Work Title: A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind
Work Author(s): Michael Axworthy
7 maps, 324 pages, Hardcover $26.95
Reviewer: Peter Skinner
Iran has for several decades projected a dismal image---repression of political and human rights; crippling censorship in the press, literature, the arts, and self-expression; the ideological distortion of education; and the increasing burden of economic hardship. Sadly, this current Iranian reality heavily overshadows the great and glorious civilization that we associate with an older "Persia" (in 1935, Reza Shah decreed the name change to Iran). For most of us, that civilization is shrouded in a golden haze: Persepolis, the Peacock Throne, and Omar Khayyam come to mind, a Cyrus, Darius or Xerxes (perhaps more than one of each) are only just remembered. But help is at hand. In A History of Iran, Michael Axworthy, a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, UK, provides a clear, swift-moving narrative, detailed but not cluttered, that takes the reader briskly down the highway (and more significant byways) of two and a half millennia of Persian history.
Axworthy's subtitle---An Empire of the Mind---is important. He demonstrates that Persia, and particularly ancient and medieval Persia, was never a rigidly unified or culturally or religiously homogeneous state. Zoroastrianism made Persians acutely aware of good and evil in contention, while the empire of the Achaemenid dynasty (559-330 BC), extending from Bactria to beyond Egypt and uneasily rubbing shoulders with unconquered mainland Greece, introduced the goods and thought of half the world. The author argues that Alexander's conquest of the empire did not permanently "hellenize" Persia; Persian influences, in fact, were to shape Rome and Byzantium's imperial conduct. If Rome's centuries of war with Persia of the home-grown Arsacid dynasty (247 BC-AD 224) intermittently rewarded the West with a larger share trade goods of Asia, it also brought in Mithraism---a religion that was to pervade the empire, including its outposts along Hadrian's Wall in northern England.
For many readers Axworthy will be tracing less familiar history in his accounts of the Arab, Turk, and Mongol invasions of Persia. Among much else, the Arab conquest (followed by the Sunni-Shia rift and the permanent ascendancy of the latter in Persia) created a crucible out of which unrivaled Persian poetry was born...