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Dictionary Project, Volume X: Persia, Afghanistan & Baluchistan

The Dictionary Project is a post-a-day exploration of The Century Dictionary and Cylopedia, a twelve-volume set printed in New York in 1901. The Project runs from October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2015, and matches volume numbers to calendar months. Volume X is The Atlas, and today is Day 22.

Persia, now called the Islamic Republic of Iran (or just Iran), has been called the Cradle of Civilization, and is still home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, dating back several millennia BCE (before common era), and has been at the centre of numerous empires.

Map of Persia, 1897

That famous Greek brat, Alexander the Great, toppled the First Persian Empire, back in 330 BCE, but the area regained importance, and Persia was one of the major world powers, alongside the Byzantine Empire, for about 400 years, starting in 224 BCE.

Statements like that never fail to confound me. I live in a part of the world where an “old” building is anything build before the 1930s, and there’s almost nothing older than 100 years anymore, whether from the vagaries of climate, inferior construction, or our unfortunate tendency to bulldoze the old in favour of the new and modern. Permanent structures don’t seem to stick out here on the West Coast of Canada, the way they do in other places. And although there are centuries and millennia of history in the area, almost none of it is reflected in permanent structures, art, or writing.

Four hundred years is a long time for any empire to maintain itself, and to grow, and to exert power. So much must have changed, not just the borders, but the dynasties and the accumulated knowledge, the technology and who knows what else. Four hundred years is a long time for me to imagine; 400 years ago, in 1614, Shakespeare had already stopped writing plays, and retired to Stratford-upon-Avon. I’ve been to Stratford-upon-Avon, I’ve seen the surrounding countryside, and a lot has changed in those 400 years. It’s a sure thing that Shakespeare wouldn’t recognize the place. Or the language. How did the neo-Persians keep up?

Perhaps the pace of change was slower when the Byzantine and Parthian empires were ruling most of the world, from 200 BCE to 200 CE (or AD, in old money). Certainly the pace of travel was slower. All this was 1400 years before Shakespeare.

And then my head explodes. My husband is from England and takes centuries-old buildings and Roman roads for granted; the appreciation comes down through the DNA, or in the drinking water or something. But I am always agog when surrounded by truly ancient things. We don’t get stuff like that where I’m from.

I should talk about borders. I’m on firmer ground with borders. And interestingly, the border of Persia in 1897 looks to be pretty much the same as the border today. Same with the Afghanistan border. Baluchistan, as I mentioned yesterday, is now much bigger than this, and is called Pakistan. And the other thing I learned today is that it has a coastline. I never knew that about Pakistan. (Which just shows how often I’ve needed to look at it on a map before this project started.)

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