Iconic Iran Symposium, Saturday 11th and Sunday 12th March

Iconic Iran Symposium

An exploration of seminal moments in the arts and history of Iran

Proceeds from ticket sales will be shared between local homeless charity Social Bite and British Red Cross for victims of the Turkish earthquake.

The Nomads Tent is delighted to present a series of talks focused on Iran, from pre-Islamic times to the present day. We will explore some of the most impressive achievements of Iranian culture; the imperial glory of pre-Islamic empires, stories from The Great Mongol Shahnama, and the golden age of carpet-making in the 16th and 17th centuries. These moments have become iconic emblems of world heritage.

Led by prominent thinkers in the field, and showcasing new and exploratory work, the talks, exhibits and visits will focus on the stories, materials and meaning of important objects like the great Mongol Shahnama, building a 13th century house in Shiraz, and Safavid rugs. But they will also explore how these iconic moments and objects have lived on into the modern imagination, in Iran and across the world.

Bookings may be made for both days or for either day separately. See program timings and booking details here. Refreshments and lunch are included.

Day 1 - Saturday 11th March

Doors open 9am, Welcome by Andrew Haughton at 9.30

9.45 Prof. Robert Hillenbrand: Storytelling in The Great Mongol Shahnama.

The Shahnama (The Book of Kings), was written by Firdausi a thousand years ago and described by a medieval Arab literary critic as "the Qur'an of the Persians".

 It's 60,000 rhyming verses are a rich cocktail of rousing adventures, fantasy, history, legend, myth, manual of statecraft and ethical guide. It holds an unchallenged place in the hearts of Iranians young and old and millions of them, literate and illiterate alike, can recite long passages by heart. The talk by Robert Hillenbrand will approach this masterpiece through the lens of storytelling and will focus on what for many is the supreme illustrated version of the text. This was produced under Mongol rule in the 14th century and drew inspiration from both European and Chinese art. 

(Photo of cover of The Great Mongol Shahnama by A Haughton)

Robert Hillenbrand, Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh and Honorary Professor of Islamic Art at the University of St Andrews, is the author of the recently published "The Great Mongol Shahnama". 

This magisterial and intensely beautiful book is the work of 4 decades. Thought to be lost to the winds in 1910 due to an unscrupulous Parisian art dealer, Robert Hillenbrand brings back together, for our enrichment, one the greatest illuminated manuscripts of the 14th century. A few copies will be available for sale at the The Nomads Tent during March and from Hali magazine here.

10.45 Coffee

11.30 Prof Ali Ansari: A Royal Romance: The Cult of Cyrus the Great in Modern Iran.

[The tomb of Cyrus at Pasargad, SW Iran. Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

“This paper assesses the renaissance in monarchical sentiment in the Islamic Republic of Iran looking in particular at the revival in interest in the figure of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, as an icon of Iranian identity by both religious and secular Iranians noting how the Islamic Republic, like its predecessor has sought to co-opt the ancient king for its own political purposes.”

Ali Ansari, Founding Director of The Institute of Iranian Studies and Professor of History, University of St. Andrews. 

*Ali will bring an important perspective to this symposium, having explored widely the development of the Iranian state; Ideology, myth and nation building; Social and Intellectual history; Iran and the West. For a further, now rather topical paper, see; "A failure of imagination?: Britain, 'the narrative of liberalisation' and the fall of the Shah", which can be seen here.

12.30 Lunch

2pm Yusen Yu: “The Making of a Shirazi Mansion in 1339”

“The southern Iranian city of Shiraz is known for its links to the coasts of the Gulf and the Indian ocean. This talk draws on a neglected report of the construction of a mansion (bala-qasr) in Shiraz from the Risala-yi falakiyya, a mid-fourteenth-century accounting manual, which offers a rare glimpse of the building process in pre-modern Iran. It hopes to shed new light on the social and architectural history of the 'city of roses and nightingales'.”

