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.

The Expedition of Darius the Great

Below is an article by the late Professor Shapour Shahbazi on the expedition of Darius the Great into European Scythia (roughly modern-day Ukraine and parts of Western Bulgaria and Rumania). Professor Bury was the first to rationally question Herodotus’ version of historical events.

The Scythians, like their Sarmatian-Alan successors, were (like the Persians, Medes and parthians) of ancient Iranian stock.

Kindly note that the first scholar to question the veracity of Herodotus’ accounts of Darius’ invasion of the European Scythians was Professor J.B. Bury:

The article has been translated into Persian by Yusef Amiri: 

خلاص مقاله: داریوش اصلا به سکاها حمله ای نکرد و گسیلش نیروهایش احتمالا برای تصاحب معادن طلا زیبنبورگن بود که تنها در این امر موفق نبود چون سکاها ایونی ها را به شورش تحریک کردند. داستان هرودوت صرفا یک افسانه پردازی است. جالب است همانطور که مترجم مقاله یعنی یوسف امیری اشاره کرد عجیب این که با وجود این که 114 سال از نگارش این مقاله می گذرد هنوز از “شکست” داریوش از سکاها صحبت می شود.

See also article (in Persian) in the Asvaran Blog:


NOTE: For References pertaining to the article below, kindly consult the original version of this article in the CAIS website entitled: Darius the Great”

A major event in Darius’ reign was his European expedition. The region from the Ukraine to the Aral Sea was the home of north Iranian tribes (Rostovtzeff; Vasmer) known collectively as Sakâ (Gk. Scythians). Some Sakâ had invaded Media (Herodotus, 1.103-06), others had slain Cyrus in war (1.201, 1.214), and some groups had revolted against Darius (DB 2.8).


[Click to Enlarge]A European depiction of Darius the Great meeting Scythian emissaries (Picture Source: Flickr and originally a painting by Franciszek Smuglewicz).

As long as the Saka remained hostile his empire was in constant danger, and trade between Central Asia and the shores of the Black Sea was in peril (Meyer, pp. 97-99). The geography of Scythia was only vaguely known (Figure above), and it seemed feasible to plan a punitive campaign through the Balkans and the Ukraine, returning from the east, perhaps along the west coast of the Caspian Sea (Meyer, pp. 101-04; Schnitzler, pp. 63-71).


[Click to Enlarge] Eastern Scythians or “Saka Tigrakhauda” (Pointed cap Saka) as depicted in Persepolis. The Scythians played an important role in the military machine of the Achaemenids. A branch of the Scythians or Saka, the Parthians, were to revive the Iranian kingdom after Alexander’s conquests and his Seleucid successors.

 Having first sent a naval reconnaissance mission to explore shores of the Black Sea (cf. Fol and Hammond, pp. 239-40), in about 513 Darius crossed the Bosporus into Europe (Shahbazi, 1982, pp. 232-35), marching over a pontoon bridge built by his Samian engineer, Mandrocles. He continued north along the Black Sea coast to the mouth of the Danube, above which his fleet, led by Ionians, had bridged the river; from there he crossed into Scythia (Herodotus, 4.87-88, 4.97).

[Click to Enlarge]A map depicting Darius the Great’s invasion of Eastern Europe and Ukraine. The veracity of these events as narrated by Herodotus have been questioned (Picture Source: The Skriker Site).  

The Scythians evaded the Persians, wasting the countryside as they retreated eastward. After following them for a month Darius reached a desert and began to build eight frontier fortresses; owing to Scythian harassment of his troops and the October weather, which threatened to hinder further campaigning, he left them unfinished and returned via the Danube bridge. He had, however, “advanced far enough into Scythian territory to terrify the Scythians and to force them to respect the Persian forces” (Herodotus, 4.102-55; cf. Meyer, pp. 105-07; Macan, pp. 2-45; Prašek, II, pp. 91-108; Rostovtzeff, pp. 84-85; Junge, 1944, pp. 104-05, 187-88; Schnitzler, pp. 63-71; Fol and Hammond, pp. 235-43; Ùernenko, with further references).


[Click to Enlarge]A reconstruction of the European Scythians (the Saka Paradraya) by the late Angus McBride. As noted by Cotterell “:..the close relations of the Scythians (Saka) with the Persians is perhaps most illustrative…in the … fact that the Scythians and Persians spoke closely related languages and understood each other without translators” (Cotterell, A. The Chariot: The Astounding Rise and Fall of the World’s First War Machine. London, England: Pimlico, 2004, p.61 ).

Shortly afterward Megabyzus reduced gold-rich Thrace and several Greek cities of the northern Aegean; Macedonia submitted voluntarily (Herodotus, 4.143, 5.1-30), and Aryandes (q.v.), satrap of Egypt, annexed Cyrene (Libya; 4.167, 4.197-205). Four new “satrapies” were thus added to Darius’ empire: Sakâ tyaiy paradraya “Overseas Scythians,” Skudra (Thrace and Macedonia), Yaunâ takabarâ or Yaunâ tyaiy paradraya (Thessalians and Greek islanders), and Putâyâ (Libya).


