Iran has a long history of exquisite art and design that reflects its changing dynasties, conquerers, and global relationships. These resulted in a constantly evolving material culture that has been influenced by, and in turn has influenced, many societies around the world.
The new Epic Iran exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London represents the first extensive display of Iranian art in the UK for 90 years, since the Royal Academy’s exhibition in 1931. Through ten sections, featuring 350 objects, it sets out to tell the story of Iran from its earliest civilisations to the present day.
On entering the exhibition, you are introduced to Iran’s earliest societies through objects from the Proto-Elamite culture that flourished there between 3200 and 2900 BC. Presented in an area surrounded by ‘mud-brick’ walls, this section highlights the significant urban settlements that the Proto-Elamites established at sites like Susa, Tepe Sialk, and Tepe Tahya by the 4th millennium BC. The early appearance of writing is noted, with administrative clay tablets bearing Proto-Elamite cuneiform dating to c.3200 BC, roughly contemporary with the emergence of writing in nearby Mesopotamia and Egypt. In addition to these hallmarks of sophisticated society, there are many examples of the finely made pottery, ornate metalwork, and detailed statues and figurines produced by the highly skilled craftspeople of the Proto-Elamite culture.
The objects in this section also reflect the extensive trade network that existed across the Iranian plateau and further afield by 2500 BC, with signs of cultural exchange evident in pieces of Iranian pottery decorated with Mesopotamian motifs and vessels made of chlorite from eastern Iran that were found spread across the ancient Near East.
By 2000 BC, indigenous civilisations had begun to fade in eastern Iran, but the Elamites continued to thrive in the south-west of the country right up until the beginning of the Persian Empire in 550 BC. The Elamites remained in close contact with other civilisations, such as the Babylonians and Assyrians in Mesopotamia, although their relationships were not always friendly and warfare is a feature of the era. These links are reflected in objects bearing Elamite royal inscriptions written in Mesopotamian languages, such as Attahushu’s tankard, a vessel presented by a local scribe to the ruler of Susa c.1900 BC, which is inscribed with a combination of Sumerian and Akkadian. Religion was also an important part of Elamite culture, evident in examples of art and architecture like the small votive figurine depicting a finely dressed worshipping couple, dating to c.900-700 BC, which was probably left in a temple or sanctuary.
From c.1200, new groups of migrants began to arrive in Iran from other regions, founding a series of small states that flourished over the following centuries. Among these new arrivals was a tribe called the Medes, who gradually became more powerful in central and eastern Iran, joining forces with the Babylonians to defeat the Assyrians in north Mesopotamia in 612 BC. A wealth of gold, bronze, and other luxury items found at sites dated to this ‘Age of Migration’ reveal that many of Iran’s new occupants had their own rich and well-developed material cultures.
Several of these luxury items indicate that their owners benefited from trade with other regions, with objects displaying cultural influences from south Russia, the Near East, and Egypt found at sites around Iran. At the same time, ornate gold beakers and bowls like those found at the cemetery site of Marlik in northern Iran provide evidence for the skilled metalworking traditions that existed within the region during this period.
The Persian Empire
The Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC, is often described as Iran’s ‘golden age’. It was characterised by advances in art, design, and architecture, as well as administration, civil engineering, and governance. The architecture of splendid Persian building projects like the royal palace at Susa and the new ceremonial centre, Persepolis, is the predominant feature of this section of the exhibition. Fragments of reliefs and examples of fine stone-working from these monumental sites are complemented by large casts of facades lit up by projections to show how they would originally have looked in full colour, and by late 19th-century copies of vibrant glazed brick panels, giving you a sense of the opulent and colourful world occupied by the Achaemenids.
The wealth and power of the empire is also exemplified by the beautiful objects made by highly skilled craftspeople around Iran. On display are several pieces of the Oxus Treasure, a hoard found in the Oxus river, containing pieces of intricate gold and silver metalwork, as well as several rhytons, decorated drinking or pouring vessels that were popular in the Achaemenid period.
The Achaemenid dynasty brought a vast area under its control and created a united Iran for the first time. The administration involved in the governance of such a large territory is reflected here in small objects such as coins, which were used as both an economic tool and a way of circulating official royal images, as well as in celebrated artefacts like the Cyrus Cylinder, a seal created by Cyrus the Great after his capture of Babylon in 539 BC, inscribed with Babylonian cuneiform recording the event.
As a result of the vast scale of the Achaemenid Empire, naturally much of its art and architecture reflects influences from Assyria, Babylonia, Ionia, Egypt, and other cultures, combined with Iranian and Elamite traditions (see CWA 85). Achaemenid culture also incorporated elements of the earlier styles of the Medes, with reliefs from Persepolis depicting courtiers in both Median clothing (belted tunics, trousers, and round hats) and Persian costume (pleated robes and fluted headdresses).
The Achaemenid Empire was felled by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, and the period that followed was characterised by power struggles, with control passing from the military general Seleucus, who established the Seleucid Empire in Iran, Mesopotamia, and northern Syria, to a nomadic tribe from Central Asia known as the Parthians, who came to power in 238 BC and ruled until the Sasanian dynasty took control several centuries later, in AD 224.
