Iran: Empire of the Mind: A History from Zoroaster to the Present Day Paperback – 6 Nov 2008
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'Axworthy presents a history by turns thrilling, cautionary, inspiring and surprising'
-- Scotland on Sunday
'Michael Axworthy's deft untangling of the country's history, from the advent of Zoroastrianism to the 1979 revolution, is a stunning achievement'
'More gripping than a novel ... Empire of the Mind's account of Iran today and the challenges it faces is worth a thousand documentaries and newspaper briefing articles' -- Robert Irwin, Prospect
'The best single-volume introduction to Iranian history' -- New Statesman
'[An] excellent short history' -- Daily Telegraph
'The best single-volume introduction to Iranian history'See all Product description
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The final sections that deal with the last two centuries of the Iranian history and Iranians is rather controversial from the point of view of an Iranian such as me. The first point concerns the manipulation by foreign governments particularly the British of the Iranian socio/economic situations during the time of the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties. The brief review of how Iranians were taken advantages of and how their aspirations for a just and democratic society was destroyed by the British government in particular seems biased and smell of a cover up. However, its lasting effects remains on the Iranians' Psyche for generations to come with possibly disastrous consequence. To understand better and do justice to the predicament that Iranians are suffering now the events leading to the overthrow of Dr. Mossadegh should be explained in more detail. I even suggest to place his bust replacing those of Churchill and the like!
The next issue is the book appears to portrait Iranians as generally a religious nation or taking their religion quite seriously. Having grown up in Iran and coming across people from different parts of the country with equally divers background, I can safely say that for the majority of Iranians religion and belief are two different aspects of spiritual expressions. The former is used to define ones position in the society, and therefore can be very flexible and fluid. Take the current situation living under the Islamic government and you see evidence of two faceted way of conduct; one exclusively for appearing in public and the other belonging to ones private life (and that goes right across the class divide). One of the reasons Iranians are famous for being master of deception and lying is their capability of camouflaging their true feelings when it is needed for survival. Belief is not touchable by any outside influence and is an expression of ones inner self, and that is the reason for the spread and popularity of poetry amongst the masses. In conclusion, to an average Iranian it is not a particular religion that one becomes devoted to since they all more or less say the same thing but it is a tool that can protect your personal belief, and that is why the choice of the title of this book is so apt.
A place with some amazing buildings described by intrepid travelers, and wonderful sculptures 'collected' for museums, and the fabulous poetry of Edward FitzGerald's Rubbyyat of Omar Khayyam... And then bits in the newspapers about the Shah, Khomeni and the American hostages, and endless talks about nuclear development....
Axworthy's brief survey of Iranian politics and administration, and of the development of ideas in particular in relation to religion, fills in the gaps and makes sense of these proud and ancient people. For example, his discussion of Cyrus's famous 'declaration of tolerance' is even handed, noting that Cyrus might not have taken such a position if Babylon had resisted him, but it is nevertheless a very public statement of what Cyrus wanted to be remembered for.
Axworthy explains very clearly the background to Zaroasterianism and later on, the development of shi'ism what it meant in Iran over the centuries, and shows the sources that Ayatollah Khomeni drew on in developing his theory of theocracy in which Iran operates today. He is less clear on Sufism, but maybe that defies explanation.
He gives good pen pictures of some of the more important and longer serving Shahs of Iran, although there is still a bewildering mass of sons and nephews who fought each other for the throne over the extensive periods of instability in Iran who are just named with more or less explanation given as to motivations and support,
The description of the Great Game from the Iranian point of view is detailed and enriched by his understanding of diplomacy from the inside. He shows how cynical and short-sighted it can be when it plays 'win-lose' games focused on narrow national interest, where only humiliation at least or exploitation in various forms is acceptable to the stronger or competing power. The lasting damage that can be done to these interests is underlined in his discussion of twentieth century Iran, and in particular, the American fall from grace in Iranian eyes in the decades leading up to the revolution, He is sympathetic to Iran and the Iranians, but does not overlook the repression, the instability and murders that took place in many generations to the end of his book.
What more would I have wished? There are some tantalising translations of poetry from the golden age, but mainly the discussion is about their religious relevance: I would have like more on the development of the 'Persian Miniatures and the sublime decorative arts practiced in Iran. A greater discussion of life outside the court and political/military circles would also interest me.
The index and bibliography are good, but the publisher (penguin) could have done a better job on the illustrations which look a bit like copies of copies in several cases. More maps would be helpful as would a listing of the Shahs and dates.
But these are small matters - I strongly recommend this book
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