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Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran

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An overview of the ancient nation, from the days of the prophet Zoroaster to those of the Islamic Republic.

256 pages, Hardcover

First published May 6, 2008

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About the author

Michael Axworthy

8 books70 followers
In the 1980s Michael Axworthy studied history at Peterhouse, Cambridge before joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 1986. After a variety of work in London and overseas, he served as the Head of Iran Section in the FCO from 1998-2000, coinciding with the improvement in UK/Iran relations at the beginning of the Presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Since 2000 he has been working in Cornwall as a writer and editor, and wrote his first book THE SWORD OF PERSIA about the great Iranian conqueror Nader Shah (published in 2006).

Michael has also written a series of pieces on contemporary Iran and other subjects for Prospect magazine, for the Independent, Guardian and other publications, and has made TV and radio appearances discussing Iranian subjects (BBC World, Sky News, CNN, BBC Radio 4's Today, History of the World in 100 Objects, and Start the Week, with Andrew Marr). He has done consultancies for Credit Suisse and Citibank, and briefings and other speaking engagements for the US, British, Norwegian and Dutch governments, and NATO.

Michael’s second book appeared in November 2007 as EMPIRE OF THE MIND: A HISTORY OF IRAN (Hurst Books); it was published by Basic Books in the US and by Penguin in paperback in November 2008 as IRAN: EMPIRE OF THE MIND.

Since October 2005 he has taught Middle East History at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, where he was made senior lecturer in 2012. He was appointed Director of Exeter University's new Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies (CPIS) in the autumn of 2008. He is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, and the Royal Society of Arts.

REVOLUTIONARY IRAN, Michael’s latest book, tells the story of Iran since the revolution of the ayatollahs, including a full account of the terrible Iran-Iraq War, one of the most bloody since the Second World War and a conflict which has had a profound impact on Iranian society. It was published in March 2013 by Penguin Books.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 191 reviews
Profile Image for Katia N.
585 reviews705 followers
June 5, 2020
It is a well written and informative overview for those people like me who do not know much about Iran and want to discover its history and culture. I assume, that as with many such books, if one possess extensive pre-requisite knowledge, she might find a lot of gaps or might not agree with the inevitable element of interpretation. But it was the perfect starting point for me.

For a few years already I am trying to refocus my reading of history away from the West. I've read similar overview books on India, the Arabs, the Ottomans, Central Asia and very recently - Georgia. There is of course a certain overlap. But I have to say that out of all these countries the history of Iran is the saddest if i can use this term. And of course, my opinion is very subjective, based only on one book. It seems that the time is moving backwards for this land starting from the 15th century. Or maybe it is just such a contrast with the earlier days when their culture has dominated the half of the continent. Of course there were many conquests including the Arabs and then the Mongols. Then from the middle 18th century they were subject of absolutely disgusting meddling from the British and the Russians. Both replaced by the Americans in the 20th century. But even taking into account that, their rulers starting from the Safavids of the 15th century were just decadent. They were either fighting or enjoying themselves. Compared to them the Ottomans are absolute example of the statecraft. So i understand perfectly well Iranians’ taste for revolutions.

I would not go into more details as it is not very grateful task to retell a good history book. I limit myself to just three observations:

Iranians are the people of the poetry. Between the 10-14th centuries they've manage to produce such a plead of poets that they are still widely read worldwide, studied in Iran and at least partly define their identity. Some names: Rudaki, Ferdowsi, Omar Khayyam (11th century) and Attar, Rumi,Hafez and Sadi (13-14th century). How many names of the European poets do we know from that time?

Women and covering. in the 18-19th century, it was considered as the question of class privilege and prestige for a woman to have a vail. Not many women or their husbands could afford it. In general women played substantial role at work and in the house. They also had quite a big indirect influence on the politics.

East-West influence. Just one ancient and a bit controversial example. Mani, so-called prophet of the 3rd century AD has established a new religion Manichaeism. This religion has spread rapidly and was very influential. It has got many elements, but a few core ones was disdain with everything related to human body, sex, anything material and very broad definition of a sin. This has influenced greatly The Augustine of Hippo who himself initially was the follower. Respectively it has penetrated the Mediaeval main stream Catholic teaching and influenced the whole history of Europe through that. I've hidden a lengthy quote from this book and a bit of a Wiki article under the

Under the spoiler, there are mine brief notes which are not properly edited. But if someone is interested, they are welcome:

The proper history ends with Iran-Iraq war, but he touches upon the current affairs up to 2006 in my version of the book. And this is inevitably more controversial and less successful, imho.

However I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone who wanted to find out about this fascinating and complex country.
10 reviews1 follower
August 10, 2015
If you think this book will tell you much about the history of Iran / Persia, save your time and money and look elsewhere.

Boring, filled with Persian poetry that does not really contribute to the subject matter, plenty of parenthetical commentary as well as ad hominem attacks at Alexander's "bisexualism" and Richard Dawkins' views on religion--neither of which is germane to a book about Iranian history.

Also, I understand that Persian is written in the Arabic script so there are multiple ways of transcribing words, but if the words and phrases come from a language which has since then adopted the latin alphabet, you do not go with your uninformed and incorrect transcriptions--all the Turkic words the author uses have proper latinized modern forms, and using "q" s for "k"s etc shows amazing ignorance of the cultures adjacent to the Persian one.

