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The Art of Ancient Iran; Pre-Islamic Culture

Geography of Ancient Iran


 

By: Edith Porada

Columbia University

With the collaboration of R. H. Dyson and contributions by C.K. Wilkinson

 

The historical development of ancient Iran and of its art was largely influenced by the geographical conditions of the country. Iran lies between the Caspian Sea in the north and the Persian Gulf in the south, between Iraq, ancient Mesopotamia, in the west and, in the east, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Soviet Union has a common border with Iran across the north to the point where the Turkish border runs down through Azerbaijan in the north-west. The modern frontiers of Iran as a political unit correspond only in a very limited way with those which existed at the time of the country's greatest political and cultural expansion, in the Achaemenid and Sassanian empires. In some instances, however, some of the boundaries follow natural features which divided and also protected the inhabitants of Iran from their neighbours in antiquity just as they do today. One such border runs southward through Baluchistan in the east, where mountains and deserts present obstacles to easy communication. Another, the Zagros range, separates northern Iraq from north-western Iran except for the road which winds through Kurdistan over mountain passes and down through the Diyala valley in to the Mesopotamian plain. In other areas access to Iranian territories is much easier, as in the south-west where the Khuzistan plain forms an extension of the Mesopotamian lowlands. [1] . . . .

As in Khuzistan so too in the north-east [of Iran] no difficult mountain barriers prevented the influx of peoples from the steppes of Central Asia. Repeated incursions of foreign groups came from this direction in historical times. Such groups as the Seljuk Turks or the Mongols subsequently took over political leadership in the entire country. We may assume that similar incursions also occurred in prehistoric times. These may have followed the great trade-route which is known in historic times to have come from Central Asia through the 'outer Iranian' towns of Samarkand, Bukhara, Merv, which are today in the Soviet Union, to Meshed, in modern Iran, from there to Raghes, near Teheran, then by way of Hamadan and Kermanshah to north-eastern Mesopotamia, in the valley of the Diyala, which leads to Baghdad on the Tigris. In the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, traders probably traveled upward along the green banks of the two great streams, especially the Euphrates, into Syria. No doubt this route or one much like it, which follows river courses and traverses mountain ranges at obvious passes, was already traveled in prehistoric times. There was probably also a more direct northern route of communication between Syria and north-western Iran, to judge by the Iranian or Syrian affinities of some of the finds made in northern Mesopotamia, affinities which are not shared with the more isolated south of Mesopotamia. [2]

As important as the roads which brought foreign influence into the country were the mountainous areas provided a refuge for peoples fleeing from invasions for a brief or permanent stay in the security of their mountain strongholds. The point has recently been made that 'the plains were the melting-pots [p. 17] of various peoples while the mountains provided isolated areas where various religious beliefs [or heresies], old traditions and customs could be maintained in comparative isolation from the great areas of history'. [3] The surprising survival of motifs and techniques in Iranian art over many centuries, and even millennia, may be explained by the traditions maintained in these refuge areas. An example of such an areas is seen in the mountain valleys of western Pakistan in a region formerly called Kafiristan or 'Land of the Infidels'. Horses of an ancestor statue in a graveyard in the Rumbur valley wear ornaments which are very similar to those seen on Assyrian reliefs and which also resemble finds of such ornaments made in Iran in Luristan and at Ziwiye in Kurdistan. [4] . . . . [p. 18]

In the earliest times trade was probably limited to objects passed from hand to hand rather than carried in large quantities by merchants in organized groups or caravans. In the earliest levels of excavations of Iranian villages, however, occasionally some stones and pottery types occur which cannot be of local origin. These must have come through trade, sometimes from a considerable distance. Perhaps we should not underestimate the spirit of adventure, and desire for material gain which may have already motivated intrepid traders in the New Stone Age. [p. 19]

[ Continue ]


NOTES:

1. For a description of the Khuzistan region and its connections with Mesopotamia, see Adams, 'Early South-western Iran,' p. 109.

2. Ann L. Perkins, in Relative Chronologies in Old World Archaeology, ed. R. W. Ehrich [Univ. of Chicago Press, 1954], p. 42, pointed to the fact that northern Mesopotamia lay 'in the path of migratory movements and commerce between Syria and Iran [and farther Asia] and the lands bordering the Mediterranean.'

3. For a discussion of these 'areas of refuge,' see Frye, Heritage of Persia, pp. 7-9.

4. The ornaments of the wooden horses from the equestrian statue in the Rumbur valley, Kafiristan, are reproduced in I LN [March 30, 1963], p. 468, lower left. In the time of King Sargon [721-705 B.C.], Assyrian horses had similar ornaments worn in the same way, as shown in Barnett, Assyrian Reliefs, Pl. 43. Herzfeld, Iran, p. 141, Fig. 256, reproduced drawings of several slightly differing ornaments of this type, two of which are Assyrian, one comes from Luristan, another from the Ordos region. Examples made of shell in various shapes, which were found at Nimrud, are in the Metropolitan Museum, acc. nos. 54-117, 16-19.

 

 

 

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