Empire of the Mind
Michael Axworthy

One of the very first things you notice after arriving in Iran is just how much damn history they have there. The country is not only awash with the remains of ancient traditions and dynasties but marked by an intense sense of continuity with them. Portraits of martyrs line the highways, families read ancient poetry over dinner, and taxi drivers breathlessly recount the accomplishments of Cyrus the Great. From the Achaemenids to the Zoroastrians, and everything in between, there's a sense that all that's worth seeing in human history has been played out, at scale, on the global stage that is the Iranian Plateau.

This adds up to a rather formidable challenge for any author trying to relate that history, let alone one ambitious enough to tackle it in only a few hundred pages. Indeed, even providing a detailed list of the various emperors, invaders, prophets, and revolutionaries could likely take a small book. Axworthy's goal in Iran is to provide a first-pass introduction to all of Iranian history, meaning individual elements are necessarily shortchanged as a result. Readers seeking a microscopic investigation of the various Greco-Persian wars, or a subtle discussion on the evolution of Shia political theology will need to look elsewhere, as Axworthy's breakneck pace forbids any subject from holding the stage for more than a few dozen pages. Importantly, while Iran does contain an extended overview of modern (that is, post-revolutionary) Iranian politics, readers interested primarily in the last half-century would be far better served by David Crist's The Twilight War (recently reviewed by Dunlop here), or Axworthy's own Revolutionary Iran.

This is hardly a damning criticism, of course. As I mentioned at the outset, Iran has a damn lot of history, the vast majority of which is particularly opaque to most of us outside the country. For those who don't know their Sassanids from their Safavids, Axworthy's panoramic treatment is precisely what's required to get the lay of the land, before delving deeply into any particular focal points.

Dunlop once described this book to me as 'workmanlike', and months after that conversation I still can't come up with a better word for it. Axworthy resists the academic's urge to offer any kind of sweeping historiography and, aside from a handful of speculative theories on the impact of ancient Iranian thought on the development of early Christian doctrine (and some slightly pained references to Iranian poetry, a personal passion of his), sticks closely to a "just the facts, ma'am" recounting of the major episodes in Iranian history. Taken together, Iran resembles something like a particularly high-minded civil service briefing book, perhaps ripped straight from its author's past life in Her Majesty's Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It's an eminently pragmatic style of history-writing: dry at times, but useful throughout.

Indeed, that's probably the role it fills best even in non-governmental life: a single document to bring inductees up to speed with a minimum of flourish or wasted effort. It may seem extravagant to suggest that Axial Age history is an essential part of getting up to speed on a modern country, but there are few countries in the world today which are as extravagantly attuned to their history as Iran. Iran will likely be of little use to professional historians, but it does have real potential to help outsiders understand Iran (and Iranians) better. At a time when Iran is becoming increasingly central to world affairs, that makes Iran potentially a very important book.

The cover image is my own photo, taken at the Nasir al-Mulk mosque in Shiraz, Iran