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Nomadism in Iran: From Antiquity to the Modern Era.

Nomadism in Iran: From Antiquity to the Modern Era. By DANIEL T. POTTS. Oxford: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2014. Pp. xxv + 558, 3 maps, 21 illus., 5 tables. $90 (cloth); $45 (paper).

Dan Potts has undertaken a sweeping, revisionist, narrative of nomadic existences within Iran over twelve millennia. His central arguments are: distinction must be made between full-time nomads and communities that kept/keep herds of sheep and goats yet were/are essentially sedentary or from which only a small number of persons were/are involved in seasonal migrations; the plateau's demography began to change with the arrival of Iranian tribes in the second and first millennia BCE but nomadism remained the exception rather than the norm; nomadism began occurring in Iran on a large scale only from the eleventh century CE onward with the advent of Turkic-speaking tribes; and scholars have projected the lifestyles of nomads of late medieval and modern Iran backward without supporting evidence.

Potts sets the stage in the preface by drawing upon an observation by the Muslim geographer Ibn Hawqal from around the year 977 CE that numbers of tribes present in Iran seemed exaggerated by at least one hundred percent (p. xi). Potts transitions immediately to Western anthropologists' observations from the 1950s through 1990s on tribes in Iran as "impermanent agglomerations of people... political, not ethnic constructs." Having made those points, Potts acknowledges however that "awareness of nomadism in the Iranian world is not a recent phenomenon" since it showed up in accounts at least as early as Herodotus' fifth century BCE History (p. xii). He suggests that viewing nomadism as a dominant political, ethnic, and/or economic pattern within Iran is a "modernist perspective [which] distorts the historical reality of a land in which the rural population, while keeping herds, was overwhelmingly sedentary and in which most of the documented nomadic groups came originally from outside the region, mainly during the last millennium" (p. xv). Then, through ten chapters and one appendix, supported by an eighty-seven page bibliography (pp. 445-531), Potts marshals considerable evidence to make the case for the validity of his reinterpretations.

In contrast, and noteworthy because the book spans the entirety of Iran's pre-history and history, the three maps (pp. xxiii-xxv) provide little information for most chapters. The first map is a general one of Iran's topography and main places (largely marked only in the western provinces) the second and third cover early archeological sites in western Iran and southwestern Iran--visually paying little attention to eastern Iran, especially the northeast and its province of Khurasan, which at the very least was a major transit and stopping point for peoples moving onto the plateau from Central Asia, tribes that included not only those who gave Iran its name but much later the Turko-Mongol nomads whose descendants ruled until modern times.

Those maps are a useful locatory guide for readers not familiar with sites mentioned in chapter 1 which, though initially discussing the concept of nomadism (pp. 1-5), focuses largely on demolishing previous scholarship that claimed the nomadic lifestyle was central to occupation patterns, economic transactions, and social networks of communities from the Neolithic through Bronze ages. Potts' re-evaluation indirectly reveals how studies of nomadism have disproportionately concentrated on gleaning archeological evidence from sites in the Zagros mountains and its foothills--Azerbaijan and Kurdistan down to Khuzestan and Fars--at the expense of events that would have been occurring in the central plateau (discussed briefly on pp. 32-33) and the eastern regions bordering Transoxiana and the Indus River valley. In the west, as Potts concludes from material remains and Babylonian and Assyrian records, while pastoralism did contribute to the economy (p. 13), most settlements were based either on villages with fallow herds (p. 9) or on large mounded towns (p. 16) and that "shallow sites without standing architecture and artifact scatters on hillsides" should not be assumed to be remains of "transient nomadic activity" (p. 42).

One essential undercurrent to the debate on nomadism is its possible link to the concept of a tribe as an economic arrangement in addition to and/or rather than a social or lineage entity. After all, writings from Herodotus' time to the present on Iran's history, religions, archeology, and anthropology are replete with reference to tribes. Potts would have made his analysis even more thought-provoking if he had grappled with that nexus of nomads and tribes more deeply. The social arrangements of tribes, from the Guti and Turukku (pp. 36-39) to the Medes, Persians, and other early Iranians, and the question of whether their activities were initially nomadic, semi-nomadic, or immigratory cannot be sidestepped. In the second chapter Potts cites historical documents (pp. 67-86) to point out that most early Iranian language-speaking groups were sedentary despite some like the Scythians and Persians having nomadic contingents (p. 87). Indeed, Bronze Age archeology supports Potts' conclusion, revealing that the incoming Iranian tribes resettled quickly not only in the Zagros piedmont but along the Alborz mountains foothills and in the oases of southeastern Iran.

