Orient oder Rom? Qajar 'Aryan' architecture and Strzygowski's art history.

Author:Grigor, Talinn
Position:Art historian Josef Strzygowski - Critical essay

Based on evidence gathered in his archaeological digs, the German Orientalist Ernest Herzfeld hypothesized that Achaemenid inscriptions had revealed that the name Iranian corresponded to the ancient term Aryanam Khshathram, the Empire of the Aryans. Soon after, in November 1934, the king of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1926-41), decreed that the country's official name, Persia, be permanently changed to Iran, signifying the Land of Aryans. While most political historians and social scientists ascribe this highly symbolic shift to the king's chauvinistic nationalism and despotic rule, they overlook the fact that four decades earlier, the matter had already been raised and fervently argued by European art historians. Described as "one of the most heated controversies of modern scholarship," the "Orient or Rome" debate was inflamed by the simultaneous publication of two books in 1901. (1) On the one hand, the Italian archaeologist Giovanni Teresio Rivoira, in Le origini dell'architettura lombarda, argued that the origin of all Western, especially Gothic, architecture is to be found in Roman ingenuity. On the other hand, in Orient oder Rom, the Austrian art historian Josef Strzygowski contended that Western artistic sources ought to be traced to the Indo-Germanic Geist, pointing instead to the Orient. Both men insisted on the scientific basis of their theories. Remarkably, decades later, Strzygowski continued to implore enthusiasts and skeptics alike to trace Western artistic connections "not to the ancient Near East ... not to Persia but to Iran...." (2)

The debate had a strong influence on the architectural culture of Iran during a turbulent period of transition from 1896 to 1926. A connection can be traced between European art historical interpretations of Western as well as Iranian architecture in theory and Iran's modern architectural production, promoted and financed by the local aristocracy and intelligentsia in practice. Anticolonial agency in a rapidly changing intellectual and artistic context is reflected in four architectural examples analyzed here: the Naser Khosraw building, the Hasanabad Square, the Qavam al-Saltaneh House, and the Green Palace (Figs. 1-4). This architectural investigation brings to the fore the now-lost ties between Europe's struggle to define and shape a universalistic architectural canon and the outcome of such undertakings on Iran's architectural eclecticism from the 1900s to the 1920s, which was eventually co-opted into a purified national style from the 1930s onward. Following the "Orient or Rome" debate and during much of the twentieth century, the local effort to revive Iran's pre-Islamic heritage, manifestly expressed in its modern architecture, must be considered as nothing less than modern Iran's collective and political raison d'etre. As European art historians clashed over the ostensibly pure origin of European architecture, Iran's intelligentsia appropriated one side of this argument in asserting that antique Iran housed the prototype of all subsequent Western forms and at the same time embarked on a complex project of remaking its built environment by producing what Strzygowski had called an Aryan architecture. In European quarrels, early-twentieth-century Iranian secularists found a basis to strengthen their country's claims to political equality, national sovereignty, and above all, racial and cultural superiority over the (Western) world.

The history of Iran vis-a-vis Western imperialistic agendas can be divided into three overarching ideological and stylistic periods: Qajar prenationalism (1813-96), transitional protonationalism (1896-1926), and Pahlavi nationalism (1926-41). During the first and last phases, royal taste largely dictated architectural trends, while political instability and weak kings of the middle period ushered in a new style that was sponsored by the intelligentsia. In this middle period, existing connections between the global and the local were later lost as a result of the very nature of Western historiography, nationalist ideology, and the practice of art history. These three categories of knowledge seem to have edited out all that undermined their epistemological claim to continuity and purity. By focusing on a transitional period--a period of ruptures, in-between political systems, architectural styles, and art historical methods--the epistemological declarations of certainty would reveal themselves as moments of profound doubt on all sides. Both Iranians and Europeans questioned the normative empirical and historiographical givens and aspired to a supranational idea at a time when nationalism was on the rise. Despite their brand of racism--or because of it--they both sought a more profound formation of global identity. The histories of these structures not only refused their own marginality in a universal art history but also testified to the ruptured and contaminated nature of all art histories, thus revealing the ambiguous theoretical and historical margins between a purely Western and non-Western art history.

