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Iran before Islam: The Sasanians
The Sasanian legacy
With the collapse of the Sasanian empire in AD 651 and the introduction of Islam as the new state religion, the art and culture of pre-Islamic Iran did not disappear. It continued to play an important role in the Islamic world for centuries. The religious imagery and Zoroastrian symbolism of the Sasanian period were adopted by various Islamic dynasties, who found the idea of divine kingship too attractive to abandon. Zoroastrianism survives today as a minority religion in Iran, India and other parts of the world.
Under the Qajar rulers of Iran, who came to power at the end of the eighteenth century, many Sasanian themes were revived. Fath 'Ali Shah (1797-1834), a devout Muslim, created a society which stressed the importance of its ancient pre-Islamic heritage. The king was portrayed as the mighty hero who enjoyed divine protection. Rock-reliefs, coins and tiles of the nineteenth and early twentieth century copy Sasanian motifs, including hunting scenes with the royal horseman.
The sixth-century gilded silver plate and the two twentieth-century banknotes shown here provide interesting evidence for the continuity of Sasanian symbols. The plate has carved in its centre a mythical creature that combines a bird's wings and the forepart of a dog. Its wings curl forwards over its shoulders, like the wings on the crowns of some of the Sasanian kings.
Most banknotes of the Pahlavi dynasty (rulers of Iran from 1926 to 1979) show either the ruins of Persepolis or motifs associated with the ancient Persian empire. However, both of those shown here - a 500 Rial note from 1944 and a 10 Rial note from 1948 - show the same mythical dog-bird seen on the gilded silver plate. This motif was commonly used by the Sasanians from the sixth century onwards; in Zoroastrianism dogs guide the souls of the dead to the world of the gods.