Throughout history and until present day, masterpieces of metalwork were produced in the area known nowadays as Iran. They belong to different periods and dynasties that ruled that important part of the world and wide beyond. Such pieces that have survived were produced during the era of the Achaemenid and Sassanid Empires and can be found in major world collections and museums. They reflect the prosperity of those two empires and their high appreciation of fine arts.
The Achaemenied Empire had its main religion as Zoroastrianism, which is considered to be one of the oldest main religions in that part of the world, alongside the Babylonian religion. Major historical cosmopolitan cities in the Achaemenid Empire, such as Babylon, Pasargadae, Ecbatana, Susa and Persepolis, were considered as important centres in the making of various works of arts. The closest major town to Persepolis is Shiraz.
Other masterpieces were also produced during the Sassanid dynasty (224-651A.D.) that ruled present day Iran and beyond. Zoroastrianism was the main religion in the Sassanid Empire, but other religions were also tolerated, such as Christianity and Judaism. During the Sassanid era, Shiraz was an important regional centre and it was connecting Bishapour and Gur to Estakhr.
In 651 A.D. the Sassanid Empire and its main cities and capitals such as Ctesiphon and Estakhr fell to the Muslim Conquest. The Zoroastrian community who chose to keep their faith resettled in various Iranian cities and beyond. In Iran, the Zoroastrian community mainly resettled in the Iranian city of Yazd, but also in other major Iranian cities such as Kerman, Isfahan and Shiraz. Shiraz lies 71 kilometres away from Estakhr, which was one of the major Sassanid capitals.
Post the Sassanid rule and due to the political unrest and the fear of persecution, the Zoroastrian community migration continued from various parts of Iran to the east, towards India and Sindh (present day Pakistan). They settled in large numbers in various Indian cities such as Gujarat, Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta, where they practiced their religion more freely. They were called Parsi, or Parsee, a word that means Persians in the local language.
During the Muslim rule and other later local dynasties of Persia, the ancient City of Shiraz was re-built and it flourished. In 693 A.D. Shiraz became a provincial capital where Mosques, palaces and a library were built, as well as an extended city wall. The city was spared destruction by the invading Mongols when the local ruler agreed surrender to the rule of Genghis Khan.
In the 13th century Shiraz was considered to be the capital of Persian art, culture and literature, thanks to its cosmopolitan nature, encouragement by its rulers, and the presence of many Persian scholars and artists. For this reason the city was named by a classical geographer as Dar Al-Elm (The centre of knowledge).
Among the important Iranian poets, mystics and philosophers born in Shiraz, are the poets Sa’di and Hafiz, the mystic Roozbehan and the philosopher Mulla Sadra. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Baha’is, and Zoroastrians lived together in the City.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries and as a result of the continued raids by the Afghans, Shiraz went through a period of decline. In that period, its population decreased from 200,000 to 50,000.
In 1762 A.D. and during the Zand dynasty in Iran, Shiraz regained its former glory when it was made the capital of the Zand dynasty in Iran by Karim Khan Zand, who employed over twelve thousand workers to rebuild the city. Among his achievements was the re-building and expansion of the covered bazaar, the Wakeel Bazaar, which was originally built in the 11th Century A.D. This glory was not to last though, as Shiraz was later destroyed by the new ruler and founder of the Qajar dynasty, Agha Mohammad Khan when he took power. As a revenge against the Zand dynasty, he destroyed the city’s fortifications and moved the capital to Tehran. Despite this destruction, Shiraz managed to maintain a level of prosperity thanks to its important geographic location, position on the trade route to the Persian Gulf from the East, highly civilised and cosmopolitan community and also the mounting western interest in the city’s history by historians, archaeologists and travellers, due to its proximity to the major archaeological sites of the East: such as the ruins of Persepolis, Estakhr, and Bishapur.
In 1925 during the Pahlavi dynasty reign, the late king of Iran had decided to focus on the revival of ancient Iranian culture, history and civilisation. The shah had ordered the reuse of the best well-known Zoroastrian symbol in Zoroastrianism, the symbol of Faravahar (Ahora Mazda), as a secular national symbol of Iran. The Zoroastrian community regained some attention by the shah of Iran.
Today Zoroastrianism continues to be part of the Iranian culture in which throughout the year festivities are celebrated such as, Nowrouz (Persian New Year), Mehregan (Persian Festival of Autumn) to honour affection friendship and love, and Chahar Shanbe Suri (festival of fire), all of which are remnants of Zoroastrian traditions.
The Zoroastrian artists and craftsmen used to reflect some of their beliefs and Zoroastrian symbols in their work, such as in the making of metal ware, where the craftsmen maintained the same ancient Achamenid and Sassanid style and technique. The symbols and motives produced were mainly taken from three Zoroastrian sources:
1- Zoroastrian motives that ware taken from the available motives and carvings that existed on the walls and ruins of Persepolis, or Parsi Polis (Takhat-e Jamshid) that date back to the ancient Achaemenid dynasty.
