One Show, Five Millennia: 5,000 Years Of Iran At V&A

Epic Iran, V&A ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 19 months ago
One Show, Five Millennia: 5,000 Years Of Iran At V&A Epic Iran, V&A 4
From an illuminated manuscript of the Shahnameh for Shah Tahmasp (1525-35) © The Sarikhani Collection; courtesy of the V&A

2,500 years ago, Cyrus the Great, founder of the first Persian Empire, buried a cylinder inscribed with words stating he was a just ruler who strove for peace and allowed everyone to practise their religion freely.

Even Cyrus might be surprised it's being admired all this time after, yet it's among a dazzling cornucopia of items — ancient and contemporary — in V&A's Epic Iran exhibition, spanning 5,000 years.

A frieze given a projector makeover so we can see its original colours. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

Cramming five millennia into one show is no small ask. But while this exhibition sometimes feels like several smaller ones rolled up together, this rarely diminishes the impact in telling the story of the region known today as Iran, and of the different sects of Islam.

From an ancient male figure that may have been used for spiritual purposes, to a bejewelled oil barrel by contemporary artist Shiva Ahmadi, we're whisked through the rise and fall of empires.

Islam plays a large part in Iran's history and many of the objects relate to the influence of Islam. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

Carved friezes from Persian empires include one of 'The Immortals', the elite bodyguard of the emperor, shown here as powerful and dignified, not the bizarre monsters they were in the film 300. One frieze has been 'coloured in' using a digital projector, so we can see what Persians at the time would have seen. I first saw this tech used at the Ashurbanipal exhibition, and it really makes the scene pop.

What this show excels at is plucking highlights from Iran's bountiful history: a gold drinking vessel with the head of a lion; decorative Qurans; a drawing of legendary Persian hero Rustam blinding his opponent with a two headed arrow.

The architecture section uses projector technology to transport us to Iran. Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

Elsewhere, mosaic patterns are projected on to a dome, and I'm particularly touched by a recitation of a poem which tells of a moth drawn to flame; an allegory for the consuming nature of love.

Inevitably, there are moments when you feel you're zipping along overly fast. But you really couldn't ask for a better introduction to the art and culture of a region that unquestionably lives up to its epic status.

Epic Iran is on at V&A until 12 September. Tickets are £18 for adults.

Last Updated 26 May 2021