Touraj Daryaee: Uncovering the Splendor of Ancient Iran

07/05/2017 10:09 AM ET
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Updated Jul 05, 2017

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavor. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Touraj Daryaee.

Touraj Daryaee is the Maseeh Chair in Persian Studies and the Director of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine. Throughout his career, Professor Daryaee has given keynote lectures around the world in Europe, America and Asia in such places as the Collège de France (France), University of Oxford (UK), University of Bologna (Italy), St. Andrews (Scotland), Genoa (Italy), Simon Fraser University (Canada), UC Santa Barbara (US), K.R. Cama Oriental Institute (Mumbai), University of Chicago (US), University of Tehran (Iran), and other prestigious universities and museums.

Daryaee has taught and served as the Bahari Senior Fellow at University of Oxford as well as a Visiting Fellow at École Pratique des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. He is a scholar of ancient Iranian history and civilization and has written some fifteen books on Achaemenid, Sasanian and ancient world history, as well as on the history of Zoroastrianism, Pahlavi (Middle Persian) texts and other edited volumes on Iranian history. Some of these books include King of the Seven Climes: A History of the Ancient Iranian World (3000 BCE – 651 CE), UCI Center for Persian Studies, 2017; From Oxus to Euphrates: A History of Late Antique Iran, UCI Center for Persian Studies, 2016: Excavating an Empire: Achaemenid Persia in Longue Durée, Mazda Publishers, 2014; Cyrus the Great: An Ancient Iranian King, Afshar Publishers, 2013; The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History, Oxford University Press, 2012, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, IB Tauris, London, 2010; Iranian Kingship, The Arab Conquest and Zoroastrian Apocalypse: The History of Fars and Beyond in Late Antiquity (600 – 900 CE), Mumbai, 2010.Daryaee has written more than a hundred articles in Persian and English dealing with different aspects of Iranian civilization. He not only writes for the academic world, but is also keen on writing for the public at large to make the world of ancient Iran more popular and accessible (website www.tourajdaryaee.com).

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

I was born in Tehran and attended Rostam Giev Zoroastrian grade school. It was that school which first kindled my interest in ancient Iran. In fifth grade I was sent to a boarding school in California (1976), which was something that many Iranian families did with their children during the oil boom. I lived through the Iranian revolution in Tehran during sixth grade, which was also a defining period in my life. After the revolution I was sent again to boarding school, this time to Athens, Greece. There, I learned that the Persians had come to Greece, and I remember asking myself what were we doing here? I had already visited Persepolis, and now saw the Acropolis. I came back to Iran for high school, lived my Iranian life and did not become a foreigner in the sense of identity. Of course, looking back at a time where the idea of the East and the West and identity was very much a part of the discourse, I think I had become a global Iranian, living and feeling at home on all three continents.

I went to university in the US and spent most of my adult life in Los Angeles and Orange County. In the beginning, I was interested in modern politics and history, studying Latin America and the Middle East. I assume many would have had the same interest if they had lived through revolution and war. My parents, like many others, wanted me to become a professional, a doctor or a lawyer, or computer scientist. However, I secretly majored in Political Science and History. I was determined to do what I wanted. I began my graduate school at UCLA in 1992 and studied the history of Iran and the Near East, the archaeology of ancient Iran as well as Sanskrit, ancient Iranian languages, and also Roman and late antique history. With a fellowship I spent some time at the American Numismatic Society in New York and finally finished my PhD in 1999. Right away I was offered a position as a historian of the ancient world, something that was not too common at the turn of the century. I taught Greek, Roman, Ancient Near East and Ancient Persian histories, as well as courses on the ancient world at California State University, Fullerton.

What has been your key to career success? Who and what were the biggest inspirations for your career?

I am not sure if I call myself successful, but I am content with where I am. I was not a particularly brilliant student, nor have I had rigorous schooling. However, looking back I can say that to be passionate about what you want to do and pursue it – as well as never giving up – is very important. Lastly, I have learned not to emulate or copy my professors and predecessors, but find my own way. In a sense, one has to first cut the umbilical cord in order to become independent and move forward.

