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The Persians

The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval and Modern Iran

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 448
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  • Book Info
    The Persians
    Book Description:

    In recent years, Iran has gained attention mostly for negative reasons-its authoritarian religious government, disputed nuclear program, and controversial role in the Middle East-but there is much more to the story of this ancient land than can be gleaned from the news. This authoritative and comprehensive history of Iran, written by Homa Katouzian, an acclaimed expert, covers the entire history of the area from the ancient Persian Empire to today's Iranian state.

    Writing from an Iranian rather than a European perspective, Katouzian integrates the significant cultural and literary history of Iran with its political and social history. Some of the greatest poets of human history wrote in Persian-among them Rumi, Omar Khayyam, and Saadi-and Katouzian discusses and occasionally quotes their work. In his thoughtful analysis of Iranian society, Katouzian argues that the absolute and arbitrary power traditionally enjoyed by Persian/Iranian rulers has resulted in an unstable society where fear and short-term thinking dominate. A magisterial history, this book also serves as an excellent background to the role of Iran in the contemporary world.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16122-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vi-vii)
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-ix)
  5. Preface
    (pp. x-xi)
  6. INTRODUCTION: Iran and Iranians
    (pp. 1-18)

    The great Persian poet Sa’di says in a verse, quoting Bozorgmehr, the legendary minister of Anushiravan, the great Sasanian emperor: ‘To cast an opinion not by the ruler allowed / Would be to spill one’s own blood.’ Writing an interpretive general history of Iran could, metaphorically, result in similar punishment. Real blood is less likely to be spilled, but there is a risk of emotional, intellectual, even political blood being splashed on the floor of argument, discussion and criticism. Iran is such a controversial member of the world community at the time of writing that almost every power, race and...

  7. CHAPTER 1 Myths, Legends and Ancient History
    (pp. 19-39)

    Iran is much older than its three millennia of written history. There is evidence of civilization in parts of the country that in some cases goes back several thousand years. The Iranian nomads who were to give their name to the country wandered into it more than a thousand years before one group among them, the Persians, founded the first Persian empire in 550 bc. Rich, complex and elaborate myths and legends developed in those earlier periods, before the Medes founded the first Iranian empire, which in turn was overthrown and replaced by the first great world empire, founded by...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Greeks, Parthians and Persians
    (pp. 40-61)

    Within twenty years of Alexander’s death in 323 his vast empire was divided up between Macedonia (including Greece), the Macedonian Ptolemys of Egypt and the Seleucids of Iran. In the beginning the Seleucids held much of the old Achaemenid empire, excluding Egypt, southern Syria and parts of Asia Minor. Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s officers and founder of the Seleucid dynasty, built two capitals: Seleucia, on the Tigris in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), and Antioch, on the Orontes in Syria. The Seleucids adopted the basis of the Achaemenids’ system of administration, and as heirs to the Achaemenids the state owned...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Arabs, Islam and Persians
    (pp. 62-89)

    Iranian history has been punctuated by dramatic events of varying significance, hardly any century passing in which at least one major upheaval did not shake the foundations of the land. But the greatest of all these dramas – great even by the standards of Iranian history – were the Alexandrian conquest of the Achaemenid empire, the Arab conquest of the Sasanian empire and the Mongol invasions and conquests of the thirteenth century, all of which had profound consequences for the country’s history and culture. If all these have one thing in common which makes them distinctly Iranian it is the...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Turks and Mongols
    (pp. 90-111)

    The Turks were a Central Asian people of various tribal groupings, apparently originating in the Altai Mountains. They moved into Transoxiana in the fourth to sixth centuries AD, raiding the eastern Sasanian frontiers. They began to cross the Oxus from Central Asia and move westwards into Persia’s interior in the eleventh century, led by the Seljuk (the anglicized form of Saljuq) of the Oghuz or Ghozz tribes, a movement which eventually led to the creation of the Ottoman empire and modern Turkey. First they encountered the Ghaznavids, whom they chased out of Khorasan; then the gateway was open for conquering...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Persian Empire Again
    (pp. 112-131)

    The ancient Persian empire was restored by the Safavids as a Shia Muslim state. Persian society and culture had never died, as has been seen in the foregoing chapters. It had survived the Arab conquest without losing its cultural identity, and Persian influence in culture and administration had been considerable even under Arab rule. Many Iranian languages had survived the conquest: New Persian had become the language of the court, government and literature with the rise of independent states in Iranian lands. And it had so remained even under Turkish and Mongol rulers, in fact becoming the lingua franca for...

  12. CHAPTER 6 Disintegration and Reunification
    (pp. 132-151)

    The eighteenth century was a dark period in Iranian history. Apart from two decades of relative peace in parts of the country under Karim Khan Zand later in the century, it was a period when on many an occasion it looked as if the country would be broken up as badly as before, especially as the Ottomans and the Russians took advantage of the situation and occupied parts of Iranian territory. Long periods of death and destruction, even though less intense than during the time of the Mongol invasions five centuries earlier, meant that in some ways life for the...

