Iran's History 11 Nov 2023 BY Batul Iddi

Why Did Persia Change Its Name to Iran?

Many people today may be familiar with Persia through popular culture and films, such as "The Prince of Persia." However, they might not know that Iran is the modern name for the historical region once known as Persia.

Over 5000 years, Iran has been known by various names, and its boundaries and borders have continuously evolved.

The name Iran originates in the ancient Avestan word airyānąm, which emerged during the reign of Cyrus the Great in the 4th century B.C. On the other hand, Persia was a term coined by the Greeks and derived from the word Parsa to refer to Cyrus the Great's empire. Thus, Persia was an exonym—a name given to a group of people by an external force.

In the 1930s, Reza Shah formalized the change in name from Persia to Iran, which came into effect in March 1935. In 1959, Reza Shah's son announced that both terms, Iran and Persia, could be used interchangeably in formal correspondence. However, over time, Iran has become the dominant name, officially recognized as the Islamic Republic of Iran since 1979.

Join us as we unravel the threads of this historical transformation and shed light on the enigma behind why Persia changed its name to Iran.


A Brief History of the Persian Empire

A Brief History of the Persian Empire

The history of the Persian Empire, also known as Persia, spans thousands of years and is filled with captivating tales of power and grandeur. It all began in the 6th century B.C. when Cyrus the Great established the Achaemenid Empire in 550 BC. Hence, The Achaemenid Empire is often what comes to mind when the Persian Empire is mentioned today. This empire marked the beginning of a series of imperial dynasties that would shape the region's history.

The Achaemenid Empire reached its zenith under the rule of Cyrus and his successors. At its height, it stretched from the Balkans and Eastern Europe to the Indus Valley, encompassing a vast expanse of territories.

Following the decline of the Achaemenid Empire, Persia saw the rise of other influential dynasties. The Sassanid, Safavid, Afsharid, and Qajar rulers each left their mark on the region's history and culture. These dynasties brought about significant changes and developments, contributing to the rich tapestry of Persian history.

It is worth noting that the term "Persia" was commonly used to refer to the region until 1935, when it officially changed its name to Iran.


How the Earliest Persians Called Their Country

How the Earliest Persians Called Their Country

The earliest Persians had various names for their country, each reflecting a unique aspect of their identity and history. During the Achaemenid period, documents referred to the country as Airyanam in the ancient Persian language known as Avestan. This name resurfaced later during the Sasanian Empire, where it denoted the land we now know as Iran. The term "Iran" originated from Airyanam, gradually evolving over the years.

In the ancient Persian language of Pahlavi, the country was called "Eran." This name persisted during the Sasanian period as well, as evidenced by records of the crowning of King Ardashir I. Scholars believe that "Iran" emerged from the name "Eran" as time passed.

Interestingly, the Parthians, another prominent group in Persia's history, referred to the country as "Aryan." This name was a reference to the ancient Indo-Iranians known as Aryans. Records from that era indicate that the Parthians used "Aryan" instead of "Eran."

Originally, the name "Eran" distinguished the Iranian people from those residing in nearby Roman territories. The name served to differentiate Iranians from individuals in Roman territories like Armenia and Syria, who were known as Anerans.


How Other Civilizations Referred to the Iranian People

How Other Civilizations Referred to the Iranian People

Throughout history, various civilizations had their own unique names for the Iranian people and their land. These names often reflected specific regions, famous figures, or cultural perceptions. Let's explore how different civilizations referred to the Iranian people:

  1. The Greeks: The Greeks named the country Persis, Persike, or Perses, inspired by the region of Parsa within the Achaemenid Empire. Since Cyrus the Great hailed from Parsa, the Greeks chose to name the entire empire after him. It's important to note that during this period, the Iranian people did not identify themselves as Persians.
  2. The Jews: In the Bible, Iranian people were referred to as "Paras" by Jewish writers, which was the Hebrew word for Parsa. Additionally, they sometimes used the term "Parsa u Midia" to describe the Iranians, referring to the Kingdom of Medo-Persia.
  3. The Arabs: The Arabs called the people of Iran "Bilad Faris," meaning the Land of the Persians. This naming convention was influenced by the Greeks. Throughout this time, the Iranian people still maintained their own name - Eran or Aryan.
  4. The Turks: When the Turks conquered Iran, they referred to the Iranian people as "Ajam." The term "Ajam" originally meant "mute" or someone whose native language was not Arabic. Over time, it became a derogatory term used to describe Iranians. The full name used was Bilad Ajam, indicating the Land of the Iranians during the conquest of Iran.


Why Did Persia Change Its Name to Iran?

Why Did Persia Change Its Name to Iran

The decision to change the name from Persia to Iran was a significant step for the Iranians, symbolizing a fresh start and a new era. While the Iranians had always referred to their country as Iran, the issue lay with its exonyms, which are how the international community refers to a country.

In the eyes of the world, Iran was commonly known as Persia. However, this became a source of frustration for the Iranians, particularly in light of foreign interventions that had negatively impacted their nation. The British and Soviet activities in Iran, driven by their interests in Iran's newly discovered oil reserves, had severely damaged the country's economy.

The crippled economy led to a tarnished image of Iran among other nations. In 1925, when Reza Shah overthrew the Qajars and assumed power, he embarked on a mission to restore Iran's former glory. He initiated various projects aimed at boosting the country's economy and international standing. As part of his strategy, he sought to change the exonym from Persia to Iran.

