‘I am Darius the Great King, King of Kings, king of countries containing all kinds of men, king in this great earth far and wide, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenian, a Persian, son of a Persian, an Aryan, having Aryan lineage.’
These words appear in an inscription on the tomb of Darius I (r. 522-486 BC) at Naqsh-e Rustam, a necropolis near the ancient ceremonial capital of Persepolis in Iran. The third of the Kings of Kings of the Achaemenid dynasty (550-330 BC) tells us that he is Persian – the Achaemenid kings were ethnic Persians who settled in Fars, south-west Iran – but also that he is ariya (‘Aryan’), a word that shows that by his reign people in Iran were calling themselves Iranians. Centuries later but at the same site, a king of a different dynasty, the Sasanian Shapur I (r. AD 240-270), gives the first written reference to Eranshahr (‘Empire of the Iranians’).
But Iran’s history runs much deeper than this, reaching back long before these words for Iranians and their empire begin to appear, long before the powerful Achaemenids came to unite Iran politically under one Persian empire, dominating lands ‘far and wide’ across the whole of the Middle East, and as far as North Africa, the Aral Sea, and the River Indus. Epic Iran, a major new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is the first in the UK since the 1930s to explore the full sweep of this extensive history – from the beginnings of civilisation right up to vibrant works of contemporary photography, sculpture, painting and more.
By the end of the 4th millennium BC, large urban settlements began to appear at sites like Tepe Sialk in central Iran, Tepe Yahya in the east, and Susa in the south-west. The first evidence of writing in Iran dates back to around 3200 BC, in the form of clay tablets with Proto-Elamite cuneiform inscriptions detailing various commodities found at a number of these sites. This is within a few hundred years of the emergence of writing in Mesopotamia and Egypt; writing was appearing at roughly the same time in all these areas.
As Mesopotamian and Egyptian sites were more widely excavated and written about in the 1930s, Iran’s early civilisation had been somewhat overlooked. Indeed, some thought that the Proto-Elamite civilisation which produced these tablets was simply an offshoot of Mesopotamian civilisation, a theory that has been discounted, especially as more discoveries came to light through work in the 1960s and 1970s, at slightly later sites like Shahdad, with its fine jewellery and metalwork, and Jiroft, where many ornate vessels carved out of grey-green chlorite have been found.
Dr John Curtis, co-curator of the exhibition and Academic Director of the Iran Heritage Foundation, says, ‘Iran had a civilisation which was equally prosperous, basically. Some of the incredible things produced in these places show that. But writing was not really as extensive in Iran as it was in Mesopotamia. So you don’t have these huge hoards of cuneiform tablets telling you exactly what was going on – that’s the only difference, really.’
There were connections between Iran’s early urban centres and Mesopotamia, which were linked through extensive trade networks. And, later, the Elamite civilisation stayed connected to Mesopotamia. Elam, a culture based in south-west Iran, flourished from the 3rd millennium BC to the time of the Achaemenid empire. The Elamites traded with Mesopotamian city-states, but at various times also faced them in war, bringing loot back to their cities, like their capital of Susa. One notable example of such plunder is the Law Code of Hammurabi, found in the Elamite capital, far from its original home of Babylon.
In the late 19th century, French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan continued excavations at Susa, and even built the Château de Suse there, repurposing excavated glazed and inscribed bricks from the site to fashion a medieval-style castle as a base for his fieldwork. The Code of Hammurabi and other finds from de Morgan’s excavations at Susa, as well as Elamite works from further sites, are in the Louvre in Paris today, among them impressive large-scale bronze sculptures depicting individuals. Epic Iran has one intriguing miniature example of these bronze portraits, dating from the Middle Elamite period (c.1500-1100 BC) and just 16cm high. ‘It’s quite unique. There’s nothing of this kind of quality of this size at all from Elam,’ says Curtis. The object – probably a votive statue, once set up in a shrine – depicts a man and a woman, both richly dressed in fringed garments, suggesting they are an Elamite king and queen, and both holding out their right arms. While the woman holds a bird to her chest with her left arm, neither of their right arms retain the objects that they formerly held aloft.
