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A History of the Tajiks: Iranians of the East

An interview with Richard Foltz
May 29, 2019

Richard Foltz’s latest book, A History of the Tajiks: Iranians of the East, examines the complex history of this Persian-speaking Iranian ethnic group. As the first-ever comprehensive history of the Tajiks published in any Western language, Foltz hopes the book will inspire other scholars to continue to explore the Tajiks' rich history and culture.

A professor in the Department of Religions and Cultures, Foltz is a cultural historian specializing in the broader Iranian world. 

Why do you think there has never been a book in any Western language on the Tajiks?

There have been books but on specialized topics, mainly politics. There has never been a general history such as the one I have written. Probably the main reason is that Tajikistan was cut off from the rest of the Persian world during the Soviet period so that it was of interest only to Sovietologists, and not to Iranologists who would have been better equipped to study its history and culture.

What are the ideologies and methodologies that inform books written in Russian and Tojiki that differ from a Western perspective? Why did you think it was important to provide this perspective?

There is a lot of good scholarship from the Soviet period but it had to be framed according to Marxist-Leninist theory. Also there was little communication between Soviet and Western scholars, which meant that neither could really benefit from the other’s discoveries and insights. I have tried to draw upon both traditions, while at the same time bringing the work up to date in light of the latest research.

What contribution do you hope your book will have on future scholarship on the Tajiks?

I hope that it will inspire other scholars to continue to explore the Tajiks’ rich history and culture, and to help break down this artificial divide among the peoples of Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia that was imposed since the period of European colonialism.

By Richard Foltz

How does this field of research fit into your body of work?

As an Iranologist I must constantly deal with the fact that most people identify Iranian culture only with the present-day Islamic Republic of Iran or the ancient Persian Empire, whereas Iranian civilization is much broader and influential than that. It is like reducing Western civilization only to what we see on contemporary Greece.

What do you find rewarding about teaching in the Department of Religions and Cultures? What do you try to impart to your students?

Our department is wonderfully interdisciplinary; we come from a wide range of fields and backgrounds. This makes for a great openness and opportunities to learn from different approaches and perspectives. Most of my students are not majors in our department, so when they enroll in a course like my Introduction to Iranian Civilization it is an opportunity to open their eyes to some aspects of world history that they may not have previously considered.​

Read more about Foltz’s new book in this interview with the Central Asian Analytical Network.

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