Articles | Cultural Heritage
National Museum of Iran (Iran-e Bastan)


Houman Sadr

Tavoos Art Quarterly, No. 7


The National Museum of Iran, whose construction began in 1934 and which became operative in two sections in 1937, not only constitutes the largest museum of Iranian archeology and history, but also ranks among the few great museums of the world with regards to volume, quality and diversity of its collections. This museum is considered to be Iran’s mother museum. The National Museum of Iran comprises two sections, housed in separate buildings: the Iran-e Bastan Museum, inaugurated in 1937, and the Islamic Period Museum, opened officially in 1996.

In 1929, following the ratification of the law on the preservation of national artifacts, the Anjoman-e Asar-e Melli was founded and, in order to assure the protection of Iranian historic objects, the French architect André Godard, then also the director of Iranian archaeology began preparing the plans of the Iran-e Bastan Museum, drawing inspiration from the Arch of Chosroes (Ctesiphon). Red bricks were chosen for the building to recall Sasanian architecture. The museum building has an area of approximately 11,000 square meters and has three stories .

At present, bringing together the Iran-e Bastan Museum and the Islamic Period Museum within a perimeter of 18,000 square meters, benefiting from a built area of more than 20,000 square meters, and housing approximately 300,000 historic items from different historic periods, the National Museum of Iran is the greatest art and history in the world. The oldest item attesting to the presence of man on the Iranian Plateau, which dates back to 600,000 years ago, is preserved in this museum. Various objects unearthed in past years, undergo scientific research in the museum’s laboratories located on its basement floor, before being transferred to the exhibition halls.


The Prehistory section of the National Museum of Iran is devoted to artifacts ranging from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. Covering a wide spectrum of materials ranging from terracotta, metal, stone, and bitumen… the objects preserved in this section were discovered either through scientific archaeological excavations or by accident. The oldest items here are stone blades from Kashafrood, discovered during an archaeological survey carried out in 1974-5  in Khorasan, on the banks of Kashafrood river. Various opinions have been expressed on the age of these artifacts. Claude Thibault attributes them an age of 800,000 to 1 million years, while others make them date back to between 600,000 and 700,000 years ago. According to Thibault, this is the earliest period in which man is known to have appeared on the Iranian Plateau.

Another category of these stone instruments was discovered in the Masileh area, 50 kilometers south of Varamin, by Dr. Sadeq Malek Shahmirzadi. These items date back to between 45,000 and 60,000 years ago.

The oldest artifacts reflecting the religious and spiritual thoughts of prehistoric man are human and animal statuettes discovered at Tappeh Sarab, east of Kermanshah, in 1960. One of these, a clay figurine named “Venus” is 6.5 centimeters high. Red earthenware items discovered at Cheshmeh ‘Ali and Esma‘il-abad, which belong to the 5th millennium BC, are also among the oldest objects visitors can admire. One of these is a vessel in which four human figures are represented facing each other two by two and holding their arms raised, as in some devotional dance.

Notable among the objects discovered in Fars is a footed terracotta plate belonging to the 4th millennium BC, on which ritual dances are depicted. Another is a conical terracotta bowl from  Tall-e Bakun, in , on which an ibex is represented with exaggeratedly large horns, in homage to this highly valued animal in prehistoric times.

Amid the highly varied objects from Khuzestan, one may point out the bull statue from the temple of Chogha Zanbil. This 106 centimeter high and 108 centimeter long glazed terracotta statue was installed at the temple’s gate, as its guardian.

From the region of Kashan, earthenware objects from Tappeh Sialk are preserved here. These vessels indicate a deeply considered love for art, spirituality and religion. The liquid containers of Tappeh Sialk, in which medicine to heal the sick and elixirs to invigorate the warrior were kept, are of a rare quality and the astrological, geometric, animal and human patterns used in their decoration clearly speak of their makers’ vast intellect. One such example is a buff-colored container adorned with ocher-red patterns.

In autumn of 1961, preliminary excavations around the village of Marlik, in Gilan, led to the discovery of an important ancient grave, whose owner’s name and occupation could be established by the artifacts buried with the deceased. The most important object found in this region is the Golden Cup of Marlik, decorated with patterns of winged bulls. This cup is 17.5 centimeters high and has a diameter of 14 centimeters. Executed in relief, these delicate patterns are carefully chiseled.

A wealth of other significant items from various archaeological sites, such as Shahr-e Sukhteh, Tappeh Yahya, Tall-e Eblis and Tappe-ye Sang-e Chakhmaq, are also preserved here.