The late Iraj Afshar – who for a decade took me through Iran to villages, cities and to see monuments – was one of my biggest inspirations. We traversed more roads through deserts, forests and oases than I will ever take again. He taught me that in order to know about a subject, one must travel the roads, meet its people and understand the living culture to make sense of things. Afshar’s nativist approach to Iranian Studies influenced me very much, but at the same time he was cognizant of the Western approach to Iranian Studies and its importance as a scientific discipline. I learned much more from him than what I learned in a PhD program.

In your book Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (2010), you demonstrated the unique significance of the Sasanian Empire (aka Sasanian which reigned from 224 to 651 CE) for the development of Iranian civilization and on Islamic history. Could you please elaborate on this?

Of course there is continuity in tradition in many places throughout the world. But if we want to understand the history of the Near East and the Iranian Plateau, I would contend that we have to begin with the Sasanians. This is because it was the Sasanians that brought to the region some very important religious, political and social ideas that have stayed with us since the third century CE. Ideas of absolutism, the religion and state being twins, the social order as it exists in the region are all the product of the Sasanian world. In terms of prophetology, Mani who lived in the third century in Khuzestan and the Sasanian capital, Ctesiphon brought a vision of religion which was really unknown before, but paved the way for future religions. This included through a divine messenger becoming a prophet, with book(s) for the people of the world and claiming to have come to complete the religion of previous prophets, Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus. Mani claimed to be the seal of the prophets, completing the work of his predecessors. Furthermore, the Persian language and Iranian culture spread during the Sasanian period in Iran, Afghanistan and beyond. Lastly, the idea of Iran as a political and territorial entity is a product of the Sasanian Empire.

Could you elaborate on how the Sasanians influenced Rome and other major civilizations surrounding Persia?

Civilizations never develop in isolation and are in endless dialogue and interaction with one another. This is a constant rule in human history, and those who think of “purity” in terms of language and culture are misguided. The Sasanians and the Romans were at war, but also in dialogue, and recognized each other as equals. Recently, my colleague Matthew Canepa has done a wonderful study of ideas that both empires borrowed from one another. A large number of Greek words and ideas entered into the Iranian world, and also Iranian notions of kingship and other cultural traditions went to Rome. This cross-cultural dialogue is also clear between Iran and China and in-between, from polo to chess and religious ideas.

The importance of Iranian culture can be also seen in the terminology that entered other languages and for the region. Such words as caravan, bazaar and similar terms spread from Iran, as well as the Sasanian coinage as the international money in the region. When the Arab Muslims came, they also borrowed the Sasanian coinage, as did the Turks of Central Asia. The history that the Sasanians commissioned, the Khoday-namag (Book of Lords), during the time of Khusro I (Anushirvan), became the defining framework of historical understanding for the region and its impact has lasted till our time. After the coming of Islam, Arabs, Turks and others also accepted this historical narrative which the Sasanians codified. For example, some Turkic tribes as well as Arab dynasties connected themselves to Iranian heroes and kings in the Khoday-namag, which later came to be known as the Shahnameh. When a Turkic tribe wanted to point out that it is of Turkic noble stock, they connected their lineage to Afrasiyab, who was a character in Sasanian national history and part of the ancient Iranian tradition. No matter how much they tried, they could not get away from the Sasanian national history.

How has the notion of Iranian identity gone through transformations throughout history?

Those cultures survive which can adapt as well as accept and absorb new ideas. Nothing is constant, and I believe that change is healthy and necessary for a culture if it is to survive. The Mesopotamians, from antiquity to the present, Greeks and Hellenism, Arabs and Islam, Turks and Mongols, Russians, French, British and the Americans have all influenced Iran and its culture. Those we call Iranian are the people who have come to the Iranian Plateau in successive waves over thousands of years to create the Iranian identity, but we shouldn’t essentialize Iranian identity into categories of ancient/Pre-Islamic and Islamic or over-dwell on which one is more important. Iranians have been able to absorb new ideas by claiming and improving on them for millennia. Islam is a good example of this phenomenon.

