2012 Iranian Studies Conference in Istanbul

Galata Tower and Beyoglu across the Golden Horn as seen from Eminonu, Istanbul.

Last week, the International Society for Iranian Studies (ISIS) held its biennial Iranian Studies Conference in Istanbul, attracting over four hundred professors, graduate students, and other researchers involved in the study of Iranian history, politics, religion, literature, and culture. Istanbul was an appropriate venue: for centuries, the region has had political, economic, and cultural links with Iran. Herodotus tells us that Darius the Great built a pontoon structure across the Bosporus’ narrowest point, probably somewhere near the present-day Second Bosporus Bridge (incidentally, this is also where the Ottomans built a strategic fort, Rumeli Hisari, for launching their invasion of Constantinople). Anatolia was under Persian control for much of the Achaemenid Empire. In more recent times, the Turks, while embroiled in military and religious disputes with empires to the east such as the Safavids, participated in a broad exchange of culture and literature with Iran, perhaps best represented in individuals such as the Sufi mystic Rumi. Istanbul has, historically, also hosted a large and vibrant Iranian community.

Perhaps more so than many other regions, it is impossible to study Iran without looking at the cultures and societies that border it. At this year’s ISIS conference, I was privileged to be a part of a panel that explored relations between India and Iran. Moreover, our panel looked specifically at the Parsi Zoroastrian connection, evaluating how Parsis, and certain Parsi individuals, helped shape some contours of recent Iranian history. Our panel chair—the distinguished Oxford historian Homa Katouzian—assisted in framing our research within broader historical themes such as the development of Iranian nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. We were very fortunate to have in attendance the “grand old man” of Iranian studies, Professor Ehsan Yarshater (Columbia University emeritus), who, at the age of 92, shows few signs of slowing down or restricting the scope of his academic activities.

Two of our papers approached their subjects from the perspective of Iran and Iranian society. Monica Ringer, associate professor at Amherst College, spoke about Kaikhosrow Shahrokh’s reforms of funerary customs among Iranian Zoroastrians. Shahrokh, a Zoroastrian from Kerman and the most prominent Iranian Zoroastrian leader in the 1920s and 1930s (he was the Zoroastrian representative in the Majles, the Iranian parliament, until his death), introduced cemeteries in 1935 and dissuaded the use of dakhmas. Shahrokh’s justification for this reform, Ringer argued, was threefold:  invoking modern science, he claimed that burial was more hygienic; relying upon religious texts and contemporary scholarship, he postulated that dakhmas were not “authentic” since they were not enjoined by Zoroaster; and finally, giving the expanding nature of cities like Tehran, he pointed out that dakhmas would soon be swallowed up by urban growth. These funerary reforms, Ringer concluded, constituted an important moment for the Iranian Zoroastrian community: it represented a clear break with Parsi custom, which had predominated since the time of Manakji Limji Hataria.

Manakji, incidentally, was the topic of a paper presented by Reza Zia-Ebrahimi, a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom. Many Parsis are aware that Manakji played an extremely important role in the late nineteenth century in ameliorating the conditions of the Iranian Zoroastrians, helping establish schools and lobbying for the elimination of the jizya tax placed on non-Muslims. What is less known, however, is Manakji’s significant influence on Iranian nationalism. Zia-Ebrahimi noted that Iranian nationalism, formulated between the 1850s and 1870s, revolved around the belief that the country had fallen from glory and power since the Arab Muslim conquest in the seventh century. The nationalist ideology promoted by individuals such as Fathali Akhunzadeh and Jalal ed-din Mirza, which argued for reviving Iran’s past greatness, was therefore decisively anti-Arab and anti-Muslim.  As a Parsi Zoroastrian with a deep conviction of the glory of ancient Iran, Manakji became an “object of fascination” for such nationalists, buoying a belief that Zoroastrianism was intrinsically linked to Iran’s supposed golden age. Manakji was an active participant in the promotion of this nationalism, as well: he wrote and disseminated texts on Zoroastrianism and ancient Iran and had a wide network of contacts within Iran’s intelligentsia.

Both Afshin Marashi’s paper and my presentation concentrated on the Indian side of the Parsi connection with Iran. Marashi, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, spoke on Dinshah Irani, who worked quietly behind the scenes to promote Indo-Iranian educational and cultural exchange in the early twentieth century. Irani, a Bombay-based solicitor keenly interested in the welfare of the Iranian Zoroastrians and Iran itself, was directly and indirectly responsible for the dissemination of much Zoroastrian scholarship among the Iranian reading public. Aside from his own works, Irani was an early supporter of Ebrahim Purdavud, a prolific scholar of Zoroastrianism who rendered the Avesta into modern Persian and also published Iranshah, a book on the history and achievements of the Parsis of India.

