The Geography of Persia Through History

To continue our occasional series on the historical borders of nations through history, I’d like to follow the posts on Ethiopia, Poland and Armenia with a review of the historical borders of Persia.

NOTE: As always, these borders shifted over the years, may not be entirely accurate, and I naturally rely on published historical sources as the basis of the borders and during what years.

The first centralized state in Persia was founded by Achaemenes, chieftain of the Persians at around 700 BC. They slowly conquered Medes (western Turkey), Babylon, Egypt, and failed in several attempts to conquer Greece. This ancient empire saw Persian control at its greatest extent ever, and in many ways, everything went downhill for Persia from here.


The Achaemenid Empire was destroyed by Alexander and was reformed as his Hellenistic Empire. Upon Alexander’s death the empire fractured, and the Macedonian Seleucid Empire ruled Persia for a century or so until a northern tribe emerged as the rulers of a loose confederacy we call the Partian Empire. Emerging in about 200 B.C., this dynasty held loose control over Persia proper for most of its ruled and spent most of its resources keeping regular Roman invasions at bay.


The Sassanid dynasty was founded by King Ardashir I, who defeated the last Parthian king in the 3rd century. This dynasty ruled the region for three centuries and spread its control across most of the original Persian empire that existed until the invasion of Alexander. However, it was ultimately badly injured by the Byzantine Empire’s expansion in the 6th century, and the last Sassanid Shahanshah (“King of Kings”)lost a 14-year struggle to the early Islamic Caliphate, the first of the Islamic empires. The explosive growth of the Arab Islamic Caliphate coincided with the chaos in Persia, and most of the country was conquered by 650 and subsequently converted. The Sassadnids were the last “Persian” Dynasty to rule the region — all subsequent rulers were Turkic or Mongol, at least until the modern era.


The first real power to diminsh the Islamic Caliphate was the 1037 invasion of the Seljuk Turks from the northeast, forging an empire from Central Asia through Asia Minor.


At the turn of the 13th century the Seljuks lost control of Persia to another group of Turks from Khwarezmia, near the Aral Sea, who ruled as the Khwarezmid Empire for a few brief decades before the invasion of the Mongol Horde.


Following the fall of the Mongols, Persia was ruled by Timur and his descendents.


As that power waned in the 18th century, Persia was ruled by a handful of kings whose centralized power was weak, who were ineffectual at thwarting foreign interests in their country, and while the European powers colonized the globe, Persia only managed to stay nominally independent. This was such that Russia and Britain didn’t even think of communicating with Iran when they divided up the country into two spheres of influence in the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907, granting Russia influence over the northern quadrand of the country and Britain access in the east that bordered its colony in India.

Finally, the Iran that we know today had its borders finalized in the aftermath of the division of the Middle East after World War I. And by the request of its rulers, the name “Persia” was dropped in the early 20th century and replaced with “Iran,” which is what we call the country today.


Thus changed the borders of what began as the world’s first transcontinental empire.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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14 Responses to The Geography of Persia Through History

  1. Yo says:

    Great post. Hey, what GIS software do you use to visualize the overlays?

  2. mihnea says:

    curzon, these graphical depictions of yours are absolutely excellent. many thanks! :)

  3. Curzon says:

    Thanks guys — the graphics come from Nasa’s free WorldWind program, which I think is far superior to Google Earth.

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  5. Aceface says:

    “Following the fall of Mongols,Persia was ruled by Timur and his descendents”

    Actually,many Mongolians think Timur as a Mongol.

  6. Curzon says:

    As with all these things, it’s hard to draw real lines as to what is Turkic, what is Persian, and what is Mongolian.

    “Reads Wikipedia:”:

    Timur belonged to a family of Turkicized Barlas clan of Mongol origin. He was Turkic in identity and language,[4][6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14] he aspired to restore the Mongol Empire. He was also steeped in Persian culture[15] and in most of the territories which he incorporated, Persian was the primary language of administration and literary culture. Thus the language of the settled “diwan” was in Persian and its scribes had to be adept in Persian culture, regardless of ethnicity.[16]

  7. Aceface says:

    Timur identified himself as Mongolian noble.

    Japanese wikipedia entry seems slightly bending toward Mongol origin than English:




    Anyway I don’t think Timur would identify himself as “Turkic”which was rather a vaugue ethnic identity at the time.And in central asia at that time,orthodoxy that associated with being the kins of Ghinghis mattered.

  8. Curzon says:

    You will note that the English entry has no fewer than 11 sources for “He was Turkic in identity and language.” Although the actual distinction between these two in the 14th and 15th century is a topic of debate.

  9. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    If only the Sassanids had known – they had almost all the world’s oil!!!
    A beautiful post – thank you!!

  10. Daniel Nexon says:



    That’s like tracing the “nation of Italy” from the “Etruscans” period through the contemporary Italian state. Lots of different entities, albeit some that claim descent from their predecessors.

    By the same token, the Sassanids were not the Parthians were not the Seljuks were not the Islamic Republic.

  11. Curzon says:

    Dr. Nexon: while I essentially agree, “identity” is more important than actual DNA, and surely all the Persian states have based their legitimacy on the empire of Xerxes and Darius.

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  14. RE: That Wikipedia article on Timur.

    According to Wikiscanner It has undergone some enthusiastic editing from someone in Istanbul using a Turk Telekom server. They’ve done a good job of “Turkifying” him.