By Fuchsia Hart
The Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, is undoubtedly one of the greatest literary works ever to have been written in the Persian language. Completed in the early-11th century CE by Abu’l-Qasem Ferdowsi, it is a poem of truly epic proportions. Running to some 50,000 lines of verse, it covers the great gamut of pre-Islamic Iranian myth and history, beginning with the first man and ending with the Islamic conquests of the 7th century. Ferdowsi spent as long as three decades collating and versifying these tales from myriad oral and written traditions, some of which may date back to the 3rd century BCE. While most of the work takes place very much in the world of myth, we also encounter recognisable historical figures, such as the kings of the Sasanian dynasty, who ruled over Iran from the 3th century CE until the coming of Islam. Even these figures of history have largely been mythologised by Ferdowsi. Whether history or not, this momentous work is now held up as the national epic of Iran and remains widely read today. Over the course of the 20th century, however, the Shahnameh became more than a national epic—it became a tool for a national ideology.
Art of Persia, a three-part documentary series recently aired on BBC Four, takes the Shahnameh as its framework for a whistle-stop tour through the history and land of Iran. One of the highlights of the series is the many glimpses we get of the ‘Baysunghur Shahnameh’. Baysunghur was a prince of the 14th/15th-century Timurid dynasty, and his manuscript was completed in 1430. This is one of the most finely illustrated copies of the Shahnameh to survive today. The depictions bring colour to the stories they accompany and, incidentally, exemplify that portraying the human form has long been acceptable within Islamic contexts. While we are introduced to this manuscript and a number of other masterpieces of the arts of Iran, in general, Art of Persia does not quite fulfil the promise of its title, as art does not seem to be the focus. Rather, the emphasis is historical, with strong precedence given to the pre-Islamic history of Persia.
With an enthusiastic Samira Ahmed at the helm, backed by a cast of academics, the series aims to go behind the headlines and shed light on the Iran which is so often seen as ‘isolated, proud, defiant’. It is refreshing to see Ahmed on our screens. She is a genial host, who clearly loved the experience of touring Iran, and she certainly makes a change from the usual suspects. The approach of the series may also feel refreshing—no more dour mullahs staring grimly from our screens, but soaring scenes of stunning landscapes, vibrant markets, and the grandeur of splendours past. And Iran does look splendid. The footage is brilliant, particularly the bird’s eye views we are given from the team’s drone, such as of the long line of the Great Wall of Gorgan. It is wonderful to see some of the country’s most important historic sites beaming crisp and clean in HD. Nor are these sites empty of people. We see and hear from Iranians, giving their own thoughts about the many buildings which Ahmed explores.
These sites are used to narrate a story that appears powerful, but is overly simplistic. From the start of episode one the message appears to be that, back in its glory days, Persia was the envy of the entire ancient world. That is, until it experienced what are described as wave on wave of brutal invasions. Despite the many destructive conquests which brought new cultures, religions, and languages, Persian culture endured. The Shahnameh seems to be presented as the ‘special thing that allowed Persian language and culture to survive’ in the face of repeated attempts to destroy them. The impact of the so-called ‘Arab’ invasion which brought a new religion, Islam, and language, Arabic, is given prominence through the focus of episode two. While Islam did eventually become the religion of most Iranians, Arabic did not prevail, and the Persian language reemerged after the conquest, albeit in a different form.
We hear a similar story of the Mongols, who we meet at the beginning of episode three. When they swept into Iran in the 13th century, they are said to have ‘butchered’ the Persians; those surviving were either taken as slaves or fled. The events are described as ‘apocalyptic’—‘they slew, they plundered, they departed, that says it all’. But this doesn’t say it all. In fact, we see that, despite the ‘Mongol swarm’, Iran then flowered in a ‘golden age’ of artistic activity.
