2020 In Review

Iran Heritage Foundation is the leading supporter of Iranian heritage and culture in the UK. With a mandate to promote and preserve the language, history and culture of Iran and the Persianate world, IHF engages with academic, institutional and cultural communities in the UK and abroad. The organisation supports the learning of Persian through its Persian Language Online website, organises lectures, conferences and webinars, and partners with museums, universities and scholarly institutions in the appointment of curators, and the provision of grants, fellowships, and scholarships. IHF also supports publications on subjects relating to Iran. IHF’s remit covers ancient, medieval and modern Iran.Established in 1995, Iran Heritage Foundation is an independent, non-political, UK Registered Charity.

Charity no. 1001785


CAF Bank Ltd
25 Kings Hill, West Malling
Kent ME19 4TA


Faiz & Co Ltd
8b Accommodation Road
London NW11 8ED​


Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP
Adelaide House
London, EC4R 9HA


Board of Trustees in 2020

Ali Rashidian Co-Chair
Alireza Rastegar Co-Chair
Amin Amiri
Ina Sarikhani Sandmann


Dr John Curtis
CEO until October 2020
Academic Director from October 2020
Astrid Johansen
Director of Operations from October 2020

Academic Grants Committee

Prof. Robert Hillenbrand Chair
Prof. Charles Melville
Prof. Ali Ansari
Narguess Farzad
Dr Christine van Ruymbeke
Dr Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis
Dr Sarah Stewart
Dr Alan Williams

Contemporary Arts Grants

Dr Sussan Babaie Chair
Dr Nahid Assemi
​Vali Mahlouji Ina Sarikhani Sandmann

Persian Language Online

Narguess Farzad Chair
Prof Ali Ansari
Dr Ben Joseph Monir Sattaripour

Norouz Committee

Mina Bonakdar Sagharchi
Fereshteh Daftary
Noushin Danechi
Elahe Fatemi
Elahe Kashanchi
Anahita Monibi
May Rashidian
Monir Sattaripour
Neda Toofanian
Neda Toutouni

The Directors were supported by

Dr Nahid Assemi
Leonard Gethin
John Watson IT


COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 had an adverse effect on the financial position of the IHF, not least due to the cancellation of our main fundraiser, the annual Norouz Gala. Funding in 2020 therefore came primarily through contributions by Trustees and also a number of regular patrons of the Norouz Gala, who despite the cancellation still opted to make a donation to IHF. We were also able to raise some money by auctioning artworks which would have been available to bid on at the Gala and which were instead entered into an online auction held by Bonhams. IHF is extremely grateful to Bonhams, in particular Nima Sagharchi, for their support and for including these items in the auction at no cost to the Foundation. During the year, our overheads and activity costs were significantly reduced.No financial support was received from any government organisations within or outside of the UK.

2020 was a watershed year, not just for the world at large but also for organisations large and small, and for all charities including the Iran Heritage Foundation. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on IHF were immediate and some are likely to be long-lasting. In the first place, we were obliged to cancel our Norouz Gala Dinner that was scheduled for Saturday 14th March. This was particularly unfortunate as this is our main annual opportunity to raise funds. Then, at the start of the lockdown Asia House closed on Wednesday 18th March and thereafter for the rest of the year we worked mainly from home, with only occasional visits to the office.

In spite of these difficulties, it has been a very productive and successful year. We were very busy working on the Epic Iran exhibition which was originally due to open on 17th October 2020 but, due to the temporary closure of the V&A, has been postponed until Spring 2021. IHF is a co-organiser of the exhibition, together with the V&A and the Sarikhani Collection, and our role has been to curate the ancient (pre-Islamic) part of the exhibition. This work consisted of formulating the narrative, selecting objects, writing part of the catalogue, drafting labels and information panels, liaising with the designers, and attending numerous Zoom meetings with colleagues in the V&A. All this was achieved in spite of the fact that for the months of May-July John Curtis and Astrid Johansen were on furlough. It is gratifying that the preparation for the exhibition has been all-but completed during this turbulent year and we look forward to it opening to the public soon.

To maintain the profile of the Foundation and the public’s appreciation of Iranian civilisation, recordings of a number of IHF’s previous events and documentaries on aspects of Iranian art and culture were made available online for the enthusiasts of Iranian culture to savour. Subsequently new programmes/events were live-streamed online as webinars.

