Iran's history is an astonishing tale of conflict and discontinuity. Parts of Michael Axworthy's account are more gripping than a novelby Robert Irwin / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy (Hurst, £25)
In 1935, Reza Shah insisted that foreign governments, when communicating with him or his ministers, should no longer refer to his country as Persia and instead call it Iran. This was to differentiate his regime from that of the decadent Qajars of the 19th century. Moreover, the term “Iran” is a cognate of “Aryan,” and, of course, in the 1930s there was a lot of stress on Aryanism in Germany and elsewhere. Reza Shah was fascinated by Nazism, though Atatürk’s policies in Turkey were a closer model for his high-handed western-style reforms.
Michael Axworthy, formerly head of the Iran section in the foreign office, explains the choice of title for his history in the following terms: “The centre of Iranian culture [has] moved at different times from Fars in southern Iran to Mesopotamia, to Khorasan in the northeast and central Asia, and to what is now called Azerbaijan in the northwest; and… far beyond the land of Iran itself.” For this reason, he suggests, “we should set aside our usual categories of nationhood and imperial culture and think instead of Iran as an Empire of the Mind.”
In 1971, Reza Shah’s son and successor Shah Mohammed Reza held a spectacularly extravagant festival at the ancient sites of Persepolis and Pasargadae (Pictured, below right: a bas-relief of tributete bearers at Persepolis). Heads of state from all over the world were invited. The festival was intended to celebrate 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy and to present the shah as the heir of Cyrus the Great. But in 1979 the shah fled, and 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy came to an abrupt end, to be replaced by the mullahs. The supposed continuity of Iranian history was a short-lived imperial fiction.
Axworthy is informative on the early dynasties—the Achaemenids, Parthians and Sassanians—and, among other things, he stresses the role of religion as the engine of revolt in ancient times. But the middle ages get short shrift, and the achievements of the Abbasids, Buyids, Seljuks, Mongols and Timurids are rushed over, though he gives due weight to the poets Ferdowsi, Rumi, Farid al-Din Attar and Hafiz of Shiraz. Once he reaches the Safavid period (1501-1765), however—the period in which Shiism was imposed on the country and Sunni Sufis were persecuted—Axworthy’s narrative really…