Iran is a country that is difficult to know, but easy to love. I have never been, despite being desperate to, for various reasons which are difficult to go into, but its history is the main draw for me. To visit the ruins of Persepolis is a dream for now. They were destroyed in 330BC by Alexander the Great either by accident at the culmination by a particularly raucous Macedonian drinking session, or as an intentional act, so as to avenge the burning of Athens by Xerxes’ army in 480BC. The V&A has a new exhibition, Epic Iran, and it is a stunning exhibition of 5,000 years of Iranian history, art and culture, from the early tribes settling south of the Caspian Sea from the steppes of Asia, to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The early exhibits of clay and jewellery dating from 3000BC leads you into the Achaemenid dynasty, from 550BC when Cyrus the Great founded what is now known as the Persian Empire. Stunning art and architecture reflecting Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian influences are seen in three reliefs (two of which are reproductions) beautifully lit and coloured. The Cyrus Cylinder is particularly impressive, densely inscribed with Babylonian cuneiform, and describing Cyrus as a tolerant and enlightened ruler. Rhytons, horn shaped drinking vessels, are both plentiful and striking.
The death of Alexander saw the empire splinter as the Seleucid and then subsequently the Parthians inherited Iran, Mesopotamia and northern Syria. A new religion emerged, Zoroastrianism, but Greek and Persian heritage was retained. An example is the Relief of Heracles-Verethragna from between 100 and 200AD. In 224AD, the Sasanians took control and Zoroastrianism became dominant. Silver dishes with intricately engraved scenes show the Greek influence. My only gripe was the lack of Seleucid artefacts, but that most likely speaks to their rarity.
With the rise of Islam in the 7th century, all aspects of Iranian culture saw change. Arab conquests, however, did not mean Iranian literature and art was lost, and along with a new sense of Muslim awareness, Iran became a recognisable state in the 15th century. In 1501 Shah Isma’il made Shi’ism the official doctrine, in contrast to the Sunni Ottoman Empire.
Poetry is in the Iranian soul. I’ve spent more than a few nights with Iranians as they nostalgically recite the poetry of Rudaki and Sa’di, and the exhibition has reflected this particularly well. Then, of course, there are the carpets.
Isfahan, the home of my father-in-law, became the capital in 1598. The Safavid kings built mosques with such intricate and beautiful tiles in Naqsh-I Jahan Square that one is immediately impressed at the V&A’s attempt at recreation, and their light show works well.
The Qajar dynasty ruled Iran from 1796 to 1925 and Iran underwent revamp as the Qajars linked themselves to the Achaemenids. These were combined with imports from the west as new artistic achievements were reached, notable among them being the elaborate bookbinding.
The 20th century was a turbulent one, and the exhibition concludes with the 1979 revolution and hope for the future from the young, as artworks provocative to the repressive and regressive regime usher you out into the Kensington sunlight.
Epic Iran is on until 12th September at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Aspects of History Issue 4 is out now.