Resilience Through Culture: Epic Iran at the V&A from 2021

As a child, the news was something seen through intermittent glimpses. Significant events that had a seismic impact on global power- such as the Vietnam War, Watergate, or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan- were just another part of the general tv background. They seemed to have little direct effect on us kids- we were too busy playing outside on our bikes.

However once in a while, something would occur that immediately came to be seen as a pivotal moment. A paradigm shift, apparent even to a child. Such an event for me was the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. This was an event that prayed on and teased my childish imagination. Royalty looms large in the mind at that age and the idea a real King could be deposed in our own time seemed to be a big thing. And so it was-  even though I obviously had no idea about either the Shah or his regime. Nevertheless it was a downfall which would go on to impact all our lives. My generation and those to follow.

Although I had no personal connection to the country, a friend of mine had travelled through it during the early 70s, along the expansive Hippie Trail. She spoke of seeing preparations for the Shah’s lavish celebration of the Persian Monarchy in 1971. Of a beautiful boat shaped like a Swan, making its way slowly and gracefully, through the desert along a river. In my imagination, this always reminded me of the bit in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ where Peter O’Toole- having emerged from the timeless desert- encounters a ship moving through what appears to be a sea of sand. Only to find it an illusion- he’d just met reality head on: the modern age in the shape of the Suez Canal. By the late 70s, a similar dilemma was faced by the Shah.

I was also drawn to Iranian art. Its vivid colours, fine line and the fluid nature of its calligraphy. As well as the sound of its poetry and music. I say ‘sound’, because I couldn’t understand a word of it unless accompanied by a translation. Which isn’t quite the same, is it?

‘Epic Iran’:

To many people, Iran is an unknown entity. The media present for us a mixture of images- often contradictory and mostly negative. The country is usually seen as a dangerous pariah state, threatening the stability of the Middle East with it’s nuclear ambitions. Modern Iran has a high international profile and remains in the news as I write. Elections having just taken place which highlight the tension within the country between conservative and reformist forces. Evidence of a country coming to terms with the 21st Century.

Yet Iran, or Persia as it used to be called, is one of the world’s oldest civilisations; with a rich, complex and turbulent history going back many thousands of years. The only state in the region to have kept its own spoken language- just one of many things that are a reflection of the strong sense of national resilience, linked to cultural identity, central to the way Iranians continue to view themselves in relation to the wider world. Seeking above all to remain independent from foreign or outside domination or interference.

Seemingly contradictory is that Iranian culture has absorbed so much from outside the country. Adapting incoming ideas and tendencies to create something new and distinctively Iranian. A unique cultural heritage that has continued to flourish despite recent tides of revolution, war, sanctions and political tension. In short, Iran remains a cultural crucible. Set somewhere, as the journalist Samira Ahmed says ‘at the edge of the western imagination’.

Iran’s art and culture also reflect an epic timescale: a good title for the current exhibition, running at the Victoria and Albert Museum until September. ‘Epic Iran’ showcases over 300 works of art, design, writing and significant artifacts from a period spanning five millennia, including contemporary work.

This exhibition is certainly ambitious: to tell the story of Iran and enlighten the general public towards a greater understanding of the country through it’s culture. Something that despite all the odds against success, it manages to do very well. However, given the complexity and interconnected nature of Iran’s history; the show requires time and concentration on the part of the spectator, in order to get the most out of it.

One things for sure about ‘Epic Iran’. You’d have to be pretty visually illiterate not to appreciate the extraordinary quality of the exhibits. In writing this however, it was necessary for practical reasons, not to include everything shown. I had to limit my focus to certain things and chose those that made an impact on me personally, in order to avoid producing an even longer article. Also, I hope that providing some background information will assist the spectator in viewing and appreciating the examples on display. Something that if unnecessary, please feel free to skip.

Iran- Past and Present:

Obviously, I’m not an expert on the subject and can only offer an open mind in trying to give a brief history of the country in a few paragraphs (inevitably something that was going to be difficult). It has to be said, that compared to Britain, The USA or even Russia; Iranian history is especially complicated and not easy to summarise. It would be incredibly easy to fall into the trap of oversimplification, which I hope is something I’ve avoided, despite offering a certain amount of personal observation and opinion. I hope the reader finds it makes sense, even though I appreciate events aren’t always descibed chronologically.

With any nation, what we currently see is the result of a fusion of influences and in a constant state of change. I believe national identity is not forever fixed in aspic. As an inflexible, immutable absolute, it becomes nothing more than a mechanism for the maintenance of power. Yet whatever the reasons for a collective sense of nationality- shared culture, language, religion or even force of the will of leaders- people continue to have their own opinions good or bad, no matter how repressive the state may be. Which is a good thing in itself and for the production of art. Mind you, whether they have a voice or a platform to express those opinions or show that art is another thing entirely. But dissent usually manages to find a way to manifest itself in one way or another- whether a society is healthy or not.

