The best books & novels on Persian history: its people, myths, religions, and culture

Who am I?

I was born in Israel, but spent my formative years in Iran, a country rich in culture, superstition, and a history that is nothing short of an author’s dream. I also joined a large, colorful family, whose members possessed their own quirks and habits, which my future fictional characters inherited in one or another of my novels. Although the Iran I knew during the reign of the Shah was quite different than the Iran I had to flee at the onset of the Islamic revolution and the arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini, her history remains ever timely, and never ceases to captivate me.


I wrote...

Scent of Butterflies

By Dora Levy Mossanen,

Book cover of Scent of Butterflies

What is my book about?

Amidst a shattering betrayal and a country in turmoil, Soraya flees Iran to make a new life for herself in Los Angeles. The cruel and intimate blow her husband has dealt her awakens an obsessive streak that explodes in the heated world of Southern California, as Soraya plots her revenge against the other woman, her best friend. What she discovers proves far more devastating than anything she had ever imagined, unleashing a whirlwind of events that leave the reader breathless.

The books I picked & why

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Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran: The Outset of the Diaspora

By Habib Levy, Hooshang Ebrami, George W. Maschke (translator)

Book cover of Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran: The Outset of the Diaspora

Why this book?

This book is the first comprehensive source on the history of the Jews of Iran, which, considering the vastness of the Persian Empire during ancient times, must be reckoned second only to Israel in importance, yet it is also the most obscure, because little of it has been published. The Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran, where the Jews have been living for over 2700 years, not only describes the history of Jews in ancient Iran (Persia), but covers all periods, particularly the 19th and 20th centuries.


The Stationery Shop

By Marjan Kamali,

Book cover of The Stationery Shop

Why this book?

The novel takes place in 1953 and before the 1979 Islamic revolution and during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah. 1953 was a critical time, which shaped the history of Iran, during which the coup d’état of Dr.Mossadegh was foiled by the United States CIA. Because of Iran’s geographical and strategic importance, such uprisings and meddling by outside forces are constant in Iranian history.

The Stationery Shop is a beautiful and timely exploration of devastating loss, unbreakable family bonds, and the overwhelming power of love.


The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran

By Hooman Majd,

Book cover of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran

Why this book?

The grandson of an eminent ayatollah and the son of an Iranian diplomat, Hooman Majd offers perspective on Iran's complex and misunderstood culture through an insightful tour of Iranian culture, introducing fascinating characters from all walks of life, including zealous government officials, tough female cab drivers, and open-minded, reformist ayatollahs. It's an Iran that will surprise readers and challenge Western stereotypes.


The Persian Boy

By Mary Renault,

Book cover of The Persian Boy

Why this book?

The Persian Boy centers on the most tempestuous years of Alexander the Great’s life, as seen through the eyes of his lover and most faithful attendant, Bagoas. The Persian Boy takes place before the Arab invasion, a time in Persian history that altered the religion, culture, and people in profound ways. The result is a riveting account of a great conqueror’s years of triumph and, ultimately, heartbreak.


Harem

By Dora Levy Mossanen,

Book cover of Harem

Why this book?

The novel is a seductive and intriguing journey from the humble Persian Jewish quarter to the fascinating world of shahs, soothsayers, eunuchs, and sultanas. An exotic world that is unfamiliar to the western reader.

I loved the process of researching Harem, learning about the dangerous politics, magic, jealousies, and rivalries of 350 women who waited for the shah’s invitation that rarely came. And I loved writing about three generations of strong-willed and cunning women: Rebekah—a poor girl married to the abusive blacksmith, Jacob the fatherless—who emerges from her disastrous match with a mysterious brand between her breasts; Gold Dust, Rebekah's treasured daughter, who enters the opulent and perilous world of the harem and captivates the shah with her singing bones; and Gold Dust's daughter, the revered and feared albino princess Raven, who will one day rule the empire.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Iran, Greece, and the history of Iran?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Jewel of Persia, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, and Daughter of Persia: A Woman's Journey from Her Father's Harem Through the Islamic Revolution if you like this list.