PRINT November 1965

Iranian Art

CURRENTLY TOURING THE U.S. is an impressive exhibition entitled “7000 Years of Iranian Art.”* This exhibition, circulated by the Smithsonian Institution through the cooperation of the governments of Iran and of the United States, consists mainly of objects loaned from the Teheran Archaeological Museum and the Collection Foroughi. The exhibition’s range of subject matter is highly diverse and comprises not only works of art, craft, and decorative artisanship representing the many cultural transitions experienced historically by the Iranian people, but also artifacts of peoples of other nations and cultures who have at various times in the remote past occupied the area contained within the political boundaries of modern Iran.

The catalog, though tasteful in format and handsomely illustrated, has many defects: a glossary would have been a welcome appendage, as would have been the notation of such conspicuous, but nonetheless confusing errata, as the use of “B.C.” after some parenthesized dates relating to the Sasanian period where “A.D.” was obviously intended. In many instances the catalog essays are so written as to presuppose a reader with considerable antecedent reference for terms and concepts relating to (1) prehistoric anthropology (2) divisions and periods of the Persian, Macedonian and Byzantine empires and (3) the extremely complicated fabric of political, religious and ethnic institutions and factions that made up the early, polymorphous Islamic world. On the other hand, much information necessary to answer questions raised by the exhibits and to surround them with sufficient historical context is omitted. A case in point: a sect of eastern Christians, the Nestorians, once regarded as heretical by both the Roman and Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox) churches and only recently amalgamated with the latter, has played a minor, but not unimportant role in Persian history since the Fifth Century B.C. The Nestorians were generally tolerated and, under occasional politically favorable circumstances, even protected by the Persians in pre-Islamic as well as in Islamic times. The Nestorians are not mentioned in the catalog, in spite of the fact that, placed among numerous Islamic artifacts, is an item merely captioned as “lacquered box,” on the lid of which is an orientalized depiction of the Adoration of the Magi of probable Nestorian origin.

Another serious defect of the catalog is the ambiguity created by its constant use of the word Iranian in different senses. Artifacts of the Third and Fourth Millennia B.C. are described as “Iranian Art,” where the word must be taken in a purely geographic sense (i.e. referring to the Iranian Plateau, generally, or to the area now constituting modern Iran). The Indo-European people who ultimately constituted, in the linguistic and sociological sense, if not always in the political sense, an Iranian nation (and who from ancient times have maintained a continuous sense of identity as such despite numerous alien subjugations and infiltrations) had certainly not populated this geographic area in significantly large or cohesive groups prior to the Tenth Century B.C. This latter fact is implicit but never explicit in the catalog essay on pre-Islamic Iranian history, and thus there is no mending of ambiguous impressions created by the use of the phrase “Iranian art” in several senses.

Such elucidations as are attempted in the catalog unfortunately consist of misleading oversimplifications of history that lend themselves to abundant, wooly attempts to establish some sort of unity or continuity to Iranian art in terms of a “national esthetic.” If there indeed exists such an identifiable continuity as an indigenous Iranian esthetic weltan-schauung, vague history, wooly esthetics and ambiguous terminology are hardly useful implements with which to discern it, and tend only to compound confusion where difficulties are manifold and where clarity, precision, and the most rigorous disciplines of definition must be brought to bear on a complex polymorphous fabric of facts and phenomena. One finds for example the following statement in the essay entitled “Iran Under Islam”: “By now the art of the book, especially of the Koran, had developed a specifically Persian idiom as shown by the angular type of script . . . ” The script referred to is Kufic, an angularly symmetrized variant of the older more curvilinear and flowing Aramaic writing, usually called cursive, and later differentiated from Kufic by the term “Nashki.” Kufic script was first evolved by the decorative ingenuity of metal-smiths and stonecutters among the Sabaean and Himyaritic Arabs and its most minute details of form and proportions had already been crystallized into traditional canons of calligraphy long before its use by the Persians.

The oldest objects in the exhibition are artifacts of painted earthenware pottery dating from the Fourth Millennium B.C. and which can be assigned to the earliest known inhabitants of the Iranian Plateau, who can be identified only as nomadic hunters of the late Stone Age. Within this period differentiations and modifications of style can be identified with different excavation sites spread over a fairly large geographic region. At some sites periods of technical and stylistic evolution, including the advent of the potter’s wheel, can be traced through successive layers of excavation.

