Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and the Imagination

School of African and Oriental Studies, London
 11 October – 15 December 2013

Cyrus Cylinder, Babylon, 539-530 BCE. A statement of religious tolerance (relative). From here.

Fascinating if inevitably facile exploration of a religion mysterious to most of us. But get the catalogue.

The catalogue claims this is the first art exhibition devoted to Zoroastrianism in the UK. Part of its purpose, then, is also to inform us about the history and context of the religion, and I’ll address that before coming to the aesthetic value of the exhibition.

Before going, and especially before reading the enormously informative catalogue, I had thought Zoroastrianism was one of the first monotheistic religions, along with Judaism, though located in ancient Persia rather than in the Levant.

The actual archaeological picture appears to be more complex, as indeed it is with Judaism. Even without archaeology, references to gods in the texts and artworks are enough to make us question the monotheism, though Christian and Muslim saints might be seen the same way, and perhaps monotheism itself is a clay-footed idea.

It would seem we know very little about how ancient Persians (Iranians) worshipped, as they didn’t have a single canon, and that this canon was eventually imposed on the religion as a result of contact with Christians and Jews. Christian scriptures are of course relatively recent, but there is also controversy over the age of the Hebrew canon; probably Zoroastrianism’s canon is not much more recent than anyone’s, in the end.

Appropriately aware that even revered traditions can be invented, we can see, with our detachment, that the question ‘what do Zoroastrians believe?’ has different answers at different times. I find this bewildering, as it would be ridiculous to say this applied only to a relatively small Persian religion and not, say, to Islam or Christianity.

So, from purely an anthropological perspective, this exhibition is a success, though I would have preferred more comparisons with the claims of Zoroastrianism’s ‘sister’ monotheist religions.

Aesthetically it’s much more of a mixed bag. The curators are divided between giving us an insider’s view and presenting the orientalist view. So we see various European depictions of the religion, most obviously the ‘magician’ Zarathustra. All of this obscures the presentation of an authentically Zoroastrian art, if such exists.

But the vast scope of the exhibition also defeats the curators. Ancient Persian/Iranian art mixes with medieval art, through to the nineteenth century resurgence in Iran and India, through to modern-day practices, interestingly recreated.

I would have liked to see much more of the crucial period when Islam became ‘Persianised’ and what I assume to be the lasting and profound influence of the earlier religion on the later.

As it was, I came away with a single sobering thought. The Cyrus Cylinder is a testament to Ancient Persia’s religious tolerance. But it comes before the religion was codified and made ‘official’. And that occurred due to Christian influence.

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