This pattern is repeated throughout Art of Persia. Genghis Khan and Timur are introduced to us as ‘warlords’ who ‘fall under the spell’ of Persian culture, as is said of Timur, adopting it as their own. As a historian of Iran and its art, it seems to me that the emphasis falls on what Persia gave to the newcomers, rather than what the newcomers gave to Persia. While we might see the appearance of Mongol faces in lavish copies of the Shahnameh, the remarkable changes the Mongols generated in painting styles and decorative motifs are largely neglected. The status of Persia in relation to her invaders is brought into sharp relief in the discussion of Nizam al-Mulk, the oft lauded Seljuk vizier: ‘like all the other great Persian viziers, his aim was to impress upon his less sophisticated new rulers the superiority of Persian civilisation and political wisdom’.
As presented in Art of Persia, there is little cultural nuance in the story. Arabs are Arabs, Persians are Persians, and the message appears to be that the twain shall never meet. The Persian culture and language, however, with their innate strength, would win out, ultimately conquering all the conquerors. According to the series, ‘in the battle to preserve Persian culture, it was Ferdowsi who would prove to be the most powerful warrior of all’.
Not only is this reading of the Shahnameh flawed, but so is the way in which it is used in this series. Using one text, dubbed ‘the soul’ or ‘essence’ of a country to understand ‘a people’ over a 3,000 year sweep of history cannot fail to be anything but essentialist. But this speaks to the wider problem of this approach to Iranian history—it espouses a perennial Persia, extant from time primordial, of one essence. This has been widely explored by Mostafa Vaziri in his 1993 work Iran as Imagined Nation. The way in which the Shahnameh is presented could be interpreted as being as much a myth as most of the ‘history’ it contains itself.
It is noteworthy that in Art of Persia, the 19th century and the ruling Qajar dynasty, now well-known for its great patronage of the arts and architecture, are reduced to a mere footnote. Towards the end of the last episode, we are told that from the mid-18th century ‘the empire slowly fell into decline and civil war, setting the stage for European colonial penetration. From being a confident culture that somehow always got the better of its conquerors, Persia became a plaything of imperial powers’. We then fast forward to 1941 and the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, who reigned until the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
While the period is undiscussed within Art of Persia, the early Pahlavi state could provide important context for viewers of the series. During the early-20th century, the Pahlavi state, led by Reza Shah, adhered to a nationalist conception of Iran, shaped to alleviate the shock caused by the experience of contact with 19th-century Europe. Having come to power through a coup d’état in 1921, Reza Shah was keen both to discredit his Qajar predecessors and modernise the nation. In order to recover from the trauma of the realisation of ‘perceived backwardness’ (in comparison with European powers), nationalist ideologues sought, first of all, a time when Persia was great, and, second, scapegoats to blame for her supposed demise. It was pre-Islamic Persia which the regime's narrative would hark back to and contact with the Islamic Arabs of the 7th century which would be held responsible for Iran’s problems.
Reza Zia-Ebrahimi, Senior Lecturer in History at King’s College London, has convincingly shown how this rhetoric was formed from the adoption of highly problematic 19th-century European ideas surrounding race. He argues that the ideology found its footing in a narrative of Arab degeneracy; the power of the Persian spirit, on the other hand, stemmed from the supposed Aryan supremacy of the Iranian people. Scholarship on the subject has shown that the word Aryan had been adopted by 19th-century European linguists from a term found in Old Persian, a language used by the 3rd-5th century BCE Achaemenid dynasty, in connection with denotations surrounding Indo-European languages and cultures. This word would then be twisted out of all recognition when it was adopted by 20th-century racist ideologues, with well-known disastrous consequences.
Zia-Ebrahimi’s research shows how this racialised conceptualisation of Persia would come to be the most potent ideology of the nation, finally being adopted as the official line under Reza Pahlavi. The Pahlavi dynasty was particularly keen to espouse the appreciation of their forefathers as Aryan, seemingly putting them on an equal footing with dominant European powers. Even though the Pahlavis may now have fallen, their dogma unfortunately has not. As Zia-Ebrahimi demonstrates in his 2016 work, The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation, it is testament to the power of this ‘Weltanschauung’ that it endures in Iran today, both in popular thought and scholarship.
