As a scholar-in-training from Iran, getting my education in the US, I would like to add a few comments to Arya’s very correct suggestion about promoting and preserving Iranian culture and history. [See: “Be a better keeper“]
My friends and I who are involved in the “business” of history notice the same thing every single day. I notice that in high-school history books, the whole of the Achaemenid Empire is a footnote to the chapter on Greece and Arsacids and Sasanians are mentioned in passing while talking about the glory that was Rome. Samanids and Seljuks are parts of the Islamic civilization and Safavids are only mentioned in college level courses when talking about the Ottomans. I see that etymology of words are constantly given as “oriental origin” and are left at that and nobody notices that Margaret is an Old Persian name!
I and everyone I know in this field constantly try to correct this. In my Roman History class, I constantly have to interject by reminding the eminent scholars and my colleagues that the “Fall of Rome” was not the end of civilization and that in fact, the fifth century decline of Rome in the Italian peninsula was an isolated event, countered by economic and social expansion in the rest of the world, including Iran. I have to tell my friends that Arsacids and Sasanians were not two local tribes ruling a distant land in the east, rather that the total area controlled by Shahpur II exceeded that of Rome at the height of its power…
However, in this fight, we are not supported by the rest of the Iranians, and that is where we fall short and don’t manage “to do a better job”. There are several things that we need to complain about. The simplest thing is financial support: in each university in the US and Europe, there is at least one chair in Roman and Greek ancient history endowed by a private person or a businessman and there are several bodies giving scholarships and fellowships to those who want to study these subjects. This is not the case among Iranians who still consider history and other humanities as inferior subjects and even if anyone sets up any foundation, he or she rather give money for practical subjects such as engineering or medicine. I can count the number of endowments in Iranian history in the world with the fingers of one hand!
Another issue is how history is viewed by Iranians themselves. It is a fact that when I argue for the importance of Iranian history at the UCLA, everyone just sighs and implies that “there we go, another Iranian boasting about 2,500 years of history and blah blah blah”, while I and my colleagues are in fact arguing from an academic point of view. However, this goes back to the view that an average Iranian has of history. It seems to me that Iranians, like most other Middle Easterners, have an inferiority complex, coming from 200 years of colonialism and socio-political set-backs. In this way, taking history as a pride-making device seems to have become a common practice among us.
Your average Iranian constantly regurgitates the cliché “2,500 years of history” (we have over 4,000 years of written history in fact!) and constantly repeats a few useless facts about “what we were” and “what we did”. In Iran, history is still viewed as something between a bed-time story and fantasy, a tale of which king did what and what hero achieved what task. Indeed, talking to my fellow Iranians in parties and gatherings, I feel that they often are just looking at history from Ferdowsi point of view. In this way, they expect me and my friends to also play the role of Ferdowsi, showing everyone how great Iran was and how we did everything first and we did it right.
On the other hand, although many would have a hard time perceiving it as such, modern study of history is almost a science (I have a Master of Science in Global History). In the 20th and 21st centuries, the study of history, like other branches of education, has matured to a new level, analyzing and studying the whole of human experience in a new light. Historians such as Fernand Braudel, Marc Bloch, Peter Brown, and Immanuel Wallerstein have created new schools of thought and new theories and even new ways of categorizing history in order to study it better.
History is no more a narration of epic battles and deeds of the heroes of the past. While considering the wars of Charlemagne, the modern historian is also studying the method of agriculture in the 9th century Northern Europe and how a peasant lived. While we are studying the high philosophy of the ancient times, we are also considering the ancient men’s idea of public space and why they decided to s
et up their cities the way they did.
Then, in this, my fellow Iranian historians and I are alone, since our friends want us to only talk about what a great king Nader Shah was and how Shahpur defeated Valerian and how the Chinese terracotta army was actually made in Iran and how everything originated in Iran. In this fight, we are also suffering from sheer lack of numbers and support.
While in each department there are at least five graduate students and about the same number of professors working on Roman and Greek history, we are only a few graduate students spread through a handful of departments stretched from Berlin to Los Angeles, and even fewer professors (who often don’t even agree with each other and their students, the usual Iranian trait). While Roman historians are now re-evaluating the Fall of Rome or are studying the role of religious oaths in the army, we are still far behind, trying to figure out exactly who succeeded Shahpur II as the Sasanian king or fixing the dates of Mazdak’s rebellion. We still don’t even know how half of the Arsacid kings were related to each other!!!
So, yes, we hear you, we need to do a better job protecting and promoting Iranian history, but in this fight, we are alone and we lack resources and numbers. We also are missing the general support of our community which is full of self-styled “Ostaads” and amateur historians who write 12 thick volumes spanning the accursed 2,500 year old history of Iran based on Pirnia’s “History of Ancient Iran” which was published first in the 1930’s! In the midst of this, the 25-page article that my professor writes after two years of working on the subject using the latest archaeological findings and interpretation of ancient Babylonian tablets is lost of course.
Khodadad Rezakhani is a PhD student in History at UCLA. Visit his website, Vishistorica.com.