Irani is an important figure in my research on the Iran League of Bombay. My presentation, based on detailed reading of the organization’s publication, the Iran League Quarterly, between 1930 and 1941, examined the ways that Parsis tried to promote cultural, economic, and educational links with the country that we regard as our ancient motherland. Individuals such as Irani and G.K. Nariman promoted scholarship that stressed the common ancestry and history of Indians and Iranians while working to decrease anti-Muslim sentiment among Zoroastrians and anti-Zoroastrian sentiment among Muslims. Others labored to promote Parsi tourism in Iran and also advocated Parsi investment in the Iranian textile and manufacturing sectors. As the 1930s progressed, however, League members became increasingly drawn toward the brand of nationalism promoted by the Reza Shah and even advocated the Parsis’ “return” to Iran. Such rhetoric, I believe, was the result of growing Parsi disillusion with the Indian National Congress in the 1930s: authoritarian Iran seemed appealing to many as British India was convulsed by mass-based nationalism. Parsi illusions of Iran under the Pahlavi regime came crashing down in the early 1940s, first by the assassination of Kaikhosrow Shahrokh and later by Reza Shah’s removal from power in 1941.

Several other panels and presentations were on topics relevant to the study of ancient Iran and Zoroastrianism. Two panels were devoted to evidence of the Achaemenid Persian presence in Anatolia, drawing on literary, archeological, and architectural sources. Shervin Ferridnejad (University of Göttingen) and Manya Saadi-nejad (Concordia University) both spoke on how religious texts—ranging from the Yashts to Pahlavi literature such as the Arda Viraz Namag (Ardaviraf Nameh)— described and portrayed the physical appearance of Ahura Mazda and yazatas such as Anahita. Alberto Cantera, professor at the University of Salamanca and director of the Avestan Digital Archive, put forth the case for creating a new edition of the Avesta (the last edition of the Avesta in a modern language was done by Karl Geldner in the 1890s), citing as one reason the recent discovery of many Zoroastrian manuscripts in Iran (thus also disproving the notion that Iranian Zoroastrians gave up all their texts to the Parsis by the early 1900s).  Mehmet Alici, a Turkish Kurdish scholar, provided a fascinating glimpse into the celebration of nowruz in Turkey, pointing out that it was a state-supported festival under the Ottomans, who had their own version of the haft-sin (which included the simit, or bagel). While state support of nowruz ended in 1908, the festival has enjoyed a revival in Turkey since the fall of the Soviet Union, where it has been used to celebrate Turkic cultural connectivity with the new Central Asian republics.

Finally, Professor Richard Foltz of Concordia University spoke on topics that have created great controversy in the Zoroastrian community: conversion and the supposed proliferation of neo-Zoroastrianisms in Iran and abroad. Foltz, importantly, noted the extremely limited number of individuals in Iran and elsewhere who have actually elected to convert to Zoroastrianism, providing more evidence against the widespread Parsi belief that Iran and Central Asia are burgeoning with individuals desirous of embracing the faith. In a recent visit to Tajikistan, for example, Foltz was struck by how little interest or knowledge that ordinary Tajiks displayed in Zoroastrianism; indeed, he left the country with the belief that it was experiencing a pronounced Islamic revival. State rhetoric, which has stressed Tajikistan’s Zoroastrian roots and culture, has been at complete odds with public sentiment. Like many other scholars, Foltz expressed concern about Zoroastrianism’s survival among its current adherents, regretting the litany of controversies that have embroiled the Parsi and Iranian Zoroastrian communities. We Zoroastrians would be well advised to recognize such scholarly opinions, reassess our priorities, and promote community concord as our worldwide numbers continue to shrink.

One unfortunate development detracted from the overall success of the ISIS conference. In the weeks leading up to the event, Kayhan, a state-supported Iranian newspaper, lashed out at ISIS and its conference, accusing them of being “Zionist and monarchist” and promoting Baha’ism.  Furthermore, the paper issued not-so-veiled threats that any Iranian academics attending the conference would lose their jobs. Turkey is one of the few countries where Iranian nationals can travel to without a visa; a conference in Istanbul, therefore, would have provided a welcome opportunity for large-scale representation from the Iranian academic community. Sadly, Kayhan’s actions resulted in nearly all the Iranian participants deciding to pull out of the conference. A few non-Iranian scholars, not wishing to antagonize the Iranian government, also dropped out.