Policies and Geographical Names

Monday, June 16, 2008

Dr. Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh

The National Cartographic Center organized a meeting on coordination in geographical names in May. Dr. Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh, professor of international relations and an expert on political geography, was among the speakers whose speech will be reflected here due to importance of the subject which pertained to changes in some geographical names during recent years.

Here, the discussion will pertain to some of the most important geographical names that are tied to the Iranian identity and efforts made to change them as well as the motives behind those efforts. The same motivations that inspire attempts to tarnish the name of Iran, are behind efforts made to distort the name of the Persian Gulf, efforts  made to change the name of the Caspian Sea, or to change the Central Asia most of which draw on our unawareness of the important principle that geographical names are not easily changeable.

1.    Persian Gulf

Distorting the name of the Persian Gulf is one major effort made to change the name of a major geographical location due to political reasons. That effort mainly stems from Arabic radicalism and is made in the cost of undermining Persian – Iranian identity ruling all the coasts and islands of the Persian Gulf. Since establishment of early Iranian rules more than 2,600 years ago up to the first half of the 20th century all the lands around the Persian Gulf from Mesopotamia up to Persian, the present day Qatar, Bahrain and Arabia, as well as the present day United Arab Emirates and the northern part of Oman were included under the Iranian rule. In other words, all the above lands were known as Persia and Persian Gulf lied in the middle of ancient Persia and it was for that reason that it was called Persian Gulf. The ancient Greeks used Sinus Persicus to name it and considered it one of the four seas that had branched off the lateral ocean of the world into the land. Ancient Iranians called it Parsa Draya which included all eastern waters of the world and a major branch of it progressed toward the center of the known world, which is the present day Red Sea.

While the only thing that remained for modern geography from ancient Greece was the name of Persian Gulf, geographical studies in ancient Iran continued to influence historical and geographical studies of the Islamic era and the most renowned historians and geographers of the Arab and Muslim world have registered the name of the Persian sea in tens of books including Sowar ul-Aqalim, al-Masalik wal Mamalik, Asar ul-Bilad wa Akhbar ul-Ibad, Surat ul-Arz, and Moruj uz-Zahab. The impact of ancient Iranian geography on the Muslim world was so profound that even the Holy Quran has noted in Chapter al-Rahman: “He has let forth the two seas, they meet together and between them is a barrier which they do not overpass.” Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn Faqih has noted in page 9 of his book, Mukhtasar al-Buldan that the two seas are the Persian sea and Roman sea. Other Muslim historians and geographers also hold that idea. Shahab ud-Din Ahmad al-Nawiri (died in 733 AH) has written in his book, Nahayat ul-Arab fi Fonoun il-Arab, that God means Persian and Roman seas by mentioning two big seas in Chapter Al-Rahman.

This special geographical viewpoint was held throughout the Islamic centuries, but as studies continued, the expanse of the Persian Sea was reduced until in late 19th century, the name Persian Gulf simply denoted the current day Persian Gulf and Oman Sea. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the name “Persian Gulf” was used in Arabic and Islamic books in place of the Persian Sea or al-Bahr ul-Farsi.

After disintegration of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the World War I and emergence of new Arab states in the region which are now called the Middle East, new Arab countries around Iran started to build an Arabic identity. This situation was more intense in regions like Mesopotamia and southern rim of Persian Gulf, which has been under the Iranian sovereignty for the past 3,000 years, or at least, the past 2,500 years. Therefore, new conditions caused new governments in those areas to try to do away with the Iranian identity. This project was especially pursued by Baathist groups in Iraq that were led by Abdolkarim Qasem and later by Saddam Hussein.

They tried to fan the flames of territorial disputes with Iran and raised claims about Iranian islands and coasts in the Persian Gulf, tried to change its name, and also coveted some Iranian lands like Khuzestan. There has been no precedence in the world history when names of continents, seas, and oceans have been changed due to political, racial, and religious reasons. For example, nobody will accept that Pakistan would be allowed to change the name of the Indian Ocean to Pakistan Ocean due to political and military disputes or religious and racial differences with India. However, the Baath Party of Iraq has spent millions of dollars to institutionalize this practice.

