Danyal Lotfi: Racist Against Ourselves-The Negative Impact of Ethnic Jokes

The aricle below by Danyal Lotfi was posted originally in IIAB and Payvand News websites. it is a unique and courageous article as it is critical of the denigrating impact of “ethnic jokes” and the damage these impart to the collective identity of Iranians. In a wider sense, the article highlights the harmful nature of such “jokes” within the wider community of nations today, now increasingly interconnected by modern communications, social and regular media.

Kindly note that the pictures shown below did not appear in the original article. Readers are also encouraged to read the responses made by Feyli and Firoozeh to Danyal Lotfi’s essay (posted at the end of the article).


I’m sure most of you have heard of the typical Iranian jokes that are exchanged at family gatherings, between friends and neighbors. Have you ever paid attention to the content of these jokes? Who are they referring to? To us, Iranians. But they are always targeting a certain ethnic minority. These jokes usually entail stories of how Turks/Azeris are dumb, Gilaks have no honor, Lurs are stupid, and so on.


Sattar Khan’s fighters in Tabriz, Azarbaijan with the flag of Iran during the Constitutional Revolution. These played a major role in not only protecting the cause of democracy in Iran.   

What most people don’t realize when they share such jokes is how brutally they are hurting the identity of their brothers and sisters from all across Iran. No, Turks/Azeris are not dumb. Have you ever heard of a man named Sattar Khan? He was Azeri and one of the key players in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in early twentieth century, who with the help of Bagher Khan became the leader of the Constitutional rebels in Tabriz and later on in most of Iran.

You think Gilaks have no “honor”? Well, let me introduce you to Mirza Kuchik Khan, who was another leader during the Constitutional Revolution and who fought for quite a few years against the outside forces (Russian and British) who were controlling the capital at the time. Let’s not forget about Karim Khan Zand, a Lur, who in the 18th century, saved Iran from the chaos of the civil war. The list doesn’t end there. It goes on and on, giving us reasons to be respectful towards minorities within Iran and celebrate these minorities and what each of us bring to the table.


Sattar Khan remains one of the most honored figures of Iran due to his role in the Constitutional revolution of the early 20th century.

Today, there is much talk about racism against Iranians across the globe. However, when I sit at an Iranian gathering, whether it’s with family or friends, and I hear such offensive jokes, whether it’s targeting my own ethnicity or my friend’s ethnicity as a Turk, a Gilak, a Lur, or any other minority, I’m suddenly less worried about racism against Iranians from the outside world and much more concerned about racism within our own Iranian community.

 Mirza Kuchik Khan

Mirza Kuchik Khan fought bittelry against the Imperial Russians as well as the British. 

Most people never really think about the impact of these jokes when they share them. To them, it’s “just a joke, and no one should take it personally.” But think about what we’re asking others when we say such a thing and make ethnic jokes. We are directly humiliating them and part of their identity. How do we expect others not to be offended when we deliberately hurt them and part of who they are?

In order to fight against racism against Iranians across the world, we must first look to ourselves and our community and see what kind of a message we’re sending to outsiders. When we can’t even respect human beings with diverse ethnic backgrounds within our own community, how do we, as Iranians, expect other nationalities to respect us?

When I was growing up, I was always the source of jokes in my family. It almost became a tradition in our family, where every time we had a family gathering everyone would be asking me for the “newest jokes in the market.” And I was always ready to give them the funniest and newest ethnic jokes I had heard. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I began to realize the true impact of these jokes. The ethnic stereotypes mentioned above had been repeated in my head so many times that my brain was starting to believe them. When I had that awakening about the impact of these jokes, I began thinking about why such jokes are so popular in our culture. Dr. Kaveh Farrokh, a history professor at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division, says the following regarding the origin of ethnic jokes in the early twentieth century in Iran (Part IIb-8):

“The Russians (and British) were very concerned with a cultural dynamic in Iran that could lead to the rise of a modern and progressive state. The Russians and English were especially concerned with the leadership role that northern Iranians (e.g. Azeris, Rashtis, etc.) had played in Iran’s democratic movement of the early 1900s. It would appear that the united nature of the constitutional movement in which Azeri, Bakhtiari, Mazandarani, Mashahdi, etc. fought side by side in the name of a democratic, progressive and modern Iran was not palatable to the distinguished policy makers in Moscow and London. A means had to be found to divide the Iranians and dissolve their historical bonds.

 It was in here where the Russian secret police had the distinction of inventing the first anti-Iranian cultural weapons. They even outdid the British, who themselves had been working to undermine Iran’s unity since the 19th century“.

The cultural weapons are the so-called venomous “jokes” targeted against Iran’s Azeri population and the north in general (esp. Rasht). This is not surprising as it was always these regions that would put up the first fight against any Russian invasion. The Bakhtiaris and Lurs were also targeted, partly due to fears of their martial abilities.”

We must understand the origin of these jokes in order to fully realize their true purpose and impact. We have such a diverse community in Iran and that’s what makes our culture beautiful. Every ethnicity within Iran is an essential organ in the body of the Iranian culture and we shouldn’t have any reason to damage it.

In an article that was recently published by Beeta Baghoolizadeh, “The Afro-Iranian Community: Beyond Haji Firuz Blackface, the Slave Trade, & Bandari Music,” she brings up a similar topic. Her article is about the Afro-Iranian community of southern Iran, one of the many ethnic minorities within Iran. Baghoolizadeh discusses the status of Afro-Iranians in Iran, and the fact that to many Iranians “they simply do not exist.” Baghoolizadeh states:

When talking about the diversity of Iran, most people will recall the various ethno-linguistic groups that are equally native to the Iranian plateau, like Persians, Azeris, Gilakis, Baluchis, and others who have migrated to the region through the centuries. In these discussions, however, Afro-Iranians and those of African descent are often ignored. Perhaps this stems from their limited exposure in mainstream Iranian culture. Or maybe it is because the legacy of African slavery in Iran contradicts the ever-so-pervasive Aryan myth of perfection and civilization. Regardless, most Iranians forget the Afro-Iranians and their rich traditions, despite their prominent cultural influence that persists today.”

The issue of harming ethnic minorities within Iran does not only come from ethnic jokes. This issue must be looked at from a much broader point of view. We must find all the ways through which we are damaging ethnic minorities in Iran, such as ethnic jokes, ignorance, etc. and work together to eliminate these disrespectful practices.


Reliefs at Persepolis showing delegates of different regions of Persia coming to Persepolis during Norouz celebrations.

