A History of Iran Empire of the Mind by Michael Axworthy (New York: Basic Books, 2008. 249 pages.)

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Derek J. Mancini-Lander



This survey of the history of Iranian civilization from ancient times to the
present is intended for general audiences with little knowledge of Iranian
history. The book’s nine chapters consist largely of chronological presentations
of political history, but occasionally make room for sections on religious
movements, society, and the arts. The first two chapters briskly cover
the ancient period through the Sassanids. The third runs from the Islamic
conquests through the fifteenth century and contains a long section on the
evolution of Persian verse tradition. The fourth and fifth chapters cover the
Safavids’ rise and fall, the development of early modern Twelver Shi`ism,
and the tumultuous period leading up to the Qajars. The sixth surveys the
late Qajar period and the constitutional revolution, while the last three chapters
detail the events of the twentieth century with an emphasis on the 1979
Islamic revolution and what has happened since. As nearly a third of the
book deals with the twentieth century, the treatment of the ancient periods
and the first millennium of the Islamic era are comparatively spare.
Axworthy’s main project is to trace the history of a sense of “Iranianness”
or “Irananian identity” that he claims to have identified in ancient
sources and uses to justify composing what he calls “a history of Iran.”
Although he does not provide an explicit and comprehensive definition of
this “Iranian identity,” he states clearly that he is not describing a sense of
nation (pp. xv-xvi and 117). Rather, he implies that this identity is a loose
sense of affiliation based on the idea of a common land, language, and
shared memory. But when he speaks, for example, of an “Iranian revival” in
the second century or an “Iranian reconquest” in the fourteenth, he uses the
very nation-centered paradigm of history that he seeks to avoid, even if he
refrains from invoking a “national” sensibility ...

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