One of the last lines of Kaveh Farrokh’s Shadows in the Desert. Ancient Persia at War is that “there has been an overall decline of programs and studies of Iranica in western Europe and the United States since 1980”. If his book were indicative of the quality of modern-day Iranian studies, that decline could only be lauded, because Shadows in the Desert is an exceptionally bad book. Osprey Publishers have obviously invested a lot of energy in producing it, and the book is very attractive indeed,1 but all their care cannot hide that the manuscript ought to have been returned to its author.
Bad books deserve no reviews. However, this one illustrates a serious problem from which Iranology itself is suffering. I will return to that subject at the end of this review and will first describe what’s wrong with Shadows in the Desert.
As the second title indicates, the book is about ancient Persia at war. It covers three periods: the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sasanians. (To prevent this review from becoming too long, I will focus on the first part.) The century-and-a-half of the Seleucids, who were the strongest power in Iran from 311 to 141 BCE, receive ten pages, because Farrokh believes that the Macedonians “never managed to establish a loyal political base among their Iranian subjects” (p. 115).
This is a bit exaggerated. The Seleucid armies, following the precedent by Alexander, employed loyal mounted archers from Sogdia (e.g., at Raphia). Iranian troops from Carmania, Persis, Media, Cissia, and Cadusia were also employed, which means that the Seleucids could recruit their soldiers from the same areas as the Achaemenids. Once the Parthians had seized power, they learned a thing or two about urbanism from the Seleucids and appreciated the military significance of the Greek cities. Since the publication of Kuhrt and Sherwin-White’s From Samarkhand to Sardis (1993), it is no longer possible to ignore the Seleucids as irrelevant to Iranian history. Even though the Greeks and Macedonians remained — as Farrokh correctly observes — “basically Hellenic islands in a vast Iranian realm” (p. 115), ten pages is insufficient.
If the reader is surprised about what is left out from Shadows in the Desert, he will be astonished to discover what is included: linguistics, Babylonian astronomy, the Silk Road, the Baghdad Battery, and the Alanic origins of the King Arthur legend. These digressions make for pleasant reading, surely, but are irrelevant to ancient Persia at war.
The strangest inclusion is the Cyrus Cylinder, a document from Babylon in which the conqueror presents himself as the ideal king:2 chosen by the supreme god, he restores order, repairs buildings, allows exiles to return home, and redresses malpractices. In the past, this text — which is absolutely topical — has been taken as evidence for Cyrus’ illuminated policy, especially by the government of Mohammad Reza Shah, which even called it “the world’s first human rights charter”. Farrokh repeats this propaganda verbatim on page 44, apparently unaware of the extensive secondary literature on the subject.3
I think that Farrokh inserts the digressions and propaganda because he believes that the Iranian legacy deserves more attention. I also think he is right about that; the eighteenth-century Winckelmannian paradigm that all civilization started in Greece should indeed be abandoned. However, Farrokh’s praiseworthy attempts to stress the historical importance of Iran lead to absurdity. What to think of the statement that “Western scholarship has yet to acknowledge or investigate the role of Mithraic influence on the formation of European culture and Christianity”? (p. 192) This is preposterous. Famous scholars like Cumont and Vermaseren were more than willing to accept Iranian influence on the rise of Christianity. In fact, western scholarship is now returning from its overconfident first identifications.
Shadows in the Desert is not only unbalanced, it is also uncritical. On p. 33, Herodotus’ statement that the Median army was formally reorganized by Cyaxares ( Histories 1.103) is accepted without any discussion, even though scholars are sceptical about the reliability of Herodotus’ Medikos logos.4 We are also to believe that the Median state was more centralized than the Achaemenid Empire (p. 39); if this were true, archaeologists would find some kind of common state architecture all over the Median realms, but they have not been able to establish which objects are indicative of Median presence. (Finds below the Achaemenid stratum are almost by definition called Median, but this does not mean that they resemble each other).
On p. 41, Farrokh presents Croesus as one of Cyrus’ courtiers. Herodotus’ story of the Lydian king’s miraculous survival of the pyre, however, looks suspiciously like folkloristic tales about beloved leaders who have not really died (e.g., Nectanebo II, King Arthur, Constantine XI, and Elvis Presley), and it is disquieting that Herodotus presents Croesus in the role of “tragic warner” only. Herodotus’ Croesus looks like fiction and the historicity of the king’s survival has rightly been questioned.5 Farrokh is unaware of this, just as he is unaware of the fact that Herodotus’ story of Cyrus’ being killed by the Massagetae was already contested in antiquity (p. 48): in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, the great king dies of natural causes, and Ctesias states that Cyrus was mortally wounded during an expedition to the far east.
