Traditional Persian Arts

Persia and Iran are home to an ancient artistic tradition that has influenced the Middle East and Mediterranean worlds for thousands of years. Their most characteristic artforms, developed over thousands of years, include architecture, relief sculpture, metalworking, textile arts, poetry, and miniature painting.

Achaemenid Sculpture and Metalworking

Among the earliest and best known surviving arts of Persian civilization are the reliefs, sculptures, and monumental architecture left behind by the Achaemenids. Surviving cities like Persepolis show similarities to those of earlier civilizations like Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Elam, and Babylon. Royal architecture from the time drew focus to imperial power through large, open spaces supported by columns. Reliefs etched into their walls and staircases depicted mythical creatures, illustrious kings, and servants laden with tribute.

The Achaemenids sponsored building projects throughout their empire. Their largest surviving city is Persepolis, the ruins of which are still standing in Iran. They also supported the work of artisanal craftsmen, particularly in metalworking. Rhytons, a type of decorative drinking horn, were especially popular at the time. The Achaemenids set the standard for many Iranian civilizations to come.

Persian Poetry and Literature

Historically, Persian culture is perhaps most famous for its poetry and literature. The Persian language became Islam’s most popular outlet for poetry from the 10th to 16th centuries. Much of this poetry is tied to Sufi philosophy and ideas. Persian poets like Rumi, Hāfiz, Sanā‘ī Ghaznavī, Rūdakī, and Sa‘di-i Shīrāzī are all remembered for their contributions to Islamic literature. Iran’s greatest epic poem, the Shahnameh by Ferdowsi, was written around 1000 CE. It covers the early history of Persia and Iran up to the Islamic Conquest. Ferdowsi’s work has been translated many times. The Shahnameh still widely read and performed in Iran and other nations of Persian heritage.

Besides poetry, Iran has also produced several notable works of literature. Best known of these is The One Thousand and One Nights, a medieval story based on earlier Iranian and Arab myths. Its protagonist is Scheherazade, a queen of Sasanian Persia. Her new husband is notorious for executing his wives after a single day of marriage. Scheherazade uses her storytelling abilities to stay alive night after night.

Persian Miniatures and Religious Art

Miniature painting developed alongside Persian poetry and religious art. They embellished books of poetry and sacred texts, similar to the illuminated manuscripts of Christianity. Unlike most other styles of Islamic art, Persian painters generally did not shy away from the human form. Their pieces are renowned for their bright colors, flowing lines, fine calligraphy, and elaborate geometry. These same trends can be seen in other forms of Iranian art like the geometric tile decorations of mosques and Persian carpet patterns. Iran’s most distinguished painter is likely Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, known for perfecting the style of the Safavid dynasty.

Music and Dance in Persian Culture

Persian music has been just as influential in the Middle East as its paintings, poetry, and architecture. Its musical traditions are credited to the Sasanian Empire, which ruled just prior to Islamization. Sasanian court musicians held privileged roles in their society. They followed the king and his nobles almost everywhere, including on hunting expeditions. Wandering bards were also well respected. They traveled from village to village playing songs, reciting poetry, and educating the populace. Popular instruments from the time included harps, lutes, trumpets, sitars, and dulcimers. By far the most famous Sasanian musician and composer was Barbad, who organized Persian music into its long-standing forms.

When the Sasanians fell to Arab conquest in 651, their musical traditions survived and thrived. Persian musical forms, like their poetry, came to dominate Islamic arts. Their customs spread to China, India, and even Europe through Spain. Persian music was instrumental in the development of genres like flamenco.

The Arts in Modern Iran

Today, the traditional arts of Iran are still appreciated alongside the offerings of new artists. After a brief period of Westernization in the 20th century, the nation has since reverted to more traditional art forms. Music, and pop music in particular, is generally discouraged, though classical music is widely distributed. The nation is also home to an underground music scene in genres like pop, rock, and hip-hop. An artistic diaspora has seen many Iranian artists leave the nation in search of freer expression. Its painters, photographers, filmmakers, and other artists may choose to explore their nation’s turbulent history and current state among a variety of subjects.


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