We, as Iranians, have always been proud of our past and brag on a regular basis about the great Persian Empire that we believe promoted freedom of speech and religion, whether it actually was the case or not. By looking at the stone carvings at Persepolis in Iran, we can see how delegates of various races from different parts of the Persian Empire would gather together in peace during Norouz celebrations at Persepolis. While it is great for us to be proud of our past and what we believe our ancestors have accomplished, it unfortunately sometimes prevents us from seeing the problems that we face today. Are we as inclusive today as we can and should be? Are we able to gather in harmony with friends and family members from other ethnic backgrounds without making part of their identity the subject of ridicule? We must learn to move on from, but not forget, our past and focus on a brighter future. Ask yourself, aren’t you as a human being offended when someone’s topic of laughter is your ethnicity, sexuality, culture, or other parts of your identity? Are you doing anything to stop discrimination within our Iranian community? Please, take a moment and think about the extremely negative impact of these jokes. For as long as we continue making these ethnically offensive jokes, we are making it harder for ourselves to come together in unity with our brothers and sisters from various parts of Iran. Instead of sharing these disrespectful jokes against ethnic minorities in Iran, let’s encourage ourselves and others to celebrate this diversity within Iran’s borders and learn about how we can enrich our culture and society by doing so.


Farrokh, Kaveh. “Introduction: Pan-Turanianism Takes Aim At Azerbaijan; A Geopolitical Agenda” Introdcution: Pan-Turanianism Takes Aim At Azerbaijan; A Geopolitical Agenda . The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, 2005. Web. 02 Aug. 2012. See review by Reza Saberi in Iranboom site: -معرفی کتاب پان‌تورانیسم آذربایجان را هدف می‌گیرد

Baghoolizadeh, Beeta. “The Afro-Iranian Community: Beyond Haji Firuz Blackface, the Slave Trade, & Bandari Music.” Ajam Media Collective. Ajam Media Collective, 20 June 2012. Web. 25 July 2012.


Responses to article:

—- Original Message —-

From: Feyli xxxx <feylixx@gmail.com>

To: manuvera <manuvera@kavehfarrokh.com>

Sent: Wed, May 29, 2013 1:30 pm

Subject: Re: Danyal Lotfi: Racist Against Ourselves-The Negative Impact of Ethnic Jokes

Kaveh jan,

While I agree with the context of this article, I hope that the end result is not an endorsement of uninteresting, unchanging and monochromatic pseudo-nationalism.

I should point out that it is not “racism” that we are up against (“Today, there is much talk about racism against Iranians across the globe.”) – in fact, there is no “Iranian race” ( I don’t buy into the European “Aryan” mythology at all). However, there is a cultural alienation and discrimination primarily by Iranians against themselves and secondarily by others against us. We have indeed become “West-toxified” (to quote Al Ahmad) to the point that we find it quite reasonable to allow a foreigner to tell us what we should think of ourselves and allow them to humiliate our culture and beliefs without question.

First I would argue that there is really no significant racism in Iran, and, as a whole, we are unique culture that is racially blind. In Iran we have a very small black population, mostly in the south on the coast of the Persian Gulf and a Turkmen population in the Northeast (possibly racially distinct). But, having worked in both areas, I did not see overt racism – such as was apparent in the US even in the late 60’s – against either group. In general, Iran is a fairly racial homogeneous society and this blinds us to a large extent to really ugly parts of racism.

Second I would postulate that Iran has a very ethnically aware society that differentiates recognizes many ethnic groups – but this is not the same as racism. We are an ethnically and linguistically highly diverse society. In fact, I would argue that Iran, by definition, is a nation of multiple ethnic minorities bound together by an overall unique and uniform cultural identity. Because of this overall culture, it is necessary that we maintain our ethnic identity so as not to be assimilated into a monolithic whole. This preservation of our ethnic and linguistic personality – with all its strengths and peculiarities – has consequences, part of which is the development stereotypes vis a vis other ethnic groups in our national melange.

The political and social jokes that we make are not new, some in fact go back to the multiple invasions that occurred after the collapse of the Sassanid dynasty (e.g., Obaid Zakani of the 13 century CE has some pretty nasty comments about Turks and Arabs). While I do not condone or endorse “putting down” other ethnic groups, I find being identified as a Azari (with all the asides about bull headedness, single mindedness, general machoism, etc., etc.) kinda of amusing and will put out my own version of “azari jokes” from time to time. Unless one is able to occasionally laugh at oneself, it is impossible to maintain the very cultural identity that makes Iran unique in the world (see the attached maps).

I believe that we not only must preserve our particular ethno/linguistic “Aash” but should constantly and, by whatever means possible, try to strengthen it. We should not allow Western pseudo-nationalism to homogenize everybody and every group into a single bland uninteresting pastel blob.

Iran’s strength is in its diversity and it is good to remember that ‘It’s me and my brother against my cousin. But it’s me and my cousin against any foreigner.’ We may make fun of each other, but let’s make sure that our business remains our business and not someone else’s. As Danyal points out, from time to time different ethnic groups have risen to the occasion and saved our culture without jeopardizing or subsuming their own ethnicity to the whole. Let’s make sure that cultural strength is preserved.

Hope this is not too long a commentary. My very best to Danyal for his excellent exposition



— Original Message —-

From: Firoozeh <fxxxxn@gmail.com>

To: manuvera <manuvera@kavehfarrokh.com>

Sent: Thu, May 30, 2013 9:30 am

Subject: RE: Danyal Lotfi: Racist Against Ourselves-The Negative Impact of Ethnic Jokes

I think this is an undemocratic form of depriving people of free speech. This I am saying as a Lur person Who has heard many jokes about the Lurs and they don’t bother me. Also one of the most democratic and humane kings of Iran has been a Lur of the Zand tribe; Karim Khan Zand who never comes in the discussions, only the Azeri’s are mentioned.


Shimon D. Cohen: The Father of the Iranian Nation visits the United States

An interesting article by Shimon D. Cohen on the London-based CAIS website discusses the history of Cyrus the Great and his legacy to the present day. Cohen’s article was written in the context of the Exhibition of ‘The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia’ which opened on Saturday 9th March, 2013. The exhibition displays carvings, plaques,  architectural works and luxury objects. The exhibition opened in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on March 9 and will continue through until April 28. After the display at the Sackler gallery, the Cyrus Cylinder will be bought over to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The Cylinder will then conclude its North American trek at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles in October 2013.

The Cyrus Cylinder now housed in The British Museum. The policies advocated by Cyrus in this Cylinder are corroborated by independent Greek and Biblical sources as well as by a number of other archaeological findings in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Egypt and western Anatolia (in Modern Turkey).

