- The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History Edited by Touraj Daryaee
The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History surveys the greater Persian world from the Paleolithic period to the present. The editor, Touraj Daryaee, explains that what distinguishes this book from others is its balanced treatment of ancient, medieval, and modern Iran. Its sixteen chapters are written by a distinguished group of scholars and are chronologically organized as follows: Iran’s prehistory to the Iron Age (Kamyar Abdi), the Elamites (Daniel T. Potts), Avestan society (Prods Oktor Skjærvø), the Achaemenids (A. Shapour Shahbazi), Alexander and the Seleucids (Evangelos Venetis), the Arsacids (Edward Dąbrowa), the Sasanians (Touraj Daryaee), the early Islamic period (Michael G. Morony), medieval Iran (Neguin Yavari), the Mongols (George E. Lane), the Timurids and Turcomans (Ali Anooshahr), the Safavids (Kathryn Babayan), their eighteenth-century successors (Kamran Scot Aghaie), the Qajars (Mansoureh Ettehadieh Nezam-Mafi), the Pahlavis (Afshin Matin-Asgari), and the Islamic Republic (Maziar Behrooz).
This narrative explores the historical development of Iran not only as a political entity but also as a cultural idea. Daryaee insists that although Iran is now a nation-state with clearly defined frontiers, [End Page 673] it must be understood as a much more geographically expansive cultural world, which he calls Iranshahr (“Land of the Iranians”), covering large areas of the contemporary Middle East and Central Asia. The Sasanian king, Ardashir I, used “Iranshahr” in a third-century inscription to denote the vast territory over which he claimed rule by the authority of the Zoroastrian deity Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda). The relatively late appearance of the term, however, together with the fact that the oldest surviving Avestan manuscripts can be traced back only to originals dating from about 1000 c.e., limits our understanding of what Iran may have signified in earlier periods, as Yavari observes.
The book’s expansive temporal, geographical, and cultural framework nevertheless is useful in highlighting the historical processes that have contributed to a sense of Iran as both unique and cosmopolitan. Despite its shifting territorial, linguistic, ethnic, and cultural boundaries, the contributors describe how Iran came to be identified with a distinctive land, language, and history. Medieval and modern Iranian political ideals, for instance, were informed by culturally specific notions of monarchy, justice, and legitimacy associated with ancient imperial dynasties. The Safavid’s institutionalization of Shi‘i Islam, moreover, increasingly distinguished Iran from its Ottoman and Mughal neighbors. Finally, the encounter with the West since 1800 played a key role in fostering Iranian nationalism and the Islamic Republic’s jealous regard for Iranian sovereignty and independence.
The authors, however, also make clear that these elements of Iran’s particularity have developed in constant and creative tension with broader patterns shaping Afro-Eurasia. Empire was one such pattern. According to Shahbazi, the Achaemenid’s universal imperial ambition and inclusive cultural vision made Iranians “the inheritors and guardians of the ancient Near East civilizations” (p. 120). This Achaemenid legacy would not only inform the policies and outlook of their immediate successors, the Seleucids, Arsacids, and Sasanians, but also echo centuries later in the Mongol-Iranian synthesis, which Lane explains is synonymous with the Ilkhanate. Islam further encouraged these syncretic tendencies while giving them new directions. Indeed, the making of Islam, as Yavari argues, is inextricably bound up with the making of Iran. Nizam al-Mulk’s model of Islamic monarchy, with its close relationship between religion and kingship, for example, was grounded in his attempt to demonstrate the “coexistence and compatibility” of Islam with Iran’s imperial past (p. 238). The political fragmentation accompanying the decline of central authority in the medieval period, nonetheless, allowed for the emergence of new religious [End Page 674] institutions in Iran, notably the madrasa (Islamic college) and khanqah (Sufi lodge), which built significant social and cultural solidarities across the wider Islamic world. Finally, Iranian modernity must be understood within a global context shaped by imperialism, nationalism, and world war. Matin-Asgari reminds us that Riza Shah was not an atavistic “Oriental despot,” but rather an autocratic, modernizing nationalist...