Customer Reviews: A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind
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on May 24, 2008
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.
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on July 1, 2008
A plethora of recent books chronicle recent Iranian history (with a particular focus on 1953-today). This book discusses that period, but it does a lot more. The vast majority of the book deals with ancient Iranian history - including tales of epic Persian leaders (Xerxes, Darius) and the wars that shaped Iranian history (fighting against the Greeks, Romans, Arab Muslims, Afghans, Russians, and the British). If you want to know about ancient Iran, this is your book. It's very easy to read for a "history" book.

That said, if you are looking for real detail on more recent events, such as the 1953 Mossadeq coup, the 1979 Revolution, or today's affairs, I'd look elsewhere (Persian Puzzle is really good at narrating the recent events, as are focused books such as "All the Shah's Men" and "Ahmadinejad."

Having read a lot about recent Iranian history, I enjoyed the voyage into ancient history - but know the predominantly ancient focus before buying.

As noted, the author's style is easy to follow and enjoyable. He even tells a few jokes. The book is generally even-handed, though he did seem to soft-pedal British mistakes in the region (understandable given his nationality). My only beef with the author was his 20+ page expose on Iranian poetry. It comes from nowhere, and it was boring (though, admittedly, I am not a fan of poetry). The book is cruising along finely, all of a suddent takes a detour into poetry, and then corrects itself.

Overall, this is a great book and a must-read for someone interested in ancient Iranian history and the events/people that shaped a country sure to be in the news for a while.
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on September 25, 2009
This book can be considered a starting point for any newcomer to Iranian history. It is, without a doubt, a major contribution to the popular history genre. While Iran/Persia is one of the great empires, Axworthy implies that it is also an empire of the mind, a virtual empire that transcends the western concept of the geopolitical state.

The book follows Iran's chronological history from pre-Achaemenid times to the present. It is well researched and has extensive footnotes and references allowing the reader to delve into details of any event or subject. Yet, it is eminently readable and has the tone of a lively and informative lecture rather than an erudite tome.

The book binds all the varied elements of Iranian culture (a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religion mélange of peoples) into a single story line. It provides a factual, but simplified, picture of a multiplicity of societies who consider themselves Iranian regardless of the proclivity of their present governments. The reader is forced to re-evaluate the common notions of Iran as a homogeneous entity and recognize it as a hodgepodge of different groups who are bound by a common belief in the uniqueness of their civilization, culture and history.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the book is the portrayal of Iranian minorities. It is no small feat to trace their histories in the Iranian context. Yet, as Axworthy implies, it is their historical contributions and continued existence that make Iranian culture unique. It would be a sad day if any government forced uniformity on such a great and diverse culture.

The book does not cover everything (that would require an encyclopedia) but it misses some points. For instance, it discusses the Council of Guardians but does not cover another key element of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic - the Council of Experts. This is the Council that was responsible for appointing Ayatollah Khamenei as "supreme leader", a decision that involved considerable internal debate. Further, in theory, this Council can remove the supreme leader if it finds him unfit to rule. This is no small power considering the current turmoil Iran and is certainly worth mentioning.

However, in spite of such minor omissions, the book is accurate, immensely readable and truly major contribution to Iranian history.
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on March 10, 2010
This short history covers over three thousand years of history of the Iranian people, and other groups that now inhabit the modern nation of Iran. Naturally, that means it is extremely short on detail. But for the reader who only wants an overview, or an introduction before a more serious study, I recommend this book.

Axworthy speads his focus evenly throughout the various phases of history (as opposed to breezing quickly through ancient empires to get us to the present). I agree with his decision to do so. Many Iranians have a sense of history that makes it necessary to have at least a passing understanding of Iran's pre-Islamic heritage in order to understand modern attitudes. I also believe that pre- and early-Islamic history are interesting in their own right. But for readers who are mainly interested in the modern world, this might not be the best book; Axworthy doesn't start discussing the Pahlavi period until page 221, and spends about 65 pages on the last 100 years. The only other caveat is that the narrative during the early-Islamic period is a little confused. The text on the Umayyad, Abbassid and Seljuk periods is not as clear as what comes before or after.

Regardless, the book is very well written overall. It is accessible to the casual reader. The several maps help create a coherent picture of the ever-shifting historical boundaries.

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Iran who has little or no background in the country, but it will be an easier read if you have some knowledge of Islamic history. I also recommend following this book up with something more detailed.
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on February 29, 2012
This is an excellent exposition of Iranian history surveying the nation's history through the age of empire from the times of Cyrus the Great to the present government led by the Islamic Republic. One of the first things that will surprise you about this book is how extensive but yet quickly you will be able to move through the time periods of Persian history. The book starts by describing Persia from the first true Persian Dynasty, the Achaemenid dynasty, followed by the Seleucid, Parthian, Sassanid, Umayyad, Abassid, Saffavid, Qajar, and Phavali dynasties. The chapters are linked together by stories and important historical developments in each era and transistions smoothly by describing the fall and the rise of the subsequent powers.

In addition, the author dedicated an extensive chapter to the acomplishment of Persian poets including works of Rumi, Saadi, Hafez, and Iraqi. It is most interesting to understand the role of poetry and its development in Persian history. The symbolism of the poetic works corresponds to subjects such as love, power, war, and life. However, I find the ones involving love most perxplexing and the usage of the term "wine" as the metaphor for love. The symbolic, which are mostly subliminal, of these poems are truly influential.

