Iranian Ethnic Groups
The Persian people (Persian: پارسیان) are an Iranian people who speak the modern Persian language and closely related Iranian dialects and languages.
The term Persian translates to “from Persis” which is a region north of the Persian Gulf located in Pars, Iran. It was from this region that Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid empire, united all other Iranian empires (such as the Medes), and expanded the Persian cultural and social influences by incorporating the Babylonian empire, and the Lydian empire. Although not the first Iranian empire, the Achaemenid empire is the first Persian empire well recognized by Greek and Persian historians for its massive cultural, military and social influences going as far as Athens, Macedonia, Egypt, and Libya.
Persians have generally been a pan-national group often comprising regional people who often refer to themselves as “Persians” and have also often used the term “Iranian” (in the ethnic-cultural sense). Some scholars, mechanically identifying the speakers of Persian as a distinct ethnic unit (the ‘Persians’), exclude those Iranians who speak dialects of Persian. However, this approach can be misleading, as historically all ethnic groups in Iran were collectively referred to as Iranians or Persians until 1935, when Rezā Shāh formally required foreign countries to call Persia by its native name, Iran.
The origin of the ethnic Persian peoples are traced to the Ancient Iranian peoples, who were part of the ancient Indo-Iranians and themselves part of the greater Indo-European language family. The Ancient Iranian peoples emerged in parts of the Iranian plateau circa 1000 BCE. Fars Province is the original homeland of the Persian people. Important Iranian tribes such as the Old Persians, Medes, Parthians, Sarmatians, Alans, Bactrians, Scythians, and the Avesta people used the name Arya (Iranian), which was a collective definition, denoting peoples who were aware of belonging to a generally common ethnic stock, speaking very closely related languages, and mainly sharing a religious tradition that centered on the worship of Ahura Mazda.
The Old Persians, who were one of these ethnic Iranian groups, were originally nomadic, pastoral people in the western Iranian plateau and by 850 BCE were calling themselves the Parsa and their constantly shifting territory Parsua for the most part localized around Persis (Pars), bounded on the west by Tigris river and on the south by the Persian Gulf. The first known written record of the term Persian is from Assyrian inscriptions of the 9th century BCE, which mention both Parsuash and Parsua . The Iranian Persians and Medes were initially dominated by the Assyrian Empire for much of the first three centuries after arriving in the region. However, the Medes and Persians played a major role in the downfall of Assyria, after it had been riven by internal civil war. These cognate words were taken from old Iranian Parsava and presumably meant border, borderland and were geographical designations for Iranian populations (who referred to themselves as Aryans as an ethnic designation or showing the nobility). Nonetheless, Parsua and Parsuash were two different geographical locations, the latter referring to southwestern Iran, known in Old Persian as Pârsa (Modern Fars). The Greeks (who tended earlier to use names related to “Median”) began in the 5th century to use adjectives such as Perses, Persica or Persis for Cyrus the Great’s empire, which is where the word Persian in English comes from. In the later parts of the Bible, where this kingdom is frequently mentioned (Books of Esther, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemya), it is called “Paras” (Hebrew פרס), or sometimes “Paras ve Madai” (פרס ומדי) i.e. “Persia and Media”. As the Old Persians gained power, they developed the infrastructure to support their growing influence, including creation of a capital named Pasargadae, and an opulent city named Persepolis. Starting around 550 BCE, from the region of Persis in southern Iran, encompassing the present Fars province, the ancient Persians spread their language and culture to other parts of the Iranian plateau and assimilated and intermingled with local Iranian and ‘indigenous non-Iranian’ groups including the Elamites, Gutians and Manneans over time. Persians also interacted with other ancient civilizations in Europe and Africa. The first Persian empire extended at its maximum extent as far as the limits of the Greek city states in modern-day mainland Greece, where Persians and Athenians influenced each other in what is essentially a reciprocal cultural exchange. Its legacy and impact on Macedon, which at its maximum extent was part of the Achaemenid Empire for decades as well, was notably huge as well, as the Ancient Macedonians extensively borrowed from the Achaemenids, even for centuries after the withdrawal of the Persians from Europe following the Greco-Persian Wars.
At the same time, the Old Persians were part of the wider Ariya (Iranian nation); Darius and Xerxes boast of belonging to a stock which they call “Iranian”: they proclaim themselves “Iranian” and “of Iranian stock,” ariya and ariya čiça respectively, in inscriptions in which the Iranian countries come first in a list that is arranged in a new hierarchical and ethno-geographical order. Until the Parthian era, Iranian identity had an ethnic, linguistic, and religious value, however it did not yet have a political import. The Parthian language, an important Iranian language, was spoken by the Parthians and is mutually intelligble with the Middle Persian language became an official language of the Parthian empire. The Parthian language had an important influence in the modern Persian languageas well as other Iranian languages, as well as a major influence on neighbouring Armenian. In the 1st century BCE, Strabo (c. 64 BCE–24 CE) would note a relationship between the various Iranian peoples and their languages: “[From] beyond the Indus […] Ariana is extended so as to include some part of Persia, Media, and the north of Bactria and Sogdiana; for these nations speak nearly the same language.” (Geography, 15.2.1–15.2.8) He mentions the Cyrtians, the plausible ancestors of the modern Kurds as one of the Persian tribes. Cyrtians, the generally accepted progenitors of the Kurds and Lurs might already have been significantly scattered in the Zagros from Persis into Media.
