’Art & Soul

5,000 years of Iranian culture showcased

Epic Iran, a recent exhibition, brought together from across the world, objects reminding about the great civilisation

5,000 years of Iranian culture showcased

The Elamite Ziggurat at Chogha Zanbil

BN Goswamy

I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world…

When I went as harbinger of peace i[nt]o Babylon, I founded my sovereign residence within the palace… Marduk, the great lord, bestowed on me as my destiny great magnanimity… and I every day sought him out in awe…

I sought the safety of the city of Babylon and all its sanctuaries. As for the population of Babylon, I soothed their weariness; I freed them from their bonds.

— Excerpts from the Cyrus Cylinder, 6th century BCE

In the West, Iran is too often perceived as a black space, literally and metaphorically; unknown, sealed off, frightening. But here (in this exhibition), the country appears before you in full colour, the objects on display influenced by a multiplicity of cultures: Arabs, Greeks, Kurds, Jews, Zoroastrians, Azerbaijanis…

— Rachel Cooke writing in The Observer

A couple of weeks back, the Dattas — a generous, gentle Los Angeles-based couple — spoke to me about a great exhibition on Iran and its culture, and said at the same time that they had sent me — being habaaib-e ambar-dast, as the poet Faiz might have put it, ‘friends who have the fragrance of amber on their hands’ — a copy of the book published in conjunction with the show. The book — ‘Epic Iran: 5,000 Years of Culture’, published by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, based on an exhibition of the same name, which ended there at the end of August — arrived and has yielded me so much delight. For it illuminates and informs at the same time: dark corners suddenly springing into light, facts lowering themselves gently into one’s awareness.

Statue of man, unbaked clay, excavated at Shahdad, c 2500 BCE, National Museum of Iran.

Not exactly at the centre of the show, although certainly a significant part of it, was the celebrated if contested Cyrus Cylinder — the unbaked clay tablet, pieces of which were discovered in 1879, containing a long pronouncement in cuneiform script by the powerful Achaemenian ruler, Cyrus the Great, “the first attempt we know about running a society, as state with different nationalities and faiths”, “a very early formulation of human rights”. And that alone might have been reason enough for many to go and see the show. But there were other treasures that led one to an exploration of one of the great historic civilisations of the world. There were clear, finely articulated sections of the show and the book: the Land of Iran with its dramatic and varied landscapes; Emerging Iran engaging with continuous history from 3200 BCE; the Achaemenid Period in which, beginning with 550 BCE, the powerful Persian Empire established itself; the Last of the Ancient Empires when Alexander the Great overthrew the old dynasts; the Book of Kings, Firdausi’s monumental Shahnama with which virtually began the astonishing literary output of Iran; ending with a look at modern and contemporary Iran with all its struggles. It is as if a great panorama — studded with artistic and literary treasures and vignettes of power — keeps unfurling. Endlessly.

Axe-head with figures of wrestlers, bronze, the Sarikhani collection.

In the midst of all this, my great favourite — partly because I know the least about it — is the section in which one sees the early historical period, beginning with the close of the fourth millennium when the light is dim and hazy, and anything found has to be made sense of with the greatest effort. But one begins with that great ziggurat at Chogha Zanbil — a ziggurat being a massive structure in the form of a terraced compound of successively receding stories or levels — with its pure, unadorned brick façade, the structure behind it rising tier upon tier. And then there are those two proto-Elamite tablets of clay, going back to ca 3000 BCE that seem filled with abstract signs but have been read, one of them containing an account of ‘five fields and their yields’, with the total inscribed on the reverse.

Vase, chlorite, c 2500 BCE Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A highly sophisticated account seems to have been in place. In this very section is a chlorite vase, of classic purity, with concave sides and flaring rim, adorned with carved motifs of date palms. A great surprise at the same time swings into view with a bronze axe-head, now brilliantly mottled in colour, which has the figures of two wrestlers grappling each other at the back of the socket. The details of the wrestlers’ forms are dazzling: they both have hair ribbons knotted at the back of the head, and the manner in which one wrestler has the other in a headlock, and grasps his opponent’s leg with the other hand, takes one’s breath away.

Proto-Elamite Tablet, clay, c 3200 BCE, The Louvre, Paris.

For a great exhibition like this, the sponsors, the organisers, must draw upon several museums, several collections, and they did. Objects came from the Louvre, from the Metropolitan Museum, from the National Museum of Iran, the Museum of Art and History at Brussels, and so on. But a large number of objects in the exhibition came from a relatively little-known source: the Sarikhani collection. Little known because it is quietly tucked away in a private underground museum near Henley in Oxfordshire: rich in manuscripts, textiles, silverware, glass, paintings and ceramics from 3000 BCE to the 18th century: all from Iran. It is a collection built by a family that arrived in Britain with a couple of suitcases and no papers or money, having fled from Iran in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. But the love of Iran was like a steady flame burning inside each member. One has to hear Ina Sarikhani, one of the co-founders of the collection, when she talks about the objects they own. Love for them hovers all over her and brushes her words. ‘The handling of the object is really important,’ she said once to a journalist who came visiting. ‘The opening of the book, the light that is cast on the illumination, the weight of a ceramic in your hand or the coolness of metal — all of those’ are felt intrinsically.

She often cites a line from their sacred text: ‘Those who believe and do right: joy is for them and bliss (their) journey’s end.’

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