After downfall of the Baathist regime in Iraq, tribal governments in Qatar and Abu Dhabi followed suit with racial tendencies of the Iraqi Baath Party. Each year, hundreds of millions of dollars are spend in the Arab world and in the West to introduce a new name instead of the Persian Gulf and to promote the idea of Arab supremacy over the sea in order to undermine Persian identity throughout the region.
Building identity has a special status in political sciences and geography and any human group is entitled to be associated with an identity which suits its cultural and civil background.

Edward Said, the famous Arab scholar, has noted that a special human group builds identity by comparing “us” to “them”.

However, it is obvious that building identity at the cost of destroying other nations’ identities can only stem from racial supremacy ideas.

The type of identities built by the Iraqi Baathist regime and some emirates in the southern part of the Persian Gulf, like Qatar and Abu Dhabi, in the past years is of the second type and new Arab entities around Iran are trying to build their pan-Arab identity by destroying the Iranian identity and doing away with all signs of Persian civilization in the region.

2.    Caspian Sea

Another example of such efforts was one made by Iranians to replace “Mazandaran Sea” for “Caspian Sea”. Apparently, it was incited by anti-Iranian endeavors aimed to distort the name of Persian Gulf. Once again, this fact was ignored that geographical names do not stem from political, religious, and racial grounds to be changed on similar grounds and any attempt by Iranians to change geographical names like Caspian Sea, will be a follow-up to attempts made to change the name of Persian Gulf and will give legitimacy to anti-Iranian racial tendencies. The name “Caspian Sea” has a historical background like “Persian Gulf”, has its roots in ancient world and is, thus, unchangeable.

It should be noted that using local names for seas has been in vogue since ancient times and as existing maps show many local names have been used for the Caspian Sea including Mazandaran Sea, Gilan Sea, Gorgan Sea, Vahregan Sea, Abeskoun Sea, Baku Sea, and so on.

That situation holds true for other parts of the world and many maps show local names for areas around seas. None of those local names, however, have been ever accepted as a substitute for the Caspian Sea. For example, though maps drawn by the Iranian government in the first half of the 20th century have used Mazandaran Sea as a local name for the Caspian Sea or Makran Sea, as the local name for Oman Sea, larger and more official maps of those regions have always used the Caspian Sea and the Oman Sea.

3.    Serri island

Unfortunately some governmental organizations which deal with Persian Gulf studies have adopted the current name of Sirri Island from English maps and ignore the fact that “Sirri” has been used by English colonialists according to the Arabic pronunciation of the island’s name. However, the correct name of the island has been Serri (which means “secret” in Persian) while all governmental organizations are using the wrong name “Sirri”.  They say that since the island is hidden in mist and fog in certain seasons, sailors used to call it Serri (or Secret) Island. In ancient times, it has been called “Mysterious Island”.


It is clear to all of us as Iranians, who have been victims of the first organized plot to change geographic names on the basis of political, racial or religious grounds, that such plots are far beyond a choice of identity and stem from purely political and identity reasons which can give rise to major challenges in international relations and pitch nations against each other. While choosing a logical way to oppose such attempts, we must try to practically defuse such challenges. However, it seems that there are certain groups inside the Iranian society that react to such developments in a purely emotional manner and try to retaliate by changing other geographical names without noting that such reactions can create major waves of tension in all human societies and deal deadly blows to international peace.

Since our country has an organization which is in charge of coordinating geographical names (National Cartographic Center), all other state-run bodies, universities, and nongovernmental organizations should be warned against arbitrary measures with regard to geographical names and relay their viewpoints about such names to the above organization, so that, our national interests and identity would not come to any harm through such measures. The government is expected to recognize legal and organizational status of the National Cartographic Center, then issue a circular giving stern warning to all governmental and nongovernmental bodies about issues related to geographical names and make them conform to the viewpoints of the National Cartographic Center.


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