In the past, Iran has been both the conqueror and the conquered: events that have reinforced the people’s sense of their own independence. A continuous entity- more or less- since the time of Cyrus the Great (over two and a half millennia ago).

Iran’s geographical location has shaped the evolution of the country. To the west of the Iranian plateau is the Arab world. Turkey and the Caucasus lie to the north. Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east and south. To the south is also the Persian Gulf.

Historically speaking, occupying such a strategically important position between East and West, resulted in a great deal of cultural exchange between Iran and it’s neighbours. This is reflected at every stage of ‘Epic Iran’.

Iranians have always known that their rich cultural heritage had managed to seduce and assimilate even the greatest of tyrants. Its influences spreading far and wide to create what can be described as a ‘Persianate’ society in places well beyond the frontier. At several points during its existence, what is now Iran was the centre of the Middle and Near East. Long ago, the Persian Empire’s borders encompassed territories as far afield as- wait for it- present day Turkey, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Georgia and even Egypt. Places where Persian influence can still be seen in today, if you look carefully.

This resilience- culturally speaking- was seen as a sign of continuity and stability. Kingship was divinely ordained and could be withdrawn, depending on the will of heaven (a concept- as I understand it- called Farr or Khvarenah). But Persian culture and civilisation were seen as eternal. They could adapt to any changing circumstances and flourish. Like the Chinese, the inevitable rise and fall of rulers or empires was simply seen as the natural order of things. But their art and culture would always endure, because it represented the spirit of the people. The Faravahar is a symbol that came from Zoroastrianism, the main religion of Pre Islamic Persia. It is still in use today as a secular embodiment of personal spirit and can be seen depicted everywhere in Iran.

Iranians sometimes use the term Aryan to describe their ancestry. This is where the name ‘Iran’ derives from and has absolutely nothing to do with Nazism. It comes from airya, used very early on distinguish their ethnic group.

If ever there was a single book that exemplifies this nation (other than the Qur’an of course), it is the Shahnameh or ‘Book of Kings’. Written and compiled by the eleventh century, Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi’s epic book of Persian history and myth, consists of about sixty thousand lines and essentally describes the origins of Persia. Ferdowsi sought to preserve the essence of what it meant to be Persian. Yet as with many other pivotal written accounts describing the birth of nations; legends and reality can become confused and somewhat difficult to interpret. Even so, the Shahnameh remains a source of both knowledge and entertainment. According to Persian scholar Lloyd Llewellyn Jones, the Shahnameh is the ‘Soul of Iran… the absolute essence of being Iranian’. Yet it is hardly known at all in the west. ‘Epic Iran’ has several examples of the Shahnameh on display in the section ‘Book of Kings’. These include illuminated illustrations and other folios.

A culture develops through interaction with new ideas. In the case of Iran, many civilisations have left their traces on its art. For example, look at the paintings on display: Indian and East Asian influences are apparent in their style and subject matter. In later centuries too, travel and mass communication resulted in a creative dialogue with the whole world. Iranian poetry for example, became known in the west. Whilst European easil painting and even fashion became popular at the Qajar Court during the 18th and 19th centuries. Examples of which are shown in ‘Epic Iran’.

Iranians have always loved storytelling. When something is read out loud from something written down, it creates synergy and a sense of fellowship. So far back, at the time of the invention of writing, this must have seemed like magic. Resurrection even. Its no wonder then that spiritual rituals developed in which the spoken word was central.

Even today, the people of Iran still love to hear stories of their ancestors. Parents consider it an essential part of their children’s education to familiarise them with tales from the Shahnameh. Traditional forms of art, calligraphy and craft are popular too and not seen as something anachronistic or inward looking. Also, there appears to be a sophisticated and thriving contemporary art scene- if the examples on display in the final two sections of ‘Epic Iran’ are anything to go by.

In modern Iran, for all its political flaws and intrigue, history and culture are very much alive.  Still an important part of the experience of ordinary people. A fusion of past and present.

The Exhibition:

Designed by Gort Scott Architects, the exhibition is subdivided into ten sections, each examining a specific period or theme in the long history of Iran. Co-curator Tim Stanley said that it “offers a rare opportunity to look at Iran as a single civilisation over 5,000 years. Objects and expertise have come together to tell one of the world’s great stories in art, design and culture.” A formula that presents the visitor with an overview of how the country came into being. An attempt to evoke a particular place or period by mixing objects and works of art, together with visuals, music and the spoken word.

I personally found this a successful approach, but encountered some criticisms too. One person I spoke to felt that there was too much inconsistency- certain periods of Irainian history and culture were less represented than others. This same person also thought there wasn’t enough of a direct dialogue with Iranian museums and curators, which distorted the narrative. However I thought the curators told the story of Iran clearly enough for a general observer like myself. The mixture of ancient and contemporary giving an insightful view of a country still in translation.