The other major achievement of 2020 has been the further development of the Persian Language Online website. Leonard Gethin has done a tremendous job reforming the look of the website and updating many of its functions. At the same time, he has introduced a regular series of blogs written by Iskandar Ding, a post-graduate student in Iranian Studies at SOAS, pertaining to the study of the Persian language, which have proved to be very popular.

At the beginning of the lockdown, in order to maintain the profile of the foundation and before an online programme was put together, regular newsflashes were sent out with information about previous event recordings as well as links to other interesting online content, such as a guided tour of the Louvre Lens’s 2018 exhibition on Qajar art ‘The Rose Empire’. These also included a newly-recorded talk by John on ‘Gardens of Ancient Iran’ and a previously unavailable recording of ‘The restoration of medieval monuments in the Iranian world, especially Central Asia’ by Prof. Robert Hillenbrand.

Before the lockdown in March we were able to hold just two of our live monthly events at Asia House, the launch of a new book by David Chaffetz on divas in January, and a presentation about wind-catchers in Yazd by Susan Roaf in March. From September onwards we switched to doing events on Zoom, and had presentations by Nic Sekunda and Sheila Canby on the Persian invasions of Greece and the depiction of Indians in Safavid art respectively, a discussion between Venetia Porter and the artists Tarlan Rafiee and Yashar Samimi Mofakham in Tehran, and recitations by Zahra Afsah for Yalda. These virtual events have involved new audiences from all around the world and have proved to be immensely popular, so much so that IHF must consider continuing to do them after restrictions are lifted, perhaps alongside live events and hybrid events.

Also during the year we have organised an online course in Persian calligraphy, taught by Keramat Fathinia, we have supported posts at the Victoria and Albert Museum and at the University of St Andrews, and under the umbrella of the Nahrein Network scheme we have arranged for the virtual placement of an Iranian scholar at Oxford.

Lastly it should be reported that during the year we moved to smaller quarters in Asia House preparatory to a proposed move to SOAS in summer 2021. There have also been staff changes, in that John stepped down from the CEO position at the end of September to become the Academic Director and Astrid was appointed Director of Operations as from 1st October 2020.

We are grateful that IHF has managed to weather the storm that was 2020 and look forward to continuing its activities in 2021, not least the much-anticipated opening of Epic Iran which we are sure will be a great success in promoting Iranian cultural heritage.

​John Curtis and Astrid Johansen


In 2020 the IHF continued its work with one of its flagship projects: Persian Language Online, which had previously been incorporated into the Foundation’s remit in 2019. The online programme provides a wealth of materials for anyone interested in learning Persian, including a website, www.persiananguageonline.com, and interactive apps for younger children. This main website contains a treasure trove of resources for students of all levels – visitors are presented with a variety of approaches, from animations and audio glossaries to interactive exercises. Learners are guided step by step from their first encounters with the Persian script, all the way to sophisticated texts on a variety of subjects related to Persian culture. In 2020, this has been expanded even further, by publishing a series of fortnightly blogs on the website, considering aspects of Persian language and culture across its vast area of influence, both present and historical. Some posts gave insight into the varieties of Persian spoken across the Persianate world, such as Afghan and Tajik, while others tackled topics such as Persian literature and Sufi themes in its poetry. These articles explore the richness of the Persian language, take students outside of what is usually offered in textbooks, and provide additional language-learning resources for those interested in exploring the possibilities afforded through learning the Persian language.

2020 also saw the first steps in a significant redesign for the website, updating it with the first stages of a fresh look, including a series of beautiful hand drawn illustrations depicting a variety of Persian motifs: the Cypress tree of Persian literature, the coloured windows of Nasir al-Mulk, and the 21st century Pol-e Tabiat in Tehran. With these developments and more to come, IHF is working to offer this vital resource for generations to come, supporting all those learning the Persian language – the key to Iranian culture, especially for members of the Iranian diaspora, for whom it represents such a crucial link with their heritage.​​​


Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou
Book Launch and talk by David Chaffetz
29th January 2020

From time immemorial, poetry, music and dance have been the premier form of entertainment all over the world, with women performers at the forefront of the tradition.  While great western divas are well known, their eastern counterparts, many of them gracing the opulent courts of Iran, India and China, who have helped the transmission of these arts have passed into obscurity.Based on his book, Three Asian Divas, David Chaffetz, the author and a scholar of eastern art and culture, brought the world of these dazzling artists to life. With his focus on the Iranian diva, he drew comparisons with those who performed at the courts of India (Mughal) and Yangzhou (Ming), exploring the significance of these talented artists in paving the way for the emergence of the modern women in eastern societies.