The Exhibition is being supported by the British museum and sponsored by members of the Iranian diaspora — especially the Iran Heritage Foundation.

Cohen’s article also discusses political lobbies opposed to the legacy of the Cyrus Cylinder, especially Eurocentrists and Pan-Islamists:

Outside Iran, the regime has also hired a number of foreigners to attack Cyrus the Great’ historical figure – some of which claim Cyrus was not even a Persian. It is alleged, that a well known among them is a pseudo-historian who calls himself Jona Lendering, and runs a blog that provides the most biased and inaccurate information about pre-Islamic Iran. It is believed that the majority of the Wikipedia articles concerning the Achaemenid history, particularly those referenced to Cyrus the Great, has been edited by Lendering. To back his propaganda, he references all the entries – majority back to his blog ‘Livius.org’, or other likeminded blogs and websites. It was also alleged a few years ago that the Islamic republic has opened an office for him in Central Tehran and put him on their pay list for his supererogatory services. To promote himself as a ‘historian’, one of his friends even created a page in Wikipedia. He also began a hate campaign against those Iranian academics not favoured by the Islamic Republic, who are living outside Iran and are expert in Pre-Islamic Iranian history, in particular Dr Kaveh Farrokh. Lendering also succeeded to influence two prominent European newspapers; Der Spiegel and the Daily Telegraph which have fallen for his propaganda and began a hate campaign against Cyrus the Great and ancient Persia.

A Persian Rabbi in 2008 accused Der Spiegel of inciting anti-Semitism and called for a legal action against the editor. Rabbi Yohanna Hamadani described the article as a “dark coalition of anti-Semitic-Neo-Nazis, [Muslim] fundamentalists and Eurocentrics embodied in an article.”

Cohen has aptly summarized how historical icons can become politicized.

Before attacking Kaveh Farrokh, Jona Lendering first sold his pictures for Farrokh’s text Shadows in the Desert (2007) to Osprey Publishing. Mr. Lendering received money for his pictures published in pages 23, 53, 54, 89, 116, 128, 179, 180, 181, 183, 189, 195, 225, and 288 – After receiving payment Mr. Lendering launched ad hominem attacks against Kaveh Farrokh on Wikipedia, the internet (in Dutch and English) with the support of Dr. Wouter Henkelman, Dr. Amelie Kuhrt, Dr. Pierre Briant and Dr. Matt Stolper and their backers in the internet and Wikipedia (many based in Iran, Bosnia and Russia and posing as westerners).  NOTE: Farrokh had never written against any of these individuals or Mr. Lendering (or Livius.org).

Cohen’s article has identified the reason for these attacks: Farrokh was being “punished” for daring to contradict the post-1979 (revisionist) narratives against Cyrus the Great.


Jona “Tehran” Lendering (left) and one of his defamatory-attack victims, Iranian historian Shapour Suren-Pahlav (right) who is also host of the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS) in London which provides resources for learning about ancient Iran. Lendering used his Wikipedia supporters and administrators to forcefully eject CAIS postings regarding Cyrus the Great out of the Wikipedia in 2007-2009. The reason:  Mr. Lendering’s perspective that the Human Rights legacy of Cyrus the Great  is “Shah propaganda”Even more bizarre are Lendering’s attacks against Shapour-Suren Pahlav for raising alarm bells regarding the destruction of historical sites (including UNESCO sites) in Iran. Lendering has even attempted to whitewash reports that the Sivand Dam is harmful to Cyrus’ tomb at Pasargad by labelling this as ”anti-Iranian propaganda“! A number of Eurocentric Assyriologists and their supporters inside the Iranian establishment support Jona Lendering’s narratives.


Petition to Correct the statue of Nezami Ganjavi in Rome

Please support the Petition below – this is to protest the falsification of history and correct the recent statue in Rome that was donated by the government of Baku in the Republic of Azarbaijan – kindly click the link below:

Petition ot Correct the Statue of Nizami Ganjavi in Rome

As the text is in Italian, kindly consult the key words below to facilitate your signature:

  • Nome – Name – اسم
  • Cognome – Family – فامیل
  • E-mail – آدرس پستی
  • Città – City – شهر
  • Italy –country-  کشور
  • Codice Postale – Postal Code – کد پستی
  • Perché è importante per te? – why is this important for you – چرا برایت مهم است
  • Firma – Signe –امضا کن

For an overview of the falsification of the history of Nizami Ganjavi, kindly consult below:

See also:

Letter to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher Regarding Azarbaijan

Letter to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher Regarding Azarbaijan

To: Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (Chairman-Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee – House Committee on Foreign Affairs)

From : Kaveh Farrokh (PhD)

Regarding: Letter (dated July 26, 2012) to The Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton (US Secretary of State) (download in pdf)

Date: September 1, 2012


Dear Congressman Rohrabacher,

I am writing this letter to you regarding your letter to the US encouraging the break-up of Iran (a fellow member country at the United Nations) by forcing the secession of its Azarbaijan province.

It is clear that you have adopted or been influenced by post-Soviet era propaganda. In that endeavor I am humbly obliged to address your misconceptions by expostulating the works of non-partisan professors regarding Russo-Soviet (and especially Stalin-era) Persophobic historical revisionism.

You are perpetuating what are essentially propaganda statements from the Soviet era regarding the validity of the existence of a “South” versus “North” Azarbaijan.

Historian Nazrin Mehdiyeva, who is from the Republic of Azarbaijan herself, corroborates this by affirming that:

“…the myth [of a North versus South Azerbaijan] was invented under the Soviets for the purpose of breaking Azerbaijan’s historical links with Iran. To make this historical revisionism more acceptable, the Soviet authorities falsified documents and re-wrote history books. As a result, the myth became deeply ingrained in the population [of the ROA] … as part of the rhetoric.” (Mehdiyeva, 2003, p.280) Full article: Mehdiyeva, N. (2003). Azerbaijan and its foreign policy dilemma. Asian Affairs, 34, pp. 271-.285.

Professor Mehdiyova makes a very important point. The Soviets retained the pan-Turkist invention for Arran and the Khanates. these were now known as ”The Soviet Republic of Azarbaijan”. A quick study of rare historical archives reveals a very cynically self-serving Soviet approach to this affair – note Professor Bartold who noted:

The name “Azerbaijan” for the Republic of Azarbaijan (Soviet Azarbaijan) was selected on the assumption that the stationing of such as republic would lead to that entity Iranian to become one…this is the reason why the name “Azerbaijan” was selected (for Arran)…anytime when it is necessary to select a name that refers to the territory of the Republic of Azarbaijan, we should/can select the name Arran…” (Bartold, 1963, p.217) Source: Bartold, Soviet academic, politician and foreign office official. See Bartold, V.V., Sochineniia, Tom II, Chast I, Izdatelstvo Vostochnoi Literary, 1963).

