by Roderick Conway Morris

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V&A, London
Ladies around a Samovar by Isma'il Jalayir, 1870s

Marvels of Iran's Forgotten Empires

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 3 July 2021


Iran is remarkable for the antiquity of its national identity and the preservation of its territorial integrity. This vast, nearly one-thousand-metre-high upland plateau was first united politically by the Achaemenid Dynasty, which ruled from 550 to 330 BC. The inhabitants of the plateau have been calling themselves Iranians at least since the time of the Achaemenid king Darius I, during whose reign (522-486 BC) this first Iranian Empire achieved its greatest extent, stretching from North Africa in the west to the Indus Valley in the East.

Since then Iranian dynasties and empires and foreign invaders have come and gone but the core of the state has always re-asserted itself in its original geographical heartland. Its origins can be traced back even further, hence the title of this ambitious show, 'Epic Iran: 5000 Years of Culture'.

To cover in a single sweep an expanse of time so enormous is a tall order - the last such attempt was the Royal Academy's block-buster 'International Exhibition of Persian Art' in 1931. The current curators have been wise not to overload visitors with too much information as they admire the various exhibits - from gold and silver artefacts, ceramics and bas-reliefs, to paintings and textiles - representing the successive periods of Iran's history. More detail is provided by a handsome catalogue by the curators, John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley.

The Iranian Empire came close to overwhelming Greek civilization during the Persian Wars in the 5th century BC - the results of which would have been incalculable for the future of the West. But Darius I's huge armies were defeated at Marathon in 490 BC. His son Xerxes I returned a decade later, overcame the Greeks at Thermopylae and sacked and burned Athens. However, his fleet was destroyed at Salamis and his army routed at Plataea. And the Greeks were later to take a terrible revenge when Alexander the Great conquered Iran in 330 BC, burning its most glorious city, Persepolis, seemingly as deliberate pay-back for the destruction of Athens, and bringing the Achaemenid Dynasty to an abrupt end.

However, the Greek presence in Iran was relatively fleeting, and from one of Iran's former provinces emerged a new dynasty: the Parthians, who effectively established the Euphrates as the boundary between East and West for the next 750 years and repelled all attempts of the Roman Empire to expand into their territories. In 224 AD, the Parthians were overthrown by another emerging Iranian dynasty, who introduced Zoroastrianism as the state religion. With its origins stretching back some 3,500 to 2,500 years, Zoroastrianism can lay claim to being the world's oldest monotheistic religion. It survives to this day among a small community in Yazd in Iran and among the Parsees in India.

In the 7th century the rise of Islam was one of the great turning-points in Iranian history, when Arab armies overran much of the country within two decades of Muhammad's death. Yet despite the long subsequent dominance of Arab rulers, the persistence of the Iranian identity, language and culture was impressive.

It was during this period that Persian, or Farsi (which takes its name from the south-western province of Parsa) developed as a sophisticated literary language. Its first monumental manifestation, the 'Shahnameh' (The Book of Kings), was completed by Firdowsi in 1010. The 50,000 couplets of this exotic mixture of myth and history did much to preserve for all time native pride in the country's heroic pre-Islamic past. Other poets, notably Sa'di and Hafiz, who excelled in other poetic forms, subsequently added to the international reputation of Persian verse and the literature of Iran was studied and imitated over a wide swathe of the Islamic world, from the Balkans to South Asia.

The 11th-12th century Omar Khayyam is primarily remembered in Iran as a mathematician and astronomer and it was somewhat fortuituous that Edward Fitzgerald obtained a rare manuscript of his verses in the mid 19th century. The roba'i, or quatrain, was a traditional, often extempore, poetic form in Iran and Omar is not rated as among the poetic greats in his homeland. However, it is baffling that the curators make no reference in either the show or the book to Omar Khayyam, whose 'Rubaiyat' (or collection of roba'i), thanks to Fitzerald's inspired renderings and artful sequencing of the verses, has made these Persian verses one of the most popular translated poetic works in the English language.

