From Persepolis to Isfahan: interrogating Safavid ‘antiquarianism’

Speaker: Dr Lindsay Allen - King’s College London

This paper asks whether and how material appropriations of pre-Islamic antiquity occurred in 16th to 17th-century Iran. We look for new perspectives on the spoliation and creative visioning of imperial Achaemenid (6th to 4th centuries BCE) and Sassanian (3rd to 7th centuries CE) ruins in the wake of Shah Abbas I’s (1571 – 1629) reformation of the Iranian state. This political process coincided with the moment in European thought when pre-Islamic Iran became a locatable reality, encountered in both print travel accounts and dramatic space, for instance Hackluyt’s Voyages (1589) and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine pt 1 (1587). Shah Abbas’s political machinations were globally impactful on emerging ideas about the ancient Near East between 1590 and 1630, but the specifics of any Safavid interaction with the Iranian past are rarely examined. Safavid ‘antiquarianism’ may have been informed by Shah Abbas’ displacement of mystically-inclined knowledge communities in favour of a newly state-oriented Shia congregational practice in the late sixteenth century. In the context, we query whether the depiction of figural stone relief panels in Safavid architectural views in an Isfahani manuscript relates to active interventions reported for the period at the site of Persepolis.

In the scholarly narrative of the pre-Islamic past, nationalistic antiquarianism begins in the nineteenth century, giving Iran a ‘late developer’ profile as a nation coming to terms with its own history, politically and artistically. By adopting a cross-disciplinary lens to scrutinise the visualisation of antiquity in the early modern period, we ask how Iran fitted in a global cultural dialogue about the cultural significance and use of ruins in the landscape.

Lindsay Allen has been lecturer in Greek and Near Eastern history at King’s College London since 2005. She has published on the history and material culture of the Achaemenid Persian empire (c.550-330 BCE), with a particular focus on intersections between text and object. Her current project uses modern archival sources to reconstruct and analyse the modern fragmentation and dispersal of the structures at the Iranian site of Persepolis/Takht-i Jamshid. This paper is a collaborative extension of this work on the modern history of a ruin, drawing on six-months as a visiting researcher at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Organised by Dr Sussan Babaie (The Courtauld) 

5:00pm, 14 Mar 2019

Thursday 14th March 2019

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Vernon Square, Penton Rise, King’s Cross, London




Courtauld Asia