BBC Four's Art of Persia: 10 fascinating take-aways

Amanda Nicholls June 16, 2020
BBC Four's Art of Persia: 10 fascinating take-aways

A few favourite facts gleaned from Samira Ahmed’s groundbreaking and unprecedented exploration of Iran

Journalist Samira Ahmed was recently granted a rare opportunity to delve into the complex history of Iranian culture, stretching back through the days of Persia. The first intriguing episode aired on Monday night, painting an image of a powerful, ambitious land, constantly intermeshing myth and legend with the real history of its rulers to create a mysterious, intoxicating folkloric catalogue – also providing an insight into our obsession with rewriting, editing and embellishing the past.

The country’s art and culture – the envy of the ancient world – offer a feast for the eyes and mind, and the stories behind how its language and identity have been preserved, despite waves of invasion over the centuries, are equally impressive.

Samira Ahmed by the Roman Emperor Valerian’s bridge, Shooshtar (BBC/Craig Hastings)
  • Iran produced the world’s earliest example of political spin. The Cyrus Cylinder (original currently found in the British Museum) is a piece of propaganda-inscribed stonework, documenting how King Cyrus marched into Babylon and overcame his enemies by showing ‘tolerance’ towards the people and their gods. Today it is seen as conquest presented as a liberation of peoples.

[Read more: Should British museums return artefacts taken during colonisation?]

  • We derive the word ‘paradise’ from the Persian word ‘pardis’. King Cyrus’s surprisingly modest tomb, located in Pasargadae where he made his capital, once sat in the midst of a walled garden called a pardis.
  • The Shahnameh – Persian book of kings – is still read 1,000 years after author Ferdowsi penned it, and its tales are performed in all the best teahouses in Tehran. Its preservation has helped protect the original language and culture of Persia.
  • In 1250BC, ancient plumbing systems were established by way of underwater tunnels called qanats which brought cool, fresh water down from the mountains for people to drink. This also allowed them to irrigate fields, make barren landscapes fertile, and in turn, put down roots, forge a culture and begin to make art.
  • Darius the First (aka Darius the Great) built the jewel in the Persian Empire’s crown, the city of Persepolis – ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. A masterpiece of imperialist architecture, its imposing gateways and columns heralded a new world order, and Persepolis became a real object of Greek desire – Alexander the Great eventually burned it to the ground in an attempt to obliterate Persian identity. Darius also introduced coinages, standard weights and measures, as well as rates of exchange and record keeping. His administrative flair gave rise to his third alias, Darius the Shopkeeper.
  • Many assume Persepolis would have been built by slaves but information suggestive of salaried work has been found by archaeologists, as well as evidence that women worked on the build, overseeing parts of the structure – and they have reason to believe there was a special allowance or ‘maternity pay’ for a woman who gave birth to twins during the construction period.
  • The Elamites of Persia, based in Chogha Zanbil in the south-western desert, attached great spiritual importance to mountains and worshipped a bull god called Inshushinak who was central to the culture.
Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
  • In the 1890s, French archaeologist Jean-Marie Jacques de Morgan built the Château de Suse – a pastiche of a French medieval fortress – in Susa, one of the world’s most ancient cities. It seems there was little regard for how incongruous the architecture was against the rest of Susa – where people have now lived for 6,000 years – which says a lot about the colonial attitudes of the day. These residents have included, purportedly, one of the Bible’s greatest heroes, Daniel – famous for his stay in the lion’s den. His Shard-like tomb still stands in Susa today.
  • While Persia is depicted as beautiful, ancient and decadent, our Western understanding of Iran as a proud, defiant, closed book comes largely from the last 40 years, when the revolution of 1979 saw Iran become an Islamic republic locked in conflict with the West.
  • Every March, Iran’s annual festival of Nowruz (meaning ‘new day’ in Persian) celebrates spring and rebirth, featuring seven symbols of prosperity and renewal, fertility and good health. It is mythical king Jamshid’s enduring legacy, as chronicled in the Shahnameh.

A 200km wall, the great wall of Gorgan, was built by the Sasanian ruler dynasty of Persia on Iran’s northern border with Turkmenistan in the fifth century. Longer than any Roman wall, it was sometimes called The Red Snake due to its reddish bricks but it was later proved to have been built in the wrong place as the threat that would result in the Sasanian downfall came from the west, in the form of a man named Mohammed and his Muslim army.

The next episode of Art of Persia (Monday 22 June, 9pm, BBC Four), follows the Muslim conquest and all that ensued.

Pink Mosque, Shiraz (BBC/Craig Hastings)
Next week, in episode two, Samira Ahmed visits Jameh Mosque, Yazd (BBC/Craig Hastings)
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Furloughed writer and magazine editor from Bristol, specialising in food and drink, music, travel, arts and lifestyle.