The over 300 exhibits displayed in ‘Epic Iran’ have been carefully selected and nothing on show I felt to be surplus to requirements. Many are drawn from the Sarikhani Collection; work acquired by the family of that name who emigrated from Iran after the Islamic Revolution and settled in Britain. Among other contributers are The British Library, The Wyvern Collection, The British Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Royal Collection. This is truly an international collaboration.

‘Emerging Iran’:

The first section introduces the ‘Land of Iran’. A country of great beauty, contrast and natural wealth. It is a land of harsh desert, lush meadow and rocky mountains that early on, the ingenious peoples of the region learned how to irrigate. So began settlement and farming.

Moving swiftly through a vast period of time and history, you get to the next section called ‘Emerging Iran’. What you see are surviving fragments of the peoples who originally occupied the lands of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent. Those early inhabitants of the places that would one day become Persia (and ultimately Iran) included Elamites, Medes and Babylonians.

The development of writing allowed for thoughts to live outside the human mind, beyond the lifetime of the individual. A means to carry and store information, as well as to organise complex societies. A way to retain thoughts, recollections and ideas for posterity.

Cuneiform script originated in the Sumer region between the Tigris and Euphrates, in what is now Iraq. Because it was such an adaptable written form, other tribes such as the Elamites developed their own variant. A clay tablet presented in the ‘Epic Iran’ catalogue, written in Proto Elamite, was discovered in Susa in 1905 and is from the 4th millennium BC. It is thought to be one of the earliest traces of writing ever discovered.

Old Persian also used Cuneiform. A pictographic script that was precise enough to allow for fairly complex ideas to be codified and communicated. It was durable too- written in clay or brick and in use for three millennia, right up until the Roman era.

In ‘Emerging Iran’ you begin to realise just how extraordinary and advanced those early civilisations must have been. The sophistication of their art evidence of cultural exchange and the sharing of ideas.

Out of all the ancient objects on display, there were several examples I felt especially revealing of the incredible capacity for invention of those early makers. A level of artistic achievement that will quite literally take your breath away. Their ability to distill, distort and reconfigure the forms of animals and people into objects used for ritualistic or utilitarian purposes, was extraordinary. Evident in the ‘Naked Woman Figurine’, from between 1200 to 800BC. Or the incredible ‘Zebu’ Rhyton (a vessel used for drinking or liquid storage; often in the form of animals).There were a number of Rhytons on display in the first few galleries; depicting real or mythological creatures, such as Lions and Griffins. Made of silver, gold and precious materials; these were totally beguiling and captured the attention of all who saw them. Still the objects that held the most mystery for me remain the first two- the figurine and the Zebu- which were ceramic.

Zebu are a species of cattle and bulls were worshipped by the Elamites, who’s capital was one of the oldest cities on earth: Susa. Excavated there in the 19th century, we also see ‘The Worshipping Couple’, from about 1500BC.

Other highlights include decorations on the sides of pottery vessels that capture with great sensitivity the character of the birds these early artists saw.

Even older is the ‘Animal Pendant’ from approximately 3100-2900BC. A depiction- so it is thought- of an ancient antelope. This object beautifully captures the animal in silver, from a time before the Pyramids. A distant time during which the written word had just been developed and upper and lower Egypt unified. The sophistication of those early metalworkers can also be seen in the ‘Male Figurine’, made during the same period as the pendant. The man wears Ibex horns and has the body of a bird with wings around his shoulders. This fusion of animal and man suggests that it had a spiritual or ritual function.

‘King of Kings’:

It was the nomadic tribes under the unifying leadership of Cyrus II, known as Cyrus the Great; who eventually became the dominant power in the region we now know as Iran. As conqueror of the Elamites and the Medes, Cyrus unified these kingdoms with his own Persian territories. His ancestors are thought to have migrated either west from Central Asia or from the north through the Caucasus. However he was originally from Persis, to the south west of modern Iran in the Fars region (from where the names ‘Persian’ and ‘Farsi’ derive).

The Achaemenid Empire that Cyrus the Great founded in the 7th century BC, became one of the largest and best organised in the ancient world. To give a sense of scale, at the empire’s greatest extent, it is said that you could have walked from Memphis in Egypt to Kandahar in Afghanistan, all without leaving Achaemenid territories.

One of the reasons that we know relatively little about the Achaemenids, is because their story became entangled with myth in antiquity. Also, because traces of their civilisation were later almost wiped from history by Alexander of Macedon.

The Cyrus Cylinder:

The Cyrus Cylinder is one of the most important fragments of history from the time of Cyrus and written in Cuneiform. It was placed as a foundation deposit for his Esagila (Temple) after the conquest of Babylon. This small object is considered by some to be an early declaration of the principles of human rights (something however contested by others).

