Behind the scenes of Art of Persia – episode 2

On the Tower of Silence overlooking Yazd

We’ve had such amazing audience praise and enthusiasm for Episode 1 so I thought I’d give some more insights and answer a question.

A number of viewers asked why we described the Cyrus Cylinder -with its declaration of tolerance for all his conquered peoples – as “propaganda”. I asked Professor Lloyd Llewellyn Jones of Cardiff University (one of the experts in the series) about this.

Cyrus the Great is held up as this champion of human rights, because of the wording on the famous carved Cyrus cylinder, now in the British Museum, supposedly declaring a conquest that allowed freedom of belief to his subject peoples. It’s now understood to be more a symbol of propaganda than fact. Cyrus carried out massacres too. But Llewellyn Jones has witnessed students chanting his name it late at night in Shiraz; and crowds have gathered at Pasargarde on October 29th –  now Cyrus Day – as a figurehead of a civil resistance to the regime.

Even the Nobel Laureate, human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, cited it in her Peace Prize acceptance speech, in which she declared, echoing the rhythms of those cuneiform statements of pride: ”I am an Iranian. A descendant of Cyrus The Great”. She was later reportedly mortified to learn of her error.    

Some of that identification is based on a lack of knowledge. It doesn’t help, believes Llewellyn Jones that Iranians aren’t taught much about their early history at school; just a few pages in text books on the Achaemenids and Xerxes. “Iranian history begins with the Arab conquest in the 7th century. So straight away there’s this paradox set up even in the teaching [of it].”

With Zoroastrian guide Farahnaz Chehelmard

So on to episode 2. This is an episode where we go into people’s homes. We focus on the remarkable religion of Zoroastrianism. There is still a sizeable Zoroastrian community around the desert city of Yazd and you’ll see Farharnaz Chehelmard, show me round one of the holiest sites of their religion — the fire temple at Chak Chak. We were incredibly privileged to be allowed to stand right in the holiest part of it, where the mountain spring flows out of the barren desert rocks.

Filming in a Zoroastrian village near Yazd

Thanks to Farzaneh, we spent a morning meeting many other Zoroastrians in the home of a local council leader, a woman incidentally, with worshippers who recited prayers in their ancient language Avesta. The story of how this religion survived despite the Arab invasion is one of the most moving of our series.

With street art of Rostam from the Shahnameh in central Tehran

We look in more detail at the story of Abolqasim Ferdowsi, the author of the Shahnameh, with a wonderful couple who’ve devoted their lives to educating Iranian schoolchildren, including their own sons. about the chivalry and heroism of these stories and characters. They also cooked us the most delicious meal, which you’ll see me enjoying.

And what could summarise the untold Iran better than the fact that that street art of Rostam was in the shadow of a building you often seen on the news – with the old revolutionary mural of a US Flag made of skulls and falling bomb trails instead of stars and stripes, saying “Down with the USA”.

Shooting the “Arabian Nights” sequence In the teahouse at Isfahan

My thanks as ever to the remarkable team in Iran and the UK who worked on this for 4 years and the generosity of all the Iranian people we met during our filming.

Art of Persia episode 2 is on BBC4 on Monday June 22nd 2020 and iplayer after

Episode 1

Further reading

The Art of being Persian (Financial Times June 13th 2020)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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