Without the genius of Iran the culture of mankind would have been exceedingly impoverished. Between 546 and 331 B.C. the great Achaemenid Empire, built by Cyrus the Great and consolidated by Darius the Great (521-486 B.C.), continued and perfected, on a far larger scale than had ever been known, the ordering and interchanges of an imperial state whose beginnings had been traced by the Babylonians and Assyrians.
However, the latter had been conquered by the Iranians and the "law of the Medes and Persians” sheltered the development of civilization from the Aegean Sea to the Indian Ocean.
From the crossroads the Medes and then the men of Persis, Cyrus and Darius, marched along routes, which quartered the compass, to create the model of the universal, cosmopolitan state.
During the reign of Artaxerxes I (466-424 B.C.) Greek historians and man of science travelled in the Empire to acquire the learning of the East. Had Democritus (d. 361 B.C.) no met Babylonian scholars and mathematicians under the aegis of the Achaemenid Empire, he would probably not have worked out his atomic theory. His father had entertained the Emperor Xerxes when the Iranian "Great King" had been in Thrace in about 460 B.C.
Leaving those ancient eras when Iran set the style for uniting nations, the more recent Islamic culture can be cited as a phenomenon which immense contributions made in cities such as Baghdad, Bukhara, Herat, Ray, Isfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz from the 8th to the 17th centuries A.D. There the poetry, faience, architecture, metalwork, miniature painting and calligraphy which are the characteristic adornments of Moslem culture were perfected.
Baghdad, from 750 to 1258 the seat of the Caliphs of Islam, who were Islam's religious and juridical heads, is near the site of Ctesiphon on the Tigris, and Ctesiphon’s great arch still stands as the memorial of the splendor of the winter capital of the Persian Sasanid Empire (224-651 A.D.).
Bukhara and Herat were jewels in northeastern Iran, where Achaemenid and Sasanid influence reached the Oxus and Hindu Kush, and the Persian language prevails to this day.
Islam was the faith revealed in the seventh century to the Holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). Shortly after his death the Arabs' expansion at Iran's and Byzantium's expense made Islam inheritor of an Iranian civilization whose beginnings are traceable to 4000 B.C. Then a pottery existed on the Iranian Plateau with designs which reveal that the leap from realism into abstract stylization had already been made; made first of all by prehistoric Iranian potters.
From this discovery it is evident how in the clear atmosphere characteristic of Iran, man's genius was early diverted from observation and imitation of natural objects to transmuting observation into the ordering of abstract design.
The art of those first potters can be seen again in the bounding gazelles and partridges on the wing that decorate the pages of sixteenth century manuscripts as motifs incidentally to more fully developed scenes of princes or embattled against backgrounds of landscapes which are in a Chinese style and include tents from the Steppes of Central Asia; or of philosophers such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina), discoursing to pupils on theme preserved from defunct Greek schools but taught in medieval Iranian college courtyards.
The clarity of the Iranian climate is in great part the key to this type of achievement in the visual arts, as later it will be seen to have been to the development of religious attitudes.
It is a special quality of Iranian conditions, by which all comers are captivated and mentally and spiritually enhanced. To it should be added the abrasive quality of rugged mountain topography and parched plains dramatically relieved by the luxuriance of gardens and coppices in places where carefully husbanded, sparse water supplies meet cultivable soil.
From Herodotus onwards, Iranian adaptability and quickness to borrow from others have frequently been commented on. But rarely has this been done with enough emphasis on the original genius and absolute and unchanging characteristics distinctly Iranian, to make "borrowing" fresh, hitherto unthought-of development, mere imitation being out of the question.
The record can be corrected when it is recognized that the toughness of Iranian conditions, combined with the possibilities of achieving great refinement of living art and intellect, have forged a human resilience and presence of mind to which others have invariably succumbed, never succeeding in erasing the influence and effects of Iranian talent, however calamitously they may have assaulted the Iranian land.
Thus, to a greater extent than a rival Greek might have seen fit to report, Iranians have received less than they have exported, or given to their not always invited guests. Invaders have been of inferior culture, attracted by Iran's superior civilization and quickly conquered by it. From Arabs out of the desert and nomads from the Asiatic steppes Iran could hope to receive little but an influx of fresh vitality and the arduous challenge of refining it into the Iranian way of life.
A crossroads is a vantage point from which to observe the ways of men in their different regions and contexts. It is also the place in which a people possessed, through a long and eventful history, of an almost unparalleled experience of human affairs can set up the signposts commonly to be found at crossroads.
At the Iranian junction of history, cultures and indigenous aptitude, Europe can be explained to Asia and Asia can teach Europe. Iran's windows are like the faces of janus. Iran is a sharp-eyed, keenly observant Janus.
Modern Iran now possesses resources and has regained the self-confidence lost in the thraldom and period of foreign domination and exploitation which began when the Safavid dynasty lost power.
Now Iran again commands international respect. It both can and does play a positive role in world affairs.
Peter Avery OBE (May 15, 1923 – October 6, 2008) was an eminent British scholar of Persian and a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge. He contributed to English language work on Persian history and literature, such as The Age of Expansion and Medieval Persia and published Modern Iran.