It was certainly viewed as such by the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who in a TV interview (and not exactly known for his sense of humour), made the dry observation that the one in Iran was a copy. The original, dscovered in 1879 by the Assyriologist Hormuzd Rassam, is kept in the British Museum. A sore point to a ruler who saw himself as Cyrus’ successor yet arguably, was propped up by the Western powers, but personally felt manipulated by them.

In the exhibition, The Cyrus Cylinder is displayed in a way that allows for groups to gather around and discuss it in close proximity. Whilst looking, I got talking to an Iranian lady was very knowledgeable and seemed happy to talk. But then I casually mentioned the above story and her body language shifted considerably. ‘The Shah tortured and killed thousands of our people’ she said. Something that makes clear just how raw the memories of only a few decades ago are for those who lived them.

‘My vast army marched into Babylon in peace. I did not permit anyone to frighten the people and sought the welfare of Babylon and all it’s sacred places’

The Cyrus Cylinder

Cyrus, for all his political maneuvering, was by comparison to many of his contemporaries, a tolerant conqueror. Jews, for example, had their freedom and the empire he created became the template and reference point for all subsequent Iranian dynasties.

Talking of human rights, these words of wisdom by Iran’s famous poet Saadii adorn the United Nations:

“Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain.”

Achaemenid Cities:

Although Cyrus was of nomadic origin, his empire absorbed from the earlier conquered tribes a desire to settle and build in stone. Cyrus is credited as having founded Pasargadae (which became the capital and where his tomb is located) and believed by some to have also founded the great city of Persepolis. His successor Darius I, who took the empire to even greater heights, eventually made this city his capital; and it was he and the later King Xerxes I, who greatly expanded the site into a ceremonial centre that was one of the world’s most beautiful. It is thought by some to have been used to celebrate Persian New Year or Nowruz, due to the orientation of its architecture. Fatally as it turned out (and presumably due to the empire’s vast size) the city remained unfortified.

Relics and a digital recreation of a section of Persepolis, challenge the spectator to contemplate how vast and spectacular the city must have appeared in its hayday. Even now, the ruins of Persepolis still retain their mystery. The Gateway Of All Nations, created by Xerxes I, exerts a regal power and continues to capture the imaginations of those who pass through it.

Briefly returning to the subject of birds, I recently discovered the Persepolis Fortification Texts are one of the first sources to record the presence in history of chickens. They called them, rather charmingly, ‘Bas Bas’.

The Mesopotamian city of Susa was already ancient by the time the Elamites occupied it. When Cyrus conquered their lands, it became part of his empire. Cyrus’s son, Cambyses II, actually made Susa his capital in preference to Pasargadae. This was however only temporary and Persepolis assumed that status under Darius. Later on however, Susa became the winter capital for Darius and Xerxes.

Another stand out example on display in ‘Epic Iran’ was the gold Armlet from the Oxus Treasure, thought to have originated in what is now Tajikistan. This collection of gold and silver is the most important to have survived from the Achaemenid period.

To me personally, in addition to their stunning beauty, these fabulous treasures of Persepolis, made of gold, silver and other precious materials evoked yet another scene from a film. In this case ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ by John Huston, based on the story by Kipling. In which Danny, played by Sean Connary, has just convinced the High Priest of all Kafiristan of his divinity and been presented with Alexander the Great’s vast treasures (if one wanted to speculate further, some of it probably looted from Persepolis). Peachy, played by Michael Caine, picks up a gold platter and licks it: “It ain’t brass, Danny’.

From the high water mark of the Achaemenid Empire under Darius and Xerxes, eventually came Alexander of Macedon and the invading Greek army in 330BC. He devastated Persepolis with such ferocity that it never rose again. Possibly as revenge for Xerxes’ earlier destruction of Athens. It is said the fires were so hot and all consuming, that the stone of the buildings actually exploded. He incorporated the Achaemenid territories into his own vast Parthian Empire.

The Sasanians: ‘Last Of The Ancient Empires’:

The fourth section showcases art and culture from the Parthian and Sasanian periods. Including sculpture, stone reliefs, coins and silver. We also see Zoroastrian imagery- the products of a new dynasty: The Sasanians.

The Sassanid Empire was founded in 224AD by Ardashir I, who finally restored a native Persian dynasty after 500 years of foreign domination, division and conquest. Including periods of Seleucid and Parthian rule- huge empires in their own right.

The Sasanians saw themselves as heirs to the Achaemenids. Under their rule, Zoroastrianism became the official religion of Persia. Although it’s origins go back much further. The language of Avesta, (the Zoroastrian Scripture) Old Avestan, can be traced into the 2nd millennium BC.

It is also worth mentioning that despite the subsequent Islamic conquest, traces of Zoroastrianism still remain in Iran. As do a minority of adherents. The Faravahar- that winged figure representative of the embodiment of personal spirit- depicts Ahura Mazdā, the Zoroastrian deity.