Farrokh is not only uncritical towards the sources, he also has an amazing trust in old secondary literature. He still claims that Alexander the Great was aiming at “unity between Iranians and Greeks” — that old canard of Droysen ( Verschmelzungspolitik), repeated by W.W. Tarn in the 1927 edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, and famously refuted by Badian half a century ago.6 Another example is the statement that Croesus was defeated in the year 547 (p. 41), which has become untenable since the 1977 edition of Grayson’s Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles.
Generally speaking, Shadows in the Desert contains many outright errors — I counted dozens of them — that might have been avoided if the author had better checked the sources. The Athenian involvement in the Ionian Revolt did not start after the sack of Sardis (p. 71); the Athenians took part in the raid. Xerxes did not take with him the statue of Marduk when he sacked Babylon in 484 (p. 74): Herodotus 1.183 does not allow this interpretation. Inarus did not revolt in 495, but in c. 464 (p. 86). Cyreschata was not spared but sacked by the Macedonians (p. 107).7
I will not digress on the spelling errors (which may be the result of poor editing),8 topographical mistakes,9 and logical fallacies,10 and will concentrate instead on what I think is the main weakness of Shadows in the desert : it ignores the Iranological Revolution of the 1980s. Today, Achaemenid studies are dominated by one man: the French scholar Pierre Briant. In the 1970s, Iranology was a divided discipline, still in its infancy and — in Iran — sponsored by a government that wanted to present Cyrus the Great as an ideal, secular leader. (When Mohammad Reza Shah offered a copy of the Cyrus Cylinder to the United Nations, he added a translation from which all religious references had been left out.) Briant found a discipline in its preparadigmatic stage, and in the 1980s created Iranology’s first real paradigm. His magnum opus is the Histoire de l’empire Perse. De Cyrus à Alexandre (1995).11
At the same time, Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg organized several workshops, the results of which were published in a series of publications called Achaemenid History. For the first time, Achaemenid studies have a clear structure and this is — even according to more relativistic philosophical theories about the quality of scholarship — progress. One may regret the sometimes exaggerated admiration for Briant, but his accomplishment is real. Farrokh’s statement that “there has been an overall decline of programs and studies of Iranica in western Europe and the United States since 1980” could not be further from the truth.
Instead of referring to the Histoire or Achaemenid History, Farrokh relies upon the internet. For instance, he quotes articles of the notoriously lackadaisical CAIS12 on p. 60, 106, and 230. As could be expected, the use of information from the web leads to errors. After the description of the battle of the Persian Gate (based on Speck’s identification of the battlefield with a mountain pass north of modern Yasuj), we read that “the Persian Gates are known today by the locals as the Tang-e Ariobarzan” (p. 107). This is from an article by Abuzar Hemati, who proposes a pass south of Yasuj, called Tangeri, which he believes to be derived from *Tang-e Ariobarzan. Farrokh not only ignores that the two theories are incompatible, but also confuses a hypothetical etymology with a fact. All this could have been prevented if Farrokh had actually read the articles; instead, he misrepresents information from a webpage.13
Ignoring recent scholarship, relying on the internet, confusing hypotheses with facts, and repeating propaganda: this is why Shadows in the Desert is a bad book. And that is a pity, because Farrokh’s goal to give to ancient Iran its rightful place in historiography is a good one. However, his sincere enthusiasm is matched by his ignorance of the Iranological revolution of the 1980s.
Unfortunately, Iranologists cannot afford to think that Shadows in the Desert, being written for a larger audience, is irrelevant to their own, academic activities. If a discipline can reinvent itself and reach a higher level, that ought to have been noticed by its greatest fans. This has not happened. And it is not just Farrokh who is unaware of the Iranological Revolution; Tom Holland’s best-selling Persian Fire (2005) contains the same errors. Even a serious magazine like the National Geographic repeats remarks about the Cyrus Cylinder as a “human rights charter”, and quotes a notorious internet hoax.14
The public and scientific journalists are unaware that the study of ancient Iran has improved. Maybe professional Iranologists ought to move from Geschichtsforschung to Geschichtsschreibung — in other words, abandon the study of Persia for some time, and devote their energies on writing for the larger audience. Hopefully, a less drastic solution is possible, but as things stand, Iranology is in deep, deep trouble. Fortunately, there are better books than Farrokh’s and I hope that the interested reader will find the references in the notes useful.
1. I may be biased: I took several of the photos that were used in this book. Still, I think only a professional grumbler will deny that this lavishly illustrated hardback is a bibliophile’s dream.
