Presenting at the Pittsburgh Asia Consortium

By undergraduate scholar, Joseph Yaure

This past February I had the opportunity to present at the Pittsburgh Asia Consortium, an undergraduate conference focusing on Asian Studies. Students from local universities made the snowy trek to the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh to present their research papers. Topics ranged from the resurgence of the Kimono in Japanese culture, to secularization of the caste system in India. I embraced a broader view of Asia, by focusing on the Middle East. My paper, entitled, “Beards of Persia: The Evolution of Power, Masculinity, and Solidarity” examined the history of facial hair as a cultural symbol of Iran.

I was both excited and nervous to present at this conference, as it was my first time presenting. It was also my second time inside the famous Cathedral of Learning. The Cathedral is one of the defining symbols of the University of Pittsburgh. Each room depicts a different culture. While many rooms were closed off, the presenters were allowed to enter the African, and Indian rooms. It was an honor to present in such a beautiful building.

My paper and presentation originated in a class with Dr. Christine Baker (IUP History Dept.) about Iranian society. The goal of the paper was to highlight and examine a symbol that has appeared throughout Iran’s history. I argued that facial hair in Iran has evolved to from a symbol associated with power, to a symbol of masculinity, and finally to a symbol of solidarity against the West. To support my argument, I studied sculptures, paintings, and photographs found throughout Iran’s past.


Figure 1: This relief depicts Ahura Mazda giving power to Sassanid ruler, Ardashir. There is a ring of power being passed from the God to the man as symbolic support.

I began by examining a relief found on the tombs of several Acahmenid kings.[1] The Acahmenids were one of the first large empires found within the borders of present-day Iran. One of the defining traits was the monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism. Its God, Ahura Mazda, was powerful and intimidating to his followers. As with every empire, it eventually collapsed, leaving room for new leaders to rule. However, the influence of the Acahmenids, and their religion remained. The tombs of the kings were meant to house the body and possessions of the fallen leaders. While the treasures inside are gone, stolen by Alexander the Great, the reliefs still remain. In this relief, both powerful men sport beards. Ahura Mazda, the winged man on the right, is giving a ring of power to the Ardashir, a Sassanid king. While they both wear prominent beards of similar styles, the servant behind the future king is beardless. The figure of Ardashir copies the image of the Zoroastrian God in order to assert his right to rule the lands that he conquered. (Figure 1)

Early leaders projected their superiority by emphasizing masculinity, and a beard helped promote this image. One of the most prominent examples was Adud ad-Dawla, a tenth century leader. To assert his right to rule, Adud ad-Dawla claimed to be descendent of Bahram Gur, a figure found in the Shahnameh. The Shahnameh was written to teach future princes and rulers what actions were just, and what actions were not.[2] Bahram Gur fought honorably and was fair in all of his actions. These were seen as masculine traits in 10th century Iran. In addition to declaring his connection to Bahram Gur, Adud ad-Dawla dressed in the same manner.[3] This included wearing a beard.[4]

In modern times, some Iranians have embraced facial hair as a sign of solidarity against the West. During the 1950s, the Shah of Iran implemented measures that were meant to create a more Western-style Iran. These measures included banning the veil for women and promoting a clean-shaven face for men. Men and women were encouraged to dress in a Western style and act in a Western manner. Forcing people to act in a certain way led to tensions, which boiled over in the Iranian Revolution of 1979.[5] The Shah of Iran was overthrown and the present government rose to power. However, during that rise to power, Iranian students and leaders started to wear traditional beards instead of the Western-style of a mustache or less.

Figure 2: Picture of Bani-Sadr, first president of Iran. He was an example of how an Iranian leader was heavily influenced by Western styles. In the background in an image of Khomeini and his more traditional appearance.

Figure 2: Picture of Bani-Sadr, first president of Iran. He was an example of how an Iranian leader was heavily influenced by Western styles. In the background in an image of Khomeini and his more traditional appearance.

The most well-known bearded leader was Ayatollah Khomeini who wore the traditional cleric beard. While Khomeini was in the military, he wore a trim beard. It was not until Khomeini became more involved in the politics and religion that he began to grow his iconic cleric beard. This sudden shift in appearance was meant to show his displeasure with the Shah’s actions. Khomeini was heavily involved in the overthrowing of the Shah though he could not have done it without the revolutionary leaders. However, even after Shah was overthrown, many Iranian leaders of the Revolution were kicked out due to concerns about being sympathetic to the West. The concerns about many of the revolutionary leaders arose from their Western appearance. They wore Western style suits, studied at universities in the West, and had facial hair in the style of the West. Iran wanted to expel all examples of Western values and the people believed that they had to return to a traditional appearance.

This conference was an amazing experience for me. I never thought this paper would leave the classroom. Instead of abandoning it after the final grade, I worked with Dr. Baker to make it worthy of the conference and was able to present it to my peers. Who would have guessed a paper on the history of beards would lead me to a conference on Asian Studies and an opportunity to develop my professional history and public speaking skills?

[1] “Naqsh-I Rostam: Colossal Tombs of Persian Kings” Amusing Planet, January 14, 2012

[2] Davis, Dick. Trans. Shahnameh (Penguin Books). 619-621.

[3]Bahram Gur Slays Lions.

[4] The artwork that I examined was commissioned in the 13th century, three hundred years after Adud al-Dawla ruled. In all of the paintings he was bearded though it had a large Mongolian influence as they were expanding their reign over the region.

[5] Banji Manouchehr, Defying the Iranian Revolution: From a Minister to the Shah to a Leader of Resistance (London: Praeger, 2002).

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