Sasanian Art:

The Sasanian Empire of late Antiquity is considered a high point of Iranian civilisation and its legacy even rivals that of the Achaemenids. Art from this period is considered to be some of the finest ever produced in Persia and I can see why.

The figures in Sasanian reliefs are depicted as muscular and powerful, with full, elaborate beards and headdresses. Consider one of the most important of all, depicting Ardashir I Receiving The Ring Of Power From Ahura Mazdā. The ring itself occupies the centre of an invisible line of symmetry. On one side Ahura Mazdā bestows his authority by handing the ring (the light) to Ardashir, who receives it on the other (earthly) side of the line. These stylised figures are both full of martial vigour and each mounted on extraordinarily beautiful horses; who face off each other, on either side of the line. Their powerful heads solemnly just touching, conveying the seriousness of the situation. The heavenly realm is reflected back and Ardashir I holds the link. We see this subject depictied often in Sasanian art.

Other stories in stone recall grisly victories over the Romans, who after being subjugated in battle, remained in Sasanian territories. Their influence can be seen in Sasanian art and technology, such as in the city of Bishapur. A reason perhaps for Ardashir’s successor Shapur I (one of the most successful of the Sasanians), to adopt the title ‘King of Kings of Iranians and Non Iranians’. An important distinction from the previous ‘King of Kings’ (‘Shahanshah’).

Talking of Shah’s of this period, a bust displayed on the website (sadly not on display) captures something of Sasanian royal style. Ornately dressed in what looks to be heavy jewellery draped over the shoulders, a high imposing crown and full manicured beard. In actual fact, he’s got quite a contemporary swagger about him. Other busts of Sasanian Kings are stranger still and have more elaborate decoration. The crown in the case of Livius being particularly extraordinary, with extending antler horns. Or in the case of the Colossal Statue of Shapur I‌ in the Shapur Cave, his long flowing and decorated hair splays out from the sides of his head.

Something else that seems common to the figures left to us from history, is how Sasanian artists gave their subjects rounder, fuller faces. A tendency echoed in the preference for depicting fluid and sinuous figures, that can be seen adorning certain plates and drinking vessels, rendered in precious or ordinary metals. Courtly or hunting scenes that are some of most beautiful works of their kind. I’m no expert, but they seem to have a lot in common with Indian figures. Sensual and earthy depictions of women and powerful animals. Many of which are in profile or three quarter view; differing from the Parthian preference for the frontal.

A lot of art from around this place and period reflects the Hellenic or Parthian- ultimately a legacy of Alexander. An example I saw recently of a Begram Ivory ‘Female Figure Riding A Fantastical Creature’, from 1st or 2nd Century CE Afghanistan; may well be derived from the Griffins of Greco-Roman tradition. Here too you can see how Indian art continued to influence the form and depictions of figures. Also worth mentioning is the fact that many Greek techniques were adopted by Sasanian artists, such as the use of plaster for interior reliefs.

Personally, I was really moved by the art of the Sasanians and found it a total revelation.

‘My Testament Will Be As Nought:’

The Sasanians built far and wide and their empire lasted about 400 years. This included many cities, including the capital Istakhr (now ruins) and even a huge protective wall, running from their eastern border, north to the Caspian.

Ardashir predicted that the Sassanid Empire would last 500 years, but that the last of the Kings would become decadent. He said:

‘The faith that I have purified will cease
My testament will be as nought
And all our sovereignty will fall’

Prophecy of Ardashir I

He was almost right. Like the more famous Chinese version, the Gorgan Wall was intended to keep out marauding western and northern tribes. Yet it ultimately failed to hold back the tide: the Arab conquest came from the west.

Islam in Iran:

After civil war had fatally weakened their power, the Arab conquest of Persia by the Rashidun Caliphate led to the collapse of the Sasanian Empire. A small Zoroastrian enclave remained in the north, along the shores of the Caspian, before itself being overwhelmed.

The Umayyads and Abbasids were to rule the country for a relatively short period, but they brought with them a lasting legacy; the Islamic faith. This took root, diminishing the influence of Zoroastrianism and continues to be the major influence on Irainian society up to the present day. They also introduced another equally important element to Iranian life, the Arabic script. Persian- now written down in that script- not only became the language of intellectual discourse and cultural life, but actively thrived in this new environment. Indeed the Abbasids- arguably- could be said to have become ‘more Persian than the Persians’ in their outlook and custom.

The Saffarids were part of what is called the Iranian Intermezzo; a period after Sasanian and Abbasid rule which saw the rise and fall of a number of native Persian dynasties, all of whom professed the Sunni Islamic faith.

During the short Samanid period of the 10th century, their Persian empire was extensive and like it’s predecessors, composed of many other peoples from the Near East and Western Asia. By this time, Persian written in Arabic had become the accepted literary form at court. In all creative areas, Islamic influence had fused together with traditional Persian artisic ideas. To the extent that they had become indivisible from each other.

