Persian Gulf Flap As If We Did Not

Persian Gulf Flap

As if we did not have enough life and death issues to deal with, the Iranian state is now keeping National Geographic out because it identifies the Persian Gulf as also the Arab Gulf.

As with most disputes about what to call something, this argument is silly. The Persian Gulf was called that in English after Greek and Latin writers of the ancient world. The ancient Iranians who moved into Elam around the ninth or eighth century BC were called Parsumash in the ancient Assyrian tablets, and appear to have called themselves Pars as well as Iran (=Aryan). They gradually took over Elam in southwestern Iran and it became known as Pars. To this day, it is called the province of Fars (Arabic does not have a “p” so when Iranians became Muslim and started using the Arabic alphabet, they tended to replace the “p” with an “f”).

Since the Iranians had the most extensive navigation system in the Gulf at that time, the Greeks and Romans tended to call it the Persian Gulf or the equivalent in those languages.

There is a neat symmetry here. The Europeans called Iran “Persia,” using the part (Pars) to describe the whole. The Muslims called Greece “Yunan” or Ionia, using this coastal region of Anatolia, once populated by Greeks, to name the whole.

The rise of nationalism has complicated this naming system. First, Reza Shah insisted from 1933 that all Western newspapers call the country Iran, not Persia. But then shouldn’t it become the “Iranian Gulf?” Why keep “Persian” only for this purpose? Then the rise of Arab nationalism led some Arab intellectuals to insist that it is the “Arab Gulf,” properly speaking. OK, but Westerners have been calling it “Persian” since at least Herodotus.

I say we just call it “The Gulf” and be done with it. Other possibilities exist, but all of them are contentious.

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