Persia, called by the natives Iran, the most important native kingdom of western Asia, is bounded by Russian Caucasia, the Caspian Sea, the Russian Transcaspian provinces, Afghanistan, Beluchistan, the Strait of Ormuz, the Persian Gulf, and Asiatic Turkey. Extending 900 miles from E. to W. and 700 miles from N. to S., it has an area of about 638,000 sq. m., consisting for the most part of a great tableland from 2000 to 5000 feet in height. North of this the majestic range of Elburz (with its peak Demavend, q.v.) runs, south of the low Caspian shores, eastward towards Afghanistan and the Paropamisus; and a mountain belt running from the NW. to SE. with snow-capped peaks, descends by steep terraces towards the Persian Gulf, and bounds it on the W. (see Asia). Demavend is an extinct volcano; and earthquakes occasionally occur. A great part of Khorassan, the north half of Kerman, the east of Irak-Ajemi, which form the great central plain, and detached portions of all the other provinces, with the exception of those on the Caspian Sea, forming more than three-fourths of the surface of Persia, are desert - that is to say, are uncultivated owing to the want of rain; but by far the greater portion of this region consists of light dry soil, which only requires irrigation to become fruitful. This great central desert contains a few oases. A narrow strip of low and level country extends along the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Ormuz. Some parts of the country are of exceeding fertility and beauty; the immense valleys, some of them 100 miles in length, between the various ranges of the Kerman Mountains, abound with the rarest and most valuable vegetable products. Great portions of the provinces of Fars, Khuzistan, Ardelan, and Azerbijan have been lavishly endowed by nature with the most luxuriant vegetation; while the provinces of Ghilan and Mazanderan, which lie between the Elburz and the Caspian Sea, and the southern slopes of the Elburz are as beautiful as wood, water, and a moderately hot climate can make them.
Persia has hardly one river that can properly be termed navigable, though some of them are several hundred miles in length, and of great width and volume of water. The Karun (q.v.) was opened to foreign steam-navigation from its mouth to Ahwaz in 1889. Most of the ancient irrigation works are ruins. Persia abounds with saline lakes, the chief being Urmia (q.v.) and Bakhtegan (60 miles by 9). Persia possesses three climates - that of the Dushtistan, of the elevated plateau, and of the Caspian provinces. In the Dushtistan, the southern lowland, the autumnal heats are excessive, those of summer more tolerable, while in winter and spring the climate is delightful. On the plateau the climate of Fars is temperate. To the north and north-west the winters are severe. The desert-region of the centre and east, and the country on its border, endure most oppressive heat during summer and piercing cold in winter. The Caspian provinces, from their general depression below the sea-level, are exposed to a degree of heat in summer almost equal to that of the West Indies, and their winters are mild. Rains, however, are frequent and heavy, and many tracts of low country are marshy and extremely unhealthy. Except in the Caspian provinces, the atmosphere of Persia is remarkable above that of all other countries for its dryness and purity. The cultivated portions of Persia, when supplied with moisture, are very fertile, producing an immense variety of crops. The chief cultivated products are admirable wheat, barley, and other cereals, cotton, sugar and rice (in Mazanderan), and tumbaku or tobacco for the narghileh or water pipe. The vine flourishes in several provinces, and the wines of Shiraz are celebrated. Mulberries are also largely cultivated, and silk is a most important product. The forests of the Elburz swarm with wild animals, as wolves, tigers, jackals, boars, buffaloes, foxes, and the Caspian cat. Leopards abound in Mazanderan, and lions in parts of Fars and Arabistan. The horses have always been celebrated for their beauty, speed, and endurance. The Caspian rivers abound with fish, especially sturgeon, great quantities of which are cured and exported to Russia. Except only salt, the mineral products are insignificant, though iron, copper, lead, antimony, coal, sulphur, and naphtha exist in plenty. The settled population are chiefly Tajiks, the descendants of the ancient Persian race, with an intermixture of foreign blood. To this class belong the agriculturists, merchants, artisans, etc. The Tajiks are Mohammedans of the Shiite sect, with the exception of the remaining Parsees (some 9000 in number), who are found chiefly at Yezd, and still retain their purity of race and religious faith. The nomad or pastoral tribes are of four distinct races - Turks (not Osmanli Turk), Kurds, Luurs, and Arabs. Of the four the Turk is the most numerous, and to it belongs the present Kajar dynasty. There is a small population of native Christians - the Nestorians of Urmia and Telmais, and Armenians, whose principal settlement is at Julfa (Ispahan), where there is an archbishop and a cathedral. Including a few Roman Catholics and Protestants, the whole number of Christians can hardly exceed 50,000. The Jews number 35,000. There can be no doubt that in antiquity, and even during the middle ages, while the irrigation-works still fertilised large tracts of country, Persia supported a great population; in the 17th century it was estimated at 40 millions. In 1905 the population was estimated at about 9 1/2 millions, and the principal cities thus: Teheran, 250,000; Tabriz, 180,000; Ispahan, 80,000; Meshhed and Kerman, 70,000 each; Yezd, 55,000; Barfurush and Shiraz, 50,000 each; Hamadan, Kazvin, Kom, Kashan, Resht, from 30,000 to 40,000 each. Of the nomads 260,000 are Arabs, 720,000 Turks, 675,000 Kurds and Leks, 234,000 Luurs, and 20,700 Beluchis and gypsies. The houses are generally built of mud, and, seen from without, look contemptible, but the interiors of the houses of the wealthy are sometimes perfect paradises of elegance. The miserable look of the towns is greatly redeemed by the beauty of the gardens which surround them. The roads are utterly neglected.
