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Ancient Persia Exhibition - An Iranian Perspective

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    Posted: 26-Sep-2005 at 19:34
Ancient Persia Exhibition - An Iranian Perspective

Tuesday, September 13, 2005 - 2005
  Related Pictures
Cyrus Cylinder

This clay cylinder is one of the most famous objects from ancient Persia. The Cyrus Cylinder is inscribed with a foundation inscription of Cyrus II (559-530BC) in Babylonian cuneiform. It was placed in the foundations of the city wall of Babylon soon after Cyrus conquest of the city in 539 BC, and was found in March 1879 at Amran, Babylon.

With its references to just and peaceful rule, and to the restoration of deported peoples and their gods, the Cyrus Cylinder has been seen as an early charter of human rights. However, such a concept would have been alien to Cyrus and his contemporaries.
Stone relief showing gift-bearers with a vase. From Persepolis. On loan from the Persepolis Museum, Iran.
Lapis lazuli head of a statue. The head of a young beardless man wears a castellated crown. The statue may have been made entirely of lapis lazuli or from different materials. The eye-sockets are now empty but would have been inlaid with different material. Persepolis.
Polished black limestone statue of a large mastiff seated on a base. This freestanding statue of a large mastiff would have guarded a palace entrance at Persepolis. From Persepolis, on loan from the National Museum of Iran. The head is mostly reconstructed. Persepolis, Apadana.
Gold bowl with trilingual inscription of Xerxes the King. On loan from the National Museum of Iran.
Cast of a frieze from Persepolis.
Gold rhyton
This horn-shaped drinking cup has a frieze of lotus and bud decoration just beneath the rim. Its protome is in the form of a winged lion. On loan from the National Museum of Iran. Said to be from Hamadan.
Gold griffin-headed armlet from the Oxus treasure Achaemenid Persian, 5th-4th century BC. From the region of Takht-i Kuwad, Tadjikistan.

Forgotten Empire - The World of Ancient Persia
The British Museum Exhibition
An Iranian Perspective

Bahram Pourghadiri - I believe that society should prioritize the present, the future and the past in exactly that order.  I am put off by some of my own fellow citizens who consistently harbour back to our ancient past at every crossroads to leisurely forgo the much more challenging path of dealing with present realities and planning future possibilities.

Try conversing with them about the answers for today and you will only hear of the glories of two and a half thousand years ago.

  • Mention poverty: and you are told of: The great wealth in our Persepolis Treasury
  • Human rights: Invented by Cyrus on his Cylinder
  • Traffic jams: The crisscrossing roads of Cyrus and Darius
  • Instability on our border with Iraq: The swift invasion of Babylon
  • Tourism: The tribute procession bas-reliefs
  • Visas & Immigration: Did you know we used to own the world?
  • The Internet and e-mail: Our postal system was very fast
    ...ok perhaps that's going too far!

But I think most Iranians reading this know the attitude I am referring to.  Maybe we did invent paradise but many of us haven't come back down to earth yet.  We are all too eager to close our eyes to the present and dream of a past which may or may not have been. How our ancient Kings would have disapproved of such excessive and lavish escapism at the expense of much needed attention to the here and now.

So, the question is, at the present time, do we really need an exhibition about our Achaemenid ancestors? Well, I believe we do. The reason is that this exhibition doesn't focus on the pomp and circumstance of the empire, as it is far easy to do with the Achaemenids, but tries to get to the essence of the dynasty's  principles and motives, its raison d'tre. All too frequently the Achaemenid dynasty is characterized only by the golden wealth of its treasury, the splendour of its palaces and its military prowess.

But their main legacy according to Shahrokh Razmjou, is that "they showed the world how an empire should be ruled."

Shahrokh Razmjou, is a curator at the Tehran National Museum, and has helped to organize the exhibits in London.

"The Achaemenids displayed a sense of religious tolerance, a respect for people of other nations to practice their own cultures and keep their own customs, a kind of code for human rights. Far from the image portrayed by a few ancient Greek writers and skewed further by some 19th century Western historians that the Persians threatened civilization, they were in fact one of its main proponents and contributors."

He went on to tell me that there is ample evidence, from Greek sources, that

"The Persians never wanted the Greek states to be part of their territory, but merely wanted no aggression to arise from them, and in the most part lived happily alongside most of their Greek neighbour states. They viewed the Greek states as lying outside their domain."

He disputes the view that the Persians were after Greek gold and wealth.

"They [Persians] already had plenty of it, and if they had wanted more they would have expanded to the East, where the gold would have been more plentiful."

The Achaemenids did not want to expand the empire beyond a certain point, "they understood that over expansion would lead to disintegration."

Shahrokh Razmjou indeed believes that it's not really the Ancient Greeks who should get the blame when recounting our history, but rather it is the misinterpretation and skewed story telling of later historians, which has given the Persians at best a bland and at worst a barbaric image in the West.

He certainly has a point. Going by my own experience, as a 14 year old in one of the supposedly best schools in London, we were taught 'ancient history' by none other than our school's headmaster, who to this day I greatly respect and admire.  However, the only reference to the Persians in our textbooks were their constant defeats at the hands of the heroic Greeks and the final extermination of the Achaemenids by Alexander the 'Great', who had an army of 'Poets and Artists' unlike the Persian army whose sole purpose was 'to fight'.  Now I know why we lost, those Persian soldiers should have been recounting poetry at Alexander.

