Nomadism in Iran: From Antiquity to the Modern Era.

Author:Choksy, Jamsheed K.
Position:Book review

Nomadism in Iran: From Antiquity to the Modern Era. By DANIEL T. POTTS. Oxford: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2014. Pp. xxv + 558, 3 maps, 21 illus., 5 tables. $90 (cloth); $45 (paper).

Dan Potts has undertaken a sweeping, revisionist, narrative of nomadic existences within Iran over twelve millennia. His central arguments are: distinction must be made between full-time nomads and communities that kept/keep herds of sheep and goats yet were/are essentially sedentary or from which only a small number of persons were/are involved in seasonal migrations; the plateau's demography began to change with the arrival of Iranian tribes in the second and first millennia BCE but nomadism remained the exception rather than the norm; nomadism began occurring in Iran on a large scale only from the eleventh century CE onward with the advent of Turkic-speaking tribes; and scholars have projected the lifestyles of nomads of late medieval and modern Iran backward without supporting evidence.

Potts sets the stage in the preface by drawing upon an observation by the Muslim geographer Ibn Hawqal from around the year 977 CE that numbers of tribes present in Iran seemed exaggerated by at least one hundred percent (p. xi). Potts transitions immediately to Western anthropologists' observations from the 1950s through 1990s on tribes in Iran as "impermanent agglomerations of people... political, not ethnic constructs." Having made those points, Potts acknowledges however that "awareness of nomadism in the Iranian world is not a recent phenomenon" since it showed up in accounts at least as early as Herodotus' fifth century BCE History (p. xii). He suggests that viewing nomadism as a dominant political, ethnic, and/or economic pattern within Iran is a "modernist perspective [which] distorts the historical reality of a land in which the rural population, while keeping herds, was overwhelmingly sedentary and in which most of the documented nomadic groups came originally from outside the region, mainly during the last millennium" (p. xv). Then, through ten chapters and one appendix, supported by an eighty-seven page bibliography (pp. 445-531), Potts marshals considerable evidence to make the case for the validity of his reinterpretations.

In contrast, and noteworthy because the book spans the entirety of Iran's pre-history and history, the three maps (pp. xxiii-xxv) provide little information for most chapters. The first map is a general one of Iran's topography and main places (largely marked only in the western provinces) the second and third cover early archeological sites in western Iran and southwestern Iran--visually paying little attention to eastern Iran, especially the northeast and its province of Khurasan, which at the very least was a major transit and stopping point for peoples moving onto the plateau from Central Asia, tribes that included not only those who gave Iran its name but much later the Turko-Mongol nomads whose descendants ruled until modern times.

Those maps are a useful...

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