2. The most recent edition is Die Inschriften Nabonids von Babylon und Kyros’ des Grossen (Münster 2001) by Hanspeter Schaudig. Claims that the Cylinder, if it is not “the world’s first human rights charter”, at least proves that Cyrus allowed the Jews to return home, have been challenged by Diana Edelman, The Origins of the ‘Second’ Temple (London 2005).
3. E.g., J. Harmatta, “Les modèles littéraires de l’édit babylonien de Cyrus”, in: Acta Iranica 1 (1974) 29-44; A. Kuhrt, “The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy” in: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 25 (1983) 83-97; R.J. van der Spek, “Did Cyrus the Great Introduce a New Policy Towards Subdued Nations?” in: Persica 10 (1982) 278-283.
4. E.g., H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg, “Was there ever a Median Empire?” in: Achaemenid History 3 (1988) 197-212; H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg, “The Orality of Herodotus’ Medikos Logos” in Achaemenid History 8 (1994) 39-55; R. Rollinger, “The Median ‘Empire’, the End of Urartu, and Cyrus’ Campaign in 547” in: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Ancient Cultural Relations between Iran and West Asia (2004).
5. E.g, by J. Wieshöfer, Das antike Persien (1993), 82: “gänzlich unhistorisch”; tr. Ancient Persia (1996, 2002), 150.
6. E. Badian, “Alexander and the unity of mankind”, in: Historia 7 (1958) 425-444.
7. A small selection from the remaining factual errors: on p. 68, we learn that Darius created an imperial navy; it was Cambyses (H.T. Wallinga, Ships and Sea Power before the Great Persian War ). On p. 81, we read that the Persians never challenged the Greeks at sea after Salamis; in fact, the mere threat of Persian naval intervention was in 355 sufficient to determine the outcome of the Social War. The fourth king named Artaxerxes was Arses, not Bessus (p. 108; cf. the famous Xanthus trilingue). Alexander did not die on June 7, but four days later (p. 111; cf. Leo Depuydt, “The Time of Death of Alexander the Great” in: Welt des Orients 28  117-135). The relief of Gotarzes II at Behistun does not stand today (p. 147): it is heavily damaged and is only known from a seventeenth-century drawing.
8. E.g., Oriontes for Orontes (p. 54), Atoosa for Atossa (p. 74), Nochus for Nothus (p. 88), Longimans for Longimanus (p. 297).
9. E.g., Drangiana is moved from the east to the southwest of Iran (p. 36); the Pillar of Jonah is not south, but north of modern Iskenderun (p. 100); Nehardea was not a part of Ctesiphon (p. 151). Miletus is confused with Melitene (p. 99), Babylon with Arbela (p. 105), and Thermopylae with Marathon (p. 227).
10. A textbook example of a secundum quid can be found on page 61, where it is stated that “it is a little-known fact that one of the most important functions of Persepolis was the celebration of the Persian New Year festival”. The main evidence is that on the reliefs on the stairs of the Apadana, people are shown bringing presents, which suggests that gifts were offered to the great king. But it does not prove that this happened at the New Year Festival. There’s another secundum quid on page 78.
11. English translation by Peter T. Daniels, From Cyrus to Alexander. A History of the Persian Empire (2002). According to the preface, the text “differs very little from the French edition”. Updates had in the meantime been published in the Bulletin d’ Histoire Achéménide (I: 1997; II: 2001).
12. The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies maintains a website on ancient Iran that has in the past falsely claimed to be affiliated to the London School of Oriental and Asian Studies. The quality of the website is uneven: some pages are fine, but one must not be surprised to find a photo of a cuneiform inscription upside-down. Worse, the authors seem to think that maintaining a scholarly resource is compatible with consistently blackening the Islamic authorities of Iran. An example is the statement that a dam in the river Sivand will endanger the site of Pasargadae, a report that often surfaces in the blogosphere. It was repeated on the CAIS website with a remark that “Iran’s pre-Islamic past and Iranians’ non-Islamic national identity and heritage have always been the subjects of abhorrence for the clerics. This diabolical plot by Ayatollahs in Tehran was set in motion in 1979 to destroy and erase all pre-Islamic Iranian past from the consciousness of the Iranian nation as part of their de-Iranianisation campaign”). This is innuendo, not scholarship. (The report about the flooding is probably a hoax).
14. The National Geographic of August 2008, p. 49. I have discussed the internet fraud here. As far as I can reconstruct the history of this piece of propaganda, it surfaced in 2002 at the CAIS website. It may be older, though. It must be noted that the National Geographic will rectify its error in the October or November issue.