The Qajar dynasty (1781-1926) reigned during a volatile period, from Iran's premodern great-power status in world politics to its forceful entry into the international system of modern nation-states as a semicolony. The simultaneous struggle against Western imperialism and domestic adjustment to global transformations produced a history as well as an art history characterized by endless negotiations, ruptures, and exchanges both within Iran and between Iran and Europe. By the first quarter of the twentieth century, efforts to curb the absolute authority of Qajar kings was followed by a civil war and a military coup d'etat that brought radical secularists to power in 1921. They had gathered around one man: Reza Khan, a formidable colonel in the Persian Cossack Brigade, who first became war minister and then prime minister. After he failed in his attempt to make Iran a republic in 1924, he adopted the family name Pahlavi--referring to the script of the Middle Persian language spoken by Iran's pre-Islamic dynasties--and crowned himself king in 1926. To differentiate from the Qajars whom he had overthrown, Reza Shah appealed to the nation's pre-Islamic history and Aryan racial origin. Though often celebrated as the father of modern Iran, he was a by-product of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century protonationalism. Those who surrounded the new king, intending to acculturate him, were a group of sophisticated intellectuals, politicians, and nobles with hopes and ambitions for equality with the West and constitutional rule at home. Neither their building projects nor their ambitions would outlive the century.


In the political context, the reformists' aspirations to a better future were realized in the triumph of the Constitutional Revolution in 1906. In the epistemology of culture, their vision of a progressive and unified Iran was expressed in the architectural style that these men invented between 1896 and 1926. Their painful struggle to tackle the hybridity and heterogeneity of their semicolonial condition vis-a-vis Western imperialism was, to them, the very essence of being modern. These reformists, who had a dual perception of the global and the local, must have foreseen the postcolonial theory that "The 'other' is never outside or beyond us; it emerges forcefully, within cultural discourse, when we think we speak most intimately and indigenously 'between ourselves.'" (3) The aesthetic choices that we observe in these seemingly sporadic constructions disclosed, in effect, the skillful maneuvering of art historical and racial theories as well as architectural practice. These choices disrupted the strict boundaries of Western and local constructs of stylistic conventions, racial discourses, and historical identities and simultaneously offered a sort of anticolonial universalism, incarnated in an explicitly hybrid visual language. The resulting architecture could be read as iconic of Iran's struggles over the complex processes of sociopolitical modernization and also as a rare moment of artistic invention that appropriated conceptions of identity, originality, hybridity, and universalism. Around the "Orient or Rome" debates and the like, Iran negotiated its unique brand of modernity.

Resisting Rom, Embracing Orient

At the end of the nineteenth century, when popular authors like the comte de Gobineau and Ernest Renan raised concerns over Europe's modern decadence, they began to question the established Rome-centered historiography by drawing attention to the "pure, if primitive, power of the Germanic tribes and the abiding, if undynamic, endurance of the Orient." (4) It was on this intellectual stage that Josef Strzygowski (1862-1941) launched his career. Despite criticism for anticlassical attitudes in his dissertation and early publications on Roman and Byzantine art and architecture, he managed to secure prestigious posts at the University of Graz (1892-1909) and the University of Vienna (1909-34). His scholarship was colored with pan-German political convictions and an antihumanist methodology, which mired his legacy in endless controversies in the decades to follow. It led to the epic collision between Strzygowski and Rivoira in 1901.

After traveling to Russian Armenia in 1889, Egypt in 1894-95, the newly independent Bulgaria, the western Ottoman Empire, including Istanbul and Jerusalem, and Russia between 1888 and 1890, Strzygowski returned home to produce his groundbreaking theoretical work, Orient oder Rom, which initially situated him at the heart of art historical and racial debates and later led to his omission from all historical and Orientalist discourses. (5) In this controversial study, he rejected the Rome-centered scholarship on architectural forms and instead made a solid and a rather sophisticated case for their Eastern source. His subsequent travels in Asia Minor...

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