Bartold’s above quote also hints that the term “Azerbaijan” did not exist as an appellation for the republic of that name. Soviet-era terminology of “Az/e/rbaijan or Azerbaidjanskii (note emphasis on /e/ instead of the traditional /a/) which began in earnest by the 1930s does not corroborate with the linguistic origin of the term which lies in Iranic languages and the Persinate cultural dynamic.

After a thorough study of Soviet and Russian archives Zenkovsky concluded that prior to the rise of the Baku Musavats in 1918:

Azarbaijani [in reference to modern Republic of Azarbaijan and not Azarbaijan in Iran] territory never formed a separate, united state, and even under Persian domination eastern Transcaucasia was divided into a multitude of loosely connected feudal principalities”. The very term ‘Azarbaijan’ was rarely applied before 1917 to the Elizavetopol [Ganja] and Baku provinces which later formed the Azarbaijani Republic, this term being commonly used only for the Persian provinces bordering Russian Transcaucasia” (Zenkovsky, 1960, p.274). (Zenkowsky, 1960, p.94). Text: Zenkoswki, S.A. (1960). Pan-Turkism and Islam in Russia. Harvard University Press.

A leading proponent of the Caucasian khanate’s name change to “Azerbaijan” was Mohammad Amin Rasulzadeh (1884-1955), the first leader of the newly created Republic of Azerbaijan (see photo below). Rasulzadeh was of Iranian origin from Baku, and was in fact heavily involved in the constitutional democratic movement of Iran during the early 1900s (Chaqueri, Cosroe, Origins of Social Democracy in Iran, 2001, p.118, 174-181, 209-210).


Mohammad Amin Rasulzadeh (1884-1955) was a leading proponent of changing the name of the Caucasian Khanates into the “Republic of Azarbaijan” on May 1918. He also became the president of that newly created republic. Under his political party (the “Musavats”) the notion of abosrbing the real historical Azarbaijan in Iran was officially proposed. The Soviets who then entered Baku in 1920, expanded on the former Musavat policies to give rise to the “Greater Azarbaijan” myth,

Historical maps serve to consistently demonstrate that the notion of the historical existence of a “Greater Azarbaijan” is false. Kindly see the examples below:

Below is an Ottoman map drafted in 1893:


Ottoman map [Click to Enlarge] outlining Western Iran and the Caucasus in 1893.  Note that Azarbaijan is clearly shown to be the land below or to the south of Aras (Araxes) river – the territories corresponding to the present Republic of Azarbaijan were not known as “Azarbaijan”, but variously as the Caucasian khantes (i.e. Baku, Sheki, Nakhchevan, etc.) or as “Albania” or “Arran”.

See also a map from 1742:


[Click to Enlarge] Map of the Caucasus in 1742 (part of Senex’s map of the Caspian Sea). Note there is no entity known as “Greater Azarbaijan”. The only reference to Azarbaijan is the province of that name which is clearly marked inside present-day Iran. Note that the location of the region known as Republic of Azarbaijan (since 1918) is identified as “Schirvan” which north of the Araxes River. The only reference to historical Azarbaijan is the Iranian province of that name located to the south of the Araxes river. Picture Source: R. Galichian, The Invention of History: Azarbaijan, Armenia and the Showcasing of Imagination, London: I.B. Taurus (2004)/Yerevan:  PrintInfo Art Books (2009),  pp.30.

The territoryof Schirvan (also known as Arran, Albania, etc.) was a part of Iran as is Azarbaijan today. Note that Schirvan was a distinct provinces of Iran before the Russian conquests of the Caucasus. in the early 19th century, This makes clear one fact:

The notion of a so-called “North” and “South” Azarbaijan that was “divided” is a Soviet-era and pan-Turkist fabrication. Russia simply conquered Iran’s Caucasian provinces in the early 19th century.



[Click to Enlarge] French Map of Iran or Persia in 1749 (drafted by Robert de Vaugoudy). Note there is no entity known as “Greater Azarbaijuan”. The territories to the north of the Araxes river are not known as “Azarbaijan”. The only Azarbaijan identified resides to the south of the Araxes River which corresponds to the province of that name inside modern Iran’s northwest. Note that many of the regions north of the Caucasus were also part of Persia at the time. Pictures of the Planet.

Despite their victory over Iran, the Czarist Russians were determined to stamp out the Caucasus’ Persian cultural legacy as they colonized the region in the 19th century. According to Professor Hostler:

This cultural link between the newly conquered country [modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan, historically known as Arran until May 1918] and its still strong Persian neighbor annoyed Russia who tried to destroy it by supporting local Turkish cultural developments“(Hostler, 1957, p.22). Text: Hostler, C. W. (1957). Turkism and the Soviets: The Turks of the World and their Political Objectives. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Professor Zenkowski notes that despite the finalization of Russian conquests by 1826 (Treaty of Turkmenchai):

“…the Persian language remained the main language of administration in these provinces [Karabagh, Ganja, Sheki, Shirvan, Derbend, Kuba, Baku, and Talysh] until the reforms of 1840…the Persian tongue continued to be spoken in the courts until the 1870s…Persian also remained the language of the upper classes and of literature” (Zenkowsky, 1960, p.94). Text: Zenkoswki, S.A. (1960). Pan-Turkism and Islam in Russia. Harvard University Press.

Note that none of those Caucasian khanates cited by Zenkoswku were called “Azarbaijan”. The local authorities in the khanates were either Persian-speaking or of aristocracies who spoke Persian. The Shiite clergy who held considerable influence over the local courts and schools, helped maintain the influence of Iranian culture in the Caucasus.


[Click to Enlarge] Kuban Cossacks enjoy and repose with a cup of tea pr “Chai” in the Perso-Turkish style in early 20th century or late 19th century. Even their dress is based on Old Iranian riding costume worn by the ancient Medes, Persians and Scythians. The Communists worked very hard to stamp out all “Oriental” – meaning Persian – influences from mainstream culture in the Slavic and Turkic regions of the Soviet Union (including the Caucasus and Central Asia). The Soviet Union also promoted its Persophobic philosophies by publishing books and distributing these its Moscow and Baku outlets.