Persian trade is comparatively small. Silk has declined, opium is increasing, cottons and woollens, shawls, carpets, and felts are manufactured both for home use and for export. The exports mainly consist of wheat, rice, wine, raisins, almonds and nuts, olive-oil, tobacco, drugs, gums, resins, manna, opium, colouring matters, boxwood, walnut-wood, silk, wool, carpets, skins and furs, wax, pearls, turquoises, sulphur, naphtha, salt; the chief imports are cotton goods from Britain, and broadcloths, jewellery, arms, cutlery, watches, earthen, glass, and metal wares, etc. The whole foreign trade has been estimated roughly at - imports, £5,500,000; exports, £3,000,000. The imports of British produce have of late years varied from £300,000 to £500,000; while the exports to Britain were worth from £100,000 to £250,000, without reckoning the much greater value sent to India and other British dependencies. In the north-west, north, and north-east districts a decided Russian superiority in trade is in parts disputed by British and Indian competition; in the south and west British ascendency is established. Many projects of railways have been formed, but up to 1894 only one of them had been carried out - viz. from Teheran to Shah Abul Azim (6 miles). Tramways have been laid down in Teheran. The Karun river has been open since 1888 to foreign (mainly British) navigation. Russia has easy access by the Caspian. The principal centres of trade are Tabriz, Teheran, and Ispahan; the chief ports Gombroon (Bender-Abbas), Lingah, and Bushire on the Persian Gulf, and Enzeli, Meshed-i-Sar, and Bender-i-Gez on the Caspian. The government of Persia is a pure despotism, limited only by the power and influence of the Mohammedan mollahs or priests, domestic intrigues, dread of private vengeance, and an occasional insurrection. The 'shah,' or 'Padishah,' possesses absolute authority over the lives and property of his subjects. His deputies, the governors of provinces and districts, possess similar authority over those under them; their actions are, however, liable to revision by the Shah, who may summarily inflict any punishment upon them for real or alleged misgovernment. Frightful bribery and extortion prevail. It is believed that the irregular exactions amount to a sum equal to the legal assessments, and that not a penny of the money so extorted is applied to public purposes. The annual revenue in 1890-1905 may be stated at from £1,400,000 to £1,775,000. The regular army is really composed of about 30,000 infantry and 1000 artillery, while there are about 10,000 irregular cavalry, a few thousand irregular infantry, and the guards.
The Medes (akin to the Persians), who occupied the NE. of Persia, rebelled against the Assyrians and founded a kingdom in 708 B.C., subverted in 537 by the Persians under Cyrus, who established a vast and mighty empire, extending from the Aegean to the Oxus and Indus. Cambyses conquered Egypt (525 B.C.); Darius I. and Xerxes I. failed in 490 and 480 to subdue Greece. After the reign of Artaxerxes I. (465-425) decay set in, and Alexander the Great reconstructed a new Persia under Greek influence. At his death Persia fell to the SeleucidAe, but Bactria and Parthia soon became independent; and then the ArsacidAe, a Parthian dynasty, ruled all Persia from 138 B.C. to 218 a.d., when the Sassanian princes, of the old Persian stock, restored a real Persian empire, which contended with Rome on equal terms, repeatedly defeated Roman armies, and took a Roman emperor captive (260 a.d.). The Sas-sanians were crushed in 639 a.d. by the Mohammedan Arabs, under whom Persia became a favoured province of the Caliphs. After the 9th century various Turkish, Persian, or Tartar dynasties ruled over portions of Persia, but were swept away by the Mongols of Genghis Khan (1335). Timur the Tartar made Persia part of his dominion (1370). A Turkish dynasty had great representatives in Ismail (1500-23) and Abbas the Great (1585-1628). The present Turkoman dynasty was established by Aga-Mohammed in 1795. See books on Persia by Arnold (1876), Wills (1883-86), Benjamin (1886), Curzon (1891), and Browne (1893); Morier's tale of Hajji Baba; and histories by Rawlinson (of ancient Persia, 1876), Malcolm (1828), Watson (1866), and Clements Markham (1874).