Crisis, Collapse, Militarism and Civil War: The History and Historiography of 18th Century Iran. Edited by Michael Axworthy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 247 pp. $24
Most who delve into Iran’s history skip from the Safavid (1501-1722) to the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925). Editor Axworthy cites the late British academic and diplomat Sir Roger Stevens who quipped that the period in between was “horrible” and should be discussed “with the greatest possible brevity.” The reason was simple: Infighting and then an Afghan invasion ended the Safavid dynasty. What skills Afghan leader Nadir Shah had as a military commander, he lacked in his ability to manage the conquered domains.
Axworthy, director of the University of Exeter’s Iranian studies program, sought to reconsider the dismissiveness with which historians of Iran have approached this period. This conference volume, with contributions from a who’s who of Iran historians, easily becomes the new standard with which to explore the century. While several contributions focus on debates around terminology or identifying areas for future research, others advance scholarship significantly. The U.S. Naval Academy’s Ernest Tucker explores diplomatic correspondence between the new Afghan leaders of Persia and the Ottomans regarding their borders. The University of Exeter’s Sajjad Rizvi considers the evolution of Iranian philosophy during the period while the University of Edinburgh’s Andrew Newman provides insight into religious practice by exploring which manuscripts Iranian scribes copied and from what sources. Former World Bank analyst Willem Floor charts just how poor Iran’s economy was, and, in a separate chapter, argues that the impact of tribes and tribalism on the period’s politics has been greatly exaggerated.
Several essays also explore Iran’s foreign relations. The University of Tehran’s Goodarz Rashtiani offers a fascinating chapter using seldom-accessed Russian and Persian archives to explore Russo-Persian relations, important because, at the time, the Russian Empire and Persia were maneuvering for influence and borders in and around the Caucasus and Caspian Sea. Likewise, Austrian Academy of Sciences scholar Giorgio Rota’s exploration of eighteenth-century attitudes on Iran mainly from Italian travelers whose works are archived in Vienna will be of interest to any student of the period. The only disappointment is art historian Sussan Babaie’s description of a palace in the northeastern Iranian town of Kalat, built under Nadir Shah’s patronage. Babaie shows how Nadir Shah did not simply pillage Delhi but brought back inspiration gained there. But her subsequent argument that copying Indian motifs was “exoticism in pursuit of empire” mirrors the style of theories put forward by Edward Said, which draws conclusions too broad for the evidence provided.
While Crisis, Collapse, Militarism and Civil War is not for the non-expert, academics and students of Iran will find it useful to illustrate a period about which there is very little in Western (or, for that matter Persian) languages. Essays are grounded in primary documents, and while they assume a firm background in Iranian history, they are generally well-written and clear. As Middle Eastern studies descends into the abyss of polemics and theory, it is good to see that there are scholars in Iranian studies programs who still do the hard work of archival research.