The Kushnameh is unique, literally. Only one copy of the “Epic of Kush” exists, sitting in the British Library. Hardly anything is known about its author, Iranshah. It features a quite villainous protagonist, the tusked warrior Kush, who carves a swathe of destruction across the region. And it spans nearly half the world, with episodes in Spain, the Maghreb, India, China and even Korea.

The Medieval Iranians, no less than we today, sought answers to questions about far-away countries and events of old. We consult Google or Wikipedia. They looked into epic poetry and romances. Since literature in those days had both to entertain and instruct, the stories they read about Korea, China, Khazaria and Spain also spoke of monsters, wizards and moon-faced beauties. The biggest difference between their curiosity and ours is that they emphasized wisdom over knowledge. Even a legend can be rich in initiatic truths.

Of the three empires that dominated late antiquity, Rome, China and Iran, it is the last whose legacy we understand least. “Proportionally to its historical significance, Iranian Inner Asia in this period is probably the least known and most grossly understudied time and place in world history,” writes Minoru Inaba in the introductory essay to The History and Culture of Iran and Central Asia

“Ancient Iran and the Classical World”, an exhibition currently running at the J Paul Getty Museum, is the second in a series that examines how ancient Greece and Rome interacted with the other civilizations of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and beyond. A sequel to the inaugural exhibition, “Beyond the Nile”, the current exhibition considers the significance of ancient Persia (Iran) and follows interactions between Persia and the Classical world from the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) through the Arab invasion in 638 BC.

In one sense, this book is the story of Agnès Benoit’s decades-long fascination with a princess, whose statue of chlorite and steatite beguiles us from a distance of 4,000 years. Her mysterious sisters began to appear in antique shops in Kabul in the 1960s. In the beginning, we knew little to nothing about the civilization that produced them. They dazzled with their fine workmanship, the elegance of their shapes, the feminine beauty and power they conveyed.

For avid collectors during the gilded age Gentile Bellini’s portrait of a seated Turkish scribe came as a revelation, opening a window onto heretofore unfamiliar elegance, hinting at a connection between their beloved Italian Renaissance and the magnificence of contemporary Ottoman court. This same generation read and swooned over Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam. They traveled to Constantinople, Cairo and Damascus, collecting repoussé brass works, calligraphic tombstones, Iznik tiles and Tabriz carpets. In this rarefied milieu of Calouste Gulbenkian, J Pierpont Morgan and Isabella Stuart Gardner (who swooped up the Bellini), no one was more enthusiastic about the arts of Islam than Bernard Berenson, the high priest of the Italian Renaissance. 

The world is still dealing with the consequences of the 1979 Iranian revolution in which the pro-American, pro-Western Shah of Iran was replaced by an Islamic regime that subsequently attempted to spread its influence throughout the Middle East and beyond, and acquire a nuclear arsenal. The causes of that revolution have been debated for many years and far too often analysts have provided superficial or simplified explanations ranging from the Shah’s repressive rule to America’s flawed diplomacy. In The Last Shah, Iran expert Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations presents a more balanced, nuanced treatment of the history of US-Iranian relations from World War II to the fall of the Shah that explores the many and varied factors that led to revolution.