Monday, August 4, 2008

A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind / Michael Axworthy -- NY: Basic Books, 2008.

Overall, Axworthy's History of Iran provides decent accounts of the military, diplomatic, and political history of Iran. He even includes material on Iranian poets. However, the coverages of various centuries is quite uneven. The earliest centuries are given very short attention. As the history reaches recent times, the treatment is more detailed. Iran has seen human settlement for 7,000 years, but Axworthy devotes fully half of the book to the most recent 300 years, and 40% of the book to the last century. This may be plus for anyone interested in gaining a quick background on contemporary Iranian politics, but for the student of Iran, the most interesting material is undeveloped. There is virtually nothing on such matters as the life, customs, social structures, economic conditions of early Iranians. Instead, we are informed of the doings of various rulers and the fates of various dynasties.

Axworthy's more recent history will be at times quite informative for anyone whose knowledge of Iran is from accounts of journalists and pundits, but as a rule, it is not especially revealing and at times the perspective of the author seems to over determine his analysis. This is even true (and especially so) in his treatment of the Iranian religious leader Mani. Axworthy dubs Mani "the Dark Prophet" and his treatment of Mani is so hostile that Axworthy feels the need to write, "It would be foolish to attribute all evils of religion to Mani, but he does seem to have done a remarkably good job of infecting a range of belief systems with the most damaging and depressing ideas..."

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