In addition, NOT translating eminently translatable concepts is a cop out to make Iran look more exotic, which might impress North American unilinguals, but not many others. E.g, calling the Parliament "Majlis" over and over does not make it an exotic assembly--this is similar to the use of "Allah" by westerners to represent the Islamic God, whereas "Allah" (or more properly Al-lah, i.e. The God) is just the Arabic word for God.

I would have given it less than a single star if I could.
Profile Image for Oisín.
30 reviews
July 4, 2016
I've been meaning to learn more about Iran, its history, and its sense of identity for several years now (certainly ever since I first read "Persian Fire" by Tom Holland nearly a decade ago), and this book serves as an excellent starter to anyone who wishes for a general overview of the various historical, religious, philosophical, and literary strands that shape the modern Islamic Republic.

Right off the bat, I appreciate Axworthy's clarification on the confusion of "Iran vs. Persia". It's Iran. End of. They've been calling themselves Iranians for the last 3,000 years. You can thank the Greeks for the mix-up.

I must admit there were passages that required a second reading in order to fully grasp the concepts that the author was highlighting. However, I think this is owed more to my unfamiliarity with such topics as Shi'a clerical hierarchy and abstract multifaceted poetical metaphors.

In the final chapters, Axworthy does his best maintain a balanced narrative surrounding the events of '79 and the ensuing geopolitical fallout, while also rooting that narrative firmly in an Iranian perspective and context. His hopeful closing thoughts have certainly done much to encourage my dreams of one day visiting this historic land.
Profile Image for Randall Wallace.
543 reviews417 followers
September 26, 2021
Iran has a literary and poetry tradition few countries (Russia) can go near. US citizens usually reduce it all to owning a copy of Collected Rumi while geographically learning of it from the Flock of Seagulls, “Iran so far away”. What they don’t know is that in today’s Iran, “only 1.4 percent of the population attends Friday prayers”. Heck, in the US, far more people attend to our top weekly organized fundamentalist gathering: corporate televised sports. Before Iran, it was called the Persian Empire and its language Farsi comes from the dialect originating in the Fars province. I read elsewhere that in Fars you find both the 518 BC ruins of Persepolis (the Achaemenid Empire Capital) and modern Shiraz. There, at the Haft Khan Restaurant, you can actually order a Shiraz in Shiraz. Just saying.

Early nomads had the upper hand because they could descend on agricultural zones at harvest times and there goes your years work. This led to peasants paying part of their harvest in order to be left alone. Think of the historic rulers of Iran as being of nomadic tribal origin. In comes Zoroastrianism, which Nietzsche saw as the first religion to emphasize personal choice and responsibility. You could rape and pillage or rape and not pillage. Top artifacts from these days, the Taylor Prism and Cyrus Cylinder, were taken from Iran and now reside in the British Museum’s permanent “Don’t Ask Why Britain Has This Collection.” Arsacid Regime. Parthian Empire. Muhammad is 6th century. He leaves Mecca for Medina [where Tone Loc develops his Funky Cold elixir]. Muhammad unifies Arabia under one religion by 632. Iran then is ruled by foreign monarchs for almost a thousand years. Under the Abbasid Caliphate, “Baghdad grew to be the largest city in the world outside of China.” Paper from China replaced papyrus and parchment. The Shahnameh is a Persian’s Shakespeare – second only to the Koran or poems by Hafez. Turko-Mongol conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) “lopped off seventy thousand heads, which were then set in 120 pillars”. Merv was once the world’s biggest city (500,000) and is razed by Mongols in AD 1221. The death toll by the Mongols was 700,000 to 1.3 million people. Whoa. We are talking death by cold blade close and personal. Each soldier was ordered to kill three to four hundred persons. During the slaughter, 5,000 hid but a rear guard later found them and slaughtered them, each walking with their “skirtful of grain.” This ends the Golden Age of Khorasan Province. The prosperity of the Silk Road exposed the geographic vulnerability of Iran. Rumi was born in 1207 and he wrote 65,000 lines of poetry. Sa’di’s poem Golestan has a line few US Hawks quote, “You who are without sorrow for the suffering of others, you do not deserve to be human.” In 1500, the Safavid Shah Ismail I undertook the conquering of Iran and Azerbaijan and commenced a policy of forced conversion of Sunni Muslims to Shia Islam. Many Sunnis were murdered. The majority of Iranians turned to Shi'a Islam from the Safavid period onwards. Emperor Nader Shah (Persia’s Shah 1736-47) plunders from India the Koh-i-Noor and Darya-i-Noor diamonds now in the British and Iranian Crown jewels. He had an army of 375,000 men; that was larger than the combined forces of Prussian and Austria. Nader had his ‘best and dearest of his sons” eyes torn out. I wonder what he did to his kids who he didn’t like?

Readers will rejoice that Michael has included the short poem by Naser od-Din Shah in 1855: “Aya ma ra az mum sakhta-and?” Which translates oh so well as, “Are we made of wax?” Deep questions indeed. Baha’i starts around 1844; it has been a persecuted faith in Iran for a long time. Before 1900, veiled women in Iran were rare. There was no justification for it in the Koran or earliest hadith. In 1912 Britain switches from coal to oil for its ships and runs into a problem: where to get that oil. The Iranian reserves at Khuzestan suddenly became vital to the British Empire. Rivals fall away and Russia controls Northern Iran, while Britain controls the oil fields in the South. There is a severe famine in 1917 and 1918 which Michael both complicates and undervalues: the reader is urged instead to read “The Great Famine & Genocide in Iran:1917 1919, by Mohammad Gholi Mahd” which I’ve reviewed on Goodreads.

