PDA

View Full Version : Rebuilding Iran



deuterium_1
07-16-2020, 12:46 PM
This is an interesting article about a recent BBC documentary "The Art of Persia" presented by Samira Ahmed. The author does miss out some key points such as how the Persian language supplanted other Iranian languages such as Soghdian, Bactrian and Khwarezmian during the late 1st Millenium AD around the time that Iran and Central Asia was fully converted to Islam.


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 we are told how, 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. However, despite these many destructive conquests which brought new cultures, religions, and languages with them, the Persian culture, the storyline goes, reigned supreme. Ahmed explains to us that the most destructive of these invasions was the coming of the Arabs, who brought with them their new religion, Islam, and language, Arabic. 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. Afterwards, darkness—the land supposedly slipped back towards nomadism and degeneracy.



As presented in Art of Persia, there is very little cultural nuance in the story. Arabs are Arabs, Persians are Persians, and never the twain shall meet. The Persian culture and language, however, with their innate strength and supremacy, would win out, ultimately conquering all the conquerors. The secret to the preservation of the Persian culture is said to have been the Shahnameh: the repository of the Persian language and the myths which form its culture.


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. The way in which the Shahnameh is presented here is as much a myth as most of the ‘history’ it contains itself. And while this may all seem like harmless, if overblown, rhetoric, this narrative has a darker past.


It is noteworthy that in Art of Persia, the 19th century is reduced to a mere footnote. Towards the end of the last episode, we are told that from the mid-18th century ‘the empire slid 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.


During the mid-20th century, the Pahlavi state, led first by Reza Shah, and then his son Mohammad Reza, adhered to a nationalist conception of Iran, shaped to alleviate the shock caused by the experience of contact with 19th-century Europe, as it is presented here. 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 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 of King’s College London has convincingly shown how this rhetoric was formed from the adoption of highly problematic 19th-century European ideas surrounding race. 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. 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. 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.


This racialised, and frankly racist, perception of Persian supremacy would come to be the most potent ideology of the nation, finally being adopted as the official Pahlavi line. Even though the Pahlavis may now have fallen, their dogma unfortunately has not. It is testament to the power of this ‘Weltanschauung’ that it endures in Iran today, both in popular thought and scholarship. It is from this ideology which Art of Persia’s narrative of Persian supremacy stems.


The documentary even focuses on the hallmarks of this dangerous nationalism. 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 coopted 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 coopted 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.


This search for modernity, and the scapegoating of (Arab) Islam which accompanied it, did not only use the language of literature and architecture to support its claims but resorted to violence too. Women were banned from covering their heads; some were forcibly and violently unveiled in the streets. Some types of public religious gatherings were banned. In this way, such a focus on the glories of pre-Islamic Persia can be Islamophobic, as well as ‘Arabophobic’. Here, the series has drastically failed in its opportunity to provide a more nuanced and interesting take on the Islam of Iran than the one which usually fills our screens.


A further consequence of this specious attempt to rehabilitate Iran is that Art of Persia gives the modern concept of Iran a monopoly on all things Persian. 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 we 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. We hear nothing 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’ all Iranians adhered to Zoroastrianism, often held up as the quintessential pre-Islamic Iranian religion. It is argued that, after the invasion, albeit gradually, they all became Muslim. This over-simplification does a deep disservice to the religious diversity of the Iranian plateau, in the distant and more recent past.


This problematic narrative is also peppered with factual inaccuracies. One takes place in the zurkhaneh, or traditional gymnasium, which we visit 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 also a fabrication of the nationalistic movement, and was not 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 is indicative of the fact 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. Part of the problem, of course, is attempting to cover 3,000 years of history in three hours. You can’t imagine the BBC trying to do that for France.


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.


The series set out with a laudable aim—to go behind the headlines, and give us a more nuanced version of Iran. It feels like such a wasted opportunity, therefore, that the ‘revisionist’ narrative we are given is so deeply flawed. 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, whether Arab or Mongol.


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. It also shows us how past rulers, such as the Timurid Baysunghur, used and abused Persia’s culture for political ends and for the production of propaganda. It is therefore deeply ironic, as well as troubling, that the series itself reproduces one of the very same narratives formed by the Pahlavi state, from the racialised narratives of cultural supremacy.


