran,
Studies in Honor of Hafez Farmayan, edited by Elton J. Daniel. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2002.
Werner, Christopher. “Taming the Tribal Native: Court culture and politics in eighteenth century Shiraz,” Court Cultures in the Muslim World: Seventh to Nineteenth Centuries, edited by Albrecht Fuess and Jan-Peter Hartung. NY: Routledge, n.d.
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