By the 1990’s Iran was “hosting two million refugees”. In 2002, Iran is included in the Axis of Evil Speech. Iran was a beneficiary of the US shortsightedly removing Saddam in Iraq. Michael is partly ignorant on the Iran Nuclear part of the book. He gets that countries need a deterrent if they don’t want to have to bend over in the shower for the US. but he doesn’t understand as Noam says, signing a nuclear free Middle East can’t happen because then Israel would have to let the unchosen look at their nuclear arsenal. So, blame Iran. Bomb Bomb Iran. Just don’t Blame Blame Israel. At the end of the book Michael writes the best of Iran has been the tolerance of the people and now much of the best have left, are imprisoned or are mute.

Reza Shah in the 1930’s switched Iran to modern dress as was done in Turkey. Mossadeq takes power, British technicians leave the Oil installations in the South, and Britain imposes a blockade so the Oil Industry becomes a huge stagnant money loser. The US refuses him a loan when he travels to the US. After back in Iran, the CIA removes him from power. In comes the brutal Shah and SAVAK, yadda yadda, but what really happens is the US replaces Britain as Iran’s repressive custodian. Now it was the US’s turn to hate on Iran, after Britain’s utter criminal neglect allowed the insane Iranian Genocide of 1917-19 [Mahd]. After the autocratic Shah leaves, you have the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a genuine people’s revolution. Then the hostage crisis. Then the Iran-Iraq War. The USS Vincennes ship goes into Iranian territorial waters and shoots down an Iranian civilian airliner with “a pair of surface-to-air-missiles” killing 290 people. Teaching the world exactly the US response to some gung-ho commander who defies international law and kills 60 very cute children with a press of the button, President Reagan sprang into action. He “awarded the commander a campaign medal”. From the internet I’ve learned that his citation from Reagan read: “For exceptionally . . . outstanding service as commanding officer, USS Vincennes from April 1987 to May 1989”. And where pray tell, is that commander now (since Michael won’t tell us)? Rogers is the commanding officer of Tactical Training Group Pacific at Point Loma, Calif., where every new commanding officer goes through a three-week course before deploying his ship. As such, Rogers is in a key position to influence the tactical thought aboard practically every warship in the Pacific Fleet. And don’t worry about the anti-air warfare officer either, he has been promoted to be the executive officer, or second-in-command, of those Cadillacs of the surface warfare community, another Aegis cruiser.

An OK conservative book; but I’d strongly recommend these two instead, “The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History” edited by Touraj Daryaee, and “Inside Iran” by Medea Benjamin.
Profile Image for Sharon Barrow Wilfong.
1,117 reviews3,945 followers
July 10, 2018
An excellent history of ancient Persia, the origins of the country up to the present day, or rather 2007 when the book was written.

I especially found the ancient history and pre-Islamic religions, such as Zorastrianism interesting. Axworthy describes the leaders of that ancient religion, its development and its eventual usurption by Islam.

The reader learns of the rich and colorful culture of this ancient country and their line of rulers, their interaction with other rulers and countries, such as Alexander the Great, the rise and decline of their own ancient Empire and their remarkable influence on other Asian countries by spreading Islam all the way to India.

We also gain a better understanding of the different mulahs, shahs and other religious and government leaders up into the 20th century.

Axworthy also describes both the responsibility and fault of western nations and their interference into the Middle Eastern region, specifically Iran for the purposes of this book, but also at times the benefits bestowed on Iran as western countries like Britain and the US, developed their technology to process their oil, even if it could be argued that some of their help had ulterior motives.

Axworthy shows the diversity of Iranian thought and values. Not everyone wanted the Shah to leave or hates Americans. Not everyone was in favor of Khomeini or the leaders afterward. The Iranian people are independent thinkers and while our television may present the populace as mindless mobs, there are many citizens of Iran that want more freedom, more woman's rights, greater citizenship autonomy.

A couple of questions Axworthy failed to answer which I found disappointing: one, what is the tribal make up of Iran, if there is one, or apart from the small but significant Jewish population and Kurds, are Iranians largely a homogeneous people group? That would explain who is in power at any given time or what sub-population group, if they exist, gain advantages over the other sup-pops.

The other thing I found disappointing is I felt Axworthy fell back onto white guilt syndrome. While claiming otherwise, he defaults to the tired old saw that Iran's problems are largely constructs of Europe and the United States and if western countries would just be nicer to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who was in power at the time of his writing, now it is Hassan Rouhani) then Ahmadinejad would want to be our friend. I think this is naive.

Aside from that bias, I found History of Iran to be a well-written, informative book, however, I would like to read other sources and am open to recommendations.
Profile Image for Blair.
122 reviews81 followers
July 2, 2016
A rather negative and simplistic picture of Iran has been painted in some circles. Michael Axworthy, a British diplomat who served in Iran, presents us the entire history of the region to provide us with a broader perspective. It is a reasonably good read, though it can sometimes bog down with details about every dynasty. I have read other histories of Iran, and this one is not significantly different or overly controversial in my opinion.

The Persian Empire was one of the great civilizations, similar in scope to Rome. It was the first to create a confederation of different cultures rather than to simply eliminate all possible enemies. The emperor was the King of Kings rather than the Great Destroyer. Rome in general had a similar strategy, but did tend to impose Roman culture throughout the empire.

After the Arab conquest the Persians endured a long period of foreign rulers. The theme of the book is that Persian culture was so profound and resilient that it was able to endure these conquests, and reassert itself time and time again. Hence an “empire of the mind” was able to overcome physical conquest.

