This essay explores the historical roots of the enigma that Iran perpetually presents to the outside world—a bleak and forbidding, deeply religious place that is also welcoming, poetic, and remarkably secular—by tracing the image European Enlightenment thinkers constructed of the country and its inhabitants. They were inspired by the lived experience of famous seventeenth-century travelers such as Jean Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, but, writing after the fall of the Safavids, at a time when Iran had dissolved into chaos and despotism and when Westerners no longer visited the country, they ended up constructing an imaginary realm. Iranians simultaneously appear as stoics and epicureans; they are spiritually inclined but also crassly materialistic; they are often amazingly tolerant but as often fanatical, and though refined, they can also be unspeakably cruel. The resulting contradictory imagery—from which we still borrow—shows us Iran as the complex place that it was but also as a reflection of Europe's own foibles and anxieties, as the self seen through the other. Enlightenment thinkers, grappling with questions about human nature and the essence of power, juxtaposed the glories of the country's old civilization and its rich cultural legacy to its ruined melancholy presence, using this fallen state as a mirror and a morality tale about the laws of nature and the frailty of the human condition.

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