Perched on a plateau between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Iran has always played a pivotal role in world history. Shepherds and farmers at the foot of the Zagros mountains painted pictures of their lives 6,000 years ago.

Iran's early history was filled with conflicts between kings and rival empires, as the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Assyrians and Persians (as Iranians were formerly called) struggled for land and power. In the last 3,000 years, Iran sometimes ruled portions of three continents. At other times, Iran was invaded and ruled by outsiders, including Alexander the Great, Arab caliphs, the Turks and the Mongol troops of Genghis Khan. This repeated meeting of cultures helped create Iran's rich and diverse society.

From the 16th to the 20th century, Iran was ruled by absolute monarchs known as shahs. In 1906, a national assembly and constitution were introduced. In 1921, a coup toppled the Qajar dynasty and brought Reza Khan to power. Reza Shah encouraged foreign investment and new business, but tried to suppress the power of Islam by setting up secular courts and schools. Few of these changes reached the countryside, but an educated, Westernized class developed in the cities. Women attended school and became professionals for the first time.

Reza Shah's son, Muhammad Reza, who ascended the throne in 1925, continued these policies, including the distribution of land to small-scale farmers. Some devout Shi'ite Muslims opposed the Shah's policies toward women and peasants, while other Iranians opposed the Shah's reliance on secret police and harsh political repression. Led by Ayatollah Khomeini, the exiled spiritual leader of the Shi'ite Muslims, pro-Islam and pro-democracy forces initiated widespread demonstrations in the 1970s; in January 1979, the Shah was forced to resign and go into exile. Iran became a republic, with Khomeini as its absolute ruler.

Because Khomeini had been exiled for a long time, many Iranians did not realize he was a fundamentalist. Khomeini ran Iran strictly according to the rules of Shi'ite Islam. Body veils for women became compulsory, and religious observances were closely monitored. Laws and school curricula reflected Shi'ite practices. These policies continued under Khomeini's successor, Ali Khamenic.

The decade after the Shah's exile produced other upheavals in Iran. In 1980, a border dispute with Iraq erupted into war, which continued until 1987. This devastating conflict cost Iran almost an entire generation of boys and young men. In the same year peace was reached, a terrible earthquake took more than 50,000 lives.

In 1997, Mohammad Khatami, leader of a reformist party, was elected Iran's new president. Khatami initiated more liberal religious and political policies, though he faced strong opposition from the conservative clerical establishment as well as pro-democratic forces wanting more radical reforms. Nevertheless, his government was easily re-elected in 2000.

  Did you know?
Iran contained part of the Silk Road, a 6,400-kilometre ancient trading route linking China to the Mediterranean. Aside from allowing cross-cultural trade, the road inspired the interchange of ideas, technologies and religions.