Historic Period

The artifacts preserved in this section come mainly from scientific excavations and are exhibited alongside objects discovered in the same provinces. The historic period is represented by objects from the Achaemenian,Seleucid and Sasanian periods, and a unique relic of the Parthian period is the partial bust of a man, discovered accidentally in 1993, together with several pieces of bone, a boot—with its owner’s leg inside it—a whetstone, a few clay pots, an iron knife, a silver pin, woolen trousers, a few pieces of cloth and a walnut. Ever since it was discovered, this bust has been known as the “Salt Man.”

On the second floor of the Iran-e Bastan Museum, superb items from the prehistoric period are exhibited. These include such unique pieces as the Golden Cup of Marlik, the Golden Cup of Hasanloo, the Cup of Xerxes, the Golden Rhyton of Hamadan, the gold and silver plaques from the Apadana Palace, at Persepolis, the adornments discovered at Ziviyyeh, in Kordestan… The other parts of the second floor will also be allocated to the prehistoric as soon as the transfer of the Islamic Period Museum to its new premises and the renovation of the Iran-e Bastan Museum are completed.

Islamic Period

The Islamic Period Museum, inaugurated in October of 1996, houses various artifacts from the early Islamic period to the 14th century AH. These objects are displayed on two separate floors, following a thematic and chronological order.

On the first floor, manuscripts of the Holy Qor’an—the focal point of all Islamic arts—are centrally displayed in a saintly environment, together with such related items as prayer niches and calligraphic panels. Scientific, literary and historic manuscripts are on show around this area. The historic books exhibited are by the most eminent Iranian men of letters from the Timurid period to the end of the Safavid era. Included are such items as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, Sa‘di’s Kolliyat, Nezami’s Khamseh, Hafez’s Divan, Amir-‘Ali-Shir Nava’i’s Divan…, mostly written in nasta‘liq script and adorned by the most famous calligraphers, illuminators and miniature painters. The scientific manuscripts cover a wide range of fields, including medicine, astronomy, geography and philosophy. The oldest manuscript in the museum’s collection is the Dastoor-al-Loqat, which dates back to the 5th century AH (11th c. AD). Miniature paintings and calligraphic panels from the artistic schools of Shiraz and Herat, as well as from the Indian school and Mughal art, are exhibited along the four sides of the central area. The school of Baghdad characterizes Seljuq painting, which reaches its peak during the reign of Timur (Tamerlane), with such illustrious masters as the calligrapher Mir-‘Ali Tabrizi and the painter ‘Abd-ol-Hayy gathering in his capital, Samarqand, and bringing Persian artistic traditions into the Timurid court. The Timurids were very fond of painting and book illustration, and the influences of the schools of Shiraz and Herat are perceptible in their books. The four corners of this floor deal with scientific subjects, such as lighting devices, astronomical instruments, glassmaking, lacquered artifacts and book-making tools. Surrounding the central area, three main halls are dedicated to carpets, textiles, ceramics and metalwork. Specimens of the most ancient fabrics of the Islamic period, discovered at Shahr-e Rey, one of the most important cloth-weaving centers in the early Islamic centuries, are on show in the Carpets and Textiles Hall. Persian cloth-weaving reaches its peak in the Safavid period, acquiring distinctive technical and decorative features. Under the influence of the Timurid art radiating from such focal points as Samarqand and Herat, Safavid cloth-weaving greatly flourished in communion with painting. The carpets exhibited here constitute a precious collection in which such designs as the “medallion and quarter medallions,” the “altar” and the “flower pot” are represented. The artifacts on show in the terracotta section range from the early Islamic centuries to the end of the Qajar period. Different techniques, such as molding, under-glaze painting, luster painting and mina’i work, are displayed. Persian ceramic art reached its peak of diversity in the Seljuq period. The best wares of this era were produced in Rey, Kashan and Gorgan. In the Il-Khanid and Timurid periods, this art continued in Mashhad, Tabriz and Nayshabur. The metal artifacts exhibited in this section display different styles of incision, black-pen work, lattice-work, silver- and gold-beating, offering a panorama of metalwork art in the different periods of the Islamic era.

The kufic script’s appearance as a characteristic element of 4th century AH (10th c. AD) Islamic art, the evolution and development of ceramic manufacture, glassmaking and metalwork in the 6th and 7th centuries AH (12th & 13th c. AD), the magnificent architectural decoration of the Il-Khanid and Timurid periods, and masterpieces of Timurid and Safavid painting are exhibited alongside such decorative items as enameling, gilding, marquetry and wood inlay in the Qajar period.

