The modern-day country of Iran, known in ancient times as Persia, has a history of civilization dating back approximately ten thousand years.

The early millennia of Persian civilization witnessed the rise of prosperous cities such as Susa, Persepolis, and Ctesiphon under the rule of legendary monarchs like Cyrus the Great (r. ca. 559–530 bc). At this time, Zoroastrianism was the predominant faith practiced in Iran. An ancient form of Persian, initially written in cuneiform script and later in the Pahlavi, was the spoken language. With the advent of Islam in the seventh century and its subsequent spread to the region, a new faith and political ties to the Arab lands introduced additional layers to Iran’s cultural traditions, including the Arabic language and script. In the early Islamic period, Iran was considered part of the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258), a vast empire stretching from North Africa to Central Asia with its capital in Baghdad, in modern Iraq. At other times, however, Iran enjoyed closer diplomatic and economic ties with its neighbors in Central and South Asia, especially between the late fourteenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Throughout the extensive history of its civilization, Iran has fostered the development of a variety of art forms in diverse media, including glass, ceramics, metalwork, lacquerware, and arts of the book. Calligraphy, the most highly regarded and distinctive art form in the Islamic world, was used for both textual transmission and as a popular form of ornament. While Islam discourages the representation of living creatures as part of a prohibition against idolatry, artists have long illustrated secular texts and adorned objects of courtly and everyday life with figural imagery.

Today, many contemporary artists from Iran, Central Asia, and the diaspora draw upon Persian or Islamic literary, philosophical, and craft traditions from premodern Iran. In addition to historic works from its permanent collection, the Museum collects and features contemporary art that speaks to the historic collection or addresses current issues, including cultural dislocation, the diasporic experience, and religious and spiritual identity. Works by established and rising artists from Iran, Central Asia, and the Persianate diaspora may be featured in the Arts of Iran gallery or in the Museum’s galleries of contemporary and American art.


Featured at top right: Khusraw and Shirin hunting lions, page from a dispersed copy of Nizami’s Khamsa (Quintet), Iran, ca. 1580. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. Gift of Edwin Binney 3rd, 1971.61.