Persian Modern Culture the Souvenir from Europe

  June 30, 2021   Read time 4 min
Persian Modern Culture the Souvenir from Europe
Throughout the 19th century, Iran went through major political, social, and economic changes. The increasing overlap between Iranian territory and European interests, and the reports that occasional Iranian travelers brought back from Europe, were major topics of discussion at that time. 

The defeat of Iran by Russia in the earlier part of the 19th century, and the resulting loss of vast territories, warned Iranians that the Empire of Persia was no longer invulnerable and could not survive as in former times. Also, it revealed that the Persian army could not withstand the modern mechanized forces of its northern neighbor. The growing ambitions of many European economies meant that Iran was treated as a convenient ready market for foreign manufactures, and indeed cheap mass-produced imports flooded Iran throughout the 19th century This had an immediate and dramatic impact on consumer habits and on most sectors of industry It was clear that Iran needed to respond. The emergence of a few men from the court and the government became instrumental in establishing the first layer of a vast reform program. Among them were Abbas Mirza (1789-1833), the Crown Prince of Fath Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834), and Amir-Kabir (1810-1852), the prime minister of Naser al-Din Shah (r. 1848-1896). Abbas-Mirza was instrumental in forming a new Western-style army, and under his rule printing presses and newspapers came into existence.

It was through the efforts of Amir-Kabir that the college modelled after Western education—Dar al-Fonun—was founded in 1851. Students were trained in many strategic disciplines, and some were sent to Europe for further studies. On their return these men were given influential positions, and eventually took part in the country's reform. The modernization of Iran soon had an impact on other aspects of life, including social behavior. The situation of women was unchanged, however, and had to wait for several decades to begin to catch up with the rest of society.

In those days, the news that European women appeared in public with their faces and hair unveiled was perhaps the most noteworthy item of gossip. Iranians were particularly struck by such innovations when reports were accompanied by realistic pictures and postcards of beautiful European women with uncovered heads, ornate clothes, jewelry, and makeup (very different from the stylized depictions of women that Iranian artists produced). This was because, at that time, all Iranian women concealed their faces and bodies with various kinds of veils and coverings when they left the privacy of their homes. Concerning this, Ruhoiiah Khaieqi wrote: "In those days [late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries] all women wore the black or dark blue chador. The most modern-minded wore a large veil, called pichah, over their faces, while the oldfashioned ones employed the ru-bandi (face covering). The former was short and the latter was long and white. Those who wore the ru-bandi also wore ankle-length baggy trousers bound tighdy at the ankles and known as chaqchur. When people went out for a walk, one side of the street was for men and the other for women. Even husbands had to go on one side, while their wives walked on the other. If there were public performances, women were not permitted to attend or participate." The veiling of women was so important that anyone who spoke of doing away with it was called a heretic. From that time until 1936, when Reza Shah's queen and daughters participated unveiled in ceremonies at a boy's college and the removal of the veil became officially sanctioned, all efforts to end the institution of purdah met with violent opposition in Iran. The period during which the prints featuring beautiful women were in fashion in Isfahan was concurrent with the period discussed above.

Idealistic images of women have always been admired by Persians. Although not much is known about earlier presentations of such imagery in ordinary houses, more evidence is preserved in royal palaces. For centuries, royal palaces have been decorated with figural images reflecting the whole community of the buildings' inhabitants: not only kings, but soldiers, servants and entertainers, and even guests. These images depicted people, and increased the grandeur of the king's power. This visual tradition stretches far back, at least to the stone reliefs of Persepolis, and allows today's visitors to see an ancient echo of a once-lively place. Both the Ali Qapu (the palace of Shah Abbas I, r. 1588-1629, and Shah Abbas II, r. 1642—1666) and the Chehel Sotun (the palace of Shah Abbas II) in Isfahan are dramatic examples. The walls of the Chehel Sotun are adorned with images of beautiful women either alone or in the company of a young man, pouring wine or playing a musical instrument. These remind us of the convivial pleasures of Safavid Isfahan.

European painting traditions were introduced to Iran by European travelers, either through the importation of examples such as print illustrations, or by traveling artists themselves. At that time, Iranians had a very different concept of painting, consciously preferring refined idealism to naturalism. Before the Safavid period, they had rarely seen a completely naturalistic painting of a person's face, or a scene from nature with realistic perspective and shading. The sight of European paintings of this kind proved exciting. At the same time, there was much interest in Europe in portraits of the great rulers of Asia; this was a visual tradition going back to classical times that compared the portraits and biographies of world leaders, past and present. The features of a face were believed to show the character and ability of a great leader.

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