Sweeping, sensitive and evenhanded overview of the ancient nation, from the days of the prophet Zoroaster to those of the Islamic Republic.
Former British foreign-service officer and Iranian historian Axworthy (The Sword of Persia: Nader Shah, from Tribal Warrior to Conquering Tyrant, 2006) covers an enormous amount of material in elegant, upbeat fashion. Aware of the country’s accomplishments without being blind to its failings, he emphasizes Iran’s diversity, noting that nearly half the population is made up of ethnic Azeris, Kurds, Gilakis, Buluchis and Turkmen, and that its native tongue, Farsi, is the sole Indo-European language in the Arab-speaking Middle East. Called Persia until the Reza Shah promoted an official name change in 1935, the nation formed its identity from nomadic migrations imbued with the spirit of Zoroastrianism. This early form of monotheism offered a new concept of heaven and hell, and of the free human choice between good and evil, that exerted a huge influence on later religions, Axworthy asserts. In the sixth century BCE, tribes coalesced around the first royal house, founded by Cyrus and extended by his conquering descendants, Darius et al. The empire’s magnificent capital, Persepolis, was burned by the victorious Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. Successive dynasties jockeyed for power and battled with the Roman Empire, while Persian poets created such heroic works as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (“The Epic of Kings”), as significant to Iranian culture as Shakespeare is to the West. Islamic incursion occurred gradually, and Axworthy cogently dissects the Sunni/Shi’a schism that roils Islam today. His wide-ranging, in-depth knowledge of the Middle East enriches his analysis of the Pahlavi dynasty and the revolution of 1979. “The deeper, reflective, humane Iran is still there beneath the threatening media headlines,” he opines, and its citizens are gearing up for a more significant role in the world community.
Axworthy’s reasoned survey will be especially helpful to lay readers and students of Arab history.