On the Spot: Ali Ansari

‘What is the most common misconception about my field? That it’s a sideshow of a sideshow.’

A scene from the story of Haftvad, Western Iran or Baghdad, c. 1300. Minneapolis Institute of Art. Public Domain.

Why are you a historian of modern Iran? 

Because of heritage, the fact that I’m proficient in Persian, and the sheer fascination of studying a former empire trying to find a role.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you? 

The importance of context.

Which history book has had the greatest influence on you? 

Not strictly speaking a ‘history’ book, but Mannheim’s Ideology & Utopia has an enormous influence on how I think about history.  

What book in your field should everyone read? 

Amir Arjomand’s The Turban for the Crown, a Weberian analysis of the Iranian Revolution.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

I’d quite like to be an observer at the great ‘bast’ (sanctuary) of Persian political activists – ultimately some 14,000 – at the British embassy in 1906 and listen in on their discussions on constitutionalism. Surely one of the greatest political ‘workshops’ in history.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

I am going to say John Piggin and Judith Chapman, my school history teachers who set me on this path.

Which person in history would you most like to have met? 


How many languages do you have? 

Two and a bit. 

Is there an important historical text you have not read? 

Far too many.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on? 

The importance of the French Revolution.

What is the most common misconception about your field? 

That it’s a sideshow of a sideshow.

Who is the most underrated person in history… 

Cyrus II the Great of Persia (it was not always thus).

… and the most overrated?

Alexander III of Macedon.

What’s the most exciting field in history today? 

Iranian history, obviously. There is a treasure trove of archives and sources which are now available that are allowing us to rethink the Persian past.

What’s your favourite archive? 

The National Archives at Kew.

What’s the best museum?

The National Army Museum. 

What technology has changed the world the most? 

In the modern era, print.

Recommend us a historical novel... 

The Flashman Papers – exceptionally well researched.

... and a historical drama? 

La Reine Margot. 

You can solve one historical mystery. What is it? 

What really happened to the Princes in the Tower?


Ali Ansari is Professor of History at the University of St Andrews. His latest book is Iran (Polity, 2024).