August 15, 2000
No documents, no history
I just read Khodadad Rezakhani's article "Not
too deep", and would like to add a few of my own thoughts on why
there seems to be no in-depth study of Iranian history in today's academia.
One very important fact to remember is that in order to get a detailed
insight and understanding into the hearts and minds of Iranians in the
past, you need to have access to the written records of the period. I've
only recently begun to study Iranian history on my own, but I quickly learned
that in some cases Iranians may have been their own worst enemies in preserving
a written record for posterity.
For example, when Ardashir I founded the Sasanid Empire, he systematically
went about destroying all written documentation of the Parthian rulers
he had just overthrown. The Parthians had been admirers of the Hellenistic
culture brought to Iran by the conquest of Alexander the Great, and Ardashir
wanted to emphasize the 'Iranianness' of his new empire by distancing it
as much as possible from anything that would remind Iranians of the painful
Greco-Macedonian domination over their country. When there are no surviving
written documents, it's extremely difficult to figure out how a society
works, what its values were, why a king did certain things, etc.
What's astonishing is that when the Sasanid themselves came to power,
they knew very little about the Achaemenid rulers from 500 years before.
All they knew was that there used to be an empire stretching far into
the west and that they had left some impressive ruins behind. For the
most part, Iranian history has been transmitted orally, and this automatically
makes it vulnerable to distortion over time. It's like the old experiment
where you repeat a story to someone standing in line, then that person
repeats it to the one in front, and so on. If you then ask the person at
the head of line to tell you the story, it comes out very different from
what went in.
It is no secret that when the Arabs conquered Iran in the 7th century,
they systematically destroyed most of the documents preserved in Sasanid
libraries. I think it was part of their effort to destroy the Iranians'
sense of identity. I shudder to think how much valuable historical documentation
From what I've read, Ferdosi drew on some of the precious little historical
documentation written during the Sasanid period, so aside from its great
poetic artistry, the Shahnameh presents us with an invaluable historical
narrative of Iranian kings. But, Ferdosi wrote nearly 400 years after
the fall of the Sasanid empire, so he unavoidably injected some comtemporary
11th century views into his account of Iranian history.
Since we often can't hear the history of ancient Iranians themselves,
we're left with the histories written by non-Iranians: Greeks, Romans,
etc. Obviously, you're not going to get a very objective view of ancient
Iran from its enemies!
I can remember studying the history of imperial Iran in elementary school,
while I lived in Iran in the early 1980s. This was right after the revolution,
of course, and I could never quite shake the feeling that the people writing
the history textbooks were eager to get through their discussion of pre-Islamic
Iranian history as quickly as possible, so they could get on with the glorious
story of Islamic Iran. Names, dates, events, flew by on page after page,
with just the sort of lack of depth that Mr. Rezakhani has lamented.
So when Mr. Rezakhani says that people studying the facts of Iranian
history "don't try very hard to check those facts or to broaden their
understanding", I don't think the problem is lack of motivation on
the part of the academics, but rather that ancient Iran is kept mute for
just the reasons I explained. Broaden their understanding with what? Ancient
Iranians themselves offer no second opinion! That's the crux of the problem.
Finally, I should point out that Iranian archaeology is a comparatively
young field. Systematic archaeological work in Iran didn't start in earnest
until the beginning of the 20th century. The country is packed full of
archaeological sites that have not yet been excavated. The Islamic revolution
brought most excavation work to a halt, and for obvious reasons I'm sure
that the current Islamic government doesn't find the study of imperial
Iran to be in its best interest. Whatever happens, I think the best way
to get that in-depth knowledge of Iranian history is to keep excavating,
looking for more pieces to the puzzle.