The sacking and burning of Persepolis, by the way, was of course not intentional, but came about during "a momentary lapse of drunkenness", we were taught. Alexander's Greatness so untouchable in Western minds that story telling has skewed history to safeguard legendary heroes.  Sir Henry Rawlinson, would have surely disapproved of such tuition.

As you can imagine, as an Iranian listening to such a version of my own history wasn't exactly confidence boosting.  In our modern schooling of ancient history, everything positive seems be associated with the West and all negatives come from the East.

  • Poems, Prose & Art: the Greeks - the Persians didn't have time for stories and art, they only spent their days fighting
  • Mathematics and Astronomy: the Greeks - the Persians must have guessed the angles at Persepolis and guessed the new year rather luckily, every year
  • Courage and Humanity: the Greeks - Persians seem to always be numbered in the millions committing massacres on their chariots, and avenged eventually by thousands of courageous Greeks
  • Organization and Strategy: the Greeks - the Persian administrative systems, coinage and records of transactions must have all been unplanned and random
  • Inventions & Innovations: The Persian road system, surely we can mention those as a positive. Apparently no, the first mention of roads in my class came along when we got onto the Romans. Roman Roads, the phrase is indisputable! Persians merely anticipated what the Romans would do later in history, and copied them first, so we can't give the Persians credit for it.

Indeed, years later when I read Xenophon and Herodotus, they almost seemed Persian Partisans compared to the modern schooling I had received.

My tone is getting too emotive! Don't get me wrong, I don't want to belittle Greek achievement, which I admire greatly or exaggerate Achaemenid innovation, much of whose feats can be traced back to Assyrian and other preceding dynasties.

But there is a need to start setting the record straight, for the benefit of both the East and West.  How many young British students of ancient history know of the Canal which Darius restored and completed joining the Nile to the Red Sea, or that the inscription on the New York post office "Neither rain, nor snow, nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" is Herodotus describing the Persian postal system, or of the great amount of day to day trade and business the Greek States and Persians conducted while living, the vast majority of the time, peacefully alongside each other.  These bits of knowledge can bring future generations closer together and make them less suspicious of the motives of other cultures, rather than my generation which had to swallow the usual bitter East versus West fodder.

For too long the East has been shunned in Western tuition.  Type Mycenae or Thebes on a computer and Microsoft's Dictionary won't fault you, but try typing Persepolis or Susa and a nasty squiggly line will appear underneath. The Persian dynasty doesn't even pass Microsoft's squiggly test. The Forgotten Empire indeed.

In Iran on the other hand, the ceremonial soldiers of Persepolis valiantly guard restaurant goers, watch over company letters, sit alongside greeting cards, adorn websites, march on TV ads, welcome you into retail outlets, and sway on car keys. Similarly, Iranians outside Iran are aware of the bas-reliefs in Persepolis and revel in showing off that 'glorious blob' of Ancient Persia, dominating the Near East map, to their Western friends, and maybe they should.

As Dr John Curtis, the curator of the exhibition says, "This is an Empire forgotten by the West, but not by Iranians", and at first sight it seems easy to agree.

But beyond the 2500 year old map, which we Iranians don't seem to get tired of looking at, how much of those ideals of organization, progress and tolerance do we Iranians possess today as a society? Have most of us not forgotten those inner principles of our ancestors while worshipping the decaying physical crust?

I'll leave that as an open ended question for you to mull over.  I would merely say to Dr Curtis, that the Persian Empire's achievements may have been forgotten by the West, but its legacy is perhaps more alive here than in its own homeland.

Don't expect to see awe inspiring columns and masses of golden objects at this exhibition. The space is surprisingly limited but the objects carefully and cleverly chosen.  Indeed, many will walk out of this exhibition thinking of how 'small' the exhibit is in size, but I am hoping that the majority will walk away with the real grandeur in their hearts and minds as the exhibitors no doubt intend.

I must express how grateful I am that the British Museum staff have worked so hard to bring about this exhibition about our culture and our past. I hope we can repay them one day by having an Exhibition on British heritage in Iran.

Specials thanks must also go to the Iran Heritage Foundation, the National Museum of Iran, the Louvre, the Persepolis Museum and of course Dr John Curtis.

Also very noteworthy of mention is the amazing public relations job the museum has done to publicize this event.  In fact, if I may say rather cheekily, the publicity for the exhibition may outscore the exhibition itself in terms of reviving Ancient Persia.  BBC TV and Radio, the World Service, all the main TV news channels, newspapers and websites have all carried well portioned stories on the exhibition.

Imagine my astonishment two days ago, at an outlet of the Caf Nero chain in central London, when I was told that when I buy a certain number of coffees, I can go to the Persian Exhibition, "Two For the Price of One". They weren't promoting a Music CD or a DVD with their coffees but a ticket to an ancient history exhibition about Persia! Only if I could be back in my school, sitting in that ancient history class once again, hearing about our defeats, and sipping on my coffee, gleefully.

Edited by Persian
Iran = Iran, nothing else
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  Quote Behi Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 27-Sep-2005 at 08:51

Proud to be IRANIAN

but...CryBroken Heart

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