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Rewriting ancient Iran

Rewriting ancient Iran

New book by UCI professor examines 1,000 years of Iranian history

By Annabel Adams

“‘When parts of the environment are coupled with the brain in the right way they become parts of the mind,’ though the inverse of this statement is equally true: when parts of our mind are coupled with the environment in the right way they become part of the environment,” writes Matthew P. Canepa in the introduction to his book The Iranian Expanse: Transforming Royal Identity through Architecture, Landscape, and the Built Environment, 550 BCE-642 CE (University of California Press, 2018). In the near 500-page book, Canepa, Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali Presidential Chair in Art History & Archaeology of Ancient Iran at the University of California, Irvine, explores over 1,000 years of history, from the Achaemenid period to the arrival of Islam, creating a definitive guide to the art, archaeology, and history of ancient Iran. The Iranian Expanse explores how kings in Persia and the ancient Iranian world utilized the built and natural environment to form and contest Iranian cultural memory, royal identity, and sacred cosmologies. The book elucidates the formation and development of some of the most enduring expressions of power in Iranian royal culture: palaces, paradise gardens and hunting enclosures, royal cities, funerary monuments, sanctuaries and landscapes marked with a rich history of rock art and ritual activity. Below, Canepa addresses his inspiration for this project and explains what we can learn from 1,000 years of ancient history.

1. This is an ambitious book. What inspired you to tackle over 1,000 years of ancient history?

The book grew as I wrote it and the more I delved into the material, the more I discovered that many of the field’s assumptions were ripe for reappraisal. My goal was not only to write a book on the development of Iranian kingship, but also on how Iranian history and cultural identity was transformed at each iteration. I argue that in order to understand Iran’s traditions, one must understand how they were both perpetuated and reinvented at each step. This is not unique to ancient Iran, of course, but this approach is particularly important as a methodological tool for understanding an expanse like ancient Iran, which has such incredible continuities that persisted and flourished despite periods of foreign invasion and incredible change. It is just as much a book about how the natural and built environment constitutes and has the potential to transform individual and collective memories and identity as it is about Iranian kingship.

2. Did you make any surprising discoveries while researching this book?

Several. For example, when I first began work on the book, I posited that there was a long, transmillenial tradition of temple architecture in Iran, which is a point of view that aligns with many in the field. Upon closer examination of the archaeological, archival and textual evidence, it quickly became clear that this was a mirage, which the field inherited and perpetuated from early 20th century European scholarship. In the search for an Iranian (that, is, “Aryan”) fire temple, early 20th-century German scholarship in particular assumed that there was a grand tradition of royally sponsored Iranian sacred architecture that could stand as counterpart to the other great temple traditions of the ancient world, such as the Babylonians, Assyrians and Egyptians. For some scholars, part of this project was to connect German architecture to an imagined “Aryan” past in the same way that historical linguists sought to reconstruct a proto-Aryan language and others a proto-Aryan culture. When no such temples were found, they either enlisted a multifarious array of dubious structures that have since been proven to be something other than fire temples or simply posited that they must be out there somewhere, just undiscovered. Post-war scholarship inherited and adapted aspects of these theories and although they disassociated them from their earlier problematic politics, they still always pointed to undiscovered structures or problematic evidence to try to fill in the blanks. The primary source evidence, both from the earliest texts of the Zoroastrian religion, the Avesta, and the archaeological and archival evidence, tells a much more interesting story, which points to a continuity of cultic/ritual activity, but not necessarily architectural forms. While traditions of vernacular fire temple architecture eventually appeared, the earliest traditions of royally sponsored sacred spaces were largely open-air sanctuaries, often at areas of special natural beauty, such as lakes, mountains and rivers. Only much later, in late antiquity, do we find a unified spread of royally sponsored fire temple architecture, which emerged at the same time as the consolidation of a new formulation of Zoroastrianism in the late Parthian and early Sasanian periods. From a wider historiographical point of view, it underscored how important it is for us as scholars to continually question not only our evidence but the genealogy of ideas that consciously or unconsciously form our fields and intellectual traditions.