The rest of this review will select a few interesting and somewhat controversial ideas from the book.

Christianity and Shia Islam

The author draws some interesting parallels between Christianity and Shia Islam. He contrasts the emphasis on law and tradition in Sunni Islam with the humility, sacrifice and importance of religious hierarchy in Christianity and Shia Islam.

Ali and his son Hosein play a similar role to Christ. Ali is said to have held himself aloof from the political deals and pragmatic compromises involved in the Arab conquests, maintaining a pious life of austerity and prayer. His son Hosein went to his death at Karbala knowingly and willingly, in the belief that only by sacrificing himself could he bring about the renewal of Islam. The public grief of this event (Ashura, with the self-flagellation) is similar in spirit to that which one can still see on Good Friday in some Catholic countries.

He asks us to imagine how Christians would feel if the leadership of the church after the death of Christ had fallen to Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate and their successors.

Manichaeism and Saint Augustine

Mani was a religious leader born in Persia in 216, thus was aware of Christianity. Augustine was born in Roman Africa in 354, after Christianity became the official religion of the empire. The author takes a rather dim view of these two people, as the following quotes from the book illustrate:
“Manichaeism was based on the idea of a queasy, dystopic creation in which the good—the light—had been overwhelmed and dominated by evil—the demonic—which was itself identified with matter. Through copulation and reproduction (inherently sinful), evil had imprisoned light in matter and had established the dominance of evil on earth.”
“This dismal and ugly vision of existence was presented as a religion of liberation from material existence and evil.”
“It would be foolish to attribute all the 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 about impurity, the corruption of material existence, and the sinfulness of sexual pleasure. His thinking was a kind of Pandora’s box of malignity, the particles from which went fluttering off in all directions on their misshapen wings.”
“Before he converted to Christianity, Augustine himself had been an avowed Manichaean, had converted others to the sect, and may have served as a Manichaean priest. It has been disputed, but the imprint of Manichaeism on Augustine’s thinking is obvious and heavy.”
“Many of the ideas that Augustine's teaching successfully fixed in Catholic Christian doctrine—notably that of original sin (strongly associated by him with sexuality), predestination, the idea of an elect of the saved, and (notoriously) the damnation of unbaptized infants—originated at least partly in debates that had been going earlier within the Christian Church.”
“As pursued later by the Western Christian church in medieval Europe, the full grim panoply of Manichaean/Augustinian formulae emerged to blight millions of lives, and they are still exerting their sad effect today—the distaste for the human body, the disgust for and guilt about sexuality, the misogyny, the determinism (and the tendency toward irresponsibility that emerges from it), the obsessive idealization of the spirit, the disdain for the material—all distant indeed from the original teachings of Jesus.”
Finally he concludes that if ever a pair of thinkers deserved Nietzsche's title Weltverleumder (world-slanderers), then they were Mani and Augustine. This may be nice writing, but perhaps a reader with more knowledge in this area can comment on the content. From my limited knowledge it seems a bit extreme.

The Creative Ayatollah Khomeini

Contrary to common opinion, the author paints Khomeini as a flexible and creative intellectual, interested in poetry and mysticism. He also clearly spells out how he ruthlessly seized and consolidated his power. Earlier in the book he foreshadows Khomeini with:
“The pattern of a new, autocratic ruler from more or less obscure origins, taking power by force after a period of disorder—and claiming the decision of God for his victory and his justification—has been suggested as a recurring theme in Iranian history.”
Later we are told of this curious exchange with Gorbachev, warning him to avoid the West:
“Khomeini suggested Gorbachev should study Islam as a way of life. At first impression this seems an odd suggestion, but perhaps Khomeini sensed an affinity with Gorbachev—as an unconventional thinker hemmed in by unsympathetic and less imaginative minds.”
“But the letter attracted criticism from clergy in Qom, some of whom upbraided Khomeini in an open letter for having recommended mystics and philosophers. Khomeini responded with a ‘letter to the clergy’ that vented the frustrations of a long life spent enduring the criticism of more tradition-minded mullahs.”
The Poetry

Some readers complain the poetry adds no real understanding and is only there to make the author look intimately knowledgeable about Persian culture. I tend not to appreciate most poetry, so I can’t tell. I did like this one:
All fear of God, all self-denial I deny.
Bring wine, nothing but wine.
For in all sincerity I repent my worship, which is but hypocrisy.
Yes, bring me wine, for I have renounced all renunciation.
And all my vaunted self-righteousness seems to me but swagger and self-display."
A Reasonable Introduction to Persian History

I think this is a reasonable introduction to Persian History. There may well be better. I read Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West too long ago to make a decent comparison. As always, it is best to read more than one account. If only we all had time for that.
189 reviews12 followers
July 31, 2023
Michael Axworthy is a former member of the British Foreign Service who is now a lecturer at the University of Exeter in Arab and Islamic Studies. Unsurprisingly, his specialty is Iran and in this book he presents a well-organized chronology of the area now known as Iran and the peoples that have inhabited it over the past 3,000 years. If you finish this book not knowing your Seleucids from your Sassanians from your Safavids, it's not Professor Axworthy's fault. He has included enough tales of gory murders, battles and conquests, as well as harem antics, to satisfy all but the most hard core aficionado of such items. However, he also includes the development of peculiarly Iranian strains of religion and its effect on other Middle Eastern theologies, as well as a summary of Persian poetry, suggesting that the soul of Iran is at least as romantic and introspective as any other. I could tell that Professor Axworthy was a serious scholar because he declined to title the chapter on Iranian Islam "When the Shiites hit the fan."

