How Did Iran Get Its Name?

The ancient Persian city of Persepolis
The ancient Persian city of Persepolis | © Paul / Flickr

Persia or Iran? Many people these days know these two terms refer to the same place geographically and often use them interchangeably. Outside the country, Iran used to be referred to as Persia, but there’s a curious reason why it changed. Keep reading to discover the story of how Iran got its name.

The Persian Empire

For thousands of years, Iran was known as Persia. The Persian Empire refers to the series of imperial dynasties that spanned from the 6th century BC to the 20th century AD. It started with the Achaemenid Empire formed by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC and was followed by Sassanid, Safavid, Afsharid and finally, Qajar rulers. When the Persian Empire is referenced today, it’s the rule of the Achaemenid Empire that comes to mind. At its height, it ranged from the Balkans and Eastern Europe to the Indus Valley.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great of the Persian Empire

When Persia became Iran

Iran was always known as ‘Persia’ to foreign governments and was once heavily influenced by Great Britain and Russia. In 1935, however, the Iranian government requested that all countries with which it had diplomatic relations call the country by its Persian name, Iran. It’s thought that it was the Iranian ambassador to Germany who suggested this change. At that time, Germany had good relations with countries of Aryan descent. To signal the changes that had come to Persia under the rule of Reza Shah, namely that Persia had freed itself from the grip of the British and Russians, it would be known as Iran. As a cognate of the word ‘Aryan’, this name change to Iran was also a nod to the population’s Aryan race and encompassed all ethnicities in the country, not just the Persians.

Ancient reliefs at Persepolis

As history and politics have changed, though, it’s quite interesting to note how the use of the terms ‘Iran’ and ‘Persia’ and ‘Iranian’ and ‘Persian’ have changed with it. Many Iranians, for instance, may opt to use one term over the other, depending on their political views or, more simply, where they live and who their audience is (for example, a more conservative person may call for the use of ‘Persia’). When this name change first took place, ‘Iran’ sounded quite foreign and many even failed to connect it to Persia. But as time went on and Iran made headlines, particularly after Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq nationalized the oil industry, it became more familiar.
In recent years, on the other hand, some Iranians have started to refer to themselves as ‘Persian’ or ‘from Persia’ in an effort to disassociate from the government during a heightened political climate and throw off their audience who may not connect Persia with Iran. Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani has even referenced this in his comedy routine in a bit that is arguably one of his most beloved because it speaks to Iranians all around the world.

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