*The image and symbol of the supreme god Ahora Mazda Faravahar (farohar), the lord of wisdom, which depicts a winged man, is considered to be one of the best well-known symbols of the Zoroastrian faith, which dates back to 7th-6th century B.C. In the Zoroastrian faith, it is believed that Ahora Mazda revealed to prophet Zoroaster (and hence the name of the faith) the three pillars of Zoroastrianism: good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Ahora Mazda is considered to be the believer’s guarding angel in life.
The relief of probably seated king Darius (Dariush) giving an audience at the hall of a hundred columns.
The relief of king Darius (Dariush) fighting the Chimaera (lion) or monster.
The relief of probably King Xerxes (king of the kings) the son of king Darius accompanied with two servants, one servant holding a flywhisk, the other is holding an umbrella to provide comfort to the king. The relief is above several rows of reliefs depicting warriors.
The relief of dignitaries queuing up at the walls of the Apadana Hall,
The two statues of Winged Human-headed Bulls (Winged Bulls) at the main entrance of Gates of All Nations.
*Relief of rows of armed royal guards each holding a long spear.
The relief of a lion attaching an animal.
2- Zoroastrian motives taken from the later Sassanid dynasty.
Such motives were taken from the ruins at the site of Tang-e-Chogan, from the Sassanid city of Bishapur (Bishapur was founded by the second Sassanid king Shapur I). Other motives were taken from the reliefs carved at the cliffs of Naqsh-e-Rostam and Naqsh-e-Rajab (Necropolis of Iran), which contains various ancient Sassanid rock reliefs, Necropolis is also known to be the royal burial site for various Achaemenid kings.
*The Relief at (Tang-e-Chogan) showing the depiction of two cavaliers: the Zoroastrian God, Ahura Mazda handing the ring of authority to the Sassanid king Shapur I.
*The relief of the investiture of Ardashir I, the founder of the Sassanid Empire: The scene is depicting the handing of the ring of kingship and authority by Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd) (the supreme Zoroastrian God) to Ardashir I. The site at Naqsh-e-Rustam
*The triumph relief of Shapur I (241A.D.), the most famous Sasanian rock relief from Naqsh-e-Rustam. It shows how the Persian king had defeated two Roman emperors. The depiction is showing Shapur I seated on the back of his horse while the roman emperor Philippus the Arab kneeling pleading for his life.
*The relief of the investiture of king Ardashir II showing Mithra (Zoroastrian angelic divinity of covenant and oath), Shapur II and Ahura-Mazda above the defeated roman emperor Julian, lying prostrate. Ardashir, son of king Shapur II, took part in the defence of the Sassanid empire with his father when it was attacked by the roman emperor Julian. When Ardashir became kind he ordered the making of the rock relief to be made on the cliffs in Taq-e-Bustan to commemorate this astounding victory.
3- Other important Zoroastrian motives that were taken from the Zoroastrian faith, such as
*The Sun and the Moon, the Zoroastrian worship of the sun, moon, stars, fire and all the good creation. Also about the relationship between the God Ahura-Mazda and the God Mithra that some might believe it represents the sun itself. Ref:-authenticgathazoroastrianism.org
*The fire temple buildings (Bazeh khur).
The following is the facade of the fire temple in Shiraz.
The Fire Vessel or cauldron (Afringanyu), in the shape of a Trophy or a large vessel or bowl.
During the 18th, 19th and until the first half of the 20th century, the main centres of producing fine metal work especially silver in Iran were Isfahan, Tabriz, Kermanshah, and Shiraz (where we think this piece was probably made). This is quite possible if the artist was living in Shiraz. However, another possibility is that the piece was made in India, especially if the artist had migrated to and settled in India. What supports the latter possibility is the strong and clear Indian influence in the making of this piece, particularly through the style and motives that were used in the lower and third section of the basin. What also supports this possibility is that the Artist would have had more liberty of using overt religious Zoroastrian symbols such as the fire vessels (Afringanyu).
Shiraz was one of the main centres in Iran for the making of fine arts, including fine silver. Shirazi sliver was made in three different grades: the highest is very fine silver (our lot is made of this grade), a lesser grade, or average silver, and then the lowest grade was made on commercial basis.
Other craftsmanship Shiraz was famous for is khatam kari (kind of micro mosaic overlaying technique). Khātam is a Persian version of marquetry art forms made by decorating the surface of wooden objects, particularly furniture, with delicate pieces of a combination of various types of wood, ivory, bone and metal, precisely cut into various geometrical shapes and designs.
Shirazi artists created a new form of art by combining khatam kari veneered objects such as boxes with Shirazi silver decorated with scenes from the archaeological site of Persepolis and Sassanid sites.
