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.
Of the three empires that dominated late antiquity, Rome, China and Iran, it is the last whose legacy we understand least. “Proportionally to its historical significance, Iranian Inner Asia in this period is probably the least known and most grossly understudied time and place in world history,” writes Minoru Inaba in the introductory essay to The History and Culture of Iran and Central Asia.
In the spacious courtyard of Istanbul’s Suleymaniye Mosque, public storytellers regale and instruct their miniscule but attentive audiences with the deeds of the mosque’s founder, Suleyman the Magnificent, the 10th Ottoman Sultan, the conqueror of Belgrade, Budapest and Baghdad. Christopher de Bellaigue, who has paid his dues listening to his sources in Kurdistan (Rebel Land, 2011) and Iran (In the Rose Garden of Martyrs, 2004), shows in his new book how deeply he has drunk from the well of oriental storytelling.
In one sense, this book is the story of Agnès Benoit’s decades-long fascination with a princess, whose statue of chlorite and steatite beguiles us from a distance of 4,000 years. Her mysterious sisters began to appear in antique shops in Kabul in the 1960s. In the beginning, we knew little to nothing about the civilization that produced them. They dazzled with their fine workmanship, the elegance of their shapes, the feminine beauty and power they conveyed.