Why wine is integral to Persian culture
IT IS easy to assume that Iran has never been a site of drunken revelries. Westerners imagine Iranians to be a homogenously pious and modest group, and so suppose that viticulture is wholly foreign to them. This image is not helped by recent legislative action; in January, the government banned the printing of the word “wine” in all books as it deemed the beverage an element of a “Western cultural onslaught”. Yet suggesting that drinking is a quasi-blasphemous act obfuscates the fact that alcohol—and wine in particular—has been an inextricable part of Iranian culture and identity for millennia. Indeed, current estimates suggest that Iranians imbibe around 60m litres of alcohol a year despite the government crackdown.
During the heady reign of the Pahlavis (1925-79) Iranians freely indulged in drinking as it was legally permissible to do so. While it is true that legislation was much more liberal before the Revolution than it is today (one need only take a glance at popular pre-Revolution Iranian cinema and advertisements of the era), the Pahlavi dynasty was far from the first to openly tolerate drinking. Indeed, the oldest-known traces of grape wine—found in the Zagros Mountains in western Iran—date back some 7,000 years.
In Aryan times (the early part of the second millennium B.C. onwards), it is said that with the wine given to him by the Prophet Zarathustra, King Vishtaspa beheld God in a vision and thus became the Prophet’s first convert. Herodotus stated that wine played a key political role in the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 B.C.): “It is their custom to deliberate the gravest matters when they are drunk…and if, being sober, they still approve it, they act on it.” The opposite was also true; “if they have deliberated about a matter when sober, they decide upon it when they are drunk.”
It was not because of its practical and prophetical uses that wine left an indelible mark on the Iranian psyche, however. In the wake of the Arab invasion in the seventh century A.D., Iran experienced its most profound cultural renaissance. Longing for a revival of the suppressed Persian language and Iranian culture, the Samanids (819-999 A.D.) were patrons of the poets who brought about a renaissance of Persian literature. Rudaki extolled wine, and Daqiqi, in doing so, praised the Zoroastrian faith of his ancestors and the House of Sassan (224-651 A.D.), in which wine was imbibed in no small measure. “Four things there are dear, which I so need,” Daqiqi famously declared. “The ruby-coloured lip, the harp’s lament, the blood-red wine and Zarathustra’s creed.” In longing for the drink that had once fuelled the Persian Empire, the poet revealed an affection for Iran’s pre-Islamic past.
Later poets would come to be synonymous with wine-swigging and bacchanalia. Omar Khayyam’s “Robaiyat” (1048–1131 A.D.) is a celebration of wine in the face of transience. “Drink wine,” Khayyam exhorted, “for long under the earth shall you sleep”. Hafez’s odes, too, brim with references to wine. “Sick I am of the hypocrite’s cloak and his shrine”, he complained. “Where is the Magian temple and its pure wine?” Some scholars have posited that Hafez uses wine as a symbol of divine, not earthly, intoxication, but his vivid descriptions of both wine and drunkenness suggest an intimacy with his source material. To such an extent did these poets exalt alcohol that it has arguably been the image most associated with Persian poetry. Goethe, who, like many other European writers of the age had been charmed by Persian poetry and philosophy, wrote in his “West-East Diwan”: “Hafiz…to love like thee, like thee to drink, shall be my pride, shall be my life.” It was a tribute both to the medieval Persian sage and to his choice of subject.
European accounts of Safavid and Qajar-era Iran (1785-1925) dispel any doubt about the longstanding Iranian penchant for wine. Early adventurers such as John Ussher, Charles James Wills and Henry Austen Layard, told far less of “Mahometan” piety in their travelogues than they did of debauchery and dissolution. Orgies, topless female musicians and boozing were very much “the order of the day”, according to Ussher. Even mullahs instructed foreigners in the Iranian art of winemaking. So enamoured of wine were these Iranians that many of the travellers who encountered them could hardly fathom that they were pious. “The people were a laughing, careless set, devoid of fanaticism, having indeed very little religion,” wrote Wills. “Nearly all drank wine to excess.”
Whether for divine revelation, administration of empire or simply a good time, Iranians have long tippled wine. What would Persian poetry be without Khayyam’s drunken verses and Hafez’s Magian wine? What decisions would the Achaemenids have made without it? What little would remain of the Qajar portraits of topless wine-tippling belles and the Safavid frescoes of Esfahan’s palaces, brimming with scenes of drunken revelry, had there not been any cupbearers? The word may be exorcised from Persian schoolbooks today, but, try as some might, wine can never be washed from the Iranian soul. Iranian history paints a purple-stained picture that some, perhaps, would rather leave bottled up.