& CULTURAL NEWS©
the Greeks Were Green with Envy
The British Museum's exhibition
of magnificent 2,500-year-old artworks from the Persian Empire is a
revelation, says Richard Dorment
Sometimes a single work holds the key to understanding an
entire exhibition. In Forgotten Empire, the British Museum's ambitious
show of art from ancient Persia, that work is a plaster cast of the
splendid relief carvings in the Palace of Darius at Persepolis.
Stone relief showing gift-bearers with a vase from Persepolis. On
loan from the Persepolis Museum, Iran
Normally, I don't think reproductions should be exhibited
alongside original works of art, but in this case the plaster cast
contains vital information about the rest of the exhibition.
The Persian Empire lasted only about 200 years, from
about 550 BC to 331 BC, but at its height covered 2,900,000 square miles
and stretched from the Nile to the Indus River. In the reliefs, we see
delegations from subject people walking in solemn procession towards the
throne of the Persian king.
In each of the five panels, an usher in Persian dress
leads representatives of a conquered people - Lydians in cloaks and
beehive-shaped hats, Cappadoceans in trouser suits and cloaks, Ionians in
fringed cloaks, Parthians wearing headbands and belted tunics over
trousers tucked into high boots, and bare-footed Indians in dhotis or
Each delegation carries tribute - great bowls, oversized
bracelets, chariots, horses, camels, textiles, axes and covered jars
containing spices and ointments from the east. The wealth and luxury
depicted in these scenes is characteristic of the art of the Persian
In this show, we see vitrines containing two massive gold
bracelets in the form of eagle-headed monsters that might be the very ones
the Lydians are shown bearing in tribute to Darius, as well as sumptuous
vessels of gold and silver that have been cast, hammered, chased and
inlaid to create the complex forms and patterns typical of the Persian
Gold griffin-headed armlet from the Oxus treasure (5th-4th century
BC) from Tadjikistan
One of the most spectacular works on view is an over-lifesize
panel made of coloured glazed bricks showing a palace guard wearing
Persian costume. His tunic is decorated with an elaborate pattern of
stylised flowers so rich in effect that I at once thought of the folded
textiles carried by the Cappadoceans in the palace reliefs.
The Greeks were utterly fascinated by the ostentatious
display of wealth practised by their enemies, the Persians. In what we
would nowadays see as an example of Orientalism - attributing to eastern
people qualities of voluptuousness and decadence - the Greek historian
Herodotus never fails to note the luxury with which the Persians
For example, he describes in mouth-watering detail the
treasure the Greeks discovered in the tents of a defeated Persian general,
mentioning embroidered hangings and furniture covered in gold and silver,
as well as wagon-loads of bowls, goblets and cups, all in precious metals.
Herodotus then tells us that the Greeks summoned the
Persian bakers and cooks and told them to prepare a banquet of the same
sort they were accustomed to cook for their former master. "The order
was obeyed and when [the Greek general] saw gold and silver couches all
beautifully draped, and gold and silver tables, and everything prepared
for the feast with great magnificence, he could hardly believe his eyes
for the good things set before them."
Tableware such as might have been used for such a banquet
can be seen in objects from the Oxus Treasure in the BM - shown here
alongside royal plate and jewellery from the great museums in Teheran and
Persepolis - wonderful golden vessels, bracelets and necklaces inlaid with
enamels, turquoise, lapis and cornelian.
Achaemenid silver drinking horn (5th-4th century BC) believed to
be from near Erzincan, modern Turkey
There is a pair of gold earrings inlaid on both sides
with a mosaic of lapis, and a golden drinking cup in the form of a winged
lion, decorated with a frieze of stylised lotus flowers.
If I had to choose one object from the exhibition,
however, it would be a gilded silver and bronze amphora handle in the form
of a leaping winged ibex. The fairytale beast, with its gold wings and
great curved horns, is as slim as a crescent moon and so light it has lost
all contact with the earth.
There is an incense burner (or perhaps a hanging lamp) of
cast bronze in the form of a conjoined circle of prowling lions.
Unfortunately, it is shown at waist level, making it impossible to see
what the photograph in the catalogue reveals: that the front and back paws
of at least one of the lions are raised from the ground, immeasurably
enhancing the naturalism of these wonderfully observed animals.
What makes the art in this show specifically Persian in
character? In the exhibition we can see for ourselves the Persian taste
for objects made of precious metals and their delight in the use of
inlaying or cloisonné techniques. But to answer the question
satisfactorily, you have to walk across the corridor from the entrance to
the show to examine the famous Nimrud reliefs from Assyria, carved in
These all show scenes of royal hunts or military
campaigns and are full of movement and narrative interest. By contrast,
Persian stone reliefs typically show static figures in procession
proclaiming the power of the king, and even where a lion is shown
attacking a bull, the animals are as stylised as heraldic beasts, frozen
in time. Then, too, Persian reliefs are more deeply carved and markedly
more refined than Assyrian carvings, perhaps suggesting their knowledge of
Greek and Egyptian sculpture.
The shows ends more or less in 334-330 BC with
Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire. It is only really in the last
gallery that you understand the title of the show. The Persian Empire is
"forgotten" because Alexander burned and looted Persepolis, and
in the centuries that followed most royal tombs were robbed.
Gold head from the Oxus treasure (5th-4th century BC) from
Because there are no Persian historians, we do not really
have much sense of what the Persians were like. We simply lack the wealth
of information - about Persian religion, government, kingship or daily
life - that has come down to us from the Egyptians and the Greeks.
Because I so admire what the British Museum does, I wish
I could end my review right here. But I must also comment on the
installation of this show, which is so bad that at times the exhibition
becomes incoherent. Even granting the notorious lack of a decent space for
temporary exhibitions at the British Museum, these astonishing works of
art have been crammed into badly lit galleries so mean that even the base
of a carved stone column weighing many tons looks like nothing very
It is scandalous that space desperately needed for the
adequate display of works of art has been wasted by the placement of a
museum shop at the end of these galleries. The lighting is so appalling
that I couldn't see many of the objects in the display cases. The
labelling is inadequate, and don't tell me to use an acoustic guide,
because I hate them. The placement of an audio-visual display next to
works of art is distracting.
Fortunately, the information you don't get from wall
texts and labels can be found in the excellent catalogue, and the works of
art that are so badly lit that you can't see them are beautifully
reproduced in the catalogue illustrations.
The word "treasure" is over-used to describe
pieces in exhibitions. But, for once, it is the appropriate word for what
has been sent from the National Museum of Iran and from the Louvre to
augment the British Museum's incredible holdings of material from ancient
Despite my criticisms, the show is a triumph on many
levels - not least of diplomacy, for after the recent elections in Iran
long-promised loans had to be completely re-negotiated. It may be that the
touch-and-go situation with the Iranian loans had something to do with the
poor exhibition design.