Twenty-six-year-old college graduate, artist, and employee of the Ministry of Art and Culture, Hasti Nourian aspires to be a “new woman”—independent-minded, strong-willed, and in control of her own destiny. A destiny that includes Morad, an idealistic young architect and artist with whom Hasti is deeply in love. Morad is a sharp critic of Iran’s Westernized bourgeois class, the one that Hasti’s mother relishes. After Hasti’s father died, her mother had married a wealthy businessman and moved to an exclusive neighborhood of northern Tehran.
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).
Hafez in Love is an English translation of the 2004 novel Hafez-e-nashenideh pand (literally “Hafez, Heedless of Advice”) by the late author Iraj Pezeshkzad who was one of Iran’s best-known contemporary authors. He is best remembered for his satirical 1973 novel, My Uncle Napoleon which was later made into a successful television series. In Hafez in Love, Pezeshkzad—through a creative engagement with the poetry of Hafez and his contemporaries, as well as an imaginative use of historical fiction—brings the literary scene of 14th-century Iran to life.
The Kushnameh is unique, literally. Only one copy of the “Epic of Kush” exists, sitting in the British Library. Hardly anything is known about its author, Iranshah. It features a quite villainous protagonist, the tusked warrior Kush, who carves a swathe of destruction across the region. And it spans nearly half the world, with episodes in Spain, the Maghreb, India, China and even Korea.
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.