`Iran: Empire of the Mind' explores the history of this enigmatic country from it's founding days, right up until the current government. This looks at it's art and culture, as well as the various wars and conquests it has been involved in over the years. I found the last hundred pages the most interesting as it dealt with the recent history and I could relate to it more. It was good to put the western influence into perspective to understand some of the Iranian animosity towards some western nations. It also clarifies some of the stereotypes and shows that the picture in Iran is a lot more complex than we are led to believe. This has many small black and white photos dotted throughout, as well as many maps that show how the country shrunk and grew over the years. You are left with an overwhelming picture of Iran as a cultured and enduring nation and this contrasts well with the image portrayed in the western media. All in all this is a fascinating and eye opening read about this influential and often maligned nation.
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This is an admirable historical book, well researched to explore major events that have so greatly influenced cultural, religious and political life of the Iranians and their immediate neighbours. It is a huge undertaking to pack two and a half thousands years of history in three hundred pages nevertheless, it has achieved to certain extend defining the psychology of such a diverse characteristics of Iranian as a nation. The earlier chapters of the book mainly deal with the political climate defining the Persian borders with other empires. This could be due to the scarcity of valid detailed information about the populations living at the time. The later chapters dealing with post Arab invasion has much more detailed view of the Iranians possibly due to the abundance of available data. The advents of the Sufism and Shi'ism plus their basic doctrines are well presented. 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.
I have just returned from Iran. I took two very good guides with me, Brant & Lonely Planet. At the last minute I took Michael Axworthys' Iran Empire of the mind, it proved invaluable for answering a myriad of dynastic details that the guides books do not have the scope for.It brings the reader right up to date and looks at this modern country and the philosophy behind its' culture. With Iran in the centre of world attention this book with its gripping and powerful narrative obliges us to take stock of our preconceived notions of this ancient land.
For those of us with very Eurocentric (or USA centric) education, Iran got to play only a few walk on (or fight on) roles - Cyrus and Darius, the Medes and the Persians, enemies of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, the fabulous courts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and a pawn in the Great Game between Russia and England.. 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
Fantastic introduction to the history of Iran - manages to be consise yet cover a vast period of history in a way that is accessible, interesting and easy to read whilst still being detailed enough. I would highly recommend this book.
This is an outstanding book, very well researched and written in a readable way which is quite an achievement given the book's scope. Essential reading for anyone with an interest in Iran or a desire to better understand what is still to most of us in the west a mysterious and badly represented country.
As it says on the blurb on the back of this book - it reads like a compelling novel. For only a relatively 'short' history book it certainly packs a lot in, Michael Axworthy is obviously very knowledgable about his subject. The touches of humour and engaging writing style also make this a very readable book, which can't be said of all histories. We should all be making ourselves more aware of international issues and this book is an excellent way to get a foot in the door towards understanding modern Iran. Highly recommended! Now I'm anxiously awaiting the Nader Shah book and I'd never heard of him before reading Empire of the Mind.
I confess to a growing interest in Iran now that one of my granddaughters is studying Arabic and Persian languages at Exeter. I was concerned that a book by an academic would be hard work to read but not a bit of it! As I indicate by my title I soon felt I was on a time machine piloted by an expert who could explain the scenery and environment in a way that drew me on. It was almost a surprise after all the history to find that I was suddenly in my own lifetime, exploring events that I remembered well from the 50s 60s & 70s and the present day.
I would recommend this book both to students and to other folk who wish to understand the Middle East better.