Iranian Art through the Ages

From The moment, some 3000 years ago, when an ingenious artist shaped and painted the magnificent bridge-spouted vessels at Tepe Sialk to the time when master craftsmen carved the famous Achaemenian relief’s at Persepolis and on into the Islamic era when sophisticated glassware and ceramics were made in the kilns of Ray, Gorgan and Nishapur art has become an inseparable part of Iranian life.

One just has to stand before the intricately designed Ardabil carpet, woven for the shrine of Sheikh Saffieddin, to appreciate that. This artistic tradition, resulting in the creation of numerous objects of extraordinary beauty, has meant that most of today’s Iranian cities boast at least one museum. However, the capital, Tehran, is particularly rich in this respect, allowing the traveler to Iran to begin or end his visit with a tour of very fine collections.

The Archaeological Museum, along with the magnificent collection of the Islamic Museum, forms Iran's National Museum. The Abguineh offers a wonderful exhibition of delicate glass and ceramics housed in an elegant early 20th century building. The Carpet Museum justifies the worldwide fame of Persian carpet weaving with its display of beautiful new and old carpets created in the workshops of Kerman, Qom, Tabriz, Isfahan and Kashan, etc. Persian miniatures and calligraphy – two more artistic traditions in which the Iranians excel – can be seen at the Reza Abbasi Museum. These are just a selection from the fabulous collections to be visited in Tehran – 'the City of Museums'.

  • Literature: Persian Literature
Persian literature (Persian: ادبیات پارسی) spans two and a half millennia, though much of the pre-Islamic material has been lost. Its sources have been within historical Persia including present-day Iran as well as reigions of Central Asia where the Persian language has been the national language through history. For instance, Rumi, one of Persia's best-loved poets, born in Balkh, wrote in Persian, and lived in Konya then the capital of the Seljuks. The Ghaznavids conquered large territories in Central and South Asia and adopted Persian as their court language. There is thus Persian literature from areas that are now part of Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia. Not all this literature is written in Persian, as some consider works written by ethnic Persians in other languages, such as Greek and Arabic, to be included.

Described by some as one of the great literatures of mankind, the Persian literature has its roots in surviving works in Old Persian or Middle Persian dating back as far as 522 BCE, the date of the earliest surviving Achaemenid inscription, the Behistun Inscription. The bulk of the surviving Persian literature, however, comes from the times following the Islamic conquest of Persia circa 650 CE. After the Abbasids came to power (750 CE), the Persians became the scribes and bureaucrats of the Islamic empire and, increasingly, also its writers and poets. Persians wrote both in Persian and Arabic; Persian predominated in later literary circles. Persian poets such as Sa'di, Hafiz , Rumi and Omar Khayyam are well known in the world and have influenced the literature of many countries.

Very few literary works survived from ancient Persia. This is partly due to the destruction of the library at Persepolis. Most of what remains consists of the royal inscriptions of Achaemenid kings, particularly Darius I (522–486 BC) and his son Xerxes. Zoroastrian writings mainly were destroyed in the Islamic conquest of Persia. The Parsis who fled to India, however, took with them some of the books of the Zoroastrian canon, including some of the Avesta and ancient commentaries (Zend) thereof. Some works of Sassanid geography and travel also survived albeit in Arabic translations.

No single text devoted to literary criticism has survived from pre-Islamic Persia. However, some essays in Pahlavi such as "Ayin-e name nebeshtan" (Principles of Writing Book) and "Bab-e edteda’I-ye" (Kalileh o Demneh) have been considered as literary criticism (Zarrinkoub, 1959). Some researchers have quoted the Sho'ubiyye as asserting that the pre-Islamic Persians had books on eloquence, such as 'Karvand'. No trace remains of such books. There are some indications that some among the Persian elite were familiar with Greek rhetoric and literary criticism (Zarrinkoub, 1947).

  • Traditional Music: Achaemenian dynasty (550-331 BC). The writing of Herodotus and Xenophon suggests that music played an important role in court life and religious rituals during this period. However, little else is known about musical activity in the Persian Empire.
Sassanian Dynasty (AD 226-642). Exalted status was conferred to court musicians. Barbod, the most famous of these court musicians, reportedly conceived a musical system consisting of seven royal modes, thirty derivative modes, and three-hundred sixty melodies. (He is playing the 'ud in the painting at the bottom of the index page.) This was the oldest Middle Eastern musical system of which some traces still exist. Its enduring heritage is the names given to some dastgahs in the modern system of Persian music.

Arab Invasion (AD 643-750). Musical activity was suppressed during this period.

Abbasid dynasty (AD 750-1258). This increasingly secular dynasty reestablished music at the courts, and Iranian musicians were scattered throughout the Muslim world. Abu Nasr Farabi, whose Kitab al-musiqi al-kabir laid the foundations of the musical tradition of the core Muslim world, for example worked at the royal court in Baghdad. Abu Ali Sina, Safiaddin Ormavi, who codified the mode into twelve divisions with six melodies, also lived at this time.

Social power for the next few centuries was dominated by Shiite clerics who frowned on musical expression, and were responsible for its suppression. The imperial courts of the Safavid and Qajar dynasties did patronize the arts, however, maintaining a faint link to the traditions of the past. The modern dastgah system, a codification and reorganization of the old modes, dates back to the late Qajar dynasty.

The Pahlavi Dynasty brought with it an intense push towards westernization. In response to this pressure and in a misdirected effort to "raise" Iranian songs to the level of Western music, two theories on the intervals and scales of Iranian songs were proposed in the twentieth century:

The 24 quarter tone scale

This conception of Persian music was published by Ali Naqi Vaziri in his Musiqi-ye Nazari. He proposed this reformulation to facilitate the composition of polyphonic pieces in a system which was traditionally monophonic. His efforts also brought about the notation of microtonal rising and lowering of pitches.

The 22 tone scale

A 22 tone scale was proposed by Mehdi Barkesli. This system is grounded in the origininal theories of the Abassid dynasty theoreticians, Farabi and Ormavi.

An Alternative

After extensive laboratory studies of the Persian musical repertoire, Hormoz Farhat has come to the conclusion that the notion of scale or octave is entirely foreign to Persian musical performance, being no more than an artificial construct imposed on the system to make it agree with certain Western notions of what is essential to the concept of music. Mr. Farhat insists that the more important concept in this music is that of the mayeh or melodic type. These are melodic formulas through which the music is articulated, and they transcend the notions of octaves or scales.