The long history of Iran has witnessed many conquerors, wise rulers and statesmen, artists, poets, historians, and philosophers. In religion, there have been diverse figures. Zoroaster (Zarathushtra), who probably lived in the 6th century BC , founded the religion known as Zoroastrianism or Mazdaism, with Ahura-Mazda as the god of good. In the 3d century AD , Mani attempted a fusion of the tenets of Mazdaism, Judaism, and Christianity. The Bab (Sayyid 'Ali Muhammad of Shiraz, 1819–50) was the precursor of Baha'ism, founded by Baha' Allah (Mirza Husayn 'Ali Nuri, 1817–92).
Persian rulers of the pre-Christian era include Cyrus ("the Great"; Kurush, r.550–529 BC ), Cambyses II (Kambuiya, r.529– 522 BC ), Darius I ("the Great"; Darayavaush, r.521–486 BC ), Xerxes I ("the Great"; Khshayarsha, r.486–465 BC ), and Artaxerxes I (Artakhshathra, r.464–424 BC ). Shah 'Abbas (r.1587–1628) expanded Persian territory and conquered Baghdad. Prominent political figures of modern times are Reza Shah Pahlavi (1877–1944), who reigned from 1925 to his abdication in 1941; and his son, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–80), who was shah from 1941 until his abdication in 1979. Until his death in 1989, Iran was under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900–89).
The great epic poet Firdawsi (Abdul Qasim Hassan ibn-i-Ishaq ibn-i Sharafshah, 940–1020), writing about AD 1000, produced the Shahnama (Book of Kings), dealing with four ancient dynasties and full of romantic and heroic tales that retain their popularity today. Omar Khayyam (d.1123?), astronomer and poet, is known in the Western world for his Rubáiyât, a collection of quatrains freely translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Important figures of the Seljuk period (11th and 12th centuries) include Muhammad bin Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058–1111), philosopher and mystic theologian, who exerted an enormous influence upon all later speculative thought in Islam; Farid ad-Din 'Attar (Muhammad bin Ibrahim, 1119–1229?), one of the greatest of mystic poets; and Nizami (Nizam ad-Din Abu Muhammad, 1141–1202), noted for four romantic epic poems that were copied and recopied by hand and illuminated with splendid miniatures. In the 13th century, Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207–73) compiled his celebrated long mystic poem, the Mathnavi, in rhyming couplets; and Sa'di (Muslih ud-Din, 1184?–1291), possibly the most renowned Iranian poet within or outside of Iran, composed his Gulistan (Rose Garden) and Bustan (Orchard). About a hundred years later, in 1389, another poet of Shiraz died, Hafiz (Shams ud-Din Muhammad); his collected works comprise nearly 700 poems, all of them ghazals or lyrical odes.
Poets of the modern period include Iraj Mirza (1880–1926), Mirzadeh Eshqi (d.1924), Parveen Ettasami (d.1941), and the poet laureate Behar (Malik ash-Shuara Bahar, d.1951). Preeminent among prose writers was Sadeq Hedayat (1903–51), author of the novel Buf i kur (The Blind Owl) and numerous other works, including films.
Miniature painting came to full flower in the second half of the 15th century. The greatest figure in this field was Bihzad, whose limited surviving work is highly prized. The School of Herat was composed of his followers.