For American readers, many of whom were unaware of the existence of Iran until 1979, this book provides some non-judgmental context for the events of 1979 through 2007 and suggestions of how events may have looked through Iranian eyes. He regrets that the West, and primarily the US, missed a possible opportunity to normalize relations with Iran in 2001 and 2002 when Iranian and American interests aligned on Afghanistan, and I am sure he would have similar regrets about the last 2 years when Iran has been the leading opponent of ISIS and the US has largely ignored this common interest. My own thought is that the lack of vision of American foreign policy is a legacy of the Cold War. We convinced ourselves that we faced Monolithic Communism and that all Communists were sinister advocates of American destruction. This led to the tragedy of the Vietnam War. After the breakup of the Soviet Union rendered Communism as an implausible adversary, 9/11 brought a new opponent which to many Americans is Monolithic Islamism. This resulted in the tragedy of the Iraq War and may yet bring us to an Iran War.
Author 4 books104 followers
July 19, 2017
Axworthy introduced the book by calling it "an introduction to the history of Iran for a general readership, assuming little or no prior knowledge." That is basically true...but if that is where you are coming from, you are most likely going to find some sections slower going than others.

The first one-third is a very good overview of ancient central Asian history through Cyrus the Great; the middle third was overwhelming for its wealth of unknown names and specialised terms that demanded one's full attention or repeated readings; the final third was surprisingly fascinating and a painless read given its coverage of the last 50 years of Iran's history--a period I can recall events from (for example: watching a helicopter airlift the Ayatollah Khomeini's casket to safety from the surging mobs on TV). Compartmentalising these sections is the only way I really could come to grips with this book, plucked from a library shelf because of a desire to fill in my knowledge of this much-maligned but historically rich country.

I heartily recommend this history to anyone especially interested in Iran's rich literary past for it includes a very good introduction to Persian poetry and aesthetics. Its coverage of early history is also very good--concise and easy to read. But from 1000-1920, I confess I couldn't keep my focus and didn't re-connect until the final 100 or so pages, which caught me by surprise and completely held my attention...and introduced me to some authors I had not heard of, whose works I am now reading online (such as the banned Sadeq Hedayat. See http://www.angelfire.com/rnb/bashiri/...).
Profile Image for Yasmin.
15 reviews
April 20, 2013
This is a good a history of Iran but it is by no means a masterpiece and I don't think it will make it through the test of time.

Axeworthy did an excellent job with the medieval mystical poets and included many beautiful verses throughout the text. Unfortunately there was less emphasis on intellectual and literary history in modern times and absolutely no mention of music and the arts.

As people have already mentioned, the author is very biased in matters of religion. He has a shallow understanding of shi'a Islam and its philosophy of governance, which must be key to understanding Iran today. Also I thought some of his comments about Jews we're out of place considering he dedicated no time to exploring their practice and heritage.

Ultimately this is an accessible history of one of the oldest and more complicated regions in the world in less than 300 pages. You get your time's worth...
Profile Image for Fahad.
5 reviews5 followers
September 21, 2016
Prior to reading, my knowledge on Persian history was less than basic. It covers a staggering amount of information (over 25+ centuries in only 300 pages), so it obviously lacks depth. Still, I found the language and subject-matter to be enjoyable, and definitely recommend it as an introductory book.
Profile Image for Vít.
657 reviews50 followers
December 8, 2018
Výborný úvod do dějin téhle velké země, hodně mě to zaujalo. Neutečou vám žádná fakta, je to psané nestranně a hlavně dobře. Na začátku se to čte jako pohádky tisíce a jedné noci, uprostřed je to skoro jako horror a závěr jako politický thriller... kruciš, nějak jsem se rozjel :)
Stojí to za přečtení, vždyť dneska se o Íránu mluví jen v souvislosti s islámským fundamentalismem, fatvou nad Salmanem Rushdiem, nebo hypotetickými jadernými zbraněmi. Zapomínáme na krále Kýra, pohádkovou Persii, nebo třeba na perskou poezii... a taky na to, že za řadu problémů tohoto státu může především bezohledná politika Ruska, Velké Británie a hlavně Spojených států jak v minulosti, tak i v nedávné době.
Rozhodně doporučuji.
Profile Image for Sanne.
15 reviews
January 15, 2022
Finally managed to finished it. While reading more than half the time I wanted to dnf so hard.
It’s supposed to read like a novel while providing vast amounts of information - well that’s a badly written novel then I think.
Also what’s up with the weird poetry thing and teleological thinking?
Profile Image for gillyweed.
32 reviews5 followers
September 5, 2019
Axworthy's History of Iran is a basic and accessible foundation for the Western-oriented reader unfamiliar with the region. From an academic perspective, the broadest strokes in the text offer a good starting point before moving into more serious, in-depth investigations of specific periods.

I would stress, however, that this text should not be used by those who have no intention of pursuing the subject matter further, *especially* if the purpose is to gain understanding of Iran in the present day.

I'm not particularly fond of rating nonfiction, especially when it is on subject matter that I am not especially well-versed in. But anyone even peripherally involved with historical study as an academic practice would be wary to a major methodological problem with this text, which, in my experience, has a tendency to slip past more casual readers.