During Sassanian Iran, a national culture, fully aware of being “Iranian” took shape and was partially motivated by the restoration and the revival of the wisdom of the “sages of old,” dānāgān pēšēnīgān. Other aspects of this national culture included the glorification of a great heroic past and an archaizing spirit. Throughout the period, the pre-Islamic Iranian identity reached its height in every aspect: political, religious, cultural and even linguistic. In terms of linguistic, Middle Persian, which is the immediate ancestor of Modern Persian and variety of other Iranian dialects, became the official language of the empire and was greatly diffused amongst Iranians. The intermingling of Persians, Medes, Parthians, Bactrians and indigenous people of Iran, including the Elamites gained more ground and a homogeneous Iranian identity was created to the extent that all were just called Iranians/Persians irrespective of clannish affiliations and regional linguistic or dialectical alterities. The Elamite language may have survived as late as the early Islamic period. Ibn al-Nadim among other medieval historians, for instance, wrote that “The Iranian languages are Fahlavi (Pahlavi), Dari, Khuzi, Persian and Suryani”, and Ibn Moqaffa noted that Khuzi was the unofficial language of the royalty of Persia, “Khuz” being the corrupted name for Elam. However the Elamite identity might have vanished already. Furthermore, the process of incomers’ assimilation which had been started with the Greeks, continued in the face of Arab, Mongol and Turkic invasions and proceeded right up to Islamic times.
While a categorization of a “Persian” ethnic group persists in the West, Persians have generally been a pan-national group often comprising regional people who often refer to themselves as ‘Persians’ and have also often used the term “Iranian” (in the ethnic-cultural sense). As a pan-national group, defining Persians as an ethnic group, at least in terms used in the West, is not inclusive since the ethnonym “Persian” includes several Iranian people including the speakers of Modern Persian. Some scholars, classify the speakers of Persian language as a single ethnic unit (the ‘Persians’) and exclude those Iranians who speak dialects of Persian, or other Iranian dialects closely related to Persian; however this approach to ethnicity in Iran is erroneous, since the designation Iranian (Irani) as an ethnic term has been used by all these ethnic group in Iran, including the “Persians” irrespective of their origin, language and religion.
Iran is the homeland of ethnic-Persians. Persians (including Persian sub-groups) and Persian-speakers (other ethnic groups that have adopted Persian language) can also be found in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Iraq, Georgia, Turkey, Armenia, Oman, the Caucasus, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Like the Persians of Iran (Western Persians), the Tajiks (Eastern Persians) are descendants of various Iranian peoples, including Persians from Iran, as well as numerous invaders. Tajiks and Farsiwan have a particular affinity with Persians in neighboring Khorasan due to historical interaction some stemming from the Islamic period. Scholars also include Iranian language speakers such as Lurs, Specifically, the Lurs speak an Archaic Persian language. In addition, the Hazara and Aimaq of Afghanistan are Persian-speaking communities of mixed Mongol, Turkic and Tajik origins.
Other smaller ethnic groups of Persians includes the Lari people of Larestan (who are mostly Sunni Muslims) and the Qizilbash of Afghanistan who are related to the Farsiwan and Azerbaijanis. In the Caucasus, the Tats are concentrated in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russian Dagestan and their origins are traced to Sassanid merchants who settled in the region. They speak a variant of Persian named Tat or Caucasian Persian. In the Indian subcontinent the Parsis are a distinct ethno-religious community that are descended from Persian (largely Khorasani) Zoroastrians. They are a Zoroastrian sect settled mainly in western India, centered around Gujarat and Mumbai. The Iranis, another small community in India, are descended from more recent Persian Zoroastrian immigrants.
Xenophon, a Greek general serving in some of the Persian expeditions, describes many aspects of Armenian village life and hospitality in around 401 BC. He relates that the Armenian people spoke a language that to his ear sounded like the language of the Persians.
The Persian language is one of the world’s oldest languages still in use today, and is known to have one of the most powerful literary traditions, with formidable Persian poets like Ferdowsi, Hafiz, Khayyam, Attar, Saadi, Nizami, Roudaki, Rumi and Sanai. By native speakers it eventually came to be known as Fārsī, which was the Arabic form of Parsi as there is no “P” sound in Arabic. Additionally, Persian was constitutionally renamed from Farsi to Dari in Afghanistan during the 1960s. The dialect of Persian spoken in Tajikistan is called Tajiki.
“Persian” has historically referred to some Iranian languages, however what today is referred to as the Persian language is part of the Western group of the Iranian languages branch of the Indo-European language family. Today, speakers of the western dialect of Persian form the majority in Iran. The eastern dialect, also called Dari or Tajiki, forms majorities in Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, and a large minority in Uzbekistan. Smaller groups of Persian-speakers are found in Iraq, Russia (by Tats), Pakistan (by Hazaras in Balochistan), western China (Xinjiang), as well as in the UAE, Bahrain, Sweden, Kuwait, Oman, Georgia and Azerbaijan.