Over the centuries, two forms of Islam came to dominate the Middle East. Believers in Iran today follow the minority Shia branch, which is distinct from the Sunni faith accepted by the vast majority of other Muslim nations. Without going into greater detail, the Imami form of Shi’ism was adopted in Persia as the official religion, after the establishment of the Safavid Empire by Shah Ismail at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Under the patronage of his seventeenth century descendent Shah Abbas I (‘The Great’), the capital of the empire was relocated to the city of Isfahan. It was there he planned and had built a most magnificent city, with some of the finest examples of Islamic architecture to be found anywhere.

Back to the exhibition. In the section ‘Royal Patronage’ we get to see the architectural splendour of Isfahan, a city located in the south of Iran. After more than 140 years and an intensive process of restoration; three 10 metre long pennant like fabrics, depicting the intricate interior design of the dome of a Mosque; are suspended above the gallery. They are each set within rigid curved forms that converge towards the apex, echoing the shape of a dome as seen from the inside. The results, in all their richness of colour and lyrical patternation, are one of the highlights of the show. In situ, these large scale designs join in the mind and reflect the design process used to create the exquisitely detailed tile mosaics that adorn the main building.

During a visit to the city in the late 19th Century, Robert Murdoch Smith was in a position to acquire the design patterns above for the V&A.

The museum has also produced a digital animation that depicts various other dome interiors; hanging high above the gallery and seamlessly changing. It might not be the real thing, but I found it to be a successful stand in. One gets a real sense of what it must be like to wonder through the interior of a Mosque.

Ultimately, I felt this section was extremely well designed and thought through. The scale and sophistication of such buildings revealed further in the architectural drawings on display.

‘Royal Patronage’ shows how the art of Iran was influenced by the outside world at this time. China and Europe for example, as can be seen in the vivid blue and white tiles on display. We also see tiles in other colours, that demonstrate just how advanced ceramic production had become in Iran by this time. Exterior colours that hold fast and remain intense to this day, despite centuries of harsh sunshine beating down on them.

Following on into the section ‘The Old And The New’, we see how the rulers of Iran’s later dynasties looked to their predecessors in order to legitimise power, whilst looking to Europe and the wider world to modernise.

The Turkomen Afsharid dynasty took power in 1736 under Nader Shah, after a period of instability following the fall of the Safavids. Before his assassination, Nader became one of the most powerful Iranian leaders and his empire absorbed vast territories in Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Caucasus. A portrait of this great military figure by Mohammad Reza Hendi is in the possession of the V&A. Subsequently Iran became a part of the Afghan Durrani Empire, which was in turn succeeded by the penultimate native royal rulers of Iran, The Qajar dynasty.

Although they unified the empire under one Shah, the Qajar dynasty faced increasing incursions into Persian territories; primarily from Russia, who during the 18th and 19th centuries, was expanding her territories into Central Asia and the Caucasus. The British too and their Indian Empire presented a serious threat to the eastern provinces, like Balochistan. Gradually, the Qajars found themselves at the mercy of both powers. Losing large amounts of territory and ceasing to be an Imperial power in the strictest sense of the term. Iran had essentally become a nation state.

The Art of Iranian Literature:

Iran has one of the great literary traditions of the world and you might have heard traces of it in our own everyday language.

I died as a mineral and became a plant
I died as plant and rose to animal
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear?
When was I less by dying?

From the ‘Masnavi’

This was written in the eleventh century by the poet and sage Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, better known Rumi. Many such poems and aphorisms turn out to have originated in medieval Persia. Words of wisdom revealing fundamental truths about the nature of being.

Today the people of Iran speak Farsi or Persian. An Indo-European pluricentric language, spoken in various forms throughout the region. Like the Semitic peoples, Iranians have a love for the written word. Not only in terms of content, but also its form. In contemporary Iran, the art of calligraphy is held in high regard and regularly practiced by all kinds of people.

The section ‘Literary Excellence’ examines the rise of Persian poetry written in Arabic. It is as if the two were made for each other. The mellifluous spoken language of Persian, together with the expressive precision of Arabic writing.

The introduction of Arabic script to Persia during the 7th century (AD) required a precise and well coordinated use of the pen. Something that scribes and artists gradually interpreted, refined and perfected into their own- distinctively Persian- art. Incorporating the letter forms themselves into designs, so as to create a lyrical, harmonious whole. Poetry becoming part of the visual arts. To illustrate the point, consider the following verse, from arguably one of the most famous Persian poets of all:

Call for wine. Scatter blossoms.
What more do you want from your time here? At dawn, the rose spoke these words, ‘Nightingale, what are you talking about?’

ghazal by Hafiz

The above lines adorn the exquisite ‘Salting Carpet’; a woven example of finest Safavid craftsmanship from the late 16th century.