Signed copies of the book were made available to purchase after the talk.​
This lecture was kindly supported by an anonymous donor.


Online Course in Persian Calligraphy: Nasta’liq Script 21st October – 23rd December 2020 ​ In October the Iran Heritage foundation offered its second ten-week course in Persian Nasta’liq calligraphy, suitable for all levels, from beginners to advanced.  The course was taught online, based on a one-to-one teaching method, so that everyone received the instructions according to their own level and previous experience. The first session of the course was dedicated to a general introduction to the traditional tools, materials, and various Islamic calligraphy styles. Thereafter, each student received a weekly personal guided video providing demonstration for the writing of an example sentence, enabling the student to practice and return photographs of their work to the teacher for comments and advice, along with new sentences to practice. The teaching was led by Keramat Fathinia, a prolific Iranian calligrapher who has been teaching the art for over seventeen years.  He received a distinguished certificate in both Nasta’liq and Shikasteh Nasta’liq styles from the Iranian Calligraphers Association (ICA) in Iran, and has had several exhibitions, workshops, and demonstrations in both Iran and London, including at SOAS, Cambridge University, BIPS (British Institute of Persian Studies), and the Courtauld Gallery.​

This new online course proved to be extremely popular and attracted students from a wide variety of backgrounds and locations around the world.


Victoria & Albert Museum
Sarah Piram
Throughout 2020, the V&A went through unprecedented times with the coronavirus outbreak. Before March 2020, Sarah Piram had been working on-site and was involved in the preparation of an exhibition exchange between the V&A and the National Museum of Iran, which was unfortunately cancelled because of logistical difficulties​.Working on the Epic Iran exhibition was also challenging with the ongoing pandemic. Together with the co-curators Tim Stanely and John Curtis, and also Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, Astrid Johansen and Alexandra Magub, Sarah worked towards the organisation of the show, looking mostly at the interpretation plan, multimedia aspects, and negotiating loans.

St Andrews University
Ilse Sturkenboom

Ilse left St Andrews in 2020 and will be starting as Professor in Islamic Art History at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich from January 2021. Her monograph based on the illustrated manuscripts of Farid al-Din ‘Attar’s mystical poem The Conference of the Birds will be published by Brill in 2021.


The Nahrein Network supports interdisciplinary research to enable universities and museums to better serve local needs, focusing on Iraq and its neighbours. The Network, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Global Challenges Research Fund Network Plus scheme, offers a Visiting Scholarships scheme providing short-term placements in the UK for Middle Eastern researchers. The scheme enables academics, cultural heritage professionals, and NGO workers to visit the UK for 1-2 months for training and research. The Visiting Scholarships Scheme is run jointly by the Nahrein Network together with other organisations, which in 2020 included the Iran Heritage Foundation in order to facilitate the placement of Dr Farhad Nazari, a scholar from Iran.Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Nazari was not able to travel to the UK so this was a virtual visiting scholarship placement and started in December 2020.

The purpose of this research was to survey and document the historical sites impacted by dam construction projects in Iran, using the methodology developed by the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project at the University of Oxford. The EAMENA project uses freely available satellite imagery to rapidly record and make available information about archaeological sites and landscapes which are under threat.

Dr Nazari had a case study in the area of Moshampa Dam, which is under construction to the south-west of the city of Zanjan. In a preliminary study around the dam, carried out by Dr Nazari and his team before the Nahrein placement, about 100 archaeological and historical sites were identified, dating from pre-history to the late 17th century. The preliminary study suggested there were still more archaeological sites to be documented in this area. Using remote sensing techniques, Dr Nazari could geolocate archaeological and cultural heritage sites, and identified new sites and traditional villages in the area of the dam that had not been documented before.