From Rose Gardens to Bloody Anarchy: European Enlightenment Imagines of Early Modern Iran

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University of Delaware
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Unidel distinguished Professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Delaware. BA and MA in Arabic and Persian Language and Literature from the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands; study in Iran, 1976-77, and Egypt, 1981-83; Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from UCLA, 1991. Taught at the University of Denver, 1991-93, and since 1993 at the University of Delaware. Author of The Politics of Trade in Safavid Iran: Silk for Silver, 1600-1730 (Cambridge University Press, 1999), recipient of prize for best non-Persian language book on Iranian history, 1999, awarded by the Iranian Ministry of Culture; honorable mention for British-Kuwaiti Friendship prize for best book on the Middle East published in Britain, 1999. Author of The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500-1900 (Princeton University Press, 2005), recipient of the 2006 Albert Hourani Book Prize, awarded by the Middle East Studies Association of North America; and of the Saidi Sirjani award for best book on Iran in 2004-05, awarded by the Association for Iranian Studies); Iqtisad va siyasat-i khariji-yi `asr-i Safavi, trans. and ed. Hasan Zandiyeh. (Tehran, 2008); and Persia in Crisis: The Decline of the Safavids and the Fall of Isfahan (London: I.B. Tauris, forthcoming in 2011). Co-editor (with Beth Baron), of Iran and Beyond: Essays in Honor of Nikki R. Keddie (Mazda, 2000); co-editor (with Nikki Keddie), of Iran and the Surrounding World: Interactions in Culture and Cultural Politics (University of Washington Press, 2002); and co-editor (with Jorge Flores) of Portugal, the Persian Gulf and Safavid Persia (Louvain: Peeters, forthcoming 2010). Many articles on Safavid and Qajar Iran dealing with issues of political, socio-economic and material history, in Journal of World History, Journal of Early Modern History, Itinerario, Modern Asian Studies, JESHO, IJMES, BSOAS, Studia Iranica, Iranian Studies, and as book chapters. Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, 2002-03. Book review editor of Journal of Iranian Studies, 1997-2007. President of the Association of Persian-Speaking Societies, 2003-2005 and 2009-11. Consulting editor for Encyclopaedia Iranica (Safavid period).



This talk explores the historical roots of the enigma that Iran perpetually presents to the outside world--a bleak and forbidding, deeply religious place that is also a vibrant, welcoming, sophisticated and secular society. It tries to uncover the modern “Chanel under the chador” by tracing the image that European Enlightenment thinkers constructed of the country and its inhabitants. They based themselves on the lived experience of famous 17th-century travelers such as Chardin and Tavernier but, writing after the fall of the Safavids, at a time when Iran had dissolved into chaos and despotism and when Westerners no longer visited the country, they also constructed an imaginary realm. Iranians in this realm simultaneously appear as stoics and epicureans; they are spiritually inclined but also crassly materialistic; they are often amazingly tolerant but as often fanatical, and though refined, they can also be unspeakably cruel. The resulting contradictory imagery—from which we still borrow—shows us Iran as the complex place that it was but also as a reflection of Europe’s own foibles and anxieties, as the self seen through the other. Enlightenment thinkers, grappling with questions about human nature and the essence of power, juxtaposed the glories of the country’s old civilization and its rich cultural legacy to its ruined presence, using this fallen state as a mirror and a morality tale about the laws of nature and the frailty of the human condition.
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