Art of Persia: Episode 3: Genghis Khan to 1979

Filming in Isfahan’s Half the World Square at the height of Nowruz 2019 (BBC/Craig Hastings)

The final part of Art of Persia ends where most programmes and news about Iran begin – in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. We feature the beautiful Shiraz-born poets Saadi and Hafez and their influence on Byron Goethe and the European Romantics. But the story of Persia is also dominated by notorious conquerors: Genghis Khan, Timur (or Tamburlaine – as he’s known in Christopher Marlowe’s play) and Nader Shah – the looter of Delhi and the Peacock Throne.

The citadel at Takt-e-Soleyman filmed by Craig’s drone camera (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

It also features perhaps my favourite location — Takt-E-Soleyman – King Solomon’s Throne. The UNESCO-listed citadel in northwestern Iran has the ruins of a magnificent Zoroastrian Fire Temple. built around a sulphurous lake in an extinct volcanic crater. Craig Hastings’ masterful drone camerawork really captures the magic of this place, surrounded by snowcapped peaks, when we went in June last year. It’s thought the priests created the legend that Solomon kept monsters imprisoned in the lake and another neaby mountain, to help protect the site from the Arab Muslim invaders. It seems to have worked.

With the Shahnameh in one of the priests’ corridors under the fire temple at Takt-E-Soleyman (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

But for episode 3 we focus on the palace that the thirteenth century Il Khanid dynasty – the descendants of Genghis Khan – built there, richly decorated with stories from the Shahnameh as they, too, like previous invaders, became seduced by the art of being Persian.

The 19th century Pink Mosque in Shiraz features churches and roses in the tile work (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

Remarkably Timur’s descendants spawned the Timurid Renaissance with a magnificent flourishing of miniature painting – something very recognisable in India’s Mughal tradition, too. One of the first places we filmed for Art of Persia was in the workshop in Isfahan, where as you’ll see the tradition lives on with recognisable schools of Afghan (Herat) and Mongolian style. It’s a group of French tourists you’ll glimpse walking into the shop; proof that a number of tour groups of curious travellers continue to come to Iran, despite sanctions and political tensions.

The Timurid Shahnameh we examine at the Golestan Palace Archive is one of the highlights of the series. You may have been it featured in my news report for the News At Ten on June 12th. The fact that it was brought out at all is, we think, a significant gesture, and one that has excited scholars, who have been waiting years to see some of these treasures. You can tell how thrilled scholar Gity Nourouzian and I are to be able to turn its pages.

With restorers including Mohammed (left) at work on the Soltaniyeh Mausoleum (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

I have a fascination with subjunctive history. And Solteniyah – the fourteenth century Il Khanid capital of the Mongols northwest of Tehran – is one of history’s great what if..s. Like so many of old Persia’s capital cities, it’s all but disappeared. One building stands out though: Our focus in the film is the magnificent blue domed mausoleum. Just as medieval Christians thought of the pilgrimage potential of holy relics and cathedrals, Sultan Oljaitu had grand plans: He was going to bring the remains of the martyred Imam Ali from Karbala here, to turn it into the greatest Shia pilgrimage site outside of Mecca.

Inside, it was moving to talk to Mohammad, leading a team of restorers, painstakingly painting and reviving this beautiful building. We filmed so much more, but you’ll get a tantalising glimpse of the work going on and what it means to Iranians.

In the brutalist 1950s Nader Shah Mausoleum modelled on a tent – every concrete detail was symbolic of his life and reign (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

Nader Shah – the soldier of Afghan heritage-turned ruler has been compared to Napoleon, and it’s a useful not merely Western-centric comparison. It was also a strange experience for me, raised with stories of the barbarians who destroyed Delhi, to visit his brutalist 1950s built mausoleum in Mashad, where he is regarded with reverence. To be honest I felt the same about Napoleon’s mausoleum at Les Invalides in Paris. We filmed in Mashad exactly a year ago, and the mausoleum is a perfect example of the current debate about how problematic statues and memorials can be. Among the tourists I had a great chat with one American Iranian dad who’d brought his children from California to learn about their heritage. He said Nader Shah was a boyhood hero. In the same way Nelson or Napoleon or Julius Caesar might be to British or French or Italian schoolchildren.

Experiencing the enduring power of the
bazaar in Isfahan (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

The episode and the series end exactly where we pointedly did not start – in 1979. By exploring the link between the last Shah’s grand celebration at Persepolis to connect himself to the ancient Kings such as Cyrus, and his fall.

Busstop in Nishapur (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

It’s been thrilling to see how this series, has made a connection with British audiences of all backgrounds. Of Iranian heritage as well. I really hope it will be bought and shown by international broadcasters, especially in Europe and North America and south Asia. Understanding history can only be a good thing in trying to make sense of our difficult present relations as nation states, and forge a more hopeful future.

My thanks as ever to the entire international team in Iran and the UK who worked so hard to make this happen.

Episode 3 of ART OF PERSIA is on BBC4 on June 29th 9pm with repeats and all previous episodes on BBC iplayer

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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