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

https://www.the-orb.org/post/rebuilding-iran?fbclid=IwAR3FmdRgUPnWrIJhJocXiUINNY_2NFfFqnsU _l9maXOtEMynmQAC4ngnOEY

StarDS9
07-16-2020, 01:53 PM
Watched that Doc, felt that it ignored or hardly mentioned Medes and Parthians and as if they were different/foreigner to Irans history. As those two groups also had a large contribution to the history of Iran.

DMXX
07-16-2020, 02:31 PM
I'm unsure that the Medians had any significant material contribution to Iranian culture.
While they were notable historically (earliest-attested W. Iranians), vestiges of their actual culture that were distinct from their Persian contemporaries don't seem to have lived on to the present day.
Their language was very poorly attested, even during Achaemenid times (when they were still a distinct ethno-political entity). While they were incorporated into the Achaemenid elite (Immortals), culturally and administratively, I don't recall them ever having any sort of preeminent position (the Achaemenids were basically a mostly administrative, partially synthetic derivative of Persian and Neo-Elamite traditions).
Having said that, it could be argued that their later (f.ex. Babak Xorramdin) and much later forebears (Azeris, Kurds, Talysh, northern Medieval-to-Modern Persians) made a greater impact on Iranian culture than they (Medians) themselves had. This is an argument I'm sympathetic towards, though it doesn't count as a direct contribution.

First degree mental gymnastics aren't really necessary for the Parthians, who were the originators of the iwan structure (which is widely used now in mosques across the Iranian plateau and Central Asia). I also seem to recall that the dome structure seen in the minarets of mosques had its' origins in the late stage of Parthian rule (though they became more popular in Sassanid times).

I think this documentary falls prey to the simplified cultural chain that's recognised in the West (e.g. the Sassanian/Neo-Achaemenid->Ferdowsi->Turko-Persian symbiosis chain).
It's designed for a Western audience, so I understand the need for some form of over-simplification. Though, I wish more of these documentaries approached the topic in a more meta manner (f.ex. the Turkic dynasties were, in a sense, quasi-Parthian from a cultural perspective).

By the way, does the documentary include some of the "woke"-leaning descriptors used in the article quoted by agent_lime?

StarDS9
07-16-2020, 03:38 PM
Knowing the BBC they would try not have any thing that may seem Anti-Islam. I have only seen the first part of the Doc, I would guess they would not mention that the Iwan structure that Mosques use came from Iran.

It's on BBC iPlayer if you wish watch it.

DMXX
07-16-2020, 03:41 PM
Knowing the BBC they would try not have any thing that may seem Anti-Islam. I have only seen the first part of the Doc, I would guess they would not mention that the Iwan structure that Mosques use came from Iran.


They've partaken in socio-culturally-driven historical revisionism with British history, so I wouldn't put it past them to play the same game with the legacy of "our" ancestors, either.



It's on BBC iPlayer if you wish watch it

Unfortunately I can't (voluntarily abstaining from paying my TV license for reasons that go beyond what is acceptable for this forum).

StarDS9
07-16-2020, 04:06 PM
They've partaken in socio-culturally-driven historical revisionism with British history, so I wouldn't put it past them to play the same game with the legacy of "our" ancestors, either.



Unfortunately I can't (voluntarily abstaining from paying my TV license for reasons that go beyond what is acceptable for this forum).

I to am not fond of the BBC as well.

There is a great Doc on Parthians and Sassanids that I had watched years ago. Cannot seem to find it any longer, it was done by less known network but was really good.

deuterium_1
07-16-2020, 04:42 PM
Watched that Doc, felt that it ignored or hardly mentioned Medes and Parthians and as if they were different/foreigner to Irans history. As those two groups also had a large contribution to the history of Iran.

Well bear in mind that it had to compress millenia of history into hours worth of TV footage.


I'm unsure that the Medians had any significant material contribution to Iranian culture.
While they were notable historically (earliest-attested W. Iranians), vestiges of their actual culture that were distinct from their Persian contemporaries don't seem to have lived on to the present day.
Their language was very poorly attested, even during Achaemenid times (when they were still a distinct ethno-political entity). While they were incorporated into the Achaemenid elite (Immortals), culturally and administratively, I don't recall them ever having any sort of preeminent position (the Achaemenids were basically a mostly administrative, partially synthetic derivative of Persian and Neo-Elamite traditions).
Having said that, it could be argued that their later (f.ex. Babak Xorramdin) and much later forebears (Azeris, Kurds, Talysh, northern Medieval-to-Modern Persians) made a greater impact on Iranian culture than they (Medians) themselves had. This is an argument I'm sympathetic towards, though it doesn't count as a direct contribution.

