Program Description

Iranian Studies at UCLA encompasses two fields of concentration: Persian and Old Iranian.

The Persian track covers the New Persian language, literature, and Islamic philosophy. It is primarily embedded in the history and culture of the Muslim world, and requires a thorough knowledge of Arabic and Arabic literature.

The Old Iranian track is mainly directed towards students interested in the languages and cultures of the Ancient world, notably, the Ancient Near East (Assyria, Babylonia, and Elam), the Greco-Roman world, as well as Indo European and Indic studies. It deals with the languages, literary traditions, history, and religions of Ancient, pre-Islamic, Iran.

Undergraduate and graduate concentrators in Iranian Studies, notwithstanding their chosen track, are required to become well acquainted with the core tenets of the Iranian civilization. An excellent command of Persian and Classical Persian literature is expected to be acquired, along with a solid knowledge of Old and Middle Persian (for graduate students), as well as a keen understanding of Iranian history and religions.

Although UCLA is one of the few institutions in the Americas to offer a B.A. in Iranian Studies, for which prospective students directly apply to the College’s Undergraduate Admissions, it is primarily a graduate program leading to a Ph.D. in Iranian Studies. For general information regarding graduate admission to the department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, do refer to the UCLA Graduate Division’s website.

The Program of Iranian Studies at UCLA allows for two alternative major fields of concentration (tracks) that permits further specialization in subfields (areas):

Persian (Literature)

  • Diachronic and synchronic study of the Persian language
  • Persian literary traditions from early Persian prose and poetics to the end of the Classical period
  • Islamic philosophy with emphasis on the Iranian element

Old Iranian (Languages)

While the primary orientation of Old Iranian is philological other areas of concentration, such as ancient history and the religions of Ancient Iran are strongly encouraged:

  • Old and Middle Iranian languages (e.g., Avestan; Old Persian; Parthian; Middle Persian; Khotanese; Sogdian; and Bactrian)
  • Ancient Iranian History from the rise of the Elamite civilization to the end of the Sasanian empire
  • Old Iranian religions (Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism)

Old Iranian Track

Iranian Languages

Iranian languages may be divided in Old (Avestan, Old Persian) and Middle Iranian (e.g., Parthian, Middle Persian, Khotanese, and Sogdian) languages, whereby a further distinction is made between Western (Old Persian, Parthian, Middle Persian) and Eastern (Avestan, Khotanese, and Sogdian) Iranian languages. Those specializing in Iranian languages will be required, at a minimum, to acquire a solid knowledge of Western Iranian languages, namely, of Old Persian, the language of the Achaemenid empire, as well as of Parthian and Middle Persian, the languages of the Arsacid and Sasanian empires. In addition, and depending upon the chosen field of specialty, the knowledge of Avestan will be required, traditionally in concert with the study of Indic languages and Indo-European linguistics. Those interested in Eastern Middle Iranian languages, such as Khotanese and Sogdian will be encouraged to study Indic as well.

Ancient Iranian History

Achaemenid history, which covers the eighth to fourth centuries B.C.E., and mainly encompasses the history of the Mede and Achaemenid empires, also extensively deals with the Elamite and Mesopotamian cultures, as well as with the Greek world. It requires a good knowledge of Old Persian and the classical languages, but also some acquaintance with the Empire’s administrative languages: Elamite and Imperial Aramaic.

Arsacid History deals with the third pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty and covers the period following the rise of Seleucid (Hellenistic) rule in Iran to the advent of the Sasanian empire, that is, from third century B.C.E. to third century C.E. With the emergence of Rome (replacing the Greek Hellenistic polities) as the new hegemon of the West, familiarity with the history of the res publica and the Principate is highly desirable for concentrators in Ancient Iranian history. The language of the Arsacid empire being Parthian, specializing graduate students shall acquire knowledge of Parthian and Middle Persian, and may be required to acquaint themselves with Aramaic, Arabic, and Akkadian (Late Babylonian).

Finally, the history of the Sasanian empire, the last Iranian empire before the advent of Islam that lasted from third to seventh centuries C.E., requires a variegated expertise. A good acquaintance with Roman (Dominate) and Byzantine history, coupled with a good knowledge of Middle Persian and Parthian, as well as other languages, such as Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian are desirable.

Ancient Iranian Religions

Iranian Religions are introduced through an introduction into the study of Zoroastrianism as reflected in the Younger Avestan texts and in the royal Achaemenid inscriptions. The study of religion under the Achaemenids will also deal with the reality of the religious practices as captured by royal administrative documents (tablets) in Elamite, and as revealed by the testimonies of classical authors.

The consolidation of Zoroastrianism as a state religion under the Sasanians, which is commonly attributed to the high priest Kerdir in the second half of the third century C.E., possibly as a reaction to the perceived threat of a nascent Gnostic religious movement, called Manichaeism, is yet another chapter in the rich history of ancient Iranian religions. Not only the redefined Zoroastrian “orthodoxy,” but also the decisively Iranian essence of the Gnostic religion attributed to prophet Mani, belong to the core courses in Iranian religions.

Evidently, requirements are adjusted to the interests of the students, but basic language skills are expected of them all, whether concentrating in languages, religions, or history of Ancient Iran.