& CULTURAL NEWS©
British Museum has rightly tried to shed light on ancient Persia, but
Waldemar Januszczak isn’t sufficiently dazzled
The problem with history is not merely that history is bunk. Bunk we can
deal with. The problem with history is that so many believe the bunk, and
are persuaded by it to act and think in dangerous ways.
A perfect example is the impact on our world-view of the bunk about the
Persians spouted by Herodotus, the “Father of History”, and therefore
the original spreader of dangerous historical fictions. Remember that
stuff you were taught at school about the noble Greeks taking on the
wicked Persians at Marathon, and the chap running all those miles to
Athens to announce the victory, thereby averting national disaster while
simultaneously inventing an Olympic event? It never happened. Like
Herodotus’s exciting account of Leonidas and his 300 spunky Spartans
holding up the entire Persian army at Thermopylae, this is story-telling
so florid and fantastical that Tolkien himself might have written it. Yet
not only have we enthusiastically swallowed the self-serving nationalistic
imaginings of the ancient Greeks, we have allowed them to shape our entire
fantasy of civilisation. Which is where it stops being funny.
I read somewhere recently that the battle of Marathon was a more important
event in British history than the battle of Hastings. Since the battle of
Marathon was fought a few miles outside Athens, two millenniums before the
invention of Britain, what can the writer have meant? He meant that by
beating the Persians at Marathon, the plucky Greeks ensured the eventual
triumph of the western world-view. It was at Marathon and Thermopylae that
the myth was born of western reason and enlightenment taking on eastern
barbarism and irrationality, and whupping them. It was in the Greek
descriptions of the Persians that the ground was readied for 2,000 years
of western racism and superciliousness towards the East; and the terrible
seeds of conflict were sown that continue to bear grim fruit today.
I dwell on all this because it is the background to, and perhaps even the
explanation for, a new British Museum display called Forgotten Empire: The
World of Ancient Persia. Under the increasingly pointed directorship of
Neil MacGregor, the BM is becoming noticeably keen to choose targets in
the ancient world whose stories have a modern resonance. Remember last
year’s Sudan exhibition, and how much light it shone on events in Darfur?
This show has as its stated ambition a desire to change our perception of
the Persians. As artists, architects, alphabetists, law-makers, social
innovators, religious liberals and all-round good ancient eggs, it says,
the Persians have been misrepresented, misunderstood and traduced. That
this misunderstanding continues in our relationship with Iran today is an
implication that is well-nigh unavoidable.
To prove it, the BM has created a burgundy-coloured treasure chamber for
us, through which winds a tastefully twilit journey past various branches
of Persian achievement. The opening room establishes the extent of the
Persian empire — the largest the world had so far seen, stretching at
its height from Egypt to India and beyond to central Asia — and
introduces us to Darius I, the greatest of the Persian rulers. Particular
stress is laid on Darius’s organisational abilities. He it was, we learn
and see, who invented the concept of imperial coinage, with himself as
“heads”. Under Darius, the Persians established the fastest
communication service in the ancient world, a proto-Pony Express, done
with chariots, that carried news across the empire at staggering speeds.
Religious and cultural tolerance was another of his more impressive
attitudes. Then there was his enormous appetite for art.
It was Darius who built the great city of Persepolis, from which two
sizeable slabs of frieze, arranged in parallel, create a gauntlet of
sculpture through which we pass at the show’s most dramatic chicane.
Persepolis was one of the true wonders of the ancient world, a fabulous
palace city built on a barely imaginable scale by craftsmen from around
the empire. The finest frieze shows a long line of dependent races paying
tribute to the Persian king: the Ionians have brought balls of wool, the
Cappadocians horses, the Parthians donkeys and jars. An impressive
assortment of subject peoples seemed to coexist happily enough in
Darius’s empire. Learning to tell them apart is one of the show’s
Persian sculpture is distinguished by a taste for precision, a lightness
of touch, a sense of fineness and a fascination with detail. More
naturalistic than the Egyptian sculpture that it assimilated, less
naturalistic than the Greek art that succeeded it, it invariably arrives
at far more delicacy than we might have expected from the dark and
bloodthirsty warmongers described by Herodotus. Persepolis was razed to
the ground by Alexander the Macedonian warlord: who was the barbarian in that exchange?
The surviving fragments on show here are intermittently impressive. But I
Back in the opening gallery, there’s an imposing life-size statue of
Darius, or rather of his lower half, minus the head, which I took to be
real, but which turned out to be a plaster cast created specially by the
Tehran Museum. There are many such plaster casts on the journey: the two
parallel friezes from Persepolis are casts as well; the entire show is a
most mar- vellous advertisement for the skills of the plaster-cast-maker.
But imagining Persepolis is not nearly as satisfactory as enjoying its
true textures. It is among the smaller, more portable types of treasure
— the drinking cups and amulets, the jewellery and figurines — that
the show encourages proper aesthetic bliss. A gold drinking horn with a
lion’s head vies with a life-size golden fish for the title of most
gorgeous thing on display.
The delicate negotiations that have been continuing with Tehran for
several years over loans to this show, particularly of material from
Persepolis, were disrupted recently by “events”: the recent election
in Iran of a hardline president and the resumption of Iran’s nuclear
programme. It was touch and go whether Tehran would send anything at all.
In the end, various small and wonderful treasures were released — among
them the famous Cyrus Cylinder, which Persian propagandists like to
describe as the first human-rights document — but not the larger and
more imposing examples of Persian sculpture that would have brought the
show the quality it most misses: grandeur.
The aim here is to rescue the Persians from the lower shelves of civili-
sation and reinstall them on the top shelf alongside the Greeks, where
It is a splendid ambition that, alas, requires a more splendid show.
Looking at plaster casts and learning from video screens is informative,
but it simply does not bring with it the same aesthetic flutter that
confronting actual treasures achieves.
Another problem is the exhibition space itself, which is too small and
cramped to inspire proper awe. Every time I enter the great waste of space
that is Norman Foster’s Great Court, with that silly theme-parked
version of the BM’s famous Reading Room at the centre, I wish the museum
could lavish that sort of scale on its exhibitions. Until it does so, it
cannot hope to match the Royal Academy in impact when it comes to the
delight ful and crucial business of reassessing ancient civilisations.