So, for those who are reading this book for some light information, instead of in the context of an academic study:

While the earlier sections of Axworthy's text, ranging from the Parthian through to the initial stage of the Pahlavi era could be classified as serviceable, the post-Revolutionary period veers quite suddenly from a nominally biased history into highly politicized commentary. There is no justifiable reason for Axworthy to spend the latter chapters of his book viewing Iran from the perspective of Israeli and American security concerns. Bias is to be assumed, but deliberately adopting a highly antagonistic external political lens in your academic study of a country -- especially when looking at its modern context, especially when that modern context is vilified within your country's sphere of influence, especially when your target audience is the country that is encouraging that vilification -- is not only extremely poor form professionally, it is just plain irresponsible. This is only made worse by the fact that Iran and its substantial diaspora populations include a multitude of academics, activists, and political commentators capable of sourcing for this period from their own, highly varied perspectives.

Sort your feet out, dude, your dance is a mess.
Profile Image for JMJ.
307 reviews1 follower
September 11, 2016
This book quite simply does a disservice to Iran and its rich, fascinating history.

Notwithstanding the numerous printing errors in the book (Penguin's fault) the thesis of the book is simply poor. Axworthy mentions the notion of 'Empire of the Mind' twice in the book - three times if you count the fact it is a subtitle - and never bothers to elaborate on it in any meaningful way. The book also seems to go from Zoroastrian history to present day with barely a mention of anything in between. The explanations of many situations left me more confused than when I started, as Axworthy does not appear to have the ability to concisely clarify important historical detail. For significant passages the author veers off from (weak) historical analysis to ostensibly give his own opinion, which adds nothing to the reader's understanding.

All in all, were I Iranian or Persian I would be worries that books like this were attempting to portray my heritage on a wider platform. It is a prime example of lazy, ill-thought-out academia.
Profile Image for Felix.
307 reviews355 followers
November 5, 2021
This book has received somewhat mixed reviews on Goodreads, but I feel like it's been treated a little unfairly. This isn't really your typical history book, and it definitely isn't written for an academic audience, but it still has a lot to say, and Axworthy's unusual vantage point - as a former foreign office official - lends the later chapters a more strategic (albeit less objective) perspective.

This is not a straight-forward political history, as many readers seem to have expected. Axworthy examines political, religious and literary history in turn, and not always (or even generally) in equal measure. I'm reminded a little of Churchill's style of historical writing, which rarely told a narrative in a straightforward way, but rather told various stories from history that Churchill found interesting. In that tradition, Axworthy takes detours and makes digressions freely. I don't doubt that there are significant things left out, but I found all the things left in really quite interesting.
Profile Image for Jo.
139 reviews16 followers
September 10, 2017
They say "Esfahan is half the world", and a history of Iran is most definitely a history of humanity itself. From Darius of Persepolis to Alexander the Great, from the Romans to the Mongol Invasions, passing by the birth of Islam and Shi'ism and ending with Western meddling and the 1979 revolution, this is a great book to understand not only Iran but also much of the current world order.

"For it is a fact that to have knowledge of the truth and of sciences and to study them is the highest thing with which a king can adorn himself. And the most disgraceful thing for kings is to disdain learning and be ashamed of exploring the sciences. He who does not learn is not wise." - Khosraw I Anushirvan

"An autocrat can get away with many things, but looking foolish undercuts him in the most damaging way."
Profile Image for Jessica.
110 reviews7 followers
August 7, 2009
Iran has a LONG history, and this book started WAY back at the beginning. Not really knowing anything about Iran, I think I would have preferred it spent a little MORE time on the more recent stuff (for example, the Iran-Contra affair and the American hostage situation each only had one page of mention, and the Iran-Iraq war had only about 2 pages total). In contrast, there were about 18 pages on olden-day Persian poetry.

Anyway, it was an interesting book and I learned a lot. I've started another book, The Soul of Iran, (not a chronological history), and I have a great reference point for the events, religious ideas, Shas, etc. mentioned there, which means that Axworthy's book did its job for me.
Profile Image for Kash.
Author 1 book1 follower
July 27, 2011
I thought this is going to be another typical book on history of Iran when I picked it up but I admit I was wrong. This book is fair, evenhanded and factual in dealing with the history of Iran. It's very brief and concise and in that context, Mr. Axworthy has done a good job explaining in simple language the history of a very complicated nation. It has little or no political agenda. It credits Iran/Persia with things it has done and more importantly it sheds light on some unknown and un-touched corners of the modern Iranian history such as the 1953 coup against PM Mossadegh and the ascend of Reza Shah the great to power in early 20th century. I'd recommend this book to the students of middle-eastern history and those interested in knowing more about Iran.
Profile Image for Stan Murai.
90 reviews12 followers
September 14, 2012
Michael Axworthy’s Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran
gives readers a broad overview of Iranian history from the earliest
times to the present day. Military and dynastic matters are
covered in detail, but it also emphasizes the cultural and intellectual contributions of Iran that have shaped much of region that includes modern Turkey, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent. It does so concisely in only about three hundred pages, but nevertheless the material provided is engaging and thoroughly interesting. As someone who had lived in Iran, this was not the first book I had read on Iran. But even so, I still learned much that was surprisingly new from the material presented.
Profile Image for CAMERON.
186 reviews2 followers
July 27, 2011
About as superb a history of Iran from Zoroaster to Ahmedinejad as can be crammed into 300 pages.

