History of Iranology from the Beginning Until the 20th century

Iran and Iranology have attracted the attention of Europeans since ancient times. For example, the well-known Greek historians, Herodotus and Xenophon, referred to this country in their books as a dangerous enemy with a magnificent culture. Apart from its vast area, Iran enjoys an extremely rich culture and civilization with an irresistible attraction for foreign researchers. This is because, from the beginning of its history, Iranian culture has possessed universal and human characteristics, and the ideas, beliefs, art, literature, philosophy, and science of this country have always been familiar to other nations and enjoyed a particular value. For several centuries, the most important role of Iran in the world has been to synthesize various eastern and western civilizations, cultures, arts, and beliefs through relying on its geographic position and ethnic and national spirit in order to create a new product which is comprehensible and acceptable to everyone. It is for this reason that the study of Iranian culture has attracted the attention of western researchers. In fact, since a long time ago, Iranology, whether as a scientific field and tradition or as a part of Orientology and geography, has been of great importance to historians, travelers, Orientalists, Islamologists, politicians, and journalists from many countries.

If we define Iranology in its general sense as ‘knowing about Iran’, as mentioned above, Herodotus and Xenophon and some of the world travelers and thinkers of the West in that period referred to Iran in their books, studied the related literature in order to learn more about this country and, in a sense, became involved in Iranology . Experts in this field believe that Iranology began after the publication of writings of historians, foreign travelers, and geographers who were mainly from Islamic or European countries. With the translation of several books of Iranian scientists and philosophers (which were mainly written in Arabic) into Latin, Iranology reached a new level and, like the other parts of the East which are essentially different from the West, the land of Iran turned into a subject of study for Western intellectuals.

The movement of translation of the great works of wisdom, philosophy, and Islamic sciences, one of the pillars of which consisted of the works of Iranian scientists, began in developed European countries at the same time as the Crusades. As a result of close contact with the East which was necessitated by these wars, Europeans took notice of the scientific and cultural supremacy of this region and the necessity of becoming familiar with Oriental knowledge and wisdom. At the end of the 10th century AD, Pope Sylvester II founded the movement for gaining familiarity with eastern scientific works and wisdom, and several Christian scientists became involved in translating the related books into Latin during the 11th and 12th centuries. In the course of three centuries, over 300 important eastern books were translated into Latin. From among them, we can refer to several works by Ibn Sina, Zakariya al-Razi, Farabi, and Biruni.

At the outset of the 14th century AD, the publication of Marco Polo’s famous travelogue, The Travels of Marco Polo, attracted the attention of Europeans to Iran. At the same time, Catholic clergymen became more active in the East because of the rule of the non-Muslim Mongol governments there. During the early years of this century, in order to familiarize the church missionaries dispatched there with the East, several schools for teaching eastern languages (including Persian) were established in Italy, Spain, and France on the orders of Pope Clement V. Moreover, the first Latin-Persian Turkish dictionary was written by Franciscan monks in 1303 AD in Rome. One of these monks, Ricoldo da Monte di Croce, went to Tabriz at the beginning of this century and stayed there for some years until he learnt Persian well. After returning to his country in 1351, he wrote an important travelogue about Iran. The most noteworthy book on Iran in this century was the famous travel account of Clavijo, the ambassador of Castile to the Iranian court.

In the 15th and 16th centuries AD, the relationship between European and Islamic eastern countries, including Iran, expanded day-by-day. Particularly, upon the establishment of the Ottoman Government, the different Christian European countries which were under the threat of being dominated by the Ottoman Turks took notice of Iran as a powerful rival to Turkey in Asia and, thus, sent their delegates and ambassadors to this country. This resulted in greater familiarity with Iran, a land which had been frequently referred to in the Holy Book and in the ancient histories of Greece and Rome. This problem and the attention paid to the East, which was the product of elaborating the discoveries of European sailors and uncovering new ways to connect with Asia, began a new period in the world’s recognition of Iranian culture and civilization from the beginning of the 7th century, which has continued up until today.

The beginning of the 17th century, in fact, marked the outset of the movement of familiarity with Iranian language and literature in Europe. Barnabe Brisson published the first printed book on Iran in Europe in Paris in 1590 entitled De region Persarum principatu. It is worth mentioning that during the same century, some of the most important western travelogues about Iran were published one after another in Europe. In 1636, Thomas Herbert wrote an account of his journey to Iran and the story of his entering the presence of Shah Abbas Safavid in the first travelogue on Iran printed and published in England. In 1647, the well-known travel account of the Daneh Adam Olearus, which detailed his four-year journey to Iran (1635-1639), was published. In 1651, Cornelius de Brujin, who had spent some time in Takht-e Jamshid and drawn the first sketches of this monumental structure, wrote the account of his interesting journey in a collection which was later published in five volumes in Amsterdam. Besides, the travel account of the Italian Pietro Della Valle, which is one of the best of its type about Iran, was published in Rome and Paris in 1658-1663. Tavernier’s travel account was also published in 1676, and Chardin’s famous and extensive travel accounts in French followed in 1686.

The 18th century must be known as the period of the publication of great research works on Iranian history, language, and literature. During this century, Iranology became increasingly popular in England and France. With the translation of Avesta by the well-known French Iranologist Anquetil Dupperon, in 1771, Iranology entered a new stage. Upon the publication of this masterpiece, the movement of gaining familiarity with Iranian ancient traditions and extensive research into Avestan rituals and Pahlavi literature and language began. These turned into the most important branches of Iranology in Europe during the 18th and, particularly, 19th centuries. In fact, many early thinkers believed that the first Iranologists were the early Avestologists and introduced them as the pioneers in the field of Iranology.

We can consider the 19th century to have been the period of the perfection and culmination of Iranological studies in the West. This is because some unprecedented and great advances were made in all branches of this field during this century. For example, some important Orientology societies, all of which had a specific Iranian research branch, were founded in developed European countries one after the other. Moreover, hundreds of Orientalists began working in these societies, and some of the most famous of these scholars chose Iranology as their major field of study. Almost all the great works of Iranian literature were translated into various European languages during this period. During the same century, in several non-European countries, particularly in America, India, and the Ottoman lands, some noteworthy literary and research activities were conducted on Iran. Furthermore, upon the discovery of Iranian Persian style of cuneiform by H. Rowlinson, a new chapter was opened in the book of Iranology .

At the beginning of the 20th century, the discovery of the invaluable treasure of Iranian documents and manuscripts in Turfan opened a new horizon in learning about Iranian ancient culture. In spite of the two World Wars that occurred in this century, Iranology continued to spread throughout the world, so that a distinctive qualitative difference can be detected between the Iranologists of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 19th century, there were more prominent Iranologists, while in the 20th century the realm of Iranology expanded to a greater extent. In other words, the 19th century was the golden century in terms of introducing some distinguished scientists; however, the amount of research in this field and the number of research centers and the related documents and proofs used in academic areas in this century cannot compete with those of the 20th century.