As noted by Professor Swietochowski:

The hold of Persian as the chief literary language in [the current Republic of ] Azerbaijan was broken, followed by the rejection of classical Azerbaijani, an artificial, heavily Iranized idiom that had long been in use along with Persian, though in a secondary position. This process of cultural change was initially supported by the Tsarist authorities, who were anxious to neutralize the still-widespread Azerbaijani identification with Persia.” (Swietochowski, 1995, p.29). Text: Swietochowski, T. (1995). Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Few are aware that the Czarist Russians and their Communist successors began an intense Persophobic campaign to erase the Caucasus of its Persian heritage.


[Click to Enlarge] Cartoon of the Czarist-supervised Mulla Nassreddin Magazine which often published anti-oriental cartoons in the Caucasus, especially against Iran and Persian speakers. The above cartoon portrays Persian-speakers as donkeys with large feet, a visual way of portraying Persian-speakers as dumb and stupid. The Shahs of Iran are portrayed as cruel, and destructive despots. Picture source: Azer.com.

Cartoons like the one shown above were part of the Russian Czarist propaganda campaign to show Iran as a backward and ignorant “oriental” country. The notion of equating the Persian language with the “braying of a donkey…” was first made by Hassan Majidi Zardabi (or Hasan Bey Zardabi) , the chief editor of the Ikenci newspaper (1875-1877) published in Baku (consult Hajibely, Jeyhoun Bey, 1930, “The Origin of the National Press in Azerbaijan” in The Asiatic Review, 26(88, p 757). Much of this anti-Persian propaganda was to continue into the Soviet era and beyond.

Professor Thorez (see article Caucasus and Iran” in the Encyclopedia Iranica) also corroborates these facts by reporting that:

Although throughout history the Caucasus has usually been incorporated in political entities belonging to the Iranian world…Russia took it…from the Qajars (1779-1924), severing those historical ties.”

Shireen Hunter, who (like myself) is of Iranian-Azarbaijani descent, notes the following:

In the Republic of Azerbaijan, the long Soviet practice of historic falsification has left a legacy which has distorted …the views of …the true nature of their cultural, ethnic and historic connections…The first myth is that there was an ancient Azerbaijani state which incorporated most of what is currently northern Iran…. Yet, historically, the Republic of Azerbaijan was not known by this name until 1918, … using this myth to justify irredentist claims toward Iranian territory. The second myth is that the division of united and ancient Azerbaijan into two separate regions was the result of a Russo-Iranian conspiracy… The third myth is that the Persians colonized and oppressed the Azerbaijanis… the indigenous Iranian peoples…were linguistically colonized as a result of Turkic invasions… However, even the most ardent pan-Turkists are aware – as indeed were the Communists – of the historic falsity of their views. They freely admit this in private and argue that the reason for their continued promotion of these themes is to help strengthen nationalist feelings and to forge a purely Turkic Azerbaijani identity.”” (Hunter, 1998, pp.106-107) Full article: Hunter, S. (1998). Iran and Transcaucasia in the post-Soviet era, in D. Menashri (ed.), Central Asia meets the Middle East, London: Frank Cass Publishers, pp. 98-128.


[Click to Enlarge] Map of Iran in 1805 before the invasions of Czarist Russia. Note the Caucasus, north of Iran and along the eastern Caspian littoral, which was Iranian territory. There was no “Greater Azerbaijan” supposedly “divided” between Iran and Russia. Russia invaded Iran and forced her to cede the Caucasus. Iran also lost important eastern territories such as Herat, which broke away with British support.  Picture source from CAIS.

As noted by Professor Roy with respect to those territories situated above the Araxes north of the historical Azarbaijan province in Iran:

The concept of Azeri identity barely appears at all before 1920. Up until that point Azerbaijan had been a purely geographical area. Before 1924, the Russians called Azeri Tatars “Turk” or “Muslims“ (Roy, 2007, p. 18) Full text: Roy, O., The New Central Asia, I.B. Taurus, 2007.



[Click to Enlarge] A British map of Qajar Persia in 1814. Note the absence of a “Greater Azarbaijan”. Picture source: Fouman.com.

Professor Kaufman has observed that:

In fact, the very name “Azerbaijani” was not widely used until the 1930s; before that Azerbaijani intellectuals were unsure whether they should call themselves Caucasian Turks, Muslims, Tatars, or something else” (Kaufman, 2001, p. 56). Full text: Kaufman, S., Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War, Cornell University Press, 2001].

Below is an actual map drafted during the Arab caliphates which reveal the historical Azarbaijan being in Iran and distinct from Arran (modern Republic of Azarbaijan):


[Click to Enlarge] A map drawn by Ibn Hawqal (ابن حوقل) during the Arab caliphates which shows the clear distinction between Arran (north east Caucasus just above Araxes), Armenia (north/northwest Caucasus just above Araxes River) and Azarbaijan inside Iran and below the Araxes River. Ibn-Hawqal:clearly cited the Araxes River as the southern limit of Arran.

Here are more examples of the Arran (modern Republic of Azarbaijan since 1918)-Azarbaijan distinction made by Islamic and medieval era cartographers and historians:

  • The Hodud-ol-Alam Text (10th century AD): Cites the Araxes River as the northern limit of Azerbaijan. The Araxes River divides the historical Azarbaijan in Iran (south of the River) versus the north of that River which was not called “Azarbaijan”.
  • Ibn Khordadbeh (ابن خردادبه) made a clear distinction between Arran and Azarbaijan.
  • Al-Muqaddasi (10th Century AD): Divided Persia into eight regions which include both Azarbaijan and Arran. Defines Arran as being situated between the Caspian Sea and the Araxes River.
  • Yaqut Al-Hamavi (13th Century AD) (یاقوت حمودی، ): Defines Arran and Azarbaijan as distinct territories with the Araxes River forming the boundary between them. Arran defined as north and west of the Araxes, with Azarbaijan to the south of the River
  • Borhan-e-Qate (فرهنگ برهان قاطع) (Completed 1602 or 1632 CE– during the Safavid era): Aras (Araxes) defined as a river flowing past Tbilisi in Georgia and forming the boundary between Arran and Azarbaijan..
  • Hamdollah Mostofi (حمداله مستوفی): makes a clear distinction between Arran and Azarbaijan being divided by the Araxes River.
  • Abu al-Fadai Dameshqi (ابوالفدائ دمشقی): makes a clear distinction between Arran and Azarbaijan being divided by the Araxes River.

