The terms Middle East and Central Asia are quite peculiar and problematic. They are foreign terms to be sure and very ill defined due to the fact that they are defined by foreigners. The Middle East is debated by some as stretching from Morocco to Iran, while others believe that only Egypt to Iran should be considered the Middle East. Some people even include Sudan and Somalia. Central Asia is better defined as Afghanistan plus the “Stans” and Caucasus states of the former Soviet Union. What is striking about these two terms is that they divide a vast region in half, as if the steppe and mountains of Central Asia were completely isolated from the deserts and mountains of the Middle East. The history does not support this. Therefore an alternative name is necessary.
Marshall Hodgeson defined a cultural region as Nile to Oxus. This has been by far the most enlightened term by an outsider because it saw that from Samarkand to Cairo there was cultural exchange. But the point of this book, and specifically this chapter, is not to look for a purely culturally united landscape, but also a politically united one. The Nile to the Oxus has been united only a handful of centuries. Most of the history of the Nile to the Oxus has been the history of two sub regions split between a Mediterranean based empire and Iranian Plateau based empire. History has shown that time and time again states naturally formed and reformed in these two distinct sub regions of the Nile to the Oxus. My focus will be on the region centered on the Iranian plateau, known originally as Iranshahr during the Sassanid era.
What is Iranshahr? Geographically, it is a large region below the steppes of Eurasia, above the Arabian Peninsula and settled between the Indian Subcontinent, the Levant, and Anatolia. It is a land of steep mountains, great deserts, and vast steppes. Intermingling with these three competing landscapes, Iranshahr contains pastures, rivers, lakes, jungles, and seas.
The borders of Iranshahr are natural borders. For much of written history, these walls of nature have kept the peoples of Iranshahr together. Iranshahr is protected by the three great rivers and three great mountain ranges of western Asia. To Iranshahr’s west is the Euphrates River, to its east, the Indus and the Syr Darya. These massive rivers have given life and protection to the peoples of this land’s frontiers.
Just as mighty are the mountains that encase Iranshahr like a fortress. To the east, the Pamir Mountains separate Iranshahr from Turkestan and Tibet. To the North, the Caucasus Mountains loom as a great wall defending Iranshahr from the many invaders of the steppe. Finally the Zagros Mountains separate Iranshahr from the western lands of Anatolia. Iranshahr touches four major bodies of water making it centrally located for trade. Connecting Iranshahr to the Mediterranean is the Black Sea. To the northeast is the shrinking Aral Sea. And surrounding the heart of Iranshahr is the Caspian Sea to the North and the Persian Gulf to the South. But Iranshahr is not just a physical place. It is a cultural concept.
What is Iranshahr? Culturally, it is where Aryans, Semites, and Turko-Mongolians have settled and lived together, sometimes in conflict, but much more of the time in peaceful coexistence and partnership. Groups migrated or invaded, settled, and fused with the conquered peoples' culture and thus joined the rich tradition of diversity in Iranshahr with an overarching cultural unity. Each group has contributed and no one people is dominant. At its height, the culture of Iranshahr was a fusion of Semitic faith (Islam brought by the Arabs), Turko-Mongol martial prowess (the steppe warrior tradition), and Aryan political institutions (Persian bureaucracy). Some scholars have called this over-arching culture as Persianate, Turko-Persian, Turko-Iranian, Arabo-Persian, but for me, the very word "Iranshahr" is this cultural concept. All the dynasties from the Abbasids to the Ottomans, Mughals, Shaybanids, Safavids, and Qajars utilized and built upon this Iranshahr Culture.
This cultural fusion was not actively fostered in some grand design, but built, layer by layer, over hundreds of years. It grew from a common political entity and a common economy. It flowered with the elites patronizing the arts and sciences, while local communities of peasants, tribes, and cities maintained local subcultures, distinct but tied to one another. Languages also mingled, enriching one another to create complex, yet perfect tools, for literary masterpieces. Sometimes even migrant groups would adopt languages of settled peoples (like the Hazara) or settled peoples would build new languages after interacting with new migrant peoples (like Azeri). Finally, this Iranshahr Culture come to fruition through the blending of blood through inter-marriage. Maintaining ethic purity was not (and is not) possible. This overarching culture was as fluid as the exchange of genes but it was unique from the regions surrounding Iranshahr.
Only in the 1200s AH (1800s CE), did this overarching culture come under attack, first by the divide and conquer policies of Western and Russian imperialism, then by the Western imported ideology of nationalism that fostered the modern racist policies like forced Turkification, Persianization, and Arabization. Ambitious sons of Iranshahr, through their authoritarian regimes, systematically destroyed the bonds that created Iranshahr. They purged their languages of loan words and forced their peoples to speak one language. They even hijacked scholarship and erased their history, fabricating new nationalist histories where their peoples have always been one people and that this one people has always been in this one place, pure and constant, since time immemorial. The policy of forced assimilation replaced the culture of relative tolerance and autonomy and thus the diverse peoples and the idea of Iranshahr suffered. But, this concept, though battered an frayed by a menagerie of "isms" has not died.
What is Iranshahr? It is a vast untaped potential to bring the decaying and burning Middle East and Central Asia out of an era of chaos and despair. It is a sleeping giant of an idea that dictators, nationalists, sectarians, and great powers utterly fear: a united Iranshahr built on its ancient traditions fused with a democratic spirit. They fear the idea of a massive super-state that cannot be bullied through military weakness, and cannot be exploited through corrupt dictators. Iranshahr is an idea of tolerance. It rejects nationalism but respects the autonomy of citizens, communities, and nations. It is a meritocracy where leaders are chosen less because of heritage and more because of strength of arm, mind, and spirit. Finally, Iranshahr is innovation and creativity. This land and its peoples are the heirs of a history bursting with science, ideas, art, humanism. At present Iranshahr is covered by a blanket of conservatism and bigotry, but beneath this fraying blanket of ignorance is a love of knowledge, of progress. Iranshahr is a revolutionary idea in our world of sham democracies and ruthless dictatorships. It is a challenge to the current political order.
Iranshahr is both a glimpse of the past and a vision of a possible future. It is a cultural continent forgotten and possibly the beginning of a new movement to right the wrongs of the past and present, while building a bright and deserved future.