The carpet is full of styalised flowers and birds, but they are not the centre of focus- even if your eyes pick them out at first from the other details as recognisable. Instead, all of the visual elements are refined, not just into a conventional pattern, but something more. In the dynamic design of this carpet, each tiny detail is evenly set in its own space with an extraordinary degree of clarity. Some things obviously resemble animals or plants, whilst others verge on the abstract. Whilst others still look something in between. Dare I say it, almost like the forms one finds in early Mirò.

The images depicted and verse; at least according to curator Tim Stanley, “really do not in any way match each other. But they are appropriately juxtaposed.” The usual tendency of an artist would be to illustrate or caption a subject- but the associations here are evoked rather than described. Vsual elements and verse exist apart from each other, but somehow combine in the mind’s eye to offer something more. Greater than the sum of its parts.

Many illustrated and illuminated books are on display too, as well as several examples of lavishly illustrated Divāns, or short books of poetry. We see examples of verse by Adib Sabir, from Tabriz. Rumi and the tenth century poet and astronomer, Omar Khayyam, need no introduction, as they are world renowned and have been for centuries.

Be happy for this moment.
This moment is your life.

Omar Khayyam

Finally, ‘Literary Excellence’ allows the spectator to experience something of that passion and esteem the people of Iran hold for poetry and literature. Having said that, it was somewhat crowded on my visit, so you didn’t get that much time to fully engage and appreciate all the texts. But to be fair, these are small and intimate works of art for designed for personal, private contemplation. Not something easy to present to a large bustling audience. In any case, there was plenty of supporting material and even verses recited over a speaker; giving the visitor a sense of spoken Persian.

Iran: Into The Modern Period:

Throughout The Middle Ages, Iran succumbed to various conquerors of the region, such as the Mongols and the Timourids, who swept in from the east. They forged vast multi ethnic empires that dwarfed in size and scale even that of the Achaemenids. As was so often the case however, instead of imposing their own culture on Persia; these martial and brutal (but no doubt talented and able) conquerors, eventually adopted and fostered native Persian customs and culture. In modern times too, outside influences have continually been absorbed into Iran’s cultural fabric, without overwhelming its distinctive character.

However, being situated in one of the most strategically important locations on earth- between the Middle East, Russia and Asia- forced Iran to confront and adapt to the geopolitical conditions of the modern world. In the era of European Colonialism, it became increasingly influenced from outside by Britain and Russia, as part of what was called ‘The Great Game’. This profoundly affected the evolution of the country well into the 20th century, as Iran became a buffer state between the Russian Empire and British interests in India and Asia.

The Pelavhi Dynasty:

Iran was later discovered to have vast oil and gas reserves, which subsequently played a decisive role in the country’s economic and political history. As these became increasingly valuable, outside parties wanted to obtain access to them. During the Second World War, the Allies had ousted the last Shah’s father for his Pro-German sympathies- Iran’s oil couldn’t be allowed to fall into Axis hands. In the subsequent Cold War, in order to forestall Soviet influence in the region and to control and gain access to Iranian oil and gas; the Americans became embroiled in the country’s affairs. During the early 50s, after Prime minister Mosaddegh threatened to nationalise the oil industry (pretty much exclusively controlled at that time and administered by the US), a CIA sponsored coup ousted him and returned the Shah.

Opinions on the Last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, still remain divided 40 years after his death. To some, he was nothing more than a puppet ruler; a despot kept in power by the West. To others, he was seen as a reformist and moderniser. The truth is of course, more complicated.

It is true the Shah wanted to improve the conditions of his people and implemented many initiatives to do so. However, by all accounts and perhaps not unsurprisingly; he saw things very much in paternalistic terms. Although they might have been good ideas in themselves (and done with good intentions), the reforms he made seemed to ignore or inflame the views of the vast majority of his subjects. The conservatives hated his modernisation programmes and the increasing influence of secular democracy, whilst the left felt he was too oppressive of free speech and more accountable government. The pernicious influence of his secret police (SAVAK) and his vast army, also resulted in a very poor record on human rights.

During the 1960s and 1970s, despite increasing tensions, the Shah held on to power with support from the West. He was the main recipient for American armaments manufacturers and forged a close relationship with President Nixon and especially President Carter. The latter- in one of the most famous diplomatic miscalculations- called Iran ‘An Island Of Stability’. This was on New Years Eve 1977- a year before the Shah was forced from power and Iran became an Islamic Republic.

