“Art in the First Cities of Iran and Central Asia: The Sarikhani Collection” by Agnès Benoit

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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. Since then, excavations in the deserts of Turkmenistan have brought to light the Bactrian-Marghiana Archaeological (BMA) complex. More evocatively, we call this the Oxus civilization. This region enjoyed close ties to the Elamite civilization of Iranian Plateau and the lowlands of Mesopotamia. What did this connection consist of?

In one direction, the Elamites and Oxus peoples eagerly copied the new, urban life-style that the Sumerians invented. City walls, temples, gods and cultic objects quickly spread from the lowlands of Mesopotamia to the Iranian Plateau and the steppes of the Oxus. The lowlanders cultivated trading connections with their neighbors to the East, for while their valley was rich in mud for farming and making bricks, only the mountains of Iran offered precious sources of minerals, while from further east came lapis lazuli. Crafting divine images and elite jewelry required just these materials. Soon the Elamites and Oxus peoples became expert craftsmen themselves and began to export finished products to the Middle East.

What is extraordinary is how closely the images of the 5th and 3rd millennia BC resemble those found of Iran’s classical arts.

Art in the First Cities of Iran and Central Asia: The Sarikhani Collection, Agnes Benoit (Yale University Press, November 2021)
Art in the First Cities of Iran and Central Asia: The Sarikhani Collection, Agnes Benoit (Yale University Press, November 2021)

The Anglo-Iranian Sarikhani family began collecting the arts of Iran in the 1990s. They have a good eye, and have acquired many uniquely beautiful objects. Since they bought them from other private collectors and dealers, the objects lacked clear archaeological provenance. It is sad that recent decades have seen many unauthorized exports of antiquities from the region, and this has created challenges of authentication for collectors. To reconstruct the potential provenance of the collection, Benoit, formerly curator of Iranian archaeology at the Louvre, painstakingly compares the Sarikhani objects with well-documented holdings in the Louvre, the British Museum and other international collections.

She performs this comparison in three sections, one each devoted to the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd millennia BCE. She also provides an essay on the connection between Iran and Mesopotamia, and one on the geography of Iran and the Oxus. These essays are useful for understanding the physical environment which determined, to some extent, the kind of art that could be produced.

This framework of geology and geography explains why these ancient objects look so familiar to a student of Iranian art. This is a priori surprising, since the ancient inhabitants of Iran were not today’s Iranians, steppe horsemen who infiltrated the plateau in the 2nd millennium from north of the Oxus. Yet the ancient inhabitants of Iran have much in common with the Iranians of historical times. They enthusiastically practiced pastoralism, as shown by the frisky goats with Brancusi-like horns gamble on many of the objects. The goat was, after all, first domesticated in Iran in the 7th millennium BCE. Many of the elite people portrayed in the objects wear cloaks made from sown-together sheep fleeces, a warm outerwear still seen in the mountains of Iran.

What is extraordinary is how closely the images of the 5th and 3rd millennia BC resemble those found of Iran’s classical arts. It is as though the master craftsmen of the Oxus civilization inspired the artists of Samarkand and Bokhara 4,000 years later. This is perhaps why art historians of Iran are so drawn to these mysterious objects. Though this ancient people did not have horses for hunting, they depict antelopes and onagers fleeing from them in the flying gallop pose that typify Iranian hunting scenes of the Sassanian and Islamic periods. The panthers who slink around the mouths of fired clay pots look much like those in Persian miniatures of the 16th century. Banqueting guests on an exquisite silver beaker look like they are celebrating Nowruz with Shah Abbas. Unlike their shaven Sumerian neighbors, the men sport luxuriant beards, except for the beardless échansons standing by as under the brush of Reza Abbasi of the 17th century. Even the ancient BMA pastimes resemble that of contemporary Iranians: the men dancing together in a circle on one jar recall regional folk dances, while robust wrestlers straight out of the zurkhaneh (a traditional gymnasium), decorate the pole of a bronze axe.

The highlight of the collection are the so-called Bactrian princesses.

The highlight of the collection are the so-called Bactrian princesses. The Sarikhanis own three out of the extent 60 known. Scholarship now identifies these objects as goddesses. Only one is depicted seated like a human. The other is a harpy with the body of a bird, while the third raises only her head from her supine pose, as though emerging from the waters of the Oxus. The faces and hands of these divinities are finely chiseled out of chlorite, a soft, translucent stone, with their copious hair, turbans and layers of clothing are evoked by delicate scrimshaw-like marks on the steatite. The different stones are fitted smoothly together. They manage to look both divine and feminine simultaneously, mysterious and familiar.

Art in the First Cities of Iran & Central Asia combines the thoroughness of a scholarly study with a collection focused on the beauty of the objects. The text, translated from French, challenges us to look closely at the objects, so we can share in the enthusiasm of both Benoit and her Anglo-Iranian collectors. The many large format reproductions are excellent. They are well-situated on the page besides the relevant text, making it easy to follow Benoit’s exposition. Enthusiasts for the arts of Iran will appreciate owning this beautiful book.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.