- Iran in World History by Richard Foltz
Foltz’ Iran in World History raises three important questions: what is world history; how do you encompass more than six millennia of history into 124 pages; and how do you define Iran, or, its corollary, how does “Iran/Iranian” shape that history? This slim volume is part of the New Oxford World History series, which is described by its editors as moving beyond Europe and the US: “It emphasizes connectedness and interactions of all kinds...” (p. x). Foltz in his own preface emphasizes “... the reach of Iranian civilization beyond the borders of the present-day Islamic Republic...” and goes further: “The primary aim of the present work is to highlight the extraordinary broad range of contributions Iranians have made to world history through the spread of their cultural norms...” (p. xi). Foltz continues as he identifies three signifiers of Iranian cultural identity: language, land, and a shared memory, but he concludes his preface by emphasizing the composite [End Page 279] nature of that culture which includes interactions with all of its neighbors to encompass “greater” Iran, across time—no small order even in a much longer book. Given too little attention, although sometimes implied—again, the consequence of page limitation?—might be other aspects of culture such as post-Safavid Shi’ism, ruling and administrative traditions, music, cuisine, among others.
The answer to my first question here is thus, the richness of Iranian culture cuts across the usual geographic and political boundaries to move beyond national history. The answer to the second question is more problematic; in the end is Iran in World History, especially in its coverage of the modern period of Iran’s history, yet another national history? Which leads to the third: Isn’t even “geographic” Iran defined by the modern nation-state? Isn’t this volume essentially a national history, whose wider cultural impact is simply emphasized? What is missing is comparable development of political, economic, and social factors that are the context for culture, but would have taken this work well beyond its page limit. Even more important, given the author’s focus, there is little analysis—brief descriptions, yes—of the ways in which Iranian identity itself developed, and then shaped, this history. For this, the reader should turn to Sarah Bowen Savant’s The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran: Tradition, Memory, and Conversion (Cambridge, 2013).
Iran in World History consists of eight chapters, beginning with “A Convergence of Land and Language (3500–550 BCE),” which describes place, language, and migration of peoples in the development of the greater Iranian world. While recent scholarship is presented, little is made regarding disputed interpretations. Chapter by chapter continues through dynasties or thematic time periods: “Iran and the Greeks (550–247 BCE)” and next “Parthians, Sasanians, and Sogdians (247–651 CE),” etc. Chapter 5: “The Turks... (1027–1722)” could just as well have included the Ghajars [the author’s transliteration]. And the volume concludes with Chapter 8: “The Islamic Republic of Iran (1979–present).” This is followed by a chronology, notes, suggested readings, and especially useful, listing of websites.
There are some examples inserted between political developments that lack contexts. For example, in Chapter 6: “Under Europe’s Shadow (1722–1925),” between a few sentences on Ahmad Shah Ghajar’s incompetence and the emergence of Reza Khan in 1921, there is a paragraph on Lorestan bronzes, particularly their marketing as an example of the loss of control over Iran’s own cultural patrimony that hardly relates to what precedes or follows. While politics are never far from view, especially in the later chapters, the author does return to [End Page 280] culture, notably its oppositional role in Islamic Republican Iran and the flourishing of Iranian cinema, despite state suppression and repression.
Concluding the book, Foltz notes the continued importance of the celebration of Noruz, the arrival of the vernal equinox. In the first years following the 1979 Revolution, the Islamic Republican government attempted to suppress its observances, on the basis that its Zoroastrian origins made it un...