The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History (2012 Oxford University Press) is a current, comprehensive single-volume history of Iranian civilization. The authors, all leaders in their fields, emphasize the large-scale continuities of Iranian history while also describing the important patterns of transformation that have characterized Iran's past. Each of the chapters focuses on a specific epoch of Iranian history and surveys the general political, social, cultural, and economic issues of that era. The ancient period begins with chapters considering the anthropological evidence of the prehistoric era, through to the early settled civilizations of the Iranian plateau, and continuing to the rise of the ancient Persian empires. The medieval section first considers the Arab-Muslim conquest of the seventh century, and then moves on to discuss the growing Turkish influence filtering in from Central Asia beginning in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The last third of the book covers Iran in the modern era by considering the rise of the Safavid state and its accompanying policy of centralization, the introduction of Shi'ism, the problems of reform and modernization in the Qajar and Pahlavi periods, and the revolution of 1978-79 and its aftermath. The book is a collaborative exercise among scholars specializing in a variety of sub-fields, and across a number of disciplines, including history, art history, classics, literature, politics, and linguistics. Here, readers can find a reliable and accessible narrative that can serve as an authoritative guide to the field of Iranian studies.
Iran is a nation-state which until the early twentieth century was known to the world as Persia. In the West, the name Persia often invokes images of a world imbued with mystery, decadence, and luxury, images that persist from the time of classical Greek authors to that of the Victorian travelers. Persian carpets, Persian cats, and Iranian caviar, among other commodities, are images associated with Persians and Iran. Today, Iran is viewed as the paragon of defiance against the West and imperialism and as the defender of the Muslim world and the Palestinians in the face of threats and sanctions. But these are only glimpses of a civilization with a long and complicated history that has captivated and perplexed ancient and modern observers alike. It is for this reason that a history of Iran is of interest and value for the English-speaking world.
According to the Christian tradition, three Zoroastrian magi, the priests of the ancient Persian religion, followed the stars to find Jesus in Bethlehem, far away from their fire-temples. The magi, with their fire-temples and their art of seeing into the unknown, were described by writers from Herodotus to Marco Polo. The establishment of the largest empire in antiquity, one of the most benevolent of any in world history, if empire is any good, is associated with the Persians. Its founder, Cyrus the Great, changed the map of the world and brought the Afro-Asiatic world together for the first time in history. His successors created the first world-scale political system, bringing the three ancient hydraulic systems, the civilizations of the Indus, Mesopotamian, and Nile, into one orbit. Cyrus the Great’s own testament, the Cyrus Cylinder, is special among the records of world conquerors, proclaiming peace and justice among the different ethnic and religious communities under his firm rule. That is why he is remembered so fondly in the Old Testament as the “anointed” one by no less than God himself, and why Xenophon chose him as the subject of the first biography in Greek.
Art and ideas brought by the Iranians to the ancient world spread from the Islamic world to the Christian West. During late antiquity, Iranians introduced their favorite sport, polo, to the world. This game of the nobility, along with the board game of backgammon, was a means of education and physical preparation of Iranians in antiquity. Other cultural products included chess, its rules changed by the Iranians to make it as it is currently played, and one of the earliest visual attestations of jousting, from the third century CE. The gilded dishes from late antique Iran demonstrate the favorite activities of the court and nobility, especially the ruler who in the Iranian world was called the “King of Kings” (Middle Persian Shahan Shah). These activities were in a sense the culmination of Persian paideia, or, as it is known in Persian, farhang (“culture”). Thus, an Iranian had to be sound and balanced in both mind and body in order to be considered a cultured and complete individual. Once he acquired these arts, to use a term from the later Islamic Sufi tradition, he had become a “perfected human” (in Persian, ensān-e kāmel).
Politically, Iranians were viewed with awe and fear throughout the ancient world, mainly due to the fact that the Greek city-states fought to survive for independence from the Persians as well as one another. Persians, as the Greeks knew them then, were ruled by a king who represented the epitome of absolute monarchy. These kings lived in fabulous palaces, ate sumptuously, ruled over innumerable armies, and controlled half of the world. The ancient Iranians, from Cyrus the Great to Xerxes, were known and remembered in ancient literature for different reasons. Whereas Xerxes was vilifi ed for his attempt to conquer Hellas, Xenophon made Cyrus the subject of the first Greek biography, the Cyropaedia or “Education of Cyrus.” In a sense, Cyrus the Great became that emulated ensān-e kāmel , that perfect man for the ancients, Greeks and Iranians alike. Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Achaemenid Persian Empire brought initial devastation and then destruction to the famous Iranian capital, Persepolis. But the later consequence was the mingling of Greek and Iranians in the Hellenistic period. To use the statement of the Achaemenid scholar Pierre Briant, Alexander was only the last of the Achaemenids.
Touraj Daryaee is Howard C. Baskerville Professor in the History of Iran and the Persianate World and Associate Director of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies & Culture at the University of California, Irvine. His previous books include Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, winner of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies book award.
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