Following the cases of artifacts from prehistoric cultures, there is a large body of exhibits that already begins to manifest the eclecticism which characterizes the art of nearly all peoples of the Iranian Plateau in all periods. First and foremost among these, and perhaps the piece de resistance, is the group of objects, including pottery, together with vessels and ornaments of gold, silver and electrum, collectively designated as artifacts of “The Marlik Culture.” Most of the objects were excavated at Marlik, although some pieces have been included in the group by reasons of stylistic affinity which were actually found at Hasanlu and Kalardasht.

Apparently doubts, disagreements, and room for a certain range of controversial speculation exist among scholars with respect to assigning the Marlik and stylistically related artifacts to any specifically identifiable ethnocultural group. The author of the catalog essay on these artifacts is noncommittal, dating them as between 1200 and 1000 B.C. and identifying them as Iranian only in the geographic sense. (There is no specific catalog reference to anything in the exhibition as of ethnically Iranian manufacture prior to the Median and Achaemenid period). As to the Marlik finds, the catalog merely alludes to stylistic affinities with Elamo-Mesopotamian prototypes and suggests that the gold work could have been imported from elsewhere, most probably Susa, the ancient capital of Elam.

Another large body of exhibits consists of bronze artifacts from Luristan. Here the same polymorphous eclecticism of style and the same ambiguities exist as for the Marlik objects. A few of these pieces can be dated by cuneiform inscriptions bearing the name of Babylonian and Elamite kings. Others are of uncertain date and have by some authorities been associated with the Cimmerians, while other scholars insist on stressing stylistic resemblances to Scythian artifacts.

By the end of the 7th Century B.C. the Medes, ethnic cousins to the Persians, had established themselves as the first Indo-European political nation in Iran. Together with the Babylonians, they defeated the Assyrians and, in the process, borrowed Assyrian culture. However, the ascendancy of the Medes was soon eclipsed by the Persians who under Cyrus the Great, established an empire which extended from the Indus to the Nile. The period of this empire is referred to as the Achaemenid period and is represented in this exhibition by only a rather small selection of artifacts. The Persians likewise borrowed the basic forms of their arts and architecture from the Assyrians. They wrote their Indo-European language in cuneiform, a system of writing adapted primarily to impressing a clay tablet with characters formed from various combined positions and orientations of a wedge-shaped stylus. The Assyrians and Babylonians had inherited this form of writing from the Sumerians, a non-Semitic, non-Indo-European people, who created the first civilization in Western Asia on the west bank of the Euphrates delta.

All that was the Persian empire became, under Alexander the Great, part of the Macedonian empire. No objects clearly defined as belonging to this era, designated as the Saleucid period, are included in the exhibition. With the decline of the Macedonian empire, Iran was briefly under the domination of the Parthians, but finally overthrew this yoke to maintain from 224 A.D. until the middle of the 7th Century a native dynasty, the Sasanians, who claimed descent from Achaemenid ancestors and who enjoyed a court life of great luxury, uninterrupted by political strife or foreign threats until the Arab conquest of 651 A.D. The art of the Sasanians was primarily a court art, as was also that of the Achaemenids, with the difference that these were times of peace in which the expansionist urges of the younger and more athletic nation of the Achaemenids had long since given way to a preoccupation with the civilized “good life” that could at least be enjoyed by the privileged elite. Artisanship, instead of eulogizing military conquests, was devoted to the production of ornately decorated luxuries and baubles, while the figurative arts were preoccupied with the depiction of scenes of hunting, feasting and sensually refined amatory dalliance. In style as well as in subject matter, this was a “decadent” art, imitating with inferior sensibility and with quasi-rococo elaboration, the “classic” models of earlier Persian transformation of Mesopotamian mannerisms.

The Arab conquests and the Islamization of Persia did not befall Iran as a culturally totally alien occupation, for just as the Achaemenid had borrowed Semitic cultural elements from the Mesopotamians, so likewise, the Persia of the Sasanians had long been undergoing spontaneous Semitization under the influence of neighboring Arab cultures.

Together with borrowing the Aramaic alphabet, the Persians borrowed an enormous written vocabulary of Arabic words, which were, however, in reading, “translated” into their spoken Persian equivalents. This, of course, led to assigning to various Aramaic characters phonetic values other than those they possessed for the Arabs. This particular historic phase of the development of the Persian language is variously called “Middle Persian” and “Pahlavi.”