While Art of Persia visits a multitude of spectacular sites, some afford us glimpses of this nationalist project. Over the course of the series, a number of Persian poets are introduced to us through visits to their tombs. While it is certainly true that today’s Iranians value the poets of their past highly, there is more to these buildings than that. All four tombs we see—those of Ferdowsi, Omar Khayyam, Saʿadi, and Hafez—are conspicuously modern. This is because they were built or heavily renovated during the Pahlavi era. Architecture, as well as literature, was adopted as a medium through which history could be glorified and simultaneously reinterpreted.
Ferdowsi’s tomb is a particularly apt case. Nobody knew the location of the tomb of the great man until it was ‘discovered’ in the late 1920s to allow the then Shah, Reza Pahlavi, to erect a tomb over it. The 1934 reconstruction of the tomb in a neo-Achaemenid style reflects the archaising bent of the Pahlavi ideology. As has been discussed by Talinn Grigor, author of Building Iran: Modernism, Architecture and National Heritage under the Pahlavi Monarchs, the tomb is not so much an indication of how beloved Ferdowsi was, but how he was co-opted into a nationalistic ideology.
In this nationalistic narrative, the Persian language often stands as a symbol for Persian culture at large. Adherents to the ideology argue that it should be kept pure, unsullied by Arabic loanwords to which the language was exposed following the Islamic conquest. The result of such mixing is perceived as an abomination of linguistic miscegenation. While it is true that the Shahnameh contains relatively little non-Persian derived vocabulary, Arabic derived words still account for some 9% of the text.
Art of Persia, in its specious attempt to cast new light on Iran, appears to wish to grant the modern concept of Iran a monopoly on all things Persian. At the start of every episode, we are reminded that this is the story of a land known by two names, Persia and Iran. However, throughout the series ‘Persian’ is used to describe a language, a culture, and a people, all implicitly linked to modern Iran. While we do see glimpses of the sheer extent of the Achaemenid and Sasanian Empires—the latter with its capital at Ctesiphon, now in Iraq—the geographic spread of the Persian culture is largely underplayed. We see a striking object, labelled as Bactrian, and hear of the highly-competent Barmarkid viziers, but we are not told that Bactria is actually largely in today’s Afghanistan, from where the Barmarkids also hailed.
Not only is geographical diversity lost but, more shamefully, so is the diversity of the people of Iran. Nothing is said of the Kurds, Azeris, Turkmen, or groups such as the Bakhtiari or Lurs. The same can be said of religion. The narrative provided here would have us believe that prior to the ‘Arab invasion’ ‘Iranians and their rulers had always been Zoroastrian’, held up as the region’s quintessential pre-Islamic religion. It is argued that, after the invasion, albeit gradually, Islam ‘replaced’ Zoroastrianism. While we do get a hint of diversity at the Tomb of Daniel, frequented by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike, the simplicity of the general narrative does a disservice to the religious and ethnic diversity of the Iranian plateau, both in the distant and more recent past.
Art of Persia is also burdened by numerous factual inaccuracies. One of the more humorous of these takes place when we are examining the Baysunghur Shahnameh. We are told that an erotic scene depicts the great hero of the Shahnameh, Rostam, in bed with Rudabeh. Rudabeh, however, was his mother; the scene depicts Rostam’s encounter with Tahmineh. Tahmineh would go on to give birth to Rostam’s son Sohrab, who he would later unknowingly kill in a duel, in one of the most moving scenes in the epic work. Another inaccuracy lies in the naming of Istakhr as the Sasanian capital at the time of the Islamic conquest—this was actually Ctesiphon. One of the most glaring errors, however, is the claim that the dome commissioned by Nizam al-Mulk for the Friday Mosque of Isfahan was, at the time of its construction in 1086, the largest dome in the world. That accolade must have rested firmly with the Pantheon in Rome.
