If you happen to have a few hours to spare and a swash to buckle, here are two rousing epic adventures from Persia and the Middle East to fill in the time. If we think of Persian epics, the two titles which probably come to mind are Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and Vis and Ramin by Fakhruddin As’ad Gurgani, both available in excellent Penguin translations by Dick Davis. There’s also Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, which is based on an episode in Ferdowsi’s poem. As for Arabic ones, the massive (and anonymous) Thousand and One Nights is the best-known.

Putting 5,000 years of history on display is a challenge that Epic Iran’s organizers confronted head on. Juxtaposing a clay cylinder seal from the 2nd millennium and an abstract painting from the 21st century might leave visitors struggling to see the connection. Nevertheless, the strong thread that winds through this show is the excellence of craftsmanship, Persian honar, that appears in display after display. Iran’s tradition of craft, of masters and apprentices, of admiring past achievements in art, explains the surprising moments of recognition as one moves from one era to another in this chronologically-organized show.

The geometric patterning in Islamic tiles, carpets and textiles bespeak the Chief Architect, and how He brings forth the beauty of the physical world through eternal shapes. Implicit in these designs are dualities, heaven and earth, light and shadow, and of course male and female. The curating tradition of museums focuses on the male element in Islamic art. From the great monarchs like Iran’s Shah Abbas, Turkey’s Suleyman the Magnificent and India’s Shah Jahan, museums display their silk ceremonial gowns, jade-handled swords and brocaded riding boots. Objects made by or for women rarely figure in the exhibit cases.

Samak the Ayyar: A Tale of Ancient Persia, Freydoon Rassouli (trans), Jordan Mechner (adapted) (Columbia University Press, August 2021)
Samak the Ayyar: A Tale of Ancient Persia, Freydoon Rassouli (trans), Jordan Mechner (adapted) (Columbia University Press, August 2021)

The adventures of Samak, a trickster-warrior hero of Persia’s thousand-year-old oral storytelling tradition, are beloved in Iran. Samak is an ayyar, a warrior who comes from the common people and embodies the ideals of loyalty, selflessness, and honor—a figure that recalls samurai, ronin, and knights yet is distinctive to Persian legend. His exploits—set against an epic background of palace intrigue, battlefield heroics, and star-crossed romance between a noble prince and princess—are as deeply rooted in Persian culture as are the stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur in the West. However, this majestic tale has remained little known outside Iran.

They gaze at you, the fashionably-attired youths of Esfahan, from a distance of 300 years. Swaying like cypress trees, their tresses floating in the air like clouds, their faces surrounded by peach fuzz, they smile like the Gioconda and with more mystery. Who are these young men and what do they say to the viewers? After the lucidity of the great 16th-century Persian and Mughal painters like Behzad and Sultan Mohammad, who painted kingly battles and hunts, the 17th century brings us the works of Reza Abbasi and Mohammad Qasem, and their ambivalent but sexually-charged portraits of young men and occasionally young women.