8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 16 August 2009
As stated in the sub-title, this is an overview of Iran as a political entity, in the context of the religious and intellectual currents which shaped it, from the earliest times. I found it illuminating on every period of the rich history of this fascinating country (although do not expect anything on its art and architecture). Lucidly written, highly accessible in the best sense, ideal for anyone interested in ancient history and world religions - NOT just current events. Parallels are made with European history to good effect, and these are not overstated. One of the best non-fiction works I have read this year.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2012
This is an excellent book. Of course, in just under 300 pages, it is impossible to cover all the details of Iranian history and culture. Nevertheless, the author manages to get the most important things said and covers the whole period from Zoroastrian times to the present day. The author concentrates on political history, but also describes economic, religious and cultural aspects. Simply a must-have-read.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 9 August 2015
Am only half way through this book, if that, but I really thought there would be more to Iranian history than war (at least up until where i have so far read, circa 1650 A.D).
I have put the book down for about a week now because it has not been holding my interest. I will pick it up at some point as I hoped to use it as background knowledge for a possible trip to Iran as a tourist, but I can't help but feel that the author has applied far too much focus on all the wars to the detriment of other parts of Iranian history, with the exception of poetry, which the author seems rather fond of.
One particular annoying passage was when he spoke of a new regime in the 1600's which was repressive and cracked down on prostitution, wine, and womens' rights. I was annoyed because i had read 200 pages and never had the author mentioned that prostitution, and women's rights were popular or part of everyday society in Iran up until that point (he had mentioned the elites enjoyed wine though).
So basically there had been a social history that has not been conveyed in the book so far.
Additionally the authors' focus of king after king after local leader after statesmen is way to dull and laborious, and reads like a dull history book on English kings, or a biblical book where Jeremiah begets Ezekial begets Abraham begets......
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 27 July 2015
This is a good book, with a few significant drawbacks.
On the positives, the scope is massive, covering the history of Iran over a period of several thousand years. It is, for the most part, engagingly written. I found it hard to put down at times. Axworthy makes the complex succession of one dynasty after another reasonably simple, and provides a genuine insight into a fascinating, ancient and culturally important country. The last hundred pages or so, covering Western interactions with Iran and the rise and shape of the present day regime were particularly excellent, probably drawing upon Axworthy's training and professional experience with the foreign office.The excursus into poetry seems to have divided opinion here, but I enjoyed it, and was delighted to see a short section on contemporary Iranian cinema. I am genuinely glad to have read it, and will probably reread it.
Enjoyable and informative as this book is, there are nonetheless a few serious drawbacks.
Firstly, there are a few problems in terms of the quality of the history. Most seriously, a couple of reviewers have mentioned the lack of objectivity in the work. Axworthy's own political, philosophical and religious biases are rarely that deeply hidden. For me this was the thing I found most difficult. I don't think an historian has to be neutral (whatever that would mean) or to hide his or her opinions. But some basic objectivity has to be sought for, and there are many times when this is seriously lacking, especially in the sections earlier on in the book. All too often, the 'baddies' in Axworthy's narrative are baddies because they are stupid, evil, extremist, or a combination of the three. As a professional diplomat, I'd hope Axworthy is better capable of sympathetically understanding why people act the way they do, how they would explain it to other people, even if he then judges their actions and motivations to have been stupid, evil or extreme. To do otherwise is simply bad history.
In a related area, though this is a problem with a lot of popular history, there are a few places where it's hard to think Axworthy doesn't favour one option because it makes his subject more interesting, rather than because it's historically likely. In particular, there are times when Axworthy is reminiscent of the father character in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who maintains that everything from strawberries to windex were invented by the Greeks. Whether it's Zoroastrian religion giving us every religious idea ever or Medieval Iranian love poetry giving us the troubadours, there are times when it feels that everything, everywhere is a copied Iranian idea. While I don't doubt that at least some of it really is true (we're talking about a great civilization on the doorsteps of the Jewish prophets and the birth of Islam) there are times when it feels like it's more for the interest, and the common elements (struggles between good and evil, light and darkness, ritual washings and meals, love poetry) are pretty generic to all cultures.
One more historical drawback of the book is one which faces any single volume history of a great nation. In a subject so vast, every author has their areas of expertise and their areas where they wish they knew more. This book gives the impression that Axworthy's is modern Iran, though his passion for Iranian poetry comes across too. The treatment of ancient Iran, possibly made more difficult through a lack of sources, felt a bit thin, and overly concentrated on the military struggles between the Persian empires and their rivals to the west. If that's the era you are most interested in, (as I am) you may be slightly disappointed.
Lastly and much less seriously, perhaps I will come across as a bit stupid saying this, but the book could probably have done with a couple more pictures. Or rather, perhaps a few different pictures. Most of the images in the book are portraits of the major characters up for discussion. They're fine as they go, but in the midst of a discussion of the virtues of Safavid architecture, a reader for whom 'Safavid' is a new word might be helped by some examples. On a similar note, I think there are probably enough maps in the book, an indispensable aid for those of us who are a bit sketchy on our Iranian geography, but they are not as easy as they might be to refer to. Perhaps collating them in an appendix would help.
I'm aware this could come across as quite a negative review. I genuinely enjoyed and learnt a lot from reading the book. I'll probably get his book on revolutionary Iran because the section on modern Iran was excellent and I'm excited to see what more he has to say. But there are a few issues, and it helps to know in advance what you're getting into
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 July 2013
to start out with the conclusion - Michael Zxworthy has written a good one volume history to Iran. Before you purchase this book, you might find it useful to keep the following in mind:
Michael Axworthy's goal is "to cover it all" in 300 pages, starting out ~1000 BC and contiues up to the Ahmadinejad years. If that is what you look for, this is good news for you. If you are interested in a better understanding of modern Iran or Geopolitics, you can probably jump directly to page 123 Shi'ism and the Safavids. If you are interested in the Zoroaster religion, scient architecture and acient Persian civilization then page 1-122 probably is most interesting to you. One way to achieve this goal is to limit the scope of the book. Perhaps a better way is to structure the chapter by fields of interest (for instance domestic affairs, cultural life and foreign politics) as well as time period. In this way it is both easier for the reader to focus on their own field(s) of interest, as well as it becomes easier for the writer to cover what he has picked as main fields of interest for all time periods. This last point, could for sure improve Axworthy's book as he has included next to nothing about contemporary Iranian cultural life. This would probably mean that the book would become more than 300 pages, but is really that a problem? Most national histories that I have enjoyed is about 400 pages or more and Iran has a longer history and more events to cover than most other countries.
Be adviced that Axworthy's book covers the time-period up to 2007, excluding for instance the 2009 election. If the later years is important to you, you need to look elsewhere.
If the names of the chapters would have included the time period they cover, the book would be easier to navigate. On the typographical side, very litle space for making notes is included.