3. Your book tackles some understudied and misunderstood periods of history. Tell us more about this.

Many of the periods that turned out to be pivotal are those that fall outside the usual canon of both European and Western Asian history. For example, the Seleucid period was incredibly important for the development of a new pan-Iranian identity. The Seleucid dynasty was founded by one of Alexander’s generals who, having married an aristocratic woman from eastern Iran, formed a dynasty that from the beginning was half-Iranian and half-Macedonian. Under the Seleucids we see the start of some of Iran’s most enduring traditions, such as the tradition of royal eras (the Seleucid era was later understood to be the era of Zoroaster), the movement of location of Mesopotamia’s main royal residence city from the Euphrates, where it had been for millennia, to the Tigris, with the foundation of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, which, with the later growth of Parthian and Sasanian Ctesiphon and the later foundation of Baghdad, it remained to the present day. Other examples include aspects of Iranian ruler representation and, for the first time, the spread of a royally sponsored tradition of temple architecture across the Iranian plateau. The Seleucids lie outside the usual canon of European history and Iranian history, though their legacy was critically important for both. The same can be said for what I call the post-Achaemenid, Perso-Macedonian dynasties of Anatolia and the Caucasus who presented an ‘alternative vision’ of Iranian kingship and identity in opposition to the Parthian and Persian traditions. For these kings, there was nothing contradictory to tracing their “fortunate roots” to both the Seleucus and Darius. But for the outcome of a few battles against the Romans or their rivals on the Iranian plateau, these could have become a dominant tradition.

4. What can we—the readers—learn from this vast exploration of history?

The incredible importance of space and place in creating and maintaining cultural identity. I would say, another important lesson is how those in power in both the ancient and contemporary world, can, in effect, manipulate and change history by creating or destroying the natural and built environment, especially those sites that are highly implicated in collective memories. When the actual facts of the past, or evidence for hopes for the future, were not supported by reality, those in power do/did not hesitate to manufacture or change those facts. Sites connected to ancient traditions that ran contrary to political ambition could be destroyed, while sites meant to provide evidence of new ideologies could be created from scratch - “newly ancient” sites to go with newly ancient traditions.

5. You use interdisciplinary research methods for this book, from both the humanities and social sciences. How did this interdisciplinary approach empower your research?

The history of ancient art and archaeology is an inherently interdisciplinary endeavor. In order to write an archaeological history of the ancient world, one needs to utilize all streams of evidence. Many periods of Iranian history lack contemporary textual sources, and in order to create a narrative history, historians have often over-relied on sources that come from outside the Iranian cultural sphere. Greek historians, or those that come from later, like the post-conquest Muslim historical or geographical tradition, are examples of this. That is not to say that these are all untrustworthy or that there are no indigenous primary sources, just that at many points our most reliable sources are not textual. At many points the only contemporary primary sources are art and archaeological. Conversely, at many points, the archaeological evidence agrees with non-Iranian sources and tells a distinct counter-narrative compared to royal propaganda. For example, the story that the archival evidence from Persepolis’ royal archives tells a different story about Achaemenid religion than evidence retrojected from later periods and in some cases coheres with Greek sources, though not always. Rigorous humanistic inquiry demands that one not only show how one knows something, but also contextualize and ground it in the history of scholarship, history of ideas and put it in dialogue with endeavors in other fields and disciplines that are grappling with similar historical or theoretical problems. For example, I found several debates in contemporary cognitive science to be very stimulating in building my own critical vocabulary for understanding the intersection between the natural and built environment and cultural memory. This was at the root of that statement that was mentioned earlier- ideas of the extended mind and material engagement and enaction, that is, the way that humans think with and “think through” the exterior, material world, challenged me to come up with a more critical vocabulary for describing what is going on in the ancient evidence on a larger collective scale. Ancient Iranian religious theorizing was also obsessed with understanding the connection between the “hylonoetic”—the material and conceptual worlds—and came up with some very sophisticated approaches to grappling with the problem of mind and matter (anticipating and likely informing Greek philosophical traditions, by the way). This emphasis in the ancient evidence demanded that these problems be taken seriously. One cannot simply apply a contemporary theory or theoretical vocabulary to the ancient world; however, contemporary theoretical debates and the ancient evidence have the potential to bring new insights to each other even when they contradict one another. They also have the potential to make what we do as humanists broadly relevant beyond the confines of our field and the academy.


To learn more about more about The Iranian Expanse: Transforming Royal Identity through Architecture, Landscape, and the Built Environment, 550 BCE-642 CE, visit:

Related links:
UCI Department of Art History
UCI Ph.D. Program in Visual Studies 
UCI Jordan Center for Persian Studies 

Contact Information

Annabel Adams