While Elamites were producing such works in the south-west, Iranian-speaking peoples from Central Asia – among them Persians and Medes – began to arrive on the Iranian plateau, settling and mingling with local populations by around 1500 BC. Eventually, in 550 BC, one of these Persians – the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great – conquered the Medes, establishing the Persian empire. A decade later, he captured Elam and Susa. But the Elamite capital remained an important city in the Achaemenid period, home to a magnificent palace built by Darius I.
Cyrus went on to conquer Babylon in 539 BC. A famous foundation inscription from some rebuilding work at the city, known as the Cyrus Cylinder, tells us that this was a peaceful occupation. It also reports that the conquering Persian king absolved the inhabitants from forced labour obligations (like tithes), returned to their shrines the god-statues that had been seized by the Babylonian kings, and allowed deported peoples to return to their homelands. Curtis says, ‘Instead of describing it as the first bill of human rights, I would say it’s a document that shows that Cyrus was quite a pragmatic ruler, and was ready to compromise and rule with collaboration rather than coercion.’
From surviving Achaemenid objects and structures, we can see how they drew influences from many cultures, both within Iran and further afield. Elamite influence can be detected at Persepolis, the ceremonial capital started by Darius: the tablets found at the site are written in Elamite, indicating that at least parts of the administration were conducted in the language. The Achaemenids also made changes by incorporating different traditions into their own art and architecture. Darius’ palace at Susa is built partly according to Iranian tradition, and partly Babylonian. The Babylonian section has panels of glazed bricks, but these are made out of sintered quartz rather than the customary clay of Babylon.
Dazzling examples of Achaemenid art come from the Oxus Treasure, a collection of gold and silver objects discovered on the north bank of the River Oxus in modern-day Tajikistan between 1877 and 1880. Dating from 500-330 BC, these fine pieces of metalwork were probably deposited at the site as offerings in a temple that has long since been washed away by the river. Among these offerings, too, we can see the influence of other cultures. A model of a two-wheeled chariot with riders – a typical royal Achaemenid vehicle that is also seen in reliefs in Persepolis – has on its front the Egyptian dwarf-god Bes, a frequent figure in Achaemenid art.
The model chariot is not the only item in the hoard to carry some royal associations. There are two arresting gold armlets with intricate winged and horned griffins at the ends. As Curtis explains, ‘You can see armlets like this being presented to the Persian king on the Apadana, or Audience Hall, reliefs at Persepolis. So we know that big gold armlets like this were considered special objects that were good enough to be given to kings. I doubt whether these armlets were ever worn, because they’re very big and it wouldn’t be practical to wear such a thing. They were probably made simply for presentation.
‘There is a rather wonderful detail in these Oxus Treasure armlets. You can see that there are lots of cavities for inlay and this inlaying pieces of jewellery with semi-precious stones and enamel is a very characteristic thing in Achaemenid art. And you can see exactly the same sort of thing in a pendant and an earring – which are also in the exhibition – where the inlays are still intact.’
Beyond the Oxus Treasure, another type of object linked with the Achaemenid kings and courtiers is the rhyton: a horn-shaped curving drinking vessel used at banquets, and often embellished with the head of an animal (real or mythical) such as a lion, horse, or griffin. For those without the means to afford metal, clay versions were created with animals at the end, but for those in power these lavish vessels were made out of gold and silver. According to Greek sources, Persian kings and their armies had a great many of the sumptuous drinking vessels and they were, on occasion, seized by the Greeks, for example after the Battle of Plataea.
The Achaemenid kings paid homage to the god Ahuramazda – the supreme creator and deity of wisdom revered in Zoroastrianism, a religion formalised by the prophet Zoroaster. ‘The problem is,’ Curtis explains, ‘they certainly venerated Ahuramazda; whether they knew of the prophet Zoroaster is another question. They may not have, and he’s never mentioned in Achaemenid inscriptions.’
Ahuramazda is mentioned in inscriptions, though, such as in the reliefs on Darius’ palace, casts of which are presented in the exhibition with projections of coloured light, reflecting their original decoration. There is also a winged disc that appears in Achaemenid art and that some have interpreted as a representation of the deity. Ahuramazda and other Zoroastrian motifs become much more frequent after the rise of the Sasanian dynasty (AD 224-651), and Zoroastrianism is made the official religion of the empire under Ardashir I in about AD 230. Sasanian kings like Ardashir, who calls himself a ‘Mazda worshipper’, embellish their coins with the fire altar, an important symbol of the religion.
