|The great land of the Sophy
By Abbas Milani
February 4, 2003
I gave a talk at a fundraiser last week. The event itself is worth writing
about. The Iranian Federated
Women's Club in the San Francisco Bay Area are offering scholarships of
up to ten thousand dollars to ten young Iranians of university age. I thought you
might be interested in the text of the talk.
In 1935, at the suggestion of Persia's misguided Ambassador
to Nazi Germany, the country's name was changed to Iran. That was the heyday of Aryan
supremacy and the word Iran literally means "land of the Aryans." Something
of a breech began to appear in Persian and Western consciousness. Persia with its
indelible aura of past grandeur and glory, was suddenly, and I think unwisely, replaced
by Iran. With the simple stroke of a pen, as Foroughi soberly noted, the richly resonant
and renowned identity of Persia was traded for a bleak unknown.
In English, German and French, Iran is a novice of a word, one that conjures no memory
but only a distant, troubled, and more recently, troubling, land at the end of the
earth. All too often, Iran is still confused with Iraq, assumed to be another 19th
century colonial concoction, an expedient consequence of the "Great Game."
Persia has more than two thousand years of often-splendid recorded history. Though
in recent times the malignancy of its politics has caused it to be much maligned
in the Western media, it has contributed much to the common heritage of humanity.
It has played a formative but frequently forgotten role in shaping Western consciousness
What I can offer here tonight is a mere overture to the long and wondrous symphony
called Persian history. To begin at the beginning -- and the beginning was the Word--
the Bible is replete with profuse praise for Persia and its kings. In the book of
Ezra, the Lord of the Old Testament speaks through the proclamations of Cyrus, King
of Persia, who declares, "The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms
of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem."
Cyrus, as we know, acceded to this lordly edict and thus was the second Temple in
Jerusalem built. In other parts of the Old Testament, Cyrus is often referred to
as God's "Anointed" and the "Chosen" Ruler. This fulsome praise
was partially in recognition of his role in freeing Jews from their Babylonian captivity;
of equal importance was the fact that the vast Persian empire of the time was a paragon
of religious and cultural tolerance.
There is something of a consensus among historians -- with the glaring exception
of Sheikh Sadeq Khalkhali, of course -- that Cyrus was in fact the first ruler to
issue a declaration of human rights. It pre-dated the much-lauded Magna Carta by
more than a millennium. Cyrus was also the first ruler to create a truly multi-cultural
empire by affording the conquered peoples the liberty to maintain their own linguistic,
religious and cultural autonomy. So ubiquitous was his reputation that songs in his
praise had reached as far away as Iceland and formed an important part of their sagas.
Many Biblical scholars have further shown that a plethora of key theological concepts,
from the notions of Satan and hell to those of angels and heaven, and most importantly,
the idea of the resurrection of the body have all been the result of Persian-- or
more specifically, Zoroastrian-- influences on the Bible. Some scholars have suggested
that Zarathustra was the first prophet of a monotheistic religion; others maintain
that the idea of a millennium -- the significance afforded to thousand-year cycles
in history -- found its way to Christianity through the Zoroastrian religion.
Hegel, the 19th century German philosopher, whose writings are considered by many
as the apex of Western philosophical tradition, uses unusual superlatives in describing
the role of Persia and Zarathustra in history. "Persians," he writes, "are
the first Historic people . . . In Persia first arises that light which shines itself
and illuminates what is around . . . The principle of development begins with the
history of Persia; this constitutes therefore the beginning of history."
Hegel wrote these lines around the time that Nietzsche was writing his magnum opus,
Spoke Zarathustra. The book offers a radical critique,
almost a total debunking, of the whole Western tradition of philosophy. It is no
mere accident that Nietzsche chose to articulate his critical views in the name of
Of course the end of the nineteenth century was not the only or the last time Zarathustra
played a prominent role in shaping Western philosophic discourse. Indeed, in the
1990s, so strong were Persian influences in the millennial fever, and in other New
Age ideas, that Harold Bloom, the eminent American critic, wrote in his Omens of
Millennium that the last decade of the twentieth
century should in truth be called the age of Zoroastrian revival.
Zarathustra was not the only Persian prophet to play an important role in the development
of Judeo-Christian theology. Scholars like Carl Gustav Jung have traced some of the
ideas and rituals of Christianity, particularly the notion of a Messiah sent down
from heaven, the ritual of baptism, and the sharing in the body and the blood of
Christ, to Mithraic rites.
Even the architecture of the Christian church, with its hallowed nave, seems inspired
by the designs of Mithraian temples. Western art, no less than history and theology,
bear testimony to the ubiquity of the Persian presence in antiquity. Of all the extant
works of Greek tragedy, for example, the only one that is about a non-Greek subject
is Aeschylus' play The
Persian influences continued long after the days when Christianity was born. St.