Western travellers to the East in the 18th and 19th centuries brought back with them pieces of extremely high quality silver. For a long time, collectors and researchers were baffled by the precise origin of these pieces, but the consensus now is that they were probably made in Shiraz, Iran, but others may have been made in India by the Parsi artists who migrated with their community from Iran. Our own lot supports this conclusion.
This magnificent and extremely rare Silver basin was made by the Master Mahmoud Al-Shirazi as the artist had clearly incised his name in a separate cartouche amongst the decorations on the base, that reads as (Sa-ni-u-hoo Mahmoud Shirazi, translating to Made by Mahmoud Shirazi). The artist had used different techniques: primarily the embossing or repousse technique, but also engraving and carefully hammering and filling the spaces between the scenes with various elegant shapes, to show his outstanding talent in the making of this masterpiece, which is very similar in style and technique to the ancient Achaemenid and Sassnid metal pieces that have survived.
He used stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi (the book of Persian kings, which is a long epic poem written by the Persian poet Qasim Ferdowsi (935-1020). The Shahnameh tells a mixture of ancient Persian mythical and historical events. To some extent, these stories are important to Zoroastrianism for somehow it traces back the historical events of the faith and describes its events until the death of the last Sassanid king during the Muslim conquest of Persia.
The basin is clearly dated as san-n-at (year of) 1310 A.H. (1892 A.D.) The paragraph where the year is reads, in Farsi, as Ba-Hem Ha-Ma Mu-ta-hid Sir Ta Bi-Kadam San-n-at 1310, which translates into (All Untied Together By Step in The Year of 1310). The artist had deliberately intended to differentiate between the numbers and letters on one hand and its pointings diacritics (I’jam) on the other. All numbers and letters were embossed or raised in a relief, while the I’jam was engraved by the artist. (I’jam is considered to be the pointing’s diacritics that are used in the Arabic alphabet, or its adaptations such as Farsi, Kurdish and Urdu. I’jam is used in the scripts to distinguish various consonants that have the same form of letters).
Visually, the artist divided the basin into four main distinct sections separated by parallel decorated and plain narrow and wide bands: an upper section, the main body, a lower section and the base.
The upper section of the basin is decorated with calligraphy of verses of Persian poetry inside brackets adjacent to each other. One of these verses reads, in Farsi
Da-rab Shah An-ka Kurd Tas-kheer Ja-ha-n, which translates to
King Darab who was able to conquer the world.
The poetry mentioned in this section mentions several Persians kings, notably King Jamshid and King Darab. King Jamshid is a mythical figure of the Iranian culture and tradition. To this day the name Jamshid remains a common name to the Iranian culture and the Zoroastrian religion, although it is spelt slightly differently in the Eastern parts of greater Iran and Central Asia. King Darab is a legendary king of Iran who was the last king in the Kayanian dynasty. King Darab was mentioned in the Zoroastrian literature and the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi (book of kings).
The second (main) and the fourth section (the base), are decorated with various stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi as indicated earlier, including important Zoroastrian scenes and symbols, some of which have been taken from the ancient archaeological site of Persepolis such as the relief of king Darius (Dariush) fighting the Chimaera (lion) or monster.
The relief of Seated King Xerxes (king of kings) with a servant holding a flywhisk to provide comfort to the king.
Other motives used by the artist were taken from the Sassanid monuments, such as the relief of the investiture of king Ardashir II showing Mithra (Zoroastrian angelic divinity of covenant and oath), Shapur II and Ahura-Mazda above the defeated roman emperor Julian, lying prostrate.
Relief showing the depiction of two cavaliers: the Zoroastrian God, Ahura Mazda, handing the ring of authority to the Sassanid king Shapur I.
Other Zoroastrian motives that the artist included in his piece are the sacred fire vessel (Afringanyu), which is clearly visible under the feet of the seated king Xerxes.
Another Zoroastrian motif is depicting two men, one is kneeling in front of the fire vessel (Afringanyu), while the other is standing, both raising their hands, pleading to the sun and moon.
Other scenes depicted are for Persian kings, battles, hunting, various daily life activities as well as mythological scenes.
The third section, which is directly below the main body and just above the base, is decorated with rosettes and floral designs similar in shape and style to their Indian counterparts, which gives rise to the belief that Master Mahmoud Shirazi was amongst those who migrated from Iran to India.
The Basin rims at the top and base had been both marked with (probably) 19th century European import marks.
For other similar Parsi bowls please see A Zoroastrian Tapestry, Art, Religion and Culture, edited by Pheroza J. Godrej and Firoza Punthakey Mistree, p.696 lots 59 &60.
4- Epic of the Persian Kings, the Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, Barbara Brend and Charles Melville, the Fitzgerald Museum.
5- Persian Lost Treasures, Vladimir Loukonine & Anatoli Ivanov, Pages 20-34.
6- The Arts of Persia, edited by R.W. Ferrier, Yale University Press, p.26 – 47 & p.60 – 76.
Dimensions: Height 18.7 cm.
Diameter at the top 32 cm.
Diameter at the base 26.3 cm.