Persian adoption of Mohammedanism likewise was not altogether unspontaneous or culturally incompatible with the Persian ethos. From the time of their earliest emergence on the Iranian Plateau as a nation, the Persians had in Zoroastrianism an indigenous religion (the only major indigenous aspect of their culture, except for their language). Zoroastrianism, like Mohammedanism, was a revealed religion founded by a single “inspired” or “prophetic” individual and was essentially monotheistic. The Persians had, for many reasons, far more common ground of cultural compatibility with their Arab neighbors than with the European West; they had not absorbed Hellenism during Saleucid times with any enthusiasm or to any significant degree. If a dependent and subject nation they were destined to be, they were no doubt happy to be within the sphere of Islam rather than of Byzantium. Not only could Persia comfortably integrate with the Arabo-Islamic ethos, but she could and did, in many functions, assume a dominant cultural role within its milieu.

Of most interest to scholar and public alike are the archaeological exhibits. The arts and crafts of Persia after the Arab “assimilation” became a subspecies of the larger generality of Islamic culture. To be sure, however, the discerning eye may perceive in the ceramics, metallurgy, book illuminations and cabinetry of Persian craftsmanship a more elegant, economical and tasteful employment of Islamic motifs and a more refined adaptation of the Kufic and Nashki variants of Aramaic script to decorative functions than was usual in other areas of the Mohammedan world. Iran was to suffer a few more subjugations and invasions before once again emerging as an independent nation. But these were more in the nature of military, civil and political crises than of cultural suppressions. The Islamic world as a whole tended to assimilate and to “convert” its conquerors were they Seljuks, Ottomans or Mongolians.

A few viewers of the exhibition may find the figurative elements in the Islamic-Persian decorative artifacts, as well as the 18th-century easel portraits of the Persian dignitaries, dancing girls and courtesans, puzzling in the light of the popularly known prohibitions of the Mohammedan religion with respect to figurative representation. In this connection it should be noted that the Iranians are, for the most part, members of the Shi’ite sect—the least orthodox and the most latitudinous of the many religious and political factions into which Islam splintered not too long after the Prophet’s death. Under the influence of increased contacts with Europe, and especially since the advent of the news camera, all but the most provincial outposts of the Islamic world have considerably relaxed the ancient restrictions on naturalism and representation in the arts.

As the late Sir Leonard Wooley, who was a leading archaeologist and one of the foremost scholars of the history and anthropology of western Asia, has pointed out, it is almost impossible to comprehend the culture or history of any particular area of the Middle East in isolation from the rest of the region. It is equally impossible to find in any Middle Eastern area a “native” people, maintaining for any significant period, an unbroken cultural continuity of a homogeneously indigenous character, comparable say, to the relatively static monolithism and homogeneity of Egyptian culture over a period of nearly 3000 years.

In no part of the world have more diverse ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups been in more constant mobility or fallen into more complex kaleidoscopic patterns of intensive and accelerated cultural interchange than in the land between the Asiatic shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the western foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. There, in historical times, Semitic, Indo-European, Turkish and Mongolian people have come together in commerce and in war, and as conquerors or as conquered, have borrowed from one another arts, crafts, styles, alphabets, ideas and religions, while, at the dawn of history and long before, still other peoples were there in similar flux, some of whom disappeared with little trace, while others left conquering invaders heirs to their civilization and inventions.

One sees in Iranian artistry a veritable kaleidoscope of eclecticisms. Perhaps the essential genius of the Iranians is to be found in the fluid and sophisticated cosmopolitanism with which they have proved themselves always able to refine, to amplify and to articulate that which they borrowed from others. Seldom inventors, they were superb adapters and developers. At the height of Islam’s maximum expansion throughout the Mediterranean world, the Caliphal seat was moved from Medina to Bagdad, near Persia, which became, not as Medina had been, the focal point of contending segments of factional Arabian provincialism, but a cosmopolitan center profoundly infiltrated by the Persians, who became a cultural elite within the empire, while the Persian language, for a time, superseded Aramaic as the literary language of the Islamic world.

Palmer D. French


*At the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, from June 25–August 1, 1965 and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from August 20 to September 26, 1965.