Saturday, 18 July 2015
25 September 2021

“Why Persian Gulf Matters?”

2012 April 29

Reza Parchizadeh

As an Iranian journalist in exile, I have often been confronted with the question “why does the Persian Gulf matter so much to you Iranians?” followed by “Is it because of the oil? Is it because it is a strategic location? Or is it only a nationalistic gesture on your part? After all, isn’t it just a body of water like any other?” and I, unable to put into few words a long and detailed history loaded with so much emotion behind the fact, have always wondered how to explain that complex feeling to the curious but more often than not nonchalant inquirer who would probably forget about the whole matter as soon as he or she has walked a few steps away from me. Therefore, I am writing this piece as an answer to that call, so that, henceforward, whenever one asks me about that certain feeling, I can refer him or her to it.

The Persian Gulf on the map of the world according to Eratosthenes (B.C. 220)

To be honest, although the material significance of the Persian Gulf somewhat arises from all the above-mentioned objective facts, the feeling the Iranians have toward it soars far above mere politics. In order to understand that feeling, one must travel beyond all objectivity to the subjective realm of legends, where, shrouding history in myth, simple facts acquire epic proportions; unkempt cannons, swords and galleys effect acts beyond their chore; and icons of glory, fortitude and integrity are christened with all the tragi-lyrical verve of Persian poetic sensibility. Only then can one see the truth of the “legend” of the Persian Gulf as Iranians see it. It goes without saying that the holder of this pen, himself involuntarily born into that cradle of myths, has not been immune to the lure of that legend. Nobody is perfect!

Taking that into account, for Iranians, the Persian Gulf constitutes one of the two supreme symbols of resistance against colonialism (the other being the event of the Iranian Oil Nationalization under Mosaddegh in 1951, which, incidentally, is also predicated to a great extent on the Persian Gulf). Centuries ago, when the most ravenous colonial powers of the time, Spain and Portugal, divided the “newly discovered lands outside Europe” between themselves through the self-justified Treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494), consequently carving two spheres of influence on the map of the world, the lands to the east of the demarcation line fell to the lot of the Portuguese. Thus began the ferocious colonial exploits of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean and its inlets under fidalgos Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) and Alfonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515). The Persian Gulf, a key foothold midway the Indian trade route to Europe, was immediately scouted and coveted by the Portuguese. As they embarked upon an expansionist invasion, the Persian isles one by one fell to the Portuguese; the most strategic of which was the Island of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, on which, by the order of Albuquerque, was established a formidable fortress in the name of the Fort of Our Lady of the Conception in 1507. For decades, the Portuguese, following their agenda of keeping a “mare clausum (closed sea)” of the Indian Ocean by policing its sea routes, kept tight to the positions they had occupied in the Persian Gulf, treating the natives of the isles as vassals, and in effect cutting off Persia from open waters and sea routes that it had long maintained with Southeast Asia and East Africa.

An historical French map of the Persian Gulf, dating 1724

On the other side, centuries of internal wars and foreign invasions had made Persia so weak that it could not shake off even a fly. As such, no action could be possibly taken against the colonizers, and liberating the isles remained an unfulfilled dream for around a century. The tables turned with the rise of the strong-willed Shah Abbas (1571-1629) of the Safavid Dynasty to power, who resolved to liberate the Persian Gulf at any cost. Under his tutelage, the Persians, in the matter of two decades, gradually pushed the Portuguese out. First, they expelled them from Bahrain in 1602. A decade later was liberated Gombroon Port (Cambarão in Portuguese and Gumrun in Dutch) on the mainland Persia in 1615, which was thenceforth named Bandar (port of) Abbas in the Shah’s honor. The decisive hour came on April 30, 1622, when on the Island of Hormuz, lying to the north of the strait of the same name, a combined Anglo-Persian naval force stormed Fort Conception, driving the colonizers to sea and then completely out of the Persian Gulf, opening Persia, for the first time after more than a century, to the open seas. This battle also dramatically tipped the balance of power in the Indian Ocean against the Portuguese. Therefore, the Persian Gulf stands as one of the first – or perhaps the first – historic sites of successful anti-colonial resistance in the history of the modern world.

Portuguese cannons stationed at the Fort of Our Lady of the Conception on Hormuz Island, the site of the historic battle between the Persians and the Portuguese on April 30, 1622

Since then, the Persian Gulf has acquired a mythic status in the psyche of the Iranians for generations to come. Recently, the date April 30 has been designated as the National Persian Gulf Day in Iran to commemorate that liberating war; a designation which has garnered much public applause. Incidentally, I have personally seen one of the Portuguese heavy cannons left behind on the Island of Hormuz, not on that island, but far away from it, in Meshed in the northeast of Iran, where it is on public display in the mausoleum of another famous Persian king, Nader Shah (1688-1747). I always wondered what punishment it meted out to the liberators, and that the people who dared charging against it should have had something in them that is hardly explicable today.

Beside this, many other anti-colonial wars have been fought by the Iranians in the Persian Gulf since the time of Shah Abbas. The last was the defeat of the invading Iraqi fleet during the early phases of the Iran-Iraq War in the early 1980s. In the context of that war, another more recent incident, worthy of recognition in the tragic archives of history, also heavily lends itself to the legend of the Persian Gulf. On July 3, 1988, in the heat of the “missile battle” during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran Air Flight 655, a civilian jet airliner, while flying over the Strait of Hormuz, was mistakenly shot down by the missiles fired from USS Vincennes, destroying the lives of all the 290 souls aboard. This tragic event stamped yet another genuinely Iranian mark on the face of the Persian Gulf, where people annually gather to throw flowers into the sea in the memory of the souls perished. It has become a shrine somehow, a flat, blue shrine with no walls, and the sky its roof.

Iranian artists throw flowers into the Persian Gulf in memory of the souls perished

As such, it could be said that the Persian Gulf’s spirit has been enlivened by those of the Iranians’ who have joined it in the passage of time. And it is alive, as much as the people that have lived on its shores for generations, made stories about it, sung endearing songs to it, danced by it, sailed on their humble vessels to earn their daily bread from it, and defended it with their lives. I once walked on its shores, gazing at its crystal-blue calm, reconstructing in my mind all the turbulent history I had read about it, and felt overawed by the weight of the contrast. “Sweet Sorrow” was my definition for that feeling. Not surprisingly, the Persian Gulf is now both a place of joy and a site of sorrow, the realistic portrait of the bittersweet collective memories of a proud but battered people that have seen many rises and falls in their long and sinuous history. Perhaps that is why the Persian Gulf matters so much to Iranians. After all, for them, it is not just a body of water: it is the reflection, nay, the reverberation of their history.

«نوشته فوق می تواند نظر نویسنده باشد و الزامن نظر رادیو کوچه نیست»


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  1. payam

    Aly doktorrrrrrrrr

  2. cyrus

    Nice Article.
    Persian has been and will always remain as Persian Gulf.

  3. Shapour

    Dear Reza,

    You said the right truth on the persian golf matters.

    Well done

  4. mitra

    I just do not understand how come you wrote an article about Iranians’ nationalist feelings about Persian gulf but did not mention anything about the conflict between Iranian and Arabs on its name: Persian or A.R.A.Bian gulf?
    It is for sure always Persian gulf and this conflict with Arab countries over its name is right now at play. Is not it important to the writer?

    1. رضا پرچی زاده

      Maybe that is exactly the point to it: the whole article has been based on that premise, and this strange absence calls for attention, as you half-noticed. Don’t you think so?