The collections of the National Museum of Iran belong exclusively to Persian culture and civilization and range from the earliest artifacts attesting to man’s presence on the Iranian Plateau to those made at the end of the Qajar period.

From the 9th century AH (15th c. AD) onward, Persia is referred to as an ancient land in travel accounts left behind by travelers and explorers. In consideration of the diverse researches it carries out in this field, the National Museum of Iran is in permanent scientific contact with other cultural and archaeological centers across the world.

Barbaro, an Italian, was one of the first travelers to visit , then called Chehel Menar, in 877 AH (AD 1372). After him, in 1032 AH (AD 1622), della Valle copied the inscriptions there and took them to (Daneshname-ye Jahan-e Eslam, Tehran 1994).

In the domain of archaeology, the IsMeO Institute has participated in numerous surveys and excavation campaigns carried out in Sistan, Baluchestan and Kerman provinces under the supervision of the Iranian Archaeological Center. The sites studied in these campaigns were Shahr-e Sukhteh, near Zabol, Dahane-ye Gholaman, Bampoor and Tappe-ye Esma‘il-abad, near Qazvin.

The museum has also contributed to restorations effected in monuments in Esfahan and the Dome of Soltaniyeh, near Zanjan.

Coin Section

Like many reputed museums of the world, the National Museum of Iran has a separate section for the preservation and display of valuable Persian seals and coins. It was during the Age of Metal when man first used copper, bronze, gold and silver in shapes such as rings, square rods, axes or knives as currency for trade. A number of these rings were discovered during the 1889 excavations of Jacques de Morgan in Armenia. Copper rods dating to 300 BC were discovered at the excavation site of Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan.

These unearthed artifacts are considered the oldest means of trade before the invention of coins. Gold ingots discovered in the ruins of Ashur cities attest to man’s early attempts at coin-making. Based upon these early endeavors, an analysis of the later developments of the art of coins can be conducted; the coins of Achaemenid, Seleucid Sasanid, Umayyid, ‘Abbasid, Taheri, Saffarid, Samanid, Seljuq, Safavid, Zand, Qajar, and leading up to the present day. The National Museum of Iran possesses fine examples of coins from all of the mentioned eras.

Seal Section

Prior to the invention of writing, seals of stone, marble, ivory, gold, silver, and copper were used to denote ownership of an object. Apart from their artistic merits, the designs carved on these seals are valuable documents of various industries and professions of the ancient world. The oldest existing seals are of the 4th millennium BC, made of baked clay, gypsum, marble, soap stone and iron ore. The seals of the National Museum of Iran comprise a beautiful and extremely valuable collection, spanning the 4th millennium BC to the Qajar dynasty; a record of the lifestyle and religious beliefs of those living in each period, and also of the political, social and economical history of their societies.

Inscriptions Hall

The Inscriptions Hall of the National Museum of Iran was created with the intention of collecting, preserving, restoring, identifying and eventually recording and deciphering the inscriptions of texts in its collection. Many of the brick and clay inscriptions discovered in Iran (such as those from Shush or Persepolis) have been brought to this section, and experts are now working on their texts.

Restoration Section

In 1984, the initial nucleus of a restoration section was created alongside the museum’s four main sections. Joining art and science in its approach of restoring artifacts, since its creation, this section has restored numerous earthenware objects and glass items belonging to the various sections of the museum. Many of these are presently exhibited in both the Islamic Period Museum and the Iran-e Bastan Museum.


Alongside the construction of the museum, an area was allocated to an archaeological library, which was readied soon after the building operations were completed in 1937. Thus, aimed at satisfying the needs of the museum’s research personnel, this library began its activity with a loan of 1,000 Persian and foreign volumes by the Ministry of Sciences. The direction of the library was assumed by the museum’s designer and architect, André Godard. Today, housing a treasure of some 18,000 books and periodicals in various languages, it is the most important specialized archaeology and art history library in Iran and its neighboring countries.

Photographic Section

In charge of pictorially recording the items in its custody, the National Museum of Iran’s photographic section has been active ever since the museum itself was built. As in all large museums in the world, the preparation of these pictorial records is particularly important, and is being done systematically, as the museum’s developments require. Another important activity of this section is the introduction of Iranian history and culture through photographs.•



In cooperation with the Research Department of the

National Museum of Iran

Photographs by Houman Sadr