The last ancient empires
Both the Parthians and the Sasanians were wealthy peoples who traded extensively with other regions, and these riches and external cultural influences are reflected in their art and design. The Parthians controlled an important trade route between Rome and China, and much of their early material culture reflects influences from Greece. However, they developed a unique Parthian style over time, characterised by notable features such as the front-facing figures depicted on coins and in relief carvings. Sasanian material culture contains many images related to the new state religion – Zoroastrianism, which was closely connected to Sasanian ideas about kingship – but there are examples of influences from Greece and other regions, too. This dichotomy is reflected in objects like a silver dish made in typical Sasanian style, depicting a goddess seated on a lion surrounded by figures from Classical mythology – an intriguing combination of Sasanian and Graeco-Roman traditions, and just one example of the beautiful silverware for which the Sasanians were renowned. Their extensive trade with distant locations is also demonstrated by the presence of objects like faceted glass drinking bowls, which were made in Iran and have been found in tombs and temples in China, Japan, and Korea.
The lasting influence of Parthian and Sasanian culture is reflected in many elements of art and design after the Arab conquest of Iran, but perhaps the most far-reaching legacy of these cultures is demonstrated in the Shahnameh or Book of Kings, a collection of epic tales telling the story of Iran’s history, created by poet Firdowsi in the late AD 900s. Many of these myths, legends, and historical accounts are taken from the literary culture of the Parthians and Sasanians, which remained popular after the Islamic conquest, and the Shahnameh is still a key part of Iranian identity today.
In the 7th century AD, Islam spread across the Middle East, and in AD 651 the last Sasanian king was killed by Arab forces during the Islamic conquest of Iran, marking the advent of a dramatic change in the country’s religion and wider culture.
As Islam gradually replaced other religions like Zoroastrianism, the country’s existing Iranian identity began to combine with a new Muslim identity, which is reflected in Iran’s literary traditions and language. The new religion was accompanied by the arrival of Arabic, which became the language of intellectual life, but – despite contributing to advances in Arabic science and philosophy – many Iranians continued to speak Persian. By the 10th century AD, people were starting to write Persian in the Arabic script, often using Arabic loanwords, and many examples of great literature exist in this new form of the language. The Book of Constellations is a work of classical astronomy originally written in Arabic in AD 964, which had to be modified over time as the stars gradually shifted position, and many later versions were published in Persian, including the 13th-century edition in the exhibition. Also on display are many of the objects influenced by the poetry that was at the heart of Iranian culture, including manuscripts, metalwork and ceramics inscribed and painted with quotes, and art inspired by famous poems of the day.
Iran’s strong architectural traditions developed further in the Islamic period, and the ornate, intricately decorated structures built at sites like Isfahan, which became the capital of Iran in 1598 (see CWA 86), are represented in a high-ceilinged section of the exhibition space adorned with hanging tiles, projections, and textiles offering a sense of the scale and colour of the city’s architecture.
Situated at the centre of the ‘Old World’, Iran’s global trade networks played a key role in the country’s culture throughout its history. These international relationships are particularly evident in the Islamic period, when an abundance of new goods, artistic traditions, and techniques were being exchanged. For example, the famous blue-and-white porcelain created by Chinese potters was inspired by white ceramics painted in blue that were first produced in Iran in the late 1100s. When the idea was applied to high-fired white wares in China around 1300, Iran became one of the main markets for this porcelain, as well as producing its own, cheaper imitations decorated with both Chinese and Iranian patterns. Textiles were traded widely, too, with Persian carpets and silks exported across Europe, while many European and Asian artistic styles were adopted by some Iranian painters.
In the 1790s, the first Qajar shah reunited Iran, which had become fragmented over the course of the 18th century. The material culture of this period reflects the desire of the Qajar shahs to solidify their power by drawing on traditions from Iran’s past, combined with a growing influx of Western influences. The second Qajar ruler, Fath Ali Shah, commissioned a history of his reign called the Shahanshah-nameh (Book of the King of Kings), deliberately emulating the Book of Kings and the long Iranian tradition of heroic epic tales to turn his own exploits into legends and consolidate his connection to Iran’s ancient history.
The final stage of the exhibition takes you through the culture of the 20th and 21st century, influenced by the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911 and the overthrow of the last Qajar king in 1925, followed by the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty, founded by Reza Shah, and its attempts to channel Iran’s pre-Islamic past. We see the results of the period of artistic innovation that took place between the Second World War and the 1979 Revolution, in which increased travel led to a wealth of new experimental works in art, cinema, music, theatre, and literature. The story closes on the art created after the 1979 Revolution, reflecting periods of isolation and re-establishment of global relationships, with new cultural traditions that are challenging boundaries, exploring new perspectives, and drawing on events in Iran’s ancient and more recent past.
The vast scope of the exhibition, covering the full extent of Iran’s past, is really an epic undertaking. However, despite the ambitious and occasionally overwhelming narrative, the abundance of exquisite and fascinating objects presented does offer an insight into the rich tapestry of ideas, techniques, and traditions represented in Iran’s art throughout different periods. The objects themselves are the stars of the show, and Epic Iran offers a valuable view of the country’s history through the items created and used by the people of Iran, the concepts they inspired and shared, the places they lived, and the things they found beautiful.
EPIC IRAN Address: Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL Open: until 12 September 2021 Admission: £18 per person, concessions apply, members and under-12s free. Booking is essential, and there may be updates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Website: www.vam.ac.uk/epiciran