Reza Shah drafted a memorandum requesting that all nations refer to the country as Iran. It was not until 1935, a decade after coming to power, that he officially issued the edict for the name change. Prior to Reza Shah's reign, Persia had been a divided territory under Qajar rule for over a century. Reza Shah's ascension to power marked a unification and modernization of the country, making the change of name a symbolic reflection of Iran's transformation.


The Main Person Behind the Name Change

The name change from Persia to Iran was not solely the brainchild of Reza Shah, but rather it can be attributed to the idea put forth by an Iranian ambassador to Germany. This ambassador proposed the notion of a name change to signify a fresh beginning for the nation in the aftermath of the British and Soviet occupation. And thus, Persia transformed into Iran.


How Iran Became the Islamic Republic of Iran

How Iran Became the Islamic Republic of Iran

In 1979, widespread discontentment with the regime of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi swept across Iran, setting in motion a series of events that ultimately led to the establishment of an Islamic theocratic state. The Iranian people, united by their desire for change, rallied behind Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who emerged as their leader.

After assuming power, Ayatollah Khomeini initiated significant transformations, including a symbolic change in the country's name. The previous name, Iran, was modified to reflect the new political and religious direction of the nation. The country became officially known as the Islamic Republic of Iran.


The Debate Over the Name Change

The Debate Over the Name Change

When the name change from Persia to Iran was initially introduced, it was met with mixed reactions and confusion from around the world. Many nations struggled to recognize and understand the new name, perceiving it as unfamiliar and mistaking it for another country, such as Iraq. This led to skepticism and ongoing debates surrounding the change.

During World War II, Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, expressed concerns about the name change. As the allied troops were occupying both Iraq and Iran, he believed that maintaining the name Persia would help distinguish between the two countries. The Iranians accepted Churchill's suggestion, allowing the continued use of the exonym Persia. However, the United States decided to adopt the name Iran, as they had minimal military presence in Iraq, and the name change did not pose a significant issue for them.

The transition from Persia to Iran also generated confusion and mixed sentiments within the Iranian population itself. Some Iranians struggled to embrace the name Iran and preferred the positive associations that the exonym Persia carried. Persia symbolized the glorious Persian Empire and its rich civilization, which instilled a sense of pride when identified as Persians in the eyes of the world.

Conversely, the name Iran had negative connotations for some Iranians, as it coincided with Reza Shah's coup and the associated political changes. They believed that this new name could harm their international image.

The name change sparked intense debates and divisions within the country. In 1959, a commission was established to consider reverting to the use of Persia. After deliberation, the commission reached a consensus in favor of returning to the exonym Persia.

The decision to revert to Persia was communicated to Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the ruler at the time, who approved it. However, the enforcement of the name change lacked effectiveness, and the reversion to Persia was not widely adopted or recognized.


How Old is Iran?

How Old is Iran

Iran, also known as Persia, boasts a rich and ancient history that stretches back for thousands of years, making it one of the oldest countries in existence. The roots of Iran's civilization can be traced back to the dawn of human settlement.

Around 3200 B.C., the city of Susa emerged on the central plateau, marking the establishment of one of the earliest significant urban centers in Iran. This city played a crucial role in the region's development and became an important political and cultural hub.


The Difference Between Persia and Iran

The Difference Between Persia and Iran

Prior to 1935, the official name used in the Western world for the country we now know as Iran was "Persia." This name is derived from the ancient kingdom of Parsa and the Persian Empire. However, within the country itself, the Persian people have long referred to their nation as "Iran" or "Eran."

In 1935, the name "Iran" was adopted internationally, replacing the usage of "Persia." The Islamic Republic of Iran, as we recognize it today, was founded in 1979 following a revolution that ousted the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

While "Persia" is often used today to refer to modern-day Iran due to its historical connection to the ancient Persian empire, it is important to note that Iran is a diverse country with various ethnic and tribal groups. While the majority of Iranians identify as Persian, there are also significant populations of Azeri, Gilaki, Kurdish, and other ethnic groups. All citizens of Iran are Iranians, but only some can trace their lineage back to the ancient Persian civilization.


Who Named Persia To Iran?

Reza Shah, who took power after overthrowing the Qajars, changed the country's exonym from Persia to Iran in 1935.


What is Persia now called?

Today, the country once known as Persia is commonly called Iran. However, there is still a distinction in how people refer to it. When discussing the rich historical legacy, vibrant culture, and delectable cuisine, many prefer to use the term Persia. On the other hand, when focusing on its broader history, the name Iran is often used.


What Language do Persians Speak?

Persians primarily speak the Persian language, which belongs to the Iranian branch of the Indo-Iranian language family. This language is commonly known as Persian or Farsi. It serves as the official language in Iran, where it is widely spoken and used in various aspects of everyday life. Additionally, Persian is also the official language in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, where it is known as Tajik and Dari, respectively. These variations of Persian have their own unique characteristics but share a common linguistic foundation with the Persian spoken in Iran.


Bottom Line

The name change from Persia to Iran can be traced back to the historical roots and evolving perceptions of the country. While Persia was the name popularized by the Greeks and Romans, Iran had long been used by the indigenous people alongside various other terms. The formal shift to Iran occurred in 1935 under the leadership of Reza Shah, signifying a change in the nation's governance. Today, both Persia and Iran are used interchangeably to refer to the same country.

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