We meet a more consequential misconception in the zurkhaneh, or traditional gymnasium, in episode two, a site also affected by the nationalist narrative. A group of exercising men wielding colossal clubs is said to be continuing a tradition stretching back to the years following the Islamic conquests, when courageous, young Persians had to train in secret for the rebellions against their Arab oppressors. This narrative, however, is a fabrication of the nationalist movement and was not widely claimed at any time earlier than the 1930s. In fact, the zurkhaneh draws on thoroughly Islamic concepts of chivalry and the image of a number of (yes, Arab) heroes of Shiʿi Islam, such as Ali b. Abi Talib, whose name can be seen around the zurkhaneh, and is even inscribed on those hefty wooden clubs. This oversight suggests that Art of Persia does not sufficiently investigate the objects it portrays. It was a shame that we were not able to spend more time with the art, analysing objects closely, and letting them lead the narrative.
In the spirit of debunking inaccuracies, it is also important to mention that the argument of Iran’s 19th century being characterised by nothing but failure in the face of colonial powers has long been dismissed. The historian of modern Iran, Abbas Amanat, has shown that the Qajar dynasty of 19th-century Iran was relatively successful, especially in the face of pressure from Britain and Russia, and Iran was never colonised by them as such.
So, let us return, finally, to the Shahnameh. When it is not being subjected to the straitjacket of nationalistic ideology, it can tell a much more nuanced story of plurality. It should be noted that the text has not remained unchanged throughout its long history and many of the seemingly anti-Arab sections are thought to be later interpolations. Moreover, it is very difficult to find Ferdowsi’s own voice in the work. Statements such as ‘Ferdowsi was anti-Arab’ and ‘Ferdowsi was a nationalist’ are simply unfounded, as well as anachronistic, in the latter case. Indeed, it has been argued by none other than Dick Davis, the translator of the text published in the Penguin edition used throughout the series, that the Shahnameh also lauds the perceived Arab ‘virtues of spartan simplicity’ and ‘valor’. There are even figures, such as the Sasanian ruler Bahram Gur, raised by Arabs, who are used as examples of the benefits of Arab culture.
It is useful here to consider the adjective ‘Manichaean’ which, albeit somewhat old-fashioned, has its roots in the Iranian belief system which centres on the prophet Mani. The followers of Mani believed in a dualist system of a good God trying to oppose an evil devil. Everything was black and white—no shades of grey allowed. And this is the idea which this series produces: a truly Manichaean view of the history of Iran. We are presented a picture of the Persians, representing all which is good, struggling for centuries against wave after wave of marauding evils. We could have heard a more balanced story, with fewer references to ‘warlords’, ‘subjugation’ and ‘oppression’ at the hands of ‘invaders’, whether Arab or otherwise. We could have heard, for example, how the Achaemenids torched Athens, including the iconic Parthenon—Alexander’s burning of Persepolis was not the only punishment meted out to a city showing resistance.
In this way, Art of Persia shows us but a glimpse of just how rich Iran and its art and architecture are and how much Persian culture has gained from centuries of interactions with various other peoples. From the colossal Sasanian rock cut tombs at Naqsh-i Rostam to the glowing Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, the beauty of it all is undeniable. The series set out with a laudable aim—to go behind the headlines, and give viewers a version of Iran unobscured by contemporary politics. It feels like such a wasted opportunity, therefore, that the series' depiction of Iran does not draw on more nuanced and refreshing narratives. This article was amended for accuracy on 19th July 2020.
FUCHSIA HART is a DPhil student at the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford, writing about shrine culture in Iran and Iraq during the early-19th century. Her research focuses on the arts of Iran, and she has previously worked in the Middle East Department at the V&A. She has written on Iran for both Ajam Media Collective and Hali Magazine.
Art by Isabella Lill