Persia has one of the longest, most inventive and sophisticated, yet least known or understood civilisations. Like all Empires, it has had eras of dreadful bloodshed and wars. The Persian Wars against Greece ended with the iconoclastic sacking of the Parthenon in 479 BC. In 515 BC, Darius I had begun the construction of the greatest ceremonial city in the ancient world at Persepolis. Alexander the Great wrought revenge in 330 BC by sacking and torching Darius’s creation. Empires and their civilisations rise and fall, these opposite outcomes have many twists and turns. Battles are won and lost, trade booms and methods of transportation advance and change. Persia (or is that Iran), has seen them all; its society has reached great heights and inevitable decline.
The Northern territories were lost during the Russo-Persian wars of the mid-nineteenth century. Then Reza Shah took control in 1925. His authoritarian rule unified the country but suppressed the many ethnic minorities. Secular modernisation caused grave dissatisfaction amongst the clergy. His son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, took control from his elderly father in 1941. In 1951, the radical Mossadegh was elected prime minister, and shortly after he nationalised the British-owned oil industry. The Shah panicked and fled Iran, but returned in August 1953, when with support from the USA and UK Mossadegh was ousted. For the next two decades, the Shah’s programme of secular modernisation brought new wealth to a growing middle class. It also created a wider divide between rich and poor and increasing antipathy amongst the conservative Ayatollahs. SAVAK, his secret police assisted by the CIA and Mossad, did not help his case. The young intelligentsia were alienated and much worse. Though pushed to anti-royalism they had no empathy with the extremist clerics. Another error of judgement was trying to force the nomadic tribes to settle in one place. Tribes such as the Baloch were powerful and difficult to regulate but their wealth came from being nomadic in a fierce climate and landscape. A wealth earned through moving flocks of many thousands of sheep and goats, the transport of goods on caravans of a hundred camel. The statuesque women display their wealth on arms enveloped in pure gold amulets. When not encamped, they knot highly prized tribal carpets. They too had no sympathy with the Shiite extremists. In the mid 70s, the Baloch took to blowing up infrastructure in the South East as a reaction to the settlement policy that would rob them of their way of life, wealth and freedom.
The Shah’s regime alienated too many disparate elements of the Iranian people. Although without affiliation, they shared a common oppressor. The current tragedy for Iran’s place in the world and so many of its people is that the Ayatollahs won over. SAVAK was replaced with SAVAMA with many of the same officers exhibiting the same questionable disregard for human rights.
Persia possesses a rich culture born out of its location as the land route linking East and West via the Old Silk Road. The landscape is shaped by the mountain ranges of the Zagros and Elburz, the high plateau and two vast deserts. This geography and a climate with extreme heat on the plains defined by distant snow-capped mountains and winds from the Russian Steppes have been the source of invention for survival and civilisation.
The primary motivation has been the need of water. Since one thousand BC, Persians have made settlements feasible by sourcing water deep in the alluvial aquifers on the mountain slopes and then tunnelling as much as forty miles to irrigate the land and the potential for villages, towns and cities. The calculation over such distance to determine the rate of flow would only seem possible with laser survey equipment. The combined length of these hand dug tunnels is over thirty-five thousand miles; the distance from the Earth to the Moon. Within desert cities such as Yazd and Kashan huge domed underground cisterns protect and cool, clear mountain water for supply to each neighbourhood. The ‘Qanat’ system of irrigation was listed in 2016 as a World Heritage site.
Buildings have tall brick wind catchers (Bad Gir) towering above the rooftops. These have long vertical slots that catch the wind. A venturi shaft accelerates the air downwards before passing it over a basin of water to humidify and filter sand, after which the cooled air passes through underfloor ducts to the principle rooms. Renewable energy air conditioning through practical understanding, empirical science and invention. The use of courtyards combined with reflecting infinity-edged pools creates domestic microclimates with shade, humidification, ventilation and hence comfort.
The Qanat system enabled the construction of paradise gardens. These became the inspiration for contemplation of idealised nature; poetry, painting and a setting for music. Production of wool, cotton and silk created a tradition of the most durable yet refined knotted carpets as well as elegant textiles.
Greek and Roman astronomy and mathematics were advanced and found expression in architecture. One explanation of how Brunelleschi solved how to build the Duomo in Florence is that he visited Persia to learn from the master builders at the turn of the fifteenth century.
The ceramic mosaic panels that decorate civic and religious buildings inside and out, required a level of mathematical precision beyond belief, especially on the many domes. During the flowering of the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1732), the employment of Chinese porcelain craftsmen together with Persian glaze technology led to the ability to fire seven colours (haft rangi) at the same time. This enabled huge complexes such as the Shah’s Mosque (renamed Imam’s Mosque) in Isfahan to be almost entirely clad in vibrant multi-coloured ceramic tiles. Isfahan is not only the Florence of Western Asia; its bazaar was the inspiration for the Burlington and other London ‘Arcades’. Nearly four kilometres long, it is an exemplar of urban commercial structure. Wholesale collection, supply, manufacture, repair and sales of every commodity are ordered by trade guild and grouped for commercial comparison. Isfahan was one of the first cities to have a population of a million people; centuries before the same urban phenomena in Europe.
But then, Darius I not only built roads to connect his Empire, he also introduced standardised weights and measures and a uniform currency, five hundred years before the Roman invasion of England.