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© 2003 Iran-Heritage
All Rights Reserved.


By Pejman Akbarzadeh

Until a few decades ago, in the English language
(which is now international) and in international
circles, our country was called "Persia."
Unfortunately, however, in 1935 the then government of
Persia requested all countries in the world to call
Persia by its native name, "Iran," without heeding the
delicate point that as an ancient land, possessing a
civilization thousands of years old, our country was
known as "Persia," not "Iran."
Aside from political issues and the political
motive of closeness with Germany and Adolf Hitler,
which was the main reason for this change of name
ordered by Reza Shah, some expressed the view that
"Persia" denoted only one province of "Iran."
Although it may be said that perhaps for us Persians,
the name "Persia" (Pars or Fars) only connotes a
province of Persia, for others in the world, who for
26 centuries (and perhaps even to this day), have used
the name "Persia," this name is associated with the
whole of our land, and when speaking in foreign
languages, we are obliged to take advantage of this
name. We must therefore observe what effect this name
has in the minds of foreigners, not in the minds of
We must not be prejudiced and think that only
because we ourselves use the name "Iran," foreigners
must also say, "Iran." On an international scale,
many countries are called by a name different from
that of their native names. The people of Egypt, for
example, call their country "Al-Misr," but their
international name is "Egypt" - two names which are in
no way similar. But Egyptians have never forced other
countries to say, "Al-Misr!" For they know that, with
its ancient civilization, their country has become
known to the world as Egypt.

There are other cases such as:

International Name Native Name

India Bharat
Germany Deutschland
Finland Suomi
Greece Hellas
Japan Nihon

For us speakers of Persian, the name "Iran" is a very
dear and respectable name, but in world culture, for
non-Persians, Persia connotes an ancient culture. The
change in the international name of our country, from
Persia to Iran, has created a detrimental gap between
Persia and its historical and cultural past in the
minds of the people of the world. In the West today,
there are very few people for whom Iran and Persia
connote the same meaning. Contrary to what the
government officials of Persia believed in the 1930s,
in the West, not only are people not aware of an
association between the name "Iran" and the "Aryan"
race, but rather due to the great similarity that
exists in European languages between the names "Iran"
and "Iraq," many, especially among the youth, mistake
Iran with this newly-established Arab entity which
borders western Iran. Like it or not, the great
similarity between these two names in the West have
muddled the identities of these two countries. For
those who recognize a difference between "Iran" and
"Iraq," Iran is a country bordering the Persian Gulf,
possessing oil, with a more or less Arab identity,
which has no clear connection with the "Persia" in
A large portion of the budgets of various
countries is spent annually on advertising and
cultivating their international image. Postal stamps
that are currently being distributed by Switzerland
may be the best example. Despite the fact that its
international name is Switzerland, on its stamps one
reads the name "Helvetia," which was the Latin name
given to Switzerland centuries ago but has long been
Nearly seventy years have passed since the change
of name from "Persia" to "Iran" for international
usage, but on many occasions (especially when relating
to Persian history, art and culture), in works written
in European languages, Persian and non-Persian
scholars use the name "Persia" and the adjective
"Persian" for "Iran" and "Iranian," since historically
and culturally, "Iran" and "Iranian" do not convey any
special meaning to non-Persians.
The name "Persia" for Iran, and phrases such as
Persian Carpet, Persian Gulf, Persian Miniature,
Persian Garden, Persian Cat… have all been entered
in respectable world encyclopaedias.
In 1935, the then Persian government requested all
countries to use the words "Iran" and "Iranian" in
their official correspondence in place of "Persia" and
"Persian." Thus the two words which embrace all the
history and culture of Persia abroad gradually faded
out of public usage in foreign languages; only the
word "Persian" remained to denote the Persian
language. However, in recent years and following the
emigration of hundreds of thousands of Persians to
Europe, Australia and America, the lack of knowledge
and attention on the part of some of them paid to this
issue, as well as the lack of attention by some
official organizations within the country,
regrettably, the term "Farsi," instead of "Persian,"
has entered Western languages (especially English) - a
completely new word in Western literature which is in
no way representative of Persian history and
Some publications and English-language television
channels, both inside and outside the country, many
Persians who possess Internet sites, various news
agencies, computer companies (especially those
producing Persian word processors), those who
broadcast the Persian service of the Voice of America
(VOA), many supposedly reputable universities and
language institutes are among individuals and
organizations which have had a role in aggravating
this cultural complexity whose scope is ever widening.
Apparently, however, no one has been as dedicated to
burying alive our cultural heritage as much as we
Persians ourselves! School books for teaching English,
which until recently were insistent upon using "Farsi"
instead of "Persian," English-language newspapers
published in Tehran, our English-language television
programs, and the live program which is currently
being broadcast by the international television
network, Sahar, entitled, "Let's Learn Farsi"… are
examples of our own doing.
The increasing usage of Farsi in place of Persian
has caused this term to enter world encyclopaedias. In
recent years, under the adjective "Persian," Oxford
University Press has added: "Now usually called
Iranian or Farsi…"
It must be emphasized that "Farsi" is the native
name for this language while "Persian" is its
international equivalent just as, for example, the
native names for the German and Greek languages are
Deutsch and Hellenika, while they are never used in
It is essential to note that today's Persian youth
are generally alien to the terms Persia, Persian, and
even the Persian Gulf. They associate the name
"Persia" with Peugeot Persia!, and they associate the
name "Persepolis" (Persia's most famous historical
relic) with a football team!