First degree mental gymnastics aren't really necessary for the Parthians, who were the originators of the iwan structure (which is widely used now in mosques across the Iranian plateau and Central Asia). I also seem to recall that the dome structure seen in the minarets of mosques had its' origins in the late stage of Parthian rule (though they became more popular in Sassanid times).

I think this documentary falls prey to the simplified cultural chain that's recognised in the West (e.g. the Sassanian/Neo-Achaemenid->Ferdowsi->Turko-Persian symbiosis chain).
It's designed for a Western audience, so I understand the need for some form of over-simplification. Though, I wish more of these documentaries approached the topic in a more meta manner (f.ex. the Turkic dynasties were, in a sense, quasi-Parthian from a cultural perspective).

By the way, does the documentary include some of the "woke"-leaning descriptors used in the article quoted by agent_lime?

Well I have heard theories that Kurds may be descended from the Kurds but I am unsure personally.


They've partaken in socio-culturally-driven historical revisionism with British history, so I wouldn't put it past them to play the same game with the legacy of "our" ancestors, either.



Unfortunately I can't (voluntarily abstaining from paying my TV license for reasons that go beyond what is acceptable for this forum).

Sad but true


I to am not fond of the BBC as well.

There is a great Doc on Parthians and Sassanids that I had watched years ago. Cannot seem to find it any longer, it was done by less known network but was really good.

Is there a link?

StarDS9
07-16-2020, 04:54 PM
Well bear in mind that it had to compress millenia of history into hours worth of TV footage.



Well I have heard theories that Kurds may be descended from the Kurds but I am unsure personally.



Sad but true



Is there a link?

Did a bit of searching. I remembered it was the guy from Monty Pythons and did a search and found it. Do a google search for "Terry Jones' Barbarians - The Brainy Barbarians" as I do not want post links. There are 2 videos, one of them is out of sync, so try both.

The doc is half based on Parthians and Sassanids and other parts about Romans.

deuterium_1
07-16-2020, 05:05 PM
Did a bit of searching. I remembered it was the guy from Monty Pythons and did a search and found it. Do a google search for "Terry Jones' Barbarians - The Brainy Barbarians" as I do not want post links. There are 2 videos, one of them is out of sync, so try both.

The doc is half based on Parthians and Sassanids and other parts about Romans.

Oh yeah I saw that years ago, that was really good.

vettor
07-16-2020, 05:27 PM
Interesting yesterday that Iran cut all trade ties with India and has a major trade deal with China now ................seems like China will develop a major port in iran , not far from pakistan

MonkeyDLuffy
07-17-2020, 12:16 AM
Interesting yesterday that Iran cut all trade ties with India and has a major trade deal with China now ................seems like China will develop a major port in iran , not far from pakistan

Present Prime Minister of India has already started building a (one sided) relationship with US, which will only pressurize India into cutting ties with Iran. Iran would have been a great ally to India, but the current government changed it's priority and trying to distance itself from Islamic countries.

Hopefully situation in Iran get's better, because the Iranians are incredibly educated and Modern people, different from what is shown in media in west. They deserve better political conditions.

deuterium_1
07-18-2020, 03:14 PM
Present Prime Minister of India has already started building a (one sided) relationship with US, which will only pressurize India into cutting ties with Iran. Iran would have been a great ally to India, but the current government changed it's priority and trying to distance itself from Islamic countries.

Hopefully situation in Iran get's better, because the Iranians are incredibly educated and Modern people, different from what is shown in media in west. They deserve better political conditions.

India has lost quite a few allies in its neighbourhood, if China controls both Chahbahar and Gwadar that would be detrimental to Indian interests.

DMXX
07-18-2020, 03:17 PM
As a reminder, gents - Political discussion is not permissible outside of The Atrium.

More than happy for this discussion to continue there (though participants would need to be in one of the Subscription Userclasses).

deuterium_1
07-19-2020, 08:26 AM
As a reminder, gents - Political discussion is not permissible outside of The Atrium.

More than happy for this discussion to continue there (though participants would need to be in one of the Subscription Userclasses).

Thanks DMXX

I am watching the documentary now by the way, it is good so far. A shame that the Luristan culture is not mentioned, have any Luristani remains ever been found?.