Rasoul Sorkhabi

In recent years, a number of exhibitions and publications have highlighted the cultural legacy and art history of ancient Iran (Persia). These activities, for the world coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic, have offered a spirit of beauty, reflection, and bondage across distant lands and times. The following is a brief report on and a bibliographic guide to these exhibitions and publications.

Epic Iran: 5000 Years of Culture 

This exhibition was held from May 29 through September 12, 2021 at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. The companion publication, Epic Iran: 5000 Years of Culture (V&A Publications, 2021, 336 p., £40, US$55), includes 235 images and nine chapters written by John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley. The Epic Iran exhibition displayed more than 300 objects from ancient, Islamic and contemporary Iran. These objects were borrowed from over 30 museums and collections. The exhibition was organized by the V&A in association with the Iran Heritage Foundation (IHF) and the Sarikhani Collection. The V&A, founded in 1852 and named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, is one of the world’s largest art museums. IHF, headquartered at the SOAS University of London, is a non-profit cultural organization founded in 1990. In the past, IHF has organized several conferences and exhibitions. For instance, it sponsored Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia, an exhibition held at the British Museum in London from September 9, 2005 to January 8, 2006. A companion book of the same title, edited by John Curtis and Nigel Thallis, was published by the University of California Press in 2005. In 2010, IHF established a parallel organization in New York, known as IHF-America, which co-organized with the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution a touring exhibition of The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia at the Arthur Sackler Gallery (located at the Smithsonian Institution) in Washington DC as well as four other US museums in New York, Huston, San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2013. A companion volume of the same title, written by John Curtis, was published by The British Museum in 2013. The book also contained the latest translation of the Cyrus Cylinder by Irving Frankel. The Sarikhani Collection is a private museum near Henley in Oxfordshire. Founded by Ali Sarikhani, a financial entrepreneur, and his daughter Ina Rokhsana Sarikhani Sandmann, a graduate of Cambridge and SOAS University of London, the Sarikhani Collection includes nearly 1000 works of art and artefacts related to Iran. The Sarikhani family moved to Britain from Iran in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Out of yearning for their cultural roots, the Sarikhanis began collecting Iranian art works in the 1990s. The Sarikhani Collection has published two fascinating books: Ceramics of Iran (text by Oliver Watson, The Sarikhani Publication and Yale University Press, 2020) and Art in the First Cities of Iran and Central Asia (text by Agnès Benoit, The Sarikhani Publication and Yale University Press 2021).

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Iran: Five Millennia of Art and Culture

This exhibition of 359 objects was held from December 6, 2021 through March 20, 2022 in the James-Simon-Galerie, Museumsinsel Berlin in collaboration with Museum für Islamische Kunst (Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, the oldest museum of Islamic art in Europe founded in 1904) and the Sarikhani Foundation. The exhibition was accompanied by a large-format illustrated book of the same title, edited by Ute Franke, Ina Sarikhani Sandman and Stefan Weber, and published by Hirmer Verlag (396 p., 2021, Euro 49.90). The book contains eleven chapters and 610 color illustrations. 

Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World

This exhibition, in partnership with the Farhang Foundation and the Pourdavoud Center at the University of California in Los Angeles, was held from April 6 to August 8, 2022 at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa, Malibu, California. The exhibition is part of the Getty Museum’s program “The Classical World in Context,” which includes of a series of exhibitions. The exhibition Persia; Ancient Iran and the Classical World displayed 209 objects spanning the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian empires (550 BC to 651 AD). The exhibition also published a companion volume of the same title edited by Jeffrey Spier, Timothy Potts, and Sara Cole (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 431 p., US$ 65). The Getty Villa (Malibu) and the Getty Center (Los Angeles) of The J. Paul Getty Museum were established in 1974 by the oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty (1892-1976) to honor the arts and legacy of the classical world.  

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The Getty Museum’s website for this exhibition writes: “The Greeks first came into conflict with the Achaemenid Persians in 547 BC, when Cyrus the Great captured western Asia Minor (in present-day Turkey) and subjugated the Greek cities there. Mainland Greece, too, struggled against expanding Achaemenid rule but emerged victorious from a series of invasions in the early fifth century BC. In 334–330 BC, in response to many years of hostilities and the continuing Persian domination of the Greek cities in Asia Minor, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great led his army into Asia and conquered the Achaemenid Empire, establishing Greek control over the region for more than two centuries. During the second century BC, however, the Parthians reclaimed the lands lost to the Greeks, and by the beginning of the first century BC, the Romans replaced the Greeks as the major force in the Mediterranean, becoming the new rival to Persia. In AD 224 the Parthians were overthrown by another Iranian dynasty, the Sasanians, who inflicted many defeats on the Romans before restoring a balance of power that endured until the Arab conquest in in AD 651.”

Great Gift Books

These exhibitions in Europe and USA drew attention to the historical significance of Iran and the country’s contributions to art and culture. Although exhibitions are short-lived events, people can still visit the website pages of these exhibitions and their trailers on YouTube. Moreover, the companion books of these exhibitions not only offer an informative history of the classical Persia but also detailed descriptions of the items exhibited. These fascinating books are ideal gifts for family and friends, and should be preserved in university libraries. Reading through any of these illustrated books is like a time travel to ancient Persia. Enjoy it.  

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