Persia: Its History, Art, Culture & More

June 29, 2015

persepolisOne of the oldest civilizations in history, Persia has a played a role on the world stage for thousands of years. In her fall class, Melanie Urban traces the origins of present-day Iran including its rich history, art, culture and more. We visited with her to find out more about this fascinating ancient culture.


WIH Reporter: What do we need to know about your upcoming class?

Urban: We will be covering 4,000 years of Persian history and culture. Iran today is as much a product of its Persian legacy as it is influenced by its Islamic heritage. Iranians consider themselves separate and apart from their Arab co-religionists, and we will talk about the reasons for this separate identity as well as how that plays into their current political position.

WIH Reporter: What about Persian culture?

Urban: The legacy of Persia in its culture and art has influenced both east and west, and we will talk about those aspects of its identity as well. Persia was strategically located to take advantage of the trade and cultural exchanges east to west and vice versa. Trade and exchange along the land-based Silk Road fostered the spread of ideas and religions, as well as art and technology.

WIH Reporter:  What would surprise us to know about the topic of your class?

Urban: There are many delightful and surprising aspects to the study of Persian history and culture.  For instance, did you know that the tombs of Esther and her uncle Mordecai lie in Hamadan in the western part of Iran? You can find her story in the Old Testament, along with that of other prophets who lived and worked in Achaemenid Persia.  Cyrus, who founded the great Achaemenid dynasty, sent the Jews of the diaspora back home to Israel and gave them money from his own treasury to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. When the Romans started expanding their empire at the end of the first millennium BCE, who stopped that expansion into Asia beyond the Levant?  The Persians, of course, and they fought the Romans to a standstill on many occasions over the following centuries.  Memorials to these victories were carved in stone, and still stand today in wonderful detail.

Another constant source of amazement for me is the high level of Persian culture and artistic endeavor during the early part of the second millennium CE, at a time when Western Europe was struggling to survive. The contrast is instructive and explains, in part, why Persian tradition plays a central role in the Iranian identity even today. These are simply examples, a few of many, that will reward a participant in my lecture series on Iran.

WIH Reporter: What mistaken impressions might we have about the subject of your class?

Urban: I hope that no one expects simply a political discussion of Iran’s position in the world today.  There is so much more to Iranian history and culture than what we might view as the current situation.  I will, of course, spend some time on current events during the last lecture, but to comprehend the whole situation one should have the background necessary to understand how and why it came about.  I would hope that participants in the class will come to appreciate the picture as complex and worthy of study. WIH Reporter: What format do you plan to use in the class? Urban: The lectures will be fully illustrated with many photos taken on a recent trip to Iran, where I visited many historic and cultural sites.   In addition, we will take detours into the realms of art and poetry, added dimensions to the more or less chronological presentation.   Iran today is a unique blend of the indigenous with the imported and subsumed.   Pictures illustrate this fact and assist in the understanding of the complexity of this country. Urban’s 8-week class, “Persia: Art, Architecture, History”, begins on 9/22/15 at 10:00 a.m. For more information, and/or to register for this course, click here.