By Tara Biglari

A portrait of Dr. Babaie. Credit: Courtauld Institute of Art

Islamic art, architecture and manifestations of power are themes that Dr. Sussan Babaie has spent a lifetime exploring. Author of numerous books and articles over the past few decades, Dr. Babaie is among the world’s leading authorities on Iranian culture and heritage.

Born in Iran and educated in the U.S., Dr. Babaie is an expert in the art and architecture of the Safavid dynasty. She has also been active curating exhibitions at Harvard University’s Sackler Museum and the University of Michigan Museum of Art, to name a few.

She is currently the Dr. Andrew W. Mellon Reader in the Arts of Iran and Islam at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, a self-governing college that is part of the University of London.

Ahead of the Persia Educational Foundation’s ‘Dinner and Discourse’ evening, where she will be speaking about Persian taste in food and art, Kayhan Life caught up with Dr. Babaie for a conversation about her research interests and her lifelong infatuation with Isfahan.

Q: Your book ‘Isfahan and Its Palaces’ touches on the socio-cultural relationship between architecture and kingship, looking specifically at banquets and feasting. What made you choose this topic specifically?

A: This book started with my curiosity about why Safavid palaces in Isfahan look so different from those elsewhere in the Islamic world in this same early modern period. There is a tendency to speak of Islamic palaces as if they are all the same in [terms of] architecture and expressions of power. While these categories are useful for making sense of shared notions, they fail to account for the specificities in cultural, chronological and geographical terms.

For example, take a palace like the Ali Qapu in Isfahan. The five-story building served as a place for the judiciary to hold office on certain days of the week and as a place for ceremonial functions. Such palaces were special to Isfahan in the 17th century, during the reign of the Safavid dynasty. They had elegant wooden pillared porches in front (known as talar) which were open on three sides, allowing for a full 180-degree viewing stage overlooking the public square or gardens. They were spacious enough to host hundreds of guests, including governors, ambassadors, high-level European merchant representatives, and so forth. The distinction here lies in the fact that the Shah hosted these feasts, while the Ottoman Sultan was never seen in such ceremonies, nor were the Indian Mughal emperors personally engaged in eating and drinking with their guests.

The shape of the buildings, their distinctive open-air quality and hierarchies of spatial arrangement prompted me to study the social and cultural significance of these palaces and the urban development of Isfahan in the 17th century.

Q: Can you talk about your connection to Isfahan, its beauty and its architecture? 

A: Isfahan was, as it has been for most Iranians, the beautiful place we visited during holidays. I actually re-discovered the city as a graduate student in New York City! Isfahan became my scholarly obsession, and has remained at the core of my research, publications and teaching ever since. This is a city as gorgeous and historically important as Beijing, Istanbul, Rome or Paris. The city’s light, its air, its smells are distinctive; the quality of light in the early evening when you stand in front of the royal marketplace in the Maydan is unmatched, with the side-way glow of low sun bouncing off the blue tiled domes. Walking along the Zayanda Rud is unlike any other riverside stroll.

Lingering in the Gunbad-i Khaki (11th century), and looking up into the dome itself, is still awe-inspiring: a breath-taking geometry of patterns [created using] unadorned baked bricks, where the cut side of the bricks make the patterns. There is also the amazing tiled façade of the Harun Velayat, an early 16th-century tripartite tiled entrance gate of such exquisite beauty of patterns and techniques of glazed tile as to demand close attention to detail. These are just a few examples; books should be written on the city’s architecture and urban spaces, its promenades, gardens, palaces, houses, bazaars, bridges and neighbourhoods.

So I never feel I need to apologize for staying steady with Isfahan!

Q: Why is an art historian such as yourself choosing to focus on banquets and feasting, i.e. Persian culinary traditions? And how are food and art connected?

A: Art history is a historical discipline that starts its investigations from material culture, and visual and spatial documents of history. It’s about a historical understanding of artefacts — the creative manipulation of materials and spaces, why they are made, what is their origin, meaning, purpose, etc.

With this in mind, it is not far-fetched for my research to go from palaces and feasting ceremonies to the objects and actions that filled the buildings and the ceremonies. This sort of thinking has had me chase after whether, and how, representations of eating, food, and cooking and the objects themselves may have triggered my interest.

Dr. Babaie giving a Tedx talk. Credit: Tedx

Q: What is the topic of your next book/major research project? 

A: The intersections between visual and culinary cultures is the topic of my next book. I am also keeping a side research project that focuses on the trans-historical connections between the modern and contemporary arts of Iran and the early modern histories of Persian arts. This project explores the potentialities of thinking across media and time; what we can learn from contemporary arts of Iran about deeper histories, and vice versa.

Q: You are one of the most distinguished academics and specialists on the culture and heritage of Iran. What led you to choose this field? 

A: I went from a graphic design and studio degree in my undergraduate studies into art history, at first of the Italian Renaissance. Even though our field trips in the Tehran University’s Faculty of Fine Arts exposed us to the architectural history of Iran, we were never really taught histories of the art and architecture of Iran. I went on to get an MA in America where I studied Renaissance arts. It was during my doctoral studies that I re-discovered Persian arts through the critical lens of the discipline of art history.

Q: Do you travel back to Iran and can you share your impressions of a recent trip? 

A: I have not been back since 2005.