The same distinction in antiquity and pre-Islamic times is seen between Azarbaijan (in Iran) below the Araxes River versus Arran (in the Caucasus above the Araxes River with Strabo (64/63 BC-23 AD) who noted that the people of Iranian Azarbaijan (known as Media Atropatene at the time of Strabo) as Iranians with Persian as their language (Strabo, Geographica, see p. 17-18). Another example is Arrian (92-c. 175 AD) who noted that the region north of the Araxes River is cited as “Albania” and south of the Araxes as “Media Atropatene”.


[Click to Enlarge] Sassanian Emperor, Shapur I (r. 241-270 CE)شاپور اول ساساني ] , cited Albania and Media Atropatene as two separate provinces of the Persian Empire. Professor Mark Whittow’s map of Oxford University clearly shows the historically attested distinction between ancient Arran/Albania and the original Azarbaijan in Iran. Note how the Araxes River separates Arran from the historical Azarbaijan (in Iran).

Professor Whittow has clearly noted that:

The oldest outside influence in Trans-Caucasia is that of Persia…many of its populations, including Armenians and Georgians, as well as Persians and Kurds, the Transcaucasus had much closer ties with the former Sassanian world to its south and east than with the world to the west”. Whittow, 1996, p.203-204. Text: Whittow, M. (1996). The Making of Byzantium: 600-1025. Berkley: University of California Press.

These references continue well into the post-Islamic era. Another primary Arab historian, Al-Mas’udi, notes clearly that:

The Persians are a people whose borders are the Mahat Mountains and Azarbaijan up to Armenia and Arran [modern Republic of Azarbaijan since 1918], and Bayleqan and Darband, and Ray and Tabaristan and Masqat and Shabaran and Jorjan and Abarshahr, and that is Nishabur, and Herat and Marv and other places in land of Khorasan, and Sejistan and Kerman and Fars and Ahvaz…All these lands were once one kingdom with one sovereign and one language… although the language differed slightly. The language, however, is one, in that its letters are written the same way and used the same way in composition. There are, then, different languages such as Pahlavi, Dari, Azari, as well as other Persian languages.” Source: Al Mas’udi, Kitab al-Tanbih wa-1-Ishraf, De Goeje, M.J. (ed.), Leiden, Brill, 1894, pp. 77-8.

There are also academic references to the role of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) of the Soviet in deliberately falsifying history to suit imperialist purposes. Professor Kolarz for example noted of Stalin’s statement with respect to Nizami Ganjavi:

“…the great poet of our brotherly ‘Azerbaidzhani people’ who must not be surrendered to Iranian literature, despite having written most of his poems in Persian.” (Kolarz, 1952, p. 246.). Text: Kolarz, W. (1952). Russia and her Colonies. London: George Philip.

Stalin wanted to twist the facts of history to give the false impression that (a) Nezami was Turkic in origin and (b) wrote his “other” poems in Turkish. This does not jive with mainstream historians who acknowledge that Nezami was “…one of the famous Persian poets…” and “…wrote exclusively in Persian” (From the Brockhaus and Efrona Encyclopedia as cited by HOEB article of Moscow, Russia – Full text of report by Amal Tarzan-Zade entitled “Monument to Great Persian poet opened in St. Petersburg” posted on-line at Noev Kovcheg).

For more on this topic consult:


 Falsifiers of history: the late Ziya Bonyadov (1921-1997) (left) and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) (right). Stalin continued the former Czarist regime’s Persophobic policies by promoting the “Greater Azarbaijan” myth in which he referred to Iranian historical icons as “Azarbaiajni historical figures”. Stalin’s myths (called “Stalin’s school of historical falsification by Leon Trotsky) have been adopted by the modern day citizens of the Republic of Azarbaijan. Ziya Bonyadov for example deliberately falsified history to omit the fact that Babak Khorramdin is identified as a Persian in ancient sources. Instead, he promoted Stalinist terminology which is essentially Persophobic.

Communists and pan-Turk activists have often falsified historical facts to promote their political agenda. The role of Stalin in such processes was even criticized by ardent Communist Leon Trotsky.


Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) one of the ideological founders of the former Soviet Union. Trotsky who was finally deported from Russia in 1929, was highly critical of Stalin’s falsification of history to suit political purposes, a process which he characterized as “Stalin’s School of Falsification”. One of the results of “Stalin’s School” was the rewriting of Iran’s cultural, linguistic and historical legacy in the Caucasus. Trotsky himself was brutally murdered by Stalin’s agents in Mexico in August 20, 1940.

But perhaps you may wish to consult those Iranians of Azarbaiajni descent (whom you choose to call “South Azarbaijanis”). You may have fallen victim to the propaganda of Baku lobbyists and their supporters. You may not realize that vast majority of Iranian Azarbaijanis reject (and are also insulted by) your letter.

I was profoundly shocked by your letter as an Iranian with Azarbaijani roots. Perhaps pictures speak louder than any words I could convey. Kindly see these below:


[Click to Enlarge] Iranian Azarbaijanis carrying protest notes against Baku propaganda. [LEFT] The poster held by the lady wearing a red-white scarf reads “Demand of the Iranian People: Repeal the Turkmenchai and Golestan treaties”. These refer to treaties in which Imperial Russia forced Iran to relinquish all of its historical possessions in the Caucasus in the early 19th century. Once Czarist Russia began its occupation of the Caucasus, it began a relentless anti-Persian cultural offensive, a policy which continued into the Communist era (till 1990) and continues to this day by the Baku government and its Western lobbies [RIGHT] Iranian Azarbaijani girl holds a caption which reads “Country means Persian Gulf”. Photos by Ariaman.

Iranian Azarbaijanis have been Iran’s culture bearers in both pre and post-Islamic times, a fact which has been virtually erased from Baku’s history books. Interestingly many of the pictures shown above were ignored in the Baku media and the West.

You may of course be aware of racist and fascistic lobbyists from Baku who are consistently trying to recruit Iranian Azarbaijnis (especially in California) to then lobby in the US and Western governments?

With a few isolated exceptions, these efforts have met with spectacular failures. Kindly see the picture and caption below:


[Click to Enlarge] The Hercules of Iran: Hossein Rezazadeh seen above weighing in at 156.6 kg for the 2004 Games, Rezazadeh is the first Iranian to win two Olympic gold medals and enjoys a hero status across Iran. It was in November 2002 when Rezazadeh stated publically in Istanbul in November 2002 that “I am an Iranian and love my country and people” (see report in Payvand News). This was in response to Naim Suleimanoghlu’s (see inset) attempt to get Rezazadeh (an Iranian-Azari) to renounce his Iranian identity in favor of 10 million Dollars, luxury cars and Turkish citizenship. Rezazadeh represents the vast majority of Iranian Azaris who identify themselves as Iranians.