In chapter 3 Potts surveys Persian and other Iranian vo[mu][??][delta][epsilon][??], "nomads," mentioned by Herodotus (1.125) and subsequent Classical writers. Those tribes included the Sagartians (pp. 102-8), who fought alongside other Persians in the Achaemenian army. However, when Sagartians were mentioned by King Darius I (ruled 522-485 BCE) on his Behistun Inscription (2: 78-91, abridged at 4: 22-23) it was in connection with a failed uprising led by a self-proclaimed local ruler (not a nomad) named Cicantakhma, who was defeated, captured, disfigured, and impaled. Perhaps by then the Sagartians were already settled with only some among them retaining pastoralism. Indeed there is no evidence from contemporaneous Iranian and Classical sources or from archeological data that nomads comprised more than a sliver of Iran's population in antiquity. So Potts accurately presents Greek and Roman accounts as conveying the diversity of inhabitants of the Persian Empire rather than presenting the realm as comprised largely of nomads (p. 89) and deduces that their multiple geographical locations could reflect both nomadic and non-nomadic relocations over time (p. 119). Missing from this chapter is any detailed discussion about the Aparni/Parni (mentioned in passing on pp. 90, 91, 92) associated in history with the Arsacid (Parthian) dynasty and famed for their horse riding and Parthian Shot skills.

Chapter 4 focuses on the Sasanian period between the third and seventh centuries CE. It begins with a survey of textual references to Kurds and their seasonal movements between pasturelands (pp. 120-23), very briefly mentions two Arab tribes relocated to Iran in the fourth century CE, then turns in much detail to various Irano-Turkic groups along the Sasanian Empire's eastern frontier. Although the discussion of Hephtalites (pp. 140-54) as invading nomads is warranted, the inclusion of Kushans (pp. 124-40)--who, irrespective of the much vexed debates on their nomadic origins, were by then an urbanized society--confuses the distinctions that Potts is making between nomadic and sedentary societies. The Kushans could have served as a notable example to buttress Potts' thesis that nomadic confederations are short-lived rather than having unbounded historical and temporal dimensions (p. xi). Moreover, the sedentary Kushans tag-teaming with and utilizing nomadic Turkic tribes against their imperial rivals to the west is neither unexpected nor surprising, just as the Iranian empire too employed Turks and Arabs in its armed forces. This utilizing of nomads as mercenaries had not only military but economic and social ramifications that Potts should have analyzed.

Most disappointing is the brevity with which Arab tribes (pp. 157-59) entering and settling in Iran during their subjugation of the Sasanian Empire in the seventh century CE is handled in the fifth chapter. That event brought not only troops and families who settled across Iran; it introduced a new language and religion. All subsequent dynasties, whether ruling the entirety of Iran or a single province, whether of urban, rural, sedentary, or nomadic backgrounds, would be shaped by the changes wrought during that conquest. Elucidating how, when, where, and why those Arabs settled, the mechanisms by which they were assimilated into existing urbane communities, and how long the process of transformation from nomads to urbanites took--Potts briefly notes (pp. 158-59) substantial numbers of Arabs still following pastoral lifestyles in eastern Iran during the tenth century CE--would have added much to understanding nomadism in Iran. Rather, the author provides details (pp. 159-69) about the usages of the designation kurd, although the broad contexts in which the term was used to denote not only herders but rural folk detract from better understanding how widespread nomadism was during the Caliphates. More valuable is Potts' analysis of Arab encounters with Turkic tribes, especially the rise of the topos (pp. 170-71) that Turks equal nomads, who are antithetical to the urbanized Iranians. Likewise Oghuz movements onto the Iranian plateau are well documented as is the political and economic relationships between those tribes and the Seljuk rulers of Iran (pp. 175-86).

