A mirror into Persian history

True to form, in the evening of 1 January which in the Persian calendar isn’t observed as New Year’s Day or any public holiday, I set out antiquing in Tehran’s Manoochehri Avenue in search for local treasure. The string of Jewish-owned antique shops, many of them run by the same family for generations, yielded endless options. Just as true to form, the eccentric shop owners took my mission as an opportunity to share their views on the plight of the small and ever shrinking Jewish minority in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Committed to finding a piece that best represents the culture and workmanship of the host country, I settled on a small, ornamental, silver-encased mirror from an early 20th century Isfahan workshop. In addition to its obvious decorative and functional value, my treasure also combines the best of Iran’s legendary tradition of mirror-making and toreutics. The latter, known as ghalam zani in Farsi, is the art of hammering of thin metal surfaces, usually gold or silver sheets, to form minute detailed reliefs or engraved patterns.

Alongside the art of ayeneh which uses small pieces of mirror to form intricate geometrical patterns to decorate walls and ceilings that adorn palaces and mosques in Tehran, toreutics on small domestic mirrors, like mine, has created an unfolding story that could be taken from a Ferdowsi poem. Combined with patches of lapis-coloured enamel, my mirror also marks a departure from traditional geometric patterns by depicting human figures, some of them in rather risqué contexts that are associated with the epicurean poet Ferdowsi.

As I later observed in the Bazaar of Isfahan, one of the major centres of this craft in Iran, the toreutics as an art form is very much alive and kicking. As seen in the backyard workshops of the bazaar, the metal sheets that are about to be hammered are covered in bitumen. Using bitumen, as one of the resident artists explained to me, prevents the metal from warping and also reduces the noise from hammering. What finally emerges from the soot-like sludge of liquid bitumen is, like my mirror, the sheer beauty of Persian silver-beating.