Illustration of poetry was central to the flowering of Iranian painting. The exquisite examples on show here are an outstanding feature of the exhibition. On some pages the text is reduced to a single couplet, which acts as a caption to the image.

Miniatures were also significant in recording historic events. One such on display is 'Shah Isma'il Safavi Defeats the Aqqoyunlu', depicting his victory over a rival Turkmen tribe, the Aqqoyunlu (White Sheep), during his struggle for supreme power. Isma'il ascended the throne in 1501 and the Safavid dynasty he founded ruled Iran for over two hundred years, reaching its acme under Shah Abbas I, a contemporary of Elizabeth I. During his reign Shah Abbas transformed Isfahan into one of the most majestic and beautiful cities in the world.

In the early 16th century the majority of Iranians were orthodox Sunni Muslims, but Shah Isma'il imposed Shi'ism as the country's religion. The Shi'ites hold that the true succession for the leadership of the Faith runs not through the Caliphs, who were appointed from among Muhammad's closest followers after the death of the Prophet, but through his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Iran is still the only theocratic state in which the majority follows this form of Islam, a factor that has contributed to Iran's sense of national identity over the last half millennium.

Having gained the throne, Isma'il went to great lengths to obscure his Turkmen (and possibly Kurdish) origins. He managed on the one hand to elaborate a genealogy that included the Prophet and his son-in-law Ali among his progenitors and on the other to claim ancestry among Iran's kings of old, justifying dubbing himself in the antique fashion as 'Shah'. It is a peculiarity of these later Iranian dynasties that they almost all derived from war-like Turkic-speaking minorities, who learned Farsi and were thoroughly schooled in Persian culture, but continued to speak Turkish among themselves.

Shah Abbas I dispatched an embassy to Europe at the end of the 16th century, hoping to forge a grand alliance against his arch-enemies, the Ottomans, who were by then universally recognized by Sunni Muslims as successors to the Caliphate. This pact never materialized, but thereafter exchanges between Iran and the West increased. European prints and oil paintings began to influence Iranian artists. Perhaps exaggerated tales of western women's immodest dÉcolletÉs led the painter of 'Sheikh San'an Encounters the Christian Maiden' (1676) to depict respectable European ladies wearing topless dresses in the presence of a bishop.

Safavid court fashions caught the eye of European monarchs, thanks to the visits of Iranian ambassadors and their entourages, and to the descriptions of western travellers to that region. Louis XIV of France took a fancy to wearing Safavid high-heels, which were subsequently widely imitated. Charles II adopted the waistcoat 'after the Persian mode', which in due course morphed into the three-piece suit.

By 1845 the Qajar Shah Muhammad had received photographic equipment as diplomatic gifts from both Queen Victoria and Tsar Nicholas I. The Shah developed an enthusiasm for the new medium and his son Nasir al-Din Shah, who was no less captivated by it, became an expert photographer, making high-quality images of the court, his harem and even his favourite cat.

This royal patronage encouraged the wide-spread use of photographs by local painters. A remarkable oil, 'Ladies Around a Samovar', probably from the 1870s, depicts some of the Shah's harem, the ladies' features almost certainly taken from Nasir al-Din's own photographs, as it would have been unthinkable for a male painter to have direct access to them. An earlier watercolour portrait of the Shah himself, sitting on a western-style sofa, was apparently also created from a photograph.

Nasir al-Din seems to have been fascinated by western ballet costumes, which he would have known from imported illustrations of them. The bell-shaped, calf-length 'Romantic' tutu, which became popular from the 1830s, inspired him to raise the long hemlines of his harem, as evidenced by the skirts of the 'Ladies Around the Samovar'. He made his first trip to Europe in 1873, enabling him to attend the ballet in person. This was a period when tutus became markedly shorter and on the Shah's return the harem's hemlines were raised even further, being reduced, to judge by the historic example on show here, to the length of mini-skirts.

Epic Iran; V&A, London; 29 May - 12 September 2021

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023