Well worth reading.
Profile Image for Vivek Kulanthaivelpandian.
188 reviews29 followers
May 25, 2023
The book was drier than Atacama and Sahara desert combined. I was super excited to pick up a book that promised a comprehensive history of Iran only to be terribly disappointed. I honestly tried and failed miserably. My problem with the book is ,it reads like a dull banal text book with lot of names thrown at you not in a coherent or chronological order. Some of the main events get lost in the monotonic drone tone of the book. Before this book, I had some general idea about the history of pre-Islamic and Islamic Iran by reading other books. Did not learning anything new worth remembering from this book. I know Iran is a land of Rumi, Omar Khayyam and Hafiz. But history book filled with Poems?, sorry not my cup of tea (wine)?
Profile Image for TG Lin.
269 reviews38 followers
October 30, 2020

1. 本書是一部《伊朗通史》,從原史時期的「瑣羅亞斯德」(估計在前10世紀的武王克殷時代),一路談到現代伊斯蘭共和國時期何梅尼之後的廿一世紀○○年代。有介紹、有評析、有辨偽討論。可以算是一部不錯的入門與進階預備的讀物。

2. 由於本書時間跨度很大,因此作者只能擇要來解釋;而談論到時代文化或人物,作者基本上都以中性的筆法加以評述。——本書最突兀之處,就是作者不知吃錯了什麼藥,花了整整一節痛罵摩尼/摩尼教以及受其影響的基督教奧古斯丁……

3. 現代中東諸國,大多沒什麼可以回溯上千年的國族歷史,只除了希臘和這個擁有民族自豪的伊朗(/波斯)兩國之外吧。
Profile Image for Adam Balshan.
539 reviews13 followers
October 12, 2022
2 stars [History]
(W: 2.58, U: 2, T: 1.89)
Exact rating: 2.16
#109 of 112 in genre
#32 of 33 on Persia

Axworthy was too busy inserting his modern opinions into the narrative, rather than writing a History book, to achieve even an average Utility score. Moreover, they were often stupid. His interesting bits of detail or very few notable sections were drowned by it.

The prose was above average, but all other writing components were mediocre. Chapter 6 was poorly done: names flew by the reader's eyeballs with abandon.

Much of the book was the sort of info one could find in any decent encyclopedia.

Notably good sections:
pp.31-40 on Parthia [T: 3.25],
pp.148-155 on the Afghan Revolt and aftermath [T: 3.25],
pp.246-252 on the pre-1979-Revolution mood [T: 3], and
pp.269-281 on Montazeri and the minor Shia opposition to Khomeini [T:3.5].

Notably bad sections:
Nader in European though [1.5],
communism in the 1950s [1.5], and
a slightly rosy view of Ahmadinejad [2].

Notably bad axiom: every time Axworthy tried to touch religion.
The specious canard about Hebrew theology undergoing fundamental changes due to interaction with Mazdaism. His comments on Mithraism (pp.41-42). On p.49 he calls Gnosticism a sect of Christianity. (This is shameful for the publisher too - this is asinine.) He thankfully denounced Manichaeism as malign. But then had more silly opinions on Christian ecclesiology and theology on p.52. These ideas ranged between [T: 0.5 to 2].

There are so many better books on Iran than this one.

For a Cultural Geography, see William Polk's Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, From Persia to the Islamic Republic, From Cyrus to Khamenei.

For Fiction, see Dalia Sofer's The Septembers of Shiraz.

For other recommendations, leave a Comment or see my Persia shelf.
Profile Image for 晓木曰兮历史系 Chinese .
92 reviews16 followers
Want to read
November 29, 2022
Those who look like gods and talk like honey,
What a pity that they even concealed their beautiful faces!
But the veil is not without value;
The ugly person should wear it, and the beautiful person should take it off.
This verse comes from the 13th century Persian poet Sadie. On the Iranian plateau, the once-existing Persian Empire showed its unique beauty to the world with its splendid culture, art and powerful strength, leaving a crescent moon and an oasis in the sand in people's imagination of the distance full of dreams. Today's Iranian plateau seems to have only years of war and black oil in people's minds. Today's Iran is very different from the ancient people and reveries.

In the discourse power of economic, military, and political leadership, Iran itself, as a major oil country, has the economic initiative, but its political and military defeats have cast a haze on this beautiful land. Iran as we know it is a country that has been reshaped under the narrative of power. The book "A Brief History of Iran" uses multiple research materials to try to break away from the stereotypes of Western narratives, starting from the splendid civilization and culture in Iran (Persia) history, and uncovering Iran's veil.

The Iranian Plateau is a plateau in southwest Asia and the birthplace of ancient culture. The influence of the geographical environment on Iran is far less than that of the humanistic environment and the culture of various ethnic groups. We usually think that Iran is a country with serious homogeneity. It upholds strict religious precepts and is labelled as dangerous and conservative by the media. In fact, Iran is a multi-ethnic Islamic country, and the integration of different ethnic groups constitutes a complex cultural foundation.

Iran’s history is full of invasions and wars, as well as poetry, literature and art. Since 600 BC, the Greeks called this area "Persia". In 1935, "Iran" replaced Persia as the name of this area, meaning noble. Even though many academic works emphasize that Iran is Persia, the two names are still very different in the public's mind. This sense of separation between modern countries and ancient civilizations is the most serious of Iran’s many contradictions and paradoxes.

In an era of coexistence of revolution and crisis, Iran has shown its cultural brilliance. For example, Sadie’s "Rose Garden" has had a great influence in the fields of religion, history, and literature. Just like brothers and sisters. The original creation is one body, one limb is sick and the whole body" appears at the door of the United Nations Building. Hafez, who was later than him, elevated Persian poetry to a higher level, expressing spiritual desire with the image of wine and love. In them, pure spirit and pious belief together create a beauty that is completely different from other cultures.