Chapters 6 and 7 lead readers from the Mongol invasion to the fall of the Safavid dynasty. Valuable estimates (pp. 199-204) bring into focus the demographic distribution of Turks vis-a-vis Iranians and nomads versus settlers. The role of Turkic tribes in the rise of the Safavid dynasty is recounted, followed by details and lists of Iranian, Indo-Iranian, Turkic, and Arab tribes and their political involvements under the Safavid shahs (pp. 220-54). Again the distinctions between nomads and tribes, although needing clarification, is largely unaddressed (for an exception see p. 202). The sources for these chapters, like those covering the Achaemenid through Caliphal periods, are mainly textual--archeological data, albeit far less self-evident than the written accounts, is not presented. Thus, although far from Potts' intent (p. xii), the book begins to read as if Iran's history and society were dominated, even plagued by, an unending array of "great nomadic confederacies."

Attempts by the Zand and Qajar dynasties, from the mid-eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries CE, to influence, subjugate, and sedentarize tribes while drawing upon lineages and troops from those groups to seize and retain power are presented in chapter 8. Tables list the clashes between state and tribes (pp. 270-72, 275). Extracts from accounts of European observers provide not only specifics about the conflicts but estimates of the size of nomadic groups (pp. 301-7) and the negative impact of lawlessness in the countryside (pp. 308-23). Again, this period of "acute tribal unrest" necessitates a closer examination of the relationship between tribe and nomad, the extent to which the terms overlapped during that specific time period, and what differences had arisen in each designator when compared to previous eras of Iran's history. Advent of the Pahlavi regime witnessed state-sponsored blurring of distinctions between citizens of Indo-Iranian and Turkic heritage coupled with military, social, and ideological pressures to end nomadism and tribalism. The nation state was now presented as foremost, centered on urban polities, to achieve "the paths of progress and advancement" with "wandering and nomadic existence" linked to "savage beasts" by Reza Khan (later Reza Shah) (cited on p. 374). Resistance to forced settlement, disbanding of tribes, and loss of lineages are sketched out by Potts within the broader context of Iran's twentieth-century politics under the two Pahlavi shahs in chapter 9. Statistics of the extent of settlement are provided as well (pp. 409-10, 417). The roles of tribes generally and nomads specifically in the largely urban-driven Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979, their hopes of self-governance that were subsequently pushed aside by the first Supreme Leader Khomeini, and the Islamic Republic's concern about nomads still being a "problem" are concisely addressed (pp. 412-16).

Finally in chapter 10 (especially pp. 426-27) and an appendix, Potts writes about the intellectual streams of thought that conjoined with the politics and socioeconomics of modern state formation to give rise to claims that Iran's history has long been dominated negatively by nomads and tribes. He pushes the conclusion, grounded on the vast erudition displayed in this volume, that while not numerically the majority at any time, nomads in Iran have long contributed to the vibrancy of that land's societies at every time (p. 429).

Potts has written a sweeping ouvrage on the involvement and influence of nomads, semi-nomads, and tribes in shaping Iran's past and present. Since the end of the Neo-Elamite dynasty in the sixth century BCE and the absorption of those apparently indigenous people by the incoming Iranians and subsequently by the Achaemenian Empire, all Iranians have originally come from elsewhere, predominantly from the Central Eurasian steppe. Iran's demographic profile has never been static; historically it has been punctuated by the arrival of new "tribes," whose leaders targeted the economic centers located in western Iran and whose elites and commoners more often than not became sedentarized. Urban lifestyles based on commerce, crafts, arts, and administration found favor over eking out an existence on arid valleys and surrounding mountain ranges (whose drainage largely is away from the central plateau) not particularly hospitable to pastoralism. This habitation pattern can be seen even among the proto-Iranians, whose Avestan scriptures refer to vis- 'village', vrzana- 'community, settled people', in addition to zantu- 'tribe' in social arrangements that linked nomadic and pastoral occupations with more favorable settled ones. Hence Potts is absolutely correct in concluding that tribes were transient units and that the majority of occupants of Iran have been overwhelmingly sedentary from antiquity to the modern era.



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Author:Choksy, Jamsheed K.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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