Art of Persia: conqueror of conquerors' hearts

Amanda Nicholls June 30, 2020
Art of Persia: conqueror of conquerors' hearts

If you caught the final episode of Samira Ahmed’s trilogy delving into Middle Eastern history, you’ll have learned of everything from the drama of Genghis Khan’s arrival, to the poets who became the unifying lifeblood of modern Iranian culture, and the frivolous last Shah of the 1970s.

If you didn’t, you’ll have to make do with our interpretation – or go and watch on BBC iPlayer.

On the face of it, and bearing in mind Art of Persia boils the centuries down a bit in the name of more digestible Monday-night viewing, Persia’s past feels very much a series of out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire scenarios. Having endured Arab conquest, its mettle was next most notably tested in the 13th century by Khan and his fierce pagan Mongols, but from all the death and destruction eventually emerged something of a golden age for Iran… until the next time it found itself at the mercy of the classic hubris of an overreaching leader. Here’s pretty much how it went last night.

  • In the 13th century, Iran was rife with rumours that a mean old warlord was on his way – that’d be Genghis. They proved to be true and, having swept away the Chinese empire, Khan did indeed come for the Persians. Part of a disciplined, ruthless army that we like to imagine a bit like the Unsullied in Game of Thrones, each Mongol warrior was said to have been assigned 400 Persian people to butcher. By 1258 Persia found itself completely under Mongol rule, the economy collapsed and its people were enslaved or forced to flee.
  • But the Mongols, like many before them, were seduced by the strength of Iranian culture and almost became more Persian than the Persians themselves, willingly adopting the Shahnameh (book of kings), and coveting their own starring role among the fighting heroics found within its pages. Soon the art and literature of the time began to include depictions of more Mongol-style clothing and features.
Samira Ahmed reading the Shahnameh (image: BBC/Craig Hastings)
  • Illustrating beautifully how absorbed they became by the culture of those they had conquered, and after another leader converted to Shia Islam, the Mongols built a new capital, Soltaniyeh, to include the second largest mausoleum is the Islamic world – the peak of its dome 51 metres high, its walls seven metres thick.
  • The city of Shiraz was spared from Mongol destruction thanks to its quick-witted, diplomatic governor who, on seeing the invaders on the horizon, savvily opened his gates and laid on a banquet. Who knew putting on a spread would help him keep hold of his job and make life a whole lot more peaceful for his people? We’ll have to keep that one in mind next time we’re threatened with redundancy.
  • The rose is a symbol of Shiraz – AKA ‘city of poets’ – and it inspired one of Iran’s greatest romantic wordsmiths. Born in 1210, the well-travelled Saadi wrote compendium of history The Golestan (‘garden of roses’). Some of its wise sayings are still in use, such as ‘the proof is in the pudding’ and ‘haste makes waste’ as well as the slightly less snappy ‘consider your intentions before you speak and if a little lie will keep the peace then tell it’. Possibly someone came up with this one while waiting outside the changing rooms for their other half to try on garments at the bazaar.
Samira visits economic stronghold the Shiraz Bazaar (BBC/Craig Hastings)
  • The Golestan encouraged governors towards justice and featured early examples of guidance on the subject of human rights. ‘Human beings are members of a whole’, it says; ‘if one member is inflicted with pain, other members uneasy will remain.’
  • As the 14th century came to an end, another warlord was incoming. Enter Tamerlane – a charming chap who reportedly made pillars from human heads – who didn’t stick around too long after catching a fever in 1405. His descendants, the Timurids, also fell under spell of Persian culture, and during their tenure, Iran’s still-practised art of miniaturist painting reached new heights of sophistication and detail – we’re talking the most delicate of paintbrushes consisting of single cat’s hair.
  • Shah Abbas (1571 – 1629) revitalised Persia’s forces using a brand new toy: gunpowder. He was a big drinking, buccaneering “piratical personality” who rebuilt the city of Isfahan, making way for a new Persian renaissance and later inspiring the grandeur of Versailles. He built so many palaces, mosques, gardens and bridges that the city was nicknamed ‘half the world’. Abbas also designed the royal mosque of Isfahan to be filled with seven holy echoes produced by the gaps between its domes.
  • Known as the Iranian Napoleon, Nader Shah Afshar (1688 – 1747) was a military genius who became increasingly cruel and as a result ended up being assassinated by his own people. Those left fought over his spoils, the empire fell into decline and the stage was set for civil war, wide open to European colonial forces. Persia became the plaything of British and Russian imperial powers who battled for domination.
  • The fate of the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah (1919 – 1980) mirrors many of famous storyteller Ferdowsi’s flawed rulers. In 1967 he crowned himself king of kings, apparently believing he was carrying out a divine mission. In 1971 he hosted a parade in Persepolis to celebrate 2,500 years of the Persian empire and held a party to the tune of £140million for world heads of state, emperors and queens, who consumed 5,000 bottles of champagne and more than a ton of caviar flown in from France along with 160 Parisian chefs.

    He really had failed to read the room, in the eyes of his people misunderstanding and betraying Persia’s cultural identity, and the whole thing backfired. We’re not saying the party was the cause of the Iranian revolution but it didn’t help. Come 1978, there were protests demanding the Shah’s abdication and he left in exile the following month.

Lead image: Isfahan teahouse (BBC/Craig Hastings)

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Furloughed writer and magazine editor from Bristol, specialising in food and drink, music, travel, arts and lifestyle.