Top 10 Books: Iran History and Culture

From the ancient Persian Empire superpower to the recent protests against the Islamic Republic, Iran is often discussed through religion, military expansion, and resources like oil and nuclear commodities, but how about its history textured with hidden cultural layers. Archival Institute carefully selected Top 10 Iran Books to help you understand that Iran, like any other country, has its diversity.

Iran's Constitutional Revolution

Popular Politics, Cultural Transformations and Transnational Connections

by H. E. Chehabi (Editor), Vanessa Martin (Editor)

Born out of a fundamental tension between the old-fashioned and inadequate Qajar monarchy of Mozaffar al-Din Sah and Mohammad Ali Shah, and new reformist democratic ideals, the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 represents a pivotal moment in the formation of modern Iran. The collapse of the state through financial indigence and foreign pressure — which in the end also consumed the new regime — created a vacuum, which became the subject of many different visions. These included the anti-constitutionalist arguments of Fazlollah Nuri; the moderate Shi’i vision of Tabatabai’I; the more gradualist secular approach of bureaucrats such as Sani-e Dowleh and Nasser Al-Molk; the various radical visions of Taqizadeh and Sattar Khan, as well as the Bakhtiaris. What were the reformists’ various aims and how much did they accomplish in the years before Reza Shah seized power? How do events in Iran compare with similar uprisings in other parts of the world? And what role does the Constitutional Revolution continue to play in defining Iranian self-identity?

This important and authoritative new book explores all the many different facets of the Revolution, drawing on newly available sources as well as cutting edge research from around the globe to present a definitive account. Iran’s Constitutional Revolution seeks to develop and advance the many existing debates on the Revolution, as well as to open up new avenues of interpretation. It offers a uniquely comprehensive and insightful analysis of the subject and is essential reading for a full understanding of contemporary Iran.

A History of Iran

Empire of the Mind

by Michael Axworthy

Although frequently vilified, Iran is a nation of great intellectual variety and depth, and one of the oldest continuing civilizations in the world. Its political impact has been tremendous, not only on its neighbors in the Middle East but also throughout the world. From the time of the prophet Zoroaster, to the powerful ancient Persian Empires, to the revolution of 1979, the hostage crisis, and the current standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Michael Axworthy vividly narrates the nation’s rich history. He explains clearly and carefully both the complex succession of dynasties that ruled ancient Iran and the surprising ethnic diversity of the modern country, held together by a common culture. With Iran again the focus of the world’s attention, A History of Iran is an essential guide to understanding this volatile nation.

“His account of modern Iranian politics and culture is more gripping than most novels…. Consistently intelligent, notably up to date and lucidly written.”

Tortured Confessions

Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran

by Ervand Abrahamian

The role of torture in recent Iranian politics is the subject of Ervand Abrahamian’s important and disturbing book. Although Iran officially banned torture in the early twentieth century, Abrahamian provides documentation of its use under the Shahs and of the widespread utilization of torture and public confession under the Islamic Republican governments. His study is based on an extensive body of material, including Amnesty International reports, prison literature, and victims’ accounts that together give the book a chilling immediacy.

According to human rights organizations, Iran has been at the forefront of countries using systematic physical torture in recent years, especially for political prisoners. Is the government’s goal to ensure social discipline? To obtain information? Neither seem likely, because torture is kept secret and victims are brutalized until something other than information is obtained: a public confession and ideological recantation. For the victim, whose honor, reputation, and self-respect are destroyed, the act is a form of suicide.

In Iran a subject’s “voluntary confession” reaches a huge audience via television. The accessibility of television and use of videotape have made such confessions a primary propaganda tool, says Abrahamian, and because torture is hidden from the public, the victim’s confession appears to be self-motivated, increasing its value to the authorities.

Abrahamian compares Iran’s public recantations to campaigns in Maoist China, Stalinist Russia, and the religious inquisitions of early modern Europe, citing the eerie resemblance in format, language, and imagery. Designed to win the hearts and minds of the masses, such public confessions―now enhanced by technology―continue as a means to legitimize those in power and to demonize “the enemy.”

Children of Abraham/Les Enfants D'Abraham

by Abbas Attar

Invited by the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo to unfold a striking exhibition, Abbas gathers his work on the three monotheistic religions for the first time in its catalogue, with written extracts from his travel diaries.

From 1978 to 1980, Abbas covered the Iranian Revolution. Later, from Xinjiang to Morocco, from London to Timbuktu, he photographed the daily lives of Muslims, the rituals of their faith, and witnessed the emergence of some more radical voices. Driven by a desire to understand the internal tensions at work within Muslim societies, he exposed the conflict between a rising political ideology looking for inspiration in a mythical past and the universal desire for modernity and democracy.

From 1995 to 2000, Abbas photographed Christian communities throughout the world with the same critical eye. On both journeys, he also recorded the lives of Jewish communities.

Heralding the dawn of the “Third Millennium,” the year 2000 seemed to impose itself as the universal calendar, and therefore a symbol of Western civilization. That year, Jews celebrated the year 5760 and Muslims the year 1420. Abraham—“the first Jew”—is also claimed as a common ancestor by Christians and Muslims.

Abbas has dedicated his work to the political and social coverage of the developing South. Since 1970, his work includes wars and revolutions in Biafra, Bangladesh, Ulster, Vietnam, the Middle East, Chile, Cuba, South Africa, and others. He is currently working on the clash of religions, defined as culture rather than faith, replacing political ideologies in the strategic struggles of the near future. Abbas has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1981.