Augustine's Confessions, written a good three centuries later, affords clear evidence of
the immense influence Persian ideas, including those of Mani, exerted on Augustine's
intellectual development, and through him, on the evolution of Christian theology
and culture. In fact, some scholars have suggested that Augustine's strict admonishments
against bodily pleasures, and his dualistic vision of the world as a place riven
between good and evil, are evidence that he co-opted many of Mani's ideas into Christianity.
Indeed, Persia can be held at least partially accountable for what has come to be
pejoratively called the Manichean view: A vision that reduces the infinite complexities
of reality into a simple duality of good and evil. Even well into the twenty first
century, the cosmology and ethics of such popular films as Star Wars, and
Lord of the Rings, continue to resonate with Manichean perspectives.
Interesting and important as these religious influences are, Persia's role in the
development of the Greco-Roman or Western sense of cultural identity is no less significant.
It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the West's consciousness of itself as
a unified civilization, distinct from the culturally different "Other,"
was shaped in opposition to Persia.
More than four hundred years before the birth of Christ, Herodotus, often called
the father of Western history, and himself born within the confines of the vast Persian
Empire, wrote his seminal work to chronicle the wars between the Greeks and the Persians.
In the opening paragraphs of his Histories, he writes, "in this book, I hope to do two things. To preserve
the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of
our own and of the Asiatic people. Secondly and more importantly, to show how the
two races came into conflict." He goes on to explain that by Asia he means both
Persians and the lands dominated by them.
Though in what must be the first clear instance of smug Eurocentrism, he calls Persians
"Barbarians," he nevertheless marvels at their many accomplishments. He
writes, for example, of Darius as the discoverer of much of Asia, as the king who
mapped for the first time many of the seas and rivers of the world, and as the far-sighted
monarch who even attempted to build a waterway where 2400 years later, the Suez Canal
Darius is of course also the king who helped build the great city of Persepolis.
The ruins of that once great city are still considered one of the most important
historic sites in the world; its architecture, combining eclectic influences from
many corners of the globe, exemplifies the genius of the Persian spirit.
Persians freely adopted aspects of other cultures, but always did so only after creatively
transforming them into something that was uniquely Persian. This fascinating trajectory
can be traced in everything from the way we prepare our tea and rice, to the way
we build our colonnades and domes.
Even in religion the same spirit seems to have prevailed. In a monumental four-volume
study, the French philosopher, Henri Corbin, shows in some detail how pre-Islamic
Zoroastrian, Mithraic and Manichean ideas, by dint of the Persian assimilating and
persevering instinct, were reformulated in such a way as to make them amenable to
the conquering Arabs and their new religion. Indeed, an eclectic cultural elasticity
has been said to be one of the key defining characteristics of the Persian spirit
and a clue to its historic longevity.
The bulk of my time has already lapsed and I have barely hit even the high notes
of the first five hundred years of Persian history; I have hardly finished the overture
to the symphony I had promised. If we had more time, I would have talked about the
library at Sarouye -- located near where the city of Isfahan is today.
Though only a few random pages of its vast holdings have survived, we know of its
grandeur through the testimony of its contemporaries, who compared it, in terms of
the awe it inspired, to the Egyptian pyramids. We could have reminisced about the
famous Jondi Shapour Medical center in Pre-Islamic Iran, and I could have offered
evidence of its refreshing openness to scholars and doctors from any and all religions
and nationalities of the world.
We could have delighted in discovering the fascinating role Persia played in the
consciousness of the medieval Western mind. We could have talked of the Grail Legend
and the scholarly belief that its sources should be sought in the Persian myth of
the Cup of Jamshid and in the text, Borzounameh. We would have talked of the
role Persians played in the early inception of A Thousand
and One Nights, often called one of the most influential
books of all time. The Shahrzad of the story, a Persian princess, is universally
recognized as the archetypal story-teller, the embodiment of the power of clever
and cunning narrative.
We could have talked of the impressive litany of Persian theologians, philosophers,
mathematicians, astronomers and scientists who, according to Ehsan Yarshater, helped
shape what has come to be called the Golden Age of Islam. I would have reminded you
that as an ironic result of the Crusades, Europeans rediscovered Aristotle through
the Islamic world, and that this discovery, in turn, helped spur the Renaissance.
I would have told you about Avicenna and Biruni whose work in medicine and astronomy
were standard texts in European universities well into the nineteenth century. We
could have talked about the work of scholars who argue that the Copernican revolution
in Europe would not have been possible without the earlier contributions of Persian
astronomers. I would have reminded you of the glories of Rasad-khaneye (Observatory)
at Maraghe, arguably the most famous center for astronomical research in the thirteenth
century. At that time, scholars from as far away as Sweden traveled to Maraghe to
learn the newest theories and discoveries of astronomy.
I would have referred to the works of the Persian mathematician, Kharazmi whose name
is synonymous with Algebra. At the same time, we would have lamented the fact that
in recent years some museums and libraries around the world, apparently seduced by
the flow of Arab Petro-dollars, have begun to call their Persian collections by the
misnomer of Islamic, or sometimes even Arabic, art and culture.
