Iranian ‘Identities’ in Pre-Modern Times – Reality or Myth?

Bert Fragner states that it seems to him that any definite judgement on awareness of “Iranian identity” in pre-modern, historical periods and conditions is hardly feasible. The assumption of a continuous development or master narrative concerning any kind of “Iranian identity” from antiquity until contemporary modern times cannot be corroborated by historical evidence and source material. But there are a great amount of potentially efficacious elements, cultural brick-stones and modules, which may contribute to the construction of such concepts. Although I do not see the concept of “identity” within a longue durée perspective, in the Iranian case I recognize nevertheless many cases of amazing longue durée elements of surprising, unexpected and almost stubborn continuity throughout historical periods. These elements can be easily proved by source investigation, and may influence the creation of narratives which impact upon the imagining of aspects of pre-modern identities.

Source references to ethnic diversity (e.g. “tork-o-tâjîk”) can also not serve as proofs of any “ethnic” Iranian identity in the pre-modern past. I do not trust in the capacities of hegemonial leadership by intellectual elites of any countries, nations or whatever the subject of “identification” might be, throughout history. Identity, as well as other matters of “mentalities”, is coined at least as much by continuous and changing collective experiences – existential, societal, political and last not least, visual, acoustic, sensual experiences, all of them rather less “heroic” than spirit, refinement, style and thought  – as by, e.g., literary discourses due to controversial textual interpretation. As proofs for permanent or broken identities I prefer manifest, material and factual evidence to the speculative proof of ideas. This does not at all mean that I deny or even reject the importance of ideas and intellectualism in the historical process. But we must neither not neglect the weight of aspects of power, dominance and hegemony in which ideas and literary concepts and matters of ethics and consciousness are embedded. As examples I try to analyse changing and recurrent concepts of territory: whilst the during the Caliphate the territorial concept of former Sasanian Iran had been abrogated, it was reanimated under the Mongol Il-Khâns, in strong opposition to the Chaghatayid concept which separated Khorâsân from Western Iran. Moreover this debate is even seen to extend to the eighteenth century!

Another aspect of wide-spread “identity” might have been supported by the surprising continuity of the currency system which was – following Chinese models – established under Il-Khanid rule. What once had been a ten-thousand multiple of the standard silver-dînâr  (called “tümän”, i.e. Mongol for 10 000), still exists as a denomination for the value of 10 modern Riâls!


The Long History of Identity, Ethnicity and Nationhood