Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Iran: A Modern History by Abbas Amanat

Iran: A Modern History by Abbas Amanat
First published in America by Yale University Press in October 2017.

One of my WorldReads from Iran

Where to buy this book:

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A masterfully researched and compelling history of Iran from 1501 to 2009

This history of modern Iran is not a survey in the conventional sense but an ambitious exploration of the story of a nation. It offers a revealing look at how events, people, and institutions are shaped by currents that sometimes reach back hundreds of years. The book covers the complex history of the diverse societies and economies of Iran against the background of dynastic changes, revolutions, civil wars, foreign occupation, and the rise of the Islamic Republic.

Abbas Amanat combines chronological and thematic approaches, exploring events with lasting implications for modern Iran and the world. Drawing on diverse historical scholarship and emphasizing the twentieth century, he addresses debates about Iran’s culture and politics. Political history is the driving narrative force, given impetus by Amanat's decades of research and study. He layers the book with discussions of literature, music, and the arts; ideology and religion; economy and society; and cultural identity and heritage.

Clocking in at a thousand pages, Iran: A Modern History is easy three times as long as books I usually choose so it is with all credit to Abbas Amanat's engaging writing that I happily immersed myself in this history for the best part of a week. I was fascinated to discover the rich history of this ancient nation and, although I have already forgotten many names, I do feel that I have a stronger understanding of Iran's culture and her people as a result. I certainly appreciated the differences in not viewing this history through British eyes and, in common with a depressing number of history and historical fiction books I read over the past few years, Britain's actions reveal our government to have been (and still be?) duplicitous, selfish and greedy.

In common with many (all?) countries, Iran's history is primarily a story of violent men, but I liked that Amanat makes a point of frequently stepping away from war to also show us beauty. Artworks are reproduced in colour and black and white, plus I loved reading poetry and song lyrics, descriptions of theatre and film productions and even seeing a couple of satirical political cartoons. Such artistic creations are important to Iranian culture and their inclusion helped me to have a greater understanding. There are also maps which I think in a printed book would show various warring factions in a seemingly perpetual struggle for territory, however these details aren't reproduced in the ebook format so I was confused by the exact timelines of particular battles.

I quite expected to read Iran: A Modern History in sections around other books and for reading it to feel like studying or work! Instead I was keen to keep reading and exploring Iranian history. Amanat draws out human stories and individual characters so this book didn't feel dry. I often enjoyed reading for several hours at a time! The 20th century, as Iran swings from one cultural extreme to another, takes a disproportionate number of pages compared to medieval times. Understanding the historic events that led there, albeit in an overview, is very satisfying. Readers do need a certain level of commitment to get the most out of this book I think, however I would recommend it for history buffs and fans of historians such as Simon Schama. A good book for long winter evenings!

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Abbas Amanat / History / Books from Iran


  1. it is definitely refreshing to learn about other cultures from a different perspective especially when it focuses on the positives aspect of it like art! Glad you enjoyed this book Stephanie!

    1. It was quite a commitment, but certainly rewarding

  2. This looks like exactly the kind of book I've been looking for! Ever since I read Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran by Laura Secor, I've wanted to learn more about Iran's history and how it got to where it is and what the culture is like now. All I really know is about the wars going on right now (and that's what Secor's book mostly focuses on - the political side) but I'd love to learn more about the culture. I'll definitely have to check this out! Lovely review, Stephanie!

    Laura @BlueEyeBooks

    1. Thanks Laura!
      I need to take a look at the Laura Secor book - I'd not heard of this one