“Wise Men from the East: Zoroastrian Traditions in Persia and Beyond” Vesta Curtis (Talk at the British Museum Members’ Open Evening, 11/11/2013)

The second of the two talks we went to at the British Museum Members’ Open Evening the other week was about the small exhibition of Zoroastrian and related pieces that has recently opened at the BM. This is in some ways a related exhibition to the larger Zoroastrian exhibition at SOAS which finishes soon (we went to see it the other day so I shall be writing that up soon). In this post I’m going to talk about both the exhibition and the curator’s talk.rather than split them into separate posts. My photos are up on flickr here.

Exhibition TalkExhibition Door

The curator, Vesta Curtis, started by telling us that she herself is Iranian, and her professional interest is in royal iconography on pre-Islamic Iranian coins. She’s taken advantage of interest generated by the other Zoroastrian exhibition to draw people in to look at her coins. The other strand of the exhibition is to look at how the Zoroastrian iconography has influenced both modern Iran and the Western world (hence the “Wise Men from the East” bit of the exhibition title).

The Zoroastrian religion is named (by outsiders) after its prophet Zoroaster or Zarathustra. He lived somewhere between 1800BC and 600BC (amusingly one of the audience at the talk thought Curtis meant he lived that long, but no she meant the much more plausible fact that his dates are unknown). The primary god is Ahura Mazda, sometimes shown as a winged figure. This same iconography can be used as representation of the concept of Kingly Glory, and it’s not always clear which it is in a given context. The Zoroastrians see the world as a battleground between good and evil forces, and see the role of humanity as working to aid the good force. Curtis said in some ways it’s an eco-friendly religion, as one of it’s precepts is that a good person should not pollute the natural elements (like water, fire, earth).

Cylinder SealCoins of Kusrau IIEmbossed Bowl Showing the Goddess NanaCoins Depicting Mithra

The religion started in Iran and spread to India. Curtis had displayed a selection of coins and seals which depicted Zoroastrian iconography from across the region and across time from c.400BC through to the 1600s AD. In modern Iran the winged figure of Ahura Mazda or the Kingly Glory has become a secular national symbol. Curtis was telling us that a lot of people, in particular the younger generation, in Iran have some piece of jewellery or accessory with this figure on it – even non-Zoroastrians. It’s a symbol that emphasises the long history of Iran, and to go with this theme in the exhibition there were some stamps released in 1970 to celebrate 2500 years of the Persian Empire.

Farvarhah KeyringIranian Stamps

The impact on the Western world is via Christianity. The three Wise Men who bring gifts to the infant Jesus are generally depicted in Persian dress. Even the name we use for them – the Magi – derives from the Persian word for a Zoroastrian priest. From the word Magi we also get “magician” and “magic”. One of the Magi is possibly an Indo-Parthian King called Gondaphares, his name is corrupted to Caspar or Jasper in the Christian texts. I admit I’m not clear if there was more evidence than just the name to link the two or not.

Reliquary CasketTaler from Cologne

This was an interesting talk and exhibition, but I think it was a little unfocused for such a small collection. Coins were clearly Curtis’s thing, and I think in trying to give it a broader appeal it ended up with a few too many only tangentially related things. Still, I likely wouldn’t’ve gone to look if it had all been coins (because they’re not really my thing), so it did the job right in that sense 🙂

In Our Time: Shahnameh of Ferdowsi

The Shahnameh is an epic poem, twice as long as the Odyssey & the Iliad put together, written in 10th Century AD Persia about Persian history. It took its author, Ferdowsi, 30 years to write and is still regarded today as one of the important pieces of Persian literature. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Narguess Farzad (University of London), Charles Melville (University of Cambridge) and Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis (British Museum). The two women are Iranian, and particularly towards the end of the programme were very enthusiastic about how important this poem is to Iran & to the cultural identity of the Iranian people.

At the time it was written it was a few centuries after Persia had been conquered by the Muslim Arabs at a time when the Caliphate was no longer a strong force across the Islamic Empire. The Persian people had kept oral traditions of their culture, and their own language, and during this period there was a reassertion of Persian culture. Ferdowsi was writing as part of this cultural movement & he was setting out to retell pre-existing prose records & oral tradition as poetry because he believed this would be easier to remember. So it was a self-conscious effort at writing something for posterity. It’s written in early modern Persian, so is still understandable today even if somewhat archaic. The format is rhyming couplets, and a specific meter – I think they said it was 11 syllables, a pause, 11 more syllables for each line, and the middles and the ends of the lines in a couplet rhyme. I’m not sure if that means it’s A: A, A: A, B: B, B: B or if it means it’s A: B, A: B, C: D, C: D (if you see what I mean). They said he was a very good poet and within the strict meter he uses the feel of the language to fit the things he’s writing about. So battles have words that feel short and energetic, but scenes like banquets are more flowing words.

The poem is split into three parts – myths, legends & history. The myths are what we might think of as pre-history – the first people (cave dwellers), the coming of gods, that sort of thing. The legends are the stories of heroes, and of early kings and early battles (and these may or may not’ve happened, but certainly didn’t happen like they’re told). And the history is the stories of the Kings of the Sassanid Empire – which runs from around 200AD to the Islamic conquest of Persia in about 650AD. This is accurate in the sense that the right kings are named in the right order, but it’s not really telling you about what happened when, it’s more of a manual for “how to be a good Persian King”. There are lots of dialogues where the wise advisor tells the new King how to rule – reminds me a bit of Ancient Egyptian literature which has a whole genre of that sort of thing.

After it was written it wasn’t all that popular at first – it must’ve survived, and been copied around because it’s referred to in other literature. But it comes into its own once the Mongols conquer Persia, as a way of Persianising the new rulers and of showing what it means to be Persian. Since then it’s occupied a central role in Persian education & culture – they were saying that it’s taught in schools and that even people without formal schooling would learn sections of the poem.