Shapour Monument remains, Sasanid period, Bishabour, Fars.
Photo by Mansour Sane'
Not too deep
Shortcomings in the study of Iranian history
By Khodadad Rezakhani
August 11, 2000
This might sound a little unusual. It must sound downright "geekish."
But I have an urge to speak out. It is a simple matter, and it concerns
teaching history at universities. I am specifically concerned about Iranian
history, since this is my own field of study. People study it, and everybody
has opinions about it, and that irritates me. I never walk up to an electrical
engineer and lecture him about signal processing theory and how useless
it is or that he is doing everything wrong. So why is it that every mid-wife
or plumber feels free to tell me that the reason behind Pirouz' defeat
by the Huns was that he ate too much beans the night before?
What's worse is when academics limit the study of Iranian history only
to superficial things. I give you one example from France and try to compare
it to the situation about Iran. When you go to university and study the
history of France, you receive information on three levels. The first level
is to give basic information, like when Hugh Capet became the king or who
fought in the Hundred Year Wars. The second level involves specifics. The
example can be an in depth study of Henri IV and his life and how and why
he became the king of France. This is usually a little more in depth and
not only answers the When and Where, but also a little bit of Why. The
third level is a really deep and thorough study of a subject, like the
reasons behind the French Revolution and its consequences and everything
about the subject, down to the presents that Danton received on his eleventh
After all that, you get into a real academic study of a subject. This
is usually what a Ph.D student or a professor does. Most of the time, the
research is about a new subject or an unexplored field. In its best form,
this study presents facts that are contradictory to what is generally believed
and accepted, and it has sources and documents to prove that the "norm"
is wrong. One good example is the book, "Myth of Absolutism"
that tries to prove that Louis XIV, the poster boy of European absolutism,
was not an absolute monarch at all, but just a great deal-maker and an
outstanding business man. This is the dream of all up-and-coming historians,
and the worst nightmare of established professors. But in the end, it benefits
the whole understanding of history.
My concern is that in almost all the universities around the world which
offer classes on Iranian history, there is no in depth study of various
subjects. Professors and students just satisfy themselves with When and
Where, and they take on a little bit of Why, but they don't go very deep.
Most only rely on Western sources and what is generally accepted as fact,
but they don't try very hard to check those facts or to broaden their understanding.
Heroodotus, Sophocles, Procopius, and such Greek and Roman historians,
are still the major sources of Achaemenid and Sasanid studies.
That is why everybody thinks Iran's name was "changed" from
Persia. The fact is, it never did! Khosro I Anushervan calls himself "Shahanshahi
Iran i Aniran" (King of the Kings of Iran and other countries under
his rule). Iran has always been Iran. It is sad that one of the best general
sources for the study of Sasanid history is still A. Christensens's "Les
Sasanids," written in early 20th century. By comparison, the 1996
book on the Grand Duchy of Moscovy will soon to be eclipsed by another
coming out this September. Four years is the expiration date on the study
of a Western historical subject. But we are still referring to Pirnia's
decades-old "History of Ancient Iran".
Other details about Iranian history are just taken at face value and
fed to students as the truth. Gaumat was certainly a usurper to the thrown
of Cyrus. Arashk II was the son of Arashk I. Ardeshir was the grandson
of Sasan. Azar Narsi was crazy and was rightfully overthrown in favor of
his unborn brother, Shahpour II. Shirouyeh killed his father just because
he was crazy. Khosro lost the battle only because Bahram Chubin was a great
military strategist. The list of controversial subjects in the history
of Iran just goes on and on right up to more recent events such as the
murder of Adel Shah Afshar due to his madness.
The historical community only bothers about simple facts and not much
else. The few who do are fast disheartened by the lack of support from
the rest of the academia, financially and otherwise. The truth is, the
need for a deeper understanding of Iranian history has not yet been appreciated
. An average French or English Ph.D student cannot graduate by just listing
basic facts. He/she need to do in depth research; find and present new
facts and challenge established ones.
You get the idea?