Book Review: The Persians

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The Persians, by Geoffrey Parker and Brenda Parker, Reaktion Books, 2017, London.


This is a sweeping account of Persian history. The Persians first came to power by defeating the Medes and assimilating them into their newfound empire. It follows the Persian history right up to the modern times. It is an overview of a country that has been an important part of world’s history for more than 2500 years; overcoming serious obstacles and major setbacks in its long journey forward. 

The Persians and the Medes were two groups of people of the same stock (Aryans). They left their territory which is today believed to be ‘west of the Urals and north of the Black Sea, concentrated in present-day Ukraine and adjacent parts of southern Russia.’  The period of migrations of Aryans and other nomadic people like the Huns and the Germans is called Völkerwanderungen (Migration Period). They were mainly from the steppes, a great belt across Eurasia from Eastern Europe to East Asia. 

The book refers also to the people who were already living in the areas where the Persians later came to dominate, for example Elamites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Chaldeans who were mainly concentrated in the south. There were also other Iranian races like the Alans, Scythian, Cimmerians who remained in the peripheries and did not get absorbed into the wider Persian Empire which the book does not mention. 

The achievements of the Achaemenids has its own chapter and stays close to the themes of the book throughout. The authors admiration for the Achaemenids kings is explicit. They were the first major world’s empire and the first ‘universal empire’ and the first empire to create a commonwealth of nations. 

What changed the pastoralists Persians to become urbanised and sophisticated in matter of two hundred years perhaps was partly owed to their religious worldview. ‘By the favour of Ahuramazda I made everything beautiful,’ an inscription of Darius at Susa declared. A chapter is dedicated in examining Zoroastrianism, the religion of the empire. 

The book however falls into errors in its chapter, ‘Islamic Persia and Persian Islam’.  It wrongly mixes Shiism with the earliest Iranian nationalistic sentiments  after the coming of Islam, and ignores the Sunni faith of the important local dynasties like, Samanids, Tahrids, Saffrids and Ziyarid who were proud of their Iranian origins and played important parts in reviving the Persian culture and language. Persian poetry and prose flourished under the reigns of those dynasties. Poets like, Roudaki, Daqiqi, Firdowsi and the famous prose work, Qabus Nama, by Keikavus the Ziyarid king to mention only some.

The fact that some Iranian local dynasties were Shiites had nothing to do with the sense of identity but with the works of zealous missionaries in that particular region. For many Iranians Shiism was not synonymous with a new sense of national identity but was simply a religious conviction.  Even during the short reign of Ismail II  (Safavids) he  ‘implemented a pro Sunni policy and began reversing the imposition of Shi'ism in Iran which he ultimately sought to abolish.  This is a familiar story that happened, for example, in England when Henry VIII changed the Catholic England into a Protestant nation and Mary Queen of England (18 February 1516 – 17 November 1558) later tried to restore Catholicism.

Shakespeare, Hafiz, and Goethe are not famous because of their religion but what they have created. People also know the piece of land they came from and the language they wrote in. 

The primary ambition of the Iranian local dynasties was to become politically independent from Baghdad which was always interrupted by the coming of the Turks who gave their alliances to the Caliphate and defeated the Iranian dynasties or made them vassals states.

The Shiite propaganda however gradually carved out a fabricated identity and has imposed it on people by force. Their propaganda has even beguiled the Western intellectuals who recycle the myth without realising the bulk of Iran’s cultural heritage was supported and created by Iranian Sunni rulers and artists.  

For the authors, Geoffrey Parker and Brenda Parker many rulers copied something from the Achaemenids. Even the bloodthirsty Tamerlane, who became famous in Europe for his conquests had great affection for Persian culture. He even visited the ruins of Persepolis and his later efforts to build a great city in Samarkhand was to build a second Persepolis,


"It is evident from the comments of such travellers that the city [Samarkhand] and its surroundings designed by Timur were very much in the tradition of the Persian pairidaeza, dating from Achaemenid times.”

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The influence of Persian language and culture also extended to the Mughal court in India and Central Asia. The Mughal spoke both Turkic and Persian. Their official language was Persian and remained so till their downfall in the 19century. Whether they were trying to copy the Achaemenids or not, their court system, grand architecture and love of creating gardens in Persian style were all Persian traits that they proudly displayed. 

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Weaving the Achaemenids’ legacies into the entire history of Iran  is a deliberate attempt to prove that Iran and Iranians have not quite let go of their founders. The last shah of Iran was obsessed with Achaemenids and threw the ‘party of the century’ as it has been called, to tell the world he was the heir of the Persian kings; not knowing the humiliation Achaemenids suffered at the end also awaited him; this time not by a foreign power but by his own people led by the Shiite clerics. 

The mullahs too have visited Persepolis and paid their respects to a dynasty that shaped and influenced the ancient world and have been looked upon by the subsequent generations.

The authors make an interesting point that regaining lost glory is different to putting in place a government that can prevail. The Pahlavis failed to implement the latter. With all the fondness Reza Khan had of Ataturk he failed to see that the Turkish leader created a republic and not a dynasty which like all the previous dynasty will eventually collapse. 

The authors reemphasise the importance of the Achaemenids who turned their nomadic past into an enduring legacy.  Tolerance, universal human rights, respects for all people, their religion, language and culture were some of their beliefs which they upheld in their empire.  The Achaemenids message of inclusivity cannot be more relevant in the 21century.