About the Epic Iran exhibition

Produced as part of Epic Iran

On now until Sunday, 12 September 2021

More about this Exhibition

Epic Iran explores 5,000 years of Iranian art, design and culture, bringing together over 300 objects from ancient, Islamic and contemporary Iran.

Iran was home to one of the great historic civilisations, yet its monumental artistic achievements remain unknown to many. Epic Iran explores this civilisation and the country's journey into the 21st century, from the earliest known writing – signalling the beginning of history in Iran – through to the 1979 Revolution and beyond. Ranging from sculpture, ceramics and carpets, to textiles, photography and film, the works in this exhibition reflect the country's vibrant historic culture, architectural splendours, the abundance of myth, poetry and tradition that have been central to Iranian identity for millennia, and the evolving, self-renewing culture evident today.

Epic Iran features ten sections set within an immersive design that will transport visitors to a city, complete with gatehouse, gardens, palace, and library.

The first section introduces the Land of Iran with striking imagery of the country's dramatic and varied landscapes – all of which have shaped the country's social, economic and political history.

Beginning at the dawn of history in 3200 BC, marked by the earliest known writing, Emerging Iran shows that even before the rise of the Persian Empire, Iran's rich civilisation rivalled those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. This section features objects decorated with recurring animal and nature motifs, and figurines and items from everyday life including earrings and belt fragments.

The Persian Empire spans the Achaemenid period, starting in 550 BC when Cyrus the Great was crowned king of the Medes and Persians, uniting Iran politically for the first time. With its capital Persepolis, the empire became the most extensive of the pre-Roman world, with a rich artistic culture. Archaeological finds, including the Cyrus Cylinder – on loan from the British, and gold armlet in the V&A collection from the Oxus Treasure Museum, reveal insights into kingship and royal power, trade and governance of society.

Cyrus Cylinder
Cyrus Cylinder, 539 – 38 BC. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum

The fourth section, Last of the Ancient Empires, covers a period of dynastic change with Alexander the Great overthrowing the Persian Empire in 331 BC. This section showcases Parthian and Sasanian sculpture, stone reliefs, gold and silverware, coins, as well as Zoroastrian iconography.

The fifth section, The Book of Kings, is a prelude to the sections devoted to Islamic Iran. It shows how Iran's long history before the coming of Islam was understood in later centuries – primarily through the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, which is the world's greatest epic poem, completed by the poet Firdowsi around AD 1010.

Change of Faith explores the place of Islam in Iranian culture in the millennium and more that followed the Arab conquest in the mid-seventh century AD. The section introduces the Holy Qur'an – the text in Arabic that forms the basis of Islam – as well as the role of the Arabic language in Iran after the conquest. A number of exquisite Qur'ans and manuscript illuminations feature, alongside a prayer rug, battle and parade armour, a celestial globe, and the magnificent Horoscope of Iskandar Sultan, on loan from the Wellcome Collection.

Horoscope of Iskandar Sultan
Horoscope of Iskandar Sultan, 1411. Courtesy Wellcome Collection

Charting the rise of Persian poetry, Literary Excellence reveals how – from the tenth century AD – Persian written in the Arabic script emerged as a literary language in the royal courts of eastern Iran. Royal patronage meant manuscripts were incredibly refined and poetry became part of the visual arts because of the use of poetic inscriptions, which appeared on items including ceramics, metalwork, and even carpets.

Featuring rich material from the thirteenth century AD onwards, Royal Patronage demonstrates how Iranian traditions of kingship were reborn after Islam, with the return of royal customs like robes of honour, the creation of lavish art and architecture, and an insight into internationalism as a two-way exchange.

The Old and the New explores how the Qajar dynasty looked back to their predecessors to legitimise their power, whilst also seeking to modernise and scope out new relationships with Europe. The introduction of photography in Iran in the mid-1800s had a profound effect on the way Iranians represented themselves.

Bridging the 1940s to the present day, the final section Modern and Contemporary Iran will cover a period of dynamic social and political change in Iran, encompassing increased international travel as well as political dissent, the Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, and the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

Turbulent, by Shirin Neshat
Turbulent, by Shirin Neshat, two-screen installation, 1998. © Shirin Neshat. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels
Background image: (Detail) Armlet, from the Oxus Treasure, 500 – 330 BC, Tajikistan. Museum no. 442-1884. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London