The Sasanians saw themselves as the heirs of the Achaemenids; just like their predecessors, they were Persians from Fars. But between the two, there were several shifts in power. The Achaemenid empire was overthrown by Alexander the Great and the Macedonian army, who looted Persepolis and burnt the city. After Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 BC and the subsequent partition of his empire, his general Seleucus took charge of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Iran, establishing the Seleucid Empire in 305 BC. Several decades later, about 240 BC, a nomadic tribe from central Asia invaded Iran, marking the start of the Parthian dynasty. The Parthians would rule for centuries, leaving behind works that show early Hellenistic influences, silver-gilt rhytons with animal heads, and statues that depict their typical Iranian dress including their trousers.
It was the Sasanian king Ardashir who overthrow the Parthian powers. At its height, the sprawling empire of the victorious Sasanian dynasty stretched from Egypt to Afghanistan. They boasted powerful rulers such as Shapur I, who defeated not one but three Roman emperors, and Khosrow II, who captured Jerusalem in AD 614 during wars with Byzantium.
If the gold or silver rhyton is associated with the Achaemenid royals, the Sasanians had a different type of regal metalware: the silver dish. ‘Unfortunately, most of them have not been found in archaeological contexts,’ Curtis says. ‘Quite a lot of them actually have been found in south Russia, which is why there’s such a wonderful collection in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. And it seems that the reason for that is that they are made in Iran and then taken to those areas in payment for furs.’
These exquisite objects depict in relief a range of scenes relating to court life, including the king being crowned and the king hunting, sometimes on a leaping horse, and chasing down a variety of quarry – ibex, leopard, lion, stag. In these images, the king can be identified by his specific crown, which appears on his coins too. Others show Zoroastrian motifs, such as a haloed bird with a diadem. These diadems are a symbol of kingship and are presented by Ahuramazda to the king on Sasanian rock reliefs. The exact same imagery of a bird with the diadem appears in other media, including textiles, such as a red silk from Jouarre Abbey in France, dating from c.AD 600-900.
Despite the might of the Sasanian empire, they were – like the Achaemenid dynasty – overthrown by newcomers from outside Iran. In AD 637, Arab armies defeated the Sasanian forces of Yazdigird III, ushering in a new phase of history. People from Arabia were settling in Iran before this date, though there is little evidence of their presence in the archaeological record, such as through seals or distinctive south Arabian limestone statuary, before the conquest.
Sasanian objects like the dishes travelled far, but their legacy can be felt across time too. Their influence can be seen clearly in an 11th-century silver dish with an enthroned monarch of the Ghaznavid dynasty, which ruled East Iran from 977 to 1186. Even the winged crown this ruler wears is based on Sasanian examples.
The Sasanian link to kingship continued in literature as well. Iran’s national epic, the Shahnameh (‘The Book of Kings’), was completed by Firdowsi in AD 1010. It is written in a Persian literary language, with Persian words – and Arabic loanwords – written down using the Arabic script. The poet combines mythology and history to relate the exploits of legendary and real kings, drawing from Sasanian sources; he is thought to have had a copy of the Sasanian Book of Kings and added to it. The immense and enduring popularity of Firdowsi’s Shahnameh – which is reproduced in magnificently illustrated manuscripts for the great and the good, including Iran’s later rulers like the Safavid Shah Tahmasp I (r. 1524-1576) – helped secure a legacy for Sasanian kings for centuries to come.
And while the Achaemenids are not well-remembered in the Shahnameh (the only king mentioned is the last one, Darius III), their rulers have had impact in modern Iran, with infamously lavish festivities organised by the last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1971 to mark the 2,500th anniversary of Cyrus’ founding of the Persian empire. The first Persian empire may date back some 2,500 years, but, as the V&A exhibition highlights, Iran’s culture stretches back much further – and these are millennia of art worth celebrating.
Epic Iran is due to open at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in May. It is currently scheduled to run until 12 September 2021. See www.vam.ac.uk/epic-iran for updates and further details.
A catalogue by John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, and Tim Stanley is available from V&A Publishing (ISBN 978-1851779291, price £40).