A cradle of civilisation with a prehistory dating back about 100,000 years, Iran lies at the heart of the ancient Persian Empire, secured under the reigns of Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great in the 6th and early 5th centuries BCE.

A highly sophisticated and cultured empire flourishes until conquered by Alexander the Great towards the end of the 4th Century BCE, beginning a period of Greek influence on Iranian culture that extends well beyond Alexander's death in 323 BCE.

At the start of the 3rd Century CE, the Persian Empire and its Iranian cultural traditions reemerge under the Sassanid Dynasty, lasting for 400 years until conquered by Islamic invaders from Arabia in the middle of the 7th Century. Over time, the majority of Iranians convert to Islam, adopting the Shia branch of the faith. (Shia Islam will become the state religion of Iran in the 16th Century.)

At the start of the 13th Century, Iran comes under the control of a new wave of invaders - Mongol tribes led by Genghis Khan. The Mongols remain in control of the country until 1502 when a new native Iranian dynasty, the Safavids, comes to power and establishes a Shia theocracy led by a shah (king). The Safavid Dynasty lasts until 1736. It is followed by a period of instability that continues until 1795, when the Qajar Dynasty is established.

While a level of stability is restored, the Qajar administrations are weak and prone to corruption. From the beginning of the 19th Century, the country is subjected to interference and land grabs by Britain and Russia. National dissatisfaction with the royal regime becomes increasingly vocal until in August 1906 Shah Muzaffar ad Din is forced to issue a decree promising the introduction of a new constitution.

The constitution that is subsequently drafted places strict limitations on royal power and establishes a representative parliament, or Majlis. The shah signs the new constitution on 30 December 1906. He dies five days later.

In 1908 oil is discovered in Iran.

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