The video below makes clear that Iranian azaris reject the current policie sof the Baku authorioties to falsify history.

-سخنرانی یکی از فعالین آذری زبان صدای موج سبز لندن- Iranian Azari Green Movement activist in London speaks in Azari Turkic against pan-Turk activists and highlights their historical falsifications. At the end of the video, he and all other Green Movement activists chant “Payande Iran” (Long Live Iran).

It is at this juncture where I am happy to share with you the new book by Professor Garnik Asatrian (Chair, Iranian Studies Department, Yerevan State University; Editor, “Iran and the Caucasus”, BRILL, Leiden-Boston) entitled: The Ethnic Composition of Iran (published August 29, 2012)

Professor Asatrian’s book, which will become a major reference text in academia, adresses the false myths regarding Iran with respect to ethnic identities, territories, etc. In addition, the text deals with the following domains:

  • The anthropological, historical and linguistic aspects of the formation of the population of Iran from ancient times to the present.
  • Demonstration that Iran is not a multiethnic country but rather a mono-ethnic construct with linguistic diversity.
  • Scientific studies showing that much of Iranian population is the direct continuation of the Iranian plateau’s population before the Indo-European migrations.
  • The real statistics of Azarbijanis in Iran and their number.
  • The book is currently in Russian and will most likely be translated into English and Persian.

There is one final point we must adress: the tragedy that continues to take place within the Republic of Azarbaijan today. There are gross Human Rights violations that have been taking place since the Communist era and which continue to this day. These are the forced assimilation policies of the Republic against the region’s Talysh and Lezgian minorities. Please consult the following:

It is my sincere hope that you consider drafting a letter defending the human rights of these oppressed minorities to your colleagues in Congress.


An undated photo of a Talysh woman and her child. Despite massive Russian and later Soviet political pressure, ethno-engineering efforts and funding, the Talysh have retained their Iranic identity in Arran (modern Republic of Azarbaijan).

Sincerely Yours

Kaveh Farrokh (PhD)


Souren Melikian -‘Islamic’ Culture’ A Groundless Myth

The report below by Souren Melikian originally appeared in the New York Times on November 4, 2011.

Readers with further interest in this topic may consult:

There are now a wide range of publications, foundations, think-tanks and academic programs that promote terms such as  ‘Islamic Mathematics’, ‘”Islamic Art” , etc. in Britain, Europe, Pakistan, North America, India, the Far East, Indonesia, Central Asia, and  the Arab world.

Professor Jalal Matini for example notes of the Saudi Arabian government’s display entitled “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Yesterday and Today: A Cultural experience” on August 1, 1989 held in the Washington Convention Centre (in Washington D.C.) . The display was essentially relabeled artifiacts of Iranian origin as Arabo-Islamic (for more information consult Jalal Matini, “Persian artistic and literary pieces in the Saudi Arabian exhibition”, Iranshenasi: A Journal of Iranian Studies, 1989, p.390-404).

Professor Jalal Matini (standing at podium), the Chief Editor of the Iranshenasi journal  flanked by the late Iranian poet and thinker, Nader Naderpour (seated at left) at UCLA. Professor Matini has addressed concerns against politically motivated terminology such as “Islamic Science” and “Islamic Arts” since the early 1980s. Professor Matini is the chief editor of the peer-reviewed Iranshenasi journal which published a review of Kaveh Farrokh’s second text Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-

Similarly, the Centre d’etudes Euro-Arabe of Paris, France, hosted a conference in November 1992 in which over 80 percent of artistic displays of Iranian origin were claimed to be of “Arab origin”. Yet another example of politically-motivated terminology is that of the 33rd International Congress of Asian & North African Studies in Toronto in which the Persian poetry of Jalal-e-Din Rumi was erroneously presented as “Arabic Literature”

The article below by Souren Melikian will prove of interest in lieu of the above discussion. Note that the posting below reproduces pictures that originally appeared in the New York Times article in addition to three pictures and descriptions that did not appear in the original article.


Political bias often leads to absurd categorization. Even so, few among the arbitrary constructs adopted by the West as a result of 19th-century colonial attitudes can beat the meaningless concept of “Islamic art.”

A Moghul painting in which a Hindu ascetic and a Muslim are seen together. It sold against the reserve for £12,500 (Souren Melikian, New York Times).

Its corrosive effect on academic thinking is matched by its counterproductive effect in the art market. By lumping together works of art that are not remotely related aesthetically or conceptually, it leads to a visual confusion that is unhelpful, to put it mildly.

Adding up the art of cultures far more diverse than those of Western Europe can disorient buyers. The Arab world, Iranian lands, Anatolian Turkey, the Islamicized areas of the Indian subcontinent, the Muslim communities of China — which are themselves highly diversified, from the Turkic-speaking Uighurs of Xinjiang to the northeastern Muslims of Han stock or those of the Xian region — have much less in common than, say, Britain, France, Germany and Spain. Anyone attempting to display together the paintings, sculpture and sundry objects of these European nations under the banner “Christian Art” or simply “Christianity” would risk being shown the door on the museum scene as in the auction arena. Not so where the “Islamic world” is concerned.

Consider the phenomenal jumble in the autumn sales. These began at Sotheby’s on the evening of Oct. 4 with a session focusing on a private collection.

Even the collection showed no aesthetic unity. A leaf from an eighth-century manuscript of the Koran reputed to be from the Hijaz and another in gold lettering on blue ground from a ninth-century manuscript likely to be from the east-Iranian province of Khorasan had nothing in common with the north-Iranian bowl painted with a bold stylized bird in the 10th-11th century. The bird bowl was in turn very different from the interesting Egyptian fragments of pottery painted with characters in golden enamels (traditionally cataloged as “lustre” enamels) that followed moments later.

The huge overestimation that affected all lots, compounded by visual inconsistency, proved lethal. The north-Iranian bowl sold, only just, for £18,750, or about $30,000, but the Egyptian fragments did not. The session ended up with only 13 lots out of the 41 offered managing to find takers.

Inventing the Middle East: The term “Middle East” was first invented by American Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914). The term – Middle East – when examined in cultural, anthropological and cultural terms makes very little sense. Iran and Turkey for example are not Arab countries and in fact share a long-standing Turco-Iranian or Persianate civilization distinct from the Arabo-Islamic dynamic. Instead, the Turks and Iranians have strong ties to the Caucasus and Central Asia (Picture and description by Kaveh Farrokh).

The artificial character of the “Islamic” label came out even more spectacularly in the Sotheby’s Oct. 5 sale.