So if you are someone who wants to thumb through a well composed survey of Iran's history, culture, and people this book is definitely the right one for you. It is always breathtaking to see how civilizations can influence each other in the most subtle manner and thus have profound effects just as how people may influence each other.
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on November 17, 2014
Another reader thought my first comment was a JOKE! so let me qualify that, people from the west pronounce this country's name like "eye-Ran" and they refer to us as "eye-ranians" which makes us cringe everytime we hear this botched pronounciation. Rarely does a westerner say it the proper way and for that they're not to blame, but the first scholars/diplomats who interacted with the west, for lack of knowledge and ignorance of the English language and its phonetics. Had it been printed as "Earon" in history books, then most would be saying it the right way. I thought for benefit of AMAZON's scholars and readers, they might appreciate to learn and practice saying 'Earon', and Earonians when they refer to us.
I should also add that the author is clearly a well educated scholar who wrote this without any influence from an entity of interest and his recount of the history is impartial and accurate. In fact, I found this text to be more truthful than many of the history text books which we were forced to memorize as children growing up through elementary and high schools in Earon, which was due to the fact that powers to be at the time wanted to influence and brain wash a whole generation.

Also as mentioned by another reader, don't anticipate any stories from the 20th century as the focus of this book is on the earlier dynasties who ruled the vast PERSIAN empire whose boarders stretched into significant portion of the continent of ASIA.
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Michael Axworthy's excellent 2008 "A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind" covers 3,000 years of Iranian history in less than 300 pages. His approach is sensitive and generally even-handed, reflecting an interest in Iran that in places borders on reverence. The result is a nuanced narrative accessible to the general reader and the student of Iranian affairs.

The sub-title, "Empire of the Mind", conveys the central narrative theme that modern Iran is a product of multiple invasions, whether of men or ideas, that have somehow been assimilated without obliterating Iran's cultural and political continuity. Its many contradictions are the product of a civilization founded by Aryan immigrants from central Asia, that was overrun by Greek, Roman, Arab and other armies, and is now the principal home of the Shia varient of Islam.

Axworthy traces the impact of the various ruling dynasties, but he also pays close attention to the finer aspects of its culture, especially its poetry. Of most interest to this reviewer was his description of the current government, with its interwoven secular and religious strands.

Axworthy, a former foreign service officer, tries to be evenhanded about the nature of the current regime. The corruption and repression revealed by the June 2009 presidential elections reinforces his idea of a regime both brutal and divided. His handling of the ongoing nuclear crisis is less sure; Axworthy probably undersells both Iran's diplomatic stonewalling and its interest in nuclear weapons.

"A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind" is highly recommended as a concise introduction to the country and its idea of its place in the world.
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on July 21, 2015
A nice, easy to read, sweeping narrative of the History of Iran from ancient history to the present. Covers most if not all major events of the history of Iran , with dates, names of rulers etc., typical of what you would find in a good introduction. I especially enjoyed the sections on poetry and the author's attempt to convey a rather interesting cultural identity of Iran I previously had not known of. Perfect read for beginners or anyone remotely interested/curious about the history of Iran. I would have liked to see a bit more detail overall , however, I would recommend this book to introduce yourself to the history of Iran and to build a solid foundation upon which to further your studies with additional books ,which conveniently enough, the author provides at the end of the book a plethora of further readings.
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on August 11, 2008
The history of Iran, foreign invasions against it, and its cultural and intellectual movements makes for fascinating general-interest reading. "Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran" is a fine addition to any college library strong in Middle Eastern studies. Here the author focuses on the evolution of Iran and its world, exploring the true story of the interplay of Iran's faiths and peoples, and placing Iran's history within context of the region's development. A welcome discussion of Iranian progress and a top pick for any library strong in Middle Eastern studies.
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on May 27, 2009
Having lived through large waves of Iranian immigration into California the last 30+ years, I've had numerous friends and colleagues born in Iran. They have left me with a great respect for the Iranian civilization. However, this book explains too little of it.

Most of the book is a rapid run-through of ancient history. We get the names of dynasties and kings but little sense of what made them powerful or weak. Not much stuck in my mind of the retelling of the Mohammadian conquest. Would have liked a LOT more on the economics, religion, and geography of ancient Persia.

In more modern times, from early contact with the British Empire, the details are thicker but the ability to tie it into a comprehensible whole is still lacking.

For recent history, WWII through present day, the author's balance shifts to being almost pro-mullah. I do detect a definite sympathy to the Islamic Revolution. For example, I got the impression that the author considered the Shah's repressive violence to be much worst than the revolutionary mullahs' but I didn't come away with any good sense of how that could be proven. In other words, I'm unconvinced but the author seems to think of the Islamic Revolution as an improvement.

Unlike other reviewers, I would have to say that the poetry sections were the most enlightening parts of the book - and I'm no poetry fan. The excerpts gave insight into the Persian mind and soul that were completely lacking elsewhere in the book. I can sense this poetry in my Iranian friends.

Not a total waste of time and money but there have to be better books on Iran out there.
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