We could have referred to the work of scholars who have found strong Persian influences
on such canonical works of Western consciousness as Dante's Divine Comedy and
two great works of Chaucer-- the Canterbury Tales and the Parliament of
Fowls. We could have together traced the early evolution of Paris University,
the center of intellectual ferment and rebirth in thirteenth-century Europe, and
investigated the role Persian thinkers and scientists played in this renaissance
of rationality in the West.
I could have described what I think was a native, nascent, Persian modernity that
emerged between the tenth and twelfth centuries. I would have talked of Beyhaghi
and Sa'di, Arouzi and Razi who, long before the West, began to experiment with ideas
that would later form the kernel of the European Renaissance. I would have invited
you to read Ohran Pamuk's new novel, My Name is Red, where the Turkish author
suggests that Persian painters of the Isfahan, Gazvin and Herat schools experimented
with the laws of perspective, long before Giotto painted what is hailed as the first
I would have described some of the wonders of the sixteenth century city of Isfahan,
and how it captured the imagination of so many European travelers, awed by its grand
mosques, its sumptuous bazaars, its tree-lined boulevards and its splendid gardens.
Versailles in France is said to have been at least partially inspired by these gardens.
Much in fact could have been said about the Persian idea of a garden, so different
from its Western counterpart. As Persian gardens found their way to the West, so
did the Persian word pardis, where it became the source of the word "paradise".
If we had time, we could talk of the unusually large number of invariably favorable
references to Persia in Shakespeare's poems and plays. You might have been surprised
to learn that Shakespeare was familiar with the writings of the Sherley brothers
and other English travelers to Persia. It was probably the reports of these brothers
that led Shakespeare to equate Persia, the land of the Sophy, with luxury, lavishness
To complete our overture, we would have to talk about the formative role Persians
played in the development of Sufism, the Islamic brand of mysticism. We would talk
about the influence these Sufi poets had in the development of 19th century Romanticism.
We could have together browsed through some of the essays of Emerson, the quintessential
American intellectual, and read the passages where he suggests, with no hint of hyperbole,
that Saidi's prose and poetry are only comparable to the Bible in terms of the universality
of their transcendental wisdom.
We could have also talked about Goethe, one of the greatest German
Romantic poets of all times, who, in his own words, reached a new "mountain
peak of his life" when he first encountered the poetry of Hafez. He went on
to write his Eastern Divan in homage to Persian poets. We would have reminisced
about Khayam and his genius for science and poetry, as well as his contagious appetite
for a loaf of bread and a jug of wine. We might have found in his poetry early traces
of what in the twentieth century came to be known as Existentialism. We would have
talked of the 11th century Persian poet, Rumi, who is now amongst the best-selling
poets in America.
To give you a sense of the image of Persia in the Romantic imagination, I would invite
you to read Sackville-West's delectable memoirs of her trip to Iran. And finally,
I would ask you to read again Moby Dick, Melville's great American novel,
and note the role Persia played in the author's cosmology.
Each of the recipients of these scholarships, each generous contributor who makes
this lofty and noble enterprise possible, every one of the ladies whose vision led
to the creation of the Iranian
Federated Women's Club, and whose tenacity and perseverance
brought it to its current state of inspiring success, is an Ahab, fighting not to
be revenged on the behemoth of the sea, but instead to seek the best of a great and
Needless to say, what I have offered tonight has been a highly selective series of
images from a long and complicated history. Consciousness of such peaks of civilization
must not turn us into self-deluded and self-satisfied addicts of our past glory,
oblivious to our country's all too many lapses into despotism and fanaticism. From
the Chagari troop, bent on literally cannibalizing their king's foes, to despots
that blinded the male population of a city at a whim, Persia has had more than her
fair share of historic calamities and inhuman barbarities.
Furthermore, as the West
began to take its leap into modernity, we fell into a dread abyss of tyranny, religious
fanaticism and irrationalism. We have yet to altogether free ourselves from these
benighted conditions. Khayam could have been referring to our time, when he wrote,
"They say the lion and the lizard Keep/the court where Jamshid gloried and drank
Maybe on nights like these we are allowed to dwell on the glories of our past; we
are, after all, gathered here to help support the education of a new generation of
Persians, whose critical understanding of the accomplishments of our much abused
nation will make them wise and gallant torch-bearers in the long, complicated, sometimes
terrible, often glorious march of our history and heritage.
Raised in Iran, Abbas Milani was sent to be educated in California in the 1960s.
He became politically active and in 1974 received a PhD. in Political Science. He
returned to Tehran and taught at the National University but was imprisoned by the
Pahlavi regime in 1977. After the revolution he became a professor at Tehran University,
but in 1986 he emigrated to the United States. Since 1987, he has been
chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Notre Dame De Namur University.
He is currently a Research Fellow at Stanford University. His books include The
Persian Sphinx: Amir Abbas Hoveyda and the Riddle of the Iranian Revolution, Tales
of Two Cities: A Persian Memoir and King
of the Benighted.
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