In the preface, the author raises several questions that the new situation requires of Iran: Is Iran an aggressive force or a victim? Is the Iranian tradition expansionist or passive defensive? Is Iran's Shiaism silent, violent and revolutionary? The thinking on these issues runs through the author's writing. Iran’s history is complex, changeable, and brilliant. Iran, which has emerged from multi-ethnic integration, cultural collisions, and war turmoil, not only carries the inner connotation brought by ancient civilization, but also faces crises in the current situation. We should abandon prejudice and face her history and today with a more inclusive eye.
65 reviews16 followers
September 2, 2017
به فارسی ترجمه شده ولی اینجا نبود.
محققین خارجی ای که چیز خاصی از ایران میدونن خیلی کمن و بقیه در بهترین حالت از منابع داخلی و خارجی موجود کپی میکنن مثل همین کتاب.
مطلب به خصوصی نداشت کتاب نهایتا به درد مروری بر تاریخ ایران برای شب امتحان میخوره
گول اسمش که امپراتوری اندیشه است رو نخورید.
Profile Image for Casper.
16 reviews4 followers
August 16, 2017

It took me a while to finish this. The sheer scope of the book is extremely impressive - the author covers the entire history of the Persian Empire, Iran and Iranian cultural identity in 300 pages. It's definitely a fascinating introduction to one of the oldest and most interesting cultures in the world.

The sections I found most engaging were the first and final third of the book, in which Axworthy writes of the origins of the Persian Empire and 20th century Iran, respectively. In the middle, he tended to get lost in details, however interesting they were, they were presented in a way that made the long passages quite difficult to read or memorise.

Axworthy is not a historian, but a diplomat. Not to detract from the quality of his writing, his familiarity with Iran or his knowledge of historical facts, but it does show. The book suffers from a slight lack of coherence thematically and structurally. I found it hard at times to remember the people he was discussing, and the book is not written in the most intuitive way. Also, the most disappointing thing to me was that the author only mentioned his thought-provoking thesis in the first and last 10 pages of the book - that Iran has survived as a nation despite millennia of border change and ethnic diversity because of its strong cultural identity. A real shame

However, it is still a great introduction to Iranian history. I'd give it 4 stars for people who are more patient and have a better memory than me!
Profile Image for Catherine.
189 reviews2 followers
April 13, 2014
This book is a serious document, useful for research, but written in a style that means anyone can understand what is being discussed. It didn't appear to have a bias or slant towards anything - just the facts. Im a believer that you shouldn't have an opinion on a subject until you have done your homework. While I have a lot more to understand yet, as suspected the Iranians are just like us. The newspapers need to stop writing stories that make the uninformed believe that a government represents it's people.

Like some, my western experience couldn't quite grasp how an entire empire could have something like poetry running through all its history, religion, language and ideas. But I have since seen a speaker on Iranian design and you can see how it affects what they write and how they write it. Everything must look and feel poetic. I still don't understand really but I kind of like the idea of a nation built around poetry. It's sound so much nicer than a nation built around consumerism.
Profile Image for Monty Milne.
876 reviews47 followers
March 19, 2017
Like many of us, before I read this I knew a reasonable amount about ancient Iran and a little about modern Iran, but almost nothing about everything in between. This book did fill some of the gaps, and seemed pretty fair minded, but inevitably there are a lot of constraints imposed by trying to fit such a big subject into only 300 pages. I have a number of Iranian friends - all of them exiles, Anglophiles, and supporters of the Shah. I'm glad that having read this I can talk to them with a little more pretence at intelligence about Iran's spectacular cultural achievements. However, some of my opinions are now a bit different since reading this: I am ashamed of the rapacity of the British government in relation to unfair oil treaties 100 years ago, and I have a more positive opinion of Mossadegh and a less positive opinion of the Pahlavis (and their predecessor dynasty) than I did. It's an impressive achievement of the author's to get me to change (or even modify) my opinions.
Profile Image for GrapedUp.
233 reviews26 followers
December 25, 2016
What was in the book is clearly this very unimportant details without the big picture. It's like a scattered thoughts poured down in a book. Also if you search hard enough in blogs, you can find almost everything written in this book. No, I'm not saying the author plagiarized anything, it's just it was all common facts here.
The only thing new is a ton of Persian poems. The boring ones.
So I suggest you to save your money and time, there's nothing really interesting with this book.

Anyway, if you were a sunni Muslim you definitely won't like this book, and this book doesn't cover any new knowledge about shi'a anyway. If you were a shi'a you would probably know this book soften and romanticized the facts about you. If you were a non-Muslim the possibility of you finding this interesting is as thin as tissue.

So no, don't even waste your thought on this.
Profile Image for Boyan.
70 reviews3 followers
February 16, 2019
When I started this book I had expectations about getting to know about the entire history of Iran. And to some degree it fulfilled my expectations. What I didn't know what how much history there was, that it was impossible to collect it in only one book. The author does a great job going through different centuries, but I felt many times he was just jumping from one situation to another without going in many details. The reason I guess is as above - it is impossible to collect everything at one place. This book gave me a good starting point in my curiosity about Iran and I often found myself searching for more information in Google or Wikipedia. I can recommend Michael Axworthy's book for a starting point, an index of historical actions and people, which would let you further explore the details of this ancient nation throughout the centuries.
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