This day in history: Persia renamed ‘Iran’

Has Erdogan drawn inspiration from Reza Shah and 1935 Iran by renaming Turkey, ‘Türkiye’?

Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881 - 1938, left), and Reza Shah (1879 - 1944), Shah of Persia, hold a historic meeting in Ankara, the new capital of Turkey, 1934.
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Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881 - 1938, left), and Reza Shah (1879 - 1944), Shah of Persia, hold a historic meeting in Ankara, the new capital of Turkey, 1934.

This day in history: Persia renamed ‘Iran’

It was on the Persian New Year of 21 March 1935 that Reza Shah announced that he was formally changing his country’s name from ‘Persia’ to ‘Iran’. Persia, he felt, was too colonial, oriental, and demode.

It was linked in people’s mind with endless wars and crippling debt accumulated by the gross mismanagement of his predecessors, the Qajars. For him, ‘Persia’ spoke of the past, not of the future.

Reza Shah was an impassioned, forward-looking reformer who wanted Iran to catch up with the modern world. He felt that it lagged behind in practically all areas. It needed a facelift - and a new name.

The ascent of Reza Shah

The shah himself was semi-illiterate. Born into obscurity and raised as an orphan, he grew up in poverty before joining the military and rising through its ranks, helped by an iron will and a sense of ambition that knew no bounds.

Finally, at the head of the Persian Cossack Regiment, one of Iran’s only professional military outfits, he marched on Tehran and staged a coup d'état in 1921. It was largely bloodless, since his men were met with little resistance.

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King of Iraq 1939-58 during a visit in Iran with Shah Reza Pahlavi (r); at the back Crown Prince AbduIlah (l) and Prince Gholam Reza

He deposed the Qajar shah, imposed his own prime minister, and named himself head of the army and minister for war. In 1925, he became shah himself, then embarked on a major programme of reform, including big infrastructure projects.

He built a railway linking the Caspian Sea to the Arabian Gulf, set up Iran’s first radio station, and established its first museum. He hosted the first women’s congress in Tehran in 1932, then two years later, he founded the University of Tehran, and made education compulsory for both boys and girls.

He excavated ancient cities like Persia’s old capital Persepolis and sent thousands of young Iranians to study abroad, mainly in the United States and Europe, on state scholarships.

Not just a name change

So conscious was he about public image that it became a crime to take photos of anything that looked backward in Iran, like ghettos, camels, and the chador.

Following the country’s 1935 name-change, he issued one of Iran’s most controversial rulings: the Kashf-e hijab, a January 1936 decree banning the headscarf and chador, which put him at odds with the mullahs.

In 1935, Reza Shah changed the name from Persia to Iran. Persia, he felt, was too colonial. It spoke of the past, not of the future.

He wanted women to fully participate in society, yet it was also a nation-building exercise, enforced on a people who were used to showing their tribal, religious, regional, or class-based affiliations through clothing. He felt that modernity needed strong roots in history and culture.

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Shah of Iran Reza Shah Pahlavi dressed in his military uniform.

When he came to power, he chose a family name for himself - 'Pahlavi' - taken from the official language of the pre-Islamic Sassanid Dynasty. The Pahlavi dynasty was to rule Iran until the toppling of his son in 1979.

The shah's downfall

Reza Shah was himself toppled decades earlier, in 1941, after wartime allies Britain and the Soviet Union invaded neutral Iran. The shah was accused of being too close to Nazi Germany, which was its largest trade partner.

He admired Germany for its discipline, work ethic, and industrial prowess, but whether he admired or liked Adolf Hitler – as has been suggested – is a matter for historical debate.

For the Allies, his main crime was refusing to expel thousands of German advisers and engineers who had been working in Iran since the early 1930s, who Britain and the USSR feared were spying for the Third Reich. 

Accusations that the name-change (from Persia to Iran) was a German idea have never been corroborated, but the shah's decree was warmly received in Iran itself, because this was how Iranians referred to their country. It was only the west that called it 'Persia.'

To avoid confusion between Iran and neighbouring Iraq, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked Tehran revert to its old name of 'Persia' for what remained of World War II.

In 1959, the shah's son and successor allowed the use of both names interchangeably: 'Persia' for historical context, 'Iran' for modern reference.

Parallels in Ankara

Fast forward to December 2021. Without prior warning, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decreed that the name 'Türkiye' would replace 'Turkey,' both at the United Nations and in all treaties and official correspondences.

Was his decision inspired by the shah's edict 86 years earlier? It seemed like a strange and untimely ruling, given Turkey's more pressing and urgent issues, like Northern Cyprus, Kurdish separatists, and the war in neighbouring Syria.

Erdogan's name change from 'Turkey' to 'Türkiye' seemed strange given the country's other priorities

The name that Erdogan decided to abandon, 'Turkey,' was derived from Old French, 'Turquie,' and medieval Latin, 'Turquia,' meaning 'land of the Turks'.

Erdogan decided to go for a more deep-rooted pronunciation of his country's name, as part of a broader rebrand that he has been underway since his Justice and Development (AK) Party came to power two decades ago.

Looking forward, looking back

Part of it was called neo-Ottomanism, focusing on the restoration of Turkish influence (political, economic, and cultural) in former cities and towns that were once part of the Ottoman Empire.

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The Ottoman Empire's power and prestige peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Yet herein lies a dissimilarity: Reza Shah changed his country's name while looking forward towards the future, whereas Erdogan did it whilst looking backwards, drawing inspiration from his country's past.

The differing reasons may be further explained by the fact that Reza Shah was a big fan of Turkish President Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan is not. Quite the opposite.

Reza Khan had even given serious consideration to transforming Iran into a republic as early as 1925, inspired by Ataturk's republic.

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Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) passes next to a Turkish soldier wearing a ottoman uniform during a third anniversary commemoration rally at the Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul on July 15, 2019.

He only kept it as a monarchy because he knew the clerics would never allow it, arguing that Islam - since the times of the prophet - knew no such thing as republicanism.

Name changes elsewhere

In recent years, other states have taken similar steps, but none have received as much attention as Erdogan's name-change, or that of the shah.

In January 2020, the Dutch government formally dropped the name 'Holland' and settled for 'the Netherlands'. In 2018, Swaziland renamed itself Eswatini, and Ceylon became Sri Lanka.

In the Arab World, the Emirate of Transjordan changed its name to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1946 while Syrians have been eternally debating whether to write their country's name with an Alef سوريا or with a Tha'e Marbouta سورية. 

There are even cases of name changes that stick with the passing of time, without being formalised in writing. Gaza is one of them. It grew detached from the already truncated state of Palestine since Hamas's takeover in 2007.

Many now refer to the strip simply as "Gaza," not Palestine, and its people as Gazans, rather than Palestinians.

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