A rare private collection on show at the Sharjah Art Museum reveals a different side of Persia.
A rare glimpse at Persia's history
In varying hues of black and white, a different image of Persia comes to life.
Set against monumental landscapes captured in painfully meticulous detail, Persians are dressed in flamboyant seamless costumes, the men often with pointed beards and cone-shaped turbans, and the women covered up completely or with open headscarves, showing long wavy hair and flirtatious smiles.
This is how 17th and 18th-century European enthusiasts for anything eastern saw Persia. These collectable illustrated books and maps that survived the test of time serve today as critical historical references.
Now, and until December 31, 62 of these rare artworks can be viewed at the Sharjah Art Museum as part of its A Voyage to Persia exhibition.
They were created and reproduced by men who were everything but historians, their backgrounds as varied as their illustrations.
Through copper-plate engraving, the Dutch Protestant pastor Henri Abraham Chatelain (1684 - 1743) illustrated and described Persian costumes and habits in a newspaper article-like format, with rows of women and men dressed in different fashions.
Jean-Baptiste Eugene Flandin (1809-1876), a French archaeologist, used lithography to illustrate pieces widely viewed as important commentary on Persia's political affairs.
Working on the principle that oil rejects water, one of his famous prints captures the sixth-century BC tomb of the Persian King, Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, together with women resting on its blocks at the bottom, and a kneeling man at the top. It is a good example of just how much this Unesco World Heritage Site has changed, missing ruins since that 1841-1842 drawing.
"Visitors can see a different side of Persia, today's Iran, through His Highness's rare private collection," said Alya Al Mulla, the acting curator at the museum.
His Highness refers to Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, Ruler of Sharjah, who is known to be an avid art and artefacts collector, as well as a patron of history.
The exhibition is organised by the Art Directorate at the Sharjah Department of Culture and Information in cooperation with the Sharjah Museums Department.
"Besides bridging cultures and promoting understanding, this particular collection is important for its factual and documentation benefits," said Al Mulla.
Using different techniques such as halftones (grey tints between white and black) and metal carving (steel and copper), timeless scenes and historic monuments of Persia throughout the ages are captured through its cities, villages, palaces, public squares, towers, tombs, bridges, Greek temples and interactions between its people.
"You need to get really close to the art pieces to see all the magnificent details and stories buried in them," she said. "Each time you look, you spot something new."
The works, printed between 1672 to 1851, emphasise the culture of artistic acquisition and its importance in preserving history. The drawings are from several sources and references, including the book A Description of Persia by the Dutch physician Dr Olfert Dapper in 1672 and Inscriptions from a Book on Geography written in 1683 by Alain Mallet, an officer in the French army.
Besides this exquisite collection, Dr Sheikh Sultan wrote a whole chapter on his trip to Iran in the late 1950s, in part one of his autobiography Sard Al Zat, published in 2010.
In it, he describes the landscapes and his interactions with the people, including a skirmish with authorities. In his trip to Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, he pauses at one of the famous carved murals along one of the ruins.
"When I saw the king of the Achaemenid Empire receiving gifts from representatives and delegations from around the world, I wondered whether we, the Arabs, were there, among them, at that dawn of history. Then, I moved down the panel and saw an Arab leading a camel," he wrote.
The exchange of cultures is not just captured in the drawings, but also in the venue showcasing the pieces. Opened in 1997, the two-storey museum that covers more than 111,000 square metres, with 68 halls, is built with traditional barajeel (wind towers) commonly found in Iran.
There is a permanent oriental art wing, focusing on the Arab orient and its history, with the art work donated by Dr Sheikh Sultan. There are also halls dedicated to modern and contemporary art, lined with 300 pieces by artists from around the Arab world.
The Sharjah Art Museum is open from 8am to 8pm, Saturdays to Thursdays and 4pm to 8pm on Fridays. Admission is free. For more information, call 06 568 8222