[Click to Enlarge]  A Map by Professor P.J. Mallory that shows the Dniester, Dnieper, Donets and Don Rivers above the Black Sea in Eastern Europe. Professor Mallory notes that all of these river names are of Iranian origin: the term “Danu” is old Iranian for “Water/River” (like Celtic Danuvius) – hence the names “Don” and “Donets”. Dnieper is from the Old Iranic “Danu-Apara” [rear river] and Dniester from Old Iranic “Danu Nazdaya” [river to the front]. For more information consult: Mallory, J.P. (1989). In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.





Professors Curatolia and Scaria: Dome Architecture and Europe

Readers are invited to consult the following book by:

Giovanni Curatola & Gianroberto Scarcia (Translated by M. Shore, 2007). The Art and Architecture of Persia. New York: Abbeville Press. Order from Amazon.

As noted by Professors Curatola and Scarcia a common theory postulates that:

“…domed spaces in Christian buildings in Europe derive from the Armenian model, which, in turn, comes from Sassanian Persia: This can be attributed to geographic proximity and also to the fact that for long periods Armenia was contained within Eranshahr. “ (Curatola & Scarcia, page 92, 2007).

Numerous examples of the earliest church architecture can be seen in Armenia and Iran today:

[Click to Enlarge]Armeno-Sassanian style Domed Christian churches of Armenia  (1) Karmravor built in the 7th century (Source: WowArmenia.Com) (2) interior dome at the Echmiadzin Cathedral (original vaulted basilica built in 301-303 AD) (Source: Iran and Armenia have enjoyed a profound thousands-year long symbiosis at the cultural, linguistic, and artistic-architectural levels – for more see Iran and Caucasia…. (Pictures used in Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

Sassanian Iran was to leave a profound legacy on Romano-Byzantine architecture during its tenure in 224-651 AD.

[Click to Enlarge] The Sarvistan palace built in the 300s AD [1], floor plan of Sarvistan by Nik Spatari [2] reconstruction of Sarvistan by Oscar Reuther, “Sasanian Architecture,” in Survey of Persian Art, Figure 152). [3] the Basilica di S. Marco in Veneziana built in the time period of 1100-1300 AD [4] and floor plan of the Basilica di S. Marco (Pictures used in Kaveh Farrokh’’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006; Picture 3 originally posted in Iran Chamber Society). Consult also Spatari, 2003, pp, 270-271, 284-289 (Calabria, L’enigma Delle Arti Asittite: Nella Calabria Ultramediterranea, Author: Nik Spatari, Publisher: Italy: MUSABA, Date: 2003, ISBN: 8887935300). 

Armenia, Georgia and the Caucasus in general have undergone a  profound cultural synthesis which has spanned for thousands for years. As noted by Professor Mark Whittow of Oxford University:

“The oldest outside influence in Trans-Caucasia is that of Persia (p.203)…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 (p.204)”. [Whittow, Mark, The Making of Byzantium: 600-1025, Berkley: University of California Press, p. 203-204].

[Click to Enlarge] Pictures of a Medieval Armenian Church at Goshavank
sent to by Professor George Nercessian. This was built on the remains of cyclopean walls, where a Zoroastrian fire temple (Armenian Atrushan =Iranian Atar-Roshan) originally stood. There are many similar sites in Armenia where Churches were built on top of Zoroastrian fire temples (Pictures courtesy of Professor George Narcessian). For more on the topic of Armenian-Zoroastrian fire temples consult CAIS: The Armenian Fire Temple of Ani and Payvand News of Iran: The Northernmost Zoroastrian Fire Temple in the World (in the Republic of Georgia).

Goshavank was named after the 12th century philosopher and theologian Mkhitar Gosh who is buried not far from the Church. “Vank” is Armenian for “Cathedral”, therefore Goshvank can be translated as “Cathedral of Gosh”. 

For more on Iran-Caucasus links see: Iran and Caucasia…

The domed architectural style was to attain its own unique style in the Romano-Byzantine Empire, as exemplified by the Holy church of Orthodox Christendom, the Haghia Sophia:

Haghia Sophia (Greek: Sacred Wisdom) Church in modern Istanbul (ancient Constantinople), Turkey.(Source: Turkey Vacation Places)  

The site of Haghia Sophia was actually home to three different churches over the centuries. The first was the “Megale Eklesia” (Greek: Great Church) completed by the early 360s but this was completely burnt down and destroyed in the riots of 404. A second church was inaugurated by 415 however this too feel victim to fire in 532 and was destroyed. However, Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) ordered a new structure to be built on February 23, 532 – literally just days after the second church had been destroyed. The structure was finally inaugurated in late December 537 with further construction continuing after Justinian’s time.

Note that “Istanbul” is derived from the Greek terms “Es tan Polis” [to the city]. Turkey has done an exemplary job in preserving world heritage Classical sites such as Ephesos, Troy, Cappadocia and Haghia Sophia.

The dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy. This essentially bridged the architectural gap between between the Renaissance and Baroque styles (Source: Rough Guides). The original structure was built in 319-333 and then rebuilt-repaired in the mid-15th century.

For more in Iran-Europe links see: Arthurian and European Culture and Ancient Iran (Eire-An)…