The Sasanians ruled an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Aral Sea. Under them, the Zoroastrian religion developed its most subtle metaphysics. Greek philosophers flocked to their capital in Ctesiphon, while in Babylon, the Jewish Talmud ripened. Iranian painting, metalwork and music were received enthusiastically in China and India.

The core of the Ottomans’ political culture could never be replicated. Based on military slaves, forcibly recruited from non-Muslim subjects, a harem full of nubile captives hoping to become sultanas, an emperor who had to murder his brothers to secure his throne, and a pliant clergy that reconciled these extra-legal practices with religion, the “Eternal State”, devlet-e ebetmüdat, ruled over immense territories and numberless peoples for 600 years. 

Fifty years ago the Iranian Ministry of Education sent a high-level delegation to my university. As a student of Persian, I was asked to drive their Excellencies around to their various appointments. I ventured to remark, in halting Persian, to the distinguished guests that our university pre-dated the reign of Shah Abbas II (reigned 1642-1666). They went goggle-eyed at the notion that anything American could be so old. Not only did the colonists build schools contemporary with Shah Abbas’s madrassa in Esfahan, but as Daniel Potts tells it, those early Americans eagerly followed “Agreeable News from Persia”, as well as less agreeable news, the first news report about Iran appearing in the Boston Newsletter in 1717.

The Persian Empire fascinates and rightly so. Founded by Cyrus the Great in 559, represented the culmination of 2,000 years of Middle Eastern history. During their two centuries of rule, the Persians united much of the then civilized world, from Egypt to India. Lloyd Lewellyn-Jones argues, in partial justification for his new history, that this era is ignored or misunderstood, a claim that seems at odds with now a rather long list of books on the Empire that may be found on Amazon. As both Llewellyn-Jones, grudgingly, and Matt Waters, more graciously, demonstrate, we know a huge amount about this empire, in part because it coincided with the classical age of Greek literature. In addition, this Empire recorded in clay tablets every loaf of bread and cup of wine provided to its civil and military functionaries. The very richness of the archaeological and literary sources make constructing a coherent story challenging. Llewellyn-Jones makes the history cogent and exciting by stretching his sources about as far as they can go, and provides no footnotes. Waters uses the same sources, amply documented, and in a gingerly fashion, for his painstakingly complete life of Cyrus the great.

Royal patronage gave impetus to great works of art. In a period when artists’ craft required years of apprenticeship, when the raw materials included costly powders and rare preparations, when collaboration among a large number of artists was required, the final result is practically a celebration of the presiding monarch. So it is with two manuscripts from the British Museum, covered in Treasures of Herat, Addendum 25900 and Oriental 6810. They represent the apogee of the Herat school of art, under the last great Timurid ruler, Sultan Husayn Bayqara (1438-1506).

John Murray is famous for publishing that particular English species of travel writer, who wants nothing better than to leave civilization far behind. Murray’s back list includes Lord Byron, Lucy Atkinson (Recollections of Tartar Steppes),  Freya Stark (Valley of the Assassins) and Patrick Leigh Fermor (A Time of Gifts). Now Anthony Sattin sets out on a trip, literary and geographic, in the traces of the nomad.

The Medieval Iranians, no less than we today, sought answers to questions about far-away countries and events of old. We consult Google or Wikipedia. They looked into epic poetry and romances. Since literature in those days had both to entertain and instruct, the stories they read about Korea, China, Khazaria and Spain also spoke of monsters, wizards and moon-faced beauties. The biggest difference between their curiosity and ours is that they emphasized wisdom over knowledge. Even a legend can be rich in initiatic truths.