The history of the area now known as Iran, but often still referred to as Persia, spans millennia, boasting a rich and complex artistic and cultural legacy. Populated since prehistoric times, thus making it one of the most dynamic areas of Islamic civilization, this region was home to the world’s first powerful empire (lead by Cyrus the Great during the Achaemenid dynasty) and has influenced the aesthetic grammar of a large portion of central Asia, including Armenia, Georgia, and India.
From the ancient Iranian civilizations in 500 BC, through the Islamic period, and on to modern-day Iran, Iran: The Art and Architecture of Persia explores the common characteristics and thematic threads running through Persian art. Iran presents its readers with archaeological landscapes, monuments, sculptures, carpets, and dazzling ornaments and art objects from this stunning artistic milieu. The text takes as it subject the most fascinating and unusual facets of the Persian artistic experience, with a particular focus on post-Hellenic culture, namely late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Iran investigates how the examined regions were hothouses of specific artistic developments and identifies how the Iranian passage along the Silk Route acted as a bridge between distant lands for trade as well as the dissemination of religious and material culture.
The two authors, Gianroberto Scarcia and Giovanni Curatola, write in an engaging, refreshingly accessible manner, catering both to specialists and to novices wishing to immerse themselves in this captivating region and its art. Author Scarcia writes the first part of the book, covering the era from the Achaemenids to the Sassanids and examining the great architecture from Persepolis onward while also addressing the powerful metalwork produced by these cultures. The second part, by Curatola, explores the Islamic period, when architectural decoration moved into the forefront with brilliant chromatic effects etched onto massive built works. The same colors bloom throughout the other arts, including carpets and miniature paintings. Dynamic and absorbing, Iran and its over 200 color photos will take readers on a virtual tour of this region and the art it has produced over the centuries.
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Giovanni Curatola is a professor of Islamic archeology and art history at the University of Udine. In addition to having written numerous scholarly publications, he has curated such exhibitions as Islamic Art in Italy and Shamans and Dervishes of the Steppes.
Gianroberto Scarcia is a professor of Arabic-Islamic cultural history at the University of Venice and a lecturer in Islamic history, law, and art. He recently wrote the book Scirin: Queen of the Magi.
LINGUISTIC AND GEOGRAPHIC DATA
What we now know as Iran—also traditionally and commonly known as Persia in the West—is a multinational Asian state. “Iran” is a designation officially revived in recent times to replace a more evocative if foreign name, but unfortunately it is not immune from the influence of historical-political vicissitudes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries linked to the term “Aryan.” In any case, it reflects certain values shared by Iranians and Indians. In addition to a polytheistic religious system, organized in similar fashion, another cultural affinity between the two people is, this sort of extremely ancient epithet conferred upon them, namely the term arya from Sanskrit texts. This term then leads back to the ancient Iranian airyana, as it appears in recent Avestic sayings, to indicated Aryan people—meaning “ours” as opposed to those of Turanian stock—in Achaemenid inscriptions (in the Avesta, it is Airyanem Viejo, the legendary land of origin of the Iranian populations). Analogies can be seen in the middle-Persian (or Pahlavi) Eran, but also, probably, in the official name of the Republic of Ireland, Eire.
Numerous ethnic groups now inhabit Iran, within the framework of a morphologically unequal territory, in an original, somewhat culturally cohesive mosaic. Alongside populations that are Iranian in an ethnolinguistic sense (Persian-Tajik, Kurdish, Balochi), there are also Turkish (Azerbaijani, Turkmen, Qashqai) and Arabic peoples, all of whom long existed beneath the political and cultural domination of the Persians. Persian is the official language of the country, and the contribution of Persian culture has been fundamental for the development of a civilization that is called Iranian, but which has had an impact of a geographic-historical region that is much vaster than the area populated by Iranian races or that included within the political boundaries of present-day Iran. Broadly speaking (a bit as if one were speaking of Latin peoples and Romance languages), the adjective Iranian designates everything that leads back in linguistic and cultural terms, to certain populations of Eastern Indo-European stock, such as Slavs and Armenians, as well as Indians. Today these groups of Iranian people include a considerable number of speakers distributed over an area that is much smaller than in the past. In addition to Iran, the Iranian languages are now concentrated in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and in certain regions of the Caucasus and Pakistan, but in ancient times they spread throughout central Asia, as far as the western borders of China.
The Persians, who settled in present-day Fars around 1500 BC, belong to the Indo-European linguistic and cultural group, as do the Hittites, Greeks, Latins, Celts, Germans, Slavs, Balts, Armenians, and ancient Indians.
We posses no information about the hypothetical first Indo-European center, and any attempt at the linguistic reconstruction of so-called proto-Indo-European has remained unsatisfactory. In this regard, the recent and, in a sense, revolutionary scientific fashion is represented by the work of Gamkrelidze and Ivanov. Simply stated, the stages of Indo-European migration can be summarized as follows: apparently, in a period and place that is as of yet unspecified—clearly before 1500 BB—this warrior and nomadic people, expert in metalworking and versed in fighting on horseback, not necessarily tied to the use of the chariot, split into two branches (eastern Indo-European and western Indo-European), from which the aforementioned populations would derive. The Persians, and with them all the peoples called Iranian (including the now extinct Medes, Scythians, Bactrians, Sogdians, and Chorasmi), belong to the eastern Indo-European branch, a distinction based principally on shared cultural and linguistic features, clarified thanks to archaeological investigation and historial research, and to a small degree determined by physical characteristics. It is for this reason that the dichotomy between the western and eastern Indo-European groups is based on language and on the pronunciation of the word for the number one hundred. In fact, the western branch is called the centum branch, the eastern the satem. In any case, one should bear in mind how the idea of cultural migrations currently prevails over the old concept of the migration of peoples.
Present-day Iran occupies only a large portion of the Iranian plateau, an area of approximately 635,100 square miles (1,645,000 sq. km), delimited (proceeding from north to south and then from west to east) by Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. The greatest north-south distance is 1,616 miles (2,600 km); the greatest east-west distance is 1,305 miles (2,300 km). The Iranian plateau itself represents only a portion of the theater of Iranian civilization, both pre-Islamic and Islamic. Modern Iran covers more than the western half of the Iranian plateau, south of the Elburz Mountains, and from the Zagros Mountains eastward, ending on the coasts of the Persian Gulf, and including a small part of the Seistan depression. In terms of well-known historial designations, this is Media Magna, or Gibar in Arabic, or Iraq ‘Agiami (Kurdistan and Lorestan); Media Atropatene (Azerbaijan); Media Ragiana (the region of Tehran); Persis (Fars and Laristan); Arachosia (Kerman, Baluchestan); and western Khorasan (Parthia, Ariana). Added to these is the mountainous and woodland region that, accompanied by a narrow, long coastal strip, is located between the Caspian Sea and the Elburz Mountains (from Talish in Azerbaijan to Khorasan, through Dailam-Gilan, Tabaristan-Mazandaran, and Hyrcania-Gorgan-Astarabad), and the eastern corner of Mesopotamia, which was Susiana (Elam-Khuzestan). This list does not include many areas that are significant to Iranian archeology, history, and civilization, such as Mesopotamia, northern Azerbaijan, much of Sistan, Afghan and Turkmen Khorasan, Transoxiana and Khorezm. In other words, even if we take into consideration the entire Iranian plateau, today’s Iran and Afghanistan, this would still not encompass the geographic territory of Iranian cultural influence, but only its center—traditionally known as “inner Iran,” namely Iran par excellence, and culturally sedentary, surrounded by an immense “outer Iran,” marked above all by the nomadic mobility of the Scythians.
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