Five thousand years of mystical magnificence: Epic Iran at the V&A – review

Five thousand years of mystical magnificence: Epic Iran at the V&A – review

May 26, 2021

V&A, London
Persepolis and Isfahan are dazzlingly brought to life in a blockbuster show that explores five jaw-dropping millennia of cultural history, from soaring domes to charging horses


Typical. You go for months without any culture, then 5,000 years of it come along at once. That’s what the V&A’s luxury coach tour of a blockbuster promises, and delivers, including quite brilliant recreations of Iran’s two most renowned sites, Persepolis and Isfahan. Epic Iran shows there is a cultural history that connects the country as it is today with the people who lived here five millennia ago. To put this in perspective, that’s like telling the story of Britain from before Stonehenge to the present and hoping it all connects up somehow. But in Iran, it does.

That’s partly because of a pride in history that preserved traditions across the millennia. The most important document of that is The Shahnameh, The Book of Kings, written at the start of the 11th century CE by the poet Ferdowsi. Iran had been converted to Islam in the seventh century, but Ferdowsi’s epic is packed with the heroic deeds and bloody battles of the ancient, pre-Islamic Sasanian empire. It is also written in Persian, as opposed to Arabic. There are gorgeous manuscripts of this classic. A masterpiece made in Tabriz in the 1500s for the Safavid ruler is open on a battle scene in which bejewelled horsemen charge each other across a sea-like expanse of blue: the painter takes time to depict little flowers blooming on the battlefield, just before the horses trample them.

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