The Islamic Republic And Contemporary Iran:

The events of the 1979 revolution (and its aftermath) have overshadowed Iran’s entire history and are the prism through which most of the world still views the country. To a people who had become disillusioned by the Shah’s increasingly authoritarian regime, the Ayatollah Khomeini was seen as a viable alternative. In exile for the previous 15 years, he advocated a Shia brotherhood and Iranian nationalism. By 1979, Khomeini had become all things to all people. To the political left he was seen as a social revolutionary (who could be used to get rid of the Shah) and to the clerical right as a champion of traditional values. Yet as with all successful revolutionaries, before attaining power, Khomeini made sure that as few people as possible realised the exact nature of what he wanted for their country. Yet what he said struck a chord and marked a rift with the western world that has never been healed.

Going back to the Shah’s 1971 party at Persepolis. A lavish gesture by one man to turn back the tide of history. A Persian Canute who hosted the leaders of the world in desert tents. But all to no avail. Within the decade, he was ousted from power and those same guests became reluctant to take him in.

Perhaps this was down to political necessity. Good manners aside, leaders of the developed world weren’t about to let an old friendship get in the way of their country’s increasing thirst for oil. Also, whatever his personal intentions and benevolent image abroad might have meant; during the 1970s reports continued to emerge about regular violations of human rights. Thanks to his repressive military and SAVAK, by 1975 Iran had the highest rate for the death penalty in the world.

After the Islamic Revolution, a terrible war with Iraq devastated the country. Khomeini’s belief in the power of revolutionary fervour in the face of a pitiless invading army; resulted in young men becoming suicide bombers. Carrying into battle explosives and plastic keys to Heaven. To commemorate the dead, fountains continue to flow with blood red waters.

The work on display in the final galleries is quite varied. In a range of media that reflects the cosmopolitan, global outlook of many artists currently working in Iran. We see a mixture of oil painting, photography/photojournalism, sculpture, video, digital and installation art.

‘Modern and Contemporary Iran’ (‘Mid Century Modernisms’ & ‘New Realities, New Identities’) begins in the 1940s and takes us to the present. We see various portraits; one striking image of ex Prime Minister Mosaddegh stuck in my mind. Some photographs from the time of the Islamic Revolution brought home the violent realities of that time. One image of several revolutionaries in a morgue, with the bodies of recently executed ministers; remains in the mind long after.

One of my favourite pieces was relatively humble to look at, but intriguing. A cast bronze of a branch with thorns, forming the Persian ‘This Will Also Pass”. The expression comes from the great poet Rumi, concerning the interconnectedness of life and its ephemeral nature. A recent work by the artist Hossein Valamanesh.

A very different sort of image presents a side of modern youth. ‘Miss Hybrid # 3’ by Shirin Aliabadi. A surprisingly memorable image of a blonde young woman blowing a bubble from gum. Almost as if in protest.

‘Turbulent’ is an installation by artist Shirin Neshat. In a blacked out rectangular room, two large screens face each other on each side (the shorter sides). In between is where the spectators sit, so that the characters on the screens appear to the left and right hand sides respectively. Then, a man sings a thirteenth century love poem to an exclusively male audience. At the same time, on the other screen a woman sits in shadow and silence. As he finishes, she begins in response: an atonal wordless cry. The resulting dialogue between both screens shifts back and forth, gradually exposing the character’s internal conflicts and tensions to the sitting audience. Revealing- I thought- a sadness and frustration on the part of the woman, but with a strong sense of inner resolve.

In Conclusion:

Iran continues to shift in its attitudes to the west. As does the west towards Iran. 

Over recent years, despite overtures made by President Barack Obama, the country remains to many people a part of George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’. Pretty much the current outlook in America epitomised by Donald Trump. Recent events, such as the arrest and imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, have reinforced that point of view; playing into the hands of hawks and making any attempts at reconciliation seem further away than ever. The same is true of Iran’s game of cards with the west over its ‘on off’ nuclear programme.

If any common ground can be found between two such profoundly different political and religious outlooks, surely culture has a part to play. After all, it is a shared language that knows no borders and as we have seen, in a land like Iran that has continually produced so much genius; there are so many varied examples. In attempting to forge a greater understanding of the country, ‘Epic Iran’ will have helped to enlighten a great many people. Revealing the history and achievements of an extraordinary and unique civilisation that remains as complex and enigmatic as ever.

As you leave the exhibition, the shillouettes of a herd of beautifully drawn white horses gallop along the passage, accompanying you out. You hear their hooves and heavy breathing as they run along the wall and then return to their original starting point to go round again. We also hear the wind and a gong, which add a solemn and timeless quality to the work.

‘All The White Horses’ (2016) is by the artist Avish Khebrehzedah, who was inspired by the myths and stories she heard as a child. Tales from the Shahnameh, recited by her father and other literary ‘explorations’.

The work is definitely worth hanging back for and watching it run through its sequence a few times. The horses are almost hypnotic; sweeping through the mind and binging back thoughts of the land and its many stories. Themes of power, domination and the quest for freedom. Evocative of the thousands of years of Iranian history and an opportunity to reflect upon them, before going back out into a busy London.

(c) Gideon Hall 2021