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  • Josh Weaver

Sabk-e Khorasani: The Revival of the Persian Language

In the Middle Ages, the Persian-speaking world (often termed Greater Iran) was divided into two distinct regions, Persian Iraq in the west and Greater Khorasan in the east. Greater Khorasan was a nebulous region, more often than not defined in the negative as everything east of the cities of Persia (Shiraz, Kerman, Esfahan, etc) that was not India or China. Regardless of the unspecificity of the term, Greater Khorasan contained some of the greatest cities not only in the Persian world, but in the Islamic world as a whole. What many forget, however, is that this region, of which only a small portion is in modern day Iran, was once the center of Persian-ness on earth, and at a time the home of one of the greatest civilizations to ever exist. Although Persian-ness is now much more associated with Fars and Iran, there was a time when Afghanistan and Greater Khorasan were the core of Persian language and culture.

After the coming of Islam in the 7th century, the Persian language went dark, so to speak. Middle Persian, and the Pahlavi script, were quickly replaced by Arabic, the language of the Islamic conquerors. Like so many of the languages and cultures to the west of Persia, it seemed that Arabic could too replace Persian. However, on the eastern edge of Greater Iran, far from the centers of Arab-Islamic cultural dominance, the native language was not supplanted. In fact, the pre-Islamic Parthian language spoken in the region was quickly supplanted by early literary New Persian, essentially the language spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan today. After a brief period during which Arabic was the only written language, the people of Khorasan began to write in their spoken language, Persian, using the Arabic script. This is not a unique phenomenon; for example, after the Franco-Norman invasion of England, literary Old English lost its status as the language of writing, and when written Middle English began to appear several centuries later, it was much more alike the English you are reading now than Beowulf.

By the 9th century, Greater Khorasan, because of its position on the frontier of the Islamic world, although it remained Muslim, had broken away completely from Arab rule, and culturally in many ways from the Arabic language. The Samanid Empire, which came to rule much of the Great Khorasani region, began to patronize the Persian language and Persian-Islamic art. For the first time, the Islamic world became multi-polar, with an entire Islamic cultural world emerging that was not Arab, but Persian. It was during the Samanid period from 819 to 999 CE that the Persian language we know today was forged in cities like Herat and Balkh in Afghanistan, and Nishapour in Iran. Those cities not only became centers of Persian culture, but Islamic and even global culture. Great poets of the sabk-e Khorasani, or the Khorasani style, like Rudaki, Daqiqi, and Ferdowsi laid the foundations for the Persian language we know today, and helped preserve the language from Arabic influence. Great scientists like Avicenna and later Omar Khayyam also hailed from this region.

Because of the shifts in history, the role of Greater Khorasan in the Persian of today is often sadly forgotten. But, in short, up until the Mongol Invasions of the 13th century, it was the eastern Persian world of what is now eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan that was the heart of Persian culture and a center of Islamic culture that rivaled the great Arab cities of Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad. The Persian language we know today was conceived and codified in this region by its native sons, and even a thousand years later would still be comprehensible to them. It was perhaps Greater Khorasan’s vastness and position on the frontier of the Islamic world that allowed it to survive Arab conquest and reemerge as a uniquely Persian Islamic civilization.

Sources:

Oberling, Pierre. "Khorasan i. Ethnic Groups." Encyclopædia Iranica. December 15, 2008. Accessed May 01, 2017.

Paul, Ludwig. "Persian Language i. Early Modern Persian." Encyclopædia Iranica. November 19, 2013.

Bashiri, Iraj. "Samanid Renaissance and Establishment of Tajik Identity." The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies.

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