A V&A exhibition provides a rare look at a long-lived culture, John Westbrooke reports
For a country that has been at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Asia for millennia, Iran – ancient Persia – is surprisingly little known. Perhaps that’s because it’s always been on the other side of conflicts against the lands we see as the ancestors of our own civilisation: Egypt, Palestine, Greece, Rome.
So a V&A exhibition sets out to open our eyes to a fabulous history going back 5000 years – and 7000 more as settlements started to develop the trappings of civilisation, including writing and trading with other cities in Mesopotamia and the Indus valley.
There’s a chlorite (soft stone) vase, carved with alternating bands of stylised palm trees and a geometric pattern said to represent mountains. It looks surprisingly modern, and yet it dates from 2500 BC – that is, Christ’s birth is nearer to us than it is to the maker of the vase. Similar vessels have been found all over the region.
The first inhabitants of note were the Elamites, who get a couple of mentions in the Bible because they were thought to descend from Elam, Noah’s grandson. But Persia’s first era of greatness came under Cyrus, a local ruler who from 559 BC began to build a great empire. Having conquered Babylon he let all the Jewish captives there return to Jerusalem with their confiscated wealth and rebuild their Temple; so he gets kind words in the Bible too.
This is recorded in cuneiform script, a little obscurely, on the Cyrus Cylinder, a nine-inch-long clay roll found in the ruins of Babylon. Some see it as the first declaration of human rights, which may be overstating it, but it does predate the Magna Carta by some 1800 years, and points to a diverse multicultural empire in which other religions were respected. (Cyrus may have been a Zoroastrian himself, like Freddie Mercury: nobody really knows.)
It was Cyrus’s successor-but-one, Darius the Great, who built Persepolis, a great ceremonial palace in the desert. It’s now a long platform with random bits of surviving walls and arches on it, but the sides of the platform are decorated with high-detail, low-relief sculptures showing subject races bringing tribute to the Great King: Gandarians, Sagartians, Arachosians and all. These would originally have been painted, and the V&A brings them back to life with the use of coloured lights projected on plaster casts.
One of them shows a gift of gold bracelets for the king, and just such a piece of jewellery is on display, a gorgeous gold armlet with a griffin carved on each end. It’s part of the Oxus Treasure, precious articles from Darius’s time discovered about 1880. From the same hoard comes a delicate little golden model of a chariot, much like the ones in the carvings that the king uses. The artistic style of the period is called Achaemenid, but the tastes of the Persians show influences from old and newer civilisations all over the region. There are gold scabbards, gold coins, gold pendants on show. The empire was a rich one.
But Persian attempts to invade Greece were repulsed in famous victories at Marathon in 400 BC and Thermopylae 20 years later. In 331 BC, Persia itself fell to Alexander the Great of Macedon. The democratic Greeks (though they actually thought Macedonia was a barbarian backwater) were disgusted by the Persians’ imperial pomp, and burnt Persepolis.
This might have seemed like the end for Persia and yet, though Greek cities were built and Greek rule imposed, Persian identity survived – partly because, like the English after the Norman invasion, they clung to their own language.
The Sasanian empire flourished from the 3rd to the 7th century, bringing back grand architecture, luxury goods and Zoroastrianism. Its high point came when King Shapur, having seen off several Roman emperors, captured one in battle. He kept the hapless Valerian as a human footstool, before having him flayed, stuffed with straw and mounted in a temple.
Around 690 AD, Muslim armies brought down the Sasanian empire, yet Persians still resisted being overwhelmed. In the late 10th century the poet Firdowsi created the Shahnameh – the “Book of Kings”, an account of the country’s history. It starts out with mythical heroes, the equivalents of King Arthur perhaps, but gradually accumulates real events, including pre-Islamic ones. In theory, the country hadn’t existed for 300 years; Firdowsi’s writing made sure it endured, and Iran is still a land of poets
A page from a written version, dating from about 1530, demonstrates the art of calligraphy – Persians had kept their own language but used Arabic script – and of illustration, both still a vital part of Iranian culture today. An illustrated horoscope from 1411 is a cross between an early Christian manuscript illumination and the swirls of art nouveau. The architecture and design of Isfahan’s mosques is represented by projections and full-size replicas overhead.
European influence grew in the 19th century – one shah had a special interest in European ballerinas, and the skirts of ladies in his harem accordingly grew shorter. But after so many thousands of years of openness to the world, it’s disappointing that Iran has become so inward-looking.
You can’t blame them for wariness toward the West: in 1953 the US and UK mounted a coup to depose an elected prime minister who tried to nationalise Iranian oil, and installed the authoritarian Pahlavis, overthrown in turn by the austere Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.
And yet some of the recent art on show hints at continuing, if subdued, Western influence. A photo by Shirin Aliabadi, “Miss Hybrid #3”, shows a young woman blowing bubble gum, very blonde hair barely covered by a scarf, and sticking plaster on her nose that might represent a nose job.
You’re unlikely to see anyone like her on Tehran streets, but it suggests the artist knows at least as much about the Western world as we know about modern Iran. It’s a shame we have to go to an exhibition like this to find out so much more.
Epic Iran is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 12 September 2021.
For more information go to https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/epic-iran