The Freer and Sackler’s extraordinary collection of luxury metalwork, considered one of the largest and finest of its kind, is showcased in Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran. Featuring exceptional works of silver and gold, the exhibition opened this year in honor of the Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary. Many of the objects were collected and donated by Dr. Arthur M. Sackler to the Smithsonian museum that would bear his name.
Bento caught up with Dr. Massumeh Farhad, F|S chief curator, curator of Islamic art, and curator of this exhibition, for a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the ancient Iranians.
Bento: What does Feast Your Eyes reveal about kings and kingship in ancient Iran?
Massumeh Farhad: The objects in the exhibition tell us about how kings projected and expressed their power and authority. The picture plates, such as the one of Shapur II, represent the king as a sharp, skillful rider and hunter. In a way they are portable propaganda. At the same time, Sasanian kings also had their images carved into huge rock reliefs. Here, they would show themselves hunting, succeeding to the throne, or with their enemies kneeling in front of them in defeat. One of the reliefs can be seen in an archival image in the exhibition, taken by the 19th-century photographer Antoin Sevruguin. These huge reliefs were intended more for the public, while the picture plates were sent as portable royal gifts to governors and other high-ranking officials within the empire and beyond. As we can see, the Sasanians adapted imagery to both large and small scale.
Bento: What do the multiple images of hunting tell us about the Sasanians?
MF: Hunting is the most important pastime associated with rulers in the Near East, beginning with the Assyrians and continuing well into the Islamic period. When kings were not at war, they demonstrated their skill and courage by going hunting. The popularity of hunting imagery in the Sasanian period may have also carried a religious meaning and been intended to show the king’s ability to overcome chaos (or at least reign in chaos).
The Sasanians were known for huge cultivated grounds, which they used for hunting. The word “paradise,” meaning an enclosed lush garden, is derived from the Old Persian term pardis. These walled gardens existed all over their empire.
Bento: Tell me a little bit more about Shapur II.
MF: Shapur II is the most frequently depicted king on Sasanian objects. He was one of the most successful Sasanian rulers, who succeeded in pacifying the Central Asian tribes in the east and conquering Armenia in the west. He was also the longest reigning Sasanian king; he reigned for 70 years because he was crowned in his mother’s womb.
Bento: What do we know about the day-to-day lives of the Sasanians?
MF: Sasanian society seemed quite rigid and hierarchical. It was divided into priests, warriors, secretaries, and commoners with the king in the center. Most of the information about the Sasanians comes from Persian religious texts or Greco-Roman sources, which tend to be somewhat biased. For the Achaemenids (ca. 550–331 BCE), there are a large number of tablets found at Persepolis, which have been deciphered for the last several decades at the University of Chicago. Once [the research is] completed, we will know much more about their everyday life, social interactions, and economic transactions.
In the meantime, we have to piece together a picture of Sasanian life based on contemporary religious texts and somewhat biased Greek sources. For instance, the Greeks seemed fascinated with Persian eating habits and report extensively about their excesses. Allegedly, they made the Greeks eat out of gold and silver vessels and ate multiple courses. The Sasanians were also very fond of desserts and wine.
Bento: My heroes! I hear they also ate their meals in silence. Why?
MF: Meals were serious and solemn occasions, even during the Islamic period. In the West, meals can be boisterous and chatty. In Iran, you ate your meals in silence. Basically the only person who could speak was the priest. Everything else was conducted in silence.
Shiraz was well known for many years for its viticulture. Wine was produced there. The Persian king had a vintner and an army of cooks. It was known that the Romans watered down their wine and the Persians did not. They also loved celebrating their birthdays. Aristophanes left a firsthand account and wrote, “And those pitiless Persian hosts! They compelled us to drink sweet wine, wine without water, from gold and glass cups.”