Islam as a religious idea was born in Arabia, but its cultural component owes much to the Iranian world. Whether you like it or not, Islam has been part of Iranian identity for the past fourteen hundred years. Iranians have contributed so much to the development of Islam and its culture, and it would be a shame to dismiss the contributions of Iranian artists, scholars, poets and others to Islamic history in a quest to revive the pre-Islamic period’s grandeur and cultural sophistication. Each has an important place in Iranian history, and for identity. Rather than rooting for one against the other part of Iranian history, I suggest that we study it in its entirety and learn how things have progressed.

How are Cyrus' ideas (Cyrus II, Kourosh in Persian, 580-529 BC) and his style of imperial government relevant for today's needs?

Cyrus was a brilliant king of the ancient world. There is no doubt about this, and luckily more people around the world are becoming more knowledgeable about this fact. Unfortunately, compared to Alexander, Cyrus is still far less studied or known. I believe what should be emphasized to people around the world and certainly to Iranians is that Cyrus enshrined an officially multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire. Unlike the rulers before him, Cyrus chose to accept and recognize the rights of people who had different religions, laws, languages, and norms. This is a model that should be emulated today as well and is the most successful way to rule historically and also for the future. This is why Greek authors, as well as the Jews and Mesopotamians, emulated Cyrus and thought him to be a wise and benevolent king. If anything, the new generation should learn Cyrus’ tolerance and accepting of others.

Can you tell us how the idea of "Iranshahr" was constructed and why is it significant?

As far as we know, Iranshahr or the “Realm of the Iranians,” as a political and geographical idea is a Sasanian invention in the third century CE. The idea is based on the Avestan tradition, where there is a homeland of the Iranians/Aryans known as Iran-Wej. The location of Iran-Wej was in Central Asia, most likely between Tajikestan and Afghanestan, which was transported onto the Iranian Plateau and came to be known as “Iranshahr.” Each province in this Iranshahr was given a historical and / or religious significance. For example in the Sasanian period, Sistan became the scenery of Zoroaster’s career and preaching, and Azerbaijan became the place where Shiz, the sacred fire-temple, had been located since time immemorial.

The Sasanians gave cultural values to those living in Iranshahr, some of which is still with us today. The idea of memorizing history and knowing about your past, playing chess and backgammon; knowing how to write calligraphy (at least when I went to school it was still taught in Iran), having certain values in terms of understanding Iranshahr as a beautiful garden where there is justice in it. After the coming of Islam, Iranshahr as an idea survived and it has stood the test of time, mainly due to the Sasanian establishment of Iranshahr.

Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does being an Iranian-American mean to you?

Identities are constructs and are based on one’s experiences. I have lived on three continents and would like to think that I am a worldly person. However, I have spent much of my life in the United States and the other major part, in Iran. Iranians have first encountered America in the 19th century, and have settled here as a community in the past four decades and have contributed much to the life and progress of this country, but they have not forgotten their homeland. In a sense many of us still dream of going back and being part of Iran. Even if we can’t be there, I believe that we should all do what we can for our country of origin, to help its people have better lives and progress.

Being an Iranian-American means to appreciate where you have come from and the cultural values, history and tradition that you have. But it also means appreciating the chances you were given here in the US to reach your dreams. There is a responsibility with being an Iranian-American, especially with the current situation, because we must make sure that we do not forget where we come from, and must help Iran with its quest for peace and prosperity. By this statement I mean as a professor of History, my job is education and I should help and inform the public and students in Iran and the faculty in the universities in Iran who need to have access to sources and material. That is what I know. If every Iranian abroad helped the Iran and its people in the field that they have studied and know about, things would become far better.