Some of the most fascinating human epochs lie in the borderlands between history and mystery. So it is with the life of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire in the sixth century B.C. By conquest or gentler means, he brought under his rule a dominion stretching from the Aegean Sea to the Hindu Kush and encompassing some tens of millions of people. All across this immense imperium, he earned support and stability by respecting local customs and religions, avoiding the brutal ways of tyranny, and efficiently administering the realm through provincial governors. The empire would last another two centuries, leaving an indelible Persian imprint on much of the ancient world. The Greek chronicler Xenophon, looking back from a distance of several generations, wrote: “Cyrus did indeed eclipse all other monarchs, before or since.” The biblical prophet Second Isaiah anticipated Cyrus’ repatriation of the Jews living in exile in Babylon by having the Lord say, “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please.”
Despite what he achieved and bequeathed, much about Cyrus remains uncertain. Persians of his era had no great respect for the written word and kept no annals. The most complete accounts of his life were composed by Greeks. More fragmentary or tangential evidence takes many forms – among them, archaeological remains, administrative records in subject lands, and the always tricky stuff of legend.
Given these challenges, Discovering Cyrus: The Persian Conqueror Astride the Ancient World is a remarkable feat of portraiture. In his vast sweep, Reza S. Zarghamee draws on sources of every kind, painstakingly assembling detail, and always weighing evidence carefully where contradictions arise. He describes the background of the Persian people, the turbulence of the times, and the roots of Cyrus’ policies. His account of the imperial era itself delves into religion, military methods, commerce, court life, and much else besides. The result is a living, breathing Cyrus standing atop a distant world that played a key role in shaping our own.
Bedik was raised in an Armenian, Christian community in Ottoman-ruled Aleppo. At the age of 16, he was sent to Rome by his mother to avoid forced conversion to Islam. For seven years he attended a missionary college there, but his theological education abruptly ended in 1668 when he was expelled for carousing. Soon after, he left Rome in the company of the archbishop of Nakhchivan, in present-day Azerbaijan. En route the two agreed to launch a project to unite the Armenian Church with that of Rome. Bedik wanted to use this plan as leverage to get European Roman Catholic support for the protection of Armenian Christians.
From Armenia Bedik travelled to Iran and spent 5 years there. In his book, which is mostly about his time in there, he is aggressively Christian and scathing about Islam, but not about Iran and Iranians. And he goes to great pains to show that the Shah was more than willing to enter into a pact with the Pope and the Christian princes of Europe to jointly attack the Turks from all sides.
Little is known about the Arab migrants who settled on the Iranian coast between Bushehr and Lengeh in the late 1500s. They were a disparate group of small tribes of sailors, traders, fishermen, pearl divers, and cultivators. Although they were all referred to as the Bani Hula, they were not a uniform group. In fact, they were each other’s fiercest competitors for access to the pearl banks. This frequently led to bloody and murderous encounters and feuds. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Arabs of Nakhilu had a fearsome reputation as pirates—which the Portuguese soon discovered to be warranted.
The Bani Hula received much attention during the eighteenth century when they tried to fill the power vacuum in the Persian Gulf caused by the fall of the Safavid dynasty and the civil war in Oman. However, although they were a maritime force to be reckoned with, they had no common cause and dissipated their strength by fighting among themselves. Furthermore, they had no staying power as their political and economic base was too narrow. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and down to the early twentieth century, one of the most active groups of Hulas were those of Kangan and Taheri. Their history, told here in some detail, is emblematic for the other Hula groups. Apart from showing the violence against each other, their story also highlights how their local lineages dominated political and socio-economic life for centuries in their area, often spanning more than one or two dynasties. It was these local families that guaranteed stability, continuity, and permanence even when, at the national and international level, there was turmoil, upheaval and profound change.
Dutch relations with Oman from 1651 to 1806 were substantial and the written accounts provide the most detailed picture of the political and socio-economic situation in that country during this period. The information on Muscat in the 1670s and 1750s is unique and revealing, while the trek of the Dutch shipwreck survivors in 1763 gives us a glimpse, for the first time, into the life and conditions of the people of Oman’s interior regions. All this information is brought to life in this book, which will be rewarding both to scholars and to those readers interested in the history, economics, and development of Oman and the people of the Persian Gulf.
Willem Floor’s previous books in his Persian Gulf series include: A Political and Economic History of 5 Port Cities, 1500-1730; The Rise of the Gulf Arabs, 1747–1792; The Rise and Fall of Bandar-e Lengeh; Bandar Abbas: The Natural Gateway of Southeast Iran; Links with the Hinterland: Bushehr, Borazjan, Kazerun, Banu Ka’b, & Bandar Abbas; and The Hula Arabs of the Shibkuh Coast of Iran.
A GIANT OF WORLD LITERATURE, an eloquent princess, a dissolute satirist—these are the three voices translated from fourteenth-Century Persian by Dick Davis in Faces of Love. Together, they represent one of the most remarkable literary flowerings of any era. All three – Hafez, Jahan Khatun, and Obayd-e Zakani – lived in Shiraz, a provincial capital in south-central Iran, and all drew support from arts-loving rulers at a time better known for invasions and political violence. Love was a frequent subject of their work: spiritual as well as secular, in varieties embracing every aspect of the human heart.
They could hardly have been more different. Hafez – destined to win fame throughout the world – wrote lyrical poetry that was subtle, elusive, and rich in ambiguity. Jahan – largely forgotten until recent decades – was a privileged princess who could evoke passion, longing and heartbreak with uncanny power. (As Davis says: “To have this extraordinary poet’s fascinating and often very beautiful poems emerge from six hundred years of virtual oblivion seems almost miraculous.”) Obayd – a satirist and truth-teller – celebrated every pleasure of the flesh in language of astonishing and occasionally obscene honesty.
In his introduction, Davis – himself a gifted poet as well as an acclaimed translator and scholar of Persian literature – describes the turbulent world of the three poets and recounts what is known of their lives. His scene-setting includes explanations of poetic conventions of the day: the rules of rhyming and meter, the stylized relationship between author and subject, and the way language sometimes hovers between male and female or between sacred and secular meanings. Detailed explanatory notes follow the poems, along with some personal reflections on the challenge of trying to catch the poetic genius of a culture distant in space and time. Dick Davis does it brilliantly: Faces of Love is a bridge that carries us to another age.