Yusen Yu is Lecturer in Iranian Islamic Art History at the University of St Andrews. He works on medieval Islamic art and architecture in its urban, nomadic and maritime contexts. Besides many other papers, Yusen has written a very interesting paper on Gold-Sprinkled: Chinese Paper and Persian Book Arts during the Fifteenth Century which can be accessed here

[Kamaluddin Bihzad, The Building of the Castle of Khwarnaq, detail]

3pm Dr Dorothy Armstrong: Inventing the Asian Carpet: How important exhibitions of carpets in nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe formed the idea of the ‘oriental’ carpet in the West.

Carpets in the Great Exhibition, London, 1851, lithograph from a watercolour made for Prince Albert (British Library)

“It is easy to assume that the beliefs we hold in the West about the carpets of the Middle East, Central and South Asia are historical truths. This lecture instead explores how a western idea of great carpets was constructed through European exhibitions. Beginning with the Great Exhibition of 1851, it goes on to explore the Vienna Exhibition of 1892, and the International Persian Exhibition of 1931.”

Dorothy Armstrong is a historian of material culture. She has taught at the Royal College of Art, Edinburgh College of Art, The School of Oriental and African Studies, and Oxford University. She was the May Beattie Fellow in Carpet Studies at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. She has written and lectured widely on carpets, and her current book, ‘A History of the World in Twelve Carpets’, will be published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2024. 

4pm tea and cake

5pm close

 Day Two - Sunday 12th March

10.30 Doors open, Coffee will be served 10.45 Welcome by Andrew Haughton

11.00 Warwick Ball: How Aslan the Lion King and much more from Persia, entered Narnia.

Warwick Ball reflects on the theme of his book ‘East of the Wardrobe; the unexpected worlds of CS Lewis’ touching on literary and religious elements (Zoroastrian, Manichaean, even Sufi) that have found their way into C S Lewis’s Narnia books, as well as the Persian painting style of Pauline Baynes illustrations used in the books, not to mention the Persian name of the main character, Aslan the lion.

Illustrated here is one of the proposed book covers for Warwick's book. 

Warwick Ball is a Near Eastern archaeologist and author who worked in Iran, Libya, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Jordan, and Iraq. His books include Rome in the East, which was winner of the James Henry Breasted History Prize; The Eurasian Steppe: People, Movement, Ideas (2021). Awarded Honorary Doctorate of Letters in recognition of an outstanding career in near-eastern archaeology by the University of St Andrews. Many of his books can be found here.

‘East of the Wardrobe; the unexpected worlds of CS Lewis’ will be available at the event along with several others by Warwick including 'The Eurasian Steppe: People, Movement, Ideas'.

12.00 Coffee

12.30 Jennifer Scarce: The impact of Persia under the Great Sophy (Shah Abbas I 1587 to 1629) and after.

Jennifer’s illustrated talk will concentrate on material from Safavid Persia; architecture decorated with brilliant tilework, carpets, silks and brocades, ceramic and metal vessels in the context of domestic life, and social customs including eating and drinking, as noted by French jeweller John Chardin, who visited Isfahan twice between 1666 and 1677.

[Wall painting of a garden with bowls of fruit. Qajar period,19th century]

Jennifer will illustrate differences between two great parallel dynasties, the Safavids and Tudors, particularly costumes, which were richly illustrated in the TV production of Hillary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’. Shah Abbas of Persia, normally plainly dressed, put on lavish clothes for grand occasions. The flamboyant Henry made use of lavish silks and brocades.

Jennifer M Scarce, Former Principal Curator of Middle East Collections, National Museums of Scotland, Honorary Lecturer, Middle Eastern Cultures, Dundee University, writer, historian.  She has travelled and lectured in Iran and Turkey, collected textiles and dress for the NMS, researched for V&A Museum collections and is presently researching Qajar tiles, Persian and Turkish dress and Scottish travellers in the Middle East and has published widely on Persia and Turkey. See our newsletter article on Jennifer's work.

1.30 Tea and cake

2pm close

Bookings may be made for both days or for either day separately.

Book your place here. Refreshments included.

Tickets:  Saturday - £40 (£30 students)

               Sunday -  £20 (£15 students)