Putting together in the same session a Koran leaf from an eighth-century manuscript, a painted page torn away from a volume copied and illuminated in Moghul India around 1600-5, a large early 19th-century Iranian portrait of a lady of the court playing a string instrument, an ivory casket of so-called Siculo-Arabic make and a Chinese blue and white ewer ascribed to the Yongle period (1403-24) is not a recipe for aesthetic or intellectual coherence. The Koran leaf alone could be called “Islamic” in theological terms. Probably from Iran, it went for £37,250.

One of the great success stories at Christies was a brocaded silk cataloged as “Central Asia” that displays motifs pointing to early 14th-century Iran. It soared to £301,250 (Souren Melikian, New York Times).

But, the painted page from Moghul India hardly justified the qualifier. It was torn away from a unique manuscript executed at Allahabad, which preserves the Persian translation of a lost Sanskrit original. Commissioned at a Moghul court, it recounts the story of a Gupta emperor of the fourth to fifth century glorified into a Jain hero.

The text on the page reads like an excerpt from a Persian literary work mixing prose and poetry. It is reminiscent of the Iranian poet Saadi’s 13th-century collection of parables titled “Golestan,” or The Rosegarden, with the obvious intention of appealing to Moghul rulers, for whom Persian was the language of literature and court usage. This makes the rewrite of a Sanskrit original a quintessential literary product of the Indo-Persian culture that thrived on the subcontinent from the 12th century until 1836, when the British banned the use of Persian in official matters.

The highly original style of the painting blends the influences of Western European 16th-century prints brought to the Moghul court by Portuguese missionaries and of the century-old Indian artistic tradition. Add the Persian script called Nastaaliq from the hand of a highly skilled master and that again makes it a typical creation of the hybrid Persianate culture of Moghul India. “Islamic” does not begin to describe it. The page matched the lower end of the estimate at £25,000.

Mahan’s invented term “Middle East” was popularized by Valentine Ignatius Chirol (1852-1929), a journalist designated as “a special correspondent from Tehran” by The Times newspaper. Chirol’s seminal article “The Middle Eastern Question” expanded Mahan’s version of the “Middle East” to now include “Persia, Iraq, the east coast of Arabia, Afghanistan, and Tibet”. Surprised? Yes, you read correctly -Tibet! The term Middle East was (and is) a colonial construct used to delineate British (and now West European and US) geopolitical and economic interests. These same interests help promote the usage of terminology such as “Islamic arts and architecture”  (Picture and description by Kaveh Farrokh).

The use of the “Islamic” label was even more absurd when referring to a painting representing Hindu women performing the Sivaite ritual of the anointing of the lingam. Artistically speaking, it is an archetypal Indian work. Were bidders nonplussed at its bizarre characterization? They sat on their hands. However, one of them did go for another Moghul painting in which a Hindu ascetic and a Muslim are seen together. It sold against the reserve for £12,500.

While the 12th-century Siculo-Arabic casket left bidders indifferent, Sotheby’s managed to find a taker for the Chinese blue-and-white ewer. It miraculously sold on a single bid for £181,250, despite its poor quality. Gilt copper mounts crowning the mouth and the tip of the spout suggest that it passed through Ottoman Turkey — although these, too, are not the best of their kind.

The auction house stretched the “Islamic” concept far enough to include Western European works of art. The lot illustrated on the catalog cover was described as a “Romanesque gilt bronze aquamanile, Germany, early 12th century.” While the date could be considerably later, there is no question that the bird-shaped object is Western in style. Sotheby’s statement that it is “in the form of a Senmurv” did not make it any more “Islamic.” The Senmurv is an Iranian mythical beast from pre-Islamic times and the bird does not even look like one: the Senmurv has the head of a wolf, not of a bird. The curious winged creature remained unwanted.

A blue-and-white porcelain ewer ascribed to the Yongle period (1403-24). It sold on a single bid for £181,250, despite its poor quality (Souren Melikian, New York Times).

The same lack of visual or conceptual consistency prevailed at Christie’s on Oct. 6. If the session had any greater merit, this was in underlining how different some objects can be even when produced in neighboring Islamic cultures around the same time. A 14th-century Syrian bowl painted with a lotus chalice done in a bold, rough manner was far removed artistically from the contemporary Iranian bowl, much more elaborate, to which Christie’s gave the traditional market label of “Sultanabad.” Respectively estimated £2,000 to £3,000 and £5,000 to £7,000 these, too, failed to sell. The estimates should have been slashed by half.

As in Sotheby’s sessions, the “Islamic world” concept at Christie’s encompassed Western works of art that were perhaps not selected with the utmost consideration for “Islamic” sensibilities. Somehow, a crusader sword did not appeal to bidders. Perhaps they did not put sufficient faith into the crudely engraved Arabic inscription suggesting that it had been picked up in the battlefield by Muslims beating back the European invaders. An Italian faience dish from Deruta, possibly painted in the 1530s with a spoofy rendition of a Turkish rider oddly holding a banner with Christian crosses, was similarly rejected.

Ironically, one of the great success stories was a brocaded silk cataloged as “Central Asia” that displays motifs pointing to early 14th-century Iran. Extraordinary well preserved, it is unique of its kind and it stood out in the midst of the disparate accumulation. The admirable textile with no visible connection to Islam soared to £301,250.

Not much concern for the preservation of cultural monuments came across at the sales.


Mahan and Chirol’s nomenclature (Middle East) provided the geopolitical terminology required to rationally organize the expansion of British political, military and economic interests into the Persian Gulf region. After the First World War, Winston Churchill (above –  1874-1965) became the head of the newly established “Middle East Department”.  Churchill’s department again redefined “The Middle East” to now include the Suez Canal, the Sinai, the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the newly created states of Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan. Tibet and Afghanistan were now excluded from London’s Middle East grouping.The decision to affirm non-Arab Iran as a member of the “Middle East” in 1942 was to rationalize the role of British political and Petroleum interests in the country (Picture from Wikipedia, description by Kaveh Farrokh).

Sotheby’s cataloger observed that the painted page with a Persian translation of a Sanskrit original came from the only known manuscript of that work and coolly concluded that “thirteen leaves from the original manuscript (including the present page) were sold in these rooms July 11, 1972.” With the dispersal of its pages, any hope of ever publishing an edition of this important text for the heritage of Moghul India has vanished.

Dozens of major manuscripts from India, Iran and Turkey, ripped apart to sell their images piecemeal, have similarly perished. Some end up in museums, where they are proudly displayed as “miniatures,” a 19th-century misnomer that conveniently erases the memory of destroyed manuscripts. Orientalism has barely changed its colors in the interval.