Strange Times, My Dear

The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature

by Nahid Mozaffari

A stunning collection of newly-discovered writing, this is a richly varied collection of short stories, novel extracts and poetry, revealed to the Western world for the first time. Despite war, repression and censorship, a renaissance has taken place in Iran over the last 25 years – a renaissance hidden from Westerners since the Iranian revolution of 1979. “Strange Times, My Dear” brings the first ever translated selection of work from three generations worth of the best in Iranian writing – featuring short stories, novel extracts and poems from over 40 contributors – to the English speaking world. For thousands of years, multiple ethnicities, languages and religions have co-existed in Iran – and continue to do so despite traumatic events and the oppression of recent decades. Their literature has flourished in adversity, producing works of diverse beauty and incalculable importance. “Strange Times, My Dear” reveals a major and largely undiscovered branch of world literature for the first time.

Sevruguin and the Persian Image

Photographs of Iran, 1870-1930

by Frederick Nathaniel Bohrer

Antoin Sevruguin (late 1830s-1933) was a leading, celebrated photographer of late 19th-century Iran. He had two lifelong obsessions. The first was a cherished desire to record Iran in all its facets on glass plates; the second was to capture light in his photographs the way he so admired in Rembrandt’s painting. A special interest in light and atmosphere pervaded Sevruguin’s work. In addition to his numerous, compelling pictures of urban life and portraits made in his famous studio in Tehran, Sevruguin made a photographic inventory of the landscape, archaeological sites, and people of Azarbaijan, Kurdistan, and Luristan. Although the majority of his pictures were destroyed during political upheavals in the early 20th century, a significant number have been preserved in archives in the West. In this generously illustrated book, five distinguished authors explore the photographer’s life and career. “Sevruguin and the Persian Image” includes a portfolio of signature works by a photographer whose innovations in lighting, composition, and development constitute landmark contributions to the evolution of photography. Frederick N Bohrer is associate professor of art at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland.

The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906-1911

by Janet Afary

During the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to 1911 a variety of forces played key roles in overthrowing a repressive regime. Afary sheds new light on the role of ordinary citizens and peasantry, the status of Iranian women, and the multifaceted structure of Iranian society.

This book explores the decisive roles played by social democratic activists, religious dissidents, women, merchants, radical preachers, artisans, urban workers, peasants, and ethnic groups including the Azeris, Armenians, and Gilanis.

“A thoroughly researched and highly detailed account of the formation of Iran’s first constitution, ratified on December 30, 1906, just a week before the death of Muzffar al-Din Shah.” — “Choice”

Law, State, and Society in Modern Iran

Constitutionalism, Autocracy, and Legal Reform, 1906-1941

by Hadi Enayat

Using a ‘Historical Institutionalist’ approach, this book sheds light on a relatively understudied dimension of state-building in early twentieth century Iran, namely the quest for judicial reform and the rule of law from the 1906 Constitutional Revolution to the end of Reza Shah’s rule in 1941.

Nomadism in Iran

From Antiquity to the Modern Era

by D.T. Potts

The classic images of Iranian nomads in circulation today and in years past suggest that Western awareness of nomadism is a phenomenon of considerable antiquity. Though nomadism has certainly been a key feature of Iranian history, it has not been in the way most modern archaeologists have envisaged it. Nomadism in Iran recasts our understanding of this “timeless” tradition.

Far from constituting a natural adaptation on the Iranian Plateau, nomadism is a comparatively late introduction, which can only be understood within the context of certain political circumstances. Since the early Holocene, most, if not all, agricultural communities in Iran had kept herds of sheep and goat, but the communities themselves were sedentary: only a few of their members were required to move with the herds seasonally. Though the arrival of Iranian speaking groups, attested in written sources beginning in the time of Herodutus, began to change the demography of the plateau, it wasn’t until later in the eleventh century that an influx of Turkic speaking Oghuz nomadic groups–“true” nomads of the steppe–began the modification of the demography of the Iranian Plateau that accelerated with the Mongol conquest. The massive, unprecedented violence of this invasion effected the widespread distribution of largely Turkic-speaking nomadic groups across Iran. Thus, what has been interpreted in the past as an enduring pattern of nomadic land use is, by archaeological standards, very recent. Iran’s demographic profile since the eleventh century AD, and more particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has been used by some scholars as a proxy for ancient social organization. Nomadism in Iran argues that this modernist perspective distorts the historical reality of the land. Assembling a wealth of material in several languages and disciplines, Nomadism in Iran will be invaluable to archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Iran between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism

The Constitutional Revolution of 1906

by Vanessa Martin

With the ratification of a new constitution in December 1906, Iran embarked on a great movement of systemic and institutional change which, along with the introduction of new ideas, was to be one of the most abiding legacies of the first Iranian revolution – known as the Constitutional Revolution. This uprising was significant not only for introducing secular understandings of government, but also Islamic visions of what could constitute a national assembly. The events of the Constitutional Revolution in Tehran have been much discussed, but the provinces, despite their crucial role in the revolution, have received less attention. Here, Vanessa Martin seeks to redress this imbalance. She does so firstly by analyzing the role of the Islamic debate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and its relationship with secular ideas, and secondly by examining the ramifications of this debate in the main cities of Tabriz, Shiraz, Isfahan and Bushehr. By exploring the interaction between Islam and secularism during this tumultuous time, Iran between Islamic Nationalism and Secularism concludes that in each province, the Constitutional Revolution took on a character of its own.