* * *

The discussion over the usage of Persia and Iran in
European languages has long existed among Iranians,
especially Iranian immigrants. As usual, some agree
and others disagree. Apparently a completely wrong
idea exists among some of our fellow countrymen that
"Persia" is a dead historical word, representing the
Zoroastrian culture, whereas, without any prejudice
and considering historical research, one must easily
accept the fact that Persia is the English equivalent
of Iran.
According to undeniable existing documents, this
name was officially applied to Iran from 600 B.C.
until 1935 A.D., and unofficially since then in
European languages; in no way does it exclusively
apply to the Persia of the Achaemenid and Sassanid
periods. Today's Iran is the same Persia. Political
and cultural changes that exist in the history of most
nations are no reason for a change in the nation's
historical name. Just as there is no comparison
between today's Egypt and the Egypt of 7000 years ago,
or as there is no comparison between the vastness and
political situation of today's Greece and the Greece
of 3000 years ago.
Apparently, as of the mid-1360s (1980s) a few
Persian (Iranian) scholars residing abroad, by
touching upon this topic, by publishing articles in
Persian publications inside and outside the country,
have attempted to inform the public and especially
responsible organizations; however, for various
reasons it has not had tangible results. Dr. Ehsan
Yarshater, professor at Columbia University in New
York and editor of the Encyclopedia Iranica; Dr. Kazem
Abhary, professor at South Australian University in
Adelaide; Dr. Hormoz Farhat, professor at Dublin
University; and Amir-Rostam Beigi are among the most
industrious individuals on the promotion of this
topic, whose works have also contributed to the
writing of this article.
In 1371 (1992), following the efforts of a few
Persian cultural figures in Australia (especially Dr.
Kazem Abhary), a strong announcement was made in
European languages by the Persian Academy of Language
and Literature (Tehran) in strong opposition to the
usage of Farsi instead of Persian in the
correspondences of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Academy admitted that a change from the word
Persian to Farsi has created the misconception in the
West that Farsi is a new language, different from
Persian. The Academy likewise warned that "bad
intention" was suspected on behalf of specific circles
and that it is expected of the Iranian government to
be on guard with respect to such activities so that
any possible conspiracy would be forcefully
But unfortunately, except for its publication in
the Academy's quarterly and its dispatch to a few
embassies, this announcement did not have much
repercussion and was quickly forgotten. In Esfand 1379
(March 2001) a document, with the intention of calling
for more serious efforts on this topic, was written by
Dr. Hormoz Farhat. This time apparently the
geographical dispersion of interested Persians has
delayed the work. The goals include: the encouragement
of writers, translators, researchers, artists,
journalists, editors… for using "Persia" for Iran in
their writings in Western languages, the correction of
any usage of the word "Farsi" instead of "Persian"
(for the language), and "The Gulf" instead of "The
Persian Gulf"…
The most important conclusion we have arrived at
in the course of years of effort on this topic is that
although such activities have had positive effects,
without the attention and total support of the Iranian
government we cannot achieve any significant results
in changing the usage in language. Efforts in this
regard require the support of all Persians who are
sympathetic to this cause.
In order to protect national interests and the
country's history, we must remain faithful in using
the word "Persia" on an international level, and use
the adjective "Persian" for anything that is related
to Persia - its history, civilization, culture, art,
language, and people.