Samira Ahmed was granted a rare opportunity to journey into the heart of Iran for BBC Four’s Art of Persia, and she didn’t waste it. At many points in this first of three instalments I found myself gasping at the sheer magnificence of the sites she was showing us, and the beauty of the objects found there. The vast, desert ziggurat at Chogha Zanbil, relic of a lost world; the ruins of Persepolis and the grand tomb of its ruler, Darius the Great. These are sights that few Westerners will get to see in real life.
A lesser presenter would have been content to make this into a travel programme, with the occasional observation about the Iranian people. But Ahmed is clever and curious, and you sense that this is one of the great projects of her career. Her ambition is no less than to introduce us to 3,000 years of Persian history, art and culture, deferring to experts where necessary but acting as an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. Seeing a presenter’s eyes shining at the thrill of what they’re seeing is infectious.
The name “Persia” has romantic connotations that “Islamic Republic of Iran” most definitely does not. Most of us know the latter from news reports, and the programme stayed away from the country’s recent history. It was more interested in demonstrating the ways in which the history of Persia remains part of modern Iranians’ cultural identity.
Ahmed has a gift for description: showing us the ziggurat at Chogha Zanbil, she explained that the Elamite people who constructed it attached great spiritual importance to mountains and “where there were no mountains they built their own”.
The most bizarre location visited in the programme was a cod-medieval castle constructed by a Frenchman in the 19th century, using ancient bricks from the site he was excavating: “A fitting example of how colonial-era archaeologists saw themselves as superior protectors of civilisation, while desecrating ancient sites.”
How odd it must have been for Ahmed as she took the BBC to an employment tribunal over equal pay last year, listening to the corporation’s lawyers refer dismissively to her as a mere news journalist, in the knowledge that she had made this series. Instead of fighting losing battles, perhaps the BBC could concentrate its energies on making more programmes that add to the sum of our knowledge.