  13. CHAPTER 7 The Dilemma of Reform and Modernization
    (pp. 152-169)

    The premature death in 1848 of the ailing Mohammad Shah once again threw the centre into chaos. Hajji Mirza Aghasi, the unpopular chief minister, was in fear of his life. He failed in his bid to maintain his authority and his troops were routed, but he escaped by the skin of his teeth, being allowed safe passage to theatabatwhile forfeiting his large fortune as a matter of course. Tehran was divided between a group of notables who had the support of the queen, Malak Jahan Khanom, and another opposed to them. Each side styled itself as a ruling...

  14. CHAPTER 8 The Revolution for Law
    (pp. 170-199)

    Naser al-Din Shah was preparing for the celebration of his golden jubilee – the fiftieth anniversary of his accession according to the lunar calendar – when Mirza Reza Kermani shot him dead in May 1896 as he was visiting the shrine of Hazrat-e Abodl’azim near Tehran. Whether or not Mirza Reza was instructed to assassinate the shah by Seyyed Jamal al-Din Afghani, whose devoted disciple he was, his strongest motive was to avenge the shah’s ill-treatment of his mentor, although he himself had also experienced torture and jail. Fearing the usual outbreak of chaos upon the news of the shah’s...

  15. CHAPTER 9 Modern Arbitrary Rule
    (pp. 200-228)

    In the period 1921–41 Reza Khan consolidated his power, built up the armed forces, put an end to chaos both in the provinces and the centre, thus establishing domestic order and stability, overthrew the Qajars and replaced them with his own monarchy, advanced the pan-Persian nationalist ideology which was already widespread among the nationalist modernist elite and pursued policies of modernization in line with the aspirations of that elite. What was remarkable but historically familiar was the speed with which the chaos was brought to an end and a period of dictatorial government later turned into arbitrary rule, begun...

  16. CHAPTER 10 Occupation, Oil Nationalization and Dictatorship
    (pp. 229-262)

    In the first years of the Second World War, Iran was formally neutral but sentimentally pro-German. For Britain, which relied on Iranian oil supplies to fuel the Royal Navy, this was a source of considerable anxiety, but as long as Soviet Russia collaborated with Germany there was nothing Britain could do.

    Then, on 22 June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, utterly transforming the situation. A German advance through the Caucasus, which looked likely at the time, would have been welcomed by the shah and the Iranians and have exposed Russia from the rear, not to mention threatening the oil...

  17. CHAPTER 11 The White Revolution
    (pp. 263-287)

    The shah personally ruled Iran between 1963 and 1978. He tried to combine the role of a traditional, arbitrary ruler with that of a modern revolutionary leader. In a brilliant observation made to close friends (which belies his reputation for naivety), Senator Hasan Akbar remarked as early as 1964: ‘His Majesty is trying to become both Xerxes and Fidel Castro; but this is impossible.’ And his ultimate tragedy was in the fact that he failed in both those ambitious roles, neither succeeding as a strong arbitrary ruler nor as a popular revolutionary modernizer: the revolution of 1979 was a revolt...

  18. CHAPTER 12 The Revolution of February 1979
    (pp. 288-323)

    The shah believed that he was highly popular with his own people,¹ an illusion due both to the rapid increase in the standard of living and the fact that his system did not allow any criticism, least of all of his policies, to be made by anyone, however highly placed in society. He therefore gauged his relationship with the people from sycophantic reports and stage-managed demonstrations of public support on certain occasions. His greatest tragedy, thus, was that he became a victim of his own propaganda.

    The politics of elimination had begun with the 1953 coup. Within two years after...

  19. CHAPTER 13 The Islamic Republic
    (pp. 324-353)

    In some of its basic characteristics, the Iranian revolution did not conform to the usual norms of western revolutions, and especially the French and Russian revolutions with which it was compared in the West while it was taking place. This became a puzzle, resulting in disappointment and disillusionment among western commentators within the first few years of the revolution’s triumph. For them, as much as for a growing number of modern Iranians who themselves had swelled the street crowds shouting ‘My dear Khomeini / Tell me to spill blood’,¹ the revolution became ‘enigmatic’, ‘bizarre’, ‘unthinkable’. In the words of one...

  20. CHAPTER 14 Iran after Khomeini
    (pp. 354-394)

    In 2008 Iran was still in the news headlines, being described by the West and Israel as a threat to peace. Rumours were flying about an imminent American and/or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear and military installations, while the country was admired in many Muslim and third world counties for standing up to America. It had undergone significant changes in all spheres of life since 1989, but at the same time all the major domestic and foreign problems had remained, and some even had intensified. The winds of change had been blowing since the death of Khomeini, but, as is...

  21. Appendix: Iranian Society
    (pp. 395-398)
  